The turmoil that has beleaguered the Middle East for decades has been described many ways. On the 5th of June, however, the terminology turned vulgar. This enduring conflict was publically characterised as a ‘war between the civilized man and the savage’. Boldly announced with a plea to ‘support Israel/defeat Jihad’, the full page advertisement ran in the New York Post’s special section covering the city’s ‘Celebrate Israel’ parade.
Declaring the Muslim people ‘savage’ is, of course, just a school-yard taunt from Islamaphobe Pamela Geller, who gleefully takes credit for the advertisement. Had her rant been limited to her own blog, we might easily dismiss it. The problem lies in its acceptance into mainstream discourse. The Post may be tabloid journalism, but its paper edition remains the seventh most popular paper in America. And this sort of crude advertisement for a political cause panders to a public comfortable with the mind-set of ‘don’t bore me with the details’.
But the details are critical if we are to consider a conflict that has taken thousands of lives. How can we, for instance, reconcile the concept of ‘civilized’ with the reality of shooting unarmed protesters? The advertisement asks us to accept Israel as ‘civilized’; yet as these very words were first read, Israeli soldiers were shooting into a crowd of Syrian-Palestinians, killing 24 and injuring another 350.
Journalist and author Nir Rosen writes the following in an article for Al Jazeera about the myriad obstacles to the dissemination of truth in Western reporting on the Middle East:
Relying on a translator means you can only talk to one person at a time and you miss all the background noise. It means you have to depend on somebody from a certain social class, or sect, or political position, to filter and mediate the country for you. Maybe they are Sunni and have limited contacts outside their community. Maybe they are a Christian from east Beirut and know little about the Shia of south Lebanon or the Sunnis of the north. Maybe they’re urban and disdainful of those who are rural. In Iraq, maybe they are a middle class Shia from Baghdad or a former doctor or engineer who looks down upon the poor urban class who make up the Sadrists. And so in May 2003, when I was the first American journalist to interview Muqtada Sadr, my bureau chief at Time magazine was angry at me for wasting my time and sending it on to the editors in New York without asking him, because Muqtada was unimportant, lacking credentials. But in Iraq, social movements, street movements, militias, those with power on the ground, have been much more important than those in the establishment or politicians in the green zone, and it is events in the red zone which have shaped things.
The 15th of May is a day of remembrance. Around the world, we remember the systematic displacement and massacre of the Palestinian people. In their honour, we take note of the necessity of safeguarding the sliver of impoverished land that has been left to the survivors. We pay tribute to those who have refused to be stomped into oblivion.
Yet the Israeli newspaper Haaretz bemoans self-righteously the ‘Palestinian protests for the annual Nakba Day, which mourns the creation of the State of Israel’. At this phraseology we can only shake our heads and say, ‘no, it is not about you; it is about the injustice done to the Palestinian people; it is this injustice that is the catastrophe’.
News during the last couple of weeks has rumbled in to shake an already rickety balance of world order. Perhaps one of the most disturbing images accompanying those headlines, though, was not that of more bruised and bulleted bodies. Rather, the image was of what the Associated Press termed a ‘jubilant crowd’. As though they had just won the World Cup Final, Americans waved flags as they sang and chanted their patriotic celebration.
Osama Bin Laden, they had just been told, had been shot dead. After nearly a decade-long manhunt, he had finally been pounced upon in Pakistan. The crowd cheered. And when President Obama made the official announcement, he coaxed the nation to cheer the same; he concluded by quoting the American pledge of allegiance:
Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all’.
‘Indivisible’. In this one word lies the notion that has fed American policy for many, many years: united we stand—divided they fall.
The arms of the Resistance, it has been suggested, should be abandoned as a matter of principle. ‘From now on’, explains Caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri, ‘the possession of weapons, decision of war and peace, and defending the country should only be under the state’s control’. Political principles, it would seem, can be slippery. ‘From now on’? Perhaps this disclaimer is meant to ease the turnabout from the Hariri-Ministerial Cabinet Statement issued just over a year ago:
Based on the Cabinet’s responsibility to preserve Lebanon’s sovereignty, its independence, unity and the safety of its land, the government underscores Lebanon’s right through its people, army and resistance to liberate or regain authority of Shebaa Farms, Kfarshouba hills and the occupied part of Ghajar village and defend the country against any aggression’.
For the sake of argument, however, let us set aside the dictates of political expediency. Let us look at the reality of what this stance entails.
The Guardian published this piece on Syria tacked onto the end of this piece on Egypt. Unfortunately they cut my paragraphs on sectarianism, the most important part of my argument. I should add that, after today’s great revolutionary awakening in Egypt, I am no longer certain of anything. Everything has changed.
With its young population, and a bureaucracy run by the same authoritarian party for four decades, Syria is by no means exempt from the pan-Arab crisis of unemployment, low wages and the stifling of civil society, conditions which have now brought revolution to Tunisia. Nevertheless, in the short to medium term it seems highly unlikely that the Syrian regime will face a Tunisia-style challenge.
A state-controlled Syrian newspaper blamed the Tunisian revolution on the Bin Ali regime’s “political approach of relying on ‘friends’ to protect them.” Tunisia’s status as Western client was only a minor motivator for the uprising there, but still al-Watan’s analysis will be shared by many Syrians. Unlike the majority of Arab states, Syria’s foreign policy is broadly in line with public opinion – and in Syria foreign policy, which has the potential to immediately translate into a domestic security issue, matters a great deal. The regime has kept the country in a delicate position of no war with, but also no surrender to, Israel (which occupies the Golan Heights), and has pursued close cooperation with Lebanese and Palestinian resistance movements as well as emerging regional powers such as Turkey and Iran. This is appreciated by ‘the street’, and the president himself is no hate figure in the mould of Ben Ali or Mubarak. Where his father engineered a Stalinist personality cult, mild-mannered Bashaar al-Asad enjoys a reasonable level of genuine popularity. Much is made of his low-security visits to theatres and ice cream parlours.
Omar Nashabe delivers the LSE Global Governance public lecture.
This event was recorded on 18 January 2011 in Hong Kong Theatre, Clement House The indictment of the STL in the Hariri assassination case is expected to be filed soon. However there are suspicions that the judicial process has been politically manipulated. This lecture will attempt to show that there have been serious flaws in the STL as an international mechanism for achieving justice. Omar Nashabe received a PhD in Criminal Justice; he serves as editor of the justice section of al-Akhbar newspaper and advisor on human rights and prisons to the Lebanese government. In 2007 he published The Roumieh Prison, if it could speak [in Arabic] with Dar as-Saqi, Beirut/London. The event was chaired by Professor Susan Marks.
Available as: mp3 (51 MB; approx 112 minutes) Editor’s note: Unfortunately the first few minutes of the lecture are missing from the podcast. Event Posting: The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL): Prerequisites for Injustice?
Lately, in the last few years… like since Richard Milhous Nixon assumed the coveted title of POTUS… I have had trouble falling asleep at night. Sound familiar? You betcha! The stresses and anxiety of the days have a tendency to beat us to death, and relaxation is tough to find.
How to switch off the horrors of tomorrow’s deadlines, tomorrow’s exams, and tomorrow’s humiliations at the TSA pat-down and peep show? Tough questions indeed.
To make matters worse, I also have trouble getting out of bed in the morning. Not only do I live in complete terror of… well, terror… I also live in terror of saying the wrong thing. Look at all the trouble that dude Assange has caused with his little website, wikileaks.com! My God! State secrets, plots, skullduggery and shenanigans are being exposed! Is there no decency left in America?
God… or State… forbid the First Amendment and Free Speech should actually be upheld. We have our national paranoia to protect!
But… I have veered from the path of the straight and narrow and my purpose. Let me return to the subject of stress relief.
Here’s a strange and sparkly, jumpy and tightly-packed little book by PULSE’s own Belen Fernandez, in which our heroines (Belen and the photographer Amelia Opalinska) hitch-hike through Lebanon and Syria a few weeks after the war of summer 2006, consuming far more caffeine than is good for them.
Beyond Gonzo, it doesn’t pretend to be journalism at all. Instead it recounts a fairly lunatic, fairly random sight-seeing tour towards ‘the dark force’ Hezbollah. The setting, of course, is an Israeli-devastated landscape, and the ‘dark force’ tag, like all the book’s other appropriations of mendacious political language, is ironic. “Coffee with Hebollah” is, as Norman Finkelstein writes in his recommendation, “simultaneously serious and silly.” It’s also quick witted and very well informed, sensitive to the discourses and stereotypes of Lebanon’s 18 sects, the country’s tortured history, as well as the fantastic representations of Lebanon that have emerged from Israeli and Western power centres. This makes the book a new kind of journalism as well as a parody of the mainstream version.
The satire is harsh, and nobody escapes the treatment, including the author. The absurdity of the material is pointed up further by the mock-formal language of negotiation and diplomatic report in which encounters are narrated, the supposedly transparent language of perfect sense. So, for instance, labelling somebody by sect is described as conducting an “exhaustive religio-spatial analysis.” Such phrasing mirrors the pompous pretensions of the thinking it describes. There is also a great deal of translation comedy, natural territory for irony, which lies in gaps, in the distance between reality and representation.