Archive for May 2012
This was published at Foreign Policy.
There are some, perhaps many, Syrians who detest their government and are entirely aware of its treasonous nature — yet wish for the demonstrations and the guerrilla actions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to stop and for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to regain control as soon as possible. They take this position out of a profound pessimism: They believe it is impossible to uproot the surveillance-and-torture state and its deep sectarian substructure, that more people will die the longer the unrest continues, that the economy will collapse further, and that nothing will alter the end — Assad’s inevitable victory. Some Syrians go so far as to say that the regime itself, or a branch of it, is surreptitiously encouraging demonstrations so as to have an “excuse” to teach the new generation an unforgettable lesson.
I can’t agree with this defeatist perspective on principle — the principle being my refusal to give in to despair, and my faith in the ability of human beings to change their circumstances. I understand it, however, and I understand that I might share it if I were living in the heart of the horror instead of in Scotland. But apart from principle, I think the assumption underlying the defeatist perspective is mistaken. Yes, the regime is still able to kill, and will continue or even intensify its killing. However, it has lost control of the country and won’t be able to reestablish it.
The much-maligned United Nations observers have confirmed what news reports had already suggested: Large areas of the Syrian countryside and provincial cities are either under FSA control or nobody’s. Regime forces are able to infiltrate and punish areas under the revolutionaries’ sway, but they dare not linger. Sometimes, they are not even able to move in. When the Assad regime recently attempted to retake Rastan, the FSA destroyed a number of armored vehicles and killed 23 soldiers, forcing the military to retreat.
A shaved version of this review appeared in the Guardian.
In the 1980s an artist friend of mine made a poster for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami, a militia later allied with the Taliban. The poster depicted a fully-bearded Afghan mujahid clutching Quran and Kalashnikov and standing atop a slaughtered Russian bear. It was sent as a postcard to British journalists and politicians, without controversy.
In the same period I remember reading stories in the mainstream press about the Mujahideen’s poetic love of flowers and song. After the Russian rout, these Mujahideen committed excesses so extreme that it took Taliban puritanism to re-establish order. Then the Taliban committed their own excesses, of a different sort, and after 9/11 the West waged war on them for metonymic reasons. Nobody now celebrates the gentle, flowery qualities of these men who have burnt schools and lynched television sets.
“Poetry of the Taliban”, therefore, is a brave and very useful project. It offers the reader a perspective on the conflict through the Other’s eyes. It offers the human element, and as such is worth more than a library-full of cold analysis.
There are poems of love, battle, transience, grief, enthusiasm, material deprivation and mystical astonishment. The voices are diverse and often surprising. Faisal Devji’s preface points out that the poetry displayed here is not the official product of the Cultural Committee of the Islamic Emirate, not centrally-organised propaganda, but the efforts of men (and a woman) who fight for a variety of reasons, tribal, ethnic or nationalist, and particularly out of gut resistance to foreign occupiers, wherever they come from.
A mangled version of this review appeared in the Independent.
What is happening in the Middle East? Tariq Ramadan, one of the foremost Muslim intellectuals, calls the contemporary events ‘uprisings’, more concrete and permanent in their effect than ‘revolts’ but still short of thoroughgoing ‘revolutions’. So far, Tunisia is the only clear democratising success, and even there it remains unclear if the new dispensation will be fundamentally more just economically than the last.
Half of this slim volume is spent examining whether the uprisings were staged or spontaneous. Ramadan counsels against both the naive view that outside powers are passive observers of events, and the contrary belief that Arab revolutionaries have been mere pawns or useful idiots in the hands of cunning foreign players.
Certainly the US and its allies helped to guide events by collaborating with the military hierarchies which removed presidents in Tunisia and Egypt, and by full-scale intervention in Libya – this for a variety of obvious reasons. An agreement signed by Libya’s NTC in March last year, for instance, guaranteed France 35% of future oil exports.
There’s been Gulf and Western hypocrisy over Bahrain, home to Formula One and the US Fifth Fleet, and al-Jazeera’s coverage has been tailored to reflect its Qatari host’s strategic concerns.
Then, less convincingly, the social media conspiracy: trainees from 37 countries learned non-violent cyberactivism in Serbia. Google, Twitter and Yahoo offered training in the US. Google provided satellite access codes to Egyptian activists so they could evade censorship, but not to their Syrian counterparts.