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”
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”
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”
I have an essay in the new issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas in which I review Laura Secor’s excellent new book Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran and also examine Tehran’s role in the changing political landscape of the Middle East—especially in the Syrian catastrophe. You can read the essay here.
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”
In the increasingly disfigured debate about Syria, it is scarcely even remembered that it all began as a popular uprising—indeed, as a nonviolent and non-sectarian one whose goals were dignity, justice, and freedom from a one-family mafia torture state in power for more than four decades.
Wendy Pearlman is out to set that record straight and explain why the Syrian uprising happened in the first place.
Pearlman, an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University in Chicago who serves on the faculty of the university’s Middle East and North African Studies Program, is the author of Occupied Voices: Stories of Everyday Life from the Second Intifada and Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement.
For the last two years Pearlman has been working on a book that she conceives as something of a people’s history of the Syrian uprising. She has interviewed more than 150 Syrian refugees in Jordan and Turkey about their experiences in the uprising and war. Along the way, she has published a series of powerful articles, among them “Love in the Syrian Revolution”, “Fathers of Revolution” and “On the Third Anniversary of the Syrian Uprising”.
In September, our Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver had the pleasure of co-hosting Pearlman (along with the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security & Diplomacy) for a pair of presentations about her book-in-progress. While she was in Denver, I conducted this interview with her for our Middle East Dialogues video series:
Gilbert 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 many books include:
Eastern Cauldron: Islam, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq in a Marxist Mirror
The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder
Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy (dialogues with Noam Chomsky)
The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives
Marxism, Orientalism, Cosmopolitanism
The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising
We recently had the pleasure of hosting Professor Achcar at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies for a stimulating series of lectures, forums and panel discussions about his recent work. During his visit, I recorded the following interview with him for our CMES Conversations series.
We took his book The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising as a starting point from which to examine the roots of the Syrian uprising, the nature of the Assad regime, the different shapes of the uprisings across the region, and the fate of Syria. Here it is: