Monday, November 30, 2009

About that

Regarding the most recent post:

I suspect that what we will see in the future is a church basing itself in the developing world, and adopting more African views on the subjugation of women, criminalization of homosexuality, and the evils of Western liberal capitalism. Europe will remain the enemy, Islam a useful ally and America's Republican Party Christianists a source of money and power as the Western flock shrinks to the rump that Benedict devoutly wishes for.

This is about the Catholic, not any Protestant, Church, but it could be interpreted as an interesting sort of reversal of the dynamic I was trying to describe in that post. I would say I need to think about this more, but I don't have anything like the time. Alas.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Family knows best?

Sitting in Logan airport using Google's free holiday wi-fi (thanks, Google!), I came across the following:

With their reported $13 billion tax-exempt financial empire, the Mormons may be the wealthiest cult in America — and Scientology may be the big thing among the rich and powerful in Hollywood — but when it comes to political power neither of those sects holds a candle to the Family, the Christian extremist political group that operates the now infamous C Street house on Capitol Hill in Washington.


But what many people may find surprising is that the Family has branches around the world. In fact, yesterday, Jeff Sharlet, author of “The Family: Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power,” reported on NPR’s “Fresh Air” that it was a Family member in the Ugandan parliament who introduced a bill that would increase the punishment for homosexuality from life imprisonment, which is the maximum sentence today, to death:

SHARLET: [The] new legislation adds to this something called aggravated homosexuality. And this can include, for instance, if a gay man has sex with another man who is disabled, that’s aggravated homosexuality, and that man can be – I suppose both, actually, could be put to death for this. The use of any drugs or any intoxicants in seeking gay sex – in other words, you go to a bar and you buy a guy a drink, you’re subject to the death penalty if you go home and sleep together after that. What it also does is it extends this outward, so that if you know a gay person and you don’t report it, that could mean – you don’t report your son or daughter, you can go to prison.

And it goes further, to say that any kind of promotion of these ideas of homosexuality, including by foreigners, can result in prison terms. Talking about same sex-marriage positively can lead you to imprisonment for life. And it’s really kind of a perfect case study and the export of a lot of American largely evangelical ideas about homosexuality exported to Uganda, which then takes them to their logical end.


[The] legislator that introduces the bill, a guy named David Bahati, is a member of the Family. He appears to be a core member of the Family. He works, he organizes their Uganda National Prayer Breakfast and oversees a African sort of student leadership program designed to create future leaders for Africa, into which the Family has poured millions of dollars working through a very convoluted chain of linkages passing the money over to Uganda…

So who are the members of Congress who belong to the Family and tolerate, if not encourage, this sort of extremism overseas? According to Jeff Sharlet, while most cult members are Republicans, members of both parties are welcomed. “Jesus didn’t come to take sides,” the members are fond of saying. “He came to take over.”

Now check this:

The mainstream media avoids referring to the Family as a cult, but check out this description of the group’s belief system from Jeff Sharlet and decide for yourself:

They have a very unusual theology in the sense that they think that Christ had one message for an inner circle and then a kind of different message for a sort of slightly more outer circle. And then the rest of us, Christ told us little stories because, frankly, we couldn’t handle the truth. And the core members are those they think are getting the real deal.

He didn't come to take sides, he came to take over. It makes me shiver.

But what makes me shiver more than the Family/cult/power network stuff is the overarching dynamic. A lot of gay people in Uganda are going to die, or live in misery. A lot of their friends and family will, too. And they will go through this directly because of globalized Evangelical Christianity.

I was just reading about a much different, milder, nicer version of this in a book about the Full Gospel community in Trinidad. Protestantism plus colonialism in Trinidad, at least, has rendered the local and the native identical to the carnal and the primitive, while the nonlocal (North America in particular) is identified with the spiritual and pure. This gets played out in choices of music appropriate for worship services, but that's not the point here. In Trinidad, at least, sects are concerned with the "global church" (largely Pentecostalist and Evangelical) as a way of defining for themselves what is proper religious practice and what is appropriate for someone living a religious life.

I admit that I don't know much about Uganda, and I am very ready to be wrong. But as we know, a little information is a dangerous thing, and so armed with my one book about Trinidad I see a bit of a parallel here of a global (read: American) church having a strong influence on congregations far from the global center--peripheral nations like Trinidad and Uganda. And especially in the case of particular issues, like abortion and birth control, this flow of influence has been strengthened and backed by explicit U.S. policies.

That makes me shiver, too. In a much less titillating fashion.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

What I'm doing with myself

Today (yesterday) I had to write and send in a 6-page (double-spaced) statement about what my B.A. thesis will be. I was pretty happy with it and figured it wouldn't hurt to post it here. So without further ado:

I intend to examine Hamas and Hizballah from a perspective much different from that prevailing in political and journalistic discussions of these organizations. It is my view that the existing literature on political organizations does not account for the particular forms of power and violent tactics practiced by Hamas and Hizbollah. While these two are probably not the only organizations to employ such practices, my intention is to begin to build a framework for understanding their particular roles, capabilities, and structures as political organizations that could be applied more broadly to other cases.

I will show that Hamas and Hizballah are an unusual type of political organization, which I will term parallel or alternative government. Both Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories have been in the process of building a strong, democratic state for decades, but both have been hamstrung by a lack of agreement among their respective populations on questions that are fundamental to the statebuilding project. They have consequently been unable to build the robust institutions that would begin to constitute a state. In Lebanon, the question of a quota system in government institutions—whether one should exist, and whether the existing one is correct, just, and so on—is still contested; the current system has weakened the government to the point of paralysis, while the disagreement still existing over this structure has sapped the government’s authority and legitimacy. In the Palestinian Territories, the population is riven over the proper methods of “resistance” to Israel; the existing Palestinian institutions were created in negotiations with Israel and as such are inherently illegitimate to those Palestinians who reject negotiation and rather favor violent resistance. In both cases, the government structure represents a “side” of this fundamental question and so is inherently politicized, illegitimate to a significant segment of its population. Rather than serving as the location of policy, institutions themselves are policy. Finally, structural factors in the military, economic, and international political spheres have served to further weaken these regimes’ abilities to project power, deliver services, and command loyalty.

This weakness and the political divisions at its root have created a political space in both polities for a second, parallel government to spring up with the support of those factions which are in opposition to the “side” represented by the existing political structure. These parallel governments perform many functions of a governing institution: service delivery, security, national defense (as perceived by their supporters), and political representation. They are parallel rather than rival in that they do not seek simply to control the institutions of the existing regime, nor do they attempt to create a separate state; rather, they build their own institutions to further their preferred outcomes while remaining committed to a united Lebanon or a free Palestine. Rather than attempting to secure the reforms and policy shifts they want within a system that is too weak and dysfunctional to produce the desired outcomes, these constituencies have chosen simply to build the state they want.

Hamas’ and Hizballah’s use of violence has been one of the primary factors agitating the international discourse about them. I will examine the particular ways in which these groups deploy violence—when they use it, when they do not, against whom and employing what techniques—in order to show that their violent methods also distinguish them from most other political organizations. They are neither states, nor insurgents, nor guerrillas, nor decentralized terrorist networks; and they do not use violence in the same way as any of these. I will attempt to link their unique employment of violence to their status as parallel governments and to elucidate the relationship, if any, between their particular forms of violence and their particular forms of political power.

Both Hamas and Hizballah have used a variety of violent tactics, borrowing methods from a variety of forms of political organization. Hamas, in particular, has taken on statelike functions in terms of controlling violence. The group has done more to secure Gaza than the PA had ever accomplished: it integrated its police forces into the Gazan security forces (Crisis Group 2006: 9), secured the interior of Gaza against clan warfare for the first time, and made a credible attempt at controlling the inflow of weapons through the tunnels to Egypt (Crisis Group 8) as well as their display and sale within Gaza (Crisis Group 2003: 10). The Qassam Brigades were converted into an external security force and set to patrolling Gaza’s borders—a strong statement in the context of their longstanding domination by Israeli forces. Hamas also did its best to coordinate and control military resistance to Israel for the first time (Crisis Group 2003: 8), though this effort was not fully successful.

At the same time, Hamas has continued to use violence against Israel in ways that do not reflect the behavior of a state; rather than deploying an army, invading, or attacking Israel’s military capabilities, Hamas has continued to fire rockets into Israel, a tactic widely described as terrorist since the rockets largely impact civilian life. However, rather than mounting spectacular exhibitions of violence connected to high civilian deathcounts in connection with specific demands, Hamas has more often used its rockets as a reminder of its continued presence and resistance: the rockets are often aimed to avoid harming anyone, and do not have the sophisticated technology that would allow them to target specific Israeli buildings, persons, or resources. Hamas’s rocket fire is curiously ambivalent: it constitutes neither full-on war nor straightforward terrorism. Rather, it is a legitimacy-seeking exercise: Hamas is simultaneously able to demonstrate its commitment to the cause by being seen to be doing something and to declare its existence, defiance, and relevance to Israel and to the international community. Through rocket fire, Hamas carries out its mission of resistance and refuses to allow itself—and by extension Palestine—to be forgotten.

Hizballah, meanwhile, emerged from “a loose coalition” of Shi‘a groups who were radicalized by U.S. and Israeli interference in the Lebanese civil war (GlobalSecurity.orgb 2008), and originally most resembled a militia, drawing its soldiers from ordinary people in villages as needed. Its first major accomplishment was Israel’s ignominious withdrawal from southern Lebanon, and the group employed classic insurgency tactics in this struggle. Hizballah sought to secure the IDF’s complete withdrawal from Lebanon, including the Security Zone, and made its point with missiles, attacks, and suicide bombings. Their efforts lasted up through the 1990s, when the civil war officially ended (Morris 2001: 558), and have continued sporadically since. Suicide bombing was not a common tactic at the time, and it proved to be a crucial innovation on Hizbollah’s part in terms of making its name as well has having a clear impact on American and Israeli forces in Lebanon.

But Hizballah, too, has taken on statelike military functions. The Lebanese Army disintegrated more than once under internal and external pressures during the civil war, and Hizballah’s military wing was far more effective, disciplined, and cohesive. Its military no longer consists of The group has, essentially, taken on the task of national defense and border security against Israel, without regard for the policies of the official Lebanese government but with the approval of its constituency (primarily, but not exclusively, Shi’a in the south of Lebanon). Hizballah de facto rules several areas of Lebanon, including the northeast and, of course, the South, and one is more likely to find a Hizballah member or supporter than a government policeman in these areas.

These are a few of the variety of tactics Hamas and Hizballah have adopted as part of their repertoire of violence. While their individual practices or campaigns can be described using existing terms—insurgency, state-within-a-state, terrorism—the combination of them all within single, coherent organizations has so far gone unnamed in political science literature, just as the political function of these groups remains undescribed. What remains to be seen is whether there is a connection between the groups’ idiosyncratic uses of violence and their anomalous political status. How do Hamas and Hizballah view themselves as acting? What effect do these views have on Hamas’s and Hizballah’s parallel statebuilding projects, and on their countries’ statebuilding projects more generally?

Both Hamas and Hizballah not only practice violence but have constructed strong ideological links between their exercise of violence and their political identity. Hizballah has declared, “our military apparatus is not separate from our overall social fabric. Each of us is a fighting soldier” (Hizballah 1988: 1). Hamas’s mission is connected to violence at the most basic level: it exists for the purpose of violent resistance to Israel. In parallel with Hizballah, it argues that “It is necessary to instill the spirit of Jihad in the heart of the nation so that they would confront [sic] the enemies and join the ranks of the fighters” (Covenant: Article 15). Furthermore, both have asserted their independence from their supposed governments through maintaining their violent practices and capabilities against these regimes’ wishes. Alone of all the militias that sprang up in the civil war, Hizballah has refused the state’s injunction to disarm; it has also resisted political pressure to integrate its military wing into the Lebanese national army (Jamail 2006). Prior to its electoral victory in Gaza, Hamas maintained the operations of its military forces (Boudreaux 2007; Crisis Group 2008: 6) despite the orders of the Palestinian Authority and later took over government of Gaza through a violent coup.

These facts are suggestive of several links. The first, and simplest, is between the groups’ violent tactics and their political constituency: after all, their basic mission is violent resistance to Israeli dominance and to Western interference. Second, they seem to understand themselves and their operations—including nonviolent undertakings—in terms of war, as shown by their rhetoric. Even a worker in a Hizballah-run hospital is in some sense a soldier, just as a Hamas member who guards the tunnels through which necessary goods are smuggled from Egypt correctly understands himself to be committing an act of war against Israel. The role of religion and religious history in this understanding is important and bears further exploration, not only in terms of teachings regarding jihad but also because another aspect in which the groups are metaphorically fighting is for particular practices of Islamic life in their respective territories.

Third, violence and control of violence has been used by both groups in constructing their parallel governments, often directly in opposition to the regimes that ostensibly rule (or ruled) Gaza and Lebanon. One of the basic definitions of a state is a political entity that monopolizes violence within a bounded territory; by exercising and controlling violence, Hamas and Hizballah have concretely removed territory from the states in which they live and constructed separate zones of domination—yet they have managed to do so without seceding or attempting to partition the territory in question. Through a delicate balance of both internally and externally directed violence, service delivery, construction of parallel institutions, and participation in existing political institutions, Hamas and Hizballah have successfully built their parallel states.

Depressing realities

So I'm in that delightful stage of one's fourth year of college where one attempts to decide "what to do" after graduation.

I decided at least a year ago that I don't want to go to grad school right away, but rather after two or three years. UChicago has burned me out pretty well, for one thing, but for another my degree is highly interdisciplinary and as a result I'm not even sure what departments I would want to apply to (though lately a Ph.D. in Middle East Studies seems more and more likely). More importantly, though, I'm fundamentally uncomfortable with the idea of making a living off of theorizing human beings without ever knowing them or doing any concrete work with them toward improving their circumstances. It's not right.

So I decided at around the same time that I want to work in probably an NGO for a while in a fairly concrete capacity--not desk work and not theory stuff. I don't need an organization that's promising transformational change, largely because I'm too cynical to believe in such promises--I'd rather just do some good work that maybe helps some people just a little in their actual lives for a while, without yammering about civil society development or investing in the change of tomorrow and so on.

The problem, right, is that it's very hard to find out what organizations of this sort exist because most of the ones with web presence are large and/or more think-tank or diplomacy oriented. This isn't a path I've ruled out, but it's not what I'm ideally looking for.

So last week I got an email from the International Studies listhost about government and NGO jobs which included a link to a website that serves as a hub for professionals and organizations in "international development, global health and humanitarian aid." I did a simple search for "Middle East" under "Companies & NGOs" and my god, it is discouraging.

It's discouraging for the following reason: probably 90% of the results I scrolled through that day (haven't had time to continue) were consultancies of one sort or another, usually concerned with economic development. I'm profoundly skeptical of such organizations: I don't think they necessarily do much good, and most often they serve to make consultants rich off the needs of poor people without having much other effect. This is precisely the antithesis of what I want to spend the next couple years doing.

I don't have any deep thoughts right now about that fact that aren't deeply obvious, in part because it's very late at night and I spent the evening at a Girl Talk show followed by watching 10 Things I Hate About You (incidentally, one of my favorite movies of all time) and drinking beer. But the basic fact of it is depressing to me, and I wish it weren't so.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Too good

For once, Reuters was entirely correct in filing a story under "Oddly Enough": Women Disappointed by Gaddafi 'Party' is a pretty odd story.

Basically, it seems Qaddafi was in Rome on diplomatic business (whatever that means when you're Muammar Qaddafi) and put out an ad through some sort of agency saying the following:

"Seeking 500 attractive girls between 18 and 35 years old, at least 1.70 meters (5 foot, 7 inches) tall, well-dressed but not in mini-skirts or low cut dresses."

And then roughly 200 women actually showed up to what they thought was going to be some sort of VIP party but was actually a two-hour lecture on Islam and the role of women in Islam, topped off with an exhortation to convert and a free Qur'an!

This whole thing is hilarious to me on a number of levels. First of all, everything Qaddafi does is amazing. Secondly, while I personally cannot comprehend responding to any ad that is seeking women based on their appearance, I can well imagine that a woman who might do so a) might not know what she was getting into if it involved Qaddafi, and/or b) might have good reason to expect a fancy party at the other end. The image of all these gorgeous Italian women all done up and expecting a party having to sit through two hours of Qaddafi telling them that Jesus was not, in fact, crucified--it was a stunt double, apparently--is just incredible.

Finally, the fact that Qaddafi could be under the impression that all that's standing between Italian women and the light of Islam is a lecture from him is just beautiful. Of course, the poor dears have just never thought about it before! And who better to open their minds than Qaddafi--the leader of Libya since 1969, whose little Green Book is taught in schools, and who is clearly the greatest advocate for Islam since, um, whenever.

The cherry on top is that he wants to make sure his Italian converts are hot. Just raising the Ummah's average attractiveness one lecture at a time, eh, Qaddafi?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Qifa Nakbi makes many funnies

The Qnion is totally my new favorite thing. It's like the biggest inside joke ever (in that people who don't follow the Middle East wouldn't find most of it funny, but if you do it's brilliant).

From a recent post from Alex at Syria Comment:

“The Syrians knew that the Israelis were following their official in the U.K,” says retired Russian intelligence specialist Vladimir Balakhoff. “So they loaded all of these false photographs of nuclear reactors, diagrams, and documents in North Korean onto his computer. And the Israelis fell for it.”

“Why do you think that no one in Israel made a big deal out of the bombing?” asks Egyptian political affairs expert Gamal Galagala. “Once they realized that they’d been caught with their hand in the cookie jar, they tried to sweep it under the carpet, but that’s hard to do when the milk’s already been spilled. If you catch my drift.”

High-level Syrian sources are now confirming that the laptop decoy was intended to veil a much more sophisticated security project, one with the potential to change the strategic balance of power in the region.

This project, known as the Syrian Computer Society (SCS), is headquartered in another remote town, Hassake, not far from the site of the fake nuclear power plant. It boasts three desktop computers – two IBM compatibles with 486 processors and an iMac G3 – and a 14.4 kbit/s dial-up modem.

The project’s director, Dr. Samir Mahdoum, suggested that Syria could use these advanced machines to spy on Israel, thereby denying their arch-enemy the element of surprise. “Using Google Maps Satellite View, we see all of Israel,” said Dr. Mahdoum, stroking an albino hamster. “Their troop movements, their weapons, everything!”

Regional specificity be damned, it was the albino hamster that really did me in.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Thank goodness for footnotes

"Civil right is personal freedom; political right is a right over others as well as oneself." --Alfred Fouillée, cited in Robert Michels' "Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy."

Damn, apparently I need to read some Fouillée. This remark opens a lot of doors, potentially, particularly when you consider the struggles over "social issues" that tend to dominate contemporary American politics.