Friday, December 2, 2016

Interview with Zackery Heern, author of The Emergence of Modern Shi‘ism

Dr. Zackery Heern

Interview with Zackery Heern, author of acclaimed book, The Emergence of Modern Shi‘ism: Islamic Reform in Iraq and Iran.*

The 9/11 terror attacks have created immense interest in Islam. Many books were published on Islam and Muslims, a large percentage of them written by non-specialists. A number of individuals, seeing a market for specialists, presented themselves as Islam specialists even though they had no credentials or dubious Islam credentials. At the same time, since 9/11, great books on Islam have also been written, by scholars trained in the field. One of these great books is Dr. Zackery Heern’s book, The Emergence of Modern Shi‘ism: Islamic Reform in Iraq and Iran, published by Oneworld. The Forum and Link reached out to Dr. Heern, formerly a Murray State University assistant professor and currently an assistant professor at Idaho State University, with questions about his book. Below is the interview:
Ihsan Alkhatib: Thank you for doing this interview with the Forum and Link. Please introduce yourself to our readers.

Zackery M. Heern: Thank you so much for your interest in my work! I am currently an assistant professor of Middle East and Islamic studies at Idaho State University in the beautiful town of Pocatello, Idaho. I am particularly interested in modern Islamic movements, and I enjoy teaching my students and the general public about the many great contributions that Middle Easterners have added to human civilization, including algebra, science, and the great literary tradition associated with luminaries like Rumi.

IK: What interested you in the study of Shi‘ism?

ZH: Shi‘ism is fascinating to me for many reasons. Shi‘i thought and practice surrounding the Imamate, Mahdi, and the relationship between Shi‘ism and politics, authority, and knowledge have been of great interest to me for a long time now. I was especially interested in understanding how a religious movement that defined itself for so long as apolitical and shunned political engagement could lead the Islamic revolution in Iran. I think this revolution is one of the most stunning revolutionary moments in world history, especially because many Western scholars assumed that religion was on its way out as societies modernized.

IK: Congratulations on your book, The Emergence of Modern Shi‘ism: Islamic Reform in Iraq and Iran. Were you surprised it was written about in the Economist?

ZH: Thank you! I am still surprised that this book, which started as my PhD dissertation, was reviewed in the Economist. But, I spent several years revising it for a general audience and I think a lot of people are hungry to know more about Islam. Also, the publisher – Oneworld – has an impeccable track record of promoting their books. They recently stunned the literary world by winning the Mann Booker award in 2015, and again in 2016. So, a lot of credit goes to Oneworld for getting the attention of the Economist.

IK: What is your book about?

ZH: Most of the book focuses on Usuli Shi‘ism, a movement that has become the most powerful force in the modern Shi‘i world. I suggest that Shi‘i scholars, as well as Sunnis and Sufis, were responding to the changes associated with the collapse of the Safavid dynasty in Iran and the decentralization of the Ottoman Empire in the eighteenth century.

IK: What is “modern Islam”? “Modern Shi’ism”?

ZH: Many scholars think of modernity as the ideals and practices associated with The Enlightenment (democracy, rational thought, secularism, individual rights, etc.), which have supposedly been at the heart of European dominance in the modern world. Instead of this Eurocentric conception of the modern world, I think of modernity in terms of theories and practice that have defined diverse human experiences in the past several hundred years. In other words, there is not a single dominant narrative that defines the modern world, and therefore we must speak in terms of multiple modernities.

Therefore, modern Islam and modern Shi‘ism are the many trends associated with Muslim communities for the past several centuries. Some trends are more dominant and common than others. I focus on Usuli Shi‘ism, Wahhabi Sunnism, and neo-Sufism as important movements that are necessary to understand changes in modern Islam. Other Islamic movements are also modern, like Hamas, which is largely defined by its aims associated with nationalism, which is one of the defining features of modern global history. Additionally, movements like Al-Qaeda and ISIS are radically new (and thus modern) in their ideology, practice, use of technology, and so on. On the other end of the spectrum, many modern Muslims have advocated a more progressive, liberal, and feminist reading and practice of Islam.

IK: What explains the emergence of “modern Islam” during that particular time period?

ZH: As I noted above, I think of the emergence of modern Islamic movements in relation to the expansion, decentralization, and collapse of the so-called gunpowder dynasties – the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals. The late eighteenth century was a critical period, not only in the Islamic world, but in the West and Asia as well. In the West, this period is defined by radical historical changes associated with the French Revolution, the founding of the United States, the Industrial Revolution, and a renewed effort to colonize the world, which began the process of European imperialism in the Islamic world.

IK: What is Usuli and Akhbari? 

ZH: Usulism and Akhbarism are schools of Shi‘i thought rooted in the tradition of Islamic law. In the late eighteenth century, the dispute between the two schools came to a head. Akhbaris are often referred to as scripturalists because they generally argue that the Qur’an and hadith are the only two sources of Islamic law. Usulis are called rationalists because they believe that in addition to the Qur’an and hadith, legal norms can be produced by reason. Usulis also argue that doctors of Islamic law (mujtahids) are the vicegerents of the Shi‘i Imams. Therefore, many Usulis argue that mujtahids, or Ayatollahs, should play a central role in worldly affairs, including politics. Akhbaris favor a more limited social role for Muslim scholars.

IK: How did Usulis become the dominant school of thought in Shi‘ism? Are the Akhbaris extinct now?

ZH: Usulism came to dominate Shi‘ism at the end of the eighteenth century. Prior to this era, during the Safavid period (1501-1722), Shi‘i schools of thought included Akhbarism, a variety of Sufi movements, illuminationist philosophy, as well as Usulism. After the fall of the Safavid dynasty in the eighteenth century, the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala’ in Iraq became the centers of Shi‘ism. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Usulis dominated these Shi‘i centers and spread throughout the Shi‘i world. The founders of the neo-Usuli movement declared infidelity (takfir) on Akhbaris, Sufis, and other Muslims. Some Usuli scholars issued death sentences on Akhbaris and Sufis, who were tracked down and killed. Akhbarism is not dead but there are few Akhbari scholars in the Shi‘i world these days, especially compared to Usulis.

IK: How much did Shi‘i scholars from Lebanon contribute to the rise of the Usuli school?

ZH: Shi‘i scholars from Lebanon were especially influential during the Safavid period. And the Shi‘i community in Lebanon was certainly influenced by the spread of neo-Usulism. As you know, Hezbollah is closely linked to Iran and Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader in Iran, certainly holds sway over many Hezbollahis. The late Ayatollah Fadlallah in Beirut was also a product of Usulism.

IK: When were the titles of Ayatollah and Grand Ayatollah created? Are they connected to the rise of the Usuli tradition?

ZH: Scholars within the neo-Usuli movement took on grandiose titles from its inception. The founder, Wahid Bihbhani, was referred to as the “reviver of Islam” and “the teacher of all.” Some Usulis were referred to by the titles of their books, like Bahr al-‘Ulum (the Ocean of the Sciences) and Kashif al-Ghita’ (Remover of the Veil), which are now the family names of great clerical dynasties in Iran. Others took on religiously significant titles, including Hujjat al-Islam (the Proof of Islam). Starting in the nineteenth century, clerical titles became routinized and institutionalized, which include “the source of emulation” (marja‘ al-taqlid) and Ayatollah. Usuli scholars still debate whether claimants to the title of Ayatollah or Grand Ayatollah deserve the designation since the process of becoming an Ayatollah is not clearly laid out the way clerical authority operates in Catholicism, for example. Therefore, after a scholar finishes his studies and publishes scholarship, he must take additional steps to become an Ayatollah, including the acquisition of followers, the collection of khums money, and so on. So, becoming an Ayatollah, like twitter, is partially a popularity contest since Shi‘is can choose which Ayatollah to follow.

IK: Historically, at the core of Shi‘ism was that politics is corrupt until the return of the Mahdi and even religious obligations, such as Friday prayer, were suspended until the return of the Mahdi. How did that change? Were the Usulis influenced by the Sunni tradition?

ZH: This change is linked historically to governments that adopt Shi‘ism as the state religion. Therefore, in more recent times, these attitudes changed after the establishment of the Safavid dynasty in 1501. In fact, Shi‘i scholars during the Safavid period hotly debated whether or not Friday prayer should be held, and if it is held who should lead it in the absence of the Imam. Usulis are highly influenced by Sunnis. In fact, one of the original arguments that Akhbaris used against Usulis was that they were introducing Sunni methodology and practice into the Shi‘i legal system.

IK: You compare the emergence of modern Shi‘ism with the emergence of the Wahhabi movement and neo-Sufism. How are they similar and/or different?

ZH: Ideologically the movements of Wahhabism, Usulism, and neo-Sufism are very different. They are influenced by three entirely different traditions within Islam. However, since the late eighteenth century they have faced a similar set of questions – including how to respond to perceived crises in the Islamic world, imperial decentralization, and how to save Muslims from incorrect theoretical and practical approaches to Islam. Each movement was led by charismatic teachers who were concerned with the sources of knowledge and authority in Islam and charged mainstream Sufis with corrupting Islam. Additionally, the movements were politicized. Wahhabism became the state religion of Saudi Arabia and Usulis established themselves in power after the Iranian revolution in 1979.

IK: What is the contribution of Ayatollah Khomeini to the dominance of the Usuli school?

ZH: I see Khomeini’s relationship to Usulism from two perspectives. On one hand, he represents a culmination of the Usuli movement, which advocated more involvement for mujtahids in worldly affairs. Khomeini utilized Usuli ideology and its social movement to gain power. On the other hand, Khomeini’s conception of guardianship of the jurist (wilayat al-faqih) and his Islamic Republic of Iran were innovations that caused a serious fissure in the Usuli movement. Those who disagreed with his politicization of the Usuli movement in Iran were marginalized. In Iraq, many Usulis, including Ayatollah Sistani who probably has more followers than any other Ayatollah in the world, do not subscribe to Khomeini’s conception of Shi‘i politics.

IK: Today Sunni extremists such as ISIS and al-Qaeda are referred to as takfiris. What are takfiris and is takfirism a phenomenon in all schools of Islamic thought, including the Usuli tradition?

ZH: Takfirism is the practice of declaring infidelity on Muslims and excommunicating them from the community. This is a very old practice in Islam and is common to both Sunnis and Shi‘is at various times in history. Takfirism was not common under the rule of pluralistic empires like the Ottomans. However, the Wahhabis and Usulis revived the practice, but neo-Sufis generally refrained from takfirism.

IK: Some say that Sunni Islam is Arab Islam and Shi‘i Islam is Persian Islam. Is there any truth to this characterization given the role of Vahid Bihbihani?

ZH: This is an oversimplification based on the fact that the majority of Iranians are Shi‘is and the majority of Arabs are Sunnis. However, this assumption does not consider the historical reality of Sunni and Shi‘i communities in Iran and the Arab world. Currently, there is an important Sunni community in Iran. Additionally, the overwhelming population of Arabs in Iraq and Bahrain are Shi‘is, in addition to significant populations of Shi‘is in Lebanon, the Gulf, and elsewhere. Bihbihani, the founder of neo-Usulism, was from Iran but spent much of his career in Iraq and most of his writings are in Arabic.

IK: Iran was a majority Sunni country until the sixteenth century. How did it become a Shi‘i majority country?

ZH: The majority of Iranians became Shi‘is as a result of willing and forced conversion when Iran was ruled by the Safavid dynasty (1501-1777), which adopted Shi‘ism as the state religion. Also, the majority of southern Iraqis converted from Sunnism to Shi‘ism in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, which parallels the rise of Usulism and the Ottoman policy of settling of nomadic tribes. However, the cities of Qum, Najaf, Karbala’, and others have been associated with Shi‘ism since the early history of Islam.

*Interview will appear in the Forum and Link of 12/17/2016.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Jerusalem: Religion, Politics and Law

Al Aqsa Mosque

Dome of the Rock

The following are answers to questions commonly asked regarding Jerusalem, one of the “final status” matters in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.

*What is the issue with Jerusalem?  Is it a done deal with Israel having annexed it and declared it the “eternal capital of the Jewish people”?

There is a myth that Israel has annexed East Jerusalem. This is not the case at all. Israel has not annexed East Jerusalem. Had it annexed it, the population of the city would have automatically become Israeli citizens. This is not the case. They are Jordanian passport holders with permanent residency cards issued by Israel.

* If not annexed, then what is Jerusalem’s status?

 Israel has extended its jurisdiction over it. In a letter to the UN dated 7/10/1967, Israel stated: ‘The term “annexation” is out of place. The measures adopted related to the integration of Jerusalem in the administrative and municipal spheres and furnish a legal basis for the protection of the Holy Places.”’

*Has East Jerusalem become Israelized, losing its Arab Palestinian identity?

 I have visited the city last summer. East Jerusalem is an Arab city, fully. It feels like an Arab city under occupation, which it is. No visitor of East Jerusalem can fail to sense that. It has Arab shops, Arab people, Arab culture, Arab food, Arab food smells, etc. Jerusalemite students study the Jordanian curriculum and the Jordanian dinar is accepted. Despite almost forty years of occupation, East Jerusalem has not lost its identity despite ongoing Israeli projects to change the status quo.

*What is the position of international law as to Jerusalem?

 UN Resolution 181 of 11/29/1947 partitioned Mandatory Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state. Jerusalem was declared a Corpus Separatum, a separate entity, to be governed by a special international regime. During the 1948 war, Jewish gangs took over West Jerusalem, the Arab Legion of King Abdullah I of Jordan took over Eastern Jerusalem. Neither the UN nor any world power has given recognition to the political and legal order that was created by Jewish and Jordanian facts on the ground. The international legal status of Jerusalem, East and West, remains legally controlled by the language of Resolution 181. Even Israel’s Abba Eban conceded as such to the UN General Assembly in 1949 that “the legal status of Jerusalem is different from the territory in which Israel is sovereign.” Israel was applying for UN membership at the time.

*What is the position of the US as to Jerusalem?

The US does not recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel or East Jerusalem as part of Israel. The US considers Jerusalem as a final status matter to be resolved when other less difficult issues have been resolved. Incidentally, there is a US consulate in East Jerusalem that serves mainly the Palestinians of the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza.

*What is the Supreme Court case Zivotofsky v. Clinton about, known as the Jerusalem case?

 Congress, responding to pro-Israel lobbying, passed ‘Section 214(d) of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 2003 – which directs the Secretary of State, upon request, to designate “Israel” as the place of birth on the passport of a U.S. citizen who is born in Jerusalem.’ President George W Bush signed the bill into law attaching a signing statement that the bill would “interfere with the President’s constitutional authority to…determine the terms on which recognition is given to foreign states.” Citing this law, a Jewish American born in Jerusalem wanted his passport to read “Jerusalem, Israel” as the place of birth. The State department wanted to put the place of birth as “Jerusalem,” a practice consistent with the US position of considering the status of Jerusalem as unresolved. Ultimately the case reached the Supreme Court.

*How did the Court deal with Jerusalem, was the Court mindful of the sensitive nature of the case?

Yes.  The Court stated: “A delicate subject lies in the background of this case. That subject is Jerusalem. Questions touching upon the history of the ancient city and its present legal and international status are among the most difficult and complex in international affairs. In our constitutional system these matters are committed to the Legislature and the Executive, not the Judiciary.” The Court sided with the President since recognition of foreign states is a well- established executive prerogative.

*But the US recognized Israel in 1948 and the West Jerusalem was part of it? Did it not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the city?

No. The US position as articulated by the Executive branch was consistent with international law and still is. The Court summarized the history of the American government position on Jerusalem as: ‘Jerusalem’s political standing has long been, and remains, one of the most sensitive issues in American foreign policy, and indeed it is one of the most delicate issues in current international affairs. In 1948, President Truman formally recognized Israel in a signed statement of “recognition.” See Statement by the President Announcing Recognition of the State of Israel, Public Papers of the Presidents, May 14, 1948, p. 258 (1964). That statement did not recognize Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem. Over the last 60 years, various actors have sought to assert full or partial sovereignty over the city, including Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians. Yet, in contrast to a consistent policy of formal recognition of Israel, neither President Truman nor any later United States President has issued an official statement or declaration acknowledging any country’s sovereignty over Jerusalem.”

*The US and the media refer to the al Aqsa Mosque Compound Sanctuary as the 
“Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif,” how accurate is this designation?

 I asked an archaeologist that worked in Palestine for more than 30 years. He told me, to my surprise, there is no archaeological evidence that a Jewish Temple stood where the Aqsa is now, “though we have reason to believe it did because we have literary evidence,” he said. The position of the Palestinians, other Arabs and Muslims, is that no Jewish temple ever stood where the al Aqsa Sanctuary is now was validated by the recent UNESCO decision about the Aqsa Compound without the “Temple Mount” designation.

*But the Aqsa Compound is a “place of active worship,” not an archaeological dig area. Can one say that it was never properly excavated to prove or disprove the Temple’s presence, that it is basically an open question scientifically?

The Israelis have dug tunnels under the Compound. A person who went into the tunnels told me there is “another city there.” When you enter from the former Moroccan Quarter/ Bab al Nabi, where the Prophet entered the area to get to the Western wall, on the left there is an entrance where you can go underground into tunnels dug by Israel under Al Aqsa. Has Israel found evidence of the Temple? No. Jewish artifacts connecting the Jews to the whole city? Of course. Just as you find all kinds of other artifacts from different eras in the city’s history. The connection of the Jews to Jerusalem is undisputed but there is no evidence that the First or Second Jewish Temples stood where the Aqsa Compound is today.

*What is the Western wall?

The Western wall is a part of the al Aqsa compound. In the Muslim tradition, it is the Buraq Wall where Muslims believe the Prophet tied his winged steed that he rode on his journey from Mecca to Jerusalem. The story is told in Surat al Isra which is also referred as Surat Bani Israel. The Koran reads: “Exalted is He who took His Servant by night from al-Masjid al-Haram to al-Masjid al- Aqsa, whose surroundings We have blessed, to show him of Our signs. Indeed, He is the Hearing, the Seeing.” Al Isra 17”1. Al Aqsa is the third holiest shrine in Islam. Al Aqsa does not have the same significance to Islamic minorities the way it does to the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims who are Sunni. The connection of Islam to Jerusalem was established and preserved by the Prophet’s journey and its retelling for eternity in the Koran.  
*Other than the Prophet’s night journey and the mention in the Koran, what is the significance of al Aqsa in Islam?
The website summarizes the case for the Aqsa’s significance in Islam: ‘Prophet Muhammad (saw) taught us that we should only undertake a special journey to one of three masaajid; Al Masjid Al Haram in Makkah, Al Masjid An-Nabawi in Madinah, and Al Masjid Al Aqsa in Jerusalem. In addition – prayer in each of these blessed masaajid are multiplied in virtue, with one salaah in Al Masjid Al Aqsa receiving at least 500 times the reward of salaah elsewhere. Al Masjid Al Aqsa has a very special status for Muslims because of its own unique history, including being:

The first qibla in Islam;
The second place of worship built in Islam (built 40 years after Kaaba);
The place where the Prophet Muhammad (saw) travelled to on the night of Isra;
The place where the Prophet Muhammad (saw) led all the other Prophets in prayer;
The place where the Prophet Muhammad (saw) ascended during the Miraj;
A place mentioned in the Quran as being “blessed” and “holy”, on numerous occasions.’

*Have the Jews always prayed at the Western Wall?

The Ottomans allowed the Jews to pray at the Western Wall. But that Wall was part of the al Aqsa with no legal rights conferred on the Jews. It was a practice of Islamic tolerance that shared the Wall with the Jews. The Wall is an integral part of the Compound itself. Soon after occupying East Jerusalem, Israelis headed to the Western Wall. The adjacent area was called the Moroccan quarter. Israel forced the inhabitants of the quarter out and razed their homes. Those who refused to leave had their homes destroyed with them inside. Israel massively expanded the prayer area by the Wall and built a Plaza there. When I visited there last summer I witnessed prayer at the Wall as well as nationalistic dancing and singing in the Plaza area. It was very unsettling given the solemn atmosphere in the Sanctuary itself.

*What is Israel’s policy as to the Aqsa Compound?

When Israel occupied East Jerusalem it moved fast on the Western Wall area turning it into a much bigger de facto Jewish shrine area. As to the al Aqsa Compound, the Israelis said that the Muslim Waqf or Islamic Religious Endowment would continue to run the Aqsa affairs and non- Muslims would be allowed to visit but not to pray there. Since then, elements of religious Zionism have seeped into the Israeli political mainstream. There is a segment of the Jewish Israeli public that openly advocates for the destruction of the Islamic structures and the building of a Third Temple. They remain a marginal group. But there is increasing political support for allowing Jewish visitors to the Compound to pray there. Jerusalemites watch with concern the ostentatious theatrical and provocative visits of radical religious settlers to the Compound and hear the open discussions of designs on al Aqsa. They do not trust Israel at all, with good reason, because they see the political support and the belligerent attitude of the settlers who visit accompanied with heavily armed soldiers.

 *How did the Israelis deal with the UNESCO decision? 

UNESCO is not the US Congress. Even before the recent position statement, the Israel lobby had succeeded in having the US cut off funding for UNESCO. Israel and its supporters tried to delegitimize UNESCO claiming that it denied the Jewish connection to Jerusalem. Israel intentionally conflates Jewish ties to Jerusalem, which are obvious, with Jewish ties to the Aqsa Compound, which are imaginary. Of course, Jews, Christians and Muslims have a connection to Jerusalem but not all of them have a connection to the al Aqsa Compound Sanctuary. Only the Muslims have a claim to the compound, above the ground and below the ground.

*What are the Palestinians doing to defend al Aqsa from Israeli encroachments? 

The Palestinians are concerned that Israel wants to do to al Aqsa what it did to the al Haram al Ibrahimi/Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron/al Khalil. In the name of sharing the Haram al Ibrahimi, Israel has taken over what is chiefly an Islamic holy site and has given minimal rights to Muslims as to worship there. Palestinians fear a repeat of that reality in Jerusalem. The Palestinians who live inside the green line and are Israeli citizens are at the front lines of defending al Aqsa. The Islamic Movement, which Israel has banned, used to organize regular visits to the Aqsa. The Aqsa is always crowded with Muslim worshipers, especially in Ramadan and on Fridays. Individual Palestinians volunteer to serve at the Compound. Israeli Arab Muslims, especially the Jerusalemites, are at the forefront of the defense of al Aqsa.

 *What has the Palestinian leadership done for al Aqsa?

The Palestinian leader Arafat took the PLO back to Palestine. The center of the Palestinian struggle became Ramallah, not Amman or Beirut. When Arafat signed the Oslo Accords in 1993, he presumed Israeli good faith and US honest brokering of these Accords. In 2000, in the last days of Bill Clinton’s administration, Clinton tried to have both sides reach a final agreement on all issues. It was not a deal any Palestinian leader, let alone Arafat, would accept. The Israelis offered Palestinian control over the surface of Aqsa, Israeli control under the surface. Arafat rejected the offer. In 2002, taking advantage of the post 9/11 environment, PM Sharon attacked and besieged Arafat’s Compound in Ramallah. Arafat died in 2004, Palestinians suspect that Israel assassinated Arafat.

*What is PA President Abbas doing for Jerusalem?

PA President Abu Mazen is busy building the trappings of a Palestinian state. There is a Palestinian police force, a central bank, a legislative branch and a judiciary. Ramallah is a thriving city full of energy and life. Palestine has an international postal code, a country phone code and a national phone company. President Abbas continues to appeal for international support to end the occupation and create a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem. Despite living in a de facto Israeli prison, Abu Mazen has not given away any rights to Al Aqsa to Israel. Unfortunately, many Arabs and Muslims think attacking the PA and President Abbas is a form of support for the Palestinians. The reality is that there is much Arab and Muslim rhetoric on Jerusalem, even a “Jerusalem day,” but very little action.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Questions and answers about Justice Against sponsors of Terrorism Act

JASTA has passed and there are many questions as to the law. Below are responses to common questions on the law:

*What is JASTA? JASTA is a federal statute that was passed by Congress this year.  It is an acronym for Justice against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. It allows the families of victims of terror attacks on US soil to sue sponsors of the terrorist acts. The language of the law does not mention the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by name but it is known that the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks lobbied for this law and that those who introduced the law in Congress introduced it to allow these families to sue Saudi Arabia for its alleged role in the 9/11 attacks. It is important to note that the US government has asserted time and time again that Saudi Arabia had no involvement in the attacks. In fact, al Qaeda is a terrorist organization that had declared war on Saudi Arabia for its alliance with the US.

*Was JASTA a big bill like the PATRIOT Act? Is it possible that not all members of Congress actually read it? JASTA is only 4 pages long. It is an amendment of a previous law that has been amended more than one time over the years.  The law it amended is the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) of 1976.

*Why was this law passed now? Three reasons: Lobbying by the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks, a sympathetic Congress during an election year and the fact that Saudi Arabia is a country that has been demonized in the media and by, among others, pro- Iran and pro- Israel groups in the US.  Lawyers say the question is more important than the answer. The issue was framed as are you with Saudi Arabia or with the victims of the 9/11 attacks. It is an election year and no one wanted to take the side of Saudi Arabia.

*How did it pass despite the President’s veto? President Obama vetoed the bill. However, the Congress had enough votes to easily override that veto. That was the only veto override in the 8 years of Obama’s presidency.

*Was Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell correct in blaming Obama for the passage of the law? Yes. Definitely, President Obama bears much of the blame. Compare the efforts of the Obama administration on the Iran deal with how little effort was expended on countering JASTA. In 2015, Senator McConnell said that Obama has caused “a genuine meltdown of American foreign policy across the board.” Obama’s failure on an issue of such magnitude is inexcusable. I see it as Obama passively settling scores with Saudi Arabia and the Republicans.

*Why did President Obama not do enough to stop JASTA from becoming law?
Two reasons. First, he does not care for Saudi Arabia. His advisers on the Middle East, if they have sympathies, they are for Israel and Iran. Saudi Arabia is not popular with him or with his inner circle that includes many Iranian Americans and Israel supporters.  His Atlantic interview reveals that he is more antagonistic to Arab Gulf countries than he says in public statements. Second, he wanted the Republicans in Congress to look stupid and he succeeded at that. One can fairly say Obama abdicated his duties on that issue.

*American citizens have sued Iran many times over the years and won major judgements, how is the case of Saudi Arabia different?  The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) of 1976 allows Americans to sue a country only when the US government, the executive branch, has labelled that country as a state sponsor of terrorism. Iran is a senior ranking member of a handful of countries that the executive branch has classified as terrorism sponsors, with ample hard evidence to support that labelling. Saudi Arabia has never been on the list and it is extremely unlikely to be added to that list because it does not target Americans. In fact, for decades the US has been the guarantor of Saudi Arabia’s security. Therefore, the only way that Saudi Arabia could be sued is with congressional intervention.

*Has JASTA been used to sue Saudi Arabia? Yes. A case was filed by Stephanie Ross Desimone on September 30 of this year in the DC district court. The evidence is circumstantial and flimsy. It is based on who knew who and who called who. Basically, guilt by association. They are reaching. Compare that case to the cases filed by the victims of Iranian supported terror attacks. In the Iran cases the evidence is ironclad of Iranian culpability. Even the recent case filed by Iranian American Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian against Iran and its Revolutionary Guards under the FSIA lays allegations that clearly and unequivocally show the responsibility of the Iranian government for “unlawful acts of terrorism, torture, hostage taking and other torts.” If you read the case filed by Rezaian  against Iran and the case filed by Desimone  against Saudi Arabia together, it becomes crystal clear how frivolous the case against Saudi Arabia is.
*What are the challenges Saudi Arabia faces with the law? The law is a gold mine for the tort bar. Saudi Arabia is facing the possibility of numerous lawsuits. Lawsuits open the door for intrusive discovery- requesting documents, deposing people, etc. No country in the world would accept that. When Iran was sued, the plaintiffs won default judgments because Iran refused to participate in the process. I expect that Saudi Arabia is going to refuse to participate in the proceedings.
*If the plaintiffs won the lawsuits by default would they be able to seize the Saudi embassy, its bank accounts, etc.? No. In civil lawsuits generally there is an issue with collection. You can win the biggest award in the world but if the defendant is collection proof, it is a pyrrhic victory. Assets of diplomatic missions are immune from attachment and execution. The plaintiffs however would be able to reach property that is used for commercial purposes in the US. And Saudi Arabia has major investments in the US that would qualify as such.

*Do you see these assets seized to satisfy future judgments against the US? Unlikely. I expect the president, most likely the next president and the congress to get together to clean this mess. There are foreign policy consequences to ceding American foreign policy to the tort bar. No responsible government would do that. The case of Iran is useful on the collection issue. Even though millions of dollars of judgments were entered against Iran over the years, the plaintiffs were not able to collect a dime from the Iranian assets in the US. Iranian assets were frozen by the executive branch. Only after the Iran deal the plaintiffs were able to collect. And not from the frozen assets. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Osama Siblani validates “fear and loathing”: Posting and liking sectarian bigotry, hatred and incitement

Bigotry and incitement, Osama style

The Likes of Osama

Osama Siblani validates “fear and loathing”:
Posting and liking sectarian bigotry, hatred and incitement

Fear of the “arrogant bully”
I interviewed a number of people who raised important issues as to the 19th district court primary election.  The people I interviewed, from different national and faith groups, did not want to be named. They were concerned that Osama would use his paper to attack them. I was surprised at the level of fear and loathing directed towards Osama and his paper.  My interviewees did not need the headache of an open fight with Osama and his paper.  I thought their fear was exaggerated. He is, after all, a publisher of a paper not the leader of a gang.

Sectarianism is the last refuge of the scoundrel
Osama’s response to my column appearing on my blog and in the Forum and Link was having one of his sectarian writers attack me in his paper. Osama’s writer, who has very limited English language skills, falsely claimed that I wrote that Sunnis do not like Osama because he is a Shiite. This is obviously an outrageous lie but is consistent with the sectarian line of the Arabic-language section of Osama’s paper. This is what I had actually written
When the lie appeared in Osama’s paper, I wrote a response on my blog exposing the lie. This is what I wrote

Osama goes ape sectarian on me
In response to my blog exposing the lies, in a Facebook entry, that same writer in Osama’s paper imported the worst feature of Middle Eastern politics and journalism today. He unleashed a full- fledged sectarian attack on me that  violated all rules of ethics, morality and the law.  He called me “Ihsan ISIS Alkhatib” and accused me of being a member of the “Ashraf Rifi and Naim Abbas group.” Ashraf Rifi is a Sunni Lebanese retired general from the Internal Security and a minister in the cabinet of Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam. Minister Rifi is a vocal critic of the Shiite group Hizbullah and is hated by the supporters of the group. Naim Abbas is a man accused of terror attacks in Lebanon.  Osama’s writer also called me a name- ‘whore”- the same vulgar word that Osama himself used to attack journalist Afaf Ahmad. Afaf Ahmad is a  Lebanese Shiite Muslim, just like Osama and his writer who attacked me. Ms Ahmad received a pile of abuses, even threats, for criticizing Osama and his paper.

A well- founded fear: 
Fear of a bully and his thugs, not of a publisher and his writers

Osama’s writer who attacked me claimed that I had made up the interviews because I did not name the interviewed. The people I interviewed wanted to stay anonymous and I respected their wishes. I thought that their fear of Osama and his paper was excessive. Now that I have been the subject of a vile sectarian attack that violates al norms of decency and the law as well, I completely understand their concerns.

Publish, post, like

Osama Siblani claims that he is not responsible for the sectarianism of his writers since only the editorial represents the position of the paper. But he chooses the writers and he publishes what they write.  And, as to the vile attack on me, it was posted on his Facebook page, he kept it and he liked it. He endorsed and approved the immoral, unethical and illegal attack.

Osama Siblani: Unfit to play the Arab community interlocutor role

What is troubling about the fading Osama phenomenon is that the US government and other governments deal with him as if he were an honest interlocutor who represents all Arab Americans of all backgrounds. The government allows him to choose who participates in meetings of importance to all community members. His parochialism and his sectarianism make him unfit to play that role.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Intellectual Dishonesty and Sectarian Incitement at the “Arab American” News: More of the Same

The Arab American News false and misleading in reference to my writing
Journalist Afaf Ahmad, Divaa, spared no time responding to Osama's falsities

I write a regular column for the Detroit based Forum and Link. On a visit to Dearborn, I was struck by community drama over the 19th district judicial primary elections.  Curious to know the reasons, I spoke with a number of people of different backgrounds. I used these interviews in an entry on my blog. The same appeared in the Forum and Link of August 11, 2016.

There were a number of themes in the interviews, These themes include:

1.   There is community- wide frustration with Osama Siblani and his paper. Osama uses his paper as the “National Inquirer” and the community is sick and tired of that.

2.   Osama’s years of activism have gotten to his head and made him think that he “made the community,””he is the dean of the community,” “he is the community,” “he speaks for the community and “he decides who from the community can speak.”

3.   Osama is dictatorial, immoral and unethical. After promoting attorney Dabaja for city council, he turned around and stabbed her in the back by using his paper to magnify a smear campaign against her.

4.   There is a new generation that refuses to be led the way Osama led previous generations. This is a generation that has achieved much success educationally and professionally. They are not the generation of low education, first generation, small business owners that largely deferred to Osama’s diktat.

5.   Osama’s attack on Susan Dabaja is sexist since he was trying to bring her, the wife, down for the previous mistakes of her husband.

6.   The sexism theme also came up with the Osama- journalist Divaa Afaf Ahmad saga. Afaf, unlike Osama, is a professional journalist. She took Osama head on over issues of public concerns. On Facebook, Osama called Afaf a “whore” instead of responding to her criticism and concerns. 

7.   Osama and his paper divide the community and the paper over and again has been used to settle scores with Osama’s real and perceived enemies.

8.   Osama is seen by many Sunnis as a sectarian and divisive. The sectarianism and division is "rampant" in his Arabic-language section. He presents two faces- one to the English- speaking public and another for the Arabic- speaking reader.

In response to the interviews, Osama had one of his writers write the following in the Arabic language section of the paper dated 8/12/2016:

“Ihsan Alkhatib wrote a column full of racism, sectarianism and hatred. Alkhatib wrote that the Sunnis hate Osama because he is Shiite.” The translation is mine.

One is entitled to their opinion, but not to their facts. The complaint one hears in Detroit is that Osama’s paper, especially the Arabic section, is full of sectarian incitement and that Osama has evolved or devolved into a sectarian divisive figure. More than one my interviewees stated that because many Sunnis see Osama as a divisive and sectarian figure, they voted against him by voting for the candidate that he was going against. 

They say the proof is in the pudding. The fact that Osama’s paper, irresponsibly and unethically, misrepresented what I wrote, proves that the sense that Osama Siblani and his paper are sectarian and divisive is indeed right.

Below is the excerpt from the column that Osama’s paper misrepresented:

Interview # 3:

Osama is really disliked by many Sunnis and many of those who are not Lebanese. They believe he has evolved into a parochial Shiite Lebanese activist and they reject him. The fact that he, in effect, took ownership of the Bazzi nomination, hurt Bazzi with those who are not Shiites and/or not Lebanese.

But both candidates are Shiites, Lebanese and are from families that are from Bint Jbail? Yes, and both are great women and great lawyers. It is a question of who is supporting whom. Due to who is pushing the candidacy, Dabaja is the whole community candidate and Bazzi, due to no fault of her own, became the “Osama candidate.” And Osama is seen by many as a divisive figure. Osama hurt Bazzi’s chances.

Interview # 4

-How do you see the 19th district primary election? Bottom line is that you have the Shiites divided between Bazzi and Dabaja. And the Sunnis solidly behind Dabaja because they don’t like Osama and his politics which they see as Lebanese sectarian and divisive. Osama hurt Bazzi’s chances. 

These two excerpts prove beyond any shadow of doubt that Osama's paper callously misrepresented my writing. The intellectual dishonesty and sectarian incitement at the “Arab American” News has to stop. 

Friday, August 12, 2016

Fear and loathing in Dearborn: The Osama phenomenon

Osama Siblani promoting the Abbbie Bazzi candidacy

Osama Siblani is a very interesting phenomenon. He is the publisher of a community newspaper and a longtime community activist. Anyone who gets involved in matters of public concern expects to be the object of criticism. Even American presidents get all kinds of criticism- fair and unfair.  In a democracy, we all understand that the freedom of expression is sacrosanct.

In the Middle East, people have a lot of opinions. However, in most Middle Eastern countries people are afraid to express themselves for fear of the government and those who have connections. In the US, on the other hand, there is the First Amendment. There is freedom of speech. People are free to express themselves.

I spoke with a Dearborn Arab American about the phenomenon of Osama Siblani and his paper. I have written a column in the Forum and Link based on interviews with Arab Americans regarding the 19th district elections and people did not want to go on the record criticizing Osama Siblani. Why would people, in the United States, be afraid of expressing themselves?

To unravel this mystery, I spoke with a longtime Arab American resident of Dearborn, a man familiar with its politics:

-How do you explain the Osama Siblani phenomenon? 
What makes people reluctant to go on record with their opinions? What we have in this city is “irhab fitri,” terrorism of the mind. Criticism has consequences. Here you have people who left the Middle East to escape repression. But they are fearful to express themselves. Why? Is it because they think Osama is too cozy with the US government? Has connections in Lebanon and can hurt people? Cause them problems when they travel to Lebanon? I am not sure. Maybe a combination of factors.

- But what can he do? He is merely a publisher of a paper?
 In a way people are justified in their concerns. He uses his paper to go after his enemies, real and imagined. Everyone has skeletons in their closet. It is a small community. He would use negative information savagely, and immorally. You yourself have seen it. People talk at length but refuse to go on record.

- You say the US government has helped create this phenomenon. How? There is a reign of terror. Osama’s perceived coziness with US government officials feeds into the fear that people have. US government officials meet with him and take pictures with him, treat him as the representative of the whole community and in return this creates the fear that you see.
This is a serious phenomenon. It is very unhealthy. All those who, by default or by design, helped create this phenomenon are responsible for the monster created. This should not continue. It is unhealthy and undemocratic. By the end of the day, there are more questions than answers.

-But what can Osama do. He has a paper, but there are other community papers?
 Look what happened with journalist Afaf Ahmad. Siblani called her a “whore.” Can you believe that? Who needs that kind of name calling? She is a mother and a member of the community and a man her father’s age calls her a name! Not only that. People associated with him or inspired by him start attacking her in the most despicable way. Why?

-Why do you think Osama acts the way he does? 
It has gotten to his head. He thinks he is greater than anyone else- greater than all these historical personalities that people talk about. He is unwilling to take criticism. Osama and his paper extol the virtues of the first amendment and the freedom of speech. If Osama believes in freedom of speech then he should accept criticism? He does not accept criticism. He reacts to valid criticism and good advice the same way he would react to being called a name? Truly a bizarre phenomenon. Unhealthy and undemocratic.

- Is there widespread unhappiness with Osama or is it Dearborn politics and he is part of that? 
It is widespread. You could be sitting with 20-30 people. You would experience firsthand the kind of dislike, even animosity and hate this man has from many people. But they are afraid to be quoted. What is this man going to do? He is not a gang leader. He is not the dictator of a Middle Eastern country? Still you see people want to avoid being entangled with him.

-I am interested in your pointing out a US government role in creating this phenomenon. The US government officials meet with him and with others in the community. Not only him, why is he special? 
When the issue of the FBI planes over Detroit came up, they met with him in his paper’s building, on his roof, in a friendly atmosphere. Who picked who could attend this meeting? This coziness has contributed to the fear. In a sense, the government has taken sides in inter-community politics. And that is not good. They need to be mindful of perceptions.
The interesting part is that he was asked how you choose those who represent the community or are leaders of the Arab American community. Osama said that he decides who represents the community. There is a perception that the US has a hand in placing Arab dictators in power in the Middle East. With Osama there is the perception that the US government is doing the same thing in the Detroit area too. This is unhealthy and undemocratic.

-But others have regularly met with officials. All over the country Arab and Muslim American activists are meeting with the government? 

What confuses the Dearborn community is his perceived coziness with the US government officials when put together with his public pronouncements. Osama brags about being a Hizbullah supporter. For example, on Facebook, one person accused him of being a Hizbullah supporter. Osama responded that he is indeed a Hizbullah supporter. The sense that people have is that if one says they support Hizbullah, the FBI would be knocking on their door the same day or the next day. People are at a loss. He is the only person in the community who does that.