Some Initial Thoughts on the Chilcot Report
On July 6, an independent inquiry into British involvement in Iraq from the summer of 2001 to July 2009 released its report. Chaired by Sir John Chilcot, a veteran Whitehall mandarin, the inquiry was set up in 2009 by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The delay in publication of the report was partly a result of the sheer volume of material—nearly 150,000 documents and countless interviews, including several with Tony Blair, prime minister at the time of the 2003 invasion—that the panel examined. And it was partly a result of efforts that crossed party lines to wiggle out of publication. The Chilcot report, consisting of 2.6 million words in 12 volumes and a 200-page executive summary, is now regarded as the official assessment of British involvement in the Iraq war. It is just beginning to be digested for fresh insights into British strategy in Iraq, as well as the possible legal culpability of the figures leading Britain into war, including Blair. We asked a few MERIP friends and Iraq scholars for their reflections on what they have read so far.
The invasion of Iraq has had a huge impact on the debate about democracy in the Middle East—and almost entirely a detrimental one. Analysts in both the Middle East and the West routinely suggest that the war was an ill-conceived attempt to impose democracy on the region overnight with the barrel of a gun. The assumption is that democracy promotion was a key driver of the decision to go to war. Many go on to argue that the West should be less focused on promoting democracy.
This argument is confused. Democracy in the Middle East has never been a primary interest of Western states. Sometimes they have actively opposed it. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, neoconservatives and liberal interventionists made the case that this orientation should change. They argued that authoritarianism fostered extremism, including in Saudi Arabia (where most of the hijackers came from), and that democracy in the region was in the long-term interest of the United States. Against this backdrop, democratizing Iraq was one of several goals adopted in the run-up to the war. But it was seen as at best a bonus or a byproduct of a military intervention that was motivated by geopolitical interests—along with a host of other mooted benefits, such as unlocking the secret to Israeli-Palestinian peace. Had democratization been the fundamental driver of US and British policy, it is not clear why they would have picked Iraq as the single country to invade, or why they simultaneously reinforced military alliances with other authoritarian states in the region.
Instead, the Chilcot report’s 200-page executive summary does not mention the word “democracy” once. (Weapons of mass destruction are mentioned on 24 pages; terrorism on 19. Oil is mentioned six times.) The full report indicates that in the run-up to the war, there were significant debates among decision makers over whether democratization would be feasible after a regime change in Iraq. In early 2002 the Foreign Office was committed to countering WMD proliferation but the foreign secretary expressed doubts about whether a new regime would be better than the existing one in terms of democracy, while a research paper said that the external opposition was not capable of forming a credible government. The report argues that “for the UK, regime change was a means to achieve disarmament, not an objective in its own right.”
Among those more convinced of the need of regime change, democracy was still not a certainty. In July 2002, Tony Blair wrote to President George W. Bush that regime change “might involve another key military figure” in the interests of stability—but that if it were feasible for this to lead “in time” to a democratic Iraq, that would be “very powerful.” In August 2002, Britain’s deputy ambassador to the US wrote that the question of what to do on the “day after” was the “most vexed” issue, but that a senior State Department official had said that they were “increasingly thinking in terms of some form of democracy.”
Blair’s desire to stand “shoulder to shoulder with the US” is also mentioned early on as a key motivator. Blair of course did speak about democracy as part of validation for liberal intervention—and after the WMD threat was proven to be untrue, and the intelligence to have been deliberately exaggerated, his retrospective justifications for the war increasingly focused on ridding the world of a brutal dictator. A vision of transformational change for the region may have helped to shape his conception of British interests in joining the war, just as it did for the neoconservatives in Washington, but this idea was not what brought the government and parliament on board.
Adding democratization into a mix of other stated motivations for the war—including WMD non-proliferation, removing a ruler who had been belligerent toward US-allied neighbors, supposedly fighting al-Qaeda—confused the issue, and created a damaging association between Western democracy promotion and violent intervention. Iraq after 2003 has not been so much a failure of democracy as a failure to bring about the basic peace and security that are needed before a democracy can function.
Prior to the Iraq war of March 2003, the Blair government released a series of “intelligence dossiers” to sway public opinion and votes in Parliament. One of these documents was given to Secretary of State Colin Powell in January 2003, who referred to it during his presentation the next month at the United Nations on Iraq’s alleged WMD program. The following day, Channel 4 News revealed that whole sections of the “intelligence dossier” were copied off the Internet by the British government from an online article I published, based on my doctorate at Oxford University. From that day forward, this document has been referred to as the “dodgy dossier.”
The Chilcot report provides some understanding as to how this mistake occurred. I am mentioned in Section 4.3 of the report, entitled, “Iraq WMD Assessments, October 2002 to March 2003.” Paragraph 235 of the report includes a February 3, 2003 statement from Tony Blair referring to an intelligence dossier: “We issued further intelligence over the weekend about the infrastructure of concealment. It is obviously difficult when we publish intelligence reports, but I hope that people have some sense of the integrity of our security services. They are not publishing this, or giving us this information, and making it up.”
Blair’s statement was misleading on two counts. The dossier to which Blair is referring is made up of three sections. It is the second part that was based primarily on my research. That section, thus, was not based on intelligence about Iraq from MI-6, but on plagiarized material from an unrefined rough draft of chapter two of my thesis, at a time when I was about to change the entire argument of the manuscript.
With regard to Blair’s reference to not “making it up,” it was Part One of the dossier that proved to be contentious and, in fact, made up. Paragraph 238 of the report notes: “In Part One, the document stated that Iraqi security organizations worked ‘together to conceal documents equipment and materials’ and the regime had ‘intensified efforts to hide documents in places where they were unlikely to be found, such as private homes of low-level officials and universities.’” Thus, the public was led to infer that MI-6 had confirmed that Saddam Hussein was concealing weapons of mass destruction. This statement in the dossier was a small part of the US and British narrative about the putative threat of Iraq’s WMD threat. Nonetheless, in relation to my academic career I have had to defend myself for more than a decade by explaining that I was not responsible for Part One, which specifically dealt with the WMD aspects, and that what was plagiarized was my schematic overview of the divisions and responsibilities of Iraq’s security services. This nuance has been lost over time, especially in Turkey where I held my first academic post. I was known in the Turkish media as “the man who finished off Saddam” or “the man who started a war.”
Even though I was at the center of this affair, and took part in a British parliamentary inquiry that attempted to resolve the issue in the summer of 2003, it took until 2016 for the Chilcot report to provide a detailed chronology of how these events unfolded. The inquiry may contribute to the public’s knowledge of the opaque decision making among political elites that led to Britain’s participation in the war. Personally, I have gained a bit more insight into how the plagiarism occurred. This knowledge has not provided me any closure, however, nor will it likely provide closure for British families who lost their sons and daughters in Iraq, or the Iraqi themselves, still suffering more than a decade later from the case Bush and Blair made to go to war.
Perhaps, as commentators have said, the Chilcot report offers no new information on the debacle that was the Iraq war. I doubt that many have had time to read the 2.6 million-word document.
Yet the report is significant for two reasons. It is an official inquiry initiated by a government-appointed body, an inquiry that is critical but inconceivable in the current climate in the US. And despite the relatively innocuous statements about lessons to be learned that Chilcot has made, the report opens the door for a serious discussion about accountability, culpability and legal recourse, at least for the families of British soldiers and civilians whose lives were lost in the war. The report is an indictment of the government of Tony Blair, but offers comfort to the British public that despite its failures, the British democratic system can produce a report on such failures. That, of course, is of no importance to the Iraqis or other people of the Middle East who have suffered the consequences of US and British hubris and “mistakes.”
The verdict of the Chilcot report is that the war itself was a mistake and the result of hasty and often shortsighted and ill-advised decisions on the part of the Blair government that skirted international legal sanction and undermined the independence of British foreign policy. While the thoroughness and detail provided by the long report might shed new light on British role in the war, its conclusions are not surprising. More troubling is the framing of the war as a mistake and its refusal to make a statement on the legality of the war. In so doing, the report fails to account for the deliberate and systematic manner in which the British and US governments had been building for a full military engagement with Iraq, including regime change, since the 1990-1991 Gulf war. Punishing sanctions, intermittent military operations, the imposition of no-fly zones and the open support of opposition groups within Iraq were all carried out under the guise of a weapons inspections regime and in the name of the restoration and maintenance of international security. The UN Security Council sanctioned all of these acts by invoking Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, something it had done only once during the Cold War, to justify the view that Iraq represented a security threat to the international order. Britain and the US were unequal partners in this war by other means, working at steering Security Council resolutions to systematically overplay the threat of Iraq, well before the September 11 attacks and the attempts of Blair and Bush to hitch the wagon of terrorism to the star of non-proliferation. The question of the legality of the war is important to address, but how does one account for the international sanction provided by the Security Council and for the wide berth it allowed the US and Britain to argue that Iraq constituted a threat to international security well before 2001?
And where does this report leave the Iraqis? Certainly with no international tribunals that hold the leaders of the Iraq war accountable. I am struck by the statement made to the inquiry by Brig. Gen. Graham Burns, commander of the Seventh Armored Division responsible for Basra. Commenting on the lack of direction he received on how to deal with the post-invasion looting, he said that he decided that the “best way to stop looting was just to get to a point where there is nothing left to loot.” Indeed.
It is difficult to assess a 6,000-page report in a day. Even the executive summary is challenging to read. My initial reaction is “too little, too late.”
I would like to share the words of the London chapter of the Iraqi Transnational Collective, which sum up my main responses to the report:
The inquiry, officially launched on 30 July 2009, intended to examine the decision making process that led to the war and to identify whether relevant lessons had been learned. Although the Iraqi Transnational Collective-London Chapter opposes war, as did the one million British people that took to the streets in protest, we welcome the Report’s findings in relation to the reprehensible actions of then Prime Minister Tony Blair and his government. However, the Report only lends credence in the world of officialdom to what, in the inquiry of public opinion, has long since been established—that the decision to go to war was based on misleading evidence and wholly disingenuous arguments.
The ITC-London finds the seven-year wait unforgivable and unjustifiable. Twelve volumes and over 10 million pounds of public funds later, the findings reveal little that was not known before the war began. As expected, Blair has quickly tried to absolve himself by claiming that the post-conflict violence in Iraq was not a result of the war. Whilst the ITC-London does not deny the role other actors have and continue to play, it is our position, supported by the findings of the Report that the worst excesses of violence which followed the fall of Saddam’s regime in Iraq could have been mitigated. On release of the Report, Chilcot stated that the “the scale of the war effort in post-conflict Iraq never matched the challenge.” The Bush administration and their counterparts in the British government failed to formulate and implement an effective aftermath strategy which looked to secure more than country’s oil fields.
No doubt my response is very much influenced by the July 3 ISIS bombing in the Karrada district of Baghdad, which killed 292 people (and maybe more—the death toll continues to rise). These people were shopping on the eve of ‘Id al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan. I was concerned about my relatives and friends in Baghdad but they seem to be OK. Lots of other people are not. Now I worry about my cousin who is planning to fly to Baghdad this week, taking her young daughter with her. I worry about revenge attacks. I worry about more ISIS bombings. I worry about sectarianism and the complicity of the government, the widespread corruption and incompetence.
The release of the Chilcot report is not helping Iraqis to deal with the horrendous aftermath of the war. It was never intended to. I resent how the British media, politicians and much of the public focus on the 179 British soldiers who were sadly killed, but seem to forget or only mention as an afterthought the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who lost their lives. There is hardly any mention of the large number of Iraqi civilians who were badly injured, who were internally displaced or fled the country.
Given my own expertise and long-term research into the gendered implications of the Baathist regime and sanctions, invasion and occupation, as well as sectarian conflict, I looked for gender-specific references. The liberation of women and increased equality had, after all, been part and parcel of the British government’s rhetoric pre- and post-invasion. At first glance, the report seems to be absolutely gender-blind. But maybe I need to dig deeper into the 6,000 pages.
Letter to UN Secretary-General Concerning Saudi Arabia's Removal from List of Armies Charged with War Crimes
June 30, 2016
Mr. Ban Ki-Moon
United Nations Secretary General
We the undersigned, a group of professors in Europe and North America, are deeply alarmed to learn that the government of Saudi Arabia has coerced you to remove the military coalition led by that country in Yemen from the UN list of armies charged with war crimes in that country. According to the New York Times, you have openly admitted to reporters that you were “threatened with the loss of financing for humanitarian operations in the Palestinian territories, South Sudan and Syria” if you did not capitulate to Saudi demands in this regard.
The same reports indicate that your office had issued a report “on violations of children’s rights in war zones, and it cited deadly coalition attacks that had hit schools and hospitals,” but soon “the coalition was taken off the list, after lobbying by Saudi Arabia and some of its wealthiest allies who help finance United Nations humanitarian operations.”
We are, sir, aghast at the brazen vulgarity of power that a single ruling family in one member state can assert against the entirety of the UN to prevent it from documenting war crimes and crimes against humanity.
This in fact is the second time in a year that your office has reversed course by openly removing the name of a state charged with war crimes from such lists. Last year under US and Israeli pressure you removed Israel from a similar list of violent states freely maiming and murdering children without any repercussions.
The UN is not the first or the only international entity to charge Saudi Arabia with such crimes against humanity.
Amnesty International has also reported: “Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces have carried out a series of air strikes targeting schools that were still in use, in violation of international humanitarian law, and hampering access to education for thousands of Yemen’s children.”
On its most recent mission to northern Yemen, Amnesty International has found “evidence of US, UK and Brazilian cluster munitions used by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces. The use of cluster bombs is banned under the Convention on Cluster Munitions.”
Such egregious violations of the human rights of a beleaguered nation by Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners, aided and abetted by the US and the UK, make a mockery of the sovereignty of nations, of international humanitarian conventions, of the rule of law, and above all of the rule of reason and sanity.
If not the UN then what international body has the duty of documenting such criminal offenses? If not the UN then who should hold Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners accountable for such war crimes?
Withholding of humanitarian aid to the UN for political gain is an affront to the very logic of cooperation among the community of nations and should be condemned as such by the entirety of the civilized world.
We the undersigned hold the UN chiefly responsible for continuing to document such barbaric violations of children’s safety and security by Saudi Arabia in Yemen or by any other member state anywhere else in the world.
The ruling Saudi regime obviously knows how to use its wealth to manipulate dysfunctional international bodies such as the UN. However, in the eyes of the global community it stands charged with overwhelming evidence of war crimes and of fundamental human indecency.
Your open and public confession, Mr. Moon, to have been forced to pander to Saudi power and wealth is the most damning indictment both against the staggering incompetence of UN and the wanton cruelty of Saudi Arabia, which is literally getting away with mass murder and an assortment of atrocities in a neighboring sovereign nation-state.
1. Khaled Abou El Fadl, University of California, Los Angeles
2. Ervand Abrahamian, City University of New York
3. Lila Abu-Lughod, Columbia University
4. Moonier Arbach, Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), Paris
5. Geneviève Bédoucha, CNRS, Paris
6. Peter Beinart, City University of New York
7. Naor Ben-Yehoyada, University of Cambridge
8. Isa Blumi, Stockholm University
9. Laurent Bonnefoy, Sciences Politiques, Paris
10. François Burgat, IREMAM, Aix-en-Provence, France
11. Robert Burrowes, University of Washington
12. Sheila Carapico, University of Richmond
13. Steven Caton, Harvard University
14. Don Conway-Long, Webster University
15. Hamid Dabashi, Columbia University
16. Fred Dallmayr, University of Notre Dame
17. Rochelle Davis, Georgetown University
18. Blandine Destremau, CNRS, EHESS, Paris
19. Paul Dresch, University of Oxford
20. Kaveh Ehsani, DePaul University
21. Richard Falk, Princeton University (emeritus)
22. Mark Gasiorowski, Tulane University
23. McGuire Gibson, University of Chicago
24. Michael Gilsenan, New York University
25. Andre Gingrich, Austrian Academy of Sciences
26. Ali Ghodsi, University of Waterloo, Canada
27. Ahmad Hadavi, Northwestern University
28. Najam Haider, Barnard College, Columbia University
29. Wael Hallaq, Columbia University
30. Nader Hashemi, University of Denver
31. Mary Hegland, Santa Clara University
32. Juliette Honvault, IREMAM, Aix-Marseille Université, France
33. Erik Hovden, Institute for Social Anthropology, Vienna
34. Hossein Kamaly, Barnard College, Columbia University
35. Mohsen Kadivar, Duke University
36. Lamya Khalidi, CEPAM, CNRS, France
37. Haider A. Khan, University of Denver
38. Laurie King, Georgetown University
39. Thomas Kuehn, Simon Fraser University
40. Ahmet T. Kuru, San Diego State University
41. Jean Lambert, CERMOM-INALCO, Paris
42. Miriam Lowi, College of New Jersey
43. Mojtaba Mahdavi, University of Alberta, Canada
44. Elham Manea, University of Zurich
45. Hamid Mavani, Bayan Claremont Islamic Graduate School
46. Anne Meneley, Trent University
47. Brinkley Messick, Columbia University
48. W. Flagg Miller, University of California, Davis
49. Timothy Mitchell, Columbia University
50. Annie Montigny, MNHN-Musée de l’Homme, France
51. Norma Claire Moruzzi, University of Illinois, Chicago
52. Mehdi Noorbakhsh, Harrisburg University
53. Misagh Parsa, Dartmouth College
54. Vijay Prasad, Trinity College
55. Babak Rahimi, University of California, San Diego
56. Ahmad Sadri, Lake Forest College
57. Mahmoud Sadri, Texas Woman’s University
58. Muhammad Sahimi, University of Southern California
59. Christa Salamandra, Lehman College, City University of New York
60. Aseel Sawalha, Fordham University
61. Jillian Schwedler, Hunter College, City University of New York
62. Marie-Claude Simeone-Senelle, CNRS, LLACAN-INALCO, France
63. Emilio Spadola, Colgate University
64. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Columbia University
65. Roman Stadnicki, University of Tours
66. Lucine Taminian, Independent scholar, Amman
67. Mahdi Tourage, King's University College at Western University
68. Peyman Vahabzadeh, University of Victoria, Canada
69. Robert Vitalis, University of Pennsylvania
70. Janet Watson, University of Leeds
71. John Willis, University of Colorado
72. Jessica Winegar, Northwestern University
73. Stacey Philbrick Yadav, Hobart and William Smith Colleges
On June 12 the world awoke to news of the massacre of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. From the beginning, the media was full of misleading and politically charged speculation. In the mid-morning of June 12, for instance, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) tersely told CNN that the killer, Omar Mateen, “was from Afghanistan and had weapons training.” Within hours, it was reported that Mateen was US-born and received his training from his employer G4S, the world’s largest private security firm. He had purchased his guns legally in Florida. There was also noticeable discomfort in much of the reaction to the killings about the facts that Pulse is an LGBTQ club and that most of the dead and wounded were Latin Americans. We asked some MERIP friends to comment on the misinformation and the telling silences in the coverage.
In the aftermath of the horrendous shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, many people have rightly pointed out that the hyper-masculine homophobic Omar Mateen does not represent Muslims. Fearing increased violence against Muslims and Middle Eastern immigrants in the US, some have apologetically made statements about how Islam and Muslims do not condone violence, especially during the holy month of Ramadan.
But why is this sense of responsibility imposed on Muslims and not other Americans? What is in a name? Why does a man's name implicate 1.5 billion Muslims? What is erased in the racist obsession with his religion and his family’s national origin?
Let me outline a few erasures that add a level of epistemic violence to the deadly homophobic violence that took the lives of mostly working-class Latin@s (most of them Puerto Ricans) at Pulse.
The characterization of this mass shooting as a terrorist attack against the United States minimizes the gravity of the violence against queers of color and queer immigrants—the nationalist discourse erases brown and black queer immigrant bodies. Despite the fact that Latin@s are criminalized, deported and incarcerated in massive numbers on a daily basis, violence against queer Latin@s becomes newsworthy only when it is packaged as a “terrorist attack” story. As Che Gosset and Christoph Hanssman aptly point out on Facebook, the US colonial and economic violence in Puerto Rico is forgotten in performances of mourning in a seemingly queer- and immigrant-friendly America. The recent US Supreme Court decision against Puerto Rico’s bid to restructure its $70 billion debt is directly related to the economic inequalities that compel queer Puerto Ricans to migrate to Orlando and other mainland cities in the US. Claiming Latinx bodies after death for nationalistic agendas may be too little and too late in the face of anti-immigrant laws and sentiments in the US. The unquestioned characterization of the Orlando tragedy as the "deadliest shooting in the US history” also whitewashes another colonial violence—the massacre of Native Americans. Through collective amnesia, this misnomer holds Muslims and not the settler colonial state responsible for the bloodiest mass murder in the history of the US.
The focus on the shooter’s religion and national origin reproduces Islam and Muslims as exceptionally homophobic and violent, thus exonerating the hegemonic US culture of its own homophobia, transphobia and misogyny. In a time when a white male college student gets away with raping a woman, when violence against Muslims and Middle Eastern people is normalized in US popular culture and video war games, when the bashing and killing of trans people under the rhetoric of safety is legitimized, when the shooting of black people by the militarized police is considered heroic, and when gun violence is legitimized under the cloak of freedom, Mateen’s violent act is more about his toxic masculinity than it is about Islam. The fact that Mateen worked for the world’s largest security firm, which runs several Israeli prisons and checkpoints as well as many US prisons (including Medway juvenile prison where G4S was accused of abusing the incarcerated youth not too long ago), cannot be forgotten or pushed aside. Neither can we overlook his obsession with becoming a police officer and his love for a racist police force that criminalizes, kills and imprisons people of color, queer and trans people, and immigrants.
The focus on Islam as the explanation for violent acts, as Edward Said has argued, is an Orientalist approach to people from a vast region who, despite their differences and various levels of piety, are reduced to their religion. Nobody asked what Christianity or the Bible says about race when Dylann Roof opened fire in a black church in Charleston. Rather than holding Islam and Muslims responsible for this man's violent rage, perhaps we should come to terms with the fact that he was an all-American boy who took his lessons from the culture of homophobia, transphobia and violence in the US. Perhaps the problem is not Islamic terrorism; perhaps the problem is homegrown US hetero-patriarchal terrorism. This is not to downplay the violence of fundamentalist groups who have opportunistically laid claims on Islam. Nor is it an attempt to deny the existence of homophobia, transphobia and misogyny in the Middle East or among Muslims. My point is to question the hypocrisy of an exceptionalism that assumes the US to be the bastion of freedom and progress.
By now it is not surprising that when an angry white man commits a mass shooting, he is characterized as a “lone wolf,” but when a Muslim or Middle Eastern man is the shooter, he is characterized as a terrorist, and by default, an ISIS or al-Qaeda agent. There is no evidence, except for Mateen’s last-minute claim (perhaps to make his homophobic attack seem like a heroic act), that he was connected to ISIS. Yet, if we truly believe that Mateen’s murderous act was an ISIS plot, then we have to ask where ISIS gets its support and why it emerged in the first place. We may have to question the instability and chaos that the US military intervention in the region has left behind. We may have to ask questions about the Saudi government’s support of ISIS. As a friend posted on Facebook, ISIS has become the deterritorialized imagined community where anyone who wants to defy certain social rules can claim belonging (or is assigned belonging). I would add that this association only “sticks” to certain bodies, while others are assumed to be misguided or troubled white boys who were denied a proper nuclear heterosexual family upbringing. In fact, on the same day as the Orlando shooting, a white man with ammunition was arrested at the Los Angeles Pride festival. As expected, this violent homophobe was not characterized as a terrorist. Had he had a Muslim name, it would be unimaginable that allegations of a concerted terrorist attack would not circulate and produce calls for heightened national security and policing. Not only does this racist division of violence assume an inherent risk of terrorism to be hidden in Muslim and Middle Eastern bodies, but it also minimizes the terror that numerous mass shootings committed by white men (including those by the police in places like Ferguson) incite in many people’s lives.
It is also predictable how the US discourse on terrorism recycles its own regurgitations. A day after the shooting, the media was obsessed with Mateen’s alleged queer desires. Not unlike the stories of fagdom among the Taliban, Islam’s promise of 72 virgins in heaven and Mohammad Atta’s perverted desires, we are told that the Muslim terrorist fag’s pent-up sexual desires, repressed by Islam or his “culture” motivated him to kill. As Jasbir Puar and Amit Rai have argued, terrorism studies, which has been producing this form of knowledge for decades, places the blame on bad mothering or dysfunctional family structure. It is the immigrant and non-white families (like Mateen’s Afghan family), we are told, whose cultural backwardness leads their children to psychological compulsion. The homonationalist (Jasbir Puar) and homonormative (Lisa Duggan) narrative then goes something like this: “Come out, get married and be normal! You can even join the military to kill the terrorists and sacrifice yourself for this great nation! And if you are celibate, we may even let you donate blood! And immigrant families: Get with the program! This is America, land of the free!” Hidden in this narrative is also the assumption that Islam and queerness are incommensurable and that queer Muslims are in need of rescue from their “barbaric and homophobic cultures.”
The liberal valorization of coming out as the remedy for violence distracts from the nuances of this shooting. Despite the criminalization and the profiling of Muslims, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of shooters in the US are white, and all of them are cis men (Dylann Roof, Robert Lewis Dear, Aaron Alexis and George Zimmerman, among others). Perhaps it was not Mateen’s “closeted gayness,” but his performance of a homophobic and misogynistic American masculinity enabled by everyday militarism, and constructed vis-à-vis the “failed masculinity” of the Muslim other, that led to this massacre. As a matter of fact, many people in the US do not “come out,” precisely because they fear this kind of toxic masculinity on the streets, at work, in school and at home. Those of us who are queer and Muslim know what it means to be blamed for anything from natural disasters to mass shootings. We know what it means to be profiled and what it means to be bashed and spat on by those who claim authenticity on the basis of monolithic imaginations of the “Muslim culture” or the “American culture.”
In a time when the US presidential candidates call for the bombing of ISIS as a retaliatory measure, it is crucial to unravel the way that homophobic and transphobic violence, Islamophobia, domestic violence, economic violence, racial violence, police violence, increased security and prisons, and the US imperialist wars are entangled in a web that implicates all of us. It is the time, again, to say not in our name!
The hurried characterization of Omar Mateen as a foreign bogeyman goes well beyond reactionary formulas—it is the lens through which all American Muslims are viewed. The widely held belief that Muslims are incapable of existing as members of American society, and specifically that they are thus incapacitated by their Muslim identity, is used to “other” them in times of tragedy. They are rejected from the folds of American culture, and their crimes are quickly pinned upon the faith they have chosen to follow.
Pundits and politicians continue to say that Mateen’s homophobia, transphobia, misogyny and racism were all due to his Islam. They refuse to allow his actions to be divorced from the religion he is said to have called his own. His horrific crimes are attributed not to the culture of violence that continues to find safety in US politics and law, but to his parent’s birthplace and the religion they passed down to their son.
For too many Americans, indeed, there are no factors that can override an Orientalist view of The Muslim, who lives a life of irreducible marginalization. It is a caricature of The Muslim that we are sold in the media: The Muslim is only in repose so long as he is able to subdue his barbarity. He is a beast on two legs lying in wait. The Muslim feigns patriotism and practice of American customs, but it is a trick, so he must be watched for signs of savagery as he prays in the mosque and goes about his business. The Muslim American is a hyper-visible yet invisible being who will have his American-ness stripped from him the moment he errs.
What is it about Omar Mateen that made him less American than Eric Rudolph, who so hated what he called an “aberrant [homosexual] lifestyle” that he bloodied Atlanta during the 1996 Summer Olympics? This is a face of America that many refuse to come to terms with, because otherwise they would have to face the implications for the myth they peddle that this hatred is largely imported and not homegrown.
There is nothing foreign about Mateen’s beliefs, nothing alien about his actions. The conversation must change in order for there to be a remedy. What this will take is organizing against those that target marginalized communities, and there can be no organizing without first acknowledging material realities.
There are times when language and analysis seem inadequate to representing the moment, its emotion, its feeling, its horror. The murder of 49 people and maiming of 53 more in a gay nightclub in Orlando is an incident that must be analyzed, and yet it is a spectacular horror that seems to escape representation, at least at the moment. It is enough to focus on the people murdered in Orlando; and yet, the spectacle in Orlando is merely a fragment of a larger mosaic. How can we think about violence relationally without diminishing the localized, focused response to violence and victimhood? And how can we push our analysis beyond nationalism, so that it can account for the violence of the state and the multinational corporation, as well as the violence of a lone individual?
Here is an attempt at piecing together some of the fragments, with full recognition that many more people will need to be heard in order for the full mosaic to emerge.
Just a few days prior to the Orlando massacre the United States attempted to incorporate Muhammad Ali into the nation; President Barack Obama claimed that Ali’s story was only possible in America. At the same service, Malcolm X’s daughter, Amb. Attallah Shabazz, appealed to Ali’s membership in a fraternity of black radical anti-imperialist thinkers for whom the horizons of black freedom were global and not national. At Ali’s funeral, just a few days prior to the Orlando shootings, Islam was adopted into a vision of US nationalism, even though Ali was considered un-American back in the day.
The US has a robust killing program across the Middle East, in Arab and Islamic societies, through a drone program that barely rises to the level of interest in US public debate. In the days leading up to the Orlando massacre, the US committed four murders by drone in Yemen—a country on which the US has not declared war. Arabs and Muslims have been killed with imprecision and regularity by a targeted assassination program across Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa. It would seem that precarity for most is the precondition for security for some.
The Orlando shooter worked for G4S, the largest security company in the world. A multinational security firm based in Britain, G4S makes plainly visible the transnational scope of militarized and masculinist violence, as it secures the US national border—another way, perhaps, in which many of the Latino Orlando victims were targeted—and borders across the Middle East, such as in occupied Palestine.
The Orlando victims were in a club made necessary by a homo- and trans-phobic culture that demands that queer intimacy and sociality take place in designated queer spaces, and in which bathrooms are contested terrain. Queer spaces like the Pulse nightclub have been refugee camps, of sorts, or spaces of hope, where queer sociality and freedom are possible, even as they have also been targeted by police, the state’s executioner of rampant and violent masculinity.
The discursive machine will quickly turn to the purported Islamic motives for anti-queer violence. “They hate our freedom,” some will say, even as the queer nightclub was already a space of hope within an American society that hates queer freedom. Hillary Clinton is already appealing to “radical Islam” as a culprit while Donald Trump is, well, Donald Trump.
The state will raise the specter of gun control and some may even call for revamped hate crimes legislation, but neither of these appeals will incorporate the Yemeni family targeted by the war on terror. No nightclub protects the Afghan family—queer or not—from death by drone, just as there is no safe space for queer freedom in a society structured in heteropatriarchy. Moreover, far more people will call for increased securitization and masculinist violence in geographies designated Muslim.
I am reminded of June Jordan’s poem, “Moving Towards Home,” when, after witnessing the anti-black violence of Rodney King’s beating by the Los Angeles police and Israel’s Operation Grapes of Wrath assault on southern Lebanon, she thought about the relationality of violence. After asserting that she, as a black woman, had “become Palestinian,” she writes, “against the relentless laughter of evil, there is less and less living room, and where are my loved ones?”
It has been almost a week since a mass shooting at Pulse, an LBGTQ nightclub in Orlando, killed 49 individuals and wounded more than 50 on a Latinx night. These killings have inspired national conversations about gun control, the rights of LGBTQ communities and continued homophobia in the US, and Islamophobia and the war on terror. I would like to underline three points that stand out in the media coverage and look forward to action aimed at producing solidarity and political change.
First, it is critical to continue to highlight that the victims of this mass killing are mostly Latinx—and mostly Latinx youth. In much of our analysis, including my own, there is a tendency to focus on the question of terrorism, or the war on terror, and its twinning with Islamophobia and the US security-imperial state. There was also much writing on homophobia and homosexuality “in” Islam, the most helpful and comprehensive of which was written by Mehammad Amadeus Mack. Many of us felt compelled to respond in this register, and these are necessary interventions in a time of war and during a US presidential campaign where Islamophobia seems to be a political platform.
It is necessary, however, to think through the gendered hyper-securitization of Muslim-Americans alongside the gendered hyper-securitization and criminalization of Latinx peoples in the United States. In fact, the hyper-racialization of the killer matched the deracination of the victims in much mainstream and political commentary. It was no accident, since the war on terror works in racialized, national and gendered binaries. The deracination of the victims (and the de-queerification of the club and the victims by many politicians) was necessary to produce the attack as “one on America” at a time when mainstream US political and national culture is deeply xenophobic, homophobic and suspicious of Latinx communities. As academics and as activists, it is important to critically bring together conversations on anti-Latinx and anti-Muslim discrimination and the ways that discourses on gender and sex operate as technologies of hyper-visualization and securitization both nationally and imperially. A vital part of this task is to think about the war on terror alongside the war on drugs. We must continue to research and write on criminalization, racialization and securitization within an expansive framework that includes the ways in which black, Latinx, indigenous, Muslim and immigrant Americans have been and continue to be differently and relationally incorporated into the structure of the white-dominant but “multicultural” US settler state. After all, the two communities directly targeted by anti-immigrant and anti-immigration platforms are Muslims and Latinx, and it is no coincidence that discourses on sex, gender and security are tied together in conversations around immigration and national character.
This point is directly connected to a second one, regarding the global and national hierarchy of human life and the ways in which we mourn those murdered in mass killings and terrorist attacks. It is crucial to think about the politics of citizenship, nationality and nationalism in this context—after all, there are undocumented victims of the Pulse shootings who cannot be mourned nationally precisely because, as “illegal aliens,” they are figured as threats to the nation. Furthermore, the mass shooting at Pulse and the global outcry that followed—which included the almost farcical shows of support and mourning by rulers of Arab states that routinely harass, imprison and brutalize LGBTQ communities—underscores the ways that (deracinated, de-queered) American lives and American tragedies are global tragedies that circulate as international events. In a war-on-terror world, there is an injunction to grieve in public for American lives lost to terrorism in order to ward off suspicion and further targeting. This injunction applies as well to the dead in France or Belgium, but not to victims of terrorism (state or otherwise) in Iraq or Nigeria or Syria. This phenomenon is directly related to the ways in which US political discourse on the war on terror has starkly divided the world into victims (Europeans and Americans) and perpetrators (Muslims and Arabs). Additionally, the public and international circulation of mourning related to the Pulse shooting emerges from the teleology implicit in homonationalism, where the US is configured as the end point—the resting place—of a global journey of LGBTQ struggle.
Finally, it is important to back up our words of outrage with action. Such action includes working toward opening up academic and professional space within the field of Middle East studies. Work in the areas of sexuality, gender and human rights is increasingly central to thinking and writing about the war on terror. More scholars from a variety of disciplines should pay attention to this work, and this frame for understanding what is happening. In terms of professional space, we could use the field’s flagship annual conference, the meeting of the Middle East Studies Association—to combat heterosexism, conservatism and tensions around gender non-conformity in our multiple academic communities.
Release Homa Hoodfar
We are deeply concerned by the arrest and ongoing detention of Homa Hoodfar, an eminent anthropologist and contributor to Middle East Report, by the Revolutionary Guard Corps of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Hoodfar traveled to Iran in early 2016 to visit family and conduct scholarly research. She was scheduled to depart the country on March 10, but on the preceding evening Revolutionary Guards officers went to her home and confiscated her passport, as well as her personal computer, cellular phone and other items. Since mid-March she has been repeatedly interrogated, apparently with the aim of tying her scholarly work and research to political activity of which the state disapproves.
Hoodfar was arrested on June 6 after being summoned for still another interrogation. She is being held incommunicado and without charge in Evin prison in Tehran. Neither her lawyer nor her family have been permitted to see her since her arrest, nor have they been given any reason why she is being detained. More worrisome is that Hoodfar’s family has not been allowed to give her the medication she needs to treat a chronic neurological condition.
Hoodfar is a professor of anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal. She is a specialist in gender issues, including reproductive rights, family law and the role of women in politics, as well as the intersections of gender with development and public health. She has written for Middle East Report on such subjects on three occasions.
Homa Hoodfar’s arrest and detention are a violation of the rights to freedom of thought, opinion and speech guaranteed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the Islamic Republic of Iran is a signatory. We join Amnesty International, the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association and other organizations in calling for her prompt, unconditional release and the immediate return of her passport and personal effects.
UPDATE: Amnesty International of Canada is hosting this petition calling for Homa Hoodfar’s release.
More than 9,000 people have been killed, according to UN figures, one third of them civilians. Some 2.4 million Yemenis are uprooted from their homes, and a staggering 80 percent of the population lack reliable supplies of food. The displaced and the hungry are unable to flee the country—all the borders are closed—and a naval blockade has prevented all but a trickle of outside aid from reaching those in need. On May 3, the UN inaugurated a program to screen relief shipments, which may ameliorate the humanitarian emergency, but the Saudi-led bombardment and the ground battles have left much of Yemen without fuel, electricity and water.
Why did Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies mount this assault? How did Yemen’s peaceful uprising of 2011 degenerate into civil strife and external intervention? Why has the Obama administration supported the Saudi-led war effort with munitions, mid-air refueling and intelligence, even as human rights organizations have documented war crimes?
To help answer these and other questions, our contributing editor Sheila Carapico assembled Arabia Incognita: Dispatches from Yemen and the Gulf, an anthology of previously published MERIP material, released on May 3 by Just World Books. The collection includes her introductory commentaries as well as maps and striking political cartoons by Samer al-Shameeri.
The Institute of Middle East Studies at George Washington University and the Institute for Policy Studies hosted Carapico to discuss the volume on April 28 and May 3, respectively.
A central premise of Arabia Incognita, she began, is that the Arabian Peninsula is “a distinct political unit.” Upheavals in one country reverberate in the others. The oil-rich monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia, have long sought control over the course of events in poor, populous Yemen and its rulers. In the 1960s, the Saudis backed the imam against republican rebels; after unification in 1990, they cultivated the strongman in Sanaa, ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih. In 2011 came the shock of the revolt against Salih, whose most visible leader, Tawakkul Karman, was a woman. The Gulf monarchs’ attempt to manage the succession to Salih is the backdrop to the Houthi rebels’ overreach, the subsequent internal war, the intervention and the current catastrophe.
The US, for its part, “has a Saudi policy of which its Yemen policy is an outgrowth.” For decades, the US-Saudi “special relationship” was underwritten by the kingdom’s fervent anti-Communism, its hydrocarbon wealth and the petrodollars it pumped back into Western economies. Today, perhaps, it is rooted more in massive arms sales.
Arabia Incognita brings together four decades of MERIP coverage of the Arabian Peninsula—on topics ranging from political Islam, labor migration and resource politics to arts and culture. It is now available from Just World Books.
Jordan Drops the Pretense of Democratic Reform
In September 2012, King ‘Abdallah II of Jordan stopped by “The Daily Show” to chat with Jon Stewart about his commitment to democratic reform in his country. In the wake of the uprisings across the Arab world, he said, “We changed a third of the constitution. We did a lot of different things—a new constitutional court, a new independent commission for elections,” all in preparation for a transition from monarchical rule to meaningful parliamentary governance. “This is the critical crossroads for Jordan to get it right, these next four years,” the king concluded.
It was a pretense that few in Jordan ever believed. Indeed, if anything, those four years have seen King ‘Abdallah peel the veneer of parliamentary governance off an increasingly autocratic system. In mid-April, Prime Minister ‘Abdallah al-Nusour submitted draft constitutional amendments to Parliament, requesting the body’s approval of changes that give the king absolute power over the judiciary, foreign policy, defense and security. By the terms of the amendments, the king would be able to appoint members of the constitutional court and the head of the paramilitary police force, which is tasked with suppressing domestic dissent, by himself and without further ado. In practice, ‘Abdallah already exercises these powers, but the draft amendments codify them, eliminating the need for lip service to checks and balances. The king would no longer need signatures from the prime minister or cabinet members to rubber-stamp his decrees.
On April 27 the draft amendments passed the lower house of Parliament by an overwhelming margin. They are sure to sail through the upper house, whose members are handpicked by the king. State-run media says the changes “strengthen the principle of separation of powers,” but this claim is too risibly thin to be called a smokescreen.
It is, in fact, a bizarre instance of greater transparency. The constitutional changes effectively acknowledge that Jordan is an autocracy, not the developing constitutional monarchy that the king markets to Western audiences eager to find a likable, “moderate” ally in the region. Perhaps ‘Abdallah thinks that no one will notice: With civil wars in Iraq, Libya and Syria, and President Barack Obama struggling to patch up relations with the Gulf Arabs while members of Congress (and other nations) call for suspending sales to Saudi Arabia of arms being used to commit war crimes in Yemen, Jordan’s amendments have attracted almost no international attention.
Let’s take further stock of ‘Abdallah’s critical four years. He told Jon Stewart in 2012 that Jordanians were politically immature, but rather than encouraging a vibrant public sphere, he portrayed Jordanians as politically ignorant, not understanding what it means to be positioned to the right, left or center. Jordan has numerous political parties, however; it is just that the regime treats them as a nuisance rather than a resource to be developed. Many parties boycotted the 2013 parliamentary elections as illegitimate because the electoral law and and the boundaries of electoral districts ensure that regions loyal to the royal court are overrepresented in Parliament. A new electoral law passed in March (ahead of the contests slated for 2017) scrapped the controversial one-vote system that significantly disadvantaged the political parties, but failed to address the skewed districting. Jordan’s elected Council of Deputies, the lower house of Parliament, has always been constrained in its freedom of action, as the royally appointed upper house, the Council of Nobles, can veto any of its legislation. The constitutional amendments formally sign away the last of the elected assembly’s nominal prerogatives of note.
The name of the game in Jordan today is security. The civil wars in neighboring Syria and Iraq, and the attempts by ISIS to launch attacks in Jordan, have led to a near lockdown of the kingdom. But the regime has not limited its repression to those suspected of connections to or sympathy with ISIS. Instead, its reach has been largely indiscriminate: It has imposed severe restrictions on freedom of expression, whether that of journalists, activists or any dissident voices. The penal code has long been banned criticism of the king. But revisions of the anti-terrorism law in 2014 go much further, classifying statements that “disturb” Jordan’s relations with foreign states as acts of terrorism. A Jordanian citizen who questions the wisdom of Jordan’s alliance with the Gulf monarchies, for example, could be prosecuted as a terrorist. So could one who suggests that Jordan’s gas pipeline deal with Israel might be bad for the Jordanian people.
Peaceful dissenters face repeated harassment at the hands of the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), or mukhabarat. The regime has tortured government critics and shut down all forms of public assembly. An event planner at a major Amman hotel told me in March that he would not book any conference or event even remotely connected to political debate without the GID’s verbal approval.
The crackdown extends to the realm of entertainment. The Lebanese alt-rock band Mashrou‘ Leila was scheduled to appear this week at the Roman amphitheater in downtown Amman, but the concert was abruptly canceled because the group’s songs “threatened the values, customs and traditions” of Jordanian society. The band issued a statement condemning the censorship, noting that it had previously played several times in Jordan, including at the amphitheater. And what were the dangerous ideas in the songs? Gender equality and sexual freedom seemed particularly to offend some powerful regime officials.
If the global history of state repression offers any lesson, it is that wholesale quashing of dissent, even alternative voices in arts and culture, is very likely to radicalize many of those who have been silenced. King ‘Abdallah may be willing to take that risk, but it is not a good bet.
But as the king amends the constitution to concentrate power in his own hands, at last he has dropped the pretense of democratic reform—though not, of course, the parallel conceit that he and the Jordanian regime are “moderate.”
Suspend US Military Aid to Egypt
An Open Letter to President Barack Obama
April 18, 2016
Dear President Obama,
As scholars of Egypt and the Middle East, we the undersigned would like to urge you, on Tax Day, to support civilian, democratic rule in Egypt by suspending military aid to the country.
For more than thirty years, the US government has spent billions of dollars to help build and sustain a system of rule that does not serve the interests of the Egyptian people. The core of that regime has always been a small military class whose power is underwritten by American taxpayers. This was true under Hosni Mubarak and it is just as true today.
The current president of the country, Abdel Fattah El Sisi, may have been elected, but observers have never ceased questioning the legitimacy of those elections, nor the bloody circumstances of his rise to power. As the Sisi government stumbles from one crisis to the next, it has become increasingly violent toward its critics, the vast majority of whom propose nothing more than civic, pragmatic solutions to the country’s most vexing problems. Their non-violent, civic engagement has been met with arbitrary arrests and incarceration, disappearances and torture. Free speech and expression are a thing of the past, and violations of the right to organize, travel and conduct research are rife. Today, Egypt has become a vast penal colony.
As taxpayers, we morally object to the idea that our money goes to prop up an autocratic and violent regime in Cairo. We urge your administration to turn away from the old policies that brought us here, and embark on a new course toward peace, democracy and prosperity for the people of Egypt. We call on you to suspend military aid to Egypt’s military rulers until you have time to undertake a comprehensive review of our policy toward the country.
1. Khaled Abou El Fadl (UCLA)
2. Fida Adely (Georgetown University)
3. Anthony Alessandrini (City University of New York)
4. Samer Mahdy Ali (University of Michigan)
5. Lori Allen (SOAS, University of London)
6. Nabil Al-Takriti (University of Mary Washington)
7. Noha Arafa (National Lawyers Guild)
8. Andrew Arato (New School)
9. Walter Armbrust (University of Oxford)
10. Mona Atia (George Washington University)
11. Aslı Bâli (UCLA School of Law)
12. Beth Baron (City University of New York)
13. Lydia Bassaly (Columbia University)
14. Moustafa Bayoumi (Brooklyn College, CUNY)
15. Joel Beinin (Stanford University)
16. Amahl Bishara (Tufts University)
17. Audrey Bomse (National Lawyers Guild)
18. Marilyn Booth (University of Oxford)
19. Laurie A. Brand (University of Southern California)
20. Michaelle L. Browers (Wake Forest University)
21. Jonathan Brown (Georgetown University)
22. Jason Brownlee (University of Texas, Austin)
23. Rosie Bsheer (Yale University)
24. Charles E. Butterworth (University of Maryland)
25. Sheila Carapico (University of Richmond)
26. Noam Chomsky (MIT)
27. Elliott Colla (Georgetown University)
28. Don Conway-Long (Webster University)
29. Rochelle Davis (Georgetown University)
30. Lara Deeb (Scripps College)
31. Andrea Dessì (London School of Economics)
32. Emily Drumsta (University of California, Berkeley)
33. Mona El-Ghobashy (Independent scholar)
34. Mohamad Elmasry (University of North Alabama)
35. Omnia El Shakry (University of California, Davis)
36. John Esposito (Georgetown University)
37. Ilana Feldman (George Washington University)
38. Alexa Firat (Temple University)
39. James Gelvin (UCLA)
40. Alan Gilbert (University of Denver)
41. Ellis J. Goldberg (University of Washington)
42. Joel Gordon (University of Arkansas)
43. Elaine C. Hagopian (Simmons College)
44. Sondra Hale (UCLA)
45. Hanan Hammad (Texas Christian University)
46. Ian M. Hartshorn (University of Nevada, Reno)
47. Nader Hashemi (University of Denver)
48. Jane Hathaway (Ohio State University)
49. Donald Hindley (Brandeis University)
50. Elizabeth M. Holt (Bard College)
51. Deena R. Hurwitz (American University)
52. Toby C. Jones (Rutgers University)
53. Lorenzo Kamel (Harvard University)
54. Arang Keshavarzian (New York University)
55. Laleh Khalili (SOAS, University of London)
56. Dina Rizk Khoury (George Washington University)
57. Laurie King (Georgetown University)
58. Marwan M. Kraidy (University of Pennsylvania)
59. Vickie Langohr (College of the Holy Cross)
60. Mark Andrew LeVine (University of California, Irvine)
61. Darryl Li (Yale University)
62. Zachary Lockman (New York University)
63. Miriam R. Lowi (The College of New Jersey)
64. Melani McAlister (George Washington University)
65. Clea McNeely (University of Tennessee)
66. Shana Minkin (Sewanee: The University of the South)
67. Timothy Mitchell (Columbia University)
68. Pete W. Moore (Case Western Reserve University)
69. Amir Moosavi (New York University)
70. Norma Claire Moruzzi (University of Illinois, Chicago)
71. Tamir Moustafa (Simon Fraser University)
72. Bruce D. Nestor (National Lawyers Guild)
73. Roger Owen (Harvard University)
74. Sumita Pahwa (Scripps College)
75. Lisa A. Pollard (University of North Carolina, Wilmington)
76. Sara Pursley (Princeton University)
77. Noha Radwan (UC Davis)
78. Aziz Rana (Cornell University)
79. Kamran Rastegar (Tufts University)
80. Sarah Roche-Mahdi (Independent scholar)
81. Mona Russell (East Carolina University)
82. Atef Said (University of Illinois, Chicago)
83. Christa Salamandra (City University of New York)
84. Hesham Sallam (Stanford University)
85. Stuart Schaar (Brooklyn College, CUNY)
86. Aaron Schneider (University of Denver)
87. Jillian Schwedler (Hunter College & The Graduate Center, CUNY)
88. Samer Shehata (University of Oklahoma)
89. Paul Sedra (Simon Fraser University)
90. Omar Shakir (Center for Constitutional Rights)
91. Stephen Sheehi (College of William and Mary)
92. Tamara Sonn (Georgetown University)
93. Josh Stacher (Kent State University)
94. Gregory Starrett (University of North Carolina, Charlotte)
95. Rebecca L. Stein (Duke University)
96. Christopher Stone (Hunter College, CUNY)
97. Ted Swedenburg (University of Arkansas)
98. Elizabeth F. Thompson (University of Virginia)
99. Levi Thompson (UCLA)
100. Chris Toensing (MERIP)
101. Judith Tucker (Georgetown University)
102. John Voll (Georgetown University)
103. Jeremy Walton (The Max Planck Institute)
104. Lisa Wedeen (University of Chicago)
105. Max D. Weiss (Princeton University)
106. Mark R. Westmoreland (Leiden University)
107. Jessica Winegar (Northwestern University)
108. John Womack, Jr. (Harvard University)
Open Letter from Scholars of Yemen
US Secretary of State John Kerry
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond
French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Marc Ayraut
On the occasion of a year of the bombardment and blockade of Yemen, we write for a third time as scholars of Yemen to deplore the actions of the governments you represent, which have served cumulatively to erase fundamental principles of international and international humanitarian law: a) drafting the one-sided UN Security Council Resolution 2216 used to legitimize war; b) attempting to protect Saudi Arabia and the other Coalition countries against condemnation by the UN Human Rights Council, leaving the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights alone to issue a condemnation of war crimes; c) continuing massive arms sales in the face of documented war crimes by the Coalition; and d) participating in refueling warplanes, identifying targets, and facilitating the blockade of vital imports of food and fuel to Yemen.
We are aligned with no party in the internal political divisions of Yemen and deplore human rights violations by all the warring parties. However, we note that the major targets of the Yemen war, the Houthis and the bulk of the former Yemeni army, have over the past years fought Islamic State and al-Qaeda, which your governments view as terrorist groups and which have targeted Arab as well as European cities—most recently Brussels. Against this background, we renew our call to you to do everything to obtain an immediate and complete ceasefire and the launch of unconditional Yemeni-Yemeni negotiations for the formation of a transition government. And we ask that you offer no cover to the attempts of the Coalition states to extract commercial gains from their war and to avoid, in the name of plans for Gulf Cooperation Council “reconstruction” of Yemen, legal responsibility for war reparations.
Najwa Adra, Independent scholar
Geneviève Bédoucha, CNRS, Paris
Isa Blumi, Stockholm University
Laurent Bonnefoy, Sciences Politiques, Paris
François Burgat, IREMAM, Aix-en-Provence
Robert Burrowes, University of Washington
Sheila Carapico, University of Richmond
Steven Caton, Harvard University
Don Conway-Long, Webster University
Rochelle Davis, Georgetown University
Blandine Destremau, CNRS, EHESS, Paris
Paul Dresch, University of Oxford
Ulrike Freitag, Free University of Berlin & Centre for Modern Oriental Studies
McGuire Gibson, University of Chicago
Michael Gilsenan, New York University
Andre Gingrich, Austrian Academy of Sciences
Najam Haider, Barnard College, Columbia University
Mouna Hashem, Independent scholar
Juliette Honvault, IREMAM, Aix-Marseille Université
Eirik Hovden, Institute for Social Anthropology, Vienna
Lamya Khalidi, CEPAM, CNRS, France
Laurie King, Georgetown University
Thomas Kühn, Simon Fraser University
Jean Lambert, CERMOM-INALCO, Paris
Anne Meneley, Trent University, Canada
Brinkley Messick, Columbia University
W. Flagg Miller, University of California-Davis
Martha Mundy, London School of Economics and Political Science
Michael Perez, University of Washington
Christa Salamandra, Lehman College, CUNY
Jillian Schwedler, Hunter College, CUNY
Gregory Starrett, University of North Carolina
Lucine Taminian, Independent scholar, Amman
Daniel Varisco, American Institute for Yemeni Studies
Gabriele vom Bruck, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
Lisa Wedeen, University of Chicago
Shelagh Weir, Independent scholar
John Willis, University of Colorado
Jessica Winegar, Northwestern University
Stacey Philbrick Yadav, Hobart and William Smith Colleges
Sami Zubaida, Birkbeck College, University of London
Éloge de la Naïveté
In the week since the attacks on Brussels Zaventem airport and the Maelbeek subway station, there is an atmosphere of deep mourning in Belgium, where I am spending the year as a Fulbright scholar. While I happened to be out of the country on the day of the attacks, I returned shortly thereafter to memorials to the victims marking the urban landscape. Moments of silence have become de rigueur additions to formal gatherings, and public declarations and acts of compassion and solidarity abound, most of them heartfelt and touching. In the university town of Leuven, where I live, many students—even those who knew none of the victims—broke down in grief and fear, their world evidently shaken to the core. They received comfort from friends and colleagues who were themselves feeling conflicting emotions. As in Paris this past November, or in many other places before or since that have experienced equally terrible events, the country seemed to come together in sorrow and succor, as collectively suffering humans beyond any divides of identity or ideology.
But behind such harmony a minor key of rancor could already be heard. If who the attackers were was little in doubt, how they managed to perpetrate such violence in spite of a mobilized security apparatus and national state of emergency raised significant questions both inside and outside the country. Accusations of police or ministerial incompetence, or failures of coordinating among federal, provincial and municipal security forces, pointed toward something broken or failed within the Belgian “state,” seemingly forever culturally and structurally split between Flanders and Wallonia with Brussels in the unhappy and often unloved middle.
But an even deeper line of critique accused Belgian society more generally of complacency and naïveté. Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz and French Transportation Minister Michel Sapin said as much mere hours after the blasts, even as victims were still being identified, hinting that something in Belgians’ lifestyle (“eat chocolate and enjoy life”) or their blasé approach to “integration” created the conditions of possibility for the attacks. While these comments were resented by Belgians and quickly disavowed by Israeli and French officials, even the distancing took the form of generalizing Belgian society’s failings to Europe as a whole. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, speaking the day after the attacks on Europe 1 radio, said that France too had “closed its eyes,” and the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, similarly defended Belgium by citing the Biblical adage, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
What was the nature of this sin? To what had Europeans closed their eyes?
For Valls it was explicitly “the rise of extremist salafi ideas in neighborhoods where a mix of drug trafficking and radical Islam led astray...some of the youth.” These transgressions were by no means new. The accusation of Belgian complacency toward Molenbeek as a breeding ground for terrorists was raised in the immediate wake of the November 13 attacks in Paris, and indeed since the early 1980s the district had been portrayed within Belgium as a dystopian space of Islamic threat, as anthropologist Nadia Fadil has traced. Similar journalistic portrayals of the French banlieues as spaces of jihad go back at least as far, indeed arguably back to the 1954-1961 French-Algerian war, and have been periodically reanimated after moments of violence, such as the 1995 subway bombings attributed to the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, which bear eerie resemblance to the recent Brussels attacks in terms of targets, means and likely repercussions. Juncker himself, in his plea against Belgian exceptionalism, cited “terrorism in Britain and Germany in the 1970s and 1980s.”
Minimally, then, according to these long-standing anxieties, the Belgian state, like other European governments, had allowed (or even facilitated) so-called radical, extremist salafi or other jihadi groups to establish networks within “immigrant” neighborhoods under the guise of providing religious or social services, sometimes at the behest of Saudi Arabia or other states, sometimes ignoring their warnings. At their extreme, such anxieties build into conspiracy theories about a byzantine plan to transform Europe into “Eurabia,” with Christian or secular societies forced to submit to Islamic authority. Such fantasies certainly have a market amid heightened Islamophobic public sentiment, but remain relatively marginal, mostly spouted by media pundits with minimal traction in official or scholarly circles.
Yet a growing consensus does seem to be emerging across Europe about a more widespread and apparently pernicious form of naïveté: namely, that of past multicultural tolerance whose inherent failures have now come home to roost in terrorist violence, as well as sectarianism, US-style ghettos, criminality and even racism itself. European state leaders seem to be trying to outdo one another in declaring multiculturalism a dead letter. Neighborhoods like Molenbeek, once celebrated for their cultural diversity, now come off as closed spaces of otherness ruled by an ethno-religious code of silence, which protects criminals-turned-terrorists. The new mot d’ordre is national identity and cohesion, with European Muslims called upon to publicly declare their allegiance; apologize for violence; denounce anti-Semitism, sexism and homophobia; and even distance themselves from the obligations and prohibitions that Islam entails. Those who fail to adequately perform such mandatory politesse quickly become objects of suspicion and harassment, with personal and professional consequences.
Again, there is nothing particularly new about such a predicament. Indeed, Abdelmalek Sayad, writing about the Algerian-French experience, spoke eloquently of such “suffering” back in the 1980s. But the younger generation of Muslim Europeans is increasingly explicit in demanding their social, political and religious rights as Muslims and European citizens. They refuse to accommodate themselves to a set of pre-existing norms, but rather call for accommodation and even transformation of the societies of which they are fundamentally a part. For these actors, the problem with multiculturalism is that it maintained the (white, Christian-secular) state as that which tolerated, managed and set the terms for public expression of cultural and religious differences—such as what dress might be worn in school or where one might pray. Muslim Europeans had to accede to these terms or be socially or even physically excluded. Young activists are now seeking an active role in setting new terms, much to the chagrin of observers who see in such claims a violent effort to impose the demands of the few on the lives of the many. From this perspective, the Brussels attacks, like the Charlie Hebdo and November 13 attacks before it, were not understood as a transnational military riposte to the war in the Middle East, but as the outcome of a homegrown predicament, perpetrated by those who had failed to “integrate” into European (multicultural) society and resorted to the only language they knew—Islamic extremism.
Indeed, it arguably was naïve—or, more accurately, hubristic—to think that an officially secular (“neutral”) state like Belgium could simply set from above, and based on past accommodations with the Catholic Church, the terms by which its multi-religious citizens could publicly express themselves without people eventually pushing back. And it was naïve and hubristic to act as if Belgium would not transform in the process.
But if the naïveté and complacency that Belgium, and Europe more broadly, is being currently accused of is the belief (or at least hope) that such dissensus would transpire more or less peacefully, then that is not a naïveté we should be willing to give up on. To do so would be to affirm a supposed incompatibility between Islam and whatever defines Belgium or Europe. It would be to ignore all the ways in which Islam—whether as a long-standing religion on the European continent or as a constitutive outside through which the idea of a (Christian) Europe was formulated—is immanent to and indissociable from Europe. It would be to envision a future along the lines laid out by Samuel Huntington’s self-fulfilling prophecy of a clash of civilizations. If that is what abandoning naïveté entails, then call me naïve.
Here it’s instructive to recall the scenes of collective sorrow and comfort in Belgium today. For scholars like myself—inured by too many similar events quickly exploited by state actors to justify aggressive foreign policies and constraints on civil liberties—such comings together are but evanescent, superficial moments that will quickly give way to a reality of prejudice, distrust and further violence. Even the attacks themselves fail to shock us, insofar as they seem but the inevitable blowback of US and European war-making in the Middle East—wars that were supposedly designed to keep the conflicts abroad, far away from “home,” but which from the beginning seemed sure to increase homeland insecurity. Cynics that we are, we have plenty of sympathy but ultimately little empathy for our students who break down in tears, who crave their parents’ embrace but are afraid to get on a train to see them. Welcome to the real world, we are inclined to say. You have somehow made it through your first 20 years naïvely protected from the effects of political violence, but for millions across the global south such is everyday existence. Your so-called innocence is a privilege you have done nothing to deserve.
But then we perhaps remember that these students are not just rich Flemish kids, but include twenty-somethings from places like Eastern Europe, East Asia and even the Middle East; from the very multi-ethnic neighborhoods of nearby (but cognitively distant) Brussels so derided in the press; from all sorts of socioeconomically under-privileged and racially under-represented backgrounds. Universities strive to be utopias (or maybe better, heterotopias, in Foucault’s terms—not no-places but different kinds of places), settings of collective striving for knowledge and betterment, where diversity of approach and background is precisely a strength, not an impingement on social cohesion. It was these students and their faculty and staff mentors who had come together in mutual care, support and solidarity, strengthening their own bonds and projecting a model of a compassionate society that could possibly come to be. Such a hopeful future requires forgetting what we think we already know from past experience about the world and how it works. It requires setting aside cynicism and taking inspiration from the Blakeian (or perhaps Lennonian) childlike innocence that had imagined, as much out of ignorance as wishful thinking, a peaceful globe where tragedy is not inevitably lurking in departure lounges and subway cars, at bus depots, music venues and malls. It may indeed require rejecting complacency with the world as it currently is, but only by doubling down on naïveté itself. In the end, all transformative politics is a naïve undertaking.
Did Russian Intervention Break the Syrian Stalemate?
It is now a cliché to say that the Syrian conflict is complicated, and has multiple regional and international drivers.
For some time, all of these complications were adduced to answer the question: “Why is there a military and political stalemate in Syria?” Beginning in September 2015, however, Russian intervention on the side of the regime of Bashar al-Asad dramatically altered the dynamics that gave rise to the deadlock. Now that Russian bombing has been suspended, many hope a political process can bring an end to the war. Instead, the conflict is likely to continue, but on a very different trajectory.
The concept of networks of violence is very useful—not for figuring out who is fighting whom at any given moment, for that is impossible, but in tracing how the stalemate emerged. Networks of violence have formed throughout the country and are a key feature of both regime- and rebel-aligned forces. There are three basic structures that serve as the nodes of the violent networks and which contribute to the non-hierarchical, fragmented nature of violence. The first node is that of the battalion or company. These battalions are typically made up of a small number of fighters who are concentrated in specific areas. An excellent example is the shabbiha groups that eventually evolved into the core of the National Defense Forces (NDF), a regime-aligned militia.
Brigades, the second node in the network, are conglomerations of battalions under a central command. These units have a much wider geographic range than battalions and are active in larger parts of cities and provinces.
A larger, non-hierarchical form of coordination is the front, the third node in the networks of violence. Fronts are amalgamations of brigades that serve more as military alliances than as chains of command. The fronts usually form in situations of battlefield necessity, and are typically composed of dozens of brigades, with a small number of powerful brigades that dominate. Loyalty is often very weak with different brigades pledging and withdrawing allegiance with alarming frequency.
The Army of Conquest, a front formed in March 2015, contained three of the more powerful rebel-aligned brigades in the northern provinces, Ahrar al-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa and Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as four smaller brigades. Upon its formation, the Army of Conquest made military advances in Idlib and Hama provinces. These advances were halted by regime-aligned forces, as well as the defection of Jund al-Aqsa over administrative disputes. The defection of this powerful brigade emasculated the front’s capacity and led to the eventual departure of Sham Legion, one of the smaller brigades. While still operating in the northern areas, the Front’s advances have subsequently been limited.
A second example is that of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, started in 2014 as a conglomeration of northern-based brigades to coordinate military activities against the Islamic Front and other rebel brigades. Quick defeats on the battlefield led to the defection of some of the Free Syrian Army affiliates backed by the West, who formed a new coalition with Harakat Hazm and other Islamist-oriented groups called the Revolutionary Front. Within less than a year, that front, too, had been gutted by defections, including of Harakat Hazm, which dissolved into another grouping called the Levant Front. Such examples abound. As such, these networks are defined by their fluidity.
In Syria, the structure of the armed groups aligned with both regime and rebel forces is what Paul Staniland calls “fragmented,” based on their weak social and political entrenchment in the conflict landscape. The possible exception is the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units. But neither the Free Syrian Army brigades nor the NDF militias that have terrorized civilians under the pretext of security provision are deeply rooted. This lack of entrenchment is the outcome of many factors, including: the lack of political parties and associations from which to mobilize the population; the atomization of the uprising; material drivers of the conflict; and competing social bases linked to different authorities that change over time. The lack of entrenchment reveals itself in the constantly changing administrations and armed groups present in different areas. In turn, the absence of solid social bases forces different armed groups into cooperative networks that enhance their geographic reach, contribute to resource distribution and ensure their survival. In short, these groups enter into cooperative agreements for material, political or military reasons, and not necessarily ideological ones. Cooperation occurs out of necessity.
The military and political stalemate emerged because these networks are strong enough to continue fighting yet not strong enough to overtake and control territory. Regional rivalries, such as between the Saudis and Qataris on the rebel side, further ensured that resources were directed toward different networks to help maintain the stalemate. Such balances on the battlefield were reflected in the political arena, where major actors, including those inside of Syria, remained intent on a military solution to the conflict rather than a political one. A military stalemate never made political concessions attractive.
This fluid and unstable, yet proliferating, organizational structure of violence in Syria was the immediate backdrop to the Russian intervention.
One of the central questions facing armed groups in conflict is their ability to reproduce, socially, militarily and economically. They need to get recruits, find weapons and make money to finance their operations. The Russian intervention squeezed the ability of these groups to reproduce, thus altering the material and geographic conditions under which the networks of violence form. The indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, not to mention the suffocation of supply routes, reduced and degraded the capacity of many armed groups to the breaking point.
The disruption of the stalemate resulted in an agreement on a ceasefire, which took effect on February 27. Paradoxically, Russia’s intervention has made politics possible. But the particular kind of politics prefigured by Russia’s intervention is not one in which violence and conflict are discouraged or one in which any meaningful political demands, such as a serious, substantive political transition, may emerge.
The networks of violence have little interest in engaging in a political process that offers no tangible material benefit to them. After five years of conflict, and the development of robust war economies throughout the country, these networks in fact have a larger stake in continuing violence. In the absence of a unified rebel vision and continued infighting and fluidity between networks, there is no reason to believe that a Russian-brokered peace process would help to dissolve the networks.
When the history of the Syrian conflict is told, it will be disaggregated into various stages and periods. The transition from the period of stalemate to the period after the Russian intervention will be seen as a key turning point in the trajectory of the conflict. It will also help give insight into the different forms of authority included or excluded in future political arrangements, and the continuity of different, although no less disturbing, forms of violence in Syria.