Saturday, November 22, 2008

I love jokes that trivialize international conflict - cause if we didn't laugh about it we'd all end up crying

"The Syrians and the Iranians will never give up the resistance - they will continue fighting down to the very last Lebanese."

It's not verbatim, but it's the overall gist. Heard it from the head of a think tank based here in Beirut.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Indiana may have went blue - but too many people in the American South are still red-blooded racists

This is quite possibly the most disturbing article I have read in a long time. And best part is, it's not about the Middle East, it's about the American South. Glad I'm in Syria and Lebanon, where people aren't so racist . . . .

I'll cut and past the entire article because it's that shocking:

Election spurs 'hundreds' of race threats, crimes
Nov 15, 05:18 PM EST
By JESSE WASHINGTON - AP National Writer

Cross burnings. Schoolchildren chanting "Assassinate Obama." Black figures hung from nooses. Racial epithets scrawled on homes and cars.

Incidents around the country referring to President-elect Barack Obama are dampening the postelection glow of racial progress and harmony, highlighting the stubborn racism that remains in America.

From California to Maine, police have documented a range of alleged crimes, from vandalism and vague threats to at least one physical attack. Insults and taunts have been delivered by adults, college students and second-graders.

There have been "hundreds" of incidents since the election, many more than usual, said Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate crimes.

One was in Snellville, Ga., where Denene Millner said a boy on the school bus told her 9-year-old daughter the day after the election: "I hope Obama gets assassinated." That night, someone trashed her sister-in-law's front lawn, mangled the Obama lawn signs, and left two pizza boxes filled with human feces outside the front door, Millner said.

She described her emotions as a combination of anger and fear.

"I can't say that every white person in Snellville is evil and anti-Obama and willing to desecrate my property because one or two idiots did it," said Millner, who is black. "But it definitely makes you look a little different at the people who you live with, and makes you wonder what they're capable of and what they're really thinking."

Potok, who is white, said he believes there is "a large subset of white people in this country who feel that they are losing everything they know, that the country their forefathers built has somehow been stolen from them."

Grant Griffin, a 46-year-old white Georgia native, expressed similar sentiments: "I believe our nation is ruined and has been for several decades and the election of Obama is merely the culmination of the change.

"If you had real change it would involve all the members of (Obama's) church being deported," he said.

Change in whatever form does not come easy, and a black president is "the most profound change in the field of race this country has experienced since the Civil War," said William Ferris, senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina. "It's shaking the foundations on which the country has existed for centuries."

"Someone once said racism is like cancer," Ferris said. "It's never totally wiped out, it's in remission."

If so, America's remission lasted until the morning of Nov. 5.

The day after the vote hailed as a sign of a nation changed, black high school student Barbara Tyler of Marietta, Ga., said she heard hateful Obama comments from white students, and that teachers cut off discussion about Obama's victory.

Tyler spoke at a press conference by the Georgia chapter of the NAACP calling for a town hall meeting to address complaints from across the state about hostility and resentment. Another student, from a Covington middle school, said he was suspended for wearing an Obama shirt to school Nov. 5 after the principal told students not to wear political paraphernalia.

The student's mother, Eshe Riviears, said the principal told her: "Whether you like it or not, we're in the South, and there are a lot of people who are not happy with this decision."

Other incidents include:

-Four North Carolina State University students admitted writing anti-Obama comments in a tunnel designated for free speech expression, including one that said: "Let's shoot that (N-word) in the head." Obama has received more threats than any other president-elect, authorities say.

-At Standish, Maine, a sign inside the Oak Hill General Store read: "Osama Obama Shotgun Pool." Customers could sign up to bet $1 on a date when Obama would be killed. "Stabbing, shooting, roadside bombs, they all count," the sign said. At the bottom of the marker board was written "Let's hope someone wins."

-Racist graffiti was found in places including New York's Long Island, where two dozen cars were spray-painted; Kilgore, Texas, where the local high school and skate park were defaced; and the Los Angeles area, where swastikas, racial slurs and "Go Back To Africa" were spray painted on sidewalks, houses and cars.

-Second- and third-grade students on a school bus in Rexburg, Idaho, chanted "assassinate Obama," a district official said.

-University of Alabama professor Marsha L. Houston said a poster of the Obama family was ripped off her office door. A replacement poster was defaced with a death threat and a racial slur. "It seems the election brought the racist rats out of the woodwork," Houston said.

-Black figures were hanged by nooses from trees on Mount Desert Island, Maine, the Bangor Daily News reported. The president of Baylor University in Waco, Texas said a rope found hanging from a campus tree was apparently an abandoned swing and not a noose.

-Crosses were burned in yards of Obama supporters in Hardwick, N.J., and Apolacan Township, Pa.

-A black teenager in New York City said he was attacked with a bat on election night by four white men who shouted 'Obama.'

-In the Pittsburgh suburb of Forest Hills, a black man said he found a note with a racial slur on his car windshield, saying "now that you voted for Obama, just watch out for your house."

Emotions are often raw after a hard-fought political campaign, but now those on the losing side have an easy target for their anger.

"The principle is very simple," said BJ Gallagher, a sociologist and co-author of the diversity book "A Peacock in the Land of Penguins." "If I can't hurt the person I'm angry at, then I'll vent my anger on a substitute, i.e., someone of the same race."

"We saw the same thing happen after the 9-11 attacks, as a wave of anti-Muslim violence swept the country. We saw it happen after the Rodney King verdict, when Los Angeles blacks erupted in rage at the injustice perpetrated by 'the white man.'"

"It's as stupid and ineffectual as kicking your dog when you've had a bad day at the office," Gallagher said. "But it happens a lot."


Associated Press writers Errin Haines, Jerry Harkavy, Jay Reeves, Johnny Taylor and researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Spoke too soon - some decent coverage in the Lebanese Daily Star

In an article from November 8th, The Daily star reports that Hariri’s Future Parliamentary Bloc/March 14th movement supported by the West (and opposed to Syrian interference) has denied any links with the 10 men and 1 woman of Fatah Al-Islam that carried out the car-bombing that killed 17 on the outskirts of Damascus in early September. Spokesmen for the movement claimed that the truth of the confessions was questionable, and that it was a strategic move by Syria to shift pressure away from the Assad regime in the lead up to the release of findings from a continuing UN investigation into the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, expected December 10th. Spokesmen for the March 14th movement also claimed that the more likely explanation is that there are connections between Fatah Al-Islam and Syrian intelligence. Fatah Al-Islam gained notice during 2007, when it fought a deadly 15-week battle with the Lebanese military in the Nahr Al-Bared Palestinian Refugee Camp in Lebanon. The bombings in Tripoli are also believed to have been planned and carried out by Palestinians living in Lebanon’s refugee camps.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Coverage of Suspects Confession in Damascus Car-Bombing

Unfortunately, the only decent media report I can find on the suspects arrested in the Damascus car-bombing is from an Israeli newspaper. Makes you wonder why there's no decent coverage from the Arab papers.

Lebanon cementing ties with Russia

Lebanon just asked the Russians for help to liberate the occupied Shebaa Farms area (the deal for buying Russian tanks is already in the pipeline); and now Saad Hariri has stated he wants to establish relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Interesting to see how this plays out in US policy circles.

Update on September car-bombing in Damascus

A new wave of arrests have been made in Lebanon in connection to the car bombing in Damascus this past September. About one week ago, the Syrian state television aired the confessions of 10 individuals (including one woman) who claimed responsibility on behalf of Fatah Al-Islam. Among them were Palestinians, Syrians and I believe some Iraqis as well. Syrians I spoke to are skeptical and don’t buy the government’s story, but some important figures (including Sami Moubayed) believe it to be mostly true. The Syrian state news also claimed that the woman admitted to having (at least financial) ties with the Hariri group (supporters of the March 14th movement and it’s current heir Saad Hariri). Lebanese claims of Syrian ‘terror’ within their borders are ubiquitous – so any claims the Syrians could make against the Lebanese would be political heroin. The Lebanese have now arrested suspects they found in Tripoli (where a recent bombing targeted the Lebanese armed forces) and a nearby Palestinian refugee camp.

The Rumor Mill . . .

Heard a scary story yesterday. Apparently, a (Jewish) American has gone missing in Syria. This is the story I heard, and I have no way of corroborating it. When he arrived in Damascus he phoned up his best friend – a Syrian also living in Damascus. Unfortunately, his friend happened to be the individual who sold the car and the two cells phones to the group that assassinated Imad Mughniyeh in Kefr Sousa (a group the Syrian government believes has ties to the Mossad). Since he had ‘ties’ with the group anyone associated with him is tainted as well. Apparently his wife has been searching for him, and is getting the runaround from the authorities. If anyone has heard anything about this let me know!

Damascus Film Festival

Despite the proliferation of high-end shopping centers and restaurants in Damascus movie theatres are still absent. The only cinema in town (by Sham Palace) rarely gets Western movies, and usually shows ones from Egypt or Turkey. However, in the past 3 years or so, there has been the Damascus Film Festival – this year held for a week in November, that shows Western films (from the US and Europe) several times a day at several different outlets. It’s really a grab bag of genres, from independent Italian films to movies like “What Happens in Vegas.” Could be a prelude to finally allowing the importation of Western cinema on a regular basis – which would make sense given the increasingly visible presence of every other form of imperialist vice.

Everybody loves dictator jokes . . . .

One day, a Syrian lawyer decides he is fed up with the human rights situation in his country. Having had enough, he takes to the street. He carries a wooden crate to the city square, stands on top of it and begins to shout:
“Where are our civil rights?”
“Where is our freedom?
“Where is our free press?”
“Where are the schools and hospitals we were promised?”
“Where are our free and fair elections?”
“Where are you taking me? Wait, wait, where are you taking me?”

A joke about Simba (this is the code my friends use to talk about the Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad because the name Al-Assad means “The Lion” and Bashar is the son of the original lion, the late Hafez Al-Assad).

So, in Syria, they practice military conscription – and it’s difficult to get out of. Those privileged enough to be members of the Alawi sect (the President’s sect) get to serve their military terms in Damascus, but almost as a rule, Damascenes who must serve in the army are sent into the hinterlands – the equivalent of sending someone from New York to live in Bangladesh for 2 years.

So – for quite some time there’s been an influx of people from the reef (the countryside) moving to Damascus after they serve their terms in the military – because for these people the military is often a source of social mobility. Well, Bashar Al Assad has a strange characteristic – the back of his head is completely flat. So those Syrians who are not lucky enough to be members of the Alawi sect say that this happens to all Alawites because their mothers hit them on the back of the head with a frying pan and say, “Get your ass to Damascus.”

I guess everyone's father is an embarrassment sometime . . .

The appointment of Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff for Obama has gotten a lot of coverage in the Arab press because of his Israeli ancestry, his father’s membership in the Irgun (an Israeli terrorist organization that launched attacks against British troops during the mandate period) and of course since that isn’t enough his father (Benjamin Emanuel) also took the liberty of characterizing all Arabs as manual laborers. The exact quote is: “Obviously he will influence the president to be pro-Israel. Why wouldn’t he be? What is he, an Arab? He’s not going to clean the floors of the White House.” Nice asshole –really nice.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The American Elections in Arab Eyes

Excitement over Barak Obama's presidency is almost a foregone conclusion in the Arab World. Naturally, a candidate that has expressed a desire to reach out to the Syrian and Iranian regimes, after the disastrous isolation pursued by the Bush Administration, would elicit approval and hope among Arab citizens. The excitement of a highly-contested election is also predictable, since most elections in the Arab world are pre-determined by a complex network of bureaucratic and legal maneuvers that ensure the continuation of incumbent regimes. The highly criticized constitutional amendments in Egypt in 2007 were just such an example of a ruling party orchestrating election laws to ensure their own success in future contests. Add this to the notorious examples of elections with 99% approval ratings for the ruling parties in other Arab states, and the possibility of an unknowable election in a country whose policies impact the region perhaps more than their own domestic elections is predictable.
However, after decades of being disappointed by promises of engagement and holding despots to account, many of the region’s citizens are rightly disillusioned with any candidate for the US presidency. One of the dominant narratives in the region regarding Senator Barak Obama’s presidency is that his connections with Islam (his father is a Muslim) and the color of his skin will drive him to ‘prove’ himself – that is, to be even more zealous in his pursuit of the US national interest than McCain would have been. Because he is black – and he has ancestral ties to the Muslim religion, he will have to demonstrate to the American public that he is as “American” – that is, as white and as Christian – as they are. This was visible in the early Summer and Fall months of the campaign, as Obama was forced to reiterate his Christian faith in the face of comments made by his former preacher that blamed US foreign policy for the September 11th attacks. The famous statement about the “chickens coming home to roost” played right into fears about Obama’s belief in the superiority of the American cause. Arab citizens here closely followed the campaign – and didn’t miss the potential ramifications of attacks like these - most visible in Obama’s rhetoric toward Israel – a painful reminder to Arabs that the prospects for peace are constrained by the necessity of the US maintaining close ties with the Jewish state. Any time to argue that Obama will ‘moderate’ his views on the Palestinian issue now that he has secured the presidency are met with the example of Jimmy Carter – who has been incredibly vocal on behalf of Palestinian rights . . . . now that he’s no longer president .
Other Arabs I have spoke with (particularly older individuals) fear that Obama is too inexperienced, although it is difficult to say whether they truly believe this is the case or are merely reiterating what seems like a cogent qualification that other critics have leveled against Obama. The old adage that “All these people, ie: Arabs, understand is force” – is sadly reinforced by observations like these. Despite all our railing against Arab regimes that pursue stability over democracy and civil rights, there is a surprising number of Arab citizens that echo the preference for security over liberty. Obama simultaneously represents both: the potential to engage with Arab regimes and push for meaningful reforms but also the possibility of acting as a destabilizing force whose naïve belief in the goodness of humanity could be worse than Bush’s maniacal pursuit of a “New Middle East.”

Thousands of Syrian Cab Drivers Breathe Easier

Syrian singer George Wassouf was released from a Swedish prison today after being found with cocaine last week and missing a concert date. Had they kept him in prison I think the demonstrations in front of the Swedish embassy would have made last week's protest against the US-bombing raid pale in comparison . . . . and they probably wouldn't have been organized by the Syrian government either.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Lebanon's very own George W. Bush

Beyond the immediate similarities between Saad Hariri and George W. Bush (the fathers of both formerly held the highest political office in their respective countries) - they also share an affinity for uttering incredibly ignorant statements. Although I'm no apologist for the Syrian regime, they have made some reasonable moves in the past. But in Friday's Daily Star (the Lebanese daily) Hariri remarked that Syria should take the high road regarding US and Israeli aggression (with respect to last week's raid on the Iraqi border by US troops and the Israeli bombing of the supposed nuclear facility last September, respectively) and file complaints with the UN. Of course, Syria did file complaints with the UN over both incidents. Guess the US isn't the only place blessed with leaders who somehow manage to avoid even the most obvious and mundane realities.

Members of Syrian Political Opposition Sentenced to Prison

Below article is from Human Rights Watch:
Syria: Harsh Sentences for Democratic Opposition
Damascus Declaration Trial a Transparent Bid to Silence Critics

(Damascus, October 30, 2008) – Syria’s sentencing of a dozen leading democracy advocates to more than two years in prison is the latest evidence of Syria’s repression of opposition groups, Human Rights Watch said today. The democracy activists, including doctors, lawyers, writers, and an artist, were sentenced on October 29, 2008 to 30 months in prison on politically motivated charges.

Human Rights Watch attended the sentencing session and called for President Bashar al-Assad to immediately quash the convictions and order the prisoners’ release.

In a sentencing session that barely lasted 20 minutes, the First Damascus Criminal Court, presided over by Muhieldeen Hallaq, convicted the 12 activists on vaguely defined charges of “weakening national sentiment” and “spreading false or exaggerated news which would affect the morale of the country.” The authorities had detained the democracy activists, including former member of parliament Riad Seif, after they participated in a meeting last December of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change, an umbrella group of opposition and pro-democracy groups.

Founded in 2005, the Damascus Declaration is a coalition of political parties and independent activists whose stated goal is to build internal support for peaceful democratic change in Syria.

“In a transparent bid to silence its critics, the government is jailing democracy activists for simply attending a meeting,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The trial was a mere cover to legitimize the government’s repression of opposition groups and peaceful critics.”

Human Rights Watch said that the detention and trial of the activists was marred from the beginning. Syrian security forces held the activists initially for up to 40 days in incommunicado detention. Eight of the 12 detainees told the investigative judge that State Security officials beat them during their interrogation and forced them to sign false statements “confessing” that they planned to take money from foreign countries in order to divide the country by giving the Kurds a separate state. One of the detainees, `Ali al-Abdullah, suffered injury to his ear as a result of the beating he endured. The court did not order any independent investigation regarding the allegations of ill-treatment.

During the trial, the activists confirmed their involvement in the Damascus Declaration, but pleaded not guilty and denied the charges against them. In their defense session on September 24, the defendants expressed doubts about the trial since it was their “freedom of expression that was on trial.” Another detainee, Walid al-Bunni, a physician, told the court during his defense that “getting into the details of my defense is useless, but I will ask: what is the basis of the accusations?”

One of the defense lawyers told Human Rights Watch that the defense team will likely appeal the sentence within the required 30 days. He summarized the judgment by saying “membership in the Damascus Declaration is now criminalized.” The wife of one of the sentenced detainees who had been jailed in the past for his activism expressed her disgust at the trial. “We don’t know what to feel anymore. I don’t care if the sentence is for 2.5 years or 10 years. My husband should not be in jail in the first place.”

Syria has a long record of prosecuting political activists who peacefully express their opinions. On May 13, 2007, the Second Damascus Criminal Court sentenced four prominent activists, including prominent writer Michel Kilo and political activist Mahmud `Issa, to periods varying from three to 10 years in prison for “weakening national sentiment” after they signed a declaration calling for improved Lebanese-Syrian relations.

Syrian security services have a significant influence in the trials of political activists, whether before the criminal courts or exceptional courts. While they often exercise such influence behind closed doors, in some instances evidence has emerged in public, as in the 2007 trial of Dr. Kamal al-Labwani, founder of the Democratic Liberal Gathering. In that trial, the head of National Security sent a letter to the Minister of Justice asking him to charge Labwani with “communicating with a foreign country and inciting it to initiate aggression against Syria” even though the prosecutor had not initially included such a charge. The court ended up sentencing Labwani to 12 years in jail under a charge that was added at the request of National Security.

Background on the ‘Damascus Declaration’ and Syria’s crackdown on critics

The Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change (“Damascus Declaration”) is a coalition of political parties and independent Syrian activists created in October 2005. It consists of individuals and groups from different political backgrounds (Arab Nationalists, Kurds, liberals, leftists, Islamists) who issued a statement of principles, including the establishment of democracy in Syria, lifting of the state of emergency, protection of minority rights, release of all political prisoners, abolition of Law No. 49 (which makes membership in the Muslim Brotherhood punishable by death), and upholding of international human rights standards.

The National Council was established as a follow-up body for the Damascus Declaration. On December 1, 2007, more than 163 activists from the Damascus Declaration held a meeting to elect the leadership of the National Council. They elected as president Dr. Feda’ al-Hurani, a physician and daughter of Akram al-Hurani, a prominent Syrian politician who was highly influential in Syrian politics from the beginning of the 1940s until his exile in 1963.

Starting on December 9, 2007, Syrian security services began a crackdown on individuals who attended the meeting, arresting more than 40. While they released most without charge within a few days, they kept 12 members in detention and referred them to trial. These 12 are:

1. Walid al-Bunni, 44, physician;
2. Yasser al-`Eiti, 40, physician and poet;
3. Feda’ al-Hurani, 51, physician;
4. Akram al-Bunni, 51, writer;
5. Ahmad To`meh, 51, dentist;
6. Jabr al-Shufi, 60, Arabic-literature teacher;
7. `Ali al-`Abdullah, 58, writer;
8. Fayez Sarah, 58, writer and journalist;
9. Muhammad Hajji Darwish, 48, businessman;
10. Marwan al-`Ush, 52, engineer;
11. Riad Seif, 61, former member of parliament; and,
12. Talal Abu Dan, 55, artist and sculptor

Article 38 of Syria’s Constitution guarantees the right of every citizen to “freely and openly express his views in words, in writing, and through all other means of expression.” As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Syria has an international obligation to uphold the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly as well as the right to a fair trial.

Quotes from the defendants during their September 24 defense session

“I am not optimistic for the judgment … as I think that we are not being tried by this court, but from a power that relies on the state of emergency and the security services.”
– Riad Seif, 61, former member of parliament

“To end the state of emergency and the martial courts and to improve public freedoms – especially freedom of expression – are necessary conditions to improve the living situation of the Syrian citizen.”
– Dr. Feda’ al-Hurani, 51, physician

“I was tried for political reasons before. But this trial is different, because it is a trial of individuals who wanted to exercise their right to express their mind.”
– Akram al-Bunni, 51, writer

“Our arrest and trial is the best indication of the authorities’ refusal of any peaceful and gradual reforms required to resolve Syria’s problems.”
– `Ali al-`Abdullah, 58, writer

“The right to freedom of expression is a sacred right, and to give it up is to give up one’s humanity, and I defend my right and the right of any Syrian citizen in his freedom of expression.”
– Yasser al-`Eiti, 40, physician and poet

“The heart of this case is whether the authorities will accept the culture of dialogue and recognize different opinions.”
– Jabr al-Shufi, 60, Arabic-literature teacher

“It is difficult today to judge someone for his thoughts after democracy has become the way to determine people’s opinions and ideas.”
– Ahmad To`meh, 51, dentist

“Getting into the details of my defense is useless, but I will ask: what is the basis of the accusations?”
– Walid al-Bunni, 44, physician

“This is a trial of thoughts and concepts more than a trial of individuals. I don’t see that this court is trying me – rather it is trying every free mind in this country.”
– Talal Abu Dan, 55, artist and sculptor

“Even though I know that the court is not neutral, I say: any judgment is akin to a medal on my chest that I gift to my sons. Therefore I do not ask for clemency but for justice.”
– Muhammad Hajji Darwish, 48, businessman

Possible Coordination between CIA and Syrian Intelligence in Bombing Raid

Although I haven't heard this anywhere else, Professor Moshe Moaz suggests possible collaboration between CIA and Syrian Intelligence in the raid that killed 8 Syrians in the Syrian-Iraqi border town last week. Short story here in the Jerusalem Post (which is blocked in Syria - but accessible from Beirut). The reasoning is that there was no Syrian military response to the raid - which would probably have triggered at least some sort of skirmish had the Syrian regime not pre-approved the operation. So far the only response to the killings have been a mass demonstration (tens of thousands of protesters) and the closing of the American School and American Cultural Center until further notice. The embassy also closed for one day due to increased security concerns. Most of my Syrian friends believe the protest was orchestrated by the government. This is quite commonplace, government officials pass out signs and pictures to protesters, who are mainly gathered from among employees of public sector factories, civil servants and students at the state-run universities.