Tag Archives: pakistan

Puzzles of the Orient: a random note on the Republican Debate

Last night’s debate didn’t strike me as something worth liveblogging on twitter or even commenting about as I posted in the middle of it. That anything much is going to be said that’s new or original is hopefully something no one came into the debate expecting. In passing, still, one strange entanglement of talking points caught my attention and seems to speak to something rather horrifying about the politics of not only the Republican Party, but the United States and even the broader world.

In the midst of the debate, Senator Marco Rubio argued that the supportive relationship between the US and Israel in contrast to the combative and hostile relationship the US has with almost every other country in the region made sense, saying:

“For goodness sake, there is only one pro-American free enterprise democracy in the Middle East. It is the state of Israel. And we have a president that treats the prime minister of Israel with less respect than what he gives the Ayatollah in Iran. And so our allies in the region don’t trust us. […] all those radical terrorist groups that, by the way, are not just in Syria and in Iraq, ISIS is now in Libya. They are a significant presence in Libya, and in Afghanistan, and a growing presence in Pakistan.

Soon they will be in Turkey. They will try Jordan. They will try Saudi Arabia. They are coming to us. They recruit Americans using social media. And they don’t hate us simply because we support Israel. They hate us because of our values. They hate us because our girls go to school. They hate us because women drive in the United States. Either they win or we win, and we had better take this risk seriously, it is not going away on its own.”

While his criticism of Arab or Islamic communities highlighted the sexism he perceived, the point seems deeply interconnected to other ideas about how societies should work. Not only should women be able to drive cars, they should be able to vote. It’s hard to imagine that kind of plea for “modern” women’s rights without accompanying ideas about “modern” political rights and other expectations (in Rubio’s mind that goes hand in hand with free enterprise, notably).

Mere minutes later, Ohio Governor John Kasich in his own words gave the audience “a little trip around the world”. He transitioned from describing a military strategy towards Russia to one in the Middle East, which in turn led him to saying this about the political culture of the region: “Saudi Arabia, cut off the funding for the radical clerics, the ones that preach against us. But they’re fundamentally our friends. Jordan, we want the king to reign for 1,000 years. Egypt, they have been our ally and a moderating force in the Middle East throughout their history.”

The limitations on free speech in Saudi Arabia are, of course, far more extreme than the limiting of funding for radical clerics. The regular and increasing use of the death penalty by the government there is primarily used on clerics critical of the Kingdom, especially those critical because of sectarian disagreements. Overwhelmingly, it’s the Shia minority clerics targeted with that and other state controls designed to limit their communities’ voices and shutdown opposition. They are also famously one of the governments in the region which most systemic restricts women’s rights – to drive, to go out in public, and to control their bodies and appearance. Those, in Kasich’s words, are “our friends” because of how they restrict their people and simultaneously, in Rubio’s view, someone we are locked in an existential struggle with… because of how they restrict their people.

Virtually no one – from Politico to the Seattle Globalist – pretends that the current government in Egypt is democratic. Politico’s coverage touches on a particularly interesting point, that sitting president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is a product of the military exchange programs run by and within the United States. In short, he was more than a little groomed for his current strongman role, with his wife beside him, notably in a hijab not in the more veiling niqab. When it comes to other women, however, his defense of the use of “virignity tests” to assess rape and harassment claims by women participating in the street democracy movements in Egypt speaks for itself. Much like Saudi Arabia, the same despotism that is woven into the fabric of how we decide that part of the world is categorically deserving of criticism, and yet oddly also, its saving grace.

Hopefully I don’t have to explain the irony in a debate where most of the Middle East is criticized as undemocratic where another person calls for the Hashimite dynasty in Jordan to rule for a thousand years. It’s worth noting that’s not just simply a millennium of rule, it’s another millennium.

It’s worth noting that even if Kasich and Rubio understood each other as disagreeing, they both continue to address the realities of political life in the Middle East with a common assumption. If you look at the autocratic and patriarchal aspects of life in that part of the world and judge it as exotic and foreign and Other to a US-backed alternative, at least one of the mistakes you’re making is overlooking the ways in which the US has encouraged these undemocratic and restrictive politics. If you look at the dictatorships and call them our friends, you’re insisting that popular rule in the region would inherently be incompatible with US interests and those are more important. Rubio looks at the region shaped by US and other foreign meddling and wonders how it got that way, while Kasich simply shrugs and notes we have to keep them in line. In either case, there’s a denial of the violence inherent in US policy, stretching back decades.

Whether you view this as a cultural war or a strategic conflict, the Republican debate last night offered only variations on viewing the average person in the Middle East as lesser, with no alternative to that.

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How many dead

TW: islamophobia, mass killings, genocide

So, of course, in the wake of the Boston Bombings, this happened:


(Erik Rush responded to being asked if he was blaming Muslims for the Boston attacks by saying “Yes, they’re evil. Let’s kill them all.”)

I think after the decades of the US being at war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and arguably secretly too in Yemen and Pakistan, people in this country have gotten accustomed to extreme displays of violence towards (presumed) Muslims. I don’t think the actual magnitude of this statement, which frequent Fox News guest Erik Rush walked back as “sarcasm”, has sunk in for many people.

There are about 1.6 billion Muslims on this planet. That’s nearly a quarter of the entire world’s population. Killing every single one of them, as Rush cavalierly suggested (oh sorry, “joked”) would be equivalent to more than 200 times the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. That’s more than 145 times the total deaths in the Holocaust. That’s more than 66 times the military deaths in World War II. That’s almost 39 times the military deaths in both World Wars. That’s still about double the largest estimates for deaths under Mao Zedong’s governance in China (which were primarily from starvation, but also included several million political killings). To call the number of people Rush joked about killing staggering seems like an understatement.

The sort of mass killing Rush referenced seems to fit more effectively into eradications that history textbooks describe as occurring across continents and over centuries: the colonization of the Americas, the “settlement” of Australia, the exploitation of Africa. Even compared to those, Rush’s “sarcastic” remark falls short: indigenous peoples saw their lives destroyed on an unimaginable scale in each of those historical processes, but there were survivors. In a very real way, what Rush “joked” about was a level of murder unprecedented even in those cases, that would have lead to the depopulated path leading from the western coast of Africa into central Asia.


(Percentage of the population in a given country that’s Muslim. The darkest color, which is most prevalent in North Africa and the Middle East, represents that at least 90 percent of the population is Muslim. Click to enlarge.)

In spite of how much this remark, if translated into action, would be a new chapter in an already bloody history, it’s actually shocking how well it fits certain legal language: that of genocide. To the surprise of some, the legal definition of genocide is actually quite narrow, since it was written by the US (which had just used nuclear weapons against enemy civilian populations), the UK (which still had it’s empire, including the brutal local governments in south Asia and south Africa), France (which had brutally repressed its colonial subjects in Algeria and would do so again after the war), the USSR (who at that time was governed by Stalin), and China (what was in the midst of a massive civil war that would lead to Mao’s death-happy rule). The hands that conceived a legally actionable idea of what were and weren’t crimes against humanity were careful to make sure their past and future actions weren’t themselves quite within the boundaries of the definition.

In light of that it’s something of a shock how easily Rush’s comments fit into this deliberately narrow definition: the intent or act of killing in whole or in part an ethnic, religious, or racial group. Muslims are pretty clearly a religious group, which he quite clearly advocated killing of in whole. With so little wiggle room, the only defense he has that he didn’t advocate genocide is to claim “sarcasm” – and lo and behold he has.

While I don’t intend to suggest we should limit speech half as much as we do now, it seems like the US public and Fox News in particular could make clear that we aren’t on the same page as Erik Rush. So, I hope you’ll consider signing this petition which requests that Fox News cease hearing from him permanently.

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A run down of the wars

TW: Korean War, Philippine-Malaysian tensions, Argentinian “Dirty War”, drone strikes

War was all over the news today, let’s just take a quick assessment of it all.

  • Just before joint military exercises between South Korea and the US, North Korea has sent several signals suggesting that they might be interested in reengaging the South in another armed conflict. The last time everyone considered that they were likely to do so (in 2010) more than a few people cited analysis from 2005 (again, when everyone expected something to happen) that suggested huge casualties would be likely if the war did reignite. Buried under all the paranoia is an actually important point: if the war, which technically has only ceased rather than ended, started again in earnest, hundreds of thousands are likely to die. That, among other pieces of evidence, does point towards this being yet another bluff on the part of the North Korea leadership. Unfortunately, there seem to be diminishing returns as North Korea has to increasingly concern China, South Korea, and the US in order to not be easily labeled as only being aggressive to jockey for aid.
  • Military conflicts between East Malaysians and militarized Filipin@ groups in the Sabah province have gotten the Philippine state involved now as unaffiliated Filipin@ individuals have been targeted by the Malaysian police. Ironically, exacerbating the land conflict wasn’t the intention of the Sulu Sultanate, the Filipin@ group in question, who simply wanted the regular allowance paid by the Malaysian government for having displaced their government to be raised. As tensions have worsened, that actually seems to be becoming a less likely outcome.
  • With the selection of the Archbishop of Argentina to hold papal office, many old wounds about the “Dirty War” in Argentina have been reopened. Was Jorge Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) among the high-ranking Catholics that sought to soften the blow of the military regime by keeping pregnant political prisoners alive, only to kill them after they gave birth? Is his sense of fidelity to Christian principles so thin?

What’s striking is how many of the instigators (or alleged accessory in Pope Francis’ case) were loath to actually initiate or perpetuate conflicts. They didn’t seem to be interested in killing or causing the death of anyone, but their political interests allowed them to risk that, or even cause or participate in it to maintain an unsustainable class division within North Korea, to lobby for greater dispensation from the Malaysian government, and to protect some perceived victims in the midst of state-sponsored killings.


(A Pakistani woman protesting the use of drones in 2011, from here.)

I think that’s an important thing to meditate on, when examining your own beliefs. Would they let you get to the same place as Kim Il-Sung, the Sultanate of Sulu, or Pope Francis?

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Guiding violence

TW: drone strikes, abilist criminalization

It’s hard not to reach certain conclusions given recent polling among Americans on what uses of military drones we approve of. In a remarkable display of hypocrisy, some 75 percent of us are fine with them targeting anyone the US government deems a threat who’s outside of the country. When the target, however, is specified to be a US citizen (as was Anwar al-Awlaki), that number precipitously falls to 24 percent. We’re quite comfortable dishing it out, but the idea that there should be a uniform rule on the acceptability of drone strikes independent of the targets’ citizenship statuses scares us quite considerably. We’re fine with violence, just as long as it’s not directed at us.

In a number of ways, the attitude seems to derive from a similar principle of the on-going debate about the right to access and use firearms, namely that those rights might conceivably be rescinded or more tightly regulated for those deemed a threat. In other recent polls, nothing comes close in terms of support to actually enforcing existing laws, except for creating discriminatory laws about who can and who can’t own weapons. The appeal of that harshly contrasts with the lowest support for an across the board ban on “safer” weapons in US history. Equality under the law is a rapidly declining concept apparently.


(Pakistani children at rubble from their destroyed homes in Buner, Pakistan, following a drone strike. From here.)

The message here seems to be that a growing number of Americans believe that our nation can shape the direction of violence. The proposed policies would be comical if not so threatening. Our country is seriously discussing preventing groups that are actually more likely to be victimized from having the weapons that the country accepts deregulated purchases of because of the need for self protection. Our country somehow believes that citizenship is a brightline between an us and a them, and that non-combatant deaths are either non-existent or unimportant.

It makes you wonder what would have to happen for us to ponder whether we’re the deluded ones, whether we’re the aggressors, or whether we’re the ones who need to examine what we’re doing in the world.

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Dead women of color: political symbols or human beings?

TW: gun violence, racism, sexism

The past week has seen pretty extensive coverage of the lives lost and the grief they left behind in Newtown, Connecticut. The attention involved in this has been, in my opinion, so focused on their daily lives, that it’s humanized the victims to a great degree, even as the tragedy they experienced has reignited discussion on numerous political issues. The nagging question I have, however, is what comparisons can be drawn between this mixed-gender group of almost exclusively White and affluent child victims and the variously aged women of color who faced attempted murders in the past couple of weeks.

In Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai, a fifteen year old, was shot in the head after publicly advocating for greater access to education for women both in her home country and more broadly. Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari has visited her, as she is now a symbol of the struggle against sexist policies for many. In Ireland, Savita Halappanavar died unnecessarily as medical professionals refused to terminate her pregnancy until it not only put her at risk of complications but put her life in “immediate” danger. Unfortunately that wasn’t determined until their inaction had killed her. The Irish government is now considering changing the law, which would ideally not force non-Catholics like Halappanavar to live under catechism-inspired laws as well as establish a parity between Irish and EU law on the issue. In the United States, Kasandra Perkins, the girlfriend of the Detroit Lions’ linebacker, was killed shortly before the player, Jovan Belcher, took his own life. One anti-domestic violence activist actually referred to this as an “educational opportunity” where the NFL might make some sort of statement (they didn’t).


(Halappanavar’s death elicited protests, which used an unfortunately quite familiar slogan, from here.)

Last night, Rachel Maddow mentioned that one of the victims from the shooting at Sandy Hook, a White boy just short of seven years old, loved to play something she only described as “the lawnmowing game on the ipad”. It’s an inane but humanizing detail, and if you stop to consider it, the coverage of all those previously mentioned (near) deaths of women of color didn’t even pause to mention their needs, wants, interests, or desires. There’s no quotes from them directly or from their loved ones. They apparently exist as events with political importance, with little sign of the emotionally charged notion that human beings died in the process.

If these aren’t reported like the deaths of other human beings, the inevitable question might be whether those who write these articles consider the victims to have been human. Beyond that, exposed to stories like this for years on end, does much of their audience think of these women of color as living, thinking, feeling human beings? Or are they merely test subjects for policies, that will be changed when their deaths become particularly noticeable?

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Ill omens for Suu Kyi?

Just to review, if for the past week you stuck exclusively to American media you’d probably have heard either nothing about President Obama’s recent trip to Myanmar, or saw an awful lot of this image:

Helpfully, Al Jazeera can provide you with a more nuanced look at the talks in which multiple issues are clearly at play. Obama has done a lot of work in opening Myanmar to democratic influences from namely the US but the broader world. But there’s also speculation around the world about what else will happen now that the country with the world’s tenth largest natural gas reserves has been opened up. Aside from potentially exchanging isolated exploitation for a globalizing variation on the same theme, there’s always the possibility of a close bond between the US and a democratized Myanmar to further politically contain China. As we’re still trying to extract resources from the region and contain Chinese political influence, it seems worth asking if this is just a smarter version of the same US policies that brought us the Vietnam War.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the effective leader of the democratizing movement in Myanmar brilliantly said, of the gains made while Obama has been in office, “We have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success and that we are working towards genuine success for our people.” With brave talk like that, from someone who’s been under house arrest almost continuously for the past twenty years, we should all have hope. But for her to provide the tenacious leadership that won’t settle for exchanging a Myanmar run at the behest of China for a Burma designed for the benefit of the United States, she’ll have to beat the odds.

Suu Kyi will have to avoid the fates of former Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and former Chilean President Salvador Allende. She’ll also have to overcome the temptation to avoid challenging the powerful that daunted the still lauded Nelson Mandela. There’s actually been another democratizing female politician from a politically dynastic family trying to fight against military rule in a former colony in subtropical Asia – former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who seemed to combine the worst of Mandela’s subverted democratization and Allende’s and Mossadegh’s inability to avoid assassination. That’s not a very positive predictor of either Myanmar’s or Suu Kyi’s futures.

Perhaps a better question than why some Burmese people created a mural of Obama is why didn’t they create one of her? And how does that bode for any emerging democratic government in Myanmar?

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Broader skepticism towards some

TW: islamophobia, impact of sanctions, Iraq war, Bush-era impunity, drone strikes in Pakistan

One of the amazing turns of a phrase from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ seminal article published a few weeks ago spoke to the very core of systemic bias. His examination of the continuing anti-Black racism in the US even into the Obama era questions the idea of racism as an easily challenged certainty in certain people’s inferiority, speaks instead of a racism that’s a “broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others”. A similar dynamic has become painfully obvious since early September with regard not only to race, but also religion, with a groundswelling of anti-Islamic bias.

Just over two weeks ago, it was reported that Dr. Shakir Hamoodi, an Iraqi American, was sentenced to three years in prison for violating the United States sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s former regime in Iraq. During the mid and late 1990s and first two years of the Bush administration, Shakir began sending funds through an intermediary bank account in Jordan to relatives who remained in Iraq, who were unable to buy basic medical supplies and trapped in cyclic poverty. He organized similar transfers for his wife’s family and families of close friends, ultimately funneling close to a quarter million dollars over a decade to at least fourteen Iraqi families, allowing them to access necessary goods from antibiotics to having greater food security. It’s worth noting, as reported, “[n]obody, including the US government, claims that these amounts were intended for anything other than humanitarian assistance”.

But as a person who prominently criticized the looming Iraq War while Muslim, Dr. Hamoodi fell under suspicion and was investigated by the FBI. He plead guilty to having sent funds into Iraq during the years the sanction was in effect, and consequently is now serving multiple years in prison. In contrast, other individuals who participated in economic exchanges with Iraqis during those years, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, have not been charged with the same crime, despite clear documentation of it (under the section labeled “Halliburton”). Purportedly the fact that Cheney’s a Methodist, rather than a Muslim, has no bearing on the issue.

Over the past year, similar stories of major discrepancies have surfaced repeatedly. Most shockingly, the United States has silently (and rightly) stood behind the government of Israel for shooting down a drone in its airspace with unclear but almost undoubtedly unsavory intentions. It was an entirely different story for Pakistan, and when the origin of the drones established to have killed non-combatant civilians was known to be the United States. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta insisted earlier this year that the drone strikes were legitimated by Americans’ need “to defend ourselves” which connects worryingly with the common practice of categorically labeling all casualties as among combatants. The only way to be sure they weren’t terrorists apparently was to kill them. Many of Israel’s neighbors would undoubtedly feel the same concern for their security and consequently justification for drone strikes on Israel (just read the section in this report titled “Threat perceptions”). Does the mere suspicion of intent to kill justify preemptive strikes across borders? Or only if the targets are presumably Muslim? There’s many key differences that could be seen between these situations, but it seems salient that one country is predominantly Muslim and another is predominantly Jewish.

Drone strike wreckage in Janikhel, Pakistan
(Wreckage from a drone strike in Janikhel, Pakistan, from here.)

Why is the right of Pakistani civilians to not have death ran down on them from above up for discussion? Why is circumventing US sanctions only important if the criminal is Muslim? Why do we hold broader skepticism towards Muslims around the world, compared to broader sympathy for others?

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John McCain just called for an American Empire

TW: Imperialism, Neo-Colonialism

Perhaps it’s the now famous soft spot the media has for John McCain, but they’ve been happily ignoring that as the only speaker at either the Republican National Convention (RNC) or the first night of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) to directly discuss international conflicts, he’s advocated for an American Empire.

A week ago today, McCain spoke glowingly of the duty of any American government to assist the downtrodden:

“Sadly, for the lonely voices of dissent in Syria, and Iran, and elsewhere, who feel forgotten in their darkness, and sadly for us, as well, our president is not being true to our values. For the sake of the cause of freedom, for the sake of people who are willing to give their lives so their fellow citizens can determine their own futures and for the sake of our nation – the nation founded on the idea that all people, everywhere, have the right to freedom and justice – we must return to our best traditions of American leadership, and support those who face down the brutal tyranny of their oppressors and our enemies.”

He continued on, insisting that the protracted revolutionary struggles in Iran and Syria (and by implication elsewhere) have wanted and needed American support, potentially even military assistance. As he did in 2008, he’s lent his voice to the extremists in American and in Iran who want a conflict, and have begun or will begin patrolling the other nation’s waters (which practically begs for another Gulf of Tonkin casus belli). In his zeal for endless American war and occupation in the Islamic world, he’s ignored UN appeals for no military intervention in Syria, as even the most distant support of Russia has prolonged the conflict. The United Nations has failed to see the glorious battle for human rights in Syria that McCain somehow perceives, as their Secretary General was paraphrased as noting:

“both the Syrian government and the opposition of large-scale human rights violations, including torturing and reportedly executing prisoners and failing to protect civilians who are fleeing the country in record numbers.”

McCain, whether ignorant or dismissive of the UN Secretary General’s counter-point, remains convinced of the usefulness of military assistance, if not direct military action.

In his speech, McCain also chided the President for implementing a distant timeline for removing troops from Afghanistan “before peace can be achieved and sustained”. He has a point that the Afghani government is in over its head, as it’s taken to mass firings of military recruits that have even the flimsiest connection to the Taliban or other insurgent groups. But as Al-Jazeera coverage argued in the week before his speech –

“the ISAF/NATO mission [in Afghanistan] was simply to decrease the size of the [undemocratic] ‘black space’ and increase the size of the [pluralistic, democratic] ‘white space’. Thanks to their efforts, the democratic space is acknowledged by all of us. But the harsh reality is the emergence of a vast grey space and an increasing size of the black space. This ‘grey area’ consists of complex layers of corruption, bad governance, unemployment, political disunity, alienation and poverty. Against this backdrop, the democratic space is too fragile and vulnerable.”

The poverty, social and economic isolation, political dysfunction, systemic exploitation, and other negative forces in Afghan society are overwhelming. In complaining that the United States is leaving before building a peaceful, democratic, and pluralistic society, McCain has presumed that such a goal is possible. McCain was likewise quite clear, less than a year ago, in dramatically opposing the withdrawal from Iraq – or as he called it giving “victory to Iran”.

At this point, it’s quite clear that John McCain wants to see a blazed path of war or occupation by American forces stretching from the Mediterranean deep into Central Asia.

Countries John McCain wants us to occupy or wage war against
(John McCain has expressed interest in the past year in at least remaining in Iraq and Afghanistan and attacking or occupying Syria and Iran. He has likewise made statements suggesting he would not remove military conflict with Pakistan from the table.)

The countries shaded in the above map have a combined population of approximately 155 million. John McCain wants us to make war against or occupy the territory of a portion of the Islamic world with roughly half the population of the United States. If you include Pakistan (hatched in the map above) in the population and regional estimations, as we could be considered to be unofficially at war within that country, much like Cambodia or Laos during the Vietnam War, the United States would be impacting or combating a population larger than its own by approximately thirty million people.

Interestingly enough, the region McCain wants us to be at war with is perfectly contiguous – even as he argues that this isn’t related to strategic geopolitics or consolidating control over valuable mineral resources, but rather about human rights. We should believe that when he calls for military assistance or support for the people of Mali.

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