Nader Hashemi and I have an essay titled “Playing with Fire: Trump, the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry, and the Geopolitics of Sectarianization in the Middle East” in the Mediterranean Yearbook 2018, published by the European Institute of the Mediterranean (IEMed). We examine the deterioration of sectarian relations in the Middle East in recent years, with a focus on the escalation of the Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry. We show how the Trump administration in particular has exacerbated these already volatile dynamics and suggest a shift in the policies of Western governments toward the region aimed at defusing the sectarianization process. Download the PDF.
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.
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”
Nader 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”
An astounding range of useful idiots and agenda-driven counter-revolutionaries have propagandised for the genocidal Assad regime in the last five years. Some, like David Duke and Nick Griffin, are honest about their hard-right, Islamophobic and racist politics. Others, including the ‘anti-imperialists’ who support the Russian-Iranian war-on-terror in Syria, and the ‘leftists’ who support the crony-capitalist Assad’s assaults on working-class communities, are much less so. Added to the list is the sectarian orientalist Joshua Landis, who poses as an academic while propagandising for both Assad and ISIS. In an article first published at the Huffington Post, Mohammed Ghanem takes him to task.
Over the past five years, Syria advocates have become well-acquainted with their most vociferous opponents in the American foreign policy debate. These analysts often have a grand theory that causes them to neglect key facts on Syria. They may have a reflexive mistrust of all claims made by the U.S. foreign policy establishment, an undue focus on “realist” theories of global politics, a mistaken belief that the Assad regime is “secular” and “anti-extremist,” or adamant anti-interventionist political views. In the case of University of Oklahoma Professor Joshua Landis, the grand theory is sectarianism.
Last week, I phoned in to a “Wilson Center” briefing that included Landis and was shocked to hear him say “I went through my mind thinking, Could one say that Shiites are better than Sunnis? And ultimately, I decided that this was a losing effort.” This rhetorical device, called paralipsis, seeks to highlight a rhetorical point by emphasizing that it was not mentioned. It usually is only a prelude to mentioning the point later, as it primes the audience to listen for exactly that point.
And indeed, Landis later wished for Iran, the main Shiite power, to win in Syria: “One side has to win…[It’s] more or less a done deal that Russia and Iran are closing this out…Allow it to happen.” Landis also stated, “The United States has been destroying Sunni rebels” in Iraq, while “Russia has been doing the same in Syria,” as if the ISIS insurgents America targets in Iraq can be equated with the civilian hospitals and residential neighborhoods that have borne the brunt of Russia’s air assault in Syria.
It was hardly the first time that Landis has pushed a highly sectarian view of Syria’s opposition; this has been his overarching focus since the conflict began. Just a month into Syria’s 2011 democracy protests, when demonstrators were chanting “One! One! One!” to highlight their diversity, Landis told “The Real News” that “The opposition says there is no threat [of sectarian war]…That’s what the opposition said about Iraq.” And in November 2011, only months before the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report would blame the Assad regime for increased sectarian rhetoric, Landis summarized the conflict to PBS Frontline later that year, “It’s a Sunni versus Alawite thing…The hatred, which had largely dissipated during the Assad years, has now come back with a vengeance.”
Landis, who maintains the blog Syria Comment, is one of the only academics to have focused on Syria’s domestic politics since 2004, and to be fair to him, Syria’s war did become steadily more sectarian with time due to Assad’s practices. Landis was also correct when he predicted in the spring of 2012, when many observers believed Assad was about to fall, that the regime would survive the year and beyond. But Landis’ stellar academic qualifications on Syria do not excuse his consistent distortions of the fundamental nature of the conflict ― always, it should be noted, in a pro-regime direction.
This week, the organization Shurat HaDin is having a conference titled “Towards a New Law of War”. They don’t hide where their alliances lie, and on their online conference page (nostalgically illustrated with WWII British bombers) you can find their Western-supremacist and racist agenda stated loud and clear:
…exchange ideas regarding the development of armed conflict legal doctrine favorable to Western democracies engaged in conflict against nontraditional, non-democratic, non-state actors.
Today, [Creative Community for Peace] say, there is not a single musical act, from Justin Timberlake to the Rolling Stones to Alicia Keys, that they have not approached and coached in advance of their performance in Israel. ~Times of Israel
It’s no surprise that the genocidal Times of Israel is so eager to push anti-BDS initiatives. It’s also no surprise that one of Israel’s most well connected, elite whitewashing team, Creative Community for Peace [CCfP], is doing exactly what it vowed to do- whitewash genocide. However one might wonder about some of the names on the below statement that CCfP has published:
Over at Not George Sabra, Malik Little criticises Tariq Ali’s orientalist take on the Arab revolutions.
“What is a revolution?” asks Marxist Tariq Ali in a recent article. He answers, “a transfer of power from one social class (or even a layer) to another that leads to fundamental change.”
Ali never gets around to defining what exactly constitutes “fundamental change,” but he knows for sure that whatever “fundamental change” is, there has been none of it in the Arab world since 2011.
Does the end of the Ben Ali dictatorship in Tunisia and the destruction of its secret police count as “fundamental change“? For Ali, no. After decades of a life of comfort and privilege in West, it seems Ali has forgotten what it is like to live under the thumb of a police state and murderous military rule. He has forgotten what a “fundamental change“ it is to be ruled by elected institutions and politicians rather than tyrants and generalissimos.
Since Ben Ali was ousted, there have been two general strikes called by the main union federation.
For Ali, this is no big deal. How do we know? He never mentions Tunisia or its people even once in his half-assed self-serving overview of the Arab Spring’s non-revolutionaryness, a double oversight since Tunisia is why the Arab Spring happened in the first place.
Instead, Ali goes on to ‘analyze’ events in Egypt where the counter-revolution has triumphed. He uses this triumph to deny that a revolution ever happened. Woe to V.I. Lenin who continued to write about the Russian revolution of 1905 even after it was smashed by the Tsar and Karl Marx who continually referred to the lessons he learned in the abortive German revolution of 1848-1849 for failing to match the insightful wisdom of Tariq Ali, a man who knows a revolution is only a revolution when it succeeds!
The next stop on Ali’s “nothing to see here” tour is Libya:
“In Libya, the old state was destroyed by NATO after a six-month bombing spree and armed tribal gangs of one sort or another still roam the country, demanding their share of the loot. Hardly a revolution according to any criteria.”
No mention of course of the General National Congress election of 2012 that went off without a hitch to the immense jubilation of the long-suffering Libyan people. Mentioning inconvenient facts like this might make Westerners sympathetic to the their difficult struggle to build institutions out of the ashes of 42 years of one-man rule by a deranged tyrant. No discussion of what class rules Libya today is necessary. Better to talk up “armed tribal gangs” in true Orientalist fashion. Who better than a brown man to play on the fears peddled by the white man to convince Westerners that there’s no revolution in Libya for them to solidarize with? Ali knows that if there’s anything Westerners love to hate, it’s Muslims.
Throwing up gang signs.
Edward Said interviewed by Salman Rushdie at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London (September 1986).
I wrote to the editor of the London Review of Books concerning their Syria (and Libya) coverage. There’s been no reply, so I’m posting the letter here.
Watching the representation of the tragedy in the media has been almost as depressing as watching Syria burn. As someone with strong leftist and anti-imperialist leanings, it’s been particularly galling to find that ‘leftist’ commentary on Syria has often been the worst of all. Large sections of the left have wholeheartedly embraced the very discourse that they resisted during the War on Terror years – that of ‘terrorists’ and al-Qa’ida conspiracies explaining all. Leftist journalists have paid little or no attention to the regime’s blatant and deliberate instrumentalisation of sectarian hatreds, but have focussed on, and exaggerated, the backlash. Robert Fisk has gone so far as to embed himself with the regime army, and to (grotesquely) interview survivors of the Darayya massacre in the presence of the perpetrators of the massacre. Many leftists have convinced themselves, against all the evidence, that the American-led empire has been conspiring against the Syrian regime since the start of the revolution, that this is a re-run of Iraq. Tariq Ali even appeared on Russia Today (near the start) to explain that America was trying to take over Syria but Russia was protecting the country. Russia – the imperialist power which is arming and funding the regime as it commits genocide.
I subscribe to the London Review of Books because it’s by far the best written, most incisive, most reflective, and bravest British publication. Publishing Walt and Mearsheimer was a great move. On the middle east, Adam Shatz is always excellent, well-informed, interested in teasing out a complex truth. Much of the coverage of the revolutions has been eurocentric and orientalist, however. I agreed with novelist Hisham Matar when he called ‘shame’ on Hugh Roberts’s very long Libyan piece which at no point attempted to see things from a Libyan perspective. Rather, it cast the Libyans as passive agents, pawns in the hands of the devilishly clever white man. And on Syria, commentary has been statist-leftist, as if this were an amusing chess game between regional and super powers rather than a struggle for freedom and a genocide, with only one side receiving sustained imperialist aid. I wrote in brief about Patrick Cockburn’s orientalism here.
Jose Feliciano is scheduled to perform in apartheid Israel on October 10, at Nokia Stadium. Already he’s being sent messages professing liberal language of equality and harmony for all, by that elite club for the endless cycle of war profiteering, whitewashing and violence, otherwise known as “Creative Community for Peace” (CCfP). Creative Community for Peace is a specialist in apartheid PR. They’re mere existence is about diverting attention from Israel’s systematic daily war crimes against the Palestinian population under its control, by abusing the word “Peace” and shooting the messenger- Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions activists (BDS), who connect the dots between Israel’s image of itself and the reality of its erasure of the Palestinian narrative and people.
Unfortunately, Jose Feliciano, for the time being, endorses the “Creative Community for Peace” statement that has been sent to him, and has posted it on the website. Continue reading “Creative Community for Peace in Letter to Jose Feliciano: Healing with Music in Colonial Times, Building Bridges Over the Bodies of the Oppressed”