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.
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”
John Timoney is the controversial former Miami police chief well known for orchestrating brutal crackdowns on protests in Miami and Philadelphia- instances with rampant police abuse, violence, and blatant disregard for freedom of expression. It should be of great concern that the Kingdom of Bahrain has brought Timoney and John Yates, former assistant commissioner of Britain’s Metropolitan Police, to “reform” Bahrain’s security forces.
Since assuming his new position, Timoney has claimed that Bahrain has been reforming it brutal police tactics in response to recommendations issued by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. He says that there is less tear gas being used and that while tear gas might be “distasteful,” it’s not really harmful.
I have no idea what country Chief Timoney is talking about, because it’s certainly not the Bahrain I saw this past week, a week that marked the one-year anniversary since the February 14, 2011 uprising.
I was in Bahrain for five days before being deported for joining a peaceful women’s march. During my stay, I accompanied local human rights activists to the villages where protests were raging and police cracking down. Every day, I inhaled a potent dose of tear gas, and came close to being hit in the head with tear gas canisters. Every evening I saw the fireworks and smelled the noxious fumes as hundreds of tear gas canisters were lobbed into the village of Bani Jamrah, next door to where I was staying. The villagers would get on their roofs yelling “Down, Down Hamad” (referring to the King). In exchange, as a form of collective punishment, the whole village would be doused in tear gas. I went to bed coughing, eyes burning, wondering how in the world the Bahrainis can stand this.
As part of an observer delegation in Bahrain with the peace group Code Pink, I visited the village of Bani Jamrah with local Bahraini human rights activists.
In one of the many horrific cases we heard, a 17-year-old boy Hasan, his friend and his 8-year-old brother left their home to go to the grocery store. As they were entering the store they noticed some other youngsters running. Fearing the police would be following them, they decided to wait in the store. The 8 year old hid behind a refrigerator. The police entered the store with face masks on. They grabbed the older boys, pulling them out of the store and into the street.
Once outside the shop the police began to beat them with their sticks and hit them on the head, shouting obscenities and accusations. The police were accusing them of having been involved with throwing Molotov cocktails, asking over and over “Where are the Molotov cocktails?”
The four policemen, all masked and wearing regulation police uniforms, took turns beating the boys while one was instructed to keep watch to make sure no one was video taping. They seemed to be very concerned that there be no witnesses. Quickly, they forced the boys into the waiting police car. Inside the police vehicle was another youth about 18 who appeared to be “Muhabharat,” or plain-clothes police thugs associated with many dictatorships in the Middle East.
A must see documentary which the Bahraini and Saudi regimes have tried to suppress.
Bahrain: An island kingdom in the Arabian Gulf where the Shia Muslim majority are ruled by a family from the Sunni minority. Where people fighting for democratic rights broke the barriers of fear, only to find themselves alone and crushed.
Al Jazeera’s excellent Fault Lines on the US role in the Gulf, particularly its deliberate support for the repressive Bahraini monarchy.
Fault Lines’ Seb Walker travels to the Gulf to look at US policy in the region, and to explore why the United States has taken an interventionist policy in Libya, but not in Bahrain, where there has been a brutal crackdown on protesters. Why does the White House strongly back democracy in one Arab country, but not another?