What makes the (un)Islamic State monstrous?

“They are not Muslims, they are monsters,” David Cameron said on September 14 of the so-called Islamic State, after it released a video showing the execution of aid worker David Haines. 

What is it that makes the group monstrous? First of all how it compels us to look at it. 

The word monster derives from the Latin monstrare, which like montrer in modern French and mostrare in Italian means to show. Monsters attract our attention. During the middle ages in Europe, monsters -- deformed children, conjoined twins -- were put on display for the entertainment and religious edification of crowds. 

It is both hard to watch and hard to turn away from the nightmarish spectacles IS shares online. Young Shia men plead to camera; their prone bodies twitch as they are shot one by one. YouTube and Twitter’s decision to block these videos shows how anxious we are about their power. Regardless, the image of a man in orange and kneeling before a black-clad executioner, mouthing well-rehearsed propaganda as a hand with a knife dangles in the background, is etched in our minds now. 

The word monster may also derive from another Latin verb, monere, meaning to warn or advise; a monstrum was something people pointed out to each other but also a “supernatural being or object that is an omen or warning of the will of the gods.” This is quite close to how IS sees itself: the bearer of a dire divine message. Even to those of us who do not share its religious beliefs, the group may seem a dark portent of our times. Its existence is a remonstration, divine or not -- how could we let this happen? 

Ancient monsters were freaks of nature. Modern monsters are reflections and composites, created by men from parts of themselves (think of the doctors Jekyll and Frankenstein). The more they resemble us, the scarier they are. 

Osama Bin Laden was partly created by US support to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and by the Western media after 9/11. But, lecturing in Arabic from a cave, with his beard and his funny clothes, he seemed exotic. 

The Islamic State is creepily familiar -- speaking to us in our language and on our terms, Tweeting about how great living under Sharia is. Some of the parallels seem purposeful on their part: Carrying stolen US-made weapons, they water-board their prisoners and put them in orange jumpsuits. They make the men they are about to kill into mirrors, faces we can’t help imagining as our own. 

The members of the Islamic State bear full moral responsibility for their crimes. But the organization could only have arisen out of a particular, devastating vacuum. The forces that converged to bring this gang of zealots and murderers to prominence includes the US invasion of Iraq; the Assad regime’s limitless brutality; the Gulf States’ oil-fueled bigotry; the paranoia of the Russians. On some days I let my imagination run away with me and think of IS  as a compendium of all the worst tendencies and motivations of Arab regimes and their foreign backers; of every sordid calculation, every feckless decision, every strain of arrogance and intolerance and injustice. Above all of the inconceivable cruelty and stupidity it has taken to push two entire countries into their graves, their cities turned to dust and their people, for years now, bombed, butchered, terrorized, and driven from their homes. 

Who else could we expect to thrive there but these monstrous young men (and women), these children of our age? 

When Arab regimes confront terrorism

From Abu Aardvark:

The U.S. is currently in the process of lining up a regional coalition to confront ISIS. Depending on how this coalition is formed and the goals to which it is devoted, it could be extremely useful for shutting down the flow of funds, guns, and fighters to jihadist groups in Syria. I'll have a lot more to say about that in another venue.

But there's just one point I want to throw out there now, because it doesn't seem to be getting much play: when Arab regimes set out to fight "terrorism" they almost always use it as pretext for political repression. When I hear an Arab leader talking with the United States about confronting terrorism these days, what I see is the journalist Mohammad Fahmy and the dedicated activists Alaa Abd el-Fattah, Ahmed Maher and Mahienor al-Masry rotting in an Egyptian prison on trumped up charges while Secretary of State John Kerry opines on Cairo's path to democracy.

Egypt's Judges Strike Back: The New Yorker

My take on the sentencing of over 500 alleged Muslim Brotherhood members to death in a single case tried in the southern town of Minya. (The same court is set to hear similar mass cases with over 900 defendants in the coming month). 

It was alarming, at the end of the largest mass sentencing in Egypt’s modern history, to see five hundred men held responsible, so expeditiously and so severely, for one murder, when there have been no convictions—in fact, there has not been a criminal investigation—related to the deaths of the twelve hundred civilians killed in August. More than eight hundred protesters died during the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, in 2011; not a single police officer has been convicted for their killings. (Mubarak himself was convicted only of failing to prevent their deaths, and has won the right to a retrial on that charge.) Although cases against senior officials of the Mubarak regime have meandered through postponements and appeals for years now, the verdict in Minya was handed down after two brief sessions. According to Egyptian human-rights organizations that monitored the proceedings, “Witnesses were not called, evidence was not presented in court, and the accused were unable to defend themselves.”

 

It is unlikely that the sentence will be carried out. A majority of the men found guilty were sentenced in absentia; the defendants who were in custody, and their lawyers, were not even present when the verdict was delivered. If the conviction is not overturned on appeal, Egypt’s Grand Mufti, a government-appointed cleric, must ratify the decision to put the prisoners to death. But his assent does not guarantee that the penalty will be imposed: during the nineteen-nineties, when the state waged a brutal campaign against Islamist militants, some were held for years in prison, with death sentences hanging over their heads, as a kind of leverage. The judgment in Minya may be a similar deadly warning, but it represents something even more significant: it is a sign of how deeply Egypt’s judiciary has been compromised by the government’s onslaught against the Brotherhood.

Read the rest here

The police and the people: one hand, for now

The police and the people: one hand, for now

One of the main reasons many Egyptians are nostalgic about the Hosni Mubarak era is the absence of security. Or rather the false sense of it.

"The Interior Ministry never provided general security, just political security (i.e. crushing dissent and bullying the Muslim Brothers)," says a former member of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party, who spoke on condition of anonymity and confessed to never quite understanding what gave the public the wrong impression. It was this sense of security that was overturned by the events following January 25, driven, the former NDP official sniffed, by “emboldened thugs” and the collective realization that one can drive in any direction one pleases on almost every road after the 2011 uprising.

Now, three years after the January 25 outburst of public fury they partly caused – which consumed much of their dignity, stations and vehicles, breached their prisons and relieved them of  their weapons – Egypt’s Interior Ministry is still struggling to get back on its own two feet and restore some of that longed-for political security with excessive force and arbitrary arrests, as always disregarding the risk of galvanizing more opposition. A practice justified by pointing at the recent bomb attacks on police installations.

There is, however, something new about the general attitude towards security forces. After all, they went from having to withdraw from the streets after failing to quell protests against Mubarak in 2011 to receiving shoulder rides and kisses for handing out water to anti-Morsi protesters rather than spraying them with it in 2013. The change in police activity and popularity here – as videos and reports of continued police abuses suggest – is not the fruit of quick and radical police reforms, but rather the result of the popular reconciliation with them and the military in the wake of their overthrow of the unpopular but elected president Mohamed Morsi. This would not have been possible if it weren’t for the incredibly effective “[image] polishing [media] campaign,” according to a grateful police general, who also asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

It was hard trying not to stare at the 15 bullet holes in the wall behind the general’s head, while he was talking about how life has improved for police officers after June 30.

He caught me looking and laughed.

“These things [he looked over his shoulder to wave off the plaster-oozing evidence of attacks on the police station] happen in the best of countries,” he said. What matters is that policemen can, once again, sport their white uniforms everywhere without fear of verbal or physical abuse and they can arrest people without need for reinforcements to overcome the families and neighbors of the arrested, who used to body-block their vans to help a loved one or an acquaintance in cuffs. This is progress, he announced contentedly.

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Egypt's government fails to end civil strife, terrorism

Sarah el-Sirgany, with her usual clarity, calls out Egypt's war on terrorism. 
Yet, any failure is explained as inability to fully deploy repressive measures. There is a widely held belief that Defense Minister Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who called for and received a popular and vaguely defined mandate to fight terrorism in July, is yet to unleash the magic that he has allegedly been holding back for some reason. The government had it all: three months of emergency laws, a military curfew and free reign, but it failed to put an end to terrorism. On the contrary, its reach and intensity seem to be on the rise.

 

A run-down of terrorism in Egypt

 

Nour Youssef has been trying to compile a comprehensive list of terrorist attacks reported in the Egyptian press. The problem, as she notes, is that "they keep publishing the same story under different titles, sometimes lumping a couple incidents together, throwing in an update (without saying it is an update), picking up a detail and sensationalizing it -- or all of the above. The result is a flood of bad news that overwhelms readers." After the jump, our list of reported attacks, in rough chronological order -- and some jihadist videos set to really annoying music. 

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The Squid

The Squid

Meet Adel Mohamed Ibrahim aka Adel Habara (meaning Squid - a reference to his resourcefulness and ability to reach anyone he wants) aka the al-Qaeda Chief in Sinai. The police says he is responsible for the second Rafaah attack that left 25 soldiers dead. They also think he is involved in the first attack that left 16 dead.

Habara reportedly confessed his involvement and reenacted the crime for them after he was arrested on September 1. This is a video of Habara  that was posted to YouTube on Sept. 2 (by a certain Emad El Ramadi, who appears to reside in the UAE) and circulated on talk shows, in which Habara tells his side of the story with state security before the revolution up until his escape from Wadi al-Natrun prison in January 2011. It's not clear where or when this was recorded, and Habara does not refer directly to the Rafaah attacks in it.

Dressed in white, with a blanket covering one leg, Habara explains that he has been a committed, religious man for ten years, minding his own business and with no connection to islamist groups, which is why state security informers showed no interest in him. Except for a strangely candid one agent.

“Give me your ID, so I can make a file about you in SS,” he says officer Ali Ameen asked him. Ameen, Habara says, has long harbored a grudge against him and was the source of all his troubles with the police.

 

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