The ISIS disease in Mosul

 
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By Thurayya Ibrahim*

For those who have refused to flee the Islamic State (ISIS), formerly close-knit Mosul has become a dangerous city robbed of its diversity and dignity.

Monday 20 October 2014

Mosul, the first city I opened my eyes upon, the place that witnessed the early years of my childhood with all its memories, the nostalgic home I often long to see again suddenly became a place that is alien to me, one that lacks Mosul’s real essence, devoid of its culture, customs, heritage and tradition.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) – or simply the Islamic State as it likes to be described now in a betrayal of its widening ambitions  – overran Mosul, Iraq second-largest city with its 1.7 million inhabitants, in a matter of days. How and why is still unclear and many aspects remain shrouded in mystery but one fact speak for itself: ISIS is like Ebola – it attacks your body at a shocking speed and as you struggle to discover the cause you must also find a cure.

Like hundreds of thousands of Mouslawis, I am baffled as to how and what caused this disease. Is it hereditary or is it something we caught like a virus, and can it be treated without us knowing its nature and origins? Surely, a disease must be identified and understood before a course of treatment can be applied and more importantly how can we be sure that it won’t return with deadlier consequences.

Although most of the media’s attention has focused either on the destruction of holy sites or on those who fled the murderous group, it is also important to learn what life under ISIS rule is like for the residents of Mosul who opted to stay.  This short series about Mosul’s fall will address the changing identity of Mosul, the position of women in ISIS society, and young people’s dashed hopes of a brighter future. It will also tackle the existential struggle between ISIS and the Iraqi government and the battle to reclaim the city.

ISIS’s invasion of Mosul and other Iraqi towns did not just spell the end of the Iraqi government’s control of these large swathes of territory but it also brought an overwhelming change to the ethnic make-up of Mosul and northwestern Iraq, as well as their historical, cultural, and traditional ways of life.

The news reached me about a possible attack on Mosul through a phone conversation with relatives who wanted to assure us of their safety on that fateful day of Thursday 5 June.  As it was narrated to me, events began to unfold at approximately midday when everyone in Mosul was told by the police to leave their work and return home for security reasons, with a curfew imposed on the city until further notice.

People left their work and rushed home, many had to walk for hours, as there was sudden panic and no taxis or public transportation could be found. One 60-year-old woman had to walk for nearly three hours from her workplace, a health organisation, to reach her home. “A journey that in normal circumstances would take me 35 minutes maximum turned into hours, as I struggled to find a way home after my regular taxi driver dropped me half way fearing he would get stuck as the police were closing the roads, so I had to walk the rest of the way in the blazing heat of 48 degrees Celsius,” she said.

This lady was one of many but at least she was an adult with the ability to walk the distance. Some children were trapped in schools waiting for their parents to come and collect them, while patients with serious conditions were stuck in hospitals awaiting their fate. No-one knew what was happening, there were rumours that “militants” were about to attack the city. Despite the animosity people felt towards some of the Iraqi police and army, they still had some faith in their ability to defend the city and the curfew order further assured people that the authorities were in control and probably had a plan to deal with these insurgents.

But as the days passed, alarming rumours began to circulate, with some claiming that the army had deserted the city and fled to the Kurdish-controlled area in the north, while others swore that the police had abandoned their weapons and uniform and gone into hiding. There was also talk that foreign fighters had entered parts of the city, announcing that they had arrived in Mosul to liberate the people and save them from the “evil sectarian government of Iraq”. Ordinary Mosulawis were extremely scared. They sensed the danger that surrounded the city, despite reassurance and pleas from the militants that they had no reason to be afraid. But a nation that had gone through long bitter wars, invasions and terrorist attacks for more than 35 years knew full well what lay ahead – they had seen these faces before, be it under different names and guises. A retired lecturer at the University Of Mosul who has lived through and witnessed many political and social changes throughout Iraq’s modern history told me: “No good can ever come from such a group, very few can understand the demographic and social make-up of Iraq and that is why so many have failed in ruling the country.”

In fewer than four days, Mosul fell completely under the control of ISIS. On the night of 9 June and under heavy fire (unknown to this day between whom) many people locked their houses, took their most valued possessions and headed out of their beloved city into the unknown. The risks of being shot or stopped by ISIS fighters were as high as staying at home. The fall of the security forces led to a sense of chaos and anarchy, which was not helped by all the rumours and speculation. Escape was the only option in the eyes of some. After all, even the governor of Mosul had run off and left the city to its unknown fate, along with other officials. This terrified the younger generation more, as the adults had seen so many things befall Iraq that they had almost become immune to whatever will come. One 15-year-old told me: “I keep asking baba to leave Mosul. We are in grave danger. I mean what hope do we have when all our supposed ‘protectors’ have left, but he won’t listen.”

With its rich and diverse patchwork of communities, Mosul had always been one of the more conservative cities of Iraq, but it was also simultaneously a close-knit society. Almost everyone is related to one another and if not then they are connected through a friend or work. My own neighbours were all cousins or relatives of some kind and your family name was always enough to identify your entire history. I recall as a child growing up in Mosul knowing that I could never cross the line or break the rules because it would reach my mother before I got home. Unsurprisingly, you can always spot a stranger in Mosul.  For the locals to wake up and see various Arab fighters – as well as Afghans, Chechans and Pakistanis – ruling the city and walking the streets as though they owned the country was not just an invasion but an insult to every principle, belief and view held by the ordinary Mouslawi – it was an attack on their honour. A 31-year-old accountant was in tears because she was forced to push her two toddlers from her house to her parents area where there were fewer fighters. “Who on Earth are these people to interfere in our country? They don’t even speak our language or know anything about Mosul,” she said angrily.

The first few days under ISIS rule were filled with uncertainty and anticipation. Those who had taken flight were hoping for a quick end to this invasion, while the people who stayed behind were initially terrified to venture out onto the streets.  People had heard what ISIS had done in Syria and they were prepared for the worst but gradually there was some activity on the roads, as young men, with the help of ISIS fighters, began removing the road blocks and the barbed wire that had divided Mosul, which the Iraqi authorities had put in place in a futile attempt to thwart terrorist attacks but which mostly succeeded in making people’s lives a complete misery and degraded them on a daily basis. As the streets were cleared and people were free to come and go as they like without being stopped or questioned, the people of Mosul were lulled into a false sense of security and hope, especially as the kidnappings, assassinations, suicide bombings and terrorist attack seemed suddenly to have stopped.  People began to dream and think that life might return to how it was before the American invasion, oblivious to the fact that ISIS are no different to any other invading force, just more deadly.

_____

*The author’s name is a pseudonym.

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The death throes of Arab thuggery

 
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By Khaled Diab

Arab civilisation has not collapsed but the thuggish political, economic and religious mafias dominating the region are dying violently.

Prompted by social media, pro

Prompted by social media, pro

Friday 17 October 2014

In an influential essay in Politico, the veteran Lebanese journalist Hisham Melhem who is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya, sounded the death knell for Arab civilisation.

“Arab civilisation, such as we knew it, is all but gone,” was his bleak prognosis. “The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism… than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago.”

Melhem then goes on to detail a long list of ills plaguing the Arab world: from the apparent defeat of the Arab Spring revolutions in most countries to the failure of Arab secular and monarchist regimes, not to mention the proliferation of fundamentalist violence.

“Is it any surprise that, like the vermin that take over a ruined city, the heirs to this self-destroyed civilisation should be the nihilistic thugs of the Islamic State?” he asks.

But to my mind, the domino-collapse of one state after another is not a sign of the death of Arab civilisation, but is rather the result of the implosion of three bankrupt forms of despotism: that of the tyrannical Arab state, Islamist demagoguery and foreign hegemony.

Despite the massive differences in the forms of government and the nature of the governed, most post-independence Arab states shared one thing in common: they all served a narrow elite to the detriment of society as a whole. Wherever you turn your gaze, you will find, almost without exception, seated in the place of the previous imperial overlords are local masters.

In addition, the foreign rule of yesteryear did not go away, it just changed its face and modus operandi. The loose-knit Ottoman empire in which local leaders and elites paid lip service and tribute to the Sultan but sometimes behaved like independent leaders, such as in Egypt, was replaced by the British and French who spoke the language of independence but often engaged in direct rule.

When the United States muscled out the old-world European powers, it spoke the language of self-determination and anti-imperialism but created its Pax Americana empire which exercised control through vassal leaders in client states and a ruthlessly punitive approach, including crippling sanctions and invasions, towards those who rejected its hegemony. The upshot of this is that Arab populations have lived under a double oppression: that of their native rulers and that imposed on them from distant capitals.

Just like Washington tolerates little regional dissent, domestically, Arab regimes have shared, to varying degrees, a ruthless attitude to opposition. This had the dual effect of robbing their societies of a clear cadre of effective alternative leaders and empowering ever-more extreme forms of opposition by side-lining or eliminating moderates.

Although a lot of attention has been directed at regime crackdowns against the Islamist opposition, especially the various chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood, less well-known is that secular dissidents suffered repression easily as harsh or more so, especially leftists.

This is to be expected of the Gulf monarchies whose claim to legitimacy is founded on dubious religious pretexts. However, the revolutionary republican regimes of Egypt, Syria and Iraq, despite their reputation in America for having been closet communists and pro-Soviet, not only dealt ruthlessly with the liberal opposition but were also bitterly anti-communist. For example, Nasserist Egypt not only banned the liberal nationalist al-Wafd party in 1953 but also carried out a harsh crackdown against leftists and communist critics. This was partly out of distrust of Moscow and partly to maintain their claim as the sole representatives of progressive values.

In Iraq, the communist party was, for decades, one of the most influential opposition currents, yet was not tolerated neither by the “liberal” royalists nor the “progressive” Free Officers and Ba’athists which came later. The most brutal anti-communist crackdowns were probably those carried out by pro-British Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said in the late 1940s and in the 1960s following a failed anti-Ba’ath coup attempt. Saddam Hussein also dealt ruthlessly with the party, both as head of security and intelligence in the late 1960s and on the eve of becoming president in the late 1970s.

Though the reasons varied, the decades-long oppression of secular opposition forces in the Arab world had far-reaching consequences. One was the decimation of the ranks of viable alternative leaders, which was acutely felt when the leaderless Arab uprisings did not manage to assemble a credible leadership quickly enough to consolidate their gains.

This, along with the weak, corrupt, incompetent and dysfunctional nature of Arab secular regimes – not to mention the “democratic” fig leaf the West used to disguise its interests – led to the discrediting of secularism in the minds of many, and, after decades of being in vogue, Westernisation became a dirty word rather than something to aspire to.

This left an ideological and political void which radical, anti-authoritarian Islamism managed to occupy, for a time.

To counter both the secularist and Islamist threat to their legitimacy and rule, a number of Gulf states went on the offensive and actively exported, lubricated by petro-dollars, their own brand of Islam, such as the ultra-conservative Wahhabi ideology from Saudi Arabia or Salafism from Qatar.

For a while, political Islamism’s simple “Islam is the solution” formula apparently won a lot of supporters as a counter to the failure both of secular pan-Arabism and conservative monarchism, but this is waning.

Though the secular opposition forces may have been down, they were definitely not out. This was reflected in the progressive, leftist, pro-democracy nature of the 2011 Arab uprisings, especially in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.

This set alarm bells ringing in what had become the trinity dominating Arab politics: the Arab autocracies (whether republican or monarchist), the Islamist opposition and the US-led West. And each of these set in motion their own anti- or counterrevolutionary forces.

The one country where these forces did not manage to cause major mischief is the only place where the Arab Spring has been a relative success: Tunisia. For a time, Egypt looked like it might also escape this fate but, instead, turned into a battleground for regional and international forces.

But the worst proxy battleground has been Syria. Caught between the intransigent and murderous Assad regime and its allies in Russia, China and Iran, on the one hand, and the unholy alliance between the United States and the conservative Gulf monarchies, on the other hand, the peaceful, secular uprising didn’t stand a chance.

What the above reveals is that it is not Arab civilisation which has died, but the political order put in place almost a century ago following the collapse of the Ottoman empire is going through its death throes. And like dying wild animals, these beasts are at their most dangerous when fatally wounded.

Despite the surface decay in Arab society, submerged underneath are the fresh shoots of a robust, youthful, dynamic civilisation kept from blossoming by the stranglehold of the suffocating weed on the putrid top soil of the established order.

This is visible in the courageous youth who led the revolutionary charge against despotism, neo-liberalism and socioeconomic inequality. It can be seen in how tens of millions of Arabs have lost their deference to their leaders and their awe of authority. It can be traced in the innovative reinvention of religion and in the growing assertiveness of the a-religious, not to mention in the pent-up creative social, economic and even scientific energies eager to be unleashed and harnessed.

Once the crushing weight of the oppressive weed has been removed, future generations will have the space and opportunity to enable a true Arab Spring to bloom. But the road to recovery and then progress is long, hard and gruelling.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 2 October 2014.

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The Syrian Kurd who went blind because he’d seen too much

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek

From the man literally blinded by horrors to the girl whose dream is to read books,  we meet the Syrian Kurds fleeing the ISIS onslaught on Kobani.

A Kurdish boy in a mosque in Suruc. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

A Kurdish boy in a mosque in Suruc. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Tuesday 7 October 2014

During the day, the hill on the Turkish-Syrian border had been as desolately sandy as its surroundings. The night’s downpour had turned it into a pile of muddy goo. As I approached the border fence, a crowd of Kurdish men was observing the battle between the Kurdish defenders of Kobani and the Islamic State (ISIS) fighters. The Islamic State militia units were attacking backed by heavy artillery. The Kurds were responding with automatic-rifle fire and an occasional home-made rocket.

An abandoned Turkish military post on the border with Syria. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

An abandoned Turkish military post on the border with Syria. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Some soldiers of the Turkish army were also observing the action taking place on the Syrian side of the border. They were mostly doing it from the safety of their armoured vehicles ‒ which seemed like a good idea, since there weren’t all that many of them around. Their mood was one of wary apathy. As the battle grew in scope and ferocity, one could see some hundred Kurdish refugees lined up along the barbed wire separating the two countries. It was heartwrenchingly obvious they were hoping the Turks might still let them in. As things stood, they were caught in the crossfire.

Yet another haunting image from this desperate struggle, yet another reminder of the savagery of Syria’s civil war. As I watched, the whole bloody mess seemed so wretchedly complex that any solution granting safety to the civilian population seemed all but foredoomed.

A brief respite

Along with fourteen relatives, Omar Issa, 67, reached Turkey about a week ago. His pitiful expedition, hailing from the border-town of Karacha, has pitched a tent on an open field crossed by a muddy creek.

The tent provides a modicum of protection for no less than 18 families. Less than a kilometre to the west, a vicious firefight between the Kurds and the ISIS militiamen was raging on. Ignoring the explosions, the children were merrily frolicking around the creek. The women were catching up on the laundry, while the older men – pretty much everyone who could fight remained back in Syria – were sitting on plastic chairs, smoking and drinking tea. There seemed to be no end to the political debates.

“As soon as the Islamic State was formed in Syria, I knew that sooner or later they would be coming for us, the Kurds!” Omar told me. “To them, we are worth less than animals. We had to run, you understand? They’d already taken over all the neighbouring villages. Can you imagine our horror? So we packed what we could and drove here, to the border.”

“Then it took them two whole days to let us pass, the Turks,” he recalls. “Yes, we do feel safe here. But the housing situation is horrible, just horrible. It’s cold and it’s wet, and the winter is approaching fast – all of us can feel it.”

I spent quite a long time speaking with this traditionally dressed Kurdish elder, who only a few weeks ago used to grow olives and tend his flock. During our conversation, Omar revealed that two of his sons had stayed home to fight. He expressed great concern that the city of Kobani was about to fall. In his opinion, it would mean a great disaster for the Kurds and many others beside. “Under Bashar al Assad’s regime, we were safe, but we had no freedom,” he mused softly. “It was very very hard for us. And now… Well, now we are free men, but we are trembling for our lives.”

The consensus among the refugees seemed to be that they were entirely dependent on the help of their relatives on the Turkish side of the border. “They have helped us a great deal, and we are very grateful to them,” said one of those who had taken flight across the border. “But it is obvious we will not be able to hold out for much longer. We left everything behind. We are now left entirely at the mercy of the international community. There is, of course, no lack of promises; but we are now desperate for some actual assistance.”

Kurdish refugees. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Kurdish refugees. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

The majority of the Kurds that did manage to cross the border took refuge in nearby Suruc. With every day, the situation there grew more volatile. The people in the streets were visibly exhausted, some were openly raging at the sheer monstrous inhumanity of their predicament. Only a few kilometres away, their loved ones were being massacred, and they were powerless to help. Yet some also admitted it was little wonder Turkey had decided to close the border. After all, over the last fortnight the population of the filthy, down-trodden town of Suruc has more than doubled.

No-one really knew the exact number of the inflowing Kurdish refugees. All available housing was bulging at the seams, and many of the refugees were left with no recourse but to sleep in parks and darkened underpasses. Quite a number of them have pitched improvised tents in the surrounding fields. All of them were left entirely to their own devices and whatever help the locals were able to supply. At the time of my arrival, precious little actual humanitarian relief had managed to reach Suruc, a town that was visibly tottering on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

“The ISIS men were sure to kidnap us and sell us into slavery”

Naima Khalil, 19, introduced herself to me as a Syrian Kurd from Kobani. In the chaos that had become her existence there by the Syrian-Turkish border, she longed for the safety and stability provided by her school and a small collection of books she had to leave behind.

Accompanied by her mother, father, brother and five sisters, she fled eight days ago. The ISIS militiamen have been tightening their grip on this thoroughly besieged city, until Naima’s father decided they could no longer run the risk of staying put. The father was all too aware what happened to many others who failed to flee the Sunni extremist elsewhere.

“Our father was afraid for us, women,” Naima explained with a diffident shrug. “The ISIS men were sure to kidnap us and sell us into slavery. It’s what happened to so many girls in Syria and Iraq. So what could we do? We gathered what we could and ran for our lives. You know, there’s been no electricity or running water in Kobani for a while now. We suffered there for three years. We had to dig our own well. But we knew that in the surrounding villages, things were even worse.”

This swarthy nineteen-year-old, Naima, was talking to me in commendably fluent English. Back in Syria, she and her family have managed to survive three years of constant war. It wasn’t always the case, but in Kobani, the Kurds had opted to join the Syrian revolution. During the first months of the insurgency against the Assad regime, a few peaceful demonstrations took place in Kobani. The government forces arrested a number of people, but for some reason they didn’t bring their heel down as brutally as they did in Homs or Da’ara. The summer of 2012 saw a “tactical” retreat of Assad’s forces from the Kurdish territories. The Kurds wasted little time in forming their own local authorities and setting up their own dedicated, if rather tiny, army. They declared an autonomous Kurdish zone and decided to name it Rojave.

For Naima, this meant the end of her schooling. It also meant an end to her hope of going on to study medicine – something she’d dreamt about throughout her entire childhood. The road to Aleppo, where the university is situated and where she was meant to take her entrance exams, became “impassable”. In reality, this means the road became one of the focal points for the clashes between the various insurgent groups, the government forces, the Kurds and the burgeoning ISIS.

There is no getting around the fact that the situation is mercilessly complex. The sudden rise of the ISIS’s fierce, hate-crazed militiamen can be defined as the illegitimate offspring of decades of American foreign policies, Saudi funding and the Turkish fear of the Kurds getting organised. The Islamic State fighters first decisively destroyed the Syrian insurgency against the Assad regime, then they crossed the Iraqi border to establish what they call a “caliphate”. After that, they wasted little time to get on with their business of rooting out all dissent to their militant creed. After the Yaezidis, the Kurds were next in line. Over the course of the last two weeks, over a hundred Kurdish villages were taken by the militiamen. Some 130,000 Kurds were forced to flee to Turkey via the nearby border, which was proving increasingly porous. With every passing day, the chaos only intensified.

Naima Khalil is just one of the countless innocent souls caught up in the lunacy. “I am angry and I am sad,” she admitted. “The Turkish children here are set on frightening me by telling me the Islamists are coming here to murder me, while the grown men want only to humiliate me. Most days, I can barely gather the courage to step out of the house where we live along with three other families.”

And how did Naima manage to find this accommodation? “Oh, one of my father’s acquaintances sort of lent it to us for 10 days. The bad news is that the day after tomorrow we have to leave, and then we’ll be left to the streets. We simply don’t know what to do. There’s no money left. My parents spent what little we had on getting us out of there alive. Perhaps… Perhaps we’ll be forced to go to Istanbul. To live on the streets. I’ll start looking for work as soon as we get there.”

“There is nothing I want more than to go back to school, but I guess that’s not going to happen, huh,” she added, before breaking down into heavy sobs. Then Naima summoned what courage and optimism she had left and asked me if I had a book in English. “Anything, anything at all,” she pleaded. As far back as she could remember, all she really wanted to do was read. “My father, he wants me to grab any chance at education life gives me. Even when I was not able to go to school, I studied all the time ‒ I studied at home, where else?” she described. “I read everything I could get my hands on. I don’t want to be like most of my friends: their parents married them off to make sure they were safe but losing them their freedom in the bargain. I simply couldn’t do that. Not for all the safety in the world. After all, my mother Najaf has always been a fierce advocate of women’s rights.”

This last bit allowed Naima to regain some measure of composure and even pride. As we talked, we stood amid a vast crowd of Kurdish refugees who’d gathered here for the lentil soup. This brackish-looking concoction was being distributed by Turkish humanitarian workers from titanic aluminium vats. In this dusty, anxiety-ravaged town of Suruc, Naima told me, she felt more trapped than anywhere before. “These local men, they are staring at me, and they are staring and staring, and I am always looking away… And every day, I get more afraid of them, of what they might do to me. You know, this… This is not my world. This should not be my world.”

Mohammed Chechu: Blinded by tragedy. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Mohammed Chechu: Blinded by tragedy. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Mohammed Chechu, a Kurdish refugee from a village near Kobani, lost his sight some 18 months ago. He claims it was because he had seen too much horror. Along with his family, he left Syria for the border town of 12 twelve days ago. His village – just like all the other Kurdish villages in the region – was taken over by the Islamic State.

“Since I can’t see, I hardly ever left the house. One day, I heard shouting in the streets. People were very frightened. They were telling each other that in the neighbouring villages, the Islamists were slitting throats and rounding up the women to sell them into slavery,” he recounted. “My greatest fear was that my blindness would make me a burden for everyone. I was determined to stay in the house, come what may, but my family convinced me to help them gather a few things and flee. We had to leave behind everything we worked for so hard. Our house, our car, our animals, our life.”

I spoke to Mohammed inside a mosque, where at least 300 Kurdish refugees have been crammed together for the past fortnight. He told me that it took his family two whole days to make the trip. They spent a night at the Turkish border, then the Turkish soldiers decided to let them pass.

Many of Mohammed’s relatives stayed back in Kobani: cousins, nephews, even many of his friends who have never before as much as lifted a walking stick in anger, let alone a Kalashnikov rifle. But they knew enough to know their fate was entirely in their own hands. No help has yet been given to them, and they have learned to expect none. The coalition was mostly bombing oil refineries – its priorities couldn’t be more clear. Meanwhile, the Kurds were perishing by the thousands, and hardly for the first time. Given the long brutal history of this proud, self-reliant people, it is no wonder so few of its members are willing to place any trust in the international community. The vast majority claim they would much prefer to die valiantly in battle. But perhaps their greatest problem is that, at this crucial moment in history, there is precious little unity between the 25 million Kurds of the Middle East, let alone a focused political agenda. So far, none of their brothers have come to the aid of the Syrian Kurds in the Kobani province. They have their own battles to fight.

“It’s hard. The worst part is that my blindness prevents me from taking care of my family,” Mohammed went on. “Instead, they have to take care of me! I’m completely useless. Like myself, my wife also used to be a teacher in our school. But as soon as I lost my sight, she had to drop all that and devote herself fully to the needs of our family.”

Mohammed’s unseeing eyes have honed other forms of sight and insight. “For this past week, all I’ve done is sit around and listen to people talk. I also smoke a lot and think, think, think. I may be blind, but that doesn’t mean I can’t see the human pain and suffering all around me. So many people are forced to sleep in the streets. We are so cold – but there is no help in sight. Winter’s coming, and things are only going to get worse. I’m afraid that there will come a point when they will simply decide to trample us into the ground… I’m very grateful to Turkey for letting us in, but now someone else should step in and help, too!«

In this most unfortunate exile, Mohammed is accompanied by three sons and a daughter. The youngest of his sons is 12 and has recently been diagnosed with a very serious type of diabetes. “No medicine is available for him here. And we also have no money for the treatment. I know he got sick because of me. And because of the war.” Throughout our conversation, Mohammed fought valiantly to keep his emotions in check, but this is where he lost control, and tears came pouring out of his dark, sightless eyes.

I want to teach again.”

The last time Mohammed stepped in front of a class was two years ago, when the government forces temporarily left the Kurdish areas, which enabled the Kurds to organise their own schools. Even then, his eyesight was starting to fail. He is convinced that the stress was the main cause. He had seen so many atrocities, perpetrated both by the regime and then the various Islamic militias that started to brutalise his homelands. The viciousness kept mounting and mounting, much like the war itself. Mohammed finally went blind about a year and a half ago.

“For a while, all I could see were shadows, and then not even that,” he recalls. “It was… It was like a sort of death. But I didn’t lose hope. After a few weeks, I regained at least some of my spirit and convinced myself that there will come a day when I would see again, and then I could once more step into a classroom of happy children, all of them willing to learn.”

But one needs considerable foresight to see that distant day through the heavy fog of conflict. “You know, Syria is now seeing a generation of children who had to leave school altogether – an uneducated, traumatised generation… It is the worst thing that could have happened.” From the quiet, plaintive way he spoke, it was clear that Mohammed still hadn’t come to grips with all the horrors that recently befell him and his people. But in spite of his blindness, his deep dark eyes kept staring right at mine, and I was startled to note that at times those poor sightless eyes were still sparkling – and with, of all things, hope.

Almost the entire territory of Syria has been ravaged by war, and the roads connecting the major urban centres have been the most dangerous parts of this fallen country… Nevertheless, a few months ago, Mohammed’s wife still decided to gather the last of their savings and take her husband to a renowned neurologist in Damascus. One day, she simply started the car and set off toward the capital. At every checkpoint, they were stopped and questioned, and the surly men with machine-guns often made very explicit threats to boot. They were stopped by the government troops, the ISIS militiamen, the members of the Free Syrian Army and a number of unidentifiable ruffians, all of these warlords the new rulers of the divided state. All in all, it took them thirty-six hours to reach Damascus. They spent the night in their car, in the middle of the desert.

“My wife was able to get some sleep. I didn’t. I was much too terrified,” Mohammed said of the nerve-wracking journey. “All the time, I was listening to the various noises, wondering what each of them meant. A few times, panic almost had me by the throat. But I was also looking forward to seeing the specialist. I was really hopeful that he could help me.”

Hope remains

When they arrived, the neurologists saw Mohammed straight away. He examined his eyes very assiduously, and to the patient’s great surprise he declared there was nothing wrong with them. The problem is of a purely neurological nature, that much is now certain. According to the specialist, the blindness was caused by some elaborate glitch of the nerves in Mohammed’s brain. The patient found himself much heartened by the news, since the neurologist openly told him that there was an excellent chance of him regaining his sight if proper treatment could be secured.

“The return trip may have been just as dangerous as the drive to Damascus. But this time around, I was warm all over with a feeling not unlike happiness,” Mohammed remembered. “The very mention of the possibility that I might see again cheered me up no end. On my return, I was a different man, full of hope.” But this hope lies at some considerable distance in space, time and opportunity. “The [doctor] from Damascus told me that a certain clinic in Spain specialises in the exact form of dysfunction I was diagnosed with having! But he didn’t tell me its name or location, and in all the excitement I forgot to ask. I’m glad to say that I have a relative in Spain, who promised he would help me find this clinic… But I have no idea how I’m going to get there. I have neither the funds nor the necessary papers.”

Mohammed Chechu also sent the results of his examination to a Palestinian doctor in Jordan. He is still waiting for the reply. But these last few weeks, his eyes have regained a small semblance of their former function. He cannot exactly see anything, but he can sometimes “feel” movement in front of his eyes, he says – and now and then he finds himself sensing a shift in the quality of the light. If he places his palm directly in front of his eyes, he can sometimes convince himself that he can discern a few of its features. But if an object is placed more than 10cm away, he cannot see it at all. “All the time I hope and pray. I want to be a man again, someone who can take care of his family, my poor beloved wife and children, who had been so traumatised by this senseless war,” he expresses his yearning. “In my opinion, only someone who is able to serve others can fully appreciate the marvel of what it means to be human.”

Mohammed ends our conversation by apologising for being so “selfish”. “I do apologise for going on like this, for focusing almost entirely on my own problems. This unspeakable tragedy, well… The truth is we’re all in it together, and our pain is only growing worse. Please help us.”

____

Follow  Boštjan Videmšek on Twitter: @bosthi

His website is: bostjanvidemsek.com

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The dangers of a political crusade against Western jihadists

 
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By Khaled Diab

Inflammatory rhetoric and a solely punitive approach to Western jihadists is only likely to make matters worst, and could threaten multiculturalism.

British aid worker Peter Haine is the latest Westerner to be executed by ISIS.

British aid worker Peter Haine is the latest Westerner to be executed by ISIS.

Monday 15 September 2014

David Cameron, the UK prime minister, has unveiled a controversial raft of measures which he claims will help counter the threat posed by British jihadists fighting in Syria and northern Iraq. These include barring these citizens from re-entering the UK, seizing the passports of suspects before they depart and internally exiling radicals. Other European countries are also considering similar measures. Norway, for example, has announced that it is studying mechanisms for revoking the citizenship of Norwegians who take part in terror operations abroad or join foreign militaries, which would potentially also include Jews volunteering for the Israeli army.

“Adhering to British values is not an option or a choice,” Cameron told the House of Commons. “It is a duty for all those who live in these islands so we will stand up for our values.”

A “duty”, it would seem, if you are a member of a minority, but not if you are a posh Tory. Then, you can ride roughshod over these values and the principles underlying the British legal system, and grant the government even more arbitrary powers to encroach on civil liberties. Fair trials and the presumption of innocence are surely sacred British values, or is Cameron proposing a return to the medieval Germanic practice of  “guilty until proven innocent”? His home secretary certainly is, having stripped at least 37 dual nationality Britons of their citizenship with the stroke of a pen, without any kind of due process.

Fortunately, the British establishment has balked at Cameron’s demagoguery, forcing him to backpedal somewhat from the strident statement of intent he gave on Friday 29 August.

Moreover, “it absolutely sticks in the craw”, to borrow one of the prime minister’s own expressions, and beggars belief that Cameron himself posed a far greater threat to British values and the safety of British citizens than a handful of jihadistst. After all, Cameron supported the illegal and bloody invasion of Iraq, against the will of millions of Britons. And this disastrous enterprise,  which triggered serious blowback, created the vacuum from which ISIS emerged and helped radicalise some Muslims towards Britain, could not have gone ahead without his party’s support.

Should Cameron voluntarily hand over his passport for so recklessly having undermined British values and the security of his fellow citizens? Should he refuse the jet-setting Tony Blair re-entry into the UK and exile him to the Hague?

The rank hypocrisy of politicians and bigots aside, I understand and sympathise with European anxieties, especially following the murder of a third Western hostage held by ISIS, British aid worker David Haines. I witnessed, in the 1990s, the disruptive influence of returning Egyptian jihadists – then from Western-sanctioned Afghanistan. As an agnostic-atheist who believes in secularism and multiculturalism, I observe with alarm the rise, in Syria and Iraq, of violent Islamists who make al-Qaeda look like boy scouts. Their murderous brutality, historical ignorance and cluelessness about religion is worthy of the highest contempt and mockery. But they are a catastrophe for the Middle East, not the West.

That said, Europeans fighting in Syria and Iraq do pose a potential threat to their home countries. However, the British legal system is already equipped with all the legislation necessary and the security services possess the power – too much power – to protect citizens against this threat and to punish perpetrators of atrocities, but this must only occur as a result of free and fair trials.

Moreover, a solely punitive approach is far from useful. In fact, radicalisation experts say it is counterproductive and dangerous. “Treating all foreign fighters as terrorists… risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy,” wrote Shiraz Maher and Peter Neumann of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London. “It may sound tough, but it isn’t likely to be effective.”

Why? Because “their motivations for travelling to Syria are diverse, and it is wrong to think of them as a homogenous group,” explain Maher and Neumann.

In the fog of war, it is not only unclear just how many foreign fighters there are in Syria but also who they are fighting alongside and to what end. An ICSR report from the end of last year emphasised that the group affiliations for foreign fighters were known in only a fifth of cases. Of the remaining four-fifths, it is impossible to know how many are of the headline-grabbing ISIS variety of grizzly mass murderers, and how many are young idealists drawn to fight against a murderous dictator with moderate rebel groups, like generations of Europeans before them.

Even among those who go to wage jihad, many experience a change of heart once their abstract dreams are replaced by the gruesome reality. “We’re forced to stay and fight, what choice do we have? It’s sad,” one disillusioned jihadist who was afraid to return home admitted to ICSR.

This is the situation many disenchanted Arab jihadists found themselves in when their home countries stripped them of their nationality following the war in Afghanistan, forcing them further down the road to extremism and providing the nascent Al Qaeda with a core of fighters it would otherwise have been deprived of.

Egypt and some other Arab countries have since drawn lessons from this. Rather than banishing jihadists, they have put in place de-radicalisation programmes. Effective de-radicalisation initiatives can reap a threefold benefit in Europe: regaining productive citizens, mitigating a terrorist threat and providing the best advertisement against the lure of jihad for would-be hotheads.

Moreover, radicalisation is not something that only afflicts minorities. Segments of the European majorities are also being radicalised by economic and social insecurity, demagoguery and false narratives, just like Muslims, as reflected by the extremely troubling rise of the far-right and neo-Nazism.

In addition, radicalisation is partly generational. After an implicit post-war social pact in which youth expected to lead better lives than their parents, we have reached an impasse where young people are both worse off than baby-boomers and have dwindling prospects, with rampant unemployment, especially in the 18-25 age group, unaffordable housing, few pension prospects, etc.

And rather than sympathy, the plight of youth has brought them contempt. Contrary to popular belief, it is not older Europeans who are the worst victims of ageism but those under the age of 25 –  a problem that’s particularly acute in the UK and Scandinavia. This has led to huge disillusionment among youngsters, some of whom turn to various forms of radicalism. Minority youth have the additional burden of racial and cultural discrimination.

This reflects how vital it is that the problem of foreign jihadists, troubling as it is, is not blown out of all proportions by vested interest groups and bigots. No more than 500 Brits, by Cameron’s own estimate, have taken up arms in Syria (and mostly for unknown reasons). Yet the prime minister claimed outlandishly that this disparate group, which would barely make up a battalion in a regular army, was the single greatest threat facing the UK, bizarrely overlooking Ukraine and other major crises affecting Europe.

This kind of rhetoric, which panders to the far right and Islamophobic elements in European society, is reckless and potentially perilous. Stigmatising and vilifying minorities or certain ethnic groups can lead to ugly repression and persecution, as Europe’s own history shows and many parts of the contemporary Middle East are currently illustrating. In fact, what history seems to tell us is that when there’s a “problem” with a minority, one should look to the majority first because that’s where the real problem usually lies.

Although some critics are well-meaning and well-intentioned, many of the loudest voices declaring the failure of multiculturalism and demanding that minorities assimilate are those who never bought into diversity in the first place and harken back to an idealised, mythological past in which society was purer and nobler.

But multiculturalism hasn’t failed. Despite its many enemies and its learn-as-you-go approach, it has been generally a roaring success. Only two or three generations ago, western European countries were largely homogenous. Today, they are a cultural kaleidoscope of diversity in which disparate groups manage to live together in peace and relative harmony.

As the once-diverse Middle East increasingly sheds its cultural variety and persecution on the basis of ethnicity and religion grows, Britain and western Europe should cherish and safeguard the beauty of their newfound multicultural reality.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 4 September 2014.

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The caliphate illusion: “Restoring” what never was

 
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By Khaled Diab

The tyranny of Arab secular dictators and destructive Western hegemony combined to enable ISIS to “restore” a brutal caliphate which never existed.

Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri has reinvented himself as "Caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But the caliphate he has "restored" is a dystopian fantasy and illusion.

Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri has reinvented himself as “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But the caliphate he has “restored” is a dystopian fantasy and illusion.

Monday 7 July 2014

The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) – or simply, the Islamic State, as it now prefers to be called – is well on the road to achieving its end goal: the restoration of the caliphate in the territory it controls, under the authority of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Islamist militant leader since the early days of the American occupation of Iraq.

The concept, which refers to an Islamic state presided over by a leader with both political and religious authority, dates from the various Muslim empires that followed the time of Muhammad. From the seventh century onward, the caliph was, literally, the prophet’s “successor.”

The trouble is that the caliphate they seek to establish is ahistorical, to say the least.

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî Image source: Yorck Project

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî
Image source: Yorck Project

For instance, the Abbasid caliphate centred in Baghdad (750-1258), just down the road but centuries away (and ahead) of its backward-looking ISIS counterpart, was an impressively dynamic and diverse empire. In sharp contrast to ISIS’s violent puritanism, Abbasid society during its heyday thrived on multiculturalism, science, innovation, learning and culture, including odes to wine and racy homoerotic poetry.

The irreverent court poet of the legendary Caliph Harun al-Rashid (circa 763-809), Abu Nuwas, not only penned odes to wine, but also wrote erotic gay verse that would make a modern imam blush.

With the Bayt al-Hekma at the heart of its scientific establishment, the Abbasid caliphate gave us many sciences with which the modern world would not function, including the bane of every school boy, algebra, devised by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi. Even the modern scientific method itself was invented in Baghdad by the “first scientist” Ibn al-Haytham, who also made major advances in optics.

With the proliferation of sceptical scholars, even religion did not escape unscathed. For example Abu al-Ala’a Al-Ma’arri was an atheist on a par with anything the modern world can muster. “Do not suppose the statements of the prophets to be true,” he thundered. “The sacred books are only such a set of idle tales as any age could have and indeed did actually produce.”

And he uncharitably divided the world into two: “Those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains.”

And it is this tolerance of free thought, not to mention the “decadence” of the caliph’s court, which causes puritanical Islamists of the modern-day to harken back to an even earlier era, that of Muhammad and his first “successors” (caliphs).

But the early Rashidun (“rightly guided”) Caliphs bear almost no resemblance to Jihadist mythology. Even Muhammad, the most “rightly guided” Islamic figure, did not establish an Islamic state, at least not in the modern sense of the word. For example, the Constitution of Medina drafted by the prophet stipulates that Muslims, Jews, Christians and even pagans all have equal political and cultural rights. This is a far cry from ISIS’s attitudes towards even fellow Sunni Muslims who do not practise its brand of Islam, let alone Shi’a, Christians or other minorities.

More crucially, the caliphates in the early centuries of Islam were forward-looking and future-oriented, whereas today’s wannabe caliphates are stuck in a past that never was.

How did this ideological fallacy of the Islamist caliphate come about?

To understand the how and why, we must rewind to the 19th century. Back then, Arab intellectuals and nationalist wishing to shake off the yoke of Ottoman dominance were great admirers of Western societies and saw in them, in the words of Egyptian moderniser and reformer Muhammad Abdu, “Islam without Muslims”, hinting at the more secular reality of the Islamic “golden age”. Another Egyptian moderniser, Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, urged his fellow citizens to “understand what the modern world is”.

Interestingly, many of these reformers were educated as Islamic scholars but were enamored of modern European secularism and enlightenment principles. Taha Hussein, a 20th-century literary and intellectual trailblazer, started life at Al Azhar, the top institute of Islamic learning, but soon abandoned his faith.

Many Arab nationalists not only admired Europe and America but believed Western pledges to back their independence from the Ottoman empire, the “sick man of Europe”.

The first reality check came following the Ottoman defeat in World War I when, instead of granting Arabs independence, Britain and France carved up the Middle East between them, as if the region’s people were the spoils of war.

Disappointed by the old powers, Arabs still held out hope that America, which had not yet entered Middle Eastern politics in earnest, would live up to its self-image as the “good guy” and deliver on its commitment to “self-determination”, as first articulated by Woodrow Wilson.

But following World War II, America filled the void left by France and Britain by emulating its imperial predecessors, though it steered clear of direct rule. Instead, it propped up unpopular dictators and monarchs as long as they were “our son of a bitch”, in the phrase reportedly coined by Franklin D Roosevelt. This principle was eloquently illustrated in the same person, Saddam Hussein, who was an ally against Iran when he was committing his worst atrocities, such as the al-Anfal genocidal campaign and the Halabja chemical attack of the 1980s.

This resulted in a deep distrust of Western democratic rhetoric, and even tainted by association the very notion of democracy in the minds of some.

Then there was the domestic factor.  Like in so many post-colonial contexts, the nation’s liberators became its oppressors. Rather than dismantling the Ottoman and European instruments of imperial oppression, many of the region’s leaders happily embraced and added to this repressive machinery.

The failure of  revolutionary pan-Arabism to deliver its utopian vision of renaissance, unity, prosperity, freedom and dignity led to a disillusionment with that model of secularism. While the corruption and subservience to the West of the conservative, oil-rich monarchs turned many against the traditional deferential model of Islam.

ISIS have reportedly issued a passport. The holder cannot use it to travel anywhere in the real world, but it can transport him/her back to an era which never existed.

ISIS have reportedly issued a passport. The holder cannot use it to travel anywhere in the real world, but it can transport him/her back to an era which never existed.

This multilayered failure, as well as the brutal suppression of the secular opposition and moderate Islamists, led to the emergence of a radical, nihilistic fundamentalism which posited that contemporary Arab society had returned to the pre-Islamic “Jahiliyyah” (“Age of Ignorance”).

The only way to “correct” this was to declare jihad not only against foreign “unbelievers” but against Arab society itself in order to create a pure Islamic state that has only ever existed in the imaginations of modern Islamic extremists. These Islamists misdiagnose the weakness and underdevelopment of contemporary Arab society as stemming from its deviation from “pure” Islamic morality, as if the proper length of a beard and praying five times a day were a substitute for science and education, or could counterbalance global inequalities.

The wholesale destruction of Iraq’s political, social and economic infrastructure triggered by the US invasion created a power vacuum for these “takfiri” groups – first al-Qaeda and then the more radical ISIS – to make major advances.

In an interesting historical parallel, the man considered “Sheikh al-Islam” by many radical Salafists today, Ibn Taymiyyah, also emerged during a period of mass destruction and traumatic upheaval, the Mongol invasions. He declared jihad against the invaders and led the resistance in Damascus.

Despite ISIS’s successes on the battlefield, there is little appetite or support among the local populations for their harsh strictures,  a dact reflected by the 500,000 terrified citizens who fled Mosul. Even in the more moderate model espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist dream of transnational theocratic rule appeals to a dwindling number of Arabs. Only last week, Moroccan women showed their contempt for the conservative prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, by converging on Parliament armed with frying pans after he’d argued that women should stay in the home.

Rather than a caliphate presided over by arbitrarily appointed caliphs, subjected to a rigid interpretation of Shariah law, millions of Arabs strive simply for peace, stability, dignity, prosperity and democracy. Three turbulent years after the Arab revolutions, people still entertain the modest dream of one day having their fair share of “bread, freedom, social justice,” as the Tahrir Square slogan put it.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in the New York Times on 2 July 2014.

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Bush, Blair en de blitzkrieg in Irak

 
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Door Khaled Diab

Gezien de verreikende gevolgen van de Amerikaanse invasie van Irak, laten we het idee om Bush en Blair voor het gerecht te brengen nieuw leven inblazen.

Iraq_Tikrit_2942924b

Dinsdag 17 juni 2014

Hoe je er ook naar kijkt, de gebeurtenissen hebben een spectaculaire wending genomen. De Islamitische Staat in Irak en de Levant (ISIS), in Syrië in het gedrang gekomen door een offensief van Syrische opstandelingen, heeft sinds begin dit jaar, na de grens met Irak te zijn overgestoken, het noordwesten van dit land stukje bij beetje in handen gekregen.

Deze week is de campagne van ISIS in een stroomversnelling geraakt, waarbij de groepering de tweede stad van Irak, Mosoel, heeft
ingenomen, evenals Tikrit, de geboorteplaats van de voormalige Iraakse dictator Saddam Hoessein al-Tikriti, op een afstand van slechts 140 kilometer van de hoofdstad Bagdad.

Naar verluidt hebben de militanten de grensposten tussen Syrië en Irak uit de weg geruimd, wat van symbolische betekenis is, maar ook kan worden gezien als een teken dat de jihadistische beweging haar doel naderbij ziet komen van de vestiging van een islamitische staat in beide landen.

Als gevolg van het offensief van ISIS zijn honderdduizenden Irakezen, die al lang lijden onder alle gevechten, op de vlucht geslagen.
Het meest alarmerend is wellicht dat ISIS, in het Arabisch bekend onder de naam al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fīl-Iraq weh al-Sham, erin geslaagd is deze snelle verovering van noordwest-Irak te verwezenlijken met een krakkemikkige multinationale troepenmacht van slechts drie- tot vijfduizend strijders.

Hoe is dit kunnen gebeuren?

Als New York Times-columnist Thomas Friedman mag worden geloofd, lijkt dit het gevolg van een ideologische strijd tussen islamisten en milieuactivisten: “De echte ideeënstrijd… is de strijd die woedt tussen religieuze extremisten (soennieten zowel als sjiieten) en overtuigde milieuactivisten”, schreef hij.

Het verhaal dat ecostrijders in oorlog zijn met de zelfbenoemde soldaten van God is voor iedereen in het Midden-Oosten groot nieuws.

Het is waar dat het milieu in de regionale conflicten van hetomwater schreeuwende Midden-Oosten een steeds belangrijker onderwerp is en dat veel deskundigen voor de komende decennia ‘wateroorlogen’ voorspellen. Maar een andere vloeistof speelt de hoofdrol in de huidige problemen van Irak: olie.

Het zou makkelijk zijn Friedman, ooit een gevierd oorlogscorrespondent, af te doen als een excentriekeling op leeftijd die zijn realiteitszin volledig is kwijtgeraakt, maar zijn holle frasen zijn niet ongevaarlijk. Als invloedrijke ‘cheerleader’ – die in een beroemde uitspraak de Irakezen “suck on this” heeft voorgehouden – heeft hij publieke steun kunnen werven voor de
invasie en bezetting van Irak.

Maar wat deze jongste episode in een lange reeks van rampen duidelijk laat zien, is dat de Amerikaanse interventie in Irak een totale catastrofe is geweest, die zich sinds de plundering van Bagdad door de Mogollegers in 1258 niet meer op deze schaal heeft voorgedaan.

De grootschalige verwoesting van het land, de ontmanteling van het leger en de ineenstorting van het Baathregime hebben zo’n leemte achtergelaten dat het land is geïmplodeerd en er een burgeroorlog is uitgebroken, waardoor het terrein rijp is gemaakt voor radicale groeperingen die wilden profiteren van de chaos.

Het idee dat Amerika Irak er met overmacht toe zou kunnen dwingen een liberale en welvarende democratie te worden bleek net zo denkbeeldig als de niet-bestaande massavernietigingswapens die Saddam Hoessein volgens Washington in zijn bezit had.

Hoewel Irak onder Saddam Hoessein een onderdrukkend dystopia was dat behoefte had aan radicale veranderingen, kunnen zulke veranderingen niet van buitenaf worden opgelegd, en al helemaal niet met het geweer in de aanslag, door een eigengereide supermacht zonder vervolgscenario.

Het was de erkenning van de misleidende aard van deze misdadig roekeloze onderneming die in 2003 tientallen miljoenen bezorgde burgers over de hele wereld ertoe heeft gebracht de straat op te gaanomte betogen tegen de voorgenomen invasie. Deze leidde ook tot de ernstigste trans-Atlantische vertrouwenscrisis uit de recente geschiedenis, toen Washington België en andere kritische Europese landen de ‘As van de Wezels’ noemde.

Toch zette Washington destijds zijn zin door. Waarom?

Het korte antwoord luidt dat de oorlog nooit over vrijheid of democratie is gegaan – dat was slechts een marketingslogan. Het gingomhet kanaliseren van de Amerikaanse angst en woede na 9/11, teneinde de controle in handen te krijgen over de op één na grootste oliereserves in de wereld en bepaalde bedrijven te verrijken, op kosten van de belastingbetaler.

Als u ook maar enige twijfel koestert over deze realiteit, kijk dan eens naar de saai klinkende maar zeer belangrijke Executive Order
13303, die Amerikaanse firma’s feitelijk carte blanche geeftomin Irak ongestraft te doen wat ze willen.

Gezien de verreikende gevolgen van de Amerikaanse invasie en bezetting denk ik dat het belangrijk is het idee nieuw leven in te blazenomde verantwoordelijken – vooral George W. Bush en Tony Blair – voor het gerecht te brengen. Hoewel de schade hierdoor nooit ongedaan zal kunnen worden gemaakt, zou het de Irakezen niettemin enige genoegdoening bieden voor de verwoesting die de Brits-Amerikaanse invasie in hun land heeft aangericht.

Het zal ook een duidelijk signaal doen uitgaan dat dit soort gedrag niet thuishoort in een wereld die op zoek is naar orde, recht en stabiliteit.

Ik moet bekennen dat ik niet weetwat er tegen de ISIS kanworden ondernomen enwat er kanworden gedaanomde desintegratie van Irak te repareren. Ik weet alleen dat welke koers de buitenwereld ook zal volgen, een militaire interventie gepaard moet gaan met een internationaal mandaat en een helder plan voorwat er moet gebeuren als de “missie is volbracht”.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in De Morgen on 13 June 2014.

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Criminally reckless in Iraq

 
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By Khaled Diab

The US invasion and occupation caused Iraq to implode into anarchy and then explode into civil war. For that reason, its architects must be prosecuted.

Iraq_Tikrit_2942924b

Monday 16 June 2014

It is a spectacular turn of events by any measure. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/S), on the back foot in Syria following offensives by Syrian rebel groups, has, since the beginning of this year, stolen back across the border into Iraq, conquering the northeast of the country one piece at a time.

Last week, ISIS’s campaign went into overdrive, with the group conquering Iraq’s second city, Mosul, and Tikrit, the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti, which lies just 140km away from the capital, Baghdad. No long after, ISIS entered Diyala province, positioning itself less than 100km from the capital, with Nuri al-Maliki’s government launching a panicked counter-offensive.

Of symbolic significance and as a sign that the Jihadist movement is approaching its goal of establishing an Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, militants reportedly bulldozed the border between the two countries.

In the wake of ISIS’s thrust, hundreds of thousands of long-suffering Iraqis have taken flight – and for good reason, in light of the videos posted by the Islamist forces which apparently show the gruesome executions of hundreds of captured Iraqi soldiers.

Most alarmingly perhaps is that ISIS, known in Arabic as al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fīl-Iraq weh al-Sham, has managed to achieve this rapid takeover of northeastern Iraq wih a ramshackle multinational militant force of just 3,000-5,000 fighters, not to mention collaborators from Saddam Hussein’s disbanded army and Sunni tribal leaders.

How was this possible?

Well, if Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, is to be believed, it is down to an ideological battle between Islamists and environmentalists, of all people. “The real of war of ideas… is the one between the religious extremists (Sunni and Shiite) and the committed environmentalists,” he wrote, shortly after Mosul had been taken.

The novel notion that eco-warriors are doing battle with the self-appointed soldiers of God would be news to just about everyone in the Middle East.

It is true that the environment in the water-stressed Middle East is an ingredient of growing importance in regional conflicts, and many experts foresee water wars in the decades to come. However, it is another fluid that is at the heart of the dire situation in Iraq today: oil.

It would be easy to dismiss Friedman, once a celebrated war correspondent, as an ageing eccentric who has lost complete touch with reality, but his rantings are not harmless. As an influential, pro-invasion cheerleader – who famously told Iraqis to “suck on this” – he managed to rally public support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Today, the mainstream US media is falling into a similar trap as during the build-up to the invasion in 2003 by misdiagnosing the problem – blaming Barack Obama^s foreign policy, rather than the true villain of this piece.

What this latest episode in a long string of disasters clearly demonstrates is that the US intervention in Iraq has been a total catastrophe unseen in Mesopotamia since the Mogul sacking of Baghdad in 1258.

The wholesale destruction of the country, the disbanding of the army, and the collapse of the Baathist regime left behind such a vacuum that the country first imploded into anarchy and then exploded into a continuous cycle of civil war, creating fertile ground for radical groups to take advantage of the chaos.

The idea that America could “shock and awe” Iraq into becoming a liberal and prosperous democracy was as illusionary as the non-existent weapons of mass destruction Washington claimed Saddam Hussein possessed.

Although Iraq was an oppressive dystopia under Saddam Hussein and required radical change, such change cannot be imposed from abroad, and especially not at gunpoint by a self-interested superpower with no game-plan.

And it was recognition of the delusional nature of this criminally reckless enterprise that led tens of millions of concerned citizens around the world to pour out onto the streets to oppose the planned invasion in 2003. It also caused the worst transatlantic rift in living memory, with Washington dismissing Belgium and other European critics as the “Axis of Weasels”.

Despite this, Washington went ahead. Why?

The short answer was that the war was never about freedom or democracy – that was just a marketing ploy. It was about channeling post-9/11 American fear and anger to gain control of the world’s second-largest oil reserves and enrich certain corporations at the American taxpayer’s expense.

If you are in any doubt about this reality, consider the dull-sounding but highly significant Executive Order 13303, which basically gives American corporations carte blanche to do what they please in Iraq with impunity.

Given the far-reaching consequences of the US invasion and occupation, I believe it is important to revive the idea of bringing those responsible for it – mainly George W Bush and Tony Blair – to justices.

Although this will not help to undo the damage, it will at least bring some redress to Iraqis for the devastation the Anglo-American invasion visited on their country. It will also send a clear signal that this kind of behavior does not belong in a world seeking law, order, stability and justice.

As for what can be done about ISIS and to repair the disintegration of Iraq, I must confess I do not know. All I know is that whatever course is pursued by the outside world, military intervention must come with an international mandate and there has to be a clear vision and plan for what comes after “mission accomplished”.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first in Dutch in De Morgen on 13 June 2014.

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Syria and the scent of nostalgia

 
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By Raya Al-Jadir

In Oh My Sweet Land, the kitchen acts as the stage where events in Syria are played out, people’s fates are sealed and political plots are cooked up. 

Oh my sweet land Friday 9 May 2014

Going to the theatre has always been an event that got my mind, emotions, and senses racing, but never before has a play enabled me to ‘smell’ the atmosphere and plot. This  all changed during the one-woman show Oh My Sweet Land which introduces a new format of war reporting through an hour-long monologue by the vibrant yet nameless half-German, half-Syrian woman who informs the audience that she will cook a traditional Syrian dish of kubah the way her grandmother’s used to, which was her only connection with Syria.

Although she admits that this is her first stab at the recipe, she narrates, while cooking, how her journey began in Paris in search of her married lover, Ashraf, continued to Lebanon, Jordan and eventually Syria, meeting refugees along the way with their various tales. Oh My Sweet Land is directed by the Palestinian theatre-maker Amir Nizar Zuabi and conceived and performed by Syrian-German actress Corinne Jaber, who explore the Syrian civil war through words, as the audience is encouraged to imagine the stories that are being narrated: the brutal bombings, the killings, the torture, the escape and the endless tears.

The kitchen where the play is set acts as the world stage where events are played out, people’s fates are sealed and political plots are, quite literally, cooked up. We hear about Ashraf, the narrator’s love interest who had fled Syria out of fear of what the security and intelligence services would do to him, but when things back home got worse, he opted to return and be near his people rather than watch helplessly from a distance.  As Ashraf’s tracks grow cold, the narrator is gripped by the urge to travel to Syria to find him. She heads off in search of her lost lover, only to encounter thousands of Syrian refugees who are suffering far greater losses: each one has either lost a home, family member, friends, a part of their body, or, Syria, their country lost in civil war.

This technically rich and powerful play reveals that Zubai’s intention is to focus on the humanitarian crisis rather than the political situation. The Syrian people are the symbolic “meat” in the fridge that is being cooked and shaped to the chef’s will, like the kubah and if the kubah does not turn out as it was intended, then it is chucked into the bin, because there is plenty more meat in the fridge. The scent of the chopped onion or simmering meat, which at one point is burnt, gives the audience the chance to experience the ‘smell’ of war through the meat that is no longer usable.

Being an Arab who has followed the Syrian situation from the start, the play failed to shock me or reveal anything new, maybe because our world is dominated by visual media and the conflict in Syria has a guaranteed daily news slot. In addition, very few if any actors can manage a whole show by themselves. Although Jaber’s performance was exceptional as she progresses through her emotional journey, 35 minutes into the play, your attention starts to slip away and all you are left with are the olfactory stimuli and the question of what will happen to the food that is left onstage.

Jaber’s own transformation is one of the more positive aspects of the play, as we observe her grow gradually more connected with Syria, a place she’d had no real longing towards, apart from the nostalgic memory of her grandmother. Her relationship with Ashraf changes this to passion, and her travels turn it into love and regret for a revolution that was hijacked by outsiders.  In that one hour, we witness a slow transformation, from a naïve, half-Syrian expatriate who is clueless about Syria and its revolution, to a more experienced and bitter woman. When the play ended, one lady in the audience commented that it deserved a wider audience, as the theatre was only half full. The ideas contained in Oh My Sweet Land are quite challenging and so might not be appreciated by the masses.

Zubai and Jaber were successful in bringing back the old simple way of ‘reporting’ the solo narrative voice of someone retelling the stories they were told without being an actual witness to them, symbolising the reality of Syria’s situation: everyone has an opinion and everyone thinks they know best, yet no one is really fully aware, nor are they all blameless.

“They call it a civil war but there is nothing civil about it,” says the narrator in anger, which makes you question the role of the people as well as the ones in power. This is echoed further through one of the encountered refugees who wonders if one day we will forgive one another, maybe God will forgive us. We, the audience, are left pondering that same notion: can Syria return to its glory with people forgiving one another to coexist once again in a united country?

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Gaza’s forsaken and forgotten people

 
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Gaza’s humanitarian disaster and the rising tensions there are forgotten by the world. Principle and pragmatism demand an end to the blockade.

Image courtesy of UNRWA

Image courtesy of UNRWA

Wednesday 9 April 2014

Tensions between Gaza and Israel are mounting once again. There have been Israeli airstrikes and Islamic Jihad rockets. Israel recently claimed that it had intercepted a Gaza-bound arms shipment, though the claim seemed rather implausible.

It has also uncovered what it described as the “most advanced” tunnel into Israel from Gaza which says could’ve been used to mount attacks. On the other side of Gaza’s hermetically sealed boundaries Egypt claimed to have destroyed a mind-boggling 1,370 smuggling tunnels.

This has sealed off what little economic breathing space Gaza had to withstand the naval and land blockade of the Strip. And the figures speak for themselves.

Although Gaza has been overshadowed by the catastrophes related to the Syrian civil war and other regional events, the forsaken and forgotten territory is enduring a humanitarian crisis of monumental proportions.

Official unemployment runs at nearly 40%, with the actual figure probably significantly higher, and some 80% of the population receives aid, according to UNRWA, the UN relief agency. Gaza also endures severe fuel shortages, endless blackouts, while raw sewage and seawater contaminate the water supply.

Even though things are relatively quiet for now and Hamas is sticking to the ceasefire negotiated in 2012, the situation, driven by desperation, could spiral out of control at any moment. “It is only a matter of time until a flare-up with Israel escalates into a major conflagration,” warned the International Crisis Group, the conflict-prevention think tank, last week.

To prevent this destructive eventuality, the ICG calls on Israel to ease its blockade of Gaza in return for continued guarantees that rockets will not be fired into Israel.

Personally, I think that the ICG’s blueprint may delay a confrontation for a time, at best, but it will not prevent it.

The only way to do that is for both Israel and Egypt to end their siege of Gaza and for Hamas and all the militant groups to provide iron-cast assurances that they will not carry out attacks on either of their neighbours, who will also refrain from launching military operations on Gaza.

Hawks in both Israel and Egypt will immediately object, and claim that the blockade is the only way to contain Hamas. In fact, officials in both countries have indicated their desire to go beyond containment and to bring down the de facto sole ruler of Gaza.

Echoing Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz has warned that, if rocket fire resumes, Israel may invade Gaza to topple Hamas.

But Steinitz’s proposal betrays a severe absence of intelligence. After all, previous efforts to dislodge the Islamist movement – including major military operations since Hamas came to power, in 2006, 2008/9 and 2012 – have only strengthened its grip on power.

Besides, even if Hamas is faltering or on the brink of collapse, there is the troubling question, asked by many in Gaza, of who will come after.

Israel once supported Hamas and its precursors as a supposed counterbalance to the PLO, and, in the process, contributed to creating something far more radical. Many fear that Islamic Jihad, not the Palestinian Authority, would dominate such a post-Hamas Gaza.

Israel has imposed severe restrictions on Gazans since at least 1991, when it began its permanent closure policy in the Strip, with little noticeable effect on Israel’s security or on prospects for peace.

In fact, sealing Gaza off from the outside world has turned what used to be a relatively open and liberal society dependent on shoppers and tourists into an insular prison colony controlled by religious fundamentalists.

This proven inefficacy, as well as the humanitarian crisis, may be what prompted outgoing UNRWA chief Filippo Grandi to speak out strongly. While acknowledging the legitimacy of Israel and Egypt’s security he concerns, he said: “I think the world should not forget about the security of the people of Gaza.”

Grandi added that the blockade was “illegal and must be lifted”. “I also want to make a strong appeal for export to resume because the lack of export is the main reason for the poverty of Gaza,” he added.

And it is not just Grandi who is fed up with the blockade; others in the international community are too. Even the European Union is losing patience. In a recent report, the EU’s heads of mission called for a “strategy for a political endgame resulting in Gaza’s return to normality”, naming Israel as “the primary duty bearer” due to its role as the occupying power, while urging Hamas to instate a “categorical renunciation of violence”.

If the  status quo stays in place, the ever worsening situation in Gaza will only succeed in radicalising a new generation. After all, some, having lost everything, may decide they’ve got nothing left to lose.

Ending the Gaza blockade is both the principled and pragmatic thing to do.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This feature first appeared in The National on 2 April 2014.

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Gunship diplomacy, rockets and Gaza’s forgotten tragedy

 
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By Khaled Diab

The other tragedies make it is easy to forget Gaza. But with a humanitarian crisis and rising tensions, it’s time to end the Israeli-Egyptian blockade.

Saturday 15 March 2014

Image courtesy of UNRWA

Image courtesy of UNRWA

These days it seems that Gaza only makes it on to the mainstream Western media’s radar when it involves rocket attacks or just simply rockets.

This was amply demonstrated this week, when the media took a brief break from Syria and the Ukraine to train their lens on the besieged Palestinian enclave.

On Wednesday, Gazan militants fired a barrage of rockets into southern Israel, causing no casualties. Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility for the attack, said it was in retaliation for an Israeli airstrike which killed three of its members a day earlier.

On Monday, Israel displayed an arms shipment it had intercepted which it said was Iranian and destined for Gaza.

Though this is not beyond the bounds of possibility, given Iran’s history of supporting Hamas, I find the claim unlikely, and that the arms were probably heading elsewhere. Firstly, relations between Iran and Hamas suffered a serious rift two years ago when Gaza’s leadership opposed Bashar al-Assad’s violent suppression of the popular uprising against his regime, and efforts to mend fences have yet to deliver substantial results.

Tehran’s subsequent withdrawal of its financial support to the embattled Hamas government has caused enormous economic hardship for the Gazan population, over and above what it endures due to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade. This is reflected in the 75% budget deficit Hamas announced for 2014, the regular 16-hour blackouts and the severe shortages Gazans must suffer.

Of course, it is possible that the arms were destined for one of Hamas’s more radical rivals, namely Islamic Jihad. However, the Israeli claim regarding the arms shipment also makes very little logistical sense.

The ship was intercepted in the Red Sea and IDF officials say that the arms were to be routed to Gaza overland via Sudan. This is a very risky and foolhardy proposition, and would almost certainly have guaranteed that the shipment was intercepted before it reached its final destination.

Port Sudan is over 1,300km away from Gaza and the huge expanse of mainland Egypt, which is hostile to Hamas, lies in-between. Any arms smuggler worth his or her salt would have docked somewhere in the increasingly lawless Sinai, where Islamist militants holed up there could’ve provided logistical support to get the weapons into Gaza – if that, indeed, was where they were bound.

Moreover, if Iran’s aim was to strike Israel, why bother with Gaza, whose border with Egypt has become more and more tightly sealed in recent months in the new regime’s bid to suffocate Hamas?

Israel identified the weapons onboard the seized vessel as being Syrian. Surely, it would have been much easier for Tehran to ask its ally in Damascus to fire these weapons into Israel across the Syrian border. If the attack was then blamed on Jihadist fighters, Iran would be able both to attack Israel by proxy while aiding its ally, Bashar al-Assad, in discrediting his enemies.

All this makes the Israeli claim that the shipment was destined for Gaza seem outlandish. So what is behind Israel’s insistence?

Part of the reason might relate to the atmosphere of public fear surrounding Iran in Israel, which does not invite a rational consideration of the evidence and facts.

For Israel’s leaders, political expediency seems to be a major factor. In his speech in Eilat, where the arms cache was presented to the international media, Binyamin Netanyahu sought to kill two birds with one stone.

First, he strove to stymie the growing rapprochement between Tehran and the West. “Just as Iran tried to camouflage this deadly weapons shipment, Iran camouflages its military nuclear programme,” the Israeli premier said, blasting Western leaders for their “hypocrisy” when “smilingly shaking hands” with Iranian leaders.

Second, the Israeli establishment used the arms shipment as an opportunity to fan the flames of distrust towards Hamas in Gaza, and the Palestinians in general, partly to enrage and frighten a fearful domestic audience. “Each one of these rockets poses a threat to the safety of the citizens of Israel, each bullet and each rocket that was discovered had an Israeli address,” Lieutenant General Benny Gantz has been quoted as saying.

This reflects Netanyahu’s own discourse on and attitude towards peace talks, which US Secretary of State John Kerry has been pushing actively through continuous shuttle diplomacy. If Israel signs a deal with the Palestinians “that peace will most certainly come under attack – constant attack by Hizbullah, Hamas, al-Qaeda and others,” the prime minister told the recent AIPAC annual conference.

And it isn’t just Kerry’s peace overtures that Netanyahu is resisting. Despite Washington’s own lethargy towards the humanitarian disaster zone that is Gaza, there is mounting international pressure to ease, or even lift, the blockade on the territory. Even the European Union is losing patience.

In a report released this week, the EU’s heads of mission called for a “strategy for a political endgame resulting in Gaza’s return to normality”, naming Israel as “the primary duty bearer” due to its role as the occupying power, while urging Hamas to instate a “categorical renunciation of violence”.

But this is likely to fall on deaf ears in Israel, where public anger is simmering, blinding people to the true causes behind this dire situation.

It has long been my view that both principle and pragmatism demand an end to the Israeli-Egyptian siege of Gaza. It is the principled thing to do because collectively and severely punishing 1.7 million civilians is inhumane.

Pragmatic because such punishment is counterproductive. Although Gaza’stroubles pale in comparison with Syria’s, the humanitarian consequences of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade have been building up over the years and continue to exact a heavy toll. Moreover, this has aroused little public protest in Israel, while the Egyptian public has gone from anger at the Mubarak regime’s complicity in the siege to cheering Egypt’s de facto leader Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi as he raises the few drawbridges providing relief to this hostage population.

In Gaza, official unemployment runs at about a third of the population, with the actual figure probably significantly higher, and almost a million of the Strip’s 1.7 million residents are expected to require food aid this year. Gaza also endures severe fuel shortages, endless blackouts, while raw sewage and seawater contaminate the water supply.

Although Israel has the right and duty to ensure the security of its citizens, Israel’s policy has failed to achieve any of its stated aims, and may even be radicalising a new generation of young Gazans who have seen nothing of Israel except its heavy boot. Egypt’s complicity in hurting a population only recently regarded as “Arab brothers” makes even less sense.

Besides, if it is a ceasefire that Israel is after, Hamas has respected the one brokered following the conflict of 2012.

This might suggest that Israel’s objectives go beyond stopping the rocket attacks and extend to destroying Hamas. But this is unlikely to work, as efforts to dislodge the Islamist movement — including major military operations since Hamas came to power, in 2006, 2008/9 and 2012 — have only strengthened its grip on power.

In addition, Israel has imposed severe restrictions on Gazans since at least 1991, when it began its permanent closure policy in the Strip, with little noticeable effect on Israel’s security or prospects for peace. 

In short, principle and pragmatism demand that both Israel and Egypt lift their inhuman and insane siege of Gaza.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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