Iraq


Do bodies count or do we just count bodies? The tally of victims over the past week continues at a fierce pace. The dead in Yemen are not even being counted as many corpses now are rotting where they fall. UNICEF says only 74 Yemeni children have been killed since the bombing by the Saudi Coalition began, but that is surely an understatement. Hundreds of civilians have died and numerous soldiers and militia on both sides. A few days ago Somali Shabab ruthlessly murdered almost 150 students at Garissa University in Kenya, separating the Christians out from the Muslims. Add this to the killing by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Now in Tikrit mass graves are being found that tell the story of 1700 Iraqi soldiers executed. And ISIS has now taken over most of the Yarmouk Palestinian Camp in Damascus with more dead bodies and many more to come.

We are witnessing a killing frenzy, but the daily reports might as well be a Hollywood film or a shoot-em-up video game. How many bodies must there be before the killing stops? Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen is turning out not to be decisive but divisive, creating chaos in Saudi Arabia’s poor neighbor to the south. The shock-and-awe strategy is no doubt appealing to the arms dealers worldwide; their champagne glasses must be tinkling with every bomb that is dropped. The massive arsenal raining down destruction on Yemen can easily be replaced, but not the bodies of the victims. The killing continues on the ground as well in Yemen, a political nightmare engineered by former President Ali Abdullah Salih to regain power. But what would he regain power over? A country devastated beyond the current economic collapse, a land where his unchecked gluttony left Yemen the poorest country in the region, a people pitted against each other with the encouragement of foreign powers? A pile of corpses as high as a mountain, a mountain of utter despair? (more…)

The Library of Congress has a very nice website with online resources regarding its collection of Near Eastern materials.

There is an excellent analysis of ISIS as a cult recently posted on War on the Rocks.

Here is the start, but click here for the full article…

Why Cults Work: The Power Games of the Islamic State and the Lord’s Resistance Army
by Eleanor Beevor

Graeme Wood’s article “What does ISIS really want?” has become the most discussed foreign policy article of the year. Yet the piece’s power lies not in the title question, but in Wood’s blunt assessment of a paradox that leaves Western leaders flummoxed: How does one explain the traction of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), while also denying its religious legitimacy, in order to combat anti-Muslim bigotry? Wood didn’t mince words in refuting this hesitancy:

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic… the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

What follows is a fascinating piece of research, and a frustrating read. Despite addressing all the right aspects of ISIL’s ideological content to understand its power, Wood’s argument is guided by the wrong question: “How Islamic is ISIL?” For him, denial of ISIL’s Islamic nature is why we fail to understand it. The analytical pitfalls of quantifying “Islamic-ness” should be self-explanatory. Are some of Islam’s 1.6 billion practitioners less Muslim than others if they are less violent? How do we explain the religious devotion of politically “quietest” Salafism, compared to the British ISIL fighters who purchased Islam for Dummies pre-departure? This is not to say that religion is irrelevant in the analysis of ISIL. ISIL uses Islam as an existential anchor, so its actions have to be influenced by it in order to work. It also freely capitalizes on global Islamist sentiment. But to say the whole structure is uniquely, potently Islamic is not just a logical fallacy, but part of the very illusion that sustains loyalty to it. Actually, the features that Wood claims represent ISIL’s Islamic orthodoxy – its obsession with “purity” and the apocalyptic prophecy it stakes its claim on – have “been done,” and not just by Islamists. This is revealed by comparing ISIL with another notoriously violent army, led by another self-styled holy man.

ISIL and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) represent grabs for power, but power of a cosmic kind, beyond what human society can grant them. In examining both, I suggest a word substitution. The ways in which ISIL works, to extraordinary success, are not uniquely Islamic. They are uniquely “cultic.” And to examine ISIL as a cult is to see chinks in its armor. ISIL’s territory may be shrinking, but that alone won’t kill the loyalties of its cadres, nor slow the spread of its bloody sectarian ideology. In ISIL, as in the LRA, knowledge is power. If we can challenge the leaders’ tight hold on that power, ISIL’s ideological grip on its fighters might just begin to crumble…


When you watch an ISIS online video, remember who is the inspiration.

ISIS or Da’ash or whatever you want to call the latest reality internet show from the Middle East has an active propaganda machine right out of the playbook of Herr Goebbels. If it is not choreographed beheadings or other atrocities meant to cause terror, it is trying to efface and erase the past. The area that ISIS appears to have nominal control over is one of the most extensive archaeological mine fields in the world, with lots of object on display in museums. One of the latest videos is of the bashing of statues in the Mosul Museum. At first glance one can only shake one’s head (and perhaps use the index finger raised in an appropriate gesture) at such a destructive act. But as in all propaganda, the shame factor is the elephant in the display room. Fortunately for the real objects, the hammers are smithereening plaster casts for the most part. Unless ISIS slithers its way into Baghdad, which may require a Mahdi or two to accomplish, the real finds are safe thus far. This does not mean that there has not been irreplaceable damage done to historical objects and sites already.

The current game plan of the primary actors in the conflict, apart from those who seem to delight in mayhem, is to bomb ISIS one pick-up truck at a time and to drone in on leaders from satellite data. This may take some time, no matter how many planes are sent on missions over a rather vast stretch of territory. Some day the local armies on “our” side will have sufficient training and resources (to replenish those taken without much resistance by ISIS) to go in and battle the militants directly. In the meantime (and it is a very mean time indeed), another major front is the propaganda war broadcast digitally. The toppling of a plaster cast of Ashurbanipal, the long-dead Assyrian king, is not likely to bring any converts to Islam, but it may resonate with disaffected youth who see a chance to leave their video game warcraft and get a taste of the “real” thing. I do not think those of us who are appalled by such acts need to watch these intentionally propagandic videos. They are meant to fan the flames of Islamophobia and thus to attract more radicals. The best way to counter such propaganda is not to make an issue out of it, which is the Fox News feed-the-hate approach. It helps to expose the artificiality of it, but that is secondary.

In videos like the one on the Mosul Museum bashing I recommend calculated not benign neglect. I debated whether to even write this post, as I have certainly had enough of the mountain of commentary on ISIS already. If you do watch the video, know what you are seeing and why the makers want you to see it. And remember who the real inspiration is behind such outrageous outreach. But if you can avoid seeing it altogether, the propaganda value may be diminished by at least one person at a time.


Let’s hope that in another decade we will be back to this ISIS (Isis depicted with outstretched wings (wall painting, c. 1360 BCE) and be thankful the carnage of the current ISIS is past

In the media, cyberspace, Facebook, Twitter and just about everywhere punditry is pandered to we are hearing experts expound on what ISIS really is and really wants. One of the latest broadsides is an article in the Atlantic by the journalist Graeme Wood, who pieces together quotes from scholars with comments of a couple of ISIS supporters he talked with in London and Melbourne. Here is how the Atlantic keyworded the article:

The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.

And if one reads further on, the following claim is made:

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Let’s start with the obvious. If you really want to know what makes ISIS tick, avoid anything a journalist who seems to know little or nothing of the history of Islam says, even if he goes to the experts. Also, what somebody willing to talk to the journalist and not smash in his head with a rock (a point raised in the article as part of ISIS strategy in Western countries) says ISIS is or wants is probably not going to help you understand what the people who claim to be ISIS are actually doing, nor the variety of their views.

I am not interested in rehearsing the subjective misreadings of the article, which others have already done. But there comes a point when the bombast propagated in the media frenzy to cover this made-in-Hollywood real-life action thriller is enough already. So here are four points I want to make about the way in which the story of ISIS is being framed by many outlets in the media and why we need to move on. (more…)

One political cartoon sums up the problem with both ISIS and the current crisis in Yemen…

by Kathryn Zyskowski, Cultural Anthropology

Click here to read the five articles and interviews with the authors.

This collection gathers together five articles previously published in Cultural Anthropology, by Naveeda Khan, Hayder Al-Mohammad, Carolyn Rouse and Janet Hoskins, Kenneth George, and Arzoo Osanloo. The collection also includes interviews with the authors, who reflect on their work, as well a commentary on the whole collection from Charles Hirschkind. The articles engage with everyday aspects of living, negotiating, and constructing the world among contemporary Muslims. Moving beyond a focus on the aesthetics of dress, gender relations, or the text in Islam, the collection crosses national boundaries and thematic areas, touching on the immense diversity of nations, peoples, languages, and ideas that fall under the category of Islam. A broad array of ethnographic material is included in the collection: gathering to eat soul food in Los Angeles, navigating a kidnapping in post-invasion Iraq, a child’s relationship to a jinn (spirit/ghost) during sectarian violence in Karachi, discourses around justice in media and conversation surrounding a young man’s death sentence in Iran, and debates about the production of Islamic art in Indonesia.
(more…)

MessyNessy has put a page about the Marsh Arabs with some fabulous pictures. Check it out here.

It was Iraq’s ‘Garden of Eden’; unique wetlands in southern Iraq where a people known as the Ma’dan, or ‘Arabs of the marsh’, lived in a Mesopotamian Venice, characterised by beautifully elaborate floating houses made entirely of reeds harvested from the open water.

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