Today's stories explore a collective sense of loss amid wildfire in Australia, a recurring thread in U.S. Mideast strategy, a new battlefront in the gun-rights debate, a power struggle between two factions within Shia Islam, and the 10 best books of January. But first, some thoughts from Washington.
“These are the times that try men’s – and women’s – souls,” Thomas Paine might have written today.
Indeed, it’s a sad moment when the Senate has to consider the fate of a president. But we can also think of President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, which begins in earnest Tuesday, as a learning opportunity. It is, after all, only the third such trial in American history – a process that will test the system of self-governance the Founding Fathers laid out.
One such test centers on transparency. Journalists are protesting restrictive ground rules that include limits on their ability to talk to senators outside the Senate chamber. Cable news is planning gavel-to-gavel coverage, but at key moments, the Senate could go into “closed session” to debate important questions and, ultimately, conduct final deliberations.
Limits on press movement are one thing, but the prospect of closed sessions should come as no surprise. They occurred during the trials of both Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Sometimes private discussion represents the greater good.
But even at a solemn time, there’s room for levity (or farce). After signing the articles of impeachment over to the Senate Wednesday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi handed out souvenir pens. Republicans were in high dudgeon. At least there were no typos on the Pelosi pens. During the Clinton impeachment, the GOP souvenir pens said “Untied States.”
A deeper look
1.In Australia, searching for common ground amid scorched earth
The destruction from the country’s bushfires has wrought a collective anguish that cuts across ideological lines. For the moment, at least, the unfolding catastrophe holds potential to act as a unifying force.
Martin Kuz/The Christian Science Monitor
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Normally, a trip to the cafe atop Australia’s Cambewarra Mountain affords visitors a sweeping view of the Kangaroo Valley below, along with homemade jam on scones. But this summer, as hundreds of fires sweep the state, gray smoke shrouds the view, and a burning stench chokes the air.
The toll of the fires is hard to fathom: 28 people killed, an estimated 1 billion animals dead, some 26 million acres burned, and $3 billion lost in tourist revenue – including here at the mountain lookout.
Michaela Packer, who runs the cafe, believes the disaster will catalyze a discussion on climate change. Thanks largely to fossil fuels, Australia’s economy hasn’t seen a recession for nearly 30 years – making environmental policy a fraught topic, especially under Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
“We can’t keep thinking about left and right, liberal and conservative,” she says. “We don’t have any choice anymore. Look around us.” A trio of parrots perches nearby, the radiance of their feathers dulled by the ashen light.
Ms. Packer isn’t alone. For now, the fires have wrought a collective anguish that cuts across ideological lines, provoking soul-searching about Australia’s road ahead, and how environmental and energy policy will shape it.
May King sat inside the Wingello Village Store a block from the charred remains of the home where she had lived since 1998. Four days into the new year, a massive bushfire ripped through this small town, a two-hour drive from Sydney, forcing its 600 residents and the local fire brigade to flee. The blast of flames leveled a dozen houses, blackened the landscape, and delivered what she calls “the reality of climate change.”
“The fires we’re having in Australia this year – it’s unprecedented,” says Ms. King, a retired home decorator and former member of the area’s government council. Her century-old Victorian residence had belonged to the country’s registry of historical homes. “What does that tell us? The climate is changing. There’s no doubt about it.”
The store’s owner, David Bruggeman, listened as she talked. His shop serves as cafe, grocery, post office, and gathering spot, and when he and his wife and their seven children drove away as the inferno charged toward town, he expected to return to a building reduced to ashes.
The business and the family’s nearby home survived almost unscathed, and a week later, as customers flowed in and out of the store, he spoke of “the miracle of Wingello.”
“We didn’t have a single person die. That’s extraordinary,” he says. Mr. Bruggeman, a climate change skeptic, asserts that forest overgrowth and three years of drought explain the bushfires that so far this summer have claimed 28 lives, more than 3,000 homes, and some 26 million acres across the continent.
“We always go through periods of drought and periods of flooding,” he says. “It isn’t unusual. It’s Australia.”
Yet as their opinions diverge on climate change, Ms. King and Mr. Bruggeman share a conviction that the country needs fresh policies – and less dissension – to limit the devastation from bushfires in coming years. They agree that, without political compromise, Australia’s people and its wildlife will face a perennial apocalypse.
“We can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Ms. King says. Mr. Bruggeman seconds the sentiment. “We have to work together instead of pointing fingers at each other,” he says.
The magnitude of destruction – hundreds of fires since September have killed an estimated 1 billion animals – has wrought a collective anguish that cuts across ideological lines and provoked soul-searching about the country’s dependence on coal to power its economy. For the moment, at least, the unfolding catastrophe holds potential to act as an annealing force, drawing residents together irrespective of their positions on global warming as they search for common ground amid the scorched earth.
“I don’t really believe in climate change, but this has made me more aware of how life is so fragile,” says Helen Brearly, a mother of seven whose Cape Cod-style house withstood the fire. Flames reached the base of the exterior before somehow dying out, prompting Wingello’s fire captain to wonder if she doused her home in “God juice” before escaping town. “We’re all so fortunate to be alive. That makes you think about what we can do about the future.”
“This could be our last shot”
Wingello borders Morton National Park in the southeastern state of New South Wales, where much of the devastation has occurred. As the eponymous Morton fire advanced on the town two weeks ago, thick smoke blotted out the setting sun.
Joel and Josh Patterson stood in their backyard under a darkened sky that rained black leaves. The brothers heard a rumble similar to the freight trains that pass through town a few times an hour on tracks about a block from their house.
“But we knew the trains had been stopped because of the fire danger,” says Josh, who works as a landscaper and helps Joel repair and rent out carnival rides. “That’s when we realized we were hearing the fire tearing through the forest.”
The Wingello natives came home a couple of days later to find their house still standing; the blaze incinerated a work shed and a pickup truck. Their efforts to keep the property clear of the fuel that nourishes fires – dead grass, parched brush – spared them greater losses. For the two men, both in their 20s, the effects of global warming appear as obvious as the changed color of the land.
“It used to rain a lot more and it was a lot more green here when we were growing up,” Joel says. “This isn’t something that just happened overnight. You can’t deny it’s happening. You can see the impact all around us.”
Australia endured its hottest and driest year on record in 2019, and a bushfire season that scientists describe as the worst in the country’s history – at only its midway point – has singed the image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
The country has avoided a recession since the early 1990s largely on the strength of its exports of coal, liquefied natural gas, and iron ore. The prosperity has obscured coal’s dark side as one of the world’s largest sources of greenhouse gases and boosted the electoral fortunes of conservative lawmakers in general and Mr. Morrison in particular.
But the onset of the bushfires has magnified public scrutiny of his allegiance to mining interests and Australia’s economic reliance on fossil fuels. Over the past several weeks, Mr. Morrison has filled the role of national piñata, flogged for his handling of the crisis and his government’s climate policies. His sinking approval ratings have dragged down support for the Liberal-National Coalition, the alliance of conservative parties he leads, even as he has pledged $2 billion (Australian; U.S.$1.4 billion) in relief and recovery aid.
In recent days, Mr. Morrison, who absorbed criticism for vacationing in Hawaii last month as the fires raged, has tried to contain the political damage. He offered a mea culpa for his response to the disaster and backed the country’s science minister after she warned against further delays in enacting climate solutions.
Chris Pryor regards the bushfires as a reckoning for the country that she hopes will change behavior, if not personal beliefs. She lives in Kangaroo Valley, 40 miles from Wingello, and her home and a half-dozen others in the tourist town of 900 residents fell to the flames two weeks ago. She escaped with her two cats, a laptop computer, and a photo of her parents and grandmother.
Her cashier job at The Nostalgia Factory, a gift shop along the town’s main street, provides a degree of stability as she copes with life’s sudden disorder. She suggests that the visceral public reaction to the toll of the fires presents a chance for Mr. Morrison and his allies to embrace new climate policies without risking their political futures.
“There have been a lot of people sitting on the fence about what to do. This is a chance for them to move off,” says Ms. Pryor, who runs a volunteer group dedicated to protecting a declining species of wallabies. “This could be our last shot, and sitting on the fence isn’t helping anything.”
A group of former state fire chiefs faulted Mr. Morrison in November for ignoring their warnings that climate change could increase the scale and intensity of bushfires. The chiefs, who claimed the prime minister refused to meet with them to discuss the looming crisis, want federal and state officials to devote more funding to “hazard reduction” – methods for thinning forests, including prescribed burns – to clear away the dense underbrush feeding the fires.
In the view of Tess Duffy, deputy captain of Wingello’s volunteer fire brigade, the hazy spectacle of the bushfires offers a clear rationale for Australia to change its approach to forest management. She explains her sense of urgency with a nod toward her 4-month-old son, who fidgeted in her arms.
“It’s time for the people in Canberra to put aside political differences,” she says, referring to the country’s capital. “They need to get their act together.”
The prospects for cooperation
A cafe called The Lookout lures visitors to the top of Cambewarra Mountain to savor homemade jam on scones and a sweeping vista of the Kangaroo Valley below. But business has plunged 75% this summer as gray smoke shrouds the view and a burning stench chokes the air.
Michaela Packer runs the cafe, and as she copes with the drop in revenue, she chooses to believe the fires will catalyze a national discussion on global warming solutions. “There are people still refusing to accept it’s a disaster. But climate change is at our doorstep, and I think this is the wake-up call we really need,” she says.
Outside on the deck, a trio of parrots perched on a bird feeder, the radiance of their green, blue, and red feathers dulled by the ashen light. “We can’t keep thinking about left and right, liberal and conservative,” she adds. “We don’t have any choice anymore. Look around us.”
Australia’s tourism council estimates the bushfires will cost businesses A$4.5 billion (U.S.$3 billion) as droves of travelers stay away. The blow to the country’s bottom line, coupled with the ravaging of its natural bounty cherished by natives and visitors alike, could serve to unify voters as Australia confronts the prospect of longer, more destructive fire seasons.
At the Parkhaven, a midrange, 30-room hotel in the town of Nowra near the South Coast, manager Jackie Rea has seen tourism traffic fall by 90% compared with last summer. Emergency workers aiding towns in the area have helped her recoup a portion of the losses, booking blocks of rooms for a few days at a time. Yet their last-minute cancellations when duty takes them elsewhere have left the hotel three-fourths empty on occasion.
Ms. Rea, who refuses to charge them cancellation fees, cares little for partisan sniping. “Some people see a need for blame, so they go after Scott Morrison. But that doesn’t get anything done,” she says. “The reality is, all of us have been affected, and all of us have to be part of the answer.”
Moderate members of Mr. Morrison’s coalition sounded a similar theme of cooperation earlier this week as lawmakers prepare to consider new climate policy proposals when Parliament reconvenes next month. The debate will play out as bushfires continue to disfigure the landscape, hollow out communities, and smear the skies with ash.
On a recent evening in the coastal town of Conjola Park, where a blaze razed more than 50 homes on New Year’s Eve, a funereal silence prevailed as the streets remained dark and deserted.
Marissa Pinto and her partner fled their rental home overlooking the sea on the day of the fire. The house survived but the couple decided to move out, and they had stopped by to load up belongings in a minivan. Ms. Pinto voiced a plea as they and their 5-year-old son prepared to restart their lives elsewhere.
“As a member of a community that has been completely obliterated by fire,” she says, “I can only hope that our politicians finally do the right thing.” She gazed at a pile of rubble across the street that once had been a home. “What more is it going to take?”
2.Respect vs. humiliation: What pushes Trump to leave the Mideast
Policy makes strange bedfellows? The Middle East, a region of boundless conflict, has nevertheless brought two American presidents who could hardly be more different to the same conclusion: The U.S. needs to leave.
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Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama came to more or less the same conclusion: The Middle East costs the U.S. more in blood and treasure than it’s worth. Their approach and means of expression were vastly different, but, says Ken Pollack, a former CIA Middle East analyst, “in the end it’s more or less the same objective. He wants out.”
Mr. Obama’s strategic shift could be summed up simply as “Asia pivot.” But Mr. Trump’s motivations in the Middle East appear to be less about global strategies and more about visceral reactions to what he sees as U.S. failures there.
His worldview, in which U.S. commitments abroad are a waste of the country’s resources, demands respect for U.S. power while disdaining those who rely on it. The Middle East has cost the U.S. trillions, and its wealthy oil kingdoms that have relied on the U.S. for their security have delivered little in return.
But another piece of the motivational puzzle from 40 years ago is complicating Mr. Trump’s impulse to leave. “There’s no question,” says Mr. Pollack, “Trump has carried deep inside him the humiliation and the sense of shame from the [Iran] hostage crisis.”
Donald Trump is not the first president to entertain the notion of getting the United States out of the Middle East.
That would be Barack Obama.
President Obama’s dream of leaving behind a region that has bedeviled the U.S. for a half century may have been couched in loftier terms of policy and strategy. But in the end both presidents came to more or less the same conclusion: The Middle East costs the U.S. more in blood and treasure than it’s worth.
“There is a consistency of this desire to get the United States out of the region between the two administrations,” says Ken Pollack, a former CIA Middle East analyst and National Security Council official who is now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
“Trump’s is an infinitely cruder, less sophisticated version of what Obama said,” he adds, “but in the end it’s more or less the same objective. He wants out.”
Mr. Obama’s stated reason for seeking to redirect America’s focus from the Middle East can be broadly reduced to two words: Asia pivot.
But in the end, what the Obama administration said would be a “rebalancing” of resources came to very little – a few hundred Marines in Australia, and a regional trade deal (the Trans-Pacific Partnership) from which President Trump later withdrew the U.S.
Still, with China on the rise and challenging the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific region, the world’s most prosperous and dynamic, Mr. Obama wanted to shift U.S. resources – military, diplomatic, and economic – to the new century’s up-and-coming arena.
And to some extent, that objective has continued under the Trump administration.
Even in the aftermath of this month’s missile strike in Iraq that killed a top Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, and despite the heightened Mideast tensions that have followed, Defense Secretary Mark Esper has continued to speak of shifting troops and other resources away from the Mideast (and other regions) to Asia.
The reason? To confront China, singled out in the Trump administration’s first National Security Strategy in 2017 as America’s chief strategic competitor.
Yet despite that consistency, President Trump’s motivations for wanting out of the Middle East appear to be less about grand global strategies and more about visceral reactions to what he sees as U.S. failures there.
Add to that a worldview that broadly sees U.S. commitments abroad as a waste of the country’s resources. It’s a worldview that at the same time demands respect for – and fealty to – U.S. power, while disdaining those who rely on it for security, especially if they are not paying dearly for it.
The Middle East – with its endless wars that have cost the U.S. trillions of dollars with little to show for it, and its wealthy oil kingdoms that have relied on the U.S. for their security – has to Mr. Trump’s way of thinking cost the U.S. too much in blood and treasure while delivering little in return and doing little to solve its own problems.
“Let someone else fight over this long blood-stained sand,” Mr. Trump declared in March 2019 as he announced at the White House a deal with Turkey that would supposedly allow U.S. forces to exit Syria. “Now we’re getting out. We were supposed to be there for 30 days,” he added, “and that was almost 10 years ago.”
Last week, when Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham reminded Mr. Trump in an interview that he had run for office on an exit from the Middle East, and that the Iraqi government was now on record demanding the exit of U.S. troops from Iraq, he responded, “I’m OK with it” – before adding that, privately, that is not what the Iraqis are saying at all.
Mr. Trump’s impulse to get out of the Middle East results from a gut-level, who-needs-them frustration, some foreign-policy experts say – an outlook on the region that has only solidified as the American shale revolution has reduced U.S. dependence on Mideast oil.
“If there is a strategy to what this president is doing in the Middle East, I just don’t see it,” says Richard Murphy, a former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs under President Reagan, and a noted regional expert.
“What I do see is that he speaks for the average American Joe who is impatient with problems that don’t get solved, and who … [agrees] when Trump says we’ve been taken for a ride by these ‘allies’ and they have made fools of us,” Mr. Murphy says. “Trump looks at [the Middle East] and says, ‘You are just bleeding us white, so why don’t you just go away?’”
Mr. Trump may be frustrated by the Iraqis, who tell the world they want to kick the U.S. out; or the Saudis, who apparently balked at an embryonic Mideast “deal of the century” peace plan that brushed over a political solution for the Palestinians; or certainly by Afghanistan, which has cost the U.S. over a trillion dollars and counting.
But to truly understand Mr. Trump’s frustration with the Middle East and his desire to leave it behind, one must go back to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the taking of 52 American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, some historians and foreign-policy experts say.
“The Iranian revolution, which led to the hostage crisis and an energy crisis, was one of Trump’s formative experiences in thinking about America’s role in the world,” writes Brookings Institution foreign-policy analyst Thomas Wright in a recent post on the Brookings website.
When it comes to Iran, he adds, “he does have an obsession with avoiding a humiliation.”
Mr. Wright cites an October 1980 interview on NBC with Mr. Trump, then in his mid-30s, in which the flashy New York City real estate mogul boils down American foreign policy to matters of respect and humiliation.
America “should really be a country that gets the respect of other countries,” Mr. Trump told NBC journalist Rona Barrett. That the Iranians “hold our hostages is just absolutely and totally ridiculous,” he said, “a horror … I don’t think they’d do … with other countries.”
Fast-forward 40 years, and President Trump tweets the day after the Soleimani strike that “if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have … targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago). … The USA wants no more threats!”
“There’s no question Trump has carried deep inside him the humiliation and the sense of shame from the hostage crisis,” says AEI’s Mr. Pollack. Tough talk about putting adversaries in their place and avenging past wrongs may sit well with the president’s core constituency, he adds – but so does what he calls the “equally strong demand that a [Fox commentator] Tucker Carlson represents to avoid another Middle East war and instead get us out of the Middle East.”
So where does that leave Mr. Trump and his impulse to get out?
Don’t expect anything fast to happen, Mr. Pollack says. Instead he expects the recent pattern of several hundred troops out here, then a few hundred back in there as things happen, to continue for a while.
“One of the interesting things about this is that Trump and Obama represent the isolationist and retrenchment extremes of their parties,” Mr. Pollack says. He expects the more traditional and internationalist moderates of the Republican leadership will stand in the way of any precipitous withdrawals by Mr. Trump – the same way he says Democratic moderates toned down Mr. Obama’s disengagement.
But he says the writing is on the wall when it comes to the trajectory of the U.S. in the Middle East – especially if Mr. Trump wins reelection.
“If he gets a second term,” Mr. Pollack says, “I wouldn’t want to bet we’d be there in any significant numbers by the time he leaves office.”
To read the rest of the Monitor’s coverage of the U.S.-Iran clash, please click here.
3.What Virginia gun rally says about future of Second Amendment rights
A big pro-gun rally planned Monday in Richmond, Virginia, is about more than Second Amendment rights. It’s also about ebbing political power due to demographic change, and worry about changing cultural attitudes.
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Richmond, Virginia, has long been central to historic American struggles. On Monday it may be the center of another bitter U.S. dispute, this time over Second Amendment gun rights.
Pro-gun groups plan a big rally at the state capitol, with upwards of 20,000 people, in opposition to a package of gun control bills now speeding through the Virginia legislature. Worried that extremist groups may be planning violence around the event, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has temporarily banned weapons from the capitol grounds.
A sudden change in partisan control in Virginia is powering the rally’s attendance. For the first time in decades Democrats control the statehouse and the legislature. More liberal voters in the Washington suburbs are now the fulcrum of state politics.
Gun owners are worried that traditional Virginia rural culture, with its heritage of hunting and guns, may be in danger. They see Virginia as a harbinger for what could happen in other states, such as Texas and Georgia, where growing urban areas may soon tip power toward gun control advocates.
“We’re kind of at a crossroads. We need to decide as a nation who we want to be,” says Courtney Sodan, who manages her husband’s gunsmithing shop in James City County.
The old Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, is full of monuments to rebels, heroes, traitors, and tyrants. They reflect the city and state’s central role in American history, and American conflict, from the era of the Revolution to today.
On Monday Richmond may once again be the focal point of a uniquely U.S. struggle – this time over the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms. A gun rights rally is expected to draw thousands of activists from across the country, many carrying weapons. They intend to protest efforts to enact sweeping new gun control measures in a state where Democrats now control the governorship and both chambers of the legislature for the first time in a generation.
The fight is cultural as well as political. Virginia’s historic rural pro-gun attitudes are being challenged by the growing power of more liberal suburban voters around Washington, D.C. Virginia gun owners worry that their traditional archetype of what it means to be an American citizen is at stake.
“The rest of the country is looking at Virginia,” says state Sen. Amanda Chase, a gun-carrying Republican from Amelia County. “This is not Republican versus Democrat. Gun rights is an American value.”
But to many other Virginians, the idea of a mass armed rally at the state capitol on a holiday devoted to civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr. is its own form of tyranny – part of a growing “insurrectionist idea” in the U.S. That is where “pro-gun groups are now saying, ‘Hey, democracy doesn’t apply. Elections don’t apply. We’re going to do armed intimidation on a day that’s supposed to be a peaceful day of lobbying,’” says Andrew Patrick, political communications director at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence in Washington, D.C.
Threats of violence
For Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and state law enforcement officials, the immediate concern is the threat of possible violence at the rally. On Thursday a circuit court judge upheld Governor Northam’s temporary ban on weapons on the grounds of the capitol. Mr. Northam argued that the ban is necessary because of “credible intelligence” that extremist militias and white supremacist groups are planning attacks around the rally.
Law enforcement officials are taking seriously social media posts threatening hangings and a “boogaloo,” slang for a new U.S. civil war. In part that is because investigations found that poor policing led to some of the violence at a 2017 white supremacy rally in Charlottesville.
The size of Monday’s planned rally is part of the problem, say anti-gun activists. Protesters at past gun rights demonstrations in Richmond have openly carried weapons and even brought them into the General Assembly building.
“Now they want to ramp it up to 20,000 people with threats abounding. That changes the scenario,” says Mr. Patrick.
But the vast majority of participants in the day of planned gun rights protests and legislative lobbying hope that it all stays peaceful, for a wide variety of reasons, says Harry Wilson, a gun owner and author of “The Triumph of the Gun-Rights Argument.”
“They’re going to say, ‘We’re here to let our voices be heard and not engage or argue with people on the other side. Any of that stuff is going to reflect badly on us. Show up but be respectful – and tone it down,’” Mr. Wilson says.
Virginia’s fast-changing political picture
A rapid shift in partisan political power is behind the sudden change in size and tone of the Richmond gun rights rally.
Up until three years ago, Republicans held a near supermajority in the Virginia House of Delegates, but GOP losses in successive state elections have given Democrats once-in-a-generation power.
That election swing is in large part a product of demographic changes, with more highly educated, high-income voters flooding into Vienna, Falls Church, Leesburg, and other suburbs of Washington, D.C.
But gun rights were a big issue. Governor Northam’s response to the mass shooting in Virginia Beach last year helped lift him from the quagmire of his blackface scandal in February, when a racist photo was found on his medical school yearbook page. To consider some of the same bills now being debated, the governor convened a special summer session of the General Assembly, which Republicans abruptly ended – frustrating many citizens and opposition lawmakers.
“Virginia has been trending Democratic for some time, but what has happened all of a sudden was the 2019 election when Democrats got control and suddenly had the ability to push all these bills through that Republicans had been blocking for a couple of decades,” says Mr. Wilson.
State Democrats are pushing a slew of gun control measures. Bills to expand background checks and enact a “red flag” law, allowing police to take guns from people deemed dangerous, have passed legislative committees. Other bills being considered could limit gun purchases to one per month, restrict the size of gun magazines legal in Virginia, and perhaps ban assault rifles.
Meanwhile, 91 of 95 Virginia counties have declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries,” meaning they would resist enforcement of any gun measure deemed to violate the state or U.S. Constitution, according to the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a group pushing for sanctuary establishment.
“We’re almost back in 1773”
The Virginia rally comes at a time when the struggle over gun control and gun access measures has in part migrated from the national level to the states.
Presidential candidate and New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg, for example, has spent millions in Virginia to lobby for gun control, citing the state as a prime source for an “iron pipeline” of illegal arms from red states in the South and Midwest to more gun-wary blue ones in the North.
Meanwhile, gun rights activists are less worried about Washington under President Donald Trump than they were under President Barack Obama. Some of their focus has shifted to fighting change in formerly red states now trending purple, or even blue.
“The reason people are coming in from everywhere in the country [to the rally] is that they sense that what happens in Virginia is going to set a tone for what can happen in other states that may be making the same sort of movement from right back to more left,” says David Yamane, founder of the blog Gun Culture 2.0, and a sociologist at Wake Forest University.
As the rally approaches, some Virginia gun owners say they’re worried that a state where gun ownership and state policy has long been in sync, where the National Rifle Association is headquartered, may become a bellwether of spreading Second Amendment restrictions.
Courtney Sodan, for instance, manages her husband’s gunsmithing shop in James City County.
Virginia, she says, is the mother of presidents and the first true soil called American. In her mind, where the state goes the nation follows. Friends across the country have told her they’re watching, she says.
“I feel like we’re almost back in 1773, having debates in the taverns,” she says. “We’re kind of at a crossroads. We need to decide as a nation who we want to be.”
4.As Iran and Iraq simmer, giants of Shiite world vie for influence
The separation of religion and state is deeply dividing the Shiite world. On one side is the supreme leader of Iran, a theocracy. On the other, a grand ayatollah in Iraq. The tensions echo events on the ground.
Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/AP
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Months of anti-government protests in Iraq have rejuvenated the theological dispute between the religious rulers of Iraq and Iran and their rival views about the role clerics should play in politics. At stake is leadership of the world’s 200 million-plus Shiites.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani articulates a more liberal interpretation that respects a secular state in Iraq. That's in contrast to the system of absolute clerical rule in Iran, led by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which has dominated Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
To be sure, Ayatollah Sistani still wields great political influence. In recent months, his Friday prayer sermons have removed a prime minister, eased a violent crackdown – the worst of the violence reportedly the result of hard-line guidance from Iran – and warned against any foreign intervention in Iraq.
But limiting Iran’s influence has not been easy, given the critical role it played against the Islamic State in Iraq.
“Lots of Iraqis believe in Iran,” says Hisham al-Hashemi, a security analyst with the European Institute of Peace. “They believe in it as an Islamic Revolution, and the right for this revolution to cross borders everywhere.”
United briefly in their mourning over the assassination of Iran’s most powerful military commander, Qassem Soleimani, two rival titans of the Shiite Muslim world both paid their respects.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the reclusive top religious authority in Iraq, sent his son to greet the funeral procession as it filled the shrine city of Najaf with mourners.
And he sent his condolences to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his longtime rival for influence over the Shiite world.
But when Ayatollah Khamenei called for “severe revenge” against the United States, Grand Ayatollah Sistani called on all parties “to behave with self-restraint.”
The divergent responses encapsulate one facet of a broader theological contest – newly rejuvenated by months of anti-government protests in Iraq – between the religious rulers of Iraq and Iran, and their two very different worldviews about the role that Shiite clerics should play in politics and daily life.
At stake, analysts note, is leadership of the world’s 200 million-plus Shiites. And as Iraq’s protests have unfolded since Oct. 1, the pressure points between these two tectonic plates of Shiite politics are being exposed and redefined like never before.
Ayatollah Sistani articulates a more liberal interpretation that respects a secular state in Iraq. That stands in contrast to the system of absolute clerical rule in Iran, called velayat-e faqih, which is led by Ayatollah Khamenei and has dominated Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
“He supports our desires,” says Ali, a young Iraqi in Najaf, where Ayatollah Sistani leads a powerful Islamic seminary. The majority of Iraqis, says Ali, sitting in a protest tent hung with three posters of Ayatollah Sistani that outline his views, “are waiting for [his] call.”
To be sure, Ayatollah Sistani still wields great political influence. His authority has been on display during months of Friday prayer sermons, where his words have removed a prime minister, eased a violent crackdown that has taken some 460 lives – the worst of the violence reportedly the result of hard-line guidance from Iran – and warned against any foreign intervention in Iraq.
A liberal political Shiism
In the recent sermons “we have seen more liberal, political Shiism being spelled out than in the hundred years before,” says an Iraqi government analyst, a native of Najaf who asked not to be further identified.
“If we are to mention a single factor that prevented a totally bloody crackdown against the protests, it would be [Ayatollah Sistani’s] Friday sermons,” says the analyst. “And by doing so, he has put a limit on the Iranian approach. He stopped Iraqis taking Iranian advice.”
By contrast, in addition to their core demands for political change, Iraqi protesters have burned portraits of Ayatollah Khamenei, sacked Iranian consulates, and attacked Iran-backed Shiite parties and militia groups in their anger over Iran’s extensive influence.
“We are seeing these two schools – at least the Iraqi, Sistani one – taking clearer shape, under pressure of these events,” says the analyst. “It seems that [Sistani] is shifting away even farther from velayat-e faqih into a different, yet-to-be-clearly-spelled-out Shi’i theory of governance, that is definitely more liberal, that does not see instructing people as one of the duties of an ayatollah.”
Yet in the religious-political construct of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei is in charge of the perpetual revolution and has final say in all affairs of state. As the personification of the faqih, Ayatollah Khamenei is meant to be the official representative of the infallible 12th Shiite saint, Imam Mahdi, who disappeared centuries ago.
“It is well-known – this is not a secret – Sistani is more on the side of tolerance and coexistence,” says Abbas Kadhim, head of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.
“Khamenei and the velayat-e faqih system is [based] more on the exclusive claim to authority,” says Mr. Kadhim, who is from Najaf. The Iranian system refers to Ayatollah Khamenei as the “guardian” of all Muslims, whether they believe they should follow him or not.
“The only reason they tolerate other voices outside Iran is because they don’t have authority over those,” says Mr. Kadhim. “So from Sistani’s perspective, if velayat-e faqih takes control of Iraq, there will be no Sistani, or there will be Sistani under house arrest. ... These guys in Najaf are fighting for their own very existence.”
Secular vs. clerical rule
The style of these towering rivals also could not be more different. Ayatollah Sistani has some 600 representatives across Iraq, and a global network beyond. He earned public reverence with careful, infrequent intervention that “helped Iraq a great deal to save the day every time the country was about to fall apart,” says Mr. Kadhim.
That respect has been enhanced, he says, by “not micromanaging the daily public life of Iraqis ... because he’s not like what you see in Iran, or a place like Saudi Arabia ... where there is a religious police mentality.”
In Iran, however, every public and social step is scrutinized and controlled by laws such as mandatory head-covering for women. Every aspect of politics is officially defined by devotion to velayat-e faqih, which was a marginal Shiite concept for centuries until it was put into practice four decades ago by the first leader of Iran’s revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Under Ayatollah Sistani’s leadership, the Najaf seminary “has successfully revived a traditional approach to Shia politics as a rival to velayat-e faqih,” writes Ali Mamouri, a former seminarian, in a September analysis for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“In articulating his own version ... Sistani refers explicitly to velayat-e insan (state guardianship by the people), as opposed to velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist),” or clerical rule, writes Mr. Mamouri.
Protests in Iraq
As Iraq’s protests grew to become the most widespread since the U.S. invasion of 2003 toppled Saddam Hussein, there was an indirect back-and-forth dialogue between the Iranian and Iraqi Shiite schools.
When Ayatollah Khamenei instructed “those who love Iraq” to stamp out insecurity, for example, Ayatollah Sistani declared his stance against a violent crackdown. When Ayatollah Khamenei called the Iraqi protests a foreign-backed “sedition” – as Iranian officials label any anti-government protests in their own country – Ayatollah Sistani backed the protesters’ call for change and told the government to “recalculate” its decision not to step down.
And clearly irritated by Iran’s continuing intrusions, Ayatollah Sistani in December called for the new government to be formed “without foreign interference.”
“With Iran gaining influence across the region, Tehran is eager to claim moral leadership over the more than 200 million Shiites around the world,” wrote Mr. Mamouri for the Al-Monitor website in April 2018.
“With Sistani pushing 90 and facing persistent rumors of ill health, Khamenei and his allies see a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take over Najaf, the spiritual capital of the Shiite world,” he wrote. “Its most immediate impact will be felt on Iraq’s capacity to continue charting its own path in the shadow of the Islamic theocracy next door.”
Boosting that capacity for Iraq has been an uphill battle for Ayatollah Sistani, despite his vast authority.
“Let’s face it: The style of the Iranian leadership is the style of a state, not a religion or a religious leadership,” says Mr. Kadhim of the Atlantic Council, noting that states have a monopoly over violence, as does the faqih in Iran.
Ayatollah Sistani, by contrast, “does not have a claim of monopoly, or even a shared responsibility or right to use violence,” says Mr. Kadhim. “He is an absolutely non-violent man. He doesn’t believe in coercion.”
Restraint and respect
In addition, Ayatollah Sistani has refused to meet “hard-liners,” such as figures close to Ayatollah Khamenei, including the Lebanese Hezbollah leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.
His attempts to integrate Iraq’s Iran-backed Shiite militias into the state military – against Ayatollah Khamenei’s express wishes – “have limited Iranian influence,” writes Mr. Mamouri for the Washington Institute.
Mr. Sistani has also demonstrated restraint in another way, by choosing not to turn Iraq into a clerical-run system like Iran.
“Sistani could turn Iraq into velayat-e faqih not tomorrow, but this evening, if he wants,” adds Mr. Kadhim. “Yet he doesn’t, and that is an important distinction. Sistani’s lack of inclination to assume a lot of power ... deserves a lot of respect.”
It’s respect he also gets from Iran, despite the dispute.
“Khamenei respects Sistani very much. He also respects the fatwas of Sistani, even if they are against him,” says Hisham al-Hashemi, a Baghdad-based security analyst with the European Institute of Peace. “I know lots of Khamenei’s followers. They have very firm instructions not to talk [negatively] about Sistani in any way.”
But for Ayatollah Sistani, limiting Iran’s influence has not been easy, given the critical role that Tehran played in 2014 to halt the Islamic State’s lightning advance, and in supporting Iraq’s Shiite militias.
“Lots of Iraqis believe in Iran, therefore their beliefs oblige them to work for Iran,” says Mr. Hashemi. “They don’t believe in Iran as a geography or a neighbor, they believe in it as an Islamic Revolution, and the right for this revolution to cross borders everywhere.”
5.10 books to warm the January chill
Strong women dominate this month's book offerings, from the forgotten stories of iconic Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston to a retrospective exploring the women who shaped Virginia Woolf's world.
1. Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston
Eight lost stories by Zora Neale Hurston? Sign me up. The iconic Harlem Renaissance writer (“Their Eyes Were Watching God,” “Barracoon”) cast her insightful eye on race, class, love, and gender in these stories while she was the lone black student at Barnard College in 1925. Edited by Genevieve West, the book offers a chronological trove of a classic writer finding her stride, including these lost eight, which have been rescued from obscurity from periodicals of the day.
2. Lady Clementine by Marie Benedict
Marie Benedict has written a fascinating historical novel about Clementine, Winston Churchill’s wife, keen political partner, and trusted confidant. She and her formidable husband inspired the people of Britain during the dark years of World War II.
3. The Blaze by Chad Dundas
An Iraq War veteran returns to his hometown. The trouble is, he was injured in an explosion and has lost much of his memory. His news reporter ex-girlfriend helps him piece together his past amid arson and murder that may relate to his boyhood. “The Blaze” is a gripping and suspenseful thriller.
4. Little Gods by Meng Jin
Su Lan launches herself from poverty into a physics career in 1980s China; things disintegrate after her daughter is born at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre. A chorus of narrators caught in Su Lan’s orbit teases out the slow unraveling of her psyche. The acute insights of Meng Jin’s debut novel linger long after its close.
5. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
A young mother and her son flee north after a Mexican cartel kills her journalist husband. Jeanine Cummins’ contemporary thriller juxtaposes the tenderness of a young family against the terror of the cartel and illuminates the humanity of those seeking entry at America’s southern border.
6. Stories of the Sahara by Sanmao
As a Chinese woman born in 1943, the peripatetic polyglot author Sanmao was a pioneering global citizen. These 20 essays about living in one of the harshest areas of the world in the 1970s are testimony to her audacity, courage, and utter charm.
7. Virginia Woolf by Gillian Gill
Virginia Woolf is a cipher, lurking at the margins of this book, which is subtitled “And the Women Who Shaped Her World.” Gillian Gill’s research turns up fascinating details of her maternal lineage, but the book drifts off course in attempting to psychoanalyze the Bloomsbury years. The author makes the case that Woolf, and likely her sisters, was sexually abused as a young child by her half brother. The experience affected Woolf’s relationships and exacerbated her mental illness, but fortunately failed to extinguish her brilliance as a writer.
8. Fight of the Century edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman
Contributors including Ann Patchett, Yaa Gyasi, and Marlon James offer riveting takes on a century of landmark ACLU cases. The essays offer rich affirmation that the ACLU’s defense of “marginalized people and unpopular causes” represents “the very best our country has to offer.”
9. The Bomb by Fred Kaplan
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Fred Kaplan tells the fascinating, often surreal story of America’s nuclear arsenal, the efforts by some U.S. presidents to de-escalate the arms race, and the gambles by others that brought us to the brink of nuclear war. “The Bomb” is a compelling work of history.
10. Sovietistan by Erika Fatland
In this absorbing travelogue, Erika Fatland picks her way through five former Soviet satellite states, witnessing the social, economic, and environmental damage they’ve sustained. She talks with people who live, strive, and dream in these new countries.
The Monitor's View
A Christian Science Perspective
No matter what we look like or where in the world we come from, as the children of God, we are all “vital, momentous, unique,” as this poem conveys.
There is nothing that hints
at impartiality quite like
the sun flooding its light,
everywhere, all rays uniting
in one outflow, yet each one
reflecting distinctly where it
lands – sparkling on a first
snow, warming curled-up cats
at daybreak, dancing on water –
each shaft made of sun stuff.
Can you imagine even one ray
marginalized, shunned, less than,
losing its moment, its essence
Then I think of Spirit, God,
infinite source of good and light,
who causes us to shine as the
myriad children of Spirit, each
reflecting equally yet incomparably
the light of God’s nature, divine
Love’s grace, purity, warmth;
a light that melts a cold prejudice,
blazes a dark divide, freshens
a zestless morale.
Spirit, our true source, is
brilliant, impelling the freedom
of everyone’s expression of
divine light – vital, momentous,
unique, right now.
Photos of the week