Reader Feedback Needed

The Middle East has never been the only part of the world I want to visit and write about, and I’d like to branch out again.

My first attempt to expand my beat, so to speak, was a smashing success. Of the four books I’ve written so far, Where the West Ends—which mostly takes place in the post-communist region of Eastern Europe and Western Asia—is my best-seller. Amazon.com still ranks it in the top 100 in the Eastern Europe category a year after it was first published, and it was in the top slot just a few months ago.

This time I’d like to broaden my scope not to the post-communist world but the part of the world that's still actually communist.

Five communist countries remain: Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and China. China and Vietnam are post-Marxist, of course, but they’re still ruled by the Communist Party. Laos remains an old school hard-line communist police state even after all these long years.

Monument to Kaysone Phomvihane, leader of the Lao People’s Liberation Army

Cuba, as we all know too well, is still under the boot of the largely unreconstructed Castro family.

Havana, Cuba

North Korea still has the most horrendous political system of all—a Stalinist monarchy ruled by a quasi-theocratic God-king.

I suspect these vestigial regimes aren’t long for this world, but who knows? China and Vietnam have already transitioned half-way to something else, but the other three are living museum pieces, frozen in the brutal mid-20th century when totalitarianism held sway over whole swaths of the planet. They’ve lasted so long now they look almost permanent.

China’s Ministry of Defense

Shanghai, China

Shijiazhuang, China

North Korea will prove a tough place to get into, but the others should not be. The United States bans travel to Cuba, but journalists are exempt, so that won’t be a problem at all. Reporting from inside police states can be tricky, but I’ve done it before and am familiar with the various workarounds.

If I can make my way to at least four of these countries, I’ll have more than enough material for another book, a sort of sequel to Where the West Ends and The Road to Fatima Gate.

What do you think? Does that sound interesting and worthwhile? Would you be willing to fund Kickstarter projects for each of these places? It’s interesting to me, and I always write better when I’m interested in the topic, but I also need to make sure it’s interesting to you.

Political poster in Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

I don’t want to stop writing about the Middle East. What I want to do is get out of my rut and add more places to write about. I’ve never been to any of these countries before. I’ve never been to any country that’s still actually communist. New experiences will invigorate my writing and photography as a matter of course.

The foreign journalism industry has all but collapsed, so I’ll need some Kickstarter cash, but if you’re interested and want this to work, it will work.

Let me know what you think in the comments.

Egypt Spins its Wheels

Walter Russell Mead’s latest essay in The American Interest, Bambi Meets Godzilla in the Middle East, is a must-read. I wish he was wrong, but alas he is not.

Bambi, in his formulation, is President Barack Obama, of course. Godzilla describes both radical Islamists and the Egyptian military regime.

I believe that democratic capitalism works better than the alternatives (though it does not work perfectly) and that other things being equal over time the societies who embrace these ideas will outperform those who do not.

But this does not mean that I believe that the world will become liberal and democratic tomorrow or that the path to this future will be a smooth and steady ascent. As a Christian, I believe in the Second Coming and the Last Judgment; that does not mean I have maxed out my credit cards in the belief that Jesus is returning tomorrow.

Unfortunately, much of our political and policy class, both on the left and the right, shares an unfounded confidence that liberal capitalism is going to triumph tomorrow. They are the secular, liberal counterparts of Christian fundamentalists waiting for the Rapture, a near-magical translation to a better world. This is what most American policy makers believed about Russia in the heady years after the Soviet collapse. President George W. Bush bet the ranch on the imminent democratization of the Middle East. So did President Obama.

This is not a new mistake. Thomas Jefferson was sure that the French Revolution heralded the dawn of democracy in 18th century Europe. Henry Clay thought the Latin American revolutions against Spain would create stable democracies across South America. Many Americans thought the 1848 revolutions in Europe would establish true freedom in the Old World. Many Americans thought that Sun Yat Sen’s revolution in China would establish democracy there back in 1911. Alexander Kerensky’s Russia was hailed as an ‘emerging democracy’ in 1917. Woodrow Wilson thought he could kill history with Fourteen Points and a League. It was a thought crime among liberal and progressive people to doubt that Africa would race ahead to democratic capitalism in the 1950s and 1960s as colonialism ended.

We are not always wrong. Germany, Japan and, in its own eccentric way, Italy all became liberal capitalist states after World War Two. Most of the Warsaw Pact countries signed up to the program in the 1990s. Much of East Asia has been moving in a liberal direction as its prosperity has grown. Mexico, Chile and Brazil, among other Latin states, are looking more like Henry Clay once hoped they would.

As a nation, we are not very good at figuring out when the end of history is going to dawn in particular countries, and because we are looking so hard for the triumph of democratic capitalism, we tend to assume that any sound we hear in the night must be its footsteps drawing nigh.

The Middle East is not monolithic. Lebanon, Tunisia, Morocco, and—yes—even Iran have many of the necessary ingredients for a successful transition to a properly functioning democracy. They also still have some obstacles, especially in Iran. Turkey has had a semi-dysfunctional quasi-democracy for decades while Saudi Arabia is no more ready to even begin taking the plunge than North Korea is now.

Egypt isn’t ready yet either. By now that should be clear. The United States should prod Egyptians in that direction anyway so they’ll understand what is ultimately expected of them, but be realistic about it and don’t expect it to work any time soon.

Mubarak Will Go Free

Cairo’s new government has ordered the release of Hosni Mubarak from prison.

Egypt is going in circles.

The Truth About Egypt

Egypt looks dodgier than ever right now.

Just six weeks after overthrowing the government in a military coup, the armed forces opened fire on civilians protesting the removal of President Mohammad Morsi and killed more than 500 people, prompting President Barack Obama to cancel joint American-Egyptian military drills.

Springtime never came to Cairo at all. In some ways, Egypt is right back where it was when Hosni Mubarak still ruled the country. The political scene is exactly the same. Two illiberal titans—a military regime and an Islamist opposition—are battling it out. But in other ways, Egypt is in worse shape now than it was. It’s more chaotic, more violent. Its economy is imploding, its people increasingly desperate.

I recently interviewed Eric Trager, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He’s a real expert on Egypt and has been more consistently right than just about anyone. He called out the Muslim Brotherhood as an inherently authoritarian organization while scores of other supposed “experts” falsely pimped it as moderate. And contrary to claims from the opposing camp, that the army “restored” democracy with its coup, he saw the recent bloody unpleasantness coming well in advance.

I spoke to him before this week’s massacre happened, but it’s clear from his remarks that he suspected something like it was coming.

MJT: For starters, what do you say to those who insist the Muslim Brotherhood is a moderate and democratic political party?

Eric Trager: The Muslim Brotherhood is certainly not democratic. Its view of Egyptian politics in one in which it should control everything. For example, while it is willing to pursue power through elections, once it comes to office its goal is to establish and Islamic state in which it and its institutions control the Egyptian bureaucracy and institute its version of Islam while sidelining and oppressing all opponents.

“Moderate” is an even less accurate word in describing the Brotherhood. It’s designed to weed out moderates during the recruitment process. The process of becoming a Muslim Brother is a five to eight year ordeal where potential Muslim Brothers are vetted through five tiers of membership that tests their commitment to the cause and their willingness to take orders. Anyone who has second thoughts about the organization, the ideology, or their willingness to blindly do what they’re told, is out.

When the Brotherhood first emerged as the leading organization after the 2011 uprising, a lot of observers thought it would become more moderate when forced to actually govern, but what those analysts overlooked that is that the Brotherhood prevents moderates from becoming members and prevents members from becoming moderates.

MJT: How did you learn about their internal structure? What are your sources?

Eric Trager: I’ve interviewed dozens of their leaders and rank-and-file members. I’ve interviewed many of the top figures that you read about in the press, including Mohammad Morsi.

MJT: So your sources are inside the organization rather than outside.

Eric Trager: Yes. I’m one of the few people who talked about this during the aftermath of the uprising, but I didn’t discover it. Richard Mitchell wrote about it in his book, The Society of the Muslim Brothers. It was originally published in 1968 and it’s considered the classic text on the Brotherhood, but many people who put themselves out there as experts on this subject haven’t read one of the most basic studies of the organization’s history. I’ve talked about this at conferences and been told by supposed experts that the Brotherhood isn’t structured that way. They obviously haven’t read Mitchell even though they have to if they’re going to call themselves experts.

MJT: But surely the organization has changed at least somewhat since 1968. That was a long time ago, before I was even born.

Eric Trager: Yes, of course. Mitchell lays out the early history of the organization, describes its recruitment process, and spells out the nationwide chain of command. He does these things well. The recruitment process and chain of command have been updated in some important respects. The recruitment process, for instance, has a few more membership levels now than it used to. But the basic idea that this is a vanguard and a closed society that ensures its members are totally committed to the cause and are willing to die for it is still true.

He also wrote that the Muslim Brotherhood was fading, and that didn’t pan out. But he was writing in 1968 during the time of the Nasser regime when the Brotherhood was severely repressed. He didn’t foresee its re-emergence under Sadat in the 1970s and then again under Mubarak. That much is understandable.

Many people think of the Brotherhood as an Islamist organization that rejects Al Qaeda style violence, so therefore it’s “moderate.” And this, in fact, is how Muslim Brotherhood leaders describe themselves when I talk to them. I’ll ask them what they mean when they say they’re moderates, and they’ll say, “we aren’t Al Qaeda.” Frankly, that has never been my standard of moderation. [Laughs.]

I think Washington’s fascination with the Brotherhood is the product of a search for an Islamist organization that reflects the “culture” of the Middle East and isn’t violent. There is a lack of appreciation for the fact that just because an organization doesn’t lead with violence doesn’t mean it’s going to be moderate or democratic or capable of governing.

And too many analysts took the Brotherhood’s claim of moderation at face value. The Brotherhood says it views shura, an Islamic concept that means consultation, as democracy. Many analysts said the Brotherhood is not only adopting democracy, it’s finding an Islamic justification for it. My view is that far from finding an Islamic justification for democracy, they were simply redefining democracy in a way that wasn’t democratic but sounded good to the West.

MJT: What do you make of all the Brotherhood’s talk lately about martyrdom? Is that a threat? Are they saying they’re willing to be killed by the government? Or is it just talk?

Eric Trager: The Brotherhood seems to believe that if it can draw the military into a fight directly, it can create fissures within the military—not necessarily because there are many Islamists in the military, although that’s possible, but because the Brotherhood believes Egyptian soldiers won’t fire on fellow Egyptians.

Remember that during the initial uprising, the soldiers didn’t fire on demonstrators in Tahrir Square. I think, although I can’t be certain, that many soldiers would have refused to follow that order. We can see this belief that the military would fracture if such orders were given reflected in the Brotherhood’s statements. For its part, the army insists it’s one army, that there aren’t any fissures. So I think that’s the Brotherhood’s angle right now.

One other thing: the Brotherhood has a five-part motto. The last two components of that motto are “Jihad is our way” and “Death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations.”

It’s an open question how seriously they take that, but I often ask young Muslim Brotherhood members if they’d be willing to die as a martyr in Palestine, and some of them say yes.

I interviewed a young Brotherhood member in 2008 and he said he had recently snuck over the border into Gaza, and he said he hoped he’d be killed by an Israeli missile. It was incredibly disturbing to hear. He was a fairly intelligent twenty year-old. So now I always ask young members if they’d be willing to die as martyrs in Gaza, and many say they would like that.

So at least some of them take that motto seriously. We’ve also seen children of the Muslim Brothers dressed in shrouds at demonstrations, which suggests they’re ready to die. A critical mass of Muslim Brothers have prepared themselves for this possibility.

MJT: Why do you think General Sisi removed Morsi? Some Egyptian activists are calling it a “correction,” that the democratic revolution went off course, so the army stepped in and hit the reset button. I don’t buy it, personally. Sisi looks like he might even be somewhat of an Islamist himself. Either way, the man doesn’t strike me as any kind of democrat.

Eric Trager: I don’t buy it either, but I should say that during my conversations with officials in the Egyptian military leading up to Morsi’s removal, they didn’t seem at all eager to re-enter politics. The generals admitted they aren’t good at governing. They had a bad experience running the country after Mubarak. They aren’t trained to do police work, they’re trained to fight wars and defend borders.

But two things happened. First, we had a massive outpouring against Morsi due to his frankly undemocratic rule of the country and his bid to consolidate power for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Second, Morsi completely lost control of the state. By the time the protests started on June 30, he didn’t control anything. He didn’t control the police and he obviously didn’t control the military. He didn’t control any of the institutions of government, and it made his presidency untenable. So the military stepped in, somewhat reluctantly, first to respond to the protests and also to prevent impending state failure.

But once the army made the decision to step in, as reluctant as it may have been, it’s modus operandi unquestionably changed. It entered into a direct conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps even an existential one. The military believes it not only has to remove Morsi, it has to decapitate the entire organization. Otherwise, the Brotherhood will re-emerge and perhaps kill the generals who removed it from power.

That’s what’s in Egypt’s future right now—persistent civil strife between the military and its supporters on one side and the Brotherhood and its supporters on the other.

MJT: When you say civil strife, I assume you don’t mean an Algerian-style conflict.

Eric Trager: Right. I mean something that’s probably—and hopefully—less deadly and less all-consuming. But it’s likely to become a constant feature of Egyptian life and politics. There’s likely to be a steady flow of violence, but it probably won’t be ubiquitous. It will consist in pockets around demonstration sites. It will be bad enough to disrupt life, and it will likely undermine a transition moving forward, but it probably won’t be as ugly as in Syria or Algeria.

MJT: Do you think getting rid of Morsi was a good thing, a bad thing, or is it too soon to tell?

Eric Trager: I don’t think it’s a good thing or a bad thing. It’s not really for me to say, and anyway I think it was inevitable. Once a president loses control of the state—whether he’s removed by a mass uprising, a military coup, or some other scenario—his presidency become untenable.

When I was standing in Tahrir Square after Morsi was removed, a felt a certain amount of sadness because I knew that violence would be an inevitable and significant consequence. People in the square were very happy, but people in another square a few miles away people were mourning. They believe something has been stolen from them, and they intend to fight to get it back.

I think the Brotherhood won’t get it back. It’s highly unlikely that Morsi will see the light of day outside a courtroom. But it’s a fight that’s going to continue for a while, and it’s a fight that many of those celebrating in the square that evening didn’t think about. Egyptian society is so polarized right now that the anti-Morsi camp and the pro-Morsi camp are beyond talking past each other. They exist in their own separate universes.

MJT: How much support do you think the Muslim Brotherhood actually lost since it won the election?

Eric Trager: It has lost substantial public support. Think back to the early presidential elections in 2012. Morsi only won five million votes, which was 25 percent of the votes cast. That’s not a high number. It’s substantially lower than what the Brotherhood had won just a few months earlier in the parliamentary elections. So already by May 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood’s support shrunk back to its base which is only around five million people.

The Brotherhood’s power is not derived from mass public support and it never has been. It is derived from its exceptional organization capabilities on one hand, and the fact that the rest of Egypt is deeply divided and highly disorganized on the other. That’s still the case. I think if Egypt had free and fair elections today, the Brotherhood would still do well and might even win because nobody else is prepared to run in an election.

Of course, I don’t expect there will be free and fair elections ahead, and the nature of the Brotherhood is about to change because the military is decapitating it. It’s hard to see right now exactly who will emerge, but whoever emerges given the current trajectory will need significant military support.

MJT: Why don’t you expect a free election?

Eric Trager: As reluctant as the military may have been to remove Morsi, now that it’s back in the picture, it won’t repeat the quote unquote “mistakes” it made last time. Certainly it’s going to view one of those mistakes as working with the Brotherhood to have parliamentary elections that the Brotherhood could win. I assume it will not allow the Brotherhood to re-emerge. The military will do something to the elections or to the Brotherhood that will take “free and fair” out of the equation.

MJT: Okay, so let’s say the White House were to ask you for advice about how to proceed if what you just said turns out to be true. What would you tell them?

Eric Trager: I’ve been telling the White House that they need to remember what they in Alcoholics Anonymous call the Serenity Prayer. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

I’ve never been to Alcoholics Anonymous and I’m not an alcoholic, but it’s relevant to what’s happening in Egypt right now. We need to understand what the consequences of removing Morsi are for the military. For example, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told Sisi he needed to release Morsi, but this is something that’s never going to happen. A general is not going to release a president he just toppled.

MJT: Right.

Eric Trager: This is something we can’t change, and if we try to change it, we’re going to fail, and we’re going to look like failures. Better to focus on the things we can change.

One thing we might be able to do is convince the military to deal with the Brotherhood and its supporters less violently. The military needs to find other mechanisms for containing these protests. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is to try to get a civilian-led transition process going that is open to participation by the Brotherhood, but isn’t dependent on participation by the Brotherhood. Instead of focusing on inclusion during the transition, we should focus on its effectiveness giving the Brotherhood—or what’s left of it—the choice to participate or not participate.

When the military removed Morsi, it promised exactly that kind of process and we should hold them accountable to what they’ve promised at the very least.

MJT: I assume that when you go over there you hear the same sorts of things from secular Egyptians that I do. Secular people in Egypt tell me they think the Obama administration is allied with the Muslim Brotherhood. Secular people in Tunisia say the same thing, and liberals in Lebanon think we’re siding with Bashar al-Assad in Syria. I hear this every single day without exception when I’m in the region.

Eric Trager: Of course, so do I.

MJT: What do you make of all that? Is it a result of unforced errors on the part of the United States government, or is it just typical Middle Eastern insanity?

Eric Trager: The United States has done a very poor job managing perceptions in Egypt. The administration assumed if it wasn’t critical about Morsi’s behavior domestically, they’d win his cooperation on foreign policy. The problem is that Morsi was only willing to cooperate with us on foreign policy in the short run. The Muslim Brotherhood wants to consolidate power in Egypt and then create a global Islamic state. It’s a key part of their ideology and their rhetoric. They talk about it with me. They can’t be our partners.

Worse, by not speaking up and criticizing Morsi as he tried to create unchecked power for himself, it created the impression that the United States wanted to replace Mubarak with the Muslim Brotherhood. That’s extremely damaging in a place like Egypt with such tumultuous politics.

We didn’t support the Brotherhood. We failed to speak up and manage perceptions. In the future, the only way to address this problem will be to make sure we don’t put all our eggs in one basket. We have to spread our risk by making sure we engage everybody.

MJT: Okay, now let me ask you this. Why should everyday Americans care about what happens in Egypt?

Eric Trager: For the simple reason that Egypt is a lynchpin of American foreign policy in the Middle East. It’s important for counter-terrorism, for maintaining the peace treaty with Israel, ensuring overflight rights so our planes can deliver goods to the Persian Gulf, to check Iran’s interests, and ensure passage through the Suez Canal.

But what I’ve found is that Americans not only understand Egypt’s importance strategically, they’re fascinated by Egypt. We study Egypt in the sixth grade. We learn about ancient Egyptian history even as children. It’s mentioned in the Bible. It’s one of the few countries in the world that actually resonates with ordinary Americans.

I think that’s why the American news media focused mostly on Egypt during the Arab Spring. Democratic uprisings in other countries wouldn’t attract the same kind of attention.

MJT: That’s certainly true. Tunisia was and still is mostly ignored, and it’s practically right next door.

Eric Trager: And farther afield we have countries like Burma. Most people don’t pay attention to these places. But Egypt resonates in America the way few other countries do.

I went on Egyptian television recently because people were angry about something I wrote on Twitter. So I went on to clear the air, and one of the things I said was that Americans are rooting for Egypt and that Egyptians should know that even when we have disagreements, Americans like Egypt. That’s not just rhetoric, that’s a fact.

Here’s something interesting: In 2010, Israel’s popularity in the United States was at 63 percent according to a Gallup poll. That same year, Egypt’s popularity was at 58 percent.

We know why Americans like Israel. We can trace it to the Bible, the fact that Israel is a Jewish country, it’s democratic, it’s developed, and all these other things. But Egypt is not democratic. It is not well-developed.

MJT: Yes, that is interesting.

Eric Trager: When Americans think about Egypt, they think about the pharaohs, the pyramids, and the Bible. They know about the peace treaty with Israel.

Some Egyptians get upset when they find out that Americans equate Egypt with the pyramids and the pharaohs, but for whatever reason, Egypt holds a special place in the American imagination.

MJT: What do Egyptians say when you tell them about the Gallup poll?

Eric Trager: I mention it all the time. And it’s not just that 58 percent of Americans liked Egypt in 2010. In 2011, something like 88 percent supported the uprising against Hosni Mubarak. That’s incredible.

MJT: And what the Egyptians say about that?

Eric Trager: One on one, it touches them. So I think it needs to be part of our public diplomacy. We have interests there. The United States Embassy in Egypt is one of the largest in the world. But Americans also like Egypt. They like visiting Egypt and seeing the pyramids and going to Luxor. And they like being with an ally.

MJT: Is Egypt really an ally at this point?

Eric Trager: Among Egyptians there is strong hostility toward the United States and American foreign policy. Conspiracy theories are rampant, especially about 9/11. Dealing with that will always be a significant challenge. 

At the same time, Egypt has been basically cooperative with American strategic interests for nearly forty years. We have significant disagreements about Egyptian domestic politics, and it’s a tumultuous place, but unless hostile Islamists emerge yet again—which is certainly possible—Egypt will remain in the American camp.

And there’s the odd fact that Americans really like Egypt.

MJT: That is odd. It seems even more odd to me now that I’ve actually been there several times.

Eric Trager: I was shocked when I saw these polls.

MJT: Me too, but I suppose I’m only a little bit shocked. I used to think about Egypt in exactly the way you described—that it’s a great ancient Mediterranean civilization. My perception of the place is very different now, but my original impression was precisely the one you described.

Eric Trager: Of course Egypt’s popularity has declined in America since 2010. It’s tumultuous, full of radicals, and has an aggressive military. Its popularity is not what it was a few years ago.


My latest is a review of Samel Tadros' book Motherland Lost in the Wall Street Journal.

The Middle East is tough on minorities. After millennia of Jewish presence throughout the Arab and Persian lands, almost every country in the region—save for Israel, of course—was emptied of Jews in the last century.

Today it's the Middle East's Christians who are streaming out. In Lebanon, Christians made up a slight majority a couple of decades ago, but today they're down to barely a third of the population. Hundreds of thousands of Christians fled sectarian fighting in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and they're a minority now in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem—the birthplace of Jesus. But the most dramatic Christian exodus is out of Egypt. Since the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, the rise of Islamists and mob attacks have driven more than 100,000 Christian Copts out of the country.

Samuel Tadros's book, "Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity," is a scholarly yet riveting account of this tragedy. The author takes us on a grim tour through the modern history of Egypt, chronicling the rise and fall of its Coptic minority, the country's largest Christian community. Along the way, Mr. Tadros offers a trenchant analysis of Egypt's struggle, and that of the Copts, to overcome backwardness and obscurantism.

The Copts are indigenous inhabitants of the Nile delta, children of its ancient Pharaonic civilization. They have been Christians for as long as Christianity has existed. (Egypt is part of the greater Holy Land, and St. Mark, one of the disciples of Jesus, spread the gospel there and founded the Church of Alexandria, which today belongs to the Copts.) The Copts have their own Eastern Orthodox rite, their own pope and for hundreds of years they've made up roughly 15% of Egypt's population.

Mr. Tadros, an Egyptian Copt who immigrated to the U.S. in 2009, makes it clear that the story of Egypt's Christians isn't one of relentless abuse. Copts have received both good and bad treatment at the hands of the region's succession of reigning powers. But mostly it's been bad. They were persecuted by the Roman and Byzantine empires long before the Islamic conquest in A.D. 639, after which they were cast as second-class citizens subject to additional regulations and taxes. Isolation from Christendom and survival in the face of adversity are etched into their soul. "Coptic history has been an endless story of decline and despair," Mr. Tadros writes, "but it has also been a story of survival."

The piece is behind the pay wall, but if you have a subscription you can read the rest here.

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.


Subscribe to RSS - Michael J. Totten's blog