Archive for category Sandbox
On Tuesday I posted a video-photo essay on the Iranian-built shine in Raqqa, northern Syria. I explained the political motive behind its construction, and why its capture by anti-regime insurgents had so much symbolic significance. I noted that the shrine was now “likely to be purged of its explicitly Iranian and Shiite references.”
Over the weekend, a video clip has been circulating around the Internet which shows just that. It originated in the television program “With Syria Until Victory,” of the well-known opposition Salafist preacher Sheikh Adnan al-Ar’ur, broadcast on Al-Shada TV last Thursday night. A reporter takes us on a tour through the “liberated” shrine, from minute 1:29:40. The clip is embedded below. (If you don’t see it, click here. Just the report, excerpted from the program, can be watched here.)
The narration is in Arabic, so I’ll quickly summarize. At the entrance, we see graffiti on both sides of the doors, announcing that this is now the Sunna Mosque. We then see the Arabic dedication plaque, where the names of Bashar Asad and Mohammad Khatami are totally effaced (but not that of Hafez Asad). Inside, we see one of the tombs, and are shown a broken bottle of wine, as well as a pile of CDs and tapes, which are described as “pornographic films.” There are books, described as evidence for Shiite proselytizing, and two Shiite banners, proclaiming “Ya Husayn” and “Ya Ali.” There is a classroom for teaching children the Shiite creed. The people of Syria, the narrator reassures us, are stronger than those who would divert them from the true path.
In Sheikh al-Ar’ur’s commentary, from minute 1:32:36, he explains that the wine and pornographic films are evidence that the shrine served as a trap for Sunni youths—an intelligence operation to film them in compromising situations.
The shrine is intact and protected (a uniformed man is glimpsed at the entrance), although there is no mention of which faction is in control. The Iranian media had earlier reported that the shrine was destroyed by Sunni extremists, but this was manifestly false. Fear of possible Sunni destruction of shrines stands ostensibly behind the deployment of foreign Shiite “volunteers” around the Sayyida Zaynab shrine in Damascus, where they are effectively bolstering the Asad regime. (This is the so-called “Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigade.”)
To judge from the way this latest clip has raced around the Internet and proliferated on Youtube, the symbolism of the Raqqa shrine isn’t lost on Sunnis or Shiites. That suggests that the battle to defend the Damascus shrines is certain to raise the sectarian temperature still further.
(Again, for the full context, consult my video-photo essay.)
Update: Javier Espinosa of the Spanish newspaper El Mundo has now visited the shrine and tweets as below. He assures me he saw the destruction himself.
— Javier Espinosa (@javierespinosa2) April 23, 2013
On March 4, a curious video clip from Syria appeared on the internet. It shows a large, gilt-framed double portrait of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khameneh’i cast down on a stone floor. A man whose face is never shown steps repeatedly on the portrait, to the crunching sound of broken glass. (If you don’t see the embedded video below, click here.)
Four times in the 90-second segment, the camera pans up to focus on the ornate portal of an impressive building, inscribed with a verse of the Qur’an (13:24): “Peace unto you for that ye persevered in patience! Now how excellent is the final Home!” Someone off-camera mutters the name of Raqqa, a dusty provincial capital situated on the Euphrates about 200 kilometers east of Aleppo. It was seized by Sunni Islamist insurgents during the first week of March, and this clip clearly depicts an episode in the immediate aftermath of the city’s capture. But it doesn’t identify the specific place or explain the act of iconoclasm it depicts.
Had the camera panned up still further, it would have revealed the entire façade, completing part of the puzzle. The upper inscription identifies this site as the shrine of two figures from seventh-century Islamic history. The façade is striking, but just what is the connection of this shrine in Raqqa to Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khameneh’i, and why is their portrait being defaced at its entrance?
I answer that question in a new photo gallery, taking you on a visit to an impoverished far corner of Syria, and to the missing link in the so-called “Shiite crescent.” Go here to join me on the journey. I’ll get you back in time for lunch.
The deadline for the 2013 Washington Institute Book Prize approaches! It’s May 1, and the prize is a lucrative one: $30,000 for the Gold, $15,000 for the Silver, and $5,000 for the Bronze. Go here for the prize rules, past winners, and other vital information. Learn still more about the prize by watching the award announcement of the 2012 competition, in the clip embedded below. (The master of ceremonies is Robert Satloff, executive director of the Institute. If you don’t see the embed, go here.)
Opinions are divided over the future of the printed book. Many believe it is destined to disappear. Already anyone with an iPad in a coffee shop has instant access to several million volumes—a massive library at one’s fingertips. It isn’t hard to imagine the printed book going the way of the cuneiform tablet.
But a book-filled library is fundamental to a college. To be surrounded by books is to feel part of the scholarly chain of transmission that links us to generations past. And it’s not just a matter of nostalgic ambience. There are vast numbers of books that aren’t yet freely available electronically, and that aren’t yet out of copyright. Between the older books in the Internet Archive, and the more recent offerings available through Amazon and other digital publishers, there are decades worth of books that just can’t be had without going to a library. Google Books will change that too, but it hasn’t yet. And when it comes to books in non-European languages, print still reigns.
So from the outset, my colleagues and I resolved that the new Shalem College in Jerusalem would have a respectable library on opening day, October 6, 2013. The core of that library has been provided to us thanks to the generosity of the great historian of Islam, Bernard Lewis.
Bernard Lewis needs no introduction to my readers. In addition to his own prodigious output of authored books on Islamic and Middle Eastern history, Bernard was an avid collector. His personal library, at the time he moved out of his Princeton home two years ago, came to 18,000 volumes. It was then that he sent his library to Tel Aviv University, to which he had promised it many years ago.
But he did so with a proviso: any book in his collection already possessed by Tel Aviv University’s library was to be passed on to the library of the fledgling Shalem College. And so the new college library has come into possession of many thousands of volumes, most dealing with the history of Islam and the Middle East, but also with many other aspects of medieval and modern history. It’s a splendid start for the library, especially as one of the first accredited degree programs in the new college is in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies.
For me, the arrival in Jerusalem of so large a part of Bernard’s library closes a circle. I was his student in Princeton in the late 1970s, when he held a dual appointment at the university and the Institute for Advanced Study. He had one of the largest offices at the Institute, and it was packed tight with his books. A few months after we met, Bernard invited me to the Institute, and proposed that I catalogue incoming offprints for a per-hour wage. (In the pre-internet age, scholars would send printed copies of their articles to one another, a method of dissemination that now seems as remote from us as the carrier pigeon.) He gave me the key to his office, and on evenings and weekends I would enter Aladdin’s cave, seat myself at his desk, and ponder what it must be like to be the most renowned historian of Islam in the world.
I also came to know his library quite well. I much preferred his office to the deepest basement floor of Firestone Library, where the university’s own Middle East collection resided, so I would bring my own work to his desk. And once every week or so, we would have lunch or tea, followed by a stroll in the Institute’s woods. We would then repair to his office, where he would select a shelf and begin a running commentary on the books it held—their relative place in the field, a bit of lore about the authors, and his take on the dedications. In those days, everyone sent everything to Bernard, and practically all of the books carried handwritten dedications. I recall some of his comments to this day. He once took in hand a book by his contemporary, the French Marxist (and rabidly anti-Israel) scholar Maxime Rodinson (who also happened to be Jewish). The dedication was quite admiring, which surprised me, given his politics. Bernard smiled with satisfaction: “He’s a scoundrel,” he said of Rodinson, “but I like him.”
When Bernard retired in 1986, he transformed the master bedroom of his home into a magnificent, light-filled library. His desk faced a wall of glass overlooking the grounds, and massive wooden bookshelves stood perpendicular to the walls. Even this addition didn’t suffice to contain the entire library, and the basement of the house was outfitted with shelves to handle the overflow. In a few of the bedrooms, every flat surface was likewise occupied by still more books. (Some sense of the library at his Princeton home is preserved by BookTV, which interviewed him there ten years ago.)
I feel privileged to have known Bernard’s library in both of its Princeton settings, but its two Israeli settings also do it justice. In January, Bernard visited Shalem College at my invitation, so that he could see the campus and especially the library: a two-tiered structure, featuring a large atrium-like gallery that provides ample room for books and for study. He selected the design of an ex libris plate to be placed in each volume, and I said some grateful words about his remarkable gift.
Now that we are deep into the digital age, few scholars will ever build so large a personal library. Bernard amassed his collection during the explosion of scholarly publishing that followed the Second World War, and before the advent of the Internet and ebook. Scholars in future won’t leave great collections behind, and in the libraries we do have, shelves will gradually yield to screens.
But scholars and students will always find inspiration in the physical book, for as the word “volume” suggests, the full appreciation of a scholarly achievement is much enhanced by an encounter with its heft. Book design is also evidence for past conventions that provide context for text, and the elegance of a well-designed book will always evoke pleasure. Bernard Lewis has given Shalem College a voluminous gift. When it is combined with the immense contribution represented by his scholarship, it secures his place in the pantheon of those who have nurtured the life of the mind in Jerusalem.
The election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope took seasoned Vatican observers by surprise. The media had profiled other candidates, leaving the impression that a long-shot took the title. In a post-election rumination, correspondent David Leonhardt at the New York Times blog FiveThirtyEight cited the so-called “Pignedoli Principle,” named (by George Weigel, Vatican analyst) for Cardinal Sergio Pignedoli, a media favorite who was passed over after the death of Pope Paul VI in 1978. The principle? “A man’s chances of becoming pope decrease in proportion to the number of times he’s described as papabile [a possible pope] in the press.”
The affable Pignedoli (pronounced Peen-yeh-doly) had been very much in the race in August 1978. He was said to be Paul VI’s preferred successor, and the Italian news magazines sang his praises. The London bookmaking firm Ladbroke’s pegged him as a 5-2 favorite. As the media predictions piled up, Pignedoli reportedly prepared for victory by going on a crash diet so that he could fit into the white cassock of a new pope. (In another version, he had a cassock specially tailored.) Weigel described what happened next: “When the cardinals assembled in the Sistine Chapel to choose a successor to Pope Paul in August 1978, Cardinal Pignedoli—according to reliable accounts—was left so far behind that you’d have needed a telescope to find him at the end of the second ballot. He died a few years later, forgotten by those who had once confidently declared him papabile.”
So Pignedoli, if he’s remembered at all, is remembered as an also-ran. But the story is more interesting than that. When he died in June 1980, he was still important enough to warrant an obituary in the New York Times (June 16). The item mentioned his failed run for the papacy in August 1978, and added that he was again regarded as papabile when John Paul I, Paul VI’s successor, died in September 1978 after only 34 days in office. (In the resulting conclave, the cardinals passed him over again and surprised the world by electing a Polish pope.) The obituary then added this: “The Cardinal was also remembered, to his regret, for having signed a statement at an Islamic-Christian conference in Tripoli in 1976 condemning Zionism. He said afterward that he was a victim of an incomplete if not mistaken translation.”
Therein lies a story, and it puts Pignedoli in an additional category: not just of papal also-rans, but also of Westerners used by Libya’s late dictator Mu’ammar Qadhafi to enhance his rule. According to some experts, the episode may even have cost Pignedoli his shot at the papacy. I discussed the Tripoli conference years ago in a published paper on Israel in the Muslim-Christian dialogue (not on the web). Regime change in Tripoli and personnel change in Rome seem (to me) like a reasonable pretext for revisiting the subject. In fact, it may be the last time that the story is worth telling to anyone without an expert interest these matters. But since it’s one more cautionary tale about the risks of appeasement, especially in the Middle East, the lesson may well be timeless.
“The Pope’s Kissinger”
The Italian-born Pignedoli started off as a naval chaplain in World War Two (a direct hit on his cruiser once set sent him flying into the sea), and he later built a reputation over many years as a roving Vatican emissary. He served in various capacities in South America, Africa, and Canada, reputedly spoke a dozen languages, visited well over a hundred countries, and had a rolodex of 10,000 contacts around the globe. (A New York Times report called him “one of the world’s great letter writers,” and it was once written of him that “he has a preposterous number of friends.”) In 1967, as apostolic delegate to Canada, he drove 7,300 miles across the country and back in 33 days, visiting mission outposts. Paul VI created him cardinal in 1973, and immediately named him president of what was then called the Secretariat for Non-Christians. (“Non-Christians” for that purpose excluded the Jews, a sensitive issue handled by a separate commission.) For someone reputed to be “the Pope’s Kissinger,” treating with the wider world seemed like the perfect assignment.
The energetic Pignedoli quickly concluded that he should launch a campaign to improve Vatican relations with the world of Islam. The Catholic Church had its ear to the ground in Muslim lands, and had picked up the rumbling of the coming Islamic resurgence. The new cardinal thought that the Vatican could diminish Muslim-Christian tensions (and protect its interests in Muslim lands) by engaging a reputable Muslim partner in a conciliatory religious dialogue.
Ah, but who? Where was the equivalent of the Catholic Church? Who was the Muslim pope? The impossibility of answering these questions immediately highlights one of the key distinctions between Christianity and Islam. Bernard Lewis has put it succinctly:
There is no church in Islam. There is no priesthood in the sense of an ordination and a sacred office. There is no Vatican, no pope, no cardinals, no bishops, no church councils; there is no hierarchy such as exists in Christendom.
For non-Muslims, it is often tempting to see Saudi Arabia, seat of Islam’s holiest places, as some sort of “center” of the Islamic faith. So did Pignedoli, setting out in April 1974 to visit the kingdom, armed with a letter from the Pope. King Faisal gave him an audience—and an earful. The Saudi king had only one thing on his mind: the Jews. They had no holy places in Jerusalem, he insisted; only Muslims and Christians had incontestable rights to holy places in the city. At one point, King Faisal raised his voice to declare (erroneously) that under Islam, “Jews had never been allowed in Palestine and particularly in Jerusalem.” The Saudi king’s purpose was plain: to line up the Catholic Church behind the demand for Muslim sovereignty over the holy city.
This wasn’t the sort of exchange Pignedoli had in mind, so he looked elsewhere. He next visited Egypt, in September 1974, hoping to open a channel to Al-Azhar, the famed university and another “center” of Islam. But the Sheikh al-Azhar didn’t express any interest in a religious dialogue. Instead, he loaded his guest with books on Palestine and the historic role of Al-Azhar in resisting foreign aggression. Pignedoli began to see a pattern. Muslims didn’t make a distinction between the spiritual and the temporal. As he (later) concluded, “one of the greatest hindrances to dialogue is political intervention in religion. Some people do not make the Gospel’s distinction between what is Caesar’s and what is God’s, and people’s minds are, moreover, troubled by local tensions or fear of losing their freedom.”
At this moment of impasse, the Vatican received an unexpected overture. In May 1975, a confidant of Mu’ammar Qadhafi, ruler of Libya, arrived in Rome bearing a message. Libya was eager to host an official religious dialogue with the Vatican, for which it would assemble a delegation of influential Muslims from around the world. The dialogue, the Libyan promised, would be limited to theology and religion. A breakthrough! Negotiations commenced, a date was set in February 1976, and the Libyans accommodated every request from the Vatican side.
What explained the Libyan initiative? Libya isn’t a “center” of Islam on par with Saudi Arabia or Egypt—far from it. As important as it is to the world oil market, it’s been marginal to the evolution of the faith. Yet Qadhafi thought otherwise—if not about Libya, then certainly about himself. Early in his rule (he seized power in 1969), Qadhafi styled himself as a final authority on Islam, which he depicted as the embodiment of true socialism. True, few Muslims outside Libya took him seriously. But what better way to boost his claim than to demonstrate that Christians took him seriously—and not just any Christians, but the Catholic Church?
The appointed day finally arrived. Pignedoli’s fourteen-man contingent landed in Tripoli, expecting a discreet gathering with an equal number of Muslim delegates, and an audience of no more than twenty experts and journalists. But the Libyan organizers had a completely different plan. They had invited over five hundred activists, journalists, and hangers-on (including an American, Kwame Ture, formerly the Black Panther Stokely Carmichael). “Every conceivable revolutionary and conspiratorial movement sent representatives to Tripoli,” wrote the journalist Peter Scholl-Latour (who devoted a searing chapter to the episode in his book Adventures in the East).
The crowd filled the seaside congress hall where the seminar met, and the proceedings quickly took on a circus atmosphere. The Libyans had failed to honor a promise to name their delegates and provide the texts of their speeches in advance. The reason soon became clear: the Muslim delegates were political operatives, not men of religion. Their speeches would later be described (by the secretary of the Vatican delegation) as “aggressive and recriminatory.” They attacked the Church for falsifying scripture, launching the Crusades, and proselytizing among Muslims. This was punctuated by repeated and vehement attacks against Israel, Zionism and the Jews. In the face of this assault, “the delegates from the Vatican cut a poor figure,” wrote Scholl-Latour. “Cardinal Pignedoli, naturally short of stature, seemed to shrink even more; he had adopted a strategy of permanent apology.”
The highlight came with the arrival of Qadhafi himself. Scholl-Latour:
He did not bother to go as far as the stage; with exaggerated modesty he sat down among the spectators. And immediately the Cardinal, his stance expressing servility, sped toward the Libyan head of state, took his hand—he came close to kissing it—and led the Libyan, who was going through the motions of protesting, to the dais. Tumultuous applause broke out; the Moslems in the audience had caught sight of God’s elect. In fact Qadhafi appeared like a beaming movie star. He radiated an attractive youthfulness.… His clothes were chosen with the utmost simplicity: black trousers and a black turtleneck sweater. He moved with the grace of a cat. Alongside this desert warrior the overzealous Roman prelate with his red skullcap, the red sash across his cassock, the red socks in pumps, seemed a comedian.
Another journalist thought he detected an awkward moment in the encounter between the colonel and the cardinal:
A path was made for Cardinal Pignedoli who came down from his place on the rostrum to greet the Libyan leader. It was an interesting moment, with one revealing result which probably no one in the entire building was aware of except those, like myself, who happened to be a few feet away. The Cardinal made a gesture to indicate that he would like to sit down next to “Brother Colonel.” Gaddafi was taken aback and clearly did not want to share the inverted limelight. Visibly thinking quickly, he made a flourishing gesture indicating that the Cardinal’s rightful place was one of honor on the platform. It was nevertheless a snub, as I could clearly see from the Cardinal’s disappointed expression, though it cast a shadow over his face for only a split second.
Qadhafi mounted the stage, producing what appeared to one journalist “like a mediaeval tableau of the Sultan and the wise men.” In fact, it was more like a mediaeval disputation. In a later address to the conference, Qadhafi said that there was no great gap between Christianity and Islam. All that was needed to close it was for Christians to correct the falsifications in their Gospels and recognize the Prophet Muhammad as the bearer of the divine revelation. Pignedoli’s delegation (according to Scholl-Latour) was “overcome by obvious confusion and consternation.”
So how was that gap to be bridged? Away from the congress hall, Libyan and Vatican secretaries worked behind the scenes to formulate a joint communiqué—for how could such a meeting end without one?
What happened next astonished everyone. At the close of the conference, as Pignedoli and Qadhafi left the congress hall together, the Libyans announced the text (in Arabic) of a joint communiqué. It included two paragraphs devoted to Palestine. Paragraph 20 denounced Zionism as “an aggressive racialist movement, extraneous to Palestine and the whole region of the East.” Paragraph 21 affirmed “the Arab character of Jerusalem” and rejected “plans to Judaize, partition or internationalize” the city. Both “parties” affirmed “the national rights of the Palestinian people and their right to return to their lands” and demanded “the liberation of all the occupied territories.” A bombshell! The assembled media rushed out the doors to report a dramatic shift in Vatican policy toward Israel and the Palestinians.
Except that there was no shift. According to Pignedoli, the final communiqué was shown to him only “at the very last minute,” and he signed off on it unaware that it included the offending paragraphs. It may have been a literal case of tradurre è tradire: according to one source, “the Vatican’s representatives in the drafting committee were Arab Christians who did not fully explain the text” to Pignedoli. The cardinal made a desperate attempt to convene a press conference and issue a “clarification,” but his Libyan hosts blocked the move, citing “technical reasons.” By then, it was too late anyway: he had been “caught napping” (the words of a journalist), the Libyans had taken advantage, and the media had a story. A wire service report set the tone: “Whoever suggested the Vatican send delegates to Libya for a great religious meeting with Moslem leaders may be in deep trouble. The widely publicized Islamic-Christian symposium in Tripoli this week is one of the biggest fiascoes of recent Vatican diplomacy.”
The Roman Curia—the Vatican’s government—went into damage control mode, formally disavowing the two offending paragraphs, as “their content does not correspond, in its essential points, to the well-known position of the Holy See.” Vatican sources informed a Jewish press agency that the Vatican delegation “was not empowered to reach political decisions,” and should not have done so. A “highly informed” Vatican source reported that the Holy See was “mortified” by the episode, but “understandably wants to avoid charging bad faith on the part of the Muslim participants or admitting incompetence or naivete on its own part.” Of course, those were precisely the ingredients that produced the debacle.
The “Pignedoli Principle”
Had Pignedoli’s ambitions been limited, the Tripoli fiasco would not have mattered much. But he aspired to be pope, and this was no secret when the vacancy opened in 1978. One journalist noted that while the Holy See hadn’t reprimanded the cardinal, “memories in the Curia are long, and Vatican watchers believe that Pignedoli’s prospects of becoming pope have declined seriously.” Another assessment, after describing Pignedoli as “the current papal frontrunner,” regretted that the Tripoli conference “has once again become an item for controversy, resuscitated by factional opposition to Pignedoli’s candidacy to succeed Paul as Pope. It has been claimed by such diverse publications as the London Times, Corriere della Sera, Le Monde, and others that Pignedoli’s management of the Vatican-Islamic conference will weigh heavily against his election as Paul VI’s successor.”
When Pignedoli lost out, another Vatican expert estimated that his chances had been “badly damaged” by the episode, which “was widely regarded as a gaffe and as an indication of his unsuitability for the Papacy.” According to Vaticanologist Peter Hebblethwaite, the Tripoli debacle gave Pignedoli’s opponents a lever to use against him: “I was present on that occasion [in Tripoli], and thought the mistake forgivable. But this incident was exploited by Pignedoli’s enemies who resented his approachableness and popularity.”
Of course, it’s easy to come up with other reasons for Pignedoli’s falling short in the Sistine Chapel. (A breezy account of the proceedings appears in Gordon Thomas’s Pontiff.) Perhaps it really was the “Pignedoli Principle”— an excess of media attention. But David Leonhardt, in his posting last week, claims it’s not a principle at all, since there are plenty of examples of frontrunners taking the papal title. If he’s right, then the “Pignedoli Principle” may be up for redefinition, lest the man be forgotten completely. A good alternative might be this: the closer you dance with a dictator, the more likely your toes are to be crushed.