Creating Visionaries

Education plays a pivotal role in cultivating excellence—although its function is largely misunderstood. Consider the case of entrepreneurs:

Successful entrepreneurs tend to be both more intelligent than average, but also more confident. Perhaps for these very reasons, they are also far more likely to engage in disruptive or even illicit activity in their youth. Fortunately, wealthy children tend to grow up in an environment which helps them cultivate and productively channel these impulses:

Elite schools generally respect students’ drive and intelligence rather than teaching to the lowest-denominator; they are not afraid to challenge students’ pre-existing beliefs, even at the cost of creating controversy or offense—nor are they afraid to teach ignorance and uncertainty. At the same time, these programs tend to have less testing, less busy-work, and less memorization or regurgitation of trivia. This enables students to explore course subject-matter with far greater depth, breadth and rigor. Overall, elite institutions tend to be less-structured, to prize inter-disciplinary pursuits and collaboration, and to give students a good deal of latitude in forming their course of study. In other words, it is the virtual opposite of what the rest of us experience. Continue reading “Creating Visionaries”

The attack on Emanuel AME was certainly terrorism

The Charleston Massacre was an act of domestic terrorism. Consider:

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) was a historically black church founded by a freed slave who eventually tried to lead a revolt to free his people. In the aftermath, the church was burned down. Because predominantly-black churches like Emanuel AME were known to be hubs of activism for the oppressed, soon after the church was rebuilt it became illegal for congregates to gather there. They had to hold their meetings in secret until after the civil war.

Since that time, it has remained a seat of civil rights activism, hosting the likes of Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. And for this, Emanuel AME and other predominantly-black churches were (and remain) frequent targets of domestic terrorists with segregationist and white supremacist leanings.

None of this was lost on the shooter—he chose this target precisely because of its symbolism. He drove 100 miles to get there, arrived during a Bible study, and asked for his primary target by name: Rev. Clementa Pinckney—the serving pastor of Emanuel AME, a tireless civil rights activist, and a sitting state senator. All said, the spree resulted in the deaths of four preachers and five others—almost all of whom were involved in various types of community organizing, civil rights activism and public service.

Mr. Roof committed this atrocity with political ends in mind: he wanted to restore segregation, and to ensure that whites continued to be the socio-economic and cultural majority in the United States. He was hoping that his massacre would spur a race war, from which whites would emerge victorious, reclaiming their rightful place in American society, and subjugating the vanquished minorities. He viewed pluralism, equality and tolerance as Trojan Horses, existential threats to his kind—and ideologies which would be abolished in the aftermath of the cataclysm he was hoping to provoke.

To indicate both the historical and global dimensions of the conflict, he wore a jacket emblazoned with the flags of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia. His car had a Confederate Flag license plate, and in the lead-up to the shooting he took a pilgrimage to notorious slave plantations and Confederate landmarks, photographing every step of the journey and disseminating these images online.

He participated in internet forums with fellow ideologues both in America and worldwide, and released a detailed manifesto explaining what how and why he chose his target, how he was drawn into the movement, and what his aspirations were for the attack.

It was a textbook example of domestic terrorism, and the single most lethal incident in the United States since 2009. It is disturbing that there is even controversy as to if it was a terrorist act, or if it was a racially-motivated hate crime. Disturbing, but typical of incidents of white terrorism.

On the limitations of body cameras for reducing police misconduct

The problem of police brutality and misconduct is uncomfortable for many Americans–in large part because it contravenes so many of our cherished narratives about social progress, and about the United States as a land of freedom & justice–not to mention our post-9/11 idealization of first-responders.

When forced to confront these kinds of issues, which we would rather not have had to acknowledge at all, there is a temptation to seek out some kind of simple solution which can be easily applied to the problem wherever it manifests–and which can thereby allow us to stop thinking (and talking) about it.

Perhaps the primary focus in the aftermath of Ferguson and Baltimore has been on body cameras. Advocates point to the Department of Justice (DoJ) “Interim Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing” which suggested that among the precincts studied, officers wearing body cameras had 87.5% fewer incidents of use of force, and 59% fewer complaints than officers who were not wearing cameras. These reductions, they claimed, are in part due to the fact that both police officers and suspects behaved differently under the knowledge they were being recorded. However, while “observer effects” on behavior have been well-documented in myriad contexts, there are reasons to temper one’s optimism as it relates to reducing incidences of police misconduct:

Continue reading “On the limitations of body cameras for reducing police misconduct”

How Hardliners in the U.S. and Israel Empower Hardliners in Iran

For many, Hassan Rouhani’s administration seems like a breath of fresh air, an unprecedented moment of opportunity for reform in Iran. Many have pointed out that Rouhani’s progressive aspirations are in many ways restrained or undermined by Iran’s hardliners–but ironically, U.S. hardliners played a pivotal role in creating this dynamic.

Following the re-election of reformist president Mohammad Khatami, the Islamic Republic reached out to the White House calling for a dialogue–indicating a willingness to increase transparency of its nuclear program, to recognize Israel and even cut ties with Hamas.

But the Bush Administration rebuffed this offer, and even tanked Iran’s negotiations with Europe (also led by Hassan Rouhani and Javad Zarif) to limit Iran’s nuclear capacity to a mere 3,000 centrifuges. The White House at the time adopted Netanyahu’s position that any nuclear capacity for Iran was too much, and that the ideal was not just limiting Iran’s nuclear program but outright regime change. President Bush even went on to parrot Netanyahu’s line verbatim comparing the Islamic Republic to Germany’s Nazi regime in the lead-up to World War II–and analogizing those who want to negotiate as appeasers.

The failure of these bold efforts at diplomacy rendered Khatami unable to fulfill many of his campaign pledges–in turn, leading to massive gains by Iran’s conservative parties in the 2004 Parliamentary Elections, and the landslide victory of the much-more confrontational Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2005 Presidential Elections. We should expect a similar dynamic to play out in Iran if the current attempts at rapprochement fail.

President Obama was right in noting how hardliners in the U.S. seem to have a common cause with those in Iran–but its hardly the first time. And if these zealots have their way, it won’t be the last.

Rethinking ISIL’s Immolation of Moaz al-Kasasbeh

One of the most popular narratives about ISIL’s recent immolation of Jordanian Moaz al-Kasasbeh is that the group resorted to such brutal measures against the pilot because they are desperate—pushed to the brink by coalition airstrikes. However, there are four major problems with this interpretation: Continue reading “Rethinking ISIL’s Immolation of Moaz al-Kasasbeh”

A Brief History of Palestinian Statehood

Although they have not yet been given full-membership in the U.N. (and would not have gained membership through Abbas’ proposal), the body has affirmed Palestinian statehood numerous times, most recently with a 2012’s UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolution 67/19, which passed with 138 votes in favor, 9 votes opposed and 41 abstentions, recognizing Palestine as a non-member observer state. Continue reading “A Brief History of Palestinian Statehood”

Musa al-Gharbi “interviews” Dr. Zuhdi Jasser

(Try to spot the fundamentalist)


Apparently Dr. Jasser is a fan of my work…or in any case, he likes to skim it. Over the course of the following exchange, my interlocutor and I go through a good deal of my catalog–the dialectic is basically him systematically misrepresenting what I was arguing, and myself correcting those misconceptions and highlighting that he is either not reading my work, not understanding it, or else engaging in bad-faith.

For the sake of simplicity, I have put primarily the direct tweets between myself and Dr. Jasser–as we went on, there grew to be a number of side participants, generally offering vacuous trolling (primarily on Jasser’s side, although a bit on mine as well) which would distract from the primary conversation. But of course, the entire conversation is public record, just follow me on Twitter!

For those of you unfamiliar with Dr. Jasser, his American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD) is notorious for receiving funding from overtly Islamophobic action committees and patrons of the neoconservative wings of both parties—and the good doctor is known for espousing views that said funders would like to hear coming out of the mouth of someone who is ostensibly Middle Eastern and Muslim.

It’s not every day one gets to expose these charlatans for the empty intellects that they are in such a direct manner. Would love to do this face to face and very publically with exchanges longer than 140 characters…someday soon, God Willing. In the meantime, enjoy!

Continue reading “Musa al-Gharbi “interviews” Dr. Zuhdi Jasser”

Comparing the Scale of Mexican Drug Cartels to ISIL

While ISIL is trying to achieve a state, the cartels already have one. They have infiltrated every level of the Mexican government: from law enforcement and the military, to the judiciary, political parties, and even private-sector enterprises such as the banks and media organizations. They act with virtual impunity, checked only by competition from other cartels.

ISIL shocked the world by netting an estimated $2 billion during their capture of Mosul in August. Additionally, the group generates more than $1 million per day from enterprises such as extortion, kidnapping, smuggling, and oil sales. This pales in comparison with the cartel economy. For example, the Sinaloa cartel alone generates more than $3 billion every yearmore than $8 million per day. Conservative estimates hold that, collectively, the Mexican cartels earn at least $6.6 billion annually, which translates into more than $18 million daily.

While ISIL has up to 31,000 fighters at its disposal, the cartels have more than 100,000 foot soldiers—more than three times the number of ISIL fighters, and roughly equivalent to the size of the actual Mexican army (many of whom also work for the cartels, with Los Zetas founded and led primarily by military and police defectors).

Why the Numbers (Still) Matter in Syria

Jadaliyya “featured” my “Syria Contextualized: The Numbers Game” in their 4/4/2013 Syria Media Roundup. In a transparent attempt to “poison the well” against my findings (and in contrast with the neutral-to-positive tone with which literally all of the other articles were described), my paper was summarized as follows:

“Musa al-Gharbi argues that we do not have a clear picture of facts on the ground, claims that might have been pertinent one year ago but that seem problematic today.”

Ignoring the fact that the article in question was drafted in January 2013 and explicitly makes use of contemporary data, such as the UN casualty report which came out a few months ago (i.e. far less than “one year ago”)—is it the case that the article’s claims are no longer pertinent? If so, it would presumably be because either:

  1. We now have a clear picture of the facts on the ground
  2. The dynamics of the conflict have radically shifted on one or more of my major points, or
  3. The “facts on the ground” are no longer terribly important.

The first option seems ridiculous. The article demonstrated fairly robustly how statistics are being misused and misunderstood in discussing the Syrian conflict—there has been no improvement in the public discourse in the interim. It remains difficult to get reliable information, and virtually all data related to the conflict is rather-immediately politicized. Accordingly, the same myths which were highlighted in the paper are still being perpetuated—they are no more true today than they were when the paper was published.

A charitable interpretation of their evaluation may appeal to the third option: perhaps given the way the conflict has escalated, the “facts on the ground” are no longer so important. As the situation spins out of control, there may be a worry that such analyses seem to trivialize the conflict—or turn into an abstract discussion a situation which is life-or-death for so many within and around Syria. While sensitive to this concern, the takeaway from the article should be that this is a situation which calls for much more attention,  much more care, much more engagement. The purpose of the article was to prompt the public to look more deeply and listen more closely when faced with rhetoric related to the conflict—and to pressure policymakers to do the same.

It may be asserted that the conflict has reached a point where these sorts of discussions are moot: the international community cannot wait around for perfect data to act. Such an argument seems perplexing: it is precisely the gravity of the situation and its likely repercussions which demands more care. While we must always make decisions under uncertainty, there is no excuse to ignore information that we actually already have. Although there are reasons to be skeptical of some of the proposed “facts” (such as the casualty statistics), our analysis largely took for granted that the popular data were correct; our aspiration was to examine more closely what that data tells us—that is, to challenge the ways the intelligence has been interpreted and manipulated. And what the data suggests is that the policies of the United States and its allies vis a vis Syria have been wrong-headed; indeed, as it has been in Syria, so it has been throughout the Arab Spring. I will now briefly explain the (continued) significance of my findings:

Continue reading “Why the Numbers (Still) Matter in Syria”

Timeline of the Syrian Civil War

Before the Arab Uprisings, Syria was one of the safest countries in the world. There were robust protections for women and ethno-religious minorities. While the government was authoritarian, the trends were towards liberalization—both economic and political. While there were some factions within Syria who were understandably dissatisfied at the pace of reform (which was, indeed, glacial), the President remained (and remains) popular domestically. In the Middle East, while many were wary of Syria’s close ties to Iran, the President was respected as a bulwark against (perceived) Israeli aggression in the region. On the larger world-stage, Bashar al-Asad was hailed as a moderate and a reformer.

2/2011: Protests begin

The protests began in Syria not long after the military coup which removed Husni Mubarak from power in Egypt. Continue reading “Timeline of the Syrian Civil War”

Eternal Recurrence: Al-Asad & Al-Qaeda

On July 15th 2012, Nawaf al-Fares, Syria’s former Ambassador to Iraq, defected to the opposition. Along with his defection, he called for the international community, especially the United States, to act militarily in Syria to remove President Bashar al-Asad from power. At that same time, he claimed that the al-Asad regime had aided al-Qaeda’s insurgency operations in Iraq— allowing them to transfer weapons, arms and people through Syria, and even allowing them to establish a domestic base of operations. Mr. al-Fares’ claims, however, are obviously incoherent for two big reasons:
Continue reading “Eternal Recurrence: Al-Asad & Al-Qaeda”