We often project our current political concerns backwards in time in order to justify ourselves. I say ‘we’ because everyone does it. Nazi Germany invented a mythical blonde Aryan people who had always been kept down by lesser breeds. The Hindu nationalists in India imagine that Hinduism has always been a centralised doctrine rather than a conglomerate of texts and local traditions, and describe Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh, Jain and animist influences on Indian history as foreign intrusions. Black nationalists in the Americas depict ancient Africa as a continent not of hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers but as a wonderland of kings and queens, gold and silk, science and monumental architecture. To our current cost, Zionists and the neo-cons have been able to reactivate old Orientalist myths in the West, myths in which the entirety of Arab and Islamic history has involved the slaughter and oppression of Christians, Jews, Hindus, women, gays, intellectuals .. and so on.

Such retrospective mythmaking frequently goes to the most absurd extremes in young nations conscious of their weakness or of a need for redefinition (America may be one of these). Probably for that reason it is particularly evident in the Middle East.

Many Muslims go beyond adherence to those concepts and taboos that are necessary for religious belief and idolise or demonise historical figures who have nothing to do with the divine revelation. For many Sunnis, the first caliphs were ‘rightly guided’ saints who could do no wrong. During their reign there was no crime, poverty or injustice in the realm of Islam. For many Shia, the same men (apart from Ali) were decadent criminals. These secular figures were not deities or prophets but human beings working in specific contexts, with all the good and bad and moral ambiguity that implies, but Muslims frequently hold religious positions on their worth. The same applies even to later worldly figures like Haroon ar-Rasheed (saint or criminal) and Salahuddeen al-Ayubbi (likewise; as well as Kurdish traitor and hero of Arabism).

Continue reading “Myth-Making”

Five Books on Syria; Batatu on the Peasants

Inspired by the Browser interview concerning my five favourite books on Israel-Palestine, I’ve come up with a list of five on Syria. These are all books available in English, so my selection is inevitably skewed. I’ll name them, then talk at length about the first on the list, the Batatu book.

Hanna Batatu

1.  Hanna Batatu. “Syria’s Peasantry, the Descendants of its Lesser Rural Notables, and Their Politics.”

2. Patrick Seale. “Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East.”

As essential for understanding power machinations in the US, the USSR, Palestine, Israel and Lebanon as in Syria, this is a biography of Syria’s ruthless, inscrutable, masterful dictator, Hafez al-Asad. Nation builder or gangster, as you will, but surely the most important Syrian of the 20th century.

3. Samuel Lyde. “The Asian Mystery Illustrated in the History, Religion, and Present State of the Ansaireeh or Nusairis of Syria.”

Continue reading “Five Books on Syria; Batatu on the Peasants”

The ‘First Wives Club’ or the Politics of Visibility and Invisibility

by Huma Dar

In her article in The Observer, ‘The First Ladies Of The Arab World Blaze A Trail For Women’s Rights’, Helena Smith waxes eloquent about a very exclusive, seven-year-old club, called “Arab Women Organisation” with only fifteen members so far: the first ladies of Jordan, the Emirates, Bahrain, Tunisia, Algeria, Sudan, Syria, Oman, Palestine, Lebanon, Libya, Egypt, Mauritania, Morocco and Yemen.1

The first wives of the other seven Arab countries with “some of the more traditional societies” have also been invited and there are “tremendous hopes” that they, too, will join up, Smith gently reassures the reader.  This article carries the tag line: “A large and powerful alliance of leaders’ wives is making huge strides in breaking taboos and getting feminist issues on the political agenda.” The list of issues being “sexual slavery,” “trafficking,” “child exploitation,” “prostitution” and “rape” in the Middle East,” and, of course, this is duly prefaced by an obligatory, pious declamation that these “societies [are] not known for their commitment to feminist agendas.”

One wonders if this particular set of issues has indeed been adequately dealt with in any part of the world, and immediately thinks of the epidemic proportion of violence against women in the United States of America, which happens to be one of the more violent places for women as far as the proportionate rates of rapes, assaults, and murders are concerned, with every two minutes a woman being sexually assaulted, and every eight minutes a woman being raped.2

Continue reading “The ‘First Wives Club’ or the Politics of Visibility and Invisibility”

The End of the Arabs?

In 2007 I read Peter W. Galbraith’s “The End of Iraq“, which suggests cutting Iraq into three mini-states, and then responded in two parts. The first part criticises Galbraith’s thesis, and the second part criticises the failures of Arabism. Both are merged below. More recently it has been revealed that Galbraith actually stood to gain financially from the dismantlement of Iraq.

explosion at Baghdad's Mutanabi Street book market

Peter W. Galbraith’s book ‘The End of Iraq’ argues the initially persuasive thesis that Iraqis have already divided themselves into three separate countries roughly corresponding to the Ottoman provinces of Basra (the Shii Arab south), Baghdad (the Sunni Arab centre) and Mosul (the Kurdish north), and that American attempts to keep the country unified are bound to fail. I agree wholeheartedly with Galbraith’s call for America to withdraw from Iraq – America is incapable of stopping the civil war, and is in fact exacerbating it. (update: I stick by this. The civil war has to some extent calmed because of internal Iraqi dynamics, not because of the US ’surge’ – the Sunni forces turned on al-Qaida, and also realised that they had lost the battle for Baghdad and national power. Some groups then allied with the US for a variety of reasons to do with self-preservation). The rest of Galbraith’s argument is much more debatable.

Continue reading “The End of the Arabs?”

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