This review of Shiraz Maher’s book was first published at the National.
Currently under military pressure in Iraq and Syria, and still terrorising civilians far beyond those lands, ISIS has horrified and bewildered Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Its carefully studied barbarism and cinematic savagery seem to owe as much to Hollywood action movies and computer combat games as to classical Islamic jurisprudence. The furiously destructive passions of its adherents often appear insane.
ISIS is certainly immoral, but not entirely irrational. Its actions are rooted in specific political contexts and based on a greatly contested analysis of ancient and contemporary Islamic texts. Shiraz Maher’s magisterial “Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea” provides an “explanatory backstory” to this and other manifestations of what could be called in shorthand the al-Qaida tradition.
Salafists preach “progression through regression”, specifically a return to the practice of the first three generations of Muslims known as the salaf al-salih, or the ‘righteous predecessors’.
Although its antecedents go back at least to the medieval theologian Ibn Taymiyya, Salafism is a modern phenomenon – a traumatised response to modernity – developed in the last 150 years. There are ‘quietist’ and ‘activist’ strains, but Maher’s book focuses on the ‘violent-rejectionists’ who have risen to prominence even more recently. Their ascent since the early 1990s coincided with a decline in those varieties of political Islam which hoped to achieve power through reformist or democratic means. By this period, the Syrian and Egyptian wings of the Muslim Brotherhood had been crushed, Tunisia’s Ennahda movement suffered a harsh crackdown, the leaders of Saudi Arabia’s Sahwa movement were imprisoned, and elections won by Islamists in Algeria were cancelled.
Maher quotes Trotsky’s dictum that “War is the locomotive of history”. The war sparked by the suspension of Algerian democracy, the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, the wars in Iraq, and today’s conflict in Syria, constitute stations in the development of Salafi-Jihadism, a movement which is at once revolutionary and deeply reactionary.
Anyone near Exeter should make sure to visit Making Light’s exhibition Stories from Syria (and visit the website). I wrote three small texts to accompany some of the art work. Here’s the first:
Two posters made in early 2011.
One reads: “It’s civil disobedience. No excuse for silence after today.”
A figure grabs lines from a thumb print, and runs. The thumb print evokes ID cards and the whole machinery of state. The figure is fleeing surveillance, therefore, and defining his own identity as he does so. Have those lines transformed into sticks in his arms? Is he about to light a fire?
The figure in the second poster is trapped inside a ‘no entry’ road sign, either dismantling it, and by implication the political prohibitions in Syrian society, or saying ‘no’ himself, refusing orders.
The words in this one read: “Civil disobedience. I don’t obey the law of an illegitimate authority.” The sentence is a response to a regime poster campaign of the period. One of those official slogans read: “I obey the law.”
The revolutionary poster aims to force a dialogue where before there was only monologue. It answers back.
Before 2011, nobody answered back, at least not in public. Back then, veteran dissident (and long-term political prisoner) Riad al-Turk was entirely just when he called Syria a “kingdom of silence”.
Syrians were terrified to speak openly and honestly about domestic politics. Those who did either had to leave the country or were imprisoned for decades in the most brutal conditions. The state had ears and eyes everywhere, spies in every workplace, school and café. It owned all the tongues in the country, every newspaper, every radio and TV station. It decided which books were published and which films were shot. It dominated trades unions and universities and every last inch of the public space, even the graffiti on the walls.
In 2000, Bashaar al-Assad inherited power from his father Hafez. The new president’s neo-liberal (and crony-capitalist) economic reforms impoverished the countryside and city suburbs while excessively enriching a tiny elite. Rami Makhlouf, for instance, the president’s tycoon cousin, was estimated to control 60% of the national economy by 2011.
In the spring of 2011, Syrians refound their voices. Enmired in increasing poverty, rejecting the humiliations of unending dictatorship, lashing out against corruption, and encouraged by the Arab Spring uprisings nearby, they took to the streets.
Leila and I spoke at SOAS in London on the revolution in Aleppo, the committees and councils there, the women’s centres, free newspapers and education projects, the military leaders, as well as the Russian and Iranian occupations and their crimes.
It certainly isn’t the most coherent or time-organised talk we’ve done, but the event went very well (a great, engaged, diverse audience). You can listen to it here.
I came across anarchism too late in life to start calling myself an anarchist. At earlier stages I’d enjoyed attaching labels to myself, like ‘leftist’, or ‘Arab’, or ‘Muslim’. I was never a great believer in any of them, but I tried.
When the Arab revolutions made politics real for me, I became suspicious of adopting any labels, given as they referred to me, and politics wasn’t about me any more, not about my fantasies of myself, my need to see myself as on the right side, or my ‘identity’. When the revolutions broke out, and then the counter-revolutions and wars, I understood that real politics concerns the actual struggles of real people in the real world. (I also understood that all identity politics is ultimately a distraction, and one most often used by those in power – or those who aim to achieve power – to divide and rule their subjects). I became suspicious of all grand narratives and all ideological frameworks which assumed there was a perfect solution to human problems as well as a clear path towards it.
So I’m not going to call myself an anarchist. And even if I wanted to, I probably couldn’t, because I am ultimately undecided on the question of whether people could do better without states and hierarchical authority. I’d like to believe that we could run complex modern societies on a horizontal basis more successfully than we do at present, but then I don’t know if I have that much faith in humanity. Perhaps we do need hierarchy of some sort to organise ourselves and to control our anti-social urges, and the best we can hope to do is reform and restrain the hierarchy. I don’t know. I need to read much more and think much more – and even when I do, if I decide I know for sure one way or the other, please ask me to check my arrogance. I’m not capable of knowing. None of us are.
I’ve written a book about Syria with someone who describes herself as an anarchist, and I agree with her on nearly everything. Plus I’ve found anarchists much less likely than leftists to be snagged by allegiance to some state or other. Their conversation on Syria is therefore likely to be much more interesting. At those book events we’ve done which were liberally salted by anarchists, in Seattle, for instance, or Toronto, the discussion was intelligent, nuanced, informed. Compassionate too. I admired the anarchists I met in Spain for several reasons. Most of them at least.
But then Noam Chomsky has been described as an anarchist. Here’s where I get confused, because Chomsky doesn’t usually (or ever?) adhere to what I think are anarchist principles.
This review was first published, slightly edited, at the Guardian.
“There is everything that ever happened, and then there is this morning.”
Rasa’s grandmother – Teta – has discovered him in bed with his boyfriend Taymour. It’s a potential disaster for Taymour, who tries to “play by the rules, one foot in and one foot out”, and for Rasa it precipitates a crisis of eib, or shame, the fear of what people will say and the necessity of lying it imposes.
Since boyhood he has obsessed with finding a word to define him: louti – sodomite, or khawal – effeminate, or gay, first heard on TV when George Michael came out, or even shaath – “queer, deviant, abject”.
But Teta’s spying and screaming is only one of Rasa’s problems.
His friend Maj has been arrested. Rasa isn’t sure if it’s because of his human rights work or on account of his sexuality. In a hidden nightclub called Guapa – the “pocket of hope” which gives Saleem Haddad’s wonderful debut its title – Maj often belly dances in full niqab and a print of Marilyn Monroe’s face. He calls this “war-on-terror neo-Orientalist gender-fucking”. “We are all performing,” Maj declares, referring back to eib, and to the demands of survival in a prying dictatorship.
The president’s gaze, no less than Teta’s, “unpacks your existence bit by bit until you are naked and helpless, your most secret thoughts out in the open for all to see.”
Rasa lives in a unnamed, composite Arab city clogged with traffic, policemen, cynical cab drivers, and new and old waves of refugees. People clutch cigarettes and Turkish coffee in their well-chewed fingers. The air smells of jasmine. The walls are adorned with posters of the president in various costumes.
The Pluto blog has published an extract from our book. Here it is:
‘Burning Country’, written by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami, explores the horrific and complicated reality of life in present-day Syria with unprecedented detail and sophistication, drawing on new first-hand testimonies from opposition fighters, exiles lost in an archipelago of refugee camps, and courageous human rights activists among many others. These stories are expertly interwoven with a trenchant analysis of the brutalisation of the conflict and the militarisation of the uprising, of the rise of the Islamists and sectarian warfare, and the role of governments in Syria and elsewhere in exacerbating those violent processes. In this extract taken from the book, Robin Yassin – Kassab and Leila Al-Shami dissect the 2014 seizure of Mosul and impact it had in Iraq and Syria and on international opinion.
In June 2014, ISIS led an offensive which took huge swathes of northern and western Iraq out of government hands. Most significantly, the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest, fell to ISIS on 10 June after only four days of battle. General Mahdi al-Gharawi – a proven torturer who had run secret prisons but was nevertheless appointed by Prime Minister Maliki as governor of Nineveh province – fled, and his troops, who greatly outnumbered the ISIS attackers, deserted. This meant that the US-allied Iraqi army, on which the US had spent billions of dollars, was less able to take on ISIS than Syria’s ‘farmers and dentists’. Many Syrians saw a conspiracy in the Iraqi collapse, a play by Malki to win still more weapons from America, and by Iran to increase its regional importance as a counterbalance to Sunni jihadism. It’s more likely that the fall of Mosul was an inevitable result of the Iraqi state’s sectarian dysfunction. Shia soldiers felt themselves to be in foreign territory, and weren’t prepared to die in other people’s disputes. Many Sunni soldiers defected to ISIS.
ISIS’s control of the Iraq–Syria border, and especially of Mosul, was a game changer. The organisation collected the arms left behind by the Iraqi army, much of it high-quality weaponry inherited from the American occupation. Perhaps more importantly, it cleaned out Mosul’s banks. Then it returned to Syria in force, using the new weapons to beat back the starved FSA and the new money to buy loyalties.
The FSA and Islamic Front in Deir al-Zor, besieged by both Assad and ISIS for months, begged the United States for ammunition, warning the city was about to fall. Their plea was ignored, and the revolutionary forces (plus Jabhat al-Nusra) pulled out in July, leaving the province’s oil fields, and the Iraqi border area, in ISIS’s hands. ISIS reinforced itself in Raqqa and surged back into the Aleppo countryside and the central desert. Suddenly it dominated a third of Iraq and a third of Syria. In a tragic parody of the old Arab nationalist dream, it made good propaganda of erasing the Sykes–Picot border; in a tragic parody of Islamic history, it declared itself a Caliphate at the end of June.
It was a pleasure to visit Oslo, where my co-author Leila al-Shami and I were hosted by the Literaturhuset and the Syrian Peace Action Centre. Of course, not every moment was pleasurable. A couple of audience comments reminded us of the rising red-brown tide of counter-revolutionary propaganda spouted by people who describe themselves as ‘leftists’ as well as those honest enough to identify openly with the far right. Sam Hamad calls this ‘the fascism of the 21st Century‘. Karam Nachar (a member of the Local Coordination Committees and editor of al-Jumhuriya) gave a fascinating talk on the intersection of political and cultural activism in Syria. Afterwards a Nordic fascist stood up and said, “You claim President Assad is killing people, but is it surprising when the rebels are being armed by colonial powers?” Such a statement not only ignores (and justifies) the Russian and Iranian imperialist assault on Syria, but also encapsualtes the stunning (willed) ignorance of those who believe that the United States is trying to get rid of the Assad regime. After another talk, a Norwegian said he’d recently visited Damascus, “where everything was fine”, and explained how Assad is defending Christians. Anyone in central Damascus in possession of eyes and ears can hear the bombs falling and see the smoke rising from the suburbs. Fortunately the exemplary revolutionary (and great writer) Marcell Shehwaro, who happens to be a Christian, was there to put him in his place.
It’s distressing enough that the violence wielded against east Aleppo and other liberated areas of Syria has reached truly genocidal levels. In addition we are forced to observe the ugly spectacle of so-called ‘experts’, ‘leftists’ and ‘journalists’ cheerleading the slaughter. (One such is the grotesque far-rightist-posing-as-progressive Jill Stein.) In such a grim context, it was balm for the brain to spend time with Syrian (and Lebanese and Palestinian) revolutionaries in Oslo. Perhaps the greatest honour was meeting Mazen Darwish of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, a man of great principle and intelligence, who has paid a great price.
If you follow this link, you’ll see Mazen and I speaking about Aleppo on Norwegian TV.