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: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/01/al-qaeda-terror-spread-iraq-lebanon.html##ixzz34oYO5Rg3

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.

 

What to do about Syria

Syrian government forces patrol the Khalidiyah neighbourhood of Homs, mid-2013. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Syrian government forces patrol the Khalidiyah neighbourhood of Homs, mid-2013. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

You would think that, having stayed in Cairo for much of the last year, I would feel closer than in New York or Boston to the Syrian catastrophe taking place only a few borders away. But it doesn’t work that way. Egypt has enough of its own problems: massacres, mass arrests, one dictator on trial, another one running for president; these aren’t as replete with murder but they fill the mind as blood fills the brain after a hemorrhage, and expunge thought. You imagine Aleppo for a second and flinch: There’s enough not to think about without not thinking about that. 

To be sure, Syria is here, in the form of thousands of refugees who have fled the killing. (The UN says there are almost 150,000 in Egypt; some estimates run double; in any case, Lebanon hosts many times that, more than a million.) But neighbors harass them, police persecute them, they stay out of sight. Many Egyptians are conscious of the influx mainly because of the Syrian restaurants that have sprung up here and there, succulent roast chicken splayed on the plate, mehshi and manakish that scarcely taste of dispossession. The food’s good; why isn’t everybody happy?

When I visited Cairo in 2011 I met and became friends with Razan Ghazzawi, the fierce feminist and Pasionaria of the resistance, who in a short time taught me a great deal about the revolution’s dreams. The war had been going on for just four months then, and already it had worn down everybody’s psyches; she’d come to Cairo for six weeks to meet Egypt’s own revolutionaries and replenish her energies, at a time when events on the Nile still seemed in the vanguard of change. Now my closest Syrian friend here is a gentle refugee who shares my house; I’ll call him Youssef. He supports Assad, not militantly but with the vague erasing nostalgia traditional to exiles, threadbare asperities who fled France with the Bourbons, beggared bourgeois on the run from Bolsheviks. He interviewed Bashar once for a Syrian paper, while Assad Senior still lived, and can go on at length about his unassuming manners. We don’t talk politics much, since I disagree with most everything he says. Still his affection for the regime — which isn’t ancien yet, rather quondam et futurusis barely political; rather it’s a memory of stability, secularism, and calm, and an amnesia about their foundations in blood. He and Razan wouldn’t abide each other if they ever met, but they have some things in common. Razan’s vision of what freedom meant was clear as if it were etched in fire, and very much a product of Syria’s splintered map: a place where people could realize their differences without shame or fear. Stability and calm were preconditions for that. Youssef’s gauzed vision of the placid days of old includes the notion that you were at liberty to be yourself then — with the unspoken caveats of privilege and discretion; but making sure everybody, not just the lucky, could live free of surveillance and enjoy the sweet seclusions of security and privacy also preoccupied the original revolutionary dream. The overwhelming violence has made their imaginations definitively incompatible. Violence breaks bodies, but it also murders dreaming.

The violence also stamps out efforts to imagine a solution. Increasingly the Syrian state’s violence is matched by the violence of political Islamists who oppose almost all the original revolutionaries’ democratic ideals. Syria has become “a magnet for jihadist recruits,” writes Peter Neumann. Like many, he blames Assad for fostering these movements, then allowing them to slip from his control. But it’s also clear that this burgeoning radicalism owes plenty to American policy, and American allies. For one thing, the United States’ left hand keeps unravelling what its right hand does. As Adam Shatz notes,”the American government is fighting Sunni extremists in Iraq, while its allies, notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are arming the same Sunni extremists in Syria.”

Fighter for Jabhat al-Nusra ((Support Front for the People of Levant) kills captured Syrian government soldiers, 2013

Fighter for Jabhat al-Nusra (Support Front for the People of Levant) kills captured Syrian government soldiers, 2013

More broadly, though, every successive American intervention in the region has backfired, creating more of the violence it was supposed to stop.  And this makes it even harder for well-meaning Americans facing the Syrian horrors to figure out what to do.

The swashbuckling American military adventure in Afghanistan in the 1980s, to counter the Russian invasion, helped create both the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and the former now controls large swatches of the country once again. The American incursion in Saudi Arabia in 1991, to roll back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, helped refocus the embryonic al-Qaeda’s attention on the US, while turning it from a regional annoyance to a global franchise. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003, justified in part by lies that Saddam Hussein supported al-Qaeda, aimed to extirpate radicalism of all kinds from the Middle East; instead, eleven years later, a significant part of Iraq’s Sunni population has been thoroughly radicalized and supports al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is now fighting in Syria, in its new incarnation as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). On top of that, the American campaign in Libya failed to build a functional state; but, like the long American involvement in Afghanistan, it stirred up a spillover of arms and fighters that destabilizes surrounding countries, from Mali to Lebanon. (Seymour Hersh maintains that the US has been sending Libya’s spare weaponry to Syria’s rebels through Turkey.) Patrick Cockburn summarizes much of this grim history of incompetence:

The four wars fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria over the past 12 years have all involved overt or covert foreign intervention in deeply divided countries. In each case the involvement of the West exacerbated existing differences and pushed hostile parties towards civil war. In each country, all or part of the opposition have been hardcore jihadi fighters. Whatever the real issues at stake, the interventions have been presented as primarily humanitarian, in support of popular forces against dictators and police states. Despite apparent military successes, in none of these cases have the local opposition and their backers succeeded in consolidating power and establishing stable states.

Western interventions in the broader Middle East – from the Maghreb to Pakistan – have done nothing to stop extremism. Instead, they’ve created and spread it.

There are principled and abstract reasons for Western leftists to resist the cult of liberal interventionism. But this history furnishes a pragmatic and specific argument for opposing it in Syria. A moral consciousness, however — one not content to concentrate on the restaurant menus while ignoring the dead and refugees — still gropes for some kind of answer. It’s natural for leftists facing the naked reality of mass murder to want some scope for action, some space where the Enlightenment ideal of thought informing practice can recover its aptitude.

Hmm. Banner from the  sixth annual Marx Conference,  “Left Perspectives on the International Crisis of Capitalism," Tel Aviv, 2012

Hmm. Banner from the sixth annual Marx Conference, “Left Perspectives on the International Crisis of Capitalism,” Tel Aviv, 2012

It’s in this light that I read a new piece by Danny Postel, which is all over Twitter these days.  Its title promises “Alternative Left Perspectives on Syria.”

Postel contends that “The responses of most leftists to the Syrian uprising” have been “deeply disappointing.” The Left’s inadequacies “fall into three main categories:”

1. explicit support for the Assad regime
2. monochrome opposition to Western intervention, end of discussion (with either implicit or explicit neutrality on the conflict itself)
3. general silence caused by deep confusion

But wait: there’s hope.

There is a fourth camp, however: a small but growing group of progressives who embrace the goals of the Syrian revolution. There are several shades within this camp – it includes Marxists, pacifists, feminists, Third Worldists and leftists of various sorts. Some support the armed struggle in Syria, others do not, standing instead with the nonviolence activists in Syria. But what unites this camp is its solidarity with the Syrian struggle for dignity, justice and self-determination.

The writings of this vanguard “directly challenge the dominant narratives on the Left about Syria and offer a critical alternative to it.” And Postel gives us a ladder of links: “collected in one place, some of the key texts of this dissident left camp.”

To call these leftists “dissidents” is self-congratulatory. Certainly there are some on the left who support Assad, but they’re hardly hegemonic; they strike me as marginal and devoid of influence.

Just as certainly there’s a larger body of leftists who are uncertain, after military intervention seems to have proven its uselessness but no other form of action presents itself. So when an “alternative” steps loudly to the fore, a Fourth Way, one plausibly expects that it will proffer a guide to the perplexed: that it will tell the hesitant what they can do to help.

What’s notable about the “body of writings and arguments” Postel presents is that it does nothing of the kind.

I’ve read almost all the texts he links to. Few of the writers outline strategies, or offer innovative ways to assist the revolution. For the most part they just describe how they feel, a repertory of emotion that runs the limited gamut from sympathy and solidarity to moral agonizing to self-congratulation. These are legitimate sensations, but more existential than political. It would be hard to call them constructive. Is this the new pathway for the left? In fact, I think the writings Postel posts do point out something about the left, but nothing as bold or hopeful as he imagines.

solidarity-of-labour

Walter Crane, “International Solidarity of Labour,” 1897

Postel links to almost no proposals that are both concrete and in any way practical. I count three exceptions. The admirable Gilbert Achcar opposes intervention but urges arming the (liberal) rebels (it seems, though, that the US has been doing this covertly for some time).  Mary Kaldor invokes international law: “The first step,” also the only one she mentions, “would be to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court.” She notes that, since Syria never signed on to the ICC, this requires a vote by the UN Security Council. Russia has repeatedly voted no, but “the current context might change things.” Might. It’s also possible that Vladimir Putin might hand Crimea back to the Ukrainians and retire. It’s not very responsible, however, to make this kind of outcome seem easy.

Finally, the always-brilliant Richard Falk, after painstakingly dissecting the inadequacy of existing options, calls (but not optimistically) for a renewed commitment to negotiation.

Just as doing nothing is unacceptable, mounting a military intervention is unrealistic, and perhaps undesirable, and for now politically impossible.

What is left to fill the gap between the unacceptable and the unrealistic is diplomacy, which has proved to be futile up to this point, but hanging on to the slim possibility that it might yet somehow produce positive results, is the only conceivable way forward with respect to the Syrian situation. It is easy to deride Kofi Annan and the frustrations arising from the repeated failures of Damascus to comply with the agreed framework, but it remains impossible to  find preferable alternatives.

This is glum, but realistic.

But that’s it.  Nobody else has much to propose. The 2011 open letter from the Campaign for Peace and Democracy has a lot of well-known signatories (Ed Asner, Noam Chomsky) but I don’t know why Postel thinks it “challenges a dominant narrative.”

The Campaign for Peace and Democracy expresses its deep admiration for the amazing courage shown by the people of Syria, struggling for democratic reforms in the face of horrific repression. … We stand with the people of Syria in their remarkable struggle for democracy.

The open letter, often published in the New York Review of Books, used to be a distinct literary genre among the New York intellectuals; it’s no one’s fault if it seems dated as a Baroque eclogue. “Standing with” the oppressed and slaughtered is still a noble gesture. It’s churlish, but perhaps nonetheless important, to point out that while Syrians die, the standers remain standing.

But is there a plan beyond the posture? Two years later, Thomas Harrison and Joanne Landy – the CPD’s co-directors, both peace activists with long and distinguished records – produced a personal statement, of which Postel also approves. I have huge admiration for the authors, but this text leaves more questions than answers.

The fate of Syria must not be decided by foreign powers or forces … Equally, we condemn the attempts by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the other Gulf states to manipulate the Syrian revolution by promoting reactionary Islamist forces within its ranks … Consistent with our strong opposition to any kind of military intervention in Syria by the U.S., or other foreign powers, we also oppose providing air cover or establishing no fly zones.

All right, but what are you for?

We stand for full democracy, an independent labor movement, and complete equality for women, sexual minorities, religions and ethnic groups everywhere.

And:

We will do everything we can to support Syrian groups and individuals who share this democratic vision, and we call on people throughout the world to do the same.

But what is “everything you can”? What are you going to do?

Are you sure?

Are you sure?

In some cases, the writers wrestle tangibly with their inability to find answers, and the result can be moving. Mohammed al-Attar, an exiled Syrian playwright, confesses:

During an open debate organized by London’s Royal Court Theatre at the end of August 2011, I was asked: “How can we support the Syrian people in their revolution without inevitably serving the interests of political agendas?” I was silent for a few seconds, unsure of what to say, before tentatively replying: “I’ve no doubt that it is still possible to separate the fundamental justice of the protestors’ cause from the distortions of politicians and the media.”

Much has changed since then but the same question continues to be put forward, and I have no clearer answer than that my brief and improvised one which I provided at the Royal Court Theatre.

Al-Attar’s piece is well worth reading, but it is not clear why Postel regards it not as an analysis of the trauma of political commitment in a divided world, but as a clear prescription for action.

But more often the pieces Postel praises just read like leftists exalting their own superiority to other leftists, because they have deeper moral feelings. Thus Bill Weinberg accuses the left in general of

treason against our natural allies in Syria—the secular, progressive forces in the opposition to the Assad regime, now besieged by ruthless armed actors on all sides. … Our natural allies in Syria are in this democratic resistance (not in the dictatorship!), and they will need solidarity whether the US intervenes or not.

But what are we going to do for them? We don’t know.

Heeding these voices does not mean we have to support Obama’s intervention. But it does mean (at least) that we have to find ways to oppose it that do not betray and alienate Syrians who have for over two years been fighting for freedom and are now fighting for their very lives.

What ways? Apparently we’ll start writing a lot about our intense moral commitment, a strategy that probably won’t alienate anybody, except perhaps the few people who pay attention — but won’t help anybody either.

Then there’s Postel himself. He calls for a “New Internationalism.” This entails lots of rhetoric:

But for progressives, especially ones who profess the values of solidarity and internationalism, the story surely can’t end at America’s shores. Struggles around the world for justice and dignity matter to us. We believe that we have a stake in them and their outcomes. We take sides.

How do we take sides? By “supporting and sympathizing with popular struggles against authoritarianism and for human dignity.” Well, sympathizing, at least. We good leftists are not afraid to restate the tough questions; we’re just afraid to answer them.

Where does [the peace movement] stand on the struggle to topple Assad’s murderous dictatorship? How does it propose the bloodshed be brought to an end? What is to be done?

There are no obvious, clear-cut answers to these questions … These are vexing problems. … But only having a position on what shouldn’t be done, while avoiding the question of what should be done, is a copout – and a betrayal of the tradition of internationalism. The question of what should be done is much thornier, to be sure — it requires more thinking, analysis, reflection, even soul-searching.

Feuerbach, Schmeuerbach: I'll change the world later

Feuerbach, Schmeuerbach: I’ll change the world later

Postel never tells us what is to be done, but searching our souls is, in fact, an end in itself. Marx stands inverted: we may not be able to change the world, but we can think about it. “The point is to place the plight of the Syrian people front and center on the agenda and to think seriously about how to resolve it.” Postel concludes:

What if progressives devoted just a fraction of the energy and effort that went into mobilizing against a US military strike to the cause of bringing Syria’s nightmare to an end? It might not make a concrete difference – all the efforts to resolve the conflict thus far, including those of Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, have come to naught … But the effort would at least be an expression of solidarity and internationalism. Factoring the Syrian people – who have been largely absent from the progressive discussion – prominently into the equation would represent a welcome departure from the solipsistic, US-centric tendencies of the American peace movement.

We will not “make a concrete difference”; but we will express ourselves, and thus feel like the heroic internationalists of olden times. Postel seems unaware that this is not an alternative to solipsism, but an example of it. He gives no clue what you could do to end the “nightmare,” no suggestion how the “energy and effort” should be directed, just faith that we’ll be morally better if we expend it. Absent some proposal for a concrete solidarity more substantive than a warm, mushlike emotion, Postel hasn’t factored “the Syrian people” into an equation here at all, except as spectators of our own catharsis.

It’s easy to make fun of this Fourth Way, this brave alternative, which enters with a flourish of trumpets and exits with something between apology and sigh. But I don’t want to make fun. These writers are honest, and a lot of them are very smart, Postel included. Their failure to deliver what Postel promised is instructive.

The lesson they teach is that we on the left aren’t exempt from the diseases of the imperial ego. Leftists may opposite liberal interventionism, but its animating fantasies are ones to which they’re not immune. The basic idea that we in our powerful we-ness ought to be able to change the world; that our good intentions have the authority to make reality malleable; that injustice is friable before the force of our desires — that basic idea is pretty much the same, regardless of whether it’s armed with drones and aircraft carriers, or open letters and petitions. The brand of internationalism for which Postel feels such acute nostalgia was always predicated on a naive faith in morality combined with power. It’s painful for leftists to come to terms with a case where “solidarity” is difficult, where there aren’t easily intelligible solutions, and where any action risks making the unbearable worse. The proposition that there are limits to what you can do is intolerable to Westerners. The more this is brought home to you, the more you fall back on believing that “expressing solidarity” is action, that there is a magical power in the very intensity of one’s moral agonizing that must, inevitably, find a pliant answer in reality, must bend politics to its will.

You're sounding multipolar. Take your medicine. Leaders of the BRICS blog (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), 2010,

You’re sounding multipolar. Take your medicine. Leaders of the BRICS blog (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), 2010.

The spirit of disenchantment is more and more characteristic of our world. Geopolitics used to be so comfortably bi- or unipolar. Human RIghts Watch, where I worked, was founded in the confidence that there were few things you couldn’t fix by getting the United States government to act. Washington was the fulcrum of their advocacy for decades; this peculiar dispensation where Beijing, Moscow, and even Brasilia and Pretoria are independent actors has brought about a grating and harsh adjustment. Even for more uncompromising leftists, it was reassuring to think that opposing America could put you on the right side of most of the world’s wrongs. These days, responsibility is strewn too promiscuously around. And after Iraq, after Rumsfeld and his known unknowns, awareness of power’s limitations has become too general for comfort. Twenty years ago we were taught to say “never again” to Rwanda. But how can you cope with somebody like Alan Kuperman, whose detailed study of the Rwandan genocide found that, with utmost political will and celerity of action, the West could not have prevented more than a quarter of the deaths? The idea that our solidarity is not a cure for everything comes hard.

I hate to see moral solemnity go to waste, though. There are practical things that an earnest leftist could do about Syria, if she wants to, rather than sitting around expressing solidarity to the void.

Here are some suggestions.

1) Go to war. I’m serious. Everybody wants to be George Orwell these days, a fearless deflater of hypocrisies. Christopher Hitchens thought he was Orwell. Paul Berman thinks he is Orwell. Even young Jamie Kirchick dons the Orwell drag, though he ends up looking more like a cross between Enoch Powell and Evelyn Waugh. But if you ask these ersatz Orwells what they’ve done for their causes, they’ll sound more like Flaubert: “I stayed at home and wrote.”

Orwell didn’t. Is Syria the Spanish Civil War of our generation, a crossroads of profound moral choice? Then choose. Orwell went to Spain. So did Arthur Koestler, Ernest Hemingway, Willy Brandt. So did Auden:

The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.

Wounded British volunteers in Republican Spain return to the front following convalescence at Benicàssim

Wounded British volunteers in Republican Spain return to the front following convalescence at Benicàssim, 1937

That war is memorialized in poetry, more perhaps than any other of the twentieth century’s wars. Why? Because the Thirties really was a moment when individual choice took on a communal meaning — stopped being existential and became political.

The Anschluss, Guernica — all the names
At which those poets thrilled, or were afraid

– they still resonate, because history turned personal in them. That’s the burden of Edgell Rickword‘s lines, which every lefty schoolboy used to rattle off:

From small beginnings mighty ends:
From calling rebel generals friends,
From being taught in public schools
To think the common people fools,
Spain bleeds, and Britain wildly gambles
To bribe the butcher in the shambles.

Or there’s John Cornford, poet and Communist, killed on the Madrid front in 1936, at the age of 21. He wrote to his distant lover before he died:

The wind rises in the evening,
Reminds that autumn’s near.
I am afraid to lose you,
I am afraid of my fear.

On the last mile to Huesca,
The last fence for our pride,
Think so kindly, dear, that I
Sense you at my side.

And if bad luck should lay my strength
Into the shallow grave,
Remember all the good you can;
Don’t forget my love.

How different people were then! There are parts of that poem that an agonizing moralist or a muscular liberal, a fan of Hitchens or a signatory of the Euston Manifesto, might sympathize with. But they could never write the line “I am afraid of my fear” — because they’d feel it, too deeply.

I’m indulging in an excuse to quote poetry here: sentimental of me. But the poems say better than I can what I’m trying to say. Nobody on the left wants to put his own life on the line anymore. If “internationalism” requires a sacrifice, we expect the State to do the sacrificing for us. If comes to intervention, or policing, or punishing the guilty or protecting the good, the State will furnish the bodies, and they won’t be ours. When did we become so dependent on the powers we once wanted to overturn?

Member of the International Brigades at Montblanch, near Barcelona, October 25, 1938: photo by Robert Capa

Member of the International Brigades at Montblanch, near Barcelona, October 25, 1938: photo by Robert Capa

Those damn fool romantics in the Thirties took things personally, instead. If their governments wouldn’t stand up and say no, if their polities or parties were run by those “Whose suave compliance sealed the fate / Of thousands left to Franco’s hate,” they stepped up themselves; they went to Spain. They took up a weapon like Orwell or drove an ambulance like Auden, they acted. “They floated over the oceans; / They walked the passes. All presented their lives.” More than 40,000 people joined the International Brigades in some capacity, combat or no.

What’s your proposal? To build the just city? I will.
I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic
Death? Very well, I accept, for
I am your choice, your decision. Yes, I am Spain.

The only ones who shoulder this kind of responsibility today are the jihadists, people still used perforce to thinking of principles outside the State’s compass. The secular leftists sit at home and express their solidarity from the sofa’s safety.

Of course, even setting aside the serious and principled pacifists, there are perfectly decent reasons not to go to Syria. For one thing, governments have cracked down harshly on the jihadists who travel there and on their allies who recruit; they call it terrorism. Moazzam Begg, for instance, the heroic survivor of Guantanamo, is now in jail in the UK, charged with trying to train people for Syria. The same officials might start confusing foreign leftists with foreign jihadists, a terrible mistake since the jihadists actually do something, or might apply the same provisions for consistency’s sake. For another thing, there’s no reason on earth to think the Free Syrian Army has any use for a bunch of volunteers who don’t speak Arabic, know nothing about modern weapons, and get their medical knowledge from studying Foucault.

So maybe I should expand my point a bit. Though violence in Syria has metastasized like a cancer, the struggle in Syria is not waged just through violence. And there’s work you could support or even participate in from outside Syria’s borders. I can name just a few Syrian organizations carrying on the fight on the front of human rights: the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Violation Documentation Center (VDC), the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCSyria), Syrian Women for the Syrian Intifada (SANAD); there are more. (Please add others in the comments if you like.) There are companion projects outside Syria which try to use the documentation such groups collect to raise humanitarian resources, like the #100000Names Oral Memorial for Syria. It is arduous to determine whether you can actually help any such efforts rather than getting in the way; it’s a terrible thing, the risk of realizing one’s own superfluity. That’s a danger you don’t encounter on the couch. But an individual commitment is better than an abstract solidarity.

Spanish Republican poster, 1937

Spanish Republican poster, 1937

2. Remember the refugee. A leftist who wants to cast off the shackles of the quotidian and go engage in meaningful action need not look for Syrians in Syria; that is one consequence of the war. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) counts 2,700,000 Syrian refugees in surrounding countries. They calculate more than half of these are under 17 years old; 38% are younger than 11.

Those figures reflect only Syrians who have gone to the UN for assistance; hundreds of thousands more are unregistered and underground. Estimates for the total in flight go as high as 9 million, out of a total Syrian population of less than 23 million.

There is plenty to be done. A dedicated leftist might settle herself in Beirut, or in Cairo, or in Turkey near the southern border, and attach herself to one of the organizations working with refugees, whether in cities or in camps. In Egypt, Syrians face xenophobia and violence from a population propagandized into thinking they are allies of the Muslim Brotherhood. Police pick them up on pretexts; some are deported. In Lebanon, Syrian refugees now number 30% of the country’s population. They suffer arbitrary curfews, police harassment, physical assault.

Syrian refugee in a tent compound in Boynuyogun, Turkey, near the Syrian border. Photo: Vadim Ghirda/AP

Syrian refugee in a tent compound in Boynuyogun, Turkey, near the Syrian border. Photo: Vadim Ghirda/AP

And if the exhausting labor of daily humanitarian work seems overwhelming, there’s advocacy needed as well, to change the hearts, minds, and laws of wealthy nations that don’t want to let refugees in. European and American migration policy — the politics of the closed door — means there is nowhere to resettle most of these people; they will remain in unsafe countries and conditions, in semi-permanent limbo. The West would much rather pay money to keep Syrians in tents than offer them a final destination in Detroit or Turin. Sweden, the most generous European state, has taken in just over 14,000 Syrian refugees, and given them permanent residency. France has accepted under five thousand. That’s still better than the United States. In August 2013, the US agreed to resettle 2000 Syrian refugees, though later in the year the Washington Post reported that “nobody’s actually been admitted yet, since they have to go through an extensive screening process for possible terrorist ties.” Already prejudice is at play. A right-wing US website warned, “Sure most people just see refugees, but Democrats see voters …  If the Muslim Brotherhood Jihadists lose in Syria, their leaders will flee to Europe and America where they will suborn, undermine and plan acts of terror. … Obama isn’t all that interested in Christian refugees.”

All these numbers are trivial against the appalling figures of three million people externally displaced. Even the UNHCR, confronting the recalcitrance of countries unwilling to accept supplicants, has set its sights absurdly small.

UNHCR is proposing that countries admit up to 30,000 Syrian refugees on resettlement, humanitarian admission, or other programmes by the end of 2014, with a focus on protecting the most vulnerable. However, in light of the growing needs of the Syrian refugee population, this goal represents only the first benchmark in securing solutions for this group. … UNHCR has called upon States to make multi-annual commitments towards a goal of providing resettlement and other forms of admission for an additional 100,000 Syrian refugees in 2015 and 2016. [emphasis added]

That makes just 130,000 refugees the UNHCR hopes — with little likelihood of success — to resettle in the next three years, out of at least three million. Less than five percent.

Serious leftists are prone to dismissing humanitarian work as merely palliative. They imagine it’s a bandage not a cure, an evasion of the “real” issues within Syria itself. It’s not. Work with refugees gets to the heart of how states define citizens, how they value lives, how they decide who belongs and who is cast out. Leil-Zahra Mortada, an Arab activist living in Spain, writes:

There is so much to be done. And it is not charity we are talking about, nor the corrupting relief mentality. It is radical and revolutionary work that is needed. It is stepping out of the narrow Eurocentric vision of semantics into political action. It is not only Assad and the Islamists who are killing the Syrian people, it is international systems like the EU border regime and the international relief mafias to name but a few. This is not about Syria, and this is not “just a faraway civil war”. They are dying right here, on EU borders, and they are in EU immigrant detention camps. If it is not for Syria, and out of belief in the Syrian revolution, or even in the right for every people, wether they meet our shades of color or not, to rebel, it should be out of coherence with our political beliefs. Our fight on the EU front is needed. This is a people who has risen against a brutal dictatorship, only to see that they have a whole world to overcome. A world of international meddling, whether in the form of Islamist militias, or international relief, or leftist patronization. A world of closed borders and complicit governments that once again put their profit over life. A world of apathy. This is what the Syrians and the Palestinians in Syria are facing. Questions that are not only related to Syria, but related to international and intertwined local struggles.

3. FIght for diplomacy. Finally, if, for understandable reasons, you don’t want to lobby your government for military action, you need to fight to make a diplomatic solution possible.

If you don’t believe in war, diplomacy is the only way out left. And diplomacy these days is as messy as war, though less bloody. It’s messy because that unipolar world we used to live in, convenient as it was, is gone. It’s messy because Syria has become a vast playground of the polarities, a prone place where different countries pursue and divvy up their divergent interests. Obama funnels a few arms to the Free Syrian Army; Russia and China and Iran vocally and materially support Assad; the Gulf monarchies shower largesse on the jihadists.

A place at the table: Sign from Kaffranbel, Syria, 2013

A place at the table: Sign from Kafranbel, Syria, 2013

It’s not enough, then, to push the American administration or the EU to do this or that. Pressure needs to fall as well on the oil-soaked leaders of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, on Putin and Rouhani.

It’s hard to say what, for a Western leftist, this might mean. Effective advocacy for peace would be internationalist, but not in the easy sense of announcing prefab solidarities. It would mean listening across a lot of borders. It would mean trying to acquaint yourself with what’s left of the left in Russia or Iran, or with civil societies that aren’t of the left at all, and seeing if they have any practical concern with ending violence in Syria, or even ways to speak about it. It would mean reacquainting yourself with negotiation and compromise, which are always painful. It might mean recognizing your powerlessness, which is even more so.

That path lies beyond the scope of what I’m writing here. Our left critiques power, and is abstemious about engaging with it. That’s part of its genius, and its virtue. But something more is needed now, if you’re serious about Syria, than proclaiming sympathy or oneness. A more rigorous engagement requires putting something at risk — if not your life then your self-image at least, your private drama, your unquestioned faith in your purity and your efficacy. Action is dangerous. Hannah Arendt wrote:

Action … always establishes relationships and therefore has an inherent tendency to force open all limitations and cut across all boundaries … To act, in its most general sense, means to take an initiative, to begin.  It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before.

This is different to but not incommensurate with what the poet said:

Tomorrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
To-morrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But today the struggle.

"Syrian women, revolt against all authority!" Poster by the Syrian People Know Their Way collective, from http://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/razan-ghazzawi/seeing-women-in-revolutionary-syria

“Syrian women, revolt against all authority!” Poster by the Syrian People Know Their Way collective, from http://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/razan-ghazzawi/seeing-women-in-revolutionary-syria

 

Syria, Cameron’s crackup, and the virtual world of humanitarian war

A man carries a wounded child away from an anti-Assad demonstration after regime forces opened fire, Syria, 2011

A man carries a wounded child away from an anti-Assad demonstration after regime forces opened fire, Syria, 2011

The night air is full of hypotheticals these weeks, and reality feels like a far-off country.

David Cameron lost tonight. It was sweat-inducing drama, the kind that makes you focus so closely on the grimaces and rumors that you forget about the war. By 13 votes, his motion to give a loose preliminary OK to Syrian intervention went down. (He’d tried to scale it back as a vague non-binding slightly amnesiac go-ahead to his government, like a Dad saying “Sure, someday” to a preteen daughter who wants to marry Justin Bieber.) Most of the UK papers seem to focus on Cameron’s humiliation, and Labour leader Ed Miliband’s triumph, as though a lot of other people’s lives aren’t at stake in this one way or the other. Everybody agrees there is another, spectral loser: Tony Blair.

All over but the shouting: Cameron in the House of Commons, August 29

All over but the shouting: Cameron in the House of Commons, August 29

Not just Blair’s righteous policy of bringing freedom to the benighted, of shaking the world like a kid’s kaleidoscope and reshuffling the pieces. But Blair himself. Two days ago he stepped directly into the debates, with a piece in the Times that stirred up memories of mendacious arrogance in the worst way.

People wince at the thought of intervention. But contemplate the future consequence of inaction and shudder: Syria mired in carnage between the brutality of Assad and various affiliates of al-Qaeda, a breeding ground of extremism infinitely more dangerous than Afghanistan in the 1990s; Egypt in chaos, with the West, however unfairly, looking as if it is giving succour to those who would turn it into a Sunni version of Iran. Iran still — despite its new president — a theocratic dictatorship, with a nuclear bomb. Our allies dismayed. Our enemies emboldened. Ourselves in confusion. This is a nightmare scenario but it is not far-fetched.

And then he goes maundering about Egypt, seemingly his pet obsession these days, claiming that not bombing Syria would help the Muslim Brotherhood and hurt the military government in Cairo, which is striving to bring stability to the country despite “actions or overreactions” like killing a thousand people in a fit of pique. (Blair, immune to facts as ever, seems unaware that Egypt’s diehard secularists and the junta they helped to power generally look with favor on Assad; the generals overthrew Morsi in part because he opposed the dictator.) But Blair’s intrusion triggered all the wrong recollections in the public. Maybe if he’d shut up, Christian soldiers would be marching off to war.

Here’s a question, though. Why did Blair need to imagine this horrific post-non-intervention future to prop his argument? Isn’t the slaughter that’s already happened enough? More than 100,000 have died in the conflict, according to Syrian activists and the UN. Why can’t Blair rest his case on this vast carnage, instead of dreamy geopolitical speculations and “nightmare scenarios” about how things could get even worse? Isn’t the nightmare now?

Tony Blair as Prime Minister (L) and after (R): Forgive them, Father, for they know not who can replace me

Tony Blair as Prime Minister (L) and after (R): Forgive them, Father, for they know not who can replace me

The reason, I suspect, is that Blair knows, and we know, and he knows that we know, that the “humanitarian” intervention he imagines will not do much to help. The dead are past aiding — even Blair, with his propensity to impersonate Jesus, probably gets that — but what is the chance that the mechanized violence of Western powers can forestall more violence in Syria? Will more killing save more lives — killing in the self-protecting way the West does it? Iraq haunts Blair, haunts every word he says, not as a sin (he’s Godlike enough to absolve himself) but as a miscalculation. Humanitarian intervention there only accelerated murder. Better not to look at the past, and better not to promise the deaths will end. Instead, focus on the infinite horrors you can pack into an imaginary what-if. The hypothetical can always be worse than anything real.

It’s very striking how little the discussion in Britain dealt with what’s actually happening in Syria beyond the chemical attacks. It’s as if the proposed intervention had nothing at all to do with the civil war. “It is not about taking sides in the Syrian conflict,” Cameron told Parliament, oddly enough since only one side was slated for bombing.

It is not about regime change or even working more closely with the Opposition. It is about the large-scale use of chemical weapons and our response to a war crime – nothing else.

What an odd war he wanted, one with a motive but not a goalIt’s a bit hard, moreover, to square this with Nick Clegg’s assertion that “The sole aim is the relief of humanitarian suffering.”  (What the hell is “humanitarian suffering”? The adjective seems to have taken refuge with the wrong noun: surely he meant “humanitarian aim” or “humanitarian relief.” But out of such Freudian slips does truth step, naked.) How would Clegg relieve suffering? Would all the suffering stop if the chemical weapons were disabled? No; there have been plenty of other deaths. Something bigger, some kind of “taking sides” or even “regime change” would be required.

In fact, Clegg and Cameron offer the lowest-common-denominator version of “humanitarianism,” in which it means no more than a mix of punishment and personal catharsis. We have to “respond to a war crime.” This won’t stop further war crimes, but we’ll have done our part. It’s barely a step down from that to “We want to bomb something, and Syria is there. In this light, “humanitarian suffering” really does refer, perhaps, to the suffering of the humanitarian himself, who feels impotent and guilty, who wants to do good and can’t imagine how, who has migraines from knowing that none of his actions will accomplish the ends he posits, and who would like a large explosion to relieve him. Bombing Damascus is a bit stronger than Alka-Seltzer, but it’ll do.

Demonstrator's sign outside the Houses of Parliament, August 29: AFP

Demonstrator’s sign outside the Houses of Parliament, August 29: AFP

The argument for humanitarian intervention inhabits a strange half-reality, not quite resembling anything else in the languages of democratic politics. It’s almost never a discussion about “What will happen if we do this?” It’s a fever dream about “What will happen if we don’t?”

Back two years ago when the Libyan bombings were bruited, the editors of n+1 asked: “Has there ever been a truly successful, truly humanitarian humanitarian intervention?”

 Not of the Vietnamese in Cambodia, who deposed the Khmer Rouge for their own reasons (the Khmer kept crossing the border, and also murdered their entire Vietnamese population), and then replaced them with Hun Sen, who has been ruling Cambodia with an iron fist for more than thirty years. Not the Indian intervention in Bangladesh, under whose cover the Indian government arrested all student protesters in India. And not NATO in Kosovo, which, while it stopped Milosevic and ensured the safety of Kosovo, could not make it a viable state … and also led to the ethnic cleansing of the Serb population. Too bad for the Serbs, to be sure; but the creation of a safe space for the expulsion of a civilian population cannot be what anyone had in mind when they launched the planes. That there has never been a successful humanitarian intervention does not mean that there cannot be one in the future. But the evidence is piling up.

All these misfortunes still have ample defenders in retrospect, though, and the justification always takes the same form: What if we hadn’t done it? Things would be worse. It is no coincidence that some of the best-known advocates of humanitarian war, like the power-worshpping Niall Ferguson, are historians fascinated by alternative histories. Ferguson has written whole books that rewrite the past; he defends the what-if approach to understanding because it refutes Marxism and other attempts to trace laws that make history make sense. Life is random. Something completely unpredictable could always happen, or have happened.

What are the implications of chaos for historians? … The counterfactual scenarios [that historians] need to construct are not mere fantasy: they are simulations based on calculations about the relative probability of plausible outcomes in a chaotic world. … Perhaps the best answer to the question, “Why ask counterfactual questions?” is simply: What if we don’t? Virtual history is a necessary antidote to determinism.

Slumming among the angry Arabs, Niall Ferguson rescues a brown person and shares killer-app lessons from the Western worldview

He surely hopes to sound oracular like Lawrence of Arabia, the imperial hero intoning “Nothing is written.” Instead, he ends up a bit like Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, rambling on about chaos theory: Fuckups are inevitable, the dinosaurs will always get loose, leave while you’re still alive. His scenarios are more like movie pitches than histories. But the method’s utility in excusing policymakers’ catastrophes (like those of his idol Kissinger) is obvious. Who knows how much worse things would have been, without our fucked-up attempt at fixing them? If the US hadn’t invaded Cambodia and unleashed the Khmer Rouge, something else would have gone wrong. 

Everything settles into indeterminacy this way. There is no proving a hypothetical. You can always invent a rate of forced flight from a Kosovo where the NATO invasion never happened that’s satisfyingly much greater than the one we know. You can always find a way to say that Iraqi mortality for 2003-2013 would have been as great or greater if Saddam had stayed in power — because he would have nuked his own people, or diverted the Euphrates, or weaponized the Middle East Coronavirus. This spares you the unpleasantness of looking at what actually took place, analyzing the melancholy figures, seeing what caused the painfully factual deaths or displacement. So much more agreeable to understand the unreal than reality!

Stuck in a jungle somewhere between lectures, Niall Ferguson (Jeff Goldblum) discusses chaos theory with crusty adventurer Henry Kissinger (Sam Neill) and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (the ever-radiant and enlightened Laura Dern)

But an argument that’s merely flimsy when used to analyze history turns deadly when used to decide what to do here and now. The incessant drumbeat of “What will happen if we don’t?” drowns out the two more important questions: “What will happen if we do?” and “What is happening now?” Only the latter, because they deal with facts and with the consequences of a specific course of action, have even the possibility of instructive answers. The advocates of “humanitarian intervention” seem to turn every debate into a panic. It’s not just that the incited desperation overpowers the ability to judge. It’s that moving debate into a never-never land reached by the road-not-taken degrades all political discourse. The dreamwork starts to construct our daytime lives.

I can’t bring myself to stand in blanket opposition to any humanitarian intervention at all, in Syria or elsewhere. What I feel sure of, is that the arguments used to hawk the war in Britain are destructive and dangerous. They swivel our attention away from the reality of death in Damascus and Homs. Instead they insult the dead by imagining “nightmare scenarios,” ones somehow worse (at least for us, if not them) than what is occurring now, ones that suggest the ongoing disaster is not yet disastrous enough for minds acclimated to atrocity. They do this to conceal the poverty of their plan, which isn’t a plan at all and would help almost no one. They convince us that a dystopian future is the only alternative, because they are incompetent or unwilling to do anything about the present.

The Commons was right to vote these proposals and their shabby logic down. I would like to think there is a little interval of time for the rest of us to learn about life and death in Syria, and debate in concrete terms what can be done to support the Revolution. But the US is already heaving itself to action, greaved and ready, for the aimless killing — “nothing else,” “the sole aim” — the UK refused. I don’t need a theory to know chaos when I see it. I don’t need an alternative history to know there have to be alternatives.

Dead bodies, allegedly of rebel fighters, around the town of Qusair after its recapture by regime forces: images from Syrian state TV, June 2013

Dead bodies, allegedly of rebel fighters, around the town of Qusair after its recapture by regime forces: images from Syrian state TV, June 2013

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 SyriaReport.net, 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

Blogs

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.

Finally

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
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

A correction

A correction to yesterday’s post about Razan Ghazzawi. In a photo caption, I included Bassam Al-Ahmad among the staffers and associates of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) who are still held in incommunicado detention by Air Force security. In fact, he was freed on May 12, but will stand trial along with Razan on June 25. Here (from Razan’s blog) is a picture of him at a small party celebrating his release (the three younger men L-R are Joan Farso, Bassam Al-Ahmad and Ayham Ghazzoul, all freed that day).

A May 30 statement from eight international and regional human rights organizations has more information, calling “for the immediate release of Mazen Darwish, Hussein Ghareer, Abdelrahman Hamada, Mansour Al-Omari and Hani Zetani – the five people who remain in incommunicado detention in the Air Force Intelligence (AFI) detention centre without any charges,” as well as dropping charges against “Bassam Al-Ahmad, Joan Farso, Ayham Ghazzoul, Yara Bader, Razan Ghazzawi, Mayadah Al-Khaleel, Sana Zetani and Hanadi Zahlout, who will stand on trial on June 25, 2012.”

My apologies for the error.

Meanwhile, Razan has also posted on her blog the statement read on her behalf as she received the Front Line Defenders award. I take the liberty of reposting it here.

Thank you all for the kind words, but the award goes to Syria!

Below is my statement that my colleague at the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, Dlshad Othman, read at the ceremony yesterday:

Dear friends, colleagues and comrades,

Last night, there were many explosions heard in the city of Damascus, gun shots heard in my neighborhood, it has become the norm to fall asleep when hearing clashes in my neighborhood. We spent the night watching footage of a new massacre in Qubair, Hama, that followed Houla massacre couple of weeks ago.

I am writing this to tell you that it’s not easy to write a simple speech for such a kind and humbling event when all this is happening in your day. Then I figured, writing what prevents you from writing, paves the way for you to write.

Beautiful friend, Bassel Shehada, martyred by a mortar grenade in Homs on 28-5-2012. In this photo he was training activists in Homs on how to use the camera to cover regime violations of human rights. Bassel Left Fulbright scholarship to study film-making in the US and chose to be in Syria at this “historical moment,” as he once told me.

Dear friends, colleagues and comrades, I find myself honored to be the person chosen for such appreciation, and to tell you the truth, I believe I don’t deserve such honor, I see the award as an award for Bassel Shehada, for Mazhar Tayyara, for Ghiath Matar, for Bassel Al-Sayed and for all the citizen journalists who died trying to tell the world what’s happening in Syria, when the traditional media have failed to do so. The traditional media that focuses on people’s misery not on their undefeated will to resist. Syrian citizen journalists and filmmakers tell the revolution in all its colors, through the good times and the bad times. And many have died doing so.

Martyr Ammar Moussa Hassan, he’s friends with two of my friends. I never met or heard of him before. Ammar Mousa Hassan, college student, from Nabek (Damascus Suburbs) and was residing in Damascus, was detained for 15 days. Tortured to death.

I wasn’t tortured to death like activist Ammar Mousa Hassan or photojournalist Ferzat Jarbran, I wasn’t hit by a sniper on my way to field hospital to donate blood like citizen Abdalla Hussein Hoswah, I am here in my home behind my screen writing these words to you. This award is for the beautiful people of Syria, for the unprivileged revolutionary, for the unknown activist, for the thousands of families of martyrs, injured and detainees, and for Mazen Darwich, Hussein Ghrer, Abdel Rahman Hmada, Hani Zetani and Mansour Al-Omari, my colleagues at the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, who are still detained at Air Force Intelligence and The Fourth Band since 16-2-2012.

I wish I was with you all to share this moment of appreciation to the brave people of Syria, who are going through a lot, for demanding dignity and freedom. I have learned so much and still learning, on how to be a better person, a better advocate for basic human rights, because of them.

Here’s to people power!

Thank you Front Line Defenders for awarding Syria this year.

Razan Ghazzawi

Razan Ghazzawi receives award; Egyptian women attacked in Tahrir Square

Video on Razan’s work, from Front Line Defenders

Razan Ghazzawi, whom I’m proud to call my friend, received the Front Line Defenders 2012 award Thursday, from the Irish group dedicated to the security of human rights activists at risk. Naturally, she didn’t go to Dublin to receive the prize. She’s too busy on the front lines in Syria.

I adore and admire Razan for a number of reasons. Three good ones are that she is fiercely feminist, anarchist, and queer. Another is that she studied English literature at the University of Damascus, offering evidence that lit majors are not fated to permanent irrelevance in the universe. More encompassingly, she’s been a beacon of bravery to her fellow Syrian activists, in her uncompromising resistance to a regime that is determined to murder as many of its own people as it can — not even pour encourager les autres anymore, but with a kind of perverse and pointless aesthetic pleasure: murder for its own sake.

Razan is one of the few Syrian dissident bloggers to write under her own name. She also works for the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, supporting other bloggers and activists fighting for free speech and basic rights against the dictatorship. She has been arrested twice. In December 2011, she spent two weeks in prison after authorities detained her on her way to a conference in Amman on media freedom. On February 16, the security branch of the Syrian Air Force raided the SCM office and seized her and several colleagues. They released Razan and five other women three days later; “those three nights,” she wrote on her blog, “were the longest of my life.” Mahmoud Darwish, head of the Centre, is still jailed incommunicado along with eight other activists; Razan and others fear that all are being tortured. Razan herself faces trial before a military court on charges of  “possessing prohibited materials with the intent to disseminate them.”

Among the SCM employees still detained: (L-R) Mazen Darwish, Bassam al-Ahmad, Hussein Ghrer, Abdel Rahman Hmada

I got to know Razan last summer in Cairo, where she spent a few weeks in solidarity with the revolutionaries in Tahrir. Not for a second did she lose touch with what was happening on the ground back in Syria; I would see her almost every evening in some cafe, hunched over her laptop as though it were a campfire on a freezing night, e-mailing or blogging away. One day, she and a friend cooked an immense Syrian meal (no country with so good a cuisine deserves so bad a government) for me and an Egyptian sexuality activist. Somewhere between the courses she began offering a critique of the nascent Cairo attempts at organizing around sexual rights, one so cogent that I simply got out my own computer and took notes. Here are some of them — reproduced without her permission:

There is a problem with people socializing and connecting only around sexual orientation and sexuality.   You have a gay community that only talks about gay issues, not any other issues. …

I am not trying to tell gay people they should be active politically. That is a very patronizing position coming from above. The question is: how do we ask gay people to come to Tahrir, to oppose SCAF, to push for change in the current system? Since gay people experience oppression and repression, they should understand other forms of repression, but they don’t …

In a strange sort of way here in Egypt I am much more comfortable with people who are straight, who know what is going on in the wide world. It is their privilege—as heterosexuals, their thinking doesn’t have to be limited by their own oppression. That is power. I recognize that. But I want us, as gays, to think politically as well. So that after the revolution people will recognize that they, that we were here.

Razan thinks constantly about the connections, meaning that her concept of the Syrian revolution embraces and tests itself against the Egyptian revolution, the Occupy movements, the Palestinian cause, women’s rights, Sunni Islamists, secularists, lesbians and gays. In addition to boundless courage and energy, she has something every revolutionary needs, but that often gets left out of the package: a restless mind, too busy with reality to let itself ossify into ideology. In the months since I’ve come back from Cairo, I’ve often found myself thinking how much I miss her.

Mona Seif, Tahrir Square

Another finalist for the Front Line award was Mona Seif, the Egyptian activist and founder of the No Military Trials for Civilians movement. I equally admire Mona; scion of a family of leftist militants, she’s done more than anyone in Egypt to call attention to the 12,000 or more victims of military detention since the Revolution, along with the tortures the generals have retained in the State’s punitive repertory. In addition to being a courageous and strategic organizer, she’s one of the least pretentious rights activists I’ve met. Her complete immunity from the vagaries of ego is like a genetic quirk, so uncommon is it in the profession; it’s like meeting someone who never caught the common cold. Now, I immediately have to stop myself, and wonder: Would I be saying that about her if she were a man? I don’t think I’ve fallen prey to some insidious essentialism about femininity. But there used to be an idea about feminist practice — that it was going to open the way to a different kind of politics: in blunt terms, one where not everybody had to be a jerk. Historically, revolutions have been heavily testosterone-inducing affairs. The cult of radical heroism is like Rogaine for the chest hair; “It’s natural the Boys should whoop it up for so huge a phallic triumph,” as W. H. Auden wrote about another venture in history-making.  It’s true, you’ve got your odd Olympe de Gouges or two partly redeeming revolutionary history, but for every one of them there’s a dozen Robespierres or Stalins or Hazem Abu Ismails grunting and showing off their balls.  Mona Seif and Razan Ghazzawi are, among other things, both reminders of how central women have been to the shifting seasons of the Arab Spring. They signal how the Spring proffered a different kind of revolutionary potential, still unfulfilled, but still there.

HarassMap: a web initiative to collect reports of sexual harassment from around Egypt. (For more information in Arabic, see harassmap.org)

It’s good to remember this, today of all days. This evening in Cairo, a few dozen women tried to hold a rally against sexual harassment, as part of a larger protest in Midan Tahrir over the Presidential candidacy of neo-Mubarakite Ahmed Shafiq.  The day before, a coalition of rights groups had condemned what they called a calculated and growing campaign of sexual assaults on women protesters. Earlier in the week, for instance, a crowd of almost 200 men had assaulted a women in Tahrir, harassing and abusing her till she lost consciousness. The groups claimed

that the amount of sexual harassment and violence against female demonstrators in Tahrir Square and the surrounding streets has been “worryingly” increasing since the outbreak of the recent wave of protests following the verdict issued against former President Hosni Mubarak and senior Interior Ministry officials on 2 June. …

The organizations stressed that the attacks suffered by female demonstrators, which violate the sanctity of their bodies and their physical safety, represent a barrier limiting the participation of women in the public sphere and disabling them from shaping the present and future of the country.

Nice try. The Associated Press describes what happened today:

A mob of hundreds of men assaulted women holding a march demanding an end to sexual harassment Friday, with the attackers overwhelming the male guardians and groping and molesting several of the female marchers in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. …

Friday’s march was called to demand an end to sexual assaults. Around 50 women participated, surrounded by a larger group of male supporters who joined to hands to form a protective ring around them. The protesters carried posters saying, “The people want to cut the hand of the sexual harasser,” and chanted, “The Egyptian girl says it loudly, harassment is barbaric.”

After the marchers entered a crowded corner of the square, a group of men waded into the women, heckling them and groping them. The male supporters tried to fend them off, and it turned into a melee involving a mob of hundreds.

The marchers tried to flee while the attackers chased them and male supporters tried to protect them. But the attackers persisted, cornering several women against a metal sidewalk railing, including an Associated Press reporter, shoving their hands down their clothes and trying to grab their bags. The male supporters fought back, swinging belts and fists and throwing water.

Eventually, the women were able to reach refuge in a nearby building with the mob still outside until they finally got out to safety.

Here’s video from Al Masry Al Youm, featuring interviews with women marchers (I recognize and salute some of my friends), and, at the end, scenes of the attacks:

The male supporters were there because this wasn’t the first time this happened. In 2011, less than a month after Mubarak’s fall, men assaulted a march celebrating International Women’s Day, March 8. Those attacks were more spontaneous: they seemed to be an instinctive way of drawing a line around the Revolution, saying “This far and no farther.”  Dalia Abd Elhameed, an activist who was there, told me, “The men said, ‘We are not ready to hear about women’s rights: You can take your demands to the street, but not as women.'”

We started to march from the press syndicate to Tahrir, and the moment we reached Tahrir, people started to humiliate us: “Women’s rights, what are you talking about?  You want to be  president,” and so on. “Women can’t be president, because the man is the ruler of the house.”

After a while the hostility began to increase. They started shouting at us.  They chose a women in niqab, pointed at her, and said, “This is the mother of the martyrs, this is the example of the Egyptian woman, not you, you are prostitutes, you have to go home, no one wants you in the streets.”  I left by 5 pm. I know that half an hour later they began the sexual harassment, physical harassment, running after protesters, grabbing them by their clothes, describing the men who took part in the protest as khalawalat [faggots], not real men because you are supporting women’s rights.

Two male colleagues of mine also in that march blogged about it, here and here:

They were dealing with us like we are a group of prostitutes and pimps that want to deprive them of their religion … They accused us of working for the former first lady’s interests. Others accused us of being westernized or working for some foreign agendas. What was really provoking for them is that men were holding the banners too. Some of them pointed at me and described me as a fag who should wear a scarf over his head like women because he is a disgrace to the man kind .

And a film about the 2011 violence, with interviews with activists and attackers, is here.

Manifold anxieties and antinomies converged in the assaults. These fights are always mythic for the fighters: poverty pitted against privilege, the indigenous against the foreign, the virtuous against the corrupted. Today’s violence undoubtedly draws on the same fears, but seems dominated by a simple SCAF strategy to halve protests by scaring women away.

It’s horrifying. One’s mind turns inevitably to Mona Eltahawy’s controversial (to put it mildly) article for Foreign Policy‘s “Sex Issue” this spring: “Why Do They Hate Us?” “The real war on women is in the Middle East,” Eltahawy warned. And Mona herself, one should note, was sexually assaulted by security forces when arrested near Midan Tahrir last November.

Versions of Foreign Policy’s cover photo: Paint it black

Now, that piece produced an uproar. Friends and colleagues of mine roundly denounced it as a superficial blandishment to imperialism (you can read some of the disputations herehere, and here, and there are many more). To a large degree, the outrage was inseparable from the article’s visuals and venue. Foreign Policy, which markets itself to the younger and cooler breed of US diplomats and wonks, packaged Eltahawy’s contribution under a cover showing an otherwise-divested woman in black painted-on niqab. (When you download the photo from their website, you find its title, tellingly if inadvertently, is “120418_Sex_Centerfold_193.jpeg”.)  “Cover” — and its opposite — are the operative words. If the “Sex Issue” in general –focusing heavily on Iran and the Arab world and presenting them as chock full of erotic peculiarities — sent the message that sex means the Middle East, the shot itself conveyed Get your Middle Eastern women, here, uncovered! You couldn’t miss the imperial implication that a US magazine had the power to display the Middle Eastern woman and her secrets, all stripped and splayed for perusal. The “Sex Issue” sold itself neither as fact nor fiction, but as pure fetish.

The Blue Bra: Photo accompanying Eltahawy’s article

Eltahawy’s article tried to argue about abuses rooted in power relations in the region, but inevitably the mind kept swinging back to the cover image, seemingly telling you where power really lay: saying that gender in the Middle East had been rendered a tool for US policy, as incarnate in Foreign Policy. Inside, the article came decorated with one of the more celebrated and frightening Egyptian images of the last year — a female protester in the hands of Cairene riot police, her black jilbab ripped open to show her blue bra.  But even that iconic photograph couldn’t override the shock-value strip-tease on the cover. The violent denuding had already been done. Woman with a capital “W” had already been stripped by the American gaze, even before you got to Eltahawy’s page.

I stayed out of the arguments Eltahawy’s article provoked, partly because I am not, as a general rule, a Middle Eastern woman. But the symbolic issue on which many of the attacks centered — who is being revealed or unveiled, for whose eye? — seemed less significant to me than a different issue of representation that other commentators took up. Eltahawy’s piece revolved around two categories, two pronouns, which seemed monolithic, unmodulated and uninflected. “They” hate “us.”

I thought about that in reading about the Cairo assaults today. i thought about it because those are the terms in which the oppressed are prone to think. Oppression elides fine distinctions. You don’t look for the delicate shades of difference among the oppressors, number the stripes on the truncheon that is beating you. Oppression presents itself as a huge and unanimous weight, crushing the breath out of you. Its exhaustive solidity prohibits breaking it down into agents, acts, and motives. From the vantage of those being crushed, it is a bulk that extinguishes tactility and a shadow that exterminates vision.

Oppression: The left sand knoweth not what the right sand doeth

And similarly, oppression makes the oppressed lose their sense of distinction from one another. Individuality, privacy, identity are the first things to go when freedom does. You experience an involuntary solidarity with the anonymous rest of the unfree, without alternative or option, the common interest of those who have no interests left. The massive burden of power pressing down grinds everybody into the mass. Who oppresses you? “Them.” Who are the oppressed? “Us.”

I’m pretty sure the women and men reeling from the attacks in Midan Tahrir felt like that today, as night set in. The problem is that you can’t act, you can’t resist, that way, trapped in the apprehension of monolithic forces. You can only fight back if you can analyze power, think your way past its apparent invincibility, see though its bland carapace into its separate interests and components. There is no single “them” hating women, in the Middle East or elsewhere. Patriarchy does many things, but it has never succeeded in uniting men (or societies) into a single undivided phalanx. There are different motives, different classes, different constituencies with different investments in different forms of women’s oppression. It’s not as though you can always play divide and conquer with them, but you have to know them and name them and recognize their partialities before you can resist.

Moreover, the solidarity that oppression imposes on the oppressed is ultimately a fake one. It won’t last. Real solidarities start with recognizing that you’re free to differ, not feeling the raw force that reduces you to the same. If you keep imagining there’s a solid “us” united permanently by the experience of somebody hating you, you’ll never get around to the hard work of politics: figuring out what else you share and what understandings can ally you.

Razan, I think, is particularly good at all this work, which is why her contributions to the revolutions of the Arab Spring will likely be lasting ones. The same is true of Mona Seif, who has engaged with a range of intersecting and cross-fertilizing issues as an activist. Moving the imagination a little beyond the vivid but paralyzing world of “them” and “us” is incremental and painful. But only that movement moves forward.

Two and a half cheers for the Mainstream Media

A smart policeman?

A Romanian joke I learned long years past went:

Q: Mickey Mouse, Snow White, the intelligent policeman, and the stupid policeman are all eating Chinese food. Who eats the most?

A: The stupid policeman eats it all. The other three are mythical.

Intelligence isn’t something I associate with uniforms.

Still, we now know that New York cops, though gorged to immobility on Krispy Kremes and bribery, have run one of the biggest intelligence — as in spying — operations that’s stained American life since Vietnam.  We know this because of  the work four Associated Press reporters did to dig up the scandal.

AP investigative reporters Chris Hawley, Adam Goldman, Eileen Sullivan , Matt Apuzzo.

And I say: hooray for journalism schools, hooray for training reporters to tell facts from lies and rumor, hooray for fact-checkers who do their jobs, hooray for the Associated Press for throwing itself behind this story, hooray for the money it makes to support the work, hooray for the staff it can hire down to the guys who run the Xerox machines and fill the staplers. This is the kind of thing we need a mainstream media for: big institutions that can make sure a story carries weight because it’s verifiable and verified, who can afford to shell out, however inadequately, for months of painstaking research. It’s the kind of story that bloggers, whatever their virtues, could never have unearthed or proven. Serious investigative reporting in the US is going the way of the dead-tree press, into archeological desuetude.  We’ll all end up lamenting it. The voicemail-hacking horrors that are dissolving Rupert Murdoch’s power seem in a weird parodic way like the death throes of real reporting, a snake’s tail flailing with its cerebral cortex cut away. After all, you have to have some information to amuse you.  But when one of Brangelina’s four legs can conquer a whole 24 hours in the blogosphere, the contents of Hugh Grant‘s inbox will seem more important than the contents of an intelligence agency’s files. The last real investigative reporters out there are also the last people struggling to restore a sense of proportion.

That’s one cheer for the mainstream media. Another is: more and more we need people who are smart, knowledgeable, and trained, to sort through the avalanche of facts and fiction falling on us daily, like Pandora’s box or Fibber McGee’s closet swollen to planetary scale.  Wikileaks is now releasing five million emails purloined from Stratfor, the sinister security-analysis firm which Julian Assange calls a ‘private intelligence Enron” (though it seems a bit more like Tom Clancy with a Lexis-Nexis account).   FIVE MILLION emails.  Seventy bloggers with seven hundred Macs could toil for half a year and not get a seventieth of the way through them. You need some folks who know what they’re doing, armed with the right search terms, to figure out where the scandals are. Wikileaks performs an in-many-ways inestimable service; but it’s not to be confused with journalism. The e-mail dump is just the raw material. The journalists are the ones who wade through the cesspool and parse the cc: lists.

(Oh, yes, my favorite revelation so far: Twenty years after the 1984 Bhopal gas leak that killed between 10,000 and 25,000 people, Dow Chemical hired Stratfor to spy on Indian activists demanding justice.)

Anti-Dow protest in Bhopal, 2011

My last cheer comes in part from reading this moving article, a reflection on the dangers journalists face in contemporary combat reporting.   The “embedded” journalist, such a repellent fixture of America’s two Gulf wars, seems to be a thing of the past, however recent. “Correspondents no longer get hilltop seats alongside generals as the lines of battle form, break and re-form in the valleys below them.” The killing of Marie Colvin and the death of Anthony Shadid, each heroic in a different way, are harbingers of new exposure. It’s not just revulsion at the compromised and corrupted integrity that embedding left behind. Part of it is the sped-up news cycle, the demand for instant information, which compels reporters onto front lines and even out of foxholes to capture image or experience. (The article features three photographs that war photographer Joao Silva took in 2010 in Afghanistan, just after his legs had been blown off by a land mine.)

Parthian shot: Photographs Silva continued to take although critically wounded

And part of it is that in the last spate of conflicts, there’s nobody to embed with even if you wanted to. The Syrian Army or Qaddafi’s forces won’t have you. The rebels provide only scant protection. In civil war — and, as I wrote below, all our wars now are becoming civil wars — there’s no civility. Nobody is safe.

So brave people die to bring us information, to force it on us in our wired and bit-infested security. If it’s only half a cheer I offer here, it’s not because I slight their courage or importance: it’s because there are other people outside the Mainstream Media and the mainstreams of the prevailing politics, who don’t have the wealth or power of the AP or the Times behind them, who suffer and die to shed a little bit of light as well.   As the article acknowledges:

[A]ll these countries remain infinitely more dangerous for the reporters, photojournalists, citizen journalists, translators and fixers of those countries who, unlike foreign correspondents, cannot jump into a taxi or aircraft when it gets too hot and do not have the protection of a foreign passport or an embassy when at the mercy of their own governments.

Bloggers in Syria, operating outside the inculcated and inherited restraints felt by traditional Syrian reporters in the state press, are in many ways the key people finding the facts about what’s going on in the mayhem of the revolution. As with the Twitterers during Egypt’s unfinished revolution or Iran’s aborted one, their on-the-ground views have their limitations. In the thick of things, the mayhem can overtake you.  The feel of the moment is not the same as knowledge.  There is something to be said for the synoptic perspective that alienness can bring. (The great historian Richard Cobb wrote beautifully about the odd and elusive things that can only be learned by a foreigner in a strange country, or by an investigator confronting a tradition not her own.)

The two can complement each other. All respect to those who choose not to run away. But my biggest and final cheer is reserved for those who, because they are rooted in the place they find themselves and part of its history, simply can’t.

Syria: A new massacre in Homs?

The Guardian reports growing concern that Syrian army units surrounding the rebellious city of Homs are planning a masive attack and massacre.  It quotes, for instance, Syrian blogger @Maysaloon:

I think we’re either going to see a massacre in Homs, or a war involving #Syria at some point. This situation cannot last for long.

Here, also from the Guardian, is an informative map sketching where and when protests in Homs have taken place during the revolution:

Meanwhile, the NYTimes points to severe splits between the opposition Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, a rebel force operating from across and around the Turkish border.

FREEDOM FOR RAZAN GHAZZAWI: Statement by human rights activists and defenders

Link to statement in Arabic

Authorities in Syria arrested Syrian blogger, feminist, and activist for free expression Razan Ghazzawi on December 4, 2011. She was at the Jordanian border, traveling  to attend a conference on media freedom in the Arab world. She was representing the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), where she works as a coordinator.

Razan, a poet and critic as well as an activist, studied English literature at Damascus University and comparative  literature at Balamand University in Lebanon. Since 2009, she has blogged on human rights, international solidarity, and Syrian politics at http://www.razanghazzawi.com. She is one of very few bloggers in Syria who writes under her own name; and she has consistently spoken out for women, for ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities, and for all victims of discrimination or abuse.

For many of us in Egypt, in the region, and around the world, Razan is a mentor, an ally, and a personal friend.  Her principled commitment to human rights has been an example to us. Her courage and her willingness to face danger head-on have been an inspiration.

In one of her last blog posts before she was arrested, Razan wrote: “I do not believe in a ‘national consciousness,’ I don’t believe in nationality …Once we drop hyphenations, we become as one.” In that spirit, we say: Razan’s struggle is our struggle. The Syrian people’s battle for freedom is our battle. Now we ask you for your solidarity and support.

What can you do?

1) Contact Syrian diplomatic representatives in your countries immediately.  In faxes or phone calls, urge:

  • that Razan Ghazzawi be released unconditionally;
  • that she be protected from torture or ill-treatment  while she remains in detention;
  • that all political prisoners in Syria be released;
  • that Syria end  arbitrary arrests, torture and ill-treatment of detainees, and  violence  against protesters and opposition members.

A list of addresses and phone numbers for Syrian embassies and consulates can be found here, or here.

2) Organize peaceful vigils or demonstrations at Syrian embassies or consulates calling for the release of Razan Ghazzawi and all political prisoners in Syria.

Below you will find statements (translated from the Arabic) a) by Syrian bloggers and friends of Razan, and b) by the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression.

Additional resources:

This statement is signed by:

  • Ahmad Ragheb – Human rights activist-Executive   director (Hisham Mubarak Law Center)
  • Dalia Abd El Hameed – Human rights activist – Gender officer (Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights)
  • Mona Seif – Human rights activist  (No to Military Trials)
  • Mozn Hassan – Feminist, human rights activist- Executive  director (Nazra for Feminist Studies)
  • Scott Long – Human rights activist  (Human Rights Program, Harvard Law School)
  • Tarek Moustafa – Feminist, human rights activist  (Nazra for Feminist Studies)
  • Yara Sallam – Feminist, human rights activist   (Nazra for Feminist Studies)

A. STATEMENT BY RAZAN’S FELLOW SYRIAN BLOGGERS AND FRIENDS: “FREE RAZAN GHAZZAWI”

We hardly had time to breathe a sigh of relief after our friend Hussein Ghreir was set free, before the choke of rage and sadness reminded our hearts once more of our reality: oppression, suppression, and worshipping the silence that we live within. This took place when we learned that our friend Razan Ghazzawi was arrested. Razan is a devoted Syrian blogger. She is a Syrian by her passionate work for the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian refugees in social media in both Arabic and English.  Razan is a Syrian by her commitment to the causes of progress, social justice, and equality. She is a Syrian by standing for all free souls in their struggles for freedom and dignity.

Razan’s is a voice that only the enemies of rights, dignity, justice,  and freedom want to silence.

We demand that the Syrian authorities set Razan free immediately, along with all prisoners of conscience and dignity. We also hold them responsible for any harm to which she may be exposed. We also demand that the Syrian authorities stop the policy of terrorist oppression that they are practicing against the Syrian people.

We ask all those who support justice and freedom to show solidarity with Razan Ghazzawi, with us, and with Syria.

We hope that all our friends will help publishing this statement on blogs, pages and social media platforms. #FreeRazan

B. STATEMENT OF THE SYRIAN CENTER FOR MEDIA AND FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION: DETENTION OF THE SYRIAN BLOGGER RAZAN GHAZZAWI

Syrian blogger and activist  Razan Ghazzawi has been arrested this afternoon at the Syrian-Jordanian border, where she was heading to Amman to attend a conference for defenders of media freedom in the Arab world. There, Razan was scheduled to represent our organization.

Razan works as a media coordinator in the Center: she is a graduate of the English literature department of Damascus University, and also holds a Master’s degree in comparative  literature  from Lebanon. Razan’s Master’s thesis focused on the short stories of Shamoun Ballas, an author living in Paris and Palestine; she discussed how colonial occupation affects the process of creating an identity in the post-independence modern state. Razan has published many articles on literature .She also started her own blog. Razaniyat, in 2009 .

Razan was a member of the cultural committee  “A Place for Everyone,” 2005-2007. She also won second prize in a poetry contest at a Lebanese university.

The Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression gravely denounces the detention of our friend, blogger Razan Ghazzawi. Arresting her is another way to restrict and eliminate  civil society in Syria—and a desperate attempt to stifle freedom of expression in Syria.

The Center also urges Syrian authorities to stop the systematic crackdown on Syrian bloggers and journalists, and to free Razan unconditionally— along with  all other dissidents detained and arrested in Syria. Syria should respect its international commitments,  based on the international agreements Syria has signed. The Center also warns the Syrian authorities  that they will be held responsible for any physical or psychological harm that the blogger Razan Ghazzawi may endure.

Leave it to the bloodthirsty dictators and Beaver

photo courtesy of Sultan al-Qassemi, Yousef Kayyali, and Ozzie and Harriet Nelson

From left to right: Bashar al-Assad, Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi (complete with hair), Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi, and Hafez al-Assad, getting ready to go out on the lawn and make some Smores.