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Shoma Choudhury talks to the CIA & Taliban, more or less

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- two talks from India's THiNK2013 conference, one about the Taliban and US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the other a tale of India / Pakistan Partition ]
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Here, Indian journalist Shoma Choudhury interviews Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, one time Taliban ambassador to Pakistan and author of the book, My Life with the Taliban, and Robert Grenier, CIA station chief in Islamabad in 2001 and later Director of the Agency’s Counterterrorist Center, during the THiNK2013 conference held at the Grand Hyatt in Goa, in a session titled An Afghan Date: The CIA Talks To The Taliban on November 9th, 2013:

I haven’t found a reference to this event in the New York Times or Washington Post, and the video of the event has been viewed less than 1,250 times — so I hope that if any Zenpundit readers have in fact already viewed it, they will forgive me for posting it here. It seems to me to be a remarkable conversation, not least because of Choudhury’s skillful moderation.

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I only know about this conversation because blog-friend Omar Ali pointed me to the video of a reading of Saadat Hasan Manto‘s account of Partition in his satirical short story, Toba Tek Singh at the same conference. The reader is the actor Naseeruddin Shah whom I admire enormously for his stunning performance as “the common man” in Neeraj Pandey‘s A Wednesday — the story is told as written in Manto’s Urdu, with a principal character who “mutters or shouts a mix of Punjabi, Urdu and English” — and most of an English language translation is provided for those like myself who need it, by means of projected background slides.

But that voice, Naseeruddin Shah’s voice!

You can read Toba Tek Singh in Frances Pritchett‘s translation here.

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If these two presentations are anything to go by, the THiNK conference series may be what TED talks could and should have been…

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For the record: al-Raymi’s Message to the American People

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- a quick, minor note ]
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You may of course already know this, but in case you don’t…

May eye was caught by the words “Your leaders are assaultive, oppressive and tyrannical” in the English subtitles to Qasim al-Raymi‘s “Message to the American People” video (upper panel, below)…

I guess it was the word “assaultive” that really caught my eye… I wasn’t looking forward to transcribing the entire video, so I went to the net to see if anyone else had done the job — which was when I realized I’d seen that same phrase before, in the latest issue, #11, of Inspire magazine (lower panel, above).

So this is just a quick note to say if you want to quote al-Raymi, there’s no need to transcribe the video, he says what he says in Inspire #11 pp. 8-9.

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I suspect we could glean quite a bit if we listened with careful ears to the phrasings used by jihadist sources when writing or speaking in English or translating into it. There are some interesting characteristic turns of phrase — I haven’t been making notes as yet, but “to proceed” is one that is often used to end the scriptural prelims and turn to the message of the day… And there was that curious phrasing in the Khorasanist video Tamerlan Tsarnaev favorited, “The word Taliqan not just mentions the Taliqan region of today only, but…”

There are many interesting ways to read a text, and reading for tone and phrasing is one of them…

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Sources, h/t to Aaron Zelin at Jihadology:

  • Al-Raymi, al-Malahim video
  • Al Raymi, al-Malahim Inspire magazine
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    Great question!

    Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron -- from Paradise Regained: Overcoming Terrorism in Star Trek Into Darkness ]
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    Matt Ford, guest-blogging at Grand Blog Tarkin [includes spoilers] asks:

    How many young Americans learned Arabic and Pashto or studied counterterrorism and international relations because nineteen men flew three planes into a building and one into the ground, killing thousands?

    Great question!

    And how many in the UK after 9/11? — and after 7/7?

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    Also worth reading [and also includes spoilers]:

    Amy Davidson, Is “Star Trek into Darkness” a drone allegory?

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    Words, words — what’s a bunch of Wordsworth?

    Sunday, May 19th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron -- bemused again, "jihad" (the word) in the news, "big data" too, plus Google expecting Mahdi ]
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    I suppose I should be glad — or should I? — that the word jihad is now in the news.

    It’s about time. Jihad (the word, the concept, the interpretations) should have been in the news at least since 9/11, don’t you think? or since the World Trade Center bombing in February 26, 1993, perhaps? or at least since Osama bin Laden’s Declaration of Jihad Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Mosques of September 2, 1996?

    In any case, the word finally seems to have arrived, if the entry from the National Geographic site last month (upper panel, above) can be trusted:

    And Big Data (lower panel)?

    President Obama launched his Big Data Initiative on March 29, 2012, but I’m not sure how long the term has been in active use. I’m told there’s no “big data” listing in the 2009 Oxford English Dictionary on CD-ROM, I have the sense that three days ago’s Foreign Policy is far more up to date than last month’s National Geographic in any case — and just a month or two ago the CTO of CIA, Ira “Gus” Hunt, situated Big Data somewhere between “the cloud” and right now, telling his audience at GigaOM:

    Big Data was so last year, right, all those breathless articles and all the front page covers — I was expecting BD to be Time’s Man of the Year, right. This year what we’re really talking about is how do we get value out of the stuff?

    That quote, of course, is so “two months ago”…

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    So what does National Geographic tell us about jihad?

    The Boston marathon bombing has focused attention on the word “jihad.”

    Vice President Biden characterized the alleged bombers as knockoff jihadis.” The Associated Press reported that the elder brother had “vaguely discussed jihad” with his mother over the phone in 2011.

    Origins

    “Jihad” is derived from the Arabic word juhd (meaning effort, exertion, or power) and literally translates to “struggle” or “resistance” for the sake of a goal. Used 30 times and in multiple contexts in the Koran, jihad most often denotes a struggle against external enemies, the devil, or one’s self. One example from the Koran (49.15) is: “The believers are those who believe in Allah and His Messenger … and jahadu (do jihad) with their properties and selves in the way of Allah.”

    Mark Wilks, an early 19th-century British author, introduced jihad into the English lexicon, defining it as a Muslim “holy war,” in his Historical Sketches of the South of India. It’s retained that meaning in English; the Oxford English Dictionary defines jihad as “a religious war of Muslims against unbelievers.”

    History

    Because of its roots and context in the Koran, jihad has a positive meaning to Muslims. Whatever form jihad may take, the struggle is always noble. When the term is evoked against external enemies, it can be used only during just or defensive wars.

    I’m sorry, but that last para beginning “Because of its roots and context in the Koran, jihad has a positive meaning to Muslims” isn’t terribly clear. When al-Zawahiri talks about jihad, for instance, does the writer imagine all Muslim readers imagine he’s talking about something noble? I fear there are some subtleties being missed her that not everyone who reads National Geographic may understand.

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    And what does Foreign Policy want to tell us about Big Data?

    The promoters of big data would like us to believe that behind the lines of code and vast databases lie objective and universal insights into patterns of human behavior, be it consumer spending, criminal or terrorist acts, healthy habits, or employee productivity. But many big-data evangelists avoid taking a hard look at the weaknesses. Numbers can’t speak for themselves, and data sets — no matter their scale — are still objects of human design. The tools of big-data science, such as the Apache Hadoop software framework, do not immunize us from skews, gaps, and faulty assumptions. Those factors are particularly significant when big data tries to reflect the social world we live in, yet we can often be fooled into thinking that the results are somehow more objective than human opinions. Biases and blind spots exist in big data as much as they do in individual perceptions and experiences. Yet there is a problematic belief that bigger data is always better data and that correlation is as good as causation.

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    Mr Orange had something to say about the word “jihad” in his War Tracker blog the other day, under the title What’s in the names of terrorist groups (1): Jabhah al-Nusrah li-Ahl al-Shâm min Mujâhidî al-Shâm fi Sahât al Jihâd:

    … they still use a religious term in their name: One that is quite negatively understood in the West but not so in the Arab and Muslim world namely Jihâd.

    They are Mujâhidîn – those who do Jihâd (religious struggle – in this case fighting) – on the fields of Jihâd. Mujâhidîn has a positive, religiously legitimizing ring to it – see here is someone who struggles for the religion – and is furthermore including. Whether you are with the FSA (even one of the rather secular parts of that group mind you) or with an independent Islamist group or with Jabhah al-Nusrah all do use the term Mujâhîd and all may be identified by that term (Granted there was a time when Thuwâr (revolutionaries) was en vogue but no longer so).

    That, IMO, gets us a lot closer to understanding a term that has a range of meanings, a range of users, and a range of audiences — from something along the lines of divinely obligated warfare to something akin to conscience (or what Rilke calls “being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings”) , and from those who use it for glorious self-identification to those for whom it is a euphemism for terrorist (irhabi), and from those itching for a fight to those longing, praying and working devotedly for peace…

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    So — since we’re talking big data and jihad, here’s a tiny snippet of jihad-related skew from Google, one of the giants of big data…

    I came across it via SelfScholar, who posted a very interesting response re the Iranian nuclear fatwa issue here a few days ago, in a post titled Google Translate’s Khomeini Problem.

    It appears that Google Translate has a distinctly unsecular view when it comes to major figures in Shi’ite theology — specifically, it adds religious honorifics to their names when translating from English into Farsi. As you might imagine, I wanted to know how they dealt with the Mahdi — and behold, my prayer was answered:

    So Google awaits his blessed return?

    It seems pretty clear that SelfScholar would be skeptical about that. He ends his blog post, in fact, with an indication that he neither awaits nor expects it — choosing for his final example “to highlight the inanity of it all, just one for the road…”:

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    Prof. Dr. Muhammad-Reza Fakhr-Rohani has an interesting piece titled Rendering Islamic Politeness Markers into English, which he concludes thus:

    There remain some Desiderata to be dealt with. First, the Arabic pre-nominal honorifics as well as post-nominal honorific-cum-optative sentences must be re-translated with a view to remove the items which make the language sound odd, and perhaps ungrammatical. Secondly, appropriate abbreviations must be devised for them. Finally, they must find their ways into English dictionaries, hence registered as part of the language.

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    Jottings 2: Dr Fadl book announcement

    Friday, May 3rd, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron -- I got the announcement via Cole Bunzel, and Kévin Jackson kindly informed me that Dr Fadl is currently free ]

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    Dr Fadl‘s announcement, in Arabic, is here — I had to use Google Translate, which wouldn’t pass a Turing test. However…

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    A while back, I made a post here titled Will Dr Fadl retract his Retractions? in which I wrote:

    Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, popularly known as Dr Fadl, wrote two of the key works of jihadist ideology, The Essential Guide for Preparation and the thousand-page Compendium of the Pursuit of Divine Knowledge, in the late 1980s — thereby providing his friend from student days, Ayman al-Zawahiri, with powerful scholarly backing for the doctrines of militant jihad and takfirism. Lawrence Wright refers to Fadl as an “Al-Qaeda mastermind” in a detailed 2008 New Yorker analysis.

    Dr Fadl was imprisoned without trial in the Yemen shortly after 9/11, but it was after he had been transferred to an Egyptian prison in 2004 that he wrote Rationalizing Jihad, the first volume of his “retractions” — a work so powerful in its attack on his own earlier jihadist doctrine that al-Zawahiri felt obliged to respond with a two-hundred page letter of rebuttal. A second volume from Dr. Fadl followed more recently.

    If Dr Fadl regains his liberty, the question arises whether he will claim his critiques of jihadist dictrine were obtained by force, and effectively retract his retractions – or whether he will stand by them, as I somehow expect he might — still declaring, this time as a free man, that “There is nothing that invokes the anger of God and His wrath like the unwarranted spilling of blood and wrecking of property,” and “There is nothing in the Sharia about killing Jews and the Nazarenes, referred to by some as the Crusaders. They are the neighbors of the Muslims … and being kind to one’s neighbors is a religious duty.”

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    As late as October 2012, I was noting an Atlantic piece by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Aaron Zelin on How the Arab Spring’s Prisoner Releases Have Helped the Jihadi Cause, and asking whether Dr Fadl had been released in my post Quick update / pointer: GR & AZ on prisoner release — but now we know.

    In response to an inquiry I tweeted after seeing Bunzel‘s tweet above — asking whether Dr Fadl was still imprisoned, albeit more comfortably than most — Kévin Jackson replied:

    I’m no Arabist, but I’d guess we can take it that Sayyed Imam Al-Sharif aka Dr Fadl is talking freely in this book, which he says will cover both his experience of the history of AQ “from the womb (the Afghan jihad against communism) … to the end” in detail, with dates and names, and “all this with the background of the study of Islamic jurisprudence that distinguish between right and wrong, and this is a jurisprudential historical book.”

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    Tricky that, the need to rely on Google Translate. Once again I regret my lack of umpteen languages.

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