The United States is showing…restraint?


The situation in Yemen as of October 13: rebel areas in green, government areas in red, al-Qaeda areas in white (Wikimedia | Ali Zifan)

It’s now been a few days since US cruise missiles destroyed three Yemeni radar installations controlled by the Houthis and their pro-Saleh allies in retaliation for two attempted missile strikes against a US destroyer in the Red Sea. Well, yesterday the other shoe dropped:

The UN special envoy for Yemen has announced the plan for a ceasefire starting on Wednesday night.

Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed has received assurances from all Yemeni parties for a ceasefire to begin at 23:59 Yemen time on Wednesday, for an initial period of 72 hours, subject to renewal, a statement released on Monday said.

The country’s foreign minister has said in an official tweet that the president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has agreed to the 72-hour ceasefire. “The president agreed to a 72 hrs ceasefire to be extended if the other party adheres to it, activates the DCC and lifts the siege of Taiz,” Abdel-Malek al-Mekhlafi said. The DCC is the military commission responsible for overseeing ceasefires.

See, this is just the kind of unrestrained military aggression that the United States…wait, what? A ceasefire? That the actual fighting parties are going to obey, at least in theory? That’s wild, man. Damn.

Seriously though, this is what should have happened after the Saudis launched their inexplicable War on Funerals 10 days ago. In the aftermath of a strike so far beyond the pale that even Riyadh paid lip service to the idea of investigating what went wrong, it was time to leverage Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition to which he answers supporting him into a ceasefire and a resumption of talks. And, in fact, there were signs that the US was doing precisely that. Then somebody fired missiles at the USS Mason and it looked like all bets might be off. But, somewhat surprisingly, they apparently weren’t.

After the Mason was fired upon the usual suspects moved very quickly, as Yemen expert James Spencer writes, to try to pin the incident on Iran. There is, as you might suspect, not much reason to believe them: Continue reading

Academia at its finest

There’s a wonderful tribute to the long-deceased University of Chicago scholar Marshall Hodgson in The New York Times Magazine today. Hodgson founded the year-long Islamic history course that Chicago still offers to this day, and the text he wrote to accompany it, the three-volume Venture of Islam, is still required reading for that course.


There they are

The first volume, at least, should be required reading for anybody governing or commentating on anything having to do with Islam, but I’m probably biased in that regard. When you read my Islamic History series (I’m working on the next one, I swear), you’re mostly reading my meager attempt to summarize (heavily summarize) Venture, with some more recent scholarship thrown in. Hodgson died in 1968, a mere 46 years old, but he fundamentally changed the way Islamic history and civilization are studied in America, at least for those who want to approach those studies with some intellectual honesty:

Before 1957, when Hodgson founded his yearlong course on Islamic civilizations at Chicago, there was no course like it. Islamic studies in America was an outgrowth of European Orientalist thought, which focused on Arabic language and literature and the core Arab lands of Islam. Persianate and Turkic dynasties were considered backwaters: Persians were important for their pre-Islamic achievements, Ottomans for their role in European diplomatic history. Sufism — the vast mystical current of Islam — was a blip in European and American historiography. A roughly 500-year period was glossed as a time of “Oriental decline,” wherein Muslim empires were said to languish under ineffectual despots.

Hodgson devoted his professional life to correcting the errors of the Orientalists. He was interested in Islam as a global creative force that propelled numerous achievements in science, art and politics. He was influenced by Marx; he believed in the realities of material conditions, of objective social relations in determining historical outcomes. But he also believed in human genius and creativity and set very high, very moving stakes for their study. He sought “what it is that makes for creativity, or for power … for sensitivity, or saintliness, in societies.”

Of course, there’s no place for nuance or respect in 2016 America when it comes to Islam:

Toggling between Rush Limbaugh’s radio show and Hodgson’s “Venture,” it’s hard to believe they’re discussing the same religion. In Islam Hodgson found one of the most creative and the most excellent of our collective human enterprises. He was a committed Quaker, and his own religious beliefs allowed him to find deep resonance in both the unity and variety of Islamic experience. “Medieval” is a kind of slur now, too, but there was something medieval about Hodgson’s combination of study and belief. For much of history, Islamic and otherwise, the pursuit of knowledge and the practice of faith were a single project. This was likewise Hodgson’s motivation and his way of reckoning with the role of Islam in world history.

…but one wonders what kind of an impact Hodgson might have had on contemporary discourse had he lived longer, had he completed and even updated Venture (he died while still working on the third volume) and had he published more. Truly a remarkable academic figure.


Afghan warlord in from the cold, again


Gulbuddin Hekmatyar circa 2013

In a twist 20 years in the making, former Afghan prime minister and long-time war criminal Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hizb-i Islami militia, just cut a deal with an Afghan government that previously wanted him dead:

The Afghan government signed a draft peace deal on Thursday with a small insurgent faction led by a warlord who has been designated a “global terrorist” by the United States.

The faction, Hezb-i-Islami, whose name means Islamic Party, agreed to cease hostilities in exchange for government recognition of the group and support for the removal of United Nations and American sanctions against its contentious leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, according to the draft agreement.

Of all the warlords who have helped destabilize Afghanistan over the past few decades, Hekmatyar is perhaps the most…well, let’s go with “opportunistic.” Continue reading

Well this seems…like good news actually (?)

Ukraine, reeling from being snubbed on Donald Trump’s “I AM A BIG BOY RESPECTABLE CANDIDATE” tour of the UN General Assembly, nevertheless appears to have announced some good news today:

Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists agreed on Wednesday to withdraw troops from three small towns on the front line in eastern Ukraine, a pilot de-escalation project that is part of the latest push to get a much-violated ceasefire to stick.

Under the terms of the agreement, armed forces from both sides are banned from entering the three areas, which are four square kilometers each in size. The withdrawal must start within a month and be completed within three days.

The move follows a new truce on Sept. 15 that spurred hopes for the peace process, although it failed to stem all the violence in the region. The conflict has killed over 9,600 soldiers, civilians and pro-Russian rebels since April 2014.

Anything that reduces the chances of a flare up is good. The successful creation of a buffer zone around the Donbas is potentially not just good, but great. One of Kiev’s conditions for implementing political reforms like regional autonomy has always been that it must have control of the Russian border returned to it–which, all things considered, isn’t an unreasonable request for a national government to make. The rebels, obviously, aren’t inclined to give up their conduit into Russia because they fear it will leave them surrounded and vulnerable. If the rebels are willing to relinquish control of the border in exchange for a buffer zone, which would buy it and/or Moscow time to act if Kiev opts to resume the war, then that removes a big hurdle to a permanent settlement to the conflict.


Crisis of faith averted?

There are signs–tentative signs–that Iran and Saudi Arabia are going to settle their beef enough for Iranian pilgrims to make this year’s Hajj after all:

Saudi Arabia said talks on Wednesday with visiting Iranian delegates on arrangements for hajj pilgrims from the Islamic republic have been “positive”.

Earlier this month, Tehran said “arrangements have not been put together” for Iranians to make this year’s pilgrimage to Mecca at the end of the summer, accusing its regional rival of “sabotage”.

But Saudi hajj ministry undersecretary Hussein Sharif said the kingdom and its leadership “welcome pilgrims from all around the world”.

The two sides discussed “arrangements, as well as organisation and services” for pilgrims, he told reporters after a session of talks with the delegation from Tehran.

He said an agreement had been reached following the arrival of the delegation Tuesday to “use electronic visas which could be printed out” by Iranian pilgrims, as Saudi diplomatic missions remain shut in Iran.

A final agreement would be signed at the end of the ongoing talks, he said.

The big practical sticking point in this dispute is that the Saudis shuttered all their diplomatic missions inside Iran after a totally-spontaneous-and-not-at-all-organized-paramilitary mob torched the Saudi embassy in Tehran after the Saudis executed the legitimate-threat-to-the-state-and-not-at-all-a-sacrifice-to-Riyadh’s-destructive-vendetta-against-Iran, Shiʿa preacher Nimr al-Nimr, in January. No diplomatic offices means no way to provide Hajj visas to would-be Iranian pilgrims, and no Hajj visas means no going on the Hajj. Riyadh had said that any Iranian pilgrims could feel free to travel to a third country to apply for their Hajj visas, but that clear diplomatic insult didn’t sit well with Tehran, and so there was (and still is, let’s be clear) a risk that the Iranian government would ban Iranians from making the Hajj this year.

There is also a (less critical, it seems to me) dispute over how Iranian pilgrims should get to Saudi Arabia–the Saudis have been refusing to let IranAir handle any pilgrimage flights, the Iranians have been fighting to let IranAir keep at least some of its Hajj traffic. And of course the horrific stampede death of 464 Iranians (out of well-over 2000 pilgrims killed overall) on last year’s pilgrimage looms over things as well. But of course the real issue is that Tehran and Riyadh are on the outs in general, and that can’t help but spill over into the particulars of the pilgrimage, as it often has throughout history. It would be absurd to suggest that a successful negotiation over Hajj details could lead to deeper diplomatic engagement between the two countries (and to be clear, these negotiations haven’t been successful yet). But on the other hand, it’s better than nothing.


Saudi Arabia and Iran have failed to reach a deal on arrangements for Iranians to attend this year’s Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, with officials from both countries trading accusations on who was to blame for the impasse.

Saudi officials accused their Iranian counterparts of walking out of talks early on Friday, despite what they said were offers for “solutions” to the Iranian demands.

A statement from Saudi’s pilgrimage ministry said the Iranian government “will be responsible in front of Allah Almighty and its people for inability of the Iranian citizens to perform Hajj for this year”.

Iran’s Press TV is reporting that Tehran has given the Saudis until Sunday to “‘show its serious determination’ in making this year’s Hajj pilgrimage possible for Iranians.” Iran’s chief objection appears to be that they don’t believe the Saudis with whom they were talking (from the Hajj and Umrah Ministry, it seems) aren’t actually empowered to make a final deal, so it’s possible that this is just a matter of talking to the people who are empowered to make a deal. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.


History in horse shit

You’re reading that title and expecting some kind of rant, I can tell. But there’s no rant here, just a pretty cool story. I assume you’ve heard of Hannibal, yes?


What? No, not that Hannibal. I’m talking about the other Hanniba-


That’s the same Hannibal played by a different actor.

Look, do I have to call your high school history teacher? Because she’s going to be really disappointed in y-


Thank you. Hannibal Barca, the Carthaginian general who almost destroyed Rome during the Second Punic War. I’m sure you all knew who I was talking about and I apologize for belittling your intelligence for the sake of a joke. But just by way of a quick review, Hannibal is best-known for having led a very large (maybe as many as 100,000 strong though that seems like a big overestimate) army, including war elephants, on a march from Spain to Italy beginning in the spring of 218 BCE. His journey over the Alps, which may have cost him half of his army but took the Romans in Italy completely by surprise, is the stuff of legend, one of the most famous events in ancient and/or military history.

It’s also always been something of a mystery, because although everybody knows that Hannibal crossed the Alps, and everybody knows what happened after he crossed them, nobody has ever been able to establish the exact route he took in order to cross them. Until now, maybe. Scientists studying one of the most commonly suggested routes for Hannibal’s march, the Col de la Traversette on the French-Italian border, recently made an interesting discovery: Continue reading

Pope Francis does something nice


Pope Francis (Wikimedia | Casa Rosada)

Pope Francis said something important earlier today:

Inserting himself into the Republican presidential race, Pope Francis on Wednesday suggested that Donald J. Trump “is not Christian” because of the harshness of his campaign promises to deport more immigrants and force Mexico to pay for a wall along the border.

“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” Francis said when a reporter asked him about Mr. Trump on the papal airliner as he returned to Rome after his six-day visit to Mexico.

Wait…that’s not important, it’s silly. No, I was talking about this:

Pope Francis has suggested that women threatened with the Zika virus could use artificial contraception, saying there’s a clear moral difference between aborting a fetus and preventing a pregnancy.

Francis, however, drew a parallel to the decision taken by Pope Paul VI in the 1960s to approve giving nuns in Belgian Congo artificial contraception to prevent pregnancies because they were being systematically raped.

Abortion “is an evil in and of itself, but it is not a religious evil at its root, no? It’s a human evil,” he said. “On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one (Zika), such as the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear.”

It so happens that I’m what you might call a lapsed Catholic, although it’s been a pretty serious lapse by any definition of that word. Pope Francis irks me far less than his predecessor, but the organization he runs is still a regressive institution that covered up a systemic child sexual abuse problem for decades and has actual blood on its hands. So I may have a slightly higher standard than most people for admitting that the Pope has done a Good Thing, but he’s doing a Good Thing here. It’s not unprecedented–aside from Paul VI in the Congo, John Paul II also eased official Church restrictions on birth control in the 1990s in Bosnia, in response the systematic rape of the Bosnian War–and no, Vox, it’s probably not going to lead to a Church-wide reconsideration of the birth control ban. But it is a big step for a pope to take, and it’s urgently needed in this case.

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