Timely novel: a Pakistani jihadi turned American businessman

by David Lepeska
for The National

Salahuddin Khan seems an unlikely literary figure. A kindly, grey-bearded businessman raised in Pakistan and England, he had carved out an impressive career as a technology and marketing executive when, at the age of 57, the idea for a narrative struck him like a thunderbolt.

It was the day after Christmas 2009 and Khan fell into 14-hour days of research and writing. By mid-February he'd churned out an epic 550-page novel that offers complex, sympathetic main characters and a timely retelling of Pakistan's recent history.

"The story erupted from me in six weeks," says Khan, who had never written before. "It felt a little like going downhill on a slalom: there were posts in different places, I began to design a path through these posts and, as I got up to, like, 100 pages of this, the characters themselves began to design it for me. It's something of a blur. I was completely possessed."

Possession may be an unusual route to literary success, but in this case it worked. Since its release in July last year, the self-published Sikander has earned a handful of awards, the interest of a prominent publisher and praise from a former Pakistani ambassador.

Khan was born in 1952 in Burewala, Pakistan, to a middle-class Pashtun family forced to leave Delhi during Partition. A few years later the family relocated again, to Karachi, and from there to Doncaster, in the English county of Yorkshire, where Khan went on to study aeronautical engineering.

During a visit to Florida in April 1972, to witness the launch of Apollo 16, he fell in love with the US. He moved to Boston in 1998 and, a decade later, accepted a top marketing and strategy position in Chicago and settled with his wife and six children in the cushy suburb of Lake Forest.

That leafy, wealthy community may have reminded Khan of England, where, as the only non-white student in every one of his schools until university, he had been very aware of his outsider status, had heard the slurs and insinuations. The attacks of September 11, 2001, brought those experiences rushing back.

"9/11 raised the notion of branding," says Khan. "Everyone I think rationally understands that not every Muslim is a terrorist. The brand aspect that bothers me is the perception that Islam itself has a DNA of violence, which is a more insidious undercurrent that runs through the culture."

In the years that followed, Khan became more engaged with the Muslim community, hoping to undermine that perception. He joined the board of a local Islamic school system and the trustees of the Human Development Foundation, a non-profit group focused on development, health care and education in rural Pakistan. He became the publisher of Islamica magazine and began hosting Radio Islam, the lone US talk show focused on Muslim issues. He co-produced a short film called The Boundary, in which a Muslim man, played by the Sudan-born British actor Alexander Siddig, is stopped and interrogated by US immigration officials at New York's JFK airport.

Sikander could be seen as the culmination of those efforts. The story opens in 1986, when Sikander Khan runs away from his Peshawar home at 17 to join the mujaheddin fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. He falls in with a group of insurgents working with the Haqqani militant network, the British military and Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI.

Having helped to defeat the Soviets, Sikander returns to Peshawar with his Afghan bride. After 9/11 he goes back to Afghanistan to rescue his wife's relatives and former mujahedden comrades, some of whom had become Taliban. He winds up in the hands of the Americans, who ship him to Guantanamo Bay, where he is tortured during long, intense interrogations. Finally, Sikander gains his release through a family connection to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and returns to Pakistan.

After finishing his novel, Khan sent the manuscript to Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani ambassador to the UK and the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, in Washington, DC. One of the world's leading authorities on Islam, Ahmed has advised the likes of CIA chief David Petraeus and written several dramas about Islam, the US and South Asia. He said Sikander was bold and ambitious, a "Muslim Gone with the Wind".

"Most Muslim writers and scholars have made a mistake by approaching this issue in a defensive and monochromatic matter, arguing we are a people of peace," says Ahmed. "Here we have a multidimensional, multicoloured, multi-generational, multinational picture of modern-day Muslims, with characters that have all the warts and mistakes of real people, and that excited me."

Self-published by Khan's Karakoram Publications, Sikander attracted little attention upon its release. But from March to July of this year it won top honours at book festivals in Los Angeles, Paris, Hollywood and New York, as well as the National Indie Excellence Award for Multi-Cultural Fiction. Khan has trimmed and tightened the novel considerably for the 420-page fourth edition, which has a foreword from Ahmed and is being sent out this month to top review publications and leading publishers, including Little, Brown and Company.

The attention "feels phenomenal", says Khan, who hopes to write another novel, about Partition. But first he hopes Sikander pushes people to think. "Not enough is being done to affect the perception of Muslims through entertainment, or literature in particular," he says. "It's a commentary on today's news, particularly America's news, that everything now has to be squeezed between two commercials."

One name in the US news of late is Jalaluddin Haqqani. The Pashtun mujahideen was a US ally and CIA asset during the Soviet days, which is how he comes into the orbit of Khan's protagonist. Today, Jalaluddin still leads the Haqqani network, a bloody-minded militant group based in Pakistan's tribal region and suspected in the bombing of an armoured Nato bus in Kabul last month that killed 17, including 12 Americans, in the deadliest attack on the US-led coalition in the Afghan capital since the war began. US drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal region in late October killed two Al Qaeda senior planners and a deputy in the Haqqani network.

Despite being an enemy of the US, the Haqqanis still work with Pakistan's ISI. "All that happened in Pakistan is that we became a victim of circumstances in the region," said Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's former president, during a lecture at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last month.

US officials have begun meeting with Haqqani representatives, including Jalaluddin's brother, Ibrahim, in an effort to negotiate a resolution to the Afghan war. "We have to turn our attention here on the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani and other terrorist groups and try to get them into a peace process," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a recent visit to Islamabad.

Because of its long-term relationship with the Haqqanis, the ISI is instrumental in organising the peace talks. But US-Pakistan relations have deteriorated considerably since American troops invaded Pakistan airspace to kill Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in May. Observers worry that the ISI and Pakistani military leaders may see little advantage in bringing about legitimate negotiations.

Khan recently delivered a lecture on US relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan at the American Islamic College in Chicago. He accepts that the Pakistani military may still be working with the Haqqani network, as a hedge against future instability in Afghanistan - a real danger with the coming departure of US troops. Pakistani leaders, he says, do not feel the US is acting in their interests; in not pushing for a settlement with India regarding Kashmir, and in working towards a stable Afghanistan, the US is failing to ensure Pakistan's security.

"The American perspective is 'How do we got out of there?'," says Khan. "The strategy is an exit strategy, rather than a strategy strategy. You're really encouraging Pakistan to think independently about its strategic needs, and therefore you are not going to get a solution."

Towards the end of the book, Sikander moves to North Carolina with the help of a cousin and buys a local electrics company, where the head of security turns out to be his Guantanamo tormentor. Rather than succumbing to hate and firing him, Sikander keeps him on, becoming his friend.

"To us in the West, the Taliban and the Haqqani, they're villains and that's it, like comic-book characters," says Ahmed, who hopes to see Sikander made into a film. "But the novel gives you a much more accurate depiction, with all its complexities."

Khan intended the book as a study in the thin veneer of civilisation, an examination of the circumstances that push people towards inhumanity. When Sikander kills for the first time, shooting down a Soviet helicopter, he's shocked at how easy it is. When later faced with his Guantanamo tormentor, he is reminded of this.

"I think a willingness to be cruel and brutal is in me, in you, in us all, really," Sikander tells his torturer. "Once a system encourages operating beyond the reach of law, well then, as you so amply demonstrated, that brutality will only be limited by the forces at our disposal, no matter who we are."


With Fears of Asian Carp Fading, a Sleek Campaign to Revive Concern

by David Lepeska
for The New York Times

There was a time, not long ago, when environmentalists could arouse fears of invasive Asian carp by highlighting videos of four-foot-long fish leaping out of downstate rivers or the discovery of carp DNA samples a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan.
But a recent event in Chicago suggested that sparking public panic about Asian carp these days requires more pizazz.

In a spacious antique furnishings store, Architectural Artifacts, on the North Side one evening last week, dozens of well-heeled guests mingled near the open bar hoping for a brush with genius: Jeanne Gang, the Chicago architect and new MacArthur fellow, was introducing her book about transforming Chicago’s waterways. Later, Second City took the stage to perform “Carpocalypse!” a hand-wringing ditty about Asian carp.

“There’s a real threat, and there are clear solutions,” said Henry Henderson, Midwest director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which organized the event, collaborated on Ms. Gang’s book and commissioned the song.

Two Asian carp species, silver and bighead carp, imported from China in the 1970s, escaped from their pens at fish farms in Arkansas and Kentucky. Disrupting ecosystems thanks to their voracious appetite for plankton and algae that other species need to survive, the carp swam up the Mississippi River, crowded the Illinois River and other regional waterways, and zeroed in on Chicago and the Great Lakes.

To combat these and other invasive species, which could threaten the Great Lakes ecosystem and its $7 billion fishing industries, the resources defense council has proposed physical barriers to separate Chicago waterways and Lake Michigan from the Mississippi. Ms. Gang’s book, “Reverse Effect: Renewing Chicago’s Waterways,” sees the barriers as an opportunity to remake the city’s riverfront.

The barrier proposal, Mr. Henderson said, “is just a step toward advancing the broader discourse.”

But times are tough in the carp-fighting business. State and federal officials say they are controlling Asian carp and keeping them out of the Great Lakes. Anecdotal evidence from a surging carp harvest in the Illinois River seems to indicate that fishing for and selling the carp as food or processing them into fish meal or fertilizer might significantly reduce their numbers, and thus their pressure on waterways in the Chicago area.

In any case, no major action can be taken before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases its comprehensive study into the blockage of aquatic pathways between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi. The findings are due out in 2015.

Given all that, public fears seem at an ebb. Last month, an environmental group in Milwaukee organized what it hoped would be the first anti-Asian carp rally, in a downtown park. Only a handful of people turned out.

Enter the resources defense council and other groups aiming to keep the high-flying fish on the public radar. Next week, Ms. Gang and Mr. Henderson will be interviewed by the public-radio personality Steve Edwards at the Harold Washington Library in the Loop. Separately, a handful of Michigan tourism groups last week rolled out “Stop the Carp Now,” an online and radio ad campaign.

Several regional scientists, including Konrad Dabrowski, an aquaculturist at Ohio State University, argue that the Great Lakes are not conducive to Asian carp reproduction. Anti-carp agitation merely muddles the debate, Mr. Dabrowski said.

Events like the recent book party “serve no purpose other than to increase public fear,” he said. “I think we need a serious discussion on these issues.”

Days after scientists found Asian carp DNA in North Dakota and in the Mississippi River near Minneapolis last month, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin petitioned the Supreme Court to force the corps to speed its study.

The resources defense council event suggested a more honeyed approach. For their $250 cover, attendees snacked on chicken satay and carp-shaped chocolates, and chatted with Ms. Gang as she signed copies of her book.

The Second City performers sang from the perspective of Asian carp, proclaiming that the corps’ underwater electric barrier, just outside Chicago, “tickles every time we swim through it.”

“Leave us alone,” they urged the crowd. “Let us call the river and the Great Lakes home.”



Why $1 Billion Doesn't Buy Much Transport Infrastructure Anymore

by David Lepeska
For TheAtlanticCities.com

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently announced a $1 billion plan to overhaul the city's L trains, which are run by the Chicago Transit Authority and began operations in 1892. "The public will get a new CTA," he said at a press conference.

That's a bit of an exaggeration. In reality, the money will be used to lay new rail tracks between 18th and 95th streets on the Red Line to eliminate “slow zones," replace ties on the Purple Line and improve underground ventilation and electrical substations. In addition, nine stations will receive modest technical upgrades and—finally, the most significant addition—two stations on the North Side will be rebuilt.

It seems $1 billion doesn't go very far in subway construction these days. Look at New York, where the 8.5-mile Second Avenue subway line is expected to cost more than $17 billion.

Internationally, subway construction costs remain considerably lower. Sao Paulo's new 11-km Yellow Line, completed last year, cost $1.6 billion, with fully automated trains and free high-speed wireless Internet at each of 11 stations.

Singapore's new Circle Line runs 22 miles with 28 stations and cost $4.8 billion, or $130 million per kilometer. Upon completion next year, it will become the world's longest fully automatic underground transit line, and among its most advanced.

In Europe, too, subways cost less. Madrid's recently-opened Metrosur line is 41 km long, with 28 stations, yet was completed in four years at around $58m per km. Recent expansions in Paris and Berlin cost about $250 million per km.

New York, meanwhile, is building the most expensive subway line of all time, at $1.7b per km. This figure makes London's 16-km-long Jubilee line and Amsterdam's 10-km North-South line, which both faced delays and controversy and cost $350m and $400m per km, respectively, seem reasonable in comparison.

New York's astronomical subway costs are partially explained by pricier real-estate and labor and the expense of tunnel boring into Manhattan bedrock. Blogger Benjamin Kabak thinks exorbitant consultant and design fees and stunningly over-priced construction contracts also play a part.

Another concern is age. Robert Paaswell, engineering professor at the City College of New York and director of the University Transportation Research Center, says costs are so high in Chicago and New York because their systems are the country's oldest and thus the most expensive to upgrade. The New York City subway, which began operations in the 1870s as an elevated system, has experienced three derailments in the past six months.

This helps explain why Washington, D.C., where the Metro opened in 1976, laid more than three new miles of track and built two new stations, a 2,200-car parking structure and a rail car storage facility as part of a subway extension into Prince George's County, Maryland, all for $456 million.

Paaswell also cites New York's higher regulation costs, over-conservative labor laws and financing via bonds, which lead to longer-term debt plans. Finally, Americans and Europeans generally hold different views of major public transport projects. The latter see the expense as justified, even necessary, while the former tend to embrace driving and view major construction projects as a potential hassle.

“There's no urgency by governments or citizens here to get subways done, and when it finally happens the construction causes so much inconvenience that people don't like it,” said Paaswell, a former CTA executive director. “In Europe, they don't care too much about it, they just blast right through and get it done.”

For this reason, less dense U.S. cities often prefer light rail, which averages about half the cost of subways and can often dovetail on highway projects. The new SouthEast rail line portion of Denver's T-Rex transport project cost $970 million for 19 miles of new lines and 13 stations.

And Minneapolis' 19km, 17-station Hiawatha, or Blue Line, which opened in 2008 and connects the Twin Cities' international airport and the Mall of America to downtown, cost $715 million and has far exceeded its ridership targets.

City officials still looking to justify exorbitant spending on subway expansion might want to cite a 1918 essay by Julius Glaser, a design engineer for the city of New York.

Why do we build subways? They're expensive. They cost several times as much, mile for mile, as elevated railroads, and their construction entails more inconvenience to the public and to business, and for a longer time. They interfere with and endanger the sewers, gas pipes, water mains, electric conduits, and other subsurface structures, for an extended period, and then, when finally completed, many people dislike to ride in them.

Yet we build subways, because, when finished, unlike elevated railroads, so far as street conditions are concerned, they are noiseless, invisible and do not obstruct light, air or traffic. Train operation is never interfered with by weather conditions, and real estate along the route is enhanced in value. The permanent advantages of underground railroads far outweigh the temporary inconveniences during the construction period.

The Best Solution for Shrinking Cities?

by David Lepeska
for TheAtlanticCities.com

Going from blight to blots, that's the latest DIY solution for shrinking cities.

Across a handful of troubled Midwestern cities, homeowners in failing neighborhoods are snapping up adjacent vacant lots for their own use, creating block-lots, or blots. The term was coined by the Brooklyn-based urban planning and design firm Interboro as part of a winning entry into Archplus "Shrinking Cities" 2006 International Ideas Competition.

Blotting, previously known as sideyard expansion, is an opportunistic response to urban decline that has been around for decades. The city of Chicago launched its adjacent land purchasing program in 1981; Cleveland did the same a few years later. But it has gained traction in recent years as cities have been depopulated and residents, planners and policymakers have sought redevelopment solutions.

Today, Cleveland and Chicago both have thousands of abandoned buildings and tens of thousands of vacant lots. Large swaths of New Orleans were emptied by Katrina. Yet no place is more ideal for blotting than Detroit, where the basic building block is the single-home lot. The city's population has fallen 60 percent since 1950 and nearly a third of its 139 square miles are vacant.

Residents like Jean and Michael Anderanin refused to wait for the city to launch a redevelopment plan. From 1992 to 2002, the mother and son purchased five lots adjoining their home, creating a six-lot garden blot that is enclosed by a fence and furnished with a gazebo, basketball court and several bird houses, according to Interboro's study, Improve Your Lot!

The result, according to University of Michigan urban planning professor Margaret Dewar, is a better, safer neighborhood. Vacant lots are breeding grounds for crime and illegal dumping. They place a strain on city police and fire resources and reduce surrounding property values and public safety.

"When people take over another lot they put in a patio, a garage, play equipment, a swimming pool—this improves quality of life because the lot is cared for," says Dewar, who published the first academic study on adjacent lot purchase in 2006. "It's become more and more common."

Blotting dovetails with a plan Detroit Mayor Dave Bing outlined to reduce population density in neighborhoods that have failed. Detroit planning director Rob Anderson recently told Changing Gears reporter Kate Davidson that the city's program to sell lots, for $200, has sold more than a thousand adjacent vacant lots.

In Chicago the price is $1,000, while in Cleveland lots go for as little as $1. A spokeswoman for Cleveland's Community Development Department had no readily available data on blotting, but said the practice had been increasing.

That would be a good thing, says Dewar, though she cautions against visions of urban paradise. In reality, blotting is one-part redevelopment and two parts de-urbanization, remaking the city as more green and less dense: a neo-suburb (it's the "new suburbanism," according to Interboro). Blotting won't create idyllic New Urbanist neighborhoods or return shrinking cities to their former glory, but it will reduce crime, add green spaces and improve safety. It's smart shrinkage for the recession-era Rust Belt, among the best of a handful of poor options.

Next June, New Orleans will host the Reclaiming Vacant Properties conference, following Louisville, Pittsburgh and Cleveland as previous host cities. Among speakers and attendees, blotting is likely to be a hot topic. "This is a good way to approach the re-use of vacant land," says Dewar. "I think officials in cities where there's been a lot of this loss should think 'How can we encourage this and celebrate it?'"


Possible Resurrection for Chicago's Nastiest Waterway

by David Lepeska
for Atlantic Cities

In The Jungle, his searing, 1906 expose of Chicago's meatpacking industry, Upton Sinclair described a particularly fetid southern stretch of the Chicago River. "Bubbles of carbonic gas will rise to the surface and burst, and make rings two or three feet wide," he writes. "Here and there the grease and filth have caked solid, and the creek looks like a bed of lava; chickens walk about on it, feeding, and many times an unwary stranger has started to stroll across and vanished temporarily."

Though spiffed up in the intervening years, Bubbly Creek, named for the gases released during the decomposition of animal parts strewn there from nearby stock yards, remains a place Chicagoans generally avoid. Area rowing teams occasionally practice on its surface, but the creek's still, gray-brown water emits a stench in summer and, since 2007, the city has been considering a major restoration.

In her new book Reverse Effect, Chicago-based architect and recent MacArthur “genius” grant winner Jeanne Gang looks to transform the still-bubbly stretch of water into an urban destination to rival Millennium Park.

"We're a city that has these waterways, and they've always been used by industry," Gang says. "But how can we reclaim that river's edge and bring people and public uses to the water?"

Chicago remains the only major American city that merely dilutes its sewage, without disinfecting, before dumping it back into nature (the city's wastewater management body decided in June to begin disinfecting sewage before dumping, but implementation may take years). Other cities lack an outlet like the Chicago River, which was reverse engineered a century ago to carry sewage downstream towards the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.

In certain areas, the Chicago River is now more than 70 percent partially treated sewage – and a public health risk, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Another problem is that invasive species, such as round gobies, zebra mussels and the most current threat, Asian carp, have had little trouble migrating up or down this watery pipeline to imperil eco-systems at either end.

In 2010, the Natural Resources Defense Council proposed the creation, at three sites in the Chicago area, of physical barriers to separate the city's waterways and Lake Michigan from the Mississippi River basin and stop invasive species, yet still allow sewage to pass downstream. One proposed site is near the north end of Bubbly Creek.

The NRDC's barrier proposal appealed to Gang, who grew up outside the city and has always been fascinated by water and sustainability. Her most well-known building, a billowy, 82-story skyscraper that rises from the spot where Lake Michigan spills into the Chicago River, is named Aqua.

Gang sees the construction of the NRDC barriers as an excellent opportunity to make Chicago area waterways more green. In Reverse Effect, she investigates design possibilities for the barrier and the city's water infrastructure along with students from Harvard's Graduate School of Design, where she taught earlier this year. The book also includes input from the NRDC and residents who regularly use the Chicago River.

One student draped a land bridge across the creek that would also serve as an arts park. Another incorporated the nearby coal-burning Fisk Power Plant, remaking it into a facility that helps clean the river water to support urban agriculture that can serve a nearby food desert.

"We decided to create these inland water lagoons, that would add water-cleaning facilities using green-friendly treatments," Gang says of her firm's design for the barrier. "The water in the sewer system would go to the lagoon, where it's cleaned, and then back into the lake to be re-used by the system. And you can build up the city around these lagoons, with boats and beaches that are clean enough to swim in."

It's a design that embraces one of Gang's favorite dictums: nature is technology. "In the past we always thought about using technology to overcome nature," she explains. "Now we're learning how to harness the activity of nature – like the cleansing of water using plants, algae or bacteria, instead of creating more gray infrastructure with bigger and bigger pipes. I just read about a new kind of concrete made from seawater in a process similar to coral. Or using heat from the ground, geo-thermal, to power buildings. That's nature as technology. We're in an exciting time right now because we're starting to understand these kinds of things."

For Gang, improving quality of life involves creating a dense urban fabric where people can live and work alongside dynamic green spaces. "We have to take care of nature," Gang explains, citing the world's ever-rising rising human population and an ongoing mass extinction of plants and animals. "Animals move along corridors, birds migrate, so as cities get larger it's important to create paths they can pass through. At the same time, people need outdoor space to enjoy: many inner-city kids don't have any experience with nature. So instead of just designing green lawns, the spaces can be designed to engage both people and diverse species."

Other examples of Studio Gang's effort to incorporate nature into the city include its stunning, multi-use design for Northerly Island, a 91-acre peninsula jutting into Lake Michigan near downtown, and a boardwalk and pavilion at Lincoln Park Zoo's South Pond, completed last year. Her latest vision may necessitate a new name for the stretch of water long known as Bubbly Creek. "This barrier could be the catalyst for that post-industrial riverfront to become something new for the city," says Gang.



Hisham Matar and Libya's Awakening

By David Lepeska
For The National, Review magazine

One morning in late September, as Libyan rebels launched their final advance on Sirte, Muammar Qaddafi's hometown, Hisham Matar explained to a small, rapt audience at the century-old Chicago Club why the removal of repressive long-time dictators, though great, had not been the most meaningful achievement of the Arab Spring. "Our collective imagination - a whole array of expectations about our governments, our institutions, our dreams - has just shifted," he said. "The horizon has moved much further than even the most audacious of us would have suggested."

Matar speaks softly, but with confidence and precision. "You can see it on people's bodies, in their eyes and their faces, hear it in their voices," he adds during an interview in the lobby of his downtown hotel later that morning. "It's as if these regimes were sitting literally on top of us. There's a new ease, a new optimism, a new sense of ownership of the future. That tiresome record of complaining with resignation at the end of it - that's gone, and it's quite an extraordinary thing to lose so quickly."


Little-known outside literary circles before this year, Matar seems to have surfaced at precisely the right moment to herald a new Arab modernity. Born in New York City in 1970, he moved with his family to Tripoli three years later when his father, Jaballa, resigned from a United Nations posting in objection to the Qaddafi regime. In 1979, Jaballa found himself on a Libyan government watch list and again moved the family, this time to Cairo. He wrote articles calling for democracy, and became a leader of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya. In the mid-80s, Matar was sent to boarding school in the UK, where he stayed to study architecture at university.

On the afternoon of March 12, 1990, Jaballa was taken from the family's Cairo home by Egypt's mukhabarat, handed over to the Libyan government and deposited in Abu Salim prison. Two letters, smuggled out by fellow prisoners in 1992 and 1995, relayed stories of interrogation and torture. The family has not heard from Jaballa since. His fate remains unknown.

Matar's twenties fell away in a decade of hate for the Egyptian and Libyan governments. By 2004, he had moved to Paris, met his future wife and begun work on a novel. In the Country of Men, published in 2006, is the story of a sensitive Libyan boy experiencing the quiet panic of a childhood under despotic terror. The book made the Man Booker Prize shortlist and won the Royal Society of Literature's Ondaatje Prize, honouring a work that evokes "the spirit of a place".

Released early this year, his second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, is also narrated by a sensitive Arab youth and has received strong reviews. The story pivots around his father's mysterious abduction and the long-held secrets it reveals. A "chronicle of the dead years", is how the poet and critic Luke Kennard described the book in his February review for this publication. "Moving and impressively concise," Kennard wrote, "what ultimately sets Anatomy of a Disappearance apart and makes it something of a modern classic is not just the universality of loss, but the deep humanity of Matar's prose." Written in English, that prose is simple, declarative, and all the more forceful as a result of his great care.

"Every word we utter betrays us, says a little more than what we think we are saying, reveals more than what we anticipated, exposes us further," Matar said during a recent lecture at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Few better expose the long, dark reach of dictatorship than Matar, which is something of an irony, as Anatomy's publication coincided with the uprisings sweeping the region. Suddenly, Matar was everywhere: writing about Libya and his father in the New York Times, The Guardian and The New Yorker; interpreting the Arab Spring at think-tank discussions and literary festivals; chatting with the BBC, NPR and other news channels.

All at once, and despite spending more than half of his life in the UK, Matar emerged as the new Arab world's unofficial interlocutor to the West. "It's not so much translating or communicating things, but it's dispelling the presumptions that we are quintessentially different," he says of his new role. "I'm very glad to be one of the people in the army of artists that are doing that on both sides. I do think this opportunity is a fantastic moment for anyone interested in culture, to start to define this relationship."


The Arab Spring did not begin with Tunisian fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi. Nor did it begin with Iran's green movement in 2009, or Lebanon's so-called Cedar Revolution of 2005. It began more than a century ago, with scholars, writers and revolutionaries who sounded the region's first modern-day clarion call for unity and self-determination.

Soon after Khayr al-Din, a reformist Circassian legion of the Ottoman Sultan, became prime minister of Tunisia in 1873, he founded Sadiki, a liberal university that taught secularism and emulated European politics. The new college became a breeding ground for the political elite that later built the institutions of an independent Tunisia. Around the same time, Muhammad Abduh, a prize pupil of the bold religious and political thinker Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, gained a pulpit as professor of history at Cairo's Darul Uloom. He denounced unjust rulers, sought harmony among religions and sects and argued that every society should be allowed to choose the form of government best-suited to its era.

And on a June 1880 night in Beirut, a small band of Muslim and Christian men snuck out under cover of darkness and posted placards at street corners and public squares, as co-conspirators did the same in Damascus, Tripoli and Sidon. The message on their poster "rebukes the people of Syria for their lethargy," writes George Antonius in his masterful 1946 history, The Arab Awakening, "incites the people to sink their differences and unite against their tyrants under the inspiration of their 'Arab pride'."

Included were verses from Arise ye Arabs, and Awake! Written by Ibrahim Yazeji, the poem is a call to unity and insurgence that appealed to students and gained a wide following despite being too treasonous to print.

Using the social media of their day, 19th century Arab youth spread the word. "The notion of concerted action to throw off the detested yoke is gradually shaping itself," the French writer Barthelemy Denis de Rivoyre wrote after visiting Beirut in 1883. "An Arab movement, newly-risen, is looming in the distance."


The distance was further off than he thought; the nahda sparked several uprisings and an extended surge in Arab nationalism and expression, particularly in Egypt and the Levant, but ultimately fell short of its goals. Word of its demise, however, may have been premature. A century on, the Arab Spring seems to have brought the Awakening to fruition. The movement has ousted three leaders and pushed others to the brink- and more than 90 per cent of Tunisia's 4.1m registered voters turned out for the first election of the Arab Spring last week - yet the real coup may have been more social and cultural.

"Regardless of the political outcome in particular countries, this has already heralded a new chapter in Middle East history, one of those epoch-making moments," says Charles Kurzman, sociology professor at the University of North Carolina and co-director for the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations. He is guest-editing a forthcoming issue of the journal Mobilization focused on the region's uprisings. "We've seen this in a variety of ways, particularly in regards to empowerment."

The Arab Spring has shattered the old order. A wealthy Cairene man complained to Matar of a recent outing to buy the newspaper from an old man who'd been selling him the paper for decades. "He drove to the newsstand and said: 'Hey, boy, bring me the paper!'" says Matar. "The old man brought the paper over and said: 'Don't ever talk to me like that again.' That never would have happened before the revolution."

It has unleashed cultural ferment. In 1977, the Qaddafi regime organised a festival of literature - then threw all of the writers who participated in jail. Yet mere months after overthrowing their despots, Egypt and Libya are enjoying an explosion of new periodicals, including 150 new journals and magazines in Benghazi alone. "Most of them aren't very good, but that's alright," says Matar, who is discussing collaborations with Egyptian writers. "It's an exciting time to be an artist in this part of the world."

It has fostered religious and regional unity. In February, the revered Sunni scholar Yusuf al Qaradawi returned to Cairo from Qatar - the first time he'd been in his homeland for 50 years - and delivered a Friday sermon to one million Egyptians of all creeds. He began with: "O Muslims, O Christians," - the second phrase a stunning departure from Islamic tradition, particularly for a conservative imam - and went on to speak in favor of secularism and democracy. Bahrainis recently organised a protest in support of the Syrian opposition. And when Matar arrived in Egypt in August, an immigration official, on learning he was Libyan, told him: "Come on, hurry up. Get rid of that tyrant."

Perhaps most importantly, it has burnished the region's international reputation. Arabs willing to risk their lives for freedom and dignity have gained the moral high ground, particularly on American and Western leaders who colluded with the likes of Qaddafi and Mubarak for decades. For the first time in centuries, the West is looking to Arab nations for lessons on civic responsibility and courage.

Witness the Occupy Wall Street movement. It began in September with a couple of hundred young protesters camping out in Lower Manhattan to protest ineffective governance and the yawning gap between rich and poor but has since swelled to a mini-revolution, inspiring copycats in a hundred other cities worldwide, from Los Angeles to Berlin to Hong Kong. The weak global economy has played a role, as in Arab countries. But the success of uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya has been the spark. "This was absolutely inspired by Tahrir Square, by the Arab Spring movement," Tyler Combelic, a web designer protesting in Lower Manhattan told the New York Times last month.


Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but the highest praise probably came from the Swedish Nobel committee in awarding a share of this year's Nobel Peace Prize to 32-year-old Yemeni activist Tawakul Karman. The choice of Karman, a liberal Islamist, highlights how Arab women have asserted themselves socially, politically, like never before - and underlines a key international concern.

"From a Western perspective, there's been much hand-wringing about instability, particularly about an Islamist government, in Egypt, in Libya," says Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division, who joined Matar at the Chicago Club breakfast, which had been organised by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. "This is the wrong question. Our goal is to bring about democratic institutions... but we have to keep in mind it's the right of the people in these countries to shape their futures, so it's also in some sense their right to fail."

For Libya, some degree of political failure seems likely, at least in the short-term. It has no Khayr al-Din or Muhammad Abduh in its past and, unlike Tunisia and Egypt, is woefully short of the building blocks of modern governance. Under Qaddafi, Libya had no political parties, parliament, or civil society. The only government ministry worthy of the name was the state oil company. To make matters worse, Italy's fascist colonisers limited Libyans to a third-grade education until the 1950s. "The first educated generation was my father's," says Matar. "Our institutions are really basic."

Larry Diamond, senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and author of The Spirit of Democracy, estimates Libya might be able to cobble together the rudiments of a democracy in a few years. Libyans returning from abroad, like Ali Tarhouni, who gave up a comfortable economics professorship in Seattle to support the revolution, may help speed the process. Either way, Matar sees the coming period of instability as constructive. "We Libyans need to live through a stage where we don't know what's going to happen," says Matar. "We need to mature through uncertainty. I've always known what I'm supposed to say, supposed to think, and suddenly I don't, and it's very exciting."

Matar has some of the grace often born of suffering and contemplation, and his thoughts echo those of another writer who came to prominence with the overthrow of an oppressive regime. "People have passed through a very dark tunnel at the end of which there was a light of freedom," Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright, said in a 1990 speech in London, months after the Velvet Revolution ousted Czechoslovakia's communist leadership. "Unexpectedly they passed through the prison gates and found themselves in a square. They are now free and they don't know where to go."

After teaching a literature course at Columbia University's Barnard College this autumn, Matar plans to return to Libya for the first time in more than three decades. His first mission is to find his father - though hope has diminished in recent months as rebels have opened most of the country's prisons with no sign of Jaballa. Next up is building a new Libya. For Matar, the revolution and its success could hardly have been more personal: with the help of friends, he set up a communications centre for the uprising in his London apartment; watching demonstrations on TV, he saw protesters holding photos of his father; and in August, his 22-year-old cousin, a rebel named Izz al-Arab Matar, was killed in the assault on Qaddafi's compound in Tripoli. "I want to know what it's like to have a country again," says Matar, envisioning a cultural role for himself. "This will be a new opportunity for me to engage with Libya in a way that is fuller."

Matar, who has begun batting around ideas for a new novel, says he has no interest in politics or public service. Yet in his UCLA lecture he highlighted the balancing acts performed by Andre Malraux and Mario Vargas Llosa, writers who late in their careers embraced public life. Malraux became a French minister of state and cultural affairs, while Llosa ran for the presidency of Peru. "Both were too good and too honest to let this contaminate their art," Matar said. "They were allowed to be both artists and citizens, to be selflessly committed to their craft but also to critically engage the current issues of their time."


Now that Qaddafi is dead, Libyans are moving forward. Anger at the corruption, cronyism and mismanagement of the old regime is widespread. Diamond warns of a "policy of vengeance" in the new Libya. To Matar, the legacy of "brother leader" represents a singular hurdle. "Qaddafi is a real challenge to Libya's conception of itself," he says. "You can't tell me he's been dropped from Mars, and you can't tell me he did this on his own. What does that say about us? What does that say about our history? Without addressing personal responsibility and accountability we are in great danger of replicating elements of the past."

In the years that followed the Velvet Revolution, President Havel's decision not to chase down and prosecute the two and a half million members of the Czechoslovakian communist party helped the country maintain greater stability than some of its neighbours. "It would be very unreasonable to understand the sad legacy of the last 40 years as something alien, which some distant relative bequeathed to us," Havel said just days after assuming the presidency, on New Year's Day, 1990. "On the contrary, we have to accept this legacy as a sin we committed against ourselves. If we accept it as such, we will understand that it is up to us all, and up to us alone, to do something about it."

The task for Libyans is much greater. Tribal divisions remain, caches of thousands of weapons are scattered across the country and the rebellion created a handful of powerful militia commanders, like Abd al-Hakim Belhaj, who may have difficulty laying down their arms. Back in March, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton worried about Libya "becoming a giant Somalia." Just days before Qaddafi's death, Clinton spoke during a surprise visit to Tripoli University. "One of the problems you will face is how to reconcile different people, how you will bring people into a new Libya and not spend your time trying to settle scores from the past," she said.

Recent reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented armed militias backed by Libya's Transitional National Council arbitrarily detaining, beating and even torturing Qaddafi loyalists. Rebel fighters are reportedly keeping lists of such loyalists, including up to 10,000 from Sirte alone. And indeed, several mobile-phone videos strongly suggest Qaddafi's killing was an act of vengeful passion committed by angry rebels and Libyan citizens. Few understand the need for retribution as well as Matar, who cautions against it.

"Even as the son of someone who has disappeared, who has been tortured, I don't want revenge," he says, pausing in thought. "What I want is accountability: I want the torturer to know what he's done, to know that he understands the magnitude of his actions. And that's not out of the desire to punish him, but out of the desire to try to see - and it's a big risk to the heart - whether it is possible for me and him to come to regard ourselves as brothers. What it provides as a possibility for the future of Libya is bringing these people from the brink of inhumanity, of savagery, back to society in some way - that respects the suffering of the victims, that respects the desire for accountability, but refrains from revenge and from reprisals and from inflicting pain, and is motivated by the desire for brotherhood."

This sense of creativity, unity, ownership and responsibility Matar praises is not irreversible. The killing of two dozen Copts by Egypt's increasingly powerful military leadership during recent clashes in Cairo has sparked renewed religious animosity. Nationalist and Islamist groups have been energised across much of the region, threatening to change the tenor of events and the thrust of governance. In Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, uprisings have stalled in the face of suppression or turned increasingly violent. New governments in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia are likely to disappoint those hoping for mature democracy. That old malaise could creep back.

Towards the end of the breakfast discussion, Matar urged patience. Outside the second-floor windows of the Chicago Club, a shelf of grey clouds loomed over Grant Park and Lake Michigan beyond. "History moves at such a glacial pace much of the time, and moments like this it seems to move at the speed of light," he said. "But we can't expect it to continue to move at that pace. A hundred years might be a good distance to judge whether this has been a good idea. It's going to take that long for these events to reverberate."

Originally ran in Oct 28, 2011, National


City Bike Plan Is Accused of a Neighborhood Bias


Mayor Rahm Emanuel plans to spend nearly $150 million to make Chicago “the bike-friendliest city” in the United States. That challenge is considerable, given Chicago’s slow start compared with Portland, Ore., and other bike-centered cities, and Mr. Emanuel’s initial plan is drawing complaints about an inequitable distribution of the investment.

The Chicago Department of Transportation’s $18 million bike-share program is expected to begin next summer with 3,000 bicycles and 300 rental stations, to be located in areas with dense employment, residential development and retail. The Bloomingdale Trail, to be built in an unused two-and-a-half-mile rail line that runs from Wicker Park to Humboldt Park on the North Side, is expected to cost around $50 million over several years. The city planning commission recently approved designs for a $50 million flyover bridge at Navy Pier, the busiest section of the 15-mile lakefront trail.

But so far, the city’s lower-income areas include just one project: a protected bike lane on 18th Street in the 25th Ward, though more such lanes could be added in the spring as part of a four-year, $28 million construction plan. The alderman for the 25th Ward, Daniel Solis, is also the chairman of the City Council’s zoning committee, and he is traveling to Amsterdam this month at the expense of Bikes Belong, an advocacy group based in Boulder, Colo.

Oboi Reed, a lifelong Chatham resident and founder of the Pioneers Bicycle Club, said Mr. Emanuel is pursuing a good objective, but is on the wrong path.

“I definitely support getting more people on bikes because a lot of the common health problems African-Americans face are a result of not getting enough exercise,” Mr. Reed said. “My concern is that the lion’s share of the resources are going to go downtown and to the North Side — the South and West will only see a sprinkling.”

With the city facing a budget deficit of nearly $640 million and a double-digit unemployment rate, Mr. Emanuel may find it difficult to justify spending large amounts on bike facilities.

“It probably isn’t going to help many low-income and out-of-work folks,” said Mark Rank, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who analyzes poverty and inequality. “You can’t spend all your money on a single priority, ignoring transportation or anything else. Given the situation in Chicago, this much spending seems a bit out of whack.”

From 2000 to 2009, the percentage of Chicagoans commuting by bike increased from about 0.5 percent to 1.1 percent. The growth is similar to that seen in other industrial cities like Milwaukee, Detroit and Oakland, Calif., but still lags behind Portland, which tops the United States with 6 percent commuting by bike.

Mr. Emanuel has set a goal of installing 100 miles of protected bike lanes — at a cost of $28 million — by the end of his term in 2015. Protected bike lanes are separated from car traffic by cones, curbs or other impediments. Chicago’s first protected bike lane opened in July on Kinzie Street. The second lane is to be installed this month, on Jackson Street, with another 20 to be built in the spring — all in locations chosen by the city.

Sam Schwartz Engineering, a firm based in New York that was hired by Chicago to design a 150- to 250-mile bike lane network, will hold a series of meetings over the next eight months to help determine the best locations for all future bike lanes.

“There’s been zero public outreach on where the bike lanes should go,” said Steven Vance, a former transportation department consultant on bike planning issues and co-founder of GridChicago.com. Mr. Vance said he approved of the city’s efforts to increase ridership but questioned the first few bike lane locations.

The lack of outreach could be a concern, according to Alan Berube, research director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “If it’s done without public education and public input, there could be some real resistance,” he said.

Ben Gomberg, the Transportation Department’s bike program coordinator, said the city chooses wide streets that either see a lot of bike traffic or connect main arteries. To save money, the department also tries to piggyback on current roadway projects. The city has applied for state support and for federal clean-air financing that could total $50 million.

Mr. Berube said the bike initiatives could help in a city where the unemployment rate is more than 10 percent and nearly one in four residents live in poverty. “It can connect people to services, to work, and improve their health,” he said. “We need more jobs, but we need accessible jobs, too.”

ran in Oct 16, 2011, NYTimes, www.nytimes.com


Preparing for 2012, Chicago Police Create Counter-terrorism Unit

By David Lepeska
September 9, 2011, NY Times

As the city prepares to host two international summits next year, and with the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks approaching, the Chicago Police Department is creating a counterterrorism unit, which will bolster security and incorporate lessons from academic research and from New York City’s counterterrorism tactics.

The threat of terrorism is a real concern for Chicago officials, with world leaders expected at both the Group of Eight and NATO summits here next year. The city has been home to violent extremists and the target of terrorist plots: David C. Headley of Chicago helped to plan the deadly November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, and documents taken from Osama bin Laden’s compound in May included plans to attack the city.

Last month, the police department quietly started the counterterrorism unit, which is expected to be fully operational by the end of the year,. The move is the brainchild of Garry McCarthy, the city’s new police superintendent, who was in New York with Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani on Sept. 11, 2001, and later helped develop the New York Police Department’s counterterrorism strategy.

Mr. McCarthy intends to bring various counterterrorism functions under a single unit, a spokesman for the department said. The new unit will also act on intelligence from the regional Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Mr. McCarthy hopes to take a page from New York’s innovative program, though on a smaller scale. The New York Police Department has more than 1,000 officers working on terrorism, with detectives in foreign cities and with officers who speak Pashto, Arabic and other languages monitoring communication channels. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he had added nearly 750 additional officers, yet the department still has 700 fewer officers than five years ago, according to city records.

A 2008 report from the RAND Corporation, a policy institute, said local police were the most effective units in fighting terrorism because their relations with local Muslim communities could enable them to gain information and foster cooperation.

Muslims in Chicago seem willing to work with the police and to help avoid early mistakes that could undermine the new unit’s efforts. Muslims for a Safe America, a Chicago group led by Kamran Memon, seeks to address tensions within Muslim communities about American policies in this country and abroad. And the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest advocacy group for American Muslims, is active here.

The city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communication is spearheading security planning for the NATO and G8 summits, scheduled for May 15-22, and the new Chicago Police Department counterterrorism unit is likely to play a key role. Antiwar activists have already called for protests during the gatherings, and the police department has begun training thousands of officers in tactics for mass arrests and containment.

Facing the Enemy Within

By David Lepeska
From September 9, 2011, Review, of The National

Just as the attacks of September 11, 2001, proved a watershed event in the fight against international terrorism, the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden by the US on May 1, 2011 may come to mark another. Months after the Arab Spring had begun to eat away at his political stance, bin Laden's death shifted the focus of US counter-terrorism officials away from Al Qaeda and its international affiliates.

"This is the first counter-terrorism strategy that designates the homeland as a primary area of emphasis," John Brennan, President Obama's top counter-terrorism adviser and deputy national security adviser for homeland security, said at the June release of Washington's new plan.

Though the recent bombing of the United Nations compound in Nigeria by Al Qaeda-linked militant group Boko Haram is a reminder of the still-real threat, it is clear that, with bin Laden dead and some 1,200 of his soldiers, lieutenants and commanders killed in recent years by CIA drone strikes, Al Qaeda is on the decline.

Domestic terrorism, meanwhile, is on the rise, particularly in the US and UK. From September 11, 2001 to May 2009, US authorities uncovered 21 plots, according to the Congressional Research Service; in the past two years they have made arrests in connection with at least 33 more. Since 2008, no western country has arrested more people for terrorist-related activity - some 200 a year, although most suspects were subsequently released without charge - than the UK. Little surprise, then, that both countries have reoriented their security policies to focus on domestic radicalisation - how to detect it and how to stop it.

Counter-terrorism is, in essence, about killing bad guys. Counter-radicalisation, which is mainly an attempt to keep the young and disaffected from embracing extremist ideas and violence, is much more complicated. The difference is akin to the gap between rooting out Al Qaeda from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and building a secure and stable Afghanistan in order to eliminate present and future terrorist safe havens.

The former is tangible and easily measured, the latter complex, multi-faceted and difficult to quantify. So how do authorities identify potential violent extremists and break-up terrorist plots before they happen? And how do they know whether such strategies are working? For the most part, they don't.

Spurred by the July 2005 London bombings, Britain put in place the world's first modern-day counter-radicalisation strategy two years later. Called Prevent, it sought to address Muslim grievances, undermine extremist ideology with moderate ideas and support vulnerable individuals and communities - objectives also recommended in Preventing Violent Radicalization in America, a report published by the Bipartisan Policy Center in June.

Yet Muslim groups soon attacked Prevent for sponsoring spying in their communities. Other critics saw a cash cow that provided thousands of pounds in handouts for rap workshops, basketball and cricket clubs and youth singing groups - with little to show for it.

In a review released in June, the British Home Office acknowledged that Prevent had mostly failed and that some of the money had even ended up in the hands of extremist groups. Counter-radicalisation programmes, said the review, were "comparatively new and evidence of impact is correspondingly limited".

Indeed, Prevent was essentially a shot in the dark. "There is really no precedent," said Peter Neumann, author of the Bipartisan Policy Center report and founding director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College in London. "It was very experimental and they changed it this year because by and large it didn't work."

Britain plans to build on one aspect that did work. The Channel programme encourages teachers and community leaders to report potential extremists to the authorities, who then offer guidance or instruction to those at risk.

Some have accused the programme of backing spying, and 7,500 British schools opted out because they perceived an anti-Islamic bent. But of the 1,000 people who have gone through the programme voluntarily in four years, none has ever been arrested in a terrorist case.

"These close, fine-grain initiatives are really important and effective," says Aziz Huq, a law professor at the University of Chicago who has analysed counter-radicalisation efforts in the US and UK. "I've yet to see any similar programme in the US."

The US finally dipped its toes into the counter-radicalisation pool last month, with the release of the country's first paper on the subject, Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism. The White House report urges authorities to build relationships at the local level, promote immigrant integration and avoid blaming certain communities or confusing strong religiosity with extremist tendencies. Religion, says Huq, "is not playing the role many believe it to be playing". Indeed, a recent Gallup poll found that among Muslim Americans who reported they "seldom" went to a mosque, 22 per cent were politically engaged, while nearly 40 per cent of those who attended a religious service at least once a week were politically active.

Though the White House paper gets this one point right, at eight pages it is short on details. After its release, US senators Joseph Lieberman and Susan Collins pointed out that it failed to name a lead agency or individual, provide an action plan or present a means to assess the programme's success.

"It's not a policy paper, it has no concrete plan of action - and that's the disappointment," says Neumann. "I would call it a statement of intent."

Ten years after 9/11 and nearly two years after Nidal Hasan, a US army major inspired by Al Qaeda-affiliated cleric Anwar al-Awliki, killed 13 in a shooting at Fort Hood, the US is still without a coherent strategy to stop people from embracing violent extremism. What's more, efforts to gain co-operation from Muslim communities are undermined by local and national informant programmes.

The FBI has built a nationwide network of up to 15,000 informants, many in Muslim communities, according to a report in the current issue of Mother Jones magazine. Agents use these informants to assist in sting operations.

"FBI agents and informants target not just active jihadists, but tens of thousands of law-abiding people, seeking to identify those disgruntled few who might participate in a plot given the means and the opportunity," writes Trevor Aaronson. "And then, in case after case, the government provides the plot, the means, and the opportunity."

The New York Police Department maintains an extended regional surveillance network within mosques and Muslim community centres and receives support from the CIA. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest Muslim advocacy group, has called for an investigation into the legality of the NYPD programme and is not alone in its lack of faith in local authorities.

On average, Muslim Americans are about 25 per cent less confident than other Americans in the FBI, according to a recent Gallup poll. Some 52 per cent believe they are singled out for terrorist surveillance and 43 per cent say they have personally experienced harassment in the past year, according to a Pew poll released last week.

The end result is less co-operation and decreased overall security. "If people believe the police treat them and their community with respect and don't behave on the basis of racial and ethnic priors, they are more likely to co-operate than if they believe they are procedurally unfair," says Huq, referring to the findings of his studies among Muslim communities in New York and London.

At the same time, he adds, "people who engage in discrimination are imposing a cost on society as a whole, and that cost is a loss of security".

Yet the US might learn from British mistakes, embrace less coercive policies and work from the ground up. Dwight Holton, a federal attorney in Oregon, may have created one promising effort last year.

After Holton indicted a 19-year-old Somali-American for attempting to bomb Portland's 2010 Christmas tree-lighting ceremony, he met with a local imam and leaders of a refugee organisation to find out what had inspired the youth. As a result, he learnt the concerns of incoming immigrants and built solid relationships with the local Muslim community.

Neumann urges the US government to help attorneys across the country to launch similar initiatives. The federal government could then share information among these programmes and promote the most effective practices.

"Unlike in Britain and much of Europe, there's no point in uniform federal policies in the US because Muslim-American communities are so diverse, so different," says Neumann, citing Somalis in the US, who tend to be quite poor and may need to be taught English. "The recipes need to be different for different communities."

Both US and UK authorities must be willing to engage a diverse array of community partners in difficult and hard-to-reach environments and address concerns about counter-terrorism and foreign policies, he says. They also need to be able to distinguish between ordinary Muslims and violent Islamist extremists.

Most of the literature says radicalisation can occur in a variety of ways but generally involves: the perception of grievance, such as oppression; the jihadist narrative used online by Al Qaeda and other organisations, that western countries are waging a war against Islam and all Muslims are called to defend the religion; and the presence of a social group, often led by a charismatic leader, to nurture such ideas.

Other specifics, including the role of religiosity and key instigating factors, are more difficult to grasp, but politicians and top officials are working to find more answers.

In July, the House sub-committee on terrorism examined the Bipartisan Policy Group's report, with Neumann as the primary witness.

On Tuesday, the House intelligence committee plans to hold public hearings with its Senate counterpart, the head of the FBI, the national counter-terrorism director and other top intelligence officials to examine the US position on combating the growing domestic threat.

And in Britain, the updated Prevent strategy has shifted its focus to education, identifying 40 universities where students are at risk of exposure to extremist views, to healthcare, hoping to train doctors to identify vulnerable youths, and to the internet.

As such efforts continue, British and American attempts to counter and interrupt the process of radicalisation are likely to improve. Yet considering the complexity of the problem, finding solutions may take some time.

"Counter-radicalisation is about trying to inoculate communities against the appeal of violent extremism," says Neumann. "In order to do that you have to first understand what drives people to this choice, and there's no clear-cut answer to that."



Muslim activist puts his faith to work in Chicago's troubled Southside

By David Lepeska
Cover story in May 20, 2011 Review, The National

On a cool, grey April morning on Chicago's South Side, Rami Nashashibi walked purposefully into the conference room of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (Iman) and sat at the head of a rectangular table, where four of his charges awaited instruction.

"I can't explain how much you have on your shoulders," Nashashibi, wearing loose-fitting jeans, a knitted skullcap and a comfortable sweater, told his men. "What we have right now is a little seed, and if we want that seed to become a great forest, we've got to cultivate it."

Nashashibi has been cultivating Iman for nearly 15 years. Today the organisation provides just about everything to those in need in Chicago Lawn, a predominantly African-American neighbourhood with a mix of Latinos and Palestinians. Its free clinic serves the sick from across the city. A computer lab offers technical training. Tens of thousands of people go to its annual concert benefit, Takin' It to the Streets, while its bimonthly music and arts gatherings are well attended. One project supports healthier eating alternatives for the area; another reduces gang violence. A new initiative, Green Reentry, builds eco-friendly houses for Muslims recently released from prison.

Iman's work has earned plaudits for its leader. In 2007, Islamica magazine placed Nashashibi among the 10 Young Muslim Visionaries Shaping Islam in America. The next year he was named one of the world's 500 most influential Muslims by Georgetown University and described as "the most impressive young Muslim of my generation" by Eboo Patel, chairman of President Barack Obama's interfaith task force. Last autumn, the US state department sent Nashashibi on a diplomatic speaking tour of Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.

Earlier this year, Iman received another honour: Imam Habib Umar, the director of Dar Al Mustafa, based in Yemen's Hadhramaut Valley, and among the world's top institutions of Islamic education, spent an afternoon in Chicago Lawn as part of his first North American tour. He visited the organisation's Transitional House, where Muslim men recently released from prison stay until they can get on their feet, and delivered a speech on spirituality and community accountability. "The most beloved of God's creatures are those who are most beneficial to others," Umar had said, thanking Iman members for "fulfilling a communal obligation upon all Muslims".

Nashashibi balances a commitment to Islam, an intellectual rigour and an unstinting morality with the style and mannerisms of the street. He has a PhD in sociology from the University of Chicago, where he teaches, and has worked in high-security prisons and some of the city's roughest neighbourhoods. On the South Side, he is friendly with shopkeepers, businesspeople and political and religious leaders and trusted enough by school administrators to be called in to mediate student disputes.

"We must serve humanity by serving the creator in the most humble way possible," Nashashibi advises the men in the conference room. "What we do on all levels continues to represent the larger project. You're being watched now by Habib Umar. People around the city, around the country, around the world, are hearing about our work."


Nashashibi was born in Amman, Jordan, where his father, Ali Maher Nashashibi, produced a show for a local radio station. His mother - born as her family fled Palestine in the Nakba of May 1948 - grew up in Chicago, the eldest daughter of one of the first Palestinian families on the South Side. She met Ali Maher at university. The couple soon married and moved to Jordan.

Shortly after Nashashibi's birth, Ali Maher became a Jordanian diplomat and moved the family again, this time to Romania. The couple had a second son but divorced when Nashashibi was nine years old. He lived in Spain, Saudi Arabia and Italy with his mother and stepfather during his teenage years, until moving, at 19, to Chicago. Yet he remains connected to Jerusalem, where his family name has been highly regarded since at least 1469, when Sultan Qatbay of the Memluk sultanate appointed Naser el-Deen Mohammed al-Nashashibi to guard Palestine's two holiest mosques, Al Aqsa in Jerusalem and Al Haram Al Ibrahimi in Hebron. A general in the Memluk army, Naser al-Deen is said to have built an arcade in the Al Aqsa courtyard that still stands today.

About a century ago, Uthman and Raghib al-Nashashibi, second cousins of Rami Nashashibi's grandfather, represented Jerusalem in the Ottoman parliament. In 1920, the British governor appointed Raghib as mayor of Jerusalem - a post that threw his Palestinian nationalism into doubt. He fled to Egypt amid assassination attempts in 1938. But in December 1948, shortly after Israel had become a state, Jordan's King Abdullah named Raghib his first governor of the West Bank.

After graduating from Chicago's DePaul University in 1995, Nashashibi went to Birzeit, just outside Ramallah, to work with local youth for a year. His visit was illuminating and inspiring, but Nashashibi knew what he wanted to do and returned to Chicago.

His work on the South Side had begun two years prior, soon after he met Abdul-Malik Ryan, another DePaul undergraduate. Originally an Irish Catholic from suburban Oak Park, Ryan was studying African-American history and had recently converted to Islam. "From the very beginning Rami was very charismatic," says Ryan, now DePaul's Muslim chaplain. Nashashibi asked him to help out at the Arab-American community centre in Chicago Lawn.

They started working there, providing odd jobs for teenagers and daycare for younger children. "From there it was a step to have our own organisation, identified as Muslim," says Ryan, who co-founded Iman with Nashashibi.

Iman's reputation grew quickly. Its inaugural Takin' It to the Streets concert, held in Marquette Park in 1997, raised $15,000. "We thought we were millionaires and started nine programmes, with only one staff member," Nashashibi recalls.

"When we first started we were all young, we didn't know that much," adds Ryan. "We were kind of basing it all on enthusiasm."

Nevertheless, they began to make an impact on the neighbourhood, although, even today Chicago Lawn is no urban oasis. In early May, a 17-year-old Iman intern was shot in the back just a few streets away from the organisation's office. "We're not working in Disneyland," says Nashashibi. "This place, it'll test your mettle."


Metropolitan Chicago, with a population of nearly 10 million, has long been one of the US's most racially sensitive cities. In the so-called Great Migration, from the early to mid-20th century, millions of black Americans moved from the South into northern cities.

By the Sixties, organised white opposition groups viewed these new arrivals as competition for jobs and residential areas and barred them from some communities, worsening racial tensions across the city. The neighbourhoods around Marquette Park - at that time, a patchwork of Polish, Irish and Italians alongside newly arrived blacks and some Palestinians - were a tinderbox. In 1966, Martin Luther King led a peaceful march through the area as part of an effort to integrate the city's neighbourhoods. Counter-protesters threw bottles, rocks and bricks, one of which hit King on the head.

A few decades earlier, a young Chicagoan born of Russian Jewish immigrants named Saul Alinsky had begun working to improve living conditions in the city's slums and ghettos. Starting in the 1930s, Alinsky organised community movements in Back-of-the-Yards, a rough and tumble district that served as the setting for Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.

Over the years Alinsky developed a set of rules, which ultimately became the principles of modern community organising. Today they read like an instruction manual from Otpor, the Serbian-run pro-revolutionary movement that has informed many of the Arab Spring protesters: hide your numbers to look larger; focus on what you know; remind your opponent of their own rules and claims; use ridicule, which is infuriating and hard to counterattack; remember that a good tactic should be enjoyable; identify a responsible individual, attack him and ignore attempts to shift the blame; maintain the pressure.

"In this book we are concerned with how to create mass organisations to seize power and give it to the people," Alinsky wrote in his 1971 manifesto, Rules for Radicals, "to realise the democratic dream of equality, justice, peace."

Barack Obama never met Alinsky, who died in 1972, but as a community organiser in Chicago's Altgeld Gardens he worked under an Alinsky protégé. On his first day organising, in 1986, Obama's boss handed him a long list of Gardens' residents to interview.

"Find out their self-interest, he said," Obama writes in Dreams from My Father. "That's why people become involved in organising - because they think they'll get something out of it. Once I found an issue enough people cared about, I could take them into action. With enough actions, I could start to build power."

A quarter of a century later, in a cramped second-floor office a few blocks from Marquette Park, Nashashibi met with the leaders of local Christian and Jewish organisations looking to generate the power of cooperative action for an issue gripping the neighbourhood: foreclosures.

According to one estimate, Chicago house prices dropped almost 30 per cent between 2006 and 2010, close to the national average. But over the same period, median home prices in Chicago Lawn plummeted by 70 per cent, from $220,000 to $63,000. The area surrounding Marquette Park has seen 8,700 foreclosures in the past three years.

Not far from Iman's offices, a one-block stretch of Washtenaw Avenue underscored how abandoned homes led to increased drug use, gang violence and neighbourhood instability. The organisation owns two previously abandoned homes here: one is its Transitional House, the other its first Green Reentry home. Work on the latter began in 2010. Ma'alem Abdullah, the tall, soft-spoken head of Iman's Green Reentry, expected his first tenant later this month and hoped to have six to eight men - all Muslims just released from prison, who must undergo a screening process - living in the house by the end of the year.

On a recent morning, two young men loitered on the pavement just up the road from the retrofit house. "See these guys down the street selling drugs?" asked Abdullah, shaking his head.

He pointed out two other abandoned homes nearby, one of which no longer had a front door. "This is an insult to the work we're trying to do, a slap in the face," Abdullah said, strolling in and finding a soiled living room carpet and scattered trash.

The trio of leaders at the foreclosures' meeting hoped to devise a plan to reclaim abandoned homes and turn them into housing for troubled local families. Their first target was an abandoned two-storey house on Fairfield Avenue. In early April, the front door and windows were boarded up. Iman hopes to legally acquire the home and put a family on the second floor, an office on the first, and perhaps house another family in the basement.

On July 28, a district court judge will decide whether to award Iman custody of the home. Meanwhile, Iman planned a demonstration event in front of the house with a diverse group of community leaders in late May. "We're testing the law," says Nashashibi. "It may be a bit of civil disobedience."

It's a familiar subject for him. In Theorising the Global Ghetto, the course he teaches at the University of Chicago, Nashashibi links urban underclasses in cities around the globe. During a recent class he told his students how, in the 1990s, rap music, hip-hop style and protests against authority became "the cultural export of the ghetto" and, ultimately, "vehicles for solidarity and emancipatory practices".

In his own life, he discovered a straight line from urban oppression to protest, to the religion of his ancestors. As he worked with inner-city communities he learnt more about the African-American narrative, which led to meetings with black nationalists and civil rights activists and finally to Islam.

"I wasn't brought up in any way a conscious Muslim. I don't think I even walked into a mosque until I was around 19," says Nashashibi. "Then I started meeting brothers who had become Muslim and who then started challenging me about where I was spiritually. The first time I opened the Quran was to debate these people, trying to disprove them ... That was my first real engagement with Islam and I think somewhere along the line I just came to a point where I had to accept a really profound spiritual shift. It was very much a conversion-type process, and like an early convert there were moments when I was hard to be around, I had that zealotry ... I was just blown away, discovering this new world."

Combining that zealotry with his years spent studying urban culture and working with ex-convicts has earned Nashashibi undeniable street cred. His interest in gang violence, urban social history and the language and motivations of hip-hop is no stylistic pose, but a major part of his life and work.

Take Rafi Peterson, who stole drugs and ran with gang members as a teen. He was convicted of first degree murder in 1985 and sent to prison. By the time of his release, in 1997, he had converted to Islam. A year later he met Nashashibi and the two began visiting Chicago area prisons to talk about religion. They noticed that many prisoners had difficulty reintegrating into society when they were released. The duo launched Project Restore in 2005, which helped write a bill that sought to divert non-violent drug offenders towards treatment and away from the downward spiral of reoffending. After much wrangling, it was passed by the Illinois legislature in April 2007. [Today Peterson also sits on the Iman board and runs CeaseFire, a highly successful anti-gang violence programme, independent from Iman.

That same year, Project Restore started welcoming tenants to its Transitional House in a renovated Chicago Lawn home. Green Reentry goes one step further, looking to help rehabilitate and reintegrate former prisoners, address the housing crisis and create sustainable urban living spaces


In March, after a year of widespread controversy over several major mosque proposals and more than a dozen anti-Sharia bills across the country, US congressional hearings into radicalisation among American Muslim communities began. Led by New York Representative Peter King, a Republican, the hearings are seen by many progressives and Muslim leaders as something of a witch hunt.

"Muslims now are being held up to intense scrutiny, and it's unfortunate," says Nashashibi. "More than ever, we've got to be proactive. It's gonna get ugly, with the King hearings, the 10th anniversary of September 11, and the 2012 election coming up. We have to continue to demonstrate how we are working for good, working for change and creating facts on the ground that speak louder than any attack."

A December study from the World Organization for Resource Development and Education, a Washington-based think-tank, found that building a strong national network of moderate Muslim leaders could help counter radicalisation. Further, the report argues that strong Muslim leaders who work to discourage violence and promote pluralism offer a positive alternative for Muslim youth, one the government would be wise to promote.

This might explain the increased interest in Iman from the highest office in the land. In April, Nashashibi and an Iman team met with officials from the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships to discuss a possible collaboration.

Nashashibi is always on the lookout for bridge-building opportunities, in part because Iman measures its effectiveness through the community connections it helps foster. When news of the killing of Osama bin Laden by US forces broke, for example, many US residents celebrated openly. Yet in a Twitter post the next day, Nashashibi cited an opinion piece written by a rabbi, who referred to Moses leading his people in celebrating the death of the pharaoh and his army. "The rabbi recalled God scolding the angels after they too began to dance and sing. "'We must not rejoice at their deaths!'"


"Rami is like a synergy," says Rabbi Capers Funnye, who runs a synagogue a short distance from Iman, and who has known Nashashibi for seven years. "He really is able to bring people together from diverse backgrounds, diverse needs, and show people how their needs relate to others and relate to the work of others."

This might sound like the recipe for a successful politician. Indeed, the parallels between Nashashibi and the US president are striking: Obama's father and grandfather were tribal chieftains, while Nashashibi comes from a long line of prominent Palestinians; their parents divorced at an early age; both moved around a lot and struggled with identity before working as community organisers on Chicago's South Side in their twenties and teaching civil rights-related courses at the University of Chicago in their thirties.

"There's a lot of familiar territory," says Nashashibi. Though he has supported a few city council candidates in the neighbourhood, he doesn't see himself running for office. "People have brought it up, but I don't think so."

Nashashibi prefers to do more of what he's doing now. Iman recently bought a 15,000-square-foot space across the road from its headquarters, and hopes to turn it into a clinic, arts centre, garden and classrooms. After organising events in New York and Washington, Iman also plans to establish a network of affiliates.

"Iman has kind of chartered a new model, a new course for Muslims working in urban America, addressing critical needs in the community," says Amir al-Islam, a history professor at Abu Dhabi's Zayed University and chairman of Iman's board of directors. "Young people are most vulnerable to the ideas of radicalisation, most prone to being recruited. We think we have something that young people can engage in and capture their imagination, get involved in civic engagement - and it's a way to manifest their faith that serves humanity."

International engagement may be next. Nashashibi has twice visited Abu Dhabi to meet with officials from the Tabah Foundation, which advises the government on Islam-inflected civil society projects, to discuss the possiblity of an Iman affiliate in the UAE. He has also met officials from Msheireb Properties (formerly named Dohaland), which is overseeing the construction of a new downtown for Doha, and the Doha International Centre for Inter-faith Dialogue.

Nashashibi argues in his University of Chicago course that the denizens of today's densely populated, low-income areas of Chicago, Chongqing, Cairo, Mumbai, Nairobi and Rio de Janeiro are linked by common concerns and shared responses. And their numbers are growing. A recent report from McKinsey estimated that the world's urban population is increasing by more than one million people every week - and the majority of that expansion occurs in slums and ghettos.

Saskia Sassen, the Robert S Lynd professor of sociology at Columbia University in New York, says the DNA of cities is not conflict, but commerce and civics. Two decades ago she popularised the term "global city," to refer to metropolitan areas creating and responding to the trends of globalisation. Now, she sees the rise of "a global network of all kinds of weak actors, but very interdependent nowadays, that can actually raise hell, if you want, and contest what is happening".

Sassen, who has sat on conference panels with Nashashibi and is familiar with his ideas, thinks he is ideally placed to take a lead role in this network. "Powerlessness can become complex," she writes in an e-mail. "Rami's capturing of ... a strategic encounter in what is a devalued space for the larger society, the ghetto ... is for me akin at some deep structural level to Tahrir Square and Benghazi."



Fighting the Syrian Regime from a Chicago Office

By David Lepeska

Yaser Tabbara may live half a world away from Syria, where he grew up. But as the uprising there continues, the Chicago lawyer has mounted a one-man legal and diplomatic assault against the Syrian regime to highlight the brutality of its response and help depose President Bashar al-Assad.

In recent weeks, Mr. Tabbara, 35, attended opposition conferences in Turkey and Belgium, and spoke at policy forums in Qatar and Washington. He also built a case for the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to charge the Syrian government with crimes against humanity, and he helped draft a letter to the United Nations Security Council calling for urgent action — all while communicating with protesters inside Syria and occasionally representing his law firm’s clients in Chicago courts.

Few people would seem better qualified to lend external support to the uprising. A human rights lawyer born in Chicago and raised in Damascus, Mr. Tabbara has a long history of activism and is practiced in Western justice as well as in the ways of international courts and Syrian politics.

Since mid-March, Mr. Assad has turned his security and military forces loose on the protesters; activists say some 1,400 Syrians have been killed. Watching from afar, Mr. Tabbara said he had been motivated by “a very objective sense of outrage and a sense of responsibility that this country cannot be led by this Mafia-esque gang.”

Such views represent a shift for a man who last year worked with an international organization to improve Syria’s judicial and legal systems. Just months ago, he had been scheduled to meet with Asma al-Assad, the president’s wife, to discuss the creation of a Syrian version of Teach for America, which trains prospective teachers who commit to spending two years in classrooms in cities and rural communities.

That meeting was canceled after the protests began, and Mr. Tabbara said he had changed his mind about trying to reform the system after he saw Syrian security forces shoot peaceful protesters and listened to the “insulting, conspiracy-minded” speeches of Mr. Assad.

“I’ve always been a firm believer that democracy doesn’t happen overnight,” Mr. Tabbara said. But the uprising in Syria, coming on the heels of the more peaceful regime-toppling revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, has convinced him that the process can be expedited.

“A lot of these gradual reforms, which had never been fulfilled, now have a chance,” he said.

Ammar Bayrakdar, a Syrian physician who moved to the United States in 1990 and has been active in the sizable Chicago-area Syrian community, approves of the shift.

“Now he’s trying to organize the opposition effort, and we support him,” Dr. Bayrakdar said. “He’s very knowledgeable and eloquent, and a sincere individual.”

Local Syrian groups have organized forums, protests and rallies, and have backed e-mail campaigns to the White House, the Syrian ambassador and representatives in Congress.

Such activism is old hat for Mr. Tabbara, who moved back to the United States to attend college in the mid-’90s. After earning his law degree from DePaul University, he provided legal representation to Chicago-area Muslim and Arab communities after 9/11. He also spent a year teaching international human rights law at the University of Kalamoon in Damascus and working with local organizations to improve education in Syria.

Back in Chicago, in 2008, Mr. Tabbara was a founder of Zarzour, Khalil & Tabbara, a law firm started with fellow DePaul alumni that mainly assists nonprofit organizations and immigrants with legal issues. Last year he rolled out Project Mobilize, an organization that supports Muslim political candidates in the Chicago area.

Since the antigovernment protest began in Syria on March 15, the movement has spread across the country and has faced increasingly bloody suppression. Mr. Tabbara said he had been in regular contact with the leaders of groups organizing protests, as well as with friends, family and former students. Some among the latter three groups have been wary about supporting the movement, in part because many middle-class families have long relied on the regime for their welfare.

But that may be changing. “These groups will join the movement in large numbers soon,” Mr. Tabbara predicted. “I know people that belong to that class who have been working very hard trying to mobilize people.”

Some analysts believe that with dwindling financial resources and increasing international pressure, the Assad regime may be teetering.

At a news conference on Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, “It is absolutely clear that the Syrian government is running out of time.”

Mr. Tabbara said he is confident the rebels will succeed. “These are not people willing to back down,” he said. “They will not accept anything but a complete regime change.”

He added that he is unsure of the impact he and others have had on the movement for change in Syria but that the effort is nonetheless worthwhile.

“I’d like to think we are raising awareness, spreading correct information about the revolution, informing governments and officials about what’s taking place on the ground,” Mr. Tabbara said. “It definitely counters the diplomatic activism the regime has been engaged in.”

ran in July 3, 2011 NY Times, in partnership with the Chicago News Cooperative.

Locust Souffle, Anyone? It's a Start

by David Lepeska

Grasshopper fajitas, mealworm fried rice, Bee-LT’s and similar delicacies will be on the menu for a public tasting buffet in October at the University of Chicago. The insect-dominated bill of fare is the idea of Matthew Krisiloff, a sophomore from California who last year founded Entom Foods, a start-up that seeks to make bugs a staple of the American diet.

“I really want to establish a dialogue about insects as a serious food possibility,” said Mr. Krisiloff, 19, who runs the company with four classmates. “We want to show that these are very acceptable flavors and tastes.”

The idea, Mr. Krisiloff said, came to him last fall in a course on contemporary global issues when he learned that by 2050 the world’s population is expected to reach nine billion, doubling the demand for meat.

“I remembered reading an obscure fact when I was younger that insects are extremely resource-efficient, and that they are eaten by many populations all over the world,” he said.

Some 80 percent of humanity eats insects, and raising them would cost the environment a fraction of what it does to raise pigs or cattle. Ten grams of feed produces one gram of beef or three pounds of pork, but it can yield nine grams of edible insect meat, according to Arnold van Huis, an entomologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands who has been studying entomophagy, or insect consumption, since the mid-90’s.

Ten times less methane and 300 times less nitrous oxide are emitted in the breeding of many edible insects compared with livestock, Mr. van Huis said. Nutritionally, most insect meat has about the same amount of protein, iron and vitamins as beef, but less fat.

Insects can be legally raised for human consumption because the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act categorizes insects as food, if that is their intended use.

“I’m seeing a lot of people getting onto this bandwagon of eating bugs, as the environmental aspect has given it another boost,” said David George Gordon, author of “The Eat-A-Bug Cookbook,” who has advocated edible insects for 15 years.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has begun promoting edible insects around the globe and categorizes 1,700 species of them. A company near Amsterdam sells pesto-flavored bug nuggets in Dutch grocery stores, and grasshoppers and other insects, usually ground, appear in appetizers and specialty cocktails in a handful of American restaurants.

For now, Entom Foods is looking to develop insect-based animal feeds, particularly for aquaponics. But Mr. Krisiloff’s primary goal remains getting processed insect meat cutlets, or a similar product, into American grocery stores.

Mr. Gordon said: “I think there would be a small segment of the American public that would be interested in such a product, largely because of the environmental benefits. If Entom can build a case for why it’s good for you, they could find some success.”

--- ran in the Aug 21, 2011, NY Times, in partnership with the Chicago News Cooperative