Sunday, January 28, 2007

Intramural Islamic violence

Three headlines in today's New York Times raise what some might regard as a politically incorrect--and possibly bigoted--question: Is there an inherent streak of intramural violence in Islamic society?

I am not prepared to answer the question, but I believe it is reasonable to ask. The issue underscores the problems that the Bush Administration is encountering in the Middle East. The U.S. has intruded into Islamic society aiming to, among other goals, spread cultural values that are not necessarily consistent with those of the inhabitants.

One headline read: "3 Palestinians killed as Hamas and Fatah fight on." The article reported the latest episode in the fierce battle between the two rival Palestinian factions that has been raging over the past year in Gaza and, to a lesser extent, the West Bank. The two groups have what they regard as a common enemy, the state of Israel. But they appear willing to exhaust manpower and resources to fight each other.

Another headline read: "Iraqi Shiites attacked as holiday nears." The holiday is Ashura, a period of intense mourning. It commemorates the death in 680 A.D. of Hussein, Mohammed's grandson, who was killed in a battle to succeed the Prophet as Caliph or leader of Islam. The opponents were the ancestors of today's Sunnis.

Ashura is the tenth day of the Muslim month of Muharram. Sunnis also observe that day as a holiday, but with much less intensity for different historical reasons. The Sunni holiday marks Ashura as the day that Noah left the Ark and Moses was saved by Allah from the pre-Muslim Egyptians. These beliefs are among the many examples of the Jewish Bible's influence on Islam.

The third Times headline read: "Bombing kills 14 Pakistanis, mostly police." The bombing was apparently also linked to Ashura. The victims were Shiites, who are a religious minority in Pakistan. When the bombing occurred, the police were clearing a narrow street near a mosque before a Shiite religious procession was to march through. Although there have been no reports in neighboring Afghanistan, the Shiites are also a minority there, where they are often victims of similar acts of violence.

It has become increasingly evident that the Bush Administration was unprepared for the intensity of violence among different Muslim sects, ethnic groups, and political factions. That has been an important factor in the U.S. failure to achieve its basic goals--curbing terrorism, establishing stable governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and settling the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The 2008 Presidential race: A playground for political junkies

The campaign for the 2008 Presidential election has gone into high gear. I can't remember a Presidential election race that has drawn so many candidates so early. George W. Bush's dismal White House performance over the past six years has obviously impressed contenders in both parties that the bar for Presidential qualifications has been lowered.

I consider myself a political independent, although I normally vote Democratic. The only Republican candidate for whom I might consider voting is Nebraska's Sen. Chuck Hagel. But the very qualities that I find attractive--his liberal social views and his opposition to the Iraq war--are what make it unlikely that the Republicans will nominate him.

I once greatly admired Arizona's Sen. John McCain. But I've lost my respect for him, largely because of his insane demand to send still more American troops to Iraq. Moreover, his pandering to the right-wingers who defeated his 2000 campaign for the Republican nomination makes me question his integrity.

Three months ago, I touted Gen. Wesley Clark in this blog as my favorite Democratic candidate. I still regard him as the best hope for intelligent and honest national leadership. But he doesn't seem to be gaining any political traction, and he is evidently failing to gain the financial support required to run successfully.

So I am rooting for Al Gore to run again. It's hard to forget that he would have been in the White House these past six years had it not been for a disgraceful Supreme Court decision. I have no doubt that the nation would now be in considerably better shape--economically and security-wise--with Gore as President. It's unclear, however, whether Gore is willing to go through the election ordeal again.

That brings me to the front-runners, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama. It's become a cliche for some Democrats that Mrs. Clinton is unelectable because of deep-rooted public hatred for her. I've never understood why this is so, but I think that as a Senator she has improved her political image.

My own respect for her, however, has diminished because of her equivocal stance on Iraq and other issues. And though I was a fan of her husband, I've become weary of political family dynasties. The Clintons are no Bushs. But I'm turned off by the prospect of getting what Bill Clinton once called "two for the price of one" back in the White House.

I consider Sen. Barack Obama to be one of the brightest and most refreshing new figures in the political arena. Nevertheless, he has yet to really spell out his views on many vital policies, and his record of significant personal achievement is modest. Still, a similarly modest background did not keep George W. Bush from the Presidency.

The excitement about Obama's charisma, sparked by his 2004 convention oratory and his subsequent brilliant autobiographies, shows how desperate many discontented voters are for a political messiah. Perhaps because I am an old fogey, however, I confess to some discomfort about having a President almost a decade younger than my own child.

The Obama boyish charm that excites so many people diminishes the gravitas that one expects from the world's most powerful man. George W. Bush has not been an exemplar of Presidential gravitas, and maybe that's a factor for the damage to America's international image and influence.

Obama's popularity has provoked the right-wing, xenophobic cranks to emphasize his middle name, Hussein (as if that links him to the infamous Saddam), and that both his biological father and his stepfather were Muslims. It should also be noted that his first name, Barack, is the Arab version of the Hebrew "Baruch," or blessed.

According to Obama's autobiography, his Kenyan biological father, with whom he evidently had limited contact, abandoned Islam and became an atheist. His Indonesian Muslim stepfather enrolled him briefly in a Jakarta elementary school that the cranks hysterically and incorrectly describe as a religious madrassa linked to Islamist terrorism.

These claims from the sleazy extremists have almost encouraged me to support the youthful Illinois senator simply to protest their nonsensical slander. I would prefer to see Obama selected as the Democrats' Vice-Presidential candidate. This would provide him with the apprenticeship that would strengthen a bid for the Presidency in 2016, assuming the Democrats can hold on to the White House for two terms.

There is considerable Democratic talent ready to challenge the two front-runners, Hillary Clinton and Obama. John Edwards, John Kerry's running mate in 2004, seems to be coming on strong. (I am thoroughly enchanted by his lawyer-wife, who projects the kind of personal charm that many think would bolster Hillary Clinton's image.)

Governors Thomas Vilsack of Iowa and Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Senators Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Joe Biden of Delaware are also impressive politicians who would bring honesty, decency and intelligence to a White House missing these qualities over the past six years.

For a news junky like me, the next 20 months are shaping up to be an exciting political playground. I hope that the result will be a newly energized nation and a return to the international glory the U.S. once once enjoyed.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

MEMOIR: How I became enmeshed in a friend's marriage

I don't normally get involved in other families' tangled affairs. But when I graduated from college in 1948 and moved from New York to Washington, D.C., I became enmeshed in a problem besetting a close friend's recent marriage. It dealt with the issue of social class and religious prejudice, matters that I would like to believe are no longer of as much concern as they were a half-century ago.

My friend, Dan B., and I were both World War II veterans who met in college. We both became journalists, and we remained close friends after college graduation. Dan came from a working-class Irish Catholic family in Brooklyn. Shortly before my move to Washington, he married June P., a girl he had been dating since his Army discharge two years earlier. They were married in a civil ceremony without informing June's parents.

June's family background differed markedly from Dan's. Her parents were wealthy residents of an exclusive Long Island community. As quintessential WASP patricians, they disapproved of June's relationship with Dan. They evidently regarded Dan's humble background as unsuitable for June, and they would have been appalled to know of their marriage.

When June learned that I was moving to Washington, she devised a plan that might enable her to maintain contact with her parents while keeping her marriage to Dan a secret from them. She asked me whether she could tell her parents that she was moving to Washington for a new job and that she would be renting a room there in the home of a "Mrs. Reichek." That, of course, would be me.

She intended to stay in touch with her family by mail. This was an era when people were still writing letters to communicate, and long-distance phone calls were usually limited to emergencies. Under her plan, June would mail me the letters written to her parents and I would forward the letters, now bearing a Washington postmark, to their Long Island home. In turn, her parents would write to her via my Washington address.

I questioned how long this scheme could be maintained, but I readily agreed to cooperate. When I arrived in Washington, I began sharing an apartment with two other guys. I explained my arrangement with June to them so that they would know why letters addressed to a "Mrs. Reichek" would be appearing in our mail box.

Things went smoothly for several months. I served successfully as the Washington conduit for the letters June wrote in her Manhattan apartment for delivery to her parents in Long Island. But the scheme eventually collapsed. One of my room mates moved out and a new guy moved in. Unfortunately, my replacement room mate forgot the details of my arrangement with June and was thus unprepared when June's mother suddenly decided to phone her daughter.

"I'd like to speak to June," her mother told my new room mate, who was home alone when he answered the phone. When she was told that no one named June lived in the apartment, her mother quickly asked to speak to "Mrs. Reichek." June's mother was shocked to learn that there was a "Mr. Reichek" in the apartment but no missus.

I don't recall the outcome of June's confession that she was still living in Manhattan and was married to Dan. I can report, however, that they enjoyed a long and happy marriage together. And I decided that if I was ever to become involved again in a family entanglement, it would have to be my own.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Mahatma Gandhi and me in Calcutta

As I've noted on this blog, I was stationed in India during World War II. I am always disappointed when I find so many otherwise well-informed people who are unaware that U.S. troops served there and in neighboring Burma and China in that war. We were "the forgotten theater of war," overshadowed by the action in Europe and the South Pacific.

For much of my service in India, I was based at the Bengal Air Depot, an installation built on the grounds of what had once been a giant jute mill. It was located in what was then a sleepy village named Titagarh, north of Calcutta. I recently learned (via Google) that Titagarh has grown into an industrialized city with a population exceeding 100,000. It has expanded territorially so that it is now only 15 miles from Calcutta.

More than a thousand men were stationed at the base, supplying and servicing the 10th and 14th Air Forces and the Air Transport Command. Army trucks regularly drove into Calcutta to transport off-duty men who had daily or weekend passes. The trucks would drop the men off at an American Red Cross center on Chowringhee, Calcutta's main boulevard. A schedule was posted inside the center, showing when trucks would be available to return to the base.

Chowringhee, now known as Jawaharlal Nehru Road in honor of India's first prime minister, was a broad road containing those extraordinary contrasts that always shocked me about India. Shops, hotels and old Victorian buildings lined the boulevard. The wide pavements, however, also "housed" hordes of ragged, homeless families. The sight of men defecating or urinating on the street curbs was so common that no one seemed to be bothered.

During my stay in India, Bengal province was hit by a severe famine and epidemics of smallpox and cholera. I will never forget the dreadful sight of countless starving or dying people laying on the sidewalks. Vultures hovered overhead or pecked at the corpses of those already dead. And all the while, passersby casually strolled on the street, paying little attention to the horrid scene.

Meaning no disrespect for the local culture, I recall that personal or institutional compassion for the human suffering was rarely in evidence. Perhaps this reflected the Hindu belief that one's fate was predestined and that human efforts to cope with misery were thus futile. These social mores may have induced an Albanian Roman Catholic nun from Kosovo, known as Mother Theresa, to settle in Calcutta and establish what became a world-renowned charitable institution grappling with the human misery that I witnessed so much of during my two years in India.

The western edge of Chowringhee borders the Maidan, a huge urban park of grass-covered fields fringed with shady mangroves, covering an area of almost three square miles. The Maidan is one of the most conspicuous vestiges of British rule and has been described as "a haven of tranquility and respite" for Calcutta's residents.

I recall walking on Chowringhee one day in the fall of 1944 when the atmosphere was anything but tranquil. As I passed the Maidan I encountered an enormous mob of people crowded into the park. The noise was overwhelming. The following day, the local newspapers estimated that at least a million people had been crammed into the Maidan.

I cautiously approached the crowd to find out what has happening. I quickly learned that a thousand or more yards in front of us, the legendary Mahatma Gandhi was standing on a raised platform and making a speech. Gandhi, the major political and spiritual leader of the Indian independence movement, had been released from a British prison several months earlier. He rarely visited Calcutta, and his scheduled appearance that day had produced the enormous audience that I saw.

Scores of loudspeakers had been installed across the Maidan's grounds so that the crowds far removed from Gandhi's platform might hear him speak. I assume that he was speaking in Bengali or Hindi. But I doubt whether the locals packed in at the edge of the park near me could possibly hear Gandhi's words. Nor was it even possible for any of them to clearly see "the Mahatma" so far off in the distance. (Gandhi's first name was actually Mohandas, but he was popularly called Mahatma--meaning "great soul"--a fitting title for a man who was worshipped by India's masses as a living saint.)

A man standing next to me offered me the use of his binoculars so that I might catch a glimpse of Gandhi, who was standing on the platform so far away. At 5'10" I was taller than most of the people crowded around me. I was therefore able to see this great man in person, although the view was not exactly well focused.

Gandhi was famed for preaching the doctrine of non-violence as the means of gaining India's freedom from British rule. (I am writing this as the nation celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which seems so appropriate since Gandhi was the inspiration for Dr. King's own political philosophy.)

Indeed, the next day's newspapers reported that Gandhi's speech called for the Indian people to avoid violent action in their struggle for independence. Ironically, his message meant nothing to the young Hindu fanatic who assassinated the 79-year old Gandhi four years later because of the Mahatma's conciliatory attitude towards India's Muslim minority.

My personal exposure to Gandhi in Calcutta's Maidan that day 62 years ago was quite superficial considering how far I was physically removed from him and how I was unable to understand or even hear his speech. Nevertheless, I still remember the thrill of being as close as I was to one of the world's great men of the 20th Century.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Let the Iraqis decide our "exit strategy"

As the nation mourned the death of former President Gerald Ford, I reflected on how much he differed from the current White House occupant and on how the situation in Iraq might have been different had Ford been President in 2003. Ford was an intelligent, congenial and truly compassionate man who had been personally exposed to warfare. He was always open to the opinion of others and willing to admit mistakes. In private, he opposed the Iraq invasion, believing that it had no bearing on U.S. national security.

George W. Bush, on the other hand, is a stubborn, arrogant and intellectually incurious man who is in over his head as President. He is responsible for an unnecessary war that has caused the death of more than 3,000 American troops, the maiming of even more soldiers, the waste of at least a trillion dollars, and has provoked an Iraqi civil war in which our armed forces have become policemen and referees.

Moreover, the war has hampered the vital and more legitimate battle against radical Islamic terrorism. Now the President is considering a move to deploy more troops in Iraq, an action that will make our plight worse. Our armed forces face opposition from both Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias. And Iran--a member of President Bush's celebrated "axis of evil"--has become a power in Iraq.

Since the start of the war in Iraq, the Bush Administration has made a big deal of its feat of arranging unprecedented Iraqi elections that led to the creation of a constitution and the selection of a parliament. Now a far more significant election would be to allow the Iraqi people to decide whether they want the U.S. to leave their country or to stick around to help them get out of the mess we have created. In short, let them vote on an "exit strategy" for us.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Jews and Eid-al-Adha

The world's Muslims are currently celebrating Eid-al-Adha, "The Festival of Sacrifice," which is one of their most important religious holidays. Eid-al-Adha commemorates the willingness of Abraham (Ibraham in Arabic) to obey God by sacrificing his son. The holiday lasts for three days and is associated with the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. The holiday is marked by a feast that reenacts Ibraham's obedience by sacrificing a cow or ram. An observant Muslim family eats about a third of the meal and donates the rest to the poor.

The Jewish belief is that God ordered Abraham, the Jews' first patriarch, to sacrifice Isaac, his younger son born to his wife Sarah. In contrast, Muslims believe that Abraham was to sacrifice his older son Ishmael, whose mother was Abraham's servant Hagar. Both Jews and Muslims agree that Abraham was about to sacrifice his son until God stopped him and accepted the sacrifice of a ram instead.

In all candor, as I have written here before, I have always been puzzled by how the Muslim religion has appropriated Jewish history. According to the generally accepted version of Biblical history, Abraham (or Ibraham) lived about 1,500 B.C. That was more than 2,000 years before the birth of the prophet Mohammed (570-632 A.D.), Islam's founder.

Until Mohammed was born in what is now Saudi Arabia, there is no evidence that the Arabs were even aware of the existence of the historic figures of Abraham and his two sons. The Arabs were then primarily pagan nomads. It is not known that they possessed any sacred written scripture until the Koran was created in Mohammed's life.

There were Jewish tribes, mentioned in the Koran, living in the Arabian peninsula at that time. Mohammed and his followers presumably became familiar with their Jewish neighbors' Five Books of Moses--the Jewish Bible--and were inspired to abandon their pagan gods and to seek the monotheistic divine figure worshipped by the Jews. The Koran (16:120-121) states: "Surely Ibrahim was an example, obedient to Allah, by nature upright, and he was not of the polytheists."

It was only after the Koran's creation and the recognition of Allah that Ibrahim and his sons, Isaac and Ishmael, who had originated in the Jewish Bible so many centuries earlier, were introduced into Arab and Muslim tradition. From that tradition has arisen the Arab belief that Ishmael is their ancestor and that Isaac was the ancestor of the Jewish people.

Meaning no disrespect for the Muslim religion, I do not understand how the Arabs can trace their origins to Ishmael since he lived more than 2,000 years before his very existence was revealed in the Koran.

It is unfortunate that, while they acknowledge their common Abrahamic ancestral origins with the Jewish people, so many Islamic political leaders and clerics continue to denigrate Jews, regarding them as enemies, preaching hatred toward them, and denying the Jewish historic link to what is now Israel and Palestine.

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