White Teeth

I have finished reading White Teeth: A Novel by Zadie Smith. It is a very good and fun novel. I would recommend it highly. It has very entertaining images of the different characters and their peculiarities. The English guy Archie and his Jamaican wife Clara, the Bengali Samad and his wife Alsana and their children Millat, Magid and Irie are all very interesting characters. The idiosyncracies of the immigrants in the story are very interesting and also generally true. However, it did seem to me that at a few points Zadie Smith confused Indian, Pakistani and Bengali culture, or may be I am mistaken. I am not sure.

The book describes some of the problems of immigrants and has a few characters, especially Millat, who get into militant Islamic organizations. The story rings true, but don’t read it to get an insight into Britain’s extremist Muslims. This is a novel, a work of fiction and not a sociological study.

Book Review: Paris 1919

In the foreword to Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan, Richard Holbrooke argues:

In the headline version of history, the road from the Hall of Mirrors [where Versailles treaty was signed] to the German invasion of Poland only twenty years later is usually presented as a straight line. But as MacMillan forcefully demonstrates, this widely accepted view of history distorts the nature of the decisions made in Paris and minimizes the importance of actions taken in the intervening years.

I think Holbrooke is overstating the case here. MacMillan does state in the last chapter:

Later it became commonplace to blame everything that went wrong in the 1920s and 1930s on the peacemakers and the settlements they made in Paris in 1919 …. Eighty years later the old charges about the Paris Peace Conference still have a wide circulation. “The final crime,” declared The Economist in its special millennium issue, was “the Treaty of Versailles, whose harsh terms would ensure a second war.” That is to ignore the actions of everyone — political leaders, diplomats, soldiers, ordinary voters — for twenty years between 1919 and 1939.

I agree that the popular impression of the importance of Versailles treaty in starting World War II is wrong. However, reading about all the provisions of the different treaties, one sees a lot of the issues that started the second war. Despite MacMillan’s conclusion, she never does make a good case against a relationship between the Paris Peace Conference and World War II.

The book however does provide a good view of the peace conference and what went on there. The most interesting thing about the book are the anecdotes and quotes. For example, the chapter about Greece is titled “The Greatest Greek Statesman Since Pericles,” referring to British Prime Minster Lloyd George’s praise of Greek Prime Minister Eleutherios Venizelos.

One thing I would have liked more of is a discussion of how the peace treaties affected the future of those countries. Usually, there is only a paragraph or two of somewhat shallow analysis at the end of each chapter. I understand that this is a book about the peace conference and a good discussion of later history would have made it huge (it is already 570 pages), but that’s how I feel.

Another interesting thing about the history of 1919 is the attitude of the leaders of the great powers towards non-Europeans. It is clear that they do not consider others to be equal to Europeans in any way. In most cases, they did not think that those primitve people were capable of self-rule. They were also much more likely to decide on the fate of a non-European people based on imperialist and colonialist ideas.

Although I don’t follow the soc.history.what-if, two alternate timelines intrigued me.

  • What if Japan got the racial equality clause in the League of Nations covenant but did not get Shantung in China or the Pacific islands? Would Japan have turned nationalistic and militaristic? I don’t know much about Japanese history, but this has aroused my interest. Please recommend any 19th-20th century Japanese history books.
  • What would have happened to the Ottoman empire if Eleutherios “The Greatest Greek Statesman Since Pericles” Venizelos had not overextended Greek claims? Would Ataturk have risen as a leader? Would Smyrna (Izmir nowadays) still would have more Greeks than Athens?

Any ideas, Ikram Saeed?

UPDATE: Also see my post about Woodrow Wilson.

League of Nations and Racial Equality

An interesting chapter in the book “Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World” is related to Japan. Japan was on the Allied side in World War I, though it hadn’t done much fighting. The Japanese had three goals for the Paris Peace Conference after the war:

  • to get a clause on racial equality written into the covenant of the League of Nations,
  • to control the north Pacific islands (the Marshalls, the Marianas and the Carolines), and
  • to keep the German concessions in Shantung, China.

In the end, they got 2 out of their 3 aims. It says something about the major powers of the time that they didn’t get the most legitimate of their goals.

The racial equality clause was born out of the discrimination and humiliation that the Japanese faced in the West. When the Japanese made their intentions known about introducing this clause, the most vehement opposition came form Australia, which was part of the British empire delegation. Here is the British Foregin Secretary Lord Balfour about the clause:

The notion that all men were created equal was an interesting one, he found, but he did not believe it. You could scarcely say that a man in Central Africa was equal to a European.

The Japanese delegation in the Commission on the League of Nations introduced the clause as an amendment to the “religious liberty” clause. Their original version read:

The equality of nations being a basic principle of the League of Nations, the High Contracting Parties agree to accord, as soon as possible, to all alien nationals of States members of the League equal and just treatment in every respect, making no distinction, either in law or in fact, on account of their race or nationality.

This went nowhere in the Commission. However, the Japanese pressed on.

It was an issue that was very popular in Japan and very unpopular in some other places, for example, the western states of the US. Also, President Wilson wasn’t exactly an enlightened person when it came to race. An example of US conduct is that African American troops were put under French command for the Great War.

The greatest opposition, however, was from Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes who was mortified about the future of “White Australia” if the clause was accepted. He refused all compromise attempts by the US delegate Edward House. The Prime Minister of New Zealand, William Massey, agreed with Hughes. After British efforts to reach a compromise, Hughes put a condition that he might accept the racial equality clause if it had a proviso exempting national immigration policies. The Japanese balked at that.

Finally, the Japanese delegation introduced a watered-down version which simply asked for “the principle of equality of nations and just treatment of their nationals.”

Delegates from Greece, Italy, China, France and Czechoslovakia spoke in favor of the Japanese amendment to the League Covenent. The British delegation opposed it. US President Woodrow Wilson was worried that the League of Nations Covenent might not get the support of US senators from the western states if it included the racial equality provision. (Remember that the western states had put in a lot of restrictions on Japanese immigrants at the time.) He asked the Japanese to withdraw their amendment, but the Japanese insisted on a vote.

What do you think happened next? Well, the majority of the delegates voted for the Japanese amendment. But Wilson announced that the amendment could not carry because there were strong objections to it.

As a result, the Japanese threatened to not sign the peace treaty. That threat played some part in getting Japan the Shantung area that it had captured from Germany.

What I am Reading

I am busy, so no regular posts today. However, here is some stuff I am reading:

  • A New York Times article about the Lackawanna Six, the Yemeni-Americans in Buffalo who trained at an Al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan.
  • An interesting article about the history of the oath of allegiance that naturalized citizens have to take.
  • Patrick Belton has written before on his blog about the Arab/Muslim-American community in Dearborn, Michigan (see my post about it). He now has published an article about it and plans to turn it into a book.
  • Juan Cole, a Professor of History, is an expert on the Middle East. He has an article in the Boston Review about the recent history of Iraqi Shiites. It’s a must-read for everyone. Juan’s blog is also full of great content and I would read it regularly if the formatting was somewhat better.

Woodrow Wilson

Once again Wilsonian ideas are popular, both with liberal hawks and neoconservatives. So I thought I should excerpt some comments about Wilson from the book I am reading nowadays about the Versailles Peace conference at the end of World War I.

Wilson never forgave those who disagreed with him. […]He was also stubborn. […]The French ambassador in Washington saw “a man who, had he lived a couple of centuries ago, would have been the greatest tyrant in the world, because he does not seem to have the slightest conception that he can ever be wrong.” [… Wilson] drew on the most noble language of the Bible yet was so ruthless with those who crossed him.

[…]Wilson wanted power and he wanted to do great works. What brought the two sides of his character together was his ability, self-deception perhaps, to frame his decisions so that they became not merely necessary, but morally right. […]Those who opposed him were not just wrong but wicked.

[…]Wilson had said much about general principles [about the peace conference he was going to] but had mentioned few specifics. […]There were to be few other such occasions [where Wilson let anyone know what his ideas and policy were.]

[…]He was clear in his own mind that he meant well. When the American troops went to Haiti or Nicaragua or the Dominican Republic, it was to further order and democracy. […]During Wilson’s presidency, the United States intervened repeatedly in Mexico to try to get the sort of government it wanted. “The purpose of the United States,” Wilson said, “is solely and singly to secure peace and order in Central America by seeing to it that the processes of self-government there are not interrupted or set aside.” He was taken aback when the Mexicans failed to see the landing of American troops, and American threats, in the same light.

The Mexican adventure also showed Wilson’s propensity, perhaps unconscious, to ignore the truth. […]Lansing [Wilson’s Secretary of State] said of his president: “Even established facts were ignored if they did not fit in with this intuitive sense, this semi-divine power to select the right.”

Does this remind you of some other president? Perhaps someone in our time?

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63

I recently finished reading Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63. It’s a huge book with more than 900 pages of text plus about 78 pages of notes. It took me a long time to read, but it was worth it. The book is fascinating and Taylor Branch brings the civil rights era to life. I highly recommend it to everyone.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is about the Birmingham protests by children. The use of dogs and firehoses on those children is heart-wrenching. It’s somewhat unreal to read the comments of some leaders of the time feigning concern for black children.

Birmingham’s white leaders scrambled to head off a swell of public sympathy for King by denouncing his use of children. Mayor Boutwell told the city that “irresponsible and unthinking agitators” had made “tools” of children to threaten life and property. “The respectable people of Birmingham, white or colored, did not create this danger,” he declared. “We are not contributing to it. We are innocent victims.” […]Judge Talbot Ellis […] said that those who “misled these kids” into demonstrations “ought to be put under the jail.”

Another interesting bit was the difference in perception between whites and blacks, something that has not been eliminated (though is greatly reduced). It seems from the book that a lot of whites did not understand the conditions blacks lived under. It was as if they had turned a blind eye to the black population.

The role of the press is as usual not the best. They jump for stories when they get big, but then lose all interest after the climax. At times, they don’t understand the fundamental issues at all. It’s like that stupid “objectivity” thing. Here are the questions King and Wilkins (NAACP head) were asked on “Meet the Press” before the March on Washington:

Lawrence Spivak spoke of the numerous authorities who “believe it would be impossible to bring more than 100,000 militant Negroes into Washington without incidents and possibly rioting,” and he asked Wilkins sourly what the country could possibly learn about civil rights that could justify such risks. […] the next panelist promptly asked King three times how the march’s leadership could tolerate Bayard Rustin’s background of subversion and character defects. […] The fourth panelist pressed King to admit that the movement needed to eliminate extremism and “rowdyism,” such as the public booing of Mayor Daley and J. H. Jackson.

Here is King speaking at a mass meeting during the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955:

“And you know, my friends, thhere comes a time,” he cried, “when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.” […] “There comes a time, my friends, when people get tired of being thrown across the abyss of humiliation, where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair,” he declared. “There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life’s July, and left standing amidst the piercing chill of an Alpine November.” […] “We are here —- we are here because we are tired now.”

Here are some excerpts from Martin Luther King’s letter from Birmingham jail replying to some white Alabama clergymen who had written a public letter opposing King’s marches in Birmingham:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant ‘Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you no forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

[…]I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

And here is the text of King’s famous “I have a dream” speech at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963 and click here to listen to an audio version.

Finally, I want to note Kennedy’s hesitant role for civil rights. He was very mindful of politics and of losing support of Southern Whites who were all Democrats and generally in favor of segregation.

Mississippi must wait until I am finished with the second book Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65. That book covers the Freedon Summer of 1964. There is however a lot of material about Mississippi, including the assassination of Medgar Evers, in this book as well. To whet your appetite for civil rights in the worst state of the era, here is a post by Al-Muhajabah.

Book Review: Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam

I finished reading Gilles Kepel’s Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam recently. The author is French with a number of previous works in the area. This book was originally written in French in 2000 and was translated after the September 11 terrorist attacks with small changes incorporating them. The main thesis of Kepel is that the rise of political Islam was the result of the failure of the nationalist, post-colonial governments as well as of changing demographics (a huge increase in the number of urban educated poor youth, for example). He divides the book into two parts: Expansion until the end of the 1980s; and Decline in the 1990s. He considers the September 11 attacks as the acts of desperation of a failing extremist movement.

In spite of what many hasty commentators contended in its immediate aftermath, the attack on the United States was a desperate symbol of the isolation, fragmentation, and decline of the Islamist movement, not a sign of its strength and irrepressible might. The jihadist-salfists who belonged to bin Laden’s mysterious Al Qaeda network imagined themselves as the spark that would ignite the volatile frustration of the disenchanted ones in the Muslim world and stoke a firestorm. They had no patience for the slow building of a movement that would reach out to the masses, mobilize them, and guide them on the path for power.

I think he is mostly right in his opinion, though it is still too early to tell what the effect of Al Qaeda combined with the general anti-Americanism around the world will be.

Kepel discusses political Islam in a class framework: urban poor, devout middle class and the intellectuals. Though it is sometimes a valid way to look at the picture, I don’t think it applies generally to all the cases he discusses. He also describes the repressive measures of the governments, like in Algeria and Egypt, with not even a hint of disapproval. I am a bit disturbed by that.

Regarding the decline of the Islamists, he notices the appeals to democracy and civil and economic rights of political Islamic parties (see, for example, this post of mine).

We should bear all this in mind when we attempt to analyze the new directions taken by those militants and former militants who now, in the name of democracy and human rights, are looking for common ground with the secular middle class. They have put aside the radical ideology of Qutb, Mawdudi, and Khomeini; they consider the jihadist-salafist doctrines developed in the camps of Afghanistan a source of horror, and they celebrate the “democratic essense” of Islam. Islamists defending the tights of the individual stand shoulder to shoulder with secular democrats in confronting repressive and authoritarian governments. Choosing to wear the veil is no longer trumpeted as a sign of respect for an injunction of the sharia but is viewed as an exercise of the human right of individuals to freedom of expression.

[…]Some people viewed this development as a cynical maneuver, like that of the modern communist parties, which used the parlance of democracy now and then, the better to dupe the “useful idiots” they needed to enlarge their baseand their political networks, especially among the intelligentsia. When the Soviet Bloc was still relatively powerful, this stratey produced excellent results, attracting many sincere democrats who were seduced by the messianic aura of the workers’ movement. On the other hand, with the coming of the crisis that was to sweep away the Eastern Bloc and its confederates, these currents of exchange began to favor the defection of communist militants, notably the managers and agents whose democratic contacts offered possibilities of re-conversion in various civil institutions and associations outside party circles.

This was one — but not the only one — of the possible outcomes of a dialogue between the Islamists (now less sure of themselves) and the secular democrats of the Muslim world.

One topic which I might discuss in detail later is Islamic feminism which is becoming quite common among young educated urban religious Muslim women in a number of countries. These women wear the veil of their own accord and consider equal rights for women an important part of their ideas (Al-Muhajabah, have you written anything on the topic?). Here’s what Kepel says:

Paradoxically, the Islamist experience itself has produced some of the conditions that have led to its own obsolescence. In the ranks of veiled female militants demanding the application of the sharia, we see, in many cases, the first generation of women to speak in public outside their homes and beyond their domestic role. In doing this, they have collided with male militants bent on confining these women to a subordinate role in Muslim society. Some women, most notably in Turkey and Iran, have reacted by creating a form of “Islamist feminism” to counter the machismo that prevails in the movement. These protests may represent the first stirrings of tomorrow’s Muslim democracy.

Kepel thinks that democracy is the only solution and I agree.

All this goes against the blinkered vision of those who make the doctrine of Islam itself an obstacle to the implantation of democracy in any of the countries where it is the dominant religion, and also to those who attribute to that doctrine a “democratic essence.” Islam, like any other religion, is a way of life, one that is given its shape and form by Muslim men and women.

[…]Today, as Muslim societies emerge from the Islamist era, it is through openness to the world and to democracy that they will construct their future. There is no longer any real alternative.

[…]But this march to democracy must face an obstacle that has nothing religious about it: the various sovereign states, as well as the elites that rule them, must also be prepared to make their modes of government democratic. […]If these leaders neglected reform and drew immediate, selfish profit from Islamism’s decline, then the Muslim world would very soon face a new crisis — expressed as either Islamist, ethnic, racial, religious, or populist.

And that is one of the reasons I am very happy at the fall of Saddam.

UPDATE: Also see my post about what Kepel has to say about Maudoodi.