Qunfuz

Robin Yassin-Kassab

‘Sectarianization’

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Felipe DanaAP

The remains of the Nuri mosque amidst the remains of the ancient city of Mosul, Iraq. photo by Felipe Dana/ AP

An edited version of this article was published in Newsweek.

In his January 20 Inaugural Address, President Trump promised to “unite the civilised world against radical Islamic terrorism which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.”

To be fair, he’s only had six months, but already the project is proving a little more complicated than hoped. First, ISIS has been putting up a surprisingly hard fight against its myriad enemies (some of whom are also radical Islamic terrorists). The battle for Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, is almost concluded, but at enormous cost to Mosul’s civilians and the Iraqi army. Second, and more importantly, there is no agreement as to what will follow ISIS, particularly in eastern Syria. Here a new Great Game for post-ISIS control is being played out with increasing violence between the United States and Iran. Russia and a Kurdish-led militia are also key actors. If Iran and Russia win out (and at this point they are far more committed than the US), President Bashar al-Assad, whose repression and scorched earth paved the way for the ISIS takeover in the first place, may in the end be handed back the territories he lost, now burnt and depopulated. The Syrian people, who rose in democratic revolution six years ago, are not being consulted.

The battle to drive ISIS from Raqqa – its Syrian stronghold – is underway. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by American advisors, are leading the fight. Civilians, as ever, are paying the price. UN investigators lament a “staggering loss of life” caused by US-led airstrikes on the city.

Though it’s a multi-ethnic force, the SDF is dominated by the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, whose parent organisation is the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organisation by the United States (but of the leftist-nationalist rather than Islamist variety), and is currently at war with Turkey, America’s NATO ally. The United States has nevertheless made the SDF its preferred local partner, supplying weapons and providing air cover, much to the chagrin of Turkey’s President Erdogan.

Now add another layer of complexity. Russia also provides air cover to the SDF, not to fight ISIS, but when the mainly Kurdish force is seizing Arab-majority towns from the non-jihadist anti-Assad opposition. The SDF capture of Tel Rifaat and other opposition-held towns in 2016 helped Russia and the Assad regime to impose the final siege on Aleppo.

Eighty per cent of Assad’s ground troops encircling Aleppo last December were not Syrian, but Shia militiamen from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, all armed, funded and trained by Iran. That put the American-backed SDF and Iran in undeclared alliance.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 19, 2017 at 8:55 pm

A Good Country

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goodcountryThis review was first published at the National.

Rez (or Alireza) is growing up in comfortable Orange County, California, where high school students drive their own cars and can afford to stay in hotels. His parents are Kurdish immigrants from Iran, though Rez considers himself, at first at least, to be thoroughly American. America, as his father says, is “a good country”, one deserving of its citizens’ gratitude.

The environment is multicultural, but there is also the issue of ‘turf’. The Mexicans stick with the Mexicans, the Vietnamese with the Vietnamese, and so on. Rez hangs out with white friends – all of them called Pete – until a disastrous road trip causes him to be ostracised. Then he befriends Arash, a Syrian-American boy, and continues his old pursuits – smoking dope, listening to hip-hop, and chasing girls.

His ethnic ‘identity’ is therefore already an issue, but it becomes much more urgent when a fellow student’s brother is injured in the 2013 Boston marathon bombing. Unable to reach the Chechen brothers who perpetrated the atrocity, this student galvanises a harassment campaign against Rez and other Muslim-origin students. In the wider society beyond school too, Rez’s name and appearance lay him open to suspicion and hostility.

When Arash’s academic prospects are abruptly blighted, he turns to Islam for solace. Rez and his girlfriend Fatima try to understand. They visit a mosque where, although Rez doesn’t know how to pray, he finds kindness, dignity and – something related to ‘turf’ – brotherhood.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 16, 2017 at 7:17 pm

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Pais En Llamas

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paisI’m very happy to say that “Burning Country” has been published in Spanish by Capitan Swing. It’s designed beautifully too.

Leila and I visited Barcelona, Zaragoza and Madrid to give talks and interviews. Here, for instance, is a long radio interview with RTVE, and here is an interview in El Nacional of Catalunia. And here’s an article in El Periodico.

The audiences were fairly small (the largest in Zaragoza), and there was an online campaign against Leila for being an ‘imperialist’ and a ‘Salafi rat’. But those who did turn up were very engaged indeed (many of them libertarian leftists, the sort who actually deserve the label). We met some great Syrians, some of whom had escaped to Spain decades ago in the era of Hafez al-Assad, Bashaar’s father. We met a young and determined revolutionary from Idlib who has shrapnel in his body and is only partially-sighted since a sarin attack. Our wonderful friend Elisa, and her wonderful parents, fed and hosted us in Zaragoza. And in Lavapies in Madrid, where we have really good friends, we were looked after by Leila Nachawati Rego, one of the best. I’m really hoping for an English translation of her novel of the Syrian Revolution, “Cuando La Revolucion Termine.”

Update: Here is a recording of the Zaragoza event, me and Leila al-Shami with Leila Nachawati Rego, with translation by the valiant Elisa Marvena.

O, and another newspaper interview.

Plus, we’re on this radio show, starting at around 37 minutes.

And… another print interview.

Plus, esglobal chose the book as one of ten to read over the holidays.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 14, 2017 at 11:44 am

Posted in Spain

Hell on Earth

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Sebastian Junger has made a film for National Geographic on the Syrian revolution and war. The New Yorker has a review of it here. I gave Sebastian a long interview for the film, and I’m told a lot of it has been used. I haven’t seen the film yet, only the trailer, which contains some unfortunate editing. I say: “In Syria the choice is either Assad or ISIS,” and that’s taken out of context. It’s the opposite of what I believe. Assad boosted ISIS because he wanted people to think the choice is binary. Of course the real alternative to Assad and his creations is democracy, dignity, and social justice.

A friend has seen the film and says “it’s the best documentary available on Syria.” I’m looking forward to it. It seems the clumsy editing of my voice in the trailer is not repeated in the film itself.

The trailer can be seen here.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 11, 2017 at 3:38 pm

Posted in Syria

Critique of Left Readings of Syria

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When I still talked about such things, I delivered this critique of the left and how wrong it went over the Syrian revolution. In Oslo last year.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 1, 2017 at 8:55 pm

Posted in Syria, Talking

Shortlisted for the Folio Prize

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My co-author Leila al-Shami and I are honoured that “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War” has been shortlisted for this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize. But the true honour belongs to those Syrians whose stories we transmitted. We’re particularly happy with the shortlisting because the book may receive more attention, and because these remarkable people’s achievements need to be heard.

Here’s a short film of me (looking rather puffy) talking about the book. Film credits go to the camerawoman, Ayaat.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

May 19, 2017 at 6:26 pm

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Olivier Roy’s ‘Jihad and Death’

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jihad&deathThis review was first published at the National.

What motivates Westerners to become jihadists? What comes first, radicalism or religious text?

Olivier Roy, a French analyst of ‘globalised Islam’, begins “Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State” with empirical research on about 100 people involved in Jihadist terrorism in France and Belgium. Converts account for a staggering 25% of this sample. The rest tend to be lapsed Muslims, and return to strict religious practice, if at all, only months before they commit violence.

They are as likely to come from prosperous as poor families. They show a frequent history of delinquency, and very often of domestic violence. Crucially for Roy’s argument, they tend to be immersed in global youth culture: action movies, computer games, hip-hop and streetwear. “Combat sports clubs are more important than mosques in Jihadi socialisation.”

Terrorists don’t come from what the French right-wing calls ‘Salafised spaces’. Roy points out the irony of the ISIL-linked Abdeslam brothers running “a bar in a neighbourhood described as Salafised,” and usefully emphasises the distinction between Salafism and ISIL-style radicalism. The latter, unlike the former, permits punishment by fire and suicide attacks, for instance, and rejects parental and clerical authority.

“Jihadis do not descend into violence after poring over the sacred texts,” Roy writes. A self-serving, inconsistent and decontextualised manipulation of scripture is central to ISIL propaganda, but largely irrelevant, he argues, to the European radicals. These are not believers programmed for terror by religion, but “rebels who choose radicalism and then fit it into an Islamic paradigm.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

May 19, 2017 at 5:26 pm

Posted in book review, France

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