February 2015

I don’t think you need a seismic detector anywhere in Turkey these days to determine if Mustafa Kamal Ataturk is not rolling over in his mausoleum in Ankara. The man who dragged Turkey so hard that the fez fell off and who de-scripted the calligraphically beautiful Ottoman language has been superseded by a leader no less contested, President and former Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan is a polarizing figure, imposing his will in much the same way that military-backed leaders have done in Turkey’s past. And the comparisons between him and the old line of sultans is in the air these days. Calling for mandatory learning of the old Ottoman script, no matter how appealing to academic Ottomanists, is suggestive of more than historical nostagia. Building a huge palace of some 1,150 rooms (there were only 1,001 nights in the Arabian Nights epic) at a cost of around 490 million euros ($615 million) and then deciding that it should be called a kulleye, with all the religious connotations this conjures in Turkey, is eyebrow-raising to say the least.

We are now entering the age of political Ottomanipulation in Turkey. The next election will see politicians topped off with turbans and probably handing out tulips to buy votes. New political ads have no need to be satirized, since no satire could improve on their critique. There is no danger of Turkey returning to the sublime porte; that sick man of Europe cannot be resurrected, especially by an admirer of the modern Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamic branding that Erdoğan brandishes is thoroughly contemporary and metaphorical. Taking pride in the Ottoman past is the point, but in order to create a new kind of Islamic leadership. There is no room for a caliph in the modern world any more than for Italy to go back to its caesars (even if those were the salad days for my grandfather’s homeland). But if you want to gain as absolute power as you possible can, religion is the best way to go. If you happen to be president of Uzkekistan for over two decades it helps to have a first name of Islam. And if Tamerlane can be trussed up in modern propaganda in Uzbekistan, why not Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.

Will it work? Will reading Ottoman script on mosque walls and watching politicians parade around in the old robes of authority convince the electorate that this is the best way to move forward? Time will tell, obviously, but in the mean time it may be useful to follow Turkey’s economic health. If Marx was around, I suspect he would argue that the jingle of coins in the pocket beats staring at museum objects. No fadish fetish beats the economy for predicting the probable direction of change.

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.

The Republican Party, inebriated with tea partisanship, seems to shoot itself in its elephantine trunk in attracting presidential candidates. This certainly worked to Romney’s favor last time around, as he certainly looked far more presidential than “what-was-the-third-one” Rick Perry, Call 999 and pay your taxes Mr. Cain, Sarah “I can see Alaska from my bedroom” Palin, Ron “I will run even when I am in my grave” Paul and the other circus acts that paraded through the primaries in 2012. Once again we are seeing a run (at the mouth some times) of former Governor and Fox News celebrity Mike Huckabee. He is apparently willing to overlook the fact that having two presidents from the state of Arkansas within only a couple of decades is going against Las Vegas odds. But here he is again, hitting the mash potato and Bible verse quoting circuit and about as Iowa bound as a candidate can get.

The latest bit of Huckabeeswax has a nasty sting to it. Echoing the Gold Meir canard that there are no “Palestinians” on his most recent Bible Land tour (I suspect that Huckabee is guilty of not reading Twain’s Innocents Abroad), the Arkansas traveler said that there aint no such thing (well he is reported to have said “is” no such thing but who knows what the meaning of “is” really is) as a Palestinian. “The idea that they have a long history, dating back hundreds or thousands of years, is not true,” Huckabee said.

So if there are no “Palestinians” but only “Arabs” who made up the term to spite Israel and drive them into the sea, who exactly was living in Eretz Israel before 1948. Here are some scenarios. (more…)

Conservative backlash against President Obama, which has not ceased from the first day he was elected, has stooped so low as to claim, a la former Mayor Giuliani, that the President does not love his country. Apparently for Giuliani, the Rush-Limbaugh to judgment is that only Republicans, perhaps even certain kinds of Republicans, can love their country. This seems to be a case of misplaced tough love; Giuliani finds it tough to love someone he disagrees with. I suppose it also depends on what country there is to be loved. The country of Giuliani’s imagination is not very loving. The CIA torture authorized illegally and committed during the Bush era is not something I love. I don’t think Thomas Jefferson or Thomas Paine would have loved it either, if you want to get colonial about it. On Monday the New York Times took the courageous step of joining the call for criminal charges to be brought against former Vice-President Dick Cheney and those who caused, directly and indirectly, not only torture of innocent victims but death. Do I love the fact, and it is a fact, that my country violated not only its own moral principles but also the international protocol on torture? No. Does this mean I do not love my country? No. Love, tough love, is not about denial; love is about admitting mistakes and justice.

No one is calling for a firing squad. The NYT makes it clear that the issue is about not sweeping illegal acts under the rug. (more…)

This stupidity needs to end: Why the Atlantic & NY Post are clueless about Islam

Pundits claiming that ISIS is emblematic of Islam ignore the intellectual traditions at the heart of the religion
by H.A. Hellyer, Salon, Februrary 20, 2015

This week, President Obama hosted a summit on countering “violent extremism,” where he received criticism from some on the rightwing over his refusal to call such violence “Islamic.” American media outlets, particularly the Atlantic and the New York Post, have struck a similar chord of late. All of this happens against a rather poignant backdrop: Only a few days ago, ISIS released a video showing the killing of 21 Coptic Egyptians in Libya. The group expressed what it considered to be Islamic justification for its actions. Long after the summit, specialists in the field of counter-extremism will continue to ask the question: Is ISIS actually representative in some way of Islam? And what, really, is the relationship between the group that calls itself the “Islamic State” and the world’s second largest religion?

There will be those that will insist that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam or religion in general — that ISIS is primarily a social and political phenomenon, bereft of ideology entirely, or simply using Islam as a superficial justification. Counterterrorism studies indicate that for very many people in the broader radical Islamist universe, non-ideological factors certainly play magnificently important roles. At the same time, it is also the case that for radical Islamists, an ideological component not only exists, but is crucial in understanding their world views. In some shape or form, for ISIS supporters, religion certainly plays a role. But what religion, precisely?

The easy answer is to say “Islam” – but it is also a rather lazy answer. There are around 1.5 billion Muslims around the world. The vast, overwhelming majority of them, needless to say, are not members of ISIS — and, in fact, Muslims actually make up the majority of ISIS’s victims, its most active enemies on the battlefield, and its most prominent detractors. (more…)

by Samaa Al Hamdani, Fikra Forum, February 20

[For this article in Arabic, click here.)

Last September, a rebel militia known as the Houthis successfully captured large portions of Yemen’s north and its capital, Sana. A few months later, in January 2015, President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and his government resigned following clashes with the Houthis. By February 10, diplomatic missions in Sana’a had evacuated the country to protest the “illegitimate Houthi takeover.” Overnight, the Houthis became Yemen’s new rulers, but very little was known about them.

The enigmatic Houthi movement transformed from a Zaydi revivalist group in the early 1990s, to a rebel movement in the mid-1990s, to an enemy warring against the Yemeni state in the early 2000s. Following the revolution in 2011, the Houthis secured 33 seats in the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), because they had significant local influence and were considered victims of the former regime. The Houthis were granted a specialized committee in the NDC solidifying them as an influential political player. However, as soon as the dialogue concluded, the Houthis lost faith in the internationally backed political transition. Since then, the Houthis – led by Abdul-Malik al-Houthi – have employed Machiavellian tactics to gain influence in Yemen, taking advantage of the dismal performance of Hadi’s National Unity Government to seize territory and power.

In September 2014 Hadi lifted fuel subsidies, which angered much of the Yemeni population and provided an opening for the Houthis. Cleverly, the Houthis sided with the people against the government; thereafter, within six days, they seized the capital. Months later, on February 11, they mobilized mass protests to overshadow any activities by the opposition. It is likely that a Houthi-led protest will take place on March 18, the anniversary of the “Friday of Dignity,” during which 56 protestors were killed in 2011. By hijacking public rallies, the Houthis aim to silence the opposition and, in this specific case, avoid criticism by the Gulf Cooperation Council and the United Nations Security Council.

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…)

By Juan Cole (Informed Comment), February 17

The self-styled ‘Islamic State’ Group (ISIS or ISIL), the Arabic acronym for which is Daesh, is increasingly haunting the nightmares of Western journalists and security analysts. I keep seeing some assertions about it that strike me as exaggerated or as just incorrect.

1. It isn’t possible to determine whether Daesh a mainstream Muslim organization, since Muslim practice varies by time and place. I disagree. There is a center of gravity to any religion such that observers can tell when something is deviant. Aum Shinrikyo isn’t your run of the mill Buddhism, though it probably is on the fringes of the Buddhist tradition (it released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995). Like Aum Shinrikyo, Daesh is a fringe cult. There is nothing in formal Islam that would authorize summarily executing 21 Christians. The Qur’an says that Christians are closest in love to the Muslims, and that if they have faith and do good works, Christians need have no fear in the afterlife. Christians are people of the book and allowed religious freedom by Islamic law from the earliest times. Muslims haven’t always lived up to this ideal, but Christians were a big part of most Muslim states in the Middle East (in the early Abbasid Empire the Egyptian and Iraqi Christians were the majority). They obviously weren’t being taken out and beheaded on a regular basis. They did gradually largely convert to Islam, but we historians don’t find good evidence that they were coerced into it. Because they paid an extra poll tax, Christians had economic reasons to declare themselves Muslims.

We all know that Kentucky snake handlers are a Christian cult and that snake handling isn’t typical of the Christian tradition. Why pretend that we can’t judge when modern Muslim movements depart so far from the modern mainstream as to be a cult? (more…)

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