Teaching Critical Thinking in the Middle East

Whether a conflict involves enraged spouses or a nation embroiled in sectarian warfare, feuding parties can de-escalate by employing civil discourse and rational argumentation. They can talk and reason empathically, for example. They can call out each other’s logical fallacies and agree to stop using them. They can pinpoint irreconcilable differences, accept them, and negotiate a compromise. But doing so is hard enough in the heat of an emotional exchange; it is much harder under the yoke of a religious dictate, or in an environment where rational argumentation is neither taught nor even available to learn in the local language. There are many such places, and one is Saudi Arabia, according to Omar al-Anazi, a 23-year-old medical student at King Abdelaziz University in the Saudi port city of Jedda. “When people talk to each other here,” he says, “too often they make arguments based on logical fallacies, impossible to resolve. It’s detrimental to the country to leave them that way.” In his view, an “ignorant movement” advanced by extremist clerics, Continue Reading…

A Saudi psychologist on jihadism, clerical elites, and education reform

by Joseph Braude – Clinical psychologist Abdullah al-Garni serves a niche clientele: recovering jihadists. He heads the mental health division at the Mohammed bin Naif Center for Counseling and Advice, a halfway house for members of Al-Qaeda and other groups who have served prison time in Saudi Arabia or at the US Government-run Guantanamo Bay detention facility. The Center aims to persuade its “beneficiaries” to forswear terrorism, then release and reintegrate them into Saudi society. To these ends, a team of Muslim clerics use traditional Islamic legal texts to argue against jihadist ideology, while teachers offer vocational training in other fields. Garni employs psychotherapy techniques to address personal problems which may have played into the violent mindset, and families of the fighters pay visits to ease their homecoming. Claiming a recidivism rate of 12 per cent, Center staff say they hope to create a model which can be exported to the region – and have indeed begun to work with officials in nearby Yemen and the United Arab Emirates in Continue Reading…

US Congressman Eliot Engel on Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria

Here’s the English-language text of my interview with Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel, published in today’s Asharq Alawsat (Arabic) during President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia. (Link here.) Elliot Engel to Asharq Alawsat: Saudi Arabia plays an important role in the region, and it is essential to strengthen relations between Riyadh and Washington The United States Congressman asserted that the Syrian people deserve better, and foreign “jihadists” represent a serious threat to the United States and its allies. Congressman Eliot Engel represents the 16th district of New York, and is the Ranking Member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. An architect of United States sanctions on Iran, he has recently introduced the “Nuclear Iran Prevention Act” with his colleague Ed Royce. The bill would broaden economic sanctions on Tehran, as well as increase oversight and enforcement of existing sanctions, while the negotiations over its nuclear program continue. Though a member of the Democratic party, Engel has been critical of the Middle East policies of the current Democrat-led White House, particularly with Continue Reading…

A Retrospective on US Negotiations with Iran

Last year I had the opportunity to speak with former Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama White House officials, about the history of efforts at diplomacy with the Iranian regime — on behalf of America Abroad, a Public Radio International broadcast.  The United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran have been at loggerheads since 1979, when Iranian revolutionaries held 59 Americans hostage for 444 days. Since that time, successive US presidents have been aware that Iran was pursuing a program to develop nuclear power, and probably nuclear weapons. After September 11, 2001, Iran’s nuclear aspirations took on added urgency for the administration of President George W. Bush, who singled out Iran among three countries which he considered to be the worst global threats in his “Axis of Evil” speech. European leaders, meanwhile, had similar concerns about Iran. They were also deeply engaged with Iran commercially and reluctant to press Iran too hard. In August 2002, attitudes changed sharply with the discovery that Iran was building two underground facilities for use in Continue Reading…

The policeman and the journalist: A Mid-East policy dilemma

by Joseph Braude – The January 2010 assassination in Dubai of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a cofounder of the military wing of Hamas, briefly drew international attention to the man who went on to investigate it: Lt. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, Dubai’s long-serving chief of police. Within a few weeks, he had identified 29 suspected hit-squad members, issued international warrants for their arrest, and released their photographs to the public—along with video footage of their movements before and after the killing. Pinning responsibility for the operation on Israel’s Mossad, Tamim also called for the arrest of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mossad chief Meir Dagan. Tamim became a folk hero in the Arab world for publicly embarrassing the Mossad—which is why many Arabs were surprised, a year and a half later, to see Tamim declare that he would not hesitate to relay intelligence to Israel to help thwart terror attacks on its soil. In a September 2011 interview on Al Jazeera, he told a reporter, “Rest assured: If I know that a Continue Reading…

Joseph Braude on Reuven Snir’s ‘Baghdad – The City in Verse’

by Joseph Braude – An Arabic poem about Baghdad, like a Hebrew poem about Jerusalem, inevitably evokes the collective memory that binds the place, the language, and its people together. Iraq’s 1,251-year-old capital was built by a Muslim empire that held the torch of civilization in the eighth and ninth centuries. In the thirteenth century it was sacked by Mongol invaders who, according to legend, made the river Tigris flow red with blood and blue with the ink of books from the city’s great libraries. It was resurrected in the twentieth century by modern state builders who made it a capital of tolerance, prosperity, and Arab nationalism—only to be ruined again by a dictator and his wars and further destabilized by American occupation. A vigorous yet densely complex poetic tradition has traced popular memories of this tumultuous history, and a small portion of that literature can be found in Baghdad: The City in Verse, a sleek and informative volume edited by Reuven Snir, a professor of Arabic literature and dean Continue Reading…

Radio Beijing in the Middle East

by Joseph Braude – Ratings matter to commercial radio and television because the size of the audience determines the price of sponsors’ airtime. But should they also matter to government-backed foreign broadcasts, which do not sell ads? In Washington, the Arabic-language television network Alhurra and its sister radio channel, Sawa, receive funding from the U.S. Congress to present America to the Arab world. They publish an annual performance review that quantifies success largely in terms of “audience weekly reach,” now estimated at 35.5 million. Their data comes from corporate research by the Gallup Organization and analysis from firms such as Nielsen, which tracks everything from Sunday Night Football viewership to how many Americans play video games. These survey companies would presumably be unimpressed, for example, by government-backed offerings out of Beijing like the 45-minute documentary about the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius, which aired late last year on the Arabic service of Chinese Radio International. Perhaps a mere 5,000 listeners tuned in online via the CRI Web site, alongside however many Continue Reading…

The Muslim Brotherhood and the Gulf

by Joseph Braude Over the past year, the government of the United Arab Emirates has arrested more than 94 alleged Muslim Brotherhood activists on charges of plotting to topple the state. Prosecutors say the group has engaged in money laundering, underground recruitment and brainwashing of young members, and that it established a military wing for a campaign of terrorism against the country. Alongside its domestic crackdown, the UAE government also engaged in an international war of words with the Brotherhood. Emirati foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan called it “an organization that encroaches on the sovereignty and integrity of nations.” Dahi Khalfan Tamim, the police chief of the emirate of Dubai, called the Brotherhood a “grave danger to Gulf security” and claimed that the movement plans to “seize power in all the Gulf states by 2016.” Then, on July 2, the Abu Dhabi court convicted 69 of the suspects and sentenced them to prison. Many voices in the West reacted to the UAE’s campaign with skepticism and concern. Following the initial Continue Reading…

Korean Voices Make Waves on Arabic Radio

by Joseph Braude As a child at home in the United States, I used to listen to broadcasts from faraway places via short wave radio, the transmission typically uneven and full of static. Today those distant voices come in clear as a bell, via streaming audio on any smartphone. Late the other night I was surfing Arabic radio stations, from Baghdad to Algiers, and by chance heard two women speaking the language impeccably — but with a peculiar accent. “Dear listeners,” one of them said, “how did you spend your day?” “Every new day gives us new hopes and aspirations,” said the other. I listened awhile, and eventually heard a haunting oriental melody and a man’s voice say, “From the Korean capital Seoul, we meet again over the airwaves — coming together in love, in goodness, and in hope.” It turned out to be the Arabic service of the South Korean government’s “Korean Broadcasting System.” Top-of-the-hour news detailed the country’s military preparations to face its saber-rattling neighbor to the north, and a visit to Continue Reading…

Making Waves

by Joseph Braude – Sunday night for me is always Moroccan radio night. From a home office in Brooklyn surrounded by echo-absorbing foam, I write a commentary in Arabic about the week in Arab politics and then read it into a microphone. Next, I upload the sound file to a studio in Casablanca, where a producer adds the theme song, and it airs the following day to an audience of 1.75 million under the title Risalat New York—“Letter from New York.” My show has the distinction of being the only radio program hosted by a Jew on Arab airwaves that doesn’t originate in Israel. But more than three years after the broadcast debuted, my Muslim audience now finds it ordinary, rather than aberrant, to hear a Jewish voice opine on Arab affairs in their mother tongue. In numerous Arab countries, such a situation would be revolutionary—but in Morocco, where the leadership has proactively nurtured Muslim-Jewish understanding for years, it’s merely one step forward among many. Given that the listenership has begun Continue Reading…