Friday, April 5, 2013

The Lebanese Exception

Though its current instability is troubling, Lebanon may still provide an example of power sharing in a future Syria. And as refugees from Syria stream into Lebanon, its worth recalling how past movements in the region shaped the present order.
Read the rest in The National Interest...

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Enigma of the Syrian Nation

Much is often said about the artificiality of the modern Middle Eastern state-system, particularly Syria. Often highlighted are the region’s current “republics” as the outcome of Anglo-French colonial fancy: “contrived points on a map” in Fouad Ajami’s telling, joining together disparate peoples, fractious ethnic groups, apprehensive confessional communities and distinct autonomous provinces—into uneasy, compulsory and ultimately unhappy matrimony. This picture of Western intrusions and failed cartography is not entirely off-kilter. Yet this restive Syria protruding out of the sad canvas of the modern Middle East remains an entity that influential pundits insist on defending and preserving in its current form.

Read the rest in The National Interest

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

“Piss Christ” and the “Innocence of Muslims”

(This post was picked up by the Jerusalem Post on September 23, 2012)

Innocence of Muslims,” the shoddy production that recently unleashed waves of outrage throughout the Middle East and the Muslim world, was, mildly put, an insult directed at Muslims and non-Muslims alike.  Whether in form, language, or content, the film made a mockery out of basic standards of human decency, good taste, artistic subtlety, and historical discernment.  Its crassness was an affront to its subject matter, its intended audience, those involved in its production, and the community (or communities) that the producers were assumed to represent—in this case American-Copts and by association Christians, and even Christendom and the West in more general terms. 

At best, the “film” in question was a collection of obscene stereotypes, crammed with breathtaking incompetence into a buffoonish production that even by the standards of the Arab world’s most offensive adaptations of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”—and other suchlike anti-Semitic fixtures of Syrian, Hezbollah, and Egyptian television—would have been deemed too clumsy and crude, even for captive Muslim audiences.  No serious film-critic, and not the most artless of amateurs, could have kept a straight face referring to this frivolous feature as a "film”—that is, of course, no one except those who went into frenzies of mayhem and murder this past week lambasting the “film” and its country of origin, most of them without even having seen it.  Without the angry mobs, that trivial production, like others of its kind, would have passed unnoticed, desiccated in Western pantheons of indignity, alongside other such samplings of jaundiced primitive screed.

That being said, one would be hard pressed labeling the “Innocence of Muslims” a form of “hate speech,” or an “affront to Islam and monotheistic religions” that “ought to be criminalized by International Law and its perpetrators brought to justice,” as recently clamored Lebanon’s Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah.  Ironically, Nasrallah, commands a powerful private militia that defies the Lebanese national army and flouts both Lebanon’s national prerogatives and International Law.  Additionally, through a baneful mix of coercion intimidation and violence, Nasrallah conducts himself as Iran’s satrap in the Levant, and has perfected to the hilt the art of offending others and denigrating their religious, national, and cultural symbols.  What’s more, Hezbollah’s private satellite television station Al-Manar (“The Beacon”), designated a “global terrorist entity” by the United States and banned in a number of countries, has normalized portrayal of the creeds and cultures of others as “Evil,” “Satan,” and “Cancers” meriting eradication.

It is all the more farcical in this light that Nasrallah invoke International Law to criminalize offenders of religion.  Yet crudeness and indecency, obvious features of those who made the “Innocence of Muslims,” are character failings worthy of contempt, not a crime warranting Nasrallah’s righteous indignation, or the international community’s punishment.  In point of fact, wouldn’t it be fair to expect those who wish to brandish (and have recourse to) international bodies to be, at a bare minimum, respectful of International Law?  Yet, if anything, Nasrallah’s bombast and bellicosity have for the past twenty years, and as a matter of principle and theology, impugned the will of the international community and willfully flouted international statutes. For the rest, Nasrallah might be better served familiarizing himself with the sanctity of freedom of expression, one of the hallmarks of International Human Rights Law.  Indeed, one of the authors of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was none other than the great Lebanese philosopher and jurist, Charles Malik, a compatriot of Hassan Nasrallah’s. Alas Nasrallah’s ears appear to be less engaged than his mouth these days, and Lebanon’s humane past seems less of the exemplar (or “Beacon”) to him than its belligerent militarized present.  Otherwise, Malik might have revealed to his petulant junior that Man’s freedom to criticize, even lampoon, religious, political, and cultural symbols, is a basic tenet of human rights; that without this freedom to offend, Man would still be languishing in the dark ages paralyzed by superstitions and caged in servitude to sorcerers, soothsayers, and witch-doctors. Would someone dare remind Lebanon’s hallowed Sayyid in which century we live?

In the end, the catalyst in these latest Middle Eastern convulsions was a risible, primitive, bigoted, and willfully incendiary home-video.  But the “Innocence of Muslims” was hardly the kind of catalyst warranting the intensity of anger and the span of violence it spawned—at least not in civilized company where mores are offended as a matter of principle, and where Man’s humanity and humanism are tested daily. In a Christian context, the “Innocence of Muslims” might have been placed in the same category as the 1987 "Piss Christ" photograph—an image of a crucifix submerged in a cup of the artist’s urine.  Like its Muslim counterpart of early September 2012, the late 20th century “Piss Christ” was a crude affront to Christian pieties.  But unlike the “Innocence of Muslims,” the “Piss Christ” photograph was partially funded by a United States government agency; the National Endowment for the Arts.  At the time, its irreverent creator, Andres Serrano, received death threats, and his artistic creation was ultimately vandalized.  Yet Serrano still lives, and his work still arouses strong emotions among both proponents and opponents.  Ironically, among Serrano’s most vocal defenders in 1987 were members of the clergy—most probably Jesuits, invested in ecumenism—who suggested that rather than being “blasphemy,” and a "desecration" of a religious symbol, one might look at “Piss Christ” as a statement on what modern Christians have done with the legacy of Jesus.

There is a moral to this story. If one is looking to be offended—and “pick a bone,” as the saying goes—then both "Piss Christ" and the “Innocence of Muslims” are a crude revolting offense, rigged to inflame.  If, on the other hand, one is willing to engage in civilized intercourse, even with those deemed unworthy of it, then the context of the offense might offer more clarity and more rewarding benefits than actual retribution.  Rather than asking "who is the author of this abomination, and how might revenge be meted out?" Muslims Christians and others, people of good will everywhere, may wish to inquire into why something was deemed blasphemous? why was there blasphemy to begin with? and what can be done to address the apprehensions of both blasphemers and injured parties?  But the acceptance of blasphemy may after all be specific to Christendom, anathema to others; an impulse of those seeking “to scandalize that which scandalized them as children,” writes the author of  A Hundred Images that Shocked the World.”

As a rebellious teenager eager to offend the codes of my elders, I once told a Jesuit catechist that I was a Devil worshiper, that I wanted out of his class.  This was, by the way, very deeply offensive in a Lebanon of the late-1970s; a country in the throes of war and chaos, but still beholden to tradition.  To my surprise, my catechist did not scold me, did not dismiss me from class, did not send me to the Principal’s office, and did not banish me to eternal hellfire.  He simply smiled and said “that’s interesting; tell me more about your Devil worship!”  I never left catechism.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

New Books Network

This is the shameless self-promoting side of me ;)

I wanted to mention a recent New Books Network interview I did in late July.  For the adventurous, it is available at this New Books in Anthropology link

The sound quality is not that great--in fact it's awful, as the interview was done long distance from France, and via Skype--but (for the courageous and persevering) there is plenty of useful audible segments in it where NBN describes Language Memory and Identity in the MIddle East as "meticulously researched and intriguingly written [...] invit[ing] the reader to voraciously turn the pages in expedition of a world rarely presented to the western audience."

I also discuss towards the end of the interview my current book project on Charles Corm (1894-1963) and the archives i'm working in this year, in Beirut, Paris, Nantes, and Colmar.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

More Cognitive Dissonance on Syria

The continued obsession with Syrian unity is mind boggling.  It reminds me of what the guy with the white staticky hair said about "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

"But the breakup of Syria [...] poses a graver threat to the Middle East..." says this recent Vali Nasr op-ed.  But why, really?  If I'm not missing a lot, the main argument of this analysis is preventing the "breakup of Syria."  But the question here is why should there be compunctions about the breakup of Syria if this is what the Syrians (or at least some Syrians) want?  Should people who don't want to live together be forced to remain in an unhappy union?  Is this what happens in real life?  Is this the norm among smart cultured progressive Western liberals? Why this infatuation with a united Syria when its uneasy existence as such (these past 75 years) has been anything but contrived and restive?  Why this infantilization and condescension of the Middle East and Middle Eastern mosaics by ordaining and ossifying their continued unity--as if it's a law of nature?

Can we already stop these lame clichés about "a breakup of Syria [...] spill[ing] into neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey..."  We're still talking about a minor country here projecting a shadow much larger than itself, and punching way above its weight.  Why should it (and why should we admit as a given that it will) "spill into" anywhere?  Can we please stop these unwarranted deifications of Syria, as if it were an exemplar of stability?

Similarities notwithstanding, what happens in Syria is specific to Syria (and "stays in Syria" to use a Vegasism); Lebanon and Iraq could, will (and (sometimes in my opinion) SHOULD) break up because of their own endemic idiosyncrasies, NOT because something from Syria will have spilt into them!  And Turkey?  Really?  The breakup of a police-state ruled by an oppressive party apparatus with medieval worldviews can have an effect on a neighboring democracy with institutions?

In a sense, Professor Nasr is acknowledging the aberrant nature of unitary states in the MIddle East (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, etc..), yet he insists on maintaining them in their dubious unharmonious harmonies--lest their reversion to their natural antecedents offend our taste for "oneness."  I don't know what it is with the West's conceits about the Middle East; assumptions that continue to lead us into failures of interpretation, failures of analysis, and failures of policy.  Is it cognitive dissonance? separation anxiety? or plain intellectual inertia?