Iran these days is a greater focus of Arab ire and disquiet than Israel

From Dubai, Roger Cohen writes: When Amr Moussa, the former secretary general of the Arab League, spoke here of the Arab world’s humiliation by three non-Arab states — Iran, Israel and Turkey — and the way they had, through their “hegemony,” turned Arabs into a “laughingstock,” I asked him what exactly he meant.

His response focused on Iran. This in itself was interesting. Statements from Tehran about Iran calling the shots in several Arab capitals — including Damascus, Baghdad and Sana — had “enraged many of us,” he said, leaving Arabs humiliated that any power “would dare say that.”

As this remark suggests, Iran these days is a greater focus of Arab ire and disquiet than Israel, a country with which many Arab states have aligned but unsayable interests.

Cut to Camp David and President Obama’s attempt to reassure Persian Gulf leaders that the United States can, in Secretary of State John Kerry’s words, “do two things at the same time” — that is, conclude a nuclear deal with Shiite Iran and honor its alliances with the Sunni monarchies, whose oil is now of less strategic importance to an America in the midst of an oil boom.

The walk-and-chew-gum American argument is a tough sell because Arab honor and Arab humiliation are in play. That’s why King Salman of Saudi Arabia stayed away from Camp David. That’s why the Saudis started a bombing campaign in Yemen: to stop the Houthis, portrayed in Riyadh as pure Iranian proxies. That’s why much of what you hear these days in Dubai (where many Iranians live and trade) is talk of Obama’s betrayal of the Arabs through infatuation with Iran. [Continue reading…]

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Obama is on a quest to rebalance American power in the Middle East

Reza Marashi writes: As President Obama hosts leaders from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the UAE on May 13 and 14, he will surely hear a push from them for a White House plan to contain Iran. However, recent candid remarks from Admiral Mike Mullen should cause America to think twice. Going against conventional wisdom in Washington, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said: “[A nuclear deal] would also more fairly rebalance American influence. We need to re-examine all of the relationships we enjoy in the region, relationships primarily with Sunni-dominated nations. Détente with Iran might better balance our efforts across the sectarian divide.”

Let that sink in. The highest-ranking officer in the United States Armed Forces from 2007 to 2011 is essentially saying that America’s long-standing allies in the Middle East are trying to lock it into permanent confrontation with Iran–and into a permanent alliance with countries whose interests and values are increasingly opposed to its own. After the initial shock from Admiral Mullen’s intellectual honesty subsides, one quickly realizes that he is right: Why shouldn’t the U.S. have more options at its disposal to achieve its interests and reduce the threats it faces? For example, after 15 Saudi hijackers attacked the U.S. on September 11th, 2001, American decision-makers did not have the option of being firm with Saudi Arabia. Instead, they were trapped in an alliance precisely because there was no regional alternative that could be leveraged to hold the Saudis accountable. [Continue reading…]

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Obama and the Gulf states

Brian Whitaker writes: This week’s meeting at Camp David between President Obama and leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council is still being described as a “summit”, though it has already slithered some way down from the mountain top. The Sultan of Oman and the president of the UAE are both too ill to attend and will be sending representatives instead. The kings of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have pulled out too, in a move that is seen as a snub to President Obama. That leaves only Kuwait and Qatar to be represented by their heads of state.

In the US, even before it happens, the meeting has opened up a space for anti-Obama stirring from the political right, especially among opponents of the proposed nuclear deal with Iran. For the purposes of bad-mouthing Obama, the Gulf’s bumbling monarchs are presented as good guys – “determined to take the initiative” in “confronting Iran’s regional expansion” (to quote a briefing paper from the Orient Advisory Group) – against a US president with “a regional policy that no one can define or even understand”.

So the big question – indeed, the only question as far as some commentators are concerned – is what the US can do to reassure the Gulf’s plutocrats that it is still committed to their security.

The irony is that it ought to be the other way round. Given the spread of jihadist activity in the region and beyond, Obama should (but probably won’t) be asking the emirs and their stand-ins for more evidence of a commitment to other countries’ security. It’s all very well to thank them for resisting ISIS and supporting counterterrorism efforts at an international level by sharing intelligence, but in the current situation that is simply not enough. It’s time to start reversing the damage they have caused in the minds of many Muslims.

They should stop promoting sectarian politics and consider how their actions legitimise religious intolerance: the laws that prescribe punishment for apostasy, blasphemy and other kinds of nonconformity, the policies that treat the followers of different faiths (and even different branches of Islam) as inferior beings – in fact, anything that leads people to think it’s right to impose religion by force. Obama should tell them that until they take such a stand, no matter how many bombs they drop, there is virtually no hope of putting an end to jihadist violence.

But don’t hold your breath. It’s far more likely the Americans will send them home with assurances about Iran and arms deals in their pockets. [Continue reading…]

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How ISIS uses water as weapon of war

Walaa Hussein writes: The Middle East is facing a water crisis. As the region experiences conflicts over water and faces the continuous risk of war breaking out, experts on water predict that the Islamic State (IS) aims to exacerbate this water crisis, as evidenced by its efforts to seize rivers and dams in Syria and Iraq, starting in 2013.

The Arab League has worked since 2008 to establish a new Arab convention on water usage, which would establish parameters on how to deal with the water crisis. However, the final draft is still under review because of the reservations of some member states.

PricewaterhouseCoopers, an international consulting organization, has identified numerous regions where the water crisis threatens to transform into a global conflict. Turkey, Syria and Iraq are included on that list, due to the Turkish dams controlling the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Iran and Iraq are also witnessing a competition over the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, known as Shatt al-Arab. Also included is Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, which are witnessing a conflict over the Nile. Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Chad and Niger are also experiencing a crisis in relation to an 800-meter (0.5-mile) deep underground water field and the Nubian sandstone aquifer. Libya wants to invest in this aquifer to extend an artificial river and supply its coastline with freshwater. [Continue reading…]

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Stoking a women’s sexual revolution in the Middle East

Connie Schultz reviews Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution by Mona Eltahawy: In the early 1990s, Mona Eltahawy walked into the women’s section on the metro in Cairo wearing a beige-and-red headscarf that framed her young face. A woman covered in a black veil that revealed only her eyes bristled with disapproval. “Why aren’t you wearing a niqab?” she asked Eltahawy.

Eltahawy had always found the niqab “terrifying” in its ability to render a woman invisible. “Isn’t what I’m wearing enough?” she asked.

“If you want to eat a piece of candy,” the woman said, “would you choose one that is in a wrapper or an unwrapped one?”

Eltahawy’s reply: “I’m a woman, not a piece of candy.”

A bold response for an encounter with a stranger in a public space in Egypt, and an early glimpse into the life of activism that has culminated in her new book, “Headscarves and Hymens.”

Divided into seven essays and an epilogue, this is a small but packed manifesto, incendiary by design. Eltahawy is calling for a “revolution of the mind,” which is where she insists the battle for women’s bodies must begin. She takes on any and all Arab customs that serve to imprison women not only in their countries and in their homes but, just as dangerously, within the confines of their own psyches. [Continue reading…]

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In a surprise move, Saudi Arabia’s king shakes up line of succession

The Washington Post reports: Saudi Arabia’s new monarch, King Salman, announced a major overhaul within the nation’s royal family Wednesday, replacing his anointed heir with his nephew and naming his own son as deputy in line to the throne.

In a series of early morning royal decrees read on national television, Salman promoted his nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, from deputy crown prince to crown prince, meaning that Nayef will become king when Salman dies.

He named his son, Mohammed bin Salman, as deputy crown prince, putting him second in line to inherit the throne and thereby ensuring that the succession will pass through his own branch of the kingdom’s extensive royal family. Mohammed bin Salman’s exact age is not known, but he is believed to be about 30.

The decrees thrust a new, younger generation of Saudi princes into the line of succession, which could spell a more assertive Saudi foreign policy in the Middle East.

The move squeezes out the late King Abdullah’s choice of Prince Muqrin to succeed Salman. Abdullah had named Muqrin, his younger half-brother, as deputy crown prince two years ago, in what was widely seen at the time as an effort to secure the crown for an ally of his own sons.

The moves represented the clearest indicator yet of how the succession will likely proceed as the sons of the founder of the Saudi state, King Abdulaziz, age and die. [Continue reading…]

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The cautious rise of atheism and religious doubt in the Arab world

Ahmed Benchemsi writes: Last December, Dar Al Ifta, a venerable Cairo-based institution charged with issuing Islamic edicts, cited an obscure poll according to which the exact number of Egyptian atheists was 866. The poll provided equally precise counts of atheists in other Arab countries: 325 in Morocco, 320 in Tunisia, 242 in Iraq, 178 in Saudi Arabia, 170 in Jordan, 70 in Sudan, 56 in Syria, 34 in Libya, and 32 in Yemen. In total, exactly 2,293 nonbelievers in a population of 300 million.

Many commentators ridiculed these numbers. The Guardian asked Rabab Kamal, an Egyptian secularist activist, if she believed the 866 figure was accurate. “I could count more than that number of atheists at Al Azhar University alone,” she replied sarcastically, referring to the Cairo-based academic institution that has been a center of Sunni Islamic learning for almost 1,000 years. Brian Whitaker, a veteran Middle East correspondent and the author of Arabs Without God, wrote, “One possible clue is that the figure for Jordan (170) roughly corresponds to the membership of a Jordanian atheist group on Facebook. So it’s possible that the researchers were simply trying to identify atheists from various countries who are active in social media.”

Even by that standard, Dar Al Ifta’s figures are rather low. When I recently searched Facebook in both Arabic and English, combining the word “atheist” with names of different Arab countries, I turned up over 250 pages or groups, with memberships ranging from a few individuals to more than 11,000. And these numbers only pertain to Arab atheists (or Arabs concerned with the topic of atheism) who are committed enough to leave a trace online. “My guess is, every Egyptian family contains an atheist, or at least someone with critical ideas about Islam,” an atheist compatriot, Momen, told Egyptian historian Hamed Abdel-Samad recently. “They’re just too scared to say anything to anyone.”

While Arab states downplay the atheists among their citizens, the West is culpable in its inability to even conceive of an Arab atheist. In Western media, the question is not if Arabs are religious, but rather to what extent their (assumed) religiosity can harm the West. In Europe, the debate focuses on immigration (are “Muslim immigrants” adverse to secular freedoms?) while in the United States, the central topic is terrorism (are “Muslims” sympathetic to it?). As for the political debate, those on the right suspect “Muslims” of being hostile to individual freedoms and sympathetic to jihad, while leftists seek to exonerate “Muslims” by highlighting their “peaceful” and “moderate” religiosity. But no one is letting the Arab populations off the hook for their Muslimhood. Both sides base their argument on the premise that when it comes to Arab people, religiosity is an unquestionable given, almost an ethnic mandate embedded in their DNA. [Continue reading…]

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The Middle East’s chaotic future

Henri J. Barkey writes: The state as we know it is vanishing in the Middle East. Strife in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, foreign intrusion from states within the region and outside it, and dreadful rule by self-serving elites have all contributed to the destruction of societies, infrastructure and systems of governance. Nonstate actors of all kinds, most of them armed, are emerging to run their own shows. Generations of mistrust underlie it all.

It is difficult to see how Humpty Dumpty will ever be put back together again. To be sure, many Middle Eastern states were mostly illegitimate to begin with. They may have been recognized internationally, but their governments exercised authority mostly through repression and sometimes through terror. They relied on a political veneer or constructed narrative to justify the rule of ethnic or sectarian minorities, mafia-like family clans or power-hungry dictators. In most countries, the systems that were built were never intended to create national institutions, so they did not.

The Arab Spring shook some of these societies to the core, precipitating their disintegration. But it was the rise of the Islamic State, and the ease with which it spread through Syria and Iraq, that truly laid bare the incoherence of the existing states. [Continue reading…]

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An American banker, a Saudi billionaire, and a financial collapse that stunned the Middle East

Nicholas Schmidle writes: When Glenn Stewart enrolled at the University of Oxford, in 1975, he was not a typical first-year student: a twenty-year-old American with mediocre grades, he had taken neither A-level exams nor Oxford’s entrance test. But he had an unusual degree of confidence, and, after securing a strong reference from an English grammar school that he’d attended for a year, he persuaded an Oxford admissions officer to let him in.

Stewart had grown up in the Washington, D.C., suburb of College Park, Maryland, where his father taught chemistry at the University of Maryland. An enterprising kid, he made money on weekends by selling soda in the bleachers at college football games. After Stewart’s junior year in high school, his father went to England on sabbatical and took the family along. As Stewart later wrote in a self-published memoir, “A Gentleman and a Player,” he loved being among foreigners: “I could tell they were bemused by my brashness, never having met a Yank up close before.” After a year at the grammar school, he reluctantly followed his family back home, received his diploma, and completed a couple of semesters at the University of Maryland. America bored him, however, and he sought his fortunes abroad.

At Oxford, Stewart, who was tall and lean, with long brown hair, exuded what one classmate called a “sense of adventure.” He joined a clique of theatre enthusiasts who included Rowan Atkinson, of “Mr. Bean,” and Pierre Audi, a student from Lebanon, who now directs the Dutch National Opera. Audi told me that Stewart had seemed unusually attuned to other cultures. The tumult in the Middle East—the Yom Kippur War, the opec oil embargo — made a strong impression on Stewart. Where others saw a crisis, he glimpsed opportunity. He began intensive study of Arabic and Islamic history. His thesis explored Byzantine-Hamdanid relations in the tenth century and the evolution of the Christian concept of holy war. While Audi was trying to “run away from the Middle East,” he told me, Stewart was charging toward it. [Continue reading…]

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Four active Arab wars stem from a common malaise

Rami G. Khouri writes: The latest war in the Middle East, the Saudi Arabian-led assault on Yemen to prevent the Houthi movement from taking full control of the country, has triggered a fascinating legal and ideological debate about the legitimacy and efficacy of the venture. The significance of this war in Yemen is not really about the legally authorized use of force to ensure a calm Arab future. It is, rather, mainly a testament to the marginalization of the rule of law in many Arab countries in our recent past.

The 10 Arab and Asian countries participating in the fighting have justified it on the basis of assorted legal mechanisms through the Arab League, the United Nations Charter and the Gulf Cooperation Council, which allow countries to come to the life-saving aid of governments threatened by domestic or foreign aggression. The more meaningful and lasting dimension of the Yemen conflict is its expansion of active warfare in collapsing states adjacent to the energy-rich region of the Arabian Peninsula.

I am sickened but mesmerized by the nightly routine of flipping through assorted pan-Arab satellite television channels and following the four active wars that now define many aspects of the Arab world – in Yemen, Libya, Syria and Iraq – with lower intensity fighting and destruction in countries such as Somalia, Egypt, Sudan and Lebanon. In all these fractured lands, violent extremists such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS have put down anchorage and are operating across borders.

The capacity for warfare and other forms of political violence across the region seems unending, just as the mass suffering of civilians seems unlimited. The telltale signs of what these wars are about and why they happen so regularly is evident on the television screens in the human and physical landscapes that are slowly crumbling here and there.

The two most striking images that stay in my mind as I follow the day’s fighting in our four active wars is the primitive condition of our cities and villages, and the equally ravaged condition of our human capital. Streets and sidewalks are caricatures of what they should be, buildings are often simple, unpainted cement block structures with usually informal associations with such amenities as water and electricity. Individuals are often shabbily dressed and drive dilapidated pickup trucks and beat-up old sedans, because they do not have the money to buy anything better. This is not a consequence of the wars; it is the cause of the wars. [Continue reading…]

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Responding to failure: Reorganizing U.S. policies in the Middle East

In a recent speech, Chas W. Freeman said: I want to speak with you today about the Middle East. This is the region where Africa, Asia, and Europe come together. It is also the part of the world where we have been most compellingly reminded that some struggles cannot be won, but there are no struggles that cannot be lost.

It is often said that human beings learn little useful from success but can learn a great deal from defeat. If so, the Middle East now offers a remarkably rich menu of foreign-policy failures for Americans to study.

• Our four-decade-long diplomatic effort to bring peace to the Holy Land sputtered to an ignominious conclusion a year ago.

• Our unconditional political, economic, and military backing of Israel has earned us the enmity of Israel’s enemies even as it has enabled egregiously contemptuous expressions of ingratitude and disrespect for us from Israel itself.

• Our attempts to contain the Iranian revolution have instead empowered it.

• Our military campaigns to pacify the region have destabilized it, dismantled its states, and ignited ferocious wars of religion among its peoples.

• Our efforts to democratize Arab societies have helped to produce anarchy, terrorism, dictatorship, or an indecisive juxtaposition of all three.

• In Iraq, Libya, and Syria we have shown that war does not decide who’s right so much as determine who’s left.

• Our campaign against terrorism with global reach has multiplied our enemies and continuously expanded their areas of operation.

• Our opposition to nuclear proliferation did not prevent Israel from clandestinely developing nuclear weapons and related delivery systems and may not preclude Iran and others from following suit.

• At the global level, our policies in the Middle East have damaged our prestige, weakened our alliances, and gained us a reputation for militaristic fecklessness in the conduct of our foreign affairs. They have also distracted us from challenges elsewhere of equal or greater importance to our national interests.

That’s quite a record.

One can only measure success or failure by reference to what one is trying achieve. So, in practice, what have U.S. objectives been? Are these objectives still valid? If we’ve failed to advance them, what went wrong? What must we do now to have a better chance of success? [Continue reading…]

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How climate change fueled conflict in Syria and threatens the rest of the Middle East

Scientific American reports: Climate change can make storms stronger, cold spells longer and water supplies drier. But can it cause war? A new study published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says drought in Syria, exacerbated to record levels by global warming, pushed social unrest in that nation across a line into an open uprising in 2011. The conflict has since become a major civil war with international involvement.

Drying and drought in Syria from 2006 to 2011 — the worst on record there — destroyed agriculture, causing many farm families to migrate to cities. The influx added to social stresses already created by refugees pouring in from the war in Iraq, explains Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who co-authored the study. The drought also pushed up food prices, aggravating poverty. “We’re not saying the drought caused the war,” Seager said. “We’re saying that added to all the other stressors, it helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict. And a drought of that severity was made much more likely by the ongoing human-driven drying of that region.”

Seager added that the entire Middle East “faces a drier, hotter climate due to climate change. This will stress water resources and agriculture, and will likely further increase risk of conflict.” Global warming is desiccating the region in two ways: higher temperatures that increase evaporation in already parched soils, and weaker winds that bring less rain from the Mediterranean Sea during the wet season (November to April). [Continue reading…]

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Killing of Jordanian pilot unites the Arab world in anger

The New York Times reports: There was one sentiment that many of the Middle East’s competing clerics, fractious ethnic groups and warring sects could agree on Wednesday: a shared sense of revulsion at the Islamic State’s latest atrocity, burning alive a Jordanian pilot inside a cage.

In Syria, the government denounced the group that has been fighting it for months, but so did Qaeda fighters who oppose both the government and the Islamic State. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian government for once agreed on something, the barbarity of the militant group for the way it murdered the Jordanian, First Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh. And in Cairo, Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb, the head of the 1,000-year-old Al Azhar institute, was so angered that he called for the Islamic State’s extremists to be “killed, or crucified, or their hands and legs cut off.”

That leading Sunni scholar’s denunciation was even harsher than similar outbursts from the region’s Shiite leaders, theologically the more traditional foes of the Islamic State.

In a way that recent beheadings of hostages had not, the immolation of Lieutenant Kasasbeh set off a regionwide explosion of anger and disgust at the extremists, also known as ISIS or ISIL, or to most Arabs by the word “Daesh.” Even more significant, in a chronically embattled region that bequeathed to the world the expression, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the Islamic State suddenly found itself friendless in the extreme.

Name almost any outrage in the Mideast in decades of them — the Sabra and Shatila massacre, the Achille Lauro hijacking, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the gassing of the Halabja Kurds, the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole — and the protagonists would readily find both apologists and detractors. But with one breathtakingly vicious murder, the Islamic State changed that dynamic, uniting most of the region against it.

Martin Chulov adds: The day after the horrific images of the caged pilot being burned alive were released, the streets of the capital Amman were subdued, except for the crowds that lined the road from the airport to the royal palace to welcome home their monarch King Abdullah from his shortened visit to Washington.

Privately though, inside tea houses, universities, shopping malls and restaurants, people seethed. Radio and television stations played patriotic hymns on high rotation and all 23 minutes of the gruesome images were being widely circulated on social media. Occasionally, passions flared.

“I swear to God we will kill all those pigs,” said Musab Ibrahim, from inside a cafe in Amman’s Old City. “Whatever it takes to finish them is what we will do.”

On a nearby table, four men interrupted a card game to condemn the executioners and eulogise Kasasbeh. “He is our son, he is a hero. All of Jordan is with him and with our king,” said Yousef Barghouti, a primary school principal.

“We are all Hashemites and we are following the government with no reservations in this fight against these godless terrorists,” said another man, Yousf Majid al-Zarbi. “Have you seen that video? I mean really, how in humanity could this be a just punishment for any person?”

At intersections in the heart of Amman, street vendors sold flags and funeral bouquets prepared for Kasasbeh. There were few takers, though. A society that had been gripped for almost a month by the plight of Kasasbeh, and the pleas for mercy from his desperate parents, had seen the raw horror of his death eclipse their worst fears. Ghader Shathra, a nurse, said she had been numbed by the news and the reality that it would likely lead the country to war.

“We have watched as the region has disintegrated. We have taken in almost 2 million refugees and we have hoped it wouldn’t come our way. But sometimes you have to stand and fight. We have no option.”

Sophia Jones reports: despite the king’s vow to wage a “relentless war” against the Islamic State group — a declaration backed by many Jordanians who are demanding revenge for the pilot’s murder — there is an undeniable sense of doubt among other citizens. They question Jordan’s role in the U.S.-led air campaign desperately trying to reel in the group that has claimed large swaths of Iraq and Syria.

“I support this crisis to be solved, not Jordan fighting ISIS,” explained Souheil, a 23-year-old shopkeeper in Amman who referred to the late pilot as Jordan’s “martyr.”

Atef Kawar, a member of the Jordanian parliament representing the kingdom’s Christian minority, also expressed concerns over the United States and other Arab countries invested in combating the Islamic State group.

“I think that we should all unite as one hand to fight terrorism,” he told The WorldPost over the phone. “It’s to our country’s benefit [to be part of the coalition]. But clearly, the coalition doesn’t have a plan.”

Meanwhile, The Guardian reports: The United Arab Emirates has suspended its air attacks against the Islamic State in Syria since the capture of a Jordanian pilot who was burned alive by the jihadi group, it has emerged.

US officials confirmed that the UAE, one of the four Arab states in the anti-Isis coalition, had ceased its participation because of concerns over a lack of contingency plans to rescue downed aircrew.

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The Arab world has no counterforce to the murderers in our midst

Hisham Melhem writes: There is something malignant in the brittle world the Arab peoples inhabit. A murderous, fanatical, atavistic Islamist ideology espoused by Salafi Jihadist killers is sweeping that world and shaking it to its foundations, and the reverberations are felt in faraway continents. On the day the globalized wrath of these assassins claimed the lives of the Charlie Hebdo twelve in Paris, it almost simultaneously claimed the lives of 38 Yemenis in their capital Sana’a, and an undetermined number of victims in Syria and Iraq. Like the Hydra beast of ancient Greece this malignancy has many heads: al Qaeda, the Islamic State, Sunni Salafists and Shiite fanatics, armies and parties of God and militias of the Mahdi. This monstrous ideology has been terrorizing Arab lands long before it visited New York on 9/11, and its butchers assassinated Arab journalists and intellectuals years before committing the Paris massacre of French journalists, cartoonists and police officers.

The devil’s rejects of this ideology engage in wanton ritualistic beheadings while intoxicated with shouts of Allahu Akbar, oblivious to the fact that most of their victims are Muslims. They are perpetuating mass killings and rapes, uprooting ancient communities, declaring war on the great pre-Islamic civilizations and religions of the Fertile Crescent, and managing to turn large swaths of Syria and Iraq into earthly provinces of hell.

The time of the assassins is upon us. And the true tragedy of the Arab and Muslim world today is that there is no organized, legitimate counterforce to oppose these murderers—neither one of governments nor of “moderate” Islam. Nor is there any refuge for those who want to escape the assassins. [Continue reading…]

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In the Middle East, as in France, satire is a weapon against extremists

Nahrain Al-Mousawi writes: In the wake of the deadly attacks on the Paris satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, some are portraying the current showdown as one between Western free speech versus an angry and intolerant Islamic world. In fact, it is the Islamic countries of the Middle East that have led the way in attacking the extremists of groups such as Islamic State using the instruments of satire. The use of mockery and caricature as a way of mocking Islamic extremism is, in fact, in some ways far more pronounced in the Middle Eastern media than it is in Europe.

Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL) has slaughtered hundreds of Iraqi civilians and soldiers, raped and enslaved hundreds of women, held public crucifixions and stonings in Syria, and staged the executions of U.S. journalists and British aid workers. The group is revolting, abhorrent, and terrifying. But the region on which Islamic State has unleashed its sadistic campaign has responded producing a surprising volume of satire.

On Iraqi state TV, a satirical soap opera dedicated to mocking Islamic State, State of Myth, depicts the gruesome yet absurd “contributions” ISIS fighters and ideology unleash on a fictional town in Iraq, such as a green-energy car-bombing factory– cost-effective, reasonably priced, environment-friendly, and export-ready! All this information is provided by an IS engineer in a TV interview, where the female news announcer has resorted to wearing a sheet while asking questions.

While some claim humor is a way of taking back power – the power to name, to shame – on an uneven playing field, the show appears to be making fun of not only IS’s crude, fumbling, and sadistic methods to gain power, but also the strategic powerlessness of Iraqis trying to play along with, manipulate, and knowingly skirt the cruelty of that blundering power. [Continue reading…]

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Wars and instability prompt biggest migrant wave since World War Two

The Guardian reports: The two “ghost ships” discovered sailing towards the Italian coast last week with hundreds of migrants – but no crew – on board are just the latest symptom of what experts consider to be the world’s largest wave of mass-migration since the end of the second world war.

Wars in Syria, Libya and Iraq, severe repression in Eritrea, and spiralling instability across much of the Arab world have all contributed to the displacement of around 16.7 million refugees worldwide.

A further 33.3 million people are “internally displaced” within their own war-torn countries, forcing many of those originally from the Middle East to cross the lesser evil of the Mediterranean in increasingly dangerous ways, all in the distant hope of a better life in Europe.

“These numbers are unprecedented,” said Leonard Doyle, spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration. “In terms of refugees and migrants, nothing has been seen like this since world war two, and even then [the flow of migration] was in the opposite direction.”

European politicians believe they can discourage migrants from crossing the Mediterranean simply by reducing rescue operations. But refugees say that the scale of unrest in the Middle East, including in the countries in which they initially sought sanctuary, leaves them with no option but to take their chances at sea. [Continue reading…]

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The whole world needs feminism, but the Middle East needs it acutely

Elif Shafak writes: After a talk I gave in London a woman in the audience approached me: middle-aged, tall, and wearing a designer dress. Although she agreed with me on various issues she could not understand why I was critical of military takeovers. “In the Middle East a coup d’état is the only way forward,” she said. “If it weren’t for [Egypt’s president] General Sisi, modern women like me, like yourself, would end up in a burka. He’s there to protect the likes of us.”

As I listened to her, I recalled scenes from my childhood in Turkey. I remembered my mother saying that we should be grateful to General Kenan Evren, who led the coup d’état in 1980, for protecting women’s rights. After the military seized power, a number of pro-women steps were taken, including the legalisation of abortion. Yet the coup would eventually bring about massive human rights violations and systematic torture in police headquarters and prisons, particularly against the Kurds, maiming Turkey’s civil society and democracy for decades to come.

Female adulation of male autocrats is widespread throughout the Middle East. I have met Syrian women who have tried to convince me that Bashar al-Assad is the best option for modern women. The Syrian regime seems aware of this rhetoric, recruiting hundreds of so-called Lionesses for National Defense , who are said to be fighting against Islamic fundamentalism and defending women’s freedom. [Continue reading…]

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The anti-imperialist and religious ideology of ISIS

Geneive Abdo and Lulwa Rizkallah write: For many in the West, it seems abhorrent that anyone would voluntarily join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). However, it is only through support from local Iraqi communities that the militants have been able to conquer cities, such as Mosul, while waiting at the gates of Baghdad.

In recent interviews with Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders, the ISIS appeal became more apparent. When ISIS began taking territory in Iraq, “Sunnis had no choice but between fleeing or getting killed or defending themselves. To defend themselves they could either possess weapons or turn to ISIS as an alternative because they had weapons, and followed Islamic thinking,” said one Sunni tribal leader, who travels to Iraq frequently from Jordan, and wished to remain unidentified for his own safety.

While much focus has been centered on the economic incentives ISIS provides, its powerful religious and ideological appeal to Iraqi communities, particularly the younger generation, is perhaps most luring. It is simplistic to dismiss the ISIS Caliphate as neither “Islamic nor a state,” as is often stated in the Arabic press. Among Western governments, the religious dimension of the ISIS appeal is downplayed for two primary reasons: Admitting religion as a role is an acknowledgement that little can be done to stop the spread of ISIS. And two, if ISIS is about religion, then how is it that the vast majority of Muslims condemn the movement?

While it is difficult to clearly state what branch of Islam ISIS follows, many have found commonalities with at least some precepts of the Wahhabi movement of Sunni Islam, founded in Saudi Arabia. Reference is made here to the concepts of takfir, or the rejection of those who are not Muslims, and jihad, waging war against those who are not Muslims, or who are Muslims, but are deemed to reject strict Islamic traditions. One is thus required to identify themselves first and foremost as a Muslim—but a Muslim according to ISIS’ definition, which is not uncontroversial. The duties they then perform are portrayed as religious. [Continue reading…]

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