Monday, June 15, 2015

Mongol Impact on Islamic Jurisprudence

One of the more important recent books in Middle East Studies is Guy Burak's The Second Formation of Islamic Law.  From its origins until the period of the Mamluks, Islamic law was a highly flexible body of rulings based on often creative individual application of its principles of jurisprudence to reach what in the eyes of the jurisprudents were appropriate conclusions.  However, the Ottoman dynasty began exercising a tighter control over it, appointing official muftis whose rulings became normative throughout their realm, as well as approving official texts for legal education and reference.

Most of Burak's book is taken up with how this process played out, but in his conclusion he steps back and takes a longer view both chronologically and geographically and argues that the Ottomans were simply one case of a post-Mongol shift in approaches to Islamic jurisprudence.  Burak notes that other Eurasian polities, notably the Mughals, Timurids, and Uzbeks, followed similar Islamic law policies to those of the Ottomans.  He traces this back to Mongol views of Chinggis Khan as a divinely chosen legislator, noting how dynasties which followed the Mongols developed their own legal theories based in part on Mongol ideas.  In the Ottoman case, their shaping of Islamic jurisprudence took place through kanun, or dynastic law, a term similar to and sometimes used interchangeably with the Central Asian tora and yasa.

The origins of the Ottoman Empire are tied to the wreckage of the Mongols as much as the Byzantines, and even though they claimed to have arrived in Anatolia fleeing the Mongols, there is evidence they were actually at one time subservient to the Mongols.  It is also a little-known fact in the West that all male members of the dynasty had the title "sultan" before their names, and which distinguished the actual ruler was the Central Asian title "khan" after it.  My friend Timothy May has written a book on the myriad ways the Mongol conquests changed the Eastern Hemisphere and set the stage for the encounter with the Western.  It wouldn't surprise me if Burak's ideas turned up in a future edition.

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Friday, June 12, 2015

Lebanese Guest Workers Organize

I don't know much about Lebanon, but apparently it has the same restrictive guest worker system as the Gulf states. They have formed a union to work for improved conditions:
But inside (the Migrant Community Center), walls are plastered with fliers about upcoming educational events for migrant workers, and "Know Your Rights" pamphlets are liberally displayed. Recently, the centre has become a meeting space for the Domestic Workers Union, a fledgling organisation that is the first of its kind in the Middle East.
Founded in January, the union - intended as a voice for Lebanon's approximately 250,000 migrant domestic workers, who comprise about five percent of the country's population - made its first public appearance in early May, with a march in downtown Beirut to commemorate International Labour Day. Members used the event to call upon Lebanon's labour ministry to formally recognise the union...
The Domestic Workers Union has a number of demands, including a minimum wage and a maximum number of work hours per week. The union is also calling for an end to the kafala system, under which employers can prevent workers from changing jobs or leaving the country...
But the labour ministry has still not formally recognised the union. Lebanese Labour Minister Sejaan Azzi threatened to have security forces disrupt the union's founding congress, and in a statement to the media shortly after the congress, he deemed the union "illegal".


Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Bedouin Dogs' Ritual Purity

Last year, I blogged about the change in urban Middle Eastern Muslims' views of dogs, when in the early 1800's they went from valued contributors to human society to ritually and clinically unclean beasts who needed to be driven away.  In his The Arab of the Desert, Harold Dickson, the former British political agent in Kuwait, wrote that among Kuwaiti Bedouin, whether the dog was ritually pure depended on what type of dog it was.

According to Dickson, the greyhounds called in Arabic saluqis, which were widely used for hunting, were considered clean, while the watch dogs who guarded the tents and livestock were not.  Because of their ritual impurity, the watch dogs were never allowed in the tents, while the saluqis could even sleep in the women's quarters  Saluqis were also prevented from interbreeding with other dogs.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Things Moshe Dayan Said

According to Tom Segev's 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East (p. 478), Moshe Dayan said the following about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank:
The situation between us is like the complex relationship between a Bedouin man and the young girl he has taken against her wishes.  But when their children are born, they will see the man as their father and the woman as their mother.  The initial act will mean nothing to them.  You, the Palestinians, as a nation, do not want us today, but we will change your attitude by imposing our presence upon you.
In other words, Israel was raping the Palestinians, but it was somehow a good kind of rape.  Nice and creepy, that.

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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Pro-Assad Foreign Fighters

This article brings home the fact that even though foreign fighters among Syria's rebels get more press, the Assad regime is probably more dependent on them, starting with Hizbullah:
The Assad family dictatorship is running out of soldiers and is becoming increasingly reliant on mercenaries...
In order to prevent the collapse of Syrian government forces, experienced units from the Lebanese militia Hezbollah began fighting for Assad as early as 2012. Later, they were joined by Iranians, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Yemenis -- Shiites from all over, on whom the regime is increasingly dependent. But the longer the war continues without victory, the more difficult it has become for Assad's allies to justify the growing body count. In 2013, for example, Hezbollah lost 130 fighters as it captured the city of Qusair and has lost many more than that trying to hold on to it. Indeed, Hezbollah has begun writing "traffic accident" as the cause of death on death certificates of its fighters who fall in Syria.
The Iraqis have almost all returned home. Rather than fighting themselves, they largely control the operations from the background. The Iraqi militia Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, for example, organizes the deployment of Pakistani volunteers in Syria. But no ethnic group is represented on all of the regime's fronts to the degree that the Afghan Hazara are. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but some 700 of them are thought to have lost their lives in Aleppo and Daraa alone. What's worse, most of them don't come completely of their own free will.
Up to 2 million Hazara live in Iran, most of them as illegal immigrants. It is an inexhaustible reservoir of the desperate, from which the Pasdars -- as Iran's Revolutionary Guards are called -- have recruited thousands for the war in Syria over the last year and a half.


Thursday, April 30, 2015

Netanyahu and the Courts

The Economist notes a looming battle over judicial review in Israel:
Israel’s Supreme Court has long been a solid pillar of the Jewish state’s democracy, holding to account governments of all political stripes. But as the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, puts the finishing touches to his fourth coalition after an election in March, he is preparing for an unprecedented fight to muzzle the court. The outcome of the contest—between politicians and judges, and between nationalist and universal values—could tear his government apart, and determine the future character of Israeli politics.
A new coalition is likely to be agreed on in the next few days. Five of its six parties are committed to vote for new legislation that would fulfil the long-held aspiration of right-wing and religious parties to limit the Supreme Court’s power to strike down laws passed by the Knesset.
Mr Netanyahu favours an “override clause”, under which the court could overturn laws only if eight or more judges vote to do so (currently a simple majority of the bench, for big cases usually 11 judges from a total of 15, is needed). Even then the Knesset would be able to push the law through with another vote. He also plans to expand the judicial appointments committee, which chooses all of Israel’s judges. By adding a minister and an additional Knesset member to the existing nine-strong committee, politicians would gain the upper hand; the legal profession currently has a majority, with three Supreme Court justices and two members of the bar association. The change could open the way for the government to pack the court.


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Muqrin Replaced

Tonight's breaking news out of Saudi Arabia is that King Salman of Saudi Arabia is removing Crown Prince Muqrin from the line of succession.  I predicted when Salman ascended that this might happen, and it represents what was already implied by Muhammad b. Nayef's appointment then as deputy crown prince: that descent from the "Sudairi Seven" is the principle for reducing the number of grandsons of King Abd al-Aziz who are eligible for the throne.


Friday, April 24, 2015

Ottoman Sources on Armenian Genocide

The mass killings of Armenians during World War I constitute a genocide.  There is no way around this unless one asserts that to qualify as a genocide an event must be like the Holocaust, in which case there is only one genocide.  If we use the main text of international law, however, then we need only have "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group," by which means the Armenian Genocide counts, as does the earlier Herero Genocide, the Rwandan Genocide, and several others.

A book which should remove all doubt on this matter is Taner Akcam's The Young Turks' Crime Against Humanity, which performs the service of demonstrating to any reasonable satisfaction that a genocide was committed using entirely Ottoman accounts, including from Turkish archives which have become much more open over the last decade.  Although there have been several waves of cleansing, detritus revealing what happened still remains, especially in some of the provincial archives which were less thoroughly vetted.

To follow one thread Akcam puts together, the records of the Ottoman Parliament show that one MP who briefly served in the Cabinet told of a two-track method of giving orders regarding the Armenians, where deportation orders would be officially circulated, followed by specially delivered orders, often oral, to liquidate the deported populations.  There is ample evidence the second types of orders were given.  Two provincial governors offered a refusal to implement secret orders as their reason for resigning.  Several others insisted on having the orders in writing so that they could use them if they were ever called to account.

Many Ottoman government documents discussing Armenian deportations clearly lapse into expectations that the deportees will actually die, as with a reference to the fact their children are "soon to be orphans."  In one cable to a governor, Talaat Pasha, who as interior minister was responsible for implementing the genocide wrote, "The Armenian question in the eastern provinces has been resolved.  There is no need to sully the nation and the government's honor with further atrocities."  This clearly indicates an awareness that atrocities had been committed.  There are also orders not to kill members of other Christian groups because they are not Armenians, which suggests the orders would have been different if they were.

In carrying out the genocide, the Young Turk government was implementing a "Five to Ten Percent Policy" according to which no region of Anatolia should have more than that percentage of Christians.  As nationalist movements broke up the Ottoman state during the 1800's, the new Balkan states became avowedly Christian, and began the outbursts of ethnic cleansing that would continue until the end of the 20th century.  Although thanks to the Sochi Olympics the Circassian Genocide in 1860's Russia is the best known, hundreds of thousands of Muslims were killed or driven out of the Balkans, as well, during the half century before World War I.

A characteristic of nationalism is an emphasis on cultural homogeneity, and so the Young Turks' were concerned in part to make Anatolia as homogenous as possible.  Muslims, it was thought, could be Turkified, and so they were, with forced Turkification the policy toward the Kurds even under the Turkish Republic.  Christians, however, were seen as a minority population which would always be set apart by religion, and so would also pose a risk of fracturing what remained of the state.  This was the reason the Young Turks' began their own ethnic cleansing campaign to reduce the population to their desired percentage.  Some populations, notably the Greeks, could simple be pushed into another state.  There was no Armenian state, however, and so annihilation became what was variously referred to as a "fundamental and permanent solution" or one that was "comprehensive and absolute."

There was much suffering among all ethnic groups of the declining Ottoman Empire, and still is today as its former territories continue to see a loss of once rich diversity.  The Armenian Genocide, however, was unique in the region, beyond an ethnic cleansing, and apparently an atrocity even to the man who supervised it.

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Monday, April 20, 2015

A Blind Chessmaster in Damascus

In her book Disability in the Ottoman Arab World, Sara Scalenghe mentions the visit of the blind Hammad al-Basri to Damascus in 1529:
He was known for his skills as a chess player, skills of such repute that the most celebrated players of Syria, Egypt, and the Hijaz traveled to Damascus to compete with him.  Al-Basri not only defeated them all but also inspired awe with his ability to play five opponents on five different chessboards simultaneously.  Some skeptics doubted his blindness, a suspicion that al-Basri would assuage by covering his eyes before each game.  Understandably, such feats gained him great fame and, eventually, the honor of playing in the presence of the sultan in Istanbul.
I suspect that this was not the first time Damascus hosted a blind chess players, as for centuries the Middle East has had a tradition of the blind achieving great intellectual heights.

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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Saudis and the Brotherhood

The Economist notes Saudi Arabia's lessening hostility toward the Muslim Brotherhood and situates it in a shifting geopolitical context:
The shift was evident as early as the king’s funeral, at which Abdullah’s successor, Salman, welcomed Rashid Ghannouchi, the Brotherhood’s main ally in Tunisia. Then in February the Saudi foreign minister, Saud bin Faisal, said: “We do not have a problem with the Muslim Brotherhood. Our problem is with a small group affiliated to this organisation.”
This more conciliatory tone reflects the attitude of King Salman. But it is also prompted by a foreign policy that now sees Shia Iran, not the weakened Brotherhood, as the kingdom’s gravest threat, to be countered with Sunni unity. This is most evident in Yemen, where the Saudis have assembled a broad coalition of Sunni countries—from Qatar and Turkey, which support the Brotherhood, to Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which vehemently oppose it—to fight the Zaydi Shia Houthi rebels. Iran has provided Sunni states with a common enemy and an excuse to put aside their differences, at least for now.
Winning the contest against Iran in Yemen and Syria may depend on Saudi Arabia and its allies working more closely with Islamists. The Brotherhood is prominent in Syria’s exiled opposition, which gets help from the Gulf. The Houthis recently arrested dozens of leaders of Islah, Yemen’s branch of the Brotherhood, after accusing the Saudis of calling them into battle.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

An Alawite Lost Generation

Ruth Sherlock reports on the heavy losses suffered by the Alawites, Bashar al-Assad's support base in Syria:
In a series of exclusive interviews, Alawites from the coastal province of Latakia, the sect's heartland, have told the Telegraph of how they are now trapped between jihadists who consider them apostates, and a remote and corrupt regime that told them the war would be easy to win...
The scale of the sect's losses is staggering: with a population of around two million, a tenth of Syria's population, the Alawites boast perhaps 250,000 men of fighting age. Today as many as one third are dead, local residents and Western diplomats say. 
Many Alawite villages nestled in the hills of their ancestral Latakia province are all but devoid of young men. The women dress only in mourning black. 
"Every day there at least 30 men returned from the front lines in coffins," said Ammar, who spoke to the Telegraph using a pseudonym to protect himself and his family. 
"In the beginning of the war their deaths were celebrated with big funerals. Now they are quietly dumped in the back of pick-up trucks." 


Sunday, April 05, 2015

Former Ba'athists in ISIS

Today people are talking about Liz Sly's Washington Post article on the role of former Iraqi Ba'athists within ISIS:
Even with the influx of thousands of foreign fighters, almost all of the leaders of the Islamic State are former Iraqi officers, including the members of its shadowy military and security committees, and the majority of its emirs and princes, according to Iraqis, Syrians and analysts who study the group.
They have brought to the organization the military expertise and some of the agendas of the former Baathists, as well as the smuggling networks developed to avoid sanctions in the 1990s and which now facilitate the Islamic State’s illicit oil trading...
The public profile of the foreign jihadists frequently obscures the Islamic State’s roots in the bloody recent history of Iraq, its brutal excesses as much a symptom as a cause of the country’s woes...
Under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph, the former officers became more than relevant. They were instrumental in the group’s rebirth from the defeats inflicted on insurgents by the U.S. military, which is now back in Iraq bombing many of the same men it had already fought twice before. 
The entire article is worth reading, and highlights elements of continuity between Iraq before and after Saddam Hussein which are too often overshadowed by the dramatic changes at the top. (I previously discussed some of these here.)  Although Ba'athist ideology was secular, the actual Ba'ath parties were more institutions by which entrenched regimes maintained power, and so Iraq's freely adopted a form of internally aggressive salafism during the 1990's.  From there, it was an easy shift into the salafi-laced anti-American insurgency and ultimately ISIS today.  I suspect this is some of what is covered in Amatzia Baram's recent book Saddam Husayn and Islam, which I have not read.

This does not mean that ISIS is simply the reconstituted Ba'ath or Sunni insurgency from ten years ago.  The organization has at times and in places distanced itself quite strongly from elements of Ba'athism and Saddam Hussein's regime.  Nonetheless, it is recruiting from the disaffected Sunni heartland of Iraq which was the Ba'athists' social base, and which has lots of former military and intelligence men whose training allows them to take over key positions in the organization.

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Saturday, April 04, 2015

MLB 2015 Predictions

Here are my predictions for the upcoming major league baseball season, which is also the post which I hope marks my long-delayed return to regular blogging.

NL East

New York

Forget the injury questions on offense, because the Nationals certainly have enough to win the division given their pitching staff.  On the next two teams, my head says Miami has the more reliable and balanced offense, but I have a feeling about the Mets this year, and think they will compete for a wild card.  Philadelphia's best players will be gone by August, putting them well behind a Braves team whose starters will be the reason to watch them this year.

NL Central

St. Louis
Pittsburgh (Wild Card)

St. Louis and Pittsburgh are clearly a cut above everyone else here, and I'm picking the Cardinals because I think they can beat the Pirates at the trade deadline.  Chicago will be improved, but the back of their rotation still has problems.  That is also the problem with Milwaukee and Cincinnati.  The latter's window has closed, and will probably sink into last after being a seller at the trade deadline.

NL West

Los Angeles
San Diego (Wild Card)
San Francisco

Everyone knows the reasons Los Angeles is the best here.  I've wondered if San Diego might actually be the Marlins of a few years ago, when a big off-season turned into a fire sale which led to their current strengths.  However, I do like the Padres more than the rest of the division, and in fact find the division as a whole so weak that I'm picking said Padres to rack up the wins to earn the second wild card.  The Giants can get quality from Matt Cain, but apart from that have too many weaknesses compared to last year's second wild card team to get back this year.Colorado and Arizona both have good offenses, but the pitching is to terrible they will rank among the bottom teams in the league.

AL East

New York (Wild Card)
Tampa Bay

This was my toughest call, but people forget the Blue Jays were first for much of last summer, and I see their offseason as providing necessary fortification.  If Tanaka and Pineda can combine for 350 innings and someone else in the rotation steps up to replace Hiroki Kuroda, then the Yankees will be better, but that's a lot of ifs.  Still, there's at least wild card talent there.  Baltimore's success has depended in part on winning one-run games, which will be much harder with a weaker bullpen.  Boston's problem isn't just the lack of an ace, but the fact that the starters they did pick up shouldn't be better than #4's on an elite team, and several will have to perform above expectations.  Tampa Bay's offense will be depressing.

AL Central

Kansas City

I'm picking a changing of the guard in this division.  Cleveland needs another starter, but has enough on the field to contend.  Detroit's pitching staff could easily implode, but should hold together well enough given their offense.  Chicago seems very hit-and-miss to me, sporting some very good additions but with deep question marks, as well.  Everyone worries about Bumgarner's innings from last year, but not those of the Kansas City bullpen that was a key to their success.  Minnesota still has lots of rebuilding in progress.

AL West

Los Angeles (Wild Card)

Although Nelson Cruz will have to conquer Safeco Field, Seattle is a solid team, with such veteran additions complementing what I predict will be breakout years by young players like James Paxton and Mike Zunino.  I'm less sold on Los Angeles, which last year ran away from the division when the rest of the teams simple collapsed.  People forget how good Texas can be, and even though Houston will be a better team than a year ago, they may not win more games given others' improvements, and so finish behind Oakland.


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Kulanu Message

Tal Schneider pays some much-needed attention to Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu party, which has an excellent chance to sit in the next government whoever forms it:
Earlier this week, I (Tal) attended a Kahlon campaign rally in Hadera, which a city in which this former Likudnik has deep roots.  It was interesting, especially to see him surrounded by close friends and family.  His sister spoke, his mother and two of his brother’s sat in the audience. The crowd numbered in the hundreds but even in this moment of almost-intimacy, it was clear the campaign is aiming far beyond the home crowd. Not enough has been written about this interesting candidate but he is emerging as the biggest challenge the Likud has seen in a long while.  He repeatedly declares himself to be the true heir of Menachem Begin.  He says that the Likud has lost all compassion. His message is getting out there.
Kahlon is focusing on the socio-economic status of his public, and he delves into their overdrawn bank accounts , the taxes they pay, the mortgages, the health care system, that is in strain, gaps in education, the dearth of public transportation for the poor. In short, he is sitting down with them and making himself part of the discussion.  His stated goal is to be named Israel’s next Finance Minister of Israel, and even with the 10 or so seats his party is now showing in the polls, it looks like he has a chance.
Schneider reports that as Likud sinks in the polls, it is the two centrist parties, Kulanu and Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid, that are benefiting.


Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Tawadros and Sisi

Johannes Makar takes a look at Coptic Pope Tawadros II's embrace of the Sisi regime in Egypt:
On Christmas Eve Mass on January 6, 2015—when President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi became the first Egyptian president to attend a church on the Coptic holy day—the congregation erupted in applause. The Egyptian Pope Tawadros II, who took office in November 2012, expressed his steadfast support for Sisi and called on his adherents to back the regime. Other prominent clerics, such as Father Makary Younan, even claimed Sisi had been “sent from heaven.” But despite the church leadership’s conservative leanings, not all Copts support the Pope’s partisan leanings. The Pope’s lack of neutrality and support for the regime may even be limiting the church’s ability to protect the rights of the Coptic community.
The Coptic papacy has dominated the community’s political activism since the 1950s—after Nasser’s de facto dissolution of the al-Maglis al-Milli, a powerful council of Coptic laymen—but papal hegemony has not bettered the community’s lot. Discrimination against Copts is deeply embedded in Egyptian society, not only among radical Islamists (as state media frequently mentions), but among governmental and military ranks as well. Successive governments have maintained, for instance, strict policies on the construction of new churches or maintenance of existing ones. Among other things, the president’s authorization is required in order to repair basic items such as a church’s toilet. Christians were promised after Morsi’s ouster in July 2013 that the government would remove “all barriers to building churches,” signaling a long-awaited breakthrough, but the issue remains unresolved.
Tawadros supported Sisi's coup against the Muslim Brotherhood, and there was definitely a cost to the Coptic community in the wave of anti-Christian Islamist violence which followed.  At the level of policy towards Christians, there is actually very little to differentiate Mubarak and Sisi from Morsi's government.  While there are Copts who oppose the pope's stance, however:
Many Christians back the Pope out of suspicion of secular institutions such as al-Maglis al-Milli and their fear that opposition would further marginalize the community, which is already heavily underrepresented in the national decision-making process. But if persistent discrimination against Copts is to be addressed, the papacy will sooner or later have to embrace an active Coptic civil society and their demands for reform. In such a scenario, the Pope would step back from his worldly powers and grant Copts an active and critical political role by encouraging Egyptian youth to vigorously participate in society and claim equal citizenship. Otherwise Copts as a whole risk being viewed as steadfast supporters of the Sisi government.