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Archive for the ‘Middle East’ Category

eau-argentee-syrie-autoportrait

These photos of Homs, “Assad’s trophy city in Syria,” graced the home page of Le Monde earlier today. Homs: Syria’s third largest city and with a pre-2011 population of some 700,000, large parts of which are now a destroyed ghost town. Last week I saw the 110-minute documentary, ‘Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait’, which premiered at Cannes and is presently playing in four Paris cinemas. Quoting from Jay Weissberg’s review in Variety, it is

A necessary, often unbearable documentary that bears vital witness to the horrors of Syria’s civil war.

It’s said that Syria is the land of assassinated filmmakers, since anyone with a camera or cell phone becomes an instant target for sniper bullets. Director Ossama Mohammed (“Sacrifices”), in exile in Paris since 2011, sifted through thousands of online videos documenting the daily atrocities in his country to make “Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait,” a necessary, often unbearable documentary that bears witness to the horrors of the civil war. To this he adds footage by Wiam Simav Bedirxan, a young Kurdish woman in Homs who contacted Mohammed for advice on what to film around her. The combined results, given a structure by chapter-like intertitle headings, will leave no viewer unshaken…

To read the rest of Weissberg’s review, go here. The film—which is mainly of Homs—did not leave me unshaken, that’s for sure. It’s devastating, the most powerful documentary one is likely to see on the Syrian civil war. The level of violence, mayhem, cruelty, and sheer destruction in Syria as depicted in the documentary defies belief and comprehension. Cela dépasse l’entendement. The film footage, taken by the “1,001 Syrians”—army soldiers included—who shot it on their mobile phones, does show armed jihadist brigades—likely the Jabhat al-Nusra—and who have their share of responsibility in the catastrophe, but there is no question whatever that the main culprit is the Ba’athist regime. But we all know this by now. For more on the film, see the review in THR and Paris prof Karin Badt’s piece in Huff Post. If you have the chance to see it, do so. Trailer is here.

On the general subject, here’s a 20-page enquête (PDF) by journalist David Lepeska in Al Jazeera Magazine (dated November 29th), entitled “Left Behind.” The lede: A generation of Syrian refugees have been forced to leave their childhoods at the border as they take on the responsibility of providing for their families in a strange country [Turkey].

And with this, I wish all a Merry Christmas.

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Banning the niqab

Abu Dhabi, December 1st

Abu Dhabi, December 1st

Christopher Dickey, grand reporter for The Daily Beast, offers an excellent argument here for banning face veils in public space. In a post 3½ years ago I expressed my disapproval of France’s “burqa” ban—which had just entered into force—, though not out of high-minded principle or respect for religious freedom, as face veils are specific to certain cultures, mandated by no religion—not that this matters one way or the other—, and cannot be defended on these particular grounds. But I’ve changed my mind. The French law may have been enacted for the wrong reasons but that doesn’t mean it was wrong tout court. Now this is not to suggest that the police should stop every last niqab-wearing woman they see on the street; discretion can and should be exercised—e.g. to avoid causing a riot—, as the police generally do when witnessing persons in the act of committing misdemeanors. But they should still have the authority to stop and detain those who conceal their faces in public. So on the question of the niqab, I say ban the damn thing!

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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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