Archive for April, 2013

Algerie: Bouteflika hospitalisé, la mauvaise graine ne meurt jamais

April 29, 2013 1 comment

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was transferred to France–military Hospital Val-de-Grâce near Paris– for medical tests on Saturday night after suffering a minor stroke. Apparently, the autocrat is still alive, the mini-stroke has had no impact on his intellectual capacity. Besides the fact that the president chooses to go to France to seek medical treatment and does not have any confidence and/or trust in his own country’s physicians, this health crisis has very little impact on the future of the Algerian regime.

Photo d’un hôpital Algérien: où Le Peupe se Soigne


Photo d’un bloc opératoire a l’Hôpital du Val-de-Grâce : où Le Bouteflika se Soigne


So what does that all mean? Nothing really. If Bouteflika, who preparing himself to run for another term, doesn’t kick the bucket and die, another thug like him would replace him, and the long nightmare of Algeria continues. If he is successful at fighting the security and military apparatus and imposes himself as the unique candidate again, well he will probably rule for a couple of more years and then dies in office. Either way, it’s a lose-lose situation for Algeria.

There is something that foreign observers of Algeria needs to understand: Nothing seems as it looks, and nothing looks as it seems. In theory, Algeria is a democracy with a vibrant and even sometimes rambunctious political parties. However, in reality and practice, power has always been confined to a small secretive inner-circle of military and security men. All that civilian power is a shiny coast of veneer to provide the regime with some legitimacy on the international scene.  So If Bouteflika doesn’t dies or doesn’t run for another term, his successor will most likely be chosen behind closed doors and away from any popular input and accountability because this is where resides the real power in Algeria.

The real power in Algeria is like a vampire always hidden from the sun and abhors transparency and accountability. The real political competition in Algeria is not at the ballot box, but it is between Bouteflika and his clan, and the military-intelligence services and their clan. Briefly stated, the real tug-of-war over power–therefore the control over oil rent–is between General Mohammad Mediène, aka Toufiq, and Bouteflika. And whoever wins, will be the ruler. Anything else is a pure show.


How do you keep the population from uprising and claiming transparency? Well, open up social spending, subsidize everything, and engage in systemic and systematic disinformation.

In describing what Stalin was able to do in Russia during WWII and the post-period, and how he was able to make the Russian people tacitly accept his dictatorial rule, the great British historian Alan Charles Bullock said the following

“No one understood better than Stalin that the true object of propaganda is neither to convince nor even to persuade, but to produce a uniform pattern of public utterance in which the first trace of unorthodox thought immediately reveals itself as a jarring dissonance.”

Well, in Algeria, 50 years of systematic and systemic social, religious, economic, and especially intellectual charlatanism and “charlatanization” of the Algerian people has produced a uniform pattern of public utterance in which the first trace of unorthodox thought immediately reveals itself as a jarring dissonance. Therefore, even if the people are unhappy, they accept the dictate because they are incapable of imagining by themselves and for themselves an alternative model of governance; because they have built their lives and livelihood on a system that has no rules; because they have grown accustomed to anarchy, chaos, thievery; and because most Algerians have become a thieving, conniving, and corrupt people. So any change in Algeria has to be more than political. Any change has to be so drastic and so radical that it will need to shake the very foundations of the country, of our history, of our social and political structure. And this change, ladies and gentlemen, can only be violent, bloody, and with a long period of unrest.

So, let me comfort my dear DRS readers who have been bombarding me with hateful emails and messages. I know that you are reading every post i write, and thank you for that. At least you sleep less stupid every time you read my posts. But i leave you with  Churchill’s warning about change. He said “We must take change by the hand or rest assuredly, change will take us by the throat.” So you have the choice. You either take change and guide it, or it will take you and claim you as a victim.


Islam: Terrorism, Islam, and other religions

April 26, 2013 3 comments

Courtesy of our dear friend Juan Cole

Terrorism and the other Religions

Posted on 04/23/2013 by Juan Cole

Contrary to what is alleged by bigots like Bill Maher, Muslims are not more violent than people of other religions. Murder rates in most of the Muslim world are very low compared to the United States.

As for political violence, people of Christian heritage in the twentieth century polished off tens of millions of people in the two world wars and colonial repression. This massive carnage did not occur because European Christians are worse than or different from other human beings, but because they were the first to industrialize war and pursue a national model. Sometimes it is argued that they did not act in the name of religion but of nationalism. But, really, how naive. Religion and nationalism are closely intertwined. The British monarch is the head of the Church of England, and that still meant something in the first half of the twentieth century, at least. The Swedish church is a national church. Spain? Was it really unconnected to Catholicism? Did the Church and Francisco Franco’s feelings toward it play no role in the Civil War? And what’s sauce for the goose: much Muslim violence is driven by forms of modern nationalism, too.

I don’t figure that Muslims killed more than a 2 million people or so in political violence in the entire twentieth century, and that mainly in the Iran-Iraq War 1980-1988 and the Soviet and post-Soviet wars in Afghanistan, for which Europeans bear some blame.

Compare that to the Christian European tally of, oh, lets say 100 million (16 million in WW I, 60 million in WW II– though some of those were attributable to Buddhists in Asia– and millions more in colonial wars.)


Belgium– yes, the Belgium of strawberry beer and quaint Gravensteen castle– conquered the Congo and is estimated to have killed off half of its inhabitants over time, some 8 million people at least.

Or, between 1916-1930 Tsarist Russian and then Soviet forces — facing the revolt of Central Asians trying to throw off Christian (and then Marxist), European rule — Russian forces killed an estimated 1.5 million people. Two boys brought up in or born in one of those territories (Kyrgyzstan) just killed 4 people and wounded others critically. That is horrible, but no one, whether in Russia or in Europe or in North America has the slightest idea that Central Asians were mass-murdered during WW I and before and after, and looted of much of their wealth. Russia when it brutally conquered and ruled the Caucasus and Central Asia was an Eastern Orthodox, Christian empire (and seems to be reemerging as one!).

Then, between half a million and a million Algerians died in that country’s war of independence from France, 1954-1962, at a time when the population was only 11 million!

I could go on and on. Everywhere you dig in European colonialism in Afro-Asia, there are bodies. Lots of bodies.

Now that I think of it, maybe 100 million people killed by people of European Christian heritage in the twentieth century is an underestimate.

As for religious terrorism, that too is universal. Admittedly, some groups deploy terrorism as a tactic more at some times than others. Zionists in British Mandate Palestine were active terrorists in the 1940s, from a British point of view, and in the period 1965-1980, the FBI considered the Jewish Defense League among the most active US terrorist groups. (Members at one point plotted to assassinate Rep. Dareell Issa (R-CA) because of his Lebanese heritage.) Now that Jewish nationalsts are largely getting their way, terrorism has declined among them. But it would likely reemerge if they stopped getting their way. In fact, one of the arguments Israeli politicians give for allowing Israeli squatters to keep the Palestinian land in the West Bank that they have usurped is that attempting to move them back out would produce violence. I.e., the settlers not only actually terrorize the Palestinians, but they form a terrorism threat for Israel proper (as the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin discovered).

Even more recently, it is difficult for me to see much of a difference between Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Baruch Goldstein, perpetrator of the Hebron massacre.

Or there was the cold-blooded bombing of the Ajmer shrine in India by Bhavesh Patel and a gang of Hindu nationalists. Chillingly, they were disturbed when a second bomb they had set did not go off, so that they did not wreak as much havoc as they would have liked. Ajmer is an ecumenical Sufi shrine also visited by Hindus, and these bigots wanted to stop such open-minded sharing of spiritual spaces because they hate Muslims.

Buddhists have committed a lot of terrorism and other violence as well. Many in the Zen orders in Japan supported militarism in the first half of the twentieth century, for which their leaders later apologized. And, you had Inoue Shiro’s assassination campaign in 1930s Japan. Nowadays militant Buddhist monks in Burma/ Myanmar are urging on an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya.

As for Christianity, the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda initiated hostilities that displaced two million people. Although it is an African cult, it is Christian in origin and the result of Western Christian missionaries preaching in Africa. If Saudi Wahhabi preachers can be in part blamed for the Taliban, why do Christian missionaries skate when we consider the blowback from their pupils?

Despite the very large number of European Muslims, in 2007-2009 less than 1 percent of terrorist acts in that continent were committed by people from that community.

Terrorism is a tactic of extremists within each religion, and within secular religions of Marxism or nationalism. No religion, including Islam, preaches indiscriminate violence against innocents.

It takes a peculiar sort of blindness to see Christians of European heritage as “nice” and Muslims and inherently violent, given the twentieth century death toll I mentioned above. Human beings are human beings and the species is too young and too interconnected to have differentiated much from group to group. People resort to violence out of ambition or grievance, and the more powerful they are, the more violence they seem to commit. The good news is that the number of wars is declining over time, and World War II, the biggest charnel house in history, hasn’t been repeated.

Islam: When the best defenders of Islam are western scholars, not the Imams

April 26, 2013 1 comment

Courtesy of our dear friend Dr. Juan Cole

Jesus and Muhammad and the Question of the State

Posted on 04/25/2013 by Juan Cole

I’ve always liked Andrew Sullivan even when I disagree with him. I’m going to disagree with him, or more specifically Alexis de Tocqueville and one of his readers who quotes him:

“Muhammad brought down from heaven and put into the Koran not religious doctrines only, but political maxims, criminal and civil laws, and scientific theories. The Gospels, on the other hand, deal only with the general relations between man and God and between man and man. Beyond that, they teach nothing and do not oblige people to believe anything. That alone, among a thousand reasons, is enough to show that Islam will not be able to hold its power long in ages of enlightenment and democracy, while Christianity is destined to reign in such ages, as in all others.”

This quote, from Democracy in America, is a typical sort of nineteenth century Orientalism ( Edward Said’s book was published in 1978; has every thinking person not read it by now?) It is a little bizarre that de Tocqueville was eager to accommodate Christianity to Enlightenment principles, given that much of the Enlightenment was hostile to… Christianity. De Tocqueville, a strange mixture of conservatism and modernism, thought Roman Catholicism was the religion best suited to a democratic society, at a time when the popes were fulminating against . . . democracy (see below).

You can’t compare Christianity and Islam on the basis of this kind of characterization of the founders of the two religions. The characterization is in any case unfair (the New Testament texts imply just as many ‘scientific principles’ as does the Qur’an, e.g. They think the world has three levels, that there are demons and angels, etc. etc.)

First of all, we know very little about the lives of Jesus (d. circa 30-33 CE) or Muhammad (d. 632 CE). As a historian, I’m looking for early sources and diverse sources. The earliest manuscripts of the New Testament are second century, and in Greek rather than in the original Aramaic (some ideas may have changed radically with the translation– the Aramaic almost certainly did not have the phrase ‘son of God.’) There are many variants among the manuscripts and among the Gospels. Did Mark even know about a resurrection? There are even questions about what sources early Christians accepted (is the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas a Gospel?) All of the extant accounts of Jesus obviously come from a small number of early Christian communities. There is no early outside source. We historians want accounts coming from several different sources.

The idea that, as de Tocqueville alleged, very early Christianity made no doctrinal demands about the relationship of the believer to power is not clearly in evidence. Take St. Peter (2 peter 2:1-2:17: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive opinions.”) Wouldn’t that be a community problem that would have to be dealt with collectively? Also very surprised by this allegation would have been the masses of Christians killed by Christian states for being heretics. And, just for instance, Charlemagne had 4500 Saxon followers of Woden (you’ve all seen the movie Thor) beheaded in 782 because they wouldn’t accept Christianity. That is a lot of heads to be lost to a religion that makes no power demands. Not to mention that modern Christian fundamentalism has cleverly found ways of re-importing selective legal injunctions from the Hebrew Bible into Christianity.

As for Muhammad, the earliest extant biography is is by Ibn Hisham (d. 834), based on a work he says was written 130 years after the Prophet’s death. This would be like relying on an oral tradition about Napoleon Bonaparte being written down from memory right now by an elderly man in Corsica. Unlike with Jesus, there are actually non-Muslim accounts of the rise of Islam and 7th-century mentions of Muhammad, though not substantial ones. The Dar al-Qur’an in Sanaa, Yemen, contains papyrus Qur’ans in Kufi script that the German researchers there told me years ago they think go back to the late 600s. The Qur’an, contrary to what some researchers such as John Wansbrough suggested, seems to be pretty well attested as an integral text fairly early on, maybe even better attested than the entire New Testament in the first century after its composition. The sayings attributed to Muhammad were not collected and written down for some 200 years after the Prophet’s death, and I personally don’t consider many of them historically reliable.

The New Testament picture of Jesus is full of contradictions. At some points he says to turn the other cheek and forgive enemies. At other points he says, “I come not to bring peace but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). Scholars have wondered if Jesus was a Zealot, a highly political and revolutionary movement. Or was he a mystic similar to those who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? Frankly we have no idea whether he intended to build a state or not. He seems to say that he thought his teachings would divide families: “and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death.” Matthew 10:21. That sounds like a generational revolution to me. The jurisdiction of Roman law in Palestine at that time was mainly for political rebels, and it is not without significance that the Romans crucified him; had he been just a harmless Jewish mystic and viewed as a heretic, the Romans would have never bothered to get involved. No two academic books I’ve ever read on the life of Jesus and early Christianity have agreed about these issues.

Even if Jesus really was an apolitical pacifist, only a tiny number of Christians in history has ever agreed with him about that. Even if his statement about rendering to Caesar implied a separation of religion and state (unlikely), most Christians in history haven’t been willing to do that. Even today, many Christians in the United States have mobilized to ban abortion, even for non-Christians — for all Americans– on the basis of their current religious doctrine. Isn’t that a demand for Theocracy Lite?

So these ideas in very early Christianity are anyway irrelevant to practical politics in later Christianity, which saw all kinds of political arrangements. You may remember the Holy Roman Empire, which did not agree that Christianity implied no ideology of the state, and which was the primary crucible of the religion and civilization for centuries.

As for Muhammad, it is not entirely clear what his position was in Medina. He is often depicted as a theocrat. But it appears from the Qur’an that when he first went there in 622 he was more like a community organizer, balancing the needs of the Muslim, Christian, pagan and Jewish communities in the area. The stories of how he allegedly fell out with the Jews there are very late and have been questioned by some scholars. The view of him as a kind of king could well be a projection back on him by later writers of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties, after forms of Muslim kingship and empire had emerged. Common assertions that the Qur’an disallowed paganism or allowed aggressive war on pagans are not borne out by the Qur’an. There is, contrary to de Tocqueville, very little law or politics in the Qur’an.

Much of fundamentalist Muslims’ ideas about religion-state relations are shaped by the Hadith literature, the oral sayings and doings attributed to the Prophet, which, as I said, were collected centuries after his death and I doubt most academic historians would consider them reliable. (I know saying so will offend some of my readers, but, well, I’m a historian.) The Hadith literature is just enormous, a kind of Muslim Talmud, and I find many of the reports contradictory to others. Some of them are actually Jewish law brought in by Jewish converts (as with stoning adulterers) that contradicts the Qur’an (which prescribes whipping instead).

As with Christianity, there are almost no forms of political organization Muslims haven’t tried out, from monarchy to republic, from anarchism to democracy. So all those laws and political principles in the Hadith haven’t actually been determinative. Contemporary Muslim fundamentalism does dream of using them as a blueprint, but since that enterprise isn’t actually practical, they don’t get very far. Even Iran and Saudi Arabia are mostly governed by modern bureaucratic rationalism of a sort Max Weber would readily recognize.

Nowadays, almost all Protestant Christian communities are organized on the basis of the nation-state. Even most Catholic communities de facto are, as well. And, most Muslim communities are exactly the same. There is a Sunni Muslim mufti of Egypt, there is a Shiite ayatollah of Iran. Some religious leaders have followers across national lines (as also is true in Christianity), but for the most part the nation-state is the unit of community organization and the arena of community action.

Contrary to what de Tocqueville imagined, the Muslims have been just as adaptable as Christians to the main forms of social organization that came out of the Enlightenment. He was writing at a time when many Muslims lived under the Ottoman Empire, which seems to have shaped his image of the religion. Somehow Islam has handily survived the Ottoman demise. And what de Tocqueville rather dishonestly did not bother to mention was that Christianity has had just as much trouble with those principles as Islam has. There was that little Syllabus of Errors when the then Pope condemned democracy, popular sovereignty, separation of religion and state, scientific rationalism, etc. Later Popes even tried to prevent Catholics from voting in elections because democracy was considered a modernist heresy. As late as Franco’s Spain, the Spanish church was a pillar of dictatorship. Eventually the church made its peace with democracy (partly through Vatican II, which largely repealed the Syllabus of Errors). Islam is likewise coming to terms with democracy, however contentious and uncertain that process has been (Indonesia, Turkey, Tunisia, etc. etc.)

Many 19th century Christians imagined that Islam was on its last legs and that all the Muslims would convert to Christianity. They thought the same of Hinduism and Buddhism. They mostly were very wrong. De Tocqueville’s arrogance and simplistic view of the original ‘essence’ of the founders of the two religions was a profound set of errors. In fact, by the end of this century, some 30% of the world could well be Muslim, whereas Christianity will likely be a shrinking proportion of humankind, just for demographic reasons. Not to mention that most “Christian” countries contain pluralities of non-religious people. Many, such as Sweden or Eastern Europe, have non-religious majorities. Significant proportions of Turks, Tunisians, Uzbeks, etc. in the Muslim world also report that they aren’t interested in religion.

It is not impossible that modern consumerism, individualism and technology might gradually undermine religion, so that 200 years from now neither Christianity nor Islam will be central to most peoples’ lives.

So, a) Muslims aren’t more prone to violence or terrorism than members of other religious communities because of the character of very early Islam and b) you can’t read off the differences between Christians and Muslims from a superficial depiction of the two founders.

Le Pape François, un message anti-Islamophobie

April 3, 2013 2 comments

Courtesy of Dr. Juan Cole

Dear Rightwing Catholic Islamophobes: Pope Francis just washed the feet of a Poor Muslim

Posted on 03/30/2013 by Juan

Pope Francis on Maundy Thursday declined to address enormous crowds. Instead he went to a prison to emulate Jesus’s act of humility before his crucifixion in washing the feet of his 12 disciples. The pope washed and kissed the feet of 12 inmates, two of them women and two of them Muslim (one of the women was Muslim). It is reported that some of the prisoners broke down in tears.

CNN reports ,

Pope Francis’s willingness to wash the feet of a Muslim woman shows his concern for the very lowest stratum of society. Europe has millions of Muslims, and some are well off and well integrated into society. But many Muslims who immigrated into France and Italy for work got caught when the jobs dried up, and live in poor areas of the cities, being excluded from mainstream society or much hope of betterment. Women have lower status than men in such communities, so a poor Muslim woman in jail is just about the bottom of the social scale.

Pope Francis is from Argentina, which has a large, successful Arab-heritage community that includes Muslims, and he is said to have deeply disagreed with his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, over the latter’s Regensburg speech in which he said things that Muslims found insulting.

The thing that strikes me about all this is that there is a small strand of American Catholic conservatism that frankly despises both the poor and Muslims, and is one of the pillars of prejudice against Muslims (some call it Islamophobia) in the United States. Most Catholics in opinion polls have a more positive view of Islam and Muslims than is common among evangelical Protestants, but the rightwingers among them have a thing about Muslims (and about poor people).

An example is former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. Rep. Peter King of New York also comes to mind. Robert Spencer has made a career of defaming Islam and Muslims. Then there is professional bully Sean Hannity of Faux News. Paul Ryan uses the insulting language of “Islamic fascism” (fascism is a Western invention; most fascists in history have been of Christian heritage; and it has nothing to do with the Muslim faith). Ryan, far from serving the poor, wants to cut social services to them by savaging the government budget, and openly boasts of following prophet of selfishness Ayn Rand.

These purveyors of hate speech against Muslims claim to be Catholics, and some of them are annoyingly Ultramontane, insisting on papal infallibility and trying to impose their values on all Americans.

Yet the person they hold to be the vicar of Christ has just given humankind a different charge, of humility and of service to the least in society, many of whom are Muslims.

So when will we see Rudy Giuliani, Sean Hannity and the others go to a prison to comfort inmates, and serve the Muslims among them? When will we see them kiss a Muslim’s feet? Or are they cafeteria Catholics, parading only the values that accord with their Ayn Rand heresy?

Syria: “March Bloody March”–6000 deaths

April 3, 2013 Leave a comment

Courtesy of Dr. Juan Cole

Syrian Revolution even Bloodier in March, with record 6000 Dead

Posted on 04/02/2013 by Juan

Syrian dissidents say that some 6,000 people died in Syria in March, the largest one-month toll since the movement to overthrow the Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad began two years ago. The UN estimates that over 70,000 have been killed in the fighting.

Of the 6000 who died in March, one third, or 2000, were innocent noncombatants, and 300 of those were children. That means 4000 combatants died, between government troops and rebels.

Meanwhile, the rebels continue to take territory on the ground, now having 70% of the country’s oil wells. They recently advanced into a key district in the northern city of Aleppo in their quest to take the city’s international airport (which has been closed for months).

At the same time, oppositionists continue to attempt to form broader political coalitions inside the country. The USG Open Source Center translated a report from al-Sharq al-Awsat [The Middle East} on Monday:

“Syrian oppositionists from revolutionary blocs announced in Cairo yesterday the establishment of a revolutionary grouping called “The Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Syria.” Lu’ay al-Zu’bi, the Syrian oppositionist and leader of the “Believers Participate Movement” and member of the new front, said it was established to repel three plans that are in the way of the Syrian revolution and trying to hijack it from the track decided by the Syrian people.

The front is made up of several movements and political and revolutionary blocs opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Asad’s regime, among them the “Believers Participate”, the “Unified Syrian Bloc”, led by Wahid Saqr (Alawite oppositionist), the “Revolutionary Forces for the Liberation of Syria Grouping” which is led by dissident Major General Muhammad al-Haj Ali, the “Democratic National Bloc”, the “Arab Tribes Council”, and the “Field Representation Bureau.”

While leadership sources in the “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) denied any knowledge of this front’s establishment, other sources in it have told Al-Sharq al-Awsat that this front does not differ from the other attempts by Syrian oppositionists to establish political blocs and denied that there is any contact or coordination with the “FSA” command about it.

Fahd al-Masri, the “FSA’s” official in the Joint Command’s central media department, told Al-Sharq al-Awsat that “the FSA does not interfere in the political action and we do not consider the establishment of several trends opposed to the regime unhealthy but the natural result of the absence of democratic life in Syria for four decades.” He pointed out that “there are in the new front nationalist figures that we respect as we respect the other Syrian opposition spectrum.” He noted at the same time that “the political opposition’s performance has not yet risen to the level of the sacrifices that the Syrian people are making.” “

Aljazeera English says that in view of the gradual expansion of the territory in rebel control, the United Nations has developed a secret contingency plan for Syria should the regime abruptly collapse:

Here is the link for a short analysis on post-Al-Assad Syria by Al-Jazeera