2006 On October 17, 2006, the BBC reported that the bipartisan advisory panel on American policy in Iraq , the Iraq Study Group (ISG), co-chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker (a Republican) and former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, was weighing recommendations to President Bush (ultimately agreed upon and included in the ISG report) that, if accepted by the President, would represent highly significant shifts in policy: withdrawals of U.S. troops from Iraq coupled with invitations to Syria and Iran to send troops from their countries to help stop the sectarian warfare in Iraq and to become actively involved in a political settlement for Iraq. The panel's complete report (full text via BBC) was released on December 6. Other recommendations included withdrawing U.S. soldiers from combat and using them to train Iraqis, and, urging quick action by the Iraqi government to effect reconciliation between the various factions. The report also recommended new diplomatic efforts to resolve the larger regional problems, notably the Arab-Israeli conflict and the political crisis in Lebanon. In sum, current American policy was not working. The report was seen as a rebuke of neoconservative policies (all the more so because not a single neocon served on the bi-partisan panel) and a call for a return to realpolitik: Baker had publicly ridiculed "neocon" hopes for "a flowering of Jeffersonian democracy along the banks of the Euphrates." (See The Economist, Dec. 2-8, 2006, p. 32 --. See also "Civil War in Iraq") The ISG report also included charges that millions of dollars from oil rich Saudi Arabia were making their way into Iraq to fund the insurgency there. Saudi Arabia, fearful of growing Iranian Shiite influence in the region, signaled that if the U.S. pulled out of Iraq, it would begin openly funding Sunni tribal groups there resisting Shiite dominance feeding Western fears that a regional conflict was in the making (see New York Times, Dec. 13, 2006). Reaction against the ISG recommendations was strong both in the U.S. and in the Middle East. President Bush soon made it clear he intended to pursue another path. However, by mid May and with that path having failed to show improvement, the president began to express approval of some parts of the plan.
Was growing Shiite influence in the Middle East a threat? Did the region have something to fear from what Jordan's king Abdullah II had labeled the advance of Shiite Iran's "crescent" of influence? Suzanne Maloney, a former member of a policy planning staff at the State Department, later a scholar at the Saban Center at Brookings, wrote in her 2008 monograph Iran as a Pivotal State in the Muslim World (Washington D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, pp. 46-49) that Sunni fears of growing Shiite influence in the region were "to some extent self-serving." Going on she wrote, "A realignment of the current uneasy balance of power along sectarian lines may well be triggered not by the political dominance of Iraqi Shia, but by the effects of misguided policies by some Sunni-dominated governments intended to counter some mythical Shia threat (p. 48)."
"Just over two centuries since Napoleon's arrival in Egypt heralded the advent of the modern Middle East - some 80 years after the demise of the Ottoman Empire, 50 years after the end of colonialism, and less than 20 years after the end of the Cold War - the American era in the Middle East, the fourth in the region's modern history, has ended."
Haass' remark was prompted by thoughts in the aftermath of the Summer 2006 Middle East War and with an eye on American problems in Iraq as well. (See also "Iraq Study Group" immediately above.) President Bush, on the other hand, seemed disinclined to give up: in fact, he was bent on establishing a permanent American military presence in Iraq (a goal left over from the 1990 Gulf War -- see James Baker's remarks before a Congressional committee on Sept. 23, 1990). (See also David Sanger, "Korea as Model, U.S. Ponders Long Iraq Role," New York Times, June 3, 2007)
In late October, 2006, a Muslim Sheikh in Australia, Taj al-Din al-Hilali, provoked an uproar by describing women who did not wear the veil as "uncovered meat." (More: "Wars of Words and Images")
During the first week of November, 2006, the Israeli army launched Operation "Cloud of Autumn" in northern Gaza, including the town of Beit Hanoun. It was an effort to stop Palestinian rocket attacks on towns in southern Israel that had been going on since the Israelis withdrew from Gaza the previous year. Stray Israeli artillery shells that Israel said were the result of "technical failure" missed their target (rocket launch sites) and killed eighteen Palestinians in a residential area. The United States used its veto power to prevent passage of a UN resolution condemning Israel's attack on Gaza. In mid-November, Palestinians began using "human shields" to surround buildings targeted by Israel. In late November, both sides tried to pull back from the brink by announcing a new truce.
On November 2, 2006, Iran announced the winner of a $12,000 prize in its Holocaust cartoon contest (launched in retaliation for the Danish cartoons slandering the Prophet Muhammad earlier in the year). The organizer of the event, Seyed Masoud Shojai, said the contest would be held annually "until the destruction of Israel." (New York Times - See also "Wars of Words and Images")
On November 5, 2006, Iraq's former ruler Saddam Hussein was sentenced to hang for the murders of 148 Shiite residents of Dujail in 1982. Saddam was the first former Arab ruler to be tried and sentenced in modern times. A second trial on charges of massacring Kurds began (see), but was not completed before the Iraqis hanged Saddam on December 30, 2006.
By the 2006 midterm elections in the United States (in which Bush's Republican party suffered heavy losses and Democrats regained control of Congress and with the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense), Bush's "war on terror," five years along, was in deep trouble as a concept and a slogan as well as a war. American setbacks in Afghanistan (where the Taliban were still a threat), failure to secure Iraq, and Islamic terror still a menace had all raised many doubts. (See Max Rodenbeck, "How Terrible is It?," New York Review of Books, Nov. 30, 2006, 33ff.) (see also) The "war" may have been in doubt, but the threat from terror appeared if anything to be growing, especially in the United Kingdom where on November 9, the head of Britain's MI5 announced that 30 plots were under investigation involving two hundred terror cells whose members numbered more than 1,600 individuals. Prime Minister Tony Blair warned that the threat had been growing for a generation (see "Londonistan") and would take at least a generation to get rid of.
In November, 2006, a committee of twenty world leaders serving on a UN panel published a report entitled "Alliance of Civilizations" (full text via BBC). Challenging the "clash of civilizations" thesis, the panel urged cooperation across religious, cultural, and political lines dividing Islam from the West to thwart rising tensions stemming from the effects of political crises and the forces of globalization. (See "Wars of Words and Images")
On November 15, 2006, al-Jazeera launched its English language TV channel.
In mid November, 2006 in the Netherlands, Muslims responded angrily to plans announced by the Dutch government to ban the wearing of face coverings including those preferred by some Muslim women. Muslims numbered 6% of the population.
Also in mid November, 2006 in Pakistan, the lower legislative chamber passed changes to the Hudood laws ("Divine ordinances," lit. "limits") which would change the way rapes were handled. No longer would women reporting rape have to meet the Quranic test of four male witnesses to the crime, without which women in the past have had charges of adultery thrown back at them. The measure was seen as a test for President Musharraf who had publicly expressed admiration for Ataturk's success in setting up barriers between religion and politics.
In a further sign that regional governments were stepping in to fill the gap created by flagging American leadership, Syria and Iraq announced on November 20, 2006 that they were reestablishing diplomatic relations after a more than twenty year hiatus (severed in 1982 during the first Gulf War). In a related development, Iran was trying to convene a summit of Iraq and its neighbors.
Also in mid November 2006, Israeli activist group Peace Now released government figures indicating that almost 40% of the West Bank land Israel was planning to keep in a final settlement with the Palestinians was privately owned Palestinian land seized in violation of Israel's own laws making most of the Israeli settlements built there illegal (BBC and New York Times, Nov. 21, 2006 -- full text of Peace Now report via BBC).
On November 27, 2006, Jordan's King Abdullah II warned that unless a region wide peace process under international leadership were launched in the Middle East, the area could see three civil wars raging by 2007: in the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, and Iraq.
On November 29, 2006, one of Iran's most senior clerics, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Fazel Lankarani, issued a fatwa calling for the killing of Rafiq Tagi, an Azeri newspaper writer, because Tagi had written that Christianity was superior to Islam and Europe was superior to the Middle East. (see "Wars of Words and Images")
In late November, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI on a tour of Turkey spoke up for the rights of Christians, Jews, and other non-Muslims living in Muslim countries and challenged European Muslim leaders to do the same. Christians in Saudi Arabia were forbidden by law to practice their faith openly. Iran's 300,000 Christians and 30,000 Jews reported widespread harassment, and Iranian Bahais had long suffered extreme persecution. Egypt's Coptic Christians reported more subtle forms of discrimination (denial of permits, for example, to build or repair churches). (See The Economist, Dec. 2-8, 2006, pp. 14, 53; see also discussion of theological supersessionism at "Wars of Words and Images")
By the fall of 2006, an estimated 300,000 had died in Sudan's Darfur region and two million had been displaced. Also in the fall of 2006, the Sudanese government drew criticism worldwide by taking measures to unleash pro-government militiamen in new campaigns in the region. (see also)
In early December, 2006, Yuli Tamir, the Israeli Education Minister, sparked a strong reaction from supporters of the settlement movement, among others, by arguing that Israeli school textbooks should be amended to show that the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the Golan Heights were territories Israel had conquered and occupied in the 1967 war and were not (as the books currently taught) part of Israel proper. The population of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza numbered 430,000 at the time while there were around 20,000 living on the Golan Heights. In the summer of 2007, a new Israeli textbook was published acknowledging for the first time that Palestinians considered Israel's founding in 1948 "a catastrophe." Ms. Tamir was a founding member of "Peace Now," one of the largest anti-settlement groups in Israel. In the past, charges had been leveled at Palestinian textbooks as well: for inciting hatred of Israelis and for denying that Israel existed. (BBC, Dec. 5, 2006) Similar controversies over charges that school textbooks were inspiring religious hatred erupted in the winter of 2006-07 in a London school funded by Saudi Arabia and also in Iran. In the former case, exam questions were said to use the adjective "worthless" in connection with Judaism and Christianity (BBC, Feb. 7, 2007). In the latter case, some textbooks urged Iranian students to grow up to become "martyrs" in the war against Western plots to destroy Islam (New York Times, Feb. 8, 2007). (Related topics: "Wars of Words and Images")
On December 5, 2006, The Washington Post reported that the United States had about 100,000 non-military contractors working in Iraq, ten times the number employed during the 1991 war to liberate Kuwait. By comparison, there were about 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq in 2006. In addition to infrastructure projects, private contractors were performing tasks traditionally assigned to the military (providing security and interrogating prisoners, for example).
On December 7, 2006, the 2005 U. N. Arab Human Development Report was released saying that discrimination against women was retarding social and economic development in the Arab world (BBC). (See similar report in 1999) (More on women in the region.)
In mid December, 2006, a government sponsored conference on the Holocaust opened in Iran aimed at goading Western sensibilities about the limits of "free speech" in the wake of the "cartoon controversy" and other recent polemical rhetoric from the West (see, see also, -- background: See "Wars of Words and Images"). Many of the delegates had become famous for either questioning or denying the Holocaust and included former American Ku Klux Klan member David Duke among other white supremacists. The conference provoked furious reactions in the West. Challenges to the historical truth of the Holocaust and threats against Israel from Iran's president had become a regular feature since his election in 2005 (for example).
In mid December, 2006, the "European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Islamophobia" (EUMC) published a report indicating that Europe's 13 million Muslims were enduring rising levels of violence (attacks on mosques, for example), verbal abuse (taunts aimed at women wearing veils, for example), and discrimination (in housing and work, for example) all of which were contributing to increasing feelings of isolation and alienation (full text of report available at BBC, Dec. 18, 2006).
Also in mid December, 2006, in what was seen as a referendum on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hardline policies, reformists and moderates delivered a solid and embarrassing defeat to hardliners in local elections. The president was also subjected to the ridicule of university student demonstrators angered by his recent purge of "liberal" university professors. Adding to the president's woes, foreign banks began scaling back investments in Iranian energy projects because of Iranian intransigence on its nuclear program. (see also)
On December 20, 2006, American Congressman Virgil Goode (R -Virginia) wrote a letter to constituents criticizing newly elected Representative Keith Ellison (D - Minnesota), a Muslim, for announcing he would use the Qur'an in his private swearing in ceremony (following the public ceremony in which all elected representatives take an oath by raising their right hands). Goode promised to work toward limiting immigration of Muslims to the United States (Ellison was a convert to Islam who said he could trace his roots in America back to 1742). This incident took place at a time when conservative talk show hosts in the U.S. like Dennis Prager were arguing that if an elected official were not willing to take the oath of office with their right hands on The Bible, then they should not serve. Others reminded Americans that the U.S. Constitution drew strict lines between the political and religious spheres (New York Times, Dec. 21, 2006). (See also "Wars of Words and Images")
The death of Turkmenistan's autocratic ruler Saparmurat Niyazov on December 21, 2006 stirred speculation that another round of competition in the "new great game" over energy resources in Central Asia involving Russia, China, and the United States was imminent (see Alex Nicholson, "Energy Rivalries Set to Heat Up," AP, Dec. 21, 2006 at Chron.com (Houston Chronicle) http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/ap/fn/4418481.html).
On December 23, 2006, the United Nations Security Council voted to impose sanctions against Iran for failing to halt its nuclear enrichment program.
On December 26, 2006, Israel announced the creation of a new Jewish settlement in the West Bank called Maskiot, the first new one since 1992. The New York Times in its lead editorial on December 27, 2006 called the decision "self-defeating."
Also in December, 2006, Ethiopian troops helped Somali government forces drive soldiers of the United Islamist Courts from the capital Mogadishu which the latter had held since the previous June. On January 7, American warplanes, with the permission of Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, began bombing suspected al-Qaeda targets inside Somalia in what some called a widening of the Bush "war on terror." (see BBC page on Somalia)
Also in December, 2006, a group of Israeli Arab intellectuals published a report, "The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel," arguing that Israel should become a non-Jewish state. (Full Text of the report) There were 1.3 million Arab citizens of Israel, about one fifth the total population (New York Times, Feb. 8, 2007)
On December 30, 2006, former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (b. April 28, 1937), sentenced to death on November 5, 2006, was hanged in Baghdad and buried in his home town of Tikrit. Some critics, including American officials, predicted the execution of Saddam, a minority Sunni Muslim in a predominantly Shiite nation, would further inflame the sectarian violence underway in Iraq at the time since there were procedural irregularities and since it was carried out on the first day of the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha at the end of the annual Hajj ("pilgrimage") season. Pro Saddam demonstrations broke out in several Arab cities indicating that, at least for some Sunnis, Saddam was a martyr (shaheed) who had stood up to both Shiite Iran and the West (both of whom continued to be perceived as threats to an autonomous Middle East).
The January 19, 2007 murder of Hrant Dink, an Armenian-Turkish editor in Istanbul, by a Turkish ultra-nationalist led some to raise questions about the law ("Article 301") under which Dink had been prosecuted, a law making it a crime to insult "Turkishness." (New York Times, Jan. 23, 2007). (see also)
In January, 2007, rumors were rife that Israel and Syria were conducting secret talks about making peace. (See Michael Oren, "What if Israel and Syria Find Common Ground?," New York Times Op-Ed piece, Jan. 24, 2007).
On February 9, 2007, renovations to a ramp near the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem leading to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound (a project that included archeological excavations) sparked riots by Muslim worshippers. (see also, and also)
In mid February 2007, mostly Shiite Iran reported unrest in Zahedan, capital of its southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchestan: bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan, home to a Sunni minority ethnic Baluch population, and a smuggling center for opium out of Afghanistan.
In March, 2007, Iran captured fifteen British sailors who, it charged, had violated Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf. The sailors were eventually released, but, the incident underscored Iran's rising influence in the region over against declining Western power.
In the spring of 2007, moderate Islamist power in Turkey was on the rise. The success of Turkey's ruling AK Party ("Justice and Development Party," - Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi) in advancing the economy (economic growth was 7% per year, foreign investment was at record highs, and inflation had been brought under control) and in improving standards of living (including the environment) resulted in one of its founders, Abdullah Gul, the Foreign Minister, emerging as the favorite to succeed secularist President Ahmet Necdet Sezer. (See Sabrina Tavernise, "In Turkey, A Sign of a Rising Islamic Middle Class," New York Times, April 25, 2007) In a sign of a budding political crisis, Turkey's army (with a history of coups against governments it perceived as threats to the founding creed of secularist Kemalism - see 1960, 1971, 1980, 1997) warned the government not to go too far. (see also) Just when it looked like Turkey was headed into yet another showdown with the army, with thousands of secularists streaming into the streets to demonstrate and with financial markets beginning to get the jitters, Turkey's constitutional court enabled the parties to pull back from the brink when it ruled that the parliamentary vote that put Gul in the forefront was invalid. On July 22, elections, which PM Tayip Erdogan had called early in order to bolster his bargaining power, resulted in a resounding victory for Erdogan's AKP. But, the battle for Turkey's soul seemed far from over: the secularist military issued another veiled threat to intervene should Gul be renominated for the presidency. In spite of it all, Gul was elected President on August 29. Those in favor saw it as a major step in the direction of a completely civilian democracy.
In May, 2007, historian Walter Laqueur in a new book, The Last Days of Europe: Epitaph for an Old Continent (Thomas Dunne Books), laid the blame for Europe's decline in part on massive immigration of people (many of them Muslims) who were failing to assimilate into their new countries.
In mid May, Israel launched air attacks on HAMAS targets in Gaza in retaliation for its Qassam rocket attacks against Israel. (more on the political crisis in the Palestinian territories going on at the time)
In mid May, 2007 following a bombing in Ankara which Turkey's leadership linked to Kurdish separatists (among them, members of the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (PKK), or, "Kurdistan Workers Party"), there were rumors of a possible Turkish plan to invade Kurdish (northern) Iraq (New York Times, May 24, 2007). By July, Turkey had massed 140,000 troops on its border with northern Iraq. In mid October, the Turkish parliament gave the government formal authority to launch incursions. Relations between the United States and Turkey were strained over this issue, and over an initiative in the Congress to pass a resolution declaring the Turkish massacre of Armenians that began in World War I a "genocide."
On May 19, 2007, the BBC announced that Dubai's ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum would donate $10 billion (one of the largest charitable gifts in history) to improve education in the Middle East, a region where more than 40% of women were illiterate and where the book publication rate for the region as a whole was lower than in Turkey alone.
On May 27, 2007, Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, 41, was elected to a new seven year term winning 97% of the vote. His name was the only one on the ballot.
Also in May, 2007, a campaign led by a rightist group was underway in Switzerland to ban minarets from mosques. Switzerland was home to 350,000 Muslims. Supporters argued that minarets were symbols of Muslim Sharia law and as such were incompatible with the secular nature of civil law in Switzerland. (BBC, May 28, 2007) (See "Muslims and Europe")
Also in May, 2007, a new Pew survey of Muslims in America found "them to be largely assimilated, happy with their lives, and moderate with respect to many of the issues that have divided Muslims and Westerners around the world." Pew estimated there were 2.35 million Muslims in the U.S., considerably fewer than some other estimates. One finding that disturbed some was that 1 in 4 young adult Muslims were in favor of suicide bombings against civilian targets in defense of Islam. (see summary article and download full report)
"Leading Israeli policy planners had determined six months before the Six-Day War that capturing the West Bank would be bad for the country. Recently declassified Israeli government documents show that according to these policy planners, taking over the West Bank would weaken the relative strength of Israel’s Jewish majority, encourage Palestinian nationalism and ultimately lead to violent resistance."
By mid-June, 2007, many thought they saw the hand of Iran writ large in the region's troubles on a variety of fronts: Lebanon's political crisis, civil war in the Palestinian territories, and resurgence of the Taliban threat in Afghanistan, in addition to the continuing struggle to stabilize Iraq. Why was Iran, a Shiite nation, supporting Sunni as well as Shiite causes? Perhaps the principle of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" was at work in Iran's larger ambitions in the Middle East. But, it had also been clear since the Iranian Islamic Revolution (1979) that Iran was challenging Saudi Arabia for the position of leader of the Muslim world. Syria was seen to be allied with Iran in the pursuit of influence in Lebanon and Palestine. The drive to steer events in Lebanon on the part of both Iran and Syria dated back to the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1989. Both Iran and Syria had been cited by the UN for providing arms and training to militias such as Lebanon's Hizbullah and the Palestinian HAMAS movement. Security Council Resolutions 1559 (Sept., 2004), 1680 (May, 2006), and 1701 (August, 2006) all had explicitly called upon militia groups to disarm and all were being ignored. (see also: Syria cited again for aiding arms smuggling across the border into Lebanon) Warnings from Jordan's King Abdullah II in 2004 about the spreading Iranian "crescent" of influence in the Middle East seemed apt to some. Some thought they saw the stirrings of a new "cold war" centered on the region with Iran and its proxies on one side and the United States and its proxies on the other (The Economist, Aug. 4, 2007, 39). (see also)
In mid-June, 2007, controversial author Salman Rushdie was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
In late June, 2007, in a further sign of dissatisfaction with the leadership of President Ahmadinejad (see), rioters in Iran torched gas stations to protest the rationing of petrol. A crackdown by religious police targeting lax standards of dress and hairstyles among both Iranian men and women was also underway in Iran at the time. The rate of executions in Iran in 2007 was second only to China's. Among those nations executing people who were under 18 when they committed their offenses, Iran was the leader. In July, a man was stoned to death for adultery. (see also)
Also in late June, 2007, Egypt announced a total ban on the practice of female circumcision following the death of a twelve year old girl in Upper Egypt from complications resulting from the procedure. An estimated 90% of all Egyptian women had undergone the operation. Both Muslim and Christian authorities had long maintained there was no basis in sacred texts or religious practice for it.
On July 4, 2007, a Pakistani Muslim cleric, Maulana Abdul Aziz, leader of a group that had seized and held the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad and had demanded the imposition of Sharia law, was captured while trying to escape wearing a woman's burqa. The mosque seizure came at a time when President Musharraf's hold on power was seen to be weakening in the face of rising threats from pro- Taliban and other fundamentalist elements such as al-Qaeda, especially from northwestern border areas. Musharraf was also locked in a constitutional crisis: he had dismissed the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a move widely criticized as an overreach of executive power (he was eventually overruled and the Chief Justice was reinstated). The following week, army troops stormed the mosque. 73 militants and 10 soldiers were killed. Pro-Taliban elements responded with a campaign of bombings and other violence that left nearly 300 dead throughout the country during the next two weeks. Writing in the New York Times (July 20, 2007), Somini Sengupta and Ismail Khan said, "The violence has thrust Pakistan toward what appears to be a turning point in its modern history, with the state being forced into direct confrontation with the religious extremists it has long allowed to thrive."
In the summer of 2007, Swiss national Tariq Ramadan, grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna and one of Europe's most prominent Muslim scholars, came in for criticism from Malise Ruthven who accused Ramadan of turning a blind eye to the theocratic sectarianism that had marked Islam almost from its inception:
"...he overlooks the most critical ingredient in the mixture of intellectual and historical forces that engendered the Enlightenment: the privatization of religion in the West and its progressive and necessary removal from the political realm. He ignores both the Reformation and the wars of religion that devastated Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is a strange omission for a Swiss student of Nietzsche educated in the city of Rousseau and Voltaire." ("The Islamic Optimist," New York Review of Books, vol. 54., no. 13, August 14, 2007, 65).
Ramadan was accused by others of inconsistency and a lack of predictability in some of his thinking. He said he favored the moderate accommodation of Islam with the West and tolerance for all religions; however, he was accused of ambiguities on such matters as the stoning of adulterers and terror. (see Ian Buruma, "Tariq Ramadan Has an Identity Issue," New York Times, Feb. 4, 2007, and, Jonathan Laurence, "The Prophet of Moderation: Tariq Ramadan's Quest to Reclaim Islam," Foreign Affairs, May-June, 2007, 128.ff.)
In the spring and summer of 2007, two new art shows challenged the "clash of civilizations" thesis. One at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, entitled "Venice and the Islamic World, 828-1797," supported the claim that strong commercial relations between Islam and the West were a far better gauge of relations overall than religious or political differences. In reviewing the exhibit, William Dalrymple wrote, "Indeed, the entire exhibition can be read as a subtle rebuke to those who like to see the relationship between the Christian and Islamic worlds exclusively and simplistically as a matter of jihads and crusades, clashes, violence, and destruction." ("The Venetian Treasure Hunt," New York Review of Books, July 19, 2007, 30) (more). A second exhibition went up in London. It was sponsored by the Aga Khan (spiritual leader of the world's 15 million Ismaili Shiites), who said, "The essential problem, as I see it, in relations between the Muslim world and the West is a clash of ignorance,"and, "art is a medium of discourse that transcends barriers." (more from the BBC) (see also "Wars of Words and Images")
In late July, 2007, Libya released six foreign health workers who had originally been condemned to die (in the end, the sentences were commuted to life just before the workers' custody was transferred to Bulgaria). The workers had been convicted of infecting 438 Libyan children with HIV. In exchange, a fund was set up for foreign contributions to families of victims and the EU loosened visa restrictions on traveling Libyans. Bulgaria pardoned and released the prisoners immediately after they arrived on Bulgarian soil.
On August 7, 2007, Israeli authorities evicted dozens of Jewish settlers who had illegally occupied two buildings in the Palestinian West Bank city of Hebron. The evictions came at a time when Israel was making efforts to shore up Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his power struggle with HAMAS. (more)
In August, 2007, exiled Bangladeshi writer and feminist Taslima Nasreen was attacked at a gathering in Hyderabad (India) by members of the All India Majlis al-Itihad al-Muslimeen Party, some of whom shouted for her to be put to death for blasphemy. The European Parliament had awarded her the the Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought in 1994 (NY Times, Aug. 10, 2007). (see Wars of Words and Images and Women in Islam) Later that month (August 25), two bombs went off in this mixed Hindu and Muslim city killling over forty.
In early September, 2007, Iran's former President Hashemi Rafsanjani was elected Head of Iran's "Assembly of Experts" putting him in a powerful position from which to challenge his political rival, current President Ahmedinejad.
On October 12, 2007 as Ramadan was ending, 138 Muslim scholars from around the world issued a new call for inter-religious dialogue and garnered support from Christian leaders of many denominations including Pope Benedict XVI. (see BBC report - see also text of document by Muslim scholars on the common ground between Christians and Muslims - see also "Wars of Words and Images")
In mid-October, 2007, Libya was elected to a two year term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. Some, mindful of Libya's status in the 1980s as a "pariah state," pronounced Libya's rehabilitation complete. Libya had "come in from the cold."
On October 18, 2007 in Karachi, Pakistan, former PM Benazir Bhutto, who had just returned from exile, was the target of a pair of suicide bombers who killed more than one hundred but failed to hurt her. However, she was assassinated the following December 27.
On October 25, 2007, the United States imposed a new set of sanctions upon Iran, the most comprehensive since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, targeting especially Iran's Revolutionary Guard. The sanctions were aimed at deterring Iran from developing its nuclear program and at punishing it for supporting terror via the "Quds Force" wing of the Revolutionary Guard.
On November 3, 2007, Pakistan's President Musharraf imposed emergency rule and suspended the constitution. The Supreme Court was deposed and the Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, was put under house arrest. Musharraf had deposed Chaudhry on March 9 for alleged improprieties. However, protests led by lawyers throughout the country forced Musharraf to reinstate him on July 20. Musharraf stacked the Supreme Court with new justices loyal to him who promptly dismissed all legal challenges to his reelection to a new five-year term. Then, on November 28, Musharraf resigned from his position as army chief and on the 29th was sworn in for an additional five-year term as a civilian president. General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, former head of Pakistan's ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), succeeded him in the military post. Musharraf repealed emergency rule in mid December, but put in place a series of decrees insuring that none of his recent initiatives could be challenged in the courts. Elections were slated for January 8, 2008. The security of some areas of Pakistan continued to be in doubt: a suicide bomber killed approximately 50 in a mosque near Peshawar on Dec. 21. (see also)
On November 6, 2007, a suicide bomb attack in Baghlan Province, Afghanistan left 40 dead, among them schoolchildren and politicians. The attack came amid other signs that the reach of resurgent Taliban strength was spreading in Afghanistan.
On November 22, 2007, early returns in parliamentary elections in Jordan indicated that the Islamist Action Front, the main opposition party, had lost most of its seats.
On November 22, 2007, a hardline Iranian newspaper, Islamic Republic, close to Ayatollah Khamenei launched an unusually strong editorial attack on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a signal perhaps that the president had fallen into disfavor both with the people (the result of economic hardship) and with the power elite in Iran, angry that Ahmadinejad was using the nuclear dispute with the West (see also) to expand his personal power (BBC).
Writing in the November 22, 2007 issue of Al-Sharq al-Owsat on the eve of presidential elections in Lebanon, columnist Samir 'Atallah echoed fears in the Arab world that a new round of civil war there was likely and that such a war could quickly expand and engulf the entire region. (more on Lebanon's political crisis). He wrote that Lebanon's "'cold civil war' (al-harb al-ahliyya al-barda) is in fact an Arab cold war and an international cold war." (more on Lebanon's civil war, which Atallah and many others believe did not really end with the Taif Accord of 1989) but continued as a "cold war." (see also)
On November 27, 2007, at the invitation of the United States, officials from across the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and Syria, met with Israel's Prime Minister Olmert and Fatah's Chair, Mahmoud Abbas at Annapolis, Maryland to pledge themselves to renew the Middle East peace process (coverage from the BBC). Meanwhile in Gaza, tens of thousands of Palestinians rallied against the Annapolis initiative. HAMAS' leaders vowed they would never recognize a state of Israel inside geographical Palestine. Olmert warned Israelis that failure to reach a negotiated solution could mean the end for the state of Israel: "If the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, then the State of Israel is finished (BBC)." Leaders of many Middle Eastern nations were motivated to come to Annapolis at least as much because of their fears of Iran's rising influence in their region as their wish to see the peace process kicked into gear once again, and, they saw the re-engagement of the United States in the process as perhaps their best hope that Iranian influence might be checked.
Israel had pledged to allow no new settlements in territory occupied since the 1967 war. However, Israel had not enforced the ban. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on December 7, 2007 issued Israel a warning against its plan to erect 300 new homes in the Har Homa settlement in East Jerusalem: "We are in a time when the goal is to build maximum confidence, and this doesn't help to build confidence." (Isabel Kershner, "Israeli-Arab land Fight is a Cat-and-Mouse Game," New York Times, Dec. 8, 2007, A10) (more on the Arab-Israeli conflict) Israeli officials confirmed that 740 new homes were in the planning stages for occupied Jerusalem (500 in Har Homa (Jabal Abu Ghneim) and 240 in Maaleh Adumin). These events transpired at a time when Israeli immigration officials were reporting that the rate of return of Jews to Israel had reached a 20 year low (fewer than 20,000 had immigrated in 2007 -- BBC, Dec. 24, 2007). In February, 2008, Israeli Housing Minister Zeev Boim announced that hundreds more new settlement homes were to be constructed in Pisgat Zeev (BBC, Feb. 12, 2008).
On November 29, 2007 in the Sudan, a female British elementary school teacher was sentenced to fifteen days in jail for insulting Islam by permitting her school children to name a teddy-bear "Muhammad." (see "Wars of Words and Images") Some Sudanese citizens rallied in Khartoum calling for the woman to be put to death. The incident came at a time when Sudan was under intense pressure from the UN, and especially from Western countries, to do more to promote a peaceful settlement of the problems in its Darfur region. Three days later, Sudan's president pardoned the teacher.
Earlier in November, 2007, a Shiite woman in mostly Sunni Saudi Arabia who had been raped by by several men while in the company of a male acquaintance she was not related to was sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in prison for "mingling." King Abdullah later pardoned the woman.
In November, 2007, moderate Muslim leaders in Britain proposed a framework for fighting extremism, creating "civic responsibility," and promoting the rights of women (New York Times, Nov. 30, 2007, A9).
In early December, 2007, a U.S. report - "The National Intelligence Estimate" - reported that Iran was "less determined" to build nuclear weapons than previously thought, and, that Iranian officials had halted their weapons program in 2003 (BBC, Dec. 3, 2007) -- (text of the report via BBC)
In the December 12, 2007 edition of Al-Sharq al-Owsat, prominent Arab columnist Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed wrote that al-Qaeda was shifting its recruiting and training operations from the Afghan border region to the mountains of Yemen, thus setting the stage for a new phase in the "war on terror" which would likely mean more terrorist attacks in the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia. (Abd al-Rahman Rashed, "Al-Qaeda tibdal qaedataha" ("The Base is Changing its Base" - a pun on the group's name) Al-Sharq al-Owsat, Dec. 12, 2007)
In late December, 2007, Egypt accused Israel of pressuring the U.S. Congress into suspending $100 million in aid to Egypt. Israel had accused Egypt of not doing enough to stop the smuggling of arms across its border with Palestinian Gaza.
On December 27, 2007, former Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto, a leading contender in elections scheduled for January 8, 2008, was assassinated in Rawalpindi. Widespread rioting ensued and there were rising doubts about the security of this nuclear armed nation. (more on Pakistan's recent woes) (also) Steve Coll (writing in The New Yorker, Jan. 28, 2008, p.47) suggested that "Bhutto may not have grasped the extent to which old patterns of radicalism in Pakistan are changing. Jihadi groups that once collaborated with the I.S.I. are breaking away to pursue an independent revolutionary agenda, and they are having considerable success."
2008 On January 10, President Bush, meeting with leaders in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, said the time had come to create a Palestinian state and called upon Israel to withdraw from areas it had been occupying since the 1967 war. Palestinians, by a margin of 72 - 23%, were skeptical this would happen and either doubted Bush had the political weight to see it through or did not trust his intentions (Isabel Kershner, New York Times, Jan. 11, 2008, A6). (see also)
On January 26, 2008, radically militant Palestinian Christian and physician George Habash, founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a nationalist group advocating a secular and democratic state in Palestine, died in Jordan. Habash and his group became famous for airplane hijackings in the 1970s (see). As the Palestinian resistance movement fell more and more under the wing of Islamist groups like HAMAS and Islamic Jihad, Habash and his like steadily fell out of fashion. Habash was vehemently opposed to negotiating with Israel and broke ranks with Yasser Arafat when Arafat signed the Oslo pact with Israel.
In late January, 2008, Turkey's governing party set in motion a proposed series of amendments to the secular constitution (in force since Ataturk's time) that would permit women to wear head scarves (hitherto banned) in public universities. (outcome)
In the journal Foreign Affairs (”The Costs of Containing Iran: Washington’s Misguided New Middle East Policy,” Jan.-Feb., 2008), Vali Nasr and Ray Takeyh argued that the United States was wrong to construct a policy around containing Iran, that such a policy would only cause more Sunni extremism, sectarian struggle, and instability in the region. Instead, they said, the U.S. should promote the integration of all nations in the region through “dialogue, compromise, and commerce.” (origins of concept of "containment" in U.S. foreign policy)
On February 1, 2008, Selig Harrison, Director of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy, wrote in a New York Times OP-Ed piece ("Drawn and Quartered") that Pakistan may be on the verge of splitting apart along ethnic lines into three sovereign entities. A dissenting (and decidedly more optimistic) outlook came from William Dalrymple ( “A New Deal in Pakistan,” New York Review of Books, vol. 55, no. 5, April 3, 2008, pp. 14ff.). Dalrymple, who lived in New Delhi, wrote his piece after the mid-February parliamentary elections. He noted, “…it is clear that Pakistanis have overwhelmingly rejected the military and Islamist options and chosen instead to back secular democracy,” and, “The country I saw in February on a long road trip from Lahore in the Punjab down through rural Sindh to Karachi was not a failed state, or anything even approaching ‘the most dangerous country in the world’" (a jab at a cover story in the January 5, 2008 issue of The Economist).
In February, 2008, the World Bank released a report arguing that the Arab world was falling behind other regions of the world in the area of education, that there was a correlation between education and economic development, and that reforms were needed (BBC report, Feb. 5, 2008) (full report) (see also).
In early February, 2008, the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Rev. Rowan Williams, spiritual head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, touched off what some called a "storm of opposition" in Great Britain when he called for that nation to incorporate some aspects of Muslim Sharia law into civil family law. (See John F. Burns, "Top Anglican Seeks a Role for Islamic Law in Britain," New York Times, Feb. 8, 2008)
In February, 2008, a fresh controversy erupted in the Netherlands surrounding a purported desecration of a Qur'an on film performed by right wing anti-immigrant Dutch MP Geert Wilders. The affair prompted strong reactions from such Muslim nations as Iran and Syria. (See also "Wars of Words and Images")
On February 12, 2008, Imad Mughniyeh, a high ranking member of Hizbullah, died in a car bomb attack in Damascus that Hizbullah blamed on Israeli agents. Mughniyeh was implicated in the 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner which was diverted to Beirut (among other terrorist attacks) and had been on the FBI's "most wanted" list.
On February 18, 2008 in Pakistan, the party of recently assassinated candidate and former PM Benazir Bhutto soundly defeated the ruling party of President Pervez Musharraf in parliamentary elections.
In late February, 2008, an art exhibit in Berlin displaying a picture of the Kaaba in Mecca with the caption "stupid stone" provoked an angry outburst from Muslims. (see also "Wars of Words and Images")
In early March, 2008, Israel launched an offensive against HAMAS ruled Gaza in an effort to stop an intensifying barrage of Qassam rockets from Gaza into Israel (the towns of Sderot and Ashkelon were frequent targets). Approximately 100 Palestinians were killed on March1. Palestinian Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas broke off peace talks with Israel. At the same time, several leading aid groups including Amnesty International reported that humanitarian conditions in Gaza were at their lowest point since Israel first occupied Gaza during the 1967 war. (links to the full report of the aid groups at BBC along with analysis) On March 6, a Palestinian gunman killed eight Jewish seminary students at a yeshiva in Jerusalem that had close ties to the settlement movement (BBC report). (more on the Arab-Israeli conflict) On March 9, Israeli PM Olmert, under pressure from the orthodox Shas Party, approved the construction of 750 new homes in the Jewish settlement of Givat Zeev in the West Bank. Under the terms of ongoing negotiations and the "Roadmap" Peace Plan of 2003, settlement expansion was to have been frozen. Israeli government officials countered that the building plan dated back to 1999 and that it involved new buildings within existing settlement blocs.
In early March, 2008, Muslim vendors pulled out of a book fair in Paris because the fair's organizers had announced they were going to honor Israeli writers. Muslim writer Tariq Ramadan was among those protesting Israel's inclusion. Some charged that Israel was guilty of "crimes against humanity" for its mistreatment of Palestinians. (see "Wars of Words and Images")
In the Sunday, March 16, 2008 issue of the New York Times Magazine, constitutional law expert Noah Feldman examined the challenges to Islam’s claim to govern according to divine will. Feldman asked, “Can Shariah provide the necessary resources for such a rethinking of the judicial role?” His assessment: ”In its essence, Shariah aspires to be a law that applies equally to every human, great or small, ruler or ruled. No one is above it, and everyone at all times is bound by it. But the history of Shariah also shows that the ideals of the rule of law cannot be implemented in a vacuum. For that, a state needs actually effective institutions, which must be reinforced by regular practice and by the recognition of actors within the system that they have more to gain by remaining faithful to its dictates than by deviating from them.”
In Iran's mid-March parliamentary elections, conservatives consolidated their hold. However, some new conservative members were strongly critical of President Ahmadinejad.
In Rome on Easter Sunday, March 23, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI baptized Muslim newspaper editor Magdi Allam into the Roman Catholic Church. This wasn't Benedict's first time at the center of challenges to the Muslim world. (more)
In late March, 2008, in Saudi Arabia, a country where conversion from Islam to another religion could land you the death penalty, where non-Muslim worship was outlawed, and where even some Muslim sects (Sufis and Shiites, for example) were discriminated against, King Abdullah called for dialogue between members of the world’s monotheistic religions. The "World Conference on Dialogue" was held the following July in Madrid under the auspices of the Muslim World League with King Abdullah playing host. The Economist observed: "Given that jihadist violence - seen by many people as a by-product of reactionary Saudi theology - has touched the [Saudi] kingdom itself, as well as cities like New York and London, the king has every incentive to use his influence to steer global Islam in a more moderate direction. But to succeed abroad, he may need to succeed more at home." ("Global Islam: Unusual Guests, A Most Unusual Host," The Economist, July 26, 2008, 71). (See also "Wars of Words and Images")
Also in March, 2008, the Saudi Arabian government announced it was planning to "retrain" some 40,000 imams in an effort to combat religious militancy and encourage tolerance. Earlier in the month, H. L. Mencken’s famous definition of puritanism (”the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy”) sprang to mind when a prominent Saudi clergyman, Sheikh Abdul Mohsen al-Obaikan, came in for criticism from the nation’s puritan Wahhabi religious establishment after he was videotaped performing the traditional Bedouin sword dance at a relative’s wedding. The real reason behind the criticism may have been Sheikh Obaikan’s relatively moderate and tolerant approach to social issues: for example, he supported women driving cars under some conditions and criticized suicide attacks saying they did not constitute acts of religious martyrdom.
Later in the spring of 2008, the New York Times ran a story about an American soldier posted to Iraq who was an avowed atheist. The soldier was sent home early from his tour in Iraq after being threatened by his fellow soldiers and superior officers. He filed a lawsuit against the Army. The suit complained of a discriminatory, dominant, Christian evangelical religious culture prevailing among American troops in Iraq. The incident prompted the question of whether or not or to what degree the war in Iraq was a religious war: perhaps the latest "hot" episode in the centuries long mainly "cold war" between the Christian and Muslim worlds (more). See: Neela Banerjee, "Soldier Sues Army, Saying His Atheism Led to Threats," The New York Times, April 26, 2008.
In early May, 2008, fighting erupted in Lebanon - details. (more on the political crisis in Lebanon) The crisis seemed to underscore America's growing impotence in the region: its inability to limit the spread of Iranian influence (through its proxies Syria and Hizbullah). One Israeli critic began referring to the current phase as "Pax Iranica" (See Thomas Friedman, "The New Cold War," (Op-Ed piece), New York Times, May 14, 2008. The following day, the New York Times editorialist wrote, "Mr. Bush's stubborn refusal to negotiate with either Syria or Iran has weakened American influence throughout the region." - "Lebanon at the Edge, May 15, 2008).
On May 21, 2008, news broke of secret "indirect" talks about peacemaking that were going on between Syria and Israel, mediated by the Turks. (Israel was also engaged in talks with HAMAS mediated by the Egyptians)
On June 2, 2008, a car bomb attack on the Danish embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan killed at least eight. Some suspected a connection with the Danish newspaper cartoons that prompted a furious response throughout the Muslim world two years earlier.
In the summer of, 2008, Turkey's Constitutional Court issued two rulings that underscored the nation's founding (secular) principles. In early June, it voted to ban head scarves in Turkish universities. On July 30, it ruled on the constitutionality of Turkey's ruling AKP party (details below)
On June 13, 2008, Taliban insurgents, on the assault in Afghanistan and bidding for a return to power, broke into a prison in Kandahar and freed more than a thousand prisoners including hundreds of their cohorts. Afghanistan's president Hamid Karzai, increasingly under fire for his failure to deal with corruption in his government, began making threats to retaliate against Pakistan, whom he blamed for supporting the Taliban. However, Pakistan was having its own problems with the Taliban: by late June, the insurgents were threatening the city of Peshawar, and it was becoming clearer and clearer that they were having a destabilizing influence on the entire region.
On June 22, 2008, legal scholar Noah Feldman wrote about Europe's insufficient progress on the multicultural front: its problems assimilating and accepting the Muslims in its midst ("The New Pariahs?," New York Times Magazine, June 22, 2008, 9f.)
In mid June, 2008, Israel and HAMAS agreed to a six month truce, but after only a week it appeared to be unraveling: rocket attacks by Palestinians on Israel were still occurring and there were reports that Israeli troops were firing on Palestinian farmers. Part of the problem appeared to be that HAMAS was incapable of controlling rival Palestinian factions.
In June, 2008, a French court denied citizenship to a Moroccan woman on the grounds that the niqab ("veil") she chose to wear (a full veil with a narrow slit for the eyes) was inconsistent with French values such as equality of the sexes. The ruling was supported by France's Urban Affairs Minister, Fadela Amara, herself a Muslim, who branded the woman's niqab "a prison" and "a straitjacket." The court ruling was hailed by French citizens from across the political spectrum, including many Muslims. See: Katrin Bennhold, "A Veil Closes France's Door to Citizenship," New York Times, July 18, 2008. (More: see "Muslims in Europe") (See also)
In July, 2008, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague announced he would seek an indictment of Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes in connection with the ongoing crisis in Darfur.
July 25 and 26, 2008 marked two days of bomb attacks in India: in Ahmedabad in Gujarat State and in Bangalore. At least fifty were killed. "Indian Mujahideen" claimed responsibility for the Ahmedabad incident saying it was an act of "revenge" for violence against Muslims there, especially in 2002. India suspected involvement by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). India's Muslim population was 150 million, second largest after Indonesia.
On July 27, 2008, two bombs went off in Istanbul,Turkey killing at least 15 in the worst terror attack in that city since 2003. To Turkish investigators, the attack bore the hallmark of the outlawed Kurdish rebel group Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (PKK), or, "Kurdistan Workers Party," although the group denied involvement. Turkey had been launching attacks against the PKK in the southeast portion of the country and in northern Iraq. (see also)
On July 30, 2008, Turkey's Constitutional Court voted by a narrow margin to slap the ruling Islamist AKP Party with fines, but not ban it outright as many had feared. The party had been charged with trying to sabotage Turkey's secular republic (see) and replace it with an Islamist government. (background) The ruling was read widely as a sharp warning to AKP. Four times in its modern history up to this point Turkey's armed forces had stepped in to force a return to Kemalist principles. Commenting on the case, The Economist (July 31, 2008) wrote: "The biggest reason for the court’s decision may be rooted in hard parliamentary arithmetic. Even if AK had been shut down and its leading members banned, some 300 of its deputies would have retained their seats as independents, regrouped under a new name and formed a new government alone. Recent opinion polls consistently suggest that AK retains a big lead over its secular rivals. Hopes within pro-secular circles that the threat of closure would prompt mass defections from the party never materialised. “The secularists appear to have finally grasped that the only way to get rid of the AK is at the ballot box,” notes a European diplomat. If so, that is a huge step forward for Turkish democracy. " The outcome of this crisis was thought to enhance Turkey's bid to join the European Union.
On July 30, 2008, Israel's P.M. Ehud Olmert announced he would not run in upcoming Kadima Party elections. His political capital had been severely eroded by corruption charges, blame for Israel's failure to defeat Hizbullah in the 2006 war, and failure to move the peace process with the Palestinians forward.
Throughout the winter, spring, and summer of 2008, relations between the United States and Pakistan became chilly. The U.S. was angry over alleged Pakistani slowness to confront militant activity, including that of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, in its border region with Afghanistan. In early August, the U.S. said there was evidence that Pakistan's spy service, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), had provided direct assistance to those who had carried out a bomb attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul on July 7, and that ISI had tipped off militants to U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.
On August 18, 2008, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, beset by threats of impeachment, stepped down.
On August 19, 2008, a suicide car bomb explosion killed at least 43 people in Algeria.
On September 5, 2008, in a further sign that Libya had "come in from the cold," United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. She was the first American Secretary of State to visit Libya since 1953.
On September 9, 2008, Asif Ali Zardari, widower of slain former P.M. of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto, was sworn in as Pakistan’s next president. He assumed office under a cloud of suspicion: accused of extortion, money laundering, and receiving kickbacks. These charges had earned him the nickname of “Mr. Ten Percent.” Jane Perlez (see below) wrote at the time that Pakistan “has only $6 billion in foreign exchange reserves, disappearing at the rate of close to $2 billion every month to pay for oil and food.” ( Jane Perlez, “Bhutto Widower With Clouded Past Set to Lead,” New York Times, Sept. 5, 2008)
On September 17, 2008, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni won the leadership of her party (Kadima ) in party elections. Prime Minister Olmert resigned effective upon the date Livni succeeded in hammering together a new coalition government.
On September 20, 2008, a massive truck bomb destroyed much of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan and killed more than 50. The attack increased fears inside Pakistan and abroad that the country was unraveling under pressure from Islamist militants. Pakistan's new President, the first civilian to hold that office in nine years, admitted that the Taliban had "the upper hand" (The Economist, Sept. 20, 2008, 55). British Airways suspended flights "indefinitely" to and from Pakistan.
On October 15, 2008, an historic step forward, especially for Lebanon, took place when Lebanon and Syria established diplomatic relations for the first time since Lebanon was carved out of part of Syria following World War I. Lebanon up to this point had been struggling to assert itself as a sovereign nation.
On October 27, 2008, U.S. helicopters raided the village of Abu Kamal just inside Syria's border with Iraq and killed an Al-Qaeda operative. There were other casualties. American forces had been keeping a suspicious eye on the area since early in the war (see).
In November, 2008, commando members of a Pakistani militant group Lashkar e-Taiba ("Army of the Pure"), which had been linked in the past to Pakistan's state intelligence services, launched attacks on luxury hotels and a Jewish center in Mumbai, India killing nearly two hundred. Some Indian citizens began referring to the event as their country's "nine-eleven." The group's motives appeared at least in part connected with Muslim claims in Kashmir.
On December 5, 2008, Israeli soldiers forcibly removed 200 Jewish settlers who had occupied a disputed house in the West Bank city of Hebron near the Cave of Machpelah, the burial site of the patriarch Abraham.
In December, 2008, Robert D. Kaplan argued that the boundaries of the Middle East were shifting in ways reminiscent of the period following the end of the Cold War. At that time, the new Central Asian republics emerged, and, the prominent role of Islam in their religious, social, and political lives prompted the claim that the boundaries of the traditional “Middle East” had expanded. In this vein, Kaplan argued that in the post-Mumbai era the boundaries of the Middle East ought to be expanded again, this time to include India. He offered interesting historical support. See: Robert D. Kaplan, “Trouble in the Other Middle East” (Op-Ed piece), New York Times, Dec. 8, 2008. The first use of the term “Middle East” in print was in 1902.
On December 12, 2008, Israel’s Foreign Minister and Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni provoked furor over her suggestion that a population transfer of Israeli Arabs to a future Palestinian state would provide “a national solution” for Israel’s Arabs.
At the end of 2008, Islamic revivalism was on the rise in Bosnia. See: Dan Bilefsky, "Islamic Revival Tests Bosnia's Secular Cast," New York Times, Dec. 27, 2008.
On December 27, 2008, Israel launched what the BBC described as the most intense air attacks on Gaza in decades killing more than 200 Palestinians in the first rounds. The first targets were security, and military sites loyal to HAMAS. However, Israel soon began to blow up government sites as well including the homes of HAMAS officials prompting questions about whether Israel intended to overthrow HAMAS (See Ethan Bronner, "Is the Real Target HAMAS Rule?," New York Times, Jan. 4, 2009). The attacks followed the ending of a shaky six month truce between Israel and HAMAS and as rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel had begun to intensify. (continued)