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Robin Yassin-Kassab

Archive for the ‘imperialism’ Category

The Palestinisation of the Syrian People

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A woman, holding a placard reading "We support the Syrian people", cries as she stands among other Bosnians during a protest in Sarajevo

Sarajevo, Bosnia

A slightly edited version of this article was published at al-Jazeera.

In solidarity with Aleppo, the lights on the Eiffel Tower were extinguished. Elsewhere in Paris, and in London, Amsterdam, Oslo and Copenhagen, people demonstrated against the slaughter. Turks rallied outside Russian and Iranian embassies and consulates in Istanbul, Ankara and Erzerum. The people of Sarajevo – who have their own experience of genocide – staged a big protest.

The protests are nothing like as large as they were when the United States bombed Iraq, but they are welcome nonetheless. If this level of support had been apparent over the last six years, it would have made a real difference. Perhaps it is making a difference even now. Public sympathy for the victims may have pressured Vladimir Putin to allow those in the surviving liberated sliver of Aleppo to evacuate rather than face annihilation. At the time of writing, the fate of the deal is in doubt, subject to the whims of the militias on the ground. If it works out and the tens of thousands currently trapped are allowed to leave – the best possible outcome – then we will be witnesses to an internationally brokered forced population transfer. This is both a war crime and a crime against humanity, and a terrible image of the precarious state of the global system. The weight of this event, and its future ramifications, deserve more than just a few demonstrations.

The abandonment of Aleppo is a microcosm of the more general abandonment of Syria’s

People gather during a protest to show solidarity with the residents of Aleppo and against Assad regime forces, in Casablanca

Casablanca, Morocco

democratic revolution. It exposes the failures of the Arab and Muslim worlds, of the West, and of humanity as a whole.

Many Syrians expected the global left would be first to support their cause, but most leftist commentators and publications retreated into conspiracy theories, Islamophobia, and inaccurate geo-political analysis, and swallowed gobbets of Assadist propaganda whole. Soon they were repeating the ‘war on terror’ tropes of the right.

The Obama administration provided a little rhetorical support, and sometimes allowed its allies to send weapons to the Free Army. Crucially, however, Obama vetoed supply of the anti-aircraft weapons the Free Army so desperately needed to counter Assad’s scorched earth. In August 2013, when Assad killed 1500 people with sarin gas in the Damascus suburbs,  Obama’s chemical ‘red line’ vanished, and the US more or less publically handed Syria over to Russia and Iran.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

December 17, 2016 at 5:50 pm

Posted in imperialism, Iran, Russia, Syria

The Awakening According to Antonius

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Damascus after French Bombardment, 1925

Originally published at the Muslim Institute.

I never managed to finish T.E. Lawrence’s vastly overrated “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”. It’s a poorly written, narrowly partial and self-dramatising account of the Arab Revolt against Turkish rule during World War One, as poor a rendering of history as one would expect from Lawrence, with his poor Arabic, poor knowledge of the Arab nationalist movement, and his strange belief that he could pass as an Arab, despite his blond hair and stumbling speech.I got as far as his description of the Syrians as “an ape-like race.”

A far, far better book on early Arab nationalism is George Antonius’s “The Arab Awakening,” which covers the period from Muhammad Ali’s brief unification of Egypt and Syria in the 1830s to the struggle for Palestine in the 1930s.

Writing in 1938, Antonius is much too optimistic about the Saudi takeover of Asir, the Shammari lands and the holy cities in the Hejaz. “It re-established the ascendancy of Moslem ethics and Arab traditions,” he says, paying only slight attention to the massacres and cultural vandalism which attended the Sauds’ arrival. Antonius didn’t forsee the immense power that oil wealth and the client relationship with America would bring, and he incorrectly expected that Wahhabism would moderate through contact with the world.

But that’s my only quibble. He’s excellent on events in the northern Arab countries and on the linguistic and cultural origins of Arabism. He notes the interesting role of American Protestant missions in re-establishing the study of Arabic and its literature, and the key part played by Arab Christians in the burgeoning movement.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

December 22, 2010 at 3:07 pm

The End of the Arabs?

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In 2007 I read Peter W. Galbraith’s “The End of Iraq“, which suggests cutting Iraq into three mini-states, and then responded in two parts. The first part criticises Galbraith’s thesis, and the second part criticises the failures of Arabism. Both are merged below. More recently it has been revealed that Galbraith actually stood to gain financially from the dismantlement of Iraq.

explosion at Baghdad's Mutanabi Street book market

Peter W. Galbraith’s book ‘The End of Iraq’ argues the initially persuasive thesis that Iraqis have already divided themselves into three separate countries roughly corresponding to the Ottoman provinces of Basra (the Shii Arab south), Baghdad (the Sunni Arab centre) and Mosul (the Kurdish north), and that American attempts to keep the country unified are bound to fail. I agree wholeheartedly with Galbraith’s call for America to withdraw from Iraq – America is incapable of stopping the civil war, and is in fact exacerbating it. (update: I stick by this. The civil war has to some extent calmed because of internal Iraqi dynamics, not because of the US ’surge’ – the Sunni forces turned on al-Qaida, and also realised that they had lost the battle for Baghdad and national power. Some groups then allied with the US for a variety of reasons to do with self-preservation). The rest of Galbraith’s argument is much more debatable.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

November 27, 2009 at 7:59 pm

The Crisis of Islamic Civilisation

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mecca

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.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 27, 2009 at 9:56 pm

Shoes and Bullets

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George Bush has had shoes thrown at him in Baghdad. As he threw the first, Muntadar az-Zaidi shouted, “This is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog.” As he threw the second, he added, “This is for the widows and orphans and all those killed in Iraq.” It was gratifying to see the Iraqi journalist’s human response to one of the destroyers of his country, even if it was woefully inadequate. In a just world, Bush would be imprisoned for the rest of his life (I oppose capital punishment even in the most deserving of cases).

Meanwhile the empire’s top criminals continue to spout self-justifying vomit. What do you say about a Condoleezza Rice? In an interview with the Wall Street Journal she says her regime removed the Taliban, but doesn’t say that America helped bring the Taliban to power in the first place, nor that the new Taliban is now winning against the occupation and its warlord/ druglord Afghan allies. She doesn’t say that Pakistan’s previously peaceful borderlands are controlled by the Pakistani Taliban, that hundreds of thousands have been displaced from these areas, that there are regular bomb attacks in Pakistan’s major cities, or that Pakistan faces the real possibility of collapse.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

December 15, 2008 at 11:52 am

Posted in afghanistan, imperialism, Iraq, USA

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A Plague on Both their Houses

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The great thing about the forthcoming American presidential election is that Hillary Clinton won’t be the winner. The lamentable thing is that either Barack Obama or John McCain will be.

I have detested Hillary Clinton since she led a New York demonstration against ‘Arab terror’ in the first days of the second Intifada. This was before the Intifada became militarised, when it still centred around stone-throwing crowds and peaceful demonstrations, and when the zionist occupation was murdering dozens of Palestinians every day. This year her campaign website stated: “Hillary Clinton believes that Israel’s right to exist in safety as a Jewish state, with defensible borders and an undivided Jerusalem as its capital, secure from violence and terrorism, must never be questioned.” Just run your eyes over that again. Hillary Clinton doesn’t just believe that the citizens of Israel should be safe, but that Israel “as a Jewish state”, as an apartheid state for Jews only, not for its citizens or for those it has driven out, should be safe. She believes that illegally occupied and illegally colonised east Jerusalem, an ancient Arab city originally built by Canaanite Jebusites, should remain under eternal zionist occupation. And she believes not only that her immoral and stupid positions are right, but that they should never be questioned. Such is the weight of zionism on American political life – as heavy a taboo as God is in the east.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

November 1, 2008 at 1:49 am

Fracturing Authority

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I had great sympathy for Chechnya when it was twice destroyed by Russian forces. The Chechens have been fighting for their independence for more than a hundred and fifty years. But Prime Minister Gordon Brown had no sympathy for Chechnya because, he says, Chechnya is officially part of Russia. The Chechen issue is a matter of Russian ‘territorial integrity.’ I admit that Brown’s position here makes sense. However brutal Russia’s treatment of Chechnya, it isn’t Britain’s business. (It may be the business of concerned British people, but that’s something else).

I don’t have much sympathy for Georgia, however, and none at all for the bleatings of the US, Britain and Germany, including Brown’s ridiculous bleatings in the Guardian. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia relinquished its control of eastern Europe and allowed independence to Caucasian and Central Asian nations. But instead of independence several of these countries became absorbed into the American empire. The fear that some of them had of their huge neighbour was understandable and deeply rooted (though not in Georgia, which had participated in Soviet rule from the Georgian Stalin to the Georgian Shevardnadze). The real fault was the West’s, to so stupidly exploit this fear, and to extend, by hubris, NATO membership and American missiles right to Russia’s borders. Russia in 1991 was too weak to do anything but let power slip, but its tolerance of Western expansion also showed a naivety, an overly-optimistic trust in Western capitalism. The very memory of that naivety is a humiliation to Russians.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 1, 2008 at 5:01 pm

Posted in imperialism, UK, USA

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Dysfunctional State – Dysfunctional World

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The assassination of Benazir Bhutto, although it happened across the Gulf of Oman, feels remarkably close, for both personal and public reasons. On a personal level, the event strikes up sparks of memory. As a very young man I worked for The News, an English-language paper, on the Murree Road in Rawalpindi. I loved that office and all the great people in it, the long late chaotic nights through which we typed and laughed and drank tea. I remember Liaquat Bagh just a little down the road, the park named after Pakistan’s first prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan, who was assassinated there, and where Benazir was killed last December 27th. I remember People’s Party supporters firing shots into the sky outside the office on the night when Benazir was appointed prime minister, for the second time, in 1993. When I read about bombs and sectarian mayhem in Karachi, Islamabad, Swat or Gilgit I remember the immense beauty and carnivalesque energy of Pakistan, the music I heard there, the Sufi festival I visited, the wealth and poverty I saw, and the intelligent, enthusiastic people I met.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 5, 2008 at 1:35 pm

Imperialism Resurgent

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In “The End of Tolerance: Racism in 21st Century Britain”, Arun Kundnani writes, “Racisms are no longer domestically driven but take their impetus from the attempt to legitimise a deeply divided global order. They are the necessary products of an empire in denial.”

Steve-BellGordon Brown says, “The days of Britain having to apologise for the British Empire are over. We should celebrate!” Sarkozy urges France to be “proud of its history,” meaning its imperial history.

European empires did sometimes construct railways and drainage systems in the conquered lands. They did build law courts and disseminate a certain kind of cuture. But these questionable achievements must be understood against the larger ugly backdrop. Economies under imperial rule stagnated at best. Huge swathes of Africa were transformed from subsistence agricultural land to cashcrop plantations. When the value of the crop plummetted, or when the crop was grown more cheaply elsewhere, local people were left hungry and unskilled on exhausted soil. Africa has still not recovered from this deliberate underdevelopment. During British misrule, preventable famines killed tens of millions of Indians. Elsewhere in the empire, hundreds of thousands were forced into concentration camps, and torture was institutionalised. There were the genocides of indigenous Australians and Americans, by massacre and land theft as well as by disease. There was the little matter of the transatlantic slave trade.

The ethnic-sectarian tensions and political backwardness of much of the third world have roots in imperial power games. For instance, when the 1857 Indian uprising against the British was put down, the British developed a policy of excluding Muslims from education and economic power. A divide and rule strategy to exacerbate pre-existent Hindu-Muslim tensions was implemented precisely because the revolution had shown a remarkable degree of Indian national unity. And, as usual, traitors were rewarded. The twenty two families that rule what is now Pakistan (staffing the military high command and both major political parties) are the landowning families that ‘acquired’ their land in return for loyalty to the occupiers during the colonial period, especially in 1857.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

December 18, 2007 at 8:56 am

The End of the Arabs? Part Two

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Peter W. Galbraith writes that Iraq is an artificial creation made up of different ethnic groups. This is true, but Iraq is not alone in its artificiality. All states are artificial in that they have been created by historical process and human machination, not by God or nature, and all contain different ethnic groups. More specifically, the centralised nation state in the Middle East (and Africa and much of Asia) is always artificial because the very concept of the nation state is an import from 19th Century Europe. The borders of every Arab state were determined, suddenly, by imperialism, and not by the long processes of war, negotiation and ideological mythmaking that drew borders in Europe. It is this imperialist division of the Arabs which has led to various forms of pan-Arab nationalism.

The definition of ‘Arab’ has expanded over the last hundred and fifty years from describing tribal nomads as opposed to townsmen, to describing the people of the Arabian peninsula, and then to describe all from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf who share the heritage of the Arabic language.

The Ba’ath Party went so far as to find religious significance in ‘Arab,’ as is evident from the slogan ‘One Arab Nation bearing an Eternal Message.’ The ‘risala’ or message is what Arabs would previously have assumed to be the revelation of the Prophet (more often called Messenger in Arabic) Muhammad. The word used for ‘nation’ is ‘umma’ – a word previously used to denote the international Muslim community. In fact, Ba’athism should be seen as one of the twentieth century’s many attempts to compensate for the collapse of traditional religion (Nazism, Zionism, Stalinism, contemporary Wahhabism and hedonist consumerism are others).

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 3, 2007 at 6:34 am

Posted in imperialism, Iraq

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