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Archive for the ‘Middle East’ Category

Charlie Hebdo on ISIS

charlie hebdo no1163 011014

Voilà the cover of the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo, which will hit the newsstands tomorrow (October 1st). For those whose French is not up to par, it reads:

IF MOHAMMED WERE TO RETURN…

“I’m the Prophet, idiot!”

“STFU, infidel!”

Charlie Hebdo nails it. Totally.

Somehow I think security will be reinforced outside Charlie Hebdo’s office in the 11th arrondissement.

ADDENDUM: For other irreverent CH covers I’ve posted on, go here, here, here, and here.

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Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief of the Dubai-based satellite channel Al-Arabiya and correspondent for the Beirut daily Al-Nahar, had an excellent, must read essay in Politico last week (September 18th), “The barbarians within our gates,” in which he lucidly asserted in the lede that “Arab civilization has collapsed [and] won’t recover in my lifetime.” Money quote

Arab civilization, such as we knew it, is all but gone. The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism—the extremism of the rulers and those in opposition—than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. Every hope of modern Arab history has been betrayed. The promise of political empowerment, the return of politics, the restoration of human dignity heralded by the season of Arab uprisings in their early heydays—all has given way to civil wars, ethnic, sectarian and regional divisions and the reassertion of absolutism, both in its military and atavistic forms. With the dubious exception of the antiquated monarchies and emirates of the Gulf—which for the moment are holding out against the tide of chaos—and possibly Tunisia, there is no recognizable legitimacy left in the Arab world.

Is it any surprise that, like the vermin that take over a ruined city, the heirs to this self-destroyed civilization should be the nihilistic thugs of the Islamic State? And that there is no one else who can clean up the vast mess we Arabs have made of our world but the Americans and Western countries?

The implosion of practically the entire Arab world east of the Maghreb—and particularly of its core states—over the past three years is breathtaking. It’s stunning. The future of Egypt—a state and nation crushed by its demography and in which there is no positive dynamic whatever (politically, economically, culturally, you name it)—is bleak; Syria, Iraq, and Libya are finished—shattered states and societies that will not be put back together for the foreseeable future, if ever; Lebanon—a fragile, weak state and whose most important social, political, and military actor acts independently of that state and is remote-controlled by a foreign power to boot—could descend into internecine bloodletting (Shia vs. Sunni) at almost any moment; Jordan is on the knife’s edge and likewise Saudi Arabia, which has nothing to offer the world or itself but oil and the holy places… And then there’s Yemen, running out of water and in a state of permanent tribal rebellion. As for the Palestinians, let’s not talk about them…

Melhem does mention Tunisia as a possible exception to all this. Tunisia—a small, confessionally and ethnically homogeneous country—has indeed not been doing badly—so far, at least—in its transition toward something that resembles democracy, but is in economically dire straits and is vulnerable to the chaos on its southeastern border. And if Tunisia is doing okay relatively speaking, this is in part thanks to its sizable French-speaking educated class, which has been influenced by certain French ways of thinking (notably in regard to republicanism and the relationship of religion and the state), and is oriented toward Europe. Which all goes to show that the legacy of French colonialism isn’t all negative (merci, la France). Algeria and Morocco have likewise benefited from this aspect of their French pasts, though all that stands in the way of Algeria becoming another Afghanistan or Somalia is its hydrocarbon wealth. Algeria is about as rentier of a state as one can get (whose state budget depends on hydrocarbon taxes to an even greater extent than in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states). As for Morocco, its archaic monarchical order enjoys legitimacy but if the corruption and inequalities there get any worse, who knows how long that will last?…

Another piece on the catastrophic situation in the Arab world read of late was by Daniel Williams, formerly of Human Rights Watch, in WaPo (September 19th), who informed the reader that “Christianity in Iraq is finished.” Williams, writing from Erbil, says that the West should not delude itself on this, that there will soon be almost no Christians left in Iraq (and probably not in Syria either, he could have added). The exodus of Iraqi Christians is being accelerated by ISIS, of course, but was boosted in a big way by events set in motion by the 2003 US invasion, he correctly asserts. In point of fact, though, Christians have been emigrating from the Near East to Europe and the Americas for much of the 20th century, e.g. the departure of Iraqi Chaldeans and Assyrians to the US (Chicago and Detroit) in the 1920s and ’30. It goes without saying that the end of the indigenous Christian presence in the Middle East would be a tragedy of major proportions (as I’ve posted on, e.g., here and here). An incalculable loss—culturally and economically—to those societies. And for which the sole response is for Europe, the Americas, and countries elsewhere to throw open their doors to the fleeing Christians.

À propos—and while I’m thinking of it—, here’s a question for Palestine one-staters: if the mythic one state were to somehow come into existence, does one honestly believe that Muslims, Christians, and Jews would live together in peace and harmony—or at least en bonne intelligence—, or would the Jews (and remaining Christians) eventually find themselves in the same situation as Christians in Iraq today? Poser la question c’est y répondre, je crois…

Like for Syria  لايك لأجل سوريا

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Obama & ISIS

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A faithful reader—my mother—asked me in an email the day before yesterday why I hadn’t commented on Obama’s speech on ISIS. I replied that I hadn’t paid much attention to it, being occupied as I was with getting my daughter set up in Istanbul, where she’s spending an Erasmus year. Now that I’m back in Paris, I’ve been able to take a few minutes to read into the matter. This commentary by CFR Fellow Steven A. Cook, “ISIS and us: No way to go to war,” gets it right IMO. The New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch also had a worthwhile comment on “What Obama didn’t say.” And I will take the liberty of cutting-and-pasting journalist Craig Pyes‘s pertinent Facebook status update of two days ago

It’s appalling how so much of the press and pundit corps are so wrong in their criticism of Obama’s actions on ISIS (although there will be plenty of mistakes, little he can do, and a real danger of a prolonged war). Most journalists hunt in packs, and they follow each other rather than discern their own truths. This is true on the ground and in their thoughts. It’s why each newspaper reads like the others. Obama’s reaction has little to do with terrorism, and to draw up arguments of why it won’t be an effective CT tool, totally misses the point. Secondly, this is not Iraq in 2003, and marshaling the arguments against being overly credulous then — which you all were (Strobel and Landay exempted) — you’re, as they say, fighting the last war. Now is not then. Not only do these reporters think they’re right because their colleagues are writing the same critique, but it conforms to a pool of common sources, most of whom are no longer in the government. Very, very few of these reporters actually know anything about underlying realities of the Middle East, and so are captive to their sources.

The Middle East is unraveling — there are serious bad scenarios that can emerge — and for the US to do nothing about ISIS will insure that the political climate turns even more poisonous there than it is now, with thousands of innocents being butchered. The political reality is not good now, there is a huge possibility that the US will not be able to influence what it is becoming, but those aren’t arguments for sitting back and doing nothing. Nor are they arguments to put boots on the ground.

Affaire à suivre, évidemment.

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Islam for Dummies

Riz Ahmed and Kayvan Novak in 'Four Lions' (credit: Magnolia Pictures)

Riz Ahmed and Kayvan Novak in ‘Four Lions’ (credit: Magnolia Pictures)

[update below]

Huffington Post UK political director Medhi Hasan has a delicious piece (August 21st) on two 22-year-old British jihadists, Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, who were convicted on terrorism charges in Birmingham last month—after Yusuf’s mum alerted the police about her son’s activities. As was revealed during the trial, they had purchased copies of Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies (en français: L’Islam et le Coran pour les nuls) on Amazon before setting off to Syria to wage jihad. Sans blague.

In his post Hasan mentions the 2010 comedy satire ‘Four Lions‘, which spoofs a gang of low IQ jihadist wannabes from the English Midlands. The film, which I saw when it came out, is very funny and also spot on. There are certainly many dangerous, violent jihadists from immigrant communities in the West—recent ones including Mohamed Merah, Mehdi Nemmouche, and the psychopath who murdered James Foley—who are out there, but for all of these there are no doubt as many, if not more, of the whack job losers depicted in ‘Four Lions’—and the two just convicted in Birmingham. If one is interested in the jihadist phenomenon and has not seen the movie, one should do so. Take it from one of France’s leading scholars on radicalism, as quoted by the NYT’s Robert Worth

When I asked Jean-Pierre Filiu, a French scholar and one of the most respected analysts of jihadi groups, whether anyone had really succeeded in capturing the everyday truth of their world in fiction or film, he ran through a number of novels on the subject and dismissed them all: too many were unconvincing or tied up in political agendas. Then, after a long pause, he said: “Seriously, the way most of them operate? I think ‘Four Lions’ said it best.”

Trailer with French subtitles (though English ones would also help) is here, NYT review is here, NPR interview with director Chris Morris is here.

UPDATE: Sophie Gilbert, senior editor of The Atlantic, has a piece (October 18th) entitled “The best film about Islamic terrorists is a comedy.” The lede: Chris Morris’ Four Lions, released four years ago, skewers the pointlessness and confusion of wannabe jihadists.

4lions_poster

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ISIS fighters (image: Vice News)

ISIS fighters (image: Vice News)

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

Vice News has an incredible, absolute must watch 42-minute reportage, “The Islamic state,” on ISIS’s rule in the parts of Syria and Iraq under its control. Vice’s very brave reporter Medyan Dairieh managed to embed himself for three weeks with the ISIS fighter fanatics, mainly in their Syrian stronghold Raqqa, accompanying and interviewing them as they went about their business. ISIS is the Taliban times ten, totally inculte and fanaticized, and which will not be dislodged, if they are to be so, from the areas they control except by a stronger local force—Iraqis and Syrians—backed by serious outside, i.e. American, support. Bon courage.

As for where the responsibility lies for the ISIS disaster—and this is me talking, not the Vice News reporter—, culprit nº1 is the regime of Bashar al-Assad and its allies (and we know who they are), period, followed by the regional actors who poured weapons into the country and that fell into ISIS’s hands (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey et al). And, of course, the Nouri al-Maliki regime in Iraq. What a calamity.

On the question of the Americans and whether or not they should have materially aided the Syrian opposition when such aid could have maybe made a difference, political science MENA specialist Marc Lynch settled the question IMO in a must read WaPo Monkey Cage blog post dated August 11st, “Would arming Syria’s rebels have stopped the Islamic State?” Answer: Nope, no doubt not.

In the interest of fairness and balance, political science MENA specialist Steven Heydemann of USIP—who knows Syrian politics and history better than anyone I know personally—had an op-ed in US News & World Report, dated August 14th, arguing the opposite, that “Supporting Syria’s rebels is no fantasy.” I have not been in agreement with Steve on this issue over the past two years but if there’s anyone out there who has made a compelling argument for a more active US involvement in Syria, it is he.

Patrick Cockburn has a new book out, The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising, and of which The Independent published an extract a week ago.

On the ISIS fanatics, Iraqi journalist Shukur Khilkhal has a piece in Al-Monitor, dated August 12th, on how the organization “emerges from radical Islamic jurisprudence.” The culprit: Sheikh Taqi ibn Taymiyyah. Of course.

UPDATE: Sadik Al-Azm has an essay in the Boston Review (August 18th), “Syria in Revolt: Understanding the Unthinkable War.”

2nd UPDATE: New America Foundation fellow Brian Fishman, in a smart analysis on the War on the Rocks blog (August 20th), says “Don’t BS the American people about Iraq, Syria, and ISIL.”

3rd UPDATE: Gen. John R. Allen, USMC (Ret.), who led the Marines in Anbar Province and commanded the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, says, in a piece in the Defense Now blog (August 20th), that we must “Destroy the Islamic State Now.”

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The Iraq catastrophe – III

Yazidis in the Sinjar mountains (photo: Emrah Yorulmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Yazidis in the Sinjar mountains (photo: Emrah Yorulmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Iraq is such a catastrophe—with the destruction of its Christian heritage, massacres of Yazidis, et on en passe—that I can hardly bear to read about it. But read about it I do. One essential article read recently—on August 10th, to be precise—was in the NY Times, by reporters Tim Arango and Eric Schmitt, on how “U.S. actions in Iraq fueled rise of a rebel.” The rebel in question is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed “caliph” of ISIS. As one learns in the NYT enquête, Al-Baghdadi was a nobody before the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, and would have no doubt remained a nobody had it not been for that invasion and occupation. Iraqis—and Syrians, and everyone else—do have agency, of course, and are responsible for their actions, but what is currently happening in Iraq really is a consequence of US policy. What the US did in Iraq in 2003 was the original sin. There is simply no denying this.

A few other essential articles and papers read of late (all of which appeared before the destitution of PM Nouri al-Maliki):

The International Crisis Group published a 9-page briefing on June 20th—just after my last Iraq posting—, “Iraq’s jihadi jack-in-the-box.” The lede: The jihadi surge is the tragic, violent outcome of steadily deteriorating political dynamics. Instead of a rash military intervention and unconditional support for the Iraqi government, pressure is needed to reverse sectarian polarisation and a disastrous record of governance.

Peter Harling, the ICG’s senior MENA adviser—and no doubt the principal author of the above report—, had a piece in the July issue of Le Monde Diplomatique entitled “Taking Iraq apart.” The lede: Nouri al-Maliki’s incompetence and sectarianism have led to the disintegration of the Iraqi state—and now, unsurprisingly, the ISIL insurgents have declared an Islamic caliphate in the territories they control in Iraq and Syria.

Yezid Sayigh, the very smart senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, had an essay dated July 24th—that originally appeared in Arabic in Al-Hayat—, entitled “ISIS: Global Islamic caliphate or Islamic mini-state in Iraq?” The summary: Unless Baghdad offers meaningful political reconciliation and reintegration, ISIS will tighten and deepen its rule of its mini-Islamic state in Iraq.

Stathis Kalyvas, the Arnold Wolfers Professor of Political Science at Yale University—and also very smart—, had an analysis, dated July 7th, on WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog of “The logic of violence in the Islamic State’s war.” Stathis is one of the leading specialists in world social science of the subject of civil wars—and of war-related violence more generally—, so anything he has to say on it is worth reading.

And Patrick Cockburn, who knows Iraq comme sa poche, has a rather discouraging piece, dated August 1st, in the current LRB on how “ISIS [is] consolidat[ing].”

ISIS is, of course, as fanatical, indeed evil, as one can get, and with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi & Co making Osama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri et al looking like quasi liberals, but there has nonetheless been some nonsense recounted about them in this regard, e.g. the report late last month, and that went viral, of ISIS having ordered the cliterodectomy of all the women in Mosul. The report, emanating from a not-too-competent UN official, turned out not to be true, though which should have been apparent from the outset. I was immediately skeptical of the story and was surprised to see, via social media, that numerous persons who should have known better gave it credence. My reaction was that nothing should be put past the madmen of ISIS but that this one was particularly outlandish even for them. But even if it were true—even if ISIS had indeed ordered the excision of the one million-plus women in Mosul—, there is no way they could have carried it out. It wouldn’t be possible. In cultures where female genital mutilation is practiced, it’s women who perform the act, usually older ones with specialized cutting skills, as it were. Men have nothing to do with the operation. So who in Mosul would do such a thing, particularly as all the women there would be horrified, to put it mildly, by the very idea? And their menfolk too. So would the ISIS crazies enter homes to inspect vaginas? If so, the men of Mosul—every last one—would rise up and kill them, or try to. If ISIS were to seek quick, violent defeat, this would be the fastest way to do it.

So when one reads of some particularly lurid story of ISIS or other jihadist violence or gratuitous cruelty—one that stretches credulity—, make sure that it’s verified before taking it at face value and/or spreading it on social media.

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Adam Shatz, contributing editor at the London Review of Books and visiting professor at the Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University—and dear personal friend—, has a must read essay/personal reflection in the latest issue of The Nation (dated August 4th) inspired by his fifteen-odd years of reporting on the Middle East and North Africa. The essay is a revised version of the Hilda B. Silverman Memorial Lecture, at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, that Adam gave this past May, and which he fraternally sent me for comments beforehand. It’s typically excellent. As for watching the lecture—as the above image indicates one may do—this will apparently be possible sometime this fall.

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