Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The War on Jaramana

Today, in a Syrian town called Jaramana, four bombs went off simultaneously, killing 77 people.  There were no army checkpoints or police stations nearby.  It was a premeditated slaughter of innocents.  It was 7 AM in the morning, and many children were on their way to school.  One car bomb exploded near a gas station; another car detonated as it drove against traffic down Jaramana’s narrow streets.

Jaramana is a suburb of Damascus, part of a network of slums encircling the capital city that the government, apparently without irony, calls the riif (or “countryside.”) Compared to the other cities of the riif, it is fairly new and prosperous.  The buildings are newly-built and the streets are well-paved and lined with tiny malls, specialty shops, and overpriced cafes. 

And just imagine the fabulous live shopping you can do at Snoopy!

I would go to Jaramana often to volunteer-teach at a rare Evangelical Christian school, or to visit friends.  The minibus from Damascus’ Old City would take me into the clustered streets of the riif and through multiple faux gates bearing the likenesses of President Assad and his relatives, ending up at the “Square of the Swords,” a Syrian war memorial.

Most of the people living in Jaramana are either Christians or Druze, followers of a secretive religion with its origins in Shia Islam.  When millions of Iraqis, nearly half of them Christians, fled to Syria to escape Iraq’s sectarian violence, many of them chose to settle in Jaramana.

So many Iraqis fled to Jaramana that when I visited there during the Iraqi election season, I saw campaign posters like this one lining the streets:

Iraqis living in Syria were the only people in the country allowed to vote for their leaders.

Jaramana also had the best Iraqi restaurants:

One of my best friends in Syria was a young Iraqi I’ll call Khaldun, a crazy-smart, fluent-in-English, hyper-ambitious renaissance man. 

Khaldun’s family fled to Jaramana from Baghdad after his dad was kidnapped.  The terrorists found him on the street and pushed him into a waiting car – right in front of a police station.  Khaldun’s family was Christian, and his dad had light skin and blue eyes.  Because of this, the terrorists thought he was a western missionary. “They were not too bright,” Khaldun told me.

Khaldun’s dad was tortured and hung from the ceiling by his wrists.  But he had always been a generous man, and when his Sunni Muslim neighbors found out about his kidnapping, they made inquiries, discovered who was behind it, and were able to intercede for his release.  After that, the family made for the border.

With that kind of trauma in their past, it's amazing how whole this family was, how warm and welcoming they made their home.  Some of my best times in Syria were spent at their flat, listening to Khaldun play the oud, eating his mom's delicious cooking, looking at family photos with his dad, and playing wrestling video games with his brother.

Khaldun is now studying in the United States, along with his younger brother.  A few weeks ago, he told me that his mother, father, aunt, and youngest brother – age 10 – had fled to Beirut in mid-September.  A large explosion had occurred just minutes away from their flat, and was followed by another explosion shortly afterwards.  That’s when they decided to leave.

At age ten, his young brother has had to flee for his life from two different countries because of his ethnic/religious identity.

I have other friends in Jaramana, but I don’t know if they’ve left or not.

Because Jaramana is mostly Druze and Christian, its residents are largely pro-Assad.  Many of Syria’s religious minorities fear that the downfall of their country’s secular dictatorship will lead to a religious government, persecution, and perhaps even genocide, as in Iraq.  Those fears are now being borne out.

The more extreme elements of Syria’s uprising have evidently decided to target Jaramana’s people for murder and terror.  This latest bombing attack was only the deadliest so far.

On August 27, two supporters of the government were killed in a bomb attack.

On August 28, a taxi plowed into the funeral procession for those two men and exploded, killing twelve people, including five children.  This was the attack that prompted my friends to flee.

On October 19, Father Fadi Jamil Haddad, a Greek Catholic priest, was kidnapped in Jaramana while trying to ransom a kidnapped parishioner.  His body was found six days later.  It bore the marks of torture.

On October 22, a car bomb detonated outside the church of St. Abramo in Jaramana.  Thankfully, no one was hurt.

On October 29, a car bomb exploded outside a bakery in Jaramana, during the Eid al-Adha, the biggest feast on the Islamic calendar, which was supposed to mark a ceasefire in the fighting.  Eleven people died.

Reuters reported today that, according to a resident of Jaramana, the town’s Druze leaders had “repeatedly forbidden” rebels to operate in the town. “Tension have risen between Druze elders and rebels and now there are 3 or 4 small explosions a week,” she said.

Apologists for the Syrian opposition claim that the government is behind the attack, and is trying to stoke the fears of minorities to ensure their loyalty.  This is rather like claiming the Israeli government staged the bus bombing in Tel Aviv last week to get its people riled up against Palestinians.  With the Christians of Qusayr and Homs driven out of their homes, multiples churches bombed or burned to the ground by rebels, and Saudi Arabian channels broadcasting anti-Alawite propaganda on a daily basis, we're well beyond that point by now.

Sheikh Adnan al-Arour, a Salafist Muslim leader in Syria and a key figure in the Free Syrian Army leadership, has promised that, after the revolution, religious minorities who supported Assad will be “chopped up and fed to the dogs.”

Here’s what that looks like:

Jaramana is just one of the many towns that will be swept away in the maelstrom of hate and terror that the Syrian civil war has become.  My friend's family is just one of millions.  Bashar al-Assad in his mad quest for survival, the Syrian rebels in their mad quest for revenge and Sunni Islamic supremacy, and the U.S. in its mad quest to stay forever on top of the Middle East dogpile, will brush them all aside without a second thought.

But I hope you'll join me in taking a second to remember.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Election Post

(My friend Adam M. demanded this post.  You can blame him.)

So, congratulations to my progressive friends, I suppose.  President Barack Obama has been re-elected for another four years.

A lot of liberals on the websites I read have been crowing that this election marks the victory of science and pragmatism over willful ignorance and fearmongering, or something like that. (I'll link only to the worst offender here.) But let's get real, people.  A "war on women"?  Bain capital?  The Obama camp was just as guilty of using ignorance and crazy fundamentalism as weapons in this race.  I know I sound like a know-it-all jerk when I say both parties suck, but seriously, guys: both parties suck.

I always thought Obama would be re-elected, because a) he was relatively successful, given his goals and where he started from, and b) the Republicans never had much substantive to say in response.

What surprised me was how close this election was.  This great article at Slate points out that only three elections in the 20th century had a popular vote tally closer than this one.  Less than three million votes nationwide separated Obama from Romney.  Both campaigns blitzed the ten battleground states with ads, rallies and get-out-the-vote operations, and ignored the rest of the country.

That being the case, I think it's foolhardy to try to draw sweeping conclusions about the "national direction" or grand ideological shifts from this election.  Neither candidate ran a national campaign, and as a result, neither candidate can truly say that they received the support of the nation in the election.  In a race where 121 million votes were cast (representing only 57% of eligible voters), 3 million votes signifies nothing more than the technical superiority of the Obama campaign, and possibly the advantage conferred by incumbency.  Unlike 2008, when Obama shellacked John McCain by 10 million votes, this time I don't think it can even be said that the nation "chose" Obama.  Rather, the Obama campaign chose - and wisely - which neighborhoods and counties to pursue.  The nation has spoken, but with a deeply and evenly divided voice.

The Slate article concludes with this sentence: "Close elections may in fact be a sign that nobody, on either side, is thinking big." I think the author is right.  Here's a small list of huge issues that were almost completely absent from the campaign:

  • Global warming, and the possibility that human civilization itself is threatened by it. (Obama claims to believe this, but acted curiously unconcerned about it.  Romney never denied it, but used a joke about it as the climax of his RNC acceptance speech).
  • How to integrate the 12 million undocumented people living in our country.
  • The war in Afghanistan (which is going terribly by the way).
  • Our falling national education standards.
  • A U.S.-dominated Middle East that is quickly slipping into radicalism and sectarian war.

Both Romney and Obama are surely aware of these issues.  Both were also surely told by their advisers that it was risky to talk about them.  Best play it safe and make fun of that guy who thinks women can't get pregnant from rape.

Of the four candidates for the presidency and vice-presidency, only Paul Ryan, with his radical budget restructuring proposal, could be accused of "thinking big" - and after accepting the nomination, he wasn't allowed to talk about that proposal.

Any well-funded politician can hire strategists to analyze the polls and maximize turnout in the battleground states.  It takes real statesmen to change the way a country thinks, propose a new direction, and then get people to follow him (or her).  I don't even know if I believe in statesmen anymore, but they didn't show up in this race.

Partly because of the problems that went unaddressed in this race, and partly because of the ones that were addressed, but inadequately (the debt, entitlements, abortion, gay marriage), I don't think America will be a great nation anymore by the time I'm old.  And maybe that's okay.  In my opinion, all the things that make this country a great place to live - our tolerant society, political freedom and economic prosperity - are seriously marred by the way we've exercised our national power around the world.  Maybe it's time for us to step down a notch, pay the real price for our luxuries, struggle a little bit, learn what it means to be a neighbor when that requires more than pleasantries and minor favors.

A lot of my hyper-conservative friends are posting that Obama's re-election is God's judgment on this nation.  Maybe.  I've come to believe that God's judgment is not vindictive, but restorative, in nature. "The Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son." - Hebrews 12:6

In the Old Testament, the two greatest villains were the Assyrian Empire and the Chaldean Empire.  They were fabulously wealthy and incredibly powerful, laying waste to kingdoms from the Persian Gulf to the Nile River.  Being human empires, both, in turn, fell.

Today, the Assyrians and the Chaldeans survive as distinct people groups in Iraq, Syria and Turkey - and nearly all of them are Christians.  They were some of the first peoples to convert to Christianity, and have held on ever since.  They still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ, centuries after the Arabization of the Middle East.

We should never confuse power or wealth with blessing.  Superpower or no, America's best days may be ahead.

Election Day Grace

Ed. Note: If I didn’t tell you already, I’m living in the Los Angeles area for the next three months, for a temporary work assignment.

On Election Day morning, I rode my bike to work, and stopped at the Post Office to mail a package. I only bought my bike last week from a couple I met on Craigslist, and I don’t have a lock for it yet, so I propped it up against the wall outside the Post Office, and periodically looked back at it while I was in line to make sure no one took it. (Although, if someone did, I don’t know what I would have done – run after them really fast?)

I was in line ahead of two petite blond ladies who were talking together about the election. (Not about who they wanted to win, but about their experiences volunteering as poll workers.) One of them noticed that I kept checking on my bike, and told me I should go bring it into the Post Office. “I’ll hold your spot in line,” she offered. I thanked her, and ran out to bring the bike inside.

When I came back to the line, she pressed ten dollars in small bills into my hands. “That should be enough to buy a lock,” she said. “You can get it at the Do-It-Yourself store down the road.”

I was flabbergasted. “I can’t accept this, ma’am,” I said. “I have a good job; I’m very blessed.”

“No, you have to take it!” she insisted. “You’re new to town, and you need a lock!”

From behind her, her friend said, “You remind her of your brother.”

I didn’t know what else to say, so I gave in and thanked her profusely. I offered my hand and said, “I’m Joel.” She took my hand and said, “Hi, Joel; I’m Jane.” And I realized there were tears in her eyes.

I was touched beyond words at Jane’s gift, and I’m not very good at on-the-spot conversations with strangers to begin with, so I didn’t say anything else. But Jane of Westlake Village, CA, if you ever read this, I’m donating your gift to help rescue enslaved people in Africa. Thank you for showing me grace and love in a new neighborhood. I pray that God will bless and take care of your brother, wherever he is, and that he will continue to use you to bless the people you come across.

I was busy pulling a tick off of my landlady’s dog when they called Ohio for Obama, so that event doesn't stick out in my mind as much.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Another Reason I Can't Vote for Obama



SUBJECT: Determination with Respect to the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008

Pursuant to section 404 of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008 (CSPA) (title IV, Public Law 110-457), I hereby determine that it is in the national interest of the United States to waive the application of the prohibition in section 404(a) of the CSPA with respect to Libya, South Sudan, and Yemen; and further determine that it is in the national interest of the United States to waive in part the application of the prohibition in section 404(a) of the CSPA with respect to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to allow for continued provision of International Military Education and Training funds and nonlethal Excess Defense Articles, and the issuance of licenses for direct commercial sales of U.S. origin defense articles; and I hereby waive such provisions accordingly.

Translation: In 2008, Congress passed a law banning the U.S. from sending military aid to countries that use child soldiers.  It was actually necessary for them to do that.  Chew on that for a second.

Senator Barack Obama voted for that bill.

But even though Yemen, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Libya all use child soldiers, President Obama has just authorized his administration to send them military aid anyway.

This is the third year in a row Obama has done this.

But hey, Romney might not give us free birth control.

"When a little boy is kidnapped, turned into a child soldier, forced to kill or be killed - that's slavery.  It is barbaric, and it is evil, and it has no place in a civilized world."
- President Barak Obama, September 2012 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Who I’m Not Voting For

I’m trying to work out who I should vote for in this infernal presidential race.  Your feedback would be greatly appreciated.

I’m striving not to be the petulant 24-year-old self-righteous know-it-all.  I know there is no such thing as a perfect candidate, and I accept the logic of voting for the lesser of two evils.  If one of the major party candidates was likely to move the United States significantly closer to peace and justice, I would swallow my moral objections and vote for that person.
However, I also feel that that logic only works up to a point.  I believe it is possible for a candidate (or the forces/system he represents) to be so evil, so corrupt, that there are no circumstances under which it is ethical to vote for him.  At some point, we have to make a stand on principle.
To use a very, very extreme example: if the Nazis were running against the KKK, it would not be right to say, “Well, the KKK is the lesser evil, so I’m going to be mature and vote for them.” The only moral choice would be to abstain or to vote third party.
Let’s start with our current president.
A list of things I disagree with him on would stretch forever (and not be particularly interesting.) Here are the things that, I think, put him beyond the pale – that make it actually unethical for me, as a Christian, to vote for him.
  • He tried to use raw executive power to force religious institutions to financially support activities they saw as immoral.
  • He has done nothing to reduce the abortion rate.
  • He has done nothing to address America’s looming debt crisis (which, I think, will be a fatal crisis), other than endlessly imply that it could be solved if we just taxed millionaires “a little more.”
  • He has killed hundreds of civilians in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia with drone strikes, while opting to count all military-age males who die in such strikes as “militants” – a policy that General Ratko Mladic is currently on trial for in The Hague.
  • Rather than pushing for peace in Syria, he has placed the United States firmly on one side in Syria’s ethno-religious civil war, supporting a bloc of armed Sunni Islamists in their bid to overthrow the Syrian government and, in all likelihood, cleanse the country of non-Sunni communities.
  • His administration has continued America’s post-World War II habit of lavishing billions of dollars in cash and weapons on governments that engage in horrendous, systematic human rights abuses, laying the groundwork for generations of war, oppression and ethnic cleansing, all for the sake of the U.S.’s momentary geopolitical advantage. (Here I’m thinking of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, and – sad to say – Israel and South Sudan.)
  • He collaborated with Saudi Arabia to put down a popular uprising in Bahrain against Bahrain’s sectarian dictatorship.
  • Rather than either withdrawing from Afghanistan immediately or fighting through to a semi-successful conclusion, he opted to send tens of thousands of additional American troops into Afghanistan, and then quietly withdraw them without any improvements on the ground.  The only motive I can discern here is political expediency.  Nearly 1,500 Americans and only the Good Lord knows how many Afghans were killed as a result.
Rhetorically, Mitt Romney differs from Obama only on the first three points. In actual practice, I think he would differ only on the birth control mandate.
Why are these two men, who are both – why sugarcoat it? – complicit in mass murder, the only two options?
BECAUSE WE HAVE MADE IT SO.  Because we have given these two parties our votes time and time again.  The only way to make it not-so is to withhold our vote from them – or at least give it to a third party, so we don’t show up in the statistics as lazy bums who don’t care about democracy.
Right now, I’m thinking Green Party.  But I’m open to recommendations.
Besides, if we’re being all practical and stuff, I live in the District of Columbia – not exactly a swing state.
Besides, Obama’s gonna win anyway.

UPDATE: The great Adam M. writes in to say, "In reference to your latest blog post, go to, take their imperfect but helpful quiz, and then tell me if, like me, it leads you to research and consider voting for the Justice Party."

I took the quiz, and it told me to vote for Jill Stein of the Green Party. However, the Justice Party has an intriguing name...more investigation is required.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

People I Met in South Sudan Last Week

David seems to be in his late teens.  He has only one hand; his right arm ends in a clean stump.  When he was much younger, during the war, he tried to pick up an unexploded piece of ordnance.  It went off, and blew off his hand.

He has been living with a pastor whose ministry to war orphans is supported by Christian Solidarity International, the group I work for.  He is very shy, but speaks pretty good English. 

Biwan is a young (maybe 8 years old) survivor of polio, a disease that still occurs in South Sudan.  His legs are crippled, and his older brother, Ayak, carries him around on his back.  On this trip, we are able to give him a hand-powered tricycle, which will allow him to move around on his own.

Marco was freed from slavery four years ago through the efforts of the Sudanese Government's Committee to Eradicate the Abduction of Women and Children (CEAWAC).  My boss, Dr. John Eibner, met him at the time and gave him some food and a survival kit.  He sees us on the street while walking to school in his uniform and greets us.

I can't tell how old Marco is, but he seems far older than his 6th grade classmates.  Marco was often tied down and beaten by his master, especially when he refused to pray like a Muslim.  The right side of his body is partially paralyzed, and he walks with a limp.  He never found his family.  He is infectiously cheerful, and tells us he wants to be a teacher some day.

About five thousand enslaved people were retrieved and sent home by CEAWAC.  The group's head publicly estimated that 35,000 people remained in slavery in North Sudan, before the group was summarily shut down by the government.

Nyibol is 10 years old, and was freed from slavery on this trip.  When she was about three years old, her master tried to separate her from her parents.  They refused and tried to resist.  Her master had them tied up, and cut their throats while she watched.  Her older cousin looked after her after that.  She also came home through CSI's network.

Manoot is about 15 years old, and was freed from slavery on this trip.  He was enslaved with his mother and brother when he was very young.  He remembers seeing the slave raiders slitting the throats of wounded villagers who fell during the attack he was captured in.  His mother tried to escape with him and his brother, but their master's relatives found them and killed her.

Manoot's brother was already liberated by CSI.  Hopefully they will be reunited soon.

Garang is 12 years old, and was freed from slavery on this trip.  When he was about four, his parents – also enslaved – were working in the peanut field.  He cried for his mother to come nurse him.  While she was feeding him, the master came and shouted at her, “Why aren’t you working?” He took a gun and started shooting at her.  She escaped, but a stray bullet hit Garang in the lower leg.  His leg is bowed and disfigured, and he walks with a limp.  Both his parents ran away, and he never saw them again.

Garang does not know his parents’ full names, and does not know their home village in the South.  Finding his family, if he has any, will be nearly impossible.

My boss asks him what he will do now.  He says he doesn’t know, unless we have any ideas.

My boss asks him if he would like to come back to the village where CSI is based and live with one of our South Sudanese staff members.  He will get plenty of food and will be able to go to school.

Our staff member translates the question.  Garang motions at the survival kit at his feet, which has been distributed to all the slavery survivors. It contains a blanket, a mosquito net, a pan for boiling water, farming tools, and other basic necessities. “Will I be able to keep this?” he asks.

We tell him he can, and he hops in the land cruiser with us for the three-hour ride back to our compound.

Deng is in his mid-teens, and was liberated from slavery in April of this year.  When he arrived back in the South, he had huge open wounds on his legs.  His master had beaten him there because he asked to go to school instead of looking after the goats.

After staying with CSI's field physician for a while to have his wounds treated, he went looking for his parents, and eventually found them.  They gave him a big hug, and told him they were happy to see him again.  He also learned that he has a brother and a sister.  They all live together now, and Deng is going to school and attending a Pentecostal church.  "I like praying to God," he says.

While we are in South Sudan, he visits us at the compound nearly every day.  When we pack up our tents to leave, he goes around with a broom, cleaning the mud off of them. (It's the rainy season - I'll complain about it another day.) "Apotapai," I tell him - Dinka for "thank you." He smiles, looks at the ground, and replies, "Yes."

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Mind-Blowing Facts from "A Peace to End All Peace" (Part 1 of a series)

As most followers of Middle Eastern politics know, the flags of the Arab world are all very similar.  Most of them feature some combination of black, red, white and green, horizontal stripes, sometimes a star or a crescent, and sometimes a sideways triangle on the left side.
There a few weirdos like Somalia and Qatar, but most of them follow this pattern.

This is because most Arab flags were based on the flag of the Arab revolt during World War I.  These Arab rebels from Mecca helped Britain fight against the Ottoman Empire.  In return, they were (supposed) to get their independence:

The flag of the Arab revolt still flies above the Jordanian port city of Aqaba, where the Arab rebels scored their first major victory:

So where did this flag, and with it, the flags of nearly all the modern Arab states, come from?

According to David Fromkin's book A Peace to End All Peace, it was designed entirely by Sir Mark Sykes. (P. 315).

As in, Sir Mark Sykes of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

If you're a Middle East nerd, your mind is already blown.  If you're not, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was a secret agreement between Britain and France to divide the Middle East between themselves after the war.  They did so, and and the Arab revolt against the Ottomans was followed by 30 years of European colonization in Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere.  And when the Europeans left, the Arabs were left with totally unworkable borders. (See: Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere.)

The Sykes-Picot Agreement is reviled throughout the Middle East as the original sin of the Zionist-Western Conspiracy to Screw the Arabs.

And Mark Sykes, the British diplomat who negotiated that agreement, created the Arab flag.


That's as ironic and embarrassing as if the U.S. flag was designed by King George III, or, say, mostly based on the flag of Britain's infamous East India Company.

A Peace to End All Peace is one of the most informative, most entertaining books on the Middle East I've ever read.  More mind-blowing facts will be posted here as they come!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Todd Akin and The Unspeakble

On August 19, 2012, Missouri Congressman Todd Akin, a Republican candidate for the Senate, said this when asked in a TV interview whether he supported keeping abortion legal in cases of rape:

"It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that's really rare.  If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing [pregnancy] down."

Today is August 21, 2012, and after 48 hours of furious blowback, it seems certain that Akin's political career is over.  He must decide in the next hour whether or not to stay on the ballot, but the Republican National Committee, most GOP PACs, Mitt Romney, and nearly everyone else has withdrawn their support. Akin has cut a humiliating ad asking voters for forgiveness, but it seems certain he will not receive it.

Todd Akin has spoken the unspeakable.  He must go.

I don't disagree with this conclusion.  For my own part, I'm simply shocked that a grown, married man who wanted to be a member of the most powerful legislative body on earth could be so ignorant about rape and human reproduction.  I'm also disturbed by his implication that some rape victims are less innocent than others, and that this distinction should have any bearing on abortion law.  I certainly don't want to see him in the Senate.

But it's led me to wonder why certain moments of unguarded candor lead to political destruction, while others do not.

Consider this statement from journalist Thomas Friedman in May 2003:

And the relevant excerpt:

"What they [Middle Easterners] needed to see was American boys and American girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying, 'Which part of this sentence don't you understand?  You don't think we care about our open society?   Well suck on this!' That was what this war was about.  We could have hit Saudi Arabia.  We could have hit Pakistan.  We hit Iraq because we could.  That's the real truth."

In context, the "this" in "suck on this" refers to a recently-completed bombing campaign and ground invasion that killed thousands of civilians and tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers, crippled or maimed tens of thousands of people for life, and destroyed much of Iraq's critical infrastructure.

Surely, on balance, Friedman's defense of this deliberately-created horror on the grounds that Middle Easterners needed to be intimidated (terrorized?) is a far worse rhetorical sin than Akin's ignorance about the crime of rape. Even President Bush, when he was making his case for war, had to argue that the invasion, with all its attendant horrors, was the only alternative to the much greater threat posed by Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.  He would never have dared to say, "It's because we can."

Friedman's analysis elicited outrage in antiwar circles on the internet, but in few other places - much like Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's statement that the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children under the UN sanctions regime were "worth it." (We could multiply examples here, obviously.)

Friedman has gone on to author multiple bestsellers, and remains a widely-read and respected columnist at the New York Times.

I don't really have a complete thought to offer here, unless it's this: our taboos tell us a lot about our society.

Ordering the deaths of thousands of Arabs?  Not taboo.

Defending the killing of thousands of Arabs because other Arabs "needed to see it"? Not taboo.

Fighting to criminalize abortion, even in the case of rape?  Not taboo. (Stick around, though.)

Fighting to criminalize abortion while not understanding the basics of the female reproductive system?  Hit the showers.


Monday, August 6, 2012

The places we used to know

In October 2010, I accompanied the priest in charge of the Damascus youth seminary where I worked on a trip to Homs, Syria, to attend the wedding of his friend.  The wedding was held in a new, very nice church building full of huge murals depicting scenes from the Bible:

This mural, representing the resurrection of Christ, is one of the coolest things I've ever seen:

This mural, showing the baptism of Christ, hung above the alcove where the baptismal font was kept:

Today, BBC News carries a great story about Syrian Christians who have been forced to flee their homes by Islamist rebels aligned against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.  The story carried this picture from Reuters of a church in Homs that was savaged in fighting between rebels and the regime:

Definitely the same place.

90% of Homs' Christians, including the family of my friend Samer, have fled their homes.  In the nearby city of Qusayr, mosques that normally broadcast the call to prayer broadcast warnings to local Christians to either join the revolution, or leave.  One man who left Qusayr with his family was pulled over by rebels when he tried to return to his supermarket to get some food.  When they learned that he was a Christian, they shot him dead.

For generations, Syria has been a place of refuge for Christians and others fleeing ethnic and religious violence, whether Armenians fleeing Turkey's anti-Christian genocide in 1915, Palestinians forced out of their homes in the first Arab-Israeli war, Iraqi Christians fleeing attacks after the fall of Saddam Hussein, or South Sudanese trying to escape North Sudan's genocide from 1983-2005.

I don't know if it's possible to stop the whirlwind of violence that appears to be destroying that old Syria.  But we should bear witness.  And as long as our leaders claim to be spreading democracy in the Middle East, we should ask them: what about the Christians (or the Alawites, the Yezidis and the Mandeans?)

Thursday, August 2, 2012


Thanks to my housemate Chris for buying me some last night.  Made for a great lunch today!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Bat Ye'or: The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam

“Renowned Western scholars of Islam such as Sir Hamilton Gibb, William Montgomery Watt, Jacques Augustin Berque, Maxime Rodinson, Marshall Hodgson, Rev. Kenneth Cragg, and the Georgetown duo John L. Esposito and John O. Voll – to name just a few – have all either peddled the myth of dhimmitude as tolerance, or downplayed its destructive effects on its victims.  Refreshing deconstructions of such appeasement views have come recently from Bat Ye’or, Daniel Pipes, Robert Spencer, George Weigel, and Ibn Warraq.”

-          Habib Malik, Associate Professor of History, American Lebanese University, Islamism and the Future of Christianity in the Middle East, p. 61

On my third day in Egypt, I asked my professor if Christians in Egypt could be considered “persecuted.” He thought about it, and said, “Not overtly.  A rough analogy of Christian-Muslim relations in Egypt would be to white-black relations in America.”

Oh, I thought.  That’s not so bad.

In the intervening four years, my views on both the Middle East and on race relations in America have shifted considerably.  In short, I think my professor is right – and that is pretty bad.

Needless to say, things in the Middle East have shifted considerably as well in the past four years, and not to the advantage of the region’s minorities.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about a book on Middle Eastern history by Albert Hourani that I was reading, which posed the question of why Christians living under Muslim rule declined from 90% of the population to around 10%.  His answer contained this phrase:  “Even in the best circumstances the position of a minority is uneasy.” If you’re keeping track at home, that makes no sense.

The actual answer to this question is the subject of some debate.

A recent New York Times Review of Books piece about an exhibition of Islamic art at the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York sums up the position of one side of this debate quite nicely:

"This exhibition—along with the groundbreaking scholarship that has gone into its catalog—has banished the melodramatic tone with which the rise of Islam has usually been presented in standard accounts of the period. We can now say with confidence that the Arab armies did not leave a trail of desolation across the Middle East. Local populations did not sink into poverty. Far from retreating into the status of timorous minorities, vigorous Christian and Jewish communities continued to maintain their own traditions largely unmolested. ...Muslims talked their way into the Middle East quite as much as they fought their way across it."

(The same piece contains this remarkable passage: "In [one] room...we notice the discreet censoring of the representation of a living creature on the floor of a Christian church, out of respect for Muslim attitudes toward art." Censoring art in a church out of respect for Muslim attitudes.  Sounds like a peaceful relationship between equals!)

Bat Ye'or represents the other side of this debate.

I recently finished Bat Ye'or's The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam.  Bat Ye'or is an Egyptian Jew who was forced to flee Egypt in 1957 during the anti-Jewish pogroms following the 1956 Egypt-Israel war.  She has no academic degree and has never taught in a university.

Ye'or's books carry fawning blurbs from Sir Martin Gilbert, Daniel Pipes, and Niall Ferguson, all well-recognized scholars of the Middle East.  Bernard Lewis uses her research as a resource for his own writings.

Robert Benton Bretts accuses her of "selective scholarship," Johann Hari of The Independent calls her a "conspiracy theorist," Craig Smith of the New York Times calls her one "of the most extreme voices on the new Jewish right," and Israeli peace activist Adam Keller calls her "racist and inflammatory."

All of these quotes came from her page on a website called "Loonwatch."

So her work is somewhat contentious, and I approached it with a great deal of trepidation.

(continued after the break)

Saturday, July 28, 2012


If you're concerned about the social justice positions of the fast food establishments you frequent (and, really, who isn't?), here is the single most important thing you need to know about Chick-fil-A.

They are closed on Sundays.

The tradition of the Sabbath is sacred in all three Abrahamic religions, and possibly some eastern ones I'm not aware of.  It mostly held its own in western society until the industrial revolution came along and rode roughshod over every non-capital institution.  It took decades for the organized labor movement to recover the right to a weekend - a right that had its beginnings as a gift from God to his people three thousand years before.

Unfortunately, most restaurants, retailers and service industries in the U.S. do not respect the Sabbath.  They are required by law to observe the 40-hour workweek, but the profit motive leads them to stay open all weekend, and we, as consumers, are only too happy to reward them for it.  As a result, people trying to find jobs at these businesses often have no choice but to accept working on Sundays.  I had to turn down a job at Target as a teenager because I couldn't sign on to working three Sundays a month.  If I hadn't had supportive parents, and if the economy hadn't been flush with part-time jobs, I might not have had the luxury of saying no.

By remaining closed on the Sabbath, Chick-fil-A must surely forfeit hundreds of millions of dollars in potential sales - all so that their employees can rest from being employees, and their customers can rest from being consumers.  No union had to fight to force them to do that.  No government regulation asks them to.  They do it solely because they believe that life is a sacred undertaking, and that they have responsibility to respect its sanctity.

If the rest of the country's fast food enterprises, big box stores and grocery chains did the same, we would all have a lot more space in our lives for rest, fellowship and worship.  Only Chick-fil-A is willing to go there.  And for that, we should all be grateful.

On the other hand, their CEO's beliefs about same-sex marriage are identical to what our president's views were two months ago.  So there's that.

August 1, 2012 - everyone eat at Chick-fil-A!  For justice!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Opening Pandora's Box in Damascus

A few weeks ago, I blogged that the international media was searching in vain for turning points in the Syrian revolution.

Last week, we may have finally seen one, when an apparent suicide attack killed Bashar al-Assad's defense minister, his brother-in-law, his deputy vice president, his interior minister, and his national security chief.

For purposes of comparison, imagine what would happen to the Obama administration if, in one day, Leon Panetta, Janet Napolitano, Joe Biden, Eric Holder and David Petraeus were all murdered.

This mass assassination followed four straight days of rebel attacks in Damascus, previously a stronghold of the regime. I think it's safe to say Syria is no longer a police state.

Following the attack, the Syrian ambassador to Iraq, who defected to the opposition the week before, had this to say:


 "Today is a day of happiness in every Syrian person's home. Today every mother grieving for her child, every child who has lost his father, every father who has lost his child, breathes a sigh of relief."

On Friday, my roommate Matt and I were discussing the massacre at Century 16 theater over beers and fish and chips. We talked about how he surrendered to police without resistance, then reportedly bragged to them that, "I'm the Joker." And suddenly, I was overcome with a bloodlust that surprised me. "If you were one of the police officers who arrested that guy," I asked poor, unsuspecting Matt, "how would you restrain yourself? How would you keep yourself from breaking his nose? Kicking his teeth in?" Just imagining it made me feel better.

Matt looked at me warily. "I feel more sad than angry," he ventured cautiously. Praise the Lord for that.

So yeah, I'm a huge hypocrite. I understand rejoicing when the wicked are cut down. I understand wanting revenge.

But this mass murder of senior government officials in Syria does not give me a sense of relief. Not at all.

Because if your goal is to replace a lawless tyranny with a just, pluralistic society, then sending young men to explode themselves to kill political leaders is about the worst idea possible. Having realized their most important goals through terror and murder, are Syria's fractured opposition groups going to suddenly start respecting political process once Assad walks?

All the trend lines in the Syrian Civil War are going the wrong way.

Christians have been ethnically cleansed from Homs, Qusayr, and other cities.

Alawite Muslims are being targeted for kidnapping, torture and death.

Palestinians who refuse to support the revolution are experiencing a similar fate.

Assad may go soon. But whether he does or not, there is no peace at the end of this, and no justice.

Please keep the people of Syria in your prayers. سوريا الله حاميها.

On my most recent trip to South Sudan, I took this video.

I am very blessed to have the job that I do.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

"The Israel Lobby" Reviewed

This week, I finished reading The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, the (in)famous 2006 book by Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, which claims that a good deal of the problems in America's Middle East policy stem from the outsize influence of pro-Israel groups and individuals in our politics.

First, the good points:

1) Despite what you may have heard, this book is decidedly not anti-Semitic.  The authors are fully aware of the cultural context in which they write, and strive studiously to avoid any semblance of prejudice against Jews as a group.

2) This book is an excellent source of information.  I would recommend this book as a worthwhile corrective to just about everything you hear about Israel from mainstream American politicians these days.  I would especially recommend the book's eleventh chapter, The Lobby and the Second Lebanon War, which, to the objective reader, leaves the myth of Israel as a moral civilization fighting barbarian hordes in ruins.

In fact, I kind of wish they had simply left it at that.

But instead of simply arguing that the U.S.'s Middle East policy is damaging and wrong-headed, and should be changed, they try to explain why U.S. Middle East policy is damaging and wrong-headed.  And that, if I may be so bold, is where they either fall into tautology, or fail entirely.

Walt and Mearsheimer are foreign policy realists.  In their worldview, for the most part, nations do not have ideals - they have interests.  They are not motivated by ideology, religion, moral values, or anything else.

How then to explain why the United States does things that are clearly (from W & M's perspective) against our national interest - like support Israel unconditionally, invade Iraq, adopt a confrontational posture towards Iran and Syria, etc?

W & M contend that the only explanation is the influence of the Israel Lobby.

And what is the Israel Lobby?

"We use 'Israel lobby' as a convenient shorthand term for the loose coalition of individuals and organizations that actively work to shape U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction." (p. 112 - a little late into the book to be defining it?  I think so).

In other words - every person who is pro-Israel and in a position to shape U.S. foreign policy, including policymakers, academics, journalists and lobbyists, is part of the Israel Lobby.

It is only with this expansive definition that the authors can make extravagant claims like, "If Israel and the lobby were not pressing the case, there would be little serious discussion inside or outside the Beltway about attacking Iran," (p. 302) or "absent the lobby's influence, there almost certainly would not have been a war" with Saddam Hussein (p. 17).

Fair enough, I suppose.  One might add that, absent the infernal influence of a loose coalition I shall refer to as "the anti-communism lobby," there never would have been a Cold War.  But statements like these are somewhat lacking in explanatory power.

This is a shame, because the actual Israel Lobby - organizations like AIPAC and Christians United For Israel - does wield outsize influence in the American political system, to the point where every serious contender for the presidency, no matter how liberal or conservative, must declare their fervent, unyielding, unconditional, personal, emotive, support for the Jewish state - over and over and over again.

As Jon Stewart has put it, "The parameters for debate in the United States about Israel range all the way from ‘I unequivocally support them and might bomb Iran’ to ‘I unequivocally support them and will definitely bomb Iran!’"

The Real Israel Lobby, as W & M do a convincing job of detailing, operate completely in the open, and use campaign fundraising, organizing, and good old-fashioned lobbying to dominate government discourse about the Jewish state.

If W & M had restricted their definition of the Israel Lobby to actual lobbying organizations, they would have had a much more compelling argument.

But these organizations cannot be blamed for the American-Israeli alliance.  Nor the Iraq War.  Nor our current confrontations with Syria and Iran.

So, in their quest to hang the catastrophe of the Iraq War around the neck of "the Israel Lobby," they define the Israel Lobby so broadly that it is an almost meaningless term. 

The reality is that the U.S.'s unconditional support for Israel, its war in Iraq, and its current crusade against Syria and the Islamic Republic of Iran, are all driven by what our policymakers perceive as our rational interests.

W & M make a compelling case that our policymakers have misperceived our interests.  But it is not the only case that can be made.

And in fact, the case they make in Chapter 9 - "Taking Aim at Syria" - has been proven over the past year to be hopelessly, utterly wrong.  Instead of a rational state ready to make peace with Israel and the United States the minute the Israel Lobby lifted its foot off our neck, Syria has revealed itself as a rotted-out shell of a state.  The Baathist regime, we have learned, could not, in fact, be negotiated with, because the Baathist regime had sown the seeds of its own destruction for forty years, and was only four years away from harvest when The Israel Lobby was published.  Today, the regime's only interest is its own survival, and the means by which it is seeking it are unacceptable to any strain of thought in American or Israeli foreign policy circles.  The Syrian Revolution is a crucial object lesson on the limits of foreign policy realism.

As for our support for Israel, the rational interest there is explained by Gershom Gorenberg in his book The Accidental Empire, where he recounts a memo written by an adviser to President Johnson, McGeorge Bundy:

"His lesson from the [1967] war was that 'if Israel were in imminent danger of defeat...the U.S. would confront extraordinarily painful and unattractive choices.' To avoid needing to go to war on Israel's behalf, America had to ensure Israel's ability to defend itself.  So the administration could not easily withhold arms as a means of pressure.  The United States did need to maintain its ties with moderate Arab regimes, and did favor Israeli withdrawal - but the result had to be peace." (p. 83)

W & M dedicate one chapter to why our support for Israel is not in our interests, and one to why our support for Israel cannot be explained by moral concern.  The so-called "Bundy Doctrine" demonstrates why segmenting our rational interests and our moral concerns that way is such a mistake: our moral concerns dictate that we not allow Israel to be destroyed, and our rational interests dictate that we must maintain good relations with Arab regimes that (in 1967 anyway) wanted to destroy Israel.  The best way to protect Israel without fighting the Arabs?  Shower the Israelis with military aid.

While he doesn't cite any policy memos to support his case, David Samuels offers an alternate, but similar take on what the U.S. gets out of its support for Israel - by being Israel's closest ally, the U.S. is able to present itself to the Arabs as the only power that can keep Israel in line.

If U.S. policymakers followed W & M's advice and reduced our support for Israel while demanding they make more concessions for peace, would the goodwill we got in return from the Arabs be as valuable as the influence we currently have with the Arabs thanks to our alliance with Israel?  That's a question good realists can disagree about.  One need not invoke the Lobby to explain why our current leaders don't agree with W & M.

As for the Iraq War, W & M themselves admit that one of the U.S.'s three key interests in the Middle East is keeping the Persian/Arab Gulf Region stable.  Saddam Hussein was decidedly unstable.  We never intended to allow him to stay in power.  In the wake of 9/11 and our quick victories in Kosovo and Afghanistan, the war was a foregone conclusion.  Attributing it to the influence of a lobby is absurd.

Unless, of course, that Lobby includes every policymaker who doesn't agree with W & M.

In examining arguments in favor of U.S. support for Israel, W & M give only two paragraphs' shrift to the idea that animates the entire Christian Zionist movement: that God has given the land of Palestine to the Jews, forever.  They refute it thusly:

"Church and state are separate in the United States, and the religious opinions of any group are not supposed to determine the country's foreign policy." (p. 108)

Au contraire, professors - nothing but religious opinions determine our country's foreign policy.  And I suggest that your own religion of realism and rational interest afflicts our foreign policy to a greater degree than Zionism or Christian Zionism ever could.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

When Your History Book Tries to Weasel Out of Something

I'm currently reading A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani.  I'm finding it to be strangely compulsive reading - highly enjoyable.  It also carries glowing review blurbs from Rashid Khalidi, Daniel Pipes, Edward Said, and Fouad Ajami - and when those four agree on a history of the Arab peoples, that's saying something.


I came across this strange passage on pp. 46-47 while reading on the train today:

"By the end of the...eighth Christian century, less than 10 per cent of the population of Iran and Iraq, Syria and Egypt, Tunisia and Spain was Muslim..."

Huh.  Interesting.

"By the end of the...tenth century AD, the picture had changed.  A large part of the population had become Muslim."

Ok.  How did that happen?

Hourani goes on to detail how the subject peoples of the Islamic empire (mostly Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians) "suffered from restrictions," including a special tax, clothing regulations, legal and political disadvantages, etc.

He ends with this sentence: "Even in the best circumstances the position of a minority is uneasy, and the inducement to convert existed."

A minority?  Mr. Hourani, you're purporting to explain how these people went from being 90 percent of the population to well under 10. "It's tough being a minority" is not an explanation for loss of supermajority status!

It seems there's more to this story than the three paragraphs Hourani allots it.  That story is the topic of the next book on my list - The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam by Bat Ye'or.

Anyway, Hourani is still a great read.  412 pages to go.

(Thanks to my housemate Bob for letting me borrow it.)

Friday, May 18, 2012

Syria Updates

First off, see if you can parse out our government’s official position on giving weapons to the Syrian rebels, as explained by the State Department’s spokesperson Wednesday:

My translation: Heck yes, we encourage it, and we want you to know that we are. We just don’t want you to be able to condemn us for it.

But I’m still a novice. I could be off.  

Syrian Rebels Stockpiling Weapons in Damascus 

And Idlib and Zabadani, thanks to their patrons in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other gulf states. This is the kind of thing the regime made up in the first months of the revolution to scare people into supporting them.

And that's not all!

"Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood also said it has opened its own supply channel to the rebels, using resources from wealthy private individuals and money from gulf states."

The Syrian resistance is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Not the way the Obama administration is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, in the world according to Glenn Beck. Seriously - the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood holds a supermajority on the Syrian National Council, the leading opposition group.

This worries and perplexes me for several reasons.

One is that the SMB was supposedly all but destroyed back in 1982. Bashar's father killed something like 25,000 people to make sure of that. How did they get organized so quickly? And why did no one in the opposition say, "Hey, since we live in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country, and are trying to appeal to the secular West for support, you know what would be a good idea for this popular revolution we're trying to pull off? NOT HAVING OUR COUNCIL DOMINATED BY THE FREAKING MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD."

So things are pretty much going smashingly well. Any way you can improve on this, America?

"Administration officials also held talks in Washington this week with a delegation of Kurds from sparsely populated eastern Syria, where little violence has occurred. The talks included discussion of ...opening a second front against Assad’s forces that would compel him to move resources from the west."

'Little violence' has occurred there, you say? Can't have that. Bravo, U.S. government. Bravo.  

Syrian Rebels Overrun Syrian Military Base, Kill 23 Soldiers 

 This story from Rastan, near Homs, is pretty incredible. If the preceding story is true, we can expect to see more of the same in the future.

Suicide Bombings Become Commonplace in Damascus

The blast in this video, from May 10, targeted a regime intelligence building in the Al Qazzaz neighborhood of Damascus.

While protests and out-and-out battles are still rare in Damascus, suicide bombings, car bombings and other terrorist attacks are becoming depressingly commonplace. In the giant hall of mirrors that is the Syrian revolution, it's impossible to know for sure who's behind them, but Occam's Razor suggests that they are Sunni Islamic extremists who have learned their lessons from Iraq very well.

The Prospects

A few weeks back, I confidently predicted that the U.S. would use military force to bring down the Assad regime. I’m not so sure anymore. The U.S. government so far seems content to funnel (or encourage the funneling of) weapons to the Syrian opposition while continuing the UN dance, without the trouble of yet another Middle East war. But time will tell.

For most of this revolution, the press and interested observers have been waiting, hoping, dying for a turning point - an event that, if it didn't mark the end of the violence, would at least mark a new phase, a boundary stone to make the revolution intelligible, to separate it into quantifiable bits, a way to mark progress towards wherever it is Syria is going.

Here is my fear: that Syria has already arrived at where it is going. Syria may well have entered a phase of more-or-less permanent civil war. Neither side can gain an advantage over the other, but neither side can afford to relent, even for a second, lest they be destroyed. Outside forces won't be able to force a settlement. Assad is as isolated as he is going to get. The Syrian economy will complete its collapse, but as long as Assad is getting weapons from Iran, and the rebels are getting weapons from the Gulf states, the violence won't be affected by that. Iran would love to see Assad won, of course, but they aren't strong enough to make that happen. And why should the Western powers and Sunni Arab powers intervene militarily, when their key interest - making Assad unable to function as an ally of Iran - is being met perfectly well by the civil war? The same thing happened in Lebanon, and is now, arguably, happening in Iraq.

Eventually, as religious minorities flee Sunni areas and Sunnis flee regime-friendly areas, and it gets more and more costly for the regime to send its forces into the former, pockets of self-rule might pop up here and there in Syria. But it will probably take years of fighting before the opposition is strong enough to expel the regime from Sunni areas entirely.

So this is how a country dies.  

My friends

 Are all safe, as far as I know. In spite of everything, the Iraqi Student Project, where I volunteered last year, had a fantastically successful year – all eight of their students were accepted into American colleges, tuition free. Two of them are friends of mine. I’m so happy to know that these students, who were driven from their homes in Iraq by our invasion and the chaos that followed, will be able to pursue their studies in a peaceful country. They’re all incredibly bright, and God willing, have great things ahead of them. (I’ve been working on Arabic, on and off, for three years, and I can’t imagine taking college courses in it. But they'll be doing just that, and have been for the past year of preparation.) If you happen to see them around in Chicago, St. Louis, Oberlin, Denver, Walla Walla, Memphis or Northampton, make sure you give them a big welcome.

Two of my dear Syrian friends are studying in North America; they arrived here last fall, a few months after I returned to the states. The first's father has left Damascus to join his parents and siblings in a remote Christian village to the north. He still travels to Damascus a few days a week to work, but it's not safe enough to live there anymore.

The second's family lives in a different Christian village north of Damascus, which used to be a half-hour bus ride.Now, anyone traveling that route has to go through a half-dozen checkpoints. The Syrian pound has halved in value since I lived there, and as our leaders rather baldly brag, the economy is being devastated by our sanctions. It's a new reality for what was once one of the most peaceful countries in the Middle East.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Braveheart and Sudan: An Objective Political Analysis

I watched Mel Gibson’s epic William Wallace biopic Braveheart with my housemates last night. Here is how I see Wallace’s political development. (In the movie, not real history, about which I know very little).

Wallace: “They killed my wife. Now I’ll get a scrappy band of freedom fighters together and liberate my hometown!”

Me: Oh, man, this is awesome! FREEDOM!!!

Wallace: “We’re gonna fight out of uniform, execute prisoners and burn people alive!”

Me: Er – okay, those are technically war crimes, but the English are the bloody occupiers who started it, so we’ll cut you some slack. FREEDOM!

 Wallace: “You may take our lives, but ye’ll never take our freeeeeedommm!”

Me: You are the personification of Liberty! FREEDOM!

Wallace: “These are Scotland’s terms.”

Me: Ok, that’s a little presumptuous, but you did start this revolution, so I guess you’re entitled to…

Wallace: “I’m going to invade England!”

Me: FREEDO-wait, what?

Wallace: “You heard me. We ‘ave to take the fight to them. Otherwise they’ll be back.”

Me: Okaaayy…so why not just stay in Scotland, build up your army, create some legitimate political institutions, maybe start to provide some basic services…

Wallace: “Too late. I’m laying siege to York.”

Me: All right, fine, but what’s your end goal here? You could conquer England, but then you’d simply have reversed Scotland and England’s roles in this inherently poisonous political relationship. You could kill Evil King Longshanks, but who would replace him? You could destroy England’s military might, but you’d only be sowing the seeds of resentment for future conflicts. Short of all-out genocide of Englishmen, I don’t really see how this accomplishes –

Wallace: “I just sacked a peaceful city and executed its governor.”

Me: DUDE. What the hey?

French Princess: “DUDE. What the hey? Also, Evil King Longshanks is offering you peace, and a heck of a lot of gold and land, which you could surely use to improve Scotland’s condition, if you’ll stop this war of aggression.”

Wallace: “When I was a kid, I saw a whole bunch of Scottish nobles who had been hung by Evil King Longshanks. Therefore, no peace.”

French Princess: “I can already feel myself falling hopelessly in love with you.”

Me: DUDE. What the hey?

French Princess [to Evil King Longshanks]: “William Wallace is 100% man, and refuses your offer of peace."

Evil King Longshanks: “No matter. Because I am So Very Evil, I have asked some allies to come here to help me repel Wallace’s senseless war of aggression against England.”

French Princess: “[gasp] How could you be so evil?”

Me: Okay, Longshanks is definitely no Thomas Jefferson, but what is he supposed to do otherwise?

Scottish Nobles [to Wallace]: “Longshanks offered us peace, land and gold if we turn you over to him to be tried for your crimes, but after consulting with each other, we’ve decided the best thing to do is fight with you against overwhelming odds and the prospect of slavery and cultural destruction if we’re defeated.”

William Wallace: “All right, let’s do this!”

Scottish Nobles: “Jk.”

William Wallace: “I am going to do the only rational thing and start bludgeoning you all to death in your beds.”

Robert the Bruce: “I am wracked with guilt, because I am so clearly in the wrong, and Wallace is so clearly in the right.”

Me: I am so confused by Scottish ethics right now.

English lords: “We captured and killed Wallace, and Evil King Longshanks is dead. Robert the Bruce, we’ll let you be king of all Scotland (which, you’ll recall, was occupied at the beginning of this movie, and is now FREE ENOUGH ALREADY) if you’ll just make peace with us.”

Robert the Bruce: “I fling my sword at you in defiance!”

[Unseen battle in which thousands of Scottish and English die for…why again?]

William Wallace: “They fought like warrior-poets. They fought like Scotsmen.”

Me: Warrior-poets? What the heck is a warrior-poet? Did any Scotsman recite any poetry at all in this entire three-hour movie? And how does Wallace know what happened? He’s dead!

This would be funnier if I could stop thinking about how much Wallace resembles the SPLM, Longshanks resembles Omar al-Bashir, and York resembles Heglig.

For Bob and Matt: “Revolution is the great and only legitimate and just war, the war of the oppressed against the oppressors.”

- V. I. Lenin

Saturday, March 17, 2012

10 Questions for the Creator of “10 questions that every intelligent Christian must answer”

This overlong video, which has now been viewed almost six and a half million times, is directed at “educated Christians with college degrees.”

Hysterically, the video creator seems to think that having a college degree means, “You are a smart person. You know how the world works. You know how to think critically.”

Then he drops the hammer: “Have you ever thought about using your college education to think about your faith?”

The video proceeds to ask ten questions about God and the universe – questions which, the video author claims, can only be answered by atheism.

His conclusion: “Our world only makes sense when we understand that God is imaginary.”

Thank heaven – speaking colloquially, of course – that someone has finally succeeded in making sense of the world!

Since you have triumphed where so many before you have failed, Mr. Video Man, I’d like you to use your comprehensive theory of existence to answer ten more questions.

If you answer “it’s self-evident” to any of these questions, you lose the philosophy game, and your college degree will be henceforth revoked.

1. How can Young's experiment be explained?
2. Why does the Theory of Relativity explain phenomena on very large scales but not on very small scales?
3. What is gravity?
4. What is the nature of human consciousness?
5. Are there minds outside your own? How can you verify their existence?
6. Do you have free will? How do you know?
7. What makes an action ethical or unethical?
8. Are your sense observations trustworthy? How do you know?
9. Is human logic an accurate guide to reality? How do you know?
10. Have you ever been mistaken before? If so, how do you know you’re not mistaken this time?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

My Trip to South Sudan, Part 3: Endings

There are some happy endings here. One of the first people we met after arriving in NBG is a woman named Abook, a woman with tightly-braided hair wearing a bright green dress. She screamed “John!” and threw her arms around Dr. Eibner in greeting. Abook, Dr. Eibner explained, came out of slavery several years ago. When she was interviewed, she asked Dr. Eibner to help find her two children still being held in the North. Dr. Eibner took their names, and passed them along to the slave retrievers. By God’s grace, the retrievers managed to find them, and brought them home to their overjoyed mother. “So we know her well, and she is always happy to see us,” Dr. Eibner concluded.

Dr. Eibner and Abook.

For me, one of the most exciting parts of the trip is getting to meet and talk to the Arab slave retrievers, who I’ve decided to call Ahmed al-Darfuri and Adam Yousef in this piece. They are figures right out of 20th-century cinema: sweeping white robes, ornamental prayer caps, and proud, intimidating faces. They carry themselves like chieftains from the Peninsula. Their skin is just as dark as that of the Dinka ex-captives; but their facial features make them instantly recognizable as Arabs. They cover their faces before they allow themselves to be photographed - for obvious reasons, the government of Sudan does not like what they do. One of CSI’s other retrievers was once arrested and tortured by government forces. His house was burned down, and his family is now in hiding.

I am the only Westerner on this trip who speaks Arabic (using “speak” in the broadest sense). Arabic is a kind of lingua franca in the South. There are so many different tribal languages that the language of colonialism and oppression has become the common tongue. (The new official language of South Sudan is English, but not very many people speak it yet.) Sudanese Arabic, of course, is very different from Syrian Arabic, and it’s difficult to bridge the gap, especially if Arabic is also a second language for the person I’m speaking with.

The slave retrievers, however, speak Arabic as a mother tongue, and presumably are well-versed in Standard Arabic as well. They are able to accommodate my Syrian accent, and to my delight, they do so happily.

Adam is from northern Darfur. His slave rescue missions sometimes take him around six months to complete. He travels by foot across the expanse of Western Sudan, searching for captives and masters willing to part with them. He has four children back home.

Ahmed also has children. I ask him if he thinks there will ever be a Sudan Spring. He replies, “Feeh!” There is! Hassan al-Turabi, Sudan’s deposed Islamist strongman, is making a comeback in the name of democracy and human rights, and Ahmed thinks he will succeed.

Many of the slavery survivors we interviewed couldn’t stop talking about how well they were treated by the slave retrievers on the journey back to the South, before they quite realized that they were being set free. The slave retrievers give them good food, medicine and new clothes. To go from years – maybe a lifetime – of incessant abuse and fear, years without medicine, of digging clothes out of the trash and eating leftovers, into the care of someone who is actually concerned for your well-being, must be an unbelievable shock.

Last October, a former slave who was set free through CSI’s programs, named Ker Deng, testified before the House Africa Subcommittee about his experiences in slavery. Ker, now eighteen, lived for most of his life in slavery with his mother, who taught him to speak the Dinka language. Once, when one of the master’s goats wandered off, Ker’s master, a man named Zachariah, rubbed chili peppers into his eyes, hung him upside down from a tree, and built a fire under his head so that the smoke would waft into his burning eyes. Ker was eventually rescued by one of his master’s neighbors, a local imam, but not before he lost nearly all his eyesight.

Ker Deng testifying before Congress.

While in the U.S., Ker received treatment at the Wills Eye Institute in Philadelphia to partially restore vision in one of his eyes. He is now learning English and Braille at Perkins School for the Blind, the same school that Helen Keller attended. A woman named Ellen, a journalist, therapist and humanitarian who has accompanied CSI to South Sudan many times, is financing Ker’s treatment and education.

As far as anyone knows, his mother is still in slavery. On this visit, Ellen huddles over maps with Ahmed and Adam, trying to figure out, based on Ker’s descriptions, where the retrievers might be able to locate his mother. Ellen also asks both groups of freed slaves if any of them have met Ker’s mother or her master, Zachariah. So far, no one has.

The interviews with the freed captives take four days at the two sites. At the end of our second visit at each site, the local village slaughters a bull to celebrate the captives’ return, and we hand out what we call “Sacks of Hope” – white plastic sacks branded with the CSI logo, containing grain, a tarpaulin, a blanket, a mosquito net, a cooking pan, a water canister, a hand-held sickle, and fishing hooks. We also distribute female goats to each of the slavery survivors, a task that’s a little chaotic, but adds a lot of fun and joy to the work. Female goats eat grass, produce milk, cheese, and other goats, and are relatively easy to keep. We hope that they will be a starter source of income for the returnees, most of whom are overwhelmed at having the chance to own something that they were forced to take care of for somebody else for so many years.

Me, pretending to like animals for my job.

One person we interview on our second visit is a tiny boy who goes by the Arab name Mahmoud Ali. His tattered clothing hangs loosely from his thin frame, and he wears an Islamic prayer cap, decorated with stitched olive branches and flowers to represent paradise. He was born into slavery, and was never told where he came from. He was left to his own devices to figure out that his master wasn’t really his father, and his master’s children weren’t really his brothers.

Mahmoud has only nine fingers. He tells us the master cut one of them off in a rage after he failed to wash the dishes properly. His voice is steady as he tells Akuei his story, but silent, angry tears brim in his eyes and run down his cheeks.

Later, after the Sacks of Hope have been distributed, I run into Mahmoud. His demeanor is completely changed. He’s grinning from ear to ear, and when I pull out my camera, he poses and gives me the “surf’s up” gesture with his hand. Where he learned that, I have no idea.

The goats we distribute to the slavery survivors are Ellen's brainchild. Part of her fundraising plan is to take a photo of every goat and goat recipient holding a piece of paper with the name of a donor, and then deliver the photo to that donor.

Getting people whose language we don’t speak to line up and pose for a seemingly pointless “kowaja” (white person) exercise is a bit of a challenge, and I use my meager Arabic to help as much as I can. To each person who poses, I say, “Ayoonak 3ala il-kamera” – put your eyes on the camera. (I think?)

Towards the end of this process, a very elderly, slow-moving woman poses for the shot. I tell her, “Eyes on the camera.” Hearing the phrase “your eyes,” she starts talking about her eyes. I take a closer look. Her pupils are glassy. I wave my hand inches in front of her face. No response. This woman is completely blind.

On my boss’ instruction, I take her hand and guide her to a secluded shade tree so we can get her story later on. I take her picture using flash, inches away from her face. I get no reaction.

Her story, when we get it, is depressingly predictable. She was captured in 1998 in Nymalell, probably in the same raid as Malachi’s wife. She lost her vision when her master beat her eyes with a wooden stick, after she failed to get up quickly enough when ordered to fetch something. The same man who blinded her repeatedly raped her.

Now she has returned from the North in old age, with no vision and no family. Dr. Eibner introduces her to the local chiefs, who assure him that they will look after her. There’s really nothing else we can do.

Before we depart, we gather all the slavery survivors together one last time, and Ellen teaches the group some exercises for dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. One of the techniques is slow, deliberate breathing. Another is waving one’s arms backward above one’s head, as if to throw slavery behind you, she explains. This exercise provokes gales of laughter from the crowd.

Then Pastor Mary, a local Dinka Anglican evangelist, steps forward to teach the group a Christian song of praise. The song is a hit. Several young boys and girls who learn the song quickly step forward to take turns leading the group, and after a few minutes, the entire group – most of whom are still wearing Islamic veils and prayer caps – are singing, clapping, laughing, ululating and dancing along.

There are few better sights in the world, I think.

In Mabok, Dr. Eibner goes to meet the gathered local Dinka chiefs, to thank them for hosting the returnees and ask them to make sure they use their connections with other chiefs to find homes for them. Then he asks if they would like to share a song about the war with us.

On the spot, the chiefs, an elderly group of men wearing a wide assortment of hats (baseball caps, fedoras, prayer caps) to distinguish themselves from other Dinka, respond with a multi-part, foot-stomping, fist-pumping, choreographed battle anthem. The sound, even coming from this relatively unintimidating collection of senior citizens, is enough to either chill the blood or make you want to pick up a rifle for Dinkaland. It’s full of rage, pride and determination. Arab nationalism, eat your heart out.

For the past two years, a group of fifteen women in the village where the CSI clinic is located have been training with Ellen to learn a technique called “Coherent Breathing” to deal with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder arising from their experiences in the war. Every woman in the group has, at a minimum, seen a person killed in front of them.

On this visit, Ellen attempts to evaluate the progress the women are making, to see if there has been any improvement in their symptoms. One of the questions she uses in the evaluation is, “In the last month, have you been having frequent thoughts about the war?” She means, of course, the North-South civil war of 1983-2005.

When the question is translated, several of the women raise their hand. Ellen asks our translator to ask them for details. One says, “Yes – when my cousin was killed in the fighting in Abyei a few weeks ago.”

Another woman just lost a son in Abyei; another, an uncle.

Abyei is a border region claimed by both North and South Sudan. Its status was to have been determined by a local referendum, but disputes over the logistics of the vote and fighting between local government and SPLA forces led the North to forcibly occupy Abyei in May 2011, ahead of the South’s independence. Fighting has continued at varying levels there ever since.

Our flights back to Juba will take us to a city called Agok, which is quite close to Abyei. The airstrip where we land is surrounded by tanks and Ethiopian soldiers in blue helmets – forces belonging to the United Nations International Mission in Sudan.

Even if war has gone from NBG, Sudan’s war is far from over. The governments of North and South are constantly rattling sabers over issues ranging from the status of Abyei to oil-sharing. In the South, a hopelessly corrupt, institution-less government struggles to keep the peace between rival tribes. The day we left South Sudan , 37 people were killed in nearby Unity State – at an intertribal peace conference organized by the UN. In North Sudan, the central government wages war against insurgencies in Darfur, the Nuba mountains, Blue Nile State, and the eastern regions bordering the Red Sea. Millions of people in Darfur are unable to leave the refugee camps where they have lived since the government’s attack in 2003. The central government has been bombing the Nuba Mountain region, home to a mix of African Muslims and Christians, for months now, killing thousands, causing half a million people to flee, and preventing the people from planting crops. The government has also banned journalists and aid workers from the area, leading the United Nations to warn that hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of starvation.

Sudan has been at war with itself for nearly sixty years. The depressing reality is, there’s really no reason the war can’t continue for another sixty.


There’s no reason it can’t, but no reason it should, either.

We must never lose sight of this relatively simple truth: war is something we make. It is not a natural phenomenon, or the product of the great sweep of history. Nothing – not class struggle, not identity politics, not global warming – dictates what people will do, on their own or en masse. We are free to kill or heal, to forgive or take revenge, to enslave or set free. Every war is a war of choice, and the choice belongs to all of us.

The LORD will march out like a champion, like a warrior he will stir up his zeal.

With a shout he will raise the battle cry and will triumph over his enemies:

“For a long time I have kept silent.

“I have been quiet and held myself back.

“But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant.

“I will lay waste the mountains and hills and dry up all their vegetation.

“I will turn rivers into islands and dry up the pools.

“I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them.

“I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth.

“These are the things I will do.

“I will not forsake them.”

- Isaiah 42:13-16

If you feel so led, you can contribute to CSI’s slave liberation efforts by donating at