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”

Interview: sectarianization as a process

Sectarianization-book-coverNader Hashemi and I recently gave the following interview to Jadaliyya about our new co-edited book Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East, followed by an excerpt from our co-authored introduction to the volume.

Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, eds. Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East (Oxford University Press and Hurst, 2017).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Danny Postel and Nader Hashemi (DP and NH): Over the last several years, a narrative has taken root in Western media and policy circles that attributes the turmoil and violence engulfing the Middle East to supposedly ancient sectarian hatreds. “Sectarianism” has become a catchall explanation for virtually all of the region’s problems. Thomas Friedman, for instance, claims that in Yemen today “the main issue is the seventh century struggle over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad — Shiites or Sunnis.” Barack Obama has been one the biggest proponents of this thesis. On several occasions, he has invoked “ancient sectarian differences” to explain the turmoil in the region. In his final State of the Union address, he 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. But in one form or another, this new sectarian essentialism, which is lazy and convenient — and deeply Orientalist — has become the new conventional wisdom in the West.

Our book forcefully challenges this narrative and offers an alternative set of explanations for the rise in sectarian conflict in the Middle East in recent years. Continue reading “Interview: sectarianization as a process”

A dizzying abundance of events this coming week

There’s never a shortage of rich cultural programming in a cosmopolis like Chicago, but the coming week presents an absolute frenzy…

 

Monday, April 3 at 6:00 PM

Joel Beinin discusses his book Workers and Thieves: Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt — at the Evanston Public Library (in partnership with Northwestern University’s Middle East and North African Studies Program)

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Wednesday, April 5 at 6:00 PM

Mustafa Akyol discusses his book The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims — at Bookends & Beginnings in Evanston

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Continue reading “A dizzying abundance of events this coming week”

Sectarianization

My colleague Nader Hashemi and I have a new edited book out examining what we call the sectarianization of Middle East politics. It is published by Hurst in the UK (and worldwide) and by OUP in North America. This nifty video trailer for the book was produced by the talented Simeon Tennant.

Sectarianization: Steven Heydemann & Joshua Landis on the Trajectory of the Syrian Nightmare

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to interview two of the leading Syria experts in the world, Steven Heydemann and Joshua Landis, about the “big picture” of the Syrian conflict and the wider crisis engulfing the Middle East today, as part of the CMES Conversations series produced by the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver. Landis, while best known as a blogger and commentator on Syria, is an historian. Heydemann is a political scientist who has written an influential study of Syrian politics covering the years 1946-1970.

The two interviews offer contrasting perspectives, but both take us several steps back from the news cycle and place the events unfolding in the region today in a wider historical, comparative and global lens. This was the focus of the forum that brought them to Denver, “Sectarianization: ISIS, the Syrian Conflict & the Future of the Middle East”. Sectarianization will be a central focus of our  in the coming months, and is the theme of the book my colleague Nader Hashemi and I are currently co-editing (our last book being The Syria Dilemma).

Steven Heydemann is Vice President of Applied Research on Conflict at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). He’s the author of Authoritarianism in Syria: Institutions and Social Conflict, 1946-1970, the editor of War, Institutions and Social Change in the Middle East and co-editor of Middle East Authoritarianisms: Governance, Contestation, and Regime Resilience in Syria and Iran.

Our interview revolves largely around Heydemann’s far-reaching report “Syria’s Uprising: sectarianism, regionalisation, and state order in the Levant”, published by the European think tank FRIDE. Have a look:

Joshua Landis is Associate Professor in the College of International Studies at the University of Oklahoma, where he is also Director of the Center for Middle East Studies. Widely regarded as one of the leading Syria experts in the world, he is the former President of the Syrian Studies Association. He writes and edits the widely-read blog Syria Comment.

Our interview revolves principally around two of his recent articles: “The Great Sorting Out: Ethnicity & the Future of the Levant” and “Why Syria is the Gordian knot of Obama’s anti-ISIL campaign”. Have a look:

The End of the World?

I make some brief contributions to this Channel 4 News film on the apocalyptic resonances for both Muslims and Christians (some at least) of watching Damascus burn. I wish there’d been time to make the more important point: religion and myth add resonance to fighting and dying, but as in Northern Ireland or Palestine-Israel, the religious vocabulary is only a glittering sideshow to the real power dynamic. Al-Qa’ida franchises would be in Syria whether or not the Messiah were due to descend on a minaret of the Umawi mosque: because they turn up wherever there’s an opportunity, and Syria’s geographical and political centrality to the Arab-Muslim world is enough. In any case, such militias compose less than twenty percent of anti-Assad forces. Their influence has been vastly overblown, both by the right and by a left which embraces the very War on Terror discourse (terrorists, al-Qa’ida conspiracies) it resisted so loudly when used by Blair and Bush. The West doesn’t see a genocide, still less a living, breathing revolution, but only an even-matched war between Alawi-secularists and radical Salafists. It seems too late to change this fantastic illusion. The story seems set in the western mind. Just as Assad wants it.

This film was great fun to make, and it provides an interesting look at an interesting subject. But I worry about its context in the news bulletin. It necessarily highlighted the mad jihadist aspect, and it was followed by an interview with a neo-conservative on the dangers of radical Islamism. The problem as framed by the broadcast was clear: apocalyptic-minded Muslims were the problem. But the clear and present danger in Syria is the regime, the regime which is generating the trauma and  extremism, the regime which is committing genocide. Once again that was lost. And we in general are lost, paddling about in superstructure, paying no attention to the base.