Pachyderm madrasa

Anyone interested in learning about Islam need look no further than the fountainheads of Semitic history (and by Semitic, I mean Semitic) that populate my party's current 10-ring presidential circus. A perfect example is last week's primary debate, held at the Ronald Reagan Library in California.

I am frankly amazed at the extent to which Arabic and Islamic vocabulary has been imported into the Republican lexicon, though not surprised at the misapplication of the terminology (fyi - madrasa means "school", quite literally), and naturally disheartened by the lack of outreach to the Arab-American community whose advice would make these talking points far more impactful, not to mention accurate. But who needs us when you've got neoconservative think tanks, so noted for hiring staff with conservative credentials and demonstrated commitment to the Republican Party? (continued...)

The most bizarre quote of the debate belongs to Tom "take out their holy sites" Tancredo, whose bumbling performance was by far the least polished. Responding to a question about whether or not he would help an Israeli effort to bomb Iran, he said:
"There are two kinds of Irans that we are going to have to deal with here: one headed by a gentleman who believes that he is going to be responsible for the coming of the 12th imam and a guy with a bomb, that should put us in the position of saying that anything we can do to stop that is imperative."
The 12th imam, wow. Tancredo is a good talib and gets extra credit. He refers to the Shiite belief that the mahdi (the 12th imam) will emerge from nearly 12 centuries of hiding just before the Day of Judgement, a belief that Ahmadinejad holds in great esteem.

Dazzled as I am by Tancredo's citation, it remains unclear to me exactly what he meant to say - is he suggesting that the United States has to do anything to prevent Shiite Islamic beliefs from influencing the form of government in Iran or who gets elected there? That in and of itself is really not our business - it reflects the reality of Iranian culture and religion that American political, economic, diplomatic, and military tools are not going to change, whether we like it or not. [insert standard "monsters to destroy" argument here]

As far as the "guy with the bomb" is concerned, which "guy" is Tancredo talking about? I do share the same reservations and distaste for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but he is not the "guy with the bomb". Tempting as it is to refer to him as a dictator, and as appealing as that might be in a Republican primary, Iran's political balance of power is unfortunately more complicated than a debate-ready sound byte can contain. Short answer: constitutionally speaking, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, only the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, can declare war and take military action, not President Ahmadinejad. Stopping this from happening, as well as the advent of a nuclear Iran, will require more than minor presidential candidates showing off Islamic vocabulary in an attempt to stand out in a 10-man debate.

Then there was Mitt Romney, who must be a karaoke superstar judging by his expertise in memorizing the "lyrics" from his website, listed in the issues section under the title "Defeating the Jihadists":
"The jihadists are waging a global war against the United States and Western governments generally with the ambition of replacing legitimate governments with a caliphate."
Compare that to the debate, in which he said:
"This is about Shia and Sunni. This is about Hezbollah and Hamas and Al Qaida and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is a worldwide jihadist effort to try and cause the collapse of all moderate Islamic governments and replace them with a caliphate. They ultimately want to bring down the United States of America."
Frankly, I do admire Romney's consistency, it shows professionalism - some candidates don't even know what talking points their campaigns communicate. However, I'd like to hear Romney's view on the fact that democratic elections in the Middle East in the past few years have quite legally, and under US-sanctioned balloting, increased the political clout of Hezbollah (Lebanon), Hamas (Palestine), and the Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt).

As far as caliphates go, I think the use of this term is rather melodramatic on Romney's part - the average Republican voter is already convinced that "Islamofascists" want to take over the world and thus no display no emotional resistance to that concept. Putting his message in the historical context of the caliphs will therefore add little value to its appeal with the target audience, other than to obscure the impact with alien vocabulary.

Rudy Giuliani was reasonably steady when asked to explain the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite:
"The difference is the descendant of Mohammed. The Sunnis believe that Mohammed -- the caliphate should be selected, and the Shiites believe that it should be by descent. And then of course there was a slaughter of Shiites in the early part of the history of Islam, and it has infected a lot of the history of Islam, which is really very unfortunate."
Giuliani refers to the death of Hussein, the son of Ali (from whom is drawn the line of descent mentioned by Giuliani), commemorated in the holiday of Ashoura (which is marked in the Senegalese tamkharit by crossdressing on the holiday's eve). Giuliani's answer was considerably better informed than Congresswoman Jo Ann Davis, a Virginia Republican who heads a House intelligence subcommittee that oversees the C.I.A.'s performance in recruiting Muslim spies. Her answer to the Giuliani question:
"Do I...You know, I should...It's a difference in their fundamental religious beliefs. The Sunni are more radical than the Shia. Or vice versa."
President Bush was less divisive when pontificating about Sunnis and Shiites in this year's State of the Union address:
"The Shia and Sunni extremists are different faces of the same totalitarian threat. Whatever slogans they chant, when they slaughter the innocent they have the same wicked purposes. They want to kill Americans, kill democracy in the Middle East, and gain the weapons to kill on an even more horrific scale."
Yes to 1 and 3, these extremists do want to kill Americans and gain weapons, but as demonstrated, Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood don't want to kill democracy in the Middle East, they want to use democracy in the Middle East to legitimize their objectives. When are my fellow Republicans going to realize this?

On the other hand, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback wins the "compassionate conservative" (whatever that means) award for the evening, for recognizing the existence of so-called "moderate Muslim regimes".

"I think you have to remember that while we're in a war on terrorism, there are a number of people that are with us, that work with us around the world, and also in the Islamic world. We're partnering with a number of moderate Muslim regimes.

And that's something I think we need to convey into the Muslim world as well, that these are groups -- the Al Qaida group, the militant Islamic fascists -- they're trying to unseat moderate Muslim regimes. And I think we need to engage those regimes -- regimes in Pakistan, regimes in Egypt -- as long as we also confront those regimes, like in Iran, that are the lead."

I wonder how Brownback and his colleagues would view a secular regime that felt a threat from Islamic fundamentalists, and responded by killing 20,000+ people, some of them potential sympathizers.

On that note, one of the candidates who has advocated engaging "Syria and Iran", former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, made hay by connecting terrorist ideology with the pro-life movement:
"This life issue is not insignificant. It's not small. It separates us from the Islamic fascists who would strap a bomb to the belly of their child and blow them up. We don't do that in this country."
Certainly, there does exist a "culture of death" within the Islamic World that needs to be increasingly tackled from within by religious leaders on proper Islamic grounds which forbid suicide under any circumstances. Syria's Grand Mufti Ahmad Hassoun, for example, has publicly condemned "honor killings" and called them "unislamic". On the other hand, some Muslims advance the argument that suicide bombing is not suicide and is therefore justified, which is ludicrous.

Critics of Huckabee's statement would say that school shootings like the recent one at Virginia Tech demonstrate America's own "culture of death" and therefore we have no right to pass judgement. I do not think that the two are comparable. In the Middle East, suicide bombers are glorified in propaganda as "martyrs", or shaheed - whether or not this matches the actual sentiments of the people is open to debate. Our media coverage of the school shootings, by comparison, sensationalizes these murders and their disaffected sociopathic perpetrators in a different and only slightly less repugnant way. I personally find it disgusting how Cho Seung-Hui was treated to front-page coverage (in The Record, for example), with a huge photo of him holding 2 guns under the caption: "I did it. I had to do it." In our society, however, sorrow for the victims far outweighs sympathy for the killer.

Finally, Guiliani closed out the circus:
"In the 1990s, we were on defense in dealing with Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. When you had this debate last week and all the Democrats were up here, I never remember the words 'Islamic fundamentalist terrorism' being spoken by any of them. And I heard it a lot tonight."
Let me be clear, this threat is real and we need to deal with it. Arab-Americans need to deal with it. As patriotic citizens, we need to help elected officials deal with it.

But campaign talk is cheap. It does not inspire me with confidence when my party's candidates flatter themselves by peppering their vocabulary with the words jihadist, caliphate, etc. and memorize Daniel Pipes' talking points, but then employ the knowledge they have gained in a simplistic fashion merely to pander to a a Republican base largely fearful of Islam, whose introduction to that religion was unfortunately made on September 11, 2001.

In future debates, I would be interested to hear each Republican hopeful respond the question:
"One of the components of the wider War on Terror is a battle within Islam between moderate and extremist elements. Given that, can each candidate say whether or not he has any American Muslims working in his campaign, and whether he would continue President Bush's 'public diplomacy' effort to increase dialogue between the United States and the Islamic World?"