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It was an early November morning when I met Gairam Muminov on the steps
of a courthouse on the outskirts of Tashkent, the sprawling capital of
Uzbekistan. He was leaning against a white stone banister, nervously
smoking a cigarette. His thin, sunburned face was carved with deep
furrows and strained by even
deeper worries, which seemed to manifest themselves most intensely
around his dark gray eyes. Inside the courthouse, local authorities were
keeping his son, Abdulvali, locked up for participating in a forbidden
religious group. Although Muminov's job as a builder prevented him from
attending the trial, the 57-year-old father had come that morning to
find out firsthand how long his son would be imprisoned. Abdulvali's
sentencing was scheduled to begin at 10 am.
When the time came, we entered the Akmal Ikramov District Court, a
rundown edifice of cheap marble and concrete located on a dusty road
beside the city's Police Station No. 2. Inside it was dim. On the first
floor, an unusually large, bone-dry fountain and a portrait of Uzbek
President Islam Karimov were visible beneath the few fluorescent lights.
The sentencing was to be held in a room on the second floor. Standing by
the door, in a gloomy hallway, were the families of nine other young
convicts who had been tried with Abdulvali. They waited in an atmosphere
of tense anticipation. Some mothers smoothed out their brightly
patterned dresses in silence; others explained why they thought this
case might be different: With the US-led war on terrorism under way and
renewed international attention brought to the Karimov regime's harsh
crackdown on independent religious expression, they hoped the usually
unforgiving Uzbek justice system might--just this once--tilt toward
It was, in many ways, a farfetched hope. The ten men were arrested for
participating in the pan-Islamic group known as Hizb ut-Tahrir, what
Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid in his new book calls "the most
popular, widespread underground movement in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and
Tajikistan." The movement shuns violence but is no less radical because
of that. As Rashid explains, Central Asian acolytes of Hizb ut-Tahrir,
which was founded by dispossessed Palestinians in Saudi Arabia and
Jordan in 1953, foresee "a moment when millions of its supporters will
simply rise up and topple the Central Asian governments--particularly
the Karimov regime--by sheer force of numbers." In place of the region's
various secular states, the movement seeks to fashion a single
Taliban-style Islamic republic stretching from the Caspian Sea to
western China and beyond. It's a threat that the local autocracies, as
well as Washington, take seriously. According to its leadership, Hizb
ut-Tahrir has already attracted tens of thousands of members in the
region. And while two years ago the Clinton Administration narrowly
concluded that the movement did not sponsor terrorist activities, Rashid
argues: "The fear is that young [members]... may soon ignore their
elders' advice and turn to guerrilla warfare."
That fear may be somewhat hasty. But for the government in Tashkent, it
has been amplified by the activities of a much more militant insurgency
known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, whose leaders made
just such a transformation from nonviolence roughly ten years ago. Since
1998, when the IMU officially came into being, it has clashed with the
government forces of three states, engaged in kidnappings and the drug
trade, and engendered an atmosphere of distrust and hostility among the
region's strongmen. The movement's leadership has established close
links with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network and even moved the IMU
headquarters to northern Afghanistan when the more welcoming Taliban
regime was in power. Uzbek President Karimov blames the IMU, among other
opposition groups, for detonating a series of car bombs in Tashkent in
February 1999. The explosions killed thirteen people, injured more than
a hundred and touched off the latest and harshest in a series of
government campaigns against independent religious expression and
political dissent. Following the bombings, Karimov announced that even
the fathers of sons who participated in IMU activities would be
arrested. "If my child chose such a path," he said, "I myself would rip
off his head."
However, again and again, Rashid rightly argues in Jihad: The Rise of
Militant Islam in Central Asia that the growing popular support for
groups like the IMU and Hizb ut-Tahrir are largely a response to the
corrupt Karimov government's inability to bring even a modicum of
economic prosperity or democracy to Uzbekistan, the region's natural
axis of power. Central Asia has known harsh leadership and violent
upheaval before. Prior to the Soviets there were the czars, and prior to
the czars there were the local khans, who ruled brutally. However, when
the republics of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and
Kyrgyzstan fell into independence following the collapse of Communism,
they not only experienced a crisis of national identity (none had ever
existed before as an independent state), they also joined a more
integrated world, where political and economic expectations for open and
fair governance are arguably higher than they have ever been. All this,
at a moment of religious reawakening across the region.
In this context, Central Asia's radical Islamic movements were very much
forged in a modern political pressure cooker. "In a series of crackdowns
in 1992, 1993, and after 1997, Karimov arrested hundreds of ordinary
pious Muslims for alleged links with Islamic fundamentalists, accusing
them of being Wahhabis"--converts to the strict brand of Islam embraced
by the Taliban--"closing down mosques and madrassahs, and forcing
mullahs into jail or exile," Rashid writes. "The result of these
repressive policies has been the growth of exactly what Karimov feared:
extremist Islamic militancy."
A visit to Uzbek courts is a good way to see this machinery in motion:
the steady spinning of the gears that wind moderate Muslims into
radicals. Here too, the display is one of the precarious fragility of
Uzbekistan's current order, and I can think of no better corollary to
Rashid's careful descriptions of a region approaching the edge of chaos
than the observations of Bill Berkeley, a journalist who has spent
numerous years reporting from Africa. "Many suppose that tyranny and
anarchy are at opposite ends of a linear spectrum," Berkeley has
written. "But often they are side by side on what might better be
described as a circle: the one is a product of the other, and vice
versa." For a number of Central Asian states, that circle has been
getting tighter and tighter over the past decade, and the ouster of the
Taliban regime from Afghanistan has done little to prevent it from
shrinking toward its explosive focal point.
The anarchy of tyranny is starkly evident in a place like the Akmal
Ikramov District Court. After Gairam Muminov and the other families had
waited for several hours, frustration and impatience set in. A few
splintered off to find a bailiff or clerk, but no one was able to find
out when, exactly, the sentencing was to occur. An Uzbek journalist
waiting with me explained: "The authorities do this on purpose. They
want to wear people down; they are counting on people like you and me to
get tired, hungry. Maybe we will have to leave for business or lunch,
and then suddenly the doors will open and court begins. This way they
can say they are being open but attract the minimum amount of
attention." However, at 3 pm, when Judge Nizom Rustamov, a stout and
smug man in a shiny sharkskin suit, finally ambled up the courthouse
steps, a slightly different picture emerged--that of the unaccountable
bureaucrat who probably decided against rushing to work simply because
he could. Matilda Bogner, Uzbekistan's Human Rights Watch
representative, described the judge this way: "Rustamov is known to have
sentenced someone to the death penalty for possessing fertilizer at home
because fertilizer can be used as an ingredient in the making of
Such capricious power infests Uzbekistan's neighboring governments as
well. As the Soviet Union began to implode, none of the five Central
Asian republics rushed to embrace independence, democracy or economic
reform. Indeed, leaderships in a number of the republics actively
plotted to stymie the demise of the Communist system, however rotted,
because it had been nourishing them so well. As Rashid demonstrates,
this reluctance to break away was to a large degree ironic, given the
region's vast reserves of natural resources--primarily in oil, gas and
minerals--and its potential for prosperity (not to mention the potential
to funnel that prosperity into the hands of local elites). Moreover, as
he points out, "the Soviet policies of closed borders, forced cotton
agriculture, farm collectivization, population relocation and--most
significant--Stalin's redrawing of the map of Central Asia to create
five incongruous states had left the region economically hard-pressed,
[and] ethnically and politically divided."
Ten years on, much of Central Asia remains mired in its Soviet
inheritances: petty and sometimes not-so-petty corruption are a part of
everyday life; news is censored, often heavily; dissidents are
imprisoned, exiled or caused to disappear; resources are squandered;
environmental damage continues unabated. Yet, as the region remains
politically and in many ways economically stagnant, it is experiencing a
demographic surge. "The population gets younger," Rashid notes. "More
than 60 percent of the region's 50 million people are under the age of
25. This new generation is unemployed, poorly educated, and hungry--how
long will it continue to tolerate the decline in living standards and
the lack of rudimentary freedoms?"
There is no easy answer to this question. And Rashid is shrewd enough to
avoid offering one. Just as he is sensitive to the dangers that could
well belong to the region's future, he shows with great nuance that
important differences among the five republics have already led to a
diversity of outcomes. Turkmenistan, for instance, is now ruled by a
bizarre hermit-dictator who had himself decreed President for Life, a
position he plans to hold until 2010, when he intends to retire.
Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan, the only country of the five not to become an
immediate heir to its Soviet-era leader, has shown a promising
willingness to reform, even if that willingness has waned over the past
several years. However, if these two countries sit at the region's
political poles, the most intriguing case among them may be Tajikistan,
which in Rashid's eyes serves as both a warning and a potential model
for its neighbors.
Not long after the Soviet collapse, mountainous Tajikistan fell into a
five-year civil war that appeared to mirror the conditions in
neighboring Afghanistan. From 1992 to 1997 the multiparty conflict,
which primarily cut across clan lines but also included Islamic rebels,
democrats and former Communist bosses as the main combatants, claimed
the lives of more than 50,000 people and forced roughly 750,000 people
from their homes. In Rashid's view, the primary engine of that conflict
was the Islamic Renaissance Party, or IRP--Central Asia's first popular
Muslim fundamentalist movement--which led a unified band of rebel groups
from headquarters based in Afghanistan and Russia. The fighting might
have ground on indefinitely (or remained frozen in stalemate), but in
1996 "the regional equation changed dramatically when the Taliban
captured Kabul," says Rashid. Fear that the Taliban regime would project
its influence into Afghanistan's post-Soviet neighbors pushed the rest
of Central Asia and Russia to force the Tajik government into making the
necessary concessions for peace. A year later, the parties signed an
agreement that legitimized the IRP and brought it into Tajikistan's new
The complexity of Tajikistan's civil war makes it difficult to summarize
neatly, and perhaps for this reason, coupled with its remoteness, it
received scant attention in the West. For Rashid, though, the outcome is
one that must not be ignored, not only because the peace agreement held
the country together over subsequent years but also because the radical
IRP has seen a dramatic loss in popular support since its inclusion in
government. "In many ways," Rashid argues, "Tajikistan is the key to
peace and stability in Central Asia--something the international
community must recognize, and soon." The logic being: Bringing
fundamentalist Islamic groups into the light rather than driving them
underground is the best way to show that their platforms are unworkable
and at odds with the region's traditionally moderate religious
This may be true, but Tajikistan's civil war is an unlikely example to
prove it, primarily because the conflict was largely one of regionally
based clans vying for political and economic power. Although radical
Islam colored the conflict, it was by no means the driving force. The
coalition government, if anything, was a joining of competing warlords
dressed in various ideologies and beliefs rather than a bridging of
deeply held convictions on secular and Islamic fundamentalist
state-building. This difference must be obvious to Rashid, who awkwardly
suggests the coalition government is an instance of the latter while
acknowledging the former, sometimes in dramatically confusing ways. At
one point, he writes that Soviet "collectivization...had fragmented the
clan structure.... Thus, many Tajiks saw the Islamic revival as a means
to cement a Tajik identity and ensure Tajikistan's development as a
unified state." Then, later, he writes that "most Tajiks identified with
their regions and clans rather than with their country." And later
again: "The civil war had quickly become a battle between clans rather
than an Islamic jihad." This last statement is by far the more realistic
and complete assessment--one echoed by Central Asia scholar Martha Brill
Olcott, who has argued that the "larger issues contested in Tajikistan's
civil war were clearly those of economic and political control."
In fact, the weakness of the government--its inability to protect
Tajikistan's borders and control its rugged territory--has made the
country an ideal base for the region's most extreme militants and best
organized drug traders (often one and the same). Today, roughly 70
percent of the world's heroin funnels through Tajikistan from
Afghanistan, and since the early 1990s Tajikistan's Tavildara Valley has
been an important training area for the IMU's charismatic military
leader Jumaboi Khojaev, a former Soviet paratrooper who later assumed
the name Juma Namangani after his hometown, Namangan, Uzbekistan. The
kind of detailed portrait Rashid has sketched of Namangani, who was
recently reported killed alongside Al Qaeda and Taliban units during the
latest war in Afghanistan, is unparalleled. This is where Rashid is at
his best, especially when he shows how the secretive Central Asian rebel
makes unusual company with Osama bin Laden, despite their close ties.
During one of Rashid's many exclusive interviews in the region, a former
Namangani compatriot explained how the notorious rebel was "shaped by
his own military and political experiences rather than Islamic ideology,
but he hates the Uzbek government--that is what motivates him above all.
In a way, he is a leader by default because no other leader is willing
to take such risks to oppose Karimov."
This in many ways appears to be a capsule characterization of militant
Islam in Central Asia, where religious extremism is primarily harnessed
to the cause of political and military aims, whether in internecine clan
warfare, in insurgencies acting against repression or in the meddling of
outside empires. As readers of the great historian Peter Hopkirk might
recognize, Namangani's pragmatism situates him in a long-running Central
Asian tradition in which strategic objectives rather than fundamentalist
religious ones ultimately lie behind the call to jihad. It was a move
even the Soviets tried. In 1920 Grigori Zinoviev, a close associate of
Lenin, called the Muslims of Central Asia to battle at a weeklong rally
in Baku, Azerbaijan. "Brothers," Zinoviev boomed to a wildly fervent
crowd brandishing swords and revolvers, "we summon you to a holy war, in
the first place against English imperialism!" This display fell in with
a briefly held plan Moscow had at the time: fomenting a chain of
uprisings and establishing an "Army of God" that would penetrate India
through Afghanistan and trigger enough Muslim unrest there to subvert
Britain's hold over South Asia. However, as Hopkirk notes in Setting
the East Ablaze (and as the United States learned painfully after
aiding militants in Afghanistan in the 1980s), cultivating pan-Islam
"could be double-edged." Religious and nationalist sentiments could just
as easily flow against Moscow. The Basmachis, Central Asia's homegrown
mujahedeen, resisted Soviet power for more than a decade after the
Russian Revolution--and with a good deal of support from the British,
who slipped them caravans of arms and munitions from India.
Today, although the spirit of jihad has largely been unhinged from the
machinations of outside empires intent on controlling the region, its
proponents see themselves very much as bearers of the Basmachi
tradition, as Rashid demonstrates. But his book is also instructive in
pointing out differences between the region's Islamic groups of then and
now. Hizb ut-Tahrir's growing popularity suggests that outside
influences of a very different kind are leaking into Central Asia.
(Along with the IMU, Hizb ut-Tahrir's adherents subscribe to the strict
Wahhabist brand of Islam, which originated in Saudi Arabia, rather than
the more indigenous Sufism, which tends toward mysticism rather than
millenarianism.) This time it's happening at the grassroots--and feeding
off the criminality of local regimes.
There is probably no way to know whether Gairam Muminov's son,
Abdulvali, was truly a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir or was simply caught
praying in the wrong place, or listening to the wrong person, or
carrying the wrong leaflet. I'm sure even his lawyer doesn't know. When
one of the accused suggested that they had been tortured to confess (to
"anti-constitutional crimes"), Judge Rustamov would not hear of it. The
next day, I watched Muminov's hands shoot up to his face when Rustamov
sentenced his son to ten years of imprisonment. And as the father slowly
drew his shaky fingers away, his mouth fell open, his eyes turned blank.
I wondered: Earlier, this man shrugged off my criticisms of Uzbekistan's
ironfisted approach to dissent, saying he had all the freedom in the
world--limitless choices in the marketplace, among whichever apples and
oranges he desired. Was that still good enough for him?
That is a question the United States must begin asking if it intends to
become more active in fostering stability in the region. Rashid's
book--which follows his bestseller, Taliban--was rushed to
publication after September 11, so it is understandably short on
evaluating current US Central Asia policy. But it is the first good,
hard look at the region's Islamic movements and deserves the attention
of policymakers and interested everyday readers alike. The careful
consideration Rashid has given the grassroots causes that set these
insurgencies into motion will keep this book relevant for a long time to
come. As Rashid argues: "The Clinton administration policy of helping
Central Asia's repressive governments combat terrorism whilst mildly
lecturing them on their human-rights violations did not constitute a
strategic vision for the region." It still doesn't. Under the George W.
Bush Administration, military and economic aid to the region has
increased; so too, it seems, has the repression.
They call us "self-hating" Jews when we raise criticisms of Israeli policies. Yet most of those Jews who risk this calumny as the
cost of getting involved actually feel a special resonance with the
history and culture of the Jews--because this is a people who have
proclaimed a message of love, justice and peace; they feel a special
pride in being part of a people who have insisted on the possibility of
tikkun, a Hebrew word expressing a belief that the world can be
fundamentally healed and transformed. A Los Angeles Times poll in 1988
found that some 50 percent of Jews polled identified "a commitment to
social equality" as the characteristic most important to their Jewish
identity. Only 17 percent cited a commitment to Israel. No wonder, then,
that social-justice-oriented American Jews today feel betrayed by
Israeli policies that seem transparently immoral and self-destructive.
Social justice Jews are not apologists for Palestinian violence. We are
outraged by the immoral acts of Palestinian terrorists who blow up
Israelis at Seder tables, or while they shop, or sit in cafes, or ride
in buses. We know that these acts of murder cannot be excused. But many
of us also understand that Israeli treatment of Palestinians has been
immoral and outrageous. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled their
homes in 1948, and recent research by Israeli historians has shown most
fled not because they were responding to the appeal of Arab leaders but
because they feared acts of violence by right-wing Israeli terrorists or
were forced from their homes by the Israeli army. Palestinian refugees
and their families now number more than 3 million, and many live in
horrifying conditions in refugee camps under Israeli military rule.
Despite its oral promises at Oslo to end its occupation of the
Palestinian territories by 1998, Israel actually increased the number of
West Bank settlers from about 120,000 in 1993 to 200,000 by the time
Prime Minister Ehud Barak met with Yasir Arafat at Camp David. And
although the Israeli and US media bought the myth that what was offered
to Palestinians there was "the best they could ever expect," and that
their rejection of the offer was proof that they wanted nothing less
than the full destruction of Israel, the facts show quite a different
story. Not only did Barak offer Arafat less than had been promised in
1993 but he refused to provide anything in the way of reparations or
compensation for the refugees. Instead, he insisted that Arafat sign a
statement saying that the terms being offered by Barak would end all
claims by the Palestinian people against Israel and would represent a
resolution of all outstanding issues. No Palestinian leader could have
signed that agreement and abandoned the needs of those refugees.
Though it is popularly thought that negotiations broke off there, they
continued at Taba until Ariel Sharon's election ended the process,
which, according to then-Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, was very close
to arriving at a full agreement between the two peoples. Sharon did not
want that agreement because he has always opposed any deal that would
involve abandoning the West Bank settlements, which he had helped expand
in the 1980s--precisely to insure that Israel would never give up the
occupied territories. Using the excuse of responding to acts of terror
by some Palestinians, Sharon recently set out to destroy the
institutions of Palestinian society and has done so with murderous
brutality, with little regard for human rights and with great harm to
No wonder, then, that social-justice-oriented Jews are upset by Israeli
policies. They see that the policies are leading to a frightening
upsurge in anti-Semitism. And far from providing security for Israel,
they are creating new generations of terrorists and convincing the world
that Israel has lost its moral compass.
Still, many Jews and non-Jews have been intimidated by the intense
campaign being waged by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee
(AIPAC) and by other Jewish organizations. These groups label those
critical of Israel "self-hating" if they are Jewish or anti-Semitic if
they are not and mobilize large amounts of money to defeat candidates
deemed insufficiently pro-Israel. Ethically sensitive non-Jews are
vulnerable to the manipulation of guilt about the long and bloody
history of anti-Semitism in Christian Europe and Islamic north Africa,
plus the US refusal of entry to Jews seeking asylum from the Nazis in
the 1940s. There is ample reason for the non-Jewish world to atone for
its past oppression of Jews. But non-Jews are doing no favors to the
Jewish people when by their silence they help the most destructive
elements of the Jewish world pursue immoral policies that almost
certainly will generate more hatred of Jews.
It is time for the United States to sponsor a multinational force to
physically separate and protect Israel and Palestine from each other,
and then to convene an international conference to impose a final
settlement. This would include an end to the occupation, evacuation of
the settlements, reparations for Palestinian refugees (and also for Jews
who fled Arab lands), recognition of Israel by surrounding Arab states
and cessation of all acts of terror and violence. Imposing that kind of
a settlement, by force if necessary, would provide real security to both
sides and open up psychic space for the healing that must happen. What
is called for is a new spirit of generosity, open-heartedness,
repentance and reconciliation between two peoples who share equally the
blame for the current mess and who both have legitimate grievances that
must now be left behind for the sake of lasting peace....
This is a goal of thousands of American Jews and our non-Jewish allies
who have recently formed the Tikkun Community, a progressive, pro-Israel
alternative to AIPAC. Israel/Palestine peace is not only a Jewish issue;
our non-Jewish allies will be essential to our campaign to educate the
media, opinion shapers and elected officials. The nonviolent civil
disobedience sponsored by the Tikkun Community at the State Department
in April, at which Cornel West and I were arrested, is only one part of
a campaign that will include lobbying, teach-ins, fasting, sending
volunteers to be part of an international presence on the West Bank,
collecting funds to rebuild Palestinian cities (and Israeli sites
destroyed by Palestinian terror attacks) and demands on Jewish and Arab
institutions to adopt a path of nonviolence. We are also creating a
national student conference in October. Many students face an impossible
choice between pro-Israel groups that support Sharon's current policies
in lockstep or pro-Palestinian groups that claim the Palestinians are
facing Nazi-like genocide at the hands of the Jewish people (an
exaggeration that allows right-wing Jews to yell "anti-Semitism" because
there is no attempt to systematically murder Palestinians, thereby
letting Israel off the hook).
Our goal, both on campuses and in the larger society, is to forge a
middle path of "tough love" for Israel--recognizing that the best way to
protect Israel and the Jewish people is to use the power of the
international community to impose a settlement and end the occupation.
That's the path for true self-affirming Jews and non-Jews who care
enough about their Jewish brothers and sisters to get involved.
While it might appear to be sweet revenge for the Inquisition, it is
best to resist the impulse to burn some Catholic priests--and the
cardinals who covered up their criminal activities--at the
A friend and I were sitting around commiserating about the things that get to us: unloading small indignities, comparing thorns. "So there I was," she said, "sitting on the bus and this man across the aisle starts waving a copy of law professor Randall Kennedy's new book Nigger. He's got this mean-looking face with little raisiny eyes, and a pointy head, and he's taking this book in and out of his backpack. He's not reading it, mind you. He's just flashing it at black people."
"Don't be so touchy," I responded. "Professor Kennedy says that the N-word is just another word for 'pal' these days. So your guy was probably one of those muted souls you hear about on Fox cable, one of the ones who's been totally silenced by too much political correctness. I'd assume he was just trying to sign 'Have a nice day.'"
"Maybe so," she said, digging through her purse and pulling out a copy of Michael Moore's bestselling Stupid White Men. "But if I see him again, I'm armed with a 'nice day' of my own."
"That's not nice," I tell her. "Besides, I've decided to get in on the publishing boom myself. My next book will be called Penis. I had been going to title it Civil Claims That Shaped the Evidentiary History of Primogeniture: Paternity and Inheritance Rights in Anglo-American Jurisprudence, 1883-1956, but somehow Penis seems so much more concise. We lawyers love concision."
She raised one eyebrow. "And the mere fact that hordes of sweaty-palmed adolescents might line up to sneak home a copy, or that Howard Stern would pant over it all the way to the top of the bestseller list, or that college kids would make it the one book they take on spring break----"
"...is the last thing on my mind," I assured her. "Really, I'm just trying to engage in a scholarly debate about some of the more nuanced aspects of statutory interpretation under Rule 861, subsection (c), paragraph 2... And besides, now that South Park has made the word so much a part of popular culture, I fail to see what all the fuss is about. When I hear young people singing lyrics that use the P-word, I just hum along. After all, there are no bad words, just ungood hermeneutics."
"No wonder Oprah canceled her book club," she muttered.
Seriously. We do seem to have entered a weird season in which the exercise of First Amendment rights has become a kind of XXX-treme Sport, with people taking the concept of free speech for an Olympic workout, as though to build up that constitutional muscle. People speak not just freely but wantonly, thoughtlessly, mainlined from their hormones. We live in a minefield of scorched-earth, who-me-a-diplomat?, let's-see-if-this-hurts words. As my young son twirls the radio dial in search of whatever pop music his friends are listening to, it is less the lyrics that alarm me than the disc jockeys, all of whom speak as though they were crashing cars. It makes me very grateful to have been part of the "love generation," because for today's youth, the spoken word seems governed by people from whom sticks and stones had to be wrested when they were children--truly unpleasant people who've spent years perfecting their remaining weapon: the words that can supposedly never hurt you.
The flight from the imagined horrors of political correctness seems to have overtaken common sense. Or is it possible that we have come perilously close to a state where hate speech is the common sense? In a bar in Dorchester, Massachusetts, recently, a black man was surrounded by a group of white patrons and taunted with a series of escalatingly hostile racial epithets. The bartender refused to intervene despite being begged to do something by a white friend of the man. The taunting continued until the black man tried to leave, whereupon the crowd followed him outside and beat him severely. In Los Angeles, the head of the police commission publicly called Congresswoman Maxine Waters a "bitch"--to the glee of Log Cabin Republicans, who published an editorial gloating about how good it felt to hear him say that. And in San Jose, California, a judge allowed a white high school student to escape punishment after the student, angry at an African-American teacher who had suspended his best friend, scrawled "Thanks, Nigga" on a school wall. The judge was swayed by an argument that "nigga" is not the same as "nigger" but rather an inoffensive rap music term of endearment common among soul brothers.
Frankly, if Harvard president Lawrence Summers is going to be calling professors to account for generating controversy not befitting that venerable institution, the disingenuous Professor Kennedy would be my first choice. Kennedy's argument that the word "nigger" has lost its sting because black entertainers like Eddie Murphy have popularized it, either dehistoricizes the word to a boneheaded extent or ignores the basic capaciousness of all language. The dictionary is filled with words that have multiple meanings, depending on context. "Obsession" is "the perfume," but it can also be the basis for a harassment suit. Nigger, The Book, is an appeal to pure sensation. It's fine to recognize that ironic reversals of meaning are invaluable survival tools. But what's selling this book is not the hail-fellow-well-met banality of "nigger" but rather the ongoing liveliness of its negativity: It hits in the gut, catches the eye, knots the stomach, jerks the knee, grabs the arm. Kennedy milks this phenomenon only to ask with an entirely straight face: "So what's the big deal?"
The New Yorker recently featured a cartoon by Art Spiegelman that captures my concern: A young skinhead furtively spray-paints a swastika on a wall. In the last panel, someone has put the wall up in a museum and the skinhead is shown sipping champagne with glittery fashionistas and art critics. I do not doubt that hateful or shocking speech can be "mainstreamed" through overuse; I am alarmed that we want to. But my greater concern is whether this gratuitous nonsense should be the most visible test of political speech in an era when government officials tell us to watch our words--even words spoken in confidence to one's lawyer--and leave us to sort out precisely what that means.
Do Not Employ Arabs, Enemies Should Not Be Offered a Livelihood and We Will Assist Those Who Do Not Provide Work For Arabs are just a few of the slogans covering billboards throughout Jerusalem. These placards refer to Palestinian citizens of Israel. One poster even provides a detailed list of taxi companies that employ Arab citizens and companies that don't. Jewish history, it seems, has been forgotten.
This kind of blatant racism is now common in Israel; it feeds off the widespread fear of suicide bombings, which have also managed to change the Jerusalem landscape. Downtown streets are almost empty, and most businesses have been seriously hurt because of the dramatic decline in clientele. A recent poll suggests that 67 percent of Israelis have reduced the number of times they leave their homes. The only companies that have been thriving in the past months are security firms. Every supermarket, bank, theater and cafe now employs private guards whose duty is to search customers as they enter the building.
One of the effects of this new practice is that profiling has become ubiquitous. Arab-looking residents refrain from using public transportation and from going to all-Jewish neighborhoods and shopping centers. It is not unusual in the city to see groups of Arab men searched at gunpoint by Israeli police, their faces against the wall and their hands in the air.
On the national level, politicians have been exploiting the pervasive fear, using it to foment a form of fervent nationalism tinged with racism. Effi Eitam, the new leader of the National Religious Party, recently approved to become a minister in Sharon's government, has characterized all Palestinian citizens of Israel as "a cancer." "Arabs," he claims, "will never have political rule in the land of Israel," which in Eitam's opinion includes the West Bank and Gaza. Support for Sharon has also risen from 45 to 62 percent following the latest Israeli offensive. The fact that Palestinian citizens, who make up almost 20 percent of the population, adamantly oppose Israel's military assault suggests that only one in five Jewish citizens is against Sharon's war. Most Jews consider themselves victims in this conflict, not aggressors.
The deeply rooted victim syndrome has been manipulated over the past year by the mainstream media in order to rally the public around the flag. For television viewers, Palestinian suffering is virtually nonexistent, while attacks on Jews are graphically portrayed, replayed time and again, thus rendering victimhood the existential condition of Israeli Jews. Radio and television have practically turned into government organs, allowing almost no criticism of Israel's policies to be aired.
It is within this stifling atmosphere that one must understand the slow resurgence of the Israeli peace camp. There are now about 400 new combat reservists who refuse to serve in the occupied territories, joining a similar number of refuseniks from Yesh Gvul ("There Is a Limit"). "We will not go on fighting beyond the 'green line' for the purposes of domination, expulsion, starvation and humiliation of an entire people," the soldiers wrote in an open letter. Since the eruption of the second intifada, eighty-seven conscientious objectors have been incarcerated; thirty-five are currently sitting in jail, more than in any other period in Israel's history.
On April 3, 4,000 Jewish and Arab protesters marched together from Jerusalem toward Kalandia checkpoint, located on the outskirts of Ramallah. The procession was led by women and included four truckloads of humanitarian aid. The demonstrators were stopped by a police blockade only minutes after they set out. As a member of the negotiation team, I was on the police side of the blockade when scores of tear gas canisters and stun grenades were thrown into the crowd. Policemen immediately pursued the protesters, trampling and violently beating them with their clubs. Among the injured were three Arab Knesset members. Later, while waiting for the trucks to return from Ramallah, a police officer explained that a woman precipitated the outburst: "She spat on one of the officers."
The next day, protesters gathered in front of the American Embassy in Tel Aviv to call on the US government to stop Israel's military incursion. The group was mostly composed of Palestinian citizens of Israel, although there were quite a few Jews. Again, the police assaulted the demonstrators, this time because one of them was carrying a Palestinian flag.
Two days later, on April 6, 15,000 people marched from Rabin Square to the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, calling on Sharon to immediately withdraw all military forces from the occupied territories and to restart negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. "The occupation is killing us all!" the demonstrators shouted. Channel 2 spent twenty seconds covering the event; Channel 1, Israel's public station, ignored it.
Not everyone disregarded the protest. Likud Knesset Member Gideon Ezra called upon the secret services to begin monitoring more carefully the activities of leftist organizations and blamed the only two journalists who continue to document what is happening on the Palestinian side--Amira Hass and Gideon Levy--for encouraging the campaign against Israel. Given the increasingly repressive atmosphere inside Israel, it appears that without massive pressure from abroad--not unlike the sanctions imposed on South Africa--Israel will not withdraw from the occupied territories, nor will it cease to oppress and subjugate the Palestinian people.
What does it mean to be Jewish?
Two Palestinian-Israeli wars have erupted in this region. One is the Palestinian nation's war for its freedom from occupation and for its right to independent statehood. Any decent person ought to support this cause. The second war is waged by fanatical Islam, from Iran to Gaza and from Lebanon to Ramallah, to destroy Israel and drive the Jews out of their land. Any decent person ought to abhor this cause.
Yasir Arafat and his men are running both wars simultaneously, pretending they are one. The suicide killers evidently make no distinction. Much of the worldwide bafflement about the Middle East, much of the confusion among the Israelis themselves, stems from the overlap between these two wars. Decent peace seekers, in Israel and elsewhere, are often drawn into simplistic positions. They either defend Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza by claiming that Israel has been targeted by Muslim holy war ever since its foundation in 1948, or else they vilify Israel on the grounds that nothing but the occupation prevents a just and lasting peace. One simplistic argument allows Palestinians to kill all Israelis on the basis of their natural right to resist occupation. An equally simplistic counterargument allows Israelis to oppress all Palestinians because an all-out Islamic jihad has been launched against them.
Two wars are being fought in this region. One is a just war, and the other is both unjust and futile.
Israel must step down from the war on the Palestinian territories. It must begin to end occupation and evacuate the Jewish settlements that were deliberately thrust into the depths of Palestinian lands. Its borders must be drawn, unilaterally if need be, upon the logic of demography and the moral imperative to withdraw from governing a hostile population.
But would an end to occupation terminate the Muslim holy war against Israel? This is hard to predict. If jihad comes to an end, both sides would be able to sit down and negotiate peace. If it does not, we would have to seal and fortify Israel's logical border, the demographic border, and keep fighting for our lives against fanatical Islam.
If, despite simplistic visions, the end of occupation will not result in peace, at least we will have one war to fight rather than two. Not a war for our full occupancy of the holy land, but a war for our right to live in a free and sovereign Jewish state in part of that land. A just war, a no-alternative war. A war we will win. Like any people who were ever forced to fight for their very homes and freedom and lives.
Translated by Fania Oz-Salzberger.
With compromise legislation stranded in Congress, the report card on the President's faith-based initiative reads "incomplete." Bush, however, has clearly succeeded on two fronts.
As Halle Berry elegantly strode to the podium to accept her best actress Oscar, the first for a black woman, she wept uncontrollably and gasped, "This moment is so much bigger than me." Just as revealing was Denzel Washington's resolute dispassion as he accepted his best actor Oscar, only the second for a black man, by glancing at the trophy and uttering through a half-smile, "Two birds in one night, huh?" Their contrasting styles--one explicit, the other implied--say a great deal about the burdens of representing the race in Hollywood.
Berry electrified her audience, speaking with splendid intelligence and rousing emotion of how her Oscar was made possible by the legendary likes of Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll. And in a stunning display of sorority in a profession riven by infighting and narcissism, Berry acknowledged the efforts of contemporary black actresses Angela Bassett, Jada Pinkett Smith and Vivica Fox. But it was when Berry moved from ancestors and peers to the future that she spoke directly to her award's symbolic meaning. She gave the millions who watched around the globe not only a sorely needed history lesson but a lesson in courageous identification with the masses. Berry tearfully declared that her award was for "every nameless, faceless woman of color" who now has a chance, since "this door has been opened."
Berry's remarkable courage and candor are depressingly rare among famed blacks with a lot on the line: money, prestige, reputation and work. Many covet the limelight's payoffs but cower at its demands. Even fewer speak up about the experiences their ordinary brothers and sisters endure--and if they are honest, that they themselves too often confront--on a daily basis. To be sure, there is an unspoken tariff on honesty among the black privileged: If they dare go against the grain, they may be curtailed in their efforts to succeed or cut off from the rewards they deserve. Or they may endure stigma. Think of the huge controversy over basketball great Charles Barkley's recent comments--that racism haunts golf, that everyday black folk still fight bigotry and that black athletes are too scared to speak up--that are the common banter of most blacks. What Berry did was every bit as brave: On the night she was being singled out for greatness, she cast her lot with anonymous women of color who hungered for her spot, and who might be denied a chance for no other reason than that they are yellow, brown, red or black. Her achievement, she insisted, was now their hope.
At first blush, it may seem that Denzel Washington failed to stand up and "represent." But that would be a severe misreading of the politics of signifying that thread through black culture. Looking up to the balcony where Sidney Poitier sat--having received an honorary Oscar earlier and delivered a stately speech of bone-crushing beauty--Washington said, "Forty years I've been chasing Sidney...." He joked with Poitier, and the academy, by playfully lamenting his being awarded an Oscar on the same night that his idol was feted. Washington, for a fleeting but telling moment, transformed the arena of his award into an intimate platform of conversation between himself and his progenitor that suggested, "This belongs to us, we are not interlopers, nobody else matters more than we do." Thus, Washington never let us see him sweat, behaving as if it was natural, if delayed, that he should receive the highest recognition of his profession. His style, the complete opposite of Berry's, was political in the way that only black cool can be when the stakes are high and its temperature must remain low, sometimes beneath the detection of the powers that be that can stamp it out. This is not to be confused with spineless selling out. Nor is it to be seen as yielding to the cowardly imperative to keep one's mouth shut in order to hang on to one's privilege. Rather, it is the strategy of those who break down barriers and allow the chroniclers of their brokenness to note their fall.
Both approaches--we can call them conscience and cool--are vital, especially if Hollywood is to change. Conscience informs and inspires. It tells the film industry we need more producers, directors and writers, and executives who can greenlight projects by people of color. It also reminds the black blessed of their obligation to struggle onscreen and off for justice. Cool prepares and performs. It pays attention to the details of great art and exercises its craft vigorously as opportunity allows, thus paving the way for more opportunities. The fusion of both approaches is nicely summed up in a lyric by James Brown: "I don't want nobody to give me nothin'/Just open up the door, I'll get it myself."
Was it lack of space or was it lack of time that made Katha Pollitt so bland and lenient about the current state of religious leadership in our country and our culture ["God Changes Everything," April 1]? She mentioned the obvious degeneration of the Roman Catholic Church into a protection racket for child rapists, true. She also instanced the way in which Judaism has become prostituted to the uses of messianic colonialism in Palestine. But this is merely to tinker with the problem. What about Billy Graham, who has been Protestant father-confessor to every President from Eisenhower to Clinton, and who has achieved the status of America's mainstream cleric?
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