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?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Yeah, Fisk, "Assad's Fate is Sealed," and صحّ النوم on "The State of the Alawites"

I don't know what it is with hack "analysts" incapable of going beyond the obsolete models of Arab nationalism. Is what drives them ignorance, an impulse for omissions, or flat out historical perversions?

Take for instance this gem of unscrupulous dilettante journalism:
... this "frontier" of fire matches almost precisely the "State of the Alawites" temporarily created by the post-First World War French mandate which chopped Syria up into mini-nations partly on sectarian lines.  
Huh? Is Fisk at all capable of sticking to ideologically-innocent history?  Would he care to admit that the 1920 "State of the Alawites" instated by the French was not intended to be "temporary," nor was it the result of a "chopped up Syria."  There was no "Syria" precedent (to this "temporary" entity) to merit "chopp[ing] up." In 1918 the French inherited a bevy of semi-autonomous (ethnically coherent) Ottoman administrative units which they attempted to keep intact until 1936.  Those were the "Pays Alaouite," "Pays Druze," "Etat d'Alep," and "Etat de Damas"; and they actually made more sense than the current Syrian entity.  In fact, prior to 1936 there was no united or unified "Syria," nor was there a coherent cohesive Syrian nation to be racked by French colonial rapacity and end up being "chopped up into mini-nations."  The current, rending, "modern Syria" is a historical anomaly that is simply reverting back to its natural dissected past.  It never needed the French to "chop it up." If anything, the French proceeded with a profound understanding of (and respect for) the multi-ethnic nature of the Levantine mosaic, and attempted to remain faithful to the coherence, soundness, and practicality of the Ottoman administrative precedent.

Today's problems in the Levant (Syria's problems included) are the result of forced and coerced unities, as mandated by the early 20th century British, who, post-1936 had become the effective rulers of French-controlled Grand-Liban, Pays Alaouite, Pays Druze, Etat d'Alep, and Etat de Damas, and which they attempted (against the natural order of things) to bring together in an unholy cantankerous union.  It is high time things went back to the past, and Levantine history got justice.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The [no] Case Against an Alawite State

Here is another speculative wishful-thinking "Syria analysis" by Joshua Landis. 

This is at best an apologetic, brimming with the usual tendentious unconvincing and misleading hagiographic material, by one who made career out of these sorts of shameless panegyrics. Here is a quick sampling of distortions, omissions, and outright historical howlers: 

1- "After the French conquered Syria in 1920..."  Really?  "[T]he French conquered Syria in 1920"? Actually, as in "conquered," conquered Syria? If "conquest" there was, it was one of former Ottoman Provinces in 1918 (not 1920), which were cobbled together by the British in 1936 to form what then became the template of a future Syria.  What the French "conquered" were in fact League of Nations mandated Ottoman Territories, not a coherent cohesive "Syrian" entity, which were actually "conquered" by Hejazi Sherifian forces (Faysal and his gangs.)  The French wrested back (under a League of Nations Mandate) what was conquered by Faysal.  But why bother with trivialities?  

2-  "Bashar married a Sunni Muslim in an attempt at nation-building and to stand as an example of integration..." Really? Whatever happened to marriage for love?  Specially for one long touted as a Westernized (computer-geek) liberal reformer iconoclastic eye-doctor, by this very same analyst? 

3-  "Assad has done nothing to lay the groundwork for an Alawite state.  There is no national infrastructure in the coastal region to sustain a state: no international airport, no electric power plans, no industry of importance, and nothing on which to build a national economy..."  I won't mention Basel al-Assad International Airport, or Syria's only deep water harbors in Lattakieh and Tartous (which Landis himself refers to as "port cities" in his piece), and will let those who have visited Syria recently weigh in on the dishonesty of this statement. 

The rest--like "no country will recognize the Alawite state"--is a big colossal yawn!!  As if when faced with an existential crisis the Alawites are going to fret about international recognition.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Paradigm Shift for Syria

I am traveling through early Fall on a Boston College research grant.  I expect to be in the Middle East for at least part of my grant period.  If this pans out, I hope to revive this blog "from the Levant"--provided I have reliable internet.  In the meantime, and before I get disconnected, here's my latest on Syria, and my commentary to the doubting Thomases who've only now begun considering a "third option" (umm, partition) which I've spoken about since the very early days of the uprisings.

A version of this post (here) ran in the July 10, 2012 issue of the National Interest

Many Middle East commentators have described the Houla massacres of May 2012 as "a turning point" in Syria’s sixteen-month old uprisings.  “This is Syria's Srebrenica” clamored some, speculating sterner international pressures ranging from the imposition of more debilitating sanctions against the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad, to further isolating his government (with the prospects of enlisting Chinese and Russian help,) to possibly putting boots on the ground to lend support to the armed opposition and eventually create civilian "safe havens."  Yet the brutal killings continued, an undaunted Assad went on flouting international denunciations, and save for a quasi-universal litany of jeremiads and consternations about the regime's cruelty, precious little has changed on the ground in Syria.  If anything, Assad seemed to have raised the stakes in late June downing a Turkish military jet that had presumably breached Syrian airspace.  Yet, this too, along with news of fresh new massacres in the Damascus neighborhood of Douma, met with international mutism—and curiously enough, with Turkish resignation.

True, there was the recent ballyhooed Geneva conference, and before it the histrionic expulsions of Syria's diplomatic corps from key Western nations—with the Obama administration, true to form, demurring.  But those remained sparse, perfunctory, timorous, and largely ineffective slaps on the wrist.  For, beyond the killings, beyond the world's cacophonous indignation, and beyond the Syrian regime's continued recalcitrance, there lurked a method to Assad's madness that very few observers have deigned address or entertain: namely, that what animates Assad are communal survival concerns and Alawite group contingencies; that the international community’s and the Syrian opposition’s oratory about Syria’s unity and national integrity are the least of the regime’s preoccupations; that it might be too late at this point in the game for the Alawites to abdicate their reign and resign themselves to a subservient future in Syria; that many assumptions about the current shape of the Syrian state are broken beyond repair; and that the Alawites would rather dismantle their existing republic and retreat into a fortified autonomous entity in the Alawite mountains than share power with a brutalized Sunni-Arab majority ill-prepared to granting either democracy or clemency to its cruel erstwhile wardens.

Save for analysis published in The National Interest throughout 2011 and early 2012 (see for instance here, here, and here,) most analysts, diplomats, and policy makers invested in Syrian affairs seem still beholden to spent paradigms about the country; namely that Syria is somehow a single unitary entity that shall remain so whatever the cost and whatever the outcome of the current uprisings, to be ruled in its entirety by a single dynasty beholden to a single ideology and bound to a single political culture. Yet, if anything, the events of the past sixteen months—and more recently the Houla and Douma massacres—have demonstrated that the Alawites, not unlike other Syrian communal and ethnic groups, have yet to overcome their regional, sectarian, and subnational loyalties for the sake of some fancied uniform "Syrian nation."  Historically speaking, there was never anything resembling this vision of a homogenous Syrian entity, and there is precious little today that would justify the constitutive elements of this artificial construct remaining intact.  

The grisly massacres running riot through the Syrian countryside are not mere sectarian outbursts or spasmodic bouts of senseless killings and retaliatory counter-killings; they bear the telltale markings of what became known in Yugoslavia of the 1990's as "ethnic cleansing."  Like their twentieth century Balkan precedent, Syria’s massacres of civilian populations are deliberate, controlled, methodical, and focused, aimed at removing "from a specific territory, persons of a particular ethnic group... in order to render that area ethnically homogenous."  Ironically the parallels don’t end there.  Like the Balkans, geographic Syria—including today’s troubled Syrian Arab Republic—was once part of the Ottoman dominions.  It was and remains at once a crossroads and a rugged mountainous refuge where many linguistic families, multiple ethnic groups, and bevies or religious and sectarian communities—among them Kurds, Turks, Armenians, Arabs, Shias, Sunnis, Greek-Orthodox, Druze, Syriacs, Alawites, Maronites, Jews and others—have for centuries lead an uneasy existence and a tenuous coexistence.  The conditions that have lead to the twentieth century rending of the Balkan states into multiple ethnic formations may be different from those responsible for Syria’s travails today.  But the ingredients are hardly dissimilar: restless ethnic, religious, and linguistic mosaics forcibly brought together under the banner of a homogenizing authoritarian pan-national idea.

And so, today’s strings of wanton murders, sexual assaults, torture, arbitrary detentions, targeted bombings, and destruction of civilian neighborhoods—and what they entail in terms of displacements, deportations, and population movements—are nothing if not the groundwork of a future Alawite entity; the grafting of new facts on the ground and the drafting of new frontiers.  No longer able to rule in the name of Arab unity, and in the process preserve their own ethnic and sectarian autonomy and specificity, the Alawites deem it salutary to retreat into the Levantine highlands overlooking the Mediterranean.  The area in question is a sanctuary that the Alawites had called home for centuries, and which the French had helped them instate and protect as an autonomous “ethnic state” during the first-half of the twentieth century. 

By no means will the population of this projected state be homogenous; but its Alawite element will be an overwhelming majority that is politically, psychologically, militarily, and economically well-prepared to stand up and be counted.  What’s more, the largely Christian coastal regions of Tartous and Lattakieh have remained “neutral” throughout the uprisings—and have in effect signaled (even if tacitly) their acquiescence in an Alawite-dominated state.  Furthermore, the buffer zones of Masyaf and Cadmus to the East are home to a large Ismaili community, which has thus far remained loyal to the Alawites.  Heading northeastward, beyond the Turko-Syrian border town of Idlib, the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) seems to have already begun establishing the foundations of autonomous rule, with Alawite blessings and encouragement.  Though its industrial resources are quite limited, this projected Alawite region benefits from a well developed infrastructure, rich arable highlands, fertile coastal plains, abundant water sources, and more importantly perhaps, Syria’s only deep-water harbors—Tartous and Lattakieh—and an international airport that would make any emerging state in that particular region at once self-sufficient and supremely defensible.

The earth is flat no more when it comes to Syria, and its current shape no longer makes sense to a recently empowered group unwilling to revert back to servility.  It is high time prevalent images of "Syria" and its future—as a cultural, linguistic, historical, and ethnic monolith—also moved away from this sort of cognitive dissonance.  This is not a prescription.  This is a gentle reminder that a model for this future can be found in Syria’s Ottoman and French-Mandatory past, and that a single unitary Syria locked up in its current map is neither sacrosanct nor a law of nature.  Indeed if anything it is an historical anomaly that arose in 1936—a date prior to which conceptually, politically, and geographically speaking, Syria as we know it today was non-extant.  Policy maker, peace processors, diplomats, and those invested in Syrian affairs and the Syrian people’s wellbeing would do well exploring all possible solutions to the current Syrian crisis, not only solutions dictated by prevalent models and comforting ideological predilections.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Might is Right in Syria

For those of you who still bother visiting this site, I've been on a long hiatus preparing for the launch of a new refereed Middle East e-journal at Boston College.  The Levantine Review is now live and still accepting essays for review (until September 30) and possible publication in the Fall 2012 issue.

I also thought, before reactivating this blog, to revisit an essay on Syria from earlier this year.  It seems to me that what is currently happening in Northern Lebanon (the heavy clashes between Sunnis and Alawites/Shi'ites) might fit into the Assad's "re-ordering" of the Eastern Mediterranean, in preparation for the impending Alawite Canton.