Insider notes from United Press International for Oct. 8
The Bush administration may not yet be aware that it is engaged in a cultural war, but its enemies do. Take Osama bin Laden's media outlet of choice, the Arabic TV news channel al-Jazeera, which is financially dependent on the impeccably pro-American emir of Qatar. The anti-Bush administration paranoia of the al-Jazeera staff, stoked when U.S. warplanes "accidentally" bombed al-Jazeera offices in both Kabul and Baghdad, is reaching new heights. In blizzards of e-mail messages around the world, Arab media staffers are claiming the Bush administration is threatening to withdraw U.S. forces and protection from Qatar unless the little Gulf state gets al-Jazeera under control. The evidence for this so-called pressure is thin -- the satellite TV station has pulled two anti-American cartoons from its Web site, allegedly under political pressure. Now there are reports in the Saudi and Kuwaiti media (two countries that have also tried to bully Qatar to tone down al-Jazeera) of conspiratorial meetings on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to plot the closure of al-Jazeera. The reports say the meeting took place "at the HQ of the Security Intelligence Committee of the House of Representatives... with key members of the House of Representatives, Senate, Pentagon, the State Department, the CIA and the FBI." There is no such committee, but that sort of detail has never stopped the Arab media.
Then there are claims in the Egyptian media that U.S. Ambassador to Egypt David Welch leaned heavily on the Egyptian government and on Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, grand Imam of the authoritative al-Azhar university, to rein in his more-radical subordinates. One junior imam had issued a fatwa, or religious edict, calling on all Muslims and Islamic states to shun the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. The grand imam, who caused a furor among Islamic clerics when he ruled that Palestinian suicide bombers who killed innocent civilians could not be considered "shahid" (Islamic martyrs), annulled the Iraq fatwa on Aug. 28. The London-based al-Hayat, perhaps the most-reliable and certainly the most-respected of Arab newspapers, is now reporting that U.S. diplomacy has provoked "an internal al-Azhar crisis."
It's worse than that, and a lot more complicated. Al-Azhar is the fulcrum of the Islamic theological and cultural debate. There has been a big reshuffle at the top ranks of the Egyptian clergy, with Sheikh Ali Guma appointed to the post of grand mufti, replacing Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyeb who has been appointed president of al-Azhar, where he can keep a careful eye on that dangerously liberal Tantawi who has ruled that Palestinian suicide bombers who kill innocent civilians cannot be granted the status of shahid. Egypt's new grand mufti firmly disagrees, arguing: "The one who carries out fedaii (martyrdom) operations against the Zionists and blows himself up is, without a doubt, a shahid because he is defending his homeland against the occupying enemy who is supported by superpowers such as the U.S. and Britain." He has also ruled that Muslims in the U.S. armed forces should resign rather than fight fellow Muslims.
The next Russian Duma could be an interesting place after the December elections. Underworld kingpin Anatoly Bykov has announced he is running in Krasnoyarsk, where he also runs the local aluminum combine. Bykov had to step down from his local legislature (which bans deputies with criminal convictions) after he was convicted last year of being an accessory to murder. He was given a 6-year prison term, but, in a country not usually known for mercy in the criminal justice system, was immediately released on probation. Local sources say he'll probably get elected -- unless the Kremlin steps in to avoid the embarrassment. But given the importance of organized crime in Russia, maybe a truly representative Duma needs a few honorable members for the mafia.
The only defendant present for trial at Jordan's State Security Court in an alleged 15-member terror cell affiliated with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network could turn out to be too crazy to stand trial. Ahmad Riyati, captured in March by U.S. forces in northern Iraq and handed over to the Jordanian authorities, was referred to a government mental institute for a two-week evaluation at the request of his lawyer, who said his client had already been committed twice. Riyati, along with 12 other Jordanian and two Iraqi suspects, was charged with plotting attacks against U.S., Israeli and foreign interests and tourists, as well as against Jordanian security personnel. If the government-appointed psychiatrists find he is not fit to stand trial, all charges against him would be dropped and the remaining 14 suspects who are all still at large would all be tried in absentia. Independent legal sources say the credibility of the entire trial is now at stake, adding the whole affair appears concocted to appease the U.S. and demonstrate Jordan's loyalty to President Bush's global war on terrorism.