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He must have a long spoon that must eat with the devil

Sunday, September 1st, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — borrowing my title from Shakespeare, though Chaucer and Erasmus said it first ]
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You may or may not like John Kerry. You may or may not like Assad. You may or may not like Mother Teresa, or Michèle Duvalier and Papa Doc. Rumsfeld and or Saddam. GW Bush or Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud. But paired photos of someone you dislike with someone many of us loathe is a neat visual tactic in which the not-so-bad party of the first part is tarred by association with the way-more-evil party of the second.

Does it ever work the other way around, though? is the party of the second part ever redeemed through contact with the party of the first? or even relieved of a few tens or hundreds of thousand dollars for authentic, charitable purposes?

What would I know?

The simplest way in which the two images above can be seen as similar to one another is that each one features someone named Teresa. But that’s not the point.

And I do have to say, that restaurant in Damascus looks pleasant enough.

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Close reading, Synoptic- and Sembl-style, for parallels, patterns

Monday, March 25th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — if we omit all mention of the Qur’an, will the jihad perhaps disappear, you think? ]
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On Friday, Oct. 29, 2004, just before the 2004 US Presidential Election, a videotaped speech by Osama bin Laden was released online and variously reported:
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Being a theologian at heart, I’ve formatted these versions in the style used in comparisons of the Synoptic Gospels, to give you an immediate sense of the differences I’ll be discussing…

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Just how important was this particular speech by bin Laden?

It was important to bin Laden himself, as it was his first statement after his invitation to the US to convert to Islam. As I have noted before — quoting Michael Scheuer‘s Al-Qaeda’s Completed Warning Cycle – Ready to attack? — bin Laden had been criticized for failing to issue such an invitation:

After 9/11, bin Laden received sharp criticisms from Islamist scholars that dealt with the al-Qaeda chief’s failure to satisfy several religious requirements pertinent to waging war. The critique focused on three items: (1) insufficient warning; (2) failure to offer Americans a chance to convert to Islam; and (3) inadequate religious authorization to kill so many people. Bin Laden accepted these criticisms and in mid-2002 began a series of speeches and actions to remedy the shortcomings and satisfy his Islamist critics before again attacking in the United States.

MEMRI picks up the story here:

The Islamist website Al-Islah explains: “Some people ask ‘what’s new in this tape?’ [The answer is that] this tape is the second of its kind, after the previous tape of the Sheikh [Osama bin Laden], in which he offered a truce to the Europeans a few months ago, and it is a completion of this move, and it brings together the complementary elements of politics and religion, political savvy and force, the sword and justice. The Sheikh reminds the West in this tape of the great Islamic civilization and pure Islamic religion, and of Islamic justice…”

This video is also a significant “first” for bin Laden. In Raymond Ibrahim‘s words in his The Al Qaeda Reader:

This message also marks the first time bin Laden publicly acknowledged his role in the 9/11 strikes; previously he had insisted that he was merely an “inciter” and that it was the Muslim umma in general who had retaliated in defense of their faith.

It was important to the US because of the election four days later. The following exchange occurred on NBCNews’ Meet the Press, Jan 30th, 2005:

MR. RUSSERT: At the Clinton Library dedication on November 18, a few weeks after the election, you were quoted as saying, “It was the Osama bin Laden tape. It scared the voters,” the tape that appeared just a day before the election here. Do you believe that tape is the reason you lost the race?

SEN. KERRY: I believe that 9/11 was the central deciding issue in this race. And the tape–we were rising in the polls up until the last day when the tape appeared. We flat-lined the day the tape appeared and went down on Monday. I think it had an impact

The speech was important, in sum, both to bin Laden himself and to the US electorate: it deserves a close reading.

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Sadly, however…

Posted, translated transcripts of Al Qaida and other jihadist materials often leave out the salutation and envoi (or other choice bits such as quotes from the Qur’an or Hadith) because they’re too religious or perhaps too Muslim — but when these same pieces of the puzzle are added back into the text, the whole document may cohere to a degree that is otherwise unapparent.

We tend not to “get” religious language. What do Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon tell us in their book The Age of Sacred Terror?

So much of what was heard from al-Qaeda after the attacks sounded to Americans like gibberish that many chords of the apocalypse were missed.

Our prejudice against alien religious sentiment, or the assumption that it is ritualistic and hence irrelevant, or even worse, “babble” — the term FBI agents used to describe David Koresh‘s religious interpretation of events during the Waco siege — can blindside us to its very real discursive and exegetical power.

That’s the reason I’m offering you this post — years later — as a counter-example of the power of “Sembl thinking” — essentially, the power of pattern recognition as a key to understanding.

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I read three versions of bin Laden’s videotaped speech of Oct. 29, 2004 at the time: those provided by CNN, MEMRI, and Al Jazeera — one “western secular” source, one with some degree of Israeli association, and one with roots in the Arabic cultures.

CNN cited al-Jazeera as having aired the video, and posted “a transcript of his remarks as translated by CNN senior editor for Arab affairs Octavia Nasr” which, as you can see above or at the link, began, “You, the American people, I talk to you today… “ MEMRI offered The Full Version of Osama bin Laden’s Speech followed by a transcript which began, “O American people, I address these words to you…” And Al Jazeera posted “the full English transcript of Usama bin Ladin’s speech in a videotape sent to Aljazeera” and noted, “In the interests of authenticity, the content of the transcript, which appeared as subtitles at the foot of the screen, has been left unedited” – above a transcript that began:

Praise be to Allah who created the creation for his worship and commanded them to be just and permitted the wronged one to retaliate against the oppressor in kind. To proceed: Peace be upon he who follows the guidance: People of America this talk of mine is for you…

That in itself is interesting — Al-Jazeera has two sentences with religious significance, one of them saying that God “permitted the wronged one to retaliate against the oppressor in kind” — with no mention of them in the MEMRI and CNN accounts.

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As I read the Al Jazeera version, which seemed to me to be the one most likely to be accurate to bin Laden’s meaning, I came across the phrase:

We want to restore freedom to our Nation and just as you lay waste to our Nation, so shall we lay waste to yours.

There were several other parts of the speech which seemed to make (rhetorical) use of symmetry. There were the comments about “punishing the oppressor in kind” by destroying towers in the US, since towers in the Lebanon had been destroyed (which seems a pretty literal-minded reading of “in like manner”):

And as I looked at those demolished towers in Lebanon, it entered my mind that we should punish the oppressor in kind and that we should destroy towers in America in order that they taste some of what we tasted and so that they be deterred from killing our women and children.

There was a passage pointing up analogies between the Bush dynastic presidencies and similar dynastic rulerships in “our countries”:

… we have found it difficult to deal with the Bush administration in light of the resemblance it bears to the regimes in our countries, half of which are ruled by the military and the other half which are ruled by the sons of kings and presidents. Our experience with them in lengthy and both types are replete with those who are characterized by pride, arrogance, greed and a misappropriation of wealth.

And there was the comment translated in the CNN version:

Your security is not in the hands of [Democratic presidential nominee John] Kerry or Bush or al Qaeda. Your security is in your own hands. Any nation that does not attack us will not be attacked.

Each of these excerpts is couched in an analogical, symmetrical format, but it was the first one that really rang a bell for me — that phrase “just as you lay waste to our Nation, so shall we lay waste to yours” reminded me very strongly of one verse from the Qur’an, which contains the phrase, “And one who attacketh you, attack him in like manner as he attacked you” — the whole verse, Qur’an 2.194, has also been translated thus:

For the prohibited month, and so for all things prohibited, there is the law of equality. If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, transgress ye likewise against him. But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves.

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Okay, I’d read three versions of bin Laden’s text, and made a mental leap to a Quranic verse — and then I finally ran across ABC’s transcript, which opens with the very verse from the Quran my mind had leaped to.

Here’s where you can find the entire text, which ABC describes as “an unedited government translation of the Osama bin Laden videotape” – presumably from the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (then the FBIS, now the Open Source Center). It is certainly the most complete version I’ve seen:

Full Transcript of Bin Laden Video: ABC News Obtains Complete Text of Bin Laden’s Oct. 29 Video.

I don’t know for sure whether bin Laden used that verse himself (although I’d bet on it), or whether it was “framing matter” added by in the studio by Al-Jazeera (I very much doubt it) — either way, it confirmed my association, and reading the whole speech as a sermonette on that scriptural text gives it, in my view, notable added coherence.

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Here’s what I wrote after I read the ABC transcript:

I’m particularly interested to note that bin Laden “opens” with the Qur’anic verse which says “for the prohibited month, and so for all things prohibited, there is the law of equality. If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, transgress ye likewise against him. But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves” [Baqara 194].

That’s the central statement of the Islamic view of symmetrical morality in warfare, and prior to reading your full text, I thought I’d detected echoes of it in the OBL text in question — my own analytic process leans heavily on analogy and symmetry — and specifically in the passages I’ve quoted above…

The analogical, symmetrical format is present in each of these excerpts, and indicates how deeply the Qur’anic process runs in bin Laden, even here in a speech which attempts to present that very Qur’anic insight in secular terms to a western audience — explaining the first of the four excerpts above, for instance, with these following words:

No one except a dumb thief plays with the security of others and then makes himself believe he will be secure whereas thinking people when disaster strikes make it their priority to look for its causes in order to prevent it happening again.

and saying again, towards the end of the speech:

you may recall that for every action, there is a reaction.

We do indeed recall that phrase: in its complete form, as given in Isaac Newton‘s memorable Third Law of Motion:

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

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For what it’s worth, the Qur’anic verse in question is not present in either Ibrahim’s Al Qaeda Reader, nor in Bruce Lawrence, Messages to the World: the Statements of Osama bin Laden. Ibrahim opens his version with the words, “Praise be to Allah, who created the worlds for his worship…” and Lawrence with, “Peace be upon those who are rightly guided. People of America…”

But no mention of Qur’an 2.194. It has just vanished. Gone. It has been ignored.

Isn’t that pretty much the definition of ignorance?

Words fail me.

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Reading a partisan cartoon: the parable of a dog’s ears and teeth

Friday, November 16th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — on the difficulties that may be posed when “reading” graphics ]
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The question I want to ask in this post is: how much can you safely read into a political cartoon?

Here is the particular cartoon I have in mind:

It was published in The Guardian (UK) yesterday, and as you may be able to see, it portrays Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu as a puppet-master, with British politicians Tony Blair and William Hague as his puppets, and was published to illustrate the cartoonist’s view of British reaction to the Gaza situation.

How much can we read into it?

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If you are used to seeing cartoons such as these —

showing Khamenei pulling Ahmadinejad‘s strings and Petraeus as a puppet of GW Bush, when you come across the Netanyahu cartoon in the Guardian, you may well view it as another in a long series of political cartoons suggesting that someone is running someone else’s show behind the scenes. It’s the old idea of the eminence grise, in other words, expressed in cartoon form.

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If, on the other hand, you’ve been exposed way too often to cartoons like these —

the one portraying Churchill, FDR and Stalin as Jewish puppets, taken from a 1942 issue of the Nazi paper, Fliegende Blätter, or the one depicting McCain and Obama as Israeli puppets, taken from a 2008 issue of the Saudi paper, Al-Watan… you may well see the same cartoon in a very different — and distinctly antisemitic — light.

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The last two graphics, at least, are extremely offensive, and I would like to offer another graphic here — one which also uses our “puppet master” theme — as a visual equivalent of offering a glass of water to cleanse the palate:

I’ll be addressing this My Fair Lady poster from a very different angle, in a later post in my “form is insight” series — this one on “dolls within dolls”, the “world stage which we have dotted with stages of our own devising” and “turtles all the way down”…

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Having hopefully reduced the emotional freight which some of the cartoons above must surely have carried with them, I would now like to offer you some background which seems relevant to me. Characteristically, perhaps, it comes from a very different field of knowledge.

EC Zeeman‘s April 1976 article Catastrophe Theory in the Scientific American was my introduction to the mathematician Rene Thom’s remarkable body of work, an introduction which sailed mostly over my head — but one of Zeeman’s points, which he illustrated with the graphic below, made perfect sense to me.

The annotation to this illustration read in part:

If an angry dog is made more fearful, its mood follow* the trajectory ‘A’ on the control surface. The corresponding path on the behaviour surface moves to the left on the top sheet until it reaches the fold curve; the top sheet then vanishes, and the path must jump abruptly to the bottom sheet. Thus the dog abandons its attack and suddenly flees. Similarly, a frightened dog that is angered followes the trajectory ‘B’. The dog remains on the bottom sheet until that sheet disappears, then as it jumps to the top sheet it stops cowering and suddenly attacks.

My translation:

A dog that reaches the point where its ears are fully pinned back, indicating full-on fear, and its teeth are also fully bared, indicating full on rage, will behave differently depending on whether its fear level or its rage level was the first to be raised to “full”.

Just as a dog’s reaction to a full on mix of rage and fear may depend on which stimulus came first, so — I am suggesting — our own reaction to the cartoon in question — inherently antisemitic, or merely critical of a particular Israeli operation — may depend on our previous exposure to cartoons, politics, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or antisemitism.

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We now have several levels of ease or difficulty in reading graphics. The Zeeman graphics are hard to read because they’re too small to be legible — but put them in the context of Zeeman’s article, and view them full size as originally published, and the only problem might be in following Zeeman’s text, itself a popularization and simplification of Rene Thom‘s work.

The Bart Simpson graphic is fairly straight forward, and regular viewers of the show would “read” it in line with hundreds of similar frames in which Bart writes repeated lines on a classroom chalkboard, from Season 1 episode 2’s “I will not waste chalk” to Season 23’s “There’s no proven link between raisins and boogers”.

And then there’s the disputed Netanyahu graphic… which can be “read” differently, depending on what previous “puppet master” associations the viewer beings to the task. Here, it seems to me, the task of interpretation can be viewed in one of two ways: (i) as an exploration of how it is likely to be read, which I’m suggesting will depend on previous association, and (ii) as an exploration of what “must have been” in the cartoonist’s heart.

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Assessing the cartoon’s probable impact on segments of the public is one thing — knowing what the cartoonist intended, even though we tend to conflate the two, is quite another. Not for nothing does St Paul in I Corinthians 2.11 ask (in my own translation)

Who knows the qualities of a man but the spirit of that man within him?

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Zenpundit has…Great Powers!

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

Received my uncorrected proof, limited edition, advance copy of Great Powers: America and the World After Bush today. Nice ! As a serious book collector, I love having these editions. Dr. Barnett was kind enough to let me see some of the early draft chapters but this is my first look at the almost finished product.

Much thanks Tom!

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Shades of Nixon: Scott McClellan as George W. Bush’s John Dean

Thursday, May 29th, 2008

A brief comment on the hot political story of the hour.

Former Bush administration Press Secretary Scott McClellan has written, for big bucks, a blistering memoir of his time in the Bush White House that savages many key administration figures and led one of them, former adviser and eminence grise, Karl Rove, to compare McClellan to a “ left-wing blogger“. Regardless of the truth of the memoir, an alleged “loyalist” who writes such a book is truly “disgruntled”. Why might that be ?

The Bush administration, in my mind, was never the second coming of Ronald Reagan but of Richard Nixon Redux. Set aside Watergate ( hard for those on the Left, I realize, but bear with me) for a moment; in Bush II you have a foreign policy presidency, a president with a polarizing personality, more partisan than ideological, an insular White House that shuts out even the GOP bigwigs, a reputation for “hardline” toughness, ruthlessness and secrecy. it is not surprising to me that ex-Bush “loyalists” are proving no more loyal to Bush in their scribblings than were the Nixon men.

I’ve read through every word of all of the memoirs of the Nixon era as well as a boatload of primary source documents. Even before Watergate, the Nixon White House was not a happy place and it showed in the recollections of those who labored for Richard Nixon; the descriptions of his White House are those of a shark tank. Henry Kissinger, despite his frequent brilliance was an insufferable prima donna and bully; Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Mitchell were widely (and justifiably) feared; Laird was an intriguer, Colson a thug, Liddy a fanatic and Dean a sycophantic snake.   Some of these men later changed their views but none painted a flattering picture of the administration in which they served nor felt any obligation to Nixon to do so.

Given that so many senior figures in Bush II were once ” Nixon men” – Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz among many others – it would be a small wonder if some of the dysfunctional, slightly paranoid, corporate macho “pressure cooker” atmosphere of the Nixon era didn’t resurface in the Bush years. Rove complains that McClellan never spoke up at the time and he’s probably right – kissing ass and playing office politics probably was the order of the day moreso than being the bearer of bad tidings.

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