Thursday, November 27, 2014

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Wahhabism to ISIS: how Saudi Arabia exported the main source of global terrorism


Although IS is certainly an Islamic movement, it is neither typical nor mired in the distant past, because its roots are in Wahhabism, a form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia that developed only in the 18th century.

As the so-called Islamic State demolishes nation states set up by the Europeans almost a century ago, IS’s obscene savagery seems to epitomise the violence that many believe to be inherent in religion in general and Islam in particular. It also suggests that the neoconservative ideology that inspired the Iraq war was delusory, since it assumed that the liberal nation state was an inevitable outcome of modernity and that, once Saddam’s dictatorship had gone, Iraq could not fail to become a western-style democracy. Instead, IS, which was born in the Iraq war and is intent on restoring the premodern autocracy of the caliphate, seems to be reverting to barbarism. On 16 November, the militants released a video showing that they had beheaded a fifth western hostage, the American aid worker Peter Kassig, as well as several captured Syrian soldiers. Some will see the group’s ferocious irredentism as proof of Islam’s chronic inability to embrace modern values.
Yet although IS is certainly an Islamic movement, it is neither typical nor mired in the distant past, because its roots are in Wahhabism, a form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia that developed only in the 18th century. In July 2013, the European Parliament identified Wahhabism as the main source of global terrorism, and yet the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, condemning IS in the strongest terms, has insisted that “the ideas of extremism, radicalism and terrorism do not belong to Islam in any way”. Other members of the Saudi ruling class, however, look more kindly on the movement, applauding its staunch opposition to Shiaism and for its Salafi piety, its adherence to the original practices of Islam. This inconsistency is a salutary reminder of the impossibility of making accurate generalisations about any religious tradition. In its short history, Wahhabism has developed at least two distinct forms, each of which has a wholly different take on violence.
During the 18th century, revivalist movements sprang up in many parts of the Islamic world as the Muslim imperial powers began to lose control of peripheral territories. In the west at this time, we were beginning to separate church from state, but this secular ideal was a radical innovation: as revolutionary as the commercial economy that Europe was concurrently devising. No other culture regarded religion as a purely private activity, separate from such worldly pursuits as politics, so for Muslims the political fragmentation of their society was also a religious problem. Because the Quran had given them a sacred mission – to build a just economy in which everybody was treated with equity and respect – the political well-being of the umma(“community”) was always a matter of sacred import. If the poor were oppressed, the vulnerable exploited or state institutions corrupt, Muslims were obliged to make every effort to put society back on track.
So the 18th-century reformers were convinced that if Muslims were to regain lost power and prestige, they must return to the fundamentals of their faith, ensuring that God – rather than materialism or worldly ambition – dominated the political order. There was nothing militant about this “fundamentalism”; rather, it was a grass-roots attempt to reorient society and did not involve jihad. One of the most influential of these revivalists was Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-91), a learned scholar of Najd in central Arabia, whose teachings still inspire Muslim reformers and extremists today. He was especially concerned about the popular cult of saints and the idolatrous rituals at their tombs, which, he believed, attributed divinity to mere mortals. He insisted that every single man and woman should concentrate instead on the study of the Quran and the “traditions” (hadith) about the customary practice (Sunnah) of the Prophet and his companions. Like Luther, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab wanted to return to the earliest teachings of his faith and eject all later medieval accretions. He therefore opposed Sufism and Shiaism as heretical innovations (bidah), and he urged all Muslims to reject the learned exegesis developed over the centuries by the ulema (“scholars”) and interpret the texts for themselves.
This naturally incensed the clergy and threatened local rulers, who believed that interfering with these popular devotions would cause social unrest. Eventually, however, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab found a patron in Muhammad Ibn Saud, a chieftain of Najd who adopted his ideas. But tension soon developed between the two because Ibn Abd al-Wahhab refused to endorse Ibn Saud’s military campaigns for plunder and territory, insisting that jihad could not be waged for personal profit but was permissible only when the umma was attacked militarily. He also forbade the Arab custom of killing prisoners of war, the deliberate destruction of property and the slaughter of civilians, including women and children. Nor did he ever claim that those who fell in battle were martyrs who would be rewarded with a high place in heaven, because a desire for such self-aggrandisement was incompatible with jihad. Two forms of Wahhabism were emerging: where Ibn Saud was happy to enforce Wahhabi Islam with the sword to enhance his political position, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab insisted that education, study and debate were the only legitimate means of spreading the one true faith.
Yet although scripture was so central to Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s ideology, by insisting that his version of Islam alone had validity, he had distorted the Quranic message. The Quran firmly stated that “There must be no coercion in matters of faith” (2:256), ruled that Muslims must believe in the revelations of all the great prophets (3:84) and that religious pluralism was God’s will (5:48). Muslims had, therefore, been traditionally wary of takfir, the practice of declaring a fellow Muslim to be an unbeliever (kafir). Hitherto Sufism, which had developed an outstanding appreciation of other faith traditions, had been the most popular form of Islam and had played an important role in both social and religious life. “Do not praise your own faith so exclusively that you disbelieve all the rest,” urged the great mystic Ibn al-Arabi (d.1240). “God the omniscient and omnipresent cannot be confined to any one creed.” It was common for a Sufi to claim that he was a neither a Jew nor a Christian, nor even a Muslim, because once you glimpsed the divine, you left these man-made distinctions behind.
Despite his rejection of other forms of Islam, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab himself refrained from takfir, arguing that God alone could read the heart, but after his death Wahhabis cast this inhibition aside and the generous pluralism of Sufism became increasingly suspect in the Muslim world.
After his death, too, Wahhabism became more violent, an instrument of state terror. As he sought to establish an independent kingdom, Abd al-Aziz Ibn Muhammad, Ibn Saud’s son and successor, used takfir to justify the wholesale slaughter of resistant populations. In 1801, his army sacked the holy Shia city of Karbala in what is now Iraq, plundered the tomb of Imam Husain, and slaughtered thousands of Shias, including women and children; in 1803, in fear and panic, the holy city of Mecca surrendered to the Saudi leader.
Eventually, in 1815, the Ottomans despatched Muhammad Ali Pasha, governor of Egypt, to crush the Wahhabi forces and destroy their capital. But Wahhabism became a political force once again during the First World War when the Saudi chieftain – another Abd al-Aziz – made a new push for statehood and began to carve out a large kingdom for himself in the Middle East with his devout Bedouin army, known as the Ikhwan, the “Brotherhood”.
In the Ikhwan we see the roots of IS. To break up the tribes and wean them from the nomadic life, which was deemed incompatible with Islam, the Wahhabi clergy had settled the Bedouin in oases, where they learned farming and the crafts of sedentary life and were indoctrinated in Wahhabi Islam. Once they exchanged the time-honoured ghazu raid, which typically resulted in the plunder of livestock, for the jihad, these Bedouin fighters became more violent and extreme, covering their faces when they encountered Europeans and non-Saudi Arabs and fighting with lances and swords because they disdained weaponry not used by the Prophet. In the old ghazu raids, the Bedouin had always kept casualties to a minimum and did not attack non-combatants. Now the Ikhwan routinely massacred “apostate” unarmed villagers in their thousands, thought nothing of slaughtering women and children, and routinely slit the throats of all male captives.
In 1915, Abd al-Aziz planned to conquer the Hijaz (an area in the west of present-day Saudi Arabia that includes the cities of Mecca and Medina), the Persian Gulf to the east of Najd, and the land that is now Syria and Jordan in the north, but during the 1920s he tempered his ambitions in order to acquire diplomatic standing as a nation state with Britain and the United States. The Ikhwan, however, continued to raid the British protectorates of Iraq, Transjordan and Kuwait, insisting that no limits could be placed on jihad. Regarding all modernisation as bidah, the Ikhwan also attacked Abd al-Aziz for permitting telephones, cars, the telegraph, music and smoking – indeed, anything unknown in Muhammad’s time – until finally Abd al-Aziz quashed their rebellion in 1930.
After the defeat of the Ikhwan, the official Wahhabism of the Saudi kingdom abandoned militant jihad and became a religiously conservative movement, similar to the original movement in the time of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, except that takfir was now an accepted practice and, indeed, essential to the Wahhabi faith. Henceforth there would always be tension between the ruling Saudi establishment and more radical Wahhabis. The Ikhwan spirit and its dream of territorial expansion did not die, but gained new ground in the 1970s, when the kingdom became central to western foreign policy in the region. Washington welcomed the Saudis’ opposition to Nasserism (the pan-Arab socialist ideology of Egypt’s second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser) and to Soviet influence. After the Iranian Revolution, it gave tacit support to the Saudis’ project of countering Shia radicalism by Wahhabising the entire Muslim world.
The soaring oil price created by the 1973 embargo – when Arab petroleum producers cut off supplies to the US to protest against the Americans’ military support for Israel – gave the kingdom all the petrodollars it needed to export its idiosyncratic form of Islam. The old military jihad to spread the faith was now replaced by a cultural offensive. The Saudi-based Muslim World League opened offices in every region inhabited by Muslims, and the Saudi ministry of religion printed and distributed Wahhabi translations of the Quran, Wahhabi doctrinal texts and the writings of modern thinkers whom the Saudis found congenial, such as Sayyids Abul-A’la Maududi and Qutb, to Muslim communities throughout the Middle East, Africa, Indonesia, the United States and Europe. In all these places, they funded the building of Saudi-style mosques with Wahhabi preachers and established madrasas that provided free education for the poor, with, of course, a Wahhabi curriculum. At the same time, young men from the poorer Muslim countries, such as Egypt and Pakistan, who had felt compelled to find work in the Gulf to support their families, associated their relative affluence with Wahhabism and brought this faith back home with them, living in new neighbourhoods with Saudi mosques and shopping malls that segregated the sexes. The Saudis demanded religious conformity in return for their munificence, so Wahhabi rejection of all other forms of Islam as well as other faiths would reach as deeply into Bradford, England, and Buffalo, New York, as into Pakistan, Jordan or Syria: everywhere gravely undermining Islam’s traditional pluralism.
A whole generation of Muslims, therefore, has grown up with a maverick form of Islam that has given them a negative view of other faiths and an intolerantly sectarian understanding of their own. While not extremist per se, this is an outlook in which radicalism can develop. In the past, the learned exegesis of the ulema, which Wahhabis rejected, had held extremist interpretations of scripture in check; but now unqualified freelancers such as Osama Bin Laden were free to develop highly unorthodox readings of the Quran. To prevent the spread of radicalism, the Saudis tried to deflect their young from the internal problems of the kingdom during the 1980s by encouraging a pan-Islamist sentiment of which the Wahhabi ulema did not approve.
Where Islamists in such countries as Egypt fought tyranny and corruption at home, Saudi Islamists focused on the humiliation and oppression of Muslims worldwide. Television brought images of Muslim suffering in Palestine or Lebanon into comfortable Saudi homes. The gov­ernment also encouraged young men to join the steady stream of recruits from the Arab world who were joining the Afghans’ jihad against the Soviet Union. The response of these militants may throw light on the motivation of those joining the jihad in Syria and Iraq today.
A survey of those Saudi men who volunteered for Afghanistan and who later fought in Bosnia and Chechnya or trained in al-Qaeda camps has found that most were motivated not by hatred of the west but by the desire to help their Muslim brothers and sisters – in rather the same way as men from all over Europe left home in 1938 to fight the Fascists in Spain, and as Jews from all over the diaspora hastened to Israel at the beginning of the Six Day War in 1967. The welfare of the umma had always been a spiritual as well as a political concern in Islam, so the desperate plight of their fellow Muslims cut to the core of their religious identity. This pan-Islamist emphasis was also central to Bin Laden’s propaganda, and the martyr-videos of the Saudis who took part in the 9/11 atrocity show that they were influenced less by Wahhabism than by the pain and humiliation of the umma as a whole.
Like the Ikhwan, IS represents a rebellion against the official Wahhabism of modern Saudi Arabia. Its swords, covered faces and cut-throat executions all recall the original Brotherhood. But it is unlikely that the IS hordes consist entirely of diehard jihadists. A substantial number are probably secularists who resent the status quo in Iraq: Ba’athists from Saddam Hussein’s regime and former soldiers of his disbanded army. This would explain IS’s strong performance against professional military forces. In all likelihood, few of the young recruits are motivated either by Wahhabism or by more traditional Muslim ideals. In 2008, MI5’s behavioural science unit noted that, “far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could . . . be regarded as religious novices.” A significant proportion of those convicted of terrorism offences since the 9/11 attacks have been non-observant, or are self-taught, or, like the gunman in the recent attack on the Canadian parliament, are converts to Islam. They may claim to be acting in the name of Islam, but when an untalented beginner tells us that he is playing a Beethoven sonata, we hear only cacophony. Two wannabe jihadists who set out from Birmingham for Syria last May had ordered Islam for Dummies from Amazon.
It would be a mistake to see IS as a throwback; it is, as the British philosopher John Gray has argued, a thoroughly modern movement that has become an efficient, self-financing business with assets estimated at $2bn. Its looting, theft of gold bullion from banks, kidnapping, siphoning of oil in the conquered territories and extortion have made it the wealthiest jihadist group in the world. There is nothing random or irrational about IS violence. The execution videos are carefully and strategically planned to inspire terror, deter dissent and sow chaos in the greater population.
Mass killing is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. During the French Revolution, which led to the emergence of the first secular state in Europe, the Jacobins publicly beheaded about 17,000 men, women and children. In the First World War, the Young Turks slaughtered over a million Armenians, including women, children and the elderly, to create a pure Turkic nation. The Soviet Bolsheviks, the Khmer Rouge and the Red Guard all used systematic terrorism to purge humanity of corruption. Similarly, IS uses violence to achieve a single, limited and clearly defined objective that would be impossible without such slaughter. As such, it is another expression of the dark side of modernity.
The road from Mecca: Saudi Arabia may be the only regional power capable of defeating IS. Photo: Bruno Hadjih/Anzenberger/Eyevine
In 1922, as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk rose to power, he completed the Young Turks’ racial purge by forcibly deporting all Greek-speaking Christians from Turkey; in 1925 he declared null and void the caliphate that IS has vowed to reinstate. The caliphate had long been a dead letter politically, but because it symbolised the unity of the umma and its link with the Prophet, Sunni Muslims mourned its loss as a spiritual and cultural trauma. Yet IS’s projected caliphate has no support among ulema internationally and is derided throughout the Muslim world. That said, the limitations of the nation state are becoming increasingly apparent in our world; this is especially true in the Middle East, which has no tradition of nationalism, and where the frontiers drawn by invaders were so arbitrary that it was well nigh impossible to create a truly national spirit. Here, too, IS is not simply harking back to a bygone age but is, however eccentrically, enunciating a modern concern.
The liberal-democratic nation state developed in Europe in part to serve the Industrial Revolution, which made the ideals of the Enlightenment no longer noble aspirations but practical necessities. It is not ideal: its Achilles heel has always been an inability to tolerate ethnic minorities – a failing responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. In other parts of the world where modernisation has developed differently, other polities may be more appropriate. So the liberal state is not an inevitable consequence of modernity; the attempt to produce democracy in Iraq using the colo­nial methods of invasion, subjugation and occupation could only result in an unnatural birth – and so IS emerged from the resulting mayhem.
IS may have overreached itself; its policies may not be sustainable and it faces determined opposition from Sunni and Shia Muslims alike. Interestingly Saudi Arabia, with its impressive counterterrorist resources, has already thwarted IS attempts to launch a series of attacks in the kingdom and may be the only regional power capable of bringing it down. The shooting in Canada on 22 October, where a Muslim convert killed a soldier at a war memorial, indicates that the blowback in the west has begun; to deal realistically with our situation, we need an informed understanding of the precise and limited role of Islam in the conflict, and to recognise that IS is not an atavistic return to a primitive past, but in some real sense a product of modernity. 
Karen Armstrong is the author of “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence”

SYRIA - More ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists, including a group’s Saudi leader, killed in army operations

The Syrian army and armed forces on Thursday continued their military operations against terrorist organizations across the country, killing large number of their members, including Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists.
Deir Ezzor
Army units destroyed a den and a tunnel which belonged to terrorists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Deir Ezzor, northeastern Syria.
A source in the province told SANA reporter that an army unit destroyed a 30 m long tunnel and a den which belonged to ISIS terrorists in al-Jbeilah neighborhood, west of the city.
A number of ISIS terrorists were killed and others were injured in the operation.
Army units eliminated terrorists, injured others and destroyed their vehicles in al-Hweiqa, al-Rushdiyeh and Hweijet Sakr neighborhoods in Deir Ezzor.
Army units destroyed a number of vehicles and hideouts of terrorists affiliated to Jabhat al-Nusra organization in al-Sheikh Miskeen in the countryside of Daraa province, leaving many of them dead and wounded.
The Saudi terrorist Abu Humam al-Jazrawi, leader of the terrorist organization in al-Sheik Miskeen, and Hamzeh Mahmoud al-Jamous, leader of the so-called “Abu al-Qiyam al-Jawziyeh battalion” were identified among the dead, according to a military source.
The source told SANA that the army also killed several terrorists who were attempting to attack some military posts in the town.
In the same context, other units of the armed forces killed many terrorists, injured others and destroyed a number of their vehicles in the neighborhoods of al-Naziheen camp and al-Kark in Daraa al-Balad in the city.
Other terrorists were targeted to north of al-Bitar farm in the area surrounding Atman town and in al-Mseifra, al-Jizeh and Dael towns in the countryside.
Weapons and ammunition caches for Jabhat al-Nusra were destroyed during army operations against terrorists in some villages and towns in Homs.
The caches, which belonged to Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists, were targeted in Ahmad Salim and Abdulaziz al-Obeid farms near al-Mustafa mosque in al-Rastan in the countryside of the central province, according to a military source.
Another army unit killed and injured terrorists in the area surrounding Gargisa village on the northwestern side of al-Rastan dam, the source told SANA reporter.
A number of terrorists were left dead or wounded and their equipment was destroyed in Khattab, Salam Sharqi and Um Sahrij in the eastern countryside of Homs.
In UM al-Sharshouh village in Talbiseh, northwest of Homs, several terrorists were killed and others were injured during army operations which targeted their gatherings.
Units of the armed forces destroyed several gatherings and hideouts for Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists in the villages of Saqiyet al-Kart, al-Qasatel and al-Qasab in the northern countryside of Lattakia province, killing many of them, the majority of whom were of foreign nationalities.
Terrorists Marwan Janoudi, Ihsan al-Sayyed and Maher Izz Eddin, as well as a number of foreign nationals were identified among the dead.
Army units killed several terrorists and destroyed their vehicles in Handarat, Byanon, al-Shaqif, Bani Zaid, al-Lairamoun, Suleiman al-Halabi, Ma’araset al-Khan, al-Ziyara, Ard al-Malah and al-Kastillo in Aleppo city and its countryside.
Units of the armed forces killed many terrorists and destroyed a number of their vehicles with all those aboard in the towns of al-Majas, Warideh, al-Hmeimat and Abu al-Dhuhour in the countryside of Idleb.

Report: Syria army kills dozens of rebels

Syrian troops have killed 50 fighters in an ambush in the largely rebel-controlled countryside east of Damascus, according to state media.
"An army unit killed 50 terrorists in an ambush while they tried to flee Mediya village," SANA news agency reported on Wednesday, using the standard official term for the rebel fighters.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 30 people, all of them men, had been killed in the operation, which was backed by fighters of Lebanon's Hezbollah.
But the Observatory also added that it could not confirm whether all of the dead were rebel fighters.
A Hezbollah source confirmed that their group's fighters had taken part in the operation and said 30 rebels had been killed.
The Shia group has deployed thousands of fighters to Syria to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government against the mainly Sunni rebels.
The countryside east of Damascus known as Eastern Ghouta has remained largely in the hands of rebel fighters, despite repeated efforts by the army to oust them.
In August 2013, the area was hit by a string of chemical weapons attacks that killed hundreds of people.
The attacks sparked US threats of military action that were defused only by the Syrian government's agreement to dismantle its chemical arsenal.

Video Report - Iran's Gender Apartheid - women without rights

U.S. - Ferguson police shooting - LAPD: Arrested protesters to be released by dinner

By Associated Press

Demonstrators who can’t make bail after being arrested during Los Angeles protests linked to the Ferguson police shooting will be released in time for Thanksgiving dinner, police said Thursday. About 90 people remained in jail after being arrested late Wednesday, and those who weren’t able to pay the $500 bail were to be released on their own recognizance, LAPD Commander Andrew Smith said. A total of 338 people were arrested over three days during protests in Los Angeles, including 145 on Wednesday. Those with outstanding warrants or who were arrested on suspicion of a felony will not be released, but those taken in for disturbing the peace and failure to disperse — both misdemeanors — will be freed, Smith said. Many of them would have otherwise remained in custody until Monday, when courts reopen after the holiday weekend. “We have the legal right to keep them until Monday but it’s the holidays,” Smith said. Another 35 people were arrested in Oakland on Wednesday following a march that deteriorated into vandalism. On Monday and Tuesday, some demonstrators in Oakland vandalized businesses and blocked freeways. During the demonstration Wednesday in Los Angeles, people marched to a federal building and police headquarters but were turned away by police after heading toward the county jail and then the Staples Center arena. Nine people were arrested for sitting in a bus lane on U.S. 101 near downtown during one of the busiest driving days of the year.

Scuffles, arrests as pro-Ferguson NYC activists disrupt Thanksgiving parade

A group of activists has taken action against the Ferguson grand jury verdict in New York by disrupting an annual Thanksgiving parade in a planned #stoptheparade flash mob. At least seven people have been arrested, police say.

Video Report - Bridging the divide among Americans over race and justice

Why Did President Obama Appoint Chuck Hagel In The First Place?

The question about 
Chuck Hagel isn't why he's leaving. It's why he was appointed in the first place if President Obama had no intention of listening to him.

For all the attention to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s resignation under apparent pressure from President Barack Obama and White House officials, the real questions may be why Mr. Obama appointed him in the first place and what the administration’s handling of Hagel—from start to finish—says about its priorities and the way forward.
Why did President Obama select and then dispose of Hagel? White House spokesman Josh Earnest has essentially said that Hagel was hired to supervise budget cuts and Pentagon reorganization and suggested that the Department of Defense needs different leadership for a war against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). This is revealing in three important respects.
First, notwithstanding Hagel’s prior management experience in the private sector, the USO and the Veteran’s Administration, it is clear that what the administration really wanted was a Republican who would preside over declining defense spending to provide political cover. Who better for the task than a decorated combat veteran like Hagel who was also a former Senator and government and business executive? As quickly became apparent, however, the White House showed stunningly bad political judgment in expecting Hagel—right as he may have been to be skeptical of the war in Iraq and a potential war with Iran—to win easy confirmation. Democrats thought Hagel was a Republican, but (rather unfairly) many Republicans did not.
Second, while it is probably true that new leadership is necessary in the fight against ISIL, the problem seems to be less with the Pentagon’s civilian head but with the commander-in-chief and his close advisors. Few appear to remember that Mr. Obama himself earlier admitted precisely what Hagel was later reportedly complaining about in a memo to National Security Advisor Susan Rice: that the administration did not have a strategy to deal with ISIL. While the administration did develop plans in the intervening period, Hagel was frustrated by enduring and inherent inconsistencies in the White House plan to fight ISIL and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the same time. Thus the same president who said “I came to admire his courage and his judgment, his willingness to speak his mind” in appointing Hagel seemed rather less welcoming of Hagel’s real-world dissent.
Third, the White House has been utterly graceless in its treatment of a man who willingly subjected himself to the nastiest side of American politics in no small part to help President Obama and his administration politically. Hagel obviously wanted the job—so the fact that he was prepared to endure the confirmation process was not strictly an act of noble self-sacrifice—but as a prominent former Senator he could likely have found several more pleasant ways to spend the last two years. Instead, he endured mean-spirited personal attacks, often from interventionists in his own party who disagreed with his more calibrated approach to foreign policy or questioned his support for Israel, in order to win Senate confirmation. (Of course, Hagel’s purported comments about Israel now look quite friendly in comparison those of White House advisors using profanity to refer to Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. Some outside observers even view him as Israel’s closest partner in the administration). Despite all this, anonymous senior officials are attacking Hagel’s performance and his reputation rather than allowing the president’s positive comments in his formal remarks to stand on their own. Chuck Hagel deserved much better from the president and the administration he served. This diminishes Mr. Obama.

Finding a Replacement Could Prove Challenging

It is unsurprising that administration officials have focused attention on former Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy as potential successors to Hagel. While both look like competent and respected public servants, and each has already served in the administration, neither has the kind of high profile that would allow a significant challenge to White House (in the person of National Security Advisor Susan Rice) micromanagement of the Pentagon on ISIL and other issues.
More startling is that President Obama and Ms. Rice would readily embrace Senate confirmation hearings for a new Pentagon nominee in the current political environment. It’s not simply the fact that Republicans now control the Senate, that Mr. Obama is well on the way to alienating many Republicans over his executive order on immigration, or even that Senator John McCain—one of the administration’s harshest foreign policy and national security critics—is expected to become Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and therefore to lead the hearings with Hagel’s successor. The big problem for the White House and for its eventual nominee is that the Obama administration’s foreign policy offers far too many opportunities for legitimate and very tough questions. Offering up Mr. Hagel as a sacrifice will not help the administration to dodge this.
More startling is that President Obama and Ms. Rice would readily embrace Senate confirmation hearings for a new Pentagon nominee in the current political environment.Hagel’s query—how to reconcile the administration’s war against ISIL inside Syria with its stated aim of ousting Assad, who currently seems to be one of the principal beneficiaries of U.S. policy—will be only the beginning of the pointed challenges to the president during the confirmation process. (One option would be to focus on the one that threatens U.S. security interests, ISIL, and to put more effort into a political solution in Syria since it should be clear by now that without a level of U.S. involvement that few want, only ISIL can defeat Assad.) The administration’s broader policy toward ISIL remains unclear too.
Beyond this, Mr. Obama’s approach to Russia and Ukraine has been ineffective and lacks well-defined practical goals; what does the administration think that economic sanctions will actually accomplish—and when? In dealing with China, the president has under-resourced a pivot to Asia that in retrospect looks less like a policy and more like an unsuccessful excuse to disengage from the Middle East. Moreover, while continued talks with Iran are probably better than the alternatives, the administration has not clearly articulated how it will prevent Iran from dragging out the process to its strategic advantage, not only by providing Tehran with more time to advance its nuclear program, but also by allowing Iran’s leaders to continue to dangle the prospect of cooperation against ISIL. When is the end of the road and what will happen when we get there?
In the end, for an administration that seems to base so many foreign policy decisions on its political convenience, finding a replacement for Chuck Hagel may prove quite inconvenient indeed.

How the Civil War Created Thanksgiving

Of all the bedtime-story versions of American history we teach, the tidy Thanksgiving pageant may be the one stuffed with the heaviest serving of myth. This iconic tale is the main course in our nation’s foundation legend, complete with cardboard cutouts of bow-carrying Native American cherubs and pint-size Pilgrims in black hats with buckles. And legend it largely is.
In fact, what had been a New England seasonal holiday became more of a “national” celebration only during the Civil War, with Lincoln’s proclamation calling for “a day of thanksgiving” in 1863.
That fall, Lincoln had precious little to be thankful for. The Union victory at Gettysburg the previous July had come at a dreadful cost – a combined 51,000 estimated casualties, with nearly 8,000 dead. Enraged by draft laws and emancipation, rioters in Northern cities like New York went on bloody rampages. And the president and his wife, Mary, were still mourning the loss of their 11-year-old son, Willie, who had died the year before.
So it might seem odd that Lincoln chose this moment to announce a national day of thanksgiving, to be marked on the last Thursday in November. His Oct. 3, 1863, proclamation read: “In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity … peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict.”
But it took another year for the day to really catch hold. In 1864 Lincoln issued a second proclamation, which read, “I do further recommend to my fellow-citizens aforesaid that on that occasion they do reverently humble themselves in the dust.” Around the same time, the heads of Union League clubs – Theodore Roosevelt’s father among them – led an effort to provide a proper Thanksgiving meal, including turkey and mince pies, for Union troops. As the Civil War raged on, four steamers sailed out of New York laden with 400,000 pounds of ham, canned peaches, apples and cakes – and turkeys with all the trimmings. They arrived at Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters in City Point, Va., then one of the busiest ports in the world, to deliver dinner to the Union’s “gallant soldiers and sailors.”
This Thanksgiving delivery was an unprecedented effort – a huge fund-raising and food-collection drive. One soldier said, “It isn’t the turkey, but the idea we care for.”
The good people of nearby Petersburg, Va., had no turkey. Surrounded and besieged by Grant’s armies since June, they were lucky to eat at all. The local flocks of pigeons had all mysteriously disappeared and “starvation parties” were a form of mordant entertainment in this once cosmopolitan town.
What prompted Lincoln to issue these proclamations – the first two in an unbroken string of presidential Thanksgiving proclamations – is uncertain. He was not the first president to do so. George Washington and James Madison had earlier issued “thanksgiving” proclamations, calling for somber days of prayer. Perhaps Lincoln saw an opportunity to underscore shared American traditions – a theme found in the “mystic chords of memory” stretching from “every patriot grave” in his first inaugural.
Or he may have been responding to the passionate entreaties of Sara Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book – the Good Housekeeping of its day. Hale, who contributed to American folkways as the author of “Mary had a Little Lamb,” had been advocating in the magazine for a national day of Thanksgiving since 1837. Even as many states had begun to observe Thanksgiving, she wrote in 1860, “It will no longer be a partial and vacillating commemoration of our gratitude to our Heavenly Father, observed in one section or State, while other portions of our common country do not sympathize in the gratitude and gladness.”
So how did the lore of that Pilgrim repast get connected to Lincoln’s wartime proclamations?
The Plymouth “first Thanksgiving” dates from an October 1621 harvest celebration, an event at which the surviving passengers of the Mayflower – about half of the approximately 100 on board — were able to mark their communal harvest with a shared feast. By the account of the Pilgrim leader Edward Winslow, this event was no simple sit-down dinner, but a three-day revel. “Amongst other recreations,” Winslow wrote, “we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation.”
There is nothing novel or uniquely American — and nothing especially “Pilgrim”– about giving thanks for a successful harvest. Certainly it has been done by people throughout history and surely by earlier Europeans in America as well as Native Americans.
But New Englanders, who had long marked a Founders Day as a celebration of the Pilgrim and Puritan arrivals, began to move across America and took this tradition – and their singular version of history — with them. Essentially a churchgoing day with a meal that followed, the celebration of that legendary feast gradually evolved into the Thanksgiving we know.
Eventually, it was commingled with Lincoln’s first proclamation. During the post-Civil War period, the iconic Thanksgiving meal and the connection to the Pilgrims were cemented in the popular imagination, through artistic renderings of black-cloaked, churchgoing, gun-toting Puritans, a militant, faithful past that most likely rang familiar for many Civil War Americans.
But one crucial piece remained: The elevation of Thanksgiving to a true national holiday, a feat accomplished by Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1939, with the nation still struggling out of the Great Depression, the traditional Thanksgiving Day fell on the last day of the month – a fifth Thursday. Worried retailers, for whom the holiday had already become the kickoff to the Christmas shopping season, feared this late date. Roosevelt agreed to move his holiday proclamation up one week to the fourth Thursday, thereby extending the critical shopping season.
Some states stuck to the traditional last Thursday date, and other Thanksgiving traditions, such as high school and college football championships, had already been scheduled. This led to Roosevelt critics deriding the earlier date as “Franksgiving.” With 32 states joining Roosevelt’s “Democratic Thanksgiving, ” 16 others stuck with the traditional date, or “Republican Thanksgiving.” After some congressional wrangling, in December 1941, Roosevelt signed the legislation making Thanksgiving a legal holiday on the fourth Thursday in November. And there it has remained.

Calm comes to troubled Ferguson, mass arrests at California rallies

Tensions eased in the St Louis suburb of Ferguson on Thursday after two nights of violence and looting sparked by racially charged anger over a grand jury's decision not to charge a white police officer for fatally shooting an unarmed black teenager.
Protests also dwindled elsewhere in the United States as the Thanksgiving Day holiday and wintry weather kept many indoors. But in California, about 500 people were arrested in rallies over the past two days that shut highways in major cities.
Ferguson became the focal point of a national debate on race relations after officer Darren Wilson shot dead Michael Brown on Aug. 9. The U.S. Justice Department is probing possible civil rights abuses, and President Barack Obama has called for reflection on the difficulties minorities face in the country.
Police said two people were arrested in overnight protests in Ferguson and no major incidents were reported. The grand jury's decision on Monday not to charge Wilson sparked angry protests, and more than 100 people were taken into custody on Monday and Tuesday nights as buildings were torched and stores looted, with police in riot gear using tear gas to disperse crowds.
A small but spirited congregation assembled at the Greater St. Mark Family Church, a gathering point for protesters and religious leaders, for a Thanksgiving service where many offered appreciation for their blessings after a tumultuous week.
"My prayers go out to the Brown family. My prayers also go out to the Wilson family," said pastor Tommie Pierson. "We live in a country of laws. But there has to be a law that governs us all."
Ferguson is a predominantly black city where almost all of the political leaders and police are white.
In Los Angeles, a city rocked by racial violence in 1992 after the acquittal of white police officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King, about 145 protesters were arrested on Wednesday evening. Most were taken into custody for failing to disperse, police spokesman Commander Andrew Smith said on Thursday.
The latest arrests bring to more than 300 the total number of people taken into custody in Los Angeles in demonstrations related to the grand jury's decision. About 170 have been arrested in Oakland protests.
In New York, protesters outraged over the Ferguson decision said on social media they would disrupt the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade through Manhattan. At least seven people were arrested during the event, said New York Police Detective Annette Markowski.
Details on the arrests, including the charges, were not immediately available, she said.
Overseas, protesters held up banners reading "Solidarity with Ferguson" and "Black Lives Matter" outside the U.S. Embassy in London.
In Ferguson, businesses were boarded-up or burned along a mile-long stretch of West Florissant Avenue, which bore the brunt of Monday’s lawlessness, and downtown streets between the police department and City Hall.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, who declared a state of emergency before the grand jury decision, has deployed about 2,200 National Guard troops to the Ferguson area to quell violence.
Wilson, who was placed on administrative leave, has said he acted in self-defense, out of fear for his life, when he shot Brown. Brown's family said he acted with malice and should stand trial.

U.S. - A glance at Ferguson: Then, now and the future

 — Thanksgiving started quietly in Ferguson, following protests Wednesday night that drew the smallest crowd since a grand jury's decision not to indict a white police officer in the death of Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old.
Community members decorated boarded-up windows Thursday, and some went to a church service where prayers were said for the family members of Brown and Darren Wilson, the white Ferguson officer who shot the unarmed Brown during a struggle Aug. 9.
Meanwhile, a few cars drove through downtown St. Louis on Thursday morning for what the organizer called a "pro-community" car cruise. Paul Byrd would not specifically say whether he supported Wilson, but he noted he supports the job of police officers, adding, "Those causing the trouble are making a bad name for everyone."
Dozens protested Wednesday night outside the Ferguson Police Department, but there were no major confrontations with the Guard troops standing watch. St. Louis County police said there were only two arrests — fewer than earlier in the week as buildings were set on fire and vandalized.
Some demonstrations across the country weren't as subdued as in Ferguson. At least 130 people who refused to disperse during a Los Angeles protest were arrested Wednesday night, while 35 people were detained in Oakland, California, following a march that deteriorated into unrest and vandalism.
THE BEGINNING: Wilson shot and killed Brown shortly after noon in the middle of the street after a scuffle. Brown's body lay there for hours as police investigated and a crowd of angry onlookers gathered. Several days of tense protests in the predominantly black community followed, prompting Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon to call in the National Guard. McCulloch decided to present the case to a grand jury.
THE ANNOUNCEMENT: Made up of nine white people and three black people, the grand jury met 25 days over three months, and heard more than 70 hours of testimony from 60 witnesses. McCulloch held a news conference Monday night to reveal the decision.
THE DOCUMENTS: More than 1,000 pages of grand jury documents were released Monday, including Wilson's full testimony in which he described the scuffle in his patrol car and recognizing the cigars in Brown's hand as possibly being connected to a report of a convenience store robbery. Wilson also said that Brown approached him: "And when he gets about ... 8 to 10 feet away ... all I see is his head and that's what I shot."
THE FINAL SAY? The U.S. Justice Department has its own investigation into possible civil rights violations that could result in federal charges for Wilson, but investigators would need to satisfy a rigorous standard of proof. The department also has launched a broad probe into the Ferguson Police Department.

Video - 'We are Mike Brown!' Ferguson protesters rally in St. Louis mall

Video - Who started the presidential turkey pardon? - Nov 26, 2014 -

Video - President Obama pardons Thanksgiving turkey


Video Report - In Northwest Pakistan, Riders Revive Ancient Game Of Neza Bazi

Pakistani horsemen showed off their equestrian skills in the game of neza bazi -- known in English as tent pegging -- at a recent tournament in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. Though the sport has its roots in military maneuvers, organizers said they wanted the event to send a message of peace.

Assessing India's position on NATO's Afghanistan pullout

Just weeks before NATO combat troops leave Afghanistan, neighboring India and Pakistan are vying for influence in the war-torn nation. Analyst Michael Kugelman talks to DW about New Delhi's view of the impending pullout.
After 13 years in Afghanistan, NATO combat troops are set to leave the South Asian nation by the end of the year. But in light of a revived insurgency and high-profile attacks in the capital, Kabul, there are still doubts that Afghan forces can properly secure the country on their own. This is why many hope that the residual international troop presence - about 10,000 strong - set to remain in the country post 2014 will help address this issue.
Moreover, in the latest sign of support, US President Barack Obama recently broadened the mission, allowing US troops to once again engage Taliban fighters, and not just al Qaeda terrorists, according to the Associated Press. The armed forces were initially to limit their operations in Afghanistan to counter-terrorism missions after this year, until Obama broadened the guidelines in recent weeks, the news agency reported citing administration officials.
But analysts are of the view that much more will be needed to truly secure the vast country, especially as the actions of neighboring countries are also believed to be crucial. One of these nations, Pakistan, is believed to support the Taliban with money and equipment and use the militants as a means to maintain a political influence in Afghanistan.
Moreover, Islamabad has been locked in a decades-long struggle with neighboring India for strategic influence and a foothold in the war-torn country. Earlier this year, New Delhi announced a two billion USD aid package for Afghanistan - the biggest India has ever given to another country.
Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, says in a DW interview that while the impending withdrawal of foreign combat troops poses a set of potential security risks for India, it also presents an opportunity to establish deeper ties with Afghanistan.
DW: What role has India played in the development of Afghanistan over the past 13 years?
Michael Kugelman: It's an undeniable fact that India has played a critical role in Afghanistan's recent development. To be sure, the likes of the US and EU have contributed more money, and the likes of China have been on the ground engaging in heavy infrastructure and natural resource projects. But India has quietly gone about helping Afghanistan through economic investment, trade, and - of particular importance - training and advising of the fragile Afghan security forces.
What has really transformed India into a critical bilateral partner of Afghanistan is the strategic partnership agreement signed a few years back, which involves close and frequent cooperation. It also entails a strong Indian presence in Afghanistan, mainly in a diplomatic and economic sense, which certainly does not sit well with India's rival, Pakistan.
What does the NATO pullout from Afghanistan mean for India?
I think that the obvious response here is that the pullout spells trouble for India's security interests, because we can assume that the pullout will aggravate an already troubled security situation in Afghanistan - and empower actors like the Taliban that violently oppose India and Indians in Afghanistan.
That said, opportunities do proliferate. With a smaller foreign military presence in Afghanistan, the country will need stepped-up external assistance. New Delhi - with its status as a strategic partner of Kabul - will certainly be looked upon as a key provider. India will have opportunities to ramp up its investments in Afghanistan - particularly in critical sectors such as minerals. It will also have opportunities to further deepen its military relations with Afghanistan.
Given Indian concerns about provoking Pakistan, such efforts would likely remain limited to training and advising Afghan security forces. Nonetheless, given India's desire to be recognized as a rising and responsible global power, a more visible role in Afghanistan - especially one that can grow into a leadership role - would certainly serve New Delhi's interests quite well.
What are the risks involved for India after the pullout?
There are many, the chief one being that non-state actors hostile to India will be emboldened and have more space to ramp up their operations - and perhaps even to target India in attacks.
I think there is a very real risk that the tenor and intensity of militancy playing out in Afghanistan and Pakistan could start to play out on the India-Pakistan border as well - and perhaps even inside India. With many foreign troops leaving Afghanistan, some militants currently fighting these foreign troops - militants such as those with Lashkar-e-Taiba, a group that at its core is anti-India - could be deprived of a target and therefore look to India as its next target.
Additionally, a number of anti-India militant leaders who have been rather silent and low-key in recent years seem to be using the withdrawal as an excuse to burst back on to the scene. Most prominently, the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, based in Pakistan, has materialized this year and threatened to kill PM Narendra Modi, and to send suicide bombers into India.
Another risk is that the India-Pakistan rivalry will intensify. Islamabad and New Delhi are both concerned about what the other does in Afghanistan, and yet both of these countries will likely be doing much more in the post-2014 environment.
What position does newly-elected President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani have on India and Pakistan?
Ghani and the new Afghan government represent a sea change from the last Afghan administration. While Ghani is certainly friendly to India, he lacks the deep, long-time ties of his predecessor.
As for Pakistan, Ghani's brief time in power has been notable for the extraordinary improvement in relations with Pakistan. Not only did he visit Islamabad, but Pakistan's army chief, Raheel Sharif, visited him in Kabul - a visit that yielded a surprising agreement from Afghanistan to crack down on anti-Pakistan militants based on Afghan soil. Karzai, by contrast, had a very toxic relationship with the Pakistanis and the bilateral relationship deteriorated.
Of course, what remains to be seen is what happens next year. If Afghanistan believes Pakistan is starting to tighten its embrace of its traditional Taliban and Haqqani network proxies, then all the goodwill from General Sharif's recent visit to Kabul could quickly go up in smoke.
The most likely result is that Afghanistan will maintain its good relationship with India, and that its relationship with Pakistan may improve a bit - but only to some extent. The Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship is fraught with too much mistrust to be magically revitalized by the new leadership in Kabul.
How is Indian PM Narendra Modi seeking to increase his country's influence in Afghanistan?
One of the biggest questions for the geopolitics of South Asia in the post-2014 era is how far will Modi be willing to take India's relationship with Afghanistan. The answer really depends on India's ties with Pakistan. If bilateral relations improve, then Modi would have an incentive not to provoke Pakistan. If bilateral relations get worse - and there's good reason to think they could - then Modi would feel no need to be as cautious.
Then again, Modi is a nationalist - not just in the Hindu nationalist sense, but also in the sense of a patriot who doesn't want to endanger Indian lives. By deepening India's military relationship with Afghanistan, he could put the lives of Indians in Afghanistan at even greater risk than they already are. And this is something he certainly would not want.
What do Indians make of the relationship between Pakistan and the US?
I would argue that Indians are more unhappy about the US' constant courtship of Pakistan than they are about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. For many Indians, it also doesn't make sense that the US would want good relations with a country that, thanks to its policies in Afghanistan, imperils US interests and American lives.
I think the US-Pakistan relationship will be downsized after the pullout. As long as the US has had troops fighting in Afghanistan, there has been a need for Washington to seek Pakistani assistance - from getting permission to use supply routes, to cracking down on militants on its territory. However, with most US troops headed for the exits in Afghanistan, the US will no longer have as much of an incentive to work with Pakistan, and it likely won't have as much tolerance and patience for Pakistani policies that the US finds troubling.
That said, the relationship will continue. Many influential people in Washington believe that Pakistan has tremendous strategic significance for reasons having nothing to do with Afghanistan.
Cooperation will continue, in limited form. Aid will continue as well, though likely in lower amounts than before. With Barack Obama's reported decision to extend the combat mission of some US troops in Afghanistan beyond this year, there is an even greater incentive for keeping the US-Pakistan relationship alive in 2015.
How likely is it that Afghanistan will become the ground for a proxy war between the two nuclear-armed neighbors?
Afghanistan is already the site of an intense rivalry between India and Pakistan. However, India is not in the business of using non-state actors in Afghanistan to weaken Pakistan, and certainly not through violent means. I think if we want to talk about a potential proxy war in Afghanistan, it would involve Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Each country has accused the other of sheltering, and offering sanctuary to, militants that launch cross-border attacks. If Afghanistan-Pakistan relations continue to improve, as they have in recent weeks, the likelihood of such a conflict will diminish significantly.
As for India and Pakistan, the dynamics of their relationship in the Afghanistan context are very different from those of Afghanistan and Pakistan. For New Delhi and Islamabad, it's all about a fierce rivalry that can have destabilizing consequences - but a proxy war is fortunately not one of them.
Michael Kugelman is senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.