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Archive for August, 2013

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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below]

Paris-based grand reporter Christopher Dickey has an “Open letter to President Obama” in TDB that has been making the rounds (on my FB timeline and email inbox), in which he cautions the president that “Syria is not our war.” The lede: “Assad has learned from history that what doesn’t kill him will make him stronger. President Obama, you need to understand that lesson too.” Dickey then enumerates the many US military interventions—limited and not—that have ended in fiasco or engendered perverse consequences, though covers his rear in acknowledging the few that have yielded positive results (e.g. Bosnia, Kosovo), but which he says were exceptions to the rule. There’s a certain amount of fallacious reasoning here, as the fact that Lebanon 1982-84, Libya 1986 etc etc didn’t work out as the US had intended does not ipso facto mean that such will be the case in Syria next week (or even later today, who knows). Every case is specific. There is no hard and fast rule. Iraq 1991 and Afghanistan 2001—”good” interventions in my book—were not Iraq 2003 (bad). And the West militarily intervening in Syria in 2011-12 (bad idea, I insisted) was not the same as Libya 2011 or Mali 2013 (good). And the latter two have worked out okay so far (oh, of course Libya is still a mess—how could it not be?—but the psychotic Qadhafi regime is gone, and for that alone the intervention was worth it).

But Syria 2013 may be different from 2011-12. I don’t know. I’ve been totally opposed to intervening there—and this is at least the 337th time I’ve said it—but, as I argued two days ago, the latest chemical attack may have changed the equation, that now something may have to be done, though I have no idea what that something should be. It has become tedious and boring to say that there are no good options in Syria and that a Western military strike—which will necessarily be limited—may not only not work but make things worse (not to mention go horribly wrong, by accidentally killing a lot of civilians). But the argument of Bernard Guetta (to which I linked on Thursday) and others that the costs of inaction may now outweigh those of a limited military strike—and with all its risks and uncertainties—is not one I can dismiss.

In regard to an eventual intervention, there are three issues that need to be laid to rest. One has to do with international law. David Rieff in TNR the other day asserted that a US intervention, in the absence of a UNSC resolution, would be “illegal.” Legality, shmegality. Or, to borrow from David Ben Gurion, um-shmum! Seriously, who gives a caca about the United Nations Security Council?! It is, of course, nice to have the green light from the UNSC when intervening militarily somewhere—to have the benediction of the “international community” (i.e. to have Russia and China in one’s corner)—but it hardly matters one way or the other, in that no state is going to forswear military intervention outside its borders in the face of a UNSC veto, nor will there be any legal consequences for that state if it does what it does against the wishes of the UNSC. And does anyone (in America or Europe) seriously argue that the US (and France etc) should have its action thwarted by a Russian or Chinese veto?

Secondly, on US congressional approval. I’m not going to get into a legalistic-type argument here—and US law, unlike international, is an important consideration for a president—except to assert that a president should not need prior congressional authorization for a limited military operation somewhere, particularly if it doesn’t involve ground forces. Generally speaking, Congress—or parliament elsewhere—should be consulted if the US (or UK, France, etc) plans a limited operation but must not have a veto (as was the case in the British House of Commons yesterday). On this matter—of foreign policy—, I am a longtime believer in the supremacy of the executive over the legislative.

For more on these issues, see U of Chicago Law School prof Eric Posner’s piece in Slate, “The U.S. has no legal basis to intervene in Syria: But of course that won’t stop us.” And on the British vote, see Alex Massie’s commentary in The Spectator, “On Syria, parliament has voted to have no policy at all.”

Thirdly, the question of public opinion. Those arguing against an intervention in Syria have been citing polls showing large majorities of Americans opposed to the idea. Likewise in France and the UK. It’s only normal that public opinion would be reticent on this score (there is no rhyme or reason for any middle American or citoyen lambda in France to favor bombing Syria). But presidents (or prime ministers) cannot be guided by polls when making such decisions. And while the public in its majority may have the right instincts on military interventions, it doesn’t always (e.g. polls in 2003-04 showed majorities supporting the Bush administration’s action in Iraq). A president (or PM) has to do what he thinks in the national interest, not what some polls tells him.

UPDATE: Fred Kaplan at Slate weighs in on “Obama’s gamble,” arguing that his “seeking congressional approval for his Syria strike was risky and right.”

2nd UPDATE: David Rothkopf at FP has an analysis—which I do not necessarily share in its entirety—of “The gamble,” in which he enumerates the “five big consequences of the president’s call to let Congress decide about America’s Syrian intervention.”

3rd UPDATE: On the French position, Hubert Védrine has a must read interview in the JDD, in which he asserts, entre autres, that “La pire des solutions à ce stade serait d’adresser un signal d’impunité au régime syrien, mais aussi à d’autres puissances et d’autres groupes dangereux.”

4th UPDATE: For more on the French position, see Yochi Dreazen’s piece in FP, “Paris Match,” in which he describes “how France became America’s favorite—and sometimes only—shooting buddy.”

5th UPDATE: Steven A. Cook, whose analyses I respect, has an op-ed in WaPo explaining why he no longer supports intervention in Syria.

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And specifically to Western leftists. Beirut-based blogger Sean Lee—who was unknown to me until today—has a terrific, must read “open letter on Syria to Western narcissists” on his blog, The Human Province. No quotes, just read the whole thing (it’s not long). And particularly if you are a Western (or non-Western) leftist. Or even a non-leftist (Western or non).

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Aleppo after army shelling, August 26 2013 (AMC/AP Photo)

Aleppo after army shelling, August 26 2013 (AMC/AP Photo)

It looks like it’s going to happen. Some kind of Western military intervention seems imminent. I have been resolutely opposed to the idea from the outset, though suppose they (the US-UK-France) now have to do something following the latest chemical attack. Bernard Guetta made the case in his commentary this morning on France Inter, “Pourquoi l’inaction ne serait pas une option en Syrie.” He makes four points: if the West does not launch some kind of military action now, the Syrian regime will interpret the inaction as a green light to employ CWs with impunity, the jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra & Co will be reinforced in the face of Western passivity, the Iranian regime will lose all fear of the US and accelerate its nuclear program, and Vladimir Putin will feel vindicated in his dissing of Obama and the Europeans, and likely up the ante as a consequence.

Good points. Monsieur Guetta is likely correct. But I’m still thinking of Edward Luttwak’s op-ed in the Sunday NYT, “In Syria, America loses if either side wins,” in which he argues that American policy should be to continue the stalemate in Syria. Money quote

This strategy actually approximates the Obama administration’s policy so far. Those who condemn the president’s prudent restraint as cynical passivity must come clean with the only possible alternative: a full-scale American invasion to defeat both Mr. Assad and the extremists fighting against his regime. That could lead to a Syria under American occupation. And very few Americans today are likely to support another costly military adventure in the Middle East. A decisive move in any direction would endanger America; at this stage, stalemate is the only viable policy option left.

If/when Obama launches an attack, it will likely be in pursuit of this strategy: to send Bashar al-Assad a message by hitting him hard for a few days—as Bill Clinton did in Iraq in 1998—but not degrading the Syrian army enough to dramatically shift the balance to the Islamist-dominated armed opposition.

Will surgical strikes work? As reported in FP, “a former U.S. Navy planner responsible for outlining an influential and highly detailed proposal for surgical strikes…has serious misgivings about the plan”… Oh well.

On the dilemmas of what the US should do, George Packer has a great piece in The New Yorker, “Two minds on Syria,” that absolutely nails it.

So what should the objective in Syria be? Patrick Cockburn in The Independent says that “Only a peace conference, not air strikes, can stop further bloodshed.” I’m dubious that such is possible but hope that Cockburn’s plan will ultimately be pursued.

For his part, CUNY poli sci prof Rajan Menon, in a National Interest piece from April that’s back up on its website, offers his ideas of “How to end the war in Syria.”

And Hussein Ibish, whose views on MENA I invariably share—though not 100% always—, argues, in an essay in NOW, that America should “Go strategic in Syria.”

In a useful commentary on the European Council on Foreign Relations website, Anthony Dworkin et al of the ECFR enumerate and examine “Eight things to consider before intervening in Syria.”

Back to the question of CWs, Le Monde has translated into English its headline reportage of three months ago, “Chemical warfare in Syria.” À propos, Foreign Affairs has republished a commentary from April by Ohio State political scientist John Mueller, that carries the unfortunate title “Erase the red line: Why we shouldn’t care about Syria’s chemical weapons.” As the piece won’t be freely accessible on FA’s website forever, here it is

The rebels in Syria could be excused for wondering what U.S. policy toward them might be. At times, President Barack Obama has implied that the United States can’t do much to help them because none of them has been gassed. By threatening “enormous consequences” should the Syrian regime use chemical weapons, he seemed to be saying that the first chemical attack would bring the Americans running in, guns blazing. Although understandable, that is likely to be a substantial misreading of the message coming out Washington.

The notion that killing with gas is more reprehensible than killing with bullets or shrapnel came out of World War I, in which chemical weapons, introduced by the Germans in 1915, were used extensively. The British emphasized the weapons’ inhumane aspects as part of their ongoing program to entice the United States into taking their side in the war. It is estimated that the British quintupled their gas casualty figures from the first German attack for dramatic effect.

As it happened, chemical weapons accounted for considerably less than one percent of the battle deaths in the war, and, on average, it took over a ton of gas to produce a single fatality. Only about two or three percent of those gassed on the Western front died. By contrast, wounds from a traditional weapon proved 10 to 12 times more likely to be fatal. After the war, some military analysts such as Basil Liddell Hart came to believe that chemical warfare was comparatively humane — these weapons could incapacitate troops without killing many.

But that view lost out to the one that the British propagandists had put forward — that chemical weapons were uniquely horrible and must, therefore, be banned. For the most part, the militaries of the combatant nations were quite happy to get rid of the weapons. As the official British history of the war concludes (in a footnote), gas “made war uncomfortable … to no purpose.”

To be sure, some armies occasionally still saw a purpose. Iraq made extensive use of chemical weapons in its 1980-88 war against Iran (to little outside protest). Their effectiveness in killing in that conflict remains a matter of some controversy. According to Iranian reports, of the 27,000 Iranians gassed through March 1987, only 262 died.

Other episodes in that war — in particular, Baghdad’s chemical attack on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988 — have been held up as examples of the extensive destructive potential of chemical weapons. It is commonly contended that 5,000 people died as a result of the gas attacks. But the siege on the city took place over several days and involved explosive munitions as well. Moreover, journalists who were taken to the town shortly after the attack report that they saw at most “hundreds” of bodies. Although some of them report the 5,000 figure, this number is consistently identified as coming from Iranian authorities, an important qualification that was often lost in later accounts. The Iranians apparently also asserted that an additional 5,000 were wounded by the chemical weapons, even though experience suggests that any attack that killed 5,000 would have injured vastly more than that. Iraqi forces also used chemical weapons on other towns in the area. In two of these attacks, the most extreme reports maintain that 300 or 400 might have been killed. According to all other estimates, under 100 died. And most of those accounts figure that the death toll was under 20.

Back in the West, as the Cold War came to an end, the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” was coming into vogue. Earlier, the term had generally been taken as a dramatic synonym for nuclear weapons or weapons of similar destructive capacity that might be developed in the future. In 1992, however, the phrase was explicitly codified into American law and was determined to include not only nuclear weapons but chemical and biological ones as well. Then, in 1994, radiological weapons were added to the list. (The 1994 rendering also brought explosives into the mix. As a result, under this law almost all weapons apart from modern rifles and pistols are considered weapons of mass destruction: Revolutionary War muskets, Francis Scott Key’s bombs bursting in air, and potato guns would all qualify.)

A single nuclear weapon can indeed inflict massive destruction; a single chemical weapon cannot. For chemical weapons to cause extensive damage, many of them must be used — just like conventional weapons. As a presidential advisory panel noted in 1999, it would take a full ton of sarin gas released under favorable weather conditions for the destructive effects to become distinctly greater than those that could be achieved with conventional explosives.

The muddling of the concept of weapons of mass destruction played a major role in the run-up to the 2003 war in Iraq. That campaign was mainly justified as a way to keep Saddam Hussein from obtaining uniquely destructive weapons. At least in the first instance, this meant chemical weapons, which Iraq had already shown itself capable of developing. Initial support for that war was impelled by the WMD confusion, and many analysts fear that alarm about chemical weapons could lead the United States into another disaster in Syria if they become the game changer that the Obama administration has proclaimed them to be.

Those fears are probably misplaced. The Iraq War, like the war in Afghanistan, was a response to 9/11. In the decade before those two wars, U.S. policy toward conflicts around the world had been primarily humanitarian. The United States did get involved sometimes, but rarely showed a willingness to sacrifice American lives in the process. Policy, then, was a combination of vast proclamation and half-vast execution. In Bosnia and Haiti, for example, intervention on the ground was held off until hostilities had ceased. Bombs, but no boots, were sent to Kosovo, and in Somalia the United States withdrew its troops as soon as 19 soldiers died in a firefight.

Although 9/11 disrupted that pattern, in its wake the United States has returned to limiting its involvement in conflicts around the world. Overall, we have not really witnessed the rise of a new militarism in the last couple of decades, as some analysts have suggested. The intervention in Libya was strained and hesitant, and Washington has showed little willingness to do much of anything about the conflict in neighboring Mali that was spawned by the Libyan venture. It seems unlikely, then, that chemical weapons in Syria — however repugnant they may be taken to be — will notably change that basic game.

À suivre.

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On Ibn Khaldun

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Ibn Khaldun, the great Maghrebi historian and thinker, has been in the news this week. Or, to be exact, on high-profile blogs and op-eds. E.g. Paul Krugman had a blog post the other day on Ibn Khaldun’s 14th century magnum opus Muqaddimah, that Krugman called a “truly…awesome work, centuries ahead of its time.” And the Israeli (Druze) poet and writer, Salman Masalha, has an op-ed in the current Haaretz on how “Light comes from the West, nostalgia from the Middle East.” The lede: “The Arab world will never be able to improve its future if it keeps harking back to the past.” As there are access issues with Haaretz, here’s the whole thing (and with the passage on Ibn Khaldun highlighted).

How is it that the Arab world, which in the past was a leader in many fields, hasn’t managed to emerge from its backwardness? Arabs have been wrestling with this question for a very long time.

For years, Arabs have learned about their glorious past and the greatness of Islam. And for years, Arab intellectuals have made the fundamentally erroneous claim that the root of the Arabs’ miserable condition lies in the hundreds of years of Ottoman rule. The amusing part is that the Turks claim Turkey was left behind due to Arab rule.

Arab intellectual discourse found other excuses, too. It cast the blame on Western imperialism, and not only that. Since the middle of the last century, another cherry has been added to the whipped cream of excuses: The source of Arab backwardness is Israel, of course.

The Arab nations were “liberated” from the yoke of Ottoman rule and imperialism long ago. They have been living in independent states for dozens of years. Officers even booted out the kings and established regimes that decked themselves out in the colorful plumage of pan-Arab nationalism, socialism, democracy, progress, and so forth.

Who prevented them from investing in education, developing their economies and advancing their societies? The Ottomans, who no longer exist? Imperialism, which has retreated? Israel?

All the sweet slogans and all the crowns the Arab regimes gave themselves were devoid of content.

United Nations reports on the state of human development in the Arab world compared to the rest of the world reveal the bitter truth. The Arab illiteracy rate, for instance, is among the highest in the world, and the percentage of people attending school is even lower than it is in developing countries.

All their oil wealth exists only on paper from the standpoint of the Arab people, for the gross domestic product of all the Arab states together doesn’t equal that of Spain alone. And the Arab world’s investment in research and development is among the lowest in the world.

The global knowledge revolution hasn’t penetrated the Arab world. The Arab world doesn’t participate in either acquiring or translating knowledge, to say nothing of creating it.

The number of books translated every year in Spain alone is equal to all the books ever translated into Arabic since recorded history began, according to the UN reports.

If so, it’s no wonder that, in the rankings of the world’s best universities, not a single university from the Arab or Muslim worlds appears. By comparison, three Israeli universities made the top 100 list.

Muslim “intellectuals” have been reiterating for generations that all truth and knowledge can be found in the Koran. Anyone who holds such a view, like a donkey, is guaranteed to remain behind forever.

The great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun dissected this view way back in the 14th century. When the Muslims conquered Persia, he recounted, a huge trove of Persian scientific writings fell into their hands. The commander asked permission from the Muslim caliph, Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, to translate them for the benefit of Muslims. The caliph’s response was, “Throw them into the water, for if there’s anything in them that guides one toward the right path, Allah has given us a better guide. And if there’s anything in them that would lead one to stray from the right path, Allah has spared us this.” And thus, all the wealth of Persian culture was thrown into the water or burned.

The imaginary faith of the Arab past is the principal obstacle facing these nations. Someone whose eyes are always fixed on the past will never see the future. Arab nostalgia for the past has turned into an incurable illness.

More than anything, it show the impotence of this society in the here and now. Both Arab tribalism and the Islamic faith are built on patriarchal foundations and leave no space for the individual to live and create – all the more so if the individual happens to be female.

“It’s true the sun rises in the east,” wrote Egyptian author Salama Moussa in the 1920s, “but light comes to us from the West.” The Arab world needs a real revolution that will give a bill of divorce to its tribal and religious past. Without this, the Arabs will never experience a renaissance.

One correction. Masalha cites the canard about the number of books translated each year in a given European country as surpassing all those translated into Arabic in history. This is untrue. Many books from the West are translated into Arabic and published in the Middle East and North Africa. But the publications are often pirated and with no royalties paid to the Western publisher, so don’t show up in official statistics.

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[update below]

Steven Salaita, a prof at Virginia Tech, has a nice piece in Salon in which he rails on against the inane rhetoric in America about “supporting the troops.” He says that in America

we are repeatedly impelled to “support our troops” or to “thank our troops.” God constantly blesses them. Politicians exalt them. We are warned, “If you can’t stand behind our troops, feel free to stand in front of them.” One wonders if our troops are the ass-kicking force of P.R. lore or an agglomeration of oversensitive duds and beggars.

Such troop worship is trite and tiresome, but that’s not its primary danger. A nation that continuously publicizes appeals to “support our troops” is explicitly asking its citizens not to think. It is the ideal slogan for suppressing the practice of democracy, presented to us in the guise of democratic preservation.

Democracy may perhaps not be suppressed as a result of this nationalistic rhetoric but the latter is certainly a prerequisite in bringing about this eventuality.

Salaita continues

“Support the troops” is the most overused platitude in the United States, but still the most effective for anybody who seeks interpersonal or economic ingratiation. The platitude abounds with significance but lacks the burdens of substance and specificity. It says something apparently apolitical while patrolling for heresy to an inelastic logic. Its only concrete function is to situate users into normative spaces.

Clichés aren’t usually meant to be analyzed, but this one illuminates imperialism so succinctly that to think seriously about it is to necessarily assess jingoism, foreign policy, and national identity. The sheer vacuity and inexplicability of the phrase, despite its ubiquity, indicates just how incoherent patriotism is these days.

Who, for instance, are “the troops”? Do they include those safely on bases in Hawaii and Germany? Those guarding and torturing prisoners at Bagram and Guantánamo? The ones who murder people by remote control? The legions of mercenaries in Iraq? The ones I’ve seen many times in the Arab world acting like an Adam Sandler character? “The troops” traverse vast sociological, geographical, economic and ideological categories. It does neither military personnel nor their fans any good to romanticize them as a singular organism.

And what, exactly, constitutes “support”? Is it financial giving? Affixing a declarative sticker to a car bumper? Posting banalities to Facebook? Clapping when the flight attendant requests applause?

Ultimately, the support we’re meant to proffer is ideological. The terms we use to define the troops — freedom-fighters, heroic, courageous — are synecdoche for the romance of American warfare: altruistic, defensive, noble, reluctant, ethical. To support the troops is to accept a particular idea of the American role in the world. It also forces us to pretend that it is a country legitimately interested in equality for all its citizens. Too much evidence to the contrary makes it impossible to accept such an assumption.

In reality, the troops are not actually recipients of any meaningful support. That honor is reserved for the government and its elite constituencies. “Support our troops” entails a tacit injunction that we also support whatever politicians in any given moment deem the national interest. If we understand that “the national interest” is but a metonym for the aspirations of the ruling class, then supporting the troops becomes a counterintuitive, even harmful, gesture.

The government’s many appeals to support the troops represent an outsourcing of its responsibility (as with healthcare, education and incarceration). Numerous veterans have returned home to inadequate medical coverage, psychological afflictions, unemployment and increased risk of cancer. The free market and corporate magnanimity are supposed to address these matters, but neither has ever been a viable substitute for the dynamic practices of communal policymaking. A different sort of combat ensues: class warfare, without the consciousness.

As in most areas of the American polity, we pay taxes that favor the private sector, which then refuses to contribute to any sustainable vision of the public good. The only serious welfare programs in the United States benefit the most powerful among us. Individual troops, who are made to preserve and perpetuate this system, rarely enjoy the spoils. The bonanza is reserved for those who exploit the profitability of warfare through the acquisition of foreign resources and the manufacture of weapons.

Supporting the troops is a cheerful surrogate for enabling the friendly dictators, secret operations, torture practices and spying programs that sustain this terrible economy.

Très bien. Read the whole thing here.

UPDATE: A reader of Andrew Sullivan’s blog has a valid response to Steven Salaita’s essay.

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450px-Aliya_Mehdi_-_علياء_مهدي

Aliaa, the nude revolutionary. This is a 52-minute reportage (en français; regardez ici) I watched on LCP (French C-SPAN) this evening on Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, the courageous—or maybe imprudent or reckless, depending on one’s perspective—Egyptian university student and blogger, who famously posed nude for her blog in October 2011, to make a statement about freedom and the status of women in her country. I’m not sure if her method was the right one but can only admire her attitude and spirit—and which is certainly more admirable than that of certain secular Egyptian intellectuals these days. It was pretty clear when she posted her pics that her days in Egypt were numbered and, sure enough, she is now living in Sweden, where she enjoys refugee status. It’s doubtful she’ll be going back to Cairo anytime soon. Triste Égypte.

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On nationalism

I think about nationalism a lot. I hate nationalism. Nationalism—called “patriotism” in America—is a scourge of the modern era. As for nationalists—whatever their nationality—, discussion with them is futile, when not impossible. On the perversity of nationalism, I particularly like this passage by Erich Fromm, from his book The Sane Society (New York: Rinehart & Company, 1955), pp. 57-60.

[W]e find, in the European development, the persistence of…the fixation to blood and soil. Man—freed from the traditional bonds of the medieval community, afraid of the new freedom which transformed him into an isolated atom—escaped into a new idolatry of blood and soil, of which nationalism and racism are the two most evident expressions. (…)

(…) Nationalism, originally a progressive movement, replaced the bonds of feudalism and absolutism. The average man today obtains his sense of identity from his belonging to a nation, rather from his being a “son of man.” His objectivity, that is, his reason is warped by this fixation. He judges the “stranger” with different criteria than the members of his own clan. His feelings toward the stranger are equally warped. Those who are not “familiar” by bonds of blood and soil (expressed by common language, customs, food, songs, etc.) are looked upon with suspicion, and paranoid delusions about them can spring up at the slightest provocation. The incestuous fixation not only poisons the relationship of the individual to the stranger, but to the members of his own clan and to himself. The person who has not freed himself from the ties to blood and soil is not yet fully born as a human being; his capacity for love and reason are crippled; he does not experience himself nor his fellow man in their—and his own—human reality.

Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity. “Patriotism” is its cult. It should hardly be necessary to say, that by “patriotism” I mean that attitude which puts the own nation above humanity, above the principles of truth and justice; not the loving interest in one’s own nation, which is the concern with the nation’s spiritual as much as with its material welfare—never with its power over other nations. Just as love for one individual which excludes the love for others is not love, love for one’s country which is not part of love for one’s humanity is not love, but idolatrous worship.

The idolatrous character of national feeling can be seen in the reaction to the violations of clan symbols, a reaction which is very different from that to the violation of religious or moral symbols. Let us picture a man who takes the flag of his country to a street of one of the cities of the Western world, and tramples on it in view of other people. He would be lucky not to be lynched. Almost everybody would feel a sense of furious indignation, which hardly permits of any objective thought. The man who desecrated the flag would have done something unspeakable; he would have committed a crime which is not one crime among others, but the crime, the one unforgivable and unpardonable. Not quite as drastic, but nevertheless qualitatively the same would be the reaction to a man who says, “I do not love my country,” or, in the case of war, “I do not care for my country’s victory.” Such a sentence is a real sacrilege, and a man saying it becomes a monster, an outlaw in the feelings of his fellow men.

(…) Even if a man should speak disparagingly of God, he would hardly arouse the same feeling of indignation as against the crime, against the sacrilege which is the violation of the symbols of the country. (…)

After the great European Revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries failed to transform “freedom from” into “freedom to,” nationalism and state worship became the symptoms of a regression to incestuous fixation. Only when man succeeds in developing his reason further than he has done so far, only when he can build a world based on human solidarity and justice, only when he can feel rooted in the experience of universal brotherliness, will he have transformed his world into a truly human home.

Brilliant. I have the passage in French translation as well, which I’ll put up at some point.

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Taking it easy

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I’m presently on vacation here, on the lower right side of the photo (which should be instantly recognizable to those who know their geography), so won’t be posting much over the next couple of weeks, even though there are a number of issues I need to write about (e.g. the headline story in Monday’s Le Monde, on the idiotic, asinine proposal by an organism of the French state to ban the wearing of Islamic headscarfs in universities). Later this month, inshallah.

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Multicultural wordle

I want to give some publicity to this fine new blog on the public square, the tagline of which is ‘Working site on citizenship and multiculturalism issues’. The blog’s animateur is Andrew Griffith, who, in addition to being a personal friend, is a former Canadian civil servant and diplomat, and, most recently in his career, the Director General of the Citizenship and Multiculturalism Branch, Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Andrew has worked on these issues for many years and has a book coming out this fall on the subject, and that I will certainly write about.

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"You know, when you're gagged, you end up getting used to it."

“You know, when you’re gagged, you end up getting used to it.”

I’ve had only one post on Egypt of late, exactly a month ago, though which does not signify that I haven’t been following events there closely. I’ve read numerous good articles and analyses on the place over the past several weeks and have intended to post some of them, but haven’t gotten around to it. And now some of what I would have put up has gotten a little old. Let me post just one piece here, which I read today and think is particularly on target: “The great collision: Egypt’s descent into chaos,” by Rueul Marc Gerecht, in the August 5th issue of TWS.

Some have been comparing what’s happening in Egypt right now with Algeria in 1992. I have something to say about this. Will try to write on it soon, inshallah.

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World War Z

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I saw it. I really did. Last night. Normally I do not see movies of this genre and had no interest in this one. But a friend with whom I periodically go to the cinema—who is a cultivated, highbrow French research scholar (CNRS, SOAS) but with a cinematic preference for Hollywood blockbusters (particularly if they star Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp, or George Clooney)—really wanted to see it. And my interest was piqued by news reports of the pic’s geopolitical angle, with Arabs slamming it for being a paean to Israel (e.g. here) And one thing I read—by a right-wing Jewish commentator—wondered if the film was an expression of love for Israel or, rather, anti-Semitic. Intriguing. And as it’s the dog days of summer—it’s hot in Paris (mid 30s C/mid 90s F) and Paris cinemas are now air conditioned (which they weren’t twenty years ago)—I decided what the hell.

As a film, it’s preposterous. But as the subject is zombies annihilating the human race, one would be surprised if it were otherwise, i.e. if the story were credible and serious. Entertainment-wise it’s okay: the special effects are good enough—though I don’t have much to compare it to—and one is on the edge of one’s seat at a couple of points. There’s the inevitable Hollywood schlockiness about the central family in the film—Brad Pitt’s character, named Gerry Lane, as the loving husband and father, with loving wife and adorable daughters with their teddy bears—but one expects that from Hollywood. What was interesting for me, though, was the film’s politics, and on this level it’s quite good. Seriously.

First, America does not save the world. The president of the United States or the US military are not the heroes. WWZ is not ‘Independence Day’—which I never did see—or other Hollywoodish celebrations of American hegemony and greatness. In WWZ, one learns early on that the POTUS and Joint Chiefs of Staff have been killed by zombies, the V-P is nowhere to found, and Washington is basically out of commission. Army Special Forces are involved at the beginning but they kind of screw up and cease to be a factor. The US Navy takes in VIPs and their families in its flotilla—in the oceans and out of reach of the zombies—but makes hard, cynical choices as to who is worthy of its protection—i.e. who is useful—and who is not. Gerry Lane is in civilian life when the movie begins but prior to that did covert, clandestine work in countries at war for an unnamed governmental-type agency, and whose skills, whatever they may be, are needed to counter the zombie onslaught. But as it turns out, the man-in-the-suit official—speaking in a non-American accent and from some kind of headquarters—who arranges Gerry Lane & family’s exfiltration from zombie chaos on the East Coast—and who tells him that they really need him in the anti-zombie campaign—is the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations (and from Nigeria). And at the end of the movie Lane ends up at a research center of the World Heath Organization—a UN agency—in Wales, where (spoiler alert!) the solution to the zombie crisis is found. In other words, it’s the United Nations that spearheads the world campaign against the zombies and possible extinction of the human race. International organizations and cooperation save humanity. As for America, how could it possibly save humanity in view of the chaos and breakdown of authority across the country? In America, it’s sauve qui peut—and with all those guns Americans own of zero utility against the zombies (so much for the Second Amendment). And the private sector? Hahaha 😀 …  I doubt Fox News & Co liked the movie.

Second, on the Israel part. In the early stages of the zombie crisis it is learned that two countries have managed to contain it: North Korea, with the regime pulling the teeth of its entire population, and in 24 hours—which may or may not be a recommendation for totalitarian regimes—, and Israel, with the wall around the country. So Gerry Lane hightails it to Jerusalem, to meet with his Israeli counterparts (Mossad). But while the wall is keeping the zombies out the Israelis are allowing all the Palestinians in—so there is no suggestion that Palestinians are zombies—, where, from the safety of Israel, they commune with the Jews in peace and harmony. But then the zombies breach the wall. The wall fails. And the Israelis are trapped. All hell breaks loose as people rush to the airports to flee the country. Subtext: separation barriers give the illusion of security but are no guarantee of protection for Israel—from zombies or Palestinians.

One question nagged at me at the end, as humanity found a way to counter the zombies, albeit with a large portion of the world’s population lost: what was the impact on the world economy? We’re talking about a massive decline in gross national income across the board, thousands of times worse than the 2008 financial crisis. How does the world economy recover from a zombie crisis? There’s not a hint in the film. Hopefully that will be the subject of the inevitable ‘World War Z II’…

UPDATE: A friend has pointed out to me that the zombies in the film are not, strictly speaking, zombies, as they are not reanimated cadavers but, rather, live persons infected with a hideous virus after having been bitten by an already infected person, which turns them into murderous zombie-like persons who join the biting spree. Dont acte.

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Istanbul, 5 juin 2013 (photo: AFP/Aris Messinis)

Istanbul, 5 juin 2013 (photo: AFP/Aris Messinis)

Edhem Eldem, professeur d’Histoire à l’Université du Bosphore (Boğaziçi) à Istanbul, a une tribune dans Le Monde, daté le 30 juillet 2013, sur le premier ministre turc et sa politique. C’est l’une des analyses les plus pertinentes que j’ai lu dernièrement sur le sujet. On pense plus que jamais de la fameuse phrase prononcée par M.Erdoğan dans les années 90, quand il était maire d’Istanbul : “La démocratie est comme un tramway, il va jusqu’où vous voulez aller, et là vous descendez”…

Voici la tribune du professeur Eldem

La question de la laïcité – et par conséquent de l’islam – en Turquie n’est pas nouvelle, puisqu’elle remonte aux origines de la République. Toutefois, avec l’arrivée au pouvoir de l’AKP (le Parti de la justice et du développement) de Recep Tayyip Erdogan en 2002, elle a pris une nouvelle dimension ; depuis les récents événements de la place Taksim, on ne parle presque plus que de cela.

Ce discours comporte le risque de tout réduire à une fausse dichotomie entre islam et laïcité, d’autant plus que la laïcité turque se réduisait souvent à un contrôle étatique sur un islam sunnite tacitement reconnu comme religion nationale. Ce qui comptait surtout, c’était de paralyser le pouvoir politique de l’islam – notamment des confréries – et de maintenir les apparences d’une modernité occidentale jugée incompatible avec la plupart des signes extérieurs d’appartenance à l’islam, tel le voile.

Le coup d’Etat de 1980 changea sensiblement la donne ; la junte, inspirée par la politique américaine, s’imagina pouvoir mieux combattre les “rouges” en se servant (more…)

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