In Translation: Standing on Saddam's Grave

Courtesy our friends at Industry Arabic -- a professional translation service that can fulfill your every Arabic need -- a column on the battle to liberate Tikrit from ISIS, Iran's prominent role there, and the way it may undermine the fragile equilibrium in Iraq. 

Suleimani, on Saddam's Grave

By Ghassan Charbel

El Hayat, 12 March

ISIS is a cancer that can only be treated by excision. Its removal is a patriotic, national and humanitarian duty. Successful treatment to ensure that a relapse will not occur requires involving the community that it has infiltrated in uprooting it, and insulating this community against ISIS' lies and claims. It is not out of place at this juncture to consider in advance what the patient’s condition will be after the malicious tumor is removed.

It is not insignificant for ISIS to control Tikrit, a city with much resonance in recent Iraqi history -- not because Saddam Hussein’s tomb is in the nearby village of Awja, but because it is symbolic of the Sunni Arab role in Iraq. The Iraqi government could not leave Tikrit in the hands of ISIS, but the conditions of the current surgery raise concerns that if Tikrit falls into the hands of its attackers – which is the necessary outcome – this could lead to the collapse of balance required for Iraq to remain united and part of the Arab world.

These concerns would not have been prompted if the Iraqi army was the one leading the charge to retake Tikrit and had adopted measures to quell the concerns of the inhabitants of Anbar, Saladin and Nineveh. But what is happening now is that “popular mobilization” is playing the main role in combating ISIS, and “mobilization” means an alliance of Shiite militias. The attack is also marked by an American refusal to provide air cover and an increasing tendency by Iran to openly admit that it is managing the campaign.

Iran has intervened in the countries of the region over the past two decades and has skillfully found many covers for this activity. What is remarkable in recent weeks is that Tehran has openly avowed these interventions through images of General Qassem Suleimani in the field in both Iraq and Syria and statements by Iranian officials about their solid influence in four Arab countries, not to mention talk about the Mandab Strait and an entrenched presence on the Mediterranean.

Why has Tehran abandoned its previous reserve? Does it wish to say that it has seized its regional role in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen before any potential nuclear agreement with the US has been signed? Does it wish to make decisive changes that cannot be reversed? Does it wish to signal that the above countries are a vital extension of Iran and that the inhabitants of the region ought to get used to seeing Iranian generals left and right? Does it wish to unequivocally declare what it used to whisper to its visitors, which is that it is not just an important country in the region, but the most important country? And that the most important country has the right to recalibrate the balances in the region in a manner that accords with its new role? It is not a trivial matter for Ali Shamkhani to be declaring that Iran has prevented the fall of Baghdad, Erbil and Damascus.

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Egypt's new capital

At the economic conference Egypt hosted last weekend, officials had a surprise announcement: they plan to build the country a new capital. And it is going to be fantastic

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The scale of the plans certainly defy historical norms. If completed, the currently nameless city would span 700 sq km (a space almost as big as Singapore), house a park double the size of New York’s Central Park, and a theme park four times as big as Disneyland – all to be completed within five to seven years.
According to the brochure, there will be exactly 21 residential districts, 25 “dedicated districts”, 663 hospitals and clinics, 1,250 mosques and churches, and 1.1m homes housing at least five million residents.

The plan has unsurprisingly generated some skepticism. Egypt has a long history of failed, delusional, top-down urban planning:

I won’t dwell on the fascination with Dubai as a model for urban development and how unsuitable this model is for Egypt whose GDP per capita is 8% of that of the UAE. Nor will I dwell on the deep political and social inequalities that lie beneath the glittering veneer of Dubai, and the serious political implications that this model bodes for the new proposed capital of Egypt. I also won’t dwell on the meaning and significance of announcing such a momentous decision not in front of parliament (for we have no such institution due to a legal fracas that delayed the elections to an unspecified future date) and not to the local media (despite the fact that whatever independence this media might have once enjoyed has evaporated in thin air), but to a group of word leaders and foreign investors who claim to be  “focus[ing] on efforts to promote shared prosperity in Egypt and the region” (in the words of US Secretary of State John Kerry).
I just wonder what will happen to Cairo, Egypt’s capital for more than a thousand years? What will happen to the metropolis that is home to close to 20 million inhabitants? Where do they fit in the government’s plans for the new capital? The website says that it is hoped that the new city will attract 5 million inhabitants when it is finished. Assuming that the aim of building a new administrative capital is to alleviate the pressure from downtown Cairo where the majority of government offices are located, and assuming, for argument’s sake, that the 5 million inhabitants will actually be moved from overcrowded city, what will happen to the rest of us?

It has also garnered quite a bit of genuine support, driven, I imagine, by the undeniable fact that central Cairo is such a brutal, and worsening, urban environment. It's not that the capital doesn't urgently need drastic new measures to solve its pollution, transportation problems, traffic, overcrowding, poor public services. I spent a year after the uprising going to weekly meetings at an Egyptian NGO where experts and activists from dozens of different fields talked knowledgeably about the city's problems, argued over solutions, and proposed many creative, worthy ideas. But none of these ideas ever get anywhere near government offices, where denial (of the 2/3 of the city that consists of informal housing, to star with), bad taste and bad faith reign supreme and no one can admit the obvious:  Cairo's fundamental problem is governance. 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

In Translation: Civil wars in the Arab world

In the latest installment of our In Translation series -- brought to us courtesy of the diligent translation professionals of Industry Arabic --  we look at this extremely bleak assessment by a Saudi columnist writing in the Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily Al Sharq Al Awsat. The columnist quotes Thomas Hobbes and presents all attempts at contestation and demand for democracy in the MIddle East today as doomed, because of what he deems the pre-existing frailty of Arab society. The argument raises more questions than it answers, though -- is "society" really non-existent in Arab countries? And if so, why? Is the author referring to his own homeland or to places like Syria where society has been submitted to unbearable, inhuman strain? Is the point that there is no alternative to the authoritarian status quo? 

Civil Wars…and “pre-society”

By Fahad Suleiman al-Shigeran, Al Sharq Al Awsat, March 9

The slogans that have filled squares across the Middle East reflect a variety of concepts. What they have in common is the search for the key to deliverance, for a way to reach the dream of democracy and freedom and lose oneself in its bliss. However, all the current attempts to gain freedom have led to is bloody civil war, or symbolic social warfare between one individual and another. The Spring of Dreams has led to the rallying to ISIS, the rise of Boko Haram, the spread of extremism, the dismantling of the state, proposed partition schemes, economic crises, environmental pollution, overcrowded mass graves, and a sea irrigated with the blood of recently severed heads.

There is nothing strange in the fact that such furious, chaotic events should lead to what we are now witnessing. What is strange is that there are people who are betting – even now – that the revolutionary movement will reach “inevitable victory,” on the basis that what is happening is merely  “dialectic” that will sweep everybody along to a “historical inevitability” in the Hegelian manner.

In our region we are not witnessing civil wars of a conventional kind. Events have superseded the formulation of “war” and have reached a level of brutality that includes images of severed heads, disembowelments, and brutal revenge. We abuse the word “war” when we use it to describe what is going on now. Throughout history, civil wars were the bugbears of theorists, philosophers, and intellectuals, because they are not legitimate wars against a particular enemy – since wars have their particular circumstances and legitimacy; they have an art, as Machiavelli would say. However, the Arab world is sinking into brutality, through its painful unleashing of arbitrary civil wars that have opened up sectarian wounds, shredded the patrimony of minorities, and revived the phenomenon of organized tribal purges. Everyone has retreated into their caves; no one trusts even their own shadow. This absolute breakdown, constant doubt, radical condemnation, and suspicion all makes the lived environment nothing but a massive jungle that contains masses of people that do not compose a society in the scientific sense, but rather a random assemblage of people in a single geographical location, because “society” is what exerts pressure to transition from desire to reason. Among the foundations of this transition is establishing the rule of law and building institutions in preparation to drafting a constitution, and thence to constructing a state and propagating its prestige.

 

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On Israel's elections

Yonatan Mendel in the London Review of Books:

All Jewish parties in Israel (except Meretz, which is against the occupation and is as progressive as its Zionist boundaries allow it to be) share a desire to show that they have the guts to stand up for Israel vis-à-vis international law, and that they are anti-Arab. Netanyahu is a maestro at the first, with his great effort to demonstrate that he doesn’t give a damn about the Israel-US relationship. He insisted on speaking to Congress when no one from Obama to Aipac wanted him there, because back home it meant the world to him: the message was that he is tough and doesn’t answer to anybody. Bennett is quite good at this too. He recently released a video in which he walks through Tel Aviv dressed as a hipster with a long fake ginger beard. Everywhere he goes he says: ‘Oh sorry, I am so sorry, oh sorry, indeed, forgive me, I am so sorry’ – a joke at the expense of Israeli leftists who apologise too much to the international community for Israel’s ongoing violations of international law. Lieberman did his best to follow the act, but his performance was too blunt. Following an attack by Hizbullah on Israel’s northern border (a response to an Israeli attack that killed 12 people, among them an Iranian general and Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of a former Hizbullah commander), Lieberman said that ‘Israel’s response should be harsh and disproportionate.’ Livni and Herzog also wish to be seen as being as patriotic and Zionist as possible. They’ve all but dropped the name of Herzog’s party and are campaigning as the Zionist Union. This evocative name both alienates Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel and signals to the world that the Israeli ‘alternative’ has nothing new to offer, not even its vocabulary. To make sure of being properly anti-democratic, Livni and Herzog decided to join the usual game of trying to disqualify an Arab MK, in this case Haneen Zoabi, from running for parliament. Knowing the proposal would never be approved by the Supreme Court not only figured in their calculations but encapsulated a hidden dream. They knew that in Israel in 2015, if the Supreme Court throws you off the staircase, it can only do you good.
Displays of anti-Arab sentiment are a vital part of any election campaign. A straightforwardly anti-Semitic video was recently released by the Samaria Residents’ Council, a settler group, in which money-grabbing Jewish-Israeli leftists are seen receiving donations from Europeans depicted as Nazis. ‘For them you will always remain a Jew,’ the video says, trying to show that the Europeans who support human rights movements and joint Jewish-Arab initiatives in Israel are neo-Nazis. In another election video, Sharon Gal, a candidate for Lieberman’s party, is seen dressed as a gardener uprooting weeds from the Israeli garden. He calls the weeds by the names of Arab MKs: ‘Here I uproot an intrusive Tibi … and here I uproot a poisonous Zahalka.’ Lieberman himself came up with a fine uprooting slogan: ‘Ariel for Israel, Umm al-Fahm for Palestine’ (in other words, annex the city-settlement of Ariel to Israel and ‘in return’ uproot fifty thousand Arab citizens of Israel and transfer them to Palestine). Danny Danon from Netanyahu’s Likud released a video in which, dressed as a sheriff, he turns up in a bar in the Wild West and throws out an Arab MK (Zoabi), who ends up motionless on the ground. In another Likud video, Isis militants drive jeeps into Israel; the slogan says that the Israeli ‘left’, that anonymous and mysterious entity, will lead Isis into Jerusalem. (The video had loud Arabic music, which is intimidating for Israelis, and that’s what’s important.) Herzog released a video in which friends from his military intelligence unit tell of his heroism in the army:

Herzog grew up in military intelligence, which means he knows the Arab mentality. He saw Arabs on different occasions; he saw them on the other side of the gun-sight, and behind the gun-sight … The most important man in this business is the person who knows what the state of Israel needs to do with a piece of information. Whether this means firing a rocket, or sending troops forward, or wiping out these people.

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Links March 7 - 13 2015

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

The Arab of the Future

Here is a review I wrote for the LRB blog of the comic L'Arabe du Futur, by Syrian-French comic artist Riad Sattouf. It's a very accomplished, very troubling, work (and should be out in English soon). 

In Libya, where his father accepts a teaching post, the family lose their university housing immediately to squatters who invoke Gaddafi’s ban on private property. Sattouf’s mother, Clementine, nearly gets into trouble after she breaks into hysterical laughter reading out propaganda on the radio. Sattouf remembers the crowds jostling to buy unripe bananas and Tang, the afternoons spent playing unsupervised with the children of other foreign professors. In a child’s worldview, the strictures of a dictatorial regime are no more bizarre than most other rules.
When Sattouf’s father decides to take his family back to Syria, things turn almost farcically awful. He didn’t do his military service, so has to bribe his way past army officers at the airport. The family waits as a group of cab drivers has a brawl over who will take them. Back in the village, at the family home, the women sit in a separate room and eat the men’s leftovers. Sattouf’s father discovers that his brother has sold his land. The village is full of rubbish and feral little boys who wave sticks and threaten Riad.


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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

On Yarmouk

Excellent Guardian Long Read on the Palestinian neighborhood of Damascus and its infamous siege. 

This was how Yarmouk entered the world’s consciousness: a refugee camp designed as a safe haven for the Palestinian diaspora that had become the worst place on earth. No electricity for months. No piped water. No access for food. Worse still, no chance for people to leave or return, except for a handful of emergency medical cases or the few who had the means to pay people-smugglers to get them through the multiple checkpoints. Some called it Syria’s Gaza, but its plight was even worse, because the siege was more comprehensive; Yarmouk was a prison from which there was no escape.

But notoriety can be short-lived.

The opening in the siege that UNRWA had negotiated in January 2014 applied only fitfully throughout the year: food deliveries were only possible on 131 days, and often less than half the amount required got through. Since 6 December, the siege has once again become impassable. UNRWA reports that it has not been able to deliver any food at all for the past 12 weeks. “We are getting new reports of people dying of malnutrition and of women dying in childbirth, but nothing can be confirmed,” said Chris Gunness, UNRWA’s spokesperson. Unlike in Gaza, where UNRWA has several offices, the organisation cannot enter Yarmouk at all.
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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Social media and the Arab uprisings

Depressing at the state of things may be, I found researching and writing this article about the questions scholars are asking today about the role of social and digital media in political mobilization in the Middle East, for The Chronicle of Higher Education, very interesting. 

"It’s difficult to tell the story of the Arab Spring without talking about social media," says Philip N. Howard, a professor in the department of communications at the University of Washington. But "after years of excitement and effervescence," he notes, "we’re in a much more jaded or critical stage of inquiry."
Working on his book (with Muzammil M. Hussain) Democracy’s Fourth Wave? Digital Media and the Arab SpringMr. Howard developed a causal model that weighed access to new communication technology in Arab countries alongside other socioeconomic factors. He concluded that that access was part of the basic infrastructure needed for collective action to take place.
But by the time the book was published, in 2013, those mass mobilizations for change had seemingly collapsed. Today, out of half a dozen Arab countries that witnessed uprisings, only Tunisia has managed to see its democratic transition through. Across the region, the bloggers and activists who helped plan and publicize protests were sidelined by Islamist parties and military regimes. They have been silenced, imprisoned, or driven into exile.
Scholars are now asking a different set of questions: How did these huge and hopeful social movements fizzle? Why were they unable to achieve political gains? How is social media being used today by resurgent autocratic governments and by terrorist groups? 
Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science, argued in a recent paper that the ability to "scale up" quickly that social media offers to protest movements means they don’t have to do the hard and necessary work of building traditional organizations that know how to make decisions collectively, change strategies, and persevere. In a TED talk she gave in October, Ms. Tufekci compared today’s social movements, in the Arab world and elsewhere, to "start-ups that got very big without knowing what to do next."

You should also read this article on the topic by Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, "Social media in the Era of ISIS."  

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

review: Drawing his way to freedom

Amazigh, itineraire d'hommes libres ("itinerary of free men") is a graphic novel by the Moroccan artist Mohamed Arejdal (written with Cedric Liano). It tells the story of Arejdal's long, tortuous, ultimately unsuccessful attempt to emigrate illegally to Spain. It captures the teenage rebelliousness and nonchalance that lead to the decision to make the trip; and the casual mistreatment that takes place along the smuggling route. Much of the story takes place in the Canary Island, where Arejdal ends up in a succession of detention centers. It is there that a social worker gives him some art supplies. When he is forcefully repatriated to Morocco, he ends up studying at the Fine Arts Institute in Tetouan; his long trek in search of European opportunity ultimately becomes material for some of his art projects. His book concludes with him being granted the much-sought-after  European visa to attend a biennale in Italy.

 

Regarding the title: Arejdal is Amazigh, meaning that he belongs to the country's indigenous Berber population (the word means "free man" or "rebel"). Most Moroccans do, ethnically, but only some identify as Amazigh. At least a third of the country speaks Amazigh languages-- which have historically been marginalized -- as their first language rather than Arabic. The issue of language and identity here is a fraught and complicated one. 


Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Arabist book review: Women's Burdens in Morocco

“Dos De Femmes, Dos de Mulet” (“Woman's Back, Donkey’s Back”) is a proverb in the mountain villages of Morocco. The Moroccan journalist Hicham Houdaifa chose it as a title for his first book of reportage, which focuses on the most vulnerable of Moroccan women — women who are illiterate, legally non-existent (because their births were never registered), single mothers (with no rights because their marriages were never registered) or vulnerable seasonal workers. With the help of some of Morocco’s impressive NGOs, Houdaifa criss-crossed the country last Fall interviewing underage brides; waitresses in Casablanca bars; some of the tens of thousands of women who pick the fruit that is exported to Europe (and are sexually exploited by their male superiors and the wealthy families that own farms)'; and others. Avoiding condescension or sensationalism, Houdaifa presents a picture of hard work and terrible unfairness, of the way — despite Morocco’s supposedly progressive family code and its economic development — rural uneducated women remain a reservoir of cheap, vulnerable labour. Most of these women are brutally cut off from any chance of improving their lot, but spend their lives toiling to try to offer a slightly better chance to their children. 

The book is the first in a series of investigative books to be published by the independent publishing house, En Toutes Lettres, run by Houdaifa and his wife, the cultural reporter Kenza Sefrioui — both veterans of Morocco’s quashed independent press. 

 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Links February 28 - March 6 2015

One of many videos mocking ISIS, with a re-mixed version of one of its anthems.

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

On ISIS' Iconoclasm

Elliott Colla puts ISIS' recent destruction of Assyrian antiquities in historical context, and explains the extremist group's view of why their display was sacrilegious. This is an interesting read, although I don't see how a modern statue of Saddam Hussein (which Colla rightly points out the US toppled after its own victory in Iraq) has a comparable historical (let alone aesthetic) value to those antiquities. 

It was not just that Europeans arrived to tell everyone that these rocks were sacred (albeit in a non-religious sense), although that happened. It was also that, as Europeans gained control of the region, these same sites and objects were redesignated as excavation sites and museums then cordoned off into 'no-go zones.' It was under the new antiquities laws -- designed to protect and conserve the objects for civilization -- that local peasants were conscripteden masse to work under slave conditions for the great White archaeologists making great 'discoveries' about the ancient past.
Champions of antiquities preservation need to take these colonial and autocratic legacies into consideration as they grapple with the form of iconoclasm practiced by ISIS. And for the record, because there seems to be a doctrinal element to ISIS's practices, it does seem right to think of it as iconoclasm rather than vandalism. The austere Sunni ideology of ISIS (like that of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia) is one that thinks of itself as iconoclastic in the most basic sense of the word. It is a form of monotheism obsessed with the issue of shirk (the worship of false gods), and finds evidence of it everywhere. It opposes the veneration of objects -- whether in temples or in museums -- on the grounds that such veneration is a threat to monotheistic worship. Like the Wahhabis of the 18th century, we can expect them to attack objects where people worship in a way that threatens their monotheistic conception of Islam, be it at tombs where Shia venerate saints or temples where non-Muslims worship other gods. In this context, it is natural that they would also target museums, since for them these also represent places of false worship.
This aspect is missed by those who focus solely on the pagan provenance of the artifacts, and think that ISIS is fighting a ridiculously old and anachronistic battle. It is true that the Assyrian objects destroyed in the Mosul Museum are of pagan origin, but that is not the only reason why ISIS targeted them. They were not only or primarily targeting theobjects in the museum, but rather the form of veneration -- the attitude of sacred appreciation -- represented in the institution of the museum itself. They are also, much like the gunmen in Paris, attempting to "sharpen contradictions" in an effort to create a conflict of civilizations. 
Most museum goers and appreciators of ancient artifacts do not think of their practices as a form of religion. But it is not so hard to see how the iconoclasts of ISIS imagine "false religion" when see the trappings of veneration that pervade museums. Nor are they entirely wrong to cry 'religion' when they hear absolutist claims about transcendent value, even those made by secularists and self-professed atheists. 
Finally, before Americans issue more blanket condemnations of ISIS's ugly form of iconoclasm, we might do well to put our own selves back into the history of toppling statues in Iraq. Weren't we championing iconoclasm and broadcasting it on our own television screens not so long ago? Didn't we, as victors, begin our celebrations by toppling the sacred objects of our enemies?Is it that we, the civilized, abhor the wanton destruction of all objects and histories, or just some?
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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Democracy in Egypt: Always A Reason to Wait

The Atlantic Council translates a recent column by Amr Hamzawy -- one of the very few true liberals in Egypt --  in Shurouq newspaper:

From the mid-1900s until now, many different issues have been used to complete the argument that democracy must be postponed because “nothing is more important than such and such issue.” The issues that have completed this argument have included: national independence, development and preparing the people to practice democracy, socialism, the liberation of Palestine, confronting Zionism and imperialism, the battle to liberate the territory of the nation, economic well-being, stability, the preservation of the national state, and the war against terrorism. 
...
In turn, these tactics are used to propagate a third illusion that contributes to the current siege on the concept of democracy in Egypt: the illusion of “national necessity.” Through this illusion, authoritarianism can effectively ensure its continued grip on power.  Prior to and following the summer of 2013, my writings consistently warned of the authoritarian trend behind the claims that the military intervention in politics on July 3 was an “act of necessity” and that the former Minister of Defense, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was participating in the presidential elections as the “candidate of necessity,” later to become the “president of necessity” following the announcement of the election results. These claims of “necessity” are truly authoritarian, as they – in the best of cases – justify departing from democracy, based on the pretext that there was no alternative to an intervention by the military establishment in politics, even when the alternative of holding early presidential elections certainly was possible. In the worst of cases, such claims of “necessity” effectively strip citizens of the right to freely choose their leaders through elections by legitimizing the presidential candidate backed by the system of rule (or its lists and candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections) as a matter of “national necessity.”
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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Making fun of ISIS

Uh-oh, don't tell all the folks who are indignant over SNL's ISIS sketch, but people have been making fun of the group for a while in the Arab world. 

To mock ISIS is not to disrespect their victims. It is a way of challenging their self-important, grandiose, hypocritical thuggery and their determination to frighten us. 

The hostage in this video is being punished for a Playstation infraction. At the end there is a dance party. 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

On Libya's descent into chaos and war

Sharif Abdel Kouddous reports: 

A cold wind whips across Tripoli's landmark Martyrs' Square as a few hundred protesters gather after sunset prayers. Posters of those killed in the fighting are plastered across the front of a stage outfitted with large loudspeakers. A man carrying a plastic box half-filled with cash is collecting donations for Libya Dawn amid makeshift stands selling popcorn and hot tea.
The United Nations is not popular here. A large banner strung between two palm trees bears the face of UN special envoy Bernardino León crossed out in red atop the words, "Sorry, we don't need you." Onstage, a woman is leading the crowd in chants of "Death to Hifter!" and "No dialogue, freedom to the revolutionaries!"
The demonstrations, which have been taking place on a weekly basis since last summer, when Libya Dawn took control of the capital, offer a glimpse into the enormous hurdles standing in the way of a negotiated solution to the conflict.
The UN is seeking to broker a ceasefire and strike a deal for a unified government, distant goals that still fall well short of ending the overall crisis. This month, UN negotiators for the first time held separate meetings with delegates from both sides in the southern town of Ghadames. Yet the eastern parliament this week voted to suspend its participation in the talks. Meanwhile, hardliners among the armed groups still have not joined the talks, believing they can gain more from fighting.
One cause of the growing conflict can be traced to some fateful early decisions: after the fall of the Qaddafi regime, post-revolution governments placed all civilians who had taken up arms on the state payroll, after which the number ballooned from 60,000 in 2011 to more than 200,000 a year later. The government wage bill is now almost three times what it was in 2010.
The militias operated nominally under the authority of the state but were actually loyal to their own commanders. As they began to battle one another over turf and resources, state salaries continued to be paid to fighters on all sides—a Kafkaesque cycle, in which the wealth of the country has been being drained to fund the internal conflict.


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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Weekend read: Yarmouk miniatures

Do sit down with this enlightening, thoughtful, of course heartbreaking essay by a former English teacher -- and Arabic student -- in Damascus. It brought back memories of my own extraordinary tutor in Cairo, a similarly cultured and impassioned and generous man who know a language class could be so much more. 

It was the surreal highlight of a happy day. Looking back, the whole day seems like a scaled-down model of the three years to come: a charmed wandering across the surface of Syrian life, nourished by great food and chance encounters, tutored by countless small embarrassments, cushioned by the privilege of a British passport and an expat salary. The signs of a dictatorship—the presidential portraits, the leather-jacketed security men, the off-limits areas of conversation—were impossible to ignore. But my Syrian friends seemed bright, open-minded, and irreverent. None of them resembled cowed, brainwashed subjects of a totalitarian state. “The regime can be cruel,” a Syrian colleague once told me, “but as long as people stay out of politics, they are left to get on with their lives.” Most days this line was not difficult to believe.
Watching the referendum debke, though, was one of the moments when I realized how little I understood. I could comprehend people voting “Yes,” grudgingly or even wholeheartedly: the president was, on the face of it, widely admired. But this dance of gratitude seemed so undignified. Not even the most devoted supporter could have been in any doubt that the referendum was a farce: the maniacal repetition of the theme song, the ridiculous slogans, the conspicuous absence of a “No” campaign. What led intelligent men and women to dance debke in honor of a president who forced such absurdities on his people?

A video from the Radd Fa'al Crew in Yarmouk camp

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Links February 14-20 2015

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

How Islamic is the Islamic State?

Two very different takes, from two prominent middle east scholars, on the question of how Islamic the Islamic state is -- a debate that I am sure will be with us for a while.

This long piece in The Atlantic quotes Bernard Haykel (who was teaching at NYU when I studied there):

Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”
Every academic I asked about the Islamic State’s ideology sent me to Haykel. Of partial Lebanese descent, Haykel grew up in Lebanon and the United States, and when he talks through his Mephistophelian goatee, there is a hint of an unplaceable foreign accent.
According to Haykel, the ranks of the Islamic State are deeply infused with religious vigor. Koranic quotations are ubiquitous. “Even the foot soldiers spout this stuff constantly,” Haykel said. “They mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion, and they do it all the time.” He regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. “People want to absolve Islam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State. “And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”
All Muslims acknowledge that Muhammad’s earliest conquests were not tidy affairs, and that the laws of war passed down in the Koran and in the narrations of the Prophet’s rule were calibrated to fit a turbulent and violent time. In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts. “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” Haykel said. Islamic State fighters “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”

Meanwhile Juan Cole makes the opposite argument in a post entitled "Today's Top 7 Myths about Daesh/ISIL" on his blog:

1. It isn’t possible to determine whether Daesh a mainstream Muslim organization, since Muslim practice varies by time and place. I disagree. There is a center of gravity to any religion such that observers can tell when something is deviant. Aum Shinrikyo isn’t your run of the mill Buddhism, though it probably is on the fringes of the Buddhist tradition (it released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995). Like Aum Shinrikyo, Daesh is a fringe cult. There is nothing in formal Islam that would authorize summarily executing 21 Christians. The Qur’an says that Christians are closest in love to the Muslims, and that if they have faith and do good works, Christians need have no fear in the afterlife. Christians are people of the book and allowed religious freedom by Islamic law from the earliest times. Muslims haven’t always lived up to this ideal, but Christians were a big part of most Muslim states in the Middle East (in the early Abbasid Empire the Egyptian and Iraqi Christians were the majority). They obviously weren’t being taken out and beheaded on a regular basis. They did gradually largely convert to Islam, but we historians don’t find good evidence that they were coerced into it. Because they paid an extra poll tax, Christians had economic reasons to declare themselves Muslims.
We all know that Kentucky snake handlers are a Christian cult and that snake handling isn’t typical of the Christian tradition. Why pretend that we can’t judge when modern Muslim movements depart so far from the modern mainstream as to be a cult?
2. Daesh fighters are pious. Some may be. But very large numbers are just criminals who mouth pious slogans. The volunteers from other countries often have a gang past. They engage in drug and other smuggling and in human trafficking and delight in mass murder. They are criminals and sociopaths. Lots of religious cults authorize criminality.


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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Libya and Egypt

Yesterday the Islamic State released another one of its disgusting spectacles, featuring the murder of 21 Egyptian Copts who were kidnapped while working in Libya. 

Cartoon by Amjad Rasmi in Al Sharq Al Awsat (thanks to Jonathan Guyer)

Cartoon by Amjad Rasmi in Al Sharq Al Awsat (thanks to Jonathan Guyer)

TIMEP has an account of attacks on Coptic Christians in Libya, of which this is just the latest:

With the exception of the physician from Gharbeyya, who was killed with his family, the rest of the targeted Copts come from Upper Egypt, predominantly Minya, Assiout, and Sohag, which are among the least developed and poorest governorates in Egypt. 
...
Recently, the Egyptian government and security apparatus swiftly intervened to successfully free kidnapped Egyptian embassy personnel in Tripoli in January 2014, and truck drivers in October of that same year. However, the government has not been as quick or as effective on the kidnapping of Copts. In fact, Egyptian officials often seem indifferent to the incidents.

This time, while families mourned in the villages of Egypt's South, President Sisi has ordered air strikes in Libya. The piece in TIMEP points out the need to plan a safe evacuation for the thousands of Egyptian Copts in the country. There are already warning of possible retaliation against them. 

Egyptian military incursions into Libya are a bad idea according to this article in the Cairo Review:

Yet the opposite is happening in Libya. First, Qatar and Turkey have and are providing arms and equipment to the Tripoli-based faction. Second, it has become evident—as well as openly announced by members of the Dignity operation—that Egypt is heavily involved in assisting efforts against Islamists in both the east and, as continuous airstrikes indicate, in the west. Libya is thus becoming a proxy for a larger regional struggle that pits anti-Islamist coalitions (led by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia) against the presumed supporters of Islamists (Turkey and Qatar). Such international support for the factions undermines UN mediation efforts. In particular, the backing that Egypt provides to General Haftar and Operation Dignity empowers those forces that want to continue the armed struggle until the whole country is “liberated” from those who understand that there is no military solution to the crisis, rather only a negotiated one.

Since the collapse of order in Libya, Egypt has been the most affected by the instability. The power vacuum allows extremist elements to infiltrate Egyptian territory and carry out attacks against security forces. The temptation then is very high for the Egyptian state to intervene directly in Libya and secure at least a buffer zone, but also possibly exert full control over as much of Libya’s eastern territory as feasible. An open intervention by Egypt’s military, however, would not only hinder a peaceful settlement in Libya, but also negatively affect Egypt’s interests. It would entrench the polarization of Libyan forces on the ground, further diminishing prospects for a political solution, and entangle Egypt in a war against forces that will gain wider support as the local population shifts from anti-Islamist sentiments to animosity toward a foreign invader.

Another piece worth reading is Jon Lee Anderson's profile of General Haftar, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates' strongman of choice in Libya. 

Haftar reached out to contacts in what remained of Libya’s armed forces, in civil society, in tribal groups, and, finally, in Tripoli. “Everyone told me the same thing,” he said. “ ‘We are looking for a savior. Where are you?’ I told them, ‘If I have the approval of the people, I will act.’ After popular demonstrations took place all over Libya asking me to step in, I knew I was being pushed toward death, but I willingly accepted.”
Like many self-appointed saviors, Haftar spoke with a certain self-admiring fatalism. But his history is much more complex than he cares to acknowledge. As an Army cadet in 1969, he participated in Qaddafi’s coup against the Libyan monarchy, and eventually became one of his top officers. “He was my son,” Qaddafi once told an interviewer, “and I was like his spiritual father.”

 

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

The Chapel Hill murders

From The New Yorker:

“Isolated incident” was the preferred verbiage of Ripley Rand, the local U.S. attorney. Rand said that he saw no reason to treat the targeting and assassination of these three Muslims as “part of a targeted campaign against Muslims”—as if a broader conspiracy were needed for Hicks’s crime to have broader significance.
So there you have it. Some people are sensitive about parking. One such person stood his ground. Now three young innocents are dead, and he’s being held without bond in the county jail. A lamentable affair, but, told like that, shorn of all context, it’s not unlike a song on the radio, folkloric. Our imaginations are primed to grasp it.
What’s hard to get one’s mind around is that everyone who’s singing this tune—the police, the wife, the prosecutor—seems to think that it’s reassuring. Getting blown away by a neighbor just because he’s pissed off at you for some ridiculous reason has become the equivalent of a natural disaster in our country, with our gun culture. It’s got nothing to do with the killer’s ideology, or with the victim’s identity. That’s the thinking. And, with this “parking” alibi, we’re being asked to imagine that these killings are a private tragedy, not some big public deal—not terrorism, not even like terrorism. We’re being told to believe that the vigilante killing of three young Americans is socially and politically meaningless.
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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.