Sunday, November 29, 2009

Tom Friedman: The Narrative

America vs. The Narrative by Thomas L. Friedman, NY Times

What should we make of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who apparently killed 13 innocent people at Fort Hood?

Here’s my take: Major Hasan may have been mentally unbalanced — I assume anyone who shoots up innocent people is. But the more you read about his support for Muslim suicide bombers, about how he showed up at a public-health seminar with a PowerPoint presentation titled “Why the War on Terror Is a War on Islam,” and about his contacts with Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni cleric famous for using the Web to support jihadist violence against America — the more it seems that Major Hasan was just another angry jihadist spurred to action by “The Narrative.”

What is scary is that even though he was born, raised and educated in America, The Narrative still got to him.

The Narrative is the cocktail of half-truths, propaganda and outright lies about America that have taken hold in the Arab-Muslim world since 9/11. Propagated by jihadist Web sites, mosque preachers, Arab intellectuals, satellite news stations and books — and tacitly endorsed by some Arab regimes — this narrative posits that America has declared war on Islam, as part of a grand “American-Crusader-Zionist conspiracy” to keep Muslims down.

Yes, after two decades in which U.S. foreign policy has been largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny — in Bosnia, Darfur, Kuwait, Somalia, Lebanon, Kurdistan, post-earthquake Pakistan, post-tsunami Indonesia, Iraq and Afghanistan — a narrative that says America is dedicated to keeping Muslims down is thriving.

Although most of the Muslims being killed today are being killed by jihadist suicide bombers in Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Indonesia, you’d never know it from listening to their world. The dominant narrative there is that 9/11 was a kind of fraud: America’s unprovoked onslaught on Islam is the real story, and the Muslims are the real victims — of U.S. perfidy.

Have no doubt: we punched a fist into the Arab/Muslim world after 9/11, partly to send a message of deterrence, but primarily to destroy two tyrannical regimes — the Taliban and the Baathists — and to work with Afghans and Iraqis to build a different kind of politics. In the process, we did some stupid and bad things. But for every Abu Ghraib, our soldiers and diplomats perpetrated a million acts of kindness aimed at giving Arabs and Muslims a better chance to succeed with modernity and to elect their own leaders.

The Narrative was concocted by jihadists to obscure that.

It’s working. As a Jordanian-born counterterrorism expert, who asked to remain anonymous, said to me: “This narrative is now omnipresent in Arab and Muslim communities in the region and in migrant communities around the world. These communities are bombarded with this narrative in huge doses and on a daily basis. [It says] the West, and right now mostly the U.S. and Israel, is single-handedly and completely responsible for all the grievances of the Arab and the Muslim worlds. Ironically, the vast majority of the media outlets targeting these communities are Arab-government owned — mostly from the Gulf.”

This narrative suits Arab governments. It allows them to deflect onto America all of their people’s grievances over why their countries are falling behind. And it suits Al Qaeda, which doesn’t need much organization anymore — just push out The Narrative over the Web and satellite TV, let it heat up humiliated, frustrated or socially alienated Muslim males, and one or two will open fire on their own. See: Major Hasan.

“Liberal Arabs like me are as angry as a terrorist and as determined to change the status quo,” said my Jordanian friend. The only difference “is that while we choose education, knowledge and success to bring about change, a terrorist, having bought into the narrative, has a sense of powerlessness and helplessness, which are inculcated in us from childhood, that lead him to believe that there is only one way, and that is violence.”

What to do? Many Arab Muslims know that what ails their societies is more than the West, and that The Narrative is just an escape from looking honestly at themselves. But none of their leaders dare or care to open that discussion. In his Cairo speech last June, President Obama effectively built a connection with the Muslim mainstream. Maybe he could spark the debate by asking that same audience this question:

“Whenever something like Fort Hood happens you say, ‘This is not Islam.’ I believe that. But you keep telling us what Islam isn’t. You need to tell us what it is and show us how its positive interpretations are being promoted in your schools and mosques. If this is not Islam, then why is it that a million Muslims will pour into the streets to protest Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, but not one will take to the streets to protest Muslim suicide bombers who blow up other Muslims, real people, created in the image of God? You need to explain that to us — and to yourselves.”

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Supposed Situation, In a False Nutshell

Mondoweiss has this picture of Anna Baltzer and Haithem El-Zabri under the erroneous title "The situation, in a nutshell".

The sign Baltzer is holding is pretty accurate, except for the assertion that Israel is situated on El-Zabri's land. El-Zabri's sign, on the other hand, is just untruthful.

A Google search brought me to the discovery that he was born in the States. That means he's from the United States, not Palestine. His parents are from Palestine. There's a difference. So to recap, both people in this picture are from Austin, Texas, not just Baltzer.

The next two lines of El-Zabri's sign state "I cannot return to my land". Now, that's not true. This picture was taken in your land, Goddammit. If you'll leave the United States you'll certainly be able to return. You are an American citizen, after all. El-Zabri is saying that what is now Israel is his land. It isn't. Just like Poland isn't my land, even though my mother spent her early childhood there, and just like Ireland or Italy aren't the lands of second- and third-generation Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans. When the State of Palestine is established, if they decide to give El-Zabri the right of return and citizenship, then Palestine will be his land.

The Law of Return for Jews is an internal matter. It is an immigration policy. Most countries, if not all, have discriminatory immigration policies, and each country may choose which groups to prefer and confer the political right of immigration upon.

So-called "peace activists" promoting the Palestinian Right of Return will achieve neither peace nor justice. Insisting on this will only push peace beyond reach (and it is a distant prospect as it is).  Israelis would never, in their right minds, decide to become a minority in their own country. The only solution is the two-state solution, which can achieve both peace and the greatest degree of justice possible for both sides.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A New Book By an Autistic Kid's Mother

Yediot Aharonot's "7 Days" section has an interesting interview this weekend with Galit Distel Etebaryan, who wrote a novel based on her experiences as the mother of an autistic kid. Unfortunately, I couldn't find it on-line in either Hebrew or English, but here's a review of her book from Ha'aretz in Hebrew and in English.

In the interview, Etebaryan calls her son "formerly autistic", although he still has some problems. I'd say this is misleading. He's still autistic, but very high functioning.

It's interesting that the European psychiatrist who told her that her son is autistic blamed her for his condition. Apparently not everybody has parted with the notion of refrigerator mothers. I'd like to hope that had her son been diagnosed in Israel, that wouldn't have happened (she was in Europe - Greece in the novel, I don't know if it was Greece in real life, too - because her husband was working there at the time).

She also says honestly that she isn't glad she has a child with special needs. She says that hearing other parents saying their special kids made them better people makes her laugh. I can understand her feelings. Most people would rather have normal children, though I do think having children with special needs makes their parents (and other relatives) more sensitive and more understanding.

One last observation: the book review says the child in the novel never spoke a word before he was diagnosed, while Etebaryan says in her interview that her son spoke fluently until he started regressing at the age of two, although she also describes him as rejecting her and avoiding physical contact as a little baby, which would suggest he was autistic from the beginning. I find this interesting, because I always wondered if kids really did regress, or maybe the parents were in denial. Anyway, it's perfectly possible that there are different forms of autism, some with regression, some without.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Israeli SC: No to Private Prisons

The Israeli Supreme Court struck down the Private Prisons Act yesterday, in an 8-1 decision. The justices in the majority said that it is unconstitional to transfer the right to use force against prisoners from the state to private companies. They said this would violate the Human Dignity and Liberty Basic Law. This is an international precedent. I wonder if it will encourage people in other countries to fight the privatization of prisons, especially in the States.

This is the right decision. There are certain government services that should not be privatized, especially those where the use of force is part of the package. I'm glad this ruling came down before the prison had any inmates in it.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Freedom of Religion in Israel

Shahar Ilan has an interesting blog post (in Hebrew) he wrote after the release of the latest report by the US State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (you can read about it in Hebrew and in English). Ilan writes that not only is the treatment of religious minorities troubling, the treatment of secular Jews, which just might be the largest group in the country, is absurd. He mentions the fact that Israelis who want to marry in Israel have to go through the Orthodox Rabbinate, where grooms will be told that women are like clay that must be molded by their husbands and that women who aren't flattered are like fish out of water. If you don't want to go through this and would rather go the Reform, Conservative or civil marriage way, you better get married abroad.

Ilan says that, unfortunately, things will just get worse. Demographically, the illiberal sections of Israeli society, mostly the ultra-orthodox, are only growing. If we don't act now, he says, it will be too late to undo the discrimination against non-Jews, women and secular people. I agree with him.

Michael Moore's Sicko

I recently watched Michael Moore's 2007 documentary, "Sicko", about the health-care system in the United States and other countries. It's a very entertaining film, but not a very good source of information.

I totally agree with Moore when it comes to the American health-care system: it's broken and has to be fixed. I support government-funded universal healthcare. Moore's health insurance horror stories, though, were not very surprising. The media has shown such cases numerous times. Of course, I don't live in the States, but I'm quite sure the source of most reports I've seen on the subject is the US mainstream media.

My main problem with the film is the rosy depiction of other health-care systems. As someone who lives in a country with socialized medicine, I know that the system we have here is better than the market-based system in the States, but that our system, too, has problems. There are a lot of problems with the systems in Canada, Britain and France. I've seen quite a few reports on BBC World and Sky News about calls to reform the National Health Service.

The scenes in France were particularly annoying. Moore focuses at length on the many social benefits the French government bestows upon citizens and residents, much of it excessive, and asks how the French aren't drowning in taxes. How does he prove that they aren't? He goes to one (yes, that is one [1]) family and shows that they're living the good life. Other than a mortgage, they aren't in any debt! They fly off to some other place in the world once every year! So what? That doesn't really prove much, other than the fact that I'd like to punch that couple in their faces. You can find people like that in pretty much every Western country, under any health-care and tax system.

The most problematic part of the documentary, of course, is when Moore takes a group of 9/11 rescue workers and other under-insured sick people to Cuba. At first, he claims he only wants to go to Guantanamo Bay, where detainees get free health insurance (a scene that might have inspired a similar scene in an Israeli docu-activist show, where journalists Orly Vilnai and Guy Meroz visit an Israeli prison where prisoners get free dental care, which isn't covered by Israel's national health insurance). Then, Moore takes his group to a Cuban hospital. Everything is presented as wonderful. Everything is free. It's first-class medicine. Does everybody get this kind of treatment in Castro's Cuba, or just the wealthy and the camera-wielding? We don't really know. Besides, even if Cuban healthcare is truly open to all citizens, would you rather live in Cuba or the States?

Friday, November 06, 2009


Mahmoud Abbas has declared he won't run for re-election as president of the Palestinian Authority in January. This could be a very good thing, or a very bad thing. Abbas is a horrible leader for Palestinians, and prospects for peace under his leadership are very dim. He just wants to sit on his ass and wait for the world to impose his preferred solution on Israel.

If whoever replaces Abu-Mazen is someone who is truly willing to negotiate and reach a deal, things will be better. Yes, Netanyahu doesn't seem like he'd actually sign any treaties with the Palestinians, but if he is pushed to the corner and forced to prove that his support for the two state solution is not just lip service, he might budge. Alternatively, if Israelis see someone on the Palestinian side who is a real partner for peace, and they see Netanyahu is the stubborn one, they just might vote for someone more willing to sign peace deals when the next election comes around.

If whoever replaces Abu-Mazen is more of a hard-liner, like any Hamasnik or Marwan Barghouti, the Middle East will be in trouble. Both Israelis and Palestinians will be screwed.

I'd be happy to see someone like Sari Nusseibeh or Mustafa Barghouti get elected, but I have no idea what their chances are.