Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Mind-Blowing Facts from "A Peace to End All Peace" (Part 1 of a series)

As most followers of Middle Eastern politics know, the flags of the Arab world are all very similar.  Most of them feature some combination of black, red, white and green, horizontal stripes, sometimes a star or a crescent, and sometimes a sideways triangle on the left side.
There a few weirdos like Somalia and Qatar, but most of them follow this pattern.

This is because most Arab flags were based on the flag of the Arab revolt during World War I.  These Arab rebels from Mecca helped Britain fight against the Ottoman Empire.  In return, they were (supposed) to get their independence:

The flag of the Arab revolt still flies above the Jordanian port city of Aqaba, where the Arab rebels scored their first major victory:

So where did this flag, and with it, the flags of nearly all the modern Arab states, come from?

According to David Fromkin's book A Peace to End All Peace, it was designed entirely by Sir Mark Sykes. (P. 315).

As in, Sir Mark Sykes of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

If you're a Middle East nerd, your mind is already blown.  If you're not, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was a secret agreement between Britain and France to divide the Middle East between themselves after the war.  They did so, and and the Arab revolt against the Ottomans was followed by 30 years of European colonization in Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere.  And when the Europeans left, the Arabs were left with totally unworkable borders. (See: Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere.)

The Sykes-Picot Agreement is reviled throughout the Middle East as the original sin of the Zionist-Western Conspiracy to Screw the Arabs.

And Mark Sykes, the British diplomat who negotiated that agreement, created the Arab flag.


That's as ironic and embarrassing as if the U.S. flag was designed by King George III, or, say, mostly based on the flag of Britain's infamous East India Company.

A Peace to End All Peace is one of the most informative, most entertaining books on the Middle East I've ever read.  More mind-blowing facts will be posted here as they come!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Todd Akin and The Unspeakble

On August 19, 2012, Missouri Congressman Todd Akin, a Republican candidate for the Senate, said this when asked in a TV interview whether he supported keeping abortion legal in cases of rape:

"It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that's really rare.  If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing [pregnancy] down."

Today is August 21, 2012, and after 48 hours of furious blowback, it seems certain that Akin's political career is over.  He must decide in the next hour whether or not to stay on the ballot, but the Republican National Committee, most GOP PACs, Mitt Romney, and nearly everyone else has withdrawn their support. Akin has cut a humiliating ad asking voters for forgiveness, but it seems certain he will not receive it.

Todd Akin has spoken the unspeakable.  He must go.

I don't disagree with this conclusion.  For my own part, I'm simply shocked that a grown, married man who wanted to be a member of the most powerful legislative body on earth could be so ignorant about rape and human reproduction.  I'm also disturbed by his implication that some rape victims are less innocent than others, and that this distinction should have any bearing on abortion law.  I certainly don't want to see him in the Senate.

But it's led me to wonder why certain moments of unguarded candor lead to political destruction, while others do not.

Consider this statement from journalist Thomas Friedman in May 2003:

And the relevant excerpt:

"What they [Middle Easterners] needed to see was American boys and American girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying, 'Which part of this sentence don't you understand?  You don't think we care about our open society?   Well suck on this!' That was what this war was about.  We could have hit Saudi Arabia.  We could have hit Pakistan.  We hit Iraq because we could.  That's the real truth."

In context, the "this" in "suck on this" refers to a recently-completed bombing campaign and ground invasion that killed thousands of civilians and tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers, crippled or maimed tens of thousands of people for life, and destroyed much of Iraq's critical infrastructure.

Surely, on balance, Friedman's defense of this deliberately-created horror on the grounds that Middle Easterners needed to be intimidated (terrorized?) is a far worse rhetorical sin than Akin's ignorance about the crime of rape. Even President Bush, when he was making his case for war, had to argue that the invasion, with all its attendant horrors, was the only alternative to the much greater threat posed by Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.  He would never have dared to say, "It's because we can."

Friedman's analysis elicited outrage in antiwar circles on the internet, but in few other places - much like Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's statement that the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children under the UN sanctions regime were "worth it." (We could multiply examples here, obviously.)

Friedman has gone on to author multiple bestsellers, and remains a widely-read and respected columnist at the New York Times.

I don't really have a complete thought to offer here, unless it's this: our taboos tell us a lot about our society.

Ordering the deaths of thousands of Arabs?  Not taboo.

Defending the killing of thousands of Arabs because other Arabs "needed to see it"? Not taboo.

Fighting to criminalize abortion, even in the case of rape?  Not taboo. (Stick around, though.)

Fighting to criminalize abortion while not understanding the basics of the female reproductive system?  Hit the showers.


Monday, August 6, 2012

The places we used to know

In October 2010, I accompanied the priest in charge of the Damascus youth seminary where I worked on a trip to Homs, Syria, to attend the wedding of his friend.  The wedding was held in a new, very nice church building full of huge murals depicting scenes from the Bible:

This mural, representing the resurrection of Christ, is one of the coolest things I've ever seen:

This mural, showing the baptism of Christ, hung above the alcove where the baptismal font was kept:

Today, BBC News carries a great story about Syrian Christians who have been forced to flee their homes by Islamist rebels aligned against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.  The story carried this picture from Reuters of a church in Homs that was savaged in fighting between rebels and the regime:

Definitely the same place.

90% of Homs' Christians, including the family of my friend Samer, have fled their homes.  In the nearby city of Qusayr, mosques that normally broadcast the call to prayer broadcast warnings to local Christians to either join the revolution, or leave.  One man who left Qusayr with his family was pulled over by rebels when he tried to return to his supermarket to get some food.  When they learned that he was a Christian, they shot him dead.

For generations, Syria has been a place of refuge for Christians and others fleeing ethnic and religious violence, whether Armenians fleeing Turkey's anti-Christian genocide in 1915, Palestinians forced out of their homes in the first Arab-Israeli war, Iraqi Christians fleeing attacks after the fall of Saddam Hussein, or South Sudanese trying to escape North Sudan's genocide from 1983-2005.

I don't know if it's possible to stop the whirlwind of violence that appears to be destroying that old Syria.  But we should bear witness.  And as long as our leaders claim to be spreading democracy in the Middle East, we should ask them: what about the Christians (or the Alawites, the Yezidis and the Mandeans?)

Thursday, August 2, 2012


Thanks to my housemate Chris for buying me some last night.  Made for a great lunch today!