Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Tales of Medieval Islam

How a 9th Century physician cured a king—by threatening him with a knife—and how he lived to tell about it.

One of the greatest practitioners of medicine of the medieval Muslim world was Muhammad ibn Zakariyya ar-Razi (854-925). His fame and influence were as widespread in Christian lands as in Muslim ones—this illustration of him treating a patient is from a 13th Century Latin translation of one of his books. Such translations were the cornerstone of medical education in Europe for hundreds of years.

To list all of Muhammad ibn Zakariyya’s accomplishments would fill a week’s worth of blog posts. So I’m going to confine myself to just two of them: First, he was the first person in history to recognize that measles and smallpox were different diseases, each with their own symptoms and treatments. And second, although we tend to think of psychology as something that began with Sigmund Freud at the dawn of the 20th Century, Muhammad ibn Zakariyya famously employed a psychological cure to free the Amir Mansur of Bukhara of a case of arthritis that was so severe, the Amir could barely move:

Another of the House of Saman, Amir Mansur ibn Nuh ibn Nasr, became afflicted with an ailment which grew chronic, and remained established, and the physicians were unable to cure it. So the Amir Mansur sent messengers to summon Muhammad ibn Zakariyya ar-Razi to treat him. Muhammad ibn Zakariyya came as far as the Oxus [River], but, when he reached its shores and saw it, he said, "I will not embark in the boat, for God Most High saith—'Do not cast yourselves into peril with your own hands;' and again it is surely a thing remote from wisdom voluntarily to place one's self in so hazardous a position." Ere the Amir's messenger had gone to Bukhara and returned, he had composed the Kitab-i-Mansuri [Book of Mansur], which he sent by the hand of that person, saying, "I am this book, and by this book thou canst attain thine object, so that there is no need of me."

When the book reached the Amir he was grievously afflicted, wherefore he sent a thousand dinars and one of his own private horses fully caparisoned, saying, "Show him every kindness, but, if this proves fruitless, bind his hands and feet, place him in the boat, and fetch him across." They did so, but their entreaties moved him not at all. Then they bound his hands and feet, placed him in the boat, and, when they had ferried him across the river, released his limbs. Then they brought the led-horse, fully caparisoned, before him, and he mounted in the best of humours, and set out for Bukhara. So they enquired of him, saying, "We feared lest, when we should cross the water and set thee free, thou wouldst cherish enmity against us, but thou didst not so, nor do we see thee annoyed or vexed in heart." He replied, "I know that every year twenty thousand persons cross the Oxus without being drowned, and that I too should probably not be drowned; still, it was possible that I might perish, and if this had happened they would have continued till the Resurrection to say, 'A foolish fellow was Muhammad ibn Zakariyya, in that, of his own free will he embarked in a boat and so was drowned.' So should I be one of those who deserve blame, not of those who are held excused."

When he reached Bukhara, the Amir came in and they saw one another and he began to treat him, exerting his powers to the utmost, but without relief to the patient. One day he came in before the Amir and said, "To-morrow I am going to try another method of treatment, but for the carrying out of it you will have to sacrifice such-and-such a horse and such-and-such a mule," the two being both animals noted for their speed, so that in one night they would go forty parasangs [132 miles].

So next day he took the Amir to the hot bath of Ju-yi-Muliydn, outside the palace, leaving that horse and mule ready equipped and tightly girt in the charge of his own servant at the door of the bath; while of the King's retinue and attendants he suffered not one to enter the bath. Then he brought the King into the middle chamber of the hot bath, and poured over him tepid water, after which he prepared a draught, tasted it, and gave it to him to drink. And he kept him there till such time as the humours in his joints had undergone coction.

Then he himself went out and put on his clothes, and, taking a knife in his hand, came in, and stood for a while reviling the King, saying, "O such-and-such, thou didst order thy people to bind and cast me into the boat and to threaten my life. If I do not destroy thee as a punishment for this, I am no true son of [my father] Zakariyya!"

The Amir was furious and rose from his place to his knees. Muhammad ibn Zakariyya drew a knife and threatened him yet more, until the Amir, partly from anger, partly from fear, completely rose to his feet. When Muhammad ibn Zakariyya saw the Amir on his feet, he turned round and went out from the bath and both he and his servant mounted, the one the horse, the other the mule, and turned their faces towards the Oxus. At the time of the afternoon prayer they crossed the river, and halted nowhere till they reached Merv. When Muhammad ibn Zakariyya alighted at Merv, he wrote a letter to the Amir, saying, "May the life of the King be prolonged in health of body and effective command! I your servant undertook the treatment and did all that was possible. There was, however, an extreme failure in the natural caloric, and the treatment of the disease by ordinary means would have been a protracted affair. I therefore abandoned it in favour of psychical treatment, carried you to the hot bath, administered a draught, and left you so long as to bring about a coction of the humours. Then I angered the King, so as to aid the natural caloric, and it gained strength until those humours, already softened, were dissolved. But henceforth it is not expedient that a meeting should take place between myself and the King."

Now after the Amir had risen to his feet and Muhammad ibn Zakariyya had gone out and ridden off, the Amir at once fainted. When he came to himself he went forth from the bath and called to his servants, saying, "Where has the physician gone?" They answered, "He came out from the bath, and mounted the horse, while his attendant mounted the mule, and went off."

Then the Amir knew what object he had had in view. So he came forth on his own feet from the hot bath; and tidings of this ran through the city. Then he gave audience, and his servants and retainers and people rejoiced greatly, and gave alms, and offered sacrifices, and held high festival. But they could not find the physician, seek him as they might. And on the seventh day Muhammad ibn Zakariyya's servant arrived, riding the mule and leading the horse, and presented the letter. The Amir read it, and was astonished, and excused him, and sent him an honorarium consisting of a horse fully caparisoned, cloak, turban and arms, and a slave-boy and a handmaiden, and further commanded that there should be assigned to him in Ray from the estates of al-Ma'mun a yearly allowance of two thousand dinars in gold and two hundred ass-loads of corn. This honorarium and pension-warrant he forwarded to him at Merv by the hand of a man of note. So the Amir completely regained his health, and Muhammad ibn Zakariyya attained his object.

From Nizami Arudi as-Samarqandi, Chahar Maqala (The Four Discourses), Edward G. Browne, tr., Mirza Muhammad, ed., London:Luzac & Co., 1921, pp. 83-85.

Michael Isenberg writes about the Muslim world, medieval and modern. His forthcoming novel, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092 and depicts the battle for the Muslim soul between those who embrace science and tolerance, and those who would throw in their lot with mysticism and persecution instead.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Mideast Week in Review

By Michael Isenberg.

  • Trump gives up on Syria.
  • Six dead in Temple Mount-related violence.
  • Saudi miniskirt woman.

    Trump gives up on Syria: A couple weeks ago, I wrote that President Trump had gotten “suckered” by President Vladimir Putin of Russia at the G2 summit in Hamburg. They agreed to a partial Syria ceasefire which primarily benefited Putin and his puppet, Syrian president Bashar Assad. The deal made no sense, in light of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s contention at the time that US policy was to topple Assad, as it has been since the Obama Administration.

    It has all become clear now.

    On Wednesday, The Washington Post reported that the Trump Administration planned to end CIA support to the allegedly moderate rebels fighting Assad.

    In other words, the Trump Administration has given up on Syria, which will allow Assad—and Putin—to win.

    This is a huge story, and yet it has gone almost unnoticed, except among those sad and pathetic individuals who still haven’t come to terms with Hillary Clinton’s 2016 electoral loss and think that this latest turn of events proves…something.

    The Post writes that this decision was made a month ago, before the G2 Summit. So apparently Secretary Tillerson was less than completely honest in Hamburg regarding US objectives.

    The end of the US attempt at regime change in Syria is a mixed blessing. It will alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people—somewhat. The daily torture of war will come to an end and with it, the refugee crisis. Syrians will be able to get back to something resembling a normal life. Alas, it will be life under the brutal Assad dictatorship.

    Furthermore, it means that the US will leave its allies among the Syrian rebels in the lurch, just as we did to the South Vietnamese a generation ago. Many will be killed by the Assad regime. “We are really cutting them off at the neck,” said Charles Lister of the Middle East institute. The harm to the credibility of the United States will have consequences, as it did in the post-Vietnam years: no one wants an ally they can't rely on.

    Not a good situation, but in all fairness to Mr. Trump, he didn't have a lot of options. Mr. Obama left him with a mess. It would have been far better if the Obama Administration had not gotten the US involved in the first place. In my humble opinion, that caused the war to drag on far longer than it would have otherwise. The same outcome—an Assad victory—could have been achieved years ago, without the hit to US credibility, possibly before ISIS broke out in 2014, probably before the surge in Syrian refugees to Europe in 2015.

    “Beware of entrance to a quarrel,” Polonius cautioned in Hamlet. “But being in, bear't that the opposed may beware of thee.” Tragically, when it came to Syria, the United States did neither.

    Read more—

  • Trump ends covert CIA program to arm anti-Assad rebels in Syria, a move sought by Moscow (Washington Post)


    Six dead in Temple Mount-related violence: Last week, Palestinian gunmen murdered two Israeli policemen near the Temple Mount, home to the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque. In the wake of the shooting, the Israeli government closed the area, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. Two days later it was reopened with new security measures—metal detectors—in place. The Temple Mount is a flashpoint for Palestinian conflict with Israel and as I predicted that wasn't the end of it.

    Here are this week's developments:

  • Muslims continue to refuse to enter the area, instead praying just outside its gates.
  • Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas has cut off relations with the Israeli government until the metal detectors are removed.
  • On Friday, three Palestinian protesters were killed in clashes with police.
  • Also on Friday, a Palestinian man entered a Jewish home in Halamish, in the West Bank, stabbed and killed three Jewish residents and wounded a fourth before being shot by a neighbor. According to the BBC, the assailant, Omar al-Abed, had earlier “posted on Facebook linking his actions to events at Jerusalem's holy site.”

    Read more—

  • East Jerusalem: Palestinians killed as holy site tensions soar (BBC)
  • Three Israelis stabbed to death in West Bank attack (BBC)


    Saudi miniskirt woman: Last weekend, a video appeared on Snapchat of a woman with an exposed midriff and wearing a miniskirt, strolling around an old fortress in Saudi Arabia's Ushayqir Heritage Village. Because her attire was in defiance of Saudi laws requiring women to be covered in public, the video drew the attention of police, who identified and question her. The case has now been referred to prosecutors. Too bad—I had been hoping she would get away with it. Although, given how few details there seem to be about her in news accounts, maybe she did. Official accounts are not always reliable.

    Read more—

  • Saudi police question miniskirt video woman (BBC)

    Michael Isenberg writes about the Muslim world, medieval and modern. His forthcoming novel, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092 and depicts the battle for the Muslim soul between those who embrace science and tolerance, and those who would throw in their lot with mysticism and persecution instead.

  • Wednesday, July 19, 2017

    So what DOES jihad mean?

    Part I: What the Quran says.
    By Michael Isenberg.

    I confess I’m not very fond of Linda Sarsour. The Brooklyn-born activist, former head of the Arab-American Association of New York and co-chair of the 2017 Women’s March, makes me think of Delores Umbridge in a hijab. In my humble opinion, her speeches have as many laughs in them as a dictionary. Or maybe it just bugs me that despite her dearth of humor, she’s actually a rather gifted speaker, but she's chosen to put those gifts in the service of causes with which I disagree.

    In any case, her recent address to the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) set off a firestorm of controversy because of her call for “jihad” against the Trump administration. While writing this post, I subjected myself to the torture of listening to her speech in its entirety so that you, my dear reader, wouldn’t have to, and could focus merely on the relevant section:

    There was a man who once asked our beloved prophet Muhammad, salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam [May the prayer and peace of Allah be upon him], he said to him, “What is the best form of jihad or struggle?” And our beloved prophet Muhammad, salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam, said to him, “A word of truth in front of a tyrant ruler or leader, that is the best form of jihad,” and I hope that we, when we stand up to those who oppress our communities, that Allah accepts from us that as a form of jihad that we are struggling against tyrants and rulers not only abroad in the Middle East or in the other side of the world, but here in these United States of America where you have fascists and white supremacists and Islamophobes reigning in the White House.

    Since this is a blog about Islam, I’ll leave aside the questionable proposition that the White House is crawling with fascists, white supremacists, and Islamophobes, and whether they “reign” over us, and confine myself to the stuff about jihad.

    In response to conservative critics who accused her of inciting violence, Ms. Sarsour claimed that her remarks were taken out of context. “I sent not a call to violence,” she wrote in the Washington Post, “but a call to speak truth to power and to commit to the struggle for racial and economic justice.” In all fairness, the text of the speech seems to back her up. But conservatives remain skeptical. During an appearance on Fox Business last week, Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, said in no uncertain terms that “jihad” means “armed struggle.” He called Ms. Sarsour “dishonest” for saying otherwise.

    This debate—what does “jihad” really mean?—flares up from time to time; Ms. Sarsour merely set off the latest round. Often translated “holy war,” "jihad" is an Arabic word whose literal meaning is “struggle.” But whether that is necessarily an armed struggle against an enemy, or could be a struggle to speak truth to power, or even an internal struggle against our own personal demons, well…it’s complicated.

    As with everything in Islam, the jumping off point is the Quran.

    It’s well known that there are many verses in the Quran which command Muslims to make war on unbelievers. But these verses generally use the word “qatl” rather than “jihad.” “Qatl” means to battle or fight, and is related to the word for “kill.”

    So where does “jihad” appear in the Quran? According to the online concordance at corpus.quran.com, it appears forty-one times in various forms (jihad, jahid, tujahidun, etc.). The majority of these are ambiguous as to what jihad actually is. Verse 61:11 is typical: “Believe in Allah and His Messenger and struggle (tujahidun) in the Way of Allah with your wealth and your soul.” The verse doesn’t actually say what the “Way of Allah” is. I suppose you could make the argument that since other verses say to fight the unbeliever, that’s the Way of Allah. Armed conflict. But you could equally say that fasting, or the haj, or abstaining from wine, or any of the other privations Islam imposes on its adherents is the Way of Allah, and therefore what jihad is all about. Or all of the above.

    In another half a dozen verses, jihad is clearly a conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims. For example, 25:52, “And do not obey the unbelievers, and struggle (jahid) against them with a Great Jihad.” But the text doesn’t specify whether it requires armed conflict, or whether a vigorous debate would suffice.

    However, there are two passages, 2:216-218 and 9:14-16, which bring the words “qatl” and “jihad” together. The passages are similar in how they use the two terms; in the interest of space I'll just quote the second one:

    Fight them [qatiluhum] and Allah will torment them at your hands and disgrace them and make you victorious over them and soothe the breasts of the believers, and take away wrath from their hearts. And Allah turns away from sin those whom he wants. And Allah is knowing and wise. Do you reckon that Allah would leave you when he doesn’t yet know who among you would struggle (jahadu) and who would not take anyone for a friend besides Allah, and His Messenger, and the faithful.

    It would seem here that we finally have a passage that uses the word “jihad” in terms of all out sword-clanging, blood-flowing, kill-or-be-killed holy war. Albeit if someone really wanted to be stubborn about it and continue to insist that “jihad” means struggle with oneself, they could claim that the second half of the passage is a different topic from the first half.

    The bottom line then, is the Quran is not a lot of help in understanding jihad. There are a couple places where it definitely seems to mean a clash of arms, but most of the time, it’s ambiguous, leaving the door open to other interpretations.

    Despite pride of place, however, the Quran is not the only source of authority in Islam. There’s also the Hadith, the collected sayings of Muhammad. I cover what they have to say about jihad in Part II of this series.


    Michael Isenberg writes about the Muslim world, medieval and modern. His forthcoming novel, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092 and depicts the battle for the Muslim soul between those who embrace science and tolerance, and those who would throw in their lot with mysticism and persecution instead.

    Photo credit: AP

    Sunday, July 16, 2017

    Mideast Week in Review

    by Michael Isenberg.

  • Attack near Temple Mount.
  • Radiohead under fire over Israel gig.
  • “Green Burger” trending in Egypt.


    Attack near Temple Mount: On Friday, Palestinian terrorists gunned down two Israeli policeman, Advanced Staff Sergeant Major Kamil Shanan and Advanced Staff Sergeant Major Hail Sattawi. The murders took place near the Gate of the Tribes, one of the entries to the Temple Mount, where the Jewish Temple stood in ancient times, and now home to al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. The perpetrators than fled into the holy site, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, where they were killed by Israeli security forces.

    The attack was unusual in that the victims weren’t Jews—they were Druze. Also unusual: Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas called Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to condemn the attack.

    In the wake of the tragedy, Israeli security forces closed the Temple Mount in order to search for weapons. This was the first time the al-Aqsa Mosque was closed for Friday prayers since 1969, when Denis Michael Rohan set fire to the pulpit. Mr. Rohan, who was an Australian Christian, believed that if he destroyed the mosque, it would enable the Jews to rebuild the Temple in its original location, which would hasten the Second Coming of Jesus. When tried, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

    As I’ve discussed previously, the status of the Temple Mount is a flashpoint with Palestinians, who fear, somewhat irrationally, that the Israelis partially share Mr. Rohan's objectives, and plan to tear down al-Aqsa to rebuild the Temple. It was inevitable, therefore, that there would be repercussions over the killing of the terrorists on the site and the subsequent closure. Several hundred Jordanians demonstrated in Amman on Saturday to protest the closure.

    This morning the Israeli government reopened the site, with new security measures in place, including metal detectors at the entrances. However, the controversy continues. News accounts differ but either the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, which oversees the Temple Mount, has advised Muslims not to enter the site, or it has closed the site altogether in protest of the new security measures. In any case, scores of Muslims conducted their prayers outside the gates, a row of vacant metal detectors in front of them. I'm sure we'll see more blowback in the coming days.

    Read more—

  • Israeli police killed in attack near Jerusalem holy site (BBC)
  • Hundreds in Jordan protest Temple Mount closure (Times of Israel)
  • Muslim Authority protests Temple Mount security measures, blocks entrance (Jerualem Post)
  • Israel reopens Aqsa Mosque compound, Muslims refuse to enter in protest (PressTV)
  • Denis Michael Rohan (Wikipedia)


    Radiohead under fire over Israel gig: Speaking of Israel, the band Radiohead has become the last target of the BDS movement (not to be confused with BDSM) over its plans to play a concert there next week. The most recent attack has come from filmmaker Ken Loach. “By playing in Israel,” he wrote in an open letter, “you’ll be playing in a state where, UN rapporteurs say, ‘a system of apartheid has been imposed on the Palestinian people.’” (I never head of Mr. Loach, so I looked him up on IMDB. He has director credits for 51 films, but I never heard of any of them either.)

    Radiohead front man Thom Yorke replied via tweet, “Playing a country isn't the same as endorsing its government.”

    Mr. Yorke may be unwilling to endorse the Israeli government but I am. It has shown admirable restraint in the face of chronic terrorist attacks by Palestinians, and anti-Semitic libels, including that one about apartheid, from Palestinian sympathizers. Radiohead should be proud to play there. As for Mr. Loach, he should acquaint himself with that great saying from the music business, “A gig’s a gig.”

    Read more—

  • An open letter to Radiohead (Artists for Palestine)
  • Radiohead on Israel gig: "Playing a country isn't the same as endorsing its government" (BBC)


    “Green Burger” trending in Egypt: On the lighter side of the news, the hashtag “Green Burger” trended on Twitter this week, as many Egyptians took to using the term to refer to falafel. According to the BBC, others “pointed the finger [of ridicule] at ‘high class’ people, accusing them of inventing English terms for things so as to sound cool.”

    Read more—

  • How Green Burger has provoked online reaction in Egypt (BBC)

    Michael Isenberg writes about the Muslim world, medieval and modern. His forthcoming novel, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092 and depicts the battle for the Muslim soul between those who embrace science and tolerance, and those who would throw in their lot with mysticism and persecution instead.

    Photo credit: al-Jazeera, PressTV

    Correction: An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that the perpetrator of the 1969 arson at the al-Aqsa mosque was a "Jewish extremist." Serves me right for not fact-checking something I read on al-Jazeera, especially when it appears in the Arabic version of the article, and not the English one.

  • Monday, July 10, 2017

    Where Criticism is an “Act of Terror”

    Saudi Arabia Uncovered.
    Documentary Review by Michael Isenberg.

    “There is a state which beheads and even crucifies its citizens. Where those who question its authority are lashed and locked up for years. A state where woman lack many basic rights. Patrolled by religious police. Where children are indoctrinated. But this is not the Islamic State. This is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A close ally which buys billions of pounds’ worth of British [and American] arms, whose security forces we equip and train, even though they’re in conflict with many of their own people. Whose oil we buy, and whose royals get the red-carpet treatment.”

    So begins Saudi Arabia Uncovered, a documentary which bills itself as “a rare revealing look inside the Saudi Kingdom.” Produced by Britain’s ITV network, and directed by veteran filmmaker James Jones, the (approximately) hour-long exposé aired last year on Frontline and lives on in cyberspace.

    The picture it paints is of a rigid, authoritarian theocracy, under the thumb of King Salman. It’s a regime where the religious police—the so-called Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice—has the power to enforce hours of prayer, smash bottles of alcohol, eject men from malls where women are shopping, shame women for wearing make-up, and break up gatherings of public lute playing. Imams in the mosques and textbooks in the schools preach hatred of Jews, Christians, and Shiites (The filmmakers note that there has been some reform in the area of textbooks, but old textbooks linger). “In Saudi Arabia,” says women’s rights activist Hala al-Dosari, “criticizing the government, criticizing religious people, are considered as acts of terror. And people are reporting on each other, targeting their fellow citizens, so everyone becomes, you know, more religious than ever, everybody becomes more pro-government than ever. So we’re going into a fascist society.”

    The heart of the documentary are the brave men and women who put their lives and their freedom on the line to stand up to that fascist society. Their activism subjects them to brutal prison conditions, public flogging, and sometimes beheading. Above all, Saudi Arabia Uncovered is their story. For example,

  • Yasser, whose undercover camera work, and that of his “network,” provide much of the material on which Saudi Arabia Uncovered is based. Filming in Saudi Arabia is illegal, so he and his team took a great risk. “What will be, will be,” he says, philosophically. “Yes, there is a danger. But the world needs to see how we have been living under persecution and slavery for decades.”
  • Raif Badawi, a blogger who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and a thousand lashes (he’s received 50 so far) for “insulting Islam.” It’s been over a year since his wife had any news from him.

  • Loujain Hathloul, “Saudi Arabia’s most prominent women’s activist. A constant thorn in the side of the regime.” For attempting to drive into the country, where women are banned from driving, and uploading video of herself doing so, she was arrested and held without charge for almost two and a half months. In 2015, she applied to run in municipal elections, but was prohibited from appearing on the ballot.
  • Ali Nimr. As a teenager, he participated in Arab Spring protests. Now in his early twenties, he waits on death row as punishment for “treason,” amid worldwide outrage. His uncle, Nimr al-Nimr wasn't as “fortunate.” A prominent Shiite activist, in January 2016 he was executed with 46 others in “the largest mass execution since 1980.” Some were terrorists. Some were just called terrorists.

    But the Saudi regime is not content merely to subject its own citizens to the terrors of Islamism. It exports them. The ties between Saudi-funded Islamic charities and terror groups are well-known and reviewed in the documentary (which also notes there is no evidence that senior Saudi officials were complicit in them). However, thoughtful observers consider that the kingdom’s embrace of the Wahhabi form of Islam—the country has spent $70 billion promoting it worldwide—is even more insidious than direct support of terror. In the words of former CIA officer Emile Nakhleh, “The ideology of ISIS is not much different from the ideology that Wahhabi Salafi Islam in Saudi Arabia adheres to. Unless the Saudis deal with this issue, we are going to constantly fight yesterday’s war and even if we defeat ISIS, there’ll be another terrorist organization, perhaps with a different name, as long as they have this ideology that emanates from Saudi Arabia.”

    In view of Saudi Arabia’s persecution of its own citizens and its promotion of Islamist ideology, many in the US and Britain question the wisdom of supporting the kingdom. Throughout the documentary, current and former government officials tell us that we have no choice. While Saudi Arabia isn’t perfect, they say, it’s a crucial ally in the War on Terror, especially in the intelligence department. “Welcome to the real world,” former CIA Director David Petraeus intones piously. Hey, I get realpolitik. I get that we can’t always choose our allies. I don't ask for perfection. But is it too much to ask that our allies be marginally distinguishable from our enemies?

    The Saudi government has responded to the filmmakers' work. In a statement, which was included in the film, it said it “utterly rejects the partisan nature and sensationalist tone of this documentary, which sets out to portray the country in a negative an unbalanced light. The Kingdom’s legal system is based on the due process of Islamic shari’a law.”

    In my humble opinion, that’s the problem.

    Saudi Arabia Uncovered may be watched on pbs.org and Netflix.

    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): Huffington Post

  • Sunday, July 9, 2017

    Mideast Week in Review

    by Michael Isenberg


  • ISIS on the Ropes.
  • Syria Ceasefire.
  • Hobby Lobby settles artifact smuggling case.
  • Tomb of the Patriarchs declared World Heritage Site.
  • Saudi cleric gives fashion advice.


    ISIS on the Ropes: The Prime Minister of Iraq, Haider al-Abadi, traveled to Mosul today to congratulate Iraqi troops on liberating the city from ISIS. The battle for the former ISIS stronghold began last October and culminated in street-by-street fighting in the city’s old section. The return to Mosul represents a significant turnaround for the Iraqi Army, which fled the advancing ISIS fighters so ignominiously in 2014.

    The human cost of the effort lingers on, however, as Mosul hospitals are overwhelmed with wounded civilians, arriving dozens at a time.

    In Raqqa meanwhile, ISIS’s Syrian stronghold and capital, troops belonging to the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces breached the city wall.

    Meanwhile a suicide bombing in Damascus gave a glimpse into the post-caliphate future. Three car bombers attempted to drive into the capital. Police managed to chase down two of the cars, but the third made it to Tahrir Square where it detonated, killing at least nineteen people. BBC Arab affairs editor Sebastian Usher commented, “Such attacks may become more common as IS loses its territory and resorts to its tactic of striking soft targets in cities to sow instability.”

    Read more—

  • Mosul: Iraq PM to celebrate victory over IS in the city (BBC)
  • Syria conflict: Damascus bomber strikes after car chase (BBC)
  • Raqqa: IS 'capital' wall breached by US-backed Syrian forces (BBC)
  • Humanity under attack in Mosul, Red Cross says (BBC)


    Syria Ceasefire: In the wake of President Trump’s first meeting with Russian president Putin on Friday, the two nations announced, with great fanfare, that they had reached a ceasefire agreement for a portion of southern Syria. In my humble opinion, the Negotiator-in-Chief got snookered. The deal will help Russia and its puppet Assad far more than the US and its allies among the Syrian rebels.

    Read more—

  • President Art-of-the-Deal gets suckered


    Hobby Lobby settles artifact smuggling case: Hobby Lobby, the Christian-owned retailer famed for heroically defying the Obamacare mandate to pay for its employees’ contraceptives, is under fire once again. This week it reached a $3 million settlement with the Department of Justice for smuggling thousands of ancient clay tablets for use in the Bible museum it is building in Washington DC. "The Company was new to the world of acquiring these items, and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process," Hobby Lobby said in a statement. "This resulted in some regrettable mistakes."

    In view of the destruction of ancient artifacts going on in the Middle East, it seems to me that smuggling a few out is a good thing.

    Read more—

  • Hobby Lobby: Christian firm's artefact smuggling case settled (BBC)
  • The Attack on Hobby Lobby Is Incoherent and Unjust (Jeffrey A. Tucker)


    Tomb of the Patriarchs declared World Heritage Site: The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) this week added the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron to its list of sites “in danger.” The resolution caused outrage in Israel because of its mention of the city’s “Islamic history,” but not its Jewish heritage. According to tradition, the Tomb of the Patriarchs is where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are buried. Since I don’t think anything the UN does is of any significance whatsoever, I’m not going to say any more about it.

    Read more—

  • Unesco declares Hebron's Old City Palestinian World Heritage site (BBC)


    Saudi cleric gives fashion advice: Last Sunday, self-described "Muslim Scholar" Muhammad al-Arifi advised the women among his 18 million Twitter followers to avoid wearing clothing with decoration, embroidery, or slits. Mr. al-Arifi, whose name literally means “knowledgeable one,” previously made headlines for his defense of wife-beating. The BBC reported that women throughout the Gulf countries chose not to follow his fashion advice, but instead took to Twitter to ridicule Mr. Arifi. Many posted pictures of richly-decorated Abaya robes; some asked sarcastically whether they were okay.

    Read more—

  • Saudi women respond to cleric's advice on acceptable attire (BBC)
  • Saudi Cleric Muhammad al-‘Arifi explains wife beating in Islam to young Muslims in a Ramadhan show (MEMRI TV)

    Michael Isenberg writes about the Muslim world, medieval and modern. His forthcoming novel, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092 and depicts the battle for the Muslim soul between those who embrace science and tolerance, and those who would throw in their lot with mysticism and persecution instead.

    Photo credits: BBC

  • President Art-of-the-Deal gets suckered

    Syria ceasefire primarily benefits Putin and Assad

    In the wake of President Trump’s first meeting with Russian president Putin on Friday, the two nations announced, with great fanfare, that they, along with Jordan, had reached a ceasefire agreement for a portion of Syria. The ceasefire began today and, and as of the time I’m writing this, it’s holding. It covers areas in the southern part of the country, in the provinces of Daraa, Quneytra, and as-Suwaida.

    In a press conference following the meeting, Secretary of State Tillerson praised the agreement, saying, “I think this is our first indication of the US and Russia being able to work together in Syria.” He went on to say “our objectives are exactly the same. How we get there, we each have a view.”

    In my humble opinion, the claim that the United States and Russia have the same objectives in Syria, and the only difference is how we get there, is ludicrous. The US seeks to overthrow the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, something Tillerson confirmed in his press conference. Russia is propping Assad up. That's literally the opposite objective. And the ceasefire is going to help them achieve it. Indeed, it's merely a continuation of a ceasefire that Syria announced unilaterally earlier in the week, amid rebel skepticism. I don't think anyone would accuse me of being unfair if I said that if the Syrian government announces a ceasefire unilaterally, you can bet it's in the Syrian government's interest to have a ceasefire. Only now the US is committed to it, which puts pressure on the US-backed rebels to abide by it as well.

    I’m not alone in my opinion that, if the US objective is to unseat Assad, then the ceasefire is a sucker’s deal for the United States and its allies. In an interview with Fox News on Friday, former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton said, “I’m not at all sure that this ceasefire, assuming it holds, and that’s a big assumption, doesn’t mostly benefit the Assad regime. In other words it gives them some calm on this particular front to enable them to move forward on another front.”

    Indeed, a glance at the map shows the logic of Ambassador Bolton's concern. With a ceasefire in the south, government troops can move north to concentrate on recapturing other rebel-held territories, say near Damascus, or in Idlib province. The rebels in the southern provinces, meanwhile, are stuck there. To assist other rebel factions in the north, they would have to cross government-held territory, which they can't do.

    Ambassador Bolton expressed broader concerns as well. “This deal goes a long way toward politically acquiescing and legitimizing in that Russian presence, and I think that’s a mistake...What bothers me about it more than anything else, it sounds exactly like the Obama administration’s position.”

    Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel seems dubious also. This morning he told his cabinet, “Israel would welcome a true ceasefire in Syria.” I admit I'm reading between the lines, but it sounds like he doesn't consider this ceasefire to be "true."

    President Trump got elected by bragging about his skill at negotiation. If his deal with Russia on the Syria ceasefire is any indication, he may have overstated his abilities.

    Michael Isenberg writes about the Muslim world, medieval and modern. His forthcoming novel, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092 and depicts the battle for the Muslim soul between those who embrace science and tolerance, and those who would rather throw in their lot with mysticism and persecution.

    Photo credit: Ha’aretz
    Map credit: SyrianCivilWarMap.com

    Wednesday, July 5, 2017

    But do Palestinians really think that?

    What the polls say.

    Last week I reviewed Tuvia’s Tenenbom’s book Catch the Jew. In it, he relives his adventures in Israel, especially his conversations with individuals from all walks of life: Israelis, Europeans, Members of the Knesset (MKs), Jewish fundamentalist con men, humorless lefty journalists, lascivious monks, Tel Aviv prostitutes, feral cats—and Palestinians. He found the Palestinians to be warm people with a rich culture. But when it came to Israel, they were absolutely out of their minds. In their view, everything bad in the world is Israel’s fault, regardless of logic. Anything bad about Israel they believe without question, no matter how absurd.

    Ultimately, though, Tuvia’s stories are just that. Stories. Subject to exaggeration, selective editing, and spin. I wondered how widespread the attitudes Tuvia describes are. In order to put some science behind it, I researched some polls that take the pulse of the Palestinian street.

    The most prominent such poll is from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) in Ramallah. Its latest survey—Number 63—was conducted in March of this year. To quote some of the major findings:

    On the two-state solution, the public is divided: 47% support and 51% oppose it…

    A minority of 32% supports a one-state solution in which Jews and Arabs enjoy equal rights; 67% oppose the one-state solution...

    The percentage of those who are worried that they would be hurt by Israel or that their land would be confiscated or homes demolished stands at 71%; 29% are not worried. Furthermore, a majority of 52% believes that Israel’s long term aspiration is to annex the lands occupied in 1967 and expel their population and 32% believe that Israel wants to annex the West Bank while denying the Palestinians their rights. 14% believe that Israel’s long term aspiration is to insure its security and withdraw from all or most of the territories occupied in 1967. 50% believe that Israel intends to destroy al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock and replace them with a Jewish temple; 17% believe that it intends to divide the plateau on which the two mosques sit so that Jews would have a synagogue alongside the Muslim holy places.

    In the absence of peace negotiations, 77% support joining more international organizations, 67% support non-violent popular resistance, 51% support a return to an armed intifada, and 49% support the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority.

    The PCPSR poll is typical. Other polls on Palestinian attitudes toward Israel may be found in the Jewish Virtual Library and show similar results.

    By and large, the PCPSR polls bears out the attitudes Tuvia encountered in his one-on-one conversations, especially with regard to distrust regarding Israel’s intentions. The desire to rebuild the ancient Jewish sanctuary on the Temple Mount is held by only a lunatic fringe of Israeli Jews (albeit a loud lunatic fringe). The Israeli government goes to great lengths to prevent Jews from so much as moving their lips in prayer on the Temple Mount, much less take a wrecking ball to sacred historical landmarks. (See also the case of Yehuda Glick, who, according to the Jewish Press, "has been banned repeatedly from the site for having prayed at the Mount, a move police say has sparked unrest.") That 50% of Palestinians believe Israel intends to raze al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock shows levels of paranoia bordering on the clinical. (Brace yourself for more controversy on this issue: a few days ago, Netanyahu reversed the ban on MKs visiting the Temple Mount. So now they can visit. But they still can't move their lips in prayer.)

    The poll stops short of asking Palestinians if they believe Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state, or whether they think the Jews should be driven into the sea. But given that a slight majority opposes a two-state solution and supports an armed intifada "in the absence of peace negotiations", and a large majority opposes a single state where Jews and Arabs enjoy equal rights, I think you can read between the lines. If they don't believe the Jews and Arabs should have separate states, and they don't believe the Jews and Arabs should share a state, there aren't very many other possibilities.

    The poll results are quite disheartening. In light of them, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say prospects for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians anytime soon are dim indeed.

    Michael Isenberg writes about the Muslim world, medieval and modern. His forthcoming novel, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092 and depicts the battle for the Muslim soul between those who embrace science and tolerance, and those who throw in their lot with mysticism and persecution.

    Photo credits: EPA/ABED AL HASHLAMOUN

    Sunday, July 2, 2017

    Mideast Week in Review

    by Michael Isenberg

  • US Rattles Sabers in Syria.
  • Turkish Police Forcibly Shut Down Gay Pride Parade.
  • ISIS on the Ropes.


    US Rattles Sabers in Syria: White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Monday accused the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad of making preparations for a chemical attack.

    The warning comes on the heels of the horrific April 4 tragedy in Khan Sheikhoun, in the northeast of the country. Approximately eighty people died, convulsing and suffocating, from what the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) subsequently determined was Sarin gas. Although government aircraft from the Shayrat airbase did conduct a strike in Khan Sheikhoun at the time, the Assad regime denied they deployed chemical weapons. The Russian Defense Ministry suggested that perhaps the airstrike had detonated Sarin weapons that the Islamists who controlled Khan Sheikhoun had stored on the ground.

    Unconvinced, The US lobbed 59 cruise missiles at Shayrat, at a cost of somewhere around $60 million dollars. Despite the high price tag, they apparently had little effect, since now Mr. Spicer warns of this new attack in the wake of what he called “activities” at the airbase. Glad to see Mr. Trump is being a careful custodian of the taxpayers' dollars. Mr. Spicer threatened that if “Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price.”

    When a few days later, no attack had occurred, the US declared victory. “It appears that they took the warning seriously,” Secretary of Defense Mattis said. I suppose that’s possible. Of course, it’s also possible that there never was a planned attack.

    Read more—

  • Syria chemical attack may be being prepared, US warns (BBC)
  • Statement from the Press Secretary (White House)
  • Syria took US chemical attack warning seriously – Mattis (BBC)
  • Khan Shaykhun chemical attack (Wikipedia)
  • Here’s how much it costs to replace the 59 Tomahawk missiles Trump fired on Syria (Market Watch)


    Turkish Police Forcibly Shut Down Gay Pride Parade: This week marks the 48th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City, generally considered the start of the gay rights movement. To commemorate the occasion, gay activists marched in pride parades in cities throughout the world.

    But not in Istanbul.

    For the third year in a row, city authorities banned the march. Some forty activists showed up anyway. Police arrested at least four of them and disbursed the rest by shooting them with rubber bullets.

    Some observers see the ban as part of the Islamicization of Turkey under President Erdogan. That is certainly a concern, in light of Mr. Erdogan's Islamist roots. But as I've noted previously, so far Mr. Erdogan has been governing as an authoritarian, attacking freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary, but not particularly an Islamist.

    This week also marked the trials of the eleven activists arrested at last year’s abortive march. Ironically, they were all acquitted.

    Read more—

  • Turkish police break up gay pride protest in Istanbul (Guardian)


    ISIS on the Ropes: The Islamic State seems to be gasping its last breath, or at least its last breath in the form of a state. Coalition forces are closing in on Mosul and Raqqa, its last major strongholds in Iraq and Syria respectively. In Mosul, Iraqi forces entered the site of the al-Nuri Mosque, an 800-year-old landmark named after Saladin's one-time employer. Sadly, it is now in ruins: ISIS blew it up as it retreated. In Raqqa meanwhile, an alliance of Arab and Kurdish forces, backed by the United States, have the city surrounded.

    ISIS will no doubt survive the loss of its territory, but in a different form, mutating into something more in the mold of al-Qaeda.

    Read more—

  • Battle for Mosul: Ruins of Great Mosque of al-Nuri retaken (BBC)
  • Syria war: US-backed forces 'surround IS in Raqqa' (BBC)


    Michael Isenberg writes about the Muslim world, medieval and modern. His forthcoming novel, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092 and depicts the battle for the Muslim soul between those who embrace science and tolerance, and those who throw in their lot with mysticism and persecution.

    Photo credits: NBC News