On Nir Rosen’s Definitions of ‘Sectarian’ and ‘Secular’

December 23, 2014 § 6 Comments

by Thomas Pierret

AFP photo. burying victims of the Houla massacre

AFP photo. burying victims of the Houla massacre

Foreign Policy just published an article by David Kenner about a report on the Syrian conflict written for the US government by Nir Rosen, an ex-journalist currently working as a special adviser for conflict-resolution NGO Humanitarian Dialogue.

For several months, Rosen has been promoting an approach to the resolution of the Syrian conflict that shifts away from political transition in favour of local truces, a stance that is not dissimilar to UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura’s suggestion to “freeze” the conflict.

For many reasons, I do not think that this approach is in any way promising, but my concern here is different: it is rather the distinctly pro-Asad flavour of Rosen’s assessment of the conflict, which makes his piece look like an attempt at whitewashing the regime’s crimes, or to put it like Kenneth Roth from Human Rights Watch did it on Twitter, at sugarcoating deliberate mass-murder.

Rosen likes to remind his interlocutors that he has spent most of the last three years in Syria, speaking to people from all sides. This might be part of the problem: he seems to have spent so much time with regime officials that he is now speaking exactly like them.

Rosen’s report includes an old Stalinist trope about the Asads’ achievements in terms of health, education and infrastructure, an argument even the most obtuse defenders of the regime have started handling with care after the regime started to deliberately destroy much of its own infrastructures to make life impossible in rebel-held areas. In the same vein, Rosen claims that the Syrian regime was not the worst in the region before 2011. This is seriously debatable: by 2010, an aggregate index combining state repression and human development would certainly have placed Syria at the bottom of the regional ranking.

Then comes the breaking news: the Syrian regime is not sectarian, it is even staunchly secular! According to Rosen, the regime’s brutality towards the Sunni opposition “was done more out of a fear of Sunni sectarianism than as a result of the regime’s own sectarianism (sic)”. If Rosen is trying to tell us that the ruling clique in Damascus is not composed of sectarian ideologues, thanks, we knew that: Mafiosi are interested in power and money, not ideology. But that does not mean that their strategy cannot be deeply sectarian at the same time. The Syrian regime manipulated sectarian divides from day one. Does Rosen remember the first days of April 2011, when the Minister of Interior was branding the peaceful sit-in in Homs as a “Salafi Emirate”? Wasn’t that a not-so-subtle way to raise sectarian fears among minorities? Or was the Minister speaking so “out of fear of Sunni sectarianism”? Does Rosen remember that a couple of days later, Alawite auxiliaries were sent to kill protesters on Homs’ Clock Square? Did that also happen “out of fear of Sunni sectarianism”? Later that month, other Alawite militiamen were sent into the coastal village of al-Bayda, and filmed themselves tramping over the bodies of Sunni prisoners. An admirably non-sectarian move, once again! I had thought that faced with the same situation, a genuinely secular government would have sent uniformed security forces from other provinces rather than civilian auxiliaries from the rival local sect, but thanks to his three-year fieldwork expertise, Rosen redefined the whole concept of non-sectarianism: it means acting in a deeply sectarian manner while remaining staunchly secular in one’s heart.

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Aftermath

November 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

The first issue of Critical Muslim, a quarterly magazine in book form co-edited by Ziauddin Sardar and me, will be in the shops in January. More on that at a later date. Today I’m finishing off a long essay on Syria, Iraq and sectarian hatred for Critical Muslim’s third issue. Amongst the books I review in the essay are Fanar Haddad’s indispensable “Sectarianism in Iraq” and Nir Rosen’s “Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World,” which is also indispensable, in a different way. As a taster, here’s the section on “Aftermath.”

For a mix of contextual analysis and gripping reportage, the reader will find no better book than Nir Rosen’s magisterial “Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s wars in the Muslim World”.

Most Western correspondents were flown into Iraq unable to speak Arabic, largely ignorant of the context, to pass their time attending coalition press briefings or embedded with the US military. Their reports were heavy with simplistic labels (‘the Sunni triangle’, for instance) and ignored non-sectarian nationalism and class issues. Rosen’s writing on Iraq is the polar opposite of such parachute journalism. He speaks Arabic for a start, and blends in physically as a result of the “melanin advantage” bequeathed by his Iranian father. More to the point, he is courageous and energetic, going where few outsiders would dare, whatever their skin tone. He’s a reporter of the best kind, capable of locating pattern behind the copious detail. So he doesn’t merely report the mosque sermons he attended, or his encounters with militiamen and their victims, but accurately interprets and reads between the lines. His descriptions of time, place and personality are vivid, with not an ounce of orientalism added. His lack of sentimentality combined with his obvious sympathy for the people of the region make him the perfect candidate to voyage into the sectarian heart of darkness.

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Reporting Syria

November 22, 2011 § 2 Comments

Egyptians in solidarity with Syria

The Syrian regime’s blanket ban on journalist access has some carefully selected exceptions. Robert Fisk, for instance, who seems to be compensating for the naive anti-Syrian and pro-March 14th line in his reporting of Lebanon over the last years by treating the statements of Syrian regime figures – professional liar Boutheina Shaaban is one – with great naivety. At least he didn’t apply the ‘glorious’ epithet to her which he used to describe Walid Jumblatt’s wife. Fisk’s book on Lebanon “Pity the Nation” is a classic, his account of the massacres at Sabra and Shatila remain fresh in the mind (the blood-footed flies clambering over his notebook), and for many years he was one of the very few English-language journalists with some real knowledge of the Middle East. Sadly, his knowledge doesn’t extend to a working familiarity with Arabic. In several recent articles he has informed us that that the slogan of the Ba‘ath Party – umma arabiya wahda zat risala khalida – means ‘the mother of the Arab nation.’ In fact it means ‘one Arab nation with an eternal message’. Fisk is confusing ‘um’ – mother – with ‘umma’ – nation. It’s a rather disastrous mistake. Someone ought to tell him about it.

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Nir Rosen on Western media fraud in the Middle East

May 19, 2011 § 3 Comments

Journalist and author Nir Rosen writes the following in an article for Al Jazeera about the myriad obstacles to the dissemination of truth in Western reporting on the Middle East:

Relying on a translator means you can only talk to one person at a time and you miss all the background noise. It means you have to depend on somebody from a certain social class, or sect, or political position, to filter and mediate the country for you. Maybe they are Sunni and have limited contacts outside their community. Maybe they are a Christian from east Beirut and know little about the Shia of south Lebanon or the Sunnis of the north. Maybe they’re urban and disdainful of those who are rural. In Iraq, maybe they are a middle class Shia from Baghdad or a former doctor or engineer who looks down upon the poor urban class who make up the Sadrists. And so in May 2003, when I was the first American journalist to interview Muqtada Sadr, my bureau chief at Time magazine was angry at me for wasting my time and sending it on to the editors in New York without asking him, because Muqtada was unimportant, lacking credentials. But in Iraq, social movements, street movements, militias, those with power on the ground, have been much more important than those in the establishment or politicians in the green zone, and it is events in the red zone which have shaped things.

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America’s Wars in the Muslim World

February 16, 2011 § 1 Comment

Nir Rosen is the finest frontline reporter the US has produced in decades. He has just resigned from his position at the New York University after he came under fire from Israel lobby attack-dog Jeffrey Goldberg for making light of the recent attacks on CBS propagandist Lara Logan (comments for which he has since apologized). Following is a talk he gave recently at LSE about his new book Aftermath. (Also, don’t miss Ali Gharib’s excellent profile on Rosen.)

The Meltdown in Iraq with Nir Rosen

January 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

Investigative journalist Nir Rosen discusses his recently released Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World on RT’s The Big Picture.

Nir Rosen at the New America Foundation

January 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

New America Foundation — On January 5, 2011, author Nir Rosen spoke at the New America Foundation about his new book, Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World, which covers his journey from the battlefields of Iraq, to the refugee camps of Lebanon, to the encampments of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. His comments largely focused on the Iraq war, especially regarding an in-depth analysis of the Iraqi civil war going back to 2003. He spoke in year-by-year detail about the civil war between Sunni and Shia militias, the Iraqi police and army and the American military caught in the middle.

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