Thinking Aloud: What’s in a Name? A Fight for the Past

Nov. 19, 2015 by Darius 

Over the past month, students on college campuses across the US have protested continuing racism. The protests have been sparked by a variety of local incidents and have resulted in few concrete changes or even proposals. At Yale, though, there has been a concrete demand on the part of the protesters: rename Calhoun College. Here’s why Calhoun College should keep its name.

Calhoun College is one of Yale’s residential houses, where some students will reside for at least half of their time at Yale. It is named after 19th century South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun, who served at various points as senator, vice president, and secretary of state. Like almost all South Carolinians in politics of during the first half of the 19th century, though, John C. Calhoun was a nasty piece of work when it came to racial issues. He was a leading proponent of slavery and ultimately the political godfather of South Carolina’s secession in 1861, which lit the Civil War.

It’s easy to see why Yale students, especially students descended from slaves, might prefer not to live in a building named after John C. Calhoun. As sensible as it may seem to pick a new name, though, there is a better solution. Keep John C. Calhoun’s name on the building. And in the lobby, construct an exhibit that meticulously details every horrendous thing Calhoun ever said, thought, or wrote. Make the name of Calhoun College not a tribute to John C. Calhoun but rather a permanent documentation of and damnation of his beliefs and actions. At the same time, show how far we’ve come as a society and even how much work we still have ahead of us—a section of the exhibit could cover modern-day racism, whether at Yale, in the US, or around the world.

It would no doubt be easier and cheaper to simply rename Calhoun College. It is a dangerous habit, though, to try to bury what we don’t like about our past or put a more palatable spin on it. (States’ rights? Please.) Try as we may to forget him, John C. Calhoun is a central part of our history. Don’t let the Confederate-flag wavers be the only ones to own him and his story. If, as the pro-Confederate side tends to say, “but it’s just our history,” then let’s examine that history. Let Calhoun College tell the story of that history in all its unpleasant detail. Make it a learning experience. After all, that is the point of higher education.

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News You Really Need To See: “Molenbeek, Belgium’s ‘Jihad Central'”

“Molenbeek, Belgium’s ‘Jihad Central'”

The New York Times, November 19, 2015

The shocking and bloody attacks in Paris on Friday, Nov. 13, left a trail leading to France’s small northern neighbor, Belgium — more precisely to its capital, Brussels, and to a specific district, Molenbeek.  Here, weeds line the sidewalks and dilapidated buildings stand next to modest houses, like a few rotten teeth that were never pulled or fixed.  In this down-at-the-heels but vibrant borough of nearly 100,000 people, about 40 percent are Muslims, and about three-quarters of them are of Moroccan origin or ancestry.  This community dates back to the 1960s, when a demand for labor led to a wave of immigration from Morocco. … Molenbeek was originally a factory district located at a nexus of canals and railways in Brussels — known as ‘Little Manchester’ because of the concentration of industry.  Eventually, the factories closed, and Molenbeek became a working-class residential area — and a home to new immigrants… But Molenbeek is also home to terrorist plotters.  The assassination of the Afghan anti-Taliban commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, immediately before the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001; the train bombings in Madrid in 2004; and the killing of four people at the Brussels Jewish Museum in 2014.  And just this year the foiled shooting on a high-speed train, the anti-terrorist raid in the eastern Belgian town of Verviers, the attack on a Paris kosher supermarket and, finally, the Nov. 13 attacks on the French capital — all had some connection to Molenbeek.  What makes Molenbeek such a hotbed for Islamist radicalism?  The most obvious reason is the deep divisions in Belgian society. … This also leads to administrative dysfunction…Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Brussels itself, which is governed like a small city-state — with 19 districts, each with its own mayor, and six police authorities, which only reluctantly work together, and sometimes not at all.  Political distrust between mayors from different parties or between rich and poor city districts sometimes translates into a total lack of communication and coordination.”

Quickie analysis:  An excellent case-study of a terrorism hotspot.  An understanding of dynamics like those in play in Molenbeek is key to sensible counterterrorism policies.

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Thinking Aloud: Riedel on Prince Mohammed bin Nayef

Nov. 14, 2015 by Darius 

Last week, I saw Brookings fellow Bruce Riedel talk about the unique role of Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, crown prince of Saudi Arabia, in spearheading the fight against jihad in the Middle East.

Known as “the prince of counterterrorism,” Mohammed bin Nayef, known as MBN in counterterrorism circles, was born in 1959. He studied at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon and later received training in police work from both the FBI and Scotland Yard. Following his education, he was put in charge of the Saudi government’s counterterrorism program.

In 2003, MBN’s skills were put to the test when al-Qaeda launched an aggressive campaign of terrorism in Saudi Arabia itself dedicated to overthrowing the House of Saud. For three years, Mohammed bin Nayef led the kingdom’s response, and by 2006, al-Qaeda was defeated. Al-Qaeda has never again carried out a campaign of attacks in Saudi Arabia or posed a threat to the regime. Mohammed bin Nayef also pioneered an ongoing terrorist rehabilitation program that seeks to integrate former terrorists back into society. According to Riedel, the Saudi reintegration program boasts a success rate of nearly 80%, dwarfing the success rate of the US prison system. However, as Riedel noted, the Saudi program cannot effectively be applied elsewhere due to its high costs and use of tactics the West finds rather distasteful, such as threatening a former terrorist’s family if he doesn’t stay on the straight and narrow.

Riedel also spoke about Mohammed bin Nayef’s current position in Saudi Arabia. Although MBN is currently the crown prince and presumptive heir to the throne, according to Riedel if and when MBN ascends the throne, he will have less domestic legitimacy than all of his predecessors due to the simple fact that he will be the first Saudi king to be a grandson, rather than a son, of Abdul Aziz al-Saud, the founder of the Saudi state. However, Riedel said that Mohammed bin Nayef is likely the most pro-American Saudi prince since the days of King Fahd (1982-2005). MBN’s pro-American stance is somewhat surprising given the fact that his father, Prince Nayef (who did not rule), was always deeply suspicious of the US. However, as Riedel put it, if generational change is coming to Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef is the guy the US wants to do it.

However, according to Riedel, MBN’s domestic position is far from assured. His main rival is Mohammed bin Salman, son of the current Saudi ruler, King Salman, and deputy crown prince. Mohammed bin Salman is in many ways the opposite of MBN. Nobody knows for sure how old Mohammed bin Salman is (Riedel thinks he is 29), and he was never educated outside Saudi Arabia. Riedel felt Mohammed bin Salman’s age alone should disqualify him from playing a significant role in Saudi Arabia, in which age and experience have always been important qualities in the leadership. Nevertheless, Mohammed bin Salman is extraordinarily ambitious, and over the course of the last year, he has amassed a huge amount of power. Today, Mohammed bin Salman is the head of the official courts of both the king and the crown prince, which gives him control over access to the king and crown prince. In addition, Mohammed bin Salman is the head of the council that sets Saudi oil policy, and, he is the Minister of Defense. Finally, he is the public face of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.

According to Riedel, Saudis are far from enthusiastic about the rise of Mohammed bin Salman. In fact, divisions in the royal court are sharper than they have been in years. Riedel cited a rumor circulating Saudi Arabia: that Mohammed bin Salman and his entourage caused the recent lethal Hajj stampede as they moved through the area, blocking key exits. Although there is probably little substance to the rumor, according to Riedel, the fact that it has become widespread enough for the Saudi government to formally deny it speaks volumes about public confidence in Mohammed bin Salman.

Riedel felt that, in the end, Mohammed bin Nayef will probably be a good king, despite facing the usual gamut of challenges. Ironically, according to Riedel, the biggest threat to Mohammed bin Nayef’s reign will come before it even begins, should King Salman decide to further elevate his own son, the 29-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, at MBN’s expense.

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News You Really Need To See: “India, Facing Climate Change, Also Desperately Needs More Energy”

“India, Facing Climate Change, Also Desperately Needs More Energy”

The New York Times, November 11, 2015, p.B1

“India is home to 30 percent of the world’s poorest, those living on less than $1.90 a day. Of the 1.3 billion Indians, 304 million do not have access to electricity; 92 million have no access to safe drinking water.  And India is going to be hammered by climate change.  The livelihoods of 600 million Indians are threatened by the expected disruption of the southwest monsoon from July to September, which accounts for 70 percent of India’s rainfall. India’s rivers depend on the health of thousands of Himalayan glaciers at risk of melting because of a warming climate, while 150 million people are at risk from storm surges associated with rising sea levels.  A lot of damage is already inevitable, a consequence of the emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases by richer countries. So, many Indians ask, Why must we pay more?  On what grounds can India be asked to temper its use of energy to limit its emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide?  ‘Today, I see the carbon space occupied by the developed world,’ Prakash Javadekar, the environment minister, said in an interview with The Associated Press in September.  ‘We are asking the developed world to vacate the carbon space to accommodate us.  That carbon space demand is climate justice.‘”

Quickie analysis:  A very thought-provoking piece about the ethical issues that come with any truly global effort to fight climate change.

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Thinking Aloud: Saudi Arabia’s (Still) Abysmal Rights Record

Nov. 1, 2015 by Darius 

Since 1988, the Andrei Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, named after a Soviet dissident, has been awarded by the European Parliament to a democracy activist. In practice, receiving the Sakharov Prize generally means that something bad has happened to you: previous winners include political prisoners in Egypt, Cuba, and Iran as well as Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian man whose self-immolation sparked the Arab Spring, and Malala Yousafzai, the girl made famous by being shot in the head by the Taliban. This year’s Sakharov Prize went to Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years’ imprisonment for “insulting Islam.”

Badawi is the founder of the website Free Saudi Liberals, which, not surprisingly, frequently criticized the Saudi government and, perhaps more shockingly, suggested that the separation of Islam and the state might be a good thing. He’s been in prison since 2012. Even before he was awarded the Sakharov Prize, Badawi’s case attracted plenty of international attention, especially when he was flogged 50 times earlier this year as the first installment of his sentence.

Most of the Sakharov Prize laureates are from countries with heinous governments that are also outside the fold of the Western system; Burma, Sudan, China, Belarus, Cuba, and Congo are among them. Saudi Arabia, though, is no Sudan. It’s a close US ally. And while the US has spoken out against Badawi’s individual treatment, it has never made addressing Saudi Arabia’s woeful human rights record any sort of priority. That must change.

Oh, and in case you thought Saudi Arabia’s treatment of Badawi was a one-off, you’d be wrong. The Saudis recently released, after considerable international pressure, a 74-year-old British citizen who’d been sentenced to 350 lashes for possession of homemade wine, but they are still set to behead and publicly crucify the 19-year-old son of a major Saudi Shia religious leader for participating in anti-government protests. Classy.

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News You Really Need To See: “Afghan Government Turns to Militias as Taliban Gains Strength”

“Afghan Government Turns to Militias as Taliban Gains Strength”

The Washington Post, October 29, 2015

A militia fighter wearing a loose-fitting Afghan tunic and sandals, and with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher strapped to his back, stands at a checkpoint by a rickety bridge.  To pass him requires the permission of Nabi Gechi.  To get married here also requires Gechi’s blessing. … Gechi is neither a district governor nor a tribal elder.  But in this sun-scorched territory of northern Kunduz province, where U.S. troops left long ago and there are no soldiers or police, Gechi and his fighters are the only resistance against a resurgent Taliban.  And that makes him the most influential man for miles around. … [Gechi’s] supporters, including provincial government officials, describe him as a savior who provides security where Afghan forces cannot.  The U.S.-backed government is paying the salaries of 100 of Gechi’s mostly Turkmen fighters, from money provided by the U.S. military.  It has also supplied his militia with ammunition, olive-green Ford Ranger pickup trucks and tan Humvees. … Gechi’s critics, however, contend that the government is legitimizing a warlord whom they accuse of abuse and extortion, particularly directed against ethnic Pashtuns, who, as a group, form the core of the Taliban.  His tactics, they say, propel more people to support the insurgency. … On Sept. 28, the Taliban seized the provincial capital, Kunduz city, the first major urban area to fall to the insurgency since 2001.  For the next 15 days, the militants wreaked havoc.  In response to the assault, the government is considering a plan to increase the number of ALP fighters from 29,000 to as many as 45,000.  A spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry, which oversees the forces, said the ALP’s abuses were not a widespread problem, and that the ministry is creating structures to better vet recruits and control the militias. … Many observers are skeptical.  A recent report from the International Crisis Group concluded that the ALP program had done little to improve security and ‘even exacerbated the conflict in a number of districts.’  When the Taliban seized Kunduz, the ALPs fled instead of fighting back.  Gechi, in the end, also was unable to protect his territory.  In the Kunduz offensive, the Taliban fighters also took control of nearly two-thirds of Qala-e-Zal.  Even after the insurgents withdrew from the city Oct. 13, they remained in the district.”

Quickie analysis:  The supreme irony is that these warlords are largely responsible for the rise of the Taliban in the first place.  They repress the people and are in no way an effective replacement for a functioning military when it comes to fighting.  Why is this a good idea again?

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Thinking Aloud: What’s in a Name?

Oct. 24, 2015 by Darius 

Have you ever wondered, when referring to the language spoken in Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan, which term should be used, “Farsi” or “Persian”? The two aren’t actually complete synonyms.

Both the terms “Persian” and “Farsi” derive from the same origin. “Persian” comes from the Greek name for the region in what is today southwest Iran, Pars or Fars, which the Greeks transformed into “Persia.” The inhabitants of this region knew it as Fars, however, and the term “Farsi” came to be used by Persian speakers to describe their own language. Native preferences notwithstanding, though, “Persia” has come to be the term used by Westerners to refer to several major Iranian empires and was even the official name of the modern country of Iran until 1934.

Up until the early part of the 20th century, there was no distinction in terminology, syntax, or writing systems in the language spoken in what is today Iran, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, though small differences in accent were present. However, shortly after the birth of the Soviet Union, Soviet authorities renamed the variant of Persian spoken in Tajikistan “Tojiki” and changed Tojiki’s writing system from the Perso-Arabic alphabet to first the Latin and eventually the Cyrillic alphabet. The Soviets had explicit political motivations: they sought to sever Tajikistan from the Persian Muslim culture it shared with the regions to the south and reorient Tajikistan towards the rest of the atheist, socialist USSR to the north. The Soviets encouraged the development of further differences between Tojiki and Persian, widening the gap between the two. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Tajiks have attempted, with mixed success, to reattach themselves to the Persian world. The language spoken in Tajikistan remains mutually intelligible with the language spoken in the rest of the Persian world.

In Afghanistan, the other country where Persian is spoken widely, a similar process occurred. Traditionally, Persian in Afghanistan was also called Farsi by its speakers. In 1964, though, the Afghan government, seeking to escape the shadow of Iranian cultural domination, ordered that the name of the Persian language in Afghanistan be changed from “Farsi” to “Dari.” As in Tajikistan, the Persian dialect spoken in Afghanistan has subsequently drifted away from Iranian Persian, but the two remain mutually intelligible.

Today, then, “Farsi” properly refers only to the variant of Persian spoken in Iran, and it is only in this strict sense that the term “Farsi” should be used in English (i.e. when referring to the Iranian dialect of Persian). “Farsi” is explicitly not a synonym for “Persian,” as Farsi is the language of a single country, Iran, while Persian is the primary language of three countries and is spoken in several more.

Moreover, Persian, not Farsi, is the vehicle for a rich literary tradition stretching back more than a millennium, as many of the greatest Persian writers were not nationally Iranian. To use the term “Farsi,” then, is to downgrade the status of the Persian language from an international language of classical literature to the language of a single modern nation-state. The difference between the terms “Farsi” and “Persian” may seem semantic, but names have real consequences. If Persian is referred to as Farsi, it is categorized with other languages spoken in a single nation-state, such as Vietnamese, Armenian, and Serbian. In a university setting, for instance, these languages are often left out of budgets and attract few students. On the other hand, more prominent international languages, languages with a rich historical, geopolitical, and literary tradition, such as Arabic, Russian, and Spanish are taught at nearly every institution. Persian deserves to take its place among the latter. In today’s world, Persian is not confined to Iran. Its name should not be either, which is why you should think twice before using “Farsi.”

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