August 2014

[Here is an interesting article on The Daily Beast by Clive Irving on the role of Gertrude Bell in creating modern Iraq…]

The story of the British intelligence agent who rigged an election, installed a king loyal to the British, drew new borders—and gave us today’s ungovernable country.

She came into Baghdad after months in one of the world’s most forbidding deserts, a stoic, diminutive 45-year-old English woman with her small band of men. She had been through lawless lands, held at gunpoint by robbers, taken prisoner in a city that no Westerner had seen for 20 years.

It was a hundred years ago, a few months before the outbreak of World War I. Baghdad was under a regime loyal to the Ottoman Turks. The Turkish authorities in Constantinople had reluctantly given the persistent woman permission to embark on her desert odyssey, believing her to be an archaeologist and Arab scholar, as well as being a species of lunatic English explorer that they had seen before.


In a recent article just published in the London Review of Books, Patrick Cockburn, a veteran reporter on the Middle East, paints a disturbing picture of the rise and spread of ISIS. He notes that this zealous group now controls, in one way or another, a swathe of Syria and Iraq greater in area that Great Britain and including six million people. Here is his blunt assessment:

The birth of the new state is the most radical change to the political geography of the Middle East since the Sykes-Picot Agreement was implemented in the aftermath of the First World War. Yet this explosive transformation has created surprisingly little alarm internationally or even among those in Iraq and Syria not yet under the rule of Isis. Politicians and diplomats tend to treat Isis as if it is a Bedouin raiding party that appears dramatically from the desert, wins spectacular victories and then retreats to its strongholds leaving the status quo little changed. Such a scenario is conceivable but is getting less and less likely as Isis consolidates its hold on its new conquests in an area that may soon stretch from Iran to the Mediterranean.

While Cockburn is right to say that insufficient attention has been paid to the rapid rise of this radical group, it is premature to think this is the most radical change since the Sykes-Picot Agreement at the end of World War I. A lot of change has shaped the Middle East in the past century, not least the establishment of Israel. ISIS is not an Ibn Khaldunian Bedouin ghazwa about to overthrow either Syria or Iraq. Nor do self-proclaimed Mahdis and Caliphs have a chance to endure in the modern era. As Cockburn notes, there is a loose alliance of the hardcore ISIS group with local Sunni groups in Iraq opposed to the rule of President Nouri al-Maliki, who is likely to be replaced in the near future. Few of these tribes would welcome the ISIS rules of conduct. To be sure, the Iraqi army trained by the United States is inept to an extraordinary degree, but any attack of armored cars and tanks without air support on Baghdad would be foolhardy.

I am not a prophet, nor do I wish to be, but it is hard to imagine that ISIS can continue to advance without air support and more than captured weapons from retreating Iraqi military. As the U.S. has now begun bombing ISIS targets, they will have a difficult time using the captured tanks. The Kurds may have been pushed back from their border, but even Saddam with his superior weaponry was never able to take control of Kurdistan. Nor will the Western powers watch on the sidelines if ISIS did continue to make serious inroads. Nor will Iran, which has military prowess, allow the vehemently anti-Shia ISIS to move close to the Iranian border. The ISIS blitzkrieg has about as much chance for success as Saddam’s ill-fated attack on Khuzistan after the fall of the Shah. While the success of ISIS thus far will fill their ranks, these will be amateurs, not trained (even poorly trained) soldiers.

The seeds of self-destruction are rife in ISIS with its extreme antagonism to other Muslims, Christians and Yazidis, its draconian ideas for applying medieval punishments, the blatant sexism that includes raping women (imagine if any of the raiders in the time of Muhammad came back and reported having raped enemy women…), and inability to ever gain acceptance by major outside powers. ISIS does not present a viable form of Islam as it plays on the distorted sectarian conflict that has riven Iraq since the disastrous American intervention. Before long ISIS will be a footnote to the ongoing conflict in the region.

ISIS right now is indeed a nightmare, but the devastating impact goes beyond the people brutally slaughtered and the human rights violated. ISIS is about the worst possible thing that can happen for most Muslims. The billion and a half Muslims in the world are a diverse group stretching across ethnic groups and nation states, but very few are extreme jihadists or support a return to a medieval caliphate. Anyone who actually knows the history of the caliphate would hardly want to return to such a corrupt and unstable system of government. The damage that ISIS is doing to the perception of Islam in the West is as bad, perhaps even worse, than that of Osama Bin Laden’s attack on the Twin Towers. ISIS is a godsend to Islamophobes, who constantly focus on this kind of violence as an essential part of Islam. The fact that ISIS does not have support from major Islamic leaders or groups does not matter.

It is obvious that the rebel leader al-Baghdadi has little regard for the example of the Prophet Muhammad, who would never have condoned the kind of violence that ISIS is perpetrating. This is a political battle covered with a hateful religious veneer. Al-Baghdadi will meet his fate, no doubt in the near future, but it will not be in paradise. ISIS is not here to stay, but the damage it can do is a sad commentary on the endemic violence that has engulfed much of the Middle East and abused the image of Islam.

The turmoil and ruthless slaughter that is destroying both lives and heritage in Syria has multiple consequences. Beyond the humanitarian crisis, which is huge, there is widespread looting of antiquities in a country where there is a valuable heritage. Dr. Amr Al-Azm has started a campaign to save these antiquities. Details below. Click here to sign the petition to the UN.

Treasures from our museums and ancient cities in Syria are being looted and destroyed, falling victim to the war’s blind aggression. My former archeology students are working diligently and risking their lives to protect our country’s cultural heritage.

It’s important that our heritage is preserved, not only for its intrinsic beauty and historical value, but also because it helps us reconstruct Syrian identity. Now, the market for stolen artefacts is in the millions, but one important thing can make a difference.

The UN must ban the trade in Syrian artefacts.

So far they have ignored numerous calls to push through a resolution as they did in the past to protect Iraq’s heritage, but there’s something much larger at stake now that should get them to act. Looting Syria’s history is big business and the extremist group known as ISIS have added millions of dollars to their war chest because of it.

Syrians are now not only watching their history being torn down and sold to foreign buyers, but they’re having that money turned against them in the form of more weapons.

— Dr. Amr Al-Azm

Associate Professor of Middle East History, Shawnee University
Professor at the University of Damascus (1998-2006)
Director of Science and Conservation Laboratories at the General Department of Antiquities and Museums in Syria (1999-2004)

By Sheila Carapico, Middle East Research and Information Project, July 1, 2014

* This memo was prepared as part of the “Ethics and Research in the Middle East” symposium

American political scientists studying the Middle East face ethical dilemmas not shared by most of our disciplinary colleagues. Sometimes – perhaps unexpectedly – our presence in countries or communities experiencing repression and/or political violence puts our local colleagues, hosts, or contacts at risk by association. The massive U.S. military footprint and widespread mistrust of U.S. policies and motives multiplies the risks to our interlocutors.

The trademark methodology of American Arabists is fieldwork, meaning, in political science, in-depth interviews, participant observation, data collection, document-gathering, opinion polling, political mapping, and recording events. As sojourners but not permanent residents, we rely heavily on the wisdom, networks, and goodwill of counterparts “on the ground,” particularly other intellectuals.

In any environment where agencies of national, neighboring, and U.S. governments are all known to be gathering intelligence, our research projects may look and sound like old-fashioned espionage. Even under the very best of circumstances (which are rather scarce) a lot of people are wary or suspicious of all Americans, including or sometimes especially Arabic speakers who ask a lot of questions and take notes. Immediate acquaintances probably grasp and trust our inquiries. Their neighbors or nearby security personnel may not. It is common knowledge that at least some spies and spooks come in academic disguise and that some U.S.-based scholars sell their expertise to the CIA or the Pentagon. Instead of treating whispered gossip as the product of mere paranoia or conspiracy theories, we need to recognize its objective and sociological underpinnings. (more…)

Turkish women defy deputy PM with laughter

Bülent Arinç said women should not laugh in public, prompting backlash and highlighting state of women’s rights in Turkey

by Constanze Letsch in Istanbul, The Guardian, Wednesday, July, 30 2014

Twitter in Turkey broke into a collective grin on Wednesday as hundreds of women posted pictures of themselves laughing.

They weren’t just happy. They were smiling in defiance of the deputy prime minister, Bülent Arinç, who in a speech to mark Eid al-Fitr on Monday said women should not laugh in public.

“Chastity is so important. It’s not just a word, it’s an ornament [for women],” Arinç told a crowd celebrating the end of Ramadan in the city of Bursa in an address that decried “moral corruption” in Turkey. “A woman should be chaste. She should know the difference between public and private. She should not laugh in public.”

On Wednesday thousands of women posted pictures of themselves laughing out loud, with the hashtags #direnkahkaha (resist laughter) and #direnkadin (resist woman) trending on Twitter.

Turkish men also took to social media to express their solidarity. “The men of a country in which women are not allowed to laugh are cowards”, tweeted one user. (more…)

All eyes in the world are on Gaza or at least they should be. The daily deaths and destruction rival the biblical “fire and brimstone” that fell out of the sky on Sodom and Gomorrah. If you think this is an exaggeration, check out this explicit video made by a Guardian crew. Gaza is drenched in biblical symbolism; this is a desolate zone that bleeds tragedy. Here was the ancestral home of the Philistines, an arch enemy of Israel, now transformed into stateless Palestinians trapped in a living hell. Literally trapped, so that there are no safe houses, even those supposedly sanctioned by the United Nations. As you read this commentary, it is likely that somewhere in Gaza someone is being killed, blown to pieces by a bomb (labeled “made in the USA”) or maimed for life, and a short and miserable life at that.

The Bible is a book full of prophecy, but then there are those stories that have such a déjà vu quality that it takes the breath away. Consider this King James Version passage from I Samuel 18:6-7:

And it came to pass as they came, when David was returned from the slaughter of the Philistine, that the women came out of all cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet king Saul, with tabrets, with joy, and with instruments of musick. And the women answered one another as they played, and said, Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.

Of course, the KJV is now four centuries old, so it always needs to be translated into contemporary terms. So perhaps this would fit the current Gaza better: (more…)

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