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DoubleQuote in the Wild: Maurits Escher & Juan Cole

Sunday, December 29th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- mainly because I'll post MC Escher any chance I get ]
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I’m often but by no means always a fan of JR Cole. In this instance, though, I’d say he’s built a fine “wild” DoubleQuote out of his own observation and the Escher print he “quotes” in this tweet:

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Hm — did this make anyone else think of Pakistan?

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Ayatollah Khameini: Crony Capitalist and Slumlord

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Reuters has begun a remarkable series on the economic dealings of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameini who controls a staggering fortune of $ 95 billion dollars through a secretive fund Setad that expropriates the property of poor Iranians and religious minorities. This would put the venerable theocrat in the same superclass as Bill Gates, Carlos Slim, Warren Buffet and the Sultan of Brunei .

Up until now, former Iranian president Rafsanjani has always been the face of financial corruption in Iran’s clerical hierarchy, but to paraphrase John D. Rockefeller’s comment about J.P. Morgan, compared to Khameini ” he’s not even a rich man”:

Khamenei controls massive financial empire built on property seizures 

The 82-year-old Iranian woman keeps the documents that upended her life in an old suitcase near her bed. She removes them carefully and peers at the tiny Persian script.

There’s the court order authorizing the takeover of her children’s three Tehran apartments in a multi-story building the family had owned for years. There’s the letter announcing the sale of one of the units. And there’s the notice demanding she pay rent on her own apartment on the top floor.

Pari Vahdat-e-Hagh ultimately lost her property. It was taken by an organization that is controlled by the most powerful man in Iran: Supreme LeaderAyatollah Ali Khamenei. She now lives alone in a cramped, three-room apartment in Europe, thousands of miles from Tehran.

….But Setad has empowered him. Through Setad,Khamenei has at his disposal financial resources whose value rivals the holdings of the shah, the Western-backed monarch who was overthrown in 1979.

How Setad came into those assets also mirrors how the deposed monarchy obtained much of its fortune – by confiscating real estate. A six-month Reuters investigation has found that Setad built its empire on the systematic seizure of thousands of properties belonging to ordinary Iranians: members of religious minorities like Vahdat-e-Hagh, who is Baha’i, as well as Shi’ite Muslims, business people and Iranians living abroad.

Setad has amassed a giant portfolio of real estate by claiming in Iranian courts, sometimes falsely, that the properties are abandoned. The organization now holds a court-ordered monopoly on taking property in the name of the supreme leader, and regularly sells the seized properties at auction or seeks to extract payments from the original owners.

The supreme leader also oversaw the creation of a body of legal rulings and executive orders that enabled and safeguarded Setad’s asset acquisitions. “No supervisory organization can question its property,” said Naghi Mahmoudi, an Iranian lawyer who left Iran in 2010 and now lives in Germany.

The Persian name of the organization that hounded her for years is “Setad Ejraiye Farmane Hazrate Emam” – Headquarters for Executing the Order of the Imam. The name refers to an edict signed by the Islamic Republic’s first leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, shortly before his death in 1989. His order spawned a new entity to manage and sell properties abandoned in the chaotic years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

It used to be said back in the 70′s by Western intellectuals of the tweedy, social democratic, Left variety that the future would be a merging of Communism and Capitalism into a “Third Way”, perhaps, it was optimistically suggested, of the gentle Scandinavian variety with, democracy, universal free child care and quaint, bicycle-riding, constitutional monarchs. I doubt anyone thinks that today. If there is any emerging universal model at all it is that of nasty authoritarian governments being run, sometimes under a facade of elections, by a bareknuckle, crony capitalist Oligarchy that hollowed out the state.

Sometimes,the crony capitalists are merely the junior partners to the mandarins, siloviki and mullahs and at other times you could look “….from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again” and be hard pressed to tell the difference.

Khamenei’s conglomerate thrived as sanctions squeezed Iran 

….The ayatollah’s organization would go on to acquire stakes in a major bank by 2007 and in Iran’s largest telecommunications company in 2009. Among dozens of other investments, it took over a giant holding company in 2010.

An organizational chart labeled “SETAD at a Glance,” prepared in 2010 by one of Setad’s companies and seen by Reuters, illustrates how big it had grown. The document shows holdings in major banks, a brokerage, an insurance company, power plants, energy and construction firms, a refinery, a cement company and soft drinks manufacturing.

Today, Setad’s vast operations provide an independent source of revenue and patronage for Supreme Leader Khamenei, even as the West squeezes the Iranian economy harder with sanctions in an attempt to end the nuclear-development program he controls.

“He has a huge sum at his disposal that he can spend,” says Mohsen Sazegara, a co-founder of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps military force, who is now living in exile in the United States. “When you have this much money, that’s power itself.” 

Indeed. It insulates Khameini’s core supporters from external financial pressure and allows Khameini to have an arsenal of carrots, not just sticks in dealing with other members of the Iranian ruling elite.

It is often overlooked how frequently dictators, even those who were known for ruling through terror like Hitler, Stalin and Mao, could be lavishly generous with gifts and financial rewards or indulged the blatant corruption of powerful subordinates like Goering, Abukumov or Kang Sheng. Every Grand Ayatollah and Marja in Shia Islam maintains a charitable trust to which their pious followers donate. I would be extremely surprised if Khameini, whose scholarly credentials share similarities with Leonid Brezhnev’s military decorations, had not made arrangements for substantial contributions over the years from Setad to the trusts of Iran’s most respected senior clerics.

Baksheesh is an older faith in Iran than is Islam.

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Hayder al-Khoei and the sword of St Paul

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- when is a sword just a metaphor, when does it spill blood, and what can be done about it when it does? ]
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Hayder al-Khoei is presently in Rome for an interfaith conference on “Religions and Cultures in Dialogue” organised by the Community of Sant’Egidio, attended Mass this morning at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, and posted this fascinating comment on Twitter:

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According to one of his recent bio notes, Hayder al-Khoei is “an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, a London-based think tank on international affairs. He holds a masters degree in international studies and diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.” He’s generally considered highly qualified to speak on issues relating to Shi’a Islam — he’s also the scion of an illustrious clerical family, son of Sayyid Abdul Majid Al-Khoei and the grandson of Grand Ayatollah Abdul-Qasim Al-Khoei.

I can’t tell whether it was just the sight of St Paul’s sword in this particular statue that gave al-Khoei this thought, or whether it’s an idea more generally found among Muslims — that the early Christians in general were a militant bunch, or St Paul in particular. But al-Khoei’s comment is worth reflecting on.

Here are two counter-factuals to consider — not as statements of belief or historical fact, but as historical fictions that may yet give us glimpses ointo tje parallelisms and divergences between the two religions.

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What of Christianity if Christ had not been crucified?

What would Christianity have looked like at 100 CE — or look like today, perhaps — if Christ hadn’t died on the cross (Muslims believe he didn’t), but had lived to see his followers persecuted and killed and the Jerusalem Temple destroyed by the Romans ikn 70 CE? Might his instructions gto his disciples have moved from an emphasis on peace to instructions for insurrection andd self defence over that period of time? See Luke 22. 35-36:

And he said unto them, When I sent you without purse, and scrip, and shoes, lacked ye any thing? And they said, Nothing. Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.

In the Gospel narrative, this instruction lasts for only a short while — Luke 22 continues:

And he said unto them, When I sent you without purse, and scrip, and shoes, lacked ye any thing? And they said, Nothing. Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one. For I say unto you, that this that is written must yet be accomplished in me, And he was reckoned among the transgressors: for the things concerning me have an end. mAnd they said, Lord, behold, here are two swords. And he said unto them, It is enough.

and then, after the episode called agony in the garden, in verse s 47-51 of the same chapter:

And while he yet spake, behold a multitude, and he that was called Judas, one of the twelve, went before them, and drew near unto Jesus to kiss him. But Jesus said unto him, Judas, betrayest thou the Son of man with a kiss? When they which were about him saw what would follow, they said unto him, Lord, shall we smite with the sword? And one of them smote the servant of the high priest, and cut off his right ear. And Jesus answered and said, Suffer ye thus far. And he touched his ear, and healed him.

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And what of Islam, if Muhammad had not been persecuted in Mecca?

And what might Islam have looked like in 710 CE — or look like today, maybe — if the persecution of the Prophet and his disciples had not driven him from Mecca to Medina, and his teachings had continued to be peaceable as they were in his earlier Meccan suras of the Qur’an?

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To my mind, each of these stories of what never happened opens a possibility for mutual understanding between the two faith narratives: I offer them for this purpose.

Swords have been drawn, and blood spilled, in matters of conflict between religions. It is my hope and prayer, and that of those at the conference al-Khoei is attending, that the time will not be long in coming when the swords are sheathed and healings performed…

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Photographic enantiodromia at the Zaynab shrine?

Friday, September 20th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- in recognition that Photoshop is a weapon that can turn enemies into friends, at least within Photoshop! ]
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How to describe this? It’s a DoubleQuote in Two Tweets from Phillip Smyth in which [Almost] the Same Photo of a Guy with an Israeli Rifle Poses on Both Sides of the Conflict around the Sayyida Zaynab Shrine in Southern Damascus:

So the guy in the original photo does a bit of an enantiondromia thanks to Photoshop…

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For some in depth reading:

  • On the Shia side of things, see Phillip Smyth‘s Hizballah Cavalcade posts at Jihadology.
  • For the same on the Sunni side, see Aymenn Al-Tamimi‘s Musings of an Iraqi Brasenostril series, also on Jihadology.
  • And for both and all else, well, there’s always Aaron Zelin‘s Jihadology itself!
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    Of dualities, contradictions and the nonduality II

    Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron -- notes towards a pattern language of conflict and conflict resolution: bridging divides in Baghdad 2013, Netherlands 1888 and the Germanies 1961 ]
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    I’ll be collecting examples of “dualities and the non-dual” here, because they give us a chance to consider the pattern that underlies “conflict and conflict resolution” and much else besides. This post picks up on an earlier post on the same topic: I’ll begin with three tweets that came across my bows this last week…

    First, a vivid glimpse of sectarianism in today’s Iraq:

    Second: sectarianism in the Netherlands, 1888:

    And last, unexpected but charming, the divided Berlin of 1961:

    It’s obvious once you think about it — thought we don’t always remember, such is the mind’s propensity to distinguish, divide, and argue from just one half of the whole — that human nature embraces both conflict and conflict resolution.

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