IPS Blog

Tunisia Culture Wars: Ruling Ennahda Party Refuses to Rein in Salafists

Cross-posted from Open Democracy and the Colorado Progressive Jewish News. This series, of which Part Two is below, is dedicated to the memory and contributions of Alexander Cockburn. See part 1 — Tunisia’s Culture War: Salafists Run Amok.

Until late last November, when a Salafist storm broke out at the University of Tunis’s Manouba Campus, Habib Kazdaghli, the dean of the Faculty of Lettres, Arts and Sciences, was living a generally quiet life. But since late last November, much has changed both for Kazdaghli and the University at Manouba.

Kazdaghli is currently the defendant in a law suit, forced to face charges stemming from an incident earlier this year in which he manhandled two female students, both wearing full veils (niqab in Arabic) who had barged uninvited into his office and were destroying his papers. Originally charged with assault and facing 15 days in prison, on July 5, Kazdaghli’s case was postponed until October 25, but the charge was changed to ‘violence committed by an official while carrying out his duties’, which could result in a five-year prison sentence.

Among his academic interests, Kazdaghli was known as one of the few Tunisian non-Jews with genuine interest and expertise concerning the long and rich history of Tunisian Jewry. He has been an active member of the Société d’Histoire des Juifs de Tunisie, a secular historical society bringing together historians of different religions and backgrounds to study Tunisian Jewish history. While this affiliation is perhaps not the central reason for the Salafist campaign against Kazdaghli, it undoubtedly added fuel to their bigoted fire.

Manouba’s calm was shattered in late November of 2011 when angry Salafist demonstrators began what would become more than six months of protests at the Manouba campus. There are some 13,000 students at the Manouba campus; left-wing and secular influences are strong there. It is likely that this explains why the Salafists have targeted the place and why Ennahda, the ruling party, has done so little to interfere with the disruptions and put an end to them. I happened to be in Tunisia at the time that this incident erupted and kept waiting, to no avail, for the authorities to step in and defuse the situation. They never did for the three weeks I was in the country. Instead, for its own reasons, the government simply let the crisis fester.

Reshaping Tunisia’s political class

Breaking the influence of the country’s student movement, an integral part of the coalition that overthrew the corrupt Ben Ali regime, is a key strategy of the current Tunisian ruling elite in its attempt to form a new political consensus, stripped of the more left-oriented and secular elements involved in the uprising. While the coalition that overthrew Ben Ali did not have a coherent programme – the themes that emerged from their demonstrations were clear enough: end to corruption, an economic programme that could raise wages and shrink unemployment, freedom of speech and expression, including for previously repressed religious institutions and an independent (independent of foreign powers – France and the USA in particular) foreign policy.

Why might global powers like the United States, Great Britain and France be so blasé about the rise of the Islamic fundamentalism in Tunisia (and elsewhere in the Middle East) they so criticize to home audiences? The unspoken, but unambiguous goal of Tunisia’s Salafists is to help the country’s new ruling elite split the revolutionary movement that toppled Ben Ali in the first place. That alliance which came together with such speed included a goodly portion of the country’s youth, its student movement, its trade union, human rights fighters, its intelligentsia as well as many from the country’s professional and entrepreneurial class.

Rather than integrating the students, the labour movement and the like into the new order, the ruling Ennahda Party has gone a long way to integrating many elements of the Ben Ali regime along with the country’s hitherto marginalized extremist radical fundamentalist elements – the Salafists – into its new coalition, leaving many of those who actually brought down the Ben Ali and Trabelsi clans out of the mix, in the dust.

Key to isolating the more democratic and militant elements of the revolutionary coalition was to dampen and then in large measure to silence the national narrative that had exploded with the revolutionary upsurge: it was about jobs, higher wages, some reshaping of the economic model, ending corruption and extending democracy, neutralizing the role of the country’s secret police and ensuring greater freedom of expression.

What stood out about this national dialogue at the time Ben Ali was forced to flee (January 14, 2011 – now a national holiday), is how little religious considerations entered into the discussions. The atmosphere was not anti-religious, religious elements were involved in many levels of the revolt. But they were just a part of the mix, and by no means the dominant part; nor were their more radical Islamic fundamentalist elements a part of the revolutionary upsurge at all.

Tunisia: the socio-economic crisis discussions turn to religion

Shortly prior to the October, 2011 national elections for a constituent assembly, the national narrative shifted sharply from the socio-economic crisis which fuelled the revolt in the first place to matters of religion. (I’ve written extensively about this elsewhere.) The issue shifted from being a good citizen, regardless of religion or ethnic background, to one of being a good Muslim. More and more, the essence of ‘good Islam’ was shaped by the more radical, medieval elements within the Muslim community, elements essentially foreign to Tunisian Islam, Salafism.

The political consequence of this shift was to tear at the fabric of the left-centre coalition that had given their blood, sweat and tears, and their lives to kick out Ben Ali. Unable to stand the religious pressure, that coalition has lost a good deal of its energy and finds itself more and more isolated. A key element in undermining the revolutionary energy which could have propelled Tunisia to new political and economic vistas has been the sustained and completely cynical attack on the country’s university system in an attempt to tame it, bringing it under the control of more conservative (and not just religiously, but politically conservative) elements now in power.


Salafists are radical Islamic fundamentals whose stated goal is to turn Tunisia (and other places) into Islamic states ruled by Shari’a law. The Salafist movement is essentially foreign to Tunisian Islam, but has gained something of a foothold in the country since the overthrow of the Ben Ali government. Salafists had no role whatsoever in overthrowing the former regime. Their ranks continue to grow, especially among Tunisia’s rural and increasingly unemployed youth whose anger and frustration the Salafists are effectively manipulating.

Salafists thrive in increasingly dysfunctional societies; theirs is a toxic effect. They are beneficiaries of the chaos they have done much to create and enhance. In the end, they help the powers that be ‘divide and conquer’, pitting potential strategic allies against one another: religious against secular, men against women, etc. In Tunisia they are being used in an effort to change the political and social map of the country through what are in essence brownshirt tactics.

What is the end game? Where is all this cultural turmoil headed? The goal is nothing less than to re-shape the Tunisian national project away from its more secular origins as far as possible. To accomplish this, the Ennahda-led coalition needs to deconstruct, if not destroy, the great social movement that brought down Zine Ben Ali, while at the same time claiming to be the inheritors of that revolution.

One hypothesis put forth is that the Salafists are heavily infiltrated by elements of the former Ben Ali secret police, a 250,000 member spook and intimidation force. There is probably some justification to this allegation, although its main argument falls flat as it lets the current government off the hook for its collusion/cooperation with the Salafists. It also ignores the deals that have been cut between the Ministry of Interior, where most of these spooks were employed, the cadre of the former ruling Rassemblement Constitutionel Democratique (RCD) Party of Ben Ali, and the post Ben Ali ruling elite in which Ennahdha has a decisive role.

The growing Salafist influence in Tunisia can be explained both by the refusal of the ruling Ennahda Party to prosecute Salafist excesses – on the contrary it has in many cases encouraged them – and as a result of considerable financial and political support of the movement by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Add to this that the United States and its European allies have turned a blind eye to Tunisian Salafist excesses and an explanation to their rapid growth in influence emerges.

Habib Kazdaghli (APF)

While a few of those demonstrating for the niqab at Manouba are university students, many were outsiders, shipped in from one Salafist demonstration to another. The demonstrators had three demands, cutting edge of what is surely a more encompassing agenda: to turn the University of Tunis into an Islamic University based upon Salafist values. Among the specific demands: the ‘right’ of women to wear the niqab to class – including exams; separate spaces within the university for prayer; and a curriculum that reflects ‘Islamic values’ to a greater degree than at present. The niqab is something virtually never seen in Tunisia in the past 60 years until now. It was illegal to wear it until a year ago.

The Salafist demonstrations provoked counter demonstrations from university students wanting to protect their hard-won academic space. The confrontations between the groups turned increasingly angry and violent and eventually had to be broken up by the police. As has been the case with many other Salafist intimidations, the police, held back by the authorities – the latter now controlled by Ennahda – reacted with glacial slowness, letting the crisis fester far beyond reasonable bounds.

As dean of the Faculty of Lettres, Arts and Sciences, Kazdaghli stood right in the Salafist line of fire. His integrity, openness to serious academic inquiry and dialogue, his refusal to give an inch to Islamic fundamentalist thuggery and more than likely his interest in Tunisian Jewish history, together made him – and the faculty he leads – a target. The Salafist protests continued into the new year with the tactics becoming more and more aggressive.

What is a bit curious is how few pro-Salafist people participated in ‘defending the right’ for women to wear the veil. There were no more than a handful of them – maybe 50 in all – trying to intimidate a campus of 11,000 students. The Salafists could have been easily countered by the authorities if the will had been there. But aware that they could function with impunity with the weight of the currently constructed Tunisian state on their side, the Salafists compensated for their paltry numbers with increasingly aggressive tactics.

University entrances were blocked preventing normal access; students were harassed and prevented from studying, disruptions caused class cancellations; 2011 end-of-year exams had to be cancelled and the university temporarily closed; female students were intimidated for their dress and bullied; they occupied a part of the faculty permanently.

Salafists target Tunisia’s Jews and women

These Salafist protests also contained extreme expressions of anti-semitism and overt hostility to women’s rights. Understanding well that the women of Tunisia are in a harsh battle to defend hard-won human and social rights, there was a marked female presence among those students protesting against the Salafist presence and demanding that the authorities act.

In response to this religious offensive, Habib Kazdaghli attempted to maintain the dignity of the University of Tunis as an academic institution based upon Tunisian law and university policies. On November 2, 2011, about three weeks before the Salafist disruptions began, the faculty board had voted to ban the niqab on campus. According to a Human Rights Watch report, “in practice though, niqab-wearers were allowed on campus and in the library but barred from classes and exams.” It was probably this faculty vote, initiated in response to the growing Salafist influence nationally that provoked the Islamic fundamentalists to act.

At about the same time, similar provocations took place throughout the country, suggesting an orchestrated campaign. There were Salafist disruptions at the business school of the University of Manouba (same campus as the Faculty of Lettres, Arts and Sciences), at the School of Arts and Humanities of Sousse, the Higher Institute of Arts and Crafts in Kairouan and the Higher Institute of Theology of Tunis. Demands varied with the institutions. At Manouba they focused on the niqab; at the Institute of Theology in Tunis Salafists were demanding that moderate Islamic scholars be replaced by those more closely in tune with Salafist thinking and values.

His continued refusal to be cowed by this Salafist offensive made Kazdaghli a target of the demonstrators, but apparently also of the Tunisian authorities. The latter are probing – using the Salafists as their battering ram – just how far they can go to undo the achievements of the country’s founder and first president, Habib Bourguiba, in terms of secular education and women’s rights.

Kazdaghli’s initial response to the Salafist disruption was to deny outsiders permission to enter the campus in order to maintain order and the continued smooth functioning of the university. Upping the ante, two niqab-ed female students forced their way into Kazdaghli’s office and started to disrupt his papers. His response was to bodily toss them out of his office and in the aftermath, to press formal charges against them. These charges were never processed by the Tunisian police. But when the two women responded by pressing charges against Kazdaghli, the authorities acted swiftly, indicting the dean on charges of assault.

Kazdaghli rejects the charges and describes the lawsuit as having no merit. Defending himself, he commented, “This case was brought up by people who want to reshape our society, but I trust Tunisian justice.” One of his lawyers, Ahmed Brahim added to this, “The dean who represents the university, is being sued, while those who have disrupted classes and attacked Manouba University are free. This is not the message this country has been waiting for… Protecting our universities from aggression should be the primary concern.”

Letters to the Editor: Readers Respond to Kaul’s Departure, Part II

Here’s another sample of the poignant letters Donald Kaul received following his farewell column and my tribute to him. We’ve gotten more than 100 emails and at least a dozen snail-mailed letters and cards so far. Keep them coming and continue posting to the comment sections below Don’s column and my commentary. As I explained in an earlier post, please re-send any emails you thought were delivered to [email protected] prior to Tuesday July 24. Due to a snafu, they were lost.

—Emily Schwartz Greco, the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies. Send (or re-send) your letters to Donald Kaul via email to [email protected]. You may also snail-mail them to OtherWords, 1112 16th Street, NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20036.

Your insight, wit, commentary, analysis, story-telling, embellishment, etc. have delighted me since elementary school. You are one hell of a story teller, and always with a twist that makes your readers think. For better or worse, your writing made a big impact on my life. I learned to think and to question and to not be a dumb sheep in life. I became a Democrat partly because of you. Thank you for opening my eyes and inspiring my ability to feel for the less fortunate and to call bullshit on the indifferent. Thanks for making me laugh and making me cry. Thanks for making me mad and indignant enough to get involved in good causes…I would wave my good health wand all around you if it would help. Good luck and God Bless You, Donald Kaul.
—Cara Murphy, West Des Moines, Iowa

Donald Kaul (right) at the annual bike tour of Iowa he helped found in 1973 (Des Moines Register).

Donald Kaul (right) at the annual bike tour of Iowa he helped found in 1973 (Des Moines Register).

Please — after you recuperate from your heart glitch — continue to occasionally entertain us with your wit and humor. I have been amused for years with your columns and enjoyed the humor of Mike Royko, Rob Borsellino, and Clay Thompson from the Arizona Republic. It is nice to be able to pick up the newspaper and smile about SOMETHING that I’ve read! Columns such as these are a good antidote to all the reality around us. I hope your recovery goes well, and hope we haven’t heard the end of you yet!
—Deanna Rhiner, Fort Dodge, Iowa

I’ve enjoyed your writing for many years. Don’t quit now. We need your insights and opinions.
—Connie Goeb

Take care of your health first. Then, please, please, please come back to doing what the public forum needs most – and, generally lacks – a voice yelling “the emperor isn’t wearing any clothing!” and then explaining in measured tones the reason for the outcry.
—Cynthia Boyer Blakeslee

Thank you for all the insight you’ve contributed to the Des Moines Register. I suppose there are a lot of other things to do at age 77 but your wisdom and insight is greatly appreciated. First, I wish you and your family the best as you recover from your health issues. Next, you are the reason I read the newspaper even in the Internet age. God bless you for questioning things and wondering where our nation is headed. I am scared to death, too…I wish you could write forever and perhaps, some way, some how, you can. Keep the faith. God bless.
— Chip Giles, Des Moines IA

I have read and enjoyed your political columns for many years. You have a special ability to find and analyze kernels of truth that many others miss. Your humor and well-placed sarcasm are also effectively used to help make your point. I share your frustration with the current sad state of our hyper-polarized political discourse. Here in southwest Missouri, we are “blessed” with an abundance of “Bible-thumping know-nothings fueled by money from modern robber barons,” as you so aptly put it. I certainly understand your decision to suspend writing your column indefinitely. Selfishly, however, I hope the day will come when you decide to resume writing, at least on an occasional basis. You have much to say, and you say it so well. Thanks again and best of luck.
—Roger W. Leonard, Republic, Missouri

I have a few email “friends” who occasionally send me right-wing garbage. I sometimes respond by sending them a link to one of your columns…Thank you for all these years of interesting, informative and good humored reading.
—Judy Guy, Springfield, Missouri

Just read your latest column and I’m so sorry you had the cardiac event, however, happy that you survived it and haven’t lost your feistyness. I always look forward to your column and frequently give you a big “yes” — almost always, really. I’m 79 years of age and certainly understand your desire to retire but, trust me, you will be sorely missed. What with all the idiotic Republican rhetoric, you are our one bright, intelligent read. I live in Salida, Colorado, a mountain town of about 5,000 souls — many who don’t agree with my beliefs — translated that would be Republicans. Anyway, we just co-exist in relative peace. I wish you all the best and especially good health and peace.
—Norma Smith, Salida, Colorado

No question about it Donald, all Iowans are “heartbroken” regarding the news of your recent bout with your heart…With your way with words and the scores of folks like me who have enjoyed your columns over the years, get back too it ASAP!
—John Langin, Johnson, IA

Darn oxygen. You’d think a molecule like that (O2), which makes up 21 percent of the atmosphere, would cooperate a little when it comes to nourishing your heart muscle. But, alas, there are lots of reasons that little molecule couldn’t get to those nice heart muscle cells. I imagine you’ve become a bit of an expert in that process by now. Most people react after the fact and, you’re probably like the rest of us, researching that process. I would urge you to go one step further with the oxygen molecule. Now that it’s nourishing your heart muscle, which is dutifully pumping your blood, follow the next oxygen molecule as it exits your aorta and hangs a left up those nice carotid arteries leading to your brain. Now it’s time for those great neurons of the brain to receive their gift of life. The neuron lives and your thoughts flow with the reading of these words. Isn’t oxygen great? Keep your words flowing so my neurons keep requiring that oxygen molecule, and I keep thinking. Because, when it comes right down to it, no words: no thinking. And, then, what’s the point? Happy oxygen pumping and neuron firing! Continue to heal quickly!
—Clark Harris, Branson, Missouri, Clark Harris [[email protected]]

Since Molly Ivins left us, you have been the only link to reason in this crazy world.
—Dr. Larry L. Shaw

Please do not desert us in this wasteland, Mr. Kaul. I’ve been reading your column since I was fifteen years old (yes, I was a girls basketball player) and I hold you responsible for my deep-rooted cynicism. You’re the light shining in the darkness. Do not unscrew your lightbulb now. Take some time for R&R&R (rest, recovery, etc.) and give us some more of what you’ve got. Love and best wishes.
—Eileen Nelson, a faithful Iowa reader

I am a long time reader/admirer of your columns and am so sorry you’ve hit a bump in the road that brings the columns to an end. As a fellow heart attack survivor (talk about denial…I drove myself to the hospital!) I know there’s a lot of life left after the attack. My cardiac rehab involved riding a stationary bike….you can handle that. It’s my hope you will soon feel well enough you’ll want to resume writing. You have had the gift over the years to express what I was thinking and feeling but was unable to express nearly as coherently or cleverly. I own your books, have a collection of yellowing clippings of your columns and really still hope for more.
—Nancy Ross

Your words in today’s Winston-Salem Journal made me declare aloud, “Yes, he has earned his freedom from our frightening national political scene.” You have been a “friend” for most of my life; I began reading your column in the Des Moines Register when I was a freshman at Simpson College in Indianola. Fortunately, you have appeared in newspapers wherever I have lived. I will miss both your wisecracks and your wisdom. But, you know, when I recently retired, walking away from my role as Human Resources Director of an organization of over 2,000 employees, I compared it to what I imagine experiencing weightlessness feels like. You deserve that also! Let your burden down!
—Carol Gearhart, Pfafftown North Carolina

I’m 76 and have retired three times. Likewise, I’ve returned to the newsroom thrice. For my story, just patch in your brilliant column. My attack came on gradually but ended up with a December 12, 2011 open heart surgery to replace my aortic valve with bovine skin and a double bypass in the bargain. The recovery was brutal. Long story short: I’m back in the newsroom, which includes banging out a weekly column (for 46 years), upon which western civilization depends. Now I’ve never lied to you before, right? My fervent advice is: Go back to work, forthwith! Your kind of writing and blunt truth is needed now more than ever. I believe the Republic is hurting. Finally, what in the world could you do that would be more profound. Just existing in good health is not a viable option. Thank you for your great piece on the attack and warning to other poor wretches such as we.
—Bob “Hawk” Ellis

I read your column regularly (in the Springfield, Missouri News-Leader). I don’t always agree with you…in fact, you and I are often on opposite sides of political issues…but I find your column interesting and provocative, and at times very helpful to me as I try to think through just where I stand on various matters; it “makes me think,” in other words.

I guess I qualify as one of those “…Bible-thumping know-nothings” (Republicans!) you write about, in some ways, but I also agree with you 100 percent that this is not the America I grew up in, nor is it the America I long to pass on to my children… Please know that I value your work as a columnist who speaks his mind, and, being in my 70s also, I understand somewhat what you are dealing with. I hope and pray that your good health can be restored, and if you do decide to begin writing your column again, I’ll be here (Lord willing) to again benefit from reading it. God bless you, and hang in there!
—Mabe Davidson, Branson area of Southwest Missouri

I was saddened to read of your recent heart attack. I hope this finds you in good spirits, recovering on schedule and preparing your next column. I’m happy to continue to read you in the Des Moines Register, a tradition reaching back to the 1960s, when my family would discuss your writings around our dinner table. Nowadays, if you see a family gathered around a meal table with their heads down, you can be assured that — rather than sharing a moment of silent reflection — they’re checking their mobile devices for whatever form of electronic ephemera is the current rage. Your work is a beacon of sanity in a crazy world — I’m reminded of what Jonathan Swift said about how a man of genius never failing to rally a confederacy of dunces. Best wishes for a speedy and complete recovery!
—Michael K. Bryant

I have been reading your columns since I was a kid growing up in Iowa. Maturing from being a follower in a super conservative family to becoming a sound and active liberal adult, I have evolved while enjoying your take on life. Your ability to zero in on the issues of the day, cutting through all the accompanying BS, has been a joy to read. While saddened at the turn of events with your health, I know from personal experience that modern cardiac medicine really can put you back together until you are about 100 percent. So, from this corner of beautiful northeast Iowa, know that a fan is thinking and praying for your excellent recovery and (hopefully) a return to doing some writing.
—Jane Kemp, Decorah, IA

We hope you can rest, recuperate, stick to your vegan diet (!), and come back with pencil sharpened! We do need your voice in these fearful times. And thank you for alerting us to The China Study. It is changing our lives.
—Winifred and Ellis Standing Earlham, Iowa

We will miss him so much. My husband and I live in northeast Missouri and drive 12 miles every Sunday to buy the Des Moines Sunday Register, mainly because of the Donald Kaul articles. I sometimes can get it online from the website of the Burlington, Iowa Hawkeye newspaper. We hope Donald is able to resume writing his columns in the near future.
—Ann Barker

I have so enjoyed the return of your columns to the Des Moines Register. I’m a big fan from your original time in that paper. Please, please consider continuing your column when you feel up to it. You know you’re going to keep up on current affairs anyway so you might as well tell us what you’re thinking. We need you! Best wishes either way,
—Art Horgen, Knoxville, Iowa

The political atmosphere in the USA is enough to give a thinking, caring person, like you, a heart attack. Your health now is primary. Take care, and thanks for all your thought-provoking columns.
—Barb Sorlie, Ankeny, Iowa

If you decide for sure not to write any more columns, I will sorely miss reading them. Politically, we are usually on the same page, me being a liberal Democrat without much patience for Republicans —although some of them are friends of mine, I have to say. You can’t avoid Republicans when you live in Lewisville, North Carolina…Democrats have few voices willing to speak out with as much conviction as you do, but you’ve done your share and then some. If you want to smell the roses until you’re a hundred, you’ve certainly earned the right! I just want to tell you that I’m sorry for your health troubles, and that I’ll miss your columns more than I can say. Thank you for writing them.
—Terri Kirby Erickson, Lewisville, North Carolina

Indeed Donald Kaul’s column in the Des Moines Register has been a wonderful blend of biting humor and penetrating insights into our life and times pushing us all to look more carefully at the distressing tenor of our political and social life today. He has indeed been a breath of fresh air as our political climate has become more combative on the state and national levels. His insights on his own life and our life together have been entertaining, insightful and challenging and we hope that he will contribute more writing as he is interested and able. Thanks, Donald, for sharing from all of your heart.
—Nancy and Dale Hanaman, Rippey, Iowa

It has been 16 years since I had my triple bypass and I am doing great at 85, cussin’ Republicans and eating juicy tomatoes from my own garden. I was saddened, as I am sure you were, by the death of William Raspberry. I know you must have appreciated his work as I did, but I recommend that you do not join him, at least right away. If you crank up the sharp pencil again I promise I will find a way to get hold of your work. Best wishes! Pax et bonum.
—Curt Welborne

I am, I think, a Christian in the arena waiting for the sound of thundering lions paws here…Don, You have no idea how important you are to all of us, We can only pray that reasonable people like you will be able to derail what I think is sure to come, that our country will, if it hasn’t already, become a country of lords and serfs. What a beautiful country and what a great shame. I for one am fighting to my last breath to try to in my own small way save what I love so dearly, and I know that there are lots of us out there!
—Chuck Maloney, Springfield, Missouri

Sorry to hear that problems with your bleeding heart may deprive us of the laughs provided from your left-wing nut perspective. Along with the laughs provided from the right-wing nut perspective of Ann Coulter, sometimes the opinion section is funnier than the comic section. If you ever need to take a quick nap, I suggest you try reading a column from the boring George Will…Enjoy your retirement.
—John Ross, Gulfport, Mississippi

Say it ain’t so! You absolutely MUST continue writing (aka truth-telling). Your columns have always said exactly what’s been on my mind; however, you always said it better and with more flair than I could have…Please, I beg of you to reconsider and share your valuable insights as part of the largely silent majority. Yes, I agree that educated thought and civility is in decline in this country. But if your voice is silenced, the ignorant, small-minded and mean-spirited bigots WIN (even if they are in the radical right minority). If you stop writing, yours won’t be the only heart that is broken.
—VaLinda Parsons, Ames, Iowa

I am extremely saddened to read that you are considering not returning at all. While I can completely understand after reading today’s column, I can still regret the loss of one more voice of reason in this era of scary people like Rush Limbaugh. With so many moderate, reasonable politicians getting out because of what you described, I keep wondering who is going to be left to speak for those of us who have no forum. My memory is not as good as it used to be but I’m sure you recognize the poem I’m referring to: Who will be left to speak for me? My husband and I live in southwest Missouri — not exactly a hotbed of liberal thinking! Sometimes, we feel as if we’re the sole liberals left in this county!…Good luck in your “last years” and remember that you gave many of us a great deal of enjoyment with your learned, enlightening words.
—Lana Roach, [email protected], Missouri

This is a moan of anguish! As a Richmond, Virginia native, I (and my wife, Lake), had to rely on the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Richmond News Leader for all political philosophy for almost 50 years before moving away. Your reasonable approach to the D.C. situation has been a breath of spring. It has been available to us through the Biloxi Sun Herald. We look forward to your views and would be greatly disappointed to see you retire.
—Tom Andrews, Mississippi

While I have no clear idea how I plan to spend the waning years of my life, as you seem to be deciding how to spend yours, one thing is certain. In my view, the world is a less colorful, informed, and intelligent place without your public voice in it. Thank you for letting me listen.
—Patrick Lord

Trump is nobody. YOU are THE DONALD. Please don’t stop writing columns. I am 77 and I was retired for 10 years. It was awful. Don’t lose the momentum.
—Dan Felshin, Springfield, Missouri

I live in a small remote one-newspaper town. Our editor writes that President Obama couldn’t possibly do anything right. Guest opinions are usually from The Heritage Foundation, Rush Limbaugh, or Sean Hannity. Your columns are a breath of fresh air and you gave a sense of humor which “conservatives” do not seem to have. Your column published in The Mountain Mail on July 25th was right on. I do hope you will continue to write and appear in our local paper. Also, for your information I am not a radical left winger, but a 92-year-old long-time registered (but disgusted) Republican.
—George Blake, Salida, Colorado

Your wit and humor have been a welcome diversion from the dreary and overly dramatic dribble which too often passes for commentary these days…Our readers — at least those who were open-minded enough to read your columns to their conclusion — have benefitted from your writings, whether they know it or not. I know I have.
—J Swygart, Opinion Page Editor, Decatur Daily Democrat, Decatur, Indiana

I hope you will find the means to continue writing; your weekly editorial columns have always been a bright spot in this part of the Bible Belt.
—David B., Aurora, Missouri

Even though I am a Republican — yet one disgusted at my party — I will miss your insightful words should you decide to permanently discontinue your column. Yet I could not blame you. I hope you fully recover from your recent heart attack. And I thank you for the much-needed reminder to many to not ignore the warning signs.
—Dan Engler, Springfield, Missouri

Thanks for summing up the state of the nation so succinctly. I agree totally — and thanks for citing Yeats, that’s it exactly. Best wishes for a speedy recovery and many happy years doing whatever you most like to do.
—Virginia Graziani, Redway, California

I want to thank you for almost 40 years of columns I enjoyed reading most of the time…I was sorry to read of your recent heart attack (and surprised — you’re a biker and a vegan, after all!) in this morning’s paper, and wish you a speedy recovery. Go ahead and have a great retirement, if that’s what you decide to do. There’s always Cal Thomas! Aacckkkkk.
—Lori Carroll, Muscatine, Iowa

Well, Donald, I’m sure gonna miss you. Sorry to hear of your heart problems. Hey, at 77, that’s not so bad…could have been worse. I don’t blame you for wanting to retire. I’m retired, and I strongly recommend it. It’s a wonderful life…everyday is Saturday! I was always excited to see your column in the Lake Charles (Louisiana) American Press. I will miss your humor and your spin on the ridiculousness of the political landscape. Enjoy your freedom and take care of yourself.
—Patty Cope, a fan from Cajun Country

I don’t blame you for retiring, but I will miss your voice of reason. In these times we really need people like you to illuminate the darkness. I hope there is someone who can take your place.
—Roger Clark

I have always enjoyed your columns, even though I disagree with you most of the time. I am an Independent leaning toward Republican, while you are definitely a Democrat. I do try to vote for a person rather than a party although sometimes I feel like marking “none of the above.” But I have always enjoyed your take on things (although you and I will always have to disagree on Obama). You have made me laugh, made me mad, and made me think, which is what great columnists do, and there are all too few of you. I will miss your columns.
—Sharon Gates, Nixa, Missouri

You are hands down my favorite columnist. The combination of insight, humor, and sometimes even compassion are unmatched by any other columnist. If you decide to quit, no one will be able to replace you.
—Bob Michielutte

Shell-shocked Again, this Time because of Aurora

The night of Friday, July 20 was destined to make headlines — but never for this.

After three years of spiraling anticipation, the premier of The Dark Knight Rises was supposed to be the pinnacle of the American movie-going experience. But, in the aftermath of the midnight mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, the nation wasn’t enthralled by the big screen. Instead, we were collectively shell-shocked by this latest murderous rampage, which killed 12 dead and wounded 58 others.

As we mourn these senseless deaths, the media is sensationalizing the life and disappointments of James Holmes, the 24-year-old sole suspect behind the tragedy. Was he an obsessive fan with a blurred vision of reality? A lonely boy looking to be heard? Or an ambitious student weighed down by pressures to succeed? An entire narrative is spinning around him. It’s a mythology that looks to craft as much fascination with the shooter as there was for the Batman movie itself.

M Glasgow/Flickr

M Glasgow/Flickr

But the particulars of Holmes’ biography, riveting as they may be, should not become our take-away from what happened in Colorado. The heart of this story is not the state of James Holmes but the state of our country.

We’ve become a nation of jumbled values. While parents, politicians and everyone in between declare community safety a sacred right, movies glorify violence. And as we all mourn Colorado’s needless deaths, gun-rights groups rail against the thought of stricter gun control.

But beneath the NRA’s narrative of freedom and self-defense, “good, traditional American values,” lies a simple truth: The gun industry is exactly that — an industry. And theirs is a profit motive so brutal that, according to one study, the gun industry is “working to recruit future customers among America’s children…through advertising campaigns and even video games.”

They’re also working to keep guns ready at hand, pouring over $5,500,000 last year to lobby politicians.

How easy was it for Holmes to buy his weapons? Very. Colorado has some of the flimsiest gun laws in the United States: The assault rifle, shotgun, and handgun Holmes bought in the span of only a few months were all perfectly legal and raised zero flags. And where local distributors failed, there was always the unregulated online market, which outfitted Holmes with thousands of bullets and ballistic gear.

Each gun or bullet sold is profit in someone’s eyes, so it’s no wonder that every time we talk about gun control, a deafening uproar emerges. And there’s little incentive for politicians to take a stand, either. Industry is industry, after all, and any production will raise GDP. Perversely, the more guns we churn out, the better off we call ourselves. Politicians get swelling statistics to market off to voters, the gun industry gets tenuous regulation, and we get ever more gun fatalities.

There’s a defect in our priorities. We look at price tags and call it “value.” But what of those dozens of victims in Colorado? Or the other estimated 100,000 people killed or injured by guns each year?

If we really must attach a dollar sign to understand, the University of Chicago Crime Lab pegs the annual cost of gun violence at $100 billion. But for all the media attention the Aurora shooting has gotten, most gun crimes flit silently under our radar — out of sight, out of mind. The societal damages they inflict are buried under headlines and forgotten.

For these unheard victims, it’s time we get our values straight. We can’t simply take gun sales at face-value. We must consider the staggering costs they carry along. The Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) is one possible step in that direction. The GPI, an alternate measurement to GDP, broadens our concept of wellbeing by integrating social, economic, and environmental indicators in its calculations of progress. One of these indicators, sure enough, is crime.

The Maryland GPI, for example, factors in not only direct out-of-pocket expenses, but also the more profound damages of crime, like trauma and fear, when determining its state-wide wellbeing. That way, when Maryland’s legislators evaluate gun policy and regulation, they will realize the deeper, more substantial impacts that will work their way throughout the state.

The Colorado shootings have made one thing certain: We need to reorient our values. We need progress to be defined not by gun sales, but by the safety of our communities. And so we need a yardstick that will show both politicians and the public the true costs of our gun-wielding culture and the dangerous, short-sighted policies they have spawned. Only then will we have taken to heart the true message of Friday’s tragedy. Only then will it not have been in vain.

Vicky Plestis is an intern at the Institute for Policy Studies, where she helps research alternative models of measuring economic progress. www.ips-dc.org

Quest for Human Rights Justice in Peru Suffers Serious Setbacks

Prime Minister Juan Jiménez Mayor.

Prime Minister Juan Jiménez Mayor.

Cross-posted from WOLA.

On July 20, the Peruvian Supreme Court emitted a highly controversial sentence in a case involving the members of the Colina Group death squad.

According to human rights defenders and the victims in the relevant cases, the sentence is a major step backward in Peru’s tortured quest for truth and justice in cases of egregious human rights violations. WOLA has long supported the efforts of the Peruvian human rights community and the victims of human rights violations seeking truth and justice, and strongly condemns this setback to overcoming impunity in Peru.

The sentence refers to three crimes committed by the notorious Colina Group, a military unit responsible for a series of human rights violations between 1991 and 1992: the 1991 massacre of Barrios Altos in which 15 people, including an eight-year-old child, were murdered and four others gravely wounded, and the forced disappearance in 1992 of journalist Pedro Yauri and of nine peasant leaders from the community of Santa.

The verdict not only reduces the sentences of renowned criminals, including former security chief Vladimiro Montesinos, but also turns on its head established jurisprudence of previous Supreme Court decisions, decisions by Peru’s Constitutional Tribunal, and rulings of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The Minister of Justice, Juan Jiménez Mayor (recently named Prime Minister), criticized the sentence as “shameful.” Eduardo Vega, Peru’s Ombudsman, stated that the verdict represented a “serious setback” in Peru’s efforts to achieve accountability for grave human rights violations and called for its rectification. President Ollanta Humala also noted his surprise at the verdict. Human rights groups have criticized the sentence and have stated that they will pursue actions domestically and internationally to challenge it.

The initial investigation into the Barrios Altos massacre was closed in 1995 after the Fujimori government passed two amnesty laws that granted impunityto state agents accused of human rights violations during the internal armed conflict (1980-1995). The victims and their legal representatives took the case to the Inter-American system, and in 2001, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights emitted a verdict in the case, determining the responsibility of the Peruvian State for the massacre and ordering the investigation, prosecution, and punishment of those responsible. The same verdict determined that the 1995 amnesty laws violated international law and lacked legal standing.

As a result, the Barrios Altos case was reopened. The case is a complex one, involving 15 fatal victims and 31 defendants; later the cases of Pedro Yauri and Santa were incorporated into the legal proceedings as part of a “mega-trial” against the Colina Group members. However, the process was plagued by delays. The investigation lasted five years before the public trial started in 2005; then, due to a number of factors, but especially the delay tactics of the defendants’ lawyers, the public trial lasted another five years. Finally, in October 2010, a sentence was emitted finding 19 of the 31 members of the Colina Group responsible for the crimes. The most severe sentences, the maximum of 25 years, were reserved for the intellectual authors of the crime—Vladimiro Montesinos, the de facto head of the National Intelligence Service (SIN), Gen. (r) Julio Salazar Monroe, actual head of the SIN, and Gen. (r) Nicolás Hermoza Ríos, former army chief, and Gen. (r) Juan Rivero Lazo, former head of Army Intelligence—as well as for the chief operational heads of the Colina Group, former Army Major Santiago Martin Rivas and Carlos Pichilingue. The ruling was appealed by the defendants.

The Controversial Ruling
The Supreme Court announced its sentence in the case on July 20, 2012. The most controversial measures include a reduction in the sentences for virtually all those convicted, including Montesinos and Hermoza Ríos, which Supreme Court justice Javier Villa Stein, who presided over the court that emitted the ruling, said was in “compensation” for the lengthy legal process. But rights advocates say that the most questionable measures are related to a number of legal arguments that overturn the original sentence’s determination that the Barrios Altos massacre and the forced disappearances of Pedro Yauri and the peasants of Santa constituted crimes against humanity; that these crimes were committed by an organized apparatus of the State that constituted an unlawful association created for the purpose of committing criminal acts; and that Montesinos, Hermoza Ríos, Rivero Lazo and Salazar Monroe were responsible as autores mediatos of the crimethe same legal concept used to prosecute Alberto Fujimori for the Barrios Altos massacre, the La Cantuta murders, and two kidnappings. Of special concern, say human rights advocates, the sentence states that the Barrios Altos massacre does not constitute a crime against humanity. Although the sentence acknowledges that the crimes committed by the Colina Group were part of official State policy, it also states that this policy was not directed against the civilian population but rather against terrorists.

Human rights groups have challenged each of these arguments point by point. The systematic nature of the Colina Group’s crimes was documented by the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and has been recognized in sentences emitted by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the Barrios Altos case as well as in the case of La Cantuta. The sentence emitted by the Special Criminal Court for the Fujimori case, which was ratified in December 2009 by the Supreme Court, recognized Barrios Altos and La Cantuta as crimes against humanity not only because they were directed at civilians but because they were part of official State policy, they were the result of a planned operation, and they occurred in a context of systematic violations of human rights. Additionally, the Peruvian Constitutional Tribunal recognized in 2005 that the crimes committed by the Colina Group—including the Barrios Altos massacre—constituted “crimes against humanity.”

The Supreme Court sentence has been sharply and widely criticized. The Vice Minister of Justice and Human Rights, Daniel Figallo, presented a recourse of amparo before the Constitutional Tribunal, the only legal remedy available within Peru to challenge a verdict of the Supreme Court. Several Parliamentarians have said that they would present a constitutional challenge against the Supreme Court judges who emitted the sentence. Diverse civil society groups, from labor organizations to human rights groups, criticized the sentence on a variety of grounds and said that they would petition the Inter-American Court to nullify the sentence.

Gloria Cano, head lawyer for APRODEH, one of the organizations representing the victims in the criminal proceedings, sharply questioned the ruling for its legalistic sophisms and its clear intent to favor not only those convicted in this legal process, but ultimately former president Alberto Fujimori Fujimori, who was convicted in 2009 and sentenced to 25 years in prison for the Barrios Altos and La Cantuta cases. In this regard, Carlos Rivera, head lawyer for the Instituto de Defensa Legal, another NGO representing the victims in this case, stated: “The Villa Stein court has provided a magnificent political tool [to Alberto Fujimori] to challenge his guilty verdict.”

As WOLA has noted in the past, international law prevents pardons for crimes against humanity. By removing the status of “crime against humanity” in the Barrios Altos massacre, the Villa Stein sentence could provide new arguments for Fujimori’s supporters to propose if not a challenge to his guilty verdict, then a pardon for Fujimori. However, it is important to note that according to Peruvian law, those sentenced for the crime of aggravated kidnapping, as is the case for former President Fujimori, cannot receive a pardon.

Also of concern has been the attitude assumed by Supreme Court Justice Javier Villa Stein, widely seen as the architect of the sentence. In the wake of the wave of criticisms against the Barrios Altos-Yauri-Santa sentence, Villa Stein assumed a combative tone, accusing Minister of Justice Jiménez Mayor of “stoking the fire” and being a “polarizing figure” for his comments criticizing the verdict. He stated that he would welcome a challenge to his sentence before the Inter-American Court, which rights advocates have said they will pursue. Most shockingly, Villa Stein mocked human rights groups, saying they should not continue to “whine” (“lloriquear”) about the sentence.

It is important to note that previously, APRODEH sought to have Villa Stein recused from this and other legal processes involving human rights cases due to his political positions. According to APRODEH, with regard to the Chavín de Huántar case, another highly controversial legal process involving the accusation against Montesinos and others for carrying out at least one extrajudicial execution in the aftermath of the hostage rescue operation in the Japanese Ambassador’s residence in 1997, Villa Stein asserted that NGOs defending victims in human rights cases were motivated by a desire to undermine the prestige of the Peruvian Armed Forces. The Constitutional Tribunal rejected APRODEH’s petition, saying that Villa Stein had a right to emit his personal political views and that these would not prejudice the legal proceedings. However, in the wake of the sentence, as well as Villa Stein’s dismissive comments, broad sectors of civil society are calling for his removal as a Supreme Court justice.

Justice on Trial
The victims of political violence in Peru have fought long and hard to overcome diverse forms of institutionalized impunity, including two amnesty laws that prevented them from knowing the fate of their missing loved ones and seeing those responsible for these crimes prosecuted and punished. After the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its 2003 report recommending the criminal prosecution of several cases of grave human rights violations, special bodies were set up in the Public Ministry and the Judiciary to investigate and prosecute these crimes and facilitate the rights of the victims to truth and justice. A number of important sentences, including the Fujimori verdict, were emitted staring in 2005. In recent years, however, human rights organizations in Peru have denounced a number of obstacles that have emerged that have undermined these special human rights courts and the broader process of justice for victims of state-sponsored human rights violations in Peru. The Villa Stein sentence is one more factor contributing to new forms of impunity in Peru today.

Jo-Marie Burt is an Associate Professor at George Mason University and Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

Unconventional Wisdom: 2012 Letelier-Moffitt Awards

The 2012 Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Awards and ceremony will take place Wednesday, October 17 at 5:30 p.m. — a week earlier than we initially planned. Please save this new date and update your calendars.

We urge you to attend this Institute for Policy Studies event, where we’ll celebrate two of the great student leaders of our time. They are Camila Vallejo and Noam Titelman. These two dynamos have led hundreds of thousands of Chileans into the streets to demand free higher education.


IPS is bringing them to the United States to tour college campuses and brainstorm about common strategies with student leaders here who are fighting the student debt trap and tuition hikes that are making college diplomas out-of-reach for too many Americans. We will honor them with the international Letelier-Moffitt award at the Carnegie Institution for Science on October 17, and we invite you to join us at this new venue, located at 1530 P Street, NW, for our biggest yearly event. Buy your tickets now for our early-bird discount, and spread the word.

Our dynamic domestic Letelier-Moffitt awardee this year is a group whose members put their bodies on the line to stop home foreclosures. Boston-based City Life/Vida Urbana brings dozens of activists to the homes of people who banks have slated for eviction. They stay with these families until the banks renegotiate. This incredibly effective movement is spreading across Massachusetts and into Rhode Island. Its victories build public and political pressure that drives legislative reform, and sparks similar campaigns. We’ll bring several City Life/Vida Urbana leaders to Washington to meet with anti-foreclosure activists.

We also invite you to join us September 23, at 10 a.m. at our yearly outdoor memorial service as we honor the legacies of Orlando Letelier, the former Chilean ambassador, and Ronni Moffitt, a young IPS colleague. Orlando and Ronni were on their way to work at the Institute in 1976 when they were assassinated in a car bombing on Massachusetts Avenue, near Sheridan Circle. The bomb, planted by agents of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, brutally took their lives but not the memory of their contributions to the quest for equality and justice through reason, not violence. For more than three decades, the pursuit of justice for their murders has been a symbol of hope for victims of tyranny everywhere.

Every year the human rights community, friends, family, colleagues, and supporters gather in remembrance of these tragic assassinations. This moving program takes place at Sheridan Circle, in Northwest Washington, D.C., and ends with the collective laying of flowers on the Letelier-Moffitt memorial plaque across the street.

We hope you can join us at the October 17 reception and awards ceremony or the September 23 memorial service at Sheridan Circle. Or both!

Mexicans Sidestep Rigid Gun Control to Arm Themselves

“Americans look at Mexico and see a country of relentless bloodshed, where heads are rolled into discos, where mutilated bodies show up a dozen at a time and where more than 60,000 people have been killed since the government began its assault on drug traffickers in 2006,” reports Damien Cave for the New York Times.


… Mexicans see their northern neighbor as awash in violence, too. They look with amazement at the ease with which guns can be purchased in the United States and at the gory productions coming out of Hollywood, and they shake their heads at the mass shootings last year in Tucson and last week in Aurora, Colo.


Many Mexicans acknowledge that Mexican violence would not disappear even if American laws were more restrictive.

Turns out guns can’t be legally purchased with ease in Mexico. In fact, as Cave reports, only one licensed gun store exists in the entire country, as opposed to 49,762 in the United States. In light of all the violence in Mexico, who would have guessed?

In fact, the Mexican citizenry may be at least as well armed as America’s. Besides from the United States, guns are illegally imported from Europe, China, Russia, and South America. Who are the gun traffickers in Mexico?

At the Guardian, Chris McGreal reported last December.

“The United States is the easiest and the cheapest place for drug traffickers to get their firearms, and as long as we are the easiest and cheapest place for the cartels to get their firearms there’ll continue to be gun trafficking,” said J Dewey Webb, the special agent in charge of pursuing weapons traffickers in Texas at the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

That’s right: the drug cartels not only import guns for themselves but to sell.

The 800,000 Government Jobs Republicans Won’t Cut

Did you know there are more than 800,000 government officials with top-level clearance to combat terrorism? A friend of IPS went on MSNBC last week to sort out what that costs us during a time of massive deficits:

The Ed Show‘s guest host Michael Eric Dyson reported last week on former Vice President Dick Cheney’s visit to Congress, where he lobbied Republicans in the House of Representatives to oppose defense cuts to which their party has already agreed during the so-called “Super Committee” process last fall. Under the agreement, sequestration will result in automatic cuts to both defense and safety net programs in January 1, 2013.

His guest, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson (Ret.) is a member of a task force organized by the Institute for Policy Studies and the Center for American Progress. It produces the yearly Report of the Task Force on a Unified Security Budget for the United States. In the report, experts from various fields explain how a new approach that emphasized diplomacy and collaboration would help balance the budget and make us safer.

As Drones Grow More Precise, Their Targets Become Increasingly Vague

At the New York Times blog Opinionator on July 22, John Kaag and Sarah Kreps wrote a post titled The Moral Hazard of Drones. Using a passage from Plato’s Republic they concluded: “To say that we can target individuals without incurring troop casualties does not imply that, we ought to.” Meanwhile, this jumped out of the piece.

… the impressive expediency and accuracy in drone targeting may also allow policymakers and strategists to become lax in their moral decision-making about who exactly should be targeted. Consider the stark contrast between the ambiguous language used to define legitimate targets and the specific technical means a military uses to neutralize these targets. The terms “terrorist,” “enemy combatant,” and “contingent threat” are extremely vague and do very little to articulate the legitimacy of military targets. In contrast, the technical capabilities of weapon systems define and “paint” these targets with ever-greater definition. As weaponry becomes more precise, the language of warfare has become more ambiguous.

Then, of course, as first publicized by Daniel Klaidman at Newsweek, there’s the signature strike*: “the targeting of groups of men who bear characteristics associated with terrorism, but whose identities aren’t known.” In other words, while drone strikes grow more accurate, defining a target is relegated to the realm of inexact science. It’s as if a zero sum relationship exists between the accuracy of targeting and those targeted.

*In this context, “signature” is an unfortunate choice or words: it suggests that ill-defined targeting is the defining strike of the drone force.

Letters to the Editor: Readers Respond to Kaul’s Departure

Managing Donald Kaul’s fan mail got harder after his farewell column. That’s no surprise — he’s a master columnist with a vast and loyal following. Yet I had a hunch that this part of my job wasn’t quite as challenging as it should be. So I checked with the good people who manage the OtherWords email system and got what Don would call “unsettling news.”

Virtually all the emails sent to [email protected] were going nowhere. And they weren’t bouncing. Anyone sending them had no way to discover that no one would ever read them.

I hate to admit this. But I want to do my best at shepherding all those messages from all the readers and editors who are relaying their kind words to Don. A tech expert has sworn that those vanished emails aren’t retrievable no matter how hard he and his colleagues wave their magic wands. So, if you emailed a note to that address before Tuesday afternoon, when we fixed this snafu, please send it again.

Donald Kaul (left), during the Des Moines Register's first Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) in 1973. Photo courtesy of the Des Moines Register.

Donald Kaul (left), during the Des Moines Register’s first Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) in 1973. Photo courtesy of the Des Moines Register.

Here’s a collection of my favorite letters and comments that streamed into my inbox before and after this glitch got resolved, paired with gems I found in various comment sections. Please, keep them coming. I’ve excerpted passages from the longer missives and left in two terms that may be unfamiliar. Many readers refer to “Over The Coffee,” the title of Kaul’s column in the Des Moines Register for years. Because he sometimes playfully referred to himself as “O.T. Coffee,” he earned the nickname “O.T.”

—Emily Schwartz Greco, the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies. Please send (or re-send) your letters to Donald Kaul via email to [email protected]. You can also snail-mail them to OtherWords, 1112 16th Street, NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20036.

The Letters So Far

“Thank you for the years of wit and insight you have provided. I hope you have many years left at ‘100 percent.’ If you do, send me the name of the doctors ’cause I haven’t been at 100 percent in many years either. I don’t have to go through that whole heart attack thing to get to 100 percent do I? Hug the wife, eat well and avoid nincompoops as best you can, unless you find them entertaining. Highest regards, a fan.”
—Gene Ferrell

“I am 84 and if you stop writing I’ll have to call 911. Seriously, please keep writing. It doesn’t have to be politics all the time. Tell us about your life in journalism. You’re a very funny guy who is quite serious. Don’t let your fans down (and you’ve got tons of them).”
—Norm from Glenview, Illinois

“Your assessment of what is going on in DC, and in the rest of the country, also, the churches, is right on in my book. Please keep on writing! The world still needs the wisdom (dare I any longer use that word?) of the Silent Generation, especially yours. Besides, it will be good for you! I know that you are not a ‘believer,’ whatever that exactly means, but I am, whatever that exactly means, so I will just go ahead and offer prayers for your recovery and health. Best wishes.”
—Elliot Blackburn

“Get well and keep us sensible folk in mind. The crazies are taking over. You have more great observations to make.”
—Ann Bevington

“Even though Congress may give you a bad stomach ache, we need you to keep on a keepin’ on. I’m looking forward to the day when you’ll be back on the firing line. With best regards,”
—Roy Hickman, Kerrville, Texas (formerly from Ames, Iowa)

“You help to keep us sane by voicing what many of us are thinking but not articulating, certainly not as well as you do. Thanks for all of these years of great reading…may they continue.”
—Sue Sharp Johnson, Oelwein, Iowa

“What a great article, My broken heart! Telling all your readers about what you went through, always adding a little humor, a little advice, but still writing about what’s so important to most of us Americans. Please get back on your road to recovery and hopefully back to what you have always done best, writing! Your faithful reader,”
—Duane Lombardi

“This brings both good news and bad news about Donald Kaul. First, I’m so glad to hear that he survived the serious heart attack. But the last of what he wrote, about him dropping out of writing, is very sad/bad news. The last part of his words, about the status of our country and Congress, contain some real hard hitting zingers and I sure agree with him. Best wishes Donald. I hope you won’t give up on your writing. You have sharp and needed wisdom to share. I hope I will be able to read your words at least from time to time. The crooks, the robber barons, the bible thumpers, the politicians on both sides, and the apathetic public all need your wise attention.”
Charlotte Walker, Coralville, Iowa

“I wish Donald well in his recovery, will take his advice regarding chest pains and will miss his columns that were islands of respite in the sea of madness that is this on-line posting, publishing, social media or whatever we call it place on the Internet where we go to read and write now.”
—Paul Deaton

“My thoughts are with you, Donald. I may be one of the few people in the country who can honestly state that I have every book you’ve published. I often feel like things have gone to far to keep fighting, but I’ve decided the alternative to fighting is dying, and I don’t think you’re any more ready to do that than I am. Take care of yourself.”
—Maciej P. Wojtkowski, Olsztyn, Poland

“I grew up in Iowa, nurtured on a weekly diet of ‘Over The Coffee’ in the Des Moines Register. Donald, you were my first :-) columnist that I read regularly. Your column about Pat Buchanan’s speech at the 1992 Rep. Convention is permanently laminated in my literary collection. I am wishing passionately for your complete physical recovery and hoping that you find the fortitude to keep writing. But mostly just get well!”

“Your columns have helped me cope with the madness that’s taking over. And while that might not suffice as a reason for you to continue writing, it’s not nothing. Here’s wishing you a long and happy life. Thank you for the many smiles, laughs and insights since I found Over The Coffee in the 1975.”

—John Kerr, Lee’s Summit, Missouri, formerly of Rockwell City, Carroll, and Ames, Iowa

“I and most everyone I know have been reading Kaul since we were kids. Congrats to Kaul on the positive prognosis and he deserves to live his life out happy for everything he has already given us. For us though, the world is a little less sane without his commentary.”
—Trish Nelson, University of Iowa

“So sorry to hear of your recent health problems but I wish you a full and speedy recovery. I also hope you will find the means to continue writing; your weekly editorial columns have always been a bright spot in this part of the Bible Belt.”
—David B., Aurora, Missouri

Tunisia’s Culture War: Salafists Run Amok

Suburban sprawl, Tunis-style.

Suburban sprawl, Tunis-style.

Note: This series, of which Part One is below, is dedicated to the memory and contribution of Alexander Cockburn who just passed away.


October of last year, Tunisia held national elections for a ‘constituent assembly’ – a legislative body mandated to re-write the Tunisian constitution for the post-Ben Ali era. The Ennahda (Renaissance) Party, an Islamic Party cruelly and unfairly repressed for decades under the Ben Ali regime, gained 41% of the vote, the largest percentage of any political party participating.

While it claims to be in a coalition with two more secular parties – a fact which is technically accurate but politically empty – despite appearances to the contrary, Ennahda wields the power behind the scenes in the country, in a manner which is virtually undisputed. If the recent Ennahda congress, which drew 30,000 attendees, is an accurate measure, all indications are that, despite opposition, it will tighten its grip in the period ahead.

The other two political parties involved in the ruling coalition exist more on paper than in fact; unlike Ennahda that has a nationwide organization and its eyes and ears everywhere, the other two are essentially Tunis- (and a few other metropolitan areas) based. There is organized opposition to some of Ennahda’s policies, especially its economic policies by the trade union federation, but apart from that and a few disparate elements, the opposition is weak, disorganized and with little influence. Ennahda runs the show.

In certain ways, this fact has already reaped a disturbing political and social harvest.

Despite rhetoric to the contrary and fine words about the Tunisia’s Arab Spring, since October, the political atmosphere in the country has shifted markedly to the right as a new and hitherto marginal element in Tunisian society has raised what I can only describe as its ugly head: radical Islamic fundamentalism, or as it is also known, Salafism. Salafism’s base in Tunisian society in the past has been narrow to naught. That it should emerge with such force and unchecked violence is the result of a number of factors: the sufferings of Islamicists in Ben Ali’s prisons whose anger has been easily manipulated; some Tunisians trained by fundamentalist militants in Afghanistan and Iraq; some spill over from Libya; U.S. acquiescence.

More importantly though, Tunisian Salafism has been fueled by Saudi and Qatari funding and Ennahda tolerance for and defense of their actions. A great deal of money has been pouring into Tunisia, both formally (loans to the government) and informally through the mosques. Aid, it seems, is never really ‘free’ and comes with a heavy price tag. If originating from the IMF, the strings entail opening weak economies so that international capital can swallow what is left of domestic economies – be it in Russia or Tunisia. The strings attached to Saudi and Qatari aid include opening up Tunisia’s political space to Salafist elements to grow if not thrive uninhibited by any legal niceties.

And as both Saudi Arabia and Qatar are close and strategic allies to the United States, one can surmise that at the very least, the Obama Administration is aware of the Saudi-Qatari role and has either turned a blind eye to it, or more likely, has encouraged these developments. The notion that Saudi Arabia functions outside the perimeters of U.S. Middle East policy, is, to use the more polite British term, ‘poppycock’.

Odd as it might seem, given the degree to which the people of the United States have been pickled in anti-Islamic images and media at home, abroad, the U.S. – going back sixty years – has been quite comfortable in making alliances with Islamic movements both moderate and radical – and has done so repeatedly. It appears as long as the current Tunisian government adheres to U.S. neo-liberal economic guidelines – which it does – and generally supports regional security interests, which it has proven faithful to concerning current U.S. policy towards Libya and Syria, it is more than likely that the Obama Administration and any that might follow – minus a few weak protests – will turn a blind eye from the current Tunisian Islamacist religious offensive. This has been U.S. policy up until now.

Habib Bourguiba was Tunisia’s first president and the leader of its anti-colonial struggle against France. A supporter of secular education, the separation of church (or mosque) and state and women’s rights, it is doubtful he would have permitted this Salafist drift in the Tunisian body politic to go so far. In fact, the policies of the current government, while careful not to attack Bourguiba frontally, are doing what they can to deconstruct ‘the house that Bourguiba built’. Ennahda argues that it is countering Ben Ali’s secularism, but all indications suggest they want to go much further and are using the Salafists to reshape – or try to – the Tunisian body politic.

Ennahda, which fashions itself internationally as ‘a moderate Islamic party’ bares much responsibility for this current Salafist surge. They have failed to rein them in, something which would have been easy to do earlier on. Nor do they seem to want to. Their defense of Salafism is hollow and disingenuous, empty as an Egyptian Salafist imam’s advice on satellite television. Ennahda speaks of defending Salafist free speech rights and thus says nothing about the repeated anti-Jewish slander (that has included calls of killing, removing Jews from the country). It claims be caught in the middle between Salafist excesses and ‘secular fundamentalism’.

No doubt, by focusing on cultural questions – what makes or doesn’t make a good Muslim – rather than what makes or doesn’t make a good citizen, Ennahda has shifted the national discussion away from Tunisia’s economic crisis which has only worsened since Ben Ali departed the country so unceremoniously. Low wages, high unemployment levels, especially among the country’s educated youth, combined with a regime with a reputation for rampant corruption, were among the key factors triggering the Tunisian Revolt and the Arab Spring in general. How ironic that since last October, the national discussion has devoted so little attention to this key area.

Although Salafists now claim that the Arab Spring was a call to institute Shari’a, nowhere in the Arab World, certainly not in Tunisia, were these elements out on the streets, risking life and limb to overthrow the Ben Alis, Mubareks of the Arab World. But in the aftermath of the historic events, with a little help from their Saudi and Qatari friends, Salafists have become quite active. There seems to be a division of labor between Ennahda and the Tunisian Salafists. Ennahda controls the levers of political power. The Salafists have targeted the mosques, the media and the educational system for their special attention. If Ennahdha formally renounces basing the new Tunisian constitution on Shari’a law, the Salafists informally and actively work with such a goal in mind, and they are not shy about admitting it. Far from it.

In Tunisia, Salafist rallies regularly include attacks against secularists, Islamic moderates and Jews; calls for shari’a law; and, where possible, hoisting of the black banner of Salafist Islam to replace the Tunisian national flag. They have also desecrated Christian churches in Tunis. Their actions have long ago surpassed simply violent and bigoted speech. It has included trashing media outlets, threatening journalists and cultural people, trying to ‘take over’ universities, attacking trade union offices, threatening women who refuse to be pressured to dress as the Salafists demand, burning down bars and liquor stores. It is not only an attack on diversity, on the place for the more secular elements within Tunisian society, it is also an offensive against the more moderate forms of Islam that have existed in the country for centuries.

None of this has been prosecuted by the Ennahda-dominated Tunisian government. The list goes on. Tunisia’s Salafists have become nothing short of the brown shirts of the Tunisian Arab Spring, and their actions and strategies parallel similar Salafist campaigns in Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria. Their role is clear: reshape the country’s tolerate cultural map with an increasingly narrow vision of an Islamic society; to freeze the Arab Spring social revolution dead in its tracks, to reverse the progress demanded by millions throughout the Arab world for social and economic justice.


Habib Bourguiba's legacy casts a shadow over the current Tunisian government's social policies.

Habib Bourguiba’s legacy casts a shadow over the current Tunisian government’s social policies.

The most recent, but by no means the only, Salafist disruption took place in La Marsa, a suburban resort-beach town north of Tunis at the end of the Tunis-Carthage-La Marsa suburban train line. There, in early June, an art exhibit, ‘Le Printemps des Arts‘ Fair, was vandalized by as Salafist mob on its final day.

It appears little else than a direct attack on Tunisian multi-cultural, largely secular and moderate Islamic community. A small group of Salafists, upset with some of the pictures, demanded that the paintings be taken down and for the exhibit to close. They were provoked by photos of some of the pictures from the exhibit shown on line, although a number of these placed on the internet were not on display! That still wasn’t the end of it.

Failing in their private efforts at artistic censorship, the self-appointed thought police mounted a second and more expanded effort to shut down the exhibit. Several hundred Salafist supporters – who just happened to be in the neighborhood, of course – joined their morally outraged colleagues and crashed the exhibit, slashing and destroying a number of paintings they found not to their liking, and by their narrow terms, blasphemous.

“According to Tunisia Live! “At least two paintings were slashed amongst which was Lamia Guemara’s Bleu De Prusse and a photograph as well as a sculpture were thrown on top of the roof of the building while a major installation in the courtyard, Punching Ball by Faten Gaddes, was taken out of the palace and burned outside.”

The Tunisia Live! article went on:

“A video circulating on social media sites shows a number of artworks deemed to be offensive. The video starts with a phrase saying – as if the Salafists represented anything more than a fringe group within Tunisian Islam, “Tomorrow all followers of Islam should rise in anger to defend Islam.” In what could be construed as a veiled threat, other images show the faces of people who produced or supported the works including intellectual Aissam Chabbi, lawyer Bochra Belhaj Hmida, and politician Najib Chabbi. At the end, the video presents the names of artists involved in the fair indicating their indignation to provoke Salafist and Muslims in general.”

Then as they have done in Kairouan, Sid Bou Zid and elsewhere, the Salafists, with no fear of government reprisals, threatened to burn down the place. What followed was a physical confrontation between the two groups, which only subsided when the police were called in to break up the melee. Angered that the police had broken up their little version of artistic Kristalnacht, the Salafists, some of them, in the spirit of seventh century Islam, brandishing swords, turned on the modest contingent of police trying to keep the peace.

But rather than arresting and indicting the Salafist culprits, as should have happened if Tunisian law was invoked, Ennahda issued a curious statement condemning both sides of the confrontation but with an eye on implementing policies that would punish the artists rather than the Salafists! It called a law that would criminalize “the violation of the sacred” and promised to “work to include in the constitution a law against interference with the sacred.” This from a political party that promised to maintain the separation of church and state! While condemning the looting, the statement continues to define the main problem with the incident, not as radical Islamic fundamentalism, but as ‘secular extremism’.

The statement goes on, basically suggesting a witch hunt, but all too typically and hypocritically, to call on the authorities to “open a criminal investigation and to prosecute all those who are found to be involved in the violation of the sacred and destruction of property”, i.e., the victims become legal, political targets and the perpetrators get a mild slap on the hand, but nothing more. Ennahda calls this being even-handed. The Obama administration remains silent suggesting that the Tunisian Arab Spring is going along as smoothly as ever.

In Part Two: The Salafists Go to College….The Habib Kazdaghli Story

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