Nov 242015




We are trapped. Once again, we find ourselves wedged between the hammer of terrorism and the anvil of the European far right and of Republican neocons across the Atlantic. Every war has its mongers who profit from its sorrows, rubble and spilt blood. So too does terrorism. Along with its victims and perpetrators, it has its merchants who capitalize on its horrors, chaos and climates of fear and tension. To these, every terrorist bombing and shooting is a golden opportunity to revive arrogant racist notions in a new Islamophobic format, thus enabling them to penetrate further into the mainstream, gaining new territory and more votes. The target is no longer “Africans”, “Asians”, “blacks”, or “browns”, but “Muslims”, “Arabs”, “Middle Easterners”, or “Syrians”. Against these, all limits may be dispensed with, the unspeakable may be spoken, the unacceptable becomes acceptable.

Before the dust had settled in Paris, the old symphony of “we” and “they” reverberated once more. “Our” enlightened values, we were again told, were locked in existential struggle against “their” barbaric religion and savage culture. “They” here, of course, does not refer to extreme fanatical violent groups affiliated to al-Qaeda, or Isis, but to hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world. Thus suddenly, ordinary working men and women going about their daily lives in Indonesia or Malaysia, Bangladesh or Senegal, find themselves cast as the enemy vying to destroy “our” western civilization, “our” sublime ideals and way of life.

What is worrying is that this rhetoric, which in Europe is more characteristic of the far right, is increasingly endorsed by mainstream Republicans in the US. It is ironic that, while Francois Hollande had declared in his address to the French Senate and National Assembly after the Paris attacks that “We’re not engaged in a war of civilizations, because the assassins do not represent any”, thousands of miles away, on the other side of the globe, US Republicans furiously insisted on the reverse.

The theme of civilizational clash between the West and Islam has been a favorite in the Republican debates. Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American senator and Republican presidential hopeful, went as far as to draw analogies between Islam and Nazism as he angrily reacted to Hillary Clinton’s statement that she did not believe the United States was at war with Islam. “That would be like saying we weren’t at war with Nazis, because we were afraid to offend some Germans who may have been members of the Nazi Party but weren’t violent themselves”, he suggested. “This is a clash of civilizations. For they do not hate us because we have military assets in the Middle East. They hate us because of our values.”

And just like the far-right in Europe, Republicans have swiftly moved to raise the question of Syrian refugees’ settlement in connection with the Paris attacks. While Marine Le Pen, leader of the xenophobic Front National demanded an “immediate halt” to the intake of Syrian refugees into France, Republicans lined up to urge a ban on any “middle Eastern” migrants in the US. A succession of governors, mostly Republicans, announced that they would not allow any Syrian applicants to be placed in their states, vowing to block the government’s plans to resettle a mere 10.000 of those fleeing the war in Syrian into the US.

Jeb Bush went further, demanding that the US only accept those applicants proven to be Christian, after thorough vetting and checks to ensure that they are indeed Christian. “We should focus our efforts as it relates to refugees on the Christians that are being slaughtered” he declared. Bush is not alone in calling for a discriminatory approach to the Syrian refugee question. The position has been endorsed by a number of senior Republicans such as Ted Cruz. “If there are Syrian Muslims who are really being persecuted”, he objected, they should be sent to “majority-Muslim countries.” “on the other hand, Christians who are being targeted for genocide, for persecution.. we should be providing safe haven to them”.

That such bigoted, exclusionist language could be used by mainstream politicians in the 21st century is scandalous. Those fleeing brutality, death and destruction are no longer to be seen as human victims who deserve shelter and safety, but as Christians and Muslims, good victims and bad victims. As if it weren’t enough for Syrians to lose everything, their possessions, homes and loved ones, this sick narrative would have them stripped of their victimhood too.

Listening to Republicans chastise Obama and his administration over its Middle East strategy, one gets the impression that we are still in the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the Cold War. It is as if the US had never invaded Iraq, had never been defeated there and forced to withdraw in a hurry, exhausted and humiliated. They seem unaware of the chaos and destruction their absurd wars had unleashed on the whole region and the great damage they had caused to the United States itself. One of modern history’s greatest ironies is that no one has done more to dissipate the neoconservative dream of American world supremacy and bury the New American Century Project than the former Republican neocon administration itself.

What makes the Republicans’ discourse on Islam and the Muslim world dangerous is that it is disseminated through a wide and powerful network of media outlets and rightwing think tanks then consumed by a public with no direct contact or firsthand knowledge of the Muslim world. What gets generally confined to the shadowy margins of the far right in Europe, has in the United States, with its geographic remoteness from the Muslim hemisphere, lack of familiarity with Islam and the American tradition of religious based idealism, the potential of dominating mainstream public opinion of Islam and Muslims.

The truth is that cultures, civilizations and lifestyles do not clash. It is humans who clash, with their interests, ambitions, illusions and fantasies. Instead of the twisted binary logic of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’, terrorism should render us more keenly aware of the interconnectedness of our world, of our shared existence and the dangers that threaten us all. Terrorists do not ask for their victims IDs before mutilating their bodies in Paris, Beirut, or Tunis. The solution to the insane chaos into which we have been dragged since 9/11 begins with an active rejection of the ugly dualisms of “us” and “them”, of believers vs infidels and of Westerners/Europeans vs the Muslim other.

Oct 102014



Since the map of the Middle East was drawn by the Sykes-Picot Agreement in the aftermath of World War I and the retreat of the Ottoman Turks in favour of the British and French, the lines demarcating the boundaries between states in the Arab region have never been successfully challenged, even in the heyday of pan-Arab nationalism.

Saddam Hussein’s ill-conceived adventure in neighbouring Kuwait ended in catastrophe, costing him his regime, and eventually, even his life. But two decades later, a small obscure group has, ironically, managed to achieve what the once mighty Iraqi army had failed to do in 1990. Declaring its dominance over huge swathes of land in Iraq and Syria, ISIL has effectively erased the long established frontier between the two countries, thus mounting the first successful challenge to the Sykes-Picot arrangement.

History abounds with shadowy extremist organisations, centred on deviant ideas – not always of a religious nature – eccentric megalomaniacs, or purely criminal objectives. ISIL is neither unique nor without precedent in this respect. What distinguishes the group is in reality neither its fanaticism, nor brutal methods, but the suddenness of its rise and astonishing speed of its territorial expansion. In the space of a few months, this once marginal faction has come to occupy the centre stage of international politics, threatening the existence of entire regional states and governments, redefining old political geographies, even managing to bring together sworn enemies around the shared goal of defeating it, from Iran and Qatar to the US and Gulf kingdoms.

Unexpected ascendancy

Endlessly churned out epithets about ISIL’s theological origins, exclusionary takfiri (apostate) tendencies and religious legitimisation of its brutal methods are useless in the quest to grasp the causes of its unexpected ascendancy and rapid proliferation.

It is the changing geopolitics of the region that holds the answers here. What gave and continues to grant ISIL – and other violent anarchic groups of its kind – momentum and room for diffusion is the strategic and political vacuum generated by the retreat of US influence in the Middle East, and Arab Orient more specifically.

The US is no longer able to monitor and regulate the rhythm of events in that sensitive part of the world. The wave of exhibitionist pre-emptive strikes launched by the neo-cons ended in two consecutive military defeats and hasty retreats.

The limits of US military might were laid bare for all to see. Thanks to its superior firepowerit was able to topple regimes and dismantle existing structures, but was dismally impotent to rebuild them anew. And in the vacuum and trail of devastation it left behind, the US created a fertile soil for the growth of extremist violent groups, on the one hand, and of internecine ethnic and sectarian conflicts, on the other.

Another irony is that the Americans find themselves today compelled to return to the Middle East, having retreated from it in order to channel what remains of their might on the escalating threat posed by a rising China and respond to the challenges of the shift of wealth and influence eastwards. But Obama’s US looks nothing like the one that had mobilised its fleets against Saddam Hussein a decade ago. Today, it reluctantly retraces its footsteps to the same battlefield, broken and bruised, full of caution and foreboding.

The geopolitical void that appeared with the decline of US power after Afghanistan and Iraq was further exposed with the Syrian revolution, as the US and its Gulf allies proved powerless to end the conflict conclusively in their favour, desperately jostling for control and influence with the Iranians and Russians. And as in Iraq, radical jihadist groups swiftly moved in to fill the resulting political vacuum, finding an ideal social foster in long standing sectarian grievances.

Complex demographics

Today, we are witnessing the explosion of the complex demographics of Arab society. In colonial times, local administrations had managed tensions between its myriad traditional social configurations, religious, sectarian, tribal and ethnic, via a policy of containment, dilution, or repression. This role was subsequently taken up by the post-colonial state within a process of superimposed pseudo-modernisation, and under the banner of a collective national identity that remained feeble and skin- deep.

Amidst the collapse of fragile post-colonial political structures in countries like Libya, Iraq, Syria, and the Yemern, traditional bonds and identities have reasserted themselves again, but in a more raucous bloody manner. Sunnis, Shia, Kurds, Arabs, Muslims and Christians, all turned against each other in a chilling spectacle of senseless self-mutilation.

This atmosphere of paranoid animosity, social disarray and political crisis was a potent incubator for Islamic radicalism, with its ideological fervour, excommunicatory tendencies, and puritanical dreams. Political grievances mingled with ethnic and sectarian grudges to produce the hatred ridden grandiose discourse of al-Qaeda, ISIL and their Jihadist likes.

Price of failure

Today, the region is paying the price for the failure of top-down modernisation and the disintegration of artificial post-colonial national borders and frail political edifices. And with the evaporation of the great hopes pinned on the Arab Spring of the possibility of change through peaceful means and popular protests, extremism and violence have reared their head once more. But as disillusionment and despair descend on the region and tighten their icy grip on its throat, this deformed ghoulish child of crisis looks uglier, deadlier and more vindictive than ever.

By renewing and bolstering old alliances with Gulf sheikhdoms and autocratic Arab regimes to thwart democratic political change; overseeing the return to military coups and cloaking them with legitimacy, the US and its European allies have sent Arabs a clear resounding message: “Ballot boxes are not for you! They are pointless as means of change. Their results are easily discarded and trampled upon. Violence and revenge are the way out of your bleak existence.” Nothing could have rendered more credence and legitimacy to the rhetoric of ISIL and the jihadist cause.

Through its modern history, the Arab region has been an open index of the ascent and descent of global powers and a mirror of the great players’ fluctuating fortunes. And in this strategically positioned part of the globe, power shifts have always come at a heavy price, paid in much blood and socio-political instability, be that from the Ottomans to the British in the wake of the World War I, or to their American heirs after the World War II. The currently unfolding transformation is no exception. The wave of turmoil, chaos and misery it carries will most likely continue to engulf the region for years to come.