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

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.

Continue reading “On Nir Rosen’s Definitions of ‘Sectarian’ and ‘Secular’”

The Road to Iraq

The Road to Iraq book coverA slightly shorter version of my review of Pulse editor Idrees Ahmad’s devastating dissection of the neoconservatives and their deeds appeared at the National.

Meticulously researched and fluently written, Muhammad Idrees Ahmad’s “The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War” is the comprehensive guide to the neoconservatives and their works. The book’s larger story is of the enormous influence wielded by unelected lobbyists and officials over the foreign policies of supposed democracies, their task facilitated by the privatisation and outsourcing of more and more governmental functions in the neoliberal era. (Similar questions are provoked by the state-controlled or corporate media in general, as it frames, highlights or ignores information.) The more specific story is of how a small network of like-minded colleagues (Ahmad provides a list of 24 key figures), working against other unelected officials in the State Department, military and intelligence services, first conceived and then enabled America’s 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, a disaster which continues to overshadow regional and global relations today.

The first crop of neoconservatives emerged from a Trotskyist-tinged 1930s New York Jewish intellectual scene; they and their descendants operated across the political-cultural spectrum, in media and academia, think tanks and pressure groups. Hovering first around the Democratic Party, then around the Republicans, they moved steadily rightwards, and sought to form a shadow defence establishment. During the Cold War they were fiercely anti-Soviet. Under George Bush Jr. they shifted from the lobbies into office.

The neoconservative worldview is characterised by militarism, unilateralism, and a firm commitment to Zionism. Even the Israel-friendly British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said of neocon Irving Libby: “It’s a toss-up whether Libby is working for the Israelis or the Americans on any given day.” The neoconservatives aimed for an Israelisation of American policy, conflating Israeli and American enemies, and adopting their doctrine of ‘pre-emptive war’ from Israel’s 1967 war on the Arabs. Continue reading “The Road to Iraq”

Should We Oppose the Intervention Against ISIS? An Exchange of Views

Reposted from In These Times

 

Should We Oppose the Intervention Against ISIS?

Most U.S. leftists say yes. But voices we rarely hear—Kurds and members of the Syrian opposition—have more ambiguous views.

ISIS (or ISIL, or the Islamic State) sent shock waves through the Middle East and beyond in June when it seized Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. The organization has now laid claim to a swath of territory “stretching from Baghdad to Aleppo and from Syria’s northern border to the deserts of Iraq in the south,” in the words of Patrick Cockburn, author of The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising.

In August, the United States assembled an international coalition (eventually including more than a dozen countries) to conduct a campaign of air strikes on ISIS positions in Iraq, coordinating with Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Then, in October, the coalition expanded the intervention into Syria, coordinating with Kurdish fighters on the Syrian-Turkish border and Free Syrian army forces.

American progressives have been relatively uniform in opposing the intervention against ISIS. But to most Kurds and many Syrian activists, the intervention is more welcome. Turkish and Syrian Kurds along the border watch the battles against ISIS from hilltops, breaking out in cheers and chanting, “Obama, Obama.” Within the Syrian opposition, one finds a range of perspectives—some support intervention, others oppose it, and many, like the Syrian leftist intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh, are torn. In late September Saleh told me, Continue reading “Should We Oppose the Intervention Against ISIS? An Exchange of Views”

Breaking the Code: A Dramatisation of Alan Turing’s Life

If you’re considering going to see The Imitation Game, you might want to watch the BBC’s Breaking the Code instead. Scott Aaronson was irritated by The Imitation Game writing that “the fabrications were especially frustrating to me, because we know it’s possible to bring Alan Turing’s story to life in a way that fully honors the true science and history. We know that, because Hugh Whitemore’s 1986 play Breaking the Code did it. The producers of The Imitation Game would’ve done better just to junk their script, and remake Breaking the Code into a Hollywood blockbuster.”

The following film is the 1996 BBC adaptation of Breaking the Code, with Derek Jacobi as Turing, featuring Harold Pinter as John Smith.

Peshawar Blues

I wrote this feature in summer 2012 for the “Pakistan?” special issue of Critical Muslim.

On the Kuwait Airways flight from London to Islamabad, the unusually boorish flight crew handed us disembarkation cards that the government of Pakistan requires all international arrivals to fill. Besides our passport numbers, addresses and reason for visiting, the form asked if we had been to Africa or Latin America in the past week. The purpose of this question was unclear except perhaps as a means to boost national self-esteem: it implied that Pakistan was healthier than those two continents. With the only pen in my row, I helped five other passengers fill their forms.

At Islamabad’s decrepit Benazir Bhutto International Airport, I was pleasantly surprised to find the immigration staff making no undue effort to harass new arrivals. Former president Pervez Musharraf’s successful effort at gender-balancing has markedly improved the behaviour of male airport staff. After sailing through immigration and customs, I became conscious of the disembarkation card still in my hand. Not inclined to take chances, I asked an officer where to deposit it. He hadn’t a clue, nor did anyone else. Finally, a customs official took the card from my hand and helpfully threw it into a bin.

What is still known internationally as the Islamabad Airport is actually based in the city of Rawalpindi. As the historic Grand Trunk Road passes through its crowded precincts, its name changes twice—to Peshawar Road and The Mall. We drove North-West on the Peshawar Road, past the General Head Quarters (GHQ) of the Pakistan Army which in 1895 had served as the launching pad for the Malakand Field Force, the British colonial army’s counter-insurgency campaign against the recalcitrant frontier. The sanguine details of this campaign were preserved in vivid detail by a young Winston Churchill who was also serving as a correspondent for The Times. More recently, on 10 October 2009, the GHQ was the site of a bloody raid by a group of 10 militants who breached its defences and triggered a hostage crisis which ended with 9 soldiers, 2 civilians, and 9 assailants dead.

Continue reading “Peshawar Blues”