Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Ali Farzat

Ali Farzat is a Syrian political cartoonist. 

To those who follow Syrian politics, that might seem like a contradiction in terms. As a rule, the Syrian dictators of the last forty years haven't taken kindly to dissent. Ali is a big enough man that he did it anyway.

When Bashar al-Assad first came to power in Syria in 2000, Ali was allowed to open an independent, satirical newspaper. However, Ali's work is such that even this small enterprise was deemed too dangerous for Assad to countenance, and in 2003, his newspaper was shut down.

"Mauritania: Leaders of military coup pledge of hold early elections"

My thrice-weekly bus ride through Damascus used to take me right past his gallery, near the Seven Seas' Square. I always wanted to visit it. When the revolution broke out, I lost my nerve. I didn't want to give Syrian intelligence any excuse to deport me.

Ali Farzat did not suffer from this same fear, and as the revolution intensified, he started drawing cartoons like this one, which illustrates President Assad's decree "lifting" Syria's emergency law.

But here's the one that really got him into trouble.

Last Thursday, masked gunmen grabbed him off the street, threw him into a jeep, and viciously beat him, breaking both his hands before dumping him on the side of the road outside Damascus.

Is the pen stronger than the machine gun?  We'll find out soon enough.

Here's to Ali's health, and to good old-fashioned disrespect.  God bless him.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Koran by Heart

Yesterday, I watched one of the saddest documentaries I have ever seen: Koran by Heart. (It’s free online here:

The documentary follows three young children who traveled to Cairo, Egypt in 2010 to compete in an international Qur’an recitation competition – a young boy from Senegal, another young boy from Tajikistan, and a young girl from the Maldives. All three of them have memorized the entire Qur’an, from start to finish, in the original, classical 7th-century Arabic. Every syllable, every vowel, every inflection.

None of them speak or understand Arabic. None of them know the meaning of what they are reciting.

To devout Muslims, that’s irrelevant. The spoken word of the Qur’an, understood or not, is significant. It carries power within itself. Muslims believe that Mohammad recited the Qur’an to his followers exactly the way the angel Gabriel recited it to him (cf. Galatians 1:8), and that it has been preserved for them in that exact form to this day. According to one of Mohammad’s preserved sayings, when the Qur’an is recited, God’s peace descends.

Nabiollah, the boy from Tajikistan, was enrolled in an Islamic school by his father, whose own education was cut short by Tajikistan’s civil war, and who desperately wants his son to be educated. Early in the film, we learn that Nabiollah’s school has been shut down by Tajikistan’s government, as part of its campaign against Islamic extremism. His father takes him to a boarding school in another city, hoping to get his son accepted there. When the headmaster interviews Nabiollah, he realizes that Nabiollah’s entire education has consisted of memorizing the unintelligible sounds of the Qur’an. He can barely read or write his own language, Tajik.

Rifdha, the girl from the Maldives, is a beautiful, hyperactive 10-year-old girl, who sometimes speaks to the camera in her native language, and sometimes reads carefully crafted essays in English from scraps of notebook paper. Her mother boasts to the camera about her daughter’s perfect scores in math and science, and tells Rifdha to talk to her father about the possibility of getting a secular education.

Rifdha’s father is a Muslim fundamentalist who is not impressed with the level of piety exhibited by the Muslims he meets in Cairo. He believes it is a sin for a man to cut his beard, and tells the camera that any part of man’s leg above his ankle left uncovered by clothing will burn in hellfire. The documentary uses him a counterpoint to Egypt’s deputy minister of religious affairs, who is in charge of the competition. The minister rages against the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism, which can only be corrected by a return to the truth of the Qur’an. Cut to Rifdha’s father, who has made his prodigy of a daughter memorize the entire Qur’an in a language neither of them understand. He insists that his brilliant daughter will not be allowed to become anything but a housewife.

In one scene, Rifdha and her mother have a private reception with the former “president” (blood-soaked dictator) of the Maldives at his home. The ex-strongman complains to the camera about the rise of fundamentalism in the Maldives – an odd complaint from a man who made it illegal for any of his citizens to belong to a religion other than Sunni Islam, a law that stands to this day. (“لَآ إِكۡرَاهَ فِى ٱلدِّينِ.” “Let there be no compulsion in religion” – Sura 2:256, as translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali). The ex-president asks Rifdha why her father didn’t come with her to visit him. “He’s at the mosque,” she replies.

Frankly, Arab-centrism is on full display in this film. The Arab judges are constantly making remarks about how amazing it is that these kids “who don’t even speak Arabic” are doing so well in the competition. Despite their amazement, it doesn’t seem any provisions are made for those competitors unfortunate enough to come from non-Arabic-speaking countries. The rules are explained to Nabiollah in Arabic, even though, as the judge says while laughing, “you have no idea what I’m saying.” After passing the first round, Rifdha is left completely oblivious to the fact that there is a second round of the competition two days later, apparently because she and her father didn't understand the announcements. In one heart-rending scene, a non-Arabic-speaking African boy is told to begin reciting from a certain verse in the Qur’an. The prompt he is given appears in multiple chapters in the Qur’an, and he begins reciting the wrong passage. The judges repeatedly cut him off and yell at him in Arabic that he has the wrong passage. Of course, he doesn’t understand a word. Tears streaming down his face, he bravely finishes the passage (all the while I’m screaming at the screen, Ween mutarjim? Where is your freaking translator?) He is failed out of the competition.

The filmmakers do a pretty good job of masking their feelings about their subject matter, but I don’t know how any fairminded person can watch this film and come away feeling good about it. Here are three kids who are absolutely prodigious. What should we do with them? Let’s have them memorize an entire book in a language they don’t understand and that no one even speaks anymore. Will they someday get a decent education and realize the potential of their stunning talents? Eh, maybe. Hey, let’s have the kid with the nice voice who doesn’t even know how to read recite for the unelected mass murderer who rules our country!

And remember everybody – extremism is bad.

In his speech at the awards ceremony in the film, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, unaware that he will be on trial for his life in under a year, declares, “Tonight is the holiest night of Ramadan, the Night of Revelation, when the Qur’an was first revealed. The night of wisdom, to lead people from darkness into light.”

Not quite yet, apparently.

Sunday, August 7, 2011


I made this video after my trip to Hama in January 2011, halfway through my nine-month stay in Syria. I intended to post it while I was still in Syria (which is why my narration is so oblique.) I never got around to it. Now that the Syrian army is attacking Hama once more, I thought some of you might want to see this beautiful city. The people of Hama are, without exaggeration, the friendliest people I have ever met. In three days, I had coffee or tea with seven groups of complete strangers, and probably turned down twice as many invitations. They sure could use a break. God bless them.

(Everything about this video/slideshow is highly amateur. Please have mercy on it.)

Friday, August 5, 2011

Imperial Insanity

This morning over breakfast, my younger brother Simon once again recommended Joseph Heller's classic novel Catch-22 to me. (Is breakfast too early in the day for literary philosophy? Not in my family.) He explained, "The Catch-22 in the book is, you can only get a discharge from the frontlines of the war and go home if you're insane - but no sane person would WANT to stay, so your desire to go home is proof of your sanity."

The United States has 5,113 nuclear warheads in its operational arsenal. There are only 3,158 cities in the world with more than 100,000 inhabitants.

But all of those weapons mean nothing if you don't actually have flesh-and-blood people ready to push the button. Not pick up a phone and tell someone else to push the button. Actually push the button that will send a nuclear warhead flying through space to the other side of the world to vaporize and sicken millions of people.

Where do those people come from? And how does the U.S. military train them to do their jobs?

Last week, we got a partial answer.

Apparently, the U.S. Air Force enrolls its nuclear missile launch officers in a training course on war ethics. The course uses many different sources to justify the U.S.'s nuclear arsenal, including St. Augustine and the Bible. By way of explanation, David Smith, a spokesman for the Air Force’s Air Education and Training Command, told the Washington Post that the program's purpose was to “help folks understand why we’re doing what we’re doing. In the missile launch industry, it takes a certain mindset to be able to walk in the door and say, yes, I can do that.”

Yes, I suppose that goes without saying.

But don't worry. American civil society is all over this one.

Concerned about the content of the course, a group of 30 Protestant and Catholic military officers took a powerpoint from the training course to an organization called the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which then released it to the public. The Air Force quickly announced that the course was being redesigned, presumably to remove religious references, or at least supplement the course with teachings from Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism and secular humanism that justify maintaining a standing threat to murder millions of human beings. That way, our country's precious wall between church and state will remain intact.

Mikey Weinstein, president of the foundation, wants to reassure us that he isn't anti-Christian. “This isn’t about attacking someone’s faith,” he told the Post. “What it’s about is remembering that in this country … we separate church and state. They don’t do that in other countries. We do that here.”

There. Feel better now?

Jesus-free since 2011.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

What Kind of America Do You Want? (Pt. 2)


I read an (I thought) excellent book this summer: The Unconquerable World by Jonathan Schell. I wish I hadn't returned it to the library so I could quote from it now, but one of Schell's main points is: Empire abroad is corrosive to liberty at home. This seems to be a pretty well-established law of modern history. When a democratic government acquires the power and the will to dominate entire foreign nations with violence, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep that government from doing the same at home. Returning to the example of Israel, the Jewish state's refusal to relinquish its "accidental empire" is starting to produce some nasty results, the most outrageous and recent of which is a law banning boycotts of goods produced by Israeli settlements built on colonized land. To sustain its colonies, Israel must place limits on free expression at home.

What about here?

I am convinced that the U.S.'s global power has grown to the point where it can't possibly be regulated by a concerned public in the same way that our economic and domestic policies can. Sure, Iraq and Afghanistan grab the headlines (sometimes), but our foreign policy touches every country on the planet. There is no way a single person, much less an organized constituency, can keep it all straight. For instance, do you know our country's policy towards Equatorial Guinea? It's pretty horrifying. Have a look-see.

Our Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war. They haven't done so since 1941. Following the Vietnam disaster, Congress succumbed to the realities of empire and passed a law called the War Powers Act, giving the president the authority to go to war for 90 days, after which he could seek a congressional "authorization" to use force in lieu of an actual declaration of war. Ten years ago, Congress passed a resolution authorizing the use of military force against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks. (It was as vague as that.) Today, our current president is using that resolution to occupy one country, Afghanistan, and bomb three others - Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen. He's been bombing a fifth country, Libya, for 126 days without any congressional authorization at all. His official explanation? It doesn't qualify as "hostilities." He's ordered the assassination of American citizens. Warrantless wiretapping, military tribunals - all standard procedure. This is what an antiwar president looks like in the American empire.

I am currently reading a non-fiction book called Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, which follows the tragic tale of a Syrian-American family living in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. (Thanks Alvin!) The book's main subject, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, stayed through the storm to protect his house and rental properties while his family evacuated. He was seized by the military from his own home on suspicion of being a terrorist (really) and was held for 23 days without counsel, without being charged, and without being allowed to call his desperate wife, who we certain he had been killed in the post-storm chaos. In effect, he was disappeared by his own government.

Early in the book, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco announces that "war-hardened U.S. soldiers were on the way to New Orleans to restore order at any cost. 'I have one message for these hoodlums,' she said. 'These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will.'" (p. 118). Later in the book, A. Zeitoun's wife ponders the news reports of the military being deployed to New Orleans to "maintain order":

"[Her] mind spun as she read about the unprecedented concentration of armed men and women in the city. ...Blackwater USA, a private-security firm that employed former soldiers from the U.S. and elsewhere, had sent hundreds of personnel to the region. They were there in an official capacity, hired by the Department of Homeland Security to help maintain order. They arrived in full battle dress. ...As well as she could surmise, there were at least twenty thousand National Guard troops in New Orleans, with more arriving every day. ...If each one of those soldiers had at least one M-16 assault rifle, there were about twenty thousand automatic rifles in the city. Too many. And if Governor Blanco was right, that these were vets coming straight from Afghanistan and Iraq, it could not bode well for her husband. ...There were 5,750 Army soldiers in the New Orleans area. Almost a thousand state police officers, many of them there with SWAT teams, armed for urban combat. ...And snipers. They were sending snipers into the city to shoot looters and gunmen. Kathy added it up. There were at least twenty-eight thousand guns in New Orleans." (p. 194-196)

A. Zeitoun was held in a massive prison that was built nearly overnight at New Orleans' train station just two days after the storm hit. Eggers: "This complex and exceedingly efficient government operation was completed while residents of New Orleans were trapped in attics and begging for rescue from rooftops and highway overpasses. The portable toilets were available and working at [the prison] while there were no working bathrooms at the Convention Center and Superdome a few blocks away. Hundreds of cases of water and MREs were readily available for the guards and prisoners, while those stranded nearby were fighting for food and water" (p. 311)

Who says empire never comes home?

All of which is to say: empire is not simply another side project, another thing to cut. It is something that has already changed the fundamental character of our nation, and will change it further if we cling to it as doggedly as we have thus far.

What kind of America do we want? We can't have both the empire and the republic, and not just because we can't afford both.

Full disclosure: four years ago, I found myself on the opposite side of this debate. I was in one of my college's student research seminars, presenting a response to a paper from a Kuyperian scholar about the future of globalization. In my response, I argued that there was going to have to be a dominant superpower in the new world order. I argued that, given our democratic, religious and liberal heritage, that superpower should (continue to) be the United States, rather than China, Russia or Europe. Professor Kok challenged me on this point in the question-and-answer session. He reminded me that according to 1 John 5:19, the whole world is under the control of one person. Like any good Dordt freshman, I was about to answer, "Jesus," when he cut me off and said, "Read the passage, and you'll find out who that is."

What kind of America do we want? The Debt Crisis is over. The question is still unanswered.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What Kind of America Do You Want? (Pt. 1)

So, the Debt Crisis is over.

At least until next year.

In this intensely divided political environment, what everyone seems to agree on is that this is a terrible deal. It raises the debt ceiling, which was necessary, but in exchange, we get less than a trillion dollars in cuts over the next decade. (Our national budget is $3.7 trillion a year.) No new taxes, even on those who could well afford them, and no cuts to our biggest entitlement programs.

Under the deal, a special special committee will be set up to recommend a whole 'nother $1.2 trillion in cuts by Thanksgiving. Their recommendation will have the rare advantage of an undelayed, unamended up-or-down vote. Hopefully their recommendations will be good and hopefully the vote will be "up." But even then, we'll have no permanent solution to our debt problem, and our economy will still be languishing. And probably, their recommendations will only lead to another fight, this one in an election year.

So...there you go.

I'm not interested in assigning blame. We're in the mess we're in not because the Tea Party is crazy (though you could make that argument) or because Obama is a bad negotiator and too-righteous in his own eyes (and he is). Both sides are responsible. Both sides set down "red lines" that were incompatible with each other. Both sides thought they could not compromise without betraying their core principles, and both sides were right. We're in this mess because our country has overextended itself.

This country has made more promises than it can keep. The time is coming when we will have to break some of those promises. We haven't reached that point yet, but this crisis makes it clear that we are reaching it. We cannot be a country that provides quality education to all its children AND maintains a global network of military bases AND gives free healthcare to all its poor and elderly AND subsidizes health insurance for everyone else AND periodically bombs and occupies rogue states AND gives old people paychecks for being old AND is an industrial power AND is environmentally friendly AND is a free market low-tax paradise AND is a place where everyone owns their own home AND has a military budget equal to the military budgets of the next twelve countries after us combined AND that is "the last best hope of mankind" whatever the heck that means.

No doubt we would like to be all those things, because no presidential candidate that hasn't at least paid lip service to all those things has even come close to winning in decades. But we cannot. It is a pipe dream, and we are exhausting ourselves trying to accomplish it. The Tea Party may be misdirected and misinformed (and really, really annoying) but its enduring power and appeal testify to this fact. This country is not headed in the right direction; it's headed in three or more different directions, and it's starting to tear us apart.

American antiwar activists love to show pictures like this one:

"Whoa, look man, more than half our budget goes to the military, that's so whacked-out and here we don't even have government-provided daycare in this country..."

FALSE. If anyone ever says something like that to you, or shows you a pie chart like the one taped to that van, visit upon them a scowl of withering contempt, and then explain the following:

That pie chart shows DISCRETIONARY spending - or, money that is spent at the discretion of the current president and congress. But more than half of federal spending is MANDATORY - that is, the government is required to spend it by law. This includes Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid - both of which carry price tags higher than our defense spending (impressive as it is.) A more honest pie chart would look like this:

Over 37% of that circle is money we don't have.

After the Six-Day War in 1967, in which Israel conquered territory three times the size of its own, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol asked President Lyndon Johnson for continued military support. Johnson responded by asking, "What kind of Israel [will] expected to support...What kind of Israel do you want?" (Gershom Gorenberg, The Accidental Empire, p. 127 - yes, I cite this book a lot. It's awesome, that's why.) This is the question America faces today: What kind of America do we want? The empire, the farmer-governed republic, the social welfare state? There are precedents for all of these in our national narrative, but we cannot be all of them at once. Not anymore.

So...where should we start?