MERIP Blog

Price Tag Journalism

by Chris Toensing | published January 19, 2012 - 1:58pm

The Washington Post today features a hit piece on the Center for American Progress, the largely Clintonite think tank whose Middle East division employs some good reporters and which also published an excellent report on Islam-bashing Astroturf campaigns funded by right-wing moguls in the US. 

Under the headline “Liberal Think Tank Tied to Obama Accused of Anti-Semitic Language,” the Post airs the huffing and puffing of pro-Israel activists about tweets and other statements by junior CAP staffers, in which they used the term “Israel-firster” and compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to the treatment of blacks under Jim Crow.

Complaints about the CAP tweets first surfaced in a Politico story on December 7. Senior CAP staffers promptly pushed back, touting the think tank’s support for a two-state solution and rather gratuitously taking “nothing off the table” when it comes to Iran (though, of course, sounding all the acceptable-in-Washington notes about why bombing Iran would be a bad idea). The statement offered no backing for the above criticisms of Israel and its defenders, however; in fact, those staffers had to retract their statements and one soon left CAP’s employ.

A few points about the Post story:

1) The substance of the “Israel-firster” allegation -- some people who opine on the Middle East are driven primarily by their views of what is good for Israel -- goes completely unexamined. Readers are left to assume that “Israel-firster” must indeed be an ad hominem attack.

2) The article admits to controversy only over the issue of whether or not “Israel-firster” is an anti-Semitic canard, which in the piece boils down to whether or not CAP’s critics and Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street are offended by the term.

3) The desultory discussion of even this meta-question is buried at the end of the piece, after many readers will have stopped reading.

4) Finally, aside from the offending tweets’ retraction and the departure of the tweeter from CAP, there has been no new development since the original Politico story that warrants a fresh look from the Post. Presumably, what pushed the Post to run the story is that the pro-Israel advocates’ anti-CAP agitation “could complicate the president’s reelection outreach to some Jewish voters, just as he is seeking to assure them of his commitment to Israel’s security amid fears of an Iran nuclear threat.” In other words, the agitation is now the story.

To clarify: The Israel Lobby is a flawed book that was nonetheless quite important for its timing and who wrote it. The pro-Israel lobby wields considerable clout, particularly regarding the question of Palestine, but it did not drag the US into war in Iraq for Israel’s sake. The US government controls US Middle East policy, not Israel.

But the CAP story is a particularly egregious example of the pro-Israel lobby at work to produce badly slanted coverage of Middle East policy debates that, in effect, equates the lobbyists’ view of Israeli interests with American interests. All while demonstrating that, while space has opened for a wider range of views about the Middle East, hard-hitting criticism of Israel still comes with a price tag.

Update: Check out Glenn Greenwald’s remarkable post laying out the backstory of the attack on CAP.

A Not So Distant Mirror

by Chris Toensing | published January 18, 2012 - 8:35pm

At the risk of stating the obvious, there are eerie and multiplying parallels between the long lead-up to the 2003 Iraq war and what passes for debate on what to do about the Iranian nuclear research program.

Both target regimes have made unilateral moves that badly weakened their international credibility and rendered them difficult for outsiders to defend, at least without numerous caveats. Both are major human rights violators that are in the dock not for that reason but because of the purported threat they pose to international peace and security. Both countries have therefore been subject to sanctions whose barely hidden purpose is to topple the government. Both states have been suspected of seeking to acquire doomsday machines but, in both cases, no one outside their innermost corridors of power knew/knows what their capabilities actually were/are. The same great powers (not counting France) have been arrayed for and against the more aggressive course of action.

The Friedman unit has even made a return appearance, in the estimate one hawkish scholar uses for how long it would take Iran to build a bomb should it decide to do so.

But the most troubling axis of comparison is the distorted debate in the United States, where, in both cases, “preventive” military force has been regarded as the sine qua non, almost the default option, in that it structures the conversation.

Witness the current debate about Iran in the most prestigious journal of foreign policy opinion. In conventional terms, the deck is not all that stacked. The Foreign Affairs lineup checks all the boxes: realist (academe), realist (Washington), more hawkish realist, full-throated neo-conservative. Detente, containment, containment plus air strikes, regime change. Two on either side of the question before the house, with one of the “con” voices having served in Obama’s Pentagon.

But why is “to bomb or not to bomb” the question before the house?

And again, at the risk of stating the obvious, there is something rather important missing from this debate. Not a genuine American progressive view -- everybody who is anybody knows that left-leaning sorts are not worth listening to. What is missing is what Iran is thinking amid this earnest back-and-forth about whether, and if so when, its territory should be attacked. And why, assuming that Western suspicions are indeed warranted, Iran would want the bomb.

Is it not relevant that the UN Security Council emitted scarcely a whimper when Iranian soldiers were swamped in mustard gas and other illegal toxins during Iran’s cataclysmic war with Iraq? That the world’s sole superpower “tilted” toward Iraq in that war? That demonization of the Islamic Republic has been a staple of American political discourse since 1979? That the last US administration tried mightily to deny Iran the right to a peaceful nuclear program guaranteed it under the very treaty that the West accuses Iran of breaching? That the current, allegedly more peace-loving administration uses the phrase “tightening the noose” when crowing about its successs in imposing tighter and tighter sanctions? And that, today, the supposed wise owls among American policy intellectuals state explicitly that military force should be “on the table”?

In the wake of the invasion of Iraq, the US eventually surmised that Saddam Hussein’s blood-curdling threats to burn others in “chemical fire” were bluster intended to deter external enemies (perhaps including Iran). His rhetoric was macabre, but his motives were, in the end, quite mundane.

Why is it so hard for the West to grasp that Iran’s leadership is similarly preoccupied with survival? And that this preoccupation, whatever the leadership’s other sins, is utterly rational?

At the risk of stating the obvious, if the West does not want Iran to build a bomb, why keep escalating the same policies that (if the West is right about Iran’s aim) have driven it to pursue one? Beltway types may judge this question childlike, for everybody who is anybody knows that Iran is not to be trusted and that US intentions are pure (or at least entirely justified in their occasional impurity). But the Iranian leadership does not agree, and that fact should be front and center in any responsible debate on Iran policy.

Fading False Flags

by Chris Toensing | published January 13, 2012 - 4:08pm

First the latest assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist happened on a slow news day (Romney wins New Hampshire -- zzzz), prompting many major American outlets to give it prominent coverage. The LA Times editorial board was not pleased by the killing, which seemed oddly coincident with the clear US-European-Israeli-Saudi campaign to turn the screws on Iran. Columnist David Ignatius, not known for skepticism of official sources, said on the radio that governments (in which category he tacitly included the US) whack people and disavow it all the time.

The Obama administration seemed anxious to distance itself from the killing, and the previous day had compelled the Washington Post to “correct” an article relating that a top intelligence official was eager to see sanctions effect regime change in Tehran. Meanwhile, back-channel efforts to restart nuclear talks with Iran are reportedly underway.

Now Mark Perry has published an exclusive report of US intelligence “memos” that document recruitment of Jundallah fighters by Mossad operatives posing as Americans. (Jundallah is an armed Baluch Islamist group in Iran that mobilizes anger among Sunni Baluch at the Shi‘i state’s ethno-religious repression.)

The connection between all these items, as Jim Lobe suggested before Perry’s piece came out, seems to be a White House realization that the US-Iranian cold war is getting perilously close to a hot one.

Perry is a veteran Middle East and US Middle East policy hand with very good contacts in the uniformed military and assorted spy shops. He is known for reporting that Gen. David Petraeus believes US coziness with Israel to be a strategic liability, and he ought to be much better known for his 2005 Asia Times pieces (later strung into a book) pointing very early on to the enmity between “patriotic” Iraqi insurgents and al-Qaeda sorts (and hence the budding detente between the former insurgents and the US that eventually helped allow the surge to “work.”)

His piece accusing the Mossad of treachery in Baluchistan, of course, bolsters suspicions that Israel was behind the assassinations of the nuclear scientists, perhaps carried out not only against Washington’s better judgment but also in furtherance of a plan to trap the US in a dynamic of escalation with Iran. It contains a lot of pious posturing from military and intelligence officers against “political” killings. (The drone attacks do not count, natch.) And the Jundallah false flag allegation is explosive in and of itself.

There is certainly a fair amount of antipathy among the Pentagon and CIA ranks for their Israeli counterparts. The scientists’ murders may well be Israel’s work. It is nice to have an anti-Iranian coalition large enough that the crimes can be laid plausibly at so many doorsteps.

But none of this finger pointing should distract attention from the purposeful policy of coercion the US has adopted toward Iran over many years. If the Obama administration in fact abhors killings of foreign civilians engaged in research whose alleged nefariousness is still not proven, and one certainly hopes that is true, it would hardly be a ringing endorsement of the overall Bush-Obama approach. If the false flag flies, it is largely because the real flag has been staked so firmly in the ground of hostility.

Mosireen: The People Want the Fall of the Regime (video)

by Ted Swedenburg | published January 12, 2012 - 1:47pm

Yesterday’s piece by Ursula Lindsey, entitled “Art in Egypt's Revolutionary Square.” is a very astute and measured account of the art that has emerged in Egypt, in the wake of, and inspired by, the momentous events in Tahrir over the last year. It is a very mixed picture, but one of the projects that Lindsey cites with approval is the collective Mosireen. Here’s what she has to say about them:

Another dynamic body of work is that of the Mosireen collective, a band of young videographers and filmmakers who take to Cairo’s streets whenever protests or clashes with police break out. (The group’s name means “determined”; in Arabic it is also spelled almost the same way as “Egyptians.”) Mosireen makes its films available on its website, as well as in free, open-air venues like Tahrir Cinema, on Facebook and even as mobile phone downloads.

Lindsey goes on to describe a recent video produced by Mosireen, called Four Days in December.

As if on cue, today Mosireen released another video, “The People Want the Fall of the Regime” -- the slogan of the Egyptian revolt. Please watch it here.

I don’t want to say much about this video for now, even though if you are not pretty familiar with the events and the personalities of the revolt as it has evolved over the past year, some of what screens here will not capture you as much as someone who is quite familiar with them. (The video is made, after all, primarily for an Egyptian audience.) But even so, it should impress you, in some way, not the least for its aesthetic qualities.

More importantly, I think, in the run-up to the anniversary of the onset of the Egyptian uprising (January 25), the vid reminds us of how important the events in Egypt were, in 2011, how remarkable and inspiring, and how incredibly courageous have been the Egyptian people who have struggled for democracy and for an end to authoritarianism. It reminds us of the great losses the Egyptians have suffered in this struggle. And it reminds us, that, despite all the setbacks and bumps in the road, it is not over. And it reminds us too that, as Lindsey observes, there are some brilliant and creative artists in Egypt, whose work engages with the revolt, represents it to a wider audience and tries to help move it forward. Thanks, Mosireen. Alf shukr.

Strategic Commodity 101

by Chris Toensing | published January 9, 2012 - 9:44pm

Every US president since Jimmy Carter has spoken earnestly of the need to wean America from “foreign oil,” which is often more bluntly called “Middle East oil.” After the September 11, 2001 attacks and the resulting spotlight on Saudi Arabia, the clamor grew, only to subside, and now has resurfaced with the deepening cold war between the West and Iran. As part of their posturing on Iran, today’s GOP presidential candidates trip over themselves to pledge more drilling and exploration in the good ol’ US of A.

Media-certified deep thinker Newt Gingrich, for example, says such a “national American energy policy” would “allow us to be free in the Middle East, to not worry about [oil from] the Straits of Hormuz.”

There is frequent confusion about why the United States is so concerned with the flow of Persian Gulf oil, despite the best efforts of Michael Klare and others before him to explain.

One often hears it said, for example, that today the US imports more oil from Canada than from Saudi Arabia. Indeed, in September 2011, the US brought in 2,384 barrels per day from Canada and just 2,085 from all four Gulf countries (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait and Oman) on the list of the top 15 sources. Mexico, Venezuela and Nigeria all outrank Iraq, and Iran is absent from the list. Why covet “their” oil if “we” do not need it?

Because the facts about current suppliers are irrelevant in the long term. Though Big Oil certainly is working to locate more major finds, the long-standing industrial consensus is that all of the non-Gulf oilfields (however big they are now) will be tapped out sooner than the Gulf’s, especially the gargantuan pools the Saudis are sitting on. More important than where “our” oil comes from, however, is the outward flow itself.

Oil, and particularly Persian Gulf oil, is the strategic commodity in the world. It makes everything run. And pending progress like invention of a cheap, high-performance electric car, or utter global calamity, oil will remain absolutely crucial until it is exhausted. In the meantime, the supply of Gulf oil to the world economy is vital -- and, for the political and technocratic classes in world capitals, being able to plan on its continued supply (ideally, at artificially low prices) is a cornerstone of grand strategy. As is the containment and, if need be, preemption of any local or global power that might have other plans.

For Washington mandarins of both parties and most ideological persuasions, the post-1970 US “forward-leaning posture” in the Gulf is likewise a main prop of that greatly cherished sole superpower status, for the US military essentially protects the oil patch on behalf of the rest of the world.

Neo-connish sorts will come out and say so, sort of. Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute wrote in 2004 that a nuclear-armed Iran would be dangerous not because it posed an offensive threat, but “because of the constraining effect it threatens to impose upon US strategy for the greater Middle East. The danger is that Iran will ‘extend’ its deterrence...to a variety of states and other actors throughout the region.” To translate: One problem is that, with a bomb, Iran could deter the West from doing what was necessary to secure the flow of oil, should, for instance, the Strait of Hormuz chokepoint be threatened with closure.

Other species of policy intellectual, not to speak of politicians, are far more circumspect, confining themselves to vague (but always noddingly accepted) talk of “our interests in the region” if they do not pander to uninformed nativism à la Gingrich. But their calculations are basically the same. Another charter member of the GOP’s brain trust, Dick Cheney, convened a rather famous task force in May 2001 that concluded (pdf): “By 2020, Gulf oil producers are projected to supply between 54 and 67 percent of the world’s oil. Thus, the global economy will almost certainly continue to depend on the supply of oil from Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) members, particularly in the Gulf. This region will remain vital to US interests.”

In today’s political atmosphere, the facts about where the US gets its oil now function primarily to normalize Iran war talk, as they downplay the direct costs to Americans of disruptions in the Persian Gulf oil supply. The point for those willing to entertain the war or air strike options is that disruptions would be temporary, while regime change in Iran would theoretically remove the threat of disruption over the long haul.

Too bad John Hodgman long ago cornered this phrase, because it would look good right here.

Update: Michael Klare has a good new piece that covers the bases.

COIN vs. CT?

by Laleh Khalili | published January 9, 2012 - 1:23pm

On January 5, amid much pomp and circumstance, President Barack Obama released the newest version of the US Defense Strategic Guidance. The document delineated the future course of US defense strategy, reiterating the commitment of the US to its strategic partners -- the oil sheikhdoms -- in the Persian Gulf, and shifting its focus to conventional warfare and deterrence capabilities in East Asia. So far, so predictable. Also notable, however, is this paragraph:

In the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States will emphasize non-military means and military-to-military cooperation to address instability and reduce the demand for significant US force commitments to stability operations. US forces will nevertheless be ready to conduct limited counterinsurgency and other stability operations if required, operating alongside coalition forces wherever possible. Accordingly, US forces will retain and continue to refine the lessons learned, expertise and specialized capabilities that have been developed over the past ten years of counterinsurgency and stability operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, US forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations (italics in original).

What this means is that the era of counterinsurgency (or COIN, as those in the know call it), of large “surges” of military forces, of massive military engagement -- those clichéd boots on the ground -- to suppress and discipline intransigent populations has now given way to counterterrorism (or CT, as the acronym-loving military epistemic community calls it). In fact, the very first paragraph of the section titled “Primary Missions of US Armed Forces” is all about “counter-terrorism and irregular warfare,” which is seen to consist of a “more widely distributed” military effort “characterized by a mix of direct action and security force assistance.”

So what does the new strategic review document mean? Politically speaking, it means we are back to the era of US hegemonic rule (or at least a desperate attempt by the US to get back there): an era in which US dominance in the world is mostly exercised through economic means (i.e., the neoliberal consensus), obeisant allies and proxies, and an occasional display of spectacular military power with a constant hum of military activity in the background. It also means that the US will continue -- or intensify -- its effort to secure the allegiance of its clients and allies in all the trouble spots of the world. This will occur whether via ever more intimate military links, or through other means: non- or semi-governmental funding for democracy “education” and “promotion,” forging closer links to new groups in power (such as the Islamists being elected to parliaments in the wake of Arab uprisings), and continuing its kid-glove treatment of friendly autocrats in power.

Tactically, the review indicates that the US hopes not to deploy large-scale land forces to intransigent places, or attempt to remake these places in our image via “armed social work” -- the combination of clear-hold-build military practice, and “developmental” policies (whether of building social facilities or of improving “security and governance” apparatuses). Instead, the use of force will now be all about murky and shadowy deployment of covert forces, whether they are Special Operations forces -- the executive branch’s own military -- or the CIA in all sorts of places, combined with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) to collect intelligence and assassinate troublesome adversaries all around the world. 

And perhaps most importantly, what does the strategic shift mean not in Washington but in all the places where US has declared its “interests” and will continue its military operations? That US forces would rather not capture enemies as that would entangle them in legal obligations; assassinations are easier, if not cheaper. That the US will again depend on proxies -- no matter how history proves that imperial clients tend to be venal, corrupt and power-hungry. That the window dressing of “development” and the soft liberal discourse of “persuading” undecided civilians in contentious places have given way to what has been since the end of the Cold War at the core of US military policy overseas: full spectrum dominance; shock and awe; 700 to over 1,000 military bases from which it can project its power, and whatever else may justify a military budget that is still -- even after all the cuts and savings -- larger than those of the next 10 countries put together.

The Siren Song of Ron Paul

by Chris Toensing | published January 7, 2012 - 6:27pm

Say Ron Paul were actually elected president. Say that, in his proverbial first 100 days, he used his bully pulpit to push for two things: deep cuts in aid to Israel and other US allies, and elimination of Federal subsidies for alternative energy research. Which of these two objectives would he be more likely to achieve? And, if he achieved both, which would his successor find it easier to reverse?

These questions will never be more than a parlor game, unless the GOP’s eminences grises somehow fail to defeat a man whose newsletter preached open hatred of blacks and gays in the mid-1990s and unless Barack Obama then somehow fails to ride those riled-up, overwhelmingly Democratic constituencies, as well as Jewish and evangelical Christian voters upset by Paul’s comments about Israel and every union under the sun, back into the White House. It is perplexing, in the meantime, to watch intelligent sorts dole out props to Paul for his anti-interventionism (and, in the case of Middle East hands, his criticism of US coddling of Israel). Many seem to feel that, though he has no prayer of winning, the Texas Congressman is doing a service by introducing sensible ideas in forums where they would otherwise not be heard. Matt Stoller, far more interestingly, points out that Paul’s brand of libertarianism highlights the discomfiting (for left-liberals) connections among the New Deal, centralized government and the permanent war economy.

But the provenance of ideas matters. Paul’s ugly prejudices are not background noise. And, unlike many critics of US empire, he really is an isolationist. That is, his skepticism of “foreign entanglements” stems from parochial mistrust of other countries, if not from paranoia about “one-world government.” How could a White House with such a mindset possibly deal productively with innately global challenges like climate change, not to mention the growing competition for finite natural resources, nuclear proliferation or any other issue where international cooperation is the only way to stave off disaster, let alone envision a better world? But forget the extreme scenario of a Paul presidency: Is it really true that his ideas could wind up building support for an innocuous “live and let live” foreign policy?

On the off-chance that Paul got the GOP nomination, it would most certainly matter that his opposition to foreign wars comes from the isolationist bunker. His debates with Obama would not be edifying, for the simple reason (amply illustrated in American history) that right-wing populism drags its centrist opponents to the right. Re: the use of force, in a pinch Obama would simply adopt the “common-sense” Establishment position of declining to “rule it out” and, for good measure, bait Paul into an argument about what America “can do” rather than what it “should do.” Even discussion of the Iraq war, which both would-be nominees opposed, would be unlikely to transcend the usual hand wringing about expenditure of “blood and treasure” because ultimately that is all that right-wing populists care about. Devastation of Iraq? Not Americans’ business (at least not any longer). Respect for international law? Not if it binds the US to something its president does not like.

Meanwhile, the patent nonsense that makes up the bulk of Paul’s platform is being drip-fed into the political mainstream alongside the few sensible ideas.

The prominence of Paul’s candidacy is grotesque, a particularly stark instance of the pathology in US politics whereby counter-hegemonic ideas rarely receive a hearing unless they come from the right. The recurrent “progressive man-crushes” upon Ron Paul are a searing indictment of the Democratic Party, first and foremost, but also of the historical failures of the American left. And the thought that he energizes the young is not remotely encouraging, but more depressing evidence of how poorly Americans are educated about the world in which they live.

Better Ten Years Late Than Never

by Chris Toensing | published January 7, 2012 - 3:15pm

At long last, after a few false starts and much gnashing of teeth, MERIP is entering the blogosphere.

The blog is intended to be what most blogs run by publications are: a place for our editors and writers to post short pieces of analysis or commentary on important issues in the public eye. We will also use the blog as a way to point readers to valuable material that appears elsewhere. The blog will start small, with just a few contributors, and we will see where it goes. 

There will be no comments section, but feel free to send us your feedback in any of the old-fashioned ways.

Hip-Hop of the Revolution (The Sharif Don't Like It)

by Ted Swedenburg | published January 5, 2012 - 1:59pm

In Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World, journalist Robin Wright describes and analyzes what she considers an important new trend in the Muslim world: the rejection of “Muslim extremists.” She views the Arab uprisings that began in Tunisia in December 2010 and quickly spread elsewhere as a dramatic confirmation of the significance of this new political and cultural tendency.

Wright’s chapter, “Hip-Hop Islam,” presents rap music in the “Islamic world” as a key element of what she calls the “counter-jihad” movement. Her presentation is very much of a piece with the remarkable interest that the Western media has paid to Arab rap ever since the Arab uprisings. The vast majority of this media coverage greatly overestimates the importance of rap music’s role in the Arab revolts, asserting variously that rap played a key role in sparking the insurgencies or that it was “the music” of the oppositional movements. For her part, Wright claims: “Hip-hop was the first voice of political opposition, even before the street protests that erupted in 2011.”

Wright’s claim is mistaken on a number of accounts. For one, it completely ignores the anti-authoritarian and pro-democracy struggles that preceded the outbursts in Tunisia and Egypt prior to 2010-2011, and upon which they were built. In Egypt, the decade prior to January 2011 was marked by numerous civil society struggles around democratization, human rights and labor rights. (Please see Middle East Report’s systematic coverage of Egypt, and the forthcoming book The Journey to Tahrir, which incorporates much of that reporting.) I don’t recall anyone claiming, prior to 2011, that Egyptian rappers were leading or even significant oppositional voices in the democracy movements. In fact, Egypt is not known as having a vibrant hip-hop scene, in contrast to Algeria, Lebanon, Morocco or Palestine. But even in these countries, no credible observer would claim that rappers were the “first,” or “primary” voices of regime resistance. Moreover, these Arab countries with the most lively scenes and well-known artists, it turns out, were not where uprisings have erupted. There are, of course, Syrian, Yemeni, Libyan and Bahraini rappers, but there is not much evidence of these artists playing a significant role in the uprisings or even in producing many songs of resistance that have had wide appeal.

The one country where there is a significant connection, and it is one highlighted by Wright, as well as by most other Western journalists and commentators who have written about rap and the so-called “Arab spring” is Tunisia, which like Morocco and Algeria has developed a very vibrant rap scene. In November 2010 the rapper El Général released a song called “Rais Lebled,” which famously took aim at the problems inflicted on Tunisia’s autocratic president (rais) Ben Ali. “Rais Lebled,” with its combustible sentiments and its banging beats and delivery, came out on YouTube prior to the demonstrations that erupted in the wake of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation, and resulted, after the onset of the revolt, in El Général’s imprisonment. Tunisian demonstrators reportedly chanted the words to “Rais Lebled” as they called for both the artist’s release and the fall of Ben Ali. (See the blog Arab Revolutionary Rap for an excellent account of El Général).

Wright, like so many other Western journalists, as well as many other enthusiastic Western supporters of the Arab revolts, including progressives, seems to have generalized, in a fit of wishful thinking, the importance of rap in Tunisia to the rest of the Arab world. Like many others, she also claims that El Général’s song “became the anthem of revolutions across the region.” Although activists elsewhere were certainly aware of and inspired by El Général, I have encountered no concrete evidence (but many claims) that demonstrators, in Tahrir Square or Pearl Square or Benghazi or Sanaa or Damascus, were chanting the lines of “Rais Lebled.” Instead, these activists were, for the most part, inventing their own slogans or putting pan-Arab slogans to their own uses. And for the most part, it was not in the form of hip-hop.

But it’s not just that observers like Wright have imposed the example of El Général on other Arab uprisings. Many Westerners, from all parts of the political spectrum, also seem to be cheered whenever Arabs adopt “our” cultural forms and become more familiar, whenever they seem more like “us.” The cheerleading that has erupted over Arab/Muslim rap in the wake of the Arab Spring also has important valences with the US government’s cultural diplomacy efforts that developed post-9/11, which have involved campaigns, aimed at Arab/Muslim youth, to export US culture as a counterweight to extremist trends. As Hishaam Aidi has documented in a recent article, State Department-sponsored good will tours of US hip-hop artists to the region have been a key element of these efforts to improve the US image and to win over Arab and Muslim youths.

Wright seems unable to see the ironies in her embrace of Arab/Islamic hip-hop and her claims that “in the Islamic world, hip-hop serves the same function that rap did when it emerged in the 1970s among young American blacks in the South Bronx. The original hip-hop street parties were a reaction to years of black violence.” While it is true that, in its origins, hip-hop was an alternative to gangbanging, hip-hop was also an affirmative assertion of the vitality of black life and culture, in response to years of systematic economic and security policies that had devastated urban minority communities. Some of the strongest critiques of US racism and what have become known as neoliberal economic policies have emerged out of the US hip-hop scene. To read hip-hop as being, essentially, an alternative to gangs, is as simplistic as imagining that hip-hop in the Arab/Islamic world emerged out of jihadist “hoods.”

The social origins of Arab rap have not been well studied, but they are not simply “ghetto.” In Palestine, for instance, the origins are various. The rap group from Lod, DAM, does in many ways have a “ghetto” origin, but its early raps in fact were aimed at drug dealers and users, not at jihadists. Ramallah Underground, another important Palestinian rap outfit (now split up), is of more middle-class provenance. G-town are from the Jerusalem refugee camp of Shu‘fat, and, like DAM, among the main issues it has confronted are local drugs and crime. Although Wright may be correct to see involvement in rap as an alternative to “suicide bombs” and Molotov cocktails in Palestine, there is no evidence from the corpus of Palestinian rap that rappers have made a point of critiquing such forms of violence (they criticize Israeli violence, for the most part) nor are there strong reasons to think that the relative demise of “suicide bombing” have been enabled by youths’ embrace of rap.

DAM’s Tamer Nafar and a Moroccan rapper named Soultana appear to be the only two Arab rappers that Wright has interviewed for this chapter. (In general, the range and depth of her written sources is not impressive either.) Nafar is a predictable choice, as he has been interviewed by many journalists, ever since the emergence of DAM as a phenomenon, with the release of its 2001 song, “Who’s a Terrorist?” (Western media interest in Palestinian rap precedes attention to “Arab spring” rap, in part because it seemed so “novel.”) While Wright views DAM through the lens of her “counter-jihad” model, I do appreciate the fact that she calls attention to DAM’s continued (at least as of 2007) engagement with Israeli Jewish audiences. It is useful to recall this facet of DAM, given that so many accounts of DAM, particularly coming from Western progressive and Palestine solidarity circles, depict DAM so one-dimensionally, as a “resistance” band.

How does Wright make sense of the economic and political issues that Arab/Muslim hip-hoppers motivate, besides “jihadism.” By and large, she presents the myriad problems facing the Arab/Islamic world as internally driven and mostly ignores any role that Western strategic interest in oil or neoliberal economic policies might play in their emergence and persistence. She also makes much of what observers have called the “youth bulge” -- a high percentage of youth in the population, high youth unemployment and so on. (See my analysis in Middle East Report.) This very conventional and much repeated trope adds to the importance, for Wright, of hip-hop as a youth alternative. As she claims in the case of Palestine, hip-hop fills a “social and communications void” for young Palestinians. Again, her analysis is entirely conventional, replete with truisms, as one might expect for mainstream US media coverage. One might also wonder about the wisdom of pinning so many hopes on hip-hop as a kind of solution to the region’s endemic structural problems.

Wright’s overestimation of the importance and the significance of hip-hop in the Arab uprisings, as noted above, is a sentiment that is not held merely by mainstream US journalists, but also one that has been expressed by a number of progressive allies of the Arab democracy movement. Just because the view is “conventional” doesn’t necessarily make it wrong, but it would behoove progressives to take another look at that assessment, and consider the many other musical trends that have mobilized the Arab movements and expressed their grievances. These, for instance the revival of the music of Egypt’s legendary leftist singer Sheikh Imam, have been largely ignored. Let’s give them the attention they deserve.