Left-Wing Orientalism: The Curious Case of Patrick Cockburn

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.

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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”

Revolution, Reform or Restoration? Nadia Marzouki on Tunisia Today

Tunisia has been very dear to my heart since I went there in the spring of 2013, just two years after its uprisings, an event that shook the world. Although I’ve not been back in the three years since that memorable visit, I’ve followed Tunisian events with great interest from afar. I was thus thrilled to have the opportunity to interview the Tunisian scholar Nadia Marzouki when she was in Denver last month.

Marzouki, a Research Fellow at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) in Paris, is the author of L’Islam, une religion américaine? (Islam, An American Religion?) and co-editor of two books: Religious Conversions in the Mediterranean World (with Olivier Roy) and the forthcoming Saving the People: How Populists Hijack Religion (with Roy and Duncan McDonnell). Continue reading “Revolution, Reform or Restoration? Nadia Marzouki on Tunisia Today”

Fighting Daesh at the Frontline Club

Alongside BBC correspondent David Lloyn; Richard Spencer, Middle East editor of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph; Shiraz Maher, author of Salafi-Jihadism:The History of an Idea; and Azadeh Moaveni, author of Lipstick Jihad and Honeymoon in Tehran – I was part of this panel discussing Daesh, Nusra, Assad, Saudi-Iran, and the West. (It was also the first time I saw a finished copy of our book Burning Country).

Debating Syria’s Future: Landis, Ghadbian, Whitson, Gelvin

This panel discussion on Syria’s future was held on 23 November in Denver at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). It featured Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch, James Gelvin of UCLA, Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma, and Najib Ghadbian of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces. I chaired and moderated. As I say in my introductory remarks, the questions explored in the discussion include:

  • How does Russia’s intervention in Syria change the equation?
  • How might the Paris attacks impact the geopolitical calculus—with France and Russia upgrading their assault on ISIS and the gap between Washington and Moscow regarding Syria’s future seemingly shrinking?
  • What might come of the Vienna peace talks set to begin in January?
  • Is Syria as a nation-state over? If so, what will emerge in its aftermath?
  • How can the carnage in Syria be brought to an end?

Watch:

Leila al-Shami on Stop the War

asshole

by Leila al-Shami

(From Leila al-Shami’s blog.)

Today, the British parliament will be voting on whether or not to join the US coalition in bombing Daesh (ISIS). During the debates the British left has outdone itself – even by its own usual standard of idiocy – to the extent it makes the Tories look progressive.

Over the past few days, demonstrations have been held in London and elsewhere to oppose the UK bombing Syria. The demonstrations were organized by the Stop the War Coalition (STW), an organization which has long adopted a counter-revolutionary position on Syria. Since the start of the uprising in 2011 STW has refused to acknowledge the agency of the oppressed Syrian people struggling against a fascist regime or to support their struggle in any form, preferring to see the current conflict only through a geopolitical lens. Their selective anti-imperialism means they’ve only ever opposed Western intervention in Syria (even when this was not a reality) and refuse to actively oppose Russian or Iranian intervention. They have never called for any action against Assad or opposed the war he has waged on the Syrian people, raining down barrel bombs and targeting civilian areas with Scud missiles for over four years. It is this war which has been the main cause of civilian deaths in Syria and which has created the vacuum and desperation giving rise to Daesh. These ‘progressives’ have consistently refused to give a platform to revolutionary Syrians. They have even, shamefully, called the police to remove Syrians present at a recent meeting. Conversely, they give non-Syrian apologists for the Assad regime a voice, people such as the odious George Galloway and massacre-denier Mother Agnes.

At the demonstrations organized by STW some present were holding Baathist flags and pictures of the mass-murderer Assad. Seriously, a blatant fascist presence was considered acceptable at a protest organized by people who describe themselves as leftists. It is no wonder that their demonstrations were small (compared to the heyday of the Iraq war demos), with no large scale Syrian or Muslim presence. I am sure many who oppose the bombing of Syria would feel alienated joining a protest organized by those who ally themselves with a regime that practices torture on an industrial scale, sodomizes its opponents with broken bottles, and gasses civilian neighbourhoods. One of the speakers at the event held last Saturday, Tariq Ali (once considered a ‘radical’, so I’m told) rhetorically called for Britain to ally itself with Assad and Russia if it wanted to defeat Daesh. This was based on his erroneous claim that Russia is actually attacking Daesh, whilst the evidence shows that the majority of Vlad the Invader’s attacks are aimed at anti-Assad forces (which have also been fighting Daesh since January 2014) and civilians in areas with no Daesh presence. As for Assad, not only has he not attacked Daesh until recently (to gain international legitimacy as a partner in the ever expanding War on Terror) but has actively facilitated its growth.

Jeremy Corbyn, the current leader of the British Labour Party who has been the Chair of STW for the past four years and has now appointed the Stalinist and Putin supporter Seumas Milne as the party’s director of communications, is giving his party’s members the choice of whether to back joining the US coalition or not. To help them make up their minds he has invited Patrick Cockburn to brief Labour MPs on Syria ahead of the vote. Patrick Cockburn openly supports the fascist mass murderer Assad, has called for Britain to ally with Assad’s imperialist sponsors Russia and Iran, has consistently slandered Syrian rebels as ‘Al Qaeda’, makes shit up in his writing like pretending to be an eyewitness to massacres which likely never happened, and recommends Donald Trump’s analysis on the Middle East. Does anyone really consider these people progressives? As an anarchist, it seems to me that the statist ideologies of both left or right have much more in common with each other than any values or principles I adhere to.

As a British Syrian who opposes any foreign power bombing Syria, I cannot help but feel disgusted that these people have hijacked the debate. The only way to defeat Daesh is to give support to local forces which are engaged in the battle with them on the ground. This must include Sunni Arab forces – the population Daesh attempts to rule. Cameron was not wrong when he said there are 70,000 moderate opposition fighters in Syria. However, the idea that these forces will join a coalition fighting Daesh which doesn’t address the main threat to Syrians – the Assad regime – is absurd. As for the anti-war left, if they are to have any relevance or moral compass, they must oppose all those who are bombing Syrians, including the Assad regime and its imperial backers, Russia and Iran. Most of all, they must listen to the voices of Syrians instead of sticking to their patronizing and unprincipled stance of inviting ‘experts’ of dubious credentials speak on their behalf.

Regardless of the outcome of today’s vote, the bombs on Syria will continue to fall.

 

 

“Hands Off Syria” Applies to Russia Too—An International Statement

The following statement was authored by Gail Daneker of Friends for a NonViolent World, Brian Slocock of the Syria Solidarity Movement, UK, and the blogger and activist Clay Claiborne

 

“Hands Off Syria” Applies to Russia Too

As people and groups from many countries, united by a common commitment to peace, justice and human rights, we condemn the military offensive that began with air strikes launched by Russia in Syria on 30 September 2015 and accelerating subsequently.

While the Russian government has said that these operations were directed against the Islamic State (ISIS), most were on areas with no ISIS presence. The focus of the Russian military offensive appears to have been on opposition communities in the northern Homs region, a continuing center of resistance to the Assad Regime.

The victims of the Russian aggression on 30 September were predominantly civilians, including many children. Humanitarian conditions were dire in the area before Russia launched its offensive because it has long been under siege by the regime for its resistance. Continue reading ““Hands Off Syria” Applies to Russia Too—An International Statement”

Uncomfortable Facts

russian bombsTwo stories in one day which you would expect to disrupt the faux-anti-imperialist narrative, but which probably won’t. Narratives stand high above facts, after all.

First, ISIS claims responsibility for a suicide attack which killed Saudi soldiers in Aden, Yemen.

Second, according to this article, printed in full below, Israel has agreed to provide intelligence on the Syrian opposition to Russia, to help it with its bombing runs. In return Russia promises to stop weapons flowing through Syria to Hizbullah, and to tolerate any Israeli bombing of Syria. The last paragraph says that Tzipi Livni, Israel’s former Foreign Minister, “has called for direct cooperation with Iran and Hezbollah in order to protect Israeli interests.”

UPDATE: My friend Elizabeth Tsurkov says this: “Israel is simply ensuring that it can bomb Hizbollah/Iranian targets without being shot down by Russian jets of S-300 systems. There’s no indication anywhere that Israel is sharing intel with the Russian regime on this issue. … Middle East Monitor is a site that it known to fabricate stories.” She may well be right about the source, and about the intelligence sharing. But Russian-Israeli military cooperation is increasing, not only in Syria.

Mainstream and leftist opinion – often guided by a cabal of ageing orientalist white men (Cockburn, Fisk, Bromwich, Glass, etc) – will continue to hold that Saudi Arabia controls ISIS and Russia is lined up with Assad and Iran in a confrontation against the Zionist West, which is intent on Assad’s downfall. These useful idiots are smoothing the way for the fascist-imperialist axis.

Meanwhile Russian fire falls on Syria’s liberated cities, striking the Free Army in Homs and Jaysh al-Fateh in Idlib, Hama and Lattakia, striking also buildings used by self-organising civilian revolutionary committees and Byzantine ruins outside Kafranbel. Dozens of civilians have been murdered. One in  twenty of Russia’s strikes have targetted ISIS.

It seems regime/ Iranian ground offensives will follow, particularly in northern Homs and the areas of Hama and Lattakia near the regime’s coastal stronghold. The aim is to shore up Assad’s collapsing regime in the fifth of Syria he retains. The larger hope is to destroy the opposition, leaving only Assad and ISIS standing. Then the West may more openly back Assad to take the rest of the country back.

The imperialist assault will undoubtedly extend the war in time and expand it in space. The coming months may see grievous setbacks for opposition forces. In the end, however, Russian bombs will not be able to alter the demographic reality any more than Assad’s bombs or the Iranian militias could before. Assad is running out of fighting men; foreign troops, however many arrive, can extend but not win his war. And not only the opposition militias but the majority of the Syrian people too will refuse to cooperate with any plan envisaging regime survival. For them Assad, not ISIS, is the supreme evil, and with good reason: Assad’s forces are responsible for the overwhelming majority of civilians killed and driven out.

Beyond that, Russia’s economy shrank by 5% last year. Russia isn’t strong so much as it is constantly appeased. But Syria’s fighters are in no mood for appeasement. When the Russians first walked into Afghanistan, when the Americans first walked into Vietnam, they thought their operations would be easy and brief…

Continue reading “Uncomfortable Facts”