Selling out: The gays and governmentality

gayflagviwojimaOn October 13, Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej died. 88 years old and the longest-seated of the world’s shrinking stock of monarchs, he was almost uniformly revered by a grieving public. Certainly he embodied unity in a country riven by fractious politics and class struggle. It can’t have hurt his popularity, though, that Thai law punishes lèse-majesté with three to fifteen years in prison. Any criticism of the King, previous kings, the royal dynasty, members of the royal family, the monarchy in general, or the monarch’s fantastic wealth — he had more than US $30 billion in the bank — can land you in jail. Easy to get people to love you if the alternative’s a prison term.

Odd, then, when Outright International, the LGBT rights organization, whose Twitter feed is generally confined to issues of sexuality, suddenly retweeted a series of encomia to the late King. After all, no one’s threatening them with prison.

screen-shot-2016-11-01-at-11-06-44-pm

These tweets were spawned in UN missions, and the stultifying UN-speak shows; a tribute that lauds someone as “a strong supporter of multilateral systems in sustaining peace” was written by bureaucrats, or is covering up for something, or both.

Mainly, King Bhumibol was a strong supporter of military dictatorships. Back in 1957, he helped engineer his first coup, encouraging a friendly general to rebel against an army-led government that had tried to restrict royal prerogatives. More recently, he endorsed the 2006 putsch that deposed populist prime minster Thaksin Shinawatra; in 2014 he similarly oversaw the overthrow of a cabinet led by Thaksin’s sister, installing the most draconian and brutal military regime the country has seen in decades. (In 2014, the dictatorship cemented its control by arresting dissidents under the lèse-majesté law; in 2006 the army justified the coup by claiming that insults to the King were surging, and only soldiers could safeguard the royal reputation.)  Even the King’s elected governments had his mandate to use a harsh hand: in 2003, Bhumibol supported Thaksin’s “war on drugs,” which smeared the country with the blood of almost 3000 extrajudicial killings. As the monarch’s American biographer wrote after his death, “King Bhumibol did not set out to build a representative democracy or promote the rule of law. For him, parliaments were impermanent, disposable … Democracy was never his goal for Thailand.”

Thai soldiers gather under a portrait of the king following the 2014 coup: EPA/Diego Azubel

Thai soldiers gather under a portrait of the King following the 2014 coup: Photo: EPA/Diego Azubel

So it’s interesting for a human rights group not known for engaging with Thailand to go out of its way in the late King’s praise. By contrast, Human Rights Watch, longtime critic of Thai governments (and the lèse-majesté law), posted just one neutral sentence on its Thailand page.

screen-shot-2016-11-02-at-2-38-03-am

And Amnesty International stayed decently silent. Two weeks before the King’s death, Thai police had shut down an Amnesty meeting in Bangkok, in order to ban the group’s report accusing the military junta of “a culture of torture.”

Those gratuitous retweets, though, had little to do with Thailand’s rights record — or “multilateral systems,” or “sustaining peace,” etcetera. They had to do with power: power at the UN. Outright International works extensively on LGBT rights at the United Nations (sometimes with good results, sometimes, in my view, not so much). For five years, Thailand has supported UN measures favoring LGBT rights. LGBT praise for a defunct and anti-democratic King is a low-cost way of lubricating that support. (Moreover, the Kingdom of Jordan’s UN mission, where one of the tweets bemoaning a fellow-monarch originated, has been making ambiguously positive noises about LGBT issues in official settings; they need encouragement. Retweeting them cozies up to two Kings at once.) An organization’s tweets don’t have much impact on the world. I fear, though, that parroting praise of the late King tends to set aside the language of human rights in favor of strategically satisfying a few diplomats. I worked for Outright for many years. I was its program director until 2002. There was no Twitter then. But if there had been, we wouldn’t have sent those tweets.

The tweets aren’t important, but the issue is. How do human rights relate to power? Surely the answer’s simple: Rights rely on governments’ power to realize and enforce them. Maybe the question is, instead: How do we, who defend human rights, relate to power?  Are we inside it or outside it? What will we do to get power’s attention, sustain its regard, enjoy its favors? And what does that do to us?

Gay Power, I: Protester in New York City, 1967. Photo: New York Public Library

Gay Power, I: Protester in New York City, 1967. Photo: New York Public Library

The questions are particularly acute for people defending LGBT rights. For a long time, in almost every country in the world, LGBT activists had no access to power at all. In the US, 20 years ago, we had trouble just getting a meeting with the State Department. When I lobbied the UN’s human rights meetings in Geneva back then, even diplomats from the most supportive states had to be persuaded that queers weren’t either a distraction or a joke. Now plenty of governments say they’re all in for LGBT rights. No doubt some are propelled by politicians’ sincere concern (if that’s not an oxymoron). Others want to appease voters back home; still others see a convenient way to pinkwash their national reputations. They approach the subject, that is, with the usual confused and chiaroscuro motives states show. Their ministrations, though, give LGBT activists the unfamiliar sense of power, even if the reality is still remote. They’re listened to, suddenly; the elixir of authority is sitting on the table, with three icecubes and a swizzle stick, and even the smell intoxicates. How do they accommodate themselves to this new condition? Many queer groups lack any history of negotiating their relationships to power — the history that feminist movements, for example, have accumulated through decades of harsh experience. Moreover, they are less and less inclined to listen to those other movements, or learn from their stories. Wounded by hate and vitriol, LGBT activists’ egos are often desperate and valetudiniarian. Who can say how well we’ll withstand the swift explosion of self-regard that comes when ambassadors and presidents, principalities and powers, bestow on us the swerving lighthouse beam of their attention?

Not well, I think.

But this goes beyond LGBT movements; the question afflicts the whole of human rights activism. Human rights have long had two sides, two Janus faces. In their international iteration they originated as, quite literally, powerless, a corpus of principles devoid of virtually any enforcement. Human rights, even as late as the post-World-War-II Universal Declaration, were pure critique untrammeled by practical authority: a criticism of the actual terms of national legal systems, a semi-Utopian vantage from which to look down on the existing norms of positive law and judge them. They were a language more for activists than lawyers, more competent to imagine a living future than to mandate it. Over time, human rights grew into a system of positive law in their own — er — right. They were embodied not just in demands and needs but in codes and treaties; increasingly the lawyers took over; and as rights became norms, they acquired, and their exponents desired them to acquire, power. This is necessary and, mostly, good. It’s good that rights are codified, good that they have clout, very good that some governments take them seriously. But to work in human rights is still to be caught between these poles, between the idea that rights criticize power and the idea that they should possess it. Should we confront the bearers of state power as opponents, or as partners? Did the late king of Thailand deserve our analysis and anger, with a history of abuses to be considered and condemned? Or was he, along with the government that commemorates him, a potential ally in cooperative work, in making rights principles matter to a thoroughly compromised world? Should we tweet our own understanding of his record, or retweet the Thai Mission to the UN?

Those tweets were trivial, but there are more serious cases. The Thai Mission is one thing, but what if you’re dealing with the hugely powerful government of the United States? What’s the right relation to that hideous strength?

The world is waiting: HRC's Chad Griffin and Susan Rice

The world is waiting: HRC’s Chad Griffin and Susan Rice

Here’s a story. On October 26, Human Rights First and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) — the latter, for any non-denizens of GayWorld, is the richest gay group in North America — hosted a speech by Susan Rice in Washington, DC, on “Global LGBTQ Rights.” Rice was Obama’s first ambassador to the UN, and now chairs the National Security Council. Introducing her, HRC’s head Chad Griffin said that “LGBTQ people around the world are looking to us” to be a “beacon of hope.”

And at a time when extremists are throwing gay men off buildings, when transgender women are being relentlessly attacked in Central America, when laws are being passed to silence and marginalize LGBTQ people, they need American leadership now more than ever before.

This is telling the US government what it wants to hear: America is moral, America is exceptional, and America leads everything (even Honduran travestis march in line). Chad Griffin really believes this. Otherwise, why would HRC tweet these words to the world, oblivious that activists elsewhere might resent the picture of them pining for a US cavalryman on a white horse?

screen-shot-2016-11-02-at-8-30-24-am

Chad’s comments in fact were mocked in the dark recesses of the planet:

screen-shot-2016-11-02-at-8-40-48-am

But it’s not like the US, or the US LGBT movement, to care what the brown masses think.

Then there’s what Susan Rice had to say. Her speech recited what the Obama administration has done for LGBT folk, at home and out in the dark lands. She talked about Uganda; she talked about ISIS; but basically she made a pitch for Obama’s third term. It illumined the instrumental character of Obama’s international LGBT commitments, in large part keyed to solidifying LGBT votes in the homeland. One paragraph hit me in the face. Back in 2003, Rice says,  “One of my closest staffers, as a young Foreign Service officer, once asked if he and other employees could screen a documentary at the State Department about a gay nightclub in Cairo that was brutally raided by the Egyptian police. He was told no—it would be too controversial and too damaging to our relationship with Egypt. ” Look how far we’ve come! “Under President Obama …  LGBT people can serve openly and proudly throughout government—from desk officers to the NSC staff to eight openly gay ambassadors,” and so on.

On the rare occasions US officials acknowledge there are problems with Egypt, I take note. I do not give a flying fuck whether the US government screens gay films about Egypt for its employees. What I do give a flying fuck about is that the US government hands $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt annually, promotes the Sisi dictatorship as its partner, and sells LGBT Egyptians and all other victims of human rights violations down the river. Those eight openly gay ambassadors have done nothing to help keep queers in Egypt out of jail.

US Secretary of State Kerry meets with junta leader Sisi, Cairo, November 2013. Photo: US Department of State

US Secretary of State Kerry meets with junta leader Sisi, Cairo, November 2013. Photo: US Department of State

Arrests of queers in Egypt aren’t a quaint facet of the previous decade’s history. They’re happening now. Egypt has probably sentenced more LGBT people to prison since 2013 than any other country in the world. Neither Rice nor anybody else in the US government will discuss these arrests, much less condemn them. There are more than 40,000 political prisoners in Egypt; torture and death squads are rampant. The US refuses to raise these facts with its its Cairene client-tyrant in any consequential way — because “it would be too damaging to our relationship with Egypt.” For Rice to claim something’s changed because State Department staffers can now watch movies about handsome brown men being abused, and do so on government time — that is obscene. Screw the movie, Susan. Stop endorsing torture.

Yet the Human Rights Campaign condones torture; and so does the audience of professional gays who turn out to applaud Rice’s platitudes. Not that they’re bad people or malevolent organizations; far from it. They’d be horrified if they ever met a torture victim face to face. But they know the Obama administration is power, and they believe it’s on their side. They can’t contravene power. They see it has done good in places; so they can’t see or speak about places like Egypt where it’s done wrong. The convolutions of a state whose actions aren’t all categorizable under the same moral absolute are too much for them. And to raise their voices risks alienating that power. Then their own capacity for good, so invested in the authority of others, might slip away. So they let Rice drone on; they don’t confront her; they convince themselves that the government’s symbolic gestures — screening a film! making a donor an ambassador! – have a magical impact on the reality that rests in people’s lives. Nor does this blindness stop with Egypt.  Chad unctuously imagines poor Honduran travestis long for US “leadership” to free them. They don’t. They long for an end to the violent waves of social-cleansing killings that the 2009 coup d’etat, enabling right-wing death squads, unleashed. And they know the US (and Secretary of State Clinton) propped up the bloody post-coup regime. Guns we send to Honduras murder travestis in the street. Not to see the complexity of these relations, not to understand how the people you flatter are implicated in the abuses you abhor, goes deeper than sycophancy. It’s complicity.

Corpses of an unknown man and a trans woman dumped on a street, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, January 2010. Photo: Tiempo, via Blabbeando.com

Corpses of an unknown man and a trans woman dumped on a street, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, January 2010. Photo: Tiempo, via Blabbeando.com

There’s a point where human rights, entangled with the hunt for power, stop being human. I will lay my opinions on the table, as someone who has worked within the force-field of human rights for 25 years. Human rights are not just a body of law, but a pattern of thought: a way of criticizing things that are and their existing arrangement. Either they retain some quantum of their dissenting energy, their capacity for radical critique, for questioning equally the premises and practices of friend and foe – or they cease to be of use. Rights exist in opposition. I do not believe human rights activists should readily celebrate governments, or fawn over their representatives, or adopt their language and agendas. I believe human rights activists who do that stop being human rights activists, and become something else. As a mode of thinking, human rights must negate in order to affirm; only through undermining the reified authority of what is can they clear a space for the liberating fortuity of difference, of what isn’t yet, of an alternative. Adorno wrote: “The uncompromisingly critical thinker, who neither superscribes his conscience nor permits himself to be terrorized into action, is in truth the one who does not give up. Thinking is not the spiritual reproduction of that which exists. As long as thinking is not interrupted, it has a firm grasp upon possibility. Its insatiable quality, the resistance against petty satiety, rejects the foolish wisdom of resignation.” Only by abandoning the false positivities that power always posits, and pursuing the relentlessly negative logic of that thought, can the discourse of rights change anything that needs to be changed about the world.

I called this essay “selling out.” Sometimes we activists indeed can sell out friends, allies, even those we call our own kind — sometimes without seeing it; queer Egyptians, say, sold by the US to sustain the deadly dictatorship. There’s another meaning, though. Sometimes we sell our very outness to the holders of power. To keep proximity and access, we hand them our presence and our visibility to exploit. We’re here, we’re queer. We’re useful.

Gay Power II: UN Ambassador Samantha Power discusses LGBT rights with a man and his demonically possessed left arm outside the Stonewall Inn, New York, 2016. Photo: US Department of State

Gay Power II: UN Ambassador Samantha Power discusses LGBT rights with a man and his demonically possessed left arm outside the Stonewall Inn, New York, 2016. Photo: US Department of State

Think (on the first point) of the arguments this year among LGBT movements about creating a new special mechanism at the UN, to research and respond to violations. These discussions were divisive. Many wanted a mechanism to deal broadly with diverse issues of sexual rights: for instance, connecting “sodomy laws” to other laws that control sexual freedoms. Others, including leaders of many LGBT organizations, wanted their own mechanism, in effect — one focused on a particular identity. I was in Geneva while the UN debated the mechanism; I was struck by how advocates of the narrower mandate reacted when I asked why the rights of sex workers were excluded from it. The general response was: sex workers had nothing to do with LGBT communities. They weren’t relevant, useful allies; and sex workers within queer populations seemed no longer to exist, like Neanderthals or moderate Republicans. I heard this even from people who I know perfectly well have paid for sex with queer sex workers, apparently in episodes of absent-mindedness. The end result? The narrow mandate won. Laws targeting sex work – laws that imprison thousands of LGBT people — were excised from the public ambit of LGBT concern. Invisible sex workers were sold out; visible and respectable LGBT activists acquired a UN post. So it goes.

And think how the World Bank loudly declared, in 2013, that it was going to adopt LGBT rights as a priority – pretty much its first-ever human rights priority; a project it launched by invoking Uganda’s anti-LGBT legislation to cancel a loan targeting maternal mortality. Health and reproductive rights in East Africa are easy to sell out; they lack a DC lobby. American NGOs, the Obama administration, and Democrats in Congress could see Ugandan LGBT people, but not Ugandan women. (The two, again, don’t overlap.) But there was another aspect to the bargain; the Bank’s pronouncements on LGBT rights had the effect – perhaps not planned at first, but obvious afterward – of enlisting vocal, visible queer activists in powerful countries to support the institution and its leaders. (Jim Yong Kim, the Bank’s embattled president, even dropped in on BuzzFeed’s offices while pushing for a second term, to remind its gay readership how gay-friendly the Bank is: not the sort of campaign stop previously common on the commanding heights of the world economy. Imagine Alan Greenspan advertising the Federal Reserve by parading in Pride.) Even LGBT activists in powerless countries — the countries the Bank lends to, and often destroys — have their usefulness. Although no policy changes and no new programs have come out of the Bank’s well-publicized concern, it does annually fly LGBT campaigners from the global South to its Washington HQ to sit round a table, be consulted, and be photographed. You can see the Bank’s calculus; these are economists, after all. Surely every activist tempted with the fleshpots of DC means one less activist who’ll join a rally against structural adjustment or debt or the Washington Consensus. Why protest outside when you can sit inside with a per diem? With enough time, LGBT politics around the globe will don the values of Davos and shuck off those of Porto Alegre. That may or may not happen: the Bank has never figured out how activists really tick. But In a decade when many LGBT movements actually do have increasing influence in their domestic politics — and are increasingly resourced by the US government, which runs the Bank — it’s a reasonable bet to make, if not a sure one.

132806-u-s-troops-march-in-san-diego-gay-pride-parade

Imagine

Michel Foucault employed the idea of “governmentality” to describe the multiple means, from the sweeping to the microscopic, by which institutions create, mold, control, and discipline subject populations. Foucault also showed that to participate in governmentality, to share in the play of power, is equally to be shaped, to be controlled, to be disciplined. Power is exercised not only through, but within, the powerful. The conscious agent is also the inadvertent victim.

The more LGBT movements appropriate their portion of power, they more they risk becoming its subjects and servants. The more HRC stakes its claim to participate in US foreign policy, for instance, the more it constricts its vision. The seductive project of building an “LGBT foreign policy” disciplines LGBT Americans — and HRC itself — not to think of foreign policy in a critical or complex or comprehensive way.

Governmentality is an academic concept, of course, arcanely argued over by scholars. In fact, I can describe that entanglement and complicity simply: in a monosyllable, even. Sometimes giving a thing its proper name is analysis enough. But I’ll repeat it a few times; in speaking of power and the powerful, one should make the word sound polysyllabic, important.

Shame. Shame. Shame.

Liv Ullman and Max von Sydow in Ingmar Bergman's Skammen, 1968

Liv Ullman and Max von Sydow in Ingmar Bergman’s Skammen, 1968

If you like this blog, we’d be grateful if you’d pitch in:

Donate Button with Credit Cards

Cairo, and our comprador gay movements: A talk

Photo taken and publicized by Egyptian journalist Mona Iraq, showing arrested victims of the 2014 Cairo bathhouse raid over which she presided

Photo taken and publicized by Egyptian journalist Mona Iraqi, showing arrested victims of the 2014 Cairo bathhouse raid over which she presided

On June 16, I gave a Human Rights Lecture as part of the program of Toronto Pride, on the 2014 bathhouse raid in Cairo and the ongoing crackdown on suspected trans and gay people in Egypt. Several people asked for the text, and I’m publishing it here. I owe much gratitude to Nayrouz Abu Hatoum, who introduced the lecture and placed it in a regional context. Many thanks are also due to Mathieu Chantelois of Pride Toronto; the hardworking staff of both Pride Toronto and The 519; and Brenda Cossman, Director of the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto, who together sponsored and organized the talk. I am also very much indebted to John Greyson and Stephen Andrews, artists and activists, who helped make the whole thing possible. 

For any who perversely want not to read but to watch me dissect this sort of thing, here’s a talk — on similar but not identical themes — I gave at Princeton University this spring:

And here is the Toronto lecture:

I feel overwhelmed.

I am overwhelmed to see so many of you here. But I am also overwhelmed as so many of us feel overwhelmed right now: there is too much to talk about, and too little one can actually say.

I was asked here to describe the campaign against LGBT people, especially trans women and gay men, ongoing for three years in Egypt: particularly the now-infamous police raid on a bathhouse in Cairo in December 2014. I was asked partly in the context of the 35th anniversary of the bathhouse raids in Toronto in 1981 — “Operation Soap.”

The question was: how much consistency across time and space shapes the persecution and oppression that queer people face?

And here we are, in this moment, on this day, in this juncture: and I know that everyone in this room is thinking about Orlando.

In the US, now, you can witness a political contest over what that event means over what frame we’re going to use to understand it. This battle is also over whether it’s a local event or a global one, how much it crosses those boundaries of time and space:

  • the right wing – and Donald Trump – insisting this is “about” terrorism, about porous borders, about alien violence invading our spaces;
  • the left insisting this is about our, American, indigenous violence, our own fundamentalism, our guns, our propensity to see difference as a question of firepower.

These either-ors imply that Orlando was easily understandable, and can be not just comprehended but owned. Yet this kind of debate also indicates how deeply an instability of space — this troubled relationship between here and there, the local and the remote — has become integral to our thinking, and to our selves, in this increasingly elastic world.

It’s a world in which images circulate rapidly and globally; in which certain events become global, resonate far beyond their origins, are part of how people understand themselves , so that in South Africa or the Philippines, Orlando morphs into a reference point. It’s right that it be a reference point. The enormity and the suddenness of the violence mean it instantly touches innumerable queer people’s deepest fears. Yet some other events don’t circulate at all.

Mona Iraqi, Egyptian informer journalist extraordinaire, celebrate's love's victory in the Obergefell case, summer 2015

Mona Iraqi, Egyptian informer journalist extraordinaire, celebrate’s love’s victory in the Obergefell case, summer 2015

I’ll cite a friend of mine, a feminist in Egypt, writing about Orlando. She also speaks of how images spread globally – in this case, the celebratory images of gay triumphs. The killing, my friend writes, is “an ugly reality check to the fakeness of celebrating love wins” — by which she means that ubiquitous social media jubilation after same-sex marriage was legalized in a single, powerful country, the US.

When love wins happened, the Egyptian authorities were having raids arresting gay men and trans here. We couldn’t unsee the relation between the escalation of risk for being queer here and the media discourse which was commenting on love wins and which was [making Egyptians] realize that there are people who are actually homosexuals.

And she adds: “I am afraid that contrast can escalate badly. Anywhere.”

So: connections, and contrast. I’ll start with a short video.  It shows someone who was swept up in the crackdown that’s going on in Egypt: a trans woman, a leader in her community, named Malouka. Police arrested her in December 2014. The press vilified her as “the most dangerous homosexual in Egypt.” (Egyptian media recognize no meaningful distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity as comprehended in the West, just a collective and only vaguely differentiated category of “perversion”.) The video was obviously filmed in a police station. A website based in the UAE, one with close ties with Egyptian police, published it. It’s disturbing; I wouldn’t show it except that I want to disturb you. It shows Malouka traumatized, probably beaten, though it’s not clear what they have done to her. She keeps repeating, over and over: “My father never loved me.”

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t replay such images without permission of the person they show. Malouka, though, simply disappeared into the vast Egyptian gulag. A court sentenced her to six years. With her blood family rejecting her – legally recognized relations are almost the only people with even intermittent access to prisoners in Egypt – only the barest information emerged about what happened to her. A rumor six months ago said she had committed suicide in detention. I believe it was untrue; but we were not even able to confirm that.

Let me describe what has been happening in Egypt for the last five years.

In 2011 — you know this — there was a revolution and Mubarak was overthrown. The military took power, in the form of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. In 2011-2012, it held first parliamentary and then presidential elections, which were multiparty, competitive, and generally free.  And both were won by the Muslim Brotherhood.

For a year, then, from mid-2012 till July 2013, Egypt had a conservative government, but a democratically elected one: the only democratically elected government in Egypt’s history. In fact, the one year of Mohammed Morsi’s presidency was probably, in certain senses, the freest in Egypt’s modern history. The relative freedoms to speak, to criticize, to demonstrate and to agitate came not because the government was liberal – it wasn’t – but because it was weak. Still, those freedoms were tangible.

Egyptian queers were also enjoying a degree of freedom, an ability to occupy social spaces from which they were previously debarred. Back in the three years from  2001 to 2004, there had been a massive crackdown on men having sex with men, by the Mubarak government. Probably thousands were arrested and given sentences of up to 5 years. The circus of raids and show trials served up a convenient distraction from political and economic problems. But in 2004 it stopped, and for the next nine years there were very few arrests under Egypt’s laws against homosexual conduct. Indeed, from 2008, police in Egypt focused more on repressing political dissent in the increasingly volatile public sphere, and less on day-to-day policing, including patrolling the frontiers of acceptable morality. And after the revolution, the police virtually disappeared from urban streets. They had been the most hated symbol of the old regime, and in the new conditions they were virtually were afraid to show their faces.

With their retreat, LGBT people became increasingly visible in the downtown scene in Cairo. They occupied the decrepit city center’s cheap cafes and bars; they used the Internet to make new kinds of virtual community.

In July 2013, a carefully plotted military coup overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government. The new junta, under General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, quickly showed itself repressive in an unprecedented degree. The military’s ruling principle was that the old Mubarak regime had failed, was overthrown, because it was too weak. It had allowed bloggers, journalists, human rights activists, and other perverts too long a leash. The new state wasn’t going to make that mistake again.

In August 2013, Sisi massacred over a thousand demonstrators supporting the ousted Muslim Brotherhood. It was a message written in blood that the old rules didn’t apply, that the leash was now a chokehold. The military took over all the interstices of daily life: the country was kept under rigid curfew for months. And the police returned. Egypt saw a concerted attempt to resuscitate intensive social control.

Military checkpoint in Cairo during the 2013 post-coup curfew

Military checkpoint in Cairo during the 2013 post-coup curfew

In October 2013, a few months after the military coup, came the first arrests of LGBT people. First police in a very working-class district of eastern Cairo shut down a local gym allegedly patronized by men seeking sex with other men. They arrested and tortured 14 people. Next came a raid on a private party in a Cairo suburb. Police loaded ten victims into their wagons. The cops leaked both these cases to the press; favorable headlines acclaimed the constabulary for cleansing the capital of its immoral unwanted.  Someone in the Ministry of Interior decided that arresting “perverts” made good publicity for the police.

The arrests continued, applauded by an increasingly docile media. There were raids on homes, on private parties; people who looked differently or dressed differently could be seized on the street. Hundreds were arrested. Two incidents were particularly central in the storm of publicity.

We do; they don't. Still from 2013'a viral "same-sex wedding" video

We do; they don’t. Still from 2014’s viral “same-sex wedding” video

First: at the very end of August 2014, a video leaked on YouTube and immediately went viral. Filmed by a cameraphone, it seemed to show two men staging a mock wedding on a boat on the Nile. The footage — I learned from men who were there — came from a floating party months before; no one knew how it had reached YouTube. There was speculation the police had somehow got their hands on it and leaked it themselves. Hundreds of thousands saw it on the web, even more when it reached TV. Police rounded up everyone they could find from the boat, and they got two years in prison. Meanwhile, though, the banned and exiled Muslim Brotherhood joined the universal indignation, tweeting from some of its accounts that Sisi’s regime was now bringing gay marriage to Egypt.

Those attacks made queers a political, not just a police, issue. The dictator, after violently overthrowing a religious government, fears criticism from his right and from the Brotherhood more than any other kind.  The matter of homosexuality became both opportunity and an obligation for Sisi; he needed to prove his aptitude as moral defender of the nation.

Mona Iraq, upper right, films her stripped victims being led to police wagons, December 7, 2014. Later that night she posted this photo on her Facebook page.

Mona Iraqi, upper right, films her stripped victims being led to police wagons, December 7, 2014. Later that night she posted this photo on her Facebook page.

On December 7, 2014, police raided an historic bathhouse in central Cairo, allegedly a meeting place for men having sex with men. They arrested 26 men, stripped them, marched them naked in the cold night; at least one was raped by other prisoners in the Azbekeya jail that night, with the guards’ collusion.  A TV journalist, Mona Iraqi, presided over the raid; she filmed it and publicized it. This was Sisi’s answer – meant to be a huge public show trial, proving the state’s will to suppress “perversion.”

It backfired. The government probably blackmailed Mona Iraqi into her repellent role in the raid: but for many Egyptians, including fellow reporters, she became a symbol of the “informer journalist,” selling her independence and soul to support the state’s agenda. (Since the trial ended, she has tried bizarrely to recuperate her reputation as a friend of queers, who emphatically don’t want her friendship. The “Love Wins” tweet I showed earlier was hers.) I was privileged to work with a few activists who fought to mobilize intellectual opinion, and the Egyptian media, against the raid. The outrage actually induced the government to back down. In an almost unheard-of event in Generalissimo Sisi’s Egypt, the men were acquitted. But their lives were ruined. One later tried to commit suicide by burning himself to death. And the arrests still go on.

Police use the Internet to entrap people: undercover agents infest apps like Grindr, pretending to be gay; or the cops enlist gay people as informers, blackmailed to help. Increasingly they target foreigners as well as Egyptians — sometimes Europeans, sometimes already-persecuted refugees: jailing them or deporting them.

At least 250-people in Egypt are now serving prison sentences of between 2 and 10 years for homosexual conduct; probably many more. Egypt now imprisons more people for their gender identity and sexual orientation than any other country in the world. 

What happens to queers in Egypt can’t be separated from the general draconian repression. Journalists are carted to prison; so are activists, students, or people who simply happen to be living in the wrong neighborhood.  People just disappear: into concentration camps, or — if they are abducted by the death squads that haunt the cities — their bodies turn up in ditches. Protests are punishable by three years in prison: or you can just be shot. NGOs face harassment and closure, including the very few that provide legal help to arrested LGBT people. And those downtown cafes I talked about? In late 2014 the government started harassing gathering spots in central Cairo, forcing them to shutter, because “undesirable people” – revolutionaries, atheists, perverts – gathered there. The spaces where ordinary solidarity can flourish are being strangled to death.

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, poet, dissident, and mother, dying from police gunfire in central Cairo, January 24, 2015. She was shot for attempting to lay flowers to commemorate the martyrs of the Revolution, and its fourth anniversary.

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, poet, dissident, and mother, dying from police gunfire in central Cairo, January 24, 2015. She was shot for attempting to lay flowers in commemoration of the Revolution’s martyrs, on the Revolution’s fourth anniversary.

So let me ask: Why don’t you know more about this?

The general situation in Egypt, and the horrifying situation of LGBT people, are consigned to the back pages of the papers, the fag end of the news, unclicked and untold.  Every queer schoolboy knows what’s gone on in Uganda or Russia in recent years. But Cairo or Alexandria? No.

One reason the LGBT arrests have gotten less attention? In a word: gender. 

Screen shot of seven people arrested in February 2015 -- mostly trans-identified, according to other trans activists -- from a video published on the website of Youm7

Screen shot of seven people arrested in February 2015 — mostly trans-identified, according to other trans activists — from a video published on the website of Youm7

The primary targets of these arrests haven’t been securely cis men who have sex with cis men. They’ve been trans women – or men who build their identities around not conforming to norms of masculinity. Egyptian society has no strong public recognition of gender identity as a category. There are, though, growing communities of people who identify as trans, and they’ve been more and visible — particularly in downtown Cairo. Indeed, “downtown,” wust el-balad, has turned into a term encompassing all kinds of deviance, from hash-smokers to atheists to revolutionary youth with long hair (government stooges regularly accuse former revolutionaries of gender and sexual perversion). Most of these fears focus on masculinity: “downtown” means men who aren’t men, and trans people symbolize the extremity of decadence. One word bandied about to summarize what the regime opposes is mokhanatheen: sissies. The need to enforce gendered norms, and in particular to make sure that men behave as men should, obey the behavioral rules for their assigned gender, is hard-wired into the military regime.

Yet this doesn’t interest international LGB activists the way arrests of gay men do. Which two cases in Egypt have had the most international attention? The wedding video arrests: where photos showed two bearded men, solid in their evident cisness. And the bathhouse raid: where images focused on photos of naked bodies in the cold December air – bodies that looked unequivocally male.

Most of the hundreds imprisoned in Egypt haven’t been like that. We claim to be having a “trans moment” in Europe and North America. Maybe. Has it gone from pop culture to politics — our politics, the politics of LGB-and-only-occasionally-T movements? No. It’s still painfully clear which bodies we prefer, even as passive victims. Masculinity infects our activism, as it pervades our media, our cultures, and our dreams.

There’s another reason for the silence: respectability. 

The law that criminalizes homosexual conduct in Egypt is, in origin, a law against prostitution. It was passed in a moment of nationalist fervor in1951. The British occupying army had for decades maintained brothels for its soldiers, staffed by Egyptian women, and this was seen across the political spectrum as an enormous national shame. Parliament passed a law that criminalized sex work by women, and then in a sort of throw-the-kitchen-sink fit of moralistic enthusiasm they tossed in parallel punishments for something called fugur or “debauchery” — which wasn’t defined. The term, though, was gradually interpreted by courts to mean non-commercial sex between consenting adult men

In Egypt, then, you don’t need to prove that two men are exchanging money to arrest them for having sex. But a link between homosexual conduct and prostitution is — again — hard-wired into Egyptian law and attitudes. In this crackdown, the military has been at some pains to stress the connection. When Mona Iraqi was criticized for raiding the bathhouse, she defended herself by claiming it was a den of “human trafficking,” because she knew this was an appealing line: a useful excuse locally — and internationally.

Pro-Clinton meme: Offer does not apply to sex workers

Pro-Clinton meme: Offer does not apply to sex workers

The US government, which now positions itself as the world’s foremost defender of LGBT people’s rights, is also the world’s most powerful opponent of sex workers’ rights. It promotes ridiculous and regressive myths that all prostitution is “trafficking”; it demands that foreign groups receiving its (ever so queer-friendly) funding pledge never to discuss decriminalizing sex work, or sex workers’ persecution by laws and police.  Hillary Clinton and the whole Obama administration have clung to the Bush administration’s failed moralism where suppressing commercial sex — and sex workers — is concerned.

Cover of a 1910 book on "white slavery" by Ernest Bell

Cover of a 1910 book on “white slavery” by Ernest Bell

And with US funding underpinning LGBT politics, many LGBT organizations have been happy to ditch sex workers’ rights and issues in pursuit of a respectable picture of LGBT communities. That’s less true of grassroots groups than of those operating in the international sphere: those that command media spaces like the New York Times, and set the agenda, and create images of what LGBT rights are.

Around the world, more LGBT people are arrested every day under laws targeting sex work than are arrested under so-called “sodomy laws” in a year. They aren’t just arrested because they may be doing sex work — but because those are the laws police use against cruising, soliciting, public displays of affection, walking while trans or butch.

Yet our international movement writes those people off. And that’s a disgrace. We congratulate ourselves when sodomy laws are repealed, as though that means full decriminalization of queer lives and bodies. We don’t notice laws that have even harsher impact on those lives.

Remember: The Toronto bathhouse raids in 1981 took place under a 19th-century law on “bawdy houses.” Respectable gay sex in bedrooms had been formally decriminalized in Canada. But if they hate you, they can still find laws to use against you. And anti-prostitution laws are always a ready tool.

In Egypt, too, the idea that the arrested people are not respectable, are not like us, has inhibited sympathy, stifled response. And not just within the country’s borders. What images roused the first international outcry against the Cairo crackdown? Those two cis men pursuing the most respectable of American-style gay activities: getting married.

But trans sex workers? Who cares?

Egyptian protesters point to the "Made in USA" tag on a tear gas canister used against them near Tahrir Square, November 20, 2011. Photo: Khaled Dessouki for AFP

Egyptian protesters point to the “Made in USA” tag on a tear gas canister used against them near Tahrir Square, November 20, 2011. Photo: Khaled Dessouki for AFP

A final reason for the silence: security.

The Egyptian military and its conceptions of manhood are paid for by the United States. The US gives $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt every year (along with a small, steadily diminishing amount of development aid, currently less than $250 million). Each year, Egypt receives the world’s second or third largest sum of US military aid, after Israel.

The aid has stayed at the same level since Egypt signed its peace treaty with Israel in the early 1980s. In effect, we pay Egypt not to use its military on its neighbors: with the implicit proviso that it will use its military on its own people, when needed.

We — and I mean Americans like me, and our allies — pay for the abuses the military engages in. 40,000 political prisoners held, mostly without trial? We pay for the concentration camps that hold them. Tear gas used on demonstrators?  We pay for it, it comes from US firms, it’s bought with money the US gives the government. We pay the generals’ salaries. We pay for the soldiers’ guns. We pay for the civilians the army slaughters in Sinai, or at least for their mass graves.  The surveillance equipment Egypt’s government is buying up, to monitor the whole Internet – and they’ve specifically said LGBT people are a priority target— is bought from US firms, with no objection from the US government.

(Canada, so far as I know, has a limited direct relationship with the Egyptian military –except for its peacekeepers in Sinai, who protect an ever-more-imaginary peace, one devastated both by an armed insurgency and by Egypt’s brutal, Israeli-supported campaign to exterminate it. But Canadian arms sales to Saudi Arabia indirectly aid Egypt, by channeling resources to one of Sisi’s main backers. Saudi Arabia is the root of evil in the region; you’re handing wands to Voldemort, you’re hawking rings to Sauron. And the Saudis  know they can use Canada’s equipment to prop up repressive regimes wherever they like.)

Egyptian activists — human rights activists, and LGBT activists among them — want the US and its allies to cut or stop military aid to Sisi. They want us to stop propping up the murder regime. This, the US and NATO refuse to do.

June 22, 2014: John Kerry meets Sisi in Cairo and gives him $572 million in military aid, days after pro-democracy activists including feminist Yara Sallam were arrested and abused

June 22, 2014: John Kerry meets Sisi in Cairo and hands him $572 million in military aid, days after police arrested and abused pro-democracy activists, including feminist Yara Sallam, for the heinous crime of marching down a street

John Kerry comes to Cairo once or twice a year, in his capacity as head imperialist tourist. I happen to know that dutiful State Department officers give him solid talking points for his meetings with Sisi; they say, “mention human rights violations” — sometimes even “mention the gays” (never the trans or the sex workers, of course.) But Kerry has a powerful mancrush on Sisi. He looks deep into those dark brown bloody eyes and throws his talking points out the window. He won’t mention the killings; he won’t mention the trans and gay arrests — I doubt he’s raised the issue once, even in a subordinate clause. Sisi is our ally. He safeguards security. The rest is silence.

In fact, none of Sisi’s measures increase security — not even the savage war against an Islamist insurgency in Sinai, and certainly not the torture of queers. They destroy security. Last summer, while I lived in Cairo, rebel bombings happened almost every week: they blew up consulates, subway stations, even the Prosecutor General.  ISIS kidnapped foreign workers on the streets of Cairo suburbs where I did my shopping.

But the life or death of locals matters less to the Obama administration than the big picture, the preservation of American power. The US mancrush on military dictators in Egypt long precedes the war on terror. It is a product of the way that US imperialism has approached the region for decades, a technique of power quite consciously set in opposition to the strategies of the British and French colonialisms it superseded. Aspiring to regional dominance, the US since the 1950s has attempted indirect rule. We don’t want to control territory or govern populations; we want access to resources, and the ability to keep others away from them. American ambitions have been exercised through anchor states, core allies whose job is to police the region and ensure stability for us.

The US pays for militaries strong enough to keep societies in subjection. We also pay to see the values of those militaries – the reliance on violence, the suppression of difference, the repressive cult of masculinity, the patriarchal faith in state power – spread throughout those societies and distort their workings, destroy their solidarities, suppress their dissenters. We’ve created militarized states throughout the Middle East, and we’ve also created militarized masculinities. So the lives of queers in Egypt are necessarily tangled up with the war on terror.

Under the same flag: USAID joins Mona Iraqi in "advancing LGBTI-inclusive development"

Under the same flag: USAID joins Mona Iraqi in “advancing LGBTI-inclusive development”

Today, the US exercises enormous hegemony over the international LGBT movement. Most of the largest organizations doing international LGBT work in the US get funding for acting as instruments of US foreign policy.  The Human Rights Campaign gets money from the US State Department; Outright Action International, which I used to work for, gets money from the US State Department. Many influential groups elsewhere in the global North are beneficiaries of American money. And even groups that don’t get funding rely on the US government for information, for access, for all the privileges that flow from proximity to power.

Increasingly, those groups are willing to play along with the US government and its priorities. You will hear no public criticism of US inaction on Egypt from these NGOs. You’ll hear very little criticism even of the Egyptian government for its crackdown. International LGBT politics comes to mirror US foreign policy, and exempts US allies from harsh scrutiny.

I fear we are creating a comprador LGBT movement, incapable of criticizing the misdeeds of governments that support it.  This movement enjoys what it believes is power — though often that merely means taking cheerful selfies with the politicians who really possess it. But that movement is content to sacrifice its own, in the name of preserving its own access to power: to rest in silence, complicity and compliance.

Canada has a new government, after nine years of Harper, and is moving in a new direction. Your leadership is increasing its commitment to LGBT rights worldwide. It’s doing what the Obama administration and other Western states have done, putting LGBT rights firmly on its foreign policy agenda. And like those other governments it has two motives.

  • Unquestionably some policymakers are sincerely committed to the ideal of universal human rights.
  • But they also know there’s an active constituency at home who can be pleased – appeased — and persuaded to vote by these commitments. Political self-interest amplifies idealism, and in some cases dominates it.

In the spirit of United States citizens who like to tell other people what to do, I want to offer some unwanted advice.  Because when the Trudeau government talks about LGBT rights abroad they’re not aiming at trans or gay Egyptians; they’re aiming at you, as citizens and voters.  And how you conceive these issues and frame them, the strength and reach of your imagination, will determine how successful the initiatives are.

First: LGBT rights can’t be conceived in separation from other human rights issues and violations, or from the overall human rights situation in a country. They’re not a lonely silo on a prairie, standing on its own. Moreover: what your government does to defend them can’t be evaluated without a grasp, and a critique, of your government’s overall foreign policy priorities in a country or a region.

Think of how the United States has dealt with human rights in Uganda. Defending LGBT rights in Uganda — fighting the “Kill the gays” bill — has been an American priority ever since Hillary Clinton launched her gay-rights initiative in 2011.  It hasn’t been entirely successful — the bill hasn’t passed, but it hasn’t gone away either. There is no question, though, that US efforts have bettered and bolstered Ugandan civil society, immensely strengthening its capacity to oppose the bill.

An American queer public outraged by Ugandan homophobia helped drive these initiatives. Yet it’s also convenient for the US government to confront Museveni’s dictatorship on this issue, rather than on its fraudulent elections or its ruthless repression of opposition — which aren’t, after all, abuses most American voters notice. The freedoms of LGBT people are vital, but don’t threaten the ultimate stability of the dictatorial regime. The Obama administration can keep its supporters happy and say it is addressing human rights in Uganda, while emitting only anodyne criticisms as Museveni quashes democracy. The US needs Museveni; he’s an ally in the little war-on-terror sideshow the US keeps going in East Africa. More importantly, he’s a useful stooge in the cold war the US wages with China for control of African natural resources, including the oil and gas that form a burgeoning part of Uganda’s own economy.

As in the Middle East, the US exerts its power in Africa through regional proxies. The Ugandan regime is one, and an exclusionary absorption with LGBT issues allows the US government to evade real condemnation of other Ugandan rights abuses. An American LGBT politics which lets Obama get away with this is partial, truncated, and blind.  Queers need a critical stance on their countries’ foreign policies in general.

Ugandan policemen beat a supporter of the opposition Forum for Democratic Changeat a Kampala protest against Museveni's 2011 re-re-re-re-inauguration. Photo: James Akena for Reuters

Ugandan policemen beat a supporter of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change at a Kampala protest against interminable President Museveni’s 2011 re-re-re-re-inauguration. Photo: James Akena for Reuters

Second: Break out of the focus on monolithic identities that confine our understanding of sexuality and gender — as well as the conceptions of who “real” or “respectable” LGBT people are. Linkages and intersections constitute queer lives, not monosyllabic words with easy dictionary definitions.

The example of sex work I’ve cited before is essential.  We can’t talk seriously about LGBT rights unless we talk about the legal and social regimes that regulate how sex and gender appear in the public sphere. We can’t talk seriously about LGBT rights unless we talk about how states police people’s bodies and behaviors; how they govern the sex-money nexus; and how they repress and brutalize sex workers.

Another example, quite different, is the Canadian government’s decision to admit Syrian refugees who identify as gay men — but deny protection to single men who don’t identify as gay.

I agree that LGBT refugee claimants should get accelerated recognition if — as many are —- they’re trapped in second countries where they are unsafe. A Syrian gay refugee in Egypt risks arrest and torture. He needs to get out of there fast. I do not agree that LGBT claimants should get recognition to the exclusion of others. That willfully discounts the complexities of identity in a culturally hybrid context. It wilfully ignores the dangers people face, in refugee camps and refugee communities, in taking on a despised identity publicly. It wilfully neglects the rivalries it will create among refugees, which may put LGBT people in further danger from fellow claimants whose support and help they need. And it wilfully overlooks the commonalities of disadvantage between expressly identified LGBT people, and others who live outside normative family structures.

We need to think broadly about the relationship between the body and its freedoms on the one hand, and society and the state on the other. We need to look critically at the identity constructs that confine our thinking, and blind us to wider realities.

Many LGBT activists across the Middle East have chosen to advocate not in terms of “LGBT rights” — a construct with little local meaning or cultural resonance — but in terms of universal rights to autonomy and personal liberty and to privacy and freedom from state interference.  This is powerful language in the region, because it draws on experiences of state surveillance and control that LGBT people have in common with most of their fellow citizens.

Lisa Hajjar has argued that one powerful thread running through all the Arab Spring rebellions was resistance to torture. As a brute reality, torture threatened everybody. It also became a symbol of the broad power states claimed to watch, invade, and control individual bodies.  Resisting it was a key symbolic way of negating the state’s politics and pretensions. Resisting torture asserted the body’s power — the latent strength in those individuals and in their sheer material presence, saying “no” to the vast machinery of repression.

Perhaps this way of thinking about bodies and power is something we all need to learn.

Bodies of nine men killed in a U.S. drone strike on December 12, 2013 are readied for burial near Radda, Yemen. Photo by Nasser Al-Sane for Reprieve.

Bodies of nine men killed in a U.S. drone strike on December 12, 2013 are readied for burial near Radda, Yemen. Photo by Nasser Al-Sane for Reprieve.

I want to close by quoting something a friend of a friend said recently: a feminist in Yemen. She lives in the murderous midst of a Western-sponsored proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In the sky, day and night, seen and unseen, are US drones and Saudi warplanes. Through streets trundle combat vehicles that say “Made in Canada” on their underbellies.

She wrote about Orlando: “I’m not sure why I feel it, but it is surprisingly easy to grieve for the grieveable even though I know most would not grieve for me.”

Nearly all my friends in the Middle East share a belief that’s widespread across the region: that their lives don’t matter here. That their lives don’t matter to you. That the murders, the torture, the massacres carried out with our weapons, practiced by our proxies, and continuing in consequence of our wars, are invisible on our TV screens, unmourned and unnoticed and unknown.

Certain images circulate. Others don’t.

Certain deaths are mentionable. Others aren’t.

Given that strong belief, I continue to be surprised, and moved, by the solidarity my friends and colleagues in Cairo, or Amman, or Basra feel for the catastrophes they see elsewhere; the sympathy they summon for our sorrows over Orlando, their willingness to take on this grieving — even while we, in New York or San Francisco or Toronto, glide swiftly past what we dismiss as just another bombing in Baghdad, another drone attack on an anonymous crowd in Yemen, another mutilated corpse in Cairo.

Grief is by definition an emotion that lies beyond the economy of reciprocation. Its objects are those who cannot return our sorrows, acknowledge them or feel them; we grieve precisely because those we grieve are unable to respond.

But we will move beyond grieving. Our sorrow will necessarily give way to choices. We must decide how we respond to living others, how we acknowledge their sorrows, how we answer their demands, how we act.

We will not be judged by the number of our tears or the intensity of our sorrow, but by what we do, by the reach and the consequences of our sympathies, by whether they encompass those who are unlike us, who do not share our identities or our beliefs, whom we cannot fully know. Will we turn our grief into solidarities? Will we look across boundaries?

The choice is ours.

A woman carries an image of Khaled Said, tortured to death by police, at a 2010 Egyptian protest against his murder

A woman carries an image of Khaled Said, tortured to death by police, at a 2010 Egyptian protest against his murder

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

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

hij2-2-2hij2-2-4hij2-2-6hij2-2-7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Da'ish soldiers at a checkpoint in Abu Kamal, from a page of the Euphrates state at http://justpaste.it/hauajes4

Da’ish soldiers at a checkpoint in Abu Kamal, from a propaganda page of the Euphrates state at http://justpaste.it/hauajes4

Ahmed Seif al-Islam: In dark times

Ahmed Seif el-Islam, photographed by Platon for Human RIghts Watch, 2011

Ahmed Seif el-Islam, photographed by Platon for Human Rights Watch, 2011

Ahmed Seif al-Islam died one year ago today. I had meant to write something then, but I didn’t have the heart. No one had much heart in those weeks. I went to his wake at the Omar Makram Mosque three days later. Evening, like fusty crape, had settled on Midan Tahrir, five minutes’ walk away. It felt evident that this was also a funeral for the revolution, which had started there and dragged itself this short distance in four years, to die: a valediction not just to a person but to a history of dreams. Thousands of people filed through the small mosque; all of Egypt’s Left was there, but also students and graffiti artists and football fans and people who had only heard, but knew the significance of, his name. His daughter Mona received them, exhausted, by the door. His son Alaa had been released from prison to participate; he was beside her, wearing his prison whites, a garment which in Egypt always makes me think of pilgrimage. Inside, people looked down and said little, to the ebb and swell of the recited Qur’an. Hamdeen Sabbahi — the twice-failed presidential candidate whom Sisi had crushed in a rigged vote two months before — stood against the wall, with a tiny remaining entourage. His chin jutted; he was posing for invisible cameras; he reminded me how, even under dictatorships, politicians acquire the kinds of ego cultivated in our celebrity-sated media democracies, a self-regard that failure cannot shatter. (I’d learned this before in Egypt: in 2003 I met with Ayman Nour, a daring opposition MP who had the privilege two years of later of being similarly crushed by Mubarak in another gimcrack ballot. We were supposed to talk about some arrested demonstrators — he was their lawyer; instead he spent two hours talking about himself.) But no one paid attention to Sabbahi; the flashbulbs had flown like swallows. He’s a tall mountain of a man, but he seemed like hollow papier-mâché compared to Seif’s missing figure, friable and insignificant against the absent corpse.

11070278_981885211844003_7553989013040307034_nYou would have thought then, with the new dictator rigidly ensconced, that things couldn’t get any worse. But they did, as the autumn darkened. By October several of the most famous human rights activists in Egypt had to leave the country. Others were being jailed on pretexts, or banned from travel. I remember the months from then through January as a kind of delirium, when everybody I know — rights workers, journalists, café owners, gay men — believed we were all going to be arrested at any time. Things alleviated a little in the spring: perhaps because the state felt it had intimidated everyone enough, perhaps because the fear had simply become second nature; in any case, those are more or less the same thing.  In fact, the methods of repression only shifted. People were vanishing. Security forces disappeared more than 150 between April and June, pulling them off the streets or from their homes and dropping them (without trial, without hearing, without lawyers, without law) into the country’s immense Gulag. Sometimes they reappear, months later, in a security court; sometimes what surfaces are the corpses. There are death squads now. Torture used to happen behind bolted shutters in police stations; these days security forces will torture and kill you in your own house. Death does home delivery. The government wages a widening war against burgeoning insurgencies, and the insurgencies bomb and kidnap with spectacular impunity in the heart of Cairo. I remember lines by Edwin Muir:

                                                       We have seen
Good men made evil wrangling with the evil,
Straight minds grown crooked fighting crooked minds.
Our peace betrayed us; we betrayed our peace.
Look at it well. This was the good town once.

That is Egypt in the summer of 2015.

All this makes thinking about Seif the more painful, if the more necessary, a year on. I need to remember him, to make sense of everything since. The obituaries and memorials back then recited the key facts. As a young Communist activist, he faced the first of many arrests in 1972 (at the age of 21). In 1983, the Mubarak dictatorship jailed him for five years. They tortured him: “I was turned into a wreck of a human being,” he told Human Rights Watch. “A small example: each time I had a meal of torture, there was the sound of a bell. Since then, whenever I hear the sound of a bell my body shakes.” Finally freed, he made the hard choice to change the methods of his dissent. He became a lawyer, defending everyone from labor activists to accused apostates. In 1999, he helped found the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, the main human-rights legal defense group in Egypt. He practiced an activism that transcended the usual insularity of the left. He worked with religious fundamentalists, with accused “terrorists,” with religious minorities, with liberals of all stripes, with LGBT people, with feminists. He constantly looked for common ground between disparate but cognate ways of resisting state control, digging for a deep politics where joint action could begin: in similar visions of social transformation, in congruent loathing of arbitrary power, in shared experiences of torture.

Alaa Abd el Fattah, Sanaa Seif, and Leila Soueif (L -R_ at Ahmed Seif al-Islam's wake at Omar Makram Mosque, August 30, 2014. Photo by Hazem Abdul Hamid for Al Masry Al Youm

Alaa Abd el Fattah, Sanaa Seif, and Leila Soueif (L -R) at Ahmed Seif al-Islam’s wake at Omar Makram Mosque, August 30, 2014. Photo by Hazem Abdul Hamid for Al Masry Al Youm

And then there is his family: his wife Laila Soueif, a mathematician and relentless political activist; his daughter Mona Seif, who has spent almost five years fighting military persecution of civilians; his son Alaa Abd el Fattah and his daughter Sanaa Seif, both now serving prison terms for protesting “illegally” — jailed, they could not join him at his deathbed. And his sister-in-law Ahdaf Soueif, a novelist and activist (who chronicled some of the family history in her early fiction, In the Eye of the Sun); and her son Omar Robert Hamilton, who writes about the revolution, in Cairo and London. There’s something almost theatrical about a family life lived so intensely in public action; acting and activism are akin, after all, except the second comes without a script. At times they remind me, not exactly of the Barrymores, but of Ferber and Kaufman’s play about the Barrymores, The Royal Family — if it were somehow transported to the world of 1984. One striking thing (and one level, I suppose, of defying the surveillance state) is that, while they live in public, their private lives and loyalties are intensely rich and full. If you raise your kids to be rebels, almost always they eventually rebel against you. I’m sure Seif’s children had their moments of rebellion, but the other striking thing is that their father’s legacy is in their bones and they are unceasingly faithful to it. This is what happens when the political is also personal: a turn on a feminist adage that bears remembering.

I didn’t know him as well as many others. The best tribute I can pay now is to remember some things I learned from him.

The first dates to the first time I met him, in November 2001. Most Western obituaries of Seif stressed how, staring down political and social risk, he provided lawyers for men arrested for homosexuality in the famous Queen Boat case and the years after. Seif himself never made much of this: certainly not because he was embarrassed, nor because he thought it unimportant (he knew how important it was to the victims) but because it did not strike him as extraordinary. At the time, I was program director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). I came to Egypt that month for the verdict in the Queen Boat trial; Hossam Bahgat (then a 22-year-old university student) and I went to meet Seif in his office. I’d e-mailed and phoned him often from the US, but I wanted to thank him personally. (This was, it strikes me, one of the first times that Hossam had sat down face-to-face with Seif as well; they later became firm allies.)

I launched a little speech of gratitude for a difficult and dangerous decision. Seif listened, sucking his teeth ruminatively. This he often did. The mannerism seemed to have a deeper meaning, a way of coming to terms with an unpleasantness buried in life’s innards: as though the world had just given him something bitter to eat, a cosmic rotten quince or a transcendental grapefruit soaked in alum, and rather than spit it out, he was trying to decide what this implied about the universe. After I’d rambled on a while, he cut me off. “Does your organization have a position on Palestine?”

I was startled. I stammered, we didn’t exactly, we were an LGBT group, but we understood the (fill in some words).

“No, no,” he said. “Really, I just want to know simply. Does your organization take a position on the freedom of Palestine?”

Well, not quite, it was not entirely within our mandate, but

Seif’s lips set. “I want you to know that we have taken a position on this case because we believe in universal human rights, however much others may despise us for it. I don’t expect anything less from other groups. Therefore please tell me. Does your organization have a position on Palestine?”

Seif, in his office at the HIsham Mubarak Law Centre

Seif, in his office at the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre

The next time I saw Seif, I was working for Human RIghts Watch — which did have a position on Palestine and Israel, though not one he respected. But he wasn’t looking for a final answer. He wanted me to understand that I was a political actor whether I wanted to be or not, and he was going to treat me as one.  He wanted me to understand that “universality” is a choice and practice, not a generalization. Principles weren’t the opposite of the quid-pro-quo he posited; it was principle that demanded we both widen our horizons. For Seif human rights weren’t Platonic ideas glassed in some abstract realm; they took meaning in the concrete world through politics. They are absolute values we work out in real life. Their reach becomes universal through the labor of arguing out alliances to make them so. Seif’s turn to the law hadn’t changed his basic beliefs at all. He worked for human rights, but he was a revolutionary, and he thought only radical change could make them real. And only through the give-and-take of politics would change begin.

This political precision also affected his attitude toward lawyering. Seif was one of the finest constitutional lawyers in Egypt. This meant he was expert at finding cracks in a document crafted for repression. He had little of the craven fetishism with which American lawyers approach their own constitution, hammered out in slavery times. He knew legal argument was a means to an end, and the end was change, not the reification of a text. “Do you believe in this constitution?” I asked him when we were talking about Egypt’s emergency laws. He smiled. “I believe in the tools we have.”

Seif

Seif at a seminar on “contempt of religion” laws, 2012

A second memory. I saw Seif in Cairo in the summer of 2011, when the military government — the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — was deepening its grip on the country. I sat in on a meeting Amnesty International organized for human rights activists. There were some 25 people at the table, and we went through a round of introductions and saying what our “core concerns” were. Seif looked half-asleep. When his turn came, he mumbled something almost inaudible. Then suddenly, as if someone had stuck an electric wire in his spine, he jolted to life. “I will NOT,” he shouted thunderously —  slap of palm on table — “accept that the American government, or Amnesty, or anyone will tell me that I need to tolerate military dictatorship in order to avoid a takeover by Islamist people. I will not accept such false choices. Anyone who wants to dictate that should leave this country alone.” I don’t remember the rest of what he said, but I don’t remember a word of what anyone else said either.

And that was a second lesson about politics. You may compromise on strategies or goals. You don’t have to compromise on saying what you believe. Seif would sit with almost anybody on a panel if it advanced a just, joint cause — Salafi preachers or American human rights organizations; but not if he had to mince his words, or lose his capacity to be critical.  He would sign an open letter sponsored by Human Rights Watch one day, and start an open letter blasting Human Rights Watch (usually about Palestine) the next. Coalitions don’t mean abandoning all confrontation.

A third lesson. While I lived in Cairo for a few months in 2003, demonstrations against the US invasion of Iraq wracked the city. The Mubarak government arrested over a thousand students and activists when the war broke out, torturing most of them. My work for Human Rights Watch was to document this; and so for hours every day I camped at Seif’s chaotic desk in the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, where, as I’ve written before, “He spent more than a week without leaving his office for home, barely sleeping, barefoot and unshaven: collecting information, coordinating responses, making sure that lawyers stayed at every jail and every hearing, that every act of brutality was recorded. All the while, he kept a small bag packed behind the desk in anticipation of his own arrest.”

Seif and daughter Mona outside a military court in Cairo, October 30, 2011; Seif was defense attorney in one of his son Alaa's trials. Photo by Sherif Kouddous

Seif and daughter Mona outside a military court in Cairo, October 30, 2011; Seif was defending his son Alaa in one of his trials. Photo by Sherif Kouddous

Everybody who had been demonstrating, and their families, knew Seif. This was true of Salafis, of the Muslim Brotherhood, of Nasserists, of every political complexion. The Hisham Mubarak Centre was on the sixth floor of a leprous Belle Époque building in Souq el-Tawfiqiyya downtown; the offices branched off from a common room with blue chipped-plaster walls, once a pasha’s airy and erudite salon, and that vaulted space was always available for any group to meet, anybody to hold a press conference or a debate, any agitators to plan their agitation. Seif had turned his headquarters into the crossroads of dissent in Cairo. I remember, during those desperate days, interviewing a hijabi woman of about twenty, a college student who’d been active in the demonstrations. One night at her parents’ home, she’d received a phone call from Amn el-Dawla, from State Security cloaked in all its terror, demanding she come in the next day for interrogation. I asked her what she did. She said, “I called Seif, of course.”

But my point, the lesson, is: never did Seif make himself central. He had no interest in advertising himself or “leading.” His work was about others, not himself. (One detail is telling. Seif taught his lawyers what he called the “bag rule,” which sounds like a Mafia custom but was quite simple. He ordered them never to neglect to look at the bags of documents that poor and working-class Egyptians carry around with them when they have a dispute with the government: scraps of forms and records that often they can’t even read. I’ve seen these bags so often. They don’t just matter because they might contain overlooked evidence of malfeasance. They matter because they matter to the people. To immerse yourself in their experience of their wrongs is to show them the respect they demand.)

The idea of having his role publicized would have appalled Seif. True, he lived a public life; he was always on a stage, in some sense, but he was never any kind of star. The picture at top is almost the only posed photograph of him I’ve ever seen. It’s from a photo shoot that Human Rights Watch hired Platon to do in Cairo in 2011, a rather silly series of images of key figures from Egypt’s revolution. You can see the handlers couldn’t talk Seif into changing the moth-eaten sweater he usually wore, which is why the picture is in such close-up. You can also see he looks — well, not uncomfortable, just resigned, as if he’s finally realized this is the firing squad, and you’ve got to face it. When the ordeal was over, he must have felt like Dostoevsky getting his unexpected reprieve from execution: Now, I have time to write. 

Seif -- I believe at one of his summer parties for friends, extended families, and especially kids. Photo by Marwa Seoudi

Seif — I believe at one of his summer parties for friends, extended families, and especially kids. Photo by Marwa Seoudi

The danger in dictatorship is not only its technology of repression. It’s the dictatorial personality it imbues — not just in its servants, but in those who fight it. Human rights activists, because so hard to criticize, are if anything especially vulnerable to this warping of ego and moral sense. Seif had none of it. Our strange postmodern confusion of celebrity and power, so insidiously tempting to so many activists, was alien to him. It is impossible to imagine him talking about himself to strangers; he repelled flashbulbs as if he’d sprayed himself against them. It’s impossible to imagine him on the cover of a magazine, or on a red carpet with Brad and Angelina, or Menna Shalabi or Khaled Abol Naga or anybody. It’s just as impossible to imagine him participating in the games of power, holding a press conference with a UN ambassador or a foreign minister, or basking in the shared, pale light of some ambitious politician. Even the pictures wouldn’t have come out. The power of his presence would have exposed those beings as incorporeal fictions — vampires, creatures who don’t show up on photographic film.

Alaa, Seif’s son, is serving a five-year sentence, for joining a protest in November 2013. Recently his mother interviewed him during a visit to Tora prison; she memorized his answers and passed them to a reporter when she emerged. You can read the exchange in Arabic and English. Because Alaa seems almost forgotten in the West now, I will quote at length. He said:

Prisons in our country are the embodiment of “violation.” For me personally I’ll quote my father when, shortly before he died, he said that my conditions were “a lot better than others’ and, on the whole, bearable in comparison with what the political prisoners from the Islamist movement suffer.”

The authorities are being totally intransigent, though, in forbidding me books. Not just political books — any books from outside prison, including books published by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. … They’re trying to isolate me, intellectually as well as physically, from the community. …

I was in court recently [for an “insulting the judiciary” case, another charge he still faces] and they brought in Magdi Qurqur [from the Brotherhood-sympathizing National Alliance Supporting Legitimacy] by mistake. He was in really bad shape. He told me that the day the prosecutor general was assassinated, prison officers went into the cells in Tora’s maximum security prison and stripped them of everything — prisoners’ clothes and bathroom stuff, but also medicines, even medicines which are really dangerous to stop suddenly, like for chronic heart problems, for example.

He added:

There’s no hope at all in reforming the Egyptian state or any of its institutions, including the presidency. These institutions and their heads deserve a revolution….[But] there is no longer one revolution that would let us to talk about “its forces.” Now we have multiple revolutions, and we need to think carefully about what this means.

Seif was Alaa’s defense attorney, until he became too sick to go on. At a press conference about his son’s trial eight months before he died, he said: “I wanted you to inherit a democratic society that guards your rights, my son. But instead I passed on the prison cell that held me, and now holds you.”

Ahmed Seif al-Islam speaking about his son’s trial at a January 2014 press conference

But that, of course, isn’t all. His legacy rests in a myriad small lessons — about politics, consistency, personal integrity, and more. These bear the seeds of multiple revolutions: some infinitesimally small at first, happening only in the circle of a few friends who decide on freedom, but with the capacity to grow. Egypt now is divided starkly into light and darkness. And these are dark times. “If it is the function of the public realm is to throw light on the affairs of men,” Hannah Arendt declared,

by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better and worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished by “credibility gaps” and “invisible govenrment,” by speech that does not disclose what is but sweeps it under the carpet, by exhortations, moral and otherwise, that, under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality.

Against this stands the illumination that “may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and in their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on this earth.”

These days I sit at home; I struggle against the heat; I think of past and future; and I read Brecht. Brecht wrote:

Truly I live in dark times!
Frank speech is naïve. A smooth forehead
Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs
Has simply not yet heard
The terrible news.

What kind of times are these, when
To talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?

An die Nachgeborenen (To Those Born Later), 194o

And he also wrote:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.

Motto to the Svendborger Gedichte (Svendborg Poems), 1940

Hundreds of marchers attend Ahmed Seif el-Islam's burial in Tonsy cemetery in Basateen, Cairo, August 27, 2014. Photo by Amira Salah-Ahmed for Mada Masr

Hundreds of marchers attend Ahmed Seif el-Islam’s burial in Tonsy cemetery in Basateen, Cairo, August 27, 2014. Photo by Amira Salah-Ahmed for Mada Masr

New killings: ISIS answers the UN Security Council

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

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

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

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

Daish tweets

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

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

_________small

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

________2_small

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo from an Islamic State Facebook account: from Vice

Photo from an Islamic State Facebook account, republished by Vice

I. Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Man accused of

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

II. Strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen shot 2015-08-23 at 5.22.32 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

Execution of a man for

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

III. Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV. Security

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

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

Human security: from Japan’s “Official Development Assistance White Paper 2011” at http://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/oda/white/2011/html/honbun/b2/s2_1.html

Human security: from Japan’s “Official Development Assistance White Paper 2011” at http://www.mofa.go.jp/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Caux Forum for Human Security, Switzerland

From the Caux Forum for Human Security, Switzerland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

V. What is to be done? 

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

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

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

Da'ish members throw a man accused of

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you like this blog, we’d be grateful if you’d pitch in:
Donate Button with Credit Cards

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

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

ISIS kills gays: A history of violence

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

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

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

1_small

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

Caption:

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

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

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

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

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

Caption:

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

Then a man in a black jacket:

Caption:

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

Screen shot 2015-01-24 at 9.03.59 PM

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

Caption:

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

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

Caption:

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

Caption:

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

11_small

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

The bandits are shot in the head.

Caption:

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

Caption:

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

The last two photographs are in a park.

Caption:

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

The woman is stoned to death.

Caption:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grand Ayatollah Sistani at his most scholarly

Grand Ayatollah Sistani at his most scholarly

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

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

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

So easy to hate: Moqtada al-Sadr

So easy to hate: Moqtada al-Sadr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you like this blog, we’d be grateful if you’d pitch in:
Donate Button with Credit Cards

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

Sodomy in Zambia

James Mwape (in mask)  and Philip Mubiana (head covered in a brown coat) led away in chains after a court hearing, May 2013: Photo by Lusaka Times

James Mwape (in mask) and Philip Mubiana (head covered in a brown coat) led away in chains after a court hearing, May 2013: Photo by the Lusaka Times

On July 3, a court in Kapiri Mposhi, in Zambia, acquitted Philip Mubiana and James Mwape. They had been held in jail for almost fourteen months, charged with homosexual sex under Zambia’s sodomy law, which carries a sentence of up to fourteen years. (NOTE: see comments) The presiding judge didn’t comment on the justice of the law itself; he only found that there was no substantive evidence against the accused, who were arrested on hearsay and suspicion, reportedly turned in by family members.  According to the blog 76 Crimes, which has followed the case from the start, Zambian LGBT and human rights activist Juliet Mphande said: ““We have fought long and hard and this victory does not belong to us but to all Zambia’s sexual diverse and gender variant children.”

The triumph for the two is mixed; with their faces and names published all over Zambian media, their lives in the country are wrecked. Still, the court’s decision reflects the strength and persistence of Zambian LGBT campaigners. It brings back memories for me, vivid and piercing. I first visited Zambia sixteen years ago, in 1998, when the country was in the midst of a huge collective frenzy about the dangers of “homosexuality.” With every public figure from university professors to the President himself taking turns deploring the incursion of perversion, it seemed unlikely that there would ever be a Zambian LGBT movement, much less a court victory to celebrate. What happened back then holds lessons not just for Zambia, but for other movements today. Some indulgence in my own memories of sodomy in Zambia may thus be justified.

Back then, I worked for IGLHRC, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. The turmoil in Zambia in 1998 had one identifiable origin. On July 13, a young man named Francis Yabe Chisambisha, who is one of the bravest people I’ve ever known, decided he’d had enough of self-concealment, and he wanted to come out. It says something about anomie in Zambia’s shifting society that for him, this meant coming out not to friends or to family, but to the biggest audience imaginable. He walked into the largest national newspaper’s offices in Lusaka, told them he was gay, and asked if they’d like to interview him. They did. Next day, The Post published his photo on its first page with two-inch headlines: “I’m 25, gay, with 33 sex partners …” Inside the three-page article, Chisambisha explained why he wanted to speak:

“Firstly, what I want is to tell society that this gay thing has been there even before our generation.  I want society to be aware that it is happening in Zambia and there are people who want to be respected for their choice.  It’s just that in our African culture, it’s believed to be taboo and hence people do it in hiding … But the fact that I am doing it, shows that this practice is there and will continue to be there as long as man is there.”

And then a massive moral panic started, the most mammoth I’ve ever seen. As I wrote later,

The response was instant.  The day after Chisambisha’s confession, the Post was already receiving hand-delivered indignant letters.  “There is totally nothing good in being gay that one should feel that it is an achievement to come out in the open,” one read. The rest of the press scrambled to rival the scoop; when, weeks later, a headline screamed “Another gay surfaces,” it seemed like relief for desperate reporters.

Homosexuality had never been openly discussed in Zambia; now the country talked about nothing else. Daily headlines and nightly news stories boomed and threatened and condemned the danger. At the end of November I went to Zambia on behalf of IGLHRC to witness first-hand what was going on.

I reached Zambia on the third day of my first trip ever to Africa. You have to plumb my inexperience to grasp how we did human rights work back then. I’d landed in Johannesburg and spent a night in a doss-house run by awful white people. The next day I flew to Harare. There, I had one lovely evening with Keith Goddard and Romeo Tshuma and other members of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), drinking beer around a glowing braai in their garden, under the jacaranda leaves and the unfamiliar stars. Early the next morning Keith came to my cheap hostel, rousted me from hungover dreams, drove me to the far edge of the city, and left me by the road to wait for the bus to Lusaka.

How I thought I would look in Lusaka

How I thought I would look in Lusaka

It started as a demure urban bus, prim passengers carrying suitcases. Approaching the Zambezi, it became more and more one of those rural nightmares, the luggage giving way to chicken coops, then to chickens that scrabbled neurotically up and down the aisle. Near midnight, nearing Lusaka, the obsidian windows showed buildings billowing up, distended, surreal; with each dis- and embarkation, as if in a Cinderella story, the chickens turned back to suitcases again. I scrambled up to the driver and asked if he could leave me near a taxi stand. “Do you know where you’re going?” he demanded. I said I didn’t have a hotel. He looked at me in utter astonishment. I had an acute sense of the absurdity of my whiteness, a pale incarnation of presumption. In the end he parked the bus on a clogged street in the center, got out with me, took me to a churning café, and handed me over personally to a taxi driver. “Guard him,” he told him dramatically, “like an egg.” The inns were all full. It took two hours to find a motel on the margins of Lusaka, where spiders the size of espresso saucers kept watch like sour theater critics on the wall above my bed.

How I actually looked (Figure of Clergyman, by Thomas Ona Odulate, active 1900-1950, Nigeria, in The the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

How I actually looked (Figure of Clergyman, by Thomas Ona Odulate, active 1900-1950, Nigeria, in  the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

The next day I started trying to decipher things. Speaking to Francis, it was clear they’d gone very, very wrong. After Chisambisha came out, a local human rights Big Man had taken him under his wing. I’ll call him Mr. Mubanga; he led an NGO, the Zambia Independent Monitoring Team (ZIMT). They’d made their name doing election monitoring, so their interest in gay rights was, if welcome, slightly weird.

Yet Mubanga (who insisted he was heterosexual) quickly positioned himself — so I later wrote — as “the country’s main spokesperson on the issue of sexual orientation.” He showed courage; at a forum about homosexuality before infuriated college students, he “narrowly escaped lynching,” a newspaper said. But he was also dangerously, deliberately provocative. Almost immediately after Chisambisha’s coming-out, he told the press – completely falsely — that “We have been visited by Netherlands and US-based gay organizations who have expressed desire to sponsor the protection of gay rights in Zambia and lobby for the removal of statutes that are against those with a variant sexual orientation from the Penal Code.” He fed reporters bluster, declaring one day that Zambia had 10,000 homosexuals, another day that there were half a million. He announced plans to form an LGBT organization, LEGATRA, under ZIMT’s auspices.  He talked as well about establishing a branch of IGLHRC in Zambia, or a version of ILGA. All his language seemed calibrated to confirm that gays were both a huge threat and a foreign influence. And the more outrage crescendoed, the more he made the case for money. Whenever I sat with him, he spoke not of Francis’ situation or LEGATRA’s status, but of grants and aid. How much did IGLHRC have, and where did it get it?  His assistant took me to a party at the Finnish Embassy. I chewed reindeer meat – the only time I’ve ever eaten it was under bougainvillea trees in Lusaka – while he buttonholed diplomats and demanded how much they would give to help the endangered gays of Zambia. Mubanga’s rapacity was personal.  He’d cadge money from me every afternoon, saying he needed it for gas to drive to Libala or Kabulonga to meet some endangered gay man. I stopped giving it when a woman who worked for him hissed to me, “You know he’s using the money to go visit his mistress.” But these were peccadilloes next to the harm he did to lives he was defending.

Forced to choose sides, the rest of civil society uniformly condemned Chisambisha and “homosexuality.” A dean at the University of Zambia intoned that “Every society has minimum standards of acceptable behavior and those for homosexuality championing those filthy practices should not be condoned at all.” Another election-monitoring NGO called it “a matter of urgency that the campaign for the rights of homosexuals and lesbians be nipped in the bud.” The President of Focus for Democracy (FOD) told Francis Chisambisha in a public panel, “You chaps are sick. You need help. You need what I call sex therapy…. I wouldn’t want any of my children to be spoiled just because of you chaps.” Leaders of mainline churches lined up to voice indignation, but evangelicals found the most fodder. One newspaper reprinted materials from Exodus International, providing it one of its first firm footholds in African public discourse. When, in September, the Norwegian Embassy gave ZIMT a grant, partly for its work with the still-imaginary LEGATRA, the issue became political and diplomatic, and “homosexuality” wound up still more isolated. The Minister of Health and the Vice-President blasted the move, and in October, in a speech on Zambia’s thirty-fourth Independence Day, the President himself said: “Homosexuality is the deepest level of depravity. It is unbiblical and abnormal.  How do you expect my government to accept [it]?” The Times of Zambia warned:

We have reason to suspect that many of those behind the alliance formed by gays and lesbians in Zambia are money-mongers who are more interested in donor funds which … the West has promised them.

Zambia's President Chiluba: in the big chair

Zambia’s President Chiluba: in the big chair

In fact this was more or less true of Mubanga, though not of the “gays and lesbians in Zambia,” who had no say in what was said on their behalf. Neville Hoad, a South African scholar, has written that Mubanga

needed threats of state oppression and expressions of national homophobia to mobilize an international gay and lesbian constituency and, more problematically, to obtain funding for its attempts to use homophobia to produce a local constituency. “More than 20 gay and lesbian Zambians” joined LEGATRA. Where were the five hundred thousand, or even the ten thousand? While these numbers were clearly fabricated, they were important in establishing a movement that transnational activists could step in and claim to support. Yet given the short-lived nature of the debate and the actual numerical support LEGATRA could muster, it is far more likely that the movement has been an effect of transnational organizing rather than a grassroots movement.

Hoad is broadly right. However, there was no real “movement”  at all– it was a fabrication — and neither was there much “transnational support” for ZIMT, beyond the one Norwegian grant. That too was mostly smoke and mirrors Mubanga tossed up.

In Hoad’s intepretation, the months of outrage helped cement a particular version of a “homosexual” (or “LGBT”) identity in Zambia. In a flagrantly Foucauldian way, even enemies collaborated:

The state needs to produce its population as always already heterosexualized in reaction to the traumas of globalization. The transnationally fueled local organizations need to produce a population always already homosexualized and in need of protection from the defensively homophobic state. What both camps collude in foreclosing is the diversity of desires, practices, and possible identities and communities

This is true to the extent that “homosexuality,” a word almost never heard before in Zambia, became a catch-all for those desires and practices post-scandal. Yet it was itself a word in flux. In all the brouhaha, nobody treated “homosexuality” as if it had a pinned-down meaning. They didn’t use it for specific kinds of “carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” the terminology in the colonial-era law. It ballooned away, unmoored to any dictionary, meaning whatever the speaker thought was bad: Western values, Western money, atheism, misplaced development priorities, youth led wild. This is of course exactly the environment in which a case like the recent one can flourish, without evidence or prospect of proof. An identity was developing, but it was elastic in the hands of its enemies.

Only rarely did I talk to people (other those who actually called themselves “homosexual”) who used the word more stringently. These conversations weren’t encouraging. ZIMT had a project on the rights of traditional chiefs. One of the chiefs was in the office one day, an old man in a dark blue suit, frowning in the involuntary way the well-educated often do among idiots, unhappily shuffling papers. I sat across the table from him; he asked what I was doing in Zambia, and when I explained, he nodded. “It’s nonsense to say those people didn’t exist,” he said. “Of course, we always had those people.” He thought a bit. “The punishment was, we used to throw them on a fire and burn them alive.” It turned out he didn’t know of this actually being inflicted. It was a theoretical punishment, like plucking out the offending eye: the rhetoric had its own dissuasive value. I didn’t ask – I wish I had – how old he thought these rigors were, or whether he thought them inflected by Christian custom, or a lot of other questions. Relative to all the weirdness whirling outside the room, he seemed almost a voice of pragmatic calm.

When I came back in 2000, I encountered a purely modern understanding of homosexuality, untempered by any pragmatism. I met with the head of the Criminal Investigations Division of the national police – more or less, the FBI.  He was a carefully-spoken man disfigured by teeth that went wildly widdershins, as if somebody had inserted a small model of Stonehenge in his mouth. He launched on the usual stuff about how “homosexual” sex didn’t exist in his country. I asked why he thought these practices, absent in Zambia, seemed so common in the West. He mulled this. “In countries where life is full of plenty of stress and nervous agitation,” he said, “it is to be expected that people should engage in many mentally deviant activities, such as ‘gay and lesbian’ ones. Therefore it is no surprise that they should capture young men and engage in unnatural acts upon their bodies, and kill them, and preserve their body parts, and eat them …”

IGLHRC logo, 1998: Enervated by Western modernity, those continents are eating each other alive

IGLHRC logo, 1998: Enervated by Western modernity, those continents are eating each other alive

I realized that the most powerful policeman in Zambia had derived his own definition of “homosexuality” entirely from reading about Jeffrey Dahmer. I also realized that my IGLHRC card, lying belly-down on his desk, said “Gay and Lesbian” prominently on its face. I felt an overwhelming impulse to retrieve it before he looked at it. All I remember of the rest of the meeting are a series of furtive snatching attempts, my hand twitching like a hedgehog. I don’t recall whether I got the card back. Probably not.

If I wanted, I could tell the whole story as if written by V. S. Naipaul, or his brilliant and reprehensible brother Shiva: those tales of poor Southern people driven crazy, by the paucity of inner culture that Naipaul superciliously deplored. But there was no paucity. Nor was the craziness crazy. Under the panic were perfectly sane, consistent logics. One was a narrative most Africans know all too well: economics.

The key question in Zambia: Cover of a study by  Chewe Chabatama

The key question in Zambia: Cover of a study by Chewe Chabatama

Civil society, pace Hegel, is not a natural aspect of humankind. It happens when both citizens and donors want it. Before the 1990s, the big money men – the IMF and the World Bank – saw no need for civil society. It meant unpleasant aggregations of people who stood in the way of dams. However, as the lenders began bringing their favored neoliberal nostrums, called structural adjustment, to Africa, they saw the wisdom of paying for a new social stratum. Structural adjustment meant forcibly stripping the state of its old functions: health, education, welfare. It would be convenient for an NGO sector to arise and take over some of these tasks (the ones that couldn’t be purely done for profit). The official line of the international lenders was that these organizations would be less “corrupt,” more “transparent” than governments. Bilateral donors, mainly Northern governments, followed the lenders’ lead. They all waved a wand, and lo! there was civil society. Development NGOs, service NGOs, even human rights NGOs sprouted across Africa like mushrooms after rain.

Meanwhile, structural adjustment plans, downsizing the government ruthlessly, disrupted the traditional, secure career path of educated youth – formerly straight into the arms of the state, the civil service. These kids were forced to build a new, entrepreneurial middle class; and the ones who didn’t like private enterprise went into nonprofits. On a long Lusaka taxi ride, a young gay professional offered to write the contact info of “all his NGOs” for me, since he didn’t carry business cards. There were three. I only remember the last: He was President of the Zambian Youth Anti-Smoker’s League. As he scrawled this in the back seat, he was puffing his fifth Marlboro.

Let them eat, um, something: Cartoon on structural adjustment programs

Let them eat, um, something: Cartoon on structural adjustment programs

The problem was, predictably, that the sudden growth outstripped the available funds. People founded NGOs on hope, then found the grants didn’t come through. By the late 1990s resources were drying up, and all civil society withered in the drought. To a thoroughly entrepreneurial mind like Mr. Mubanga’s, discovering the LGBT issue was like finding an untapped aquifer. There were organizations doing gay rights in the West; this meant there had to be resources. From a certain perspective this was funny, since the available funding for LGBT rights then was a mere fraction of the (inadequate) figure now. Still, my salary that year (about $35,000), which barely kept me afloat in New York, could power a small NGO in Lusaka. You might not give a shit about gays, but if you cared about feeding your employees, building an IGLHRC in Zambia made a certain sense.

A side-effect was that this opportunism fed other, malign popular fantasies about homosexual acts.  One of these was a belief I also heard in Zimbabwe: no sensible African man would do that kind of thing except for money. (I’ve encountered this explanation in many countries, but it seems especially potent in places where white settlers outlasted settler colonialism, and where the structural – and sexual – power that had been political now took economic form.) If that were true, then gays in the great Abroad must have a lot of cash to corrupt people. Stories about how individuals could be debauched turned into myths about how societies were.  “Homosexuality” looked less and less like sex, and more like a conspiratorial nexus between foreign money and foreign morals; it acquired something of the character that Jewish or Masonic conspiracies had in other, more European mythologies.  These fears comprise an excellent way of yodelling up resistance, as any number of fascist movements know. A clear line stretches from the rhetoric in Zambia to what has happened in Uganda.

Tony and Marge Abram, of Abundant Life Ministries (L, need I say) in Zambia in 2005: http://www.abundantlifecrusades.com/. Their story, linking prayer and white supremacy, is typical: "In 1966, when Marge and I drove through what was once Southern Rhodesia and elephant country in our old Volkswagen beetle, to the most beautiful falls in the world, we could look across the falls and see Zambia.  I told Marge then, that one-day we would preach there and God would give us many souls."

Tony and Marge Abram, of Abundant Life Ministries (L) in Zambia in 2005: http://www.abundantlifecrusades.com/. Their story, linking prayer and white supremacy, is typical: “In 1966, when Marge and I drove through what was once Southern Rhodesia and elephant country in our old Volkswagen beetle, to the most beautiful falls in the world, we could look across the falls and see Zambia. I told Marge then, that one-day we would preach there and God would give us many souls.”

But as the donor spigots tightened, politicians and activists and ordinary folk turned to another source of money and expectation, infinitely greater than anything poor foreign queers could offer: the vast largesse of religion.

In 1996, Frederick Chiluba, Zambia’s first democratic President, changed the constitution to define his homeland as a “Christian nation.” Chiluba was a trade-union leader who’d unseated the longtime dictator Kenneth Kaunda partly on a wave of rage against structural adjustment. He turned around to enforce structural adjustment (and make himself very rich) in office; militant Christianity undoubtedly helped him feel there was moral backbone behind his copious betrayals, but it also gave the people he betrayed a bit of hope, however gossamer. And it lent him support, some ideological, some financial. Western preachers descended on Zambia like locusts, in a preview of what would befall Uganda a little later. They bought up friendly politicians’ services and souls. Before apartheid’s fall, most of these ecclesiastics’ energies had been confined to the congenial white-ruled countries to the South. Now their “Rhodesian” passport stamps were no barrier to infesting democratic Africa, and they needed a regional base.

Tony Abram (R, need I say) with worshippers in Zambia, 2005

Tony Abram (R, need I say) with worshippers in Zambia, 2005

In Zambia, religion became an export good. By the mid-1990s, the country was sending missionaries to the rest of southern Africa. Whenever I flew out of Lusaka to Harare or Joburg, the plane was full of earnest, suited young Zambian men studying Bibles.  Returning  in 2000, I found one of the three TV channels had been handed to Christian programming. These were mostly US and Canadian televangelists I’d never heard of; one of them sat in a gold chair and talked nonstop about getting rich, and I learned volumes about the prosperity gospel. It would be easy to suppose these principally ensnared the poor and desperate. In fact, I think, their main appeal was to the new entrepreneurial middle class – the businessmen and activists whom structural adjustment had made, now worried for their status and their future. The preachers told them they were right to be rich (richer than their parents, anyway). The added message that homosexuals were after their prosperity was wired to set their anxieties violently in motion. And Mr. Mubanga knew just how to push those buttons too.

European Couple Walking the Dog, by Thomas Ona Odulate (active 1900-1950, Nigeria), Fowler Museum at UCLA.

European Couple Walking the Dog, by Thomas Ona Odulate (active 1900-1950, Nigeria), Fowler Museum at UCLA.

The 1998 panic over homosexuality was dreadful: not just a practice run for what later happened in Uganda, but a disaster in its own right. It destroyed lives. Estranged from his family, jobless, facing death threats, Francis Yabe Chisambisha left the country; he spent a decade trapped in the dystopian asylum process in South Africa, hiding in Hillbrow in poverty and limbo. When I came back to Zambia in mid-2000, almost every lesbian or gay Zambian I’d met eighteen months before had also fled, or gone deep underground. Nascent communities were devastated, some people arrested, a few imprisoned. LEGATRA, which had never really existed, was conclusively banned, and Mubanga eventually lost interest. In 2000, ZIMT collapsed, amid charges he’d embezzled money.

You can’t blame Mubanga exclusively for what happened, but he and the enormous forces of repression, apparently at violent odds, were actually joined in a bizarre tango-like tandem. They used him to whip up public anger; he used them to wheedle for international support. Trapped between were not just Francis Chisambisha and the few who joined LEGATRA, but all those who had “gay” sex or “gay” desires in Zambia, dissident and gender-dissonant bodies, folks who mainly just wanted to find ways to live their lives, but got caught up in a conflict they never planned.

Zambian seal: One nation, not applicable in cases of difference

Zambian seal: One nation, not applicable in case of difference

Inexperienced as I was when I climbed down from the bus in Lusaka, I figured out fast enough that this lopsided confrontation wasn’t going to help anybody’s human rights. IGLHRC, at least, did what it could to defuse the situation; I stayed out of the media mayhem, struggled quixotically to temper Mubanga’s financial dreams, provided what little moral support I could to Chisambisha and those around him, and tried to warn the “international gay and lesbian constituency” against ladling help that wouldn’t help Zambian LGBT people. The scandal eventually died down. The long-term damage was that it left no space for Zambians to organize around sexuality or gender identity or expression, for many years. In the ruins of communities, there was little room to discuss what identities were relevant or what freedom might mean. (You’ll notice that Francis Chisambisha insisted in 1998 that being “gay” was a “choice.” The space for that kind of heresy also shut down.)  In 2008, Friends of Rainka, an LGBT-identified organization, was founded in Zambia, and others have arisen since. That’s a ten-year gap, a lost decade. Those activists combine bravery and strategy with building a real constituency. They’ve campaigned courageously against clerical hatred, media incitement,  state repression. They’ve defended the persecuted and jailed, even as some (like the HIV activist and human rights defender Paul Kasonkomona) were jailed themselves.

Friends of Rainka member speaks out about the human rights of LGBT people while calling into a program on Radio Phoenix, April 12, 2013. Posted by http://76crimes.com/tag/zambia/

Still, if 1998’s fiasco were happening in some other country today, I’m afraid things would be much worse. Plenty of international groups and activists wouldn’t even ask whether a figure like Mubanga actually could speak for a social movement at home. They too would join the tango, needing his deceptions as he needed their press releases. There would be petitions, blog posts, boycotts, Twitter campaigns, and lots of fundraising. Nobody would care much whether they succeeded; isn’t raising awareness the point?  It’s LGBT people in the country in question who would lose, and probably on a larger scale.

I have another group of memories of Zambia which I think matter here, though I confess I am not sure how. They are all about death. Dying was everywhere in the country. New undertakers’ shops seemed to stand on every street corner, crisp plywood coffins stacked outside the threshold, the only growth industry. Wherever you travelled beyond the capital, funeral processions stretched down the road in the long light of evening, with women keening in the back of open trucks. A friend late for a morning meeting explained that her neighbor had died during the night. People spoke about death casually; it was more predictable than the weather. Someone had a fever one day; the next they were gone.

HIV/AIDS indicators in Zambia, 2001-2005, from http://www.youthalivezambia.org/?page_id=174

HIV/AIDS indicators in Zambia, 2001-2005, from http://www.youthalivezambia.org/?page_id=174. DHS = Demographic and Health Surveys.

HIV/AIDS prevalence among adults in Zambia had reached somewhere between 12 and 20 percent by 1998. There were more than a quarter of a million children orphaned by AIDS, most living on the streets. (A lesbian I knew, thrown out by her family, had moved to a tin shack in a mud flat on the edges of Lusaka, where she worked with orphan street children.) Among the factors contributing to the catastrophe, global capitalism’s exigencies played a role. As late as 2005, out of a million or more Zambians living with HIV/AIDS, less than 45.000 had access to anti-retroviral therapies, largely due to pricing and Western corporations’ patents. (By 2013, the numbers of the fortunate with a chance to survive had at last expanded to nearly half a million.) Structural adjustment had also done its bit to ravage people’s bodies. As soon as it began to destroy the country’s health care systems in the 1980s, the rate of tuberculosis infection began to rise. From 100 per 100,000 in 1984, it more than quadrupled in the next twenty years.

Top graph: From "The Impact of Tuberculosis on Zambia and the Zambian Nursing Workforce," at www.nursingworld.org. Bottom graph: UNAIDS.

Top graph: From “The Impact of Tuberculosis on Zambia and the Zambian Nursing Workforce,” at http://www.nursingworld.org. Bottom graph: UNAIDS.

One memory stands out. In 2000 a Zambian lawyer friend and I rode in a microbus to Kabwe, north of Lusaka, to get the court files in a case of a man convicted under the sodomy laws the year before. After we found the record of his five-year sentence (“accuseds behavior is alien to the African Custom.  … We are living in an HIV AIDS area and this behaviour couldn’t be condoned by this court”) we went to a prison farm not far away, Mukobeko Prison, to try to see him. Past the gates and barbed wire, in the visiting room, we spoke to the victim, still stunned and inarticulate. Afterwards, the commandant, a genial man inordinately proud of his efforts to sustain the institution on a desperately inadequate budget, showed us around parts of the penitentiary. (Twelve years later, the Vice-President of Zambia would call conditions in Mukobeko “hell on earth.”) We came to a shedlike cell where some forty men were sprawled. All lay on the mud-and-concrete floor except for one man, who’d been given a filthy foam-rubber mat. I went up to him. He was obviously dying. Possibly he had TB, probably AIDS; his eyesockets were rimed, his breathing labored. He could have been anywhere between thirty and sixty. I took his hand. I asked him some questions about medicines. He said something else to me; it wasn’t about drugs. I have no memory of what he said. I only remember that he stared deep into my eyes. In a long life of seeing various forms of suffering, I have infrequently been so close to someone so imminently about to die. I do not remember his face, I only remember his eyes. I held his hand. We had to leave, and we left him there, and I do not know his name.

We die alone; the “we” vanishes with the breath. I suppose if I remember that so vividly, and if I think the memory is relevant here, it’s because it brought home to me how deeply death is loneliness, the limit-point of the “we,” beyond help, insusceptible to documentation. Our activism is a struggle against being alone. Two years earlier Francis Chisambisha said to me, explaining why he came out:  “I was alone and I wanted not to be, and I wanted to help others not to be. I found out that being alone was legal. Wanting not to be alone was criminal. Wanting to help others was the worst crime of all.” This fails, like most things. There is loneliness, and that too is a memory of Zambia.

Family members show support for James Mwape and Philip Mubiana through the bars of a lockup, May 2013: Photo from 76crimes.org.

Family members show support for James Mwape and Philip Mubiana through the bars of a police lockup in Kapiri Mposhi, May 2013: Photo from 76crimes.com

 

Vultures over Iran: The Human Rights Campaign follows the money

vulture-9Why is the Human Rights Campaign hanging out with the friends of homophobe Gary Bauer?

Some background: HRC, the richest US gay group, has gone international. More and more of the news on its website features hard-to-pronounce foreign places: Brunei, Abuja, Alabama … And now “Iran,” syllabified by most Americans as “Satan.” Yesterday, HRC published an account of a Congressional event with which it seemingly had little to do. Two small House subcommittees held a hearing on “One Year Under Rouhani: Iran’s Abysmal Human Rights Record,” and one-quarter of the testimony dealt with LGBT rights. What’s interesting is the fine print.

The hearing itself (snippets here) was undramatic. The International Gay and Lesbian Human RIghts Commission (IGLHRC) sent its Middle East program officer to testify. Generally, when human rights organizations speak at congressional hearings, it’s because they want to advance a policy goal. In this case, though, it’s hard to define what policy goal for LGBT people’s rights in Iran could involve the US Congress, given that the US has neither sway nor leverage in Tehran. “The United States and other Western countries are in a unique position to make a difference in the future of Iran and in the surrounding region,” IGLHRC said — but they are not. (See note at end.) At least, any difference they’ve made so far has been almost uniformly for the worse. (See Iraq.) If ever there was a situation where the US government should acknowledge the primacy of internal social movements beyond its leadership or control, it’s the issue of sexual rights and state repression in Iran.

No, what’s interesting is how a writeup on this –“Congress Explores Iran’s Persecution of LGBT Community” — got onto HRC’s site, because it wasn’t written by anybody at HRC. It was “submitted” by Toby Dershowitz, vice-president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). HRC has a new partner organization, and thereby hangs a tale.

FDD: FIghting for wars that we will not fight in

FDD: FIghting for wars that we will not fight in

I always quote Glenn Greenwald on FDD: “basically a Who’s Who of every unhinged neocon extremist in the country.” More politely, they are a DC-based neoconservative lobbying group with special interest in the Middle East: “founded,” in their own words, “shortly after 9/11 by a group of visionary philanthropists and policymakers who understood the threat facing America, Israel and the West.” (We’ll get to the identity of those donors later.) From the beginning it drew on the High Hawkish tradition of the Reagan ascendancy, with figures like Jeane Kirkpatrick and Robert McFarlane conspicuous in its ranks; the Cold War being over, though, enemies of Israel displaced the Soviet threat in its demonology. The clearest idea of what they’re up to comes from listing some of the research interests of their fellows:

Iran, Iran – Energy, Iran – Human Rights
Iran – Energy, Pakistan, Syria, Iran – Human Rights
Iraq, Iran, Lebanon
Iran, Iran – Energy
Iran – Energy, Israel, Europe, Iran – Human Rights
United Nations, Arab Spring, Iran – Energy, Iran – Human Rights
Iran – Energy, Europe

It’s like a Symbolist poem. The main function of the Foundation these days is to drum up support for a US assault on Iran. To do this, it courts various constituencies in the American public, from energy conglomerates to women’s groups. Gays are one of them, increasingly endowed with clout; FDD adopts the language of human rights, plants op-eds. colonizes the gay press, and otherwise strives to shock and appall the homintern about the wiles of Sauron in Tehran.

Let me research your family: Gary Bauer

Let me research your family: Gary Bauer

This is not without complications. I first noticed FDD when one of its fellows, Ben Weinthal, published a bizarre piece in New York’s Gay City News three years ago, accusing Iran of an ongoing “anti-gay genocide.” When I paid a visit to FDD’s web page, I found that on their staff and board sat such luminaries as Frank Gaffney (a vicious and paranoid Islamophobe), Andrew McCarthy (perhaps the US’s most vocal advocate of torture) — and Gary Bauer. I remarked that it was strange for a gay newspaper to get into bed with right-wingers boasting such connections. The chipmunk-cheeked Bauer is one of the main strongmen of Christian fundamentalism. He served for eleven years as caudillo of the Family Research Council, named in 2010 as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its “false claims about the LGBT community based on discredited research and junk science.” “I don’t believe a healthy society can endorse, subsidize, or encourage” such a “destructive lifestyle,” Bauer said about the sodomites in 1998. (Bauer’s own lifestyle, padded by a web of consultancies and sinecures, is well-subsidized enough to ensure his health.) But he is also a Christian Zionist, militantly intolerant of any criticism of Israel, flush with evangelical faith in the Likud; so there was Bauer’s name, right on the list of FDD’s advisory board, a warning that its love for the homos had limits.

I flatter myself that the FDD learned from my research. Since then the organization, which like most neocon groups was never exactly crystalline about its connections, has become even less transparent. It erased the list of board members from its website. Instead, a short paragraph says,

FDD’s distinguished advisors include Sen. Joe Lieberman, former National Security Advisor Robert “Bud” McFarlane, former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, former State Department Under Secretary Paula Dobriansky, Gen. P.X. Kelley (ret.), Francis “Bing” West, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol … [Emphasis added]

This neatly obscures the question of who else is “included,” or whether Bauer still belongs to the family. Still, problems persist. Another “Distinguished Advisor” omitted from the list is KT McFarland; she flaunts her FDD title on her own website, though, and on others. McFarland, now a “national security analyst” for Fox News, ran for the Republican Senate nomination in New York in 2006. Midway through, scandal surfaced when New York magazine revealed how she had shunned and insulted her gay brother, who died of HIV/AIDS ten years before. She

couldn’t abide his sexual orientation. Shortly after she discovered Mike had AIDS, she wrote her parents lengthy, angry, almost Gothic letters in which she outed her brother, blamed her father for his troubles as well as those of her and her other siblings, and cut off contact with her parents. “Have you ever wondered why I have never had anything to do with Mike and have never let my daughters see him although we live only fifteen minutes away from each other?” she wrote. “He has been a lifelong homosexual, most of his relationships brief, fleeting one-night stands.”

This was too much even for the GOP; she lost the nomination, and the privilege of getting steamrollered by Hillary Clinton. No wonder she’s quietly disincluded from the FDD page; she’d crimp the outreach.

KT McFarland does Fox: He ain't heavy, and he is not my brother

KT McFarland does Fox: He ain’t heavy, and he is emphatically not my brother

One advisor FDD proudly names is Bill Kristol — he’s too big, and full of himself, to omit. Kristol edits the Weekly Standard, a conservative rag sweeping in its influence. (Dick Cheney, in the days when he ran the country, would send for 30 copies each Monday morning.) His work there has drawn the praise of no less than Austin Ruse, fanatical campaigner against LGBT rights, women’s rights, and reproductive freedom. “Do a site search at The Weekly Standard on social issues,” Ruse writes,

and you find – alone  among conservative magazines? – a publication that  has never wavered on them. …A great deal of credit for the Weekly Standard not abandoning the social issues can be given to one man, William Kristol. …

Where does this come from? Perhaps it’s the influence of friends. For years, the Kristol family took a summerhouse with Gary Bauer and his family. … For this, we all owe Bill Kristol a mountainous debt of gratitude and our regular prayers. He could have caved. But he never has. Bill Kristol is square and getting squarer.

Kristol does Fox, and answers the big questions

Kristol does Fox, and answers the big questions

Kristol has called those who deviate from “traditional marriage” “pathetic.” He’s perhaps best known as the divine voice who drew the Pucelle of Wasilla — the armor-clad Joan of Alaska, Sarah Palin– into the national fray. Long before he blessed the mama grizzly and anointed her Veep-to-Be, though, Kristol was staking out his orthodox, orthogonian positions on morality. In 1997, he gave the closing speech at a Washington conference meant to expose homosexuality as ”the disease that it is.” Afterward, he helped assemble a collection of essays on “Homosexuality and American Public LIfe,” actually about keeping homosexuality out of American public life: a book for “activists who want to keep the ‘hetero’ in ‘sexuality,'” as one right-wing reviewer said.

It goes without saying: any organization counting Bauer, Kristol, and McFarland among its patrons has no genuine interest in the rights of LGBT folk, in Iran or elsewhere. On moral matters, they are more likely to empathize with Ayatollah Khameini than to abhor him. (Mozilla got slammed with a boycott for way less than FDD has done.) FDD’s attempts to seduce American LGBT communities are opportunism, and riddled with the contradictions of the right-wing ideologies they promote. That doesn’t stop them, though, from trying to bury the paradoxes and insinuate themselves into the good graces of LGBT organizations; and HRC is a very powerful one.

What does HRC get, though, for associating itself with Gary Bauer and company?

Money.

One of the two big donors who offered HRC $3 million to start its international program last year is billionaire hedge-fund owner and vulture capitalist Paul Singer. Singer, a major funder of the GOP and other right-wing agglomerations, is also the second-biggest donor to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He gave it $3.6 million between 2008 and 2011 alone.

The details of my life are quite inconsequential ... Paul Singer

The details of my life are quite inconsequential … Paul Singer

Singer isn’t just a “visionary philanthropist,” as FDD calls him; he’s an investor; his generosity expects returns. When HRC announced it was getting Singer’s largesse, one naturally wondered what Singer would demand back. The answer’s clearer now. He wants HRC’s cooperation with his other pet causes, including his lobbyists for the Likud. As The Nation observes, “Singer is a huge supporter of groups advocating for hawkish policies against Iran, including promoting the use of military force against Tehran.” He presses HRC to lend space to the war brigade.

The quote Singer approved in the HRC press release about his donation said:

LGBT individuals face arrest, imprisonment, torture and even execution just for being who they are … Some of the worst offenders in this area also happen to be the same regimes that have dedicated themselves to harming the United States and its democratic allies across the globe.

It’s evident which offenders he wants his philanthropic objects to focus on: not Egypt or Saudi Arabia, US clients, but anti-American miscreants like Russia or Iran. This conflation of LGBT people’s rights with a particular set of geopolitical exactions radiates through the little piece he asked HRC to publish. It uses the LGBT issue solely to bash a possible nuclear agreement, reproducing the legislators’ most belligerent rhetoric — Republican Ed Royce, for instance:

Let’s imagine that Iran and the [US] come to an agreement next month are we comfortable leaving this regime with much of the critical nuclear infrastructure in place. [sic] How can this regime which holds the noose in one hand be trusted with the keys to a nuclear bomb in the other?

It quotes Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (a conservative Republican whose interest in LGBT rights draws urgency from the many White Party gays in her Miami district), speaking “with an obvious sense of exasperation”:

Rouhani knows that all he needs to do is smile, and tweet, and promise the US and the West that he will cooperate on the nuclear issue … it’s way past our time for our administration to stand up to these thugs and to stand up for the people who cannot stand up for themselves. If we won’t do it, who will?

All this armchair-heroic stuff — voices for the voiceless, saviors with drones — is war talk in its essence, and HRC is endorsing it. FDD suppresses any mention of IGLHRC’s one concrete, pacific ask, that the US fund technological fixes to help Iranians circumvent Internet censorship. (See the note below.) The Foundation doesn’t want LGBT Iranians to surf the Web freely. It wants LGBT Iranians to die, with their compatriots, under a rain of bombs.

The moral compromises involved in an association with Paul Singer are intricate, and, for HRC, likely to be incessant. When you deal with the devil, don’t expect to be released from the contract. As I wrote last year, Singer’s fortune comes from one of the least ethical activities in the world of international capitalism. His vulture fund, Elliot Management, buys up distressed countries’ debt at bargain prices when they’re verging on default; he then goes to court in other countries, to force the states he’s scamming to repay the face value of the debt in full. The profits are astronomical, and some of the world’ most impoverished populations (Congo-Brazzaville, for instance) have been among his victims.

I'll take my ball and go home: Singer, by the Financial Times

I’ll take my ball and go home: Singer, by the Financial Times

Last week, a few days before the Iran hearing, the US Supreme Court ruled on Singer’s case against Argentina. 13 years ago, he began buying some $2.5 billion of Argentina’s then-cheap government debt; he held out fiercely for his full return, defying two negotiated debt restructurings in 2005 and 2010, when most other creditors accepted around 30% of face value. The Supremes handed Singer a victory, allowing him to start ransacking Argentina’s assets in search of money to repay him. They also opened the door for other vulture extortionists to move on the country, meaning Argentina could be compelled to pay $15 billion to opportunistic creditors — or could be manhandled into default. An economy that slowly rebuilt itself after the chaos of a 2001 collapse faces a new cycle of catastrophe.

“The decision makes no economic sense,” a prominent economist said. But Daniel Loeb, a fellow hedge-fund billionaire and the other megadonor to HRC’s international work, praised his colleague: “Whether it is gay marriage or Argentina or affecting the political landscape, Paul is intense and tenacious in seeing things through. He is intensely focused and result-oriented yet extremely principled.” It’s a study in how donors ostensibly supporting human rights define “principle.”

Argentina has a comprehensive battery of legislation protecting LGBT people, and the single most progressive law on gender identity recognition anywhere in the world. In the confrontation between a supportive Southern country and foreign capitalists who want to demolish its democratic governance, do you think HRC would put out a press release in Argentina’s cause? Do you need to ask?

(Struggling to win over US opinion in the Argentine debt battle, Singer didn’t hesitate to launch a campaign accusing his Buenos Aires enemies of ties to the definitive American bête noire — Iran.)

Meanwhile, Singer’s inflows of money continue to find new use. in May, he donated $1 million to American Crossroads, a super-PAC for Republican candidates run by conservative conspirator Karl Rove. What will HRC say? Can one expect “the nation’s premier gay and lesbian civil rights group” to find new and unpredicted virtues in Turd Blossom‘s career? Yes.

Argentinian poster: "Paul Singer, the Most Wanted Vulture"

Argentinian poster: “Paul Singer, the Most Wanted Vulture”

NOTE: At the Congressional hearing, IGLHRC specifically praised the Obama administration’s promise to provide technologies Iranians could use to circumvent Internet censorship — in particular, building independent communications networks for linking to the Internet. As Gandhi said of Western civilization: It would be a nice idea.

Many observers note that the US program has gotten nowhere in the last three years, and so far seems to envision only clunky, conspicuous and incriminating hardware — suitcases of stuff bristling with antennae, smuggled in over the mountains. I’ve voiced reservations about this project in the past; and even the New York Times has warned: 

Developers caution that independent networks come with downsides: repressive governments could use surveillance to pinpoint and arrest activists who use the technology or simply catch them bringing hardware across the border.

To which you might add, in our post-Snowden era, that if the US erects the network, it can monitor everything that’s said on it. Move over, Ayatollah, the earphones are mine!

Moreover, as Omid Memarian has written, the blaring publicity the administration has given the program suggests it’s mainly for American consumption: “Many Iranians I spoke to about this news were shocked that the plan has been revealed; bringing such plans to the attention of the Tehran authorities may put people in danger.” He concludes:

The United States’ current plan to change the Iranian Web landscape is simply not realistic. In fact, the current plan makes me suspect that the U.S. isn’t taking Iran as seriously as it ought to.

Open-source, low-profile software tools such as Psiphon, originally developed at the University of Toronto, so far appear more useful to Iranians seeking to evade the censors’ grip.

Hillel Neuer: Liar. Mona Seif: Hero.

Mona Seif, Tahrir Square

Mona Seif, Tahrir Square: © Matthew Cassel,  justimage.org

I know Mona Seif only slightly. She’s one of the few human rights activists in Egypt (or anywhere) whom almost everybody likes. She’s utterly unpretentious. As I wrote a year ago, “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.” This year she’s one of three finalists for the Martin Ennals Award, a signal honor in the human rights field, usually given to those who have much to be pretentious about. She’s also facing a smear campaign by Hillel Neuer of so-called “UN Watch,” a former corporate lawyer and lobbyist for Israel, who has mobilized cohorts of the libellous and ignorant to grind down her reputation.

First, about Mona. Shortly after Mubarak fell, presciently, she started fighting the ruling military junta’s practice of trying detained civilians in military kangaroo courts. She was one of the first democracy activists to perceive the malign persistence of the Mubarak-era security state. Over the next 18 months, as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces tightened its grip on the country, some 12,000 people faced these tribunals. The group Mona helped found, No to Military Trials for Civilians, was the pre-eminent organization in Egypt opposing these abuses. She’s also helped to document police torture and a range of violations by security forces. Police arrested and tortured Mona herself at a demonstration in December 2011, so she knows what they do first-hand.  No to Military Trials is also one of the few decentralized, grassroots human rights movements, as opposed to NGOs, in Egypt today. It brings human rights back to its roots, in the passions of ordinary people making demands unmediated by boards of directors. It’s changed the landscape of rights advocacy in post-Revolutionary Egypt.

Big bupkes is watching you: Hillel Neuer

Big bupkes is watching you: Hillel Neuer

In the other corner: the appalling Neuer and his organization. “UN Watch” can be said to watch the UN (which certainly bears watching) only if I could be said to read the New York Times by doing the crossword puzzles obsessively and throwing the other 100+ pages away. Founded by the American Jewish Committee, and still largely funded by them, the posh Geneva-based outfit’s mission is to discredit anything the UN does or says that’s critical of Israel. The rest of the UN’s work interests it only insofar as it can be used against some rapporteur or resolution that questions Israel. This ambition has grown with time: now UN Watch prosecutes Thoughtcrime even if lurking in other institutions. Mona is caught in the crossfire. She’s a very big figure in Egypt; but Neuer, whose knowledge of Cairo is limited, could care less, except he can tar Human Rights Watch, or Amnesty International, for having laid laurels upon an evil Arab and thus encouraged perfidy and terror. And there are certain relevant grudges he holds relating to Israel’s economic interests in the adjoining country. More on these later.

10 international human rights organizations jointly award the Ennals prize: Amnesty, HRW, the International Federation for Human Rights, the International Commission of Jurists, and others. Suddenly, Tuesday, Hillel Neuer struck. UN Watch had spent hundreds of man-hours going over Mona’s 93,000 tweets. (That’s Neuer’s version of human rights work, folks!) Neuer found three. I am reluctant to quote the man, but let’s turn to his press release:

On July 6, 2011, Ms. Seif advocated the blowing up of pipelines exporting Egyptian gas to Israel. She praised those who commit such crimes as “heroes” and wrote “Fuck Israel”. Many have been killed and injured in violence connected to these attacks.

On November 6, 2012, Ms. Seif endorsed Al Qassam Brigades attacks on civilians. On that day, Amnesty International—another jury member—tweeted a“Demand that @netanyahu & @AlqassamBrigade stop attacks on civilians.”Ms. Seif rejected the call, writing:“you don’t ask an occupied nation to stop their “Resistance” to end violence!!! SHAME ON YOU!”

On November 20, 2012, Ms. Seif endorsed the arming of Gaza terrorist groups. On that day, Amnesty International tweeted: “Stop the madness! Share this image if you want an arms embargo on all sides #Israel #Hamas #Gaza.” The image showed innocent civilians in Israel and Gaza. Seif responded: “@amnesty & @hrw r leading a shameful campaign asking Palestinians under occupation & non stop air strikes 2 stop their resistance!”

Naturally this went viral among the Jeffrey Goldbergs and likeminded bigots, who saw a chance to attack their least favorite organizations:

goldberg tweet  copy

By this morning, the professional liars at Breitbart.com were declaring Mona an “avowed anti-Semite.” And by afternoon the Washington Free Beacon was dubbing her a “radical Egyptian Islamist” — sickly hilarious, in that Mona is secular, comes from a family of atheistic leftists, and has been one of the Muslim Brotherhood’s most militant opponents. But the pure racism beneath all this is palpable, barely buried. You know the Arabs, terrorists all, and there is only one motive for terrorism: Islam.

Three tweets: and on that basis Neuer has launched a repellent war of defamation against a heroic opponent of dictatorship and torture. Let’s go through Neuer’s “proofs” twit by twit.

Tweet I:  The pipeline. Hillel Neuer likes corruption.

Exhibit A for Neuer is this:

blow up pipelines tweet copy

To start with, Hillel claims that Mona has blood on her hands: “Many have been killed and injured in violence connected to these attacks.”

Neuer is blatantly lying. There’ve been at least 16 assaults on the Sinai pipeline(s) since the Egyptian Revolution, mostly minor. No one was killed, though this January saw seven policemen wounded — more than 18 months after Mona’s tweet. The army and Interior Ministry regularly blame these on “Islamic terrorism,” mainly because that’s a sure way of bolstering their international image as guardians of order against chaos.

"Restoring security and stability to Sinai": Egyptian police doing what they do best ( © Egypt Independent)

“Restoring security and stability to Sinai”: Egyptian police doing what they do best ( © Egypt Independent)

Facts are a good antidote to these stories. What underlies the attacks is complex and manifold. Most of Sinai’s population loathes the central government, which represses them politically and exploits them economically. Sinai’s Bedouin were in virtually open revolt even before the Revolution (facilitated by the terms of the peace treaty with Israel, which partly demilitarized the peninsula and left the task of fighting a near-insurrection to the incompetent and viciously brutal police). The instability has only grown since, as Nicolas Pelham has documented. (See an excellent article by the researcher here, and a longer report here.)

Meanwhile, Egyptians all over the country despise the pipeline because for years it shipped the national wealth to Israel, also the result of a peace treaty that an unelected dictatorship imposed. (The fact that Israel got to siphon off resources while their own government colludes in keeping Gaza’s borders closed to desperately needed aid also rankles severely.) Egypt has the 16th largest known natural-gas reserves in the world –1.6 % of the global total. Some good that does. Last year, the Petroleum Ministry announced that Egypt would now be a net gas-importing country.

A way in to a walled-off country: Gas enters Israel, Gazans and Egyptians can't

A way in to a walled-off country: Gas enters Israel, Gazans and Egyptians can’t

The industry’s lobbyists blame the usual suspects for this disaster: political uncertainty, “labor costs,” and so on. But you can do the math. Egypt produced about 2.2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2009. It consumed almost 1.6 trillion — about 70% of Egypt’s electricity is gas-generated, and gas is the main (highly subsidized) source of cooking and heating fuel. (Consumption has surely gone up since). The country exported about 650 billion cubic feet in 2009– which, if you add it all up, leaves zero room for either reserve stocks or error. For years, over 250 billion cubic feet of that went to Israel, through the pipeline, at bargain prices: probably way more, since government statistics have every incentive to undercount.

Finally, in 2012, thanks in part to attacks on the pipeline, pressure from an enraged public, and campaigning by people like Mona, Egypt cancelled the Israel gas sales and the seven-year-old contract behind them.  The sales were sweetheart deals that had impoverished the Egyptian economy as a whole while enriching a Mubarak-era elite. Issandr el-Amrani explained this in detail in 2011, not long after Mona’s tweet:

Egypt was selling the gas to Eastern Mediterranean Gas (EMG) — the private firm that then sold the gas to the Israeli National Electricity Company — at around $3 per mbtu (that’s million British thermal units — the standard measurement for these things). EMG then sold it to the Israelis for around $4.5 per mbtu, pocketing a 50% profit margin for no more than the transaction costs and some of the [taxpayer-built] infrastructure between the two countries. The market price for gas … is currently around $4.40 for futures in North America, but spot markets in recent years passed the $10 per mbtu mark. Either way, there is no doubt that the price of the gas sold by Egypt to EMG was well below market prices, and that the company made an easy profit without investment of its own.

Other analysts put the prices even lower — “as low as between $0.70 and $1.50” per mbtu for Israel, with even less paid by EMG to the Egyptian government.  (Naturally, the government has never revealed the price.) What’s certain is that the magnates of EMG made a killing. The deal fed corruption in both countries. Where did that 50% profit go? El-Amrani writes:

EMG is owned in large part by an Egyptian business[man], Hussein Salem, who has long been known to be a frontman for the Mubarak family (and is a former security official), and Yossi Meiman, an Israeli businessman close to the Sharon clan in Israeli politics (he owns the Israeli energy company Merhav), as well as some additional minority investors from South East Asia.

There was a snake in Eden: The Sinai pipeline

There was a snake in Eden: The Sinai pipeline

The corruption behind the Israel sales resulted in one of the major post-Mubarak trials: Hussein Salem and the former oil minister were sentenced to 15 years for stealing over $700 million through the unequal contract. (Salem is hiding in Spain. Last month, the Cassation Court ordered a retrial.)

Plenty of things came together in the pipeline: the security state, the cliques that profit from it, the “special relationship” with Israel that the dictatorship constructed in exchange for US largesse, the way elites in two countries ally for lucre and offer their middle fingers to democratic oversight.  “Fuck Israel” is, from an Egyptian perspective, the mildest thing you can say in return. The contract may be history, but few people believe the government — under US pressure — won’t renew sales at some point in the future. Electricity blackouts are now routine in Egypt. Yet John Kerry and Binyamin Netanyahu are both pushing the country to sacrifice the prospect of energy self-sufficiency to the politics of “stability.” Sensible Egyptians who want economic independence and justice dream fondly of seeing the pipeline bombed.

The people of Sinai bear an extra grudge — because that serpentine eyesore symbolizes a government that ignores them except to brutalize them. Of course, any serious revolutionary in Egypt wants to understand and share the struggle of folks who have been resisting the government for years; but they don’t steer the rebels. Nobody in Sinai needed a tweet from Mona to instigate a raid on the pipeline (I doubt the attackers are on Twitter, Hillel). By now it comes as second nature.

Hossam Bahgat, an Egyptian rights activist, pointed out to Neuer that he lied about the nonexistent deaths in Sinai. But the man cannot be deterred; he corrects his lies not, neither does he explain. He promptly tweeted:

I lied about you, Mona. Now will you please apologize for it?

I lied about you, Mona. Now will you please apologize for it?

Consider that: it’s astonishingly disgusting. A former corporate lawyer, defender of Raytheon and other innocent victims of injustice, a cushioned and blinkered fool who neither has a clue nor cares about conditions in Egypt, sits in his comfortable office with a view of the Swiss Alps and dares to lecture one of the foremost campaigners against abuses by the Egyptian police that she should apologize … to the Egyptian police. Hillel Neuer claims to be a human rights activist. He’s just a contemptible, destructive little thug.

The truth, of course, is that if the pipeline carried energy to Chad, Neuer would never even notice the attacks. If Sudan or some other malevolent Muslim state were the destination, he’d applaud them. The only reason he gives a flying falafel is that the gas once went to Israel. Indeed, Neuer even vilifies Mona Seif for urging a peaceful boycott of Egyptian gas companies that sold to Israel! Till 2011, Egypt supplied 43% of Israel’s natural gas needs. What Neuer is doing is taking his revenge on Mona Seif for Egypt’s scrapping of the gas deal. That, not “terrorism,” is Neuer’s worry.

Tweets II and III.  The right to resist. For Hillel Neuer, violence is … well, irresistible.

Neuer’s Exhibits B and C are this –

Mona Gaza tweet 1 copy

and this –

Mona Gaza tweet 2 copy

In November 2012, of course, a war was going on in Gaza. Seif was defending the right of Palestinians to fight back against a massive Israeli attack. The violence of Operation Pillar of Defense provides the specific context here. There’s a broader one as well.

Neuer knows nothing about the history of rights activism in Egypt, but these 280+ words summarize an old argument with Amnesty and HRW in which most of the human rights community in the country shared. (The deprecation in the middle of Tweet III is from my friend Aida Seif el-Dawla, the founder of the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, and a Human RIghts Watch honoree in 2004.)  There is profound frustration at both organizations’ insistence on moral and political equivalence between resistance movements armed, in many cases, only with stones, and a massive military machine capable of obliterating opposition. There is profound frustration at what activists see as the organizations’ determination to depoliticize the conflict, to focus only on how it is fought while treating its origins as irrelevant and the demands on either side as beyond the reach of rights affirmation or critique. There is profound frustration at what they regard as a refusal to wrestle with the fact and the consequences of a 46-year occupation. There is discontent with what they interpret as a false, specious, and factitious objectivity.

Aida Seif el-Dawla meets with families of detained Islamists, 2005 (@ Nora Younis)

Aida Seif el-Dawla talks with families of detained Islamists, 2005 (@ Nora Younis)

Human Rights Watch, where I worked for many years, strains all its muscles to be completely objective on Israel/Palestine — an effort that has never gotten it a scintilla of credit from the militant pro-Israel side. Its releases on Israel and Palestine are the only ones in the entire organization that are routinely edited by the executive director himself. An informal arithmetic dictates that every presser or report criticizing Israel has to be accompanied by another criticizing the Palestine Authority or Hamas — or, if that isn’t possible (the PA barely retains enough authority to violate anybody’s rights) at least one of the surrounding Arab states. A mathematical approach to balance may help accountants detect embezzlement or captains keep ships afloat, but that kind of objectivity looks ridiculous in the political world, where the incessant fluidity of action disrupts the illusions of double-entry bookkeeping. (The call for an “embargo on arms” to “all sides” is an excellent example of “objectivity” that benefits one side much more than the other. As often noted during the Yugoslav civil war — when extremely well-meaning people urged that unarmed Bosnians and the Serbian army both go cold turkey on acquiring arms — a cutoff will matter much more to those who have only scant resources than to those flush with weaponry. If you want to stop that kind of fighting, an embargo alone won’t do it.  It’s like the majestic equality of the law as Anatole France described it, forbidding both rich and poor to sleep under bridges.)

Whatever you think of the neighboring conflict, Egyptian activists are undoubtedly reasonable when they ask what a similar “objectivity” would have looked like in their 20-year struggle with Mubarak. Should each documented act of torture by State Security have been followed by a search for some malfeasance by human rights organizations?  Do the immense power of a state and the vulnerability of a people’s movement carry the same responsibilities? At what point do you acknowledge (as Human RIghts Watch did in Egypt) that, though both sides may do wrong, one side’s core demand is right and the other’s is wrong?

Naturally, I‘m only paraphrasing ineptly here. But I can directly quote Aida Seif el-Dawla, who if anything is even more iconic among democrats in the region than Mona:

HRW is a human rights group and, by definition, human rights groups have limits. The human rights perspective might sometimes be what they call ‘objective’ but it’s not from the victim’s point of view.

That goes for the victims of torture whom Aida has served for 20 years: their wounds cry out for advocates, not impartial referees. And Aida adds: “Take, for example, martyrdom operations. Regardless of my opinion, it needs serious awareness-raising so that people understand the language of martyrdom as a last weapon people use to tell the world about what’s happening to them.”

Demonstrators hold an image of Mohamed el-Gendy, a young activist tortured to death by police, 2013

Demonstrators hold an image of Mohamed el-Gendy, a young activist tortured to death by police, 2013

This is absolutely different from “advocating terrorism.”  It means — I take Aida to mean — understanding that those with their backs against the wall act by definition under more constraint and desperation than the wall-builders. If you want to condemn “martyrdom operations,” or stop them, you need at least to comprehend what conditions create them and what they are trying to tell. Meanwhile, Egyptian activists, who have had to resist three ruthless regimes (Mubarak, the military, and the army-supported Muslim Brotherhood) in three years, insist that human rights are empty unless supported by the concrete right of resistance to oppression. That’s a right articulated by figures as diverse as St. Thomas Aquinas and Amira Hass. You can’t have the right to the “self-determination of peoples” (expressly stated in the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the major UN treaties) without recognizing that, in the 20th century and continuing into the 21st, it’s been achieved by resistance fighters rather more often than by diplomats; and even the diplomats usually needed the resistance fighters to give their arguments some heft.

Mona Seif said as much in a brief statement yesterday on her Facebook page:

I have never called for nor celebrated attacks on civilians. My position is very clear: I support people’s right to resist occupation and I resist all attempts at portraying the siege of a predominantly civilian population by the world’s 4th most powerful Army as one of ‘equivalence.’

Of course, Hillel Neuer is in a self-contradictory place here. On the one hand, he believes that Arabs don’t have the right to resist much of anything, least of all Operation Pillar of Defense. On the other hand, he sees violence as a constant temptation for the Israeli side, one so enticing that the state can hardly be expected to resist it. Violence is irresistible for both parties, but in rather different senses.

Aida Seif el-Dawla and Mona Seif

Aida Seif el-Dawla and Mona Seif

Neuer, for instance, was assiduous in defending Israel’s attack on the Mavi Marmara: on the grounds that Israel has a right to resist anybody anywhere, armed or no, and that killing such people is something the state apparatus must do, irresistibly. What good is a monopoly of force if the state doesn’t use it?  What good is a gun if you don’t shoot somebody? Ali Abunimah summarizes Neuer’s rants far better than I can:

On 2 June 2010, three days after Israeli commandos murdered nine unarmed civilians aboard the Mavi Marmara in international waters, UN Watch Executive Director Hillel Neuer justified the lethal attack on what his organization termed the “terror flotilla” based on chants some passengers aboard the flotilla had allegedly been heard making. …

Neuer has never revised nor apologized for his justifications for Israeli violence against the flotilla even after the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Inquiry … found that many of the unarmed victims had been executed by the Israeli soldiers. …

The official report also concluded that “No evidence has been provided to establish that any of the deceased were armed with lethal weapons.”

“Forensic evidence showing that most of the deceased were shot multiple times, including in the back, or at close range has not been adequately accounted for in the material presented by Israel,” the report found. And so on. The truth is that Hillel Neuer likes violence, with the armchair enthusiasm of someone who knows his friends will wield it and he’ll never have to suffer it first-hand. He loves it because it sorts the powerful from the powerless, the valued from the unwanted, the wheat from the chaff. He’s exactly the opposite of Mona Seif, who has confronted state violence here in Egypt as Neuer would never dare, and wants to see people empowered to end it. These two — the guy who holds the gun and the dissenter who wants to take it away — will never have anything in common. Only one of them has anything to do with human rights.

Finally

Neuer knows that, although he can mobilize the usual suspects to support his libels against Mona, he has few facts to back him up. So he scrounges for some Egyptian allies to give him a more — well, objective look. Unfortunately, he has only two. One, “Amr Bakly, who heads the Cairo Liberal Forum, tweeted: ‘The Martin Ennals Award is not for terrorist supporters.'” The Cairo Liberal Forum is a small circle of “free market” advocates in Egypt whose irrelevance to the Egyptian revolutionary scene can be seen in their Facebook page: it’s almost wholly in English and for foreign consumption. Bakly has neither constituency nor credibility.

Alaa Abd el Fattah

Alaa Abd el Fattah

Neuer’s other enlistee, Maikel Nabil, is a more complicated story. Nabil, an advocate for conscientious objection and against military conscription, suffered a hellish year in jail for “insulting” the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in 2011. I’ve written about him before, and I travelled to the military prosecutor’s office to show support at one of his hearings last December. Nabil rightly felt angry that his case drew less attention than the jailing of other activists, including Alaa Abd el Fattah, Mona Seif’s celebrated brother. Only a handful of people stood outside the grim army building when I went there for him, as opposed to hundreds who regularly turned out for Alaa. But Nabil has let anger and jealousy corrupt his judgment. His condemnation of Mona Seif is more about his resentment of Alaa than over anything she tweeted; it’s particularly sad because Mona spoke out strongly for him while he languished in prison. It’s reprehensible of Neuer to exploit Nabil’s rage in this divisive way. Since his release, Nabil has left Egypt, his reputation more and more marginalized there. (UN Watch organized an ill-advised junket to Israel for him last year.) Like Bakly, he has little constituency in Egypt, and it’s mendacious of Neuer to pretend otherwise.

I don’t expect Hillel Neuer to know the difference between real human rights activists and ersatz ones: he’s so emphatically the latter. Neuer — despite grandly inflating himself into a rights defender and UN Watch into a rights organization — has simply never done human rights work. He sits in his office and peruses the tweets of his enemies. Mona Seif, meanwhile, has worked for the imprisoned, spoken to their families, documented their cases, confronted the oppressors face to face. Three successive repressive regimes have found common ground in hating her. There’s hardly a catastrophe in Cairo they don’t  blame her for. A fire at pro-military candidate Ahmed Shafiq’s offices? Mona was lighting matches in a car nearby!  A crowd attacks the HQ of the Muslim Brotherhood, Shafiq’s opponents? Mona planned it all!

The odd thing is that, accusing her absurdly of “terrorism,” Hillel Neuer mimics the rhetoric and paranoia of the Egyptian powers that be. I doubt he’d be happy to hear he imitates the Muslim Brotherhood. But apologists for injustice and flacks for authority are always alike, no matter their disparate beliefs.

Ahmed Seif al-Islam

Ahmed Seif el-Islam

In thinking of Mona, I always remember her father. Ahmed Seif el-Islam is one of the most respected rights activists and constitutional lawyers in Egypt. He has inspired me. He also taught me a valuable lesson.

I saw the intensity of Seif’s dedication back in 2003, when I was researching for Human Rights Watch. Demonstrations against the US invasion of Iraq convulsed Cairo, and the Mubarak government lashed back by arresting and torturing over a thousand students and leftist activists. Seif was then the head of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, the country’s premier human rights litigation group. He spent more than a week without leaving his office for home, barely sleeping, barefoot and unshaven: collecting information, coordinating responses, making sure that lawyers stayed at every jail and every hearing, that every act of brutality was recorded. All the while, he kept a small bag packed behind the desk in anticipation of his own arrest. Seif, a veteran of Egypt’s political prisons and concentration camps, lived on a shoestring — I don’t think he paid himself more than a few hundred pounds a month as director — and never stopped working.

I had first met Seif in 2001, when I was on the staff of a different organization — IGLHRC, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission — and came to Egypt for the trial of 52 men arrested for homosexuality in a massive police raid. The Hisham Mubarak Centre had been one of the first groups to offer the men legal help, despite the case’s unpopularity. I wanted to thank Seif for his courage. He brushed away my compliments and asked, politely: “Does your organization have a position on Palestine?”

I hesitated; IGLHRC had nothing of the kind. “I want you to know,” Seif said, “that we have taken a position on this case because we believe in universal human rights, however much others may despise us for it. I don’t expect anything less from other groups. Therefore please tell me. Does your organization have a position on Palestine?”

That was the lesson.

Ahmed Seif al-Islam and Mona Seif

Ahmed Seif el-Islam and Mona Seif

There are ample reasons to dislike human rights as a profession. As a set of principles, though, it has one great virtue: it forces you to think beyond the walls of self, and face the frightening differences and similarity of others. The premise of universality (much misunderstood) is that what others do and suffer cannot be entirely divorced from you. If you ask an Egyptian to talk about your concern, they can ask you to remember theirs; and, with that moral sophistication I find characteristic of Egyptian thinking, they may require you to consider not Egypt, but Palestine, and the suffering next door. (It’s typical that the great mobilizing issue for Egypt’s anti-government activists from 2001-2005 was not just the Mubarak regime’s domestic criminality, but its callousness about the Palestinian crisis across the border.) IGLHRC never did develop a position on Palestine; but in a discussion about it, years later, one board member plaintively wailed: “Why do we have to be a human rights organization? Why can’t we just be a gay organization, and ignore this stuff?” He had it right, actually. Once you start speaking the language of rights, an inexorable logic compels you to connect, connect.

Mona, like her father, knows this. In her defiant statement, she wrote:

One of the rights that we, the young people of Egypt, have succeeded in seizing is the right to insult our own government and to insult anyone whose policies are bad for our people. We insist on this right.

It’s about freedom to offend, but also freedom to choose your solidarities. People who don’t want Egyptians feeling an affinity with Palestinians should just ask for the Revolution to be rolled back, to a point where all politics can be state-dictated and all opinions served prefab. Hillel would like that. Mona, no.

Protesters confront Central Security Forces, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, November 2011

Protesters confront Central Security Forces, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, November 2011

I hope the 10 human rights organizations that decide the Ennals award have Mona’s consistency and courage. I hope they understand universality enough not to cower away from the connections. No issue awakens the pusillanimity of rights groups like Israel and Palestine; no other subject can turn self-vaunted Voltaires quite so quickly into quaking cowards. Ken Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, sent an ominous signal last night in an email to the New York Times. 

HRW staff nominated two human rights defenders, and one made it through as a finalist (not Mona). Voting on the finalists will take place in October in a secret ballot by the 10 human rights groups on the jury, including HRW. … HRW never takes a position on whether a country or rebel group should go to war or engage in “resistance.” Our focus is on how wars are fought, and we oppose any deliberate or indiscriminate attacks on civilians. I haven’t seen anything indicating that by “resistance” Mona means attacking civilians.

That’s all quite objective and proper, but note the parenthesis. We didn’t nominate Mona Seif (though she’s worked closely with and assisted Human Rights Watch in Egypt); it’s not HRW’s fault!  This is how human rights organizations sell someone down the river.

Ken should stiffen his spine. Some Egyptian spirit would be a good tonic for the groups that will make this decision. Shame on them if they let the liars sway them.