In Response to Assad’s Bombs

April 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

The heroic citizens of Aleppo respond to the Assad regime’s latest barrel bomb attack, which killed over thirty civilians this morning. Over a hundred Syrians are still being killed every day. In Arabic – but it needs no translation.

The Muslims Are Coming!

April 3, 2014 § 1 Comment

the-muslims-are-comingAn edited version of this review was published at the Guardian. I like the Guardian’s books section and its G2 section, not least because they sometimes pay me to write. I also like some of their brave correspondents, such as Martin Chulov. What I don’t like at all is the idiotic, orientalist, conspiratorial, fact-free, and sometimes racist narrative against the revolutions in Syria and Libya which is so common in the Guardian’s comment sections. Blanket-thinking statist leftists like Seamus Milne and Jonathan Steele dominate, alongside ignorant polemicists like Tariq Ali. The last lines of my review target people like them, who are unfortunately influential in ‘liberal’ Britain. I am not at all surprised that the Guardian cut these lines from the review, although I name no names. These lines:  “….the new Islamophobia of sections of the left, the notion that US imperialism and ‘al-Qa’ida’ are in league to destabilise imagined ‘secular’, ‘resistance’ regimes. Those who defended Iraqi Islamists in the Blair years now point to the Allahu Akbar chant as evidence of an agenda far more benighted than that of the genocidal neo-liberal dictatorships.” (I just spoke to the good man who commissioned the piece. He says the issue was space in the print edition. Fair enough. But why cut the lines which apply to Guardianistas?)

Arun Kundnani’s “The Muslims Are Coming”, vastly more intelligent than the usual ‘war on terror’ verbiage, focusses on the war’s domestic edge in Britain and America.

Kundnani’s starting point is this: “Terrorism is not the product of radical politics but a symptom of political impotence.” The antidote therefore seems self-evident: “A strong, active, and confident Muslim community enjoying its civic rights to the full.” Yet policy on both sides of the Atlantic has ended by criminalising Muslim opinion, silencing speech, and increasing social division. These results may make political violence more, not less, likely.

The assumptions and silences of the counter-radicalisation industry end up telling us far more about particular ideological subsections of Anglo-American culture than they do about the Muslims targetted. The two dominant security approaches to Muslim citizens described by Kundnani – ‘culturalist’ and ‘reformist’ –focus on ideology rather than socio-political grievances.

Culturalism’s best-known proponent is Bernard Lewis, Dick Cheney’s favourite historian, who locates the problem as Islam itself, a totalitarian ideology-culture incompatible with democratic modernity. So Mitt Romney explains the vast divergence between Israeli and Palestinian economies thus: “Culture makes all the difference” – and decades of occupation, ethnic cleansing and war make none. Writer Christopher Caldwell believes residents of the Paris Banlieu rioted in 2005 because they were Muslims (although many weren’t), and not because of unemployment, poor housing, and police violence. Perhaps the silliest culturalist intervention was Martin Amis’s “The Second Plane”, where Amis breezily admitted he knew nothing of geopolitics but claimed authority nevertheless from his expertise in ‘masculinity’ – 9/11 was explained by Islamic sexual frustration. Such discourses are part of an influential tradition of silliness. In 1950s colonial Kenya, psychiatrist JC Carothers understood the Mau Mau uprising as “not political but psycho-pathological”.

More charitable than culturalism, reformism identifies the problem as a perversion of Islamic doctrine. With General Petraeus’s Iraqi ‘hearts and minds’ campaign, reformism came to dominate the post-Rumsfeld Pentagon; what started in counter-insurgency was soon considered as relevant to Bradford as Basra. It involved an accumulation of anthropological ‘knowledge’ through surveillance (David J Kilcullen describes counter-insurgency as “armed social science”), and it underlay the assumption of Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech that positive recognition of moderate Muslim culture could solve political conflict. Quran-reading Tony Blair shared the notion that terrorism’s “root cause… was not a decision on foreign policy, however contentious, but… a doctrine of fanaticism.” « Read the rest of this entry »

The Salam School

March 8, 2014 § 2 Comments

DSCI0221This was published at the National.

Syria is my father’s country, where I spent an important part of my young adulthood, where my son was born. Living there was inspiration for my first novel (though it’s set mainly in London). In fact, I fell in love with the country – with its enormous cultural and historical heritage, its climatic extremes, and its warm and endlessly diverse people. Of course there were moments – for example, visiting a broken man who’d been released after 22 years imprisonment for a ‘political offense’ – when I felt like getting the next plane out. And before too long I did move on, because a stagnant dictatorship was no place to build a future.

Then in 2011 the revolution erupted. This instant of hope was followed by a counter-revolutionary repression of unprecedented ferocity. How to respond? For a long time I wrote and spoke to anyone who would listen on one theme: the necessity of funding and arming the Free Army – civilian volunteers and defectors from Bashaar al-Assad’s military. Nobody did arm them, not seriously, and as a result the Free Army lost influence and Islamist factions filled the gap. Assad’s calculated manipulation of sectarian fears and hatreds produced a Sunni backlash. Al-Qa’ida franchises set up emirates near the Turkish border, and the West increasingly understood the Syrian drama not as a battle for freedom, but as a security issue. In illustration of this fact, I was stopped at Edinburgh airport as I started my most recent trip to the Turkish-Syrian border, in December, and questioned under the UK’s Terrorism Act. “Which side do you support?” they asked me. I explained there are many sides now, but the question seemed to be either/or: either the regime or the jihad – and support for the (genocidal) regime was the answer which ticked the ‘no further threat’ box.

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Razan Zaitouneh: Eclipsed Jasmine

February 20, 2014 § 1 Comment

A short film about Syrian human rights activist Razan Zaitouneh, a revolutionary heroine now abducted, probably by Jaish al-Islam. Contributions from writer Samar Yazbek and activist Razan Ghazzawi.

Zeitouna Kids in their Own Words

February 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

Mohammad Ojjeh made a short film in which the children of the Salam School for Syrian refugees in Reyhanli, Turkey, speak about their experiences and the Karam Foundation’s Zeitouna programme.

Something Worse?

February 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

Down with ISIS, from Kafranbel

Down with ISIS, from Kafranbel

In a hotel lobby on the Turkish side of the Syrian border, Yasser Barish showed photographs of his bombed family home in Saraqeb, Idlib province. One room was still standing – the room Yasser happened to resting in on September 15th 2012 when the plane dropped its bomb. The other rooms were entirely obliterated – ground level rubble was all that remained. Yasser’s mother, grandmother, sister and brother were killed.

Saraqeb is a much fought over strategic crossroads, invaded wholescale by Assad’s army in August 2011 and March 2012. Since November 2012, the regime has had no presence in the town (though its artillery batteries remain in range). At first the Local Coordination Committee provided government, but through the spring of 2013, the al-Qa’ida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) gradually increased its presence in the town.

Yasser told me how they took over Saraqeb. At first only ten representatives came, and they brought with them large amounts of medicine and food. They were humble and generous, and warmed the local people’s hearts. They also brought money, with which they recruited ammunition-starved and hungry local fighters. Then reinforcements arrived – “Libyans, Algerians, a lot of Iraqis, some Afghans and Turks, one white Belgian and one white American” – enough to frighten thieves into good behaviour, which at first increased the organisation’s popularity. But in May 2013 they whipped two men in a public square for an infringement of Islamic family law. In June they took absolute control, forbade drinking and smoking, and made prayer compulsory.

Yasser is part of an independent team which publishes magazines for adults and children – a sign of autonomous revolutionary success in terribly difficult circumstances. The slogan “I have the right to express my opinion” graces the cover of Zeitoun wa Zeitouna, the children’s magazine. Since the culling of his family, Yasser doesn’t care if he lives or dies. But so long as he’s here, he’s dedicated himself to improving local lives – teaching children how to read and encouraging them to tell stories and draw pictures. (The local schools, of course, are closed, and most of the teachers killed or fled.) « Read the rest of this entry »

A Widow of Bayada

February 5, 2014 § 1 Comment

photograph by Mohamad Ojjeh

photograph by Mohamad Ojjeh

An edited version of this piece was published by the National.

Our car turns through the crowded alleyways of single-storey breezeblock houses, foggy with coal smoke in the icy December morning. This is the poorest quarter of Reyhanli, a Turkish town just across the Syrian border, and it’s crammed with Syrian refugees.

The woman whose story I’ve come to hear puts on a niqab when the camera comes out. And she prefers to be nameless, because she fears for her two married daughters still living in regime-controlled territory.

She lives in an empty, unheated house. Her son sits with us, and her small daughter shivers under a blanket. The woman is in early middle age but looks older. Her face is long, worn, and haggard, her voice pain-strained and sharp.

Her husband, born in 1972, worked with the military security for seventeen years but retired early when he needed an operation on a vertebral disc. After that he opened a roast chicken place in his Homs neighbourhood, Bayada. The family lived what his wife describes as a working-class life “of an acceptable standard”. They had six children. Bayada comprised both Sunni and Alawi families, “and the relationship between us was very good, even if the state favoured Alawis. We drank maté together. There was no problem.”

The revolution broke out less than a year after her husband’s retirement, and the newly-pressured military security began asking him to return to work. He refused. “How could he work for them? At that time Bab Dreib was being shelled. In our area there were house searches and random arrests of young men. They even took women, those who attended demonstrations and those who shouted ‘God is Greater!’ from their windows at night.”

Her husband supported the revolution and was part of a local network which helped the revolutionaries, finding shelter for those on the run and collecting food, medical supplies and money. His wife believes an Alawi neighbour informed on him. On the other hand, it was an Alawi friend who warned him that his name was on the wanted list at regime checkpoints.

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Dusklands

January 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

maghrebLast summer I travelled in Morocco (where I used to live) in order to write an essay for the Maghreb issue of the Critical Muslim, which I also edited. This essay is available in full online (for free). To read the other essays, stories and poems (and there are some truly brilliant ones) you’ll have to buy the issue (available on Amazon) or subscribe. Please support the journal/ magazine by encouraging your local library/ college to subscribe.

Morocco’s Arabic name, ‘al-Maghreb’, emerges from the root gh-r-b, which denotes concepts including the west, distance, and alienation. ‘Ghareeb’ means strange. ‘Ightirab’ means living outside the Arab world, whether in the west or the east. ‘Maghreb’ also means sunset, dusk, the evening prayer, the time at which the daily fast is broken. Al-Maghreb al-Arabi refers to the entire Arab west – Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, the Western Sahara – but Morocco has no other name. It is al-Maghreb al-Aqsa, the furthest west, the strangest.

The ancient Egyptians believed they spent the afterlife wandering ‘the Western Lands’. William Burroughs, who lived in Tangier, wrote a novel inspired by the notion. When I lived in Morocco, teaching English at the turn of the century, a Syrian woman of my acquaintance used to play on the word like this: la tustughreb, anta fil-maghreb or, Don’t be shocked, you’re in Morocco! On this return visit I heard the same phrase from the mouth of a Moroccan man in a train.

But shocked I was, a little bit, twelve years ago.

I’d been living in the mashreq, the Arab east, before I arrived, and (foolishly) I expected the maghreb to be similar. I found a much more liberal place, one much less subject to taboo. For instance, depending on class and region, a Moroccan girl with a boyfriend is not quite the social catastrophe it would be further east. Moroccan sleaze is not hidden away (which is perhaps, overall, a good thing). I once almost pushed my son in his pushchair past men engaged in a sexual act, not in a dark basement but among the trees at the side of a main road. Several times I walked past the same exhibitionist in central Rabat. There were police nearby but they ignored him. And I frequently saw ragged street children sniffing glue-soaked rags, more of a South American scene than an Arab one. (I didn’t see that on this recent trip). In addition to public taboos, Moroccans lack the softness and eloquence, the courtliness, of the eastern Arabs. But they also lack the airs and graces, the intense class resentments, the hypocrisies. You don’t feel everyone is judging everyone else as you can do in the east, at least not in the same way, not to the same extent.

Then there were the contradictions, or perhaps the diversity, better put, of language, ethnicity, culture and, most of all, class. Parts of the big cities were comparable to Europe in their lifestyles and aspirations. Some of my students went to French-language schools, spent their holidays in Europe, and spoke French at home. Meanwhile much of the countryside was consigned to illiteracy and grinding poverty. There was almost no modern infrastructure out there. The people didn’t speak French. Some didn’t speak Arabic either.

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All Things Considered (Again)

January 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

Again I was on All Things Considered, a BBC Radio Wales programme, talking with Nadim Nassar, Bishop Angelos, and Harry Hagopian about Muslims, Islamists, Christians, Syria and Egypt. Follow the link to listen (it may only be available for a few days).


Download Mp3

The Battle Against ISIS

January 6, 2014 § 9 Comments

This is a little difficult to process for those infantile minds that think the Syrian revolution is “all al-Qa’ida”. The Free Army and the Islamic Front are engaging in battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria all across the north, while protestors across the country demonstrate against the al-Qa’ida franchise. Valerie Szybala writes a good summary:

The situation is changing rapidly in northern Syria as rebel fighters have launched widespread attacks against the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in dozens of locations in Idlib and Aleppo provinces. The situation began on the night of Thursday January 2nd, when ISIS tried to storm the town of Atareb in Aleppo. Friday saw widespread protests across Syria against ISIS, even in locations in the south such as Damascus and Deraa, which is unusual. Concurrently, violent clashes broke out across northeastern Syria as rebel forces attacked ISIS fighters.
In addition to the ISIS incursion into Atareb, citizens and rebel fighters have been increasingly upset over ISIS persecution in northern Syria. One of the most recent incidents includes the abduction, torture, and killing of the Ahrar al-Sham member Dr. Hussein al-Suleiman (aka Abu Rayyan), whose mutilated body was found on Wednesday, January 1. Many of the protests on Friday included slogans such as “We are all the shaheed Abu Rayyan,” which alluded to the anger over his death. In at least one village, ISIS opened fire on unarmed protestors. ISIS also recently attacked media activists in the village of Kafrnabel, the “voice of the uprising,” which has become a symbol of the Syrian revolution for its stream of witty slogans and caricatures. There have also been violent confrontations between Ahrar al-Sham and ISIS in Maskanah, Aleppo in recent weeks.
Additionally, many Syrians hold the suspicion that ISIS is actually working with the regime, claiming that the Syrian military does not attack ISIS-held positions. These rumors have been flying wildly around social media sites in recent days as anti-ISIS sentiment bubbled to the surface, along with political cartoons and hashtags.
Actions taken against ISIS include the arrest of its fighters and commanders, negotiations for ISIS to leave certain areas, and violent confrontations. In many areas fierce battles between ISIS and rebel groups are still ongoing, and ISIS has begun using car bombs against rebel fighters. Chaos has reportedly engulfed Jarablus, which is the town which ISIS possibly had the strongest control over, with everyone including the Kurds rebelling against ISIS fighters who have started acting erratically according to sources in the area.
The three major rebel coalitions involved in the attacks on ISIS, the: Islamic Front, Jaysh al-Mujahideen, and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, have all issued statements detailing their grievances with ISIS and making demands for ISIS to withdraw. These groups include Islamic factions, FSA-affiliated groups, and there are even indications that Jabhat al-Nusra is involved.
In response ISIS has reportedly pulled out of several towns that it controlled – including Atmeh and ad-Dana – without a fight, and is bringing in reinforcements from western provinces. This indicates that a large counteroffensive is imminent and the rebels of northern Syria may not have long to revel in their victories before ISIS hits back hard.
This fighting in Syria comes at the same time when ISIS has gone on the offensive across the region. In Iraq they have launched offensives to take urban centers. ISIS has also released a statement claiming responsbility for a deadly suicide bombing targeting Hezbollah in southern Beirut on January 2nd.
Although there have been clashes and disputes between ISIS and other rebel groups before in Syria, the scale of what is happening right now is unprecedented. This situation is still incredibly fluid and volatile. Further updates will be posted as the details become clearer.
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