Thursday, May 31, 2012

When Your History Book Tries to Weasel Out of Something

I'm currently reading A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani.  I'm finding it to be strangely compulsive reading - highly enjoyable.  It also carries glowing review blurbs from Rashid Khalidi, Daniel Pipes, Edward Said, and Fouad Ajami - and when those four agree on a history of the Arab peoples, that's saying something.


I came across this strange passage on pp. 46-47 while reading on the train today:

"By the end of the...eighth Christian century, less than 10 per cent of the population of Iran and Iraq, Syria and Egypt, Tunisia and Spain was Muslim..."

Huh.  Interesting.

"By the end of the...tenth century AD, the picture had changed.  A large part of the population had become Muslim."

Ok.  How did that happen?

Hourani goes on to detail how the subject peoples of the Islamic empire (mostly Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians) "suffered from restrictions," including a special tax, clothing regulations, legal and political disadvantages, etc.

He ends with this sentence: "Even in the best circumstances the position of a minority is uneasy, and the inducement to convert existed."

A minority?  Mr. Hourani, you're purporting to explain how these people went from being 90 percent of the population to well under 10. "It's tough being a minority" is not an explanation for loss of supermajority status!

It seems there's more to this story than the three paragraphs Hourani allots it.  That story is the topic of the next book on my list - The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam by Bat Ye'or.

Anyway, Hourani is still a great read.  412 pages to go.

(Thanks to my housemate Bob for letting me borrow it.)

Friday, May 18, 2012

Syria Updates

First off, see if you can parse out our government’s official position on giving weapons to the Syrian rebels, as explained by the State Department’s spokesperson Wednesday:

My translation: Heck yes, we encourage it, and we want you to know that we are. We just don’t want you to be able to condemn us for it.

But I’m still a novice. I could be off.  

Syrian Rebels Stockpiling Weapons in Damascus 

And Idlib and Zabadani, thanks to their patrons in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other gulf states. This is the kind of thing the regime made up in the first months of the revolution to scare people into supporting them.

And that's not all!

"Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood also said it has opened its own supply channel to the rebels, using resources from wealthy private individuals and money from gulf states."

The Syrian resistance is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Not the way the Obama administration is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, in the world according to Glenn Beck. Seriously - the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood holds a supermajority on the Syrian National Council, the leading opposition group.

This worries and perplexes me for several reasons.

One is that the SMB was supposedly all but destroyed back in 1982. Bashar's father killed something like 25,000 people to make sure of that. How did they get organized so quickly? And why did no one in the opposition say, "Hey, since we live in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country, and are trying to appeal to the secular West for support, you know what would be a good idea for this popular revolution we're trying to pull off? NOT HAVING OUR COUNCIL DOMINATED BY THE FREAKING MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD."

So things are pretty much going smashingly well. Any way you can improve on this, America?

"Administration officials also held talks in Washington this week with a delegation of Kurds from sparsely populated eastern Syria, where little violence has occurred. The talks included discussion of ...opening a second front against Assad’s forces that would compel him to move resources from the west."

'Little violence' has occurred there, you say? Can't have that. Bravo, U.S. government. Bravo.  

Syrian Rebels Overrun Syrian Military Base, Kill 23 Soldiers 

 This story from Rastan, near Homs, is pretty incredible. If the preceding story is true, we can expect to see more of the same in the future.

Suicide Bombings Become Commonplace in Damascus

The blast in this video, from May 10, targeted a regime intelligence building in the Al Qazzaz neighborhood of Damascus.

While protests and out-and-out battles are still rare in Damascus, suicide bombings, car bombings and other terrorist attacks are becoming depressingly commonplace. In the giant hall of mirrors that is the Syrian revolution, it's impossible to know for sure who's behind them, but Occam's Razor suggests that they are Sunni Islamic extremists who have learned their lessons from Iraq very well.

The Prospects

A few weeks back, I confidently predicted that the U.S. would use military force to bring down the Assad regime. I’m not so sure anymore. The U.S. government so far seems content to funnel (or encourage the funneling of) weapons to the Syrian opposition while continuing the UN dance, without the trouble of yet another Middle East war. But time will tell.

For most of this revolution, the press and interested observers have been waiting, hoping, dying for a turning point - an event that, if it didn't mark the end of the violence, would at least mark a new phase, a boundary stone to make the revolution intelligible, to separate it into quantifiable bits, a way to mark progress towards wherever it is Syria is going.

Here is my fear: that Syria has already arrived at where it is going. Syria may well have entered a phase of more-or-less permanent civil war. Neither side can gain an advantage over the other, but neither side can afford to relent, even for a second, lest they be destroyed. Outside forces won't be able to force a settlement. Assad is as isolated as he is going to get. The Syrian economy will complete its collapse, but as long as Assad is getting weapons from Iran, and the rebels are getting weapons from the Gulf states, the violence won't be affected by that. Iran would love to see Assad won, of course, but they aren't strong enough to make that happen. And why should the Western powers and Sunni Arab powers intervene militarily, when their key interest - making Assad unable to function as an ally of Iran - is being met perfectly well by the civil war? The same thing happened in Lebanon, and is now, arguably, happening in Iraq.

Eventually, as religious minorities flee Sunni areas and Sunnis flee regime-friendly areas, and it gets more and more costly for the regime to send its forces into the former, pockets of self-rule might pop up here and there in Syria. But it will probably take years of fighting before the opposition is strong enough to expel the regime from Sunni areas entirely.

So this is how a country dies.  

My friends

 Are all safe, as far as I know. In spite of everything, the Iraqi Student Project, where I volunteered last year, had a fantastically successful year – all eight of their students were accepted into American colleges, tuition free. Two of them are friends of mine. I’m so happy to know that these students, who were driven from their homes in Iraq by our invasion and the chaos that followed, will be able to pursue their studies in a peaceful country. They’re all incredibly bright, and God willing, have great things ahead of them. (I’ve been working on Arabic, on and off, for three years, and I can’t imagine taking college courses in it. But they'll be doing just that, and have been for the past year of preparation.) If you happen to see them around in Chicago, St. Louis, Oberlin, Denver, Walla Walla, Memphis or Northampton, make sure you give them a big welcome.

Two of my dear Syrian friends are studying in North America; they arrived here last fall, a few months after I returned to the states. The first's father has left Damascus to join his parents and siblings in a remote Christian village to the north. He still travels to Damascus a few days a week to work, but it's not safe enough to live there anymore.

The second's family lives in a different Christian village north of Damascus, which used to be a half-hour bus ride.Now, anyone traveling that route has to go through a half-dozen checkpoints. The Syrian pound has halved in value since I lived there, and as our leaders rather baldly brag, the economy is being devastated by our sanctions. It's a new reality for what was once one of the most peaceful countries in the Middle East.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Braveheart and Sudan: An Objective Political Analysis

I watched Mel Gibson’s epic William Wallace biopic Braveheart with my housemates last night. Here is how I see Wallace’s political development. (In the movie, not real history, about which I know very little).

Wallace: “They killed my wife. Now I’ll get a scrappy band of freedom fighters together and liberate my hometown!”

Me: Oh, man, this is awesome! FREEDOM!!!

Wallace: “We’re gonna fight out of uniform, execute prisoners and burn people alive!”

Me: Er – okay, those are technically war crimes, but the English are the bloody occupiers who started it, so we’ll cut you some slack. FREEDOM!

 Wallace: “You may take our lives, but ye’ll never take our freeeeeedommm!”

Me: You are the personification of Liberty! FREEDOM!

Wallace: “These are Scotland’s terms.”

Me: Ok, that’s a little presumptuous, but you did start this revolution, so I guess you’re entitled to…

Wallace: “I’m going to invade England!”

Me: FREEDO-wait, what?

Wallace: “You heard me. We ‘ave to take the fight to them. Otherwise they’ll be back.”

Me: Okaaayy…so why not just stay in Scotland, build up your army, create some legitimate political institutions, maybe start to provide some basic services…

Wallace: “Too late. I’m laying siege to York.”

Me: All right, fine, but what’s your end goal here? You could conquer England, but then you’d simply have reversed Scotland and England’s roles in this inherently poisonous political relationship. You could kill Evil King Longshanks, but who would replace him? You could destroy England’s military might, but you’d only be sowing the seeds of resentment for future conflicts. Short of all-out genocide of Englishmen, I don’t really see how this accomplishes –

Wallace: “I just sacked a peaceful city and executed its governor.”

Me: DUDE. What the hey?

French Princess: “DUDE. What the hey? Also, Evil King Longshanks is offering you peace, and a heck of a lot of gold and land, which you could surely use to improve Scotland’s condition, if you’ll stop this war of aggression.”

Wallace: “When I was a kid, I saw a whole bunch of Scottish nobles who had been hung by Evil King Longshanks. Therefore, no peace.”

French Princess: “I can already feel myself falling hopelessly in love with you.”

Me: DUDE. What the hey?

French Princess [to Evil King Longshanks]: “William Wallace is 100% man, and refuses your offer of peace."

Evil King Longshanks: “No matter. Because I am So Very Evil, I have asked some allies to come here to help me repel Wallace’s senseless war of aggression against England.”

French Princess: “[gasp] How could you be so evil?”

Me: Okay, Longshanks is definitely no Thomas Jefferson, but what is he supposed to do otherwise?

Scottish Nobles [to Wallace]: “Longshanks offered us peace, land and gold if we turn you over to him to be tried for your crimes, but after consulting with each other, we’ve decided the best thing to do is fight with you against overwhelming odds and the prospect of slavery and cultural destruction if we’re defeated.”

William Wallace: “All right, let’s do this!”

Scottish Nobles: “Jk.”

William Wallace: “I am going to do the only rational thing and start bludgeoning you all to death in your beds.”

Robert the Bruce: “I am wracked with guilt, because I am so clearly in the wrong, and Wallace is so clearly in the right.”

Me: I am so confused by Scottish ethics right now.

English lords: “We captured and killed Wallace, and Evil King Longshanks is dead. Robert the Bruce, we’ll let you be king of all Scotland (which, you’ll recall, was occupied at the beginning of this movie, and is now FREE ENOUGH ALREADY) if you’ll just make peace with us.”

Robert the Bruce: “I fling my sword at you in defiance!”

[Unseen battle in which thousands of Scottish and English die for…why again?]

William Wallace: “They fought like warrior-poets. They fought like Scotsmen.”

Me: Warrior-poets? What the heck is a warrior-poet? Did any Scotsman recite any poetry at all in this entire three-hour movie? And how does Wallace know what happened? He’s dead!

This would be funnier if I could stop thinking about how much Wallace resembles the SPLM, Longshanks resembles Omar al-Bashir, and York resembles Heglig.

For Bob and Matt: “Revolution is the great and only legitimate and just war, the war of the oppressed against the oppressors.”

- V. I. Lenin