Archive for the ‘Islamism’ Category
An edited version of this article was published by al-Jazeera.
In a hotel lobby on the Turkish side of the Syrian border, Yasser Barish showed photographs of his bombed family home in Saraqeb, Idlib province. One room was still standing – the room Yasser happened to resting in on September 15th 2012 when the plane dropped its bomb. The other rooms were entirely obliterated – ground level rubble was all that remained. Yasser’s mother, grandmother, sister and brother were killed.
Saraqeb is a much fought over strategic crossroads, invaded wholescale by Assad’s army in August 2011 and March 2012. Since November 2012, the regime has had no presence in the town (though its artillery batteries remain in range). At first the Local Coordination Committee provided government, but through the spring of 2013, the al-Qa’ida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) gradually increased its presence in the town.
Yasser told me how they took over Saraqeb. At first only ten representatives came, and they brought with them large amounts of medicine and food. They were humble and generous, and warmed the local people’s hearts. They also brought money, with which they recruited ammunition-starved and hungry local fighters. Then reinforcements arrived – “Libyans, Algerians, a lot of Iraqis, some Afghans and Turks, one white Belgian and one white American” – enough to frighten thieves into good behaviour, which at first increased the organisation’s popularity. But in May 2013 they whipped two men in a public square for an infringement of Islamic family law. In June they took absolute control, forbade drinking and smoking, and made prayer compulsory.
Yasser is part of an independent team which publishes magazines for adults and children – a sign of autonomous revolutionary success in terribly difficult circumstances. The slogan “I have the right to express my opinion” graces the cover of Zeitoun wa Zeitouna, the children’s magazine. Since the culling of his family, Yasser doesn’t care if he lives or dies. But so long as he’s here, he’s dedicated himself to improving local lives – teaching children how to read and encouraging them to tell stories and draw pictures. (The local schools, of course, are closed, and most of the teachers killed or fled.)
But even these simple aims are difficult to achieve, even in the regime’s absence. ISIS closed one printing press (a second ran at a secret location), and arrested and beat Yasser for ‘taking photographs of women’ (the ‘women’ in question were girls under the age of thirteen participating in one of his workshops). In July 2013 he witnessed ISIS attacking Saraqeb’s media centre and its abduction of a Polish journalist.
Again I was on All Things Considered, a BBC Radio Wales programme, talking with Nadim Nassar, Bishop Angelos, and Harry Hagopian about Muslims, Islamists, Christians, Syria and Egypt. Follow the link to listen (it may only be available for a few days).
I make some brief contributions to this Channel 4 News film on the apocalyptic resonances for both Muslims and Christians (some at least) of watching Damascus burn. I wish there’d been time to make the more important point: religion and myth add resonance to fighting and dying, but as in Northern Ireland or Palestine-Israel, the religious vocabulary is only a glittering sideshow to the real power dynamic. Al-Qa’ida franchises would be in Syria whether or not the Messiah were due to descend on a minaret of the Umawi mosque: because they turn up wherever there’s an opportunity, and Syria’s geographical and political centrality to the Arab-Muslim world is enough. In any case, such militias compose less than twenty percent of anti-Assad forces. Their influence has been vastly overblown, both by the right and by a left which embraces the very War on Terror discourse (terrorists, al-Qa’ida conspiracies) it resisted so loudly when used by Blair and Bush. The West doesn’t see a genocide, still less a living, breathing revolution, but only an even-matched war between Alawi-secularists and radical Salafists. It seems too late to change this fantastic illusion. The story seems set in the western mind. Just as Assad wants it.
This film was great fun to make, and it provides an interesting look at an interesting subject. But I worry about its context in the news bulletin. It necessarily highlighted the mad jihadist aspect, and it was followed by an interview with a neo-conservative on the dangers of radical Islamism. The problem as framed by the broadcast was clear: apocalyptic-minded Muslims were the problem. But the clear and present danger in Syria is the regime, the regime which is generating the trauma and extremism, the regime which is committing genocide. Once again that was lost. And we in general are lost, paddling about in superstructure, paying no attention to the base.
Like ‘armed gangs’, armed Islamists are one of the Syrian regime’s self-fulfilling prophecies. Most grassroots organisers and fighters are secularists or moderate Islamists, but the numbers, organisational power and ideological fervor of more extreme and sectarian Islamists are steadily rising. So why is the revolution taking on an increasingly Islamist hue? Here are some points in order of importance.
First, the brute fact of extreme violence. As the saying goes, “there are no atheists in foxholes.” Not only is faith intensified by death and the threat of death, and by the pain and humiliation of torture, but tribal and sectarian identities are reinforced. We want to feel like we when in death’s presence, not like I, because I is small and easily erased. So in Syria at the moment many Sunnis are identifying more strongly as Sunnis, Alawis as Alawis, Kurds as Kurds, and so on. This is very sad and it immeasurably complicates the future task of building a civil state for all, but it is inevitable in the circumstances. The violence was started by the regime, and the regime is still by far the greatest perpetrator of violence, including aerial bombardment of villages and cities, and now the liberal use of child-killing cluster bombs.
Second, beyond patriotic feelings for Palestine and Iraq and an unarticulated sense that their government was corrupt, two years ago most men in the armed resistance were apolitical. Finding themselves having to fight, and suddenly entered onto the political stage, they search for an ideology within which to frame their exciting and terrifying new experience. At present, the most immediately available and simplest ideology on offer is Salafism. As well as for their stark message, Salafists are winning recruits because of their organisational and warfaring skills honed in Iraq and elsewhere, and because of their access to private funds from the Gulf. If this were the sixties, the revolutionaries growing beards would have had Che Guevara in mind (and if much of the ‘left’ in the world were not writing off the revolution as a NATO/Saudi/Zionist conspiracy, the left might have more traction). At present, Salafism is in the air. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the historical moment. And why were all these young men apolitical before the revolution? Why hadn’t they learned more of debate and compromise? Simply put: because politics was banned in Asad’s Syria.
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.
I was a guest on BBC Wales’s All Things Considered, a religious programme, talking about Christians in the Arab world in the light of the Arab revolutions. Also talking are the Right Reverend Bill Musk, based in Tunisia, Bishop Angelos, who serves the Coptic community in London, and the Reverend Christopher Gillam, who admires the Syrian regime and overemphasises Syrian Christian opposition to the uprising. Apologies for my voice, which was heavy with cold.
For days Syrian security forces stayed out of Hama; not even traffic police were seen in the city. During these days, no armed gangs emerged from the shadows to terrorise and loot. Christians and Alawis were not rounded up and shot. Nobody was whipped for wearing an unIslamic haircut. All that happened was day and night demonstrations against the regime swelled into crowds of hundreds of thousands – men and women, adults and children.
Perhaps the security forces stayed out of the city on the request of Hama’s governor, and perhaps that’s why he was sacked. Now security forces have entered the city and brought plenty of insecurity in their wake. At least sixteen Hamwis were killed yesterday.
Slaughter in this city – over sixty protestors were murdered there a few weeks ago – reminds Syrians of the greatest wound in their contemporary history: the Hama massacre in 1982, when 10,000 were killed at the lowest estimate, by aerial and artillery bombardment and in house to house murder sprees. There are reports that poison gas was used, and of dismemberments and rapes, but no-one really knows. No journalists slipped inside the city. There was no satellite TV, no internet, no mobile phones. Still, a thousand stories escaped the net, and every Syrian has heard some; stories whispered, not told. Hama, ‘the events’, is the great taboo.
I ended my last post like this:
“Perhaps in six months’ time non-Arab commentators will decide that the Tunisian revolution was a mere anomaly in an eternally stagnant Arab world. But they’ll be wrong. The revolution will exert a long-term pervasiveness throughout Arab culture, as the Iranian revolution did before it. It will change the air the Arabs breathe and the dreams the Arabs dream.”
Well, it seems I was wrong on the timescale. I should have said six minutes. Today several commentators are indeed arguing that the Tunisian revolution is anomalous. Robert Fisk is pessimistic, contending that the Tunisian people are no match for the combined forces of the Tunisian elite and Western imperialism. Perhaps events will prove him right. Steve Walt fears that those expecting immediate regime change from the Ocean to the Gulf will be rapidly disappointed.
His point is a good one. In the frontline states with Israel, foreign policy issues increase in importance because they have the potential to immediately translate into security issues. The Syrian regime, for instance, may be unpopular for its corruption, bureaucracy, and stifling of dissent, but its foreign policy is broadly in line with Syrian opinion – and in Syria this matters a great deal. The Western clients are more vulnerable to protest, not least because they’re more linked into the ‘globalised’ economy and are thus more vulnerable to dramatic fluctuations in the price of essential goods. Yet even in Jordan legitimate fears of an Israeli intervention (perhaps an attempt to fulfill the Jordan-is-Palestine fantasy) could damp down effervescence. The public in many countries seems too split by sect, ethnicity or tribe to coordinate unified protest. And of course the regimes will now be battening down for fear of Tunisian contagion.
It currently seems there is a real danger of the Middle East losing its millenia-old diversity. Iraq’s post-invasion civil war separated the country’s Shia and Sunni communities, driving millions into exile. Pro-Western Arab regimes continue to spew vicious anti-Shia propaganda, which is heard by important sections of society. Now Wahhabi-nihilists have declared open season on Iraq’s ancient Christian community. Palestine was cleansed of its natives in 1947/48 and transformed into a Jewish ethno-state. Zionism and a new Muslim chauvinism have reduced the Christian proportion of the West Bank from 15% in 1950 to 2% today. And the New Year brought news of an appalling attack on Egyptian Copts, an increasingly oppressed and alienated community.
Informed observers will know that there is nothing essential or ‘ages-old’ about the emerging sectarian chaos. Sectarianism had receded almost to irrelevance amongst the generations of Arabs that believed they were on their way to true independence. Foreign partitions and occupations did a large part to crush that dream. Totalitarianism and economic and educational failures (often the policies of foreign-backed regimes) did the rest. In Egypt’s case, the Mubarak regime has dealt with its Islamist challenge in two ways: politically, it has rigged elections ever more blatantly and persecuted its visible opponents; socially, it has given way to the most retrograde desires of Islamism (forbidding the construction of churches, banning books) and done its best to whip up petty chauvinism over the most ridiculous of pretexes (for instance the mutual football hooliganism of Egyptian and Algerian fans).
Could the root causes of the Arab-Muslim ‘malaise’ be cultural? That’s what journalist Brian Whitaker suggests in his book ‘What’s Really Wrong With the Middle East’. The thesis sounds suspicious, but Whitaker isn’t a cheap Orientalist, and he uses interviews with Arabs as his raw material. The key issues his informants keep pointing to are indeed the issues that, wherever you meet them, young Arabs complain about. These include an undue emphasis on submission and obedience in the education system, at work, and in the home, the social valorisation of conformity, and a corrupt public space.
The personal is the political. The problem in every sphere is one of overbearing authority, and it’s true that this is ultimately family-based, ultimately the result of overly-narrow personal identifications. In fact, I would argue that tribalism, nepotism, sectarianism, even forced marriage and honour killing, are all manifestations of the tyranny of the clan. And the tyranny of the clan is the result of bad governance.
The clan, repeats novelist Rafik Schami, “saved the Arabs from the desert, and at the same time enslaved them.” It saved them by providing economic and social solidarity, a sense of identity, and physical protection. This was necessary because over the years, for most of the time, there has been no safe field of activity other than the clan, no civic life free from the depredations of warlords, sultans and foreign colonialists. Society has had no choice but to turn inward. The traditional Arab town house is an architectural embodiment of the phenomenon. It looks shabby from the outside, just a door in a wall – this to deflect a pillager’s attention. Inside there’s a courtyard with a tree and a pool.
A slightly different version of this review was written for Prospect Magazine, where it was available free-of-charge for a while, but no longer.
The contemporary religious revival is a complex business. In the same period that Muslim societies, in their weakness, seem to have re-embraced Islam, America, in its strength, has re-embraced Christianity. Western Europe remains avowedly secular. Despite the contradictions within the West, mainstream Orientalism holds that all cultures are developing towards the universal (or, more specifically, globalised) model of secular modernity and the market. The Muslim world experiences backwardness to the extent that it resists secularisation.
“The Crisis of Islamic Civilisation”, a subtle and erudite book by former Iraqi minister Ali A Allawi, challenges this thesis. Surveying the Muslims’ social, economic and moral failures, and the terror espoused by certain Islamist groups, Allawi suggests the problem might not be too much Islam, but too little.
Abdullah Quilliam was a 19th Century British convert to Islam, the founder of a mosque in Liverpool. He was also an anti-imperialist and a supporter of the Caliphate. He argued that Muslims should not fight Muslims on behalf of European powers, citing specifically Britain’s enlistment of Muslim soldiers against the resistance in Sudan. If Quilliam were alive today he would, at very least, be kept under observation by the British intelligence services.
It is ironic, then, that this activist Muslim’s good name has been appropriated by the government-backed and funded Quilliam Foundation, established in April 2008, supposedly to counter extremism in Muslim communities.
Those who read my stuff will know that I despise Wahhabism, and still more Wahhabi-nihilism. I oppose Islamic political projects which aim to capture control of the repressive mechanisms of contemporary Muslim states. I am stunned by the stupidity of such slogans as “Islam is the solution.” I take issue with anyone who attempts to impose a dress code or an interpretation of morality on anyone else, and I loathe those puritanical ideologies which fail to recognise the value of music, art, mysticism, philosophy, and popular and local cultures in the Muslim world. It is obvious that political Islam has often been exploited for very unIslamic purposes by the American empire and its client dictators in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and elsewhere. Nominally Islamic political parties bear a great weight of responsibility for diverting the Iraqi resistance into a disastrous sectarian war. The terrorist attacks on London in July 2007 were abominable crimes and a catastrophe for all British Muslims. I know all that, yet I oppose the Quilliam Foundation.
A version of this was published at The Electronic Intifada
Hamas isn’t Hizbullah, and Gaza isn’t Lebanon. The resistance in Gaza – which includes leftist and nationalist as well as Islamist forces – doesn’t have mountains to fight in. It has no strategic depth. It doesn’t have Syria behind it to keep supply lines open; instead it has Mubarak’s goons and Israel’s wall. Lebanese civilians can flee north and east; the repeat-refugees of Gaza have no escape. The Lebanese have their farms, and supplies from outside; Gaza has been under total siege for years. What else? Hizbullah has remarkable discipline. It is surely the best-trained, best-organised army in the region, perhaps in the world (I’m not talking of weapons, but of men and women). Hamas, on the other hand, though it has made great strides, is still undisciplined. Crucially, Hizbullah has air-tight intelligence control in Lebanon, while Gaza contains collaborators like maggots in a corpse.
But Hamas is still standing. On the rare occasions when Israel actually fought – rather than just called in air strikes – its soldiers reported “ferocious” resistance. Hamas withstood 22 days of the most barbaric bombing Zionism has yet stooped to, and did not surrender, and continues to fire rockets.
I am increasingly infuriated by religious claims to certainty and by religious attempts to close down free thought (I’m not talking about high profile attacks on writers or cartoonists here, which have more to do with power politics than theology, but simply the resort to ‘it’s true because God says so’). Although some leftist and anti-imperialist Islamist groups have achieved great things, I find the current fashion for religious politics in the Arab world to be a dead end. Simple-minded slogans like ‘Islam is the solution’ are no solution. An analysis of contemporary disasters based primarily on class and state and corporation could conceivably provide grounds for unity and solidarity; political action based on Sunni or Shia myths will ultimately only help the empire to divide and rule; it will also empower rulers and institutions hiding behind religious cover. It is sad to watch the Muslims becoming more and more religious as they gallop further into social, economic and environmental catastrophe.
The rise of ugly modernist forms of religion is not confined to the Muslim world. Everywhere, the death of traditional religion has spawned a million poor substitutes. Under the pressure of traumatic social change, and almost always of war, traditional forms of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism have morphed into Zionism, neo-conservatism, Bible-belt evangelical-nationalism, fascism, Stalinism, Ba’athism, Wahhabi-nihilism, state-Hindu chauvinism and Maoism. And fundamentalist atheism.
In this post I will jettison my chances of ever being granted an American visa (update: I have since been granted an American visa), by committing imperially-defined thought crime and supporting the strategy, if not all the tactics, of the martyred resistance leader Imad Mughniyeh. In today’s sad world you can be demonised, even prosecuted, for refusing to sing the ideological chorus with Israel (specifically Danny Yatom) that assassinations of resistance fighters represent “a great achievement for the free world in its fight against terror.” But I believe it is important not to be cowed by such hypocrisy and intimidation.
First, the strategy. Mughniyeh was a key member of Jihad, an earlier, rougher incarnation of Hizbullah which pushed Western forces out of civil-war Lebanon in the 80s. He then became a founding member of Hizbullah and took part in its campaign to drive out the Israeli occupation from most of the south by 2000. This was the first real victory that any Arab force had won against the Zionist state. The strategy was one of well-organised, intelligent, committed resistance, and the strategy paid off. In the summer of 1996, when Israel and America tried to destroy Hizbullah and the affront to their hegemony that it represents, they were again defeated. The first-world hi-tech army that had defeated Egypt and Syria in six days in 1967, that had taken only a week to reach and demolish Beirut in 1982, spent five weeks floundering in its own blood in the villages on the Lebanese border.