Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Roman Hand Bewitched

By Michael Isenberg.

Some readers of The Thread of Reason have asked me what rules I followed for transliteration of Arabic words.

Many sounds exist in Arabic that are nowhere to be found in English. For example, in their book Teach Yourself Arabic, Jack Smart and Frances Altorfer explain how to pronounce the letter ع as follows: “We have a muscle in our throat which is never used except in vomiting. Think about that and pretend you are about to be sick.”

Needless to say, rendering such sounds in the Roman alphabet is a challenge. To do so, scholars have devised elaborate systems which entail doubled vowels, dots in unexpected places, apostrophes whose direction changes the pronunciation and meaning, and capital letters in the middle of words.

However, rather than use these systems, I found it best to follow the advice that Richard Burton gave in the preface to his definitive and erotic translation of the Thousand and One Nights. That’s Richard Burton the nineteenth century Arabic scholar and adventurer, whose scandalous life would make an interesting post on this blog someday. Not Richard Burton the twentieth century actor, whose scandalous life is also interesting, but off topic:

As regards the transliteration of Arabic words I deliberately reject the artful and complicated system, ugly and clumsy withal, affected by scientific modern Orientalists….[T]his Roman hand bewitched may have its use in purely scientific and literary works; but it would be wholly out of place in one whose purpose is that of the novel, to amuse rather than to instruct. Moreover these devices perplex the simple and teach nothing to the learned. Either the reader knows Arabic, in which case Greek letters, italics and "upper case," diacritical points and similar typographic oddities are, as a rule with some exceptions unnecessary; or he does not know Arabic, when none of these expedients will be of the least use to him....As words are the embodiment of ideas and writing is of words, so the word is the spoken word; and we should write it as pronounced.

In keeping with this philosophy, I devised the following rules for myself:

1. If a word has a common spelling in English, use it. This is especially the case with names of historical figures who are well-known in the West. For example, the hero of my novel is “Omar Khayyam,” the common English spelling, and not the more precise “Umar Khayyam.”

2. For all other words, I use a simplified alphabet which makes no attempt to distinguish between emphatic and non-emphatic consonants or long and short vowels. Thus, س and ص are both rendered s; ا and َ as a. ع is represented by an apostrophe as in shari’ah. Doubled-consonants are shown as doubled as in hajj. I confess that on the last two points, pedantry may have gotten the better of me, at the expense of simplicity, but at least I was pedantic consistently.

3. Where the definite article al- appears before a “sun letter,” I spell it as pronounced, not as written. So the common greeting, “Peace to you, friend,” appears as “as-salamu alaykum,” not “al-salamu alaykum.”

By following these rules in The Thread of Reason, I hope I succeeded in amusing my readers, rather than perplexing them with “typographic oddities.”

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com

Photo Credit: By Aieman Khimji - https://www.flickr.com/photos/aieman/214986349/Digitally edited for quality by uploader; no copyright is claimed for these changes., CC BY 2.0, Link

Monday, August 6, 2018

In re: Tommy Robinson

The Court of Appeals Ruling: What does it say? What happens next?

It was a heartwarming snippet of video: Tommy Robinson reunited with his children. For a few seconds, Mr. Robinson was no longer the bogeyman of the Left, the fascist, racist, Islamophobe who richly deserved the prison sentence he received in May. Nor was he the conquering hero of the Right, the fearless crusader who, despite years of official persecution, persisted in drawing attention to heinous crime inspired by Muslim ideology.

No, for that moment, he was simply a dad who hadn’t seen his babies for two months.

And then we all got back to shouting.

“FANTASTIC NEWS!” Geert Wilders crowed in all caps, accompanied by a picture of himself in front of a “Free Tommy” banner. “Resistance works.”

“The far right have their Oswald Mosley figure,” wrote the Guardian’s King of Snark, Owen Jones, referring to the leader of British fascists in the 1930s. “It's up to the rest of us to fight back.”

Mike Graham of talkRADIO (not to be confused with the broadcaster and author Michael Graham so beloved by those of us in New England) promised to “blow apart the fraud, the con, the cash cow that is the #TommyRobinson business.” Just tune into his show.

And Rebel Media’s Ezra Levant, who works tirelessly on Mr. Robinson’s behalf, declared “Today's ruling was a vindication of Tommy Robinson, a stunning rebuke of the judge in Leeds.”

So what actually happened last week, and what does the future hold in the case of R v Stephen Yaxley Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson)?

Mr. Robinson was serving a prison sentence for two incidents. Both involved livestreaming outside courthouses as he reported on trials in progress for grooming, the despicable practice of prepping girls as young as eleven years old for service as sex slaves, often by getting them addicted to drugs so they become dependent on their captors. The first incident was in Canterbury, last year. Mr. Robinson received a three month suspended sentence for violating provisions of the Contempt of Court Act which prohibit reporting on certain trials until after the trial is over. The intent is to prevent news accounts that might influence the jury and threaten the integrity of the trial. The second incident was in Leeds on May 25 of this year. Within five hours of his arrest, Mr. Robinson was tried and sentenced to thirteen months in prison—the original three months from Canterbury, now unsuspended, and an additional ten for Leeds. There was no time allowed for Mr. Robinson to summon his own barrister. He was represented by a public defender.

Mr. Robinson appealed the sentences and on Wednesday the Court of Appeals issued its ruling in a twenty-four page judgment penned by no less an eminence than the highest judge in England, Lord Chief Justice the Lord Burnett of Maldon. The bottom line, in the words of a three-page summary, thoughtfully provided by the court, is,

The finding of contempt in Leeds is quashed. All consequential orders fall away. The court remits the matter of alleged contempt at Leeds Crown Court to be heard again before a different judge. The appellant is granted conditional bail pending the rehearing.

Toward the end of a video analysis of the ruling, Mr. Levant, despite his partisanship on Tommy’s side, provides a fair summing up of the appeals court's reasoning:

It was wrong to have a drumhead hearing that very minute. It was wrong not to let Tommy get proper legal counsel. It was wrong not to have Tommy’s legal counsel have a chance to pull together the facts and the law. It was wrong that they did not spell out the particulars of what Tommy allegedly did that was contemptuous—it was wrong. It was wrong that Tommy didn’t know what he was pleading guilty to. It was wrong that the sentencing—from arrest to sentencing—took five hours. It was wrong to have a thirteen month conviction. “Disproportionate” is what this court said. It was wrong that he was sentenced as a criminal, as opposed to just being committed for contempt which is a different thing—it’s a civil offense, there’s no mens rea, there’s no guilty mind.

On the first point, holding the enquiry the same day, Lord Burnett said, "The judge should not have commenced the hearing of contempt proceedings that day. Once the appellant had removed the video from Facebook, there was no longer sufficient urgency to justify immediate proceedings."

For the record, I can find no place where the court says a thirteen month sentence was "disproportionate." What it does say is that, "A sense of proportion must be retained. Where a custodial term of considerable length is being imposed, it should not usually occur so quickly after the conduct which is complained of."

The last point, the distinctions between civil and criminal offenses "have serious consequences" that bear directly on some of the harsh treatment Mr. Robinson complained of in prison. In the words of the court,

The classification of the appellant as a convicted prisoner has had the effect of depriving him of privileges relating to: visits by his doctor or dentist, the freedom to choose what clothes to wear and the absence of restrictions on prison visits and the sending and receipt of letters.

We have noted already that under section 258 Criminal Justice Act 2003 a person committed to prison for contempt is entitled to be released unconditionally after serving one half of the term for which he was committed. A convicted prisoner, in contrast, will be subject to release on licence with the attendant risk of recall.

Finally, in this regard, the judge imposed a victim surcharge which, pursuant to The Criminal Justice Act 2003 (Surcharge) (Amendment) Order 2016, is payable only in the event of the passing of a “sentence of imprisonment” and not upon a committal for contempt.

Much of the ruling is based on Part 48 of the Criminal Procedure Rules, which lays out the responsibilities of the court in a contempt enquiry, including that it must “explain, in terms the respondent can understand” exactly what he is being accused of and the possible sanctions the court can impose.

“Procedure” is the key word here. The gist of the Court of Appeals’ ruling is that the Leeds court's errors were procedural. The Court of Appeals did not rule on the substance of the charges against Mr. Robinson, instead returning that to the lower court. So they still hang over Mr. Robinson's head; he is merely out on bail. It was definitely, in Mr. Levant’s words, “a stunning rebuke of the judge in Leeds.” And, as Mr. Levant points out, many of the complaints that Mr. Robinson and his supporters have voiced about the warp speed sentence and the cruel prison conditions, complaints which have been ridiculed by his opponents, have now been vouched for by the Lord Chief Justice. But the ruling is not, by any stretch of the imagination, “vindication.”

What happens next is up to the Attorney General, who has to decide whether or not to pursue a new hearing.

In a previous post, I described Her Majesty’s Government long chain of dubious prosecutions against Mr. Robinson as a “vendetta.” “If the Battle of Britain was, in Churchill’s words, Britain’s finest hour,” I wrote, “then this is its most shameful.” By so scrupulously protecting Mr. Robinson’s right to a fair hearing, Lord Burnett and his colleagues on the Court of Appeals have reclaimed some of England’s honor.

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com

Friday, August 3, 2018

Mideast Week in Review

by Michael Isenberg.

  • Saudi “Hajj Hackathon” sets world record.
  • Massive protests break out across Iran.
  • Israel sentences Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour to five months in prison.

    Saudi “Hajj Hackathon” sets world record: Nearly 3,000 software professionals have gathered in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia this week for a “Hajj Hackathon.”

    Wikipedia defines a hackathon as “a design sprint-like event in which computer programmers and others involved in software development, including graphic designers, interface designers, project managers, and others, often including subject-matter-experts, collaborate intensively on software projects. The goal of a hackathon is to create usable software. Hackathons tend to have a specific focus.”

    In the case of the Jeddah event, the specific focus is to generate apps to modernize the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca known as the hajj. According to The National, “The competition will focus on improving Hajj services in food sanitation, finance, transportation, accommodation, communications and crowd management for the estimated two million pilgrims who travel to Saudi Arabia each year…The event is offering cash prizes to the top three participants, amounting to two million Saudi riyals [$533k US] to transform their ideas into application-based solutions.”

    The hackathon is supported by some of the giants of the tech industry. It is sponsored by Google, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak delivered addresses during the opening ceremony.

    The event is aligned with Vision 2030, an initiative by Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman to modernize the nation’s economy and reduce its dependence on oil exports.

    It is the largest gathering of its kind ever, scoring a Guinness World Record for “The most participants in a hackathon.”

    The Hajj Hackathon is also notable because of the extensive collaboration of men and women programmers in a country with a reputation for strict segregation of the sexes. Albeit whether it is a harbinger of genuine technological and social reform in the Kingdom, or merely a public relations stunt, remains to be seen.

    Read more—

  • What you need to know about Saudi Arabia's record-breaking hackathon (Stepfeed)
  • Hackathon (Wikipedia)
  • Hajj Hackathon to modernise the holy pilgrimage (The National)

     

    Massive protests break out across Iran: Thousands of Iranians took to the streets this week to protest against their government a day after Iranian officials rejected US President Donald Trump’s offer to begin negotiations with that country.

    The demonstrations started on Tuesday afternoon and spread to multiple cities, including Karaj, Isfahan, and Mashhad.

    Video footage from Shiraz shows demonstrators chanting “Death to the Dictator.”

    In some cities, security forces have clashed with demonstrators and fired tear gas in their midst.

    Demonstrators are protesting deteriorating economic conditions in Iran. The Trump Administration’s withdrawal of the United States from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, and the resulting renewal of sanctions against Iran, scheduled to go into effect August 7, has resulted in a significant drop in the value of Iran’s currency on world markets. This in turn has led to high prices, falling wages, and shortages of water and electricity in the country.

    Although Mr. Trump has offered to open negotiations with Iran, the Iranian government has rejected the offer. Hamid Aboutalebi, who describes himself in his Twitter profile as “Sociologist Advisor” to Iran’s President Hasan Rouhani, tweeted on Monday that Iran would not come to the negotiating table unless the US gives in ahead of time on the main point of contention by returning to the JCPOA.

    The Express reported that “In a comment provided to Express.co.uk, [Maryam Rajavi, President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran] said the source of all the miseries of the Iranian nation is the religious dictatorship, which has wasted the wealth and human resources of our homeland."

    I salute the courage of the protesters in standing up to one of the world’s most repressive dictatorships and international bad actors.

    Read more—

  • Iran in FLAMES: Protestors attacked with TEAR GAS as they cry - 'Down with the DICTATOR' (Express)
  • Iranians criticise Trump's offer of talks (BBC)
  • Rouhani Wags the Dog: Behind the Trump/Rouhani war of words (Michael Isenberg)

     

    Israel sentences Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour to five months in prison. Ms. Tatour was initially arrested in 2015. The BBC reports that she was charged with “inciting violence and supporting a group banned as a terrorist organization…in connection with three social media posts that appeared at the start of the wave of mainly ‘lone-wolf’ attacks on Israelis. The first was a video featuring her reciting a poem and footage appearing to show Palestinian protesters using slingshots and throwing stones at Israeli security forces. The poem includes the lines: ‘Resist, my people, resist them. / Resist the settler's robbery / And follow the caravan of martyrs.’”

    According to Reuters, Ms. Tatour says in her defense that Israeli authorities “didn't understand my poem. There is no call for violence. There is a struggle, they cast it as violent."

    As always, I support freedom of speech. So while I disagree with what Ms. Tatour says, I will defend to the death her right to say it. In my humble opinion the Israeli government got this one wrong. Nevertheless, Ms. Tatour isn't fooling anybody with her claim that "There is no call for violence" in her posts.

    Read more—

  • Dareen Tatour: Israeli Arab poet sentenced for incitement (BBC)

     

    Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com

    Photo credit(s): Twitter, PMOI - NCRI

  • Thursday, August 2, 2018

    Fighting for God

    Bernard Lewis and the Clash of Civilizations.
    By Michael Isenberg.

    Yesterday I posted an obituary for Princeton historian Bernard Lewis, a towering figure in twentieth century Middle East studies who was no stranger to controversy. I noted that two controversies in particular will be forever linked with his name: his “Clash of Civilizations” hypothesis, which is the subject of this post, and “Orientalism,” which I will cover in a future article.

    The Clash of Civilizations theory concerns the origins of Islamic conflict with the West, a topic which Professor Lewis explored in a 1990 essay in The Atlantic, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” and expanded upon in his 2003 book, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror.

    Lewis rejects the idea that Islamic radicalism is a reaction to particular policies of Europe or the United States. In The Crisis of Islam, he points out that one of the founders of modern jihadist theory, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Sayyid Qutb, formed his views about the West during a stay in the United States from 1948 to 1950. At that time, most of the US policies which are supposedly responsible for radical Islam—from the fall of Mossadegh, to the two Gulf Wars, to the invasion of Afghanistan—hadn’t happened yet.

    Admittedly, America was a supporter of Israel at the time, and that did influence Mr. Qutb, but Professor Lewis argues that American support for the Jewish state during its early years was lukewarm at best. Lewis claims that Israel was far closer to the Soviet Union than the US at that time. In fact, during the 1956 Suez crisis, when Israel, France, and Great Britain attempted to wrest control of the Suez Canal from Gamal Nasser’s Egypt, the Eisenhower Administration intervened on the Egyptian side, applying diplomatic pressure that led to the withdrawal of Israel and its allies. And yet, the US’s support of Egypt brought no goodwill for America from the Arab world, whose governments proceeded to build alliances with the Soviets.

    “Clearly,” Professor Lewis writes in the Atlantic article, “something deeper is involved than these specific grievances, numerous and important as they may be—something deeper that turns every disagreement into a problem and makes every problem insoluble.” If nothing the Western nations did can explain Muslim antipathy, one must look elsewhere. “It should by now be clear,” he continues,

    that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilizations—the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both [emphasis mine].

    This “clash of civilizations,” a phrase which was subsequently taken up by Samuel Huntington in his eponymous book, has its origins in both ideology and history. Indeed, as early as 1964, Lewis wrote about “The Revolt of Islam” as a force to be reckoned with in Middle Eastern affairs. Its origin is in the absence of a separation between the sacred and the secular in Islamic ideology. There is no rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s in Islam. It’s all God’s.

    In Islam the struggle of good and evil very soon acquired political and even military dimensions. Muhammad, it will be recalled, was not only a prophet and a teacher, like the founders of other religions; he was also the head of a polity and of a community, a ruler and a soldier. Hence his struggle involved a state and its armed forces. If the fighters in the war for Islam, the holy war "in the path of God," are fighting for God, it follows that their opponents are fighting against God. And since God is in principle the sovereign, the supreme head of the Islamic state—and the Prophet and, after the Prophet, the caliphs are his vicegerents—then God as sovereign commands the army. The army is God's army and the enemy is God's enemy. The duty of God's soldiers is to dispatch God's enemies as quickly as possible to the place where God will chastise them—that is to say, the afterlife.

    Clearly related to this is the basic division of mankind as perceived in Islam...In the classical Islamic view, to which many Muslims are beginning to return, the world and all mankind are divided into two: the House of Islam, where the Muslim law and faith prevail, and the rest, known as the House of Unbelief or the House of War, which it is the duty of Muslims ultimately to bring to Islam. But the greater part of the world is still outside Islam, and even inside the Islamic lands, according to the view of the Muslim radicals, the faith of Islam has been undermined and the law of Islam has been abrogated. The obligation of holy war therefore begins at home and continues abroad, against the same infidel enemy.

    The holy war went well…at first:

    For the first thousand years Islam was advancing, Christendom in retreat and under threat. The new faith conquered the old Christian lands of the Levant and North Africa, and invaded Europe, ruling for a while in Sicily, Spain, Portugal, and even parts of France. The attempt by the Crusaders to recover the lost lands of Christendom in the east was held and thrown back, and even the Muslims' loss of southwestern Europe to the Reconquista was amply compensated by the Islamic advance into southeastern Europe, which twice reached as far as Vienna. For the past three hundred years, since the failure of the second Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683 and the rise of the European colonial empires in Asia and Africa, Islam has been on the defensive, and the Christian and post-Christian civilization of Europe and her daughters has brought the whole world, including Islam, within its orbit.

    For a long time now there has been a rising tide of rebellion against this Western paramountcy, and a desire to reassert Muslim values and restore Muslim greatness. The Muslim has suffered successive stages of defeat. The first was his loss of domination in the world, to the advancing power of Russia and the West. The second was the undermining of his authority in his own country, through an invasion of foreign ideas and laws and ways of life and sometimes even foreign rulers or settlers, and the enfranchisement of native non-Muslim elements. The third—the last straw—was the challenge to his mastery in his own house, from emancipated women and rebellious children. It was too much to endure, and the outbreak of rage against these alien, infidel, and incomprehensible forces that had subverted his dominance, disrupted his society, and finally violated the sanctuary of his home was inevitable. It was also natural that this rage should be directed primarily against the millennial enemy and should draw its strength from ancient beliefs and loyalties.

    Clearly, the “roots of Muslim rage” run deep in Islamic ideology. But fortunately, Islam is not monolithic and Muslims do not have to choose between waging perpetual war against the West or giving up on Islam altogether. There are other, gentler ways to interpret Muslim scripture. Quoted in his New York Times obituary, Professor Lewis says,

    As a specialist on Islam, I find myself disturbed by the nonsense being talked, by both Muslims and non-Muslims. On the one hand, you have people who would have you believe that Islam is a bloodthirsty religion bent on world destruction. On the other hand, you have people telling us that Islam is a religion of love and peace—rather like the Quakers, but less aggressive.

    The truth is in its usual place.

    Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com

    Photo source: thirtyfifthcenturyromance.blogspot.com

    Wednesday, August 1, 2018

    RIP Bernard Lewis

    by Michael Isenberg.

    The world has lost an icon in the field of Islamic studies: Princeton historian Bernard Lewis died May 19, a couple weeks shy of his 102nd birthday.

    Born in London in 1916 to Jewish parents, Lewis was launched on a lifetime of language studies when he learned Hebrew in preparation for his Bar Mitzvah. In 1939, he earned his Ph.D. from the School of Oriental Studies at the University of London where he joined the faculty.

    At that time, professional historians had little interest in the Muslim world. Such research as was done was carried out by “Arabists,” specialists in the Arabic language. Professor Lewis wrote in his 2012 autobiography, Notes On A Century (written in collaboration with longtime partner Buntzie Ellis Churchill), “As my teacher [H.A.R] Gibb told me more than once, I was the first professional historian to study, teach and write Arab history—the first, that is, in England.”

    Like much of his generation, when World War II broke out, he entered military service. He was initially sent to tank school, but, “Either because of my aptitude for languages or my ineptitude with tanks, I was transferred from the tank corps to the intelligence corps.”

    After the war, Professor Lewis made a name for himself with his first commercial success, 1950’s The Arabs in History, and his dive into the archives of the Ottoman Empire—he was the first Western scholar to be allowed access by the Turkish government. Professor Lewis takes little credit for that accomplishment:

    It was my good fortune, rather than any particular merit on my part, which caused me to submit my application precisely at the moment when the custodians of the archive decided to adopt a more tolerant policy and no longer limit access only to their own nations. I was both astounded and delighted to receive the coveted permit. Feeling rather like a child turned loose in a toy shop or like an intruder in Ali Baba’s cave, I hardly knew where to turn first.

    Still, accomplishment it was. In his article, “Bernard Lewis: an Appreciation,” R. Stephen Humphreys explains the significance of Lewis’s Ottoman scholarship:

    For the first time, historians could hope to penetrate a premodern Islamic society in depth, to produce not only properly documented political studies, but also serious analyses of governmental structure, economic change, and demography. Moreover, the Ottoman archives were as valuable for the Arab and Balkan possessions of the Empire as for its Turkish core. Turkish scholars, notably Omer Lutfi Barkan and Halil Inalcik, had begun after World War II to make serious use of these treasures, but it is Lewis who revealed them to European and American scholars. In so doing he opened up what still remains the most dynamic and creative field in Middle Eastern history.

    In his 1964 book, The Middle East and the West, Professor Lewis included a chapter “The Revolt of Islam,” in which he wrote,

    From the beginnings of Western penetration in the world of Islam until our own day, the most characteristic, significant, and original movements of thoughts have been Islamic. They have been concerned with the problems of the faith and of the community overwhelmed by infidels, rather than of the nation or country overrun by foreigners.

    This was an astonishing statement at a time when the Muslim world was dominated by secular, nationalist, socialist dictators like Egypt’s Gamal Nasser. Even Professor Lewis had to concede that “In recent years these militant religious organizations appear to have lost ground, and in many countries they have been outlawed or restricted.” Still, he predicted, “Though they have all, so far, been defeated, they have not yet spoken their last word.” In particular he singled out Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood as “The most active and most successful of these leagues.” He returned to this theme in a 1976 article (having moved to Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the meantime), “The Return of Islam,” in Commentary magazine.

    When, three years later, the Iranian Revolution proved him right in a spectacular and tragic fashion, Professor Lewis began his transformation from “mere” academic superstar to PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL, a transformation that was completed in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, perpetrated by Muslim Brotherhood alumni and their disciples. “Osama bin Laden made me famous,” he said.

    His growing fame brought the US government a-calling. During the run-up to the first Gulf War, then-defense secretary Dick Cheney consulted him, together with “almost every Middle East expert in the country.” But Professor Lewis stood out. While most experts warned that the United States should not get involved in another Vietnam, Lewis correctly predicted that defeating the Iraqi Army would be “quick, cheap, and easy.” In Notes on a Century he conceded that he merely echoed the opinion of his friend, then-Turkish president Turgut Özal.

    He was consulted again in the run up to the second Gulf War, prompting The New York Times to write in his obituary that “Few outsiders and no academics had more influence with the Bush administration on Middle Eastern affairs than Mr. Lewis.” Lewis himself, however, downplayed that influence. He insisted he opposed the second war and pointed out that the extent of his involvement with the Bush administration was little more than a few meetings with Vice President Cheney, meetings not important enough to warrant a mention in Cheney’s lengthy memoirs.

    The role of Professor Lewis (or lack thereof) in advising the Bush Administration was not the only controversy of his long career. He was singled out by Columbia University’s Edward Said, who accused him of being the “culmination of Orientalism,” a term which Said never actually defines in the three hundred pages of his eponymous book, but which is apparently a form of racist scholarship in the service of Imperialism.

    In recent years, Professor Lewis’s name has become synonymous with his “Clash of Civilizations” hypothesis, a phrase he coined in a 1990 essay in The Atlantic, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” and expanded upon in his 2003 book, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror. Building on the ideas in “The Revolt of Islam,” Lewis argued that the conflict between Islam and the West was not the result of anything the West has done, but rather driven by the ideology of Islam itself.

    (For more about the Clash of Civilizations, see my article, "Fighting for God." I'll cover Orientalism in a future post.)

    Professor Lewis was well known for his bon mots and humorous anecdotes. One of his commanding officers during the war felt it necessary to note in his file “His sense of humor should not be taken as seditious.” Judging from Notes on a Century, Lewis was often content to play straight man in his own stories, and let other parties be the comedians. Thus, there is the story of the Turkish general with whom Professor Lewis was discussing Turkey’s entry into NATO. “The real problem with having Americans as your allies,” the general said, “is you never know when they will turn around and stab themselves in the back.”

    On another occasion Professor Lewis was talking with a Pakistani general about the 1956 Suez Crisis, in which Israel, Great Britain, and France made an abortive attempt to wrest the Suez Canal from Egypt's Nasser, who had nationalized it. “We are strongly opposed to military aggression,” the general said. “Especially when left unfinished.”

    But perhaps the trait of Professor Lewis that contributed the most to his success as a scholar was his commitment to objectivity. “The historian should not set out to prove a thesis and select material to establish it,” he wrote, “but rather follow the evidence where it leads.”

    Furthermore,

    If you look back and find that in every single dispute between your group and other groups, yours has been right and the others have been wrong—then you should reexamine the hypothesis on the basis of which you are conducting your researches, because it is not in the nature of human entities to be always right.

    And again, “It is perfectly legitimate to reject and refute someone else’s arguments, but you must not distort his arguments in order to make your task easier.”

    He was even willing to reject and refute his own arguments when he thought that was warranted. Looking back at The Arabs in History late in life, he called it a “sin of my youth.” He felt it was unduly influenced by the Marxist phase he was going through at the time he wrote it. “Quasi-Marxism was my measles or chicken pox,” he said, “which I got over at the age when one recovers from these ailments. Some younger people presumably find it necessary to go through the same phase now but I don’t think one should make an intellectual virtue of childhood infections.”

    Judging from the reaction to his work, he had some success in staying objective:

    I am not an expert in theology or scripture, and I looked at these, if at all, only with a historian’s eye…This has not prevented my critics from attacking me for my treatment of Muslim scriptures and sacred biography. In this as in other matters, the attacks came from both sides. On the one side I am accused of traducing Islam and its sanctities, on the other of defending and even condoning its flaws. As long as the attacks continue to come from both sides, I shall remain confident of my scholarly objectivity.

    The Arabic translator of The Middle East and the West wrote in his preface, “I don’t know who the person is but one thing is clear. He is, from our point of view, either a candid friend or an honest enemy and in any case one who disdains to distort the truth.”

    As another non-Muslim writing about the Muslim world, I can only dream that someday a Muslim writer will praise my work in this fashion.

    RIP Bernard Lewis.

    Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com

    Photo credit: New York Times

    Monday, July 23, 2018

    Rouhani Wags the Dog

    Behind the Trump/Rouhani war of words.
    by Michael Isenberg.

    "NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE."

    So declared President Trump last night in what the interwebz has dubbed "The Mother of all Tweets." His words, rendered in all caps, were in response to a speech that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivered earlier in the day to a gathering of Iranian diplomats. Rouhani’s remark that “Americans must [understand] that peace with Iran [is] the mother of all peace, war with Iran the mother of all wars” was the most widely reported excerpt from the speech, but it was just the tip of the iceberg. More extensive quotes, appearing on President Rouhani’s website (sadly, there isn’t a full transcript) reveal a bellicose and paranoid rant against the United States, President Trump, and the State of Israel. In addition to outlining five “conspiracies” by the United States against the Iranian people, President Rouhani said,

    "The current US administration is fighting the world and its own national interests at the same time."

    "What [the] US always does is conspiracy against Iran and the great Iranian nation."

    "Iran acted wisely against Trump's inexperience."

    "They have been saying that Israel is the model of democracy in the region; today, it was proved that it is the centre of apartheid."

    "Iran's strategic depth stretches in east to the subcontinent, in the west to the Mediterranean, in the south to the Red Sea, and in the north to the Caucasus."

    "Anybody who knows a little politics doesn't say he will stop Iran's oil export. We have a lot of straits; Hormuz is just one of them."

    "Today, speaking with [the] US has no meaning except surrender and end of people's achievements. Mr. Trump! We are the people of dignity and guarantor of security of the waterway of the region throughout the history. Don't play with the lion's tail; you will regret it."

    The last three quotes are particularly troubling because they express Iran’s ambitions to be the dominant power in the region and they repeat a threat that President Rouhani made earlier this month to close the Straits of Hormuz to international shipping if the Trump administration proceeds with its plans to re-impose nuclear sanctions on Iran. That threat was seconded by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei at the gathering of diplomats this weekend.

    Rouhani’s speech was not delivered in a vacuum. The Iranian regime faces serious domestic problems, specifically a weakening economy and popular protest against the regime’s hardline enforcement of Islamic law, especially its restrictions on women’s dress and behavior.

    The economy was a major issue in the May 2017 Iranian presidential election. Iran had suffered many years of economic stagnation—the BBC reported “Iran’s economy had been close to collapse”—thanks to western sanctions. But with the signing of the nuclear deal in 2015, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, sanctions were lifted, and by the time of the election the economy was enjoying 7% growth. However, despite an expanding GDP, double digit unemployment lingered. President Rouhani’s election opponent, Ibrahim Raisi, hammered the incumbent for relying too heavily on foreign investment, especially western investment.

    The Iranian people decided they were satisfied with President Rouhani—they handed him a 57%-39% victory over Raisi—but their satisfaction did not last long. Protests over high prices in Mashhad during the New Year’s weekend received international attention and spread to several other cities before they were violently stamped out by authorities. Since then the economic situation has deteriorated considerably. In anticipation of President Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and the re-imposition of US sanctions, which he formally announced May 8, the Iranian rial has collapsed against the dollar. Prices of foreign goods have skyrocketed. In Teheran last month, shopkeepers in the Grand Bazaar closed their doors in protest, and thousands of demonstrators attempted to march to Parliament until they were dispersed by riot police.

    But not all protests in Iran are economic. When Vida Movahedi removed her hijab at a demonstration on Revolution Street in Teheran in December, she inspired women all over Iran to defy the country’s strict dress code. But she is merely the most visible symbol that Iranian women are fed up with theocracy. In recent months, they have proven themselves ingenious at devising a thousand small acts of defiance. Whether by going out hijab-less, dancing in public (sometimes with men, sometimes by themselves), or disguising themselves as men to sneak into soccer games, they have, little by little, cracked the façade of fundamentalism.

    There is no doubt that the economic and social protests were on President Rouhani’s mind when he addressed the gathering of diplomats yesterday. He alluded to the government’s responsibility “to pave the way for private sector's activity in the country.” And he attempted to discredit the protests by blaming them on the United States. “You can't incite Iranian people against Iran's security and interests.” I find it likely that this is the real motive for Rouhani’s attacks—to distract the Iranian people from domestic problems by drawing their attention to international ones. To wag the dog.

    If that is the case, then President Trump—who has domestic problems of his own—played into President Rouhani’s hands by responding the way he did. Still, I’m not sure he had a lot of choice. The threats to the Straits of Hormuz need to be taken seriously and couldn’t go unanswered. It will be interesting to see, in the weeks ahead, whether the hard line he has taken will cause Iran, like most bullies, to back down. As a number of commentators have pointed out, a similar tack brought North Korea to the negotiating table—albeit how those negotiations will play out is anybody’s guess at this point. When it comes to Twitter diplomacy, we’re all still learning.

    Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com

    Photo Credits: NPR, Twitter

    Friday, July 13, 2018

    Mideast Week in Review

    by Michael Isenberg.

  • In sad milestone, Syrian government forces have nearly completed recapturing the south of the country.
  • Espionage coup: Mossad filches Israeli spy's watch from Syria.
  • Iranians continue to find ingenious ways to defy their Isamo-fascist rulers—by dancing.

    In sad milestone, Syrian government forces have nearly completed recapturing the south of the country

    The BBC reported on Thursday that troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad entered rebel-held areas in the city of Deraa, near the border with Jordan. As in other places recaptured by the government, opposition forces have reportedly agreed to surrender in exchange for safe passage to other rebel-held areas.

    With the fall of Deraa, the government has nearly completed its recapture of the southern part of the country. It is a sad milestone: Deraa is where the rebellion began in 2011 with great hopes for throwing off the repressive Assad regime.

    I expect military operations will soon shift back to the north, especially to the rebel-held areas in Idlib province, near Aleppo. Also in the north, large sections of land are controlled by the Kurds. It will be interesting to see whether the Assad regime turns its attention to regaining control over these provinces, and whether the Trump administration will permit US ground troops positioned there to stand by our Kurdish allies, who fought in the front lines in the battle against ISIS.

    Read more—

  • Deraa, birthplace of Syria uprising, retaken by government forces (BBC)

     

    Espionage coup: Mossad filches Israeli spy's watch from Syria

    The Israeli government announced last week that the Mossad had recovered the watch of martyred agent Eli Cohen. In the years leading up to the Six Day War, Cohen infiltrated the top levels of the Syrian government, obtaining crucial military data for Israel, before he was captured and hanged in 1965. Despite repeated requests from the Israeli government, the Syrian regime has refused to return Cohen’s remains to the Jewish state.

    Israel does not reveal Mossad operations frivolously. My speculation is that the decision to go public with Cohen’s watch was made in order to send a message to the Assad regime: we can operate freely in your country.

    Read more—

  • Israel recovers hanged spy Eli Cohen's watch from Syria (BBC)
  • Eli Ben-Hanan, Our Man in Damascus

     

    Iranians continue to find ingenious ways to defy their Isamo-fascist rulers—by dancing

    Nineteen year old Maedeh Hojabri was arrested last week after she posted video of herself dancing on Instagram, without a hijab, in defiance of Iran’s strict Islamic code.

    In response of her arrest, thousands have tweeted their support for Hojabri with hashtags like برقص_تا_برقصیم# (Dance to dance) and رقص_جرم_نیست# (Dancing is not a crime)—many with their own videos in which they bust some moves.

    Read more—

  • Iran women dance in support of arrested Instagram teen (BBC)

     

    Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com