Archive for June, 2012

June 8, 2012

The Dark Knight’s Allegory for Terrorism

by Gedalyah Reback

The Dark Knight rises back next month. His arrival is significant for a number of reasons, and they all deserve to be quantified. But what’s socially important about The Dark Knight Rises is it’s attitude toward modern problems. The first two movies have been culturally significant. The Dark Knight was called “the first great post-9/11 film.” They’ve incorporated the political atmosphere of the times into the plot lines, with Ras al-Ghul’s League of Shadows organizing a massive chemical attack on an American city and the Joker’s tactical threats against landmarks and transportation effectively besieging a modern Gotham. The third film seems to be building on economic divisions and plans to round off the latent theme of terrorism, a tremendous combination of themes. But I felt it was important to describe in detail what Nolan was able to do with his modern Caped Crusader to match him to the spirit of the times.

Batman Begins’ Allegory for Al-Qaeda

The movie is about fear. That is the essential thing to understand. In Batman Begins, the story is indisputably is about Bruce Wayne. Everything revolves around his experience, but that’s an invested experience. He grows into the idea he has to be the guardian angel where no one else will be. Becoming a source of good that literally fights crime necessitates overcoming fear, whether one is training to be a Marine or run for office in a country known for its assassinations.

Along the journey he’s acquainted with Ras al-Ghul. In the comics, he is more science fiction, a hundreds-year-old noble who’s keeps himself living by means of a completely fictitious chemical pit. He’s experienced wars and pain over his lifetime, but has also had time to amass great wealth and build a network of global assassins. He is a man of principle, making him a mirror for Bruce Wayne’s morality throughout the comics. It’s no different in the film.

But his name makes the reason behind choosing to use his character much more obvious. His name is Arabic. Ras al-Ghul literally means “demon head” (related to “rosh” in Hebrew and “ghoul” in English), symbolizing the dread he can instill. In my mind, he and the themes of the movie have always made this the first real attempt to incorporate the epic problems of international terrorism a plot device in a movie that has nothing to do with Islam or the Middle East.

Adapted for the movie, the scifi is eliminated while maintaining his personality. He serves as the ideal model for today’s Islamic fundamentalism, motivated by an ingrained religious ideal to cleanse evil from the world by launching full-scale war against it. There is no concern for collateral damage. Their plan in Begins is to hit Gotham with a weapon that would tear at the sullied fabric of its society.

Challenging the Validity of Terrorism

Channeling the power of fear is a sub-element of the overarching theme. The secondary villain, The Scarecrow, makes that obvious. His background as a psychiatrist informs him how to design a chemical weapon that would induce panic and insanity. The weapon would literally make Gotham City’s citizens kill each other. Ras wants to use it to strike terror in the hearts of Gothamites, while Wayne wants to turn that strategy on the criminals who count on it. In al-Ghul’s words, “Gotham will tear itself apart through fear.” But Wayne wants to “turn fear against those who prey on the fearful.” His struggle to overcome fear is a model he wants to project for those Gothamites, and consequently their future is not lost, much less are they deserving of being punished for others’ sins.

What is lost here is Batman can’t deny the corrupt nature of the city. Wayne takes a stand that “there are good people” in the city and that the only strategy to save the city is to take the fight to criminals and go through the court system to establish the rule of law, perhaps its own statement about modern politics. It is a message as applicable to the Islamic fundamentalism of our age than the prisons of Guantanomo Bay.

Wayne is trained by al-Ghul’s League of Shadows, and has to complete his journey by executing a known murderer. But this criminal hasn’t gone through a trial nor been proven guilty. His execution has no justice connected to it. The scene here nestles the idea of what a stable society looks like squarely in the face of the terrorists who aim to destroy it. Al-Ghul says “no one can save Gotham,” denying that anything can challenge a belief he follows religiously – the only way to wipe evil away is to stab it in the heart in one massive blow.

Batman challenges an international organization motivated by an infallible ideology. He squares off with people whose answer to criminality, selfishness, and moral decay is destruction instead of redemption. Begins, not just the character, invests stock in the notion that people can change, but it will not be overnight. Begins is a classical comedy with a happy ending, firmly establishing someone whose challenged the norms of human failure and stood up to people’s nature to bully or to run; their nature to give into their desires or give up on the world; their nature to turn on each other rather than on the real problem.

Batman Begins challenges the idea of terrorism by instructing us how not to be terrified, and goes further by tearing into its own self-justifications. It takes a dramatic adventure to deliver the point, but it’s difficult not to see it. And like all great teachers, the writers and director don’t give just one lesson. A deeper inspection of these themes continues in The Dark Knight.

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June 7, 2012

Jews Should Have an Open Way to Buy Land in the West Bank

by Gedalyah Reback

I just posted on my new column at The Times of Israel about this topic in relation to the legal crisis of Ulpana. Ulpana, a single neighborhood in the Israeli settlement of Beit El, is one of six spots in the West Bank scheduled to be demolished because they have no legal standing to exist. It’s not that they are settlements in general. It isn’t that they were built without permits. It’s that they were built on private Palestinian land, something that is actually relatively rare despite the propaganda that Israeli settlements are grabbing territory owned by Palestinians.

An essential to stability in any country is property rights. The American Declaration of Independence cites “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as reasons to pursue a free United States. But that line is a modification of an earlier John Locke quote: “life, liberty and property.” Israelis have been evicted from houses they’ve bought in cities like Hebron which they’ve actually bought. East Jerusalem Arabs often struggle to get building permits for land no one argues they don’t own. The Palestinian Authority maintains not only that it’s illegal to sell land to Israelis, but that it is punishable by execution. The result is a thriving underground market in Jerusalem, Hebron and elsewhere. The entire process is “extra-legal,” daring settlers and Palestinians to go more extreme in their strategy to acquire land outside of conventional legal means. Hence, the entire atmosphere invites more daring action by builders, contractors and people who want land. There is only a minority of cases reaching the courts in Israel, but the docket could be dealing with other issues if only there were an open approach to acquiring and securing property for both Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and in Jerusalem.

Religious Zionists, mostly Orthodox, have a religious obligatlion to live in the Land of Israel. By extension, there’s a strong imperative to own land in the country, enabling stability in the country, being able to build a family and openly pursue other religious precepts and principles like the harvest of first fruits, tithing and of course being able to earn off the value of property via farming or otherwise in order to give charity. Diplomats search in vain for a way to cool tension between lay Jews and Arabs, but they stoke the flames by pushing a dynamic property market underground outside the watchful eye of governments who want to minimize the movement of property that would complicate a sleek, convenient two state solution. That’s to say that powerful parties don’t want land freely changing hands because it could influence drawing an international border between Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods on the West Bank of the Jordan River.

Courts exist to channel disputes and rivalries through a civilized structure. Property disputes are a common case load for any legal system. Minimizing them goes far to ensure stability by making sure few cases ever have to be brought to court – much less a constitutional, non-claims court like the Israeli Supreme Court.

June 3, 2012

Syria’s Alawites (and other Minorities) beyond Wikipedia and the News

by Gedalyah Reback

Wikipedia is a great website. Ignore it at your own peril. Teachers and professors talk it to hell, but not using it is to ignore a tremendous tool that Google considers the automatic top result on virtually any academic topic. Most professors don’t understand that the reason you shouldn’t cite it as a source isn’t due to its lack of reliability. It’s because the information of its articles are constantly changing. You should be checking the footnotes and hitting the links listed at the bottom of the page. New information makes the date you accessed it originally constantly irrelevant, but letting it point you in the right direction is assuredly a good strategy for writing a paper or thinking of a research topic.

So when it comes to Middle East topics, it’s not so much the subjectivity I worry about – even on articles covering things like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s the outdated information. In terms of minorities, Wikipedia seems much more like an aggregate for recycled, archaic information than it does a reliable source of the modern state of different religious or ethnic groups.

The particular page of concern for me is this one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Syria. What the page has to say about Alawites is peculiar: “Although they are settled cultivators, Alawis gather into kin groups much like those of pastoral nomads. The four Alawi confederations, each divided into tribes, are Kalbiyah, Khaiyatin, Haddadin, and Matawirah.”

The information is correct. But it was a better summary about 100 years ago. Alawites, Ismailis and Druze have not been left out of the age of the internet, digital music, cars or the urban explosion. Every group has moved away from rural lifestyles into Latakia, Hama, Homs and Damascus. But most importantly of all, the community’s conservative roots have been decimated by the modern age. A combination of Arab nationalism, feigning devotion to religion and the marathon of Western cultural influences into the year 2012 have made religion a weak link among Alawites. In the spirit of the age, the experience is defined by a raw, dark, realpolitik approach to life. Alawites’ main concern right now is living under the thumb of political Islam defined by the Muslim Brotherhood. More relevant than referring to the group’s religious history is its political history. The Ottoman Empire made great efforts toward the end of its existence to push Syria’s Alawites to embrace the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam in custom, law and sect. By the time the empire fell, the community’s leadership was either running to Shi’ite Islam for legal inspiration or enthusiastically defining the community’s independence.

After 90 years of secular Arab nationalism and a Western culture not at all defined by religious tradition, secularism is perhaps the more dominant trend in Alawite and other minorities’ religious identities in 2012 Syria. bear this in mind for your next term paper. But also bear in mind “secular” doesn’t imply atheist, agnostic or apathetic regarding religion. It can merely imply someone doesn’t live his or her life in accord with it, or doesn’t want religious affairs mixed up in government or politics. But in terms of tribal authority, or the authority of religious figures, it’s virtually non-existent. The effective leadership of the Alawite community is Bashar al-Assad and the disproportionately Alawite Syrian armed forces.

This doesn’t mean religion is finished for the Alawites. It would be just as naïve to say the same for the American Northeast and West Coast. Religion is hardly on its way out. How Alawites deal with religion in the future will likely change, but contemporary Western trends will hardly be the end of the story or the ushering in of a sudden wave of secular or atheist Humanism. Alawites have had the opportunity for years to eliminate other elements of religion in Syria’s political life and have balked at the opportunity. A number of minorities are converting to Twelver Shi’ite Islam.

So when you look at a map on the news describing where the Alawites are, or what percentage of people actually believe in a certain religious idea, take the statistics and the graphics with a grain of salt. A lot of the research is out of date and the conclusions conveniently organized. Surveys have never been rich enough to absolutely define the beliefs of many Middle Eastern minorities, much less nail down an arbitrarily line on the map defining where they live. The information is helpful, but trends like urbanization and the ability to commute long distances make looking at these sources as infallible or perfectly accurate extremely precarious.

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