Nader Hashemi and I have an essay titled “Playing with Fire: Trump, the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry, and the Geopolitics of Sectarianization in the Middle East” in the Mediterranean Yearbook 2018, published by the European Institute of the Mediterranean (IEMed). We examine the deterioration of sectarian relations in the Middle East in recent years, with a focus on the escalation of the Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry. We show how the Trump administration in particular has exacerbated these already volatile dynamics and suggest a shift in the policies of Western governments toward the region aimed at defusing the sectarianization process. Download the PDF.
The following is an excerpt from an interview with me and my collaborator Nader Hashemi that will be published soon by the excellent online magazine Qantara.de. The interviewer is Emran Feroz, a journalist based in Germany, founder of the Drone Memorial, a virtual memorial for civilian drone strike victims, and author of a book on drone warfare. The interview revolves around our recent book Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East, in which we challenge the new conventional wisdom in Western media and policy circles that attributes the violence engulfing the Middle East today to “ancient hatreds”. We call this sectarian essentialism a new form of Orientalism. In this section of the interview we’re responding to a question about the pervasiveness of this sectarian narrative across the ideological spectrum.
Versions of the sectarian narrative can be found on the right, in the center, and on the left. The New York Times columnist and establishment sage Thomas Friedman, for instance, claims that in Yemen today “the main issue is the 7th century struggle over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad — Shiites or Sunnis”. Barack Obama asserted that the issues plaguing the Middle East today are “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia”. A more vulgar version of this view prevails among right-wing commentators. The former cable television host Bill O’Reilly has remarked that “the Sunni and Shia want to kill each other. They want to blow each other up. They want to torture each other. They have fun. … This is what Allah tells them to do, and that’s what they do”.
This is hardly surprising, given the anti-Muslim prejudice so pervasive on the right. What is surprising is to find people on the left trafficking in the sectarian narrative. Take the case of Patrick Cockburn, the influential Middle East reporter for The Independent. Cockburn has consistently framed the Syrian conflict in sectarian terms — using language like “sectarian blood-letting” and “demons” — and even criticized others for downplaying sectarianism. He did this from very early on, seeing sectarianism as immanent even during the nonviolent popular demonstrations of 2011, which were notably devoid of sectarian slogans and involved Syrians of multiple religious backgrounds/identities. The Syrian conflict became sectarian, but it didn’t start that way and, contra Cockburn, its sectarianization was by no means inevitable. In his chapter in our book, the anthropologist Paulo Gabriel Hilu Pinto demonstrates how the Assad regime pursued a deliberate strategy of sectarianizing the conflict through the use of sectarian pro-regime militias and the “selective distribution of violence” to punish specific sub-groups of protesters; and by releasing various jihadis from Syria’s prisons, to poison the well and produce a “preferred enemy”. Continue reading “Left-Wing Orientalism: The Curious Case of Patrick Cockburn”
Twenty years ago today, on August 9, 1998, I delivered this eulogy at the dedication ceremony, or unveiling, of Eugene Zucker, my next-door neighbor growing up and a formative influence on my life. I was, and remain, deeply honored that the Zucker family asked me to deliver these reflections on that profound occasion. It has never been published or appeared anywhere until now.
Growing up next door to the Zuckers, Eugene (or Professor Zucker, as I preferred to call him) was my lifeline to another world. The world I inhabited as a child and as a young man in the Chicago suburb of Skokie in the 1970s and 1980s was light years removed from the one I discovered in Professor Zucker’s study, listening to him talk about his days as a young radical in New York in the heady 1930s and 1940s.
It was in that study that I first learned about Marx and Engels, and about Lenin and Trotsky. It wasn’t through books or documentaries that I came to understand these figures and their ideas and their roles in shaping history. Rather, it was through hearing the first-person accounts of my next-door neighbor, a man who participated in struggles begun by these revolutionaries. Professor Zucker actually knew the leaders of the radical movement and witnessed the historic discussions in which the fate of the movement was decided. He listened as the insurgents of the era debated whether their faction of the Left had the correct interpretation of Lenin’s formulation of this, that, or the other question. As bizarre as it seems to us now — and as bizarre as it seemed to me hearing about it then — Professor Zucker came from a world in which ideas mattered a great deal. It literally felt to the radicals of his time like the future of mankind depended on how you made sense of the world and, given that worldview, how you planned to act on it.
Last week I had the pleasure of sitting down with the Lebanese scholar Gilbert Achcar for a conversation about the complex situation in the Middle East and various myths about the region that permeate the global leftosphere. The conversation was recorded for the podcast of Chicago DSA, the Chicago chapter of Democratic Socialists of America.
Achcar has been called “one of the best analysts of the contemporary Arab world” (Le Monde) and “the preeminent Marxist scholar of the region” (CounterPunch). He is Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at SOAS, University of London. His books include The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder (2002), Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007), The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives (2010), The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (2013), Marxism, Orientalism, Cosmopolitanism (2013), and Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising (2016).
On June 6, I moderated a panel discussion in Chicago on Yassin al-Haj Saleh‘s momentous book The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy. The event was presented by Haymarket Books, the volume’s North American publisher (it’s published in the UK and worldwide by Hurst). The panelists were Wendy Pearlman, author of We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled: Voices from Syria; Lina Sergie Attar, co-founder of the Karam Foundation; Firas Aladai, director of the film Winter; Sarah Hunaidi, an activist and co-host of the Hummus for Thought podcast; and Behzad Tehrani with Haymarket Books. The discussion starts a few minutes into the video. Sorry for the uneven audio quality. Turn the volume up!
It just so happens that two friends of mine have new books out on hope — one fiction, one nonfiction. And both are doing readings in Chicago this month:
The Hope Store, by Dwight Okita
Two Asian American friends, Luke and Kazu, discover a bold new procedure to import hope into the hopeless. They vow to open the world’s first Hope Store. Customer Jada Upshaw arrives at the store with a hidden agenda, but what happens next no one could have predicted. Meanwhile an activist group called the Natural Hopers emerges, warning that hope installations are a risky, Frankenstein-like procedure and vow to shut down the store.
We: Reviving Social Hope, by Ronald Aronson
The election of Donald Trump has exposed American society’s profound crisis of hope. By 2016 a generation of shrinking employment, rising inequality, the attack on public education, and the shredding of the social safety net, had set the stage for stunning insurgencies at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Against this dire background, Ronald Aronson offers an answer. He argues for a unique conception of social hope, one with the power for understanding and acting upon the present situation. Hope, he argues, is far more than a mood or feeling—it is the very basis of social will and political action. It is this kind of hope that Aronson sees brewing in the supporters of Bernie Sanders, who advocated the tough-minded and inspired disposition to act collectively to make the world more equal, more democratic, more peaceful, and more just. And it was directly contrasted by Trump’s supporters who showed a cynical and nostalgic faith in an authoritarian strongman replete with bigotry and misogyny.
Beneath today’s crisis Aronson examines our heartbreaking story: a century of catastrophic violence and the bewildering ambiguity of progress—all of which have contributed to the evaporation of social hope. As he shows, we are now in a time when hope is increasingly privatized, when—despite all the ways we are connected to each other—we are desperately alone, struggling to weather the maelstrom around us, demoralized by the cynicism that permeates our culture and politics, and burdened with finding personal solutions to social problems.
Yet, Aronson argues, even at a time when false hopes are rife, social hope still persists. Carefully exploring what we mean when we say we “hope” and teasing hope apart from its dangerously misconstrued sibling, “progress,” he locates seeds of real change. He argues that always underlying our experience—even if we completely ignore it—is the fact of our social belonging, and that this can be reactivated into a powerful collective force, an active we. He looks to various political movements, from the massive collective force of environmentalists to the movements around Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, as powerful examples of socially energized, politically determined, and actionably engaged forms of hope. Even in this age of Donald Trump, the result is an illuminating and inspiring call that anyone can clearly hear: we can still create a better future for everyone, but only if we resist false hopes and act together.
Toxic effusions and formulaic pronouncements abound in response to the protests in Iran, from the neocons to Robert Fisk (a consistent source of ideological distortion over the last several years). In sharp and refreshing contrast, here are some pieces that offer particularly valuable insights and analysis:
Here’s What’s Behind Iran’s Biggest Protests In Seven Years — Borzou Daragahi (@borzou)
In Iran’s surprise uprising of the poor, dents to revolution’s legitimacy — by Scott Peterson (@peterson__scott)
Protests in Iran Took Many By Surprise — But Not Iranian Labor Activists — by Murtaza Hussain (@MazMHussain)