Tuesday, April 26, 2016
In God's Path The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire Robert G. Hoyland
In an effort to greater understand the history of Islam and the Middle East, I worked through several books and concluded with some of the most recent books on Islamic reform and the rise of ISIS (many reviews forthcoming). In God's Path most closely resembles Tom Holland's In the Shadow of the Sword as well as the first half of Tamim Ansary's Destiny Disrupted. I've also read Reza Aslan's The Origins and Future of Islam, but Aslan crafts his story far too selectively from history in the years this book covers. Other books that assisted my understanding of this book are Albert Rouhani's History of the Arab Peoples, the surprisingly helpful Islam: A Very Short Introduction by Ruthven, The Koran: A Very Short Introduction by Cook, The Cambridge History of Turkey Vol. 1, and Justinian's Flea for the immediately preceding context up to 565 AD. I also used to live in Azerbaijan which was at an important geographic crossroads of much of the history in this book.
In God's Path is a lightning read, as it is a amazing how quickly nomadic tribes from the Middle East were able to subdue so many lands and peoples in just a couple centuries' time. Hoyland embraces the challenge of examining the scant literary evidence from the time period of 600-800 AD that Islam fanned out across the globe. He gives credence to 7th and 8th century sources as opposed to earlier texts, irregardless of their religious source. Christian texts of the period writing fearfully of Islamic invaders (ie: biased) still have value in dating events into a timeline. Hoyland does not focus much on religious development, except toward the end when Muslims began to write down and codify Islam. Instead he focuses on the battles and the characteristics of the tribal organizations that allowed for the most rapid expansion of an empire since Alexander the Great.
Beginning in the 630s, Hoyland examines the context in which Muhammed the Prophet arose. The Persian Empire had dreams of success over the collapsing Byzantine empire after the time and treaties of Justinian in the 550s. Plague and division had greatly weakened the Byzantine Empire. From 602-628 the Sassanids had pushed back in the Levant and Anatolia, forcing a seige of Constantinople in 626 before Turks in the area actually helped defend the area from the Persian-Avar attack in 627. A Byzantine resurgence and Sassanid civil strife eventually pushed the Sassanids out of their territories in Persia and Jerusalem. The Sassanids were in a weakened state to face a new threat of united tribes of Arab warriors.
The first period is the time before 600 to 640. The author points out that contrary to sterotype, Arabs are/were not all monolithically nomads, some controlled and inhabited cities alongside other peoples, like Jews. There were already a lot of battles around 610 AD between Arab tribes and Persians, Muhammed's own tribe was only one of many attacking Sassanids in both Persia and the west around 625-630, though the details are "lost to history." Muhammed's rise is dealt with rather quickly. He is opposed at Mecca in 622, the beginning of the Islamic calendar, forms an army in Medina, takes Mecca through both battle and marriage, uniting tribes into an impressive force capable of subduing other tribes of Arabic speakers and leading them to conquest. After Muhammed's death, the conquest of Palestine continued under the Rashidun Caliphate, for which Abu Bakr had laid down rules of war from Muhammed's teaching. Actual historical details of battles are not many, but in the 634 Battle of Ajnadayn, Muslim warriors from many united-but-rivalrous tribes outfought Byzantines. A monk in Jerusalem in 634 is recorded as calling for repentance in his city because the "Saracens," the Greco-Roman term for Arabs, were ravaging the area. In 636, the Rashidun Caliph's army defeated the Sassanids at Basra. There were definitely raids, if not battles, throughout Arabia. In 636, perhaps weakened by plague and doubtless out-generaled, the Byzantine force lost the Battle of Yarmouk, and with it Palestine and the Levant, a major blow. Syria, Damascus, and Antioch were written off by the retreating Byzantines. Gaza and Palestine eventually became fully occupied in 637. Historic accounts of the 636-637 seige of Jerusalem by Caliph Umar's forces are "murky." The Byzantines apparently surrendered without a fight. Jews had been both slaughtered and marginalized by the Byzantines, so some welcomed the Arab forces as liberators, as did some Christians-- who increasingly joined the Muslim conquerers for various reasons. Muslims granted freedom to Jews and Christians to practice, although there were varieties to policies in various territories depending on who was in charge fo the area. Conversian was often optional, and large populations of ethnic Christians were left alone provided they did not pose a threat. Later 9th century Muslim scholars adopted a view of spreading Islam by uniting all Arabs under Islam, but in the 7th century there was quite a bit of variety and not everyone in the marauding armies was Muslim.
The next major period is 640-652 AD. In 643, the Christian John of Nikiu chronicled conquest of Egypt by Amr ibn al-Aas, which took only two years. John apparently wrote that the Muslims were harsh on the populace, particular with taxation, but left churches and church property untouched. (His is a chronicle I'd like to read.) Like other Christian writers of the time, John saw the Muslim conquests as God's judgement on apostate Christians (his church itself was considered un-orthodox after the Council of Chalcedon).
Hoyland then quickly moves to the conquest of Libya and then Iran. Iran had claims on the Caucauses lands since 428 AD, but the Arab tribes moved quickly. (Today, the peoples of the North Caucases are largely Sunni whereas Azerbaijan itself is Shi'ia from later Persian occupation of the land south of the mountains.) In 640, the Arabs had invaded Armenia and were able to set up a buffer zone with Byzantium in Anatolia. History records that the choices facing non-Muslims were not "just submit or be killed in battle" but that a wide range of remedies were applied, the Arab conquerers were often outnumbered by Christians and others, after all. Some were given deals exempting them from taxes upon conversion, which led to quite a few converts-- and quite a few angry converts when those privileges were later taken away once the conquest had roughly ended and the focus switched to governing. Christians still made up the majority in Damascus, its walls were left intact. Many simply thought the Arabic occupation was a thing that would quickly pass at any rate.
While Hoyland does not go into nearly as much detail and speculation as does Holland, he does note that "the Arabic 'Bismillah' is an exact translation of the Greek en onomati tou theou ("in the name of God", p. 101). He notes a papyrus written in Greek and Arabic from 643 AD, the first document we have written in Arabic, which adopts many Greek terms and cutural forms of the area (some of which also come from Syriac). This suggests that there was already a similar Arabic "administrative tradition" as was found in Byzantine areas and that there was already a familiarity among both the conquered and the conquerers in culture, administration, and religion, such as that it may not have been a radically big deal for these groups to be under Arab control. Hoyland writes that we should refer to the conquerers as "muhajirun," whose message was "to conquer and settle" which was part of the appealing message for their recruits (p. 102).
Chapter 4 covers 652 to 685, beginning with the movement toward Constaninople. An Arab fleet sent to blockade the Bosphorous was "miraculously" (to the inhabitants) wiped out by a storm in 654. The Arabs were later able to blockade Constantinople from 668-669. Meanwhile, Arab differences resulted in civil war, allowing Christians a chance to regroup; Armenia restored its ties with Byzantium in 656. From 656-661, there was the first "Arab civil war" (chronicled well by Holland) which resulted in the Umayyads supplanting the Rashidun caliphs. There was increasing debate about who had the right of succession. Arab conquests had reached into what is now Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. Hasan ibn Ali submitted to the Ummayads to keep the peace.
Chapter 5, "The Great Leap Forward," covers the Berber-Arab conquest of Spain and an increasing shift toward actual governance circa 685-715. Caliph Abd Al-Malik is credited with the minting the shahada onto coins. Arabs were outnumbered 100 to one in non-Arab territories, so Islam and Arab cultured tended to be absorbed over time, with syncretism common in territories like the Caucasus. The line between ethnic and cultural Arabs became quite blurred. Hoyland writes that conversion became more common in Al-Malik's reign, and the Arab practice of enslavement encouraged conversion to gain more favorable treatment and potential freedom. At the frontiers of the Islamic state, deals were increasingly worked out which encouraged syncretism in order to get local subjugation.
In 703, Armenians revolted against the Arabs in what is now Naxchivan, and between 715-730 there was further "retrenchment and revolt." There is very little about Arab battle tactics or technology during this period and in 732 Arabs gained full control over what is now Azerbaijan. Armenia and Georgia were largely left alone and maintained their Christian heritage, whereas (Caucasian) Albania was not and did not. As the Arabs increased codification of Islam, the practice of Islam as the state religion became codified and minority religions were held protected but subservient. Alms-giving became mandatory around 730 AD. Arab Muslims, interestingly, paid lower taxes than non-Arabs but all were taxed. Initially, exemption from poll taxes encouraged local converts, but when fiscal needs led to repeal of this exemption the local populations across the territory would revolt.
We may often forget that there was no organized clergy or system of religion yet in the 8th century, most people who were writing down sayings of Muhammad or chronicling events were amateurs with other jobs. But Arabic becoming the new lingua-franca uniting the region from North Africa to the Central Asian steppe led to the intellectual boom in the 9th century as trade increased and Greek works were quickly translated into Arabic and disseminated. There were distinct differences between "Gentile Islam" and Arab Islam. While some aspects of codified Islamic law were already present early on, in many cases some local laws were incorporated. Some laws which were rejected were later claimed to have been explicitly rejected by Muhammed. The early civil wars were covered over by later Islamic history, and later scholars overrode the earlier. Only the Caliph ruling from 632-660 had the ability to truly legislate, after that the canon was closed.
The author concludes with thoughts on the success of the spread of the Islam empire, crediting it ultimately with the recruitment of nomads under one central ruler that made it effective. (My own thoughts): In that sense, it is no different than the Mongol invasions from the East-- a centralized command structure over a highly mobile force encountering other tribes and people who were weakened by divisions and plague, and in some cases eager to cast off the yoke of their current rulers. Perhaps unlike the Mongols, Arabs allowed for some tolerance and self-governance, and actually focused on building in place rather than simply extracting resources. It was only later when exclusive and extractive institutions were built, leading to the inevitable decline of the empire. Other books in the list at the top of this post deal more with the decline and psychological effects, Hoylands work deals purely with the rapid expansion. A solid four-star work.
Thursday, April 21, 2016
A History of the Middle East by Peter Mansfield (1991)
One critic has suggested the book "be re-named as A Western History of the Middle East" but I would suggest perhaps "A Political History of the Middle East." It is definitely the view from 10,000 feet, focusing mostly on political maneuvering and power struggles. This makes sense given that Mansfield wrote for papers like The Economist and the Financial Times in the mid-20th century; the majority of the book is devoted to the 20th century. Mansfield largely sets aside theology, almost ignoring any role it may play in dividing relations between Iran and the Saudis, for example. Why are Shia largely repressed and marginalized in Saudi Arabia while Sunnis and Kurds face difficulties in Iran? He devotes a few paragraphs on major Shia-Sunni differences, but only after he reaches the end of the 19th century. What are Alawites, Druze, Coptics? What is the interplay of Lebanese Christians alongside Palestinian Arab refugees and Shia militia? This level of detail is not really found. Given his financial journalistic background you would think he would have included more details on demographics, economic growth, and other such aspects of the Middle East but these are also largely left out.
Tamim Ansary's Destiny Disrupted is a world history through the eyes of Islam, which is a decent book to read in contrast to this work, and is much more detailed in terms of religion and culture. Other books that I read prior to this include Albert Hourani's History of the Arab Peoples, The Cambridge History of Turkey vol. 1 and 2, Paul Johnson's History of the Jews, Anderson's Lawrence in Arabia, Kissinger's World Order, Kinzer's Reset (on relations between Turkey, Iran, and the US), and Salim Yuqub's Great Courses lecture series on The United States and the Middle East from 1914-2001. Yaroslav Trofimov's The Seige of Mecca is also an important work on events in 1979 that have much to do with 2016. All of these provide details that Mansfield book does not, but I find Mansfield largely hits the high points and gives a good overview of life until 1991.
One major weakness of this book is that Mansfield dismisses the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood (1960s) and events such as the attack on The Grand Mosque in 1979 by a multiethnic group of Wahabbists as simply dead-enders showing they have nothing large to offer the larger populace and being henceforth rejected and never of any real significance. He writes in the closing chapter that Saddam Hussein proved "Arab nationalism and Islam cannot be mutually exclusive," citing Saddam's ability to muster Arab support for his "jihad" against Iran. His view from 1991 was that oil prices would again rise and the Middle East would again "be important" as its dictators again had oil riches and complaints. As a result, the reader might imagine that the US would end up returning to Iraq to face off against Saddam one day, and that Saudi Arabia and Iran would fight proxy wars someplace like Yemen, but you would not imagine that Saudi-inspired terrorists were already plotting attacks against the US even as this book went to publication or that by 2016 there would be an international war in several countries battling violent Islamists that showed a remarkable ability to recruit internationally by the tens of thousands. (It is similar to the mistake US policymakers and diplomats made in not properly seeing the undercurrents before the Iranian Revolution and being surprised as it unfolded. Even that episode is treated rather politically, Mansfield doesn't bother explaining that Iranians were outraged that the Shah went to America for treatment--an act they saw as an intentional harboring of the puppet.) That is the danger of pulling religion/theology and the underlying values and culture out of a book that aims to be a sweeping history.
The author begins with a rapid run from about 0 BCE to the founding of the Ottoman caliphate. On one hand, it is nice that he does not look at the region in previous times but focuses on the period when the Arabs developed. There is little information available from around the time of Muhammed and rather than speculate, he just speeds forward. On the other hand, many events around the time of Mohammed are important and provide context both to the formation and spread of Islam as well as modern-day struggles (see Tom Holland's The Shadow of the Sword). Mansfield then gives a decent overview of Ottoman life and policy, highlighting various aspects of the long decline. In 1497, the Portugese bypass the Cape of Good Hope and the New World takes away the monopoly the Ottomans had on trade and the Western economy. Rather than innovate in the face of competition, the structures of the empire impeded progress and as it declined economically the idea of the Caliphate was revived in order to push its influence over Islam in its territories.
There was an ongoing struggle between the Sultan and Mohammed Ali of Egypt which the British and French were able to exploit, as well as the rise of Mohammed Ali's son, Ibrahim Pasha, who invaded and occupied Syria in 1831. In the midst of this came various Western missionaries who built schools, hospitals, and brought Western ideas (I recommend American missionary Roger Goodell's work on his stay in Beirut during this period) as well as mass-printed books. (It was not until the late 1800s that the Ottomans allowed the Koran to be printed and the printing press was not used widely in the Ottoman Empire.) The 1838 Anglo-Turko treaty and an increasing amount of Russian meddling in the "Holy Land" eventually led to the Crimean War. During this period, young Turks were finally allowed to travel abroad and study in Western schools; they returned with bold ideas for reform and democracy. The Young Turks pushed constitutional reform on Abdul Hamid II in 1876 only to later see counter-reforms and a strengthening of the autocracy two years later.
According to Mansfield, Armenian revolutionary movements aiming for independence grew during the late 1800s. The slaughter of many in Eastern Anatolia was reciprocated by an Armenian terrorist attack in Istanbul, followed by a further pogrom of Armenians from that city. In Egypt there were likewise nationalist movements aiming at self-determination. There was an open Britain-France-Nationalist-Ottoman struggle for Egypt which eventually led to British occupation because the Suez was too important to fall into enemy hands. Mansfield also mentions the ongoing struggle between Sudan and Egypt, a point of contention between Egypt and Britain.
In the 1890s, the Ottoman Empire could not stand long against the Young Turks in Istanbul or the growing Arab nationalism in its territories. Places like Lebanon, inhabited by both Western Christian missionaries, Druze, and others with more ideas of democratic capitalism, the Sultan's stifling grip on either ideas or commerce began to chafe. Hamid brought Hussein and the Hashemites to Istanbul as part of the court in an effort to keep his friends close but his enemies closer. After he pivoted toward Germany for aid and the construction of railroads, the Young Turks managed to overthrow Abdul Hamid in 1908, only to see the further slaughter of Armenians in a conservative counter-coup. Nonetheless, the Young Turks restored the constitution and its reforms, particularly for women's rights and education.
After Mansfield briefly describes the major differences between Sunni and Shia Islam, he explores the history of the Safavid Dynasty of Persia and the development of unique Persian/Iranian nationalism. One of the founders of the Pan-Islamist movement of the late 1800s was Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani was invited to Iran by Shah Nasser ad-Din where his popular preaching calling for reforms, resistance to Western influence and a return to Islamic principles, caused the Shah to eventually deport him in 1891. As elsewhere across the Middle East there was a growing movement against Western colonialism, and al-Afghani's disciples would eventually oppose British exploitation of Iran's oil resources.
Once the time line goes to World War I, the British outrage many in the Middle East with the Balfour Declaration and the eventual resettlement of Jews into Palestine under a British Mandate. There is a good explanation of how the mandate worked along with the chronicling of the Arab rejection of various offers for a divided state and the fraught immigration of Jews into an increasingly dangerous Palestine. The rivalry for power and independence in the Levant is well-documented in Anderson's Lawrence in Arabia and other works. The Hashemites versus the French, Ibn Saud, and others. Early on in the 1900s there was not a notion of an Arab nation-state or states in the Middle East, but there was clearly a strong pan-Arab, pan-Islamic tide through which various tribal powers appealed to a common base against Western influences.
Ibn Saud forges his still-so-consequential alliance with ibn Al-Wahhab and Reza Shah taks the throne in Iran and both Saudi Arabia and Iran enjoy selling oil to Western markets and rivalry with one another. In Egypt there is the education of Abdul Nasser and an increase in nationalism. Kemal Atatürk remakes Turkey into a secular democracy while the author really misses Reza Shah's envy of the secular aspect of Atatürk's country as he pays a visit (see Kinzer's work for this subject). WWII simply delays the inevitible as eventually Nasser and Sadat succeed in overthrowing their British yoke in 1952. The British and Americans made sure not to allow Iran slip out of their influence by overthrowing Mohammed Mosaddegh in 1953. Iraq's nationalist generals cooperated with Germany to move toward independence, but Allied victory in WWII maintained it in the British camp until a 1958 coup installed a monarch who dissolved the Baghdad Pact. Eventually Egypt tries a pan-Arab union with Syria, but Mansfield writes that the bourgeois opposed Nasser's strong socialism and the alliance collapses into Nasser-Baathist rivalry, a Syrian-Iraqi union at Nasser's expense. Meanwhile, Faizal creates a conservative Islamic front in Saudi Arabia against Nasser. The French and British basically withdraw from the Middle East and Northern Africa.
Eventually, America stops viewing anyone who is not in the pro-America camp as a communist; Kennedy embraces Nasser and Johnson continues the support. The incredible defeat of allied Arab forces against Israel in 1967 have wide repercussions, along with ending Nasser's rule and creating more political squabbling among the Arab states. Anwar Sadat tries to get the US to take Egypt more seriously and starts the Yom Kippur war, leading to greater Israeli insecurity and a more hawkish attitude toward the Arabs, particularly in the form of making ties with US politicians. In the 1960s-1970s, everything seems to center around oil. The Saudis have five-year plans for infrastructure and use oil funds to eventually mount a joint effort to build Dubai. OPEC becomes the household word in the West. Jimmy Carter's foreign policy is humiliated by the overthrow of the Shah, which eventually leads to US engagement in the Iran-Iraq war as the Saudis increasingly have to balance the domestic pressures of a growing Salafist movement opposed to the House of Saud with proxy struggles with Iran. Mansfield essentially dismisses the conservative Islamist seige of Mecca in 1979 as the last gasp of the conservative religious movement on the road to greater secularization.
Mansfield cruises through the 1980s, ultimately building up to the 1991 Gulf War, the results of which were not complete by the time the book was published. Saddam had both gathered Arab sympathies in his war with Iran and tried to boost his credibility as a force to be reckoned with by "retaking" Kuwait, perhaps this is similar in Mansfield's eyes as Sadat's attempt to get Western attention via the Yom Kippur War. He speculates on what would happen if the USSR breaks up-- the Middle East and central Asia would likely grow closer due to its pan-Islamic ties, and Turkey would also be involved due to the pan-Turkic relationship. But Turkey looks to be moving more westward than eastward in 1991.
"The Middle East will not be ignored," concludes the author as he forecasts a return of oil prices closer to pre-1980s levels and a return to power of the monarchs and dictators that rule the region in a great rivalry. In all, I give it 3.5 stars out of 5. There is no ancient history, little treatment of the ethnic histories and religious undertones that clearly mean so much today, no understanding of the demands of jihadi fighters returning from Afghanistan, and no imagination that the pan-Islamism we would see just two decades later was one united in a violent struggle not just among Sunnis and Shias but also between Sunni powers.
Friday, April 15, 2016
It's been a while since I've done one of these. This week there were three podcasts that were very much "me," so I want to chronicle/share them below.
1. I consider David Beckworth and Scott Sumner to be "mentors" in how I think about macroeconomics, particularly monetary policy. Team NGDP level target, FTW. Beckworth, who is on faculty at Western Kentucky, now has a new Macro Musing podcast hosted by Mercatus (George Mason Univ.) and his first interview is with Scott Sumner. If you want to know my economic worldview, listen to this podcast.
2. Tim Keller is also a "mentor" in my Christian faith. He's one of the best authors and proponents of a proper theology of work out there. If you want to know what I believe about the role of a Christian in fulfilling the cultural mandate and why I reject the "If you were really sold out for Jesus you'd enter full-time vocational ministry" criticism as bad theology, I encourage you to listen to this sermon-- let him convince you. On Faith and Work (from his RISE series).
3. Andrew Wilson is a "writer and elder at King's Church in Eastbourne, England" who I was unfamiliar with before hearing him interviewed on The Village Church's podcast. He recently published a book with his wife about dealing with the surprise ups and downs of having two autistic children. He gets to that in the second half of the interview and it's quite good. Listen and enjoy. I will soon own his book.
Sunday, April 03, 2016
Trump: The Art of the Deal
I read this book after reading D'Antonio's biography of Trump; which I recommend reading prior to reading anything written by Trump himself for better context. The Art of the Deal was written in 1987 and it helps to know the context for the events in it, and leading up to it. I have been completing books by all the major candidates. This work is slightly better than Marco Rubio's American Son. Whereas 95% of Rubio's book is about his family and emotions, only about 5% of Trump's book is that. 95% covers his business dealings, political wrangling, and various enemies. Both Rubio's autobiography and this work, Trump's first, are pretty dry. This is a 1.5 star book, I would avoid it unless you really enjoy New York real estate. Look at the pictures pages; mostly buildings and a few of who Trump has rubbed elbows with. If none of those excite you, then put the book down. Mafia, undocumented workers, and other finer points also don't get mentioned here, so if you're looking for exciting angles like that you'll be disappointed.
Trump says up front "I don't do it for the money...I do it to do it...I like making deals, preferably big deals. That's how I get my kicks" (p. 10). Trump is essentially one of the world's biggest real estate agents. He reaches out to people when he gets wind they might be down on their luck and ready to sell their property cheaply. He knows how to market property he's looking to offload to the right people. He gets lucky along the way, having missed some of the market downturns. This book contains only a couple of hints of financial difficulties, when he suddenly shuts down a hotel or offloads a property-- you have to ask "But a few pages ago, he seemed confident he could manage this property?" Casinos were a relatively new venture for Trump then, and in the boom years of the mid-80's, he was making money on them; you don't read about later problems (except his battle with Holiday Inns) or bankruptcies in this work. Back then, Television City and building the world's tallest building were soon-to-be-realities in Trump's mind, not boondoggles that never worked out in today's hindsight. Along the way, the unfortunate, gullible, green, or otherwise foolish people who Trump gets the better of get a little bit of shame or ridicule, but this book is more politely worded than Trump's rhetoric in 2016.
If you want his philosophies in negotiation and deal-making, there really is only one chapter (two). The first chapter is nauseating in walking through a week of Trump's activities in 15-minute blocks, every phone call, every meeting, every idea. It's all about dropping names and showing his confidence. Unlike Rubio's books, these early details are actually useful-- the phone calls are often on deals that are resolved and explained elsewhere in the book.
"To me it’s very simple: if you’re going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big. Most people think small, because most people are afraid of success, afraid of making decisions, afraid of winning" (p. 41). Interestingly, he links this to discovering what he thinks is Jimmy Carter's ability to become President. Carter asks Trump for an enormous $5 million donation for his library; few people have made a more audacious request than Trump himself. Carter became President by going for it, and later was shown to be a disaster. Trump credits Reagan's success to the same audacity-- he speaks with confidence so the American people are assured, "only now, nearly seven years later, are people beginning to question whether there’s anything beneath that smile" (p. 50). (Trump's criticism in the book of trade policy with Japan is another less-than-veiled criticism of the Reagan administration.)
"I always go into the deal anticipating the worst. If you plan for the worst—if you can live with the worst—the good will always take care of itself. In addition, once I’ve made a deal, I always come up with at least a half dozen approaches to making it work, because anything can happen" (p. 42-43).
"I’m a great believer in asking everyone for an opinion before I make a decision. It’s a natural reflex" (p. 44). This tidbit is paradoxical because Trump withholds disclosing some ideas and decisions so as to maintain his leverage ("Leverage: don't make deals without it," p. 46). He also ignores the advice of "everyone" in parts of this book and relies on his gut. He writes disparagingly of opinion polls, he doesn't trust them (p. 234).
He criticizes the mantra of "location, location, location" as being from either the weak or those who don't know any better. He can take a bad location and make some audacious claims, get media attention, and suddenly win by "psychology" (p. 46).
Trump learned thrift from his father-- the only way Fred Trump could make money off low-rent tenants was to keep building and renovation costs to a minimum. Donald, however, prefers to build luxury buildings that spare no expense in showing their quality. But he still writes that "the day I can’t pick up the telephone and make a twenty-five-cent call to save $10,000 is the day I’m going to close up shop" (p. 52).
One decent example of Trump's good fortune but head-scratching logic is his purchase of what would be Trump Castle (and now the Golden Nugget), which he bought nearly-completed for a song from an overextended Barron Hilton who was denied a gaming license. It seemed a bit odd to me that Trump would be eager to own competing casinos in Atlantic City and expect all to exceed expectations. Indeed, Trump's Castle later folded after Trump opened his Taj Mahal. Trump makes low offers to people he feels "sorry for" because of circumstances in their life, is able to obtain financing better than others can do to previously successful deals, and understands the process better, such as having a gaming license before building.
If you are interested in any hints about Trump as a chief executive in a political position, Trump's greatest achievement is showing up Ed Koch's City Hall by completing a project that New York had spent millions of dollars and several years of blundering-- the Wollman Rink in Central Park--under-budget and on time, at his own benevolence. He later ran the rink for years, hiring Ice Capades to do it right. In this case, Trump had the media on his side-- he made an offer to the city that they ultimately couldn't refuse, but seemed to desperately want to refuse, and the media and public sided with Trump (as opposed to him being the "greedy developer" the media and Ed Koch targets elsewhere). He notes several aspects of New York City law, such as requiring any project over $50,000 to have multiple contractors for, that hampers development and efficiency. Trump points out how rent control laws hamper development and ruin properties, but does not oppose it outright; he takes a middle ground of means-testing. Trump lost a battle in waiting out and trying to run out tenants of a rent-controlled property-- many of whom were wealthy and influential, like many owners of the choicest rent-controlled properties in New York--but is eager to trumpet how he won out in the end by selling the building for a profit (somehow; it seems some of the legal and opportunity costs incurred a long the way go unaccounted for, but I digress). Trump and his father donate to politicians, engage in personal dialogue with them, use them where they can. But where Trump could go to battle and with Ed Koch he pulls no punches. "(W)hen people treat me badly or unfairly or try to take advantage of me, my general attitude, all my life, has been to fight back very hard" (p. 49).
Trump writes that he (actually) dislikes talking to the media, particularly about his personal life. Ivana makes several positive appearances in this book, she is managing Trump Castle. His kids are young, he has a son who seems to have a particular taste for business. Trump admits that he is not one to play dolls and cars with his kids, he enjoys them more as they get older and he can interest them in the family business. He writes glowingly of his parents, but seems to downplay any roll his father played in both connecting him politically and in business, leaving out any connection that his father had previously to Roy Cohn, for example. He claims his grandparents immigrated from Sweden, instead of Germany. Donald basically wanted to succeed beyond his father's accomplishments-- he wanted to make a name in upscale Manhattan as his father had done in Queens.
I am writing from the vantage point of being a Kentuckian-- Trump's first operation was the purchase of a building in Cincinnati. Trump discusses in detail his hiring and admiration of an unscrupulous manager of that property, known to be a thief and conman. Trump writes disparagingly of the former tenants of the building from the Kentucky hills who filled tiny apartments with lots of small children who destroyed the place; Trump found ways to collect rent or run them out. Trump got lucky on his first deal, during the real estate boom there was a lot of money flowing into real estate investment trusts, one of which sent a green, young agent to buy his property and never bothered to inspect it. Trump knew it was turning into a lemon as the neighborhood went downhill, and quickly sold it for profit. Trump also randomly meets a couple from Louisville via David Letterman and compliments the city.
As pointed out by various other publications, perhaps one example of the danger of Trump's brashness is his experience with the USFL. He bought a team in an already-established league and was immediately able to improve his roster from his own cash. Rather than settle for the league's strategy to compete where the NFL was not, he quickly used his resources and media attention to bully the other owners into engaging in more lavish spending for players, and to move their season from spring to fall to directly compete against the NFL, something that was suicidal in hindsight. Nevermind that polls said fans wanted a spring league-- he doesn't trust polls. Never mind that he was never at risk of financial ruin over the league's performance like some of the owners were; their teams folded and that left the better teams, just as he liked it. At publication, Trump was still quixotically going after the NFL-- the jury had ruled for the USFL that the NFL was engaging in anti-competitive behavior, but awarded the USFL no damages and the league folded. Trump hoped to muster support for an appeal process or, oh well, consider starting yet another league. His players in this period-- Hershel Walker and Doug Flutie among them-- enjoyed playing for Trump because he spent as much as he could to make their team NFL-quality. Other players in the league did not have that luxury.
1.5 stars out of five. Read up on how the projects highlighted in this book --including his marriage-- panned out; judge for yourself whether Trump has changed, learned, improved, or gotten worse.
Tuesday, March 22, 2016
An American Son: A Memoir
Ultimately, this is a one-and-a-half star book. It is terribly boring, uninformative, and could be much shorter if Rubio had left out many of the trivial details about boyhood clothes, football games, his grandparents' and parents' lives, and other aspects of his life growing up. You think there will be some point to the details he remembers, but there is not; it is like reading from an ordinary average Joe's daily journal. We don't need to know about every odd job his grandfather had or every nick and scrape Rubio gets on the football field. What we do need to know is what drives Rubio and shapes his worldview, and preferably what principles he follows in his "conservative" politics. While the book outlines every decision Rubio made in his political life and campaigns, he rarely explains why he made those decisions. The only book he mentions as helpful in his political life is Jim Collins' Good to Great, which helped how he and others put together the House leadership team when he was Speaker of the House in Florida. What drives his economic, political, or even parenting philosophies otherwise is a complete unknown.
The book becomes slightly more exciting during his Senate campaign against failed Governor Charlie Crist, truly a unique election in that Crist was willing to change all his positions and even to switch parties (despite pledging not to) just to get elected. The Crist-Rubio campaign should be studied more, and Rubio's side of the story is worth hearing. The National Republican Senatorial Committee backed Crist and pushed Florida's Republicans to back Crist officially-- even pushing a Rule 11 letter (p. 220). Hence, the establishment looked stupid when Crist openly courted liberal votes and ran as an independent when it eventually became clear he would not be the Republican nominee. One thing I did not know was that Donald Trump (along with Arnold Schwarzenegger) was among those who urged Crist to run against Rubio as an independent (p. 287). That should be a note to those who think Donald Trump is a conservative today.
But it contains so much detail and repetition, so much reliving the rebuttles of Crist staff and the media, his family's thoughts, and more and it goes on forever in mundane detail. Much of Rubio's writing deals with his rebuttles against charges leveled by the media in 2010-- misspending funds, a foreclosed house, potential pork-laden deals, etc. What is sad is that this book was published in 2012 and, in my opinion, Rubio's facts rebut his critics well, but the New York Times and other publications regurgitated the claims in 2015. For example, the New York Times was credited with "revealing" Rubio's financial troubles and ties to donor Norman Braman, who employs Rubio's wife. But Rubio details all of this in the book and it was covered by the Florida media for all of 2010. The fact that so many media outlets have regurgitated the NY Times' reporting as original, when the reporters are either regurgitating this book without citation or the work of plenty of Florida newspapers in 2010, is rather eye-opening. Rubio explains in detail, repeatedly, every credit card transaction ever made and why. Perhaps, however, his ties with Braman are not sufficiently disclosed-- the NY Times reported that Rubio's teaching position at Florida International, which he held long before the Senate race, was funded by Braman; if true, this is never mentioned by Rubio. But Rubio himself detailed what his wife has done working for Braman in 2011-2012 more than the NY Times did in its reporting. Nobody reads books anymore, I suppose.
Besides chronicling the 2010 campaign, is there redeeming value? Yes. You will learn how much Marco Rubio loves his family and how open he is about his love for Jesus. His insecurity and efforts to "get the balance right between my career and personal life" and also live up to the standards of effort and sacrifice of his parents and grandparents stand out (p. 13).
"Why had my dreams come true? Because God had blessed me with a strong and stable family and parents who cherished my dreams more than their own, and with a wise and loving wife who supported me" (p. 332).
"And last but most important, I thank my Lord, Jesus Christ, whose willingness to suffer and die for my sins will allow me to enjoy eternal life" (p. 358).
Even a cynic would likely see his faith is not fake, the guy has been interested in theology since going from Catholicism to Mormonism and back to Catholicism. He closed out his stint in the Florida House with a speech outlining the basics of the Gospel. His family apparently current blends his wife and kids' preference of an evangelical Baptist church and Catholic Mass; his kids are currently in parochial school. He writes that the Bible-based sermons at the Baptist church on Saturday nights gives greater meaning to his understanding of the Catholic faith on Sundays. The writings of Scott Hahn, a convert to Catholicism from Protestantism influenced him (p. 164) . (That and the Collins book are the only two I remember him mentioning.)
The greater disappointment is that there is almost nothing in there about how he managed his campaign staff, tough issues and decisions he made in the Florida legislature, or what, if any, specific political philosophies have shaped his worldview. What does "conservative" mean to him? At one point he mentions "limited government and free markets" but the book, like the 2016 Republican primary generally, seems to assume that people know what defines "conservative" when candidates say it. Rubio speaks highly of Jeb Bush, borrowing from him by collecting ideas from around the state to propose as legislative initiatives. Rubio's House has to battle the Florida Senate that either want weaker or less-effective legislation; one particular story about autism legislation that Rubio wanted to expand to all children with disabilities was particularly interesting (p. 194). Rubio does give a careful look at immigration reform and why he did not support the DREAM Act in Congress; he wanted less-broad legislation that might be more effective, he writes. Where he stands on other key issues is woefully unclear, as are his campaign pledges in all his campaigns which are never mentioned.
I was planning on reading Rubio's second book supposedly outlining his economic policies but he has since dropped out. I say skip this book as well if you can.
Sunday, March 20, 2016
Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran
After recently finishing Jared Cohen's Children of Jihad, in which he chronicles a brief detention in Iran and his experience with various dissidents and underground life, I came across Saberi's chronicle of her extended detention in Iran (years after Cohen visited the country). While this book is useful to draw attention to arbitrary and wrongful detentions in Iran, I found it raised more questions about the author. It is not an incredibly interesting book. Saberi initially cooperates with her captors and consents to their lies before meeting Iranian detainees who actively resist. Saberi's resolve is strengthened and she retracts her coerced confession, demands a lawyer, and goes on a hunger strike while garnering international support for her release; she is granted release after 101 days in captivity. She writes the book seemingly to draw attention to the perversion of justice in Iran and bring some attention to the women she shared her cell with.
I have the same question of Saberi as I have of Jared Cohen's visit to Iran -- why risk it when you know that sometimes Americans are detained for seemingly arbitrary reasons? Around the time of Saberi's detentions, American hikers along the border were also detained for a long ordeal. Saberi went to Iran in 2003, when she was 26 years old and out of journalism school. She maintains she spent six years working on a book about Iranian life, while working on a Masters degree, conducting interviews with at least 60 different people, which apparently is what drew Iranian's attention. She seemed to be trying to emotionally reconnect to her roots-- her father is an Iranian-American. She apparently dates several men, getting involved with dissident Kurdish filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi, who may or may not have been her actual fiancee (their wikipedia profiles currently do not mention it although Ghobadi claimed as such during her captivity and Saberi tells her interrogators that they "discussed marriage"). I do not want to engage in victim shaming, prosecutors were clearly making false accusations, but if you live in a foreign country that has no official diplomatic relationship with the country on your passport, and do things that are counter to that culture, you will raise suspicion.
Saberi seemed to want to blend into the journalist crowd without actually being a journalist. She knew enough Farsi to get around, but really had to learn better once she was imprisoned. She was able to sell some stories and once got on Fox News in the US (which her accusers claim is an "arm of the Pentagon"). Iran had revoked her journalism credentials, which I would have taken as a warning. Whether she knew it or not at the time, the government was claiming every media outlet in the US was an arm of the US government, especially newspapers with the word "intelligence" in them (like the Seattle Intelligencer).
She downplays it in her book, but she was a beauty pageant queen in the US and one wonders if a less-pretty face would have gotten so much attention; the epilogue mentions that the blue scarf she was so often pictured in became a hot-selling commodity in Iran, "Roxana scarves." Her education and talents connected her to people in higher society, like Ghobadi. Perhaps as someone who had been on television news she was somewhat of a celebrity. In the end, Secretary Clinton and President Obama both worked with other embassies and the UN to get her early release.
The mental anguish of captivity are clearly described by Saberi. She is constantly taunted with "if you cooperate with us, you'll go home shortly" a pattern that continues repeatedly. She confesses to espionage, denounces the Zionist regime in Israel, and more on camera. Her interrogators ostensibly recruit her to spy for Iran, threatening to kill her "anywhere in the world" if she reveals she has been recruited; something she initially agrees to do but later regrets. There is a magistrate who deals a bit more honestly, and the layers and politics of the Iranian justice system are a bit confusing-- particularly for herself. After five weeks in captivity, she realizes her captors knew that she was never a spy but the die was cast so they must keep up the false pretense. A newspaper article found in her apartment is called a "classified document," and her personal life is scrutinized, her 60 interviews for her book become 600, and other lies.
When she is sentenced to 8 years imprisonment for espionage, reality hits home. After getting educated by her cellmates and doing plenty of time soul-searching with the help of her Bible, she resolves to pay the price and tell only the truth. She is granted many rights, retains a lawyer; argues in court with judges, her interrogators, and other witnesses; she gets to call them liars and counter their claims. She is fed, allowed her own books, and allowed supervised calls and visits with loved ones. Some reviewers of this book have pointed out that she would not have gotten near as many rights had she been imprisoned by Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Saberi goes on a hunger strike when the situation appears desperate, and becomes dangerously underweight at the dismay of her parents who come to Iran for support.
To Saberi's credit, she pays many thanks and draws attention to the plights of her cellmates-- other women who have been accused of political crimes. From them, the reader learns that fortune telling with the Koran is a popular past-time in Iran, and other means of passing the time. Saberi learns Farsi from her cellmates. She also writes of how she relied mentally/spiritually on passages from the Bible in her captivity, while a cellmate also teaches her the Shahada and how to read the Koran (Saberi was allowed to have both a Bible and her English Koran). Her jailers watch various television shows while the inmates live through the sounds of what is on TV. Eventually, Saberi learns that the media is covering her story and some journalists are hunger-striking in solidarity, which she discourages. She does pay many thanks to the many parties who influenced the Iranian government for her eventual release. Her would-be fiancee gets out of the country to go to the Cannes film festival just before she leaves. She is not ultimately sure why she was arrested-- perhaps it was to stop the publishing of her book, whatever it contained, perhaps it was part of some unseen inter-governmental struggle. But she writes that her detention is similar to many other political detainees and writes to put pressure on the regime for change.
If one is looking to learn a lot about life in Iran, the subject of the book she had supposedly spent six years working on when she was arrested, you won't find it in these pages. I would like to read that book, but after another six years since captivity I suppose it is not forthcoming; though she supposedly had sent a draft to her mother before imprisonment. I give this book 2.5 stars out of 5.
Saturday, March 19, 2016
Children of Jihad: A Young American's Travels Among the Youth of the Middle East
I previously had no idea who Jared Cohen was, but I found this book while prepping to work through a series of books on Islam, including ones looking at modern conflict and reform. Cohen's adventure in this book eventually led him to great success at the State Department and now at Google. There are some events in this book that I think are unbelievable-- how a person "just happens" to end up in Mosul in the middle of a war zone, avoids detention in Iran, and more tight spots that it seems a Jewish-American could easily have been kidnapped or badly mistreated. He intentionally wanted to sneak through the Syrian-Iraq border in the middle of the insurgency against the advisement of any local who can help him. Details about how he made sleeping arrangements, was able to wash his clothes, or get by with his worn out treads, etc. get lost between conversations with students and wild parties in Lebanon. (I also imagine much goes unsaid about those parties and what happens afterward, he knows too much not to have experienced things very personally.) Nonetheless, I found the work captivating; I admire his courage. I was intrigued also because I once also spent part of my formative years traveling and even lived with some college-aged youth in a Muslim context, watching them walk the line between cultural conservativism and their desire to drink and party. Children of Jihad is an excellent book to get a primer on the Arab Spring as the seeds were beginning to germinate during Cohen's travels. But it is worth keeping in mind that he does not speak Farsi or Arabic, he is reliant on English. He may have picked up some Syrian Arabic in his extensive time there, but anyone there could tell you that Syrian-Lebanese Arabic is different than Iraqi and others; if he was communicating on the street he was not learning anything universal. Thus, I am highly skeptical of many of the risks he takes with his own life given he has no language-- that language barrier is rarely mentioned, even in remote places.
Cohen is already no stranger to travel, having spent time in Africa and seeing the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. The Introduction begins in Beirut where there's a distinct dichotomy of teenagers who love American food, culture, and music but hate the government; and then there's Hezbollah. Cohen's travels lead him to note that extremism gains a foothold whenever an extremist group builds a school or a hospital, as is the case with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Wahabist outfits places like Pakistan. Much of the book, and Cohen's work, deals with youth and their increased access to unfiltered news via social media outlets; Cohen's work in this area was lauded both by Sec. Condi Rice and Clinton, and is what vaulted him to Google Ideas.
The first chapters chronicle his four months in Iran in 2004-2005. Cohen underestimates the difficulty of getting money transferred to him from the US around the restrictions, and lacks initial contacts until he runs into serious trouble and draws on his contacts from his Rhodes scholar studies at Oxford. Cohen is followed by minders and his hotel room is searched randomly and repeatedly. Within 24 hours of arrival, he is threatened with imprisonment. This brief incident actually breaks him emotionally, which makes it rather incredible that he decides to stay in the country and risk his own life and others he meets with. Nonetheless, through a university he is able to make student contacts and find the help he needs-- he avoids further detention despite coming into contact with dissenters, moonshiners, and more which would have been highly punishable (I will follow this review with Roxana Saberi's account of detention in Iran for supposedly lesser sins.)
Cohen documents the underground parties, illegal wares, and the boldness of Iranian students, particularly females. This is just prior to the "Green Revolution," which Cohen basically foretells. The students recall previous riots under Khameny, and the dashed hopes from false reformers they had previously supported; there is now "fear and loathing" under Ahmadinejad. Now with weak internet filters and satellite television, the whole country has access to different views from abroad. Iranian politics, like Iranian nationalism, is complicated and rooted in a long history of disappointment with the West. Iran's nuclear program a case in point, begun in the 1950s with US help under the Shah, it is still a source of pride and in 2005 a bargaining chip. Remarkably, at one point Cohen actually gets close to a classified facility. When hikers are detained in a country for doing far less, Cohen, without any aid of Farsi, seems either young and naive or foolhearty. Cohen also seeks out a synagogue in Iran, revealing and taking pride in his Jewishness. Eventually, he leaves and is denied a visa to return.
Back in Lebanon, Cohen makes friends with liberal Lebanese-- attending multi-ethnic beach parties and even gay bars. He chronicles parties with mingling Druze, Jews, and Muslims, noting that "most one night stands cross religious lines" as it's safer as there are no expectations afterwards. He also chronicles the history of the Maronite people, retells the history of the Lebanese civil war in 1976, and the eventually united movement against Syrian influence in Lebanon. He meets a lot of students who are either secretly or openly members of Hezbollah; something like 70% of Hezbollah students enroll in the sciences and most keep their membership secret. But Cohen notes that they are "radical by day but partying by night." Cohen writes that while Israel was criticized for its actions in Lebanon in 2006, it was Hezbollah who was "looking for a fight" and "willing to kill civilians" to get it. The author also visits the camps of displaced Palestinians. He meets some who fit the stereotypes of radicals and others who welcome him warmly as a human being-- even as a Jew.
Cohen moves onto Syria, where he initially spends a lot of time in cities with the secular youth; few wear a hijab and fewer wear a chadour. He senses change as youth have the internet and demand more, he essentially sees the Arab Spring before it begins. I thought Cohen did a good job giving a historical overview of Syria, describing its ruling minority Alawite population (16%), the historical practice of Christianity in the region who also give support to the Alawite government, and the Assad family history of wiping out tens of thousands of Sunnis. In this, Cohen chronicles the history of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria as well. Just like Lebanon and Iran, Cohen finds the gay parties less-than-hidden night life. Like Iran, Syrian intelligence picks him up and gives him a warning.
The author finds conservativism when he ventures out of town, spending time in Palmyra and Deir Ez-zor. This is sad to read in light of ISIS' wanton destruction of the area. Cohen again finds the influence of the satellite dish, even among Bedouins. (Interesting anecdote from this section: The West Wing Season 2 was banned from Syrian TV because of its favorability toward Israel?) The author is impressed by Syrian nationalism, the "we are all Syria" that helped eventually fuel the Arab Spring protests. Another commonality he finds in Eastern Syria in 2005 is that no one wants to go to Iraq, and no one will agree to take him there for any price. Why he feels compelled to go there during the height of the insurgency, by any means, is unclear.
Eventually, Cohen gets into Iraqi Kurdistan by skirting the area around the Turkish border. It is hard for me to believe he somehow navigates all of this completely in English. In Kurdistan, he witnesses children who are homeless but have learned to hack cellphones. One person gets a phone and they all figure out how to use it. Cohen details some of the history of Kurdisan, the 1975 Algiers Accords and Kurdish betrayal, their sense of betrayal worsened by the Bush Administration not helping after the 1991 uprising, the KDP and PUK civil war, and more. One interesting thing he notes is that televisions stay on all the time everywhere, through all events. Whether this is due to an increase in channels available after Saddam's fall or not is unclear. But Cohen finds Kurds to be the most democratic people in the Middle East.
While apparently trying to take a taxi to the Turkish border, his driver decides to go to Mosul to save a few bucks on gasoline while Cohen naps unawares. When he wakes up in the cab, he lays low, terrified, in the 120 degree car, afraid to leave and unsure what to do-- certain he is likely to be kidnapped at any moment. Cohen's driver eventually returns and they set out on the dangerous journey, his driver stopping for tea along the way as if there is no danger to his American passenger. Eventually, they end up at the border and Cohen practically runs to US soldiers guarding the border; they help him find a way out through the mess.
Thus ends Cohen's wild tale of adventure, youth, and technological awakening in the tense Middle East. "The monolithic characterization of 'us' versus 'them' fails to take into account humanity," he writes. He befriends people in Palestinian refugee camps, conservatives in rural Syria, and enjoyed hospitality in Iran and Lebanon. It's easy to see how he wanted to help spread American ideals of freedom and democracy through the still-underground channels of social media as a career. I give this book four stars out of five. It loses a star because I am curious about what is left unsaid, feel he took unnecessary risks with his life in Iran that would have eventually cost US taxpayer dollars, and I don't believe he did all he claims and enjoyed the conversations he claims without having any language other than English.