Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

United States

The University of Toronto is not known as a particularly progressive institution. Like many universities, it has adopted neoliberal thinking and practice, becoming part of Academia, Inc. But two seemingly unrelated events during the 2014-2015 academic year showcased the increasing political activity of the school’s graduate student body.

Yemeni-American activist Rabyaah al-Thaibani was born in Ta‘izz, Yemen’s largest city, in 1977. She moved to the United States as a child to join her father, who was working nights cleaning office buildings in Manhattan. She grew up in Brooklyn, attended Columbia University and since has worked in community development in New York City. In 2011, she helped establish the Yemeni-American Coalition for Change, and in February 2017 worked to bridge Yemeni and American concerns by co-organizing the Yemeni bodega strike, mounted in protest of President Donald Trump’s first attempt at a “Muslim ban.” A named plaintiff in New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s effort to challenge the second “Muslim ban” in court, al-Thaibani agreed to talk with MERIP about how her childhood in Yemen and her experience as part of a wide Yemeni diaspora have influenced her activism in the US. She also spoke about what she would like outsiders to appreciate about Yemen and its current conflict. In a wide-ranging conversation of more than two hours with Stacey Philbrick Yadav, associate professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, al-Thaibani described the connections she sees between her home and her homeland, the optimism she feels about Americans’ “accidental awakening” since Trump’s election, and the ways in which Yemenis are represented in American policy debates. The following is an edited excerpt of the conversation.

The Travel Ban and Iranian-Americans

Semira Nikou 05.9.2017
By the end of his first few weeks in office, President Donald Trump had managed to rile up most everyone in the country who was not agitated already. Of the many unsettling Trump initiatives, one of the most contentious has been his effort to make good on campaign...

From the Editor (Summer 2016)

The new American-Israeli military aid package, in short, is another grim reminder that US stewardship of the Israeli-Palestinian file has functioned not only to frustrate peace but also to consolidate the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and deepen its...

The Palestine Exception to Free Speech in America

Joshua Stacher 02.17.2016

Omar Shakir and Megan Marzec came to northeastern Ohio last week to discuss the constraints on speech about research and activism with regard to Palestinian rights. Their host was the Northeast Ohio Consortium on Middle East Studies (NOCMES).

Letter to Bernie, II

Joel Beinin 02.15.2016

Dear Sen. Sanders,

I’m a contributor to your campaign and enthusiastically support your bold, relentless critique of the billionaire class that is undermining democracy and making a decent life impossible for millions of people. I’d like you to speak more about how big money has been a destructive force in shaping our foreign policy as much, if not more, than our domestic policies. Perhaps no issue exemplifies this problem like Israel-Palestine.

Letter to Bernie

The Editors 02.11.2016

Dear Sen. Sanders,

Congratulations on your strong showing in Iowa and your victory in New Hampshire.

It’s exciting to see Democratic primary voters—especially younger ones—choosing your program of social democracy over the unfettered liberal capitalism to which they’ve always been told there’s no alternative. They’re making that choice even though you call yourself a “socialist” and refuse to disavow the label amid the corporate media’s sneers. Imagine that—voters think they should decide who’s electable.

Have Yourself Some Anti-Refugee Hysteria

Chris Toensing 12.9.2015

As holiday shoppers empty their wallets to buy presents for family and friends, there’s been an outbreak of miserliness among our politicians—directed at some of the world’s most helpless people.

At least 30 Republican governors, and one Democrat, are vowing to bar Syrian refugees from their states. One family was actually turned away at the Indiana state line when the local resettlement agency got a nasty phone call from the authorities.

Ahmed Mohamed, Liberal Rhetoric and Obama Administration Propaganda

Leili Kashani 09.28.2015

Most readers will know by now that a 14-year-old kid named Ahmed Mohamed was recently arrested in Irving, Texas for, well, for making a clock while Muslim. Ahmed, an aspiring engineer and a robotics enthusiast, had built a simple digital clock and brought it to his ninth-grade high school classes, hoping to impress his teachers. Instead, one of them called the cops on him, and with the consent of the school principal, five police officers arrested him and took him to a detention center in handcuffs. Ahmed has reported that one officer he’d never seen before looked at him and said, “Yup.

We Can—and Should—Do More to Help Syrian Refugees

Chris Toensing 09.16.2015

Imagine that 58 million Americans were streaming into Canada and Mexico, many with only a small satchel and the clothes on their backs. Picture another 102 million residents of the Eastern seaboard seeking refuge with relatives in the Midwest and West.

That terrifying mental exercise gives a sense of the sheer, staggering scale of the Syrian refugee crisis.

Half of Syria’s pre-war population of 22 million has been uprooted since the country’s horrendous civil war broke out in late 2011. Over 4 million people have escaped to neighboring countries and beyond, while an additional 7 million or so are displaced within the country.

An Extraordinary Feat of Diplomacy

Chris Toensing 08.5.2015

The nuclear agreement with Iran is an extraordinary feat of diplomacy.

First and foremost, non-proliferation experts agree that the deal blocks all of the routes to making an atomic bomb. There are provisions for rigorous inspections—so if Iran cheats, the world will know.

Second, it isn’t just Washington to whom the Iranians are accountable. All five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and Germany too, signed alongside the United States. The UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, will monitor Iranian activities on the great powers’ behalf.

Slahi, Guantanamo Diary

Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary is a powerful indictment of the cruel regime of torture at the heart of darkness that is the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay.

Migrant Workers and the US Military in the Middle East

Over the past 15 years, the United States has waged two major land wars in the greater Middle East with hundreds of thousands of ground troops. Shadowing these armies and rivaling them in size has been a labor force of private contractors. The security company once called Blackwater has played an outsize role in the wide-ranging debate about the privatization of war and attendant concerns of corruption, waste and human rights abuses. But this debate has also largely overlooked a crucial fact: While Blackwater was founded and largely staffed by retired US military personnel, the vast majority of the overseas contractor work force is not American.

From the Editors (Summer 2015)

No publication based in Washington should write about prisons without first noting that America leads the world in incarceration.

Breaking Even, Breaking Down or Going for Broke?

Karen Pfeifer 05.22.2015

As of mid-May 2015, crude oil prices had fallen to the lowest level in recent years, under $60 a barrel for US domestic benchmark West Texas Intermediate (WTI) and about $66 a barrel for the international Brent benchmark. These market prices are compared to several types of “break-even” prices and affect decision-making by oil producers at several levels: whether price covers just production costs or incorporates a satisfactory level of profit, whether budgets balance and whether long-term capital investment is attractive.

Repression and Remembering in Kent and Cairo

Joshua Stacher 05.5.2015

Yesterday was the forty-fifth anniversary of the day when Ohio National Guardsmen fired 67 rounds of live ammunition into a crowd of peaceful protesters at Kent State University. The crime took 13 seconds. The tragedy endures.

As usual, the campus I call home closed for half of Remembrance Day. Many separate remembrances take place each May 4, as well as in the days leading up to it. Student organizations, such as the May 4 Task Force, remain vigilant and active even if the student body’s politics have quieted and atomized since 1970.

The Yemeni UFW Martyr

In the summer of 2014, director Diego Luna released Cesar Chavez, a feature-length retelling of the story of the 1973 grape pickers’ strike in California that inspired an international grape boycott and made Cesar Chavez a household name. In the film, the first person killed on a farm worker picket line was a Mexican bracero named Juan de la Cruz. In fact, de la Cruz was the third of five “United Farm Worker martyrs” to die violent deaths struggling for social justice in the vast fields of American agribusiness. The first was Nan Freeman, a young Jewish student helping a sugarcane strike in Florida, and the second was a Yemeni migrant called Nagi Daifallah.

The Long Shadow of the CIA at Guantanamo

‘Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a designated “high-value detainee” in US government parlance, is on trial in the Guantánamo Bay military commissions. The 49-year old Saudi Arabian is accused of directing the October 2000 al-Qaeda suicide boat bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Aden, Yemen, which killed 17 sailors and injured 40 more, and a failed plan to bomb the USS Sullivans. Five other high-value detainees, including alleged “mastermind” Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, are being tried together for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. All six could face the death penalty if convicted.

Ferguson to Palestine

The world’s attention again shines on Ferguson, MO, where Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American 18-year old was shot by white police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014. This time, the occasion is the grand jury’s failure to indict the officer. There will be no trial. There will be no opportunity for Brown’s family to defend their son’s reputation and see justice served.

Title VI and Middle East Studies

Bekah Wolf 11.14.2014

In the past few years, pro-Israel groups have mounted an escalating and concerted effort to set the contours of scholarly debate about Israel on American campuses. This fall, two such organizations, the AMCHA Initiative and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, are lobbying Congress and the Department of Education to punish Middle East studies centers that present alternatives to staunchly pro-Israel viewpoints. The lobbying campaign demands that the Education Department stop federal funding to these centers under Title VI of the Higher Education Act or engage in intrusive oversight of the departments to assure the prevalence of viewpoints more sympathetic to Israeli government policies. The Higher Education Act is up for Congressional reauthorization this year.

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