Wednesday, August 20, 2008

I'm going to Providence, RI, for Labor Day, and plan on eating shellfish. Not a big fan, having seldom eat such things as a child when I was fed by my midwestern parents, I've got an open mind.

I also look forward to spending time at the Hot Club.

I'm reading Marc Sageman's Leaderless Jihad now, at a slow pace. The academic discussion between Sageman and Bruce Hoffman is brought up often in the media, as in the opinion piece by Peter Bergen in this past weekend's Washington Post. And more people than Bergen come to the conclusion that the answer in the real world is somewhere in between the two. That lone radicalized individuals become dangerous when they link up with Al Qaeda Central.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

What books have I read recently? Well, what books have I started?

Corrections, Jonathan Franzen

The Stillborn God, Mark Lilla

The Pleasure of My Company, Steve Martin

And the only one I've finished is:

There are similarities between Geve's memoir with the fictional Fatelessness by Imre Kertesz, mentioned earlier on this blog. Although Geve is German, and Kertesz Hungarian, they both arrived at concentration camps as adolescents, and stayed remarkably long, learning to survive and proving themselves very adaptable to their surroundings. Most of all, the tone of the two books, the attitude and approach to daily life is very matter-of-fact, without sentimentalism. However, Kertesz drifts into a type of mania for logic and rationality which brings him into a daze about what is going on around him, whereas Geve exhibits pragmatism and is precociously aware of his need for hope and forward-looking companionship. Both spend time in infirmaries, too, and are of course very lucky, given the odds.

Geve mentions several times his awareness, even then, of the internationalist attitude he had gained from his experiences, and he contrasts this with others who hadn't been detained with a diverse group like he had. And the euphoria he describes during the days immediately following the liberation of Buchenwald are palpable and joyous, and I don't remember this from Kertesz' book.
Along the lines of earlier posts, an article in NY Review of Books on Islam, including a new book by Hans Kueng, the German religologist. He notes, for instance, that while many major religions have been able to criticize their texts, including Catholocism at a late date, Islam has not yet been able to do so.

I also thought this quote was telling, from Kueng:

"religion is no longer, as it was in the Middle Ages and the Reformation, an institution set over the social system to guarantee its unity, but merely a factor, a sphere, a one part-system among several."

This is similar to the background I read in Lapidus' book on the Islamic World about the development of Shi'ism as the dominant religion in Iran. Lapidus shows that the country's rulers viewed its popularity as assuring stability and logevity for their rule, both of which were lacking in that region in the Middle Ages.

Friday, September 14, 2007

An interesting article about the Italian Red Brigades' newfound interest in the radical Moslem community. This reminded me of discussions in Power and the Idealists about Marxists from the Islamic world like Azar Nafisi who became disillusioned with the "revolutions" to which they originally pledged allegiance.

After reading Berman's book, it seems clear that these new Red Brigades are repeating the mistake that the Marxists in the 1970s made in the run up to the Iranian revolution. The Islamists along with Communist and Marxist parties overthrew the Shah. After that, the Islamists instituted a totalitarian state and wiped out anything left of their left-wing co-conspirators. Berman's main point is that these former Marxists turned away from the ideology to appreciate liberalism and freedoms above all else.

Like the radical Moslems at the helm of the Shah's overthrow, some of the Marxist groups of the 1960s in America also had reactionary ideas about society, they also had prescriptions for personal habits and behavior. This indicates that these are not at once contradictory ideas.

The new Red Brigades state that the Islamists may be the stronger of the violent radical organizations now, but that Marxist conceptions of the proletarian overcoming its oppressors would win out; these Islamists are just vectors towards this outcome. This reminds me of the twisted strategy of Charles Manson, who tried to foment a race war that once finished, he was convinced, would allow him and his group to take over the country.

Monday, September 03, 2007

A friend asked me yesterday why fighting terrorism was so important when so many people in the world died every day from so many other causes, like poverty and hunger. It's a good question, and deserved a better answer than I gave yesterday.

I think there are several ways to answer it. The Islamic terrorism that started surfacing in the 1990s is both internationalized and is focused on destruction rather than political goals. First, the high profile of anti-terrorist policy making in the world is largely a game of catch-up. Sure, in many countries there has been a long history of national terrorism; national terrorists often have political goals, and believe that terror would be the best way to achieve these goals. One can find a way to reason with such groups -- take Northern Ireland. But the internationalized approach of terrorists today and their ability to move around the world force us to think about ways that terrorists can be deprived of their recourse to "safe countries." There shouldn't be any safe countries for terrorists.

If one looks back on the statements released from Al-Qaida's leadership, one could say that, like many national-based terrorist groups, it does have a political goal - of creating a global ummah. This is a much more far-flung aim, than, say, autonomous rights for a particular territory within a nation-state. I don't take the creation of a global ummah as a real goal of Al-Qaida, but even if it is genuine, one imagines that the interim goal to achieve this is all out destruction and the propagation of fear in the Western world.

And it goes without saying that, if the goal is destruction rather than the achievement of a political goal, that this is a different kind of "war." (I know this is a contentious term; shall I call it a "struggle"?) However, conventional weapons won't work in this struggle. We need new approaches. As I said in the previous post, some have indicated that the advent of suicide missions in connection with this type of terrorism changed the rules of the game. But I think we know that suicide bombers have caused the Western world lots of trouble in the past. One could think of kamikaze pilots, and look to Chechen fighters, and as I indicated earlier, some of these communist rebels in the 1960s. It's true that there have not been any Israeli suicide bombers, and that even though during Israelis' struggle against British occupiers, their brand of terrorism didn't include suicides. However, as Paul Berman describes Debray's concept of suicide, it is far reaching in modern political movements:

"Maybe revolution and suicide had somehow drawn close to one another. The vast popularity of the cult of Che in so many places around the world took on a slightly creepy look, from this point of view. But Debray was thinking of many more people than Dr. Guevara. He thought about President Allende in Chile, who killed himself with an AK-47 in the course of General Pinochet's coup, in 1973, and about Allende's daughter, Beatriz, who killed herself three years later, in Cuba...Debray never bothered to glance across the Rhine at his own comrades in Germany - a characteristic omission, on the part of a Franch intellectual. But it's obvious what he would have seen, if only he had bothered to look. For what was the history of the German revolutionary movement in the 1970s, if not a history of people on the verge of suicide, and beyond the verge? - even if no one has ever been able to rule out the possibility of official murders. The prison suicides, if they were suicides of the Red Army Fraction's leaders, the death of one revolutionary comrade after another, the grisly panache, the riots that broke out in the aftermath of those prison deaths - these things did seem to celebrate a cult of human sacrifice." (222)

There are several points in this that don't match up. First of all, human sacrifice for what one perceives as the greater good has a long history, rooted namely in Christian if not older traditions, like hero worship in ancient Greece. This is nothing new. Heroes are always dead when they are glorified. They died in battle, so to speak; and in the modern world, battle can take on any number of forms. Furthermore, I think Berman, and perhaps Debray, mistake fighting for lost causes as an obsession with death. That is too great a mental leap. Failure to make good cost-benefit analyses, or caring more about your cause than your life is not really an obsession with death, just a case of extreme fanaticism.

So why do we pay attention to terrorism when fighting poverty and hunger could save many more lives? First, national security is one of the fundamental tasks of the nation-state; if the United States is threatened by terrorism rather than by widespread hunger, then combating terrorism should be one of the nation-state's main tasks. You might say the United States doesn't do enough to fight poverty or hunger around the world, and you are probably right. But it wouldn't make sense for our government to view American and non-American problems in the same light, even though in many ways failed states are a detriment to our own security.

Secondly, terrorism has a more widespread impact than its victims. Terrorism is designed to spread fear wider than its randomly selected targets. This fear can cause greater havoc than the terrorist violence itself. It is a challenge, then, for governments to forewarn and arm their citizens with awareness while assuaging their fears. This is difficult, because governments also need to gain citizens' support for new policies to stop terrorists. If citizens don't perceive the threat, or feel the fear so to speak, then they won't support new policies that may inconvenience them or change the way their society has functioned. So this is the government's conundrum in the face of terrorism.

Finally, I think terrorism is also viewed as a priority because governments do not want to be taken by surprise. They want to be in control of their nation's security. As they should be. Unlike in a conventional war, the battle can crop up anywhere. This control of the security situation means that many new policies need to be put in place.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

A few more comments on Power and the Idealists. There was a small final thought at the end of one of the chapters, holding a lot of meaning but without much explanation, about the connection between some communist rebel movements in the 60s and the Islamic jihad of today. Regis Debray, who had far-reaching access into the lives, ideologies and methods of the leaders of the Cuban revolution, saw that many of the modern leftist rebellions were a kind of suicide mission. His recognition of this began with getting to know Che Guevara, and to see that the way that Che went on his jungle missions were intentionally suicidal, that he knew he would lose but that fight nevertheless required his death. So what was really new about another rebel movement obsessed with death? - he saw jihadis as fitting squarely in the same modern paradigm, and not as new a phenomenon as many have said.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

After looking at this book sit on the shelf for a long time, I picked up Paul Berman's Power and the Idealists, which tries to map how certain '68ers like Joschka Fischer and Daniel Cohn-Bendit became interventionists who could support going to Afghanistan and other wars. Berman starts out with the scandal surrounding Fischer's connections to RAF radicals in his student days, and to allegations of violent radicalism, but takes the book in other directions too. Most interesting was Berman's extended analysis of Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, and his examination of how once strident Marxists like Nafisi viewed the Iranian revolution and how they came to value individual freedoms above all while living under Iran's totalitarianism. Even though these '68ers didn't live through WWII, Berman is convinced that it informs their views and that their activism has crystallized and matured into a resistance of totalitarianism. Of course I write this while I'm in the middle of the book, so perhaps things will change by the last page....

Sunday, August 05, 2007

I am rereading The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco; it's surprisingly easy to pick up and read from wherever you happen to open the book. I like how the author built into the book the fact that people thought differently during the Middle Ages, didn't use reason or at least it was only in its infancy. That's why you can pick it up anywhere, and also because "enlightened" Brother William's ideas don't just get closer to the reality of things but they also allow the main characters to solve the book's mystery.

Another major topic of the book is heresy, and the question of where heresy and officially sanctioned belief diverge. I was reminded of all this because my boss took a detour on a business trip to Albi, in France, because it's one of the stops on the Tour de France. A day after he mentioned it I realized that this was the site of the Albigensian Crusades, and not just a pit stop for that parade of doping die-hards. Through a wonderful course I took in college with Mark Pegg, and the time I've spent near Prades, in the Pyrenees, I am still interested in this time period and the locations bound up with it. That includes the abbey of Saint Michel de Cuxa, which is so connected to the Cloisters in Fort Tryon park in New York, and lies close to the valley running through that part of the Pyrenees, to Saint Martin du Canigou, which sits high atop rocks which are the precursors to the Canigou mountain. And there is the priory of Serrabonne, the hard to reach abbey to the south. All of them quite old, with structures even from the 12th century.