Juan Cole’s “Engaging the Muslim World”

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, The Electronic Intifada, 19 October 2009

Stereotypes, ignorance and misrepresentation have long pervaded US media coverage of Islam. In his 1981 book Covering Islam, the late Edward Said analyzed these distortions in the light of the relationship between knowledge and power and found that hostile representations are often informed by the particular circumstances of the engagement between the US and the Muslim world and the asymmetry of power between them. Little has improved in the years since, even as the focus on the region has intensified. Many of the misrepresentations that Said observed still abound, but the increased attention since the end of the Cold War, and especially since 11 September 2001, has inflamed suspicions and reinforced resentments making it easier for demagogic politicians to exploit. In his timely and insightful new book, Engaging the Muslim World, University of Michigan professor Juan Cole debunks prevailing myths and presents a set of compelling policy prescriptions that aim to encourage dialogue and defuse hostilities. However, while he convincingly addresses the questions of knowledge, unlike Said, he leaves issues of power largely unexamined.

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Khalil Bendib interviews Shlomo Sand

(Download Mp3)

Sand Invention-of-the-Jewish-smallFollowing an interview earlier this year, Khalil Bendib once again speaks with Tel Aviv University historian Dr. Shlomo Sand about his brand-new book, The Invention of the Jewish People. The book has become a best seller both in Israel and in France: Did the world’s Jewry truly originate in Palestine, and if not, why does that myth persist to this day?

Sand is currently touring the US: see also an interesting review of Shlomo Sand’s recent NYU lecture by Philip Weiss here.

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Peeling away the “Obama phenomenon”: An interview with Paul Street

obama-book3 How progressive is Barack Obama? It’s a question pundits, bloggers, and journalists have trouble grappling with. But one individual goes beyond the Obama phenomenon andinvestigates who Obama is and what he’s all about. In Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics, author Paul Street cuts to the chase and takes a closer look at the man who became the 44th president of the United States. What Street uncovers is a man crafted by campaign consultants with political beliefs consistent with elite party interests.

Street is an independent journalist, policy adviser, and historian. He is a former vice-president for research and planning at the Chicago Urban League, and author of Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: a Living Black Chicago History and Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era.

I caught up with Street to discuss his new book by Paradigm Publishers.

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A Map of Home

090831-jarrarThis review was also published in the Electronic Intifada.

Randa Jarrar’s “A Map of Home” is a beautifully achieved coming of age novel which follows a clever girl through a war, a domestic battlefield, and repeated forced migrations. For our heroine, these events are aspects of the normal everyday stuff (because everything’s normal when it happens to you), like school, friends, family, and shopping. Despite the geographical and cultural particularities of the story, the themes – of awakening sexually, of learning how to love a parent yet firmly say no, and of struggling for independence and a place in the world – are universal, and the book will appeal to all but the most easily shocked readers.

At the novel’s centre is a family. The father, Waheed, is a Palestinian from Jenin exiled to a string of temporary residences. Resentful of his failure to develop a career as a poet, he projects his ambition onto his daughter, about whom Waheed is convincingly self-conflicted: he wants her to be a famous professor, but doesn’t want her to study away from home.

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The Crisis of Islamic Civilisation

This was published in Prospect Magazine.

meccaThe contemporary religious revival is a complex business. In the same period that Muslim societies, in their weakness, seem to have re-embraced Islam, America, in its strength, has re-embraced Christianity. Western Europe remains avowedly secular. Despite the contradictions within the West, mainstream Orientalism holds that all cultures are developing towards the universal (or, more specifically, globalised) model of secular modernity and the market. The Muslim world experiences backwardness to the extent that it resists secularisation.

“The Crisis of Islamic Civilisation”, a subtle and erudite book by former Iraqi minister Ali A Allawi, challenges this thesis. Surveying the Muslims’ social, economic and moral failures, and the terror espoused by certain Islamist groups, Allawi suggests the problem might not be too much Islam, but too little.

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Michael Jackson, the bookworm

I saw this news item on Jeffrey St. Claire’s Facebook just as I returned from one of my (at least) twice weekly visits to an old bookshop (with a haul that includes works by Adam Smith, Gramsci, Fromm, Koestler, Steinbeck, C. Wright Mills, Albert Hourani and Eric Hobsbawm–all for a mere £10!). I like browsing for books and I am always heartened when I hear about other kindred spirits since the book reading culture appears to be on fast decline. I didn’t expect Michael Jackson to be one, but Carolyn Kellogg’s piece in the Los Angeles Times suggests otherwise. “Owners of local bookstores, including Dutton’s, recall encountering the late pop star perusing their shelves”, she writes. (Also see Democracy Now’s excellent coverage on Michael Jackson’s life and work).

Michael Jackson buying books
Michael Jackson buying books

When news broke in early 2009 of Michael Jackson’s return to Los Angeles, it was not via reports of him being spotted dining at the Ivy or dancing at the hottest new Hollywood club but book-shopping in Santa Monica.

“He was a longtime and valued customer,” a store representative of art and architecture bookstore Hennessey + Ingalls said Thursday. “We’ll miss him.”

If Jackson’s bookstore appearance surprised his pop fans, it was nothing new for booksellers. A few years ago, Doug Dutton, proprietor of then-popular Dutton’s Books in Brentwood, was at a dinner with people from Book Soup, Skylight and other area bookstores.

“Someone mentioned that Michael Jackson had been in their store,” Dutton said by phone Thursday, “And everybody said he’d shopped in their store too.”

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Illuminated Pages

Michael Palin, Robin Yassin-Kassab and Jeremy Harding in a 'qasr' near Ain Qenya, Ramallah
Michael Palin, Robin Yassin-Kassab and Jeremy Harding in a 'qasr' near Ain Qenya, Ramallah

Another fine LRB diary piece by Palfest participant Jeremy Harding. A visit to the al-Khalidi library leads Jeremy to consider “the war for control of East Jerusalem that Israel has been waging, slowly but surely, by non-military means.” More pieces by Jeremy are here , here, here, and here.

Haifa al-Khalidi says that she’s not a librarian. Fine. But the al-Khalidi collection on 116 Bab al-Silsilah Street in the old city of Jerusalem doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a library so maybe Haifa simply means she’s not a scholar, even if she’s now acquainted with a thousand rare manuscripts and many more works in print that are housed here. One of the first she shows us is a beautifully decorated Arabic translation of a work on poisons and remedies by a 12th-century Indian physician. (Later I learn it contains a tale about metabolic resistance and how it’s possible, carefully and slowly, to administer a poison to a subject whose antibodies enable him to survive, even though someone else who touches him will die. Actually, that ‘he’ in the story is a her, tanked up to become a poison pie and set before a king.) 

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The Green Still Resists

In one of the most contentious sections of his thoroughly contentious Cairo speech, Obama declared:

Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.

It’s difficult to know where to start with this. Perhaps by registering just how insulting it is for the representative of the imperial killing machine – responsible directly and indirectly for millions of deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Somalia – to lecture the dispossessed and massacred Palestinians on their occasional attempts to strike back. We can be sure that the sleeping children Obama is concerned with here are the Israeli children who live on the stolen land of Palestine, not the unsleeping, traumatised children of Gaza, several hundred of whom were burnt and dismembered six months ago. Then it’s worth remarking how the erudition and intelligence shown in Obama’s pre-presidential book ‘Dreams from my Father’ have been immediately crushed on his assumption of the presidency. How otherwise could his historical vision be so partial and simplistic? There was certainly a key non-violent aspect to the struggle for civil rights in the United States, but pretending that violence played no role in the process makes it necessary to ignore the American Civil War (half a million dead), Nat Turner, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and rioting Chicago. Violence, or the threat of violence, was important in South Africa and India too, and certainly in Obama’s ancestral Kenya, and was the dominant anti-imperial strategy in Vietnam and Algeria.

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Four Solutions

This is a response to Ali Abunimah’s excellent little book “One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.”

“I do not hate (Israelis) for being Jewish or Israeli but because of what they have done to us. Because of the acts of occupation. It is difficult to forget what was done to us. But if the reason for the hate will not exist, everything is possible. But if the reason remains, it is impossible to love. First we must convince in general and in principle that we have been wronged, then we can talk about 67 or 48. You still do not recognize that we have rights. The first condition for change is recognition of the injustice we suffered.”

– Said Sayyam, martyred in Gaza January 2009, to Ha’aretz, November 1995.

All Palestine is controlled by Zionism. The Palestinians (not counting the millions in exile) are half the population of Israel-Palestine, but they are victims of varying degrees of apartheid. The Jewish state has already lost its Jewish majority, and is more hated by the Arab peoples than at any time in its brief, violent history. Let’s take it as given that continuation of the present situation is untenable for everyone concerned. We need a solution.

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A Challenge to Blood and Soil

Joshua Holland considers the impact in Israel of Shlomo Zand’s bestselling “When and How was the Jewish People Invented?” Zand’s thesis – that Palestinian Arabs are closer descendants of ancient Israelites and Judeans than are contemporary Jews – certainly challenges the blood and soil aspect of Zionist mythology. The implications for the right of return, and for a one state solution, are, at least in cultural terms, profound. When the book is translated into English, could I ask American friends to post copies to their nearest Christian-Zionist church.

What if the Palestinian Arabs who have lived for decades under the heel of the modern Israeli state are in fact descended from the very same “children of Israel” described in the Old Testament?

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