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”

Morbid Symptoms: A Conversation with Gilbert Achcar

Danny Postel and Gilbert Achcar at After-Words bookstore in Chicago, 10 July 2018

Last week I had the pleasure of sitting down with the Lebanese scholar Gilbert Achcar for a conversation about the complex situation in the Middle East and various myths about the region that permeate the global leftosphere. The conversation was recorded for the podcast of Chicago DSA, the Chicago chapter of Democratic Socialists of America.

Achcar has been called “one of the best analysts of the contemporary Arab world” (Le Monde) and “the preeminent Marxist scholar of the region” (CounterPunch). He is Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at SOAS, University of London. His books include The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder (2002), Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007), The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives (2010), The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (2013), Marxism, Orientalism, Cosmopolitanism (2013), and Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising (2016).

Joel Beinin on labor movements in Tunisia and Egypt

Joel Beinin has been a major figure in Middle East studies for several decades. He has been involved with the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) since the 1970s and remains a contributing editor to its magazine, Middle East Report. He and Joe Stork assembled the cri de coeur Political Islam: Essays from Middle East Report. Beinin’s MERIP author page reads like a one-man archive of leftist thinking about the Middle East over the last 30 years.

He is Professor of Middle East History at Stanford University and series editor of Stanford Studies in Middle Eastern and Islamic Societies and Cultures. In 2002 he served as president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA). From 2006 to 2008 he served as Director of Middle East Studies and Professor of History at the American University in Cairo (AUC). Continue reading “Joel Beinin on labor movements in Tunisia and Egypt”

The (literal) fascists who took Tulsi Gabbard to meet Assad

gabbard-assadIt has now been widely reported that Tulsi Gabbard, a member of the US House of Representatives from Hawaii, recently met with Bashar al-Assad during a ‘fact-finding’ mission to Syria. As The Daily Beast reported:

Gabbard initially declined to say who financed her trip to Syria. However, in a press release Wednesday Gabbard revealed her delegation (which also included former Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich) had been “led and sponsored by” an outfit called the Arab American Community Center for Economic and Social Services (AACCESS—Ohio). Her statement added she and the rest of the delegation had been accompanied by two men, Elie and Bassam Khawam.

The flag of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) is "patterned after that of the Nazis, with the red and black in opposite places and a helix with four blades in place of a swastika"
The flag of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) is “patterned after that of the Nazis, with the red and black in opposite places and a helix with four blades in place of a swastika”

The Khawam brothers, it turns out, are officials in the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), a fascist organization that actively supports the Assad regime and indeed “has dispatched its members to fight on [its] behalf,” reports The Guardian. Who exactly are the SSNP? The Daily Beast goes into some of the group’s history.

For a deeper dive into the ideological swamp Gabbard has waded into, here’s what Gilbert Achcar, Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at SOAS, University of London, wrote about the group in his 2011 book The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives:

Continue reading “The (literal) fascists who took Tulsi Gabbard to meet Assad”

Left-wing Argentinian Politician Condemns ‘Genocide’ in Syria

Juan Carlos Giordano of the ‘Socialist Left’ party condemned the ‘international genocide’ in Syria.

Juan Carlos Giordano, the Argentinian MP and leader of the ‘Izquierda Socialista‘ (Socialist Left) party, itself a member of the Trotskyist ‘Frente de Izquierda y de los Trabajadores’ (Workers’ Left Front) coalition, gave a powerful speech on the situation in Aleppo at the Buenos Aires City Council.

On Twitter, Giordano said:

“My intervention in solidarity with the rebellious people of Syria against the genocide committed by Assad and Russia with the endorsement of imperialism.”

Here is a transcript of his speech, translated by Elisa Marvena:

My motion of privilege, that we have brought up in this parliamentary work, is about denouncing an international genocide. When one is asked in what way is an MP, the chamber of deputies of the nation affected? An international genocide! A crime against humanity perpetrated against the people of Aleppo, Syria, which we want to condemn. And this flag represents not the dictator Bashar al Assad, but the rebellious people of Aleppo against the dictatorship of Bashar al Assad. What has been named the Guernica of the 21st century, where bombs condemned by the international community have been dropped… on hospitals, schools… Where the civilian population has been murdered, [where] 95 per cent of all physicians have fled. Aleppo has been put under siege, food and medicine were not allowed to enter. The dictatorship of Bashar al Assad, the bombardment from Russia with the complicity of the United States and the complicity of the European Union, because this is a people that rose up against dictatorship as part of the Arab Spring in 2011 and [the situation] transformed into a civil war, provoking a humanitarian catastrophe. Therefore, we defend the people of Aleppo, the rebellious people of Syria against Bashar al Assad, against the bombardment and imperialist interference. And we are demanding that the national government break all diplomatic relationships with this dictatorship, corner the dictator and side with the rebellious peoples struggling with dignity against dictatorships in the world. Thank you, Mr. President.

Continue reading “Left-wing Argentinian Politician Condemns ‘Genocide’ in Syria”

To “leftist” admirers of Assad’s Syria

By Farouk Mardam-Bey

As a Syrian who has always identified politically with the left, I am particularly appalled by those men and women who call themselves left-wingers — and are therefore supposed to stand in solidarity with struggles for justice worldwide — and yet openly support the regime of the Assads, father and son, who are chiefly responsible for the Syrian disaster.

Following four months of intense bombardment by the Russian air force, Bashar Al-Assad’s army, along with Shiite militias hailing from everywhere and mobilized by the Iranian mullahs, have now finished ‘liberating’ Eastern Aleppo. Liberated from whom? From its inhabitants. More than 250,000 inhabitants were forced to flee their own city to escape massacres, as had the people of Zabadani and Daraya before them, and as will many more Syrians if systematic social and sectarian ‘cleansing’ continues in their country under the cover of a massive media disinformation campaign.

That in Syria itself wealthy residents of Aleppo, belonging to all religious sects, rejoice over having been rid of the “scum” — meaning the poor classes who populated Eastern Aleppo — is not surprising at all. We are accustomed to it: the arrogance of dominant classes is universal.

Continue reading “To “leftist” admirers of Assad’s Syria”

Yassin al-Haj Saleh on the War on Terror

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Yassin al-Haj Saleh and his abducted wife Samira Khalil

Western leftists would do themselves a favour by listening carefully to the Syrian leftist Yassin al-Haj Saleh. In this interview with Murtaza Hussain and Marwan Hisham, first published at the Intercept, Yassin discusses leftist misconceptions as well as Islamism, secularism, intervention, the ‘Palestinization’ of Syrians and the ‘Israelization’ of the Assad regime.

Yassin al-Haj Saleh has lived a life of struggle for his country. Under the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad, he was a student activist organizing against the government. In 1980, Saleh and hundreds of others were arrested and accused of membership in a left-wing political group. He was just 19 years old when a closed court found him guilty of crimes against the state. Saleh spent the next 16 years of his life behind bars.

“I have a degree in medicine, but I am a graduate of prison, and I am indebted to this experience,” Saleh said, sitting with us in a restaurant near Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Now in his 50s, with white hair and a dignified, somewhat world-weary demeanor, Saleh, called Syria’s “voice of conscience” by many, has the appearance and bearing of a university professor. But he speaks with passionate indignation about what he calls the Assad dynasty’s “enslavement” of the Syrian people.

Saleh was living in Damascus in 2011 when Syrian civilians rose up to demand political reform. That protest movement soon turned into open revolution after government forces met the protestors with gunfire, bombardment, mass arrests, and torture.

From painful firsthand experience, Saleh knew the cost of challenging the Assad regime. But when the uprising started, he did not hesitate to join it. He left home and spent the next two years in hiding, helping Syrian activists organize their struggle.

By late 2013, Syria had descended into anarchy. The conflict between the government and a range of opposition forces had become increasingly militarized. Like many other activists for the revolution, Saleh was forced to flee across the border to Turkey. That same year, armed groups in the Damascus suburbs kidnapped his wife, along with three other activists. ISIS kidnapped his brother in 2013. Neither has been heard from since.

Saleh is now among the millions of Syrians living in Turkey as refugees. He travels the country helping to train Syrian writers and activists in exile, while writing and speaking about his country’s plight. As a leftist, he has also been a vociferous critic of a growing international consensus that has come to see the Syrian conflict in Bashar al-Assad’s terms — as a fight against terrorism.

Our interview with Saleh is presented below, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Continue reading “Yassin al-Haj Saleh on the War on Terror”