Sunday, April 27, 2008

Flooding the Swamp

The metaphor most commonly used to describe terrorism and its backdrop is the one of the mosquitoes and the swamp, in which the mosquitoes are the bombers and the swamp is the much wider public which sympathises with and supports the terrorists, and from which the terrorists recruit. The metaphor is entirely accurate. It is not wishy-washy liberalism but cold logic to state that the only feasible method of defeating anti-Western Islamist terror in the medium to long term is to ‘drain the swamp’, by removing the grievances which inflame hundreds of millions of otherwise reasonable and tolerant Muslims against the West.

This does not mean surrendering Western values to an Islamist agenda, as some hysterically claim, but implementing common sense ‘do as you would be done by’ principles. Westerners too would be infuriated by foreign powers which occupied them, or which peppered their land with unwanted military bases, or laid siege to their elected governments, or propped up dictators who abused them.

If the West stopped violently interfering in the Muslim world, the Muslim world would stop violently replying. Certainly, a tiny hardcore of mosquitoes would continue to desire conquest of the infidels, but with their swamp dry, they would soon die off.

Unfortunately, what America and its allies have done since September 2001 is build a water pipeline direct to the swamp and turn the taps on full. They have vastly exacerbated Wahhabi-nihilist terrorism by their invasions, occupations and attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, by the crimes of their Ethiopian and Israeli proxies in Somalia and the Levant, and by proving the insincerity of their ‘democracy’ rhetoric by their siege of the elected Palestinian government as well as their continued support of the Egyptian regime as it rounds up moderate Islamists and liberal democrats.

These policies may or may not lead to geo-strategic victories in resource wars, but they certainly won’t lead to protecting Western civilians from terror attacks. In the long term, that war seems to have been decisively lost. (I think Wahhabi-nihilism may well be in the process of being defeated by Muslims who realise its reactionary nature - but that's another story.)

In the short term, effective police work, domestically and internationally, is both necessary and legitimate. In Britain, we have known since the London bombs that Islamist violence could explode against civilians at any moment. We know that a tiny minority of British Muslims, having drunk a volatile cocktail of Wahhabi-nihilism, alienation and righteous outrage at British foreign policy, may be prepared to do the killing themselves. These people must be watched and, if necessary, tried and imprisoned. Sadly, even domestic policing of Islamist terrorists has been bungled.

Although the vast majority of policemen are completely sincere in their efforts to protect us from bombers, power in the American-allied West has focused on exploiting public fears to destroy basic freedoms. I won’t discuss here the normalisation of torture and the suspension of habeas corpus in the US, or the remarkable ease with which the unconstitutional Patriot Act was passed. In Britain, freedom of speech has been compromised not only by a rising Islamophobia which too quickly categorises dissenting Muslim voices as pro-terrorist, but more specifically by the idiocies connected to the 2000 Terrorism Act.

Under this legislation, Samina Malik, the 23-year-old self-styled ‘lyrical terrorist’ from Southall, was found guilty of “possessing records likely to be used for terrorism.” Ms. Malik ‘admitted’ visiting the website of hook-handed Abu Hamza and, worse, owning a bracelet bearing the word ‘jihad’. More sinister still, she used the back of WH Smith receipts to doodle jihadist rap, such as: “Let us make jihad/ Move to the front line/ To chop chop head of kuffar swine.” It reminds me of some of my old Schooly D discs. But it doesn’t make me fear taking the tube. We need to ask ourselves if the war on terror is best fought by criminalising Southall fly girls, who are only working hard to be sexy-bad. Fortunately, Ms. Malik was given a suspended sentence.

Not so Atif Siddique. This Scotsman downloaded al-Qa’ida linked material from the internet, including Arabic documents he was unable to read, and designed a website which provided links to such material. Siddique clearly sympathised with Wahhabi-nihilism. His politics appear to be stupid and simplistic, and potentially dangerous. Beyond a virtual flirtation with the terrorist fringes, he doesn’t seem to have had the intelligence or education to do anything creative with his justified fury at Western crimes in the Muslim world. He’s the kind of angry young man who should be kept under surveillance in case he or the people he communicates with actually cross the line and begin plotting real terrorist acts. In the event, he wasn’t kept under surveillance but imprisoned for eight years. As he did not plot or carry out a terrorist act, Atif Siddique has in effect been found guilty of thought crime.

It gets worse. Siddique was represented in court by human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar. Anwar has a false set of front teeth because the originals were kicked out by Strathclyde police when he was a student organiser at Glasgow University. While they were doing the kicking, the police apparently told him, “This is what happens to black boys with big mouths.” Anwar was the first person to win a civil action against the police in Scotland over a racist attack.

Following the guilty verdict against Siddique, Anwar addressed the media. His statement appeared to criticise the court as well as the verdict. He said: “The prosecution was driven by the State, with no limit to the money & resources used to secure a conviction in this case, carried out in an atmosphere of hostility after the Glasgow Airport attack and ending on the anniversary of 9/11. In the end Atif Siddique did not receive a fair trial and we will be considering an appeal.” For this robust expression of discontent, Anwar has been charged with contempt of court.

The case against Aamer Anwar will be heard at the High Court in Edinburgh on Tuesday 29 and Wednesday 30 April. If found guilty, he faces imprisonment or a fine. Most importantly, he will no longer be allowed to practise law.

If an uppity, politicised lawyer like Anwar can be struck off, many more timid lawyers will be dissuaded from speaking out on behalf of ‘political’ clients. To many people, it seems that the aim of the Anwar trial is to silence ‘big mouths’, black or otherwise. This not only undermines the values which the government claims to be defending, but is counterproductive in terms of security. Bullying tactics may silence those Muslims described as ‘moderate’, but will also make them feel much more foreign than they already do. As for those Muslims tempted by the rhetoric and angry certainties of Wahhabi-nihilism, it will make their journey to bomb making even shorter and surer.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Cultural Capital

One for tourists:

Damascus has been designated the UNESCO Arab cultural capital for 2008. This means different things to different people.

President Bashaar al-Assad, pointing to Syria’s role as the last remaining bastion of Arabism and its unashamed solidarity with Palestinian resistance, says “Damascus is the capital of resistance culture.” This interpretation, while unpopular with neighbouring regimes and the powers that dominate the region, is popular with the Syrian people – even if other aspects of the regime aren’t. And some international visitors this year will come primarily for a little resistance chic. This is the capital which welcomes Hugo Chavez and Hassan Nasrallah with equally widespread arms. Noam Chomsky will be giving a talk. Lebanese and pan-Arab diva Fairouz has already been, to the chagrin of some of her compatriots, to croon patriotic and revolutionary songs.

There will also be lectures and poetry recitals, architectural tours of the old city, theatre and ballet performances, art exhibitions, a film festival, and orchestral, jazz and traditional Arabic music concerts.

Damascus certainly deserves cultural capital status more than some cities that have held the title in previous years. After Beirut and Cairo, Damascus has the best bookshops in the Arab world. Syria has always boasted an impressive range of poets and musicians, and produces TV dramas which are of much higher quality than the Egyptian competition. Its taxi drivers can recite classical and contemporary poetry. Its pop singers sing Nizar Qabbani, the most influential and best loved modern Arab poet. Damascus is a city in which your host is likely to serenade you with his lute after dinner. And it is, as the tourism ministry likes to repeat, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.

This city of St. Paul and Saladin is today as dust and smoke-cursed as any other in the Middle East (though still cleaner and more manageable than Cairo or Tehran), but undress it of its crust of Stalinist architecture and the ramshackle results of a newly liberalised economy and you find a supple, surprisingly sensuous body beneath.

My two pieces of advice to anyone who visits are to make of it a correspondingly sensuous experience, and to enjoy the cultural variety that has always been here, even without official events, whatever the political mood of the times.

Start with the city’s sacred heart. The green and gold mosaics of the Umawi mosque show the orchards and mansions and streams of the city the Prophet refused to enter, fearing to commit the sin of believing paradise to be on earth. There is ancient Greek script upside down in the walls, and the ruins of the Temple of Jupiter at the entrance. The courtyard is disconcertingly brilliant with liquid shimmering light and the glancing wings of pigeons. The prayer hall houses a shrine which contains the head of John the Baptist. The previous Pope visited it: the only time a Catholic Pope has entered a mosque.

Saladin’s tomb is just north of the mosque compound, and next to it the tomb of the Algerian freedom fighter (against the French) and Sufi poet AbdulQader al-Jazairi. East of the mosque is the Nafora café, where sometimes a traditional storyteller, with much swishing and clattering of his sword, recounts the city’s resistance against the Crusaders. Don’t sit within range.

Sitt Ruqqiyeh, a Shia shrine, is nearby. So is the Street called Straight, and a church for each Christian sect, and the old Jewish quarter. But as you consider your soul, you should remember your stomach also, for Damascene food culture is as rich as the religious history. Syrian-Lebanese cuisine is one of the best in the world, and the Old City is a fine place to explore its many textured pastes, its Asian-Mediterranean perfume, all the things it does with olive oil, pine kernels and pomegranite juice. There are restaurants in elegant town houses, and there are trendy cafés and bars. Here are opportunities to appreciate the famously beautiful Syrian women (or men, if you like) – white, wheatish or brown-skinned, green or black-eyed, blonde or brunette – who show that Damascus had a past almost as multi-ethnic as London’s present. You can just amble through the Hamidiyeh souq for the same effect.

Amble is a good word for Damascus. Amble and stop. Allow someone to befriend you.
Amble again, past twisting bands of black and white stone, the basalt of the south and the marble of the north, through cobbled and vine-trellised alleyways. Allow yourself to be invited into hidden courtyards, with turtles in the pools, and fig and orange trees providing shade. Watch cats in the daytimes and circling bats at night. Fill your nostrils with the paradoxical smell of jasmine – refined but piercing, ethereal but strong.

You could take a taxi to Shaikh Muhiyedeen and find among the tomb-laden streets the mosque and shrine of Ibn ’Arabi, one of Islam’s greatest theosophical poets. If the magic wills you may meet a contemporary mystic, or you might walk up Mount Qasyoon on slopes pressed in with poor unlicensed housing.

In the evening, according to your taste, you could sit in a beer garden, or on someone’s terrace, drinking araq. You could play chess or the game called ‘table’ in a café, or tug on a water pipe and sip glasses of hot sweet tea with visiting Beduin in Merjeh (see the whores sway past) or with Iraqi refugees in Sitt Zainab. Apparently some tourists these days are coming for the proximity to war. The city groans with the weight of war stories, from over the eastern and western borders, but remains safer than any European capital.

The refugees are another reason why Damascus deserves cultural capital status. Syrian Arabism means that until a few months ago (when stricter measures were put in place to limit numbers of arriving Iraqis) the citizens of Arab states could enter the country without visas. As a result, representatives of all the Arab world’s tragedies are here. As well as 1.5 million Iraqis and the long-established Palestinian refugee population there are, for instance, Algerian, Sudanese and Bahraini exiles, all with their own dialects, cookery and ideas.

Sitt Zainab, the shrine of Ali’s daughter, manifests more of the varied cultural wealth of Islam. It is thronged with troubled Shia pilgrims – Iraqis, Iranians and Pakistanis who bring a tragic euphoria, a stormy murmur of prayer and lamentation. The glittering silver and mirror work is hypnotic, and the final effect is one of awe-filled peace.

And like a good cultural tourist you should visit the national museum, which houses the world’s first alphabet as well as beautiful lapis-eyed statues from Mari, four thousand years old, culturally Sumerian but ethnically Semitic. Afterwards sit in the museum garden, as I used to with my wife, drinking Turkish coffee and reading Nizar Qabbani:

I was born in Damascus,
a city I’m sure you don’t know exists,
for you’ve not quenched your thirst at its waters,
or known the frenzy of its love.
Not in a single flower-market
will you find a rose like Damascus,
not in all the jewellers’ windows
a pearl so inimitable

The official website of Damascus as Cultural Capital:

Thursday, April 17, 2008


We often project our current political concerns backwards in time in order to justify ourselves. I say ‘we’ because everyone does it. Nazi Germany invented a mythical blonde Aryan people who had always been kept down by lesser breeds. The Hindu nationalists in India imagine that Hinduism has always been a centralised doctrine rather than a conglomerate of texts and local traditions, and describe Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh, Jain and animist influences on Indian history as foreign intrusions. Black nationalists in the Americas depict ancient Africa as a continent not of hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers but as a wonderland of kings and queens, gold and silk, science and monumental architecture. To our current cost, zionists and the neo-cons have been able to reactivate old orientalist myths in the West, myths in which the entirety of Arab and Islamic history has involved the slaughter and oppression of Christians, Jews, Hindus, women, gays, intellectuals .. and so on.

Such retrospective mythmaking frequently goes to the most absurd extremes in young nations conscious of their weakness or of a need for redefinition (America may be one of these). Probably for that reason it is particularly evident in the Middle East.

Many Muslims go beyond adherence to those concepts and taboos that are necessary for religious belief and idolise or demonise historical figures who have nothing to do with the divine revelation. For many Sunnis, the first caliphs were ‘rightly guided’ saints who could do no wrong. During their reign there was no crime, poverty or injustice in the realm of Islam. For many Shia, the same men (apart from Ali) were decadent criminals. These secular figures were not deities or prophets but human beings working in specific contexts, with all the good and bad and moral ambiguity that implies, but Muslims frequently hold religious positions on their worth. The same applies even to later worldly figures like Haroon ar-Rasheed (saint or criminal) and Salahuddeen al-Ayubbi (likewise; as well as Kurdish traitor and hero of Arabism).

It should be a matter of pride for the Turks that they are a linguistic, genetic and cultural mixture, but Ataturk invented for his new nation a mythology of ancient Turkish (or Turanian) glory. Because the Sumerian language was, like Turkish (and like many other languages), agglutinative, kemalists held the Sumerians to be ancient proto-Turks. Ataturk even promoted an absurd ‘sun-language theory’ which claimed that Turks had invented language itself. After the cultural vandalism done to the Ottoman language to strip it of foreign influence, contemporary kemalists will not admit the presence of loan words in modern Turkish. But still the Turkish words for ideas as basic as ‘thing’, ‘ok’, ‘famous’, ‘busy’ and ‘hello’ are from Arabic. The Turkish for library is ‘kutuphane’ – a mix of Arabic and Farsi. Ask a rigid kemalist about the Arabs, Persians or Kurds, and he’ll reply “kultur yok! – No culture!” Fortunately kemalism is finally on the retreat in Turkey.

In Iran I heard someone explain that Islam was a barbaric desert religion until it reached the cultured Iranians, who then civilised it. The philosophical, scientific and artistic glories of Islam, even when these flowered in Andalusia, were Persian achievements.

Zionism has created a myth of continuous Jewish bloodlines linking Israelis back to Roman Palestine, although a more scientific approach suggests that today’s Palestinians are at least as closely linked genetically to the ancient Israelites. Much more ignorant than Israelis, of course, are their supporters in the United States, many of whom believe that the state of Israel, rather than being founded by terror and ethnic cleansing in 1948, has been there since Moses crossed the Red Sea. They don’t know the difference between Syria and Assyria, or between Ahmadinejad and Nebuchadnezzar.

And then there’s someone called Amre el-Abyad, and people like him. I’m not publishing his comments on my blog because they are hysterical, racist and even on occasion personally threatening, but I wouldn’t want to deprive my readers of his point of view. So, if you are curious, you can enjoy his ravings here:

On his blog Mr. el-Abyad says that the great Arab people invented writing, irrigation and cities, built the pyramids, and have been fighting to protect civilisation from Persian barbarians for thousands of years. Although he admits that Persians have been around for thousands of years, he says they aren’t part of the region, which is only Arab. Neither are Turks. We must assume that Turkmen, Kurds, Armenians and other non-Arabs are also foreigners in this pure Arab region.

President Nasser’s Arab nationalism considered any speaker of Arabic to be an Arab. Baathists in Syria and Iraq extended the definition through time to include past speakers of extinct Semitic languages – such as Aramaic, Hebrew, Phoenician and Babylonian – which are related to Arabic. There is no reason why Arabs should not take pride in the history of the peoples who lived in this area before us, and whose culture the Arabs have in some way or other inherited. But we need to keep this pride in perspective. Scientific definitions of peoples are linguistic, not racial, as there is no way to keep tabs on who breeds with who. Today’s Arabs are a mixture of Semitic, Indo-European, Turkic, Mongol and African genes. (So, for that matter, are today’s Iranians). The Sumerians were probably racially very similar to the people who live in southern Iraq today, but their language was not Semitic. It was the Sumerians who invented writing and cities – so you need to stretch reality further than it will comfortably go to say that writing was invented by the Arabs. As for fighting off the barbarians – the first barbarians the Sumerians had to deal with were Semitic barbarians invading the fertile river plains from the desert. These barbarians later became supremely civilised Akkadians. Some centuries later, the Semites of Mesopotamia were fighting off Amorites – more Semitic barbarians from the desert. What is now Iran was also the scene of constant barbarian invasion. The people of present-day Iraq invaded Iran, and the people of Iran invaded Iraq. Sometimes the Iraqis were more civilised than the Iranians, and sometimes it was the other way round. The first documented use of the term ‘Arab’ is in an Assyrian text of the 9th century BC, thousands of years after civilisation rose in Mesopotamia. In this context, a narrative of glorious Arabs in a millenial struggle to hold off Persian barbarians is clearly absurd.

The idea that Arabs built the pyramids is as bad. Ancient Egyptians were not even Semites. The ancient Egyptian language was a member of the Nilo-Saharan family, not the Semitic family (modern Ethiopians who speak Amharic, however, are the speakers of a Semitic language, although they don’t speak Arabic, and so are not considered part of the Arab world). Although Egyptians have often intermarried with Semites, especially since the arrival of Islam, there is still an obvious racial difference between them and their eastern neighbours.

It is good to be proud of the peoples who came before us, and legitimate to use their achievements to remind ourselves that Arabs are not programmed to be weak and subservient. But it is illogical to suppose that Arabs are the only inheritors of these ancient cultures. Agriculture started in the Middle East (maybe not something to be proud of), and ancient Middle Eastern genes spread into Europe and Russia as the first agriculturalists colonised outwards. Culturally, most of the world has inherited irrigation, the alphabet, the gods of the Orontes and the Nile, the stories of Noah and Job.

This isn’t an attack on Arabism or the Arab identity. I am a big supporter of an intelligent Arabism which recognises and celebrates the diversity of the Arab peoples, from Morocco to Oman, as well as their commonalities. I wish there were far more unity of purpose and cooperation between Arabs. This is an attack on intolerant Arabist mythmaking which, like its Turkish variant, is fortunately on the decline. People like Mr. el-Abyad are a very small but noisy minority, given more volume by the current tragedy in Iraq. In Syria the nationalist myths were never aggressively intolerant anyway, unlike in Saddam Hussain’s Iraq. But I ask the surviving dreamers: where has extreme mythical nationalism got anybody? Do you really think it will help to solve our region’s problems? It is possible to hold strong political positions and to desire true independence without being stupidly simplistic. It is possible to be proud of your people without being a fascist.

I previously wrote about Arabism here:

Monday, April 14, 2008

A Tour of Upper Egypt

For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the first Mesopotamian civilisations, the Sumerians (whose art, I think, has never been surpassed), Akkadians and Babylonians, but I didn’t have much of an interest in pharaonic Egypt before my recent visit. I’d seen the Pyramids five years ago, and they hadn’t done much for me – perhaps because Cairo has grown around them, or perhaps because I’d seen too many pictures.

But Luxor’s Temple of Karnak astounded me. Unlike the vast, inhuman pyramids, it gives you a sense of the scale and complexity of the people who worked and worshipped here three and a half to four thousand years ago. On the walls, ceilings, statues and obelisks there is plenty of realist depiction as well as the static, formulaic art I expected. In many of the buildings the roof, or at least the lower storey’s roof, is still on. Karnak is far older – and because of the truly ancient religion, it feels far older – than the equally intact Greek stuff I’ve seen in Turkey and Syria.

The architecture of Karnak’s Hypostyle hall must be among the most impressive in the world, and the impression of wandering through its forest of columns is entirely unphotographable. It feels fertile, like an organised swamp, and there are stars painted on the ceiling’s stone beams.

For the first time I saw a continuity between ancient Egyptian and Islamic architecture, the same focus on line, space and light.The arranged columns reminded me, for instance, of the Great Mosque in Fes, with its contradictory evocation of crowdedness and endless expanse. Like the great mosque complexes, Egyptian temple compounds functioned as schools, meeting halls, hospitals and libraries as well as places of worship. Karnak has a sacred lake, and its priests performed ritual ablutions before worship, as Muslims do.

As an Anglo-Arab, or a blue-eyed Arabic speaker, I had a double perspective on Upper Egypt. I don’t look like an Egyptian, but evidently I don’t look like a stereotypical foreigner either, and I was able to avoid most of the negative tourism interaction. My face and body language provoked only the occasional ‘hello, hello!’ When I replied in Arabic, I was asked where I was from. ‘British of Syrian origin,’ I said, and they said, with violent friendliness, ‘Nowurt al-makan! You’ve lit the place up!’

I spent two nights and a day and a half on a felucca staffed by two locals and enjoyed by foreigners. I inhabited both social worlds, local and foreign. Captain Fathi fed, warmed and sailed us. His English words were “Friend!” “Come!” and “Tea.” He grinned constantly. The marijuana on the boat didn’t bother him, he told me – in fact he could bring us some more – but the alcohol did a bit. There were Americans with a bottle of rum, a Scot, an Italian, a Norwegian. Two Americans were boy and girlfriend, publicly canoodling. In Upper Egyptian eyes, probably canoodling obscenely. Fathi avoided giving them direct looks, but grinned, and taught the word ‘habooba’, meaning ‘little darling.’ Fathi viewed the young foreigners with curious but detached sympathy, as strange, slightly damaged creatures. He certainly didn’t hold their foreignness against them. And generally the mix of people worked well. The only tense moment came when Fathi understood the American boyfriend calling him ‘dog’ – a heavy-duty insult in Arabic. Losing his smile Fathi waved at him: “What dog? Dog? Why dog?” Embarrassed and culture-shocked, the (white) American kept it up: “Yeah, dog! You don’t know gangsta rap, my dog? Yo! I’m a dog! You’re a dog! We’re all dogs!” Fathi got back to boiling the kettle.

The felucca took us from Aswan to Kom Ombo. A minibus took us to Luxor, via a couple of temples. From the window there was lots of sugarcane, a few fields of sunflowers, buffalo crossing the water. Villages are constructed with locally-made brown brick; many villages contain their own brick factories with distinctive tall, thin chimneys. Round-faced Saeedis go about their business in flare-bottomed gellabiyas and big turbans. There is a great deal of donkey transport. At one point a huge asthma-inducing cloud from an ammonia factory billows across the road and a section of village, reducing visibility. There is extreme poverty, and rubbish everywhere, but because they are built with traditional materials the villages are usually more beautiful than the richer breezeblock and plastic bag villages that make up much of Syria. There is also a laid-back, southern tone. Those buildings that are painted are coloured with similar pastel blues and ochres and pinks to the surviving paintwork at Karnak. A wealth of Sufi shrines line the irrigation channel and the road, silver or green domed, some hung with flags and fairy lights. Sufism used to be dominant here, and is still very strong. In contrast, Upper Egypt is also the home of the Gama’a al-Islamiya. A few years ago there were frequent gun battles in the cane fields. Now a tourist minibus is only permitted to travel in police convoy.

When I arrived in Luxor I was with the foreigners I’d met on the felucca. Walking with them in the streets was a different experience entirely. I think the obvious foreigners, who seem to walk only accompanied by a crowd, must suffer from the hassle in their judgment of the Egyptians. Tourists are seen as financial opportunities on legs by the thin section of society which is devoted to their milking. It’s a shame, because beyond this front the Upper Egyptians are warm, decent, simple people (I use the word ‘simple’ with all its positive force).

Contemporary Luxor is a strange place: not particularly large, rural, desperately poor, and now hosting the rich world’s package tourists. This is the reason for the hassle. Tourism is this poor country’s biggest business. There’s no use in pretending that it’s about cultural interaction or transnational brotherhood – it’s business plain and simple. And a lot of the hassle is totally genuine. In Arabic I heard several times: “Brother, my children are hungry. Can you help me?” Another refrain was: “Let me come and work where you are. I will do any work. I can clean, or build, or guard. I can work.”

And walking with the Westerners, I got a different kind of tourist hassle. It became: “Brother, my children are hungry. Tell those people to help me. They will listen to you.”

The felucca moored at night, and sometimes during the day too. I had a riverbank conversation with a local man who’d travelled and worked throughout the Arab world. “The Gulf Arabs,” he said, wrinkling his nose, “have forgotten how to live. They are full of arrogance and stupidity. They are ignorant like the Arabs before Islam. But the Syrians are true brothers, righteous people. And the Yemenis? Real Muslims! Muslim Muslims! They are like us. They’ll offer you their last piece of bread. They’ll take you into their homes.” These comments show what many poor Muslims understand by ‘Islam’, and the tremendous political force the word can exert on them. A ‘Muslim Muslim’ is someone who isn’t rich enough to be materialistic, who hasn’t yet been penetrated by late capitalist values, and who lives therefore according to traditional codes of cooperation, hospitality, mutual respect and brotherhood.

It’s hard not to read a fated and apocalyptic symbolism into the current state of Iraq and Egypt. Iraq where civilisation began, where agriculture and writing and cities and kings and armies first developed, now coated with depleted uranium and foreign mercenaries and blood and slogans. And Egypt, the first centralised state, the millenially unquenchable beacon of power and influence, now powerless, directionless, without influence or voice, utterly dependent. Egypt which in the fifties and sixties was the emblem of Arabism and the centre of cultural renaissance, now the clearest example of a client state. Egypt which arrests hundreds of moderate Islamists and liberal democrats every week, and is described as a ‘moderate Arab state’ by the official West. Egypt which last week violently suppressed the protests of striking textile workers and hungry masses complaining about rising food prices.

Egypt is lost, and the Arabs with it, but you feel, in the villages and towns of the south, not for ever. I don’t know if that feeling is illusory or not.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Turf War

We went out for dinner last night with Iraqi friends, refugees from Basra. Muhammad received a call from his family conveying some fairly typical Iraqi news: his sister’s son had made the mistake of walking in a public area. As a result, a random bullet became lodged in his lower leg. At the hospital they sent him away, telling him his wasn’t a serious case.

Our Basrawi friends describe the recent fighting as a war of vested interests, gangs fighting over turf and plunder, with one side backed by the greatest militia presence in Iraq: the Anglo-American occupation. They don’t recognise the mainstream Western media explanation, of the ‘government’ – as if Iraq were an independent nation – ‘clamping down’ – as if the attackers were a consensually accepted authority – on ‘militias and criminal gangs.’

That fairytale, that simple-minded narrative for simple-minded folks, would in itself be enough to warrant the dismissals of journalists and news editors – if the media were free and informative rather than corporate and servile. Such ‘news’ isn’t worth switching the dial for. It isn’t worth the electricity, or the paper. It isn’t designed to inform but to lull, and many of us, evidently, are thoroughly lulled. It’s not as if it’s hard to stumble across the contradictions: mass defections from the police to the Sadr movement and hundreds of thousands in the streets carrying slogans like ‘we don’t want the new dictatorship to kill us’ suggest that the media’s is a simplified version. And the people who churn out the fantasy have neither shame nor fear of being found out.

All explanation is simplification, I know, and this is a complex situation. But still, allow me to explain (trust me, reader..).

Many militias operate in the Iraqi south. All contain a criminal element guilty of extortion and extra-judicial violence. And all the politically-relevant militias are angrily Islamist. But the Battle of Basra is essentially between two of them.

On the one hand, the Badr Brigade, which is the armed wing of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, led by the Hakeem family, founded in Iran but now solidly allied with the American occupation. The SIIC represents the merchant class and the conservative clergy. Because it led the list which was blessed by Ayatullah Sistani (who has since distanced himself) it did very well in the national elections, and so is the dominant power in the ‘government.’ The Badr Brigade staffed death squads unleashed on rebellious Sunni areas by the occupation (Negroponte’s Salvador option), a move which was a major contribution to catalysing the civil war. The SIIC also believes in a southern super-province which would keep southern oil revenues out of central government hands. This is the militia for which prime minister Maliki and ‘the government’ is a cover, and which serves, and depends on, the US military.

On the other hand, the Jaish al-Mahdi led by Moqtada as-Sadr (who, by the way, reminds me of the always-angry Abu’l’azz in Bab al-Haara – afficionadoes of the Syrian series will know the lovable man with the stick). Moqtada’s organisation was formed in Iraq after the invasion. While the Hakeems came in on American tanks, the Sadr family had always been in Iraq, and most of them died at the hands of Saddam Hussain’s torturers. The Sadrs represent what they have called the ‘vocal clergy’ – Shia ulama who take outspoken stands on behalf of the oppressed. Unsurprisingly, Sadr’s movement is wildly popular amongst the Shia poor. The Jaish al-Mahdi confronted the occupation in Najaf in 2004, and went some way towards building a resistance alliance with Sunni groups. After the attack on the Samarra shrine in April 2006, however, the Mahdi Army’s defence of Shia areas from Wahhabi-nihilists often spilled over into retaliatory ethnic cleansing. This, and Moqtada’s tenuous control over the wilder and more criminal fringes, has seriously damaged the organisation’s reputation, but its nativism and anti-occupation pedigree means that it could perhaps reconcile with Sunni forces in the future. The Badr Brigade never could.

Why has the attack has come now? Because the SIIC fears the Jaish al-Mahdi’s growing power. Moqtada has lately devoted himself to studies in Qom. When he achieves Ayatullah status he will have supreme religious clout as well as familial prestige and political influence. His nine-month-old ceasefire has allowed him to purge the Mahdi Army of some of its uncontrollable elements. There are reports that the Sadrists are receiving organisational and military help from Hizbullah. If true, this means that they will be a much more formidable force in the future. Finally, and crucially, local elections are scheduled for the autumn, and the increasingly unpopular SIIC worries that there will be a Sadrist landslide.

The attack on the Jaish al-Mahdi followed a visit by Dick Cheney to the Iraqi client militias and other regional clients, which suggests American direction as well as encouragement.

In the Guardian, Sami Ramadani connects the conflict to “the fact that oil and dock workers’ unions, declared illegal, are in full control of the ports and the major oil fields. These unions are strongly opposed to the US-backed oil law to privatise the Iraqi industry and allow the major oil companies to control production and marketing. The law is also opposed by the Sadr movement.”

The attack may also be connected to plans for Hizbullah in Lebanon. If a client government, pretending to be democratic but not in fact representing the majority, is able to provide propaganda cover for American firepower as it destroys a popular resistance movement, why not repeat the exercise in the Lebanese south? But the SIIC-American turf war against the Sadrists has already failed, and to imagine the destruction of Hizbullah requires several lines of Cheney cocaine in addition to the usual media fairytale.

Sami Ramadani’s article:

Watch the Real News report on Moqtada

And this one:

Thanks to the fanonite for this.