Perspectives From Central Asia: Installment Two

In the next few days I want to note the various ways that people in various parts of Greater Central Asia have been coping with a modern world in which the certainties of the past no longer obtain or are at least contested. Iran is a curious example of one place where Islamism has been victorious, but its success has bred a sympathy for western cultural forms among many of its young people, who in fact constitute a substantial portion of the total population: 70 percent of the country is below the age of 30. Officially there is no doubt about the “certainties” of our times but unofficially the social conventions demanded by the state are resented or rejected. The state has found one measure that attracts genuine public loyalty among the Iranian people, namely its nuclear program. This is one reason President Ahmadinejad continues to press for nuclear power. Even so, the religious zeal of his government creates a careful dance between the official enforcers of the state and a superficially compliant public.

Here is a note on the tension between the requirements of the government and the behavior of many of its young people: from an article on underground rock music among Iranian young people by Michael Slackman:

After the 1979 revolution, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was fashioning Iran into a Shiite Islamic state, one of his many sayings was, “Keep the appearances of Islam.” Public profile is important and so, if Iranians chose not to fast during Ramadan, well, O.K., but they were expected to eat in the privacy of their homes. . . . . [Someone told Slackman] “there is no written law . . . , You are allowed to do everything, unless you want to share it [openly].” That seems to be the unwritten law in Iran today: no sharing. The act of publicly sharing ideas that challenge the system is forbidden, because, at a minimum, that amounts to challenging the appearance the government would like to promote. . . . And so people in many spheres – arts, sports, politics, business – find themselves pressing against the limitations of what is deemed permissible. Mostly, this is done behind closed doors, in the privacy of people’s homes. Some people, like the rock musicians, do risk public sharing, but watchfully.

So the body complies, but the sentiment is elsewhere. All the more reason not to suppose that “Iran” is being truly represented by Ahmadinejad.

Al-Qaeda Threat Overblown?

A question I have had for some time is how connected up the various militant Islamists elements are. A case can be made that in many places the incentives for insurgency are local and provincial, in which case the various militant groups, even if in some contact, have little reason to cooperate except in the most elementary sense. Authors like Robert Naylor (Satanic Purses) argue that in fact al-Qaeda is a small network of fairly informally connected militants; to him the West’s fear of al-Qaeda, etc., is overblown.

At the same time there are indications that some of the groups cooperate. Claims that Al-Qaeda and Iran or Hizbullah are cooperating seem preposterous to me: Al-Qaeda is a Sunni movement that cannot tolerate any divergence from their view; Shi’a for them are anathema. But the recent news that Hezbollah has trained several hundred members of Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Lebanon is plausible. It is also likely – perhaps only too obvious — that Iran has been supporting Iraq’s Shi’a militants, including the Mahdi Army.

Even so, I wonder if the scale of the militant movement, lethal and vicious as it is, has not been overblown. Islam – or rather Islamic terms, Islam as a political ideology — now seems to be the popular vehicle of anti-Western expression in the Middle East and South Asia – which means that we cannot take the movement as an authentic religious movement, a struggle over “higher values,” so much as an authentic political expression of frustration.

In the end, this is what many specialists of this region have been saying all along, while the public in the West has not internalized it.

What Makes a Muslim Radical?

John L. Esposito, professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University, has teamed up with Dalia Mogahed, executive director of Muslim studies for Gallup, to study the perspectives of “radical” and “moderate” Muslims in several countries. On the basis of a comparison of the views of 9,000 Muslim respondents who thought the 9/11 attack was justified [“radicals”] and those who thought it was not justified [“moderates”] Esposito and Mogahed have discovered that, contrary to popular wisdom, “radicals” are better off than “moderates,” and expect to be better off in the future; they are better educated than “moderates,” and are not more “hopeless” than the moderates. The difference between them seems to be that radicals tend to feel that the West threatens and attempts to control their way of life whereas “moderates” are more eager to build ties with the West through economic development.
Esposito has been vilified by the far right for his efforts to explain what the Muslim world is like. I hope his work will be looked at carefully but chances are that, as usual, this report will be read as just another attempt to mitigate Bush’s fabricated “war on terror”.


Why Are So Many Afraid to Call Iraq a Civil War?

Most of us are so pessimistic about the course of affairs in the Middle East and Central Asia that we can’t envision things getting worse. But they keep on getting worse. Yesterday was an example: Once again George W. Bush denied that there is a civil war in Iraq. Then on the Jim Lehrer News Hour there was a serious discussion about whether the fighting in Iraq can be called a civil war. Somehow admitting that it was a civil war seems a threshold; it would mean something new and important if the war can be called a civil war. But Thomas Friedman sees it as even worse than a civil war, “This country is so broken it can’t even have a proper civil war. There are so many people killing so many other people for so many different reasons – religion, crime, politics – that all the proposals for how to settle this problem seem laughable. … [In the Bosnian civil war] leaders . . . could cut a deal and deliver their faction. But Iraq is in so many little pieces now, divided among warlords, foreign terrorists, gangs, militias, parties, the police and the army, that nobody seems able to deliver anybody. Iraq has entered a stage beyond civil war – it’s gone from breaking apart to breaking down. This is not the Arab Yugoslavia anymore. It’s Hobbes’s jungle.” At least in his view, Iraq has descended below a threshold we could scarcely imagine. The nearest analogue to such an image is the convoluted carnage in Darfur, which is being called genocide. The wreckage of decisions made, bridges crossed and burned, continues to compound.

Demonstratons and Muslim Dialogue

Tom Friedman in today’s NYTimes asks why there are no demonstrations among Muslims when Muslims blow up innocent people on holy days, “in mosques!,” while there are all kinds of demonstrations against cartoons and papal remarks in the West. I think this gets at a fundamental nature of demonstrations. Demonstrations rarely are spontaneous: they are orchestrated. When we were in Pakistan there were occasional demonstrations, always about something offensive that could be tied to the West, led by local leaders of the madrassas. They were means by which a madrassa leader, a teacher, could mobilize his students around a matter of religious interest. And local authorities were used to managing them, controlling them so that they did minimal damage. I don’t know all that goes into the recent demonstrations about cartoons or papal remarks in the Middle Eastern countries but I would surmise that many of those demonstrations are orchestrated by local mosque leaders or religious leaders as ways of solidifying their band of supporters, awakening their interest in wider social issues as Muslims. It is not really about “dialogue”; it is more about local influence. This is not to denigrate whatever offenses are being complained about but it is to point to the local dynamics that makes social demonstrations work. But that is also why there is little movement on the local level when Muslims abuse Muslims. Local leaders have nothing to benefit by taking their students on the street for such reasons. Friedman wonders when Muslims will enter into a dialogue on the problem of Muslim abuse of innocent Muslims. There is a context in which debates of this sort take place: that is, in convocations of eminent religious authorities. In such times and places they do debate: there was one such debate when Mullah Muhammad Omar invited all the Taliban religious authorities to convene to decide on whether to turn over Osama Bin Laden to the Americans (they advised him to invite Osama to leave on his own accord; Mullah Omar refused). I’m not sure when such a convocation took place to resolve differences between Muslims abusing Muslims. There are contexts in which authorities of the faith debate what to do about a contemporary problem but that debate is unlikely to turn into public demonstrations.

Islam and the Pope
Published: September 29, 2006 (New York Times)

What is needed now is an honest dialogue between Muslims and Muslims.

congress defunding public radio and tv

FYI.Public Broadcasting Targeted By House
Panel Seeks to End CPB’s Funding Within 2 Years
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 10, 2005; Page A01
A House subcommittee voted yesterday to sharply reduce the federal government’s
financial support for public broadcasting, including eliminating taxpayer funds
that help underwrite such popular children’s educational programs as “Sesame
Street,” “Reading Rainbow,” “Arthur” and “Postcards From Buster.”
In addition, the subcommittee acted to eliminate within two years all federal
money for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — which passes federal funds
to public broadcasters — starting with a 25 percent reduction in CPB’s budget
for next year, from $400 million to $300 million. In all, the cuts would
represent the most drastic cutback of public broadcasting since Congress created
the nonprofit CPB in 1967. The CPB funds are particularly important for small TV
and radio stations and account for about 15 percent of the public broadcasting
industry’s total revenue.
Expressing alarm, public broadcasters and their supporters in Congress
interpreted the move as an escalation of a Republican-led campaign against a
perceived liberal bias in their programming. That effort was initiated by the
Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s own chairman, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson.
“Americans overwhelmingly see public broadcasting as an unbiased information
source,” Rep. David Obey (Wis.), the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, said
in a statement. “Perhaps that’s what the GOP finds so offensive about it.
Republican leaders are trying to bring every facet of the federal government
under their control. . . . Now they are trying to put their ideological stamp on
public broadcasting.”
But the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on labor,
health and human services, and education asserted that the panel was simply
making choices among various worthy government programs, and that no political
message was intended.
The subcommittee’s action, which came on a voice vote, doesn’t necessarily put
Big Bird on the Endangered Species List. House members could restore funding as
the appropriations bill moves along or, more likely, when the House and Senate
meet to reconcile budget legislation later this year. The Senate has
traditionally been a stronger ally of public broadcasting than the House, whose
former speaker, Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), waged a high-profile but ultimately
unsuccessful campaign to “zero out” funding for the CPB a decade ago.
The cuts nevertheless surprised people in public broadcasting. In his budget
sent to Congress in February, President Bush had recommended reducing CPB’s
budget only slightly.
Several denounced the decision by the panel, which has 10 Republicans and seven
Democrats, as payback by a Republican-dominated House after years of complaints
from conservatives who see liberal bias in programs carried by the Public
Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio. Broadcasters noted, for example,
that the 25 percent cutback in next year’s CPB budget was a rollback of money
that Congress had promised in 2004.
PBS, in particular, drew harsh criticism in December from the Bush
administration for a “Postcards From Buster” episode in which Buster, an
animated rabbit, “visited” two families in Vermont headed by lesbians. And
programming on both PBS and NPR has come under fire in recent months from
Tomlinson, the Republican chairman of the CPB, who has pushed for greater
“balance” on the public airwaves.
A spokeswoman for NPR, Andi Sporkin, directly blamed Tomlinson for yesterday’s
action, saying, “We’ve never been sure of Mr. Tomlinson’s intent but, with this
news, we might be seeing his effect.”
Tomlinson did not return calls seeking comment. In a statement, he said,
“Obviously, we are concerned [by the cuts], and we will be joining with our
colleagues in the public broadcasting community to make the case for a higher
level of funding as the appropriations measure makes its way through Congress.”
John Lawson, the president of the Association of Public Television Stations, a
Washington-based group that lobbies for public broadcasters, called the
subcommittee’s action “at least malicious wounding, if not outright attempted
murder, of public broadcasting in America.” He added, “This action could deprive
tens of millions of American children of commercial-free educational programming.”
Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), the subcommittee’s chairman, said the cuts had
nothing to do with dissatisfaction over public radio or TV programs. “It’s
pretty simple,” he said in an interview. “The thinking was, there’s not enough
money for everything. There are ‘must-do,’ ‘need-to-do’ and ‘nice-to-do’
programs that we have to pay for. [Public broadcasting] is somewhere between a
‘need-to-do’ and a ‘nice-to-do.’ “
The subcommittee had to decide, he said, on cutting money for public
broadcasting or cutting college grants, special education, worker retraining and
health care programs. “No one’s out to get” public broadcasting, Regula said.
“It’s not punitive in any way.”
In fact, none of the Republican members of the subcommittee publicly denounced
public radio or TV funding at yesterday’s markup. Public broadcasting drew
supportive statements from Obey and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.).
Regula suggested public stations could “make do” without federal money by
getting more funding from private sources, such as contributions from
corporations, foundations, and listeners and viewers.
But the loss of $23.4 million in federal funds for children’s educational shows
— which PBS calls its “Ready to Learn” programs — could mean the elimination
of these programs, said an official at Alexandria-based PBS who asked not to be
named because the network still hopes to regain the funding. PBS’s revenue
totaled $333 million in fiscal year 2004.
The Ready to Learn group includes “Sesame Street,” “Dragontales,” “Clifford” and
“Arthur,” among others.
The House measure also cuts support for a variety of smaller projects, such as a
$39.6 million public TV satellite distribution network and a $39.4 million
program that helps public stations update their analog TV signals to digital format.
Small public radio stations, particularly those in rural areas and those serving
minority audiences, may be the most vulnerable to federal cuts because they
currently operate on shoestring budgets.
“This could literally put us out of business,” said Paul Stankavich, president
and general manager of the Alaska Public Radio Network, an alliance of 26
stations in the state that create and share news programming. “Almost all of us
are down to the bone right now. If we lost 5 or 10 percent of our budgets in one
fell swoop, we could end up being just a repeater service” for national news,
with no funds to produce local content.
Stankavich, who also runs a public radio and TV station in Anchorage, said
public radio is “an important source of news in urban areas, but it’s
life-critical in rural areas,” especially in far-flung parts of Alaska unserved
by any other broadcast medium.Please see my “concerns” page:
My blog: