New ISIS execution for “sodomy”: Attention, UN Security Council

These photographs appeared earlier today on a JustPaste page set up by the Islamic State’s province of the Euphrates (Al-Furat). The link has spread non-stop on Da’ish-affiliated Twitter accounts ever since. The headline on the page, and the caption under each photo, is “The execution of the judgment of God on the acts of the people of Lot.”


Da’ish announced the formation of the “state,” or province, of the Euphrates in August 2014. It takes up parts of eastern Syria and westernmost Iraq; its proclamation was meant to show the Islamic State’s contempt for the old national borders — cocking a snook at Sykes-Picot, as the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights explained at the time (more or less).  The province centers on Al-Bukamal, better known as Abu Kamal, a dusty Syrian border town of some 60,000 along the Euphrates, as well the town of Al-Qa’im across the Iraqi line. My guess is that the execution took place in Abu Kamal.

Abu Kamal in relation to Syria and Iraq. L: Map of areas of control in Syria as of July 2014 (Institute for the Study of War, US); R: Map of the Syria-Iraq border at the Euphrates River (Wikileaks)

Abu Kamal in relation to Syria and Iraq. L: Map of areas of control in Syria as of July 2015 (Institute for the Study of War, US); R: Map of the Syria-Iraq border at the Euphrates River (WikiNews)

Da’ish’s Euphrates state has long been a busy source of propaganda. Isdarat — the ISIS imitation YouTube channel — put up a glossy video today, produced by the Euphrates state, on “messages from Muslims in the lands of the unbelievers.” Another JustPaste page today posted pictures from a Euphrates-state training session about “Lessons on preaching” (or “missionary work,” or “advocacy”), apparently for confronting the great unbelieving Abroad. No specifics about the agenda, but there’s an implicit parallel between enemies without and within. Some ISIS blogs show photos from the training session and the execution together, as though the participants went straight from the tutorial to the killing.

Probably they did. Reports of Da’ish executions for homosexual acts have accelerated, with a spurt in June and July (around the time of the US Supreme Court marriage ruling, a huge headline across the Arab world), then the unconfirmed murder of nine people in Mosul on August 22, two days before the UN Security Council’s notorious meeting on the topic. There are many things we don’t know: for instance, whether the killings themselves have intensified, or simply Da’ish’s publicity around them. In late July, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi forbade Islamic State groups from releasing exceptionally gruesome execution videos, apparently realizing such imagery was sullying the movement’s image. Still images weren’t covered by the ban; but each photo released now implies a certain calculation, someone in Da’ish’s chaotic structure deciding its propaganda value trumps disadvantages. The publicity itself thus politicizes death. It suggests that executing the “people of Lot” is morphing from a religious duty for Da’ish into a political tool, another mode of defying its enemies. And my strong feeling is that the Security Council’s noisy, impotent rhetoric can only make things worse.

What exactly was the point again of putting LGBT victims of ISIS under the symbolic protection of the United States, and invoking the UN Security Council to save them?  It only makes sense if there is something the US and UN can, and will, do. The Security Council has done nothing, nor are they going to do anything. America’s protean strategies on ISIS get rephrased, repackaged, and re-spun daily, but the lavish expense of words and money has no effect on anything that happens on the ground. Three reports this week indicate the depth of American uselessness. Intelligence analysts claim that senior military officials deliberately distorted their findings, to persuade Obama and those around him that the war on ISIS is going far better than it is. US airstrikes, the strategy of choice, continue to kill civilians in ISIS-controlled areas, alienating publics already primed, in many cases, to loathe and fear American action. And a $500 million Defense Department program to train 5,400 Syrians to take up arms against ISIS has only “four or five” fighters left in the field. The Obama administration talks about rescuing the gays, but it’s all publicity for a domestic audience. Those who suffer because of this self-indulgent charade are voiceless, voteless, and a long way away.

ISIS is a low-hanging wasps’ nest. Poking it with a stick is dangerous unless you have a clear plan for dealing with the consequences. This is no less true when the ones with the stick won’t be the ones stung.

Da'ish soldiers at a checkpoint in Abu Kamal, from a page of the Euphrates state at

Da’ish soldiers at a checkpoint in Abu Kamal, from a propaganda page of the Euphrates state at

New killings: ISIS answers the UN Security Council

Iraqi News wrote yesterday that one of its sources, in the occupied northern province of Ninawah (Nineveh), told them:

[G]unmen belonging to ISIS threw on Sunday nine civilians from the top of a high building in the city of Mosul after being accused of homosexuality.”

The source, who asked anonymity, added: “ISIS militants rounded up a number of citizens in the city to see the implementation of the judgment of the so-called Shariah judge.”

I can’t call this report “confirmed,” though “confirming” Da’ish horrors mainly means finding the self-advertisements on social media. However, Tweets like these, showing at least one person’s execution, started spreading from Da’ish-affiliated accounts on Saturday night:

Daish tweets

The tweets are nearly identical: “Applying the rightful judgment on one who committed the deeds of the people of Lot,” Left hashtag: #ProvinceOfNinawah. Right hashtags (roughly): #Shari’a #OurGod #Noor #ItRemains #ItSpreads #ItWillGainStrength #ByTheWillOfGod

Those photos were originally posted on August 22 on Justpaste, a site the Islamic State uses for atrocity advertising. The page says it belongs to Da’ish’s “Information office for the Province of Ninawah.” Here they are, full-size:


Caption: “Gathering of Muslims to see the judgment applied on one who committed the deeds of the people of Lot”


Caption: “Applying the rightful judgment on one who committed the deeds of the people of Lot”

My guess is that either Iraqi News got the date wrong and the executions happened Saturday, or there were running executions (perhaps of more than nine people all told) from Saturday through Sunday.

If it’s true, nine people are a lot to kill. I believe it’s the the largest number that Da’ish has murdered at one time for “sodomy.” I don’t wish to read too much into furtive words, but Iraqi News‘ source seems to suggest the men were rounded up quickly upon some urgent mandate.  It’s hard not to suspect this wave of killing was a pre-emptive answer to Monday’s UN Security Council meeting on gays and ISIS — which was making headlines in both Western and Arab media fully nine days earlier.

My fear (I wrote two days ago) was that “the Security Council will only give more impetus to murder”: that ISIS, provoked by the ill-considered publicity around this move, would slaughter more people. I hope I’ll be disproven; I’d dearly love not to be right. But I’m afraid I am.

In any case, these killings show (as I suspect Da’ish meant them to show) that the Security Council can’t do anything to save lives. Which again raises the question: why bring this to the Security Council? Why take the risk, if there’s no benefit for those in danger? Before the meeting, the US promised it would “examine what kinds of protections are needed for LGBT individuals, what the international community needs to do to stop the scourge of prejudice and violence, and – related to this – how to advance equality and dignity, even in conflict zones”: as well as “the multiple political, military, and social lines of effort needed to degrade and destroy” ISIS. So far as I can see, none of this came up. “Change begins by working to stop attacks against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity,” US ambassador Samantha Power told the meeting, without any hints for how to jumpstart this in Mosul. Most states made the usual vague promises, bland and undemanding. People are still dying.

It’s dangerous to pretend we know what to do when we don’t.

The most substantive proposals to come out of Monday’s meeting were by Jessica Stern, the head of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). Jessica is an old colleague, of course, and she was at her analytical best here, but notice something about her five points:

  1. All UN agencies in Iraq and Syria must have tailored LGBTI programming.
  2. UNHCR and governments must continue to act with urgency for those most in need of relocation.
  3. The Government of Iraq should remove barriers to access to direct services and justice.
  4. The Government of Iraq must respect freedom of expression and allow independent radio stations to operate.
  5. Donors must fund initiatives by LGBTI Iraqis and Syrians and by their allies. Resources should support immediate needs, like safe houses and psychosocial support, and long-term rights-based initiatives and norm building.

These are important proposals, but not one is about people living under the control of the Islamic State. They’re addressed to the UN and the Iraqi government, which don’t and can’t operate in ISIS-controlled territory. These proposals (especially the recommendation to the High Commission on Refugees to resettle victims, something that needs to be said over and over and over) will help people who escape — but not those trying to survive in the territory Da’ish rules.

So we’re left with excellent ideas for the rest of Iraq, but no solution for the ISIS killings. Nobody has a strategy for ISIS, though some governments serve up feel-good stories that give the illusion progress is being made. And promising “security” when you can’t provide it — provoking Da’ish with publicity when we have no way to deal with the consequences — may be an inadvertent invitation to murder.

Da'ish fighter in Mosul after the group seized control of the Iraqi city in 2014. Photo by Reuters

Da’ish fighter in Mosul after the group seized control of the Iraqi city in 2014. Photo by Reuters

The UN Security Council debates gays and ISIS: Why this is a bad idea

Photo from an Islamic State Facebook account: from Vice

Photo from an Islamic State Facebook account, republished by Vice

I. Questions

On August 18, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL or by its Arabic acronym, Da’ish) assaulted history. They beheaded an 82 year-old archaeologist, the resident expert on the ruins in the occupied city of Palmyra. Two days earlier, on August 16, Syrian government warplanes assaulted daily life; Assad’s pilots bombed a crowded market in the rebel-held town of Douma, near Damascus. They killed at least 96 people; hundreds more were wounded.

Here is a Google summary of searches worldwide for “Douma” and “Palmyra” over the past week. (I’m sorry for the graphs; they’re dull when so much shiny gore is available online.)

Worldwide Screen shot 2015-08-22 at 10.25.35 PMYou see a small crest of interest in Douma at first, like a stone dropped in a swimming pool; but Palmyra’s a tsunami. And when you look up searches for “Assad” and “ISIS” last week, it’s like a local creek against the Euphrates:

Screen shot 2015-08-22 at 10.33.36 PMStrange disproportion: one death trumps one hundred, depending on who did it. ISIS has become a malignant fetish that crowds out other realities. We live in a world of manifold atrocities; but our minds, hooked like a perverse fanzine, are all Da’ish, all the time.

On Monday at the United Nations, the United States and Chile are hosting an informal meeting of the Security Council, to discuss Da’ish — and how it has “targeted one particular community with seeming impunity and scant international attention: LGBT individuals, and those perceived to be LGBT.” That’s from the US note inviting other states to the session. The meeting will “examine what kinds of protections are needed for LGBT individuals, what the international community needs to do to stop the scourge of prejudice and violence, and – related to this – how to advance equality and dignity, even in conflict zones.” And then the US and Chile “hope to discuss the multiple political, military, and social lines of effort needed to degrade and destroy” ISIS.

I interviewed dozens of LGBT Iraqis in 2009, and I’ve been in contact with scores more since. I’d never deny this is an issue of utmost urgency (just as I don’t scant the horror of an elderly archaeologist’s vicious execution). Refugees from Syria and Iraq will speak at the meeting; their voices deserve to be heard. But who’ll be listening?

Whom will this help? If you know Iraq, you have to ask: can Obama really stop the murders? I question the wisdom of letting the US and the Security Council set themselves up now as standard-bearers against these atrocities. How much is this driven by a strategy to help LGBT people, and how much by that uncontrollable tidal wave of fear and fascination over Da’ish that sweeps along governments and NGOs like flotsam, drowning every other event or context? Is there a plan, or is everybody just happy to ride the panic?

At best, the meeting will be useless. It’ll lead to that indolent repletion where people feel they’ve acted when they’ve actually done nothing. At worst, it’s going to cause more killings.

Man accused of

Man accused of “sodomy” thrown from a roof in the Syrian city of al-Taqaba in March 2015; photo collected from ISIS media by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

II. Strategy

NGOs mostly live by words; and the Obama administration shares with them a touching faith that history is made by merely talking about history. “This will be a historic meeting,” American Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power told reporters last week. “It will be the first Security Council meeting on LGBT rights.”

The administration went all out in the media for the historic meeting, getting Frank Bruni to promote it in his New York Times column — “American officials involved in it arranged for me to talk” to participants, Bruni wrote. He hit the same notes:

[It’s] the first time that the council has held a meeting of any kind that’s dedicated to the persecution of L.G.B.T. people, according to Samantha Power … And it’s an example, she told me, of a determined push by the United States and other countries to integrate L.G.B.T. rights into all discussions of human rights by international bodies like the U.N.

It’s cheap to make fun of “discussions,” and the things endlessly integrated into them. Remember: “Jaw-jaw always is better than war-war,” said Winston Churchill. On ISIS, though, Obama’s strategy is to try both. He jaw-jaws about human rights, and drops bombs.

The bomb-dropping is pretty much the limit of his abilities on the military side; after the murderous mess the US already made of Iraq, there is neither capacity nor will for any on-the-ground intervention. But the bombs give the US neither control nor leverage over what happens inside territory it thinks of as distant targets. The military action is completely disconnected from the human rights talk. And History, so blithely invoked by Power, suggests the disconnect goes deeper. The massive 1970-73 US bombing campaign against Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge only made the insurgent army more radical, its indifference to human life more drastic.

Smoke rises from Kobane after a US airstrike, October 18, 2015. Photo: Getty

Smoke rises from Kobane after a US airstrike, October 18, 2015. Photo: Getty

Moreover, the bombs haven’t worked even in military terms. Da’ish is trying to build state structures in the areas it controls, but it’s quite capable of folding them up like lawn chairs, reverting to guerrilla mode, and melting into the landscape. “Skillful in dispersing their men and hiding their equipment,” Patrick Cockburn writes, they’re hard to target. As of October 2014 “The air campaign of the US-led coalition had sent out 6600 missions, but of these only 632, or just 10 percent of the total, resulted in [actual] air strikes against targets on the ground.” Where Da’ish has failed is in a war of fixed positions; digging in around Kobane made them vulnerable. There the US bombed the hell out of them — 700 strikes; 2000 bombs dropped by one squadron alone — and forced their retreat. Yet Kobane was all propaganda for Obama and Major Kong, not a real turning point. Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan note that ISIS’s defeats come “mainly within enemy [ethnic or sectarian] lines rather than in its geostrategic heartlands across Syria and Iraq.” It overstretches trying to conquer Kurdish or Shi’ite areas; it wins when defending its Sunni empire.

In other words, the Obama administration has no real way to counter ISIS’s killings of LGBT people, or most other human rights abuses the group commits. This doesn’t mean it shouldn’t talk about the abuses. But it’s vital not to confuse talk with the ability to act. Discussions aren’t “historic.” Change is. It’s cruel to LGBT people whose lives are at risk to celebrate so gushingly a discussion that has little chance of leading to change.

And there’s where the UN comes in. Since Da’ish captured Mosul fourteen months ago, the Security Council has grappled with a response. The UN is composed of states; it addresses itself to states; it deals with the crimes of insurgent forces mainly by asking states to act. The difficulty of state action against Da’ish is redoubled when one of the states involved, Syria, itself stands accused of war crimes. The Security Council passed a few resolutions about ISIS in the last year. In August 2014, it called for financial sanctions against Da’ish and al-Nusra (the local face of al-Qaeda). The next month, with great fanfare, at a session spangled with kings and presidents and chaired by Obama personally, it demanded that governments suppress the flow of foreign fighters to ISIS. Another vote, in February 2015, tightened the financial screws by banning all trade with Da’ish, including oil smuggling and the traffic in looted antiquities. Meanwhile, foreign recruits still stream to the Levant. And you can gauge the Security Council’s impact by the fact that Da’ish murdered Khaled al-Assad, the Palmyra archeologist, because he refused to reveal the hiding place of antiquities that would rake in a fortune on the market. The illegal trade rolls on.

Obama chairs Security Council meeting on ISIS and global terrorism, September 24, 2014, with Samantha Power behinf him looking studious, and John Kerry looking badly embalmed. Screen capture by

Obama chairs Security Council meeting on ISIS and global terrorism, September 24, 2014, with Samantha Power behind him looking studious, and John Kerry looking embalmed. Screen capture by Scoopnest

The Security Council certainly isn’t contemplating a resolution on Da’ish and LGBT people; Russia would veto it. Nor is this meeting meant to lead to one. It’s a so-called “Arria formula” meeting, named for a Venezuelan diplomat who devised the format in the 1990s: these “are very informal, confidential gatherings” permitting “a frank and private exchange of views.” Or, as one observer says, they allow the Council to “open itself in a very limited way to the outside world.” NGOs are often asked to speak; but member states aren’t obliged to attend. Since early 2014, there have been almost no Arria meetings over ISIS, perhaps reflecting the Security Council’s sense of its own impotence.

The sole concrete outcome to which this particular Arria might contribute is one that seems entirely logical on paper, though off paper it’s fantastic as a Harry Potter outtake. The Security Council could refer ISIS’s crimes to the International Criminal Court (ICC). (Neither Syria nor Iraq has ratified the treaty that founded the ICC,meaning the court has no automatic jurisdiction over acts committed on their territory. But the Security Council can vote a referral, as it did with Mu’ammar Qaddafi in 2011.)  There is mounting pressure for exactly this. A March report by the UN mission in Iraq and the High Commissioner for Human Rights found that ISIS actions “may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and possibly genocide.” The ICC itself is eager to take up a case, any case, outside Africa (its exclusive preoccupation with that continent has led to debilitating charges of racism). Reportedly, it also wants to deal with LGBT issues.

But this won’t happen. There is certainly no question of sending LGBT killings alone to the ICC; any referral would cover a broad range of Da’ish crimes, from brutality against ethnic and religious minorities to the monstrous enslavement of women. Yet an investigation would still face huge political obstacles. Kevin Jon Heller, a professor of international law, notes that “The Security Council can’t just say that the court has jurisdiction over crimes by ISIS and nobody else. The Rome Statute is designed to prevent one-sided referrals.” In other words, a referral would open the Syrian regime to prosecution, probably along with other Syrian rebel groups. Across the border, Iraqi Shi’ite militias and the Iraqi government could also be liable. Russia and China would almost certainly veto any prosecution of their friend Assad. But the US and UK would also resist charges against their Syrian and Iraqi clients –“not least,” as Heller writes, “because it would provide the ICC with a backdoor to prosecuting their nationals for aiding and abetting rebel crimes,” and possibly Iraqi ones.

They all look so secular: this must be freedom! Bashar al-Assad and wife Asma vote in presidential election, 2003. Photo by Getty

They look so secular: this must be freedom! Bashar al-Assad and wife Asma vote in presidential election, 2003. Photo by Getty

If the US did endorse a prosecution of ISIS, it might be politically tainted from the start. In April John Bellinger, a onetime Bush administration legal adviser, penned a New York Times piece, which one advocate called “a compelling case for referral.” It was peculiar. Bellinger wrote:

The United States has reason to be concerned about inappropriate and politicized investigations of the United States and Israel, but the International Criminal Court still has an important role to play in investigating and prosecuting acts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity — all of which have reportedly been committed by the Islamic State.[emphasis added]

What? Bellinger writes almost as if a juicy ISIS trial would be a welcome distraction from any (unlikely) accountability for US abuses in Afghanistan, or Israeli ones in Gaza. His words recall how the Bush regime vehemently rejected the ICC, and indeed pressed client countries to abjure or undermine it. Under Obama, the US has been more flexible: employing the ICC against truculent states like Libya, while still maintaining immunity for itself and its allies. Such pliancy undermines both America’s credibility, and the court’s. In the — purely hypothetical — event that LGBT issues found their way into a US-prompted ICC indictment of ISIS, the contradiction with America’s exemption of itself and exculpation of Israel would be a front-and-center fact throughout the region. A polarization that implicates LGBT lives in power politics, and in the various hypocrisies of US policy, would do little for the safety of LGBT people in Iraq or Syria.

This Arria isn’t going to lead anywhere. There’s no strategy behind it. So why does the US want it now? I can tell you — in another graph.

Screen shot 2015-08-23 at 5.22.32 AM

That shows web searches for “ISIS” and “gay,” versus “ISIS” and “women,” since the start of 2015. The gays hold their own in this surreal competition most months; the spurts come at the points when shocking photos of executions spread on the web. From a woman’s perspective there are two reasons this race is rigged against her. First, gays form a more cohesive constituency, tuning their attention spans together, unlike the diffuse concerns of feminists and other women. Then come the pictures. Even when the New York Times and Human Rights Watch publish terrible, unbearable testimonies of enslaved Yazidi women, those rouse only gentle undulations on the blue line. They lack the power of photographs, the seduction and sheen of the unspeakable seen, the visual vertigo of identification.

And look at the last spurt, the perfect wave for the gays. That came in July, when a flood of awful execution photos was released. The US government attends to headlines. A month later, Samantha Power called the Security Council meeting.

There should be no competition between women’s rights and LGBT rights. But the imbalance in Google and in the government’s response is telling. In a melancholy analysis of `American failures over ISIS, Peter Harling and Sarah Birke write that the US doesn’t have a strategy — “a set of clearly-defined interests and goals achievable with available means.” It only has a narrative: images and gestures woven into a palliative, invented story.

The US … continues to desperately seek ways not to engage seriously with the region’s problems. It has developed a sophisticated narrative about a war on terror than thinly veils the absence of a genuine strategy. …. This is a reflection of broader, deeper trends in the Western political sphere. The policy- making process is increasingly dominated by public relations, as spectacular events prompt a rush to put out statements … [these] later inspire and constrain practical measures that must be made to fit into a narrative rather than into a strategy.

There’s your Security Council fairy tale. Brave Obama, bold leadership, coalition, noble victims, historic first. It’s a beautiful story: except, of course, that US policy is being made by the photos its enemies put out. It’s also clear whose good will Obama wants: gay Americans’, not gay Syrians’ or Iraqis’. Last month, the President announced a revamp of “strategy” against Da’ish: “shifting focus to counter ISIL’s public relations machine while training local forces to sustain progress made on the ground there.” Less bombing, more hearts and minds. But whose hearts and minds?

When Samantha Power wanted to tell her story about LGBT people’s rights, she didn’t call Al Hayat, or Al Jazeera. She didn’t call any media that people pay attention to in Syria or Iraq. Neither she nor the NGOs she works with tried to “counter ISIL’s public relations machine.” She called the New York Times.

Execution of a man for

Execution of a man for “sodomy” in Mosul, January 2015. Caption: “Applying the shari’a verdict on the person who committed the greatest crime.” Photo released on Da’ish social-media accounts

III. Power

If the only problem were Obama’s need for publicity, it wouldn’t matter. I fear, though, that the Security Council will only give more impetus to murder.

“Many have asked what needs to be done about the Islamic state of Iraq and al-sham,” writes Jessica Lewis of the Institute for Understanding War, in an understatement. Everybody has a grand theory of ISIS. I don’t see why I shouldn’t too. After all, I live in a country where the Da’ish franchise operates with increasingly lethal boldness; they kidnap Westerners from neighborhoods where I do my shopping. Proximity might lend an even better claim to expertise than having an air-conditioned office inside the Beltway.

ISIS’s appeal is twofold, and it has to do with power. Lewis observes that Da’ish is both an army and a government, “operating in both military and political spheres.” As an army, it holds loyalties because it gives recruits a personal sense of power that life has largely denied them. As a proto-state, it sustains control because it uses power in ways that, however irrational from outside, seem comparatively coherent to many in the chaos of Iraq and Syria. You assert power by standing up to other powerful people — just as Da’ish’s recruits defy their childhood norms, their governments, and often their families to join the ISIS adventure. For the movement, standing up to the Security Council has no downside; the UN can’t hurt them. To continue a killing campaign that’s been publicly deplored by powerful states in far New York affirms the movement’s own claim to power. Murder says defiantly: Yes, we can. 

Man beheaded in Raqqa for blasphemy, December 2014. Photo from ISIS-affiliated social media

Man beheaded in Raqqa, Syria, for “blasphemy,” December 2014. Caption: “Applying the judgment of God upon one who cursed God.” Photo from Da’ish-affiliated social media

The public character of ISIS’s violence asserts an imaginative authority. Harling and Birke explain:

One of the particularities of the movement calling itself the Islamic State is its investment in the phantasmagorical. It has an instinctive understanding of the value of taking its struggle to the realm of the imagination as the best way to compensate for its real-world limits. … This may explain, in part, how it is increasingly resorting to crimes that are not just horrific but spectacularly staged, such as the immolation of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh or the mise-en-scène of the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts on a Libyan beach. The Islamic State is at its most dangerous in its interaction with the psyche, the fantasies, the frustrations and the fears of others, from the converts it attracts to policy-makers and analysts.

What are these fantasies? That ISIS uses the allure of sex slaves to enlist sex-starved men has become a cliche. “Sexual repression in Muslim communities is the foremost reason behind these terrorist organizations’ popularity,” one analyst says. Sex is “a recruiting tool to lure men from deeply conservative Muslim societies, where casual sex is taboo and dating is forbidden,” the New York Times agrees. (Never mind that some recruits seem to be seeking sexual repression, not fleeing it.) These pop excuses ignore one of feminism’s important insights: that rape is about power, not just sex. To have a sex slave is to have a slave. Da’ish entices less with orgasms than with the delirium of ownership.

Da’ish’s displays of total power attract recruits who want to share in it. But for populations who live under the Islamic State, what makes it tolerable — even attractive — is that its authority is embodied in a legal system. The militias that plagued Iraq in its years of civil war kidnapped victims; corpses turned up days later, skulls pierced by power drills. The Islamic State reflects the rule of law, by contrast, however abhorrent the laws. The relative bureaucratic rationalization under ISIS is part of its state-building aspiration, and of its appeal.

A man is led to execution for “invoking magic” in a village near Raqqa, February 2015. Photo from ISIS-affiliated social media

A man is led to execution in a town near Raqqa, for “invoking magic,” February 2015. Caption: “Applying the judgment of God on a magician in the area of Al-Dbsa in the western section.” Photo from Da’ish-affiliated social media

Although its Western image is one of roving boys enforcing whims, ISIS in fact has three organized police forces: the ordinary police, the squadrons for religious morals called the hisba (seemingly modelled on Saudi Arabia’s fearsome units for promoting virtue and preventing vice), and security services to patrol dissent. Trials, in principle, precede sentences — though Sarah Birke, after interviewing refugees from Da’ish’s Syrian capital in Raqqa, says no one “was sure whether ISIS’s sharia courts actually listen to evidence … several noted that gruesome punishments are sometimes meted out on the spot to instill fear.” The organized state keeps lapsing back into expressions of personal power. And as with the Khmer Rouge, the bombs seem to bring naked violence to the surface.

Some Raqqa residents said that until the US-led air strikes, you were safe if you followed the rules, however perverse, that were posted on walls and circulated quickly by word of mouth. But the air strikes have made ISIS more paranoid and prone to kidnapping people randomly, the women told me.

Da’ish has two faces: the military movement and the nascent government. But both are power; power is their attraction.

Does anyone think that, given an easy chance to affirm its law and write its defiance of the Security Council in blood, Da’ish won’t take it?

Photo allegedly of a 27 year-old man’s hand being amputated for theft, in Da’ish--controlled Raqqa. Photo released by the Syrian group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS).

Photo allegedly of a 27 year-old man’s hand being amputated for theft, in Da’ish–controlled Raqqa. Photo released by the Syrian group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS).

IV. Security

Belief that the Security Council should be the venue for talking LGBT people’s human rights is part of the ever-growing concept of “human security.” It’s a dangerous concept. Before they buy into it, LGBT people need to ask some questions.

Historians of the “human security” idea usually trace it to the UN’s 1994 Human Development Report, which introduced the notion that “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” — from Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms — were critical to global security. From there, the story goes, it was taken up by noble states like Canada and Norway, who built consensus around treating public health, food, and the environment as security concerns. No one knows yet what “human security” means — “Existing definitions,” writes Rolland Paris, “tend to be extraordinarily expansive and vague, encompassing everything from physical security to psychological well-being” — but it’s a Good Thing.

Human security: from Japan’s “Official Development Assistance White Paper 2011” at

Human security: from Japan’s “Official Development Assistance White Paper 2011” at

Human security has roots outside the touchy-feely development field, however. To adopt it as a frame for LGBT rights, or any rights, is to take on this burdensome past. Its real origins lie not in the UN but in the thinking of Cold War security experts, forced to wrestle in the 1990s with a suddenly disorderly world. New threats to governments’ power loomed — ones that were always there, perhaps, but now acquired new menace, bursting free of the bilateral structures of superpower rivalry. They elbowed out the old bogeymen, peasant insurgencies and nuclear wars. David A. Baldwin wrote in 1995:

With the end of the cold war have come numerous suggestions that resources once devoted to coping with military threats now be used to deal with such nonmilitary threats as domestic poverty, educational crises, industrial competitiveness, drug trafficking, crime, international migration, environmental hazards, resource shortages, global poverty, and so on.

Stephen Walt, in a controversial piece from 1991, argued against this expansion of the term — against “making the term ‘security’ so inclusive that it included virtually anything that might affect human welfare.” But his was a losing fight. Soon a plethora of formerly human issues were being rethought as “security” ones. The UN’s happy platitudes merely reflected a sense that to speak in security terms was the only way to get heard.

What defines “human security” is not the demilitarization of security thinking. It’s the militarization of everything else. What isn’t there a “War on” these days? Each problem’s a pretext for exceptional action. (Alex de Waal has written perceptively, for instance, about the dangers of militarized responses to public health crises.) One scholar of international relations identifies “the politics of existential threat” as the core of the new security studies.

The distinguishing feature of securitization is a specific rhetorical structure (“survival,” priority of action “because if not handled now it will be too late, and we will not exist to remedy our failure”). In security discourse an issue is dramatized and presented as an issue of supreme priority, and thus by labeling it “security” an agent claims a need for and a right to treat it by extraordinary means. ….

The gauzy concerns of human security — freedom from want and fear — blend readily into coercion, armed intervention, and emergency repression.

I'm human, what about you? Logo of the Human Security Network

I’m human, what about you? Logo of the Human Security Network

Look at the makeup of the Human Security Network, one of the international flagships for the idea. Norway and Canada launched this grouping of nations back in 1998, on the “principle that the true rights-holders in our world are not states and governments but rather the individuals for whose benefit they exist and in whose interests states are supposed to act.” Current members are Austria, Chile, Costa Rica, Greece, Ireland, Jordan, Mali, Norway, Panama, Slovenia, Switzerland and Thailand; South Africa’s an observer.

What nice countries! Yet when it comes to the American war on terror, many of these take security in less-than-human terms.

Jordan, for instance, has been “a key ‘hub’ in the USA’s secret “renditions” programme,” according to Amnesty International: it jailed and tortured manifold victims en route to “black site” prisons. Ireland is a lovely place, with gay marriage to boot; but it handed Shannon Airport to the CIA, to use as a stopover in sending prisoners off to torture. Thailand hosted a secret prison called “Detention Site Green,” sufficiently awful that nearly all information about it was redacted from the recent US Senate report on torture. And democratic South Africa illegally rendered two terror suspects to torture in Pakistan, in one case handing him to CIA custody first.

The human face of human security is a mask. It covers mid-level states obediently following US orders — and pursuing indigenous agendas of blood and fear. Jordan notoriously will torture just about anybody to protect the state from anything. Canada, until a few years ago, imprisoned sex workers — apparently for their “safety.” And Thailand’s own security paranoia led to a military “war on drugs” starting in 2003: soldiers and cops killed almost 3000 people.

From the Caux Forum for Human Security, Switzerland

From the Caux Forum for Human Security, Switzerland

“Human security,” Rhonda Howard-Hassmann argues, has tense relations with human rights:

the broader view of human security at best repeats, and possibly undermines, the already extant human rights regime, especially by converting state obligations to respect individuals’ inalienable human rights into policy decisions regarding which aspects of human security to protect under which circumstances. … The discourse of human security is not one of state obligations and individual entitlements: it is a discourse that permits states to make choices as to what aspects they wish to protect.

The international obsession with ISIS proves her point. It’s obvious that, however skilled Da’ish is at publicizing its own horrors, the atrocities of Assad’s government dwarf those of the Islamic State. The US and its allies choose to concentrate on the latter, not the former. Parly this is driven by the headlines and the Google searches, by Da’ish’s dominance of the imagination; but it’s also a policy decision. The US believes Assad is on the wane; whereas it sees ISIS as rising, and a major security issue. This may or may not be true, but humanity is utterly at odds with security here. The US does nothing to help Syrians who are dying; and, manipulating ISIS’s death toll as a tool of raison d’état, it does little for Da’ish’s victims either.

Screen shot 2015-08-19 at 11.10.40 PMThis cynicism’s effects show up elsewhere. I live in Egypt, a country where the US has some influence; yet the Obama administration does nothing about arrests and torture of LGBT people – or any of the other human rights violations that have burgeoned under military dictatorship. No Arrias, no indignation. The contrast with Da’ish is depressing. Egypt is not a “security issue”: or rather, Egypt promotes security by torturing and killing people. Prattle about human security only weakens Egypt’s beneficent work bolstering the safety that counts, that of states in a pliant international order.

Increasingly, Western governments are taking on LGBT issues as their foreign-policy concerns, often, like the US, in a framework of “security.” It’s a good deal for LGBT NGOs based in New York or Geneva. They get recognition, and with it funding and power. It’s not always good for LGBT people on the ground who face danger. Their lives are suddenly tangled up with the politics and schemes of governments thousands of miles away. And they can be reviled, punished, killed in consequence.

Dianne Otto, a friend and a feminist scholar of international politics, has written about women’s movements’ decades-long engagement with the UN Security Council, which flowered in four Council resolutions on “women, peace, and security.” Initially critical, she has moved toward cautious optimism. Her analysis demands study by anybody contemplating the Security Council as a home for LGBT rights. She credits feminism with “disrupting the Council’s conservative gender script and prompting remarkable levels of institutional activity.” If feminists succeeded in moving the Council, though, it’s because they never surrendered to its agenda, remaining both intellectually independent and responsive to the grassroots. Their story shows “the critical importance of feminist activism outside institutional control, which can resist the ways that institutions capture feminist ideas and turn them to their own purposes.”

The difference in how diplomats see feminist advocates and how they see LGBT activists is the difference between a movement that’s politically powerful, and one that’s politically useful. Can LGBT politics evade subordination to great-power agendas, “security” frameworks, and exploitation? It’s an open question.

Da'ish executioners throw a man accused of homosexual conduct off a building in Fallujah province, Iraq, June 2015. Photo collected from Da'ish-affiliated social media

Da’ish executioners throw a man accused of “sodomy” off a building in the Al-Jazira region of northeast Syria, apparently in May 2015,. Caption: “Applying the judgment on the one who committed the deeds of the people of Lot.” Photo from Da’ish-affiliated social media

V. What is to be done? 

One thing that will surely be jaw-jawed in the Security Council meeting, and one area where it could lead to constructive action, is increased help for LGBT refugees from Syria and Iraq. LGBT people who have fled to other countries in the region — Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt — still face severe threats there. Two months ago in Egypt, a Syrian refugee was entrapped over the Internet, convicted of homosexual conduct, and eventually deported. The UN High Commission for Refugees has done nothing to protect other LGBT refugees in the country.

These people deserve accelerated resettlement to safe countries, and Security Council members would do well to urge that. Yet to say that LGBT refugees should be processed faster doesn’t mean they should be resettled instead of other refugees. If resettlement becomes a competition, where queers get berths and displace persecuted Christians, or Yazidis, or women, the perceived privilege can only deepen hatred of LGBT refugees. The danger is that Western governments who don’t want Syrians or Iraqis will take a small dollop of LGBT ones, then announce they’ve done their duty, and close their doors. I doubt whether the Security Council — whose permanent members, including the US, have woefully avoided their obligations to refugees — will be sensitive to this danger.

Refugee protections, though, won’t solve the situation in Syria and Iraq. International LGBT groups sometimes assume “helping people” simply means “getting them asylum.” Asylum is a vital human right; but, as I wrote two years ago, “Escape substitutes for protection. The asylum system – unwieldy, prejudiced, deeply flawed — serves as the nearest thing we have to a security plan for the international LGBT movement.” As intractable as the situation may seem, a real “historic step” would entail much more than mere discussions, and more than finding victims an escape hatch.

Da'ish members throw a man accused of

Da’ish executioners throw a man accused of “sodomy” off a building, apparently in Homs, Syria, June 2015. Photo from Da’ish-affiliated social media

LGBT people’s rights can’t be lopped from the full context of the violence in Iraq and Syria. But this means recognizing the utter failure of the “security”-based solutions the US has promoted. We invaded Iraq at the behest of our own security state. We rebuilt a security state in Baghdad, and it imploded. Another security state sprang up under ISIS (Da’ish, Sarah Birke found, imposes its will mainly “by security services, just as it was under the Baathist regime in Iraq and continues to be in Assad’s Syria”). It may implode too, or its violence may keep it going. But the US, with its CV of disasters, can do little to hasten its disappearance.

Timidly I offer one specific and one general solution — and the US can’t do much about either. Those targeted as the “people of Lot” in Iraq and Syria aren’t large populations. They need places where they can live quietly, without being “out” in any Western way, without daily state harassment, and with some protection from violence in families or communities. They need to be left alone. To get the governments to leave people alone would entail engaging with Iraqi (and Syrian) opinion on sexuality in ways that no state or international NGO has done so far, and furthering the very limited elite sympathy for LGBT victims that years of violence (especially in Iraq) elicited. It might involve finding tacit enclaves where let-alone policy was possible; parts of pacified Southern Iraq or Kurdistan could do, though such areas, already purged to extirpate diversity, would look with suspicion on Sunni or Arab migrants respectively. It’s all a long shot, but it’s also the best realistic hope for most lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

Protesters carry national flags and an electric fan in Baghdad, August 7, 2015. Photo by Karim Kadim/AP

Protesters carry national flags and an electric fan in Baghdad, August 7, 2015. Photo by Karim Kadim/AP

More generally, the security model needs to go. Iraqis and Syrians want safety — from Da’ish, from militias, from common criminals, from bomb-mad militaries, and from the corrupt police. They also want governments that protect them from sickness and hunger. This month Iraqis are protesting, in 120-degree heat, for the state to furnish enough electricity to run air conditioners. We need to stop “integrating” welfare into a framework of security issues, and instead see security as a small part of the spectrum of welfare issues. New thinking about the state, a revival of welfare as the goal of government, must emerge from the dust and gore.

Writing just after 9/11, Giorgio Agamben described how, with welfare states surrendering to the assault of neoliberalism, governments found renewed legitimacy in fear:

In the course of a gradual neutralization of politics and the progressive surrender of traditional tasks of the state, security becomes the basic principle of state activity. What used to be one among several definitive measures of public administration until the first half of the twentieth century, now becomes the sole criterium of political legitimation. The thought of security bears within it an essential risk. A state which has security as its sole task and source of legitimacy is a fragile organism; it can always be provoked by terrorism to become itself terroristic. … European and American politicians finally have to consider the catastrophic consequences of uncritical general use of this figure of thought.

The catastrophe is nowhere more evident than in the Arab lands; the imported security-state model brought nothing but disintegration and death. LGBT people are among the innumerable victims. Resort to the Security Council will not help them. Securitizing rights under the aegis of foreign action only pits the victims permanently against the communities they come from. The New York discussions will continue, unstanched, unstoppable. So will the killings.

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The UN Security Council chamber. The weird mural by Per Krogh depicts a phoenix rising from the ashes, and figures in various conspiracy theories as a product of Kabbalists, Illuminati, or Satan

The UN Security Council chamber. The weird mural by Per Krogh depicts a phoenix rising from the ashes, and figures in various conspiracy theories as the work of Kabbalists, Illuminati, or Satan.

Paper Bird: Three years old and growing

Origami Wren by Roman Diaz, folded by Gilad Aharoni: from

Origami Wren by Roman Diaz, folded by Gilad Aharoni: from

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It’s midway through this month of fundraising for A Paper Bird. Please consider giving $5, $10, $100 — whatever you can – to keep us going strong.

If you visit this site regularly, you’ll agree: it gives a bit more than most blogs do. That’s why it’s been cited, and praised, from the New York Times to the Nation

It shines light on injustice. News about the crackdown on trans and gay people in Egypt has largely spread from here: we’ve been an indispensable source for journalists and human rights activists alike, inside and outside Egypt. We helped stoke the storm of indignation that freed 26 men in the most publicized Egyptian “debauchery” trial – an unprecedented victory.

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It asks the hard questions. What’s the real impact when the World Bank links preventing maternal mortality to LGBT rights? How do Western leaders’ bold promises to defend queer Africans play out on the ground? What does it mean when “vulture fund” bankers support gay marriage internationally? What are the hard choices we make in fighting for free speech?

This blog is still mainly solo work. I want it to become something bigger, more wide-ranging. Your generosity can help fund some of my own research and travel. If worse comes to worst, it can pay my legal fees in Egypt. But it can also:

  • Support some of the people who have been helping with research and translation (from Russian, Arabic, Farsi,and Hindi, and more) out of sheer dedication – but who deserve something more.
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I misremember Iraq

1369847707_4085_memoryEveryone misremembers something. We mostly draw our lives’ meaning from the private world, so we tend to misremember sex: doing it better than we did, with somebody sexier than they were. Many of my own mismemories involve the media. I’ve a vivid visual memory, for instance, of walking down a car-free Fifth Avenue around 10:15 on a Tuesday morning in September 2001, eyes numbly fixed on an billowing void at the tip of Manhattan where the south tower of the World Trade Center had been (somebody running past told me it had gone down, but I didn’t believe it); the north tower was burning alongside and then I watched it collapse, thundering down slowly while dust and smoke blossomed like a flower on fire. Except I didn’t watch that. Just before it crumbled, I turned onto 27th Street, to a hotel where some of my employees visiting town were staying; that’s why I was on the avenue — racing to make sure they were all right; and a girl rushed into the lobby and gasped that the south tower had fallen. The image of the collapse, replayed on TV for weeks, imposed itself on what I actually witnessed like a double exposure; something a camera saw for me, scrawled in a palimpsest over what I saw.

518-pjpegThings like this give me sympathy for Brian Williams. You all know: the newsman claimed repeatedly that, during the Iraq invasion in 2003, enemy fire downed his helicopter. “We landed very quickly and hard and we put down and we were stuck, four birds in the middle of the desert and we were north out ahead of the other Americans. … Our captain took a purple heart injury to his ear in the cockpit, but we were alone.” So vivid; such grunty language; not a word true. His helicopter wasn’t hit, one way ahead of him was. Williams was safe and sound.

 Williams tells his tale on the David Letterman Show. Italian subtitles apparently added in case he wants to seek Papal indulgence.

I feel for his confusion. If my own memories get mixed up with what the media tells me, then what about the media’s own memories? Those talking heads are conduits for all the stories the public knows. So don’t all the stories become theirs, part not just of their talk but of their heads too? Don’t American anchormen contain multitudes, like Walt Whitman — their lives absorbing by imperial osmosis all the unused experience around them, trivial and forgettable until filmed and told? I remember (I think) a story about Lyndon Johnson, Caesar of another of our imperial wars. Setting off to Camp David, striding the White House lawn toward a line of helicopters, he headed for the wrong one. A nervous Marine intercepted him: “Mr. President, that’s not your helicopter.” Johnson draped his arm around the soldier’s shoulder. “They’re all my helicopters, son.”

What I don’t get is why this is an issue. Williams made up a story. But he was in the middle of the most fantastic made-up story in American history. The Iraq war, written by Bush with a little help from Tony Blair and Micronesia and Poland, was a gigantic fiction, as beautifully told and expressive of the moment’s cultural mythology as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, or A Million Little Pieces, or Three Cups of Tea. The reasons were fake, the goals were fake, the triumph was fake. Nothing was true except the dead people, who aren’t talking. The war countered imaginary threats and villainies with imaginary victories and valor. Williams added his embroidery in the spirit of invention. Why are the other tale-spinners turning on him now?

Authorized American history of the Iraq war

Authorized American history of the Iraq war

The story of Williams’ little story is all personal now, background blacked out: it’s not about the war or the news business, it’s about Brian Williams. This is consistent with Williams’ career, built on the purely personal trust you can repose in words escaping that imposing lower jaw. The New York Times says he 

long had been considered one of the most trusted people in not only in [sic] the news business but in the country as a whole. He was trusted by about three-quarters of consumers, making him the 23rd-most-trusted person in the country.

But where does that confidence come from? I remember (I think) reading a terrifying linguistic analysis of Iraq war TV coverage, terrifying because its prose made the analysis sound like a high-tech military campaign. (“Activating the partition, that parameter becomes the pivot from which further exploration can move, that is, we can make comparisons within the corpus on the basis of the selected parameter” …) One chapter was: “The news presenter as socio-cultural construct.” Here I brightened. My sexuality and gender are already social constructs; will Katie Couric join them? Alas, all this means is that “the news presenter creates a socially acceptable persona.” But buried in that bland description is the reality. Williams, like the modern news business, is a construct of his audience. He challenges nobody: he sensitively serves up fictions they long to see and hear.

Why is it a scandal when Williams admits misrepresenting himself, but not when NBC admits misrepresenting the world? Why isn’t the scandal that NBC’s Tim Russert said, before the Iraq war, ‘‘I’m a journalist, but first, I’m an American. Our country is at war with the terrorists, and as an American, I support the effort wholeheartedly’’?  Why isn’t the scandal that CBS’s Dan Rather promised, ‘‘George Bush is the president. As just one American, wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where’’? The belief that war journalism was about fealty, not fact, came to infect every sentence said on air. The same linguistic study analyzed CBS broadcasts during the Iraq invasion, and here are snippets to set the mood:

They [US soldiers] gave the last full measure of devotion to their country. We honour their memories and send our condolences to their families … (March 21, 2003 CBS)

Just ahead on the CBS evening news, ties that bind: fathers and sons, duty, honour, country and war … (April 1, 2003)

When President Bush sent American servicemen and women to war, the entire nation went with them … (April 4, 2003)

We dedicate this broadcast to our fellow Americans who have died fighting in the war so far … (April 7, 2003)

The scandal is journalism’s complete submission, as the “war on terror” raged, to the fantasies of patriotic allegiance.

War boy: Dan Rather doing his duty

War boy: Dan Rather doing his duty

Some of us remember this capitulation (or think we do) and we’re likely to blame government pressure. And the Bush administration did lean hard on the press. Just a month after 9/11, they reprimanded TV networks that had dared to air videos from Al-Qaeda. David Dadge, in The War in Iraq and Why the Media Failed Us, writes that Condoleezza Rice

placed a conference call with the media executives of ABC News, CBS News, CNN, Fox News Channel, and NBC. Rice told the executives that security personnel were worried at the inflammatory language of the videotapes and feared that they might contain hidden codes with which to direct other attacks on American soil. … At that point, Rice withdrew from the conference call allowing the media executives to discuss the matter on their own.

In their discussion, the media executives agreed that, in future, the videotapes would be heavily edited and greater context would be provided. … The President of CBS News, Andrew Heyward, said, ‘‘This is a new situation, a new war, and a new kind of enemy. Given the historic events we are enmeshed in, it’s appropriate to explore new ways of fulfilling our responsibilities to the public.’’

Strategic insight. Tactical solutions. Useful lies: Website of the Rendon Group

Strategic insight. Tactical solutions. Useful lies: Website of the Rendon Group

New ways! … Meanwhile, the administration had its own propaganda machine, untraceably intricate. According to James Bamford’s book on Bush-era abuses of intelligence, “a shadowy American company, the Rendon Group” was “paid close to $200 million by the CIA and Pentagon to spread anti-Saddam propaganda worldwide.”

Soon after the attacks of September 11, the company received a $100,000-a-month contract from the Pentagon to offer media strategy advice. Among the agencies to whom it provided recommendations was the Orwellian-sounding Office of Strategic Influence … apparently intended to be a massive disinformation factory.

In the 1990s, Rendon had helped create the Iraqi National Congress, the front for con-man Ahmed Chalabi to promote himself as Saddam’s successor. Come 2001, Chalabi called on a former Rendon employee — Australian journalist Paul Moran — to generate bogus news stories about “bunkers for chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons research hidden throughout Iraq.” Chalabi wielded these stories to push any wavering Bush officials toward war. In other words, the administration was paying for propaganda to lobby itself.

Ahmed Chalabi, with completely inexplicable object

Ahmed Chalabi, with completely inexplicable object

Yet it’s a mistake to suppose state pressure was the main factor corrupting US media. The internal logic of news as business was what shut down their critical functions.

I remember (I think) a brief, brief window after 9/11 when some on-air independence was possible. I remember (I think) a broadcast on CBS, probably September 13 or 14, where an Afghan civilian displayed some of the devastation Clinton’s 1998 missile strikes caused. The message was that a history of violent action and reaction underlay the attacks; the implication, that Americans should also examine what their own government had done. I remember (I think) remarks on TV suggesting that the President’s September 11 speech, where he faced the camera panicked as a rabbit being fucked by a howitzer, displayed a lamentable default of leadership. These glimmers of critique shut down after Bush bestrode the ruins of Ground Zero with a bullhorn, hugging firefighters and walking tall. They shut down mainly because the proprietors of news saw, in that image of rejuvenated manhood, what sold.

Bullshit, with bullhorn: Bush in New York City, September 14, 2001

Bullshit, with bullhorn: Bush in New York City, September 14, 2001

They needed to sell. Broadcast media were besieged by the increasing popularity of cable news outlets, Fox first among them. Print media were beleaguered by the Internet and the near-impossibility of making web platforms pay. Competition didn’t cause better news-gathering. In keeping with the pattern of corporate restructuring in the neoliberal era, it prodded cost-cutting, not product improvement. Foreign news suffered most. Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber write, “The time devoted to foreign coverage on ABC, CBS and NBC fell from 4,032 minutes in 1989 to 1,382 in 2000, rebounding only slightly following the 9/11 attacks to 2,103 minutes in 2002.” Cable news was even worse.

CNN by 1995 had a news-gathering network worldwide of only 20 bureaus, with 35 correspondents outside the United States—“only half of what the BBC has had for a long time to cover world events on radio and television” and “only a fraction of what the three largest international newswire services maintain on a permanent basis.”

From Network (1976): Arthur Jensen explains to anchorman Howard Beale how the business works

But if behemoths like Fox News were one kind of competition, there was rivalry from below. I remember (I think) all the laudatory screeds proclaiming blogs the new frontier of Truth — faster, fresher, interactive, untrammelled by editorial control. For “citizen media,” the citizen media told us back in 2004,

News is a conversation, not just a lecture. The story doesn’t end when it’s published, but rather just gets started as the public begins to do its part — discussing the story, adding to it, and correcting it.

The participatory ideal meant, of course, the blogger didn’t have to do her own checking or correcting. Fake facts would flood the world.

Dodging more imaginary bullets: The Village Voice on the right-wing blogosphere, 2008

Dodging more imaginary bullets: The Village Voice on the right-wing blogosphere, 2008

Back then, blogs were novel. Michael Massing wrote with astonishment in 2005 about a “technological innovation that, along with the rise of talk radio and cable news, has made the conservative attack on the press particularly damaging …. Internet Web logs, which allow users to beam their innermost thoughts throughout the world, take no longer than a few minutes to set up.… many of them are by adolescent girls writing their diaries on-line.” But some were influential, and most were conservative. One pro-blog blog speculated:

Imagine, say, the coverage of Watergate being treated in part this way. Rather than Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward being the sole storytellers, blog-influenced journalism would have had them in part leading a conversation about the scandal … I suspect that a Watergate investigation in the blog era would have come to a conclusion faster.

I remember (I think) the Nixon administration in its conceit and power, and I doubt a “conversation” would have done the trick. Unpaid bloggers would have given up, discredited or ignored. Citizen journalism didn’t usually fight the status quo. More typical was Andrew Sullivan, who thanked God for giving us George W, and famously inveighed against “terrorist fellow-travellers” and “the decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts.” Blogs denigrated dissent with glib, factitious certainty, while forcing a cornered mainstream media to come up with low-cost, easy stories to tell.

“A disciplined and well-organized news and opinion campaign” brought the press to heel, Massing declared, “directed by conservatives and the Christian right.” Paul Krugman, in 2004, pointed to “the role of intimidation” in silencing criticism. “If you were thinking of saying anything negative about the president, you had to be prepared for an avalanche of hate mail. You had to expect right-wing pundits and publications to do all they could to ruin your reputation.”  I remember (I think) a short essay by Susan Sontag in late September 2001 that asserted simply:

This was not a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “liberty” or “humanity” or “the free world” but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions … A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened.

Sullivan answered by calling her “contemptible” and a “pretentious buffoon”; others dubbed her “moral idiot” and “traitor.” The New Republic asked, “What do Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Susan Sontag have in common?” Historical awareness was an orphan in the new permanent now.

Terror threesome: Osama, Saddam, and Susan

Terror threesome: Osama, Saddam, and Susan

No one idealizes the hierarchical old media, but the faux-democracy of new media, where a thousand schools of thought supposedly contend, is in fact even more malleable to the market’s mandates. As war impended, the press ignored unpopular voices:

From Steve Rendall and Tara Broughel,

From Steve Rendall and Tara Broughel, “Amplifying Officials, Squelching Dissent,” Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), October 2003

While Williams dodged imaginary bullets in Iraq, his employers axed Phil Donahue’s talk show because, an internal network report warned, he presented a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. . . . He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives.” The show risked becoming “a home for the liberal anti-war agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.” Meanwhile, the US dropped murderous cluster bombs, and laced munitions with poisonous depleted uranium. “These important stories,” writes Norman Solomon of the Institute for Public Accuracy, “became known to many news watchers on several continents. But not in the United States.”

When CBS obtained the infamous Abu Ghraib torture photos, the Pentagon asked them to spike or delay the story; the network complied for two weeks. A CBS executive later explained, “We are like every other American. We want to win this war. We believe in the country.’’ When the pictures finally aired, right-wing media bayed in fury. ‘‘CBS should be ashamed for running the photos,” National Review’s Jonah Goldberg wrote: “What was gained by releasing these images now? CBS could have reported the story without the pictures.’’ (A decade later, the identical Goldberg complained that news outlets were not publishing the offending Charlie Hebdo cartoons. “Running satirical pictures of Mohammed,” he intoned, “is now a requirement of news reporting — because those images are central to the story.”)

TV viewers got plenty of patriotic music, though.

MSNBC joined Fox in using the Pentagon’s own code name for the war—“Operation Iraqi Freedom.” The logos featured fluttering American flags or motifs involving red, white and blue. … Promos for MSNBC featured a photo montage of soldiers accompanied by a piano rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Then there was “embedding,” cementing friendly journalists in military units. Thrilling as Space Mountain, it kept reporters secure in the propaganda cocoon. Michael Massing devastatingly dissected the work of one embeddee, the Washington Post’s Pamela Constable. “I quickly became part of an all-American military microcosm” in Fallujah, Constable wrote, with the Iraqi enemy “invisible” and the residents “frustratingly beyond our reach.”

Local informant: Constable cradles Apache, a dog she rescued while embedded with Marines in Fallujah. Photo by Chris Borouncle

Local informant: Constable cradles Apache, a dog she rescued while embedded with Marines in Fallujah. Photo by Chris Borouncle

I strained to listen for signs of humanity in the darkened city. I imagined holocaust—city blocks in flames, families running and screaming. But the only sounds were the baying of frightened dogs and the indecipherable chanting of muezzins, filling the air with a soft cacophony of Koranic verse. … We knew people were running out of food, and we heard rumors of clinics flooded with the dead and wounded. But the few Fallujans we encountered were either prisoners with handcuffed wrists and hooded heads, or homeowners waiting sullenly for their houses to be searched, or refugees timidly approaching military checkpoints with white flags … Sometimes on patrols, people approached us reporters and pleaded for help in Arabic, but there was nothing we could do.

Massing commented:

Al-Jazeera, by contrast, had a correspondent and crew inside the city, and several times a day they were filing dramatic reports of the fighting. According to their accounts, the US bombing was causing hundreds of civilian casualties plus extensive physical destruction. As for what Constable took to be the Koranic chantings of the muezzin, Arabic speakers could tell that these were actually urgent appeals for ambulances and calls on the local population to rise up and fight the Americans. So while Arab viewers were getting independent (if somewhat sensationalized) reports from the field, Americans were getting their news filtered through the Marines.

Embedded, of course, is what Brian Williams was during his fantasy brush with death. This illumines the last key tool in the propagandization of US press: personal melodrama replaced analysis. If Al-Jazeera sensationalized the situation, US media sensationalized the individual story. There was no big picture. The war was a pointillistic canvas of feel-good or feel-frightened tales, politics and context painted over.

Still from video of special forces

Still from video of special forces “rescuing” Private Jessica Lynch. Image: Associated Press

One story is still emblematic. In March 2003, Iraqi troops captured Private Jessica Lynch, a 19 year-old from Palestine, West Virginia. American officials claimed she was wounded in a heroic fight, firing her weapon down to the last bullet. US special forces rescued her eight days later from a hospital in Nasriyah; dramatic footage of the mission was broadcast worldwide.

Newsweek cover, April 14, 2003

Newsweek cover, April 14, 2003

Except, as David Dadge writes, “Lynch had not been wounded, she had not been tortured, and the raid by the Navy Seals was staged for the cameras. Indeed, her injuries were entirely consistent with a road traffic incident.” It took the BBC, not US media, to unravel the story: “one of the most stunning pieces of news management ever conceived.”

Witnesses told us that the special forces knew that the Iraqi military had fled a day before they swooped on the hospital. “We were surprised. Why do this? There was no military, there were no soldiers in the hospital,” said Dr Anmar Uday, who worked at the hospital. … “They cried ‘go, go, go’, with guns and blanks without bullets, blanks and the sound of explosions. They made a show for the American attack on the hospital — action movies like Sylvester Stallone or Jackie Chan.” …

The Pentagon had been influenced by Hollywood producers of reality TV and action movies, notably the man behind Black Hawk Down, Jerry Bruckheimer. Bruckheimer advised the Pentagon on the primetime television series “Profiles from the Front Line”, that followed US forces in Afghanistan in 2001. That approached [sic] was taken on and developed on the field of battle in Iraq.

Surreally, the movie that became news became another movie. Networks besieged Lynch to buy the rights to her story. CBS came in for especially harsh criticism for chasing a film deal while seeking a news interview — giving them a vested interest in not unearthing the truth. The onetime sacrosanct news division shrank to an extension of the entertainment arm. Even Lynch’s hometown newspaper objected: “The need for journalistic independence should be self-evident. Reporters have a hard enough time trying to get to the truth without having to worry about spoiling a book deal.” The military version, debunked, still became an NBC TV movie: Saving Jessica Lynch.

Based on the not-true story

Based on the not-true story

All the elements of  Brian Williams’ fable are there: danger, rescue, rhetoric. It’s as if Williams took Lynch as a pattern for his lie.

Williams himself has been central to transforming news into personal narrative. He’s expert at making himself the story, assiduously chasing celebrity. He’s vital to NBC’s brand, even the entertainment division – think his cameos on 30 Rock. The “ultra-viral supercuts of Williams’s newscasts” that his pal Jimmy Fallon sets to hip-hop tracks have “viewer metrics that rival Williams’s marquee hard news interview with Edward Snowden.” Walter Cronkite polled as the most trusted man in America (22 notches above Williams) back in the 1970s. But it’s hard to imagine him playing himself on Family Guy.

Then and now. L: Walter Cronkite reports on space exploration in the 1960s. R: Brian Williams reports on Peter Griffin's accidental space shuttle launch.

Then and now. L: Walter Cronkite reports on space exploration in the 1960s. R: Brian Williams reports on Peter Griffin’s accidental space shuttle launch.

Williams is a Jay Gatsby for our condition, taking over a self and story nobody else was using, to compensate for the vacancy of his own. But precisely because of that you mustn’t make his fable his personal fault. What matters isn’t the man but the environment that made him, where news isn’t fact but a superior sort of fiction, a compound of inflated personalities and imagined stories, a mirror to reality TV. That should be the scandal.

The Iraq war was a turning point, when news dropped even the pretense of informing people. In fact, news about the war left them even less informed than before. In late 2003, for instance, a study found that 69% of the mainstream media audience believed Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9/11; 57% believed Iraq was closely tied to Al-Qaeda; 22% percent believed weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. And these delusions couldn’t just be blamed on liberals’ usual bogeymen. 71% of CBS viewers held one or more of these fictions as gospel — only slightly behind Fox News viewers, at 80%.

Writing this, I’ve immersed myself again in the non-events, the fake history, between 9/11 and the fall of Baghdad, and I find it horrible anew. The years were a delirium when hardly anything you heard was true. The war was like those lost seasons of Dallas or Roseanne; like Pam, we dreamed it all, and Williams’ dream was only a segment in the greater reverie. Yet while we were dreaming, others were dying. Why aren’t we scandalized by that? They died because we could not endure opening our eyes. Estimates of “excess deaths” among Iraqis in the war years range from 100,000 (for the war’s first 18 months) to 650,000 (by 2006). Those include deaths from disease and deprivation; one figure for those who died by violence alone is 150,000. That is thirty times the mortality of U.S. troops in our violent dreamtime. Our dreams had no responsibilities. Are we awake yet? “Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today?”

US patrol in Fallujah, 2004. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus, AP

US patrol in Fallujah, 2004. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus, AP

I didn’t watch US news often during the 2003 war. During the months of buildup and the war itself, I remember (I think) being in Cairo, working for Human Rights Watch. I remember (I think) going to weekly demonstrations, at Sayyeda Zeinab or Cairo University, where a few hundred brave people protested the wars: students, leftists, Nasserists, Islamists. I remember (I think) cordons of Central Security police and intelligence officers around the demonstrations, helmeted, black-clad, armed, outnumbering the protesters ten to one. I remember (I think) the day the war broke out; I remember seeing Edward Said in the garden of the Marriott Hotel, gaunt and sick, amid an atmosphere too grim for me to dare approach. I remember (I think) the smell of tear gas drifting across the garden. I remember (I think) how forty thousand people gathered against the war in Midan Tahrir that afternoon, a presage of the revolution eight years later; I remember (I think) how Mubarak’s police beat them back, broke bodies, arrested thousands of leftists and tortured them. I remember (I think) spending the next week with lawyers day and night, going to police stations, collecting names and testimonies, documenting the brutality of America’s Egyptian proconsul. I remember (I think) the night that Baghdad fell. I was in the Greek Club, the ancient gathering place of Cairo’s intellectuals; a funereal somberness hung over the place, because the dictator had fled, and that should be an reason for rejoicing, but no one could see anything to come of the manner of his overthrow but violence, vengeance, division, death.

I remember they were right.

I remember something that did not happen. Late in 2002, while war talk crescendoed, I had a dream. I dreamed I was in a house somewhere on the American coast, I think in South Carolina (one of the most militarized states in the Union, fat with factories and military bases). A highway intervened between the house and the grey ocean. In the dream, I heard a rumble as of something monstrous on the move; I looked out and the road was thick with a long convoy of tanks, of armored personnel carriers, of trucks loaded with anti-aircraft guns and missiles, with armaments I couldn’t even name; they thundered by endlessly, more and more and more. I asked what they were and a disembodied voice said, “They are going to Iraq.” They spent hours passing while I tried to sleep, an incessant cavalcade, as if all the destruction the world was capable of were amassing somewhere and could not be stopped. They drowned the surf under the grind of wheels. I huddled in bed, terrified. When I say that didn’t happen, I mean it was a dream; it wasn’t true. But it was more real than any of the news I saw over the long years since.

Remembering 9/11, by Pat Linse

Remembering 9/11, by Pat Linse

ISIS kills gays: A history of violence

Hands shove them forward, bound and blindfolded. Then comes the step when the stone beneath them stops and nothing is there. The photographs appall but they have the solidity of things you can see; they suggest but cannot summon the feel of one terrifying lurch in darkness when all that’s solid falls away. Death is what happens when you are there, alone, and the world disappears.

ISIS stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which now styles itself just the Islamic State. Many Arabs call it Da’ish, an acronym (for Ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyah fi al-‘Iraq wash-Sham) they prefer and the militants despise, partly because it echoes Arabic words for bearers of brutality and discord. Even in Iraq, where death dominates life, Da’ish’s violence is exceptionally uncompromising and public. An Egyptian leftist friend of mine calls it unprecedented. Plenty of political movements employ sadism (Stalin, Hitler). Some embrace it ecstatically (Romanian Iron Guardists smeared themselves with their victims’ blood and chanted, “Long live death”). But Da’ish treats absolute violence as propaganda, as entertainment. Displaying violence has become its essence, as if its ideology were a snuff film. Although it’s commonplace to say it wants to terrify (shock and awe!) the effect is to make unrestrained violence, which Hannah Arendt saw as the opposite of political life, the main feature of the public world. Da’ish’s broadcast deeds become as commonplace as campaign speeches. Western audiences, astonished at first, are now inured. The pictures keep coming, but only a few hit their target. Like these.

What do we know? According to Twitter these pictures first appeared on January 15, on the media-sharing site (the post has since come down). They spread immediately. The left of each photo reads “Islamic State”; the right, “Ninawa” — Nineveh, Iraq’s northernmost province. Presumably they came from the Islamic State’s provincial media office.


Caption: “Muslims gather to watch the application of the verdict”


Caption: “The shari’a verdict for banditry is stated in an introductory sign”

The sign says: The Islamic State / The Caliphate in the Footsteps of the Prophet / Islamic Court – Nineveh State
Allah the Almighty said, “The penalty for those who fight God and his Prophet and spread corruption on earth is to be killed or crucified, or their hands or legs to be amputated, or to be exiled from earth. They deserve disgrace in mortal life and great torture in the afterlife.”
Verdict: Crucifixion or death
The reason: Kidnapping Muslims and stealing their money by force and in the name of the Islamic State.

Reading the statement of the shari'a law verdict issued by the shari'a court in the province of Ninevah against two persons who practiced sodomy [liwat]

Caption: “Reading the statement of the shari’a verdict issued by the shari’a court in the province of Nineveh against two persons who practiced the deeds of the people of Lot.” [“People of Lot” derives from the Qu’ranic version of the Sodom story; “sodomite” might be an English translation.]

Then back to the tower’s top again. First a man in a red sweater is hauled forward:


Caption:” Applying the verdict on one who practiced the deeds of the people of Lot, by throwing him from a high place”

Then a man in a black jacket:


Caption: “Applying the verdict on one who practiced the deeds of the people of Lot”

Screen shot 2015-01-24 at 9.03.59 PM

Caption: “Applying the shari’a verdict on the person who committed the greatest crime”


Caption: “This is the penalty for those who encroach upon the limits Allah the Almighty set”

Back to the square. The frames on which men hang crucified were faintly visible in the first photo. Now:


Caption: “Reading the statement of the shari’a verdict issued by the shari’a court in the province of Nineveh against those who robbed Muslims using the force of weapons”


Caption: “Applying the penalty for banditry on those who stole the money of Muslims and instilled terror in their hearts”


Caption: “Applying the penalty for banditry on those who stole the money of Muslims and instilled terror in their hearts”

The bandits are shot in the head.


Caption: “This is the punishment for what their hands did”


Caption: “Let them be an example to those who feel tempted to assault Muslims in the Caliphate state”

The last two photographs are in a park.


Caption: “Reading the statement of the shari’a verdict issued by the shari’a court in the province of Nineveh against a woman who committed adultery”

The woman is stoned to death.


Caption: “Applying the penalty as an expiation of guilt”

Beyond those bare descriptions, all’s speculation. The executions may have happened January 14, maybe earlier. The city’s probably Mosul, capital of Nineveh province, which Da’ish captured last June. The white-bearded man who lurks in several shots and supervises the stoning, looking like a vengeful garden gnome, is likely Abu Asaad al-Ansari, a well-known ISIS cleric. The death tower is tall, yellow, mostly windowless. It may be the Tameen (Insurance) Building, a 1960s relic turned at some point into government offices.

That’s it. The story went viral internationally because of the two “sodomites” thrown to their deaths — the bandits and the adulteress were inadequate to colonize attention. Yet those victims are, in the images, the most anonymous: merely bent backs, or faceless corpses. It’s worthwhile then to pause (there’s little you can do with a Da’ish atrocity but pause) and ask what we’ve seen. What do we recognize in the victims? And what do we understand about the perpetrators?

The first looks easy. Jamie Kirchick (an instant expert on Islam and other un-American things) wrote, “As a gay man, I thought, there but for the grace of Allah go I.” They’re gay; they’re like us. The facelessness actually facilitates emotion; in the absence of particular selves to see, a generalized identity sets in.

It’s good to feel that identification. Only extraterrestrials and lice embrace all humanity without exception; most of us look for specific commonalities to carry sympathy across the abstract gulfs of difference. Still, sympathy always simplifies, smoothing over alienating idiosyncrasies, bland as asphalt. It leaves things out.

Back in 2012, there was a surge of killings of “effeminate”-looking men in Baghdad. Western gay activists immediately called these “gay” killings. In fact, as I quickly found, that wasn’t true. Iraq’s Ministry of Interior and media had been inciting fears of “emos,” youth corrupted by Western styles and music and gender ambiguity. Militias, mostly Shi’ite, took up the cause, murdering dozens or hundreds of suspect young men. Certainly gay and trans* people were caught in the sweeps — the rhetoric was vague enough to vilify any men who didn’t look masculine enough, and some Iraqi queers had found an emo identity congenial. But “gay” on its own was the wrong rubric to explain what was going on.

Anti-Emo meme (in English) from Baghdad, 2012

Anti-Emo meme (in English) from Baghdad, 2012

When I said that publicly, one well-known American gay blogger wrote that I was “confusing”:

You can’t just write a blog post about violence in Iraq, especially on a gay blog, nobody cares about violence in Iraq in general — and if anything, they’ll probably shrug and say “90 deaths sounds like a typical day in Iraq, oh well.” Unless it’s violence against someone we care about — then we care. The gay angle works … I’m just not sure how we write a post saying lots of people are getting killed, stop it, with any authority, or in a way that moves people.

On one level, perhaps, he was saying I want blog hits, and I won’t get them if I can’t write about gay stuff. On a larger level, though, he was right, and even principled: You can’t make people care unless, well, there are people they care about. The gays are an organized constituency primed for caring. There’s no comparable global solidarity among bandits or adulterers. (There is, of course, an international women’s movement that combats stonings and other atrocities, but it’s stretched pretty thin.)  Yet this was an American blogger, writing for Americans, in the nation that destroyed Iraq. Surely that’s an angle; could you drum up a little compassion, or even penitence, for what your readers’ government did to another country? Maybe they can’t fix it, but they could stop their government from doing it again. The strange thing is that, even though his blog has a big American flag on the masthead, gay as a source of sympathy trumps American as a reminder of responsibility. Probably that’s because sympathy, unlike responsibility, doesn’t carry obligations.

An image that did not go viral: US patrol in Fallujah, 2004. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus, AP

An image that did not go viral: US patrol in Fallujah, 2004. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus, AP

Context gets erased on both sides. The American gays can wield “gay” to forget they’re also American, at least in any way that implies guilt. But calling the victims “gay” and stopping with that erases the wider fears about masculinity and cultural invasion that inform the violence — obliterates what links the dead to the politics of post-occupation Iraq, and to the countless other Iraqis exiled, or injured, or killed.

Moreover, what do we mean by “gay”? It’s not self-evident. The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) at first stuck the “gay” label on the 2012 killings; they retracted it rapidly, to their credit. Now they’ve issued a warning about the latest Mosul murders. They caution

in the strongest possible terms against assuming that the men identified as ‘gay’ and against assuming the men engaged in homosexual acts. ….  If the men did not identify as gay, the allegation is inaccurate and obscures the Islamic State’s motivation for publicly labeling them as such. If the men indeed identified as gay … widespread publicity potentially exposes their families, loved ones and intimate partners to harm.

They’re right on the dangers, wrong on the rest. The Islamic State didn’t “publicly label” the men “gay.” It said they “practiced the deeds of the people of Lot.” The prophet Lot in the Qu’ran preached against the things the residents of Sodom did — deeds often called liwat in Arabic, from his name; “sodomy” is a partial English equivalent. Da’ish killed the men for committing an act, not for inheriting a description. The difference matters. The American sympathy the blogger invoked demands its beneficiaries be like us, not just behave like us in bed. But Da’ish doesn’t posit a fixed, communal form of selfhood derived from “liwat.” The category “gay” means nothing to it. Sex exists for Da’ish in religious and juridical terms, as deeds, not identities.

Not your average metrosexuals: Lot's people feel the fire and brimstone, in a scene from an Arabic cartoon version of the story

Not your average metrosexuals: Lot’s people feel the fire and brimstone, in a scene from an Arabic cartoon version of the story

The idea that, deep down, Da’ish must see sex as we do is put to political purpose. Polemicist Jamie Kirchick assimilates the Mosul killings conveniently to the Paris attacks:

A thread links these atrocities to this month’s murder of four Jews at a kosher supermarket in Paris, beyond the fact that the culprits in both cases are Islamist fanatics … The more salient commonality pertains to the victims, executed solely because of irrevocable traits: Jewishness and homosexuality…. In Iraq, no expression is necessary as cause for atrocity. Gay men are hunted down and killed like rats solely owing to the fact that they are gay.

Kirchick clearly knows little about Iraq and less about Da’ish. Da’ish pursues the practitioners of liwat not to eliminate a race, but to discourage what it imagines are preventable perversions. Gay men have been hunted down in Iraq not “solely owing to the fact that they are gay,” but because a general environment where masculinity is believed under threat, and cultural authenticity endangered, makes specific behaviors — the way you dress or walk, where you meet your friends, whether and how you’re penetrated — suspect or criminal. It’s exactly these “expressions,” not the identities we impute from thousands of miles away, that put victims at risk. Da’ish is deluded, the Iraqi moral panics are paranoiac, but ignoring the context and motives behind the violence makes it impossible to help stop it.

How they look or dress or walk: Video memorial for Saif Raad Asmar Abboudi, a 20 year-old beaten to death with concrete blocks in Sadr City, Baghdad on February 17, 2012

For Kirchick, though, the idea that Muslims see gays as one unchangeable collective opens the door to treating Muslims the same way. It’s us versus them. “Oppression and murder predicated solely upon their victims’ identities,” he writes, “provides [sic] ultimate clarity about the nature and intentions of radical Islam.” What this clarity is, he doesn’t say, but you get an idea from how he describes the scene: “A crowd below [the tower] gawks like spectators at a sporting event.” Check those photos; who’s gawking, or cheering the killers on? The audience looks tense, unwilling. Mosul is a religiously and ethnically diverse city which Da’ish conquered seven months ago. The militia may force the occupied population to attend executions, but it can’t compel enthusiasm. Yet Kirchick’s own prejudices steamroller Da’ish and those it oppresses into the same ersatz category: the enemies of gays. This is a clash of civilizations, in which the “irrevocable” identity of one side mirrors the monolithic irrevocability of the other. (And Kirchick’s insistence that killing gays is worse because they have “identities” — as opposed to robbers, adulterers, women — echoes Da’ish’s own deranged value system, where stealing “the money of Muslims” merits a higher penalty than simple theft.)

Killing “gays” evokes an intense response in our societies partly because there’s a prefab constituency that answers. Yet this intensity also helps obliterate our ability to perceive the actual context of Iraq, not just its multiplicity and complexity but its past. To see Iraq clearly is to see not us-versus-them but us-and-them, not just an opposition but an entanglement, the violence woven into a history with the barbarities that the US and its coalition caused. Instead, it’s versus that infuses the UK Daily Mail‘s blaring version of the murders: “While the world reacts with horror to terror in Europe, new ISIS executions show the medieval brutality jihadists would bring to the West.” You see? It’s just about us, after all, because they’re coming, they’re bringing their business here; all those page-one warnings about immigration were spot on. First ISIS takes Baghdad, then Bethnal Green. What happens on the Tigris doesn’t matter in itself. What counts is keeping a crazed Tower Hamlets mob from tossing Soho’s gentle denizens off the London Eye.

They're here: Peace, love, and understanding according to the Daily Mail

They’re here: Peace, love, and Western values according to the Daily Mail

Already this leads to the second question: How do we perceive the perpetrators? Violence based on sexuality has been a minor theme drumming through US and British reportage on Iraq ever since the 2003 invasion. (It’s tended to drown out violence based on gender, though the two are certainly related.) But how seriously it’s taken has depended, at every point, on the politics of the invading powers.

ACT ONE: Sporadic reports of LGBT people targeted for violence started emerging not long after the invasion. Ali Hili, an Iraqi exile in London, was a key source. Hili had a wide network inside Iraq; he was also corrupt and unreliable. He placed full blame for the killings on Grand Ayatollah al-Sayyid ‘Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of many Iraqi Shi’ites — and on the Badr Brigade, a militia affiliated with Sistani.  Peter Tatchell and reporter Doug Ireland both promoted HIli’s checkered career and adopted his version. The “campaign of terror is sanctioned, some say orchestrated, by Iraq’s leading Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani,” Tatchell wrote.  “The Badr Corps,” Ireland intoned, “is committed to the ‘sexual cleansing’ of Iraq.”

Grand Ayatollah Sistani at his most scholarly

Grand Ayatollah Sistani at his most scholarly

There was little truth to these particular charges. When I researched inside Iraq for Human Rights Watch in 2009, I found no evidence that the Badr Brigade had been responsible for extensive attacks on LGBT people; other Shi’ite militias had taken the lead. (Sistani’s website, probably largely written by junior clerics, had once carried a fatwa calling for the death penalty for “sodomy,” but when it attracted attention he quickly took it down.) Politics, tinged with old grudges, propelled the claims. Hili was a former Ba’athist, who shared the party’s loathing of Sistani. Moreover, the Badr Brigade was also a longtime enemy to the cultlike Iranian Mujahedin e-Khalq guerrillas stationed in Iraq — and the Mujahedin had fed (false but headline-grabbing) stories to both Tatchell and Ireland in the past.

But Sistani was also the one Shi’ite cleric whom the US saw as potentially a force for “stability.” True or not, narratives that blamed him for the killings were unlikely to get much traction with a Western media that still took the coalition military forces as their main sources for Iraq events. Stories of “gay murders” stayed confined to the ghettos of the gay press.

ACT TWO: In early 2009, killings of LGBT people accelerated massively. What had once looked unsystematic became an organized campaign. I went to Iraq; it was obvious, there, that the forces of popular Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr bore main responsibility. Sadr City, the great Baghdad slum dominated by Moqtada’s movement, was the fulcrum of the violence; preachers there openly incited murder, and survivors blamed his Mahdi Army (Jaish al-Mahdi) for most of the carnage. Al-Sadr’s militia had gone underground at the beginning of the US-led counterinsurgency “surge” in 2007, and Moqtada himself fled to Iran. The killings seemed to be an bid to reassert his relevance and moral indispensability. One “executioner” claimed he was tackling “a serious illness in the community that has been spreading rapidly among the youth after it was brought in from the outside by American soldiers. These are not the habits of Iraq or our community and we must eliminate them.”

So easy to hate: Moqtada al-Sadr

So easy to hate: Moqtada al-Sadr

Moqtada was also the right criminal at the right time for an American audience. The US saw him as a prime enemy, driving Shi’ite resistance to the occupation. Blaming him was not just accurate but easy. His sinister dominance made sure the killing campaign got ample US and UK press. What helped stop the murders, by contrast, was the growing indignation of ordinary Iraqis. One Baghdad journalist wrote in Sawt al-Iraq that

In addition to death threats against any man who grows his hair a couple of centimeters longer than the Sadri standards that are measured exactly and applied harshly, there are threats against those wearing athletic shorts or tight pants … The slogan is to kill and kill, then kill again for the most trivial and simplest things.

ACT THREE: The “emo” killings in 2012 also swirled around Shi’ite-dominated eastern Baghdad, and the Mahdi Army was widely held responsible, along with a breakaway Shi’ite militia, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous) — though Moqtada al-Sadr distanced himself from the campaign, saying emos should be dealt with only “in accordance with the law.” But this time, the Ministry of Interior, which had called for “eliminating” emos, was also involved up to the hilt.

The Eye of Sauron relocates from Barad-Dur to Baghdad: Flag of Iraq’s Ministry of Interior

And this culpability was inconvenient for the US and its allies. Moqtada had now graduated to a force for “stability” himself. Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry’s repression held the country together. Demonizing the guilty was politically difficult from the American vantage. Dozens or hundreds died in Baghdad in a few weeks — a toll comparable to the hundreds probably killed in 2012 — but the murders never drew the same international outrage: not just because emos were a vaguer target, but because the killers weren’t our enemies.

I don’t mean US or UK forces deliberately manipulated coverage of the targeted killings. (They manipulated other stories; they didn’t have time for this one.) But Western reporters relied on coalition “experts” to analyze the jumbled politics of Iraq, acquiring their prejudices with their statistics. And even the gay press instinctively trusted that our side, however grave an error the invasion was, still had a righteousness that rubbed off on its allies. Politics shaped the coverage, and some of the accusations.

We perceive the perpetrators, like the victims, largely in relation to ourselves. When our enemies murdered gays, it was clear-cut evil. When our friends stood accused, the case was merely confused. It’s a discourse about us; its ability to affect Iraq is therefore limited.

Cover of the Arabic version of Human Rights Watch's 2009 report on Iraq

Cover of the Arabic version of Human Rights Watch’s 2009 report on Iraq

Here’s one instance. IGLHRC and MADRE, the international women’s rights group, released two briefing papers on violence against LGBT Iraqis last November. They were solid work, based on a small but significant number of harrowing stories. What was striking is that both appeared only in English, with no Arabic version or even summary. Thus, while the reports included recommendations to the Iraqi authorities — ranging from the feasible (“Amend the shelter law to allow NGOs to legally run private shelters for displaced persons”) to the fantastic (“Hold militias accountable”) — those had absolutely no chance of affecting Iraq’s government, press, or public. (By contrast, Human RIghts Watch’s 2009 report on death squads was released in Arabic, and headlined in Iraqi media.) The only audience the reports aimed at was an English-speaking one; and, of course, the US and UK no longer govern Iraq. Since the reports were meant for Americans but there was little for Americans to do, the advocacy seemed to acquire a slightly surreal quality. For example, the organizations told their followers (“Take action!”) to call on LGBT members of the US Congress to “stand with LGBT Iraqis.” This was less strategy than metaphor: a way of making Americans feel they were having impact when they were having none. I don’t wish to slight the groups’ excellent research, but the missed opportunity was painful. It’s pointless to imagine changing what Da’ish does: but there is a real opening to use Iraqis’ revulsion against its brutal murders — as well as violence targeting gender and sexuality elsewhere in the country — to affect public opinion and even a few policies in the rest of Iraq. As it was, from an Iraqi perspective, the reports were the former occupiers talking to themselves.

Da’ish, of course, has now seized a place in the West’s imagination as the ultimate enemy, the perfect storm. All evils meet there. (The Daily Mail warns that ISIS terrorists will “turn themselves into Ebola suicide ‘bombs.'”) Most of the earlier (probably more widespread) violence targeting sexuality in Iraq could be traced to Shi’ite militias or the US-supported state, but that’s forgotten. The Sunni soldiers of Da’ish define homophobia.  What Da’ish does is indefensible. Except when somebody else does it.

How different is Da’ish? It’s worth asking. This little graphic from the opposition Syrian Network for Human RIghts probably undercounts Da’ish’s murder toll, but its point is valid:

PrintIt charts the deep anger Syrian revolutionaries feel: how did a few viral photos of Islamist killings overwhelm the vaster, but mostly invisible, atrocities of a secular government the US has learned to live with? Then there’s that other Islamic state: the one due south.

Punishments_FINAL-01Middle East Eye published that after Da’ish released its own code of “Islamic punishments” last December. So how exactly is Saudi Arabia better, except we call it a nation and not a “terrorist organization”? (A language, they say, is a dialect with an army. What is a state but a militia with oil reserves?) This week, we learned the UK ministry of justice has set up a commercial arm with the Orwellian name of Just Solutions International, and is selling its expertise to Saudi prisons. Will David Cameron offer the shari’a courts of Da’ish a helping hand? This week, we learned the US defense department has launched “a research and essay competition” in honor of the late King Abdullah — “a fitting tribute to the life and leadership of the Saudi Arabian monarch,” to his “character and courage.” Will Obama also offer prizes for the best ISIS propaganda? Of course, Abdullah was a liberal and a progressive, the paid pundits say. Granted, he may have been the best of his venal, bloodstained clan: that’s like picking the most intellectual of the Kardashians. But give Da’ish a few years to sell oil to ExxonMobil. Then they’ll be “reformers.”

The real distinction between the two Islamic states’ degrees of violence isn’t severity but publicity. Da’ish, says Middle East Eye, “actively sought exposure for their brutal punishments, [while] Saudi Arabia has worked to keep evidence of their actions within the conservative kingdom.” 

Why is Da’ish so proud of its sadistic excesses? Why does it broadcast them? Because they mean success. Here, again, the history of Iraq both before and after the US invasion is a shaping fact. For at least thirty-five years, violence, unrestrained violence, has been the mark of power. Power — under Saddam, under the occupation, and under the sects and militias that fought to seize his mantle — meant inflicting violence without shame, fear, or limit. (In a different way this was also true of Assad’s placid Syria, where despite the surface calm the dictator could kill twenty thousand Islamists with complete impunity.) When Da’ish posts its snuff films on YouTube and its death porn on Twitter, they are saying: We have the power at last, we can do this without restraint, and we will have more power and kill more.

Photo of a mass killing of Shi'a captives after the fall of Mosul, posted on ISIS Twitter accounts, June 2014

Photo of a mass killing of Shi’a captives after the fall of Mosul, posted on ISIS Twitter accounts, June 2014

Da’ish’s flaunted success also declares the failure of two projects that dominated the Middle East for decades. It proclaims the bankruptcy of the dictators’ project of state secularism: regimes like Assad’s or Saddam’s that repressed popular politics and popular religion, to sustain a military elite’s privileges with all the violence at their command. And it puts paid to the US project of state-imposed capitalism: neoliberal immiseration of the masses, the kind Mubarak planned for Egypt or the coalition imported to Iraq, that could only be enforced by governments armed with maximum ruthlessness. Da’ish inherits their means while defying their ends. It bends their violence to its own agenda. The repressed have returned, with a vengeance.

The Egyptian leftist friend I mentioned at the oustet comes from a working-class family that supported the Muslim Brotherhood. Some of them stood at Rabaa during the protests after Morsi’s overthrow; some could have been killed. Now, he says, he’s frightened by how many of his relatives say Da’ish is the solution. They aren’t running off to join ISIS’s fighters (though the Da’ish franchise is increasingly an attractive banner for the insurgency in Sinai). But they no longer believe in a democratic outcome. They no longer grasp how a group like the Brotherhood could survive, let alone succeed, through the normal means of politics. Sisi is trying to follow in Assad’s and Mubarak’s footsteps, with a program whose legitimacy is the weaponry it can command. They see Da’ish as the only alternative. The known world is disappearing. There’s emptiness underfoot. Violence is the future.

A US Marine pushes corpses of Iraqi fighters, Fallujah,  Friday, November 12, 2004. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus / Associated Press

A US Marine pushes corpses of Iraqi fighters, Fallujah, Friday, November 12, 2004. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus, AP

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CORRECTION: The original version of this post described the acronym Da’ish (sometimes spelled Daesh) as “omit[ting] one of the ‘I’s, ‘Islam.'” This is, I’m persuaded, bad Arabic (mine), for which I very much apologize. There are two explanations floating round for why the name Da’ish offends the militants so much, and why it’s become popular among their Arab opponents. One is that it slights the Islamic character of the soi-disant state; the other is that it echoes words that mean “crushing underfoot” and “spreading discord.” The second is the important one. I’ve corrected the post, and thanks to the two readers who called me out.

Egyptian activists to Netanyahu’s PR men: Our lives are not propaganda

Palestinian and Egyptian flags in  Midan Tahrir, September 9, 2011, at a protest against military trials and the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy, at

Palestinian and Egyptian flags in Midan Tahrir, September 9, 2011, at a protest against military trials and the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy, at

If you are a lesbian, gay, or trans Egyptian, your life is not your own. It’s not just that police could smash the door and seize your body at any moment; it’s that your desires and emotions, the most intimate elements of existence, now nourish somebody else’s political agenda. The Muslim Brotherhood’s mouthpieces trumpet that their archenemies in the military regime encourage “gay marriage.” The government responds by blaming the Brotherhood for spreading immoral sex. (In a slew of arrests last week, cops hauled in a teacher in the Cairo suburb of Helwan, accused of homosexual conduct along with several students. The press called the lead defendant a terrorist who recruited men to Islamism by sleeping with them. Prosecutors added that he liked to flash the Brotherhood’s four-finger salute during sex.) To be gay or trans in Egypt is to be naked in no man’s land, not just caught in crossfire but used for target practice by warring sides.

Yet it’s not just Egyptian politicians who practice callous exploitation. Egyptian LGBT people’s stories have been sucked into an entirely different conflict, and become fodder for Benjamin Netanyahu’s propagandists. Those PR experts aren’t particularly worried about LGBT people’s rights; they don’t care about an Egyptian or even Israeli audience. They want to impress Americans, and they want points of comparison. Like location scouts for an aging star’s comeback movie, they’re in search of settings: exotic backgrounds against which Israel’s reputation, otherwise decrepit these days, can seem to shine.

Muslim Brotherhood symbol and salute: The four fingers of love

Muslim Brotherhood symbol and salute: The four fingers of love

Take a guest blog post that appeared on a US foreign policy site: “The Plight of Homosexuals in Egypt.” It’s by Rachel Avraham, an experienced propagandist who used to work for United With Israel, a US hasbara organization; she is now “a news editor and political analyst for Jerusalem Online News,” which furnishes free English-language video on Israel to the foreign press. She writes about how “Eight Egyptian men were sentenced to three years in prison plus three years on probation for allegedly attending Egypt’s first same­sex wedding.” She isn’t really interested in what happens in Cairo, though. Her point is “the contrast between Israel and Egypt on this issue.” While “the plight of homosexuals in Egypt and the Arab world has deteriorated,” remember: “Israel is the only country in the Middle East where homosexuality is protected by law.”

Avraham knows what she’s doing. Back in April, she editorialized that “pro-Israel activists” in the US “must go on the offensive and reach out””:

The anti-Israel activists have developed useful alliances with the LGBT, the African American and the Native American communities. Pro-Israel groups should learn from this model.

Avraham also knows the best defense is a good offense. While writing for United With Israel, she went on a rampage against Women of the Wall (Neshot HaKotel), pioneering Israeli feminists who pressed for women’s equal right to prayer at Judaism’s most sacred site, in the process exposing Orthodox hegemony over civil identities and law. Their crime? They made progressive Israel look bad.

Dangerous and anti-Israel: Woman carries a Torah scroll at An Israeli Jewish woman carries a Torah scroll in prayers near the Western Wall,  March 2013. Photos: EPA/Abir Sultan

Dangerous and anti-Israel: Women of the Wall supporter carries a Torah scroll in prayers near the Western Wall, March 2013. Photos: EPA/Abir Sultan

Borrowing from the Likud’s defamation handbook, Avraham accused the women of being “linked to anti-Israel groups,” that is, to human rights groups in Israel. But mainly she reviled them for neglecting “many more pressing issues facing feminists today” — most of which involve how horrible those Arabs are.

Women are getting raped en masse in Syria, either by government forces or by Islamist rebels as part of their sexual jihad [which, by the way, does not exist].  Around 50 percent of Yemen’s brides are under the age of 18. … Closer to home, hundreds of young underage Jewish girls are seduced by Arab men each year. Many of these cases evolve into abduction, rape, and abusive marriages. This problem is especially acute in Southern Israel, where sexual harassment by Bedouin men is a major issue.

You see? Israel has no problems (except for its Arabs), even if Israeli women say so. Look over there, people! Look at the Arabs! The grass is always less green on the other side of the, um, Separation Wall.

A few good men: Ad for a "National Security Trip to Israel," offered for sale on the Foundation for Defense of Democracies website (

A few good men: Ad for a “National Security Trip to Israel,” offered for sale on the Foundation for Defense of Democracies website (

Ben Weinthal riffs on the same themes. Weinthal works for the Foundation for Defective Defense of Democracies, a US neoconservative lobby striving to support Israel and promote a war on Iran. One of Weinthal’s tasks is to market this to the US LGBT community. (Weinthal doubles as a journalist of sorts, writing for the Jerusalem Post; it’s not a bad berth for propaganda purposes, because the Post is mostly read in America. Its website is among the top 3000 in the US.) His latest piece bears the headline “Analysis: Arab revolts, new Iranian leader fail to bring Israel-style rights for LGBTs.” It comes under a photo of rainbow flags at Tel Aviv Pride. Mostly the op-ed obsesses over Iran, since Weinthal’s job is to popularize war against the mullahs. But he spares some space for Egypt, too: “On the watch of the military regime of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, eight men were convicted for ‘inciting debauchery’ for their participation in a gay wedding.”

Weinthal did no reporting for this piece; the absence of evidence is why it’s called “Analysis.” He explains, “The enormously dangerous anti-LGBT environment in Arab countries and Iran largely excludes chances for interviews.” Interesting. Then what am doing here? Actually, Weinthal need only come to any Middle Eastern country – even Saudi Arabia — and he’d find LGBT people and activists to learn from. But it’s easier to make things up. He needs very few facts, though: just enough to draw his contrast. He’s content to rely lazily on an equally indolent BBC reporter, who interviewed exactly two LGBT rights activists, from exactly one country, to write an alleged survey of gay life throughout the region. “In stark contrast to the plight of gays in Iran, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, and other regional countries,” Weinthal proudly writes,

a BBC overview [sic] of LGBT communities in the Middle East noted, “One refuge in the region for some is Israel, one of the most progressive countries in the world for LGBT rights. Samesex relationships are protected by law, and the only annual gay pride march in the Middle East takes place in Tel Aviv – regarded as an international gay capital.” The author of the BBC article, James Longman, added: “Since 1993 – well before the US and other Western countries – openly gay people have been allowed to serve in the [Israeli] military.”

That pride march again. And soldiers. Hurray!


Pride: A child waves a Palestinian flag at a demonstration in Midan Tahrir, Cairo, May 6, 2011. Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy, from

There are some problems with Weinthal’s “analysis.”

Many Middle East experts view emancipatory progress for the Arab world and Iran as meaning full equality for women and religious and ethnic minorities, recognition of Israel, and press freedoms, to name some of the key elements.

What “experts”? And who put “recognition of Israel” on the list? As it happens, the first Arab country to recognize Israel – Egypt – could do so only because it was a dictatorship, able to punish dissent against the treaty with prison terms and torture. Since then, movements for “emancipatory progress” in Egypt have opposed the existing accommodation with Israel, not just on its own terms but because it symbolizes the lack of democracy, because the state foisted it on a stifled public without consultation or consent. The resistance to Mubarak’s rule that culminated in the democratic 2011 Revolution largely grew out of the Popular Committee to Support the Uprising of the Palestinian People, founded 13 years ago during the Second Intifada. The Popular Committee was a training ground for a whole generation of Egypt’s liberals and leftists. Protesting on Cairo streets in solidarity with Ramallah, they faced down police repression and endured beatings and jail. The Committee also coordinated opposition to the government’s complicity in the 2003 Iraq invasion, including a massive anti-Mubarak demonstration in Midan Tahrir on the day the war began that shook the regime to its underground torture chambers. (40,000 strong, it was the single largest protest between the Sadat era and the Revolution.) Meanwhile, Tunisia, now the most successful democracy in the Arab world, still refuses to recognize Israel. Maybe Weinthal should revise his list.

What can possibly convert the Arab world into greater Israel, with its plethora of freedoms? How about a bit of war? “Turning Arab countries as well as the Islamic Republic of Iran into open societies for LGBTs will require a wholesale change in attitudes toward LGBTs. Robust Western interventionism certainly can spark changes.“ Western interventionism has done so well in its main Middle Eastern testing grounds, Iraq and Libya: two failed states, endless civil wars, tens of thousands slaughtered. Now those are changes. “Struggling LGBT movements” in the Middle East, as Weinthal calls them, have so much to look forward to.

Robust intervention for LGBT rights, I: American bombs fall on Baghdad on the first night of the 2003 war against Iraq

Results of robust intervention for LGBT rights, I: American bombs fall on Baghdad on the first night of the 2003 Iraq war

Weinthal and the Jerusalem Post and other Likudniks regularly accuse Israel’s critics of “moral relativism,” “endemic in the West today.” But the relativism here is Weinthal’s. He assumes human rights are neither universal nor absolute, but relative; Israel’s abuses against Palestinians are relatively insignificant because it treats LGBT people relatively better than its neighbor does. These are bizarre equivalences, belonging in neither math nor morals. Rights don’t work on a points system. You don’t get a pass for brutalizing some people because you’re kind to others.

Human rights has become a hegemonic way of understanding life in our century — and this means, as I’ve said for years, that it’s a tempting tool for cynics, who mimic its language for ends that have nothing to do with rights. This is acutely true in areas like sexuality and gender, where repression can make indigenous voices hard to hear. It’s easy for opportunists like Weinthal to pretend they don’t exist at all, and then speak for them, justifying injustice and occupation and war. This exploitation harms the struggles and lives of Egyptian LGBT people, recasting them as foreign agents, walking pretexts for occupation or for Western invasions. It endangers Egyptian advocates, and further victimizes victims. An Egyptian friend told me: “These people need to realize our lives are not their propaganda.”

Results of robust Western intervention for LGBT rights, II: An "effeminate" man murdered by militias in Iraq, March 2012. Sent to the author by an Iraqi source.

Results of robust Western intervention for LGBT rights, II: An “effeminate” man murdered by militias in Iraq, March 2012. Sent to the author by an Iraqi source

There’s an irony that neither Avraham nor Weinthal cares to mention: Israel helps prop up the Egyptian regime they claim to disdain. It does this with casual disregard for the rights they claim concern them. As Foreign Policy reports, in Washington “Cairo has found an awkward ally in the form of AIPAC, the influential pro-Israel lobby firm.” AIPAC is “actively pushing for continued U.S. aid to Egypt,” endangered by the regime’s appalling human rights record.

AIPAC, which was credited with helping kill an amendment to cut Egyptian aid in July, is now operating behind the scenes in private meetings with lawmakers to keep alive Cairo’s funding … Publicly, few governments or lobbying firms want to be viewed as supportive of a crackdown that has led to more than 800 deaths and thousands of injuries across Egypt. … But [an AIPAC] source noted that AIPAC’s support for the aid was not contingent on the way Egypt treats anti-government protesters. “The primary criteria on how we evaluate this issue is if Egypt is adhering to the peace treaty.”

A recent study found that, no matter how many Egyptians the Egyptian government kills, US aid to the ruling military will not substantially decrease. It attributed this partly to “continuing support” from “Egypt’s influential allies.”

President Sisi knows how to show gratitude. He told Corriere della Sera this week that he was “prepared to send military forces inside a Palestinian state,” to “reassure Israelis in their role as guarantors.” Thus Egypt and Israel would partner in a joint occupation. The idea of getting Egypt to annex Gaza has floated around Israeli policy circles for some time; back in August, while bombs fell in Operation Protective Edge, it was urged by none other than Rachel Avraham. She had an interesting justification: she claimed Sisi could “help” Gaza build a society “that respects human rights, women’s rights, gay rights, minority rights,” a bit odd given what she writes about Egypt elsewhere. But then, she’s asserted the same thing about Israeli rule. Direct annexation of most of the West Bank, Avraham argues, would bring Palestinians “women’s rights, gay rights, and other benefits.” The appeal to LGBT rights here is hardly more than a verbal tic, purely mechanistic. The point is military domination; just as when Weinthal advocates “Western intervention,” the gays’ lives merely figure on a rote list meant to promote conquest and occupation.

Israeli propaganda where Egypt is concerned is all opportunism, with no obligation to be consistent. One day Egypt is the gays’ enemy, the next it’s their friend. It doesn’t matter, because the gays don’t matter. Occasional spurts of criticism count for little against Israel’s (and America’s) investment in a stable, supportive, repressive partner in Cairo.

Israeli propaganda meme. The picture on the L shows Iranians, not Palestinians, and they aren't gay. (See ) The picture on the R

Israeli propaganda meme. The picture on the L shows Iranians, not Palestinians, and they aren’t gay. (See ). Nor is there any record of hangings for homosexual conduct in the occupied West Bank or Gaza. The picture on the R actually shows two posed employees of the Israeli Defense Forces Spokesperson’s Office. (See ).

Egyptian sexual-rights activists have already called for days of action to protest how state and media politically exploit LGBT lives. It’s only fair they should have the chance to answer other kinds of propaganda. I asked three Egyptian community activists with long histories of defending sexual rights if they would care to comment on Weinthal’s and Avraham’s articles. Their responses are below. (The first colleague answered in English; the other two wrote in Arabic but added an English translation. The original Arabic is at the end of this post.) I don’t necessarily agree with all they say (nor would they necessarily endorse everything I wrote). But they should be heard.

Dalia Abd El-Hameed heads the Gender Program at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). The EIPR has provided legal assistance to people persecuted for alleged homosexual conduct in Egypt ever since it was founded in 2002. She writes:

For months, we have been busy trying to sort out news on the crackdown on gays and LGBT people in Egypt. Activists and people from the community were trying to do their best whether in terms of legal intervention, documentation of the violations and keeping record of the crackdown, and responding to the fierce media campaign demonizing and pathologizing homosexuality. Personally, I do not separate this crackdown on LGBT from the general oppressive climate and the regressive rights and liberties status. Journalists, students, human rights activists and gender and religious non- conformists are all under attack by the regime.

Yet, amidst this ongoing tragedy, one most unfortunate event was pro-Israel Zionists picking up the issue to exploit it for purposes of pinkwashing. It is crucial,  for us as activists from the region, to heavily condemn these attempts and refute the fallacies in the two recently published articles by both the  Jerusalem Post and Foreign Policy Blogs.

First of all, bragging that gays are allowed to serve in the Israeli army is a disgrace, not a thing to take pride in.  The struggle for LGBT rights and gender equality has always been and will always remain a struggle against patriarchy and its ugly manifestations in militarization and war crimes like those which are committed by the Israeli army against Palestinians.

The authors of the articles have also enlisted “recognition of Israel” as a key point to achieve emancipation in the region, and this is yet another deception. Our long journey for freedom in Egypt since January 2011 is not a de-contexualized fight, rather it is part and parcel of the universal struggle of people for their rights and in the heart of it lies the Palestinian cause, that taught us how to remain true and faithful to our beliefs and convictions.

Pinkwashing: These colors bleed

Pinkwashing: These colors bleed

Ramy Youssef, an activist working on sexuality, gender, and human rights as well as in anti-harassment campaigns, wrote:

When a serial killer is caught there’s always somebody to say how nice they seemed, what a good neighbor, how kind to children. Who would have suspected they buried those bodies in the yard? There’s always a story about something beautiful about their personality. Even Stalin was such a family man.

Israel, we’re told, is such a safe house for homosexuals. Gay paradise on earth. It’s where you can find peace, acceptance and tolerance if you are gay. This strong circle of love and happiness sadly doesn’t include Palestinians. For Israel, Palestinians fall into a different category, the one to be bombed. Palestinians are the bodies buried in the yard.

For LGBT Egyptians, Israel is no good neighbor. It is sad, inconsistent and extremely cynical when a country like Israel talks about LGBT rights, or human rights in isolation from the rights it violates itself. The basic human right is living. In Israel, not only do they manage to shatter this right, but they do it with style. Israeli troops bombs, torture, shoot, and kill Palestinian citizens on a regular basis. Aside from the astonishing fact, which is not a secret at all, they also breach the right of movement. They keep Palestinians penned up, prevent them from moving outside certain limited spaces, and justify this by “security.” If you’re gay and Palestinian, your gay identity won’t keep Israel from locking you into this cycle of violence and imprisonment.

I am not interested in hearing Israel talk about protecting sexual identity, because it doesn’t respect the most basic identity of human beings: humanity.

An activist who asked to remain anonymous, with a long record of work on LGBT rights and health, wrote:

It’s amazing how some western writers love to bring up Israel ‘s record on LGBT rights whenever Egypt or any other country’s LGBT record is discussed. This raises suspicion towards the real motives for writing those articles. Are you really concerned about LGBT Arabs or about promoting Israel’s image?

LGBT rights are not measured by pride celebrations, nor by how many LGBT tourists come to your country. Singling out the issue of LGBT when comparing Israel and surrounding countries is a failure to understand context and a camouflage of other pressing problems. Israel is also a militarized colonial state. Egypt and other countries suffered centuries of colonialism which did much to contribute to the current homophobic and transphobic situation.

Using LGBT rights to improve the image of Israel to the world is an insult to LGBT communities throughout the region. It’s an insult to LGBT activists in Israel when their struggle becomes politicized and used as a diplomatic tool. It’s an insult to LGBT Arabs who are being exploited for political gains.

Men of Israel: a 2013 Pride poster by Tel Aviv's Evita Bar shows Israel's gay world as a paradigm of peaceful, macho diversity. The religion represented by the second man from the R is unknown to me.

Men of Israel: a 2013 Pride poster by Tel Aviv’s Evita Bar paints Israel’s gay life as a paradigm of peaceful, multi-sectarian, but unmistakably macho diversity. The religion represented by the second man from the R is unknown to me.


عندما يتم القبض على قاتل مسلسل هناك دوماً من يحاول أن يظهر محاسنه، من حسن الجيرة و لطفه مع الأطفال. من سيخمن أنهم دفنوا جثثاً في باحتهم الخلفية؟ هناك دوماً قصة بشأن موطن جمال في شخصياتهم. ستالين على سبيل المثال كان محب للعائلة.
إسرائيل – كما يخبروننا – ملاذ أمن للمثليين|ات. جنة المثليين على الأرض. إنه المكان حيث تجد السلام، التقبل، و التسامح إن كنت مثلياً. هذه الدائرة القوية من المحبة و السعادة للأسف لا تتضمن الفلسطينين|ات. بالنسبة للإسرائيل، الفلسطينين|ات يقعوا ضمن تصنيف أخر، من يستحقون القتل. الفلسطينين|ات هم|ن الجثث المدفونة في الباحة.
بالنسبة للمثليين|ات، و ثنائي|ات الميول الجنسية، و متحولي|ات الجنس و النوع الإجتماعي في مصر، إسرائيل ليست بالجيرة الطيبة. إنه لأمر محزن، غير متسق، و هزلي عندما تتحدث دولة مثل إسرائيل عن حقوق المثليين|ات، و ثنائي|ات الميول الجنسية، و متحولي|ات الجنس و النوع الإجتماعي، أو حقوق الإنسان بمعزل عن الحق الذي تنتهكه بدورها،لا ينتهكوا هذا الحق فقط و لكن لديهم اسلوبهم الخاص. القوات الاسرائيلية تدمر، و تعذب، وتقذف وتقتل المدنين|ات الفلسطين|ات. بغض النطر عن الحقيقة المذهلة- والتي ليست بسر- أن إسرائيل تنتهك الحق في حرية الحركة للفلسطينين|ات بوضعهم|ن في قفص، و منعهم|ن من التحرك  خارج حدود معينة. ويبرروا ذلك بقولهم “دواع أمنية” اذا كنت مثلي|ة فلسطيني|ة فهويتك المثلية لن تحميك من أن تجرك إسرائيل لدائرة العنف.
شخصيا لست مهتم  بسماع حديث إسرائيل عن الطوائف والميول الجنسية، لأنها لا تحترم أكثر الهويات أساسية للجنس البشري “ألا وهو البشرية في حد ذاتها”.

من المدهش مدى حب بعض كتاب الغرب لذكر ملف إسرائيل في حقوق المثليين والمثليات والمتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا عند مناقشة وضع هذه المجموعات في مصر او دول عربية أخرى، حيث أن ذلك يثير الشكوك في الدوافع الحقيقية لكتابة تلك المقالات. هل هم مهتمون فعلا بحقوق المثليين والمثليات والمتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا العرب أم يهمهم تحسين صورة إسرائيل؟ حقوق المثليين والمثليات والمتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا لا تقاس بمسيرات الفخر أو بمدى إقبال السائحين عليها. طرح قضايا المثليين والمتحولين كقضية فردية هو فشل في فهم السياق وتمويه على قضايا أخرى ملحة. فإسرائيل هي دولة عسكرية قائمة على الاستعمار. مصر ومن حولها من الدول عانوا من قرون من الاستعمار والذي ساهم للوضع الحالي من رهاب المثلية والتحول الجنسي. استخدام حقوق المثليين والمثليات والمتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا لتحسين صورة إسرائيل هو إهانة لتلك المجتمعات في المنطقة كلها، إنها إهانة لنضال النشطاء لحقوق المثليين والمثليات والمتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا في اسرائيل عندما يتم تسييس نضالهم واستخدامه كأداة دبلوماسية، كما أنه إهانة للمثليين والمثليات والمتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا العرب والذين يتم استغلالهم لأهداف سياسية

On the slaughter of innocents

“Civilian casualties” in Gaza and Israel, and before, and beyond

Palestinians collect their belongings from damaged houses in Gaza City. (Photo: Mahmud Hams / AFP / Getty Images).  ABC News in the US later misidentified this picture as showing Israeli victims.

Palestinians collect their belongings from damaged houses in Gaza City, 2014. (Photo: Mahmud Hams /AFP /Getty Images). ABC News in the US later misidentified this picture as showing Israeli victims.

The injunction against killing civilians in war is now basic to international human rights and humanitarian law, along with the prohibitions against genocide and torture: so much so, it’s easy to forget it’s not even 70 years old. Like the latter standards, it’s been at least as much honored in the breach as affirmed in the observance. Even more than them, it carries a host of slippery justifications to support the breaches. Nobody argues that committing genocide is all right because it’s so hard not to, or because the victims obstreperously refuse to leave or keep getting in the way; whereas whenever civilians turn up dead in a place of conflict, this is just the susurrus of exculpation you hear. Yet the moral horror around the slaughter of civilians overpowers any legal vagueness.  Soldiers may have been conscripted into an army against their will, with no idea what they were getting into, with no responsibility for the war; they may never have fired a shot; but photographs of their corpses, gone viral on our technologies, inspire no shock of indignation like the outrage that greets images of the innocent dead clad in everyday dress, unprepared for extremity, unarmed. Clothes make the man, and they make the meaning. The anger is an ethical absolute, a line in the sand, a call to action. Sometimes, it’s a rallying cry for further slaughter.

I’m not questioning the rightness of this anger, or the Fourth Geneva Convention, which gave it legal force in 1949. I’m wondering where the idea of “civilians” came from.

“Civilian” is not a very old category.  The term itself, in the sense of “non-combatant,” is first attested from the early 19th century. It comes, though, from the Latin civilis, “civil” or “civic”: a word describing qualities that befit a “citizen” but also any dweller in a town or civis. It pitted the urbane against the uncultivated, the cosmopolitan against the pitiable provincial.

And for millennia the worst atrocities of war as we now assess them, the killing of people who were not soldiers, overwhelmingly meant murdering the inhabitants of cities.

Battle with the Mongol army at Liegnitz, Poland, in 1241: by Matthäus Merian (1593 – 1650)

Fall of  Liegnitz, Poland, to a Mongol army  in 1241: by Matthäus Merian (1593 – 1650)

A siege of a fortified town routinely ended with the slaughter of the inhabitants. When Genghis Khan took Samarkand in 1220, he ordered the population “to evacuate and assemble in a plain outside the city, where they were killed and pyramids of severed heads raised as the symbol of Mongol victory.” When the Mongols captured Urgench a year later, the chroniclers say that each of 50,000 victorious soldiers was commanded to detach 24 towndwellers’ heads. Do the math; no one today believes the figures, but they are a quick shorthand for an incalculable bloodbath. Acts like these were the barbarians’ revenge against the arrogantly urbane, a reaction from the edge of the known world against the soi-disant central and civilized. Yet they made a kind of sense. Citydwellers were parasites. They were symbols of useless indolence. They produced no necessities for themselves, living off the agriculture and sweat of others. Invaders would do better to eliminate the burden. By contrast, you could rape or rob rural populations, but massacring them made no sense. Those people could feed armies.

The Capture of Constantinople: Tintoretto (1518-1594), Ducal Palace, Venice

The capture of Constantinople: by Tintoretto (1518-1594), Ducal Palace, Venice

This wasn’t just a monstrous propensity of non-Europeans. After the Fourth Crusade’s soldiers of 1204 — the flower of Western Christendom — overran Constantinople, they killed thousands, down to the children and the nuns. Those Crusaders were exacting vengeance on an effete city of palaces and eunuchs, a place too beautiful and pointless for them to bear; they came from a plough-bound, manure-smelling fringe of Europe where Paris, the largest town, was no more than a village with attitude.  I could go on forever; ask the dead of Drogheda, or Tenochtitlan.  In 1209, when a papal army took the heresy-ridden Cathar town of Béziers in southern France, someone asked their commander, the Abbot of Citeaux, what to do with its ten or twenty thousand citizens. Not all were heretics, surely. “Kill them all,” the Abbot said. “The Lord will know his own.”

Cortés attacks Tenochtitlan: Anonymous, Second half of the seventeenth century, Library of Congress

Cortés attacks Tenochtitlan: Anonymous, Second half of the seventeenth century, Library of Congress

The link between the “civilian” as victim and the city lasted a long time. In the Second World War, the defining horror of the last hundred years, so many of the monstrosities – from Hitler’s eradication of Warsaw to Truman’s obliteration of Hiroshima – involved destroying cities and their peoples. The material justification, which the Allies were particularly good at laying out, was that urban areas sheltered industries and centers of command and control. There was a symbolic side too, though, a dreamlike logic, in which the war leaders melted into Genghis Khan contemplating the fleshpots of Samarkand.  Hitler especially indulged fantasies of utterly annihilating cities that annoyed him. Rural populations could survive as dirt-digging helots; but the capitals had to go. “Moscow must disappear,” he said, as if he were a Roman ploughing Carthage under the ground with salt; or – in the words of his High Command:

The Führer has decided to wipe the city of St Petersburg from the face of the earth. We have no interest in the preservation of even a part of the population of that city.

Tokyo burns under B-29 firebomb assault, May 26, 1945

Tokyo burns under B-29 firebomb assault, May 26, 1945

Cities to him stood for the mongrel blending of races he hated; they bred Jews like lice. For the Allies, meanwhile, cities embodied the fundamental reasoning behind the carpet-bombing and, finally, the atomic bomb. They were complex economic and social mechanisms in which everyone was connected, every inhabitant’s labor furthering a mutual goal. Given those links, if the state was guilty, everyone was guilty. A five-year old girl in Nagasaki whose father worked in a shipyard was fully accountable for the horrors of Bataan. If Hitler looked on the urban world like a savage mythologist, the Western powers analyzed it like sophisticated sociologists. In each civic community they saw an intricate interdependence that translated into shared complicity. The end was the same on both sides, the sociology fading back into the myth: collective punishment, common death.

Part of central Tokyo after the Operation Meetinghouse air raid of March 9-10, 1945 later estimated to be the single most destructive bombing raid in history

Part of central Tokyo after the Operation Meetinghouse air raid of March 9-10, 1945 later estimated to be the single most destructive bombing raid in history

After the war, the victor nations rejected that, at least on paper. A renewed campaign against torture, the prohibition of the new crime of genocide, both came about in the new world order. So did a code of safeguards for civilians in war, in the Fourth Geneva Convention, adopted in 1949. The protections were imperfect, but at least just living in a belligerent state should no longer be reason enough to kill you. On the other hand, the victorious Allies had an ambiguous relationship to civilian protection standards. Unlike the Germans, they hadn’t committed genocide in the war (never mind those old colonial problems), or systematic torture (well, not much), but they had taken the German technique of incinerating civilians with carpet bombing and perfected it, in Tokyo and Dresden. Thus the new Geneva Convention had a bit of guilty secret as well as promise about it. This may explain the why it remained broad and relatively elastic. (An additional protocol in 1977 more specifically prohibited direct attacks on civilian targets, as well as attacks “of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction.” It has not been ratified by a number of states that ratified the Convention itself, Israel and the US among them.)

If this is all a prelude to speaking of Israel and Palestine, perhaps it reflects my reluctance to come to the point, because there is no point that can help anyone at all. Yet history matters. Both sides there believe in collective punishment (a war crime under the Geneva Convention) yet both dispute that they are doing wrong. Each – like the Allies explaining the carpet bombs — has its story about the other to justify the sweep of what they do. Universal guilt abides in the opposing population. Either Israel is a militarized settler society in which every citizen is a real or potential soldier, a participant in repression. Or all Palestine is a partisan movement hidden in a general population, where lines between warrior and non-combatant melt

Settler society and its discontents: British propaganda poster against the Mau Mau rebellion, Kenya, 1950s (from

Settler society and its discontents: British propaganda poster against the Mau Mau rebellion, Kenya, 1950s

An insecure state that can’t afford to excuse any of its members from the task of violence; a popular movement that by definition does not even have a state to enforce distinctions. Neither side can make out individual features in the other; they see each other in totalizing terms, inhospitable to differences. This leaves you where a lot of commenters on the situation, particularly in the human rights world, like to be: with Balance, the equable belief that everybody’s wrong.

Most observers — most organizations in the international human rights world, most of the international community — focus on condemning civilian casualties as if they’re determined to defeat this totalizing logic, and to extract the thread of distinctions from its tangle. But they end up with Balance again, that place where everybody is the same: both sides endanger civilians, both are in the wrong.  Does this focus have its limitations? What do you get from emphasizing the “innocent” civilians, instead of other categories of innocence, involvement, blame? Does it blind us to the causes and motives of the violence, restricting us to asking how well the violence is performed?

My old home, Human Rights Watch, insisted for years –from Sri Lanka to Iraq– that it takes no sides in conflicts. “Human Rights Watch does not ordinarily take positions on whether a party to a conflict is justified in taking up arms,” in order to preserve its own objectivity in evaluating abuses. “Rather, once armed conflict breaks out, we generally confine ourselves to monitoring how both sides to the conflict fight the war, with the aim of enforcing international standards protecting noncombatants.” This is no longer entirely true; the organization increasingly advocates and promotes certain wars under the rubric of “humanitarian intervention,” idealistic incursions to prevent abuses. (But when these wars then cause further abuses, is Human Rights Watch’s objectivity in documenting them compromised?) Even if you take the statement at face value, though, applying it to Israel and Palestine reveals certain limits.

What happens when a human rights organization begins evaluating wars? In the late 1990s Human Rights Watch pioneered methodologies for interpreting physical evidence to determine whether the warmakers were trying hard enough not to kill civilians: beginning with NATO’s assault on Serbia in 1998, continuing through the US air war against Iraq, through Israel’s attacks on Gaza in Operation Cast Lead in 2009. These studies were excellent, groundbreaking, a vast advance in human rights advocacy from moral exhortation to highly specialized judgment. But these reports are a also guide to minimizing civilian casualties to suit the Geneva Conventions, adjusting impact through a range of algorithms. In this way, human rights organizations have actually begun offering militaries informal advice, not on how to stop violence – that would mean not having a war – but on how to cap its consequences at a legally acceptable level. Too far down that road, and they become micromanagers of death.

Limits: Meme from the International Committee of the Red Cross

Limits: Meme from the International Committee of the Red Cross

The Israeli architect and philosopher Eyal Weizman has analyzed how groups like Human Rights Watch participate, inadvertently and from admirable aspirations, in the science of war: their “collusion … with military and political powers.” Their methods involve a shift “from a focus on the victims of war to an analysis of the mechanism of the violations of law.” Law itself, once broken, is treated as the chief victim; the individuals whose lives were at stake fade away in the descriptions of the offense almost as they did in the choosing of targets. This elision, however unwanted, is built into the methods. “Today’s forensic investigators of violence move alongside its perpetrators, morphing into them,” according to Weizman. “Humanitarianism, human rights and international humanitarian law,” he writes, “have become the crucial means by which the economy of violence is calculated and managed.”

He looks particularly at the story of Marc Garlasco, my old friend who joined HRW as its investigator of military methods, its lead critic of how bomb-droppers selected targets — after a career in the US military machine, as a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who selected targets. He was effective because he knew exactly what the targeters were trying to do and how, when they killed: because he’d done it. Marc was an earnest and brilliant fellow who, in his relentless interrogation of the Israeli Defense Forces’ strategic decisions, got more flak than he deserved. He had a keener intuitive apprehension of his position’s moral contradictions than did, on the whole, the people who hired him. The moral contradictions did not go away, though. Marc could say, without much irony, that he stayed at the Pentagon through the Iraq war out of an ethical obligation:  “I wanted to do it in the best way I could,” adding, “I had responsibilities to the pilots and the civilians” (emphasis added).

You cannot reconcile the contradictions of killing people in the best way possible unless you translate “responsibility” into the most bloodless terms: make it a duty you owe to abstract principles and not specific people. Legalism triumphs. This arcane realm is where the logic of this work leads the committed human rights activist, away from the actual experiences of victims. Weizman quotes Garlasco: “After being in Afghanistan, Iraq, Georgia, Burma, I can no longer say if this destruction was wrong or right. I can only say whether it was legal or illegal.”

Shock and awe: Smoke covers central Baghdad during a massive U.S.-led air raid, March 21, 2003. Photo by AFP.

Shock and awe: Smoke covers central Baghdad during a massive U.S.-led air raid, March 21, 2003. Photo by AFP.

The focus on civilian casualties generates a strict, technical approach to the question of responsibility. The individual story is subordinated not just to the lawbooks, but to the slide rule.  No side can ensure absolutely that it will prevent civilian casualties, as long as it’s at war and killing people. So no side is completely devoid of guilt. But since the Geneva Conventions give a certain latitude for trying but failing, even killers can make a claim to innocence as well. The authority to evaluate such shades of inculpation gives enormous power to the human rights investigator and his organization, power over fine mathematical gradations of right and wrong: much greater power than simpler, starker, less technologically advanced modes of assessing morality could endow.

But this focus buries other questions, broader ones, about responsibility for the conflict as a whole. These are exactly the questions that Human Rights Watch long said it wouldn’t answer. Now that it is more and more involved in advocating – in effect, helping to cause – conflicts in the name of humanitarian intervention, it’s hard not to feel that the technical assessment of purely localized responsibility is, in some degree, a sophisticated and scientifically unimpeachable way of shouting: “Look over there!” Technical evaluation of a technological responsibility toward civilians is necessary work. Pursued in isolation from other ways of defining responsibility, though, it becomes a darker thing: a distraction.

Distraction from what?

Well, first, the balance that abstract principles impose – everybody is in the wrong – fails. In Israel and Gaza, the death tolls are out of balance. Israel has killed at least 100 people, probably more than 120, an unknown number of civilians among them (two reportedly died this morning in a strike that hit a charitable association for the disabled). Meanwhile, Gaza’s rockets have killed no Israelis. (Nine “have been treated for injuries, dozens more for shock.”)

This reflects an immense disparity in technological power. Israel is armed with one of the largest, most advanced military capacities in the world. It could defend most of its citizens without firing a retaliatory shot. (Israel developed the Iron Dome missile interception system with a $205 million gift from the US government; now European countries, India, Singapore, and even the US itself may be lining up to buy back the finished product, making it not only protective but profitable.) When it does shoot, the impulse is political and the damage is overwhelming. Israel’s defenders talk a great deal about the its pinpoint attempts to target specific “terrorist” sites, while Hamas just fires rockets into the air. But the random rockets haven’t killed so far, while the precision aiming has:

A Israeli raid flattened the Fun Time Beach cafe in the southern Gaza Strip in the early hours of Thursday, killing nine people and wounding 15.

All that is left of the popular seaside cafe — where dozens broke their Ramadan fast on Wednesday night before settling down to watch Argentina play the Netherlands — is a large crater and a few mounds of sand.

Palestinians search for bodies in the southern Gaza Strip, at a beach cafe hit the night before by an Israeli air strike: July 10, 2014

Palestinians search for bodies in the southern Gaza Strip, at a beach cafe hit the night before by an Israeli air strike: July 10, 2014

These disasters are not really about the indistinguishability of civilian targets amid a militarized population (an Israeli claim Abby Okrent dismantles here). They are built into Israel’s vast technological superiority itself. Better machines don’t make for more precision. Precision is a quality of judgment, and judgment is a quality of human beings. The aim of Israel’s various “operations” in Gaza is not just to take out specific people, but to cow a population. (Even the famous text messages that supposedly warn residents a bomb is about to blast their home have, as Gazans can tell you, at least as much to do with showing off the invisible, terrifying omniscience of a military surveillance system. We know where you are.) Unleashed with that intent behind them, weapons – however “smart” – will terrorize, not just target; the very targeting is an aspect of terror, a reminder of superior knowledge as well as superior means, but spillover is equally intrinsic to the effect. The message inevitably exceeds the “purely” military purpose, and the collateral damage itself becomes the point: a sign of exultant excess, the means drowning the end. You can’t go on talking about equivalence without acknowledging Israel’s military domination, its unmeasurable ability to destroy. And to cap its technological triumph, it is (and has been for forty years) the only state in a thousand-mile radius with nuclear bombs.

Second, that technological dominance is part of the disparity in political power. The occupation has gone on for 47 years. (Gaza, ostensibly freed by fiat nine years ago, remains encircled and controlled). Everyone knows this (even those who deny it) so there’s no point expanding on it. The confrontation between popular rebellion and a rapacious settler society isn’t just an old, cowboys-and-Indians story that we can look on with disinterest or restrained amusement. It’s here and now. It demands choosing, and not just in a childhood game.

Cigarette Cards, "Heroic Deeds," UK, 1890s. on Decmeber 4, 1893, rebel Ndebele soldiers near Bulawayo  in present-day Zimbabwe wiped out an entire British detachment under   Major Allan Wilson. From

Cigarette Cards, “Heroic Deeds,” UK, 1890s. On December 4, 1893, rebel Ndebele soldiers near Bulawayo in present-day Zimbabwe wiped out an entire British detachment under Major Allan Wilson. From

Moreover, demanding (as Israel does) that stateless people protect civilians, or clearly mark civilians in their own midst, carries a certain irony. “Civilian,” as I’ve said, is deeply connected to the idea of citizenship. Citizenship comes from states. It’s exactly what the stateless are denied. States ratify identities, assign them to combatants or non-combatants, stratify and sort society. Absence of agency to do this is precisely the situation to which Israel consigns the Palestinians. The demand itself reveals the gulf between those with power and those without.

Third, insisting on equivalence ignores how this specific crisis came about. Israel’s government was the main actor. Mouin Rabbani notes that while, in the Western media, “the latest round of escalation is dated from the moment three Israeli youths went missing on 12 June,” this ignores the incendiary effect of earlier IDF violence against Nakba protesters:

the shooting death of two Palestinian boys in Ramallah on 15 May—like any number of incidents in the intervening month where Israel exercised its right to colonize and dispossess—is considered wholly insignificant.

Even if you take the Israeli teenagers’ kidnapping and brutal killing as the starting point, though, Netanyahu’s government provoked and worsened the situation, raising palpably false hopes so that disappointment would incite rage. In the Jewish Daily Forward, J. J. Goldberg writes:

The initial evidence was the recording of victim Gilad Shaer’s desperate cellphone call to Moked 100, Israel’s 911. When the tape reached the security services the next morning — neglected for hours by Moked 100 staff — the teen was heard whispering “They’ve kidnapped me” (“hatfu oti”) followed by shouts of “Heads down,” then gunfire, two groans, more shots, then singing in Arabic. That evening searchers found the kidnappers’ abandoned, torched Hyundai, with eight bullet holes and the boys’ DNA. There was no doubt.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately placed a gag order on the deaths. … For public consumption, the official word was that Israel was “acting on the assumption that they’re alive.” It was, simply put, a lie. …

Nor was that the only fib. It was clear from the beginning that the kidnappers weren’t acting on orders from Hamas leadership in Gaza or Damascus. Hamas’ Hebron branch — more a crime family than a clandestine organization — had a history of acting without the leaders’ knowledge, sometimes against their interests. Yet Netanyahu repeatedly insisted Hamas was responsible for the crime and would pay for it. … His rhetoric raised expectations that after demolishing Hamas in the West Bank he would proceed to Gaza. … The Israeli right — settler leaders, hardliners in his own party — began demanding it.

And in Gaza, it wasn’t Hamas that struck first.

On June 29, an Israeli air attack on a rocket squad killed a Hamas operative. Hamas protested. The next day it unleashed a rocket barrage, its first since 2012. The cease-fire [informally in effect since 2012) was over. Israel was forced to retaliate for the rockets with air raids. Hamas retaliated for the raids with more rockets. And so on. Finally Israel began calling up reserves on July 8 …

Later that morning, Israel’s internal security minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch told reporters that the “political echelon has given the army a free hand.” Almoz returned to Army Radio that afternoon and confirmed that the army had “received an absolutely free hand” to act.

And how far, the interviewer asked, will the army go? “To the extent that it’s up to the army,” Almoz said, “the army is determined to restore quiet.” Will simply restoring quiet be enough? “That’s not up to us,” he said.

You can tell what happened. The killing of the three boys was monstrous, as was the revenge killing of an Arab youth. But these were not “civilian casualities,” because they weren’t murdered by soldiers in a war, but by individuals. A different government of a different state might have confined the response to arresting and prosecuting. But not Israel,  not Netanyahu, not the military occupation. The story of the American “war on terror” repeated itself: a crime became a casus belli, guilt rested with whole societies, the response was not justice but retribution. Two interlocking logics took over: the primitive one of collective punishment, and the sophisticated one of advanced technologies of killing, the tools of military technocracy. Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.

Untitled, by Cecil Skotnes (1926-2009),. Woodcut, 1980.

Untitled, by Cecil Skotnes (1926-2009),. Woodcut, 1980.

I started by maintaining: before the term “civilian” ever assumed its present meaning, killing non-combatants largely meant slaughtering the dwellers in cities. That was a rebellion by brute force against the abodes of civility, against the comfortable, empowered, but arrogant idea of civilization.

No more. Every value is transvalued. When we speak of “civilian casualties” in most places now, we mean the war of advanced technology against raw human flesh. Today, the killers aren’t the ones combating the immense technological sophistication of civilization; it is entirely on their side. This ease of murdering is our modernity; our highest achievements aren’t buildings but the bombs that destroy them.  Our phones and drones are smarter than we are. Against that overwhelming power of civilized slaughter, people dwindle; their lives shrink to what Giorgio Agamben calls bare life, helpless nakedness in the face of amoral machinery. David Jones, a Welsh poet, in a long poem about the First World War, described in lines of beautiful stoicism a British private blown apart by a shell:

He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering the fragility of us.

That’s the “proportionality” that matters now.

Iraqi armored personnel carrieres, tanks, and trucks destroyed on the Highway of Death from Kuwait, during Operation Desert Storm , 1991: Photo by US Department of Defense

Iraqi armored personnel carrieres, tanks, and trucks destroyed on the Highway of Death from Kuwait, during Operation Desert Storm , 1991: Photo by US Department of Defense

Our laws and activists keep drawing finer distinctions between civilian victims and combatants.  Perhaps that isn’t the real distinction that needs to be drawn. What’s urgent now is the divide between our technological civilization on the one hand,  and all its victims on the other. Those victims are so impotent before its crushing power that it can exterminate soldiers as casually as the unarmed. They are insignificant as the Iraqi recruits whom American bombs roasted alive in their tanks in 1991. Those with weapons, like the Palestinians in Gaza, are nonetheless effaceable by the remote control of a technology beyond control.  The imperative to contest this power transcends identities and uniforms. Human rights, if they mean anything, are not the rights of humans to be killed efficiently. Human rights are their rights to live.

"Massacre of the innocents," from Codes Gertrude, 10th  century AD  (Poland)

“Massacre of the innocents,” from Codex Gertrudianus, 10th century AD (Poland)

ISIS in Iraq: Real atrocities and easy fantasies

FIghters under the ISIS flag parade in Tel Abyad, Syria, near the Turkish border, Jan. 2, 2014.: photo by Reuters/Yaser Al-Khodor Read more:

Fighters under the ISIS flag parade in Tel Abyad, Syria, near the Turkish border, Jan. 2, 2014: photo by Reuters/Yaser Al-Khodor

ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — says it likes simple things. When I was in Iraq in 2009, a gay man told me how Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the militia from which it grew, had murdered his partner five years before in Baghdad’s al-Dora quarter.

It was at a time when there was a general cleansing of people they thought were immoral. Barbers who pluck out hairs with a string could be targeted because that was haram. They murdered ice-sellers because there was no ice in the time of the Prophet.

My boyfriend was hanging out on a street corner with a bunch of friends, and they saw a group of bearded men pull up in a car. They asked for him by name. He tried to run but they surrounded and cornered him. They tried to get information from him, asking for names of gay friends. People came up and saw there was a disturbance—so they just shot him and drove away.

There were no guns in the time of the Prophet, or getaway cars either. The fierce essentialism of the militiamen’s standards cannot alter all aspects of the present, or roll back the complexities of the world. Perhaps they don’t try too comprehensively in the end; they’re content with the paradoxes, slaughtering ice-sellers while paying car dealers. Consistency only impedes the freedom to kill. It’s the clash of values itself that empowers them. Their angry absolute beliefs are like a bar of heated iron, plunged into history as into a pail of water. Steam billows up and clouds the air, and in that blinding, enabling confusion the killers can work.

A lot of people in Iraq want to kill, and therefore multiple parties tend to find confusion congenial. A Twitter account “associated with” ISIS over the weekend posted pictures “apparently showing their fighters killing many Shia soldiers..”

201461624556763734_20The account, which was closed down before its exact provenance could be determined, claimed the victims were captured Shi’ites from the Iraq army. “Hundreds have been liquidated,” it said; a figure of 1700 was cited. According to the New York Times,

The photographs showed what appeared to be seven massacre sites, although several of them may have been different views of the same sites. In any one of the pictures, no more than about 60 victims could be seen and sometimes as few as 20 at each of the sites, although it was not clear if the photographs showed the entire graves. The militants’ captions seemed tailor-made to ignite anger and fear among Shiites. …

The Iraqi army itself appears unsure how to respond, initially casting doubt on the reports, then “confirm[ing] the photos’ authenticity” but dropping a zero from the number claimed dead. It’s more a question of strategy than of truth: if you say the murders happened, you might discourage your troops from surrendering (which they’ve been doing en masse) but encourage them to desert (ditto). So an atrocity story virtually admitted by the killers, one you’d think would be a propaganda present to a tottering regime, remains underexploited. Even death goes to waste.

But if the Iraq regime survives on confusion, it’s nothing like the confusion that comes from outside. Western policy on Iraq has been all about killing or letting-be-killed, and therefore promotes a comprehensive, cloudy unclarity in which killing can just occur, agency reassignable, responsibility ambiguous, story in the passive voice. Stuff happens. Decades of dishonesty and blowing smoke; that was the point of the yellowcake, the weapons of mass destruction, the “untidiness,” the whitewashing of the crimes of people like Maliki.

Bush looks under the White House furniture for missing WMDs: from an official Presidential humor video, 2004. No word on where those 100,000 Iraq bodies were buried, either.

Bush looks under the White House furniture for missing WMDs: from an official Presidential humor video, 2004. No word on where those 100,000 Iraqi bodies were buried, either.

It wasn’t just an opportunistic sacrifice of truth; truth was the target, as much as Saddam Hussein. The years of war appear in retrospect as a gigantic experiment to create a model country where nothing could be known and anything said, no certainties had but speculation. The oleaginous Tony Blair reappeared yesterday, a wholly indigenous cross between Mr. Chadband and Dr. Phibes. He denies everything. Nothing that happened happened, and it wasn’t his fault:

We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that ‘we’ have caused this. We haven’t. We can argue as to whether our policies at points have helped or not: and whether action or inaction is the best policy. But the fundamental cause of the crisis lies within the region not outside it.

You can omit the fact that by urging us to “liberate ourselves,” Blair seems to be calling for an auto-invasion. No: Western leaders never propped up Saddam Hussein in the years when his mass murders were at their height, never switched sides afterward and invaded, never left him to slaughter his opponents in the invasion’s wake, never starved the whole Iraqi people into delirium in hopes they would overthrow him, though those victims never installed him in the first place; they never invaded yet again, never unleashed a civil war. Those are non-facts, “a bizarre reading of the cauldron that is the Middle East today” (the mixed metaphor – who “reads” a “cauldron”? – itself suggests Blair’s fixed unwillingness to describe reality, or perhaps a will to replace reality with interpreting the magic brew, like the witches in Macbeth). “We have to put aside the differences of the past and act now to save the future”: thus Blair.

It’s in this context of the right wing’s constantly metastasizing lies that a small thing caught my attention this weekend. Tarek Fatah tweeted it, then Ben Weinthal.

tarek fatah bs TWOBoth these guys have impeccable neoconservative credentials. Fatah, a Canadian journalist for the right-wing Toronto Sun, is one of those quondam Muslims that Islamophobes love. He blames Islam for everything: “The worldwide cancer of terrorism by some Muslims is inspired by the teachings of Islam. To deny this fact is intellectual dishonesty.” He regularly emits the required warnings about takeover by creeping shari’a:

fatah sharia copy–and cheerfully imitates the foreign policy stylings of the rabid Dinesh d’Souza:

Fatah obama copyWeinthal is also a self-styled journalist, principally working through the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think-tank Glenn Greenwald called “a Who’s Who of every unhinged neocon extremist in the country.” One job of the Foundation’s paid fellows is to drum up support in various constituencies for a war against Iran, and Weinthal somehow acquired the gay portfolio. Pursuing this, back in 2011 he published a vociferous piece in Gay City News accusing Iran of “anti-gay genocide.” I responded that the usual definition of accomplished genocide requires that people be dead, and there was no documentation of executions for consensual homosexual conduct in Iran since at least 2000. Weinthal has never forgiven me for this. As bête noire and “Iran apologist” I still haunt his Twitter feed, his occasional dispatches for the Jerusalem Post, and no doubt the recesses of his dreams.

“Don’t miss the niqabi!” Sure. The photo seemed off to me. It wasn’t hard to find out where it came from: certainly it shouldn’t have been complicated for two experienced pseudojournalists like these. The picture itself, as you can see, has a watermark, which says “Al Ghad”: the name of a newspaper in Jordan (Tomorrow).

BqB2G4mCMAAh9meThe photo isn’t from Iraq at all. Here‘s the original article from Al Ghad (with plenty of other pictures too). It’s from a mock anti-terrorism exercise conducted at the big SOFEX (Special Operations Forces Exhibition and Conference) confab held from May 5-8 this year in Amman, Jordan. That’s a chance for all sorts of doubtful mercenary, paramilitary, and private-security gurus and arms salesmen to hawk their wares to jittery governments. A rescue of “hostages” was staged by “counterterrorist” forces after a costumed “jihadist” group kidnapped them, and this is one image. The show stirred up a controversy in Jordan, implying as it did that “terrorism” was a conservative Muslim speciality. The Islamic Action Front, Jordan’s main religious political party, condemned the exercise, as did Salafists and many Facebookers — for spreading exactly the stereotypes that Fatah and Weinthal also deal in.

The sequel: "Counterterrorist special forces" capture "jihadists" at the SOFEX show in Amman

The sequel: “Counterterrorist special forces” capture “jihadists” at the SOFEX show in Amman

That’s not the point, though. The point is that doing a reverse Google search before circulating an image is good (journalistic) practice — especially in a tendentious situation, with people being killed. Interesting, too, is how the photo got redubbed. Tarek Fatah obtained it from the Twitter account of Raja Arsalan Shah, a Lahore-based journalist:

image recapitulated copyShah in turn got it from a Twitter account called “Proud Syrian”:

proud syrian copy 2All we know about “Proud Syrian,” who tweets pretty exclusively in English, is this:

proud syrian id copy“Proud Syrian” obviously found the photo somewhere and seized the chance to enlist it against ISIS. At least he, or she, included a disclaimer (attributing the ISIS link to social media); in its later peregrinations, Weinthal and Fatah shucked off any such caution. Strange that Weinthal, who campaigns aggressively for US intervention to overthrow Assad, is recirculating deceitful propaganda from an anonymous pro-Assad account.

When I pointed to the original source of the picture, Ben Weinthal became enraged: not at “Proud Syrian,” or himself, but at me. In fact, his answer, retweeted by Tarek Fatah, was downright churlish.

Shut up, Ben explained

Shut up, Ben explained

Is that even an answer? Perhaps it’s to be expected that people who give unquestioning credit to pro-Assad propagandists should also place faith in the nasty personal vendettas of the litigious Peter Tatchell. They’re equally reliable. Undisgraced, undiscredited, and undismissed, I still have to admire Ben’s talent for alliteration if not for accuracy. I feel I ought to imitate it somehow. Yet it’s hardly fruitful to waste belletristic tricks on such unrepentant people, disinclined to honesty and incapable of honor: dyspeptic, disingenuous and destructive propagandists for prejudice.

Neither Weinthal nor Fatah ever clarified the truth about the picture. This makes it harder and harder to call them journalists.

So the picture spread (as you can see, it got 700+ retweets from Fatah’s account alone), and it’s still cropping up here and there on Twitter. It’s picked up by Australian xenophobes:

tare12k 3 copyBy fans of the Dutch racist politician Geert Wilders (as well as, in this case, of head Indian Islamophobe Narendra Modi):

"Not sure about Islam? Or was Mr. Wilders right after all?"

“Not sure about Islam? Or was Mr. Wilders right after all?”

And by anti-feminists anxious to prove that Western feminism has got things wrong, or that Elliot Rodger was in some weird way right:

tarek 4 copy 2ISIS is a violent organization with a long trail of victims. It takes little trouble to find documented atrocities it has committed; so you have to wonder why so many people leapt on this picture, this fake back story. Weinthal’s and Fatah’s propaganda needs are clear. Even now, though, it’s conspicuous that while both cling to this tale, neither’s Twitter feed contains anything about ISIS’s own claims to have executed hundreds of soldiers. The probable atrocity has been driven out by the fake one.

I have two explanations. One’s in the picture itself; the jeans-clad women, with blond or dyed hair … I haven’t been to Mosul, but I’ve been elsewhere in northern Iraq, and I recall very few women who looked like that. The whole point of the Jordan exercise from which the picture came was to make the fake hostages look like us, a different us, not like ordinary Jordanians or Arabs: like Western or Westernized victims, just the people Special Forces are meant to rescue. Shi’ite soldiers shot by jihadists rouse a mixed response in the American or the neoconservative breast: on the one hand, we oppose any generic Muslim terrorists automatically, a non-sectarian instinct to battle and bomb; on the other hand, shooting Shi’ites is, from a geopolitical perspective, perhaps a Good Thing. It’s not just the anonymity of the violence in the ISIS pictures that inhibits identification. It’s a complicated if not necessarily informed political response. But with the fake photo, there’s no confusion of loyalties. These are our kind of slaves.

White slavery: Jaroslav Čermák, Abduction of a Herzegovenian Woman, 1861

White slavery: Jaroslav Čermák, Abduction of a Herzegovenian Woman, 1861

And that sympathy can’t be separated from their gender. There’s partly the tradition of women as the territory on which clashes of civilization are fought: a history stretching from colonial conquests down to Bush’s war in Afghanistan. There’s the titillating promise of actually watching women taken as “slaves”: part of a growing body of political pornography that sexualizes Muslim men as masters in a seven-veils version of Deep Throat, or Debbie Does Damascus. (Think the fantasy of “sexual jihad,” the myth that Islamists lure or force women into servicing fighters in Syria or Iraq — an Orientalist wet-dream sold by the sensationalist media in the United States, but one that’s been plagiarized in Egypt and elsewhere.) And there’s the excitement of watching women turn against women, which to guys threatened by feminism and all that women’s solidarity stuff is both ideologically satisfying and erotically thrilling. “Dont miss the niqabi with gun guarding the captives!” tweeted Fatah. It’s like lesbian mud-wrestling, but with automatic weapons.

Political pornography — and that’s what this is — reduces our thinking, our ability to respond, in many subtle and unsubtle ways. But one is this: it acclimates us to accepting that only visible abuses are real. The only violations that count are what our eyes can consume; our hungry seeing is the sole criterion for believing.

ISIS knows this too. When they took over Nineveh, also in northern Iraq, they released a document with sixteen rules for residents. These imposed hudud punishments (amputation for stealing), and banned alcohol and drugs. They also told women that “stability is at home and they should not go outside unless necessary. They should be covered, in full Islamic dress.” (This is a paraphrase, by the Washington Post.) 

Certainly, this reflects their version of religious precepts; but in a larger sense it’s a sweeping and familiar mandate on women to remain indoors and invisible, in a realm where abuse and agency will be equally unseen. No melodrama here, just the usual relegation to the usual rooms. Weinthal, Fatah, and the rest of the voyeurs on Twitter, obsessed with images of women herded off as “slaves,” won’t notice this violation, exactly because it places women beyond and beneath notice. Violence inflicts the worst wounds when it takes the form of denying visibility. To consign people to pure privacy is the severest privation. As long as our emotions and our politics are driven by pictures, in an orgy of exposure, trying to make sense of the thousand-word Babel they echo or imply, this will be the unattended message: the word we won’t hear.


Resources about Syria

An image distributed by the opposition Shaam News Network, August 23, 2013, shows a relative mourning a family member killed during an alleged chemical attack in the eastern Ghouta area on the outskirts of Damascus

An image distributed by the opposition Shaam News Network, August 23, 2013, shows a relative mourning a family member killed during an alleged chemical attack in the eastern Ghouta area on the outskirts of Damascus

Bombings killed 80 people yesterday in Iraq, the country the US and UK saved ten years ago. The night before that war started, President Bush spoke on TV and turned his ferrety eyes toward the Iraqi people.

We will deliver the food and medicine you need. We will tear down the apparatus of terror. And we will help you build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free. In a free Iraq there will be no more wars of aggression against your neighbors, no more poison factories, no more executions of dissidents, no more torture chambers and rape rooms. … We will not relent until your country is free.

That worked out so well. Iraq, where the news is mostly bad, doesn’t get much press anymore. The UN says violence killed 1,057 in the country last month. Putting all that in separate news stories — 20 dead Monday, 40 Tuesday, and so on — would only confuse readers, leave them wondering what day it was and why the headlines never seem to change, just the ads. Better not to bother them. Anyway, the old imperialists knew the truth about these things. To colonize is to forget, because after that anything that happens on the soil reflects your own crimes. And while it is permitted to know others, it is dangerous to know yourself.

In that spirit, the US and the UK are now lurching toward intervening in Syria. It’s so reassuringly changeless, how these things happen: the long delays, the agonizing reappraisals, the moral quandaries, the TV debates, and then the red line crossed and suddenly the bombs are falling. It’s like the line from Hemingway: “”How did you go bankrupt?” “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

Syria confuses me and leaves me in despair. I don’t know what to do; I’m not even sure what to feel anymore. Perhaps others are in the same darkness and uncertainty, particularly at this eleventh hour while the cruise missiles are being made ready. I don’t claim to know anything. But I can share some readings that left a few things less confused for me, in the hope that somebody else may make a sense of them that I’m denied. I don’t agree with everything here. And if you have other readings that taught you something and that you’d like to share, please do so in the comments.

Free Syrian army soldiers help a fighter wounded by a Syrian army sniper, Aleppo, 2012: AP

Free Syrian army soldiers help a fighter wounded by a Syrian army sniper, Aleppo, 2012: AP

General resources

Syria Deeply, a news aggregation site for all things related to the conflict, is “an independent digital media project led by journalists and technologists, exploring a new model of storytelling around a global crisis.” On Twitter at @syriadeeply.

The opposition: Under the acronyms

Some overviews of the factions:

Economist,Who are the Syrian opposition?” (June 2013)

BBC, “Guide to the Syrian opposition” (transcript of a broadcast, March 2012)

Elizabeth O’Bagy, “Syrian opposition fragmented by choice,” Gulf News  (July 2012; O’Bagy is an analyst at the ominously named Institute for the Study of War)

Who are the Syrian opposition?Global Post (November 2011) 

A more detailed account: “The Syrian File: The Role of the Opposition in a Multi-Layered Conflict,” a report by Cinzia Bianco for the Istituto Affari Internazionali (June 2013)

Chemical attack and intervention

What happened in the last few days? What happens next?

Julian Borger, “Syria Intervention: Key Questions Answered,” Guardian UK (August 28)

Frank Ledwidge, “Syria intervention: The 5 questions MPs should ask,” Guardian UK (August 28)

Omar Dahi, “Chemical attacks and military interventions,” Jadaliyya (August 2013). “It is hard to avoid the hopeless feeling that Syrians have lost almost all agency over their collective future….Whatever actions take place, continuing to claim them in the interests of the Syrian people is simply an exercise in public relations and deception.”

Musa al-Gharbi, “Toxic discourse on chemical weapons,” Your Middle East (August 27; from, a pro-Assad website).  It is disquieting that these chemical weapons incidents seem to occur at these critical moments of progress for the regime, when the rebels find themselves in desperate need for more assistance.”

Juan Cole, “At Hussein’s Hearings, U.S. May Be on Trial,” TruthDig (2005). Cole recently drew attention again to this article on how the US both abetted and alibi’ed Saddam’s chemical slaughter in Iraq, back when his regime was an ally. It’s particularly relevant today.

Citizen journalism image from the Media Office Of Douma City: a man mourns over a dead body following an alleged chemical attack in Douma, August 21, 2013

An image distributed by the Media Office Of Douma City shows a man mourning over a dead body following an alleged chemical attack in Douma, August 21, 2013


Razan Ghazzawi is a friend, feminist, and sterling human rights activist, arrested repeatedly for her brave part in the anti-Assad struggle. Her blog is worth reading in its entirety. For a sample, a recent post, “Back,” lyrically describes her return to the beleaguered country after months of absence.  

Maysaloon is a well-known Syrian blogger who writes mostly in English. For recent posts, see “Airstrikes on Syria” and “A rant for Syria” (“That’s how it always is in Syria, we never hear of good news until it’s too late”). Also read “How to Square a Circle“: “One can oppose Assad and still support the Palestinian cause, not because of a contradiction but because the issue is one and the same. It is a sense for justice which makes the death of all innocent people equally outrageous, and whether it is Gaza or Homs that is being bombed, the condemnation of those doing so should not be subject to geopolitical convenience.”

Syria Freedom Forever is a blog, partly in English and partly in Arabic, run by Joseph Daher of the Syrian Revolutionary Left Current. See an interview with him on the site, “Imperialism, Sectarianism, and Syria’s Revolution.”

A man carries a wounded girl, after an explosion targeting a military bus in the Qudssaya neighborhood of Damascus, June 2012: AFP

A man carries a wounded girl, after an explosion targeting a military bus in the Qudssaya neighborhood of Damascus, June 2012: AFP

Other articles

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, “How to Start a Battalion (in Five Easy Lessons),” London Review of Books (February 2013). “Last November, under pressure from the Americans, and with promises of better funding and more weapons from the Gulf nations, all the opposition factions met in Doha. A new council was created, called the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. … But the promised flow of weapons never materialised: there were small amounts of ammunition, but no major shipments.” 

Aslı Ü. Bâli and Aziz Rana, “Why There Is No Military Solution to the Syrian Conflict,” Jadaliyya (May 2013).  “But the failure to take diplomacy seriously underscores a profound moral hazard generated by the international community’s prevailing framework. While basic international commitments to provide humanitarian assistance … have been honored in the breach, external actors fulfill and exceed their pledges of military support.”

David Bromwich, “Stay out of Syria!” New York Review of Books  (June 2013). “The untold story of Syria concerns something beyond the atrocities on both sides. It has also to do with the sinews of war—the financial motive and muscle that keeps it going.” 

Patrick Cockburn, “Is it the End of Sykes-Picot?London Review of Books (May 2013). “By savagely repressing demonstrations two years ago Bashar al-Assad helped turn mass protests into an insurrection which has torn Syria apart. … The quagmire is turning out to be even deeper and more dangerous than it was in Iraq.”    

Bassam Haddad, “The Growing Challenge to the Syrian Regime and the Syrian Uprising,” Jadaliyya (June 2013). “Divisions within the Revolution: It was bound to happen. And we are simply witnessing its tip: growing opposition to the militant opposition, on similar ethical grounds used to critique the regime.”

Bassam Haddad,  “Perpetual Recalculation: Getting Syria Wrong Two Years On,” Jadaliyya (March 2013).  “If I had a dollar for every time someone wrote about the “End Game” in Syria during the past eighteen months . . . .”

Bassam Haddad, “The Idiot’s Guide to Fighting Dictatorship in Syria While Opposing Military Intervention,” Jadaliyya (January 2012).  “It is one thing for analysts living outside Syria to oppose and condemn foreign intervention (which this author does unequivocally). It is another to assume that all those calling for it in Syria under current conditions are part of a conspiracy.  … Imperialism is not always the issue for everyone. To not recognize this is to lose the fight against imperialism.”

Syrian men carry a wounded protester who was shot during an anti-regime rally in Dael on the outskirts of Daraa, October 2011: AFP

Syrian men carry a wounded protester who was shot during an anti-regime rally in Dael on the outskirts of Daraa, October 2011: AFP

Amal Hanano, “The real me and the hypothetical Syrian revolution,” Jadaliyya, Part 1 (February 2012) and Part 2 (March 2012). “Our real names have been swallowed by our pseudonyms; our real faces have disappeared from our profile pictures — replaced with flags, historical figures, or composites. We erased the key components of our identity to use our voices in a way they have never been used before. We encoded ourselves so we would stop speaking in codes. To call things by their real names, things like murder, torture, rape, repression and humiliation. And to call for what we never thought we would dare to in our lifetimes: freedom, justice, and dignity.”

Peter Harling and Sarah Birke,The Syrian Heartbreak,” MERIP (April 2013). “There was a distinctive sense of national pride in Syria. … Syrian pride, too, fostered a strong national identity and a calm self-assurance, even among Palestinian refugees, chased from what is now Israel.”

Yusef Khalil, “Why the left must support Syria’s revolution,” Socialist Worker (April 2013), and “Understanding Syria’s revolution,” Socialist Worker (July 2013).  “The vital question facing the Syrian opposition is how to get aid from sources that can provide what the revolution needs, including weapons, while maintaining independent Syrian decision-making. This is a tough question to answer, but not impossible. But those who support the regime because they claim the uprising is being manipulated by the West are dishonest.”

Ghayath Naisse, “Prospects for Syria’s Revolution,” Socialist Worker (March 2013). “The traditional left in Syria, as well as regionally and internationally, has a miserable and opportunistic position towards revolutions … During the last three years of revolutions in our region, there has been a realignment of the left … This mirrors to some extent — without exaggeration — the realignment of the international left after the First World War.”

Yassin al-Haj Saleh, “Open Letter,” Syrian Observer (July 2013). “Every now and then we hear from American and Western politicians that there will be no military solution for the Syrian conflict, but where is the political solution?”

Citizen journalist image, provided by Lens Young Homsi, shows buildings destroyed by Syrian government bombing and shelling, in the Jouret al-Chiyah neighborhood of Homs, July 2013.

Citizen journalist image, provided by Lens Young Homsi, shows buildings destroyed by Syrian government bombing and shelling, in the Jouret al-Chiyah neighborhood of Homs, July 2013.


A friend showed me a poem by Mahmoud Darwish a few months ago: “Iraq’s Night Is Long,” published in 2008, the year he died. There is not enough poetry to confront the prevalence of catastrophe in this world. What he wrote for Iraq will have to do for Syria, for now. The wreckage is so hard to distinguish, and I doubt that he would mind.

Iraq, Iraq is blood the sun cannot dry
The sun is God’s widow above Iraq
The murdered Iraqi says to those standing at the bridge:
Good morning, I am still alive.
They say: You are still a dead man searching for his grave …

Who is killing whom in Iraq now?
Victims are shards on the roads and in words
Their names, like their bodies, are bits of disfigured letters
Here prophets stand together unable to utter
The sky’s name and the name of the murdered

Iraq, Iraq. So who are you in the presence of suicide?
I am not I in Iraq. Nor are you you
He is none but another
God has abandoned the perplexed, so who are we?
Who are we? We are nothing but a predicate in the poem:
Iraq’s night is long

Translated by Sinan Antoon, from Athar al-Farasha (Beirut: Riyad El-Rayyes, 2008)

Mahmoud Darwish, drawn by Ismail Shammout, 1971

Mahmoud Darwish, drawn by Ismail Shammout, 1971