Friday, October 24, 2014

Dispatch From Guerrero The Real Criminals

OCTOBER 23, 2014

Shops are closed, with metal shutters pulled tight over the storefronts. Government employees have be18. en given the day off and warned to stay inside. Schools are out for the day, to the delight of the children. The new car agency has even removed the models from the show floor.

Acapulco, the Pearl of the Pacific, looks like it’s in hurricane mode. But there was no hurricane Friday. The government ordered the city lockdown to scare people off the march. Despite the campaign to create fear among the local population, close to ten thousand people marched to demand the safe return of 43 education students, forcibly disappeared by local police on Sept. 26 in the nearby city of Iguala .

Acapulco is the most violent city in the nation, and murder and extortion are everyday events. One resident who defied official warnings and joined the march told me, “You’ve seen those movies about the gangster days and Al Capone, with shoot-outs in the street and pay-offs to the cops? That’s us. I used to think that only happened in movies.”

But in a city where violence has become commonplace, for the city government the presence of citizens demonstrating for justice was the main threat to be reckoned with.

“Due to the protest, municipal authorities decided to suspend work and close offices, to avoid exposing personnel,” read the local Novedades Acapulconewspaper Friday. Municipal spokesperson Ricardo Castillo made the rounds of radio and television stations warning residents to remain inside their homes because of the possibility of violence.

“This is a peaceful march. Walk in your contingent, everyone behind the front banner. Men line up on the outside, women inside.” March organizers gave specific instructions to the thousands of teachers, students, local residents and regional grassroots organizations, including indigenous community police. The protesters followed them to the letter and despite high emotions at the assassinations and disappearance of the students, the march proceeded without incident. Even the graffiti was reserved for OXXO stores and politicians’ propaganda.

Two demands dominated the march: safe return of the missing students, and the resignation of the state governor, Angel Aguirre. Aguirre is blamed for the impunity that characterizes the state, a “cemetery of organized crime”, where the surrounding hills hide hundreds of bodies and body parts in mass graves. Members of the criminal gang, Guerreros Unidos, implicated in the disappearances originally led investigators to the supposed grave of the students, but the Attorney General announced this week that the semi-burned bodies are not those of the students. The fact that everyone has forgotten to even ask whose bodies were in the graves gives an idea of how “normal” mass graves and unidentified bodies have become in this part of the country.

The false warnings of violent protest are just the latest in years, if not decades, of government efforts to criminalize the students of the rural teaching college, Ayotzinapa. Casting a permanent image of dangerous youth threatening law-abiding citizens is part of a strategy to isolate the students.

Now they are the victims of police who opened fire leaving three students dead and abducting and disappearing 43 with the participation of Guerreros Unidos, an organized crime gang, But still, the press and government officials continue to paint the young people as the problem. Within local society, residents have grown so used to media and politicians’ harangues against the students for commandeering buses and blocking roads, that many will tell you privately that they believe the dead and missing got what they deserved.

But thousands more don’t agree. The movement to support the students and hold all levels of government accountable for the crime is growing. As the federal government insists that organized crime is behind the disappearance with just a few corrupt politicians, at the march not one of the chants or slogans or demands was directed at organized crime. All laid responsibility at the feet of the government, primarily the state government.

First, because citizens can’t make demands of organized crime. Criminals are criminals. It is the responsibility of the state to protect its citizens, which in Guerrero is clearly not happening. Second, because the protesters view the drug cartels and the state as partners.

“Sicarios, policia–la misma porquería” read one sign. (Hit men, police–the same trash”). The mayor of Iguala implicated in the attack on the students of Ayotzinapa has vanished after being allowed to take a leave of absence. He allegedly has close ties through his wife and friends to the local crime gang. He is accused of knocking off people who cross him, notably grassroots leader Arturo Hernandez Cardona two years ago who he is said to have murdered in person.

This also is not the first time that the governments’ hostility toward the Ayotzinapa college has led to violence. In 2011 police assassinated two students at a roadblock in a crime for which no one was held accountable.

The media and political push to blame the victims is particularly surreal when compared to the attitude of the state towards the real criminals. The state Congress decided yesterday–three weeks after the crime–to withdraw immunity for the mayor, José Luis Abarca. It’s not even clear if the federal government has issued an arrest order for him despite his obvious involvement in the crime from the outset.

Now Abarca is long gone, on the lam with a 21-day lead on police who apparently have little interest in capturing him. One can’t help but doubt that justice will prevail.

Laura Carlsen is director of the Americas Program.

Intent on Defying an All-Seeing Eye


‘Citizenfour,’ a Documentary About Edward J. Snowden NYT Critics' Pick
By A. O. SCOTT OCT. 23, 2014

Edward J. Snowden in the documentary “Citizenfour.” Credit Radius-TWC

There are two ways to look at “Citizenfour,” Laura Poitras’s documentary about Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor whose revelations of widespread surveillance launched a hundred Op-Ed columns a year ago. The first and most obvious is as a piece of advocacy journalism, a goad to further argument about how security and transparency should be balanced in a democracy, about how governments abuse technology, about how official secrets are kept and exposed. The second is as a movie, an elegant and intelligent contribution to the flourishing genre of dystopian allegory

CitizenfourOCT. 24, 2014
Edward J. Snowden with the journalist Glenn Greenwald in the documentary The Documentary ‘Citizenfour’ Raises Political QuestionsOCT. 17, 2014
Those who regard Mr. Snowden as an unambiguous hero, risking his freedom and comfort to expose abuses of power, will find much to agree with in Ms. Poitras’s presentation of his actions. This film is an authorized portrait, made at its subject’s invitation. In 2013, Mr. Snowden, using encrypted email under the alias “citizen four,” contacted Ms. Poitras and the journalist Glenn Greenwald, inviting them to meet him in Hong Kong, where he would share what he had learned about the N.S.A.’s capacity to intercept data from the phone calls, emails and web wanderings of American citizens. When asked why he had chosen her, Mr. Snowden, his identity still electronically shrouded, replied that she had selected herself, based on her previous work as a journalist and filmmaker, including a short documentary about William Binney, an N.S.A. whistle-blower who also appears in “Citizenfour.”

Communication between Edward J. Snowden and the director Laura Poitras in the documentary "Citizenfour." Credit Radius-TWC
And “Citizenfour,” much of which consists of conversations between Mr. Snowden and Mr. Greenwald, emphasizes his bravery and his idealism, and the malignancy of the forces ranged against him. This is obviously a partial, partisan view, and several journalists on the national security and technology beats — among them Fred Kaplan at Slate and Michael Cohen (formerly of The Guardian) at The Daily Beast — have pointed out omissions and simplifications. Those criticisms, and George Packer’s long, respectful and skeptical profile of Ms. Poitras in a recent issue of The New Yorker, express the desire for a middle ground, a balance between the public right to know and the government’s need to collect intelligence in the fight against global terrorism.

Fair enough, I guess. Such balance may be a journalistic shibboleth; it is not necessarily a cinematic virtue. “The Fifth Estate,” last year’s nondocumentary attempt to tell the story of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, bogged down in the pursuit of sensible moderation, losing the chance to write history in lightning.

“Citizenfour,” happily, suffers no such fate. Cinema, even in the service of journalism, is always more than reporting, and focusing on what Ms. Poitras’s film is about risks ignoring what it is. It’s a tense and frightening thriller that blends the brisk globe-trotting of the “Bourne” movies with the spooky, atmospheric effects of a Japanese horror film. And it is also a primal political fable for the digital age, a real-time tableau of the confrontation between the individual and the state.

Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main storyContinue reading the main story
Mr. Snowden’s face is by now well known — it has been printed on demonstrators’ masks and stylized posters — but when he first encounters Ms. Poitras and her camera, he is anonymous and invisible, a nervous young man in a Hong Kong hotel room. He is shy, pale and serious, explaining his actions and motives in a mixture of technical jargon and lofty moral rhetoric. While he seems almost naïve about the machinery of celebrity that is about to catch him in its gears, he is adamant in his desire to take public responsibility for his actions, partly to protect others who might be blamed. At the same time, he defers to Mr. Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, a reporter for The Guardian, about when, how and how much of the information he is passing on will be shared with their readers.

Maybe some of this is ordinary-guy shtick, but it hardly matters. What makes Mr. Snowden fascinating — a great movie character, whatever you think of his cause — is the combination of diffidence, resolve and unpretentious intelligence that makes him so familiar. Slightly hipsterish, vaguely nerdy, with a trace of the coastal South in his voice (he was born in North Carolina and grew up mostly in Maryland), he is someone you might have seen at Starbucks or college or Bonnaroo. One of us, you might say.

But if he is us, then who is them? The officials from the Obama and George W. Bush administrations who have defended the N.S.A. in court, before Congress and on television, promising that the rule of law and the rights of citizens are being respected, even as the bad guys are being chased down and spied upon? Those presidents themselves, who preach liberty even as they expand the prerogatives of the executive branch? The telecommunications executives who collude in the collection of data?

All of the above, but maybe also not quite any of them. Plenty of movies have tried to imagine the contours of state power, but “Citizenfour” stands alone in evoking the modern state as an unseen, ubiquitous presence, an abstraction with enormous coercive resources at its disposal. To some extent, Ms. Poitras and Mr. Greenwald are engaged in a theoretical inquiry, a kind of speculative mapping, of the shape and reach of this mysterious entity. That is not to say that the United States government’s data collection program is not real, but rather that its extent and implications are only beginning to be understood.

Mr. Greenwald, a prolific writer and prodigious talker (in Portuguese, too!), has made his case against secrecy and surveillance in numerous articles, blog posts, books and television appearances. Ms. Poitras, who does not appear on camera in her film and speaks only when reading Mr. Snowden’s emails to her, pursues a slightly different project. She deploys the tools of her trade — spooky music and fluid editing, subtle camera movements and suggestive compositions — to try to coax a specter into view.

It is everywhere and nowhere, the leviathan whose belly is our native atmosphere. Mr. Snowden, unplugging the telephone in his room, hiding under a blanket when typing on his laptop, looking mildly panicked when a fire alarm is tested on his floor, can seem paranoid. He can also seem to be practicing a kind of avant-garde common sense. It’s hard to tell the difference, and thinking about the issues Ms. Poitras raises can induce a kind of epistemological vertigo. What do we know about what is known about us? Who knows it? Can we trust them? These questions are terrifying, and so is “Citizenfour.”

“Citizenfour” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Not because of the nightmarish spectacle of unchecked state power, but because of the s

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Palestinian-American Prof. Steven Salaita, fired for criticising Israel : Live streaming of his talk at George Mason University

Neoliberalism and the Corporatization of Universities

October 27, 2014 7:15PM
George Mason University
Johnson Center, Room 239A


Steven Salaita

[Details Coming Soon]

Moderated by Bassam Haddad
Addressing: The New "Academic Bullying" on Campus and its Remedies

Refreshments will be served

This event will be Live-Streamed at
courtesy of STATUS Audio Journal

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Organized Streaming gatherings/classrooms get a shout out!
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Phantoms of the Past: Britain's Vote on Palestine is a Nonstarter

Phantoms of the Past: Britain's Vote on Palestine is a Nonstarter

Oct 22 2014 / 6:51 pm
Without a clear course of action to help Palestinians gain their freedom, the British vote will remain another symbolic gesture.
By Ramzy Baroud
Palestine Chronicle

It would be intellectually dishonest to reflect on the British House of Commons' vote of Monday, 13 October, on a Palestinian state without digging deeper into history. Regardless of the meaning of the non-binding motion, the parliamentary action cannot be brushed off as just another would-be country to recognise Palestine, as was the Swedish government decision on 3 October.

Unlike Sweden, and most of the 130 plus countries to effectively recognise Palestine, Britain is a party in the Middle East's most protracted conflict. In fact, if it were not for Britain, there would be no conflict, or even Israel, of which to speak. It is within this context that the British vote matters, and greatly so.

As I listened to the heated debate by British MPs which proceeded the historic vote of 272 in favour and 12 against, phantoms of historic significance occupied my mind.

When my father was born in historic Palestine in 1936, he found himself in a world politically dominated by Britain. Born and raised in the now long-destroyed Palestinian village of Beit Daras - which, like the rest of historic Palestine has now become part of "Israel proper" - he, along with his family - were entrapped between two anomalies that greatly scarred the otherwise peaceful landscape of Palestine countryside. A Jewish colony called Tabiyya, along with a heavily fortified British police compound that was largely aimed at safeguarding the interests of the colony, subjugated Beit Daras.

The residents of the village, still unaware of the plan to dispossess them from their homeland, grew wary of the dual treachery with time. But by 1947-48, it was too late. The British-coordinated withdrawal from Palestine was aimed at creating space for a Jewish state, today's Israel. The Palestinians, for 66 years and counting, suffered from more than homelessness and dispossession, but also a military occupation and countless massacres, ending with the most recent Israeli war on Gaza. In what Israel calls Operation Protective Edge, nearly 2,200 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed and five fold more were wounded. Yet, Palestinians continue to resist, with greater ferocity than ever.

Because of this, and the fact that the British government remains a member of the ever-shrinking club of Israel's staunch supporters, the vote in the British parliament greatly matters. "Symbolic" and non-binding, it still matters. It matters because the Israeli arsenal is rife with British armaments. Because the British government, despite strong protestation of its people, still behaves towards Israel as if the latter were a law-abiding state with a flawless human rights records. It matters despite the dubious language of the motion, linking the recognition of Palestine alongside Israel, to "securing a negotiated two-state solution."

But there can be no two states in a land that is already inhabited by two nations, who, despite the grossness of the occupation, are in fact interconnected geographically, demographically and in other ways as well. Israel has created irreversible realities in Palestine, and the respected MPs of the British parliament should know this.

The MPs votes were motivated by different rationale and reasons. Some voted "yes" because they have been long-time supporters of Palestinians, others are simply fed up with Israel's behaviour. But if the vote largely reflected an attempt at breathing more life in the obsolete "two-state solution" to a conflict created by the British themselves, then, the terrible British legacy in Palestine which has lasted for nearly a century will continue unabated.

British army boots walked on Palestinian soil as early as 1917, after the British army defeated Turkey, whose vast Ottoman Empire, that included Palestine, was quickly disintegrating under the combined pressure of European powers. As soon as Jerusalem was captured by British forces under the command of General Sir Edmund Allenby in December 1917, and the rest of the country by October 1918, the will of the Palestinian people fell hostage to the British Empire. The figures of how many Palestinian Arabs were killed, wounded, tortured, imprisoned and exiled by Britain since that date, until the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948, is beyond depressing.

However, Britain's integral role in the suffering of the Palestinians and the establishment of Israel was hardly a coincidental policy necessitated by the nature of its immediate colonial ambitions. It was calculated and rooted in political and diplomatic intrigues that go back to the 19th century. It was also predicated on an unmistakable element of racism, rampant in the colonial culture at the time. Its manifestations still bring shame to Britain today, which still refuses to fully and unconditionally reverse that early policy.

It is inexplicable that one century after the British involvement in Palestine, which has proved its astounding failure, the current British foreign policy is not far removed from the language and policies executed by the British Empire when Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour "promised" Palestine for a Jewish state. The Balfour Declaration is dated 2 November, 1917, before Palestine was even occupied by the British, thus reflecting the sheer arrogance and disregard of Palestinians and their rights. In one of his letters at the time, Balfour so conceitedly wrote:

"For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country ... The four great powers are committed to Zionism, and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes of far profounder import than the desire and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land. In my opinion that is right."

Encouraged by the overwhelming recent vote in favour of Palestine at the parliament (although nearly half of the MPs didn't show up or abstained,) one can hardly deny the signs that both the British public and many in the country's political establishment are simply disenchanted by Israel's continued war and occupation which are the main reason behind the destabilisation of the region long before the Syrian civil war and other upheavals began. Many British MPs are furious over Israel's violent, expansionist and anti-peace conduct, including those who were once strong allies of Israel. That must not be denied.

But it is hardly enough. When the British government insists on maintaining its pro-Israeli policies, and when the general attitude of those who truly hold the reins of power in London remain committed to a farce vision of two-states, defending Israel and disempowering Palestinians at every turn, the Balfour vision of old will remain the real guidelines for British policy regarding Palestine.

66 years after ending its "mandate" in Palestine, Britain remains a party in a bloody conflict, where Israel is still carrying the same policies of colonial expansion, using western - including British - funds, arms and political support. Only when Britain fully and completely ends its support of Israel and financing of its occupation, and works diligently and actively towards correcting the injustice it had imposed on the Palestinians a century ago, one can consider that a real change in British policies is finally taking hold.

Without a clear course of action to help Palestinians gain their freedom, the British vote will remain another symbolic gesture in a conflict in which military occupation, war, siege, death and destruction are very much real. And when British leaders, like conservative Prime Minister David Cameron continue to parrot their unconditional support for Israel, even after the Gaza wars and massacres, one will also continue to seek even moderate proof that the Balfour legacy has truly and finally ended.

- Ramzy Baroud is a PhD scholar in People's History at the University of Exeter. He is the Managing Editor of Middle East Eye. Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author and the founder of His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

How Not To Understand ISIS

from Jadaliyya
Oct 03 2014
by Alireza Doostdar

The group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or simply the Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, or IS) has attracted much attention in the past few months with its dramatic military gains in Syria and Iraq and with the recent U.S. decision to wage war against it.

As analysts are called to explain ISIS’ ambitions, its appeal, and its brutality, they often turn to an examination of what they consider to be its religious worldview—a combination of cosmological doctrines, eschatological beliefs, and civilizational notions—usually thought to be rooted in Salafi Islam.

The Salafi tradition is a modern reformist movement critical of what it considers to be misguided accretions to Islam—such as grave visitations, saint veneration, and dreaming practices. It calls for abolishing these and returning to the ways of the original followers of Prophet Muhammad, the “salaf” or predecessors. Critics of Salafism accuse its followers of “literalism,” “puritanism,” or of practicing a “harsh” or “rigid” form of Islam, but none of these terms is particularly accurate, especially given the diverse range of Salafi views and the different ways in which people adhere to them [1].

Salafism entered American consciousness after September 11, 2001, as Al-Qaeda leaders claim to follow this school. Ever since, it has become commonplace to demonize Salafism as the primary cause of Muslim violence, even though most Salafi Muslims show no enthusiasm for jihad and often eschew political involvement [2], and even though many Muslims who do engage in armed struggles are not Salafi.

ISIS is only the most recent group whose behavior is explained in terms of Salafism. What makes it unique is its aspiration to form immediately a caliphate or pan-Islamic state. Even so, analysts’ emphasis on Salafi thought and on the formation of a caliphate makes it easy to ignore some important aspects of the ISIS phenomenon. I would like to draw attention to some of these neglected issues and to offer a few cautions about attempts to understand ISIS purely in terms of doctrines. My argument is not that studying doctrines is useless; only that such study is limited in what it can explain.

I should begin by emphasizing that our knowledge of ISIS is extremely scant. We know close to nothing about ISIS’ social base. We know little about how it made its military gains, and even less about the nature of the coalitions into which it has entered with various groups—from other Islamist rebels in Syria to secular Ba‘athists in Iraq.

Sensationalist accounts of “shari‘a justice” notwithstanding, we do not have much information about how ISIS administers the lives of millions of people who reside in the territories it now controls.

Information about the militants who fight for ISIS is likewise scarce. Most of what we know is gleaned from recruitment videos and propaganda, not the most reliable sources. There is little on the backgrounds and motives of those who choose to join the group, least of all the non-Western recruits who form the bulk of ISIS’ fighting force. In the absence of this information, it is difficult to even say what ISIS is if we are to rely on anything beyond the group’s self-representations.

Let me emphasize this last point. What we call ISIS is more than just a militant cult. At present, ISIS controls a network of large population centers with millions of residents, in addition to oil resources, military bases, and roads [3]. It has to administer the affairs of the populations over whom it rules, and this has required compromise and coalition-building, not just brute force.

In Iraq, the group has had to work with secular Ba‘athists, former army officers, tribal councils, and various Sunni opposition groups, many of whose members are in administrative positions [4]. In Syria, it has likewise had to negotiate with other rebel factions as well as tribes, and relies on local (non-ISIS) technical expertise to manage services such as water, electricity, public health, and bakeries [5].

The vast majority of ISIS’ estimated 20,000-31,500 fighters are recent recruits and it is not clear whether and how its leadership maintains ideological consistency among them. All told, our sense of ISIS’ coherence as a caliphate with a clear chain of command, a solid organizational structure, and an all-encompassing ideology is a direct product of ISIS’ propaganda apparatus.

We see ISIS as a unitary entity because ISIS propagandists want us to see it that way. This is why it is problematic to rely on doctrines espoused in propaganda to explain ISIS’ behavior. Absent more evidence, we simply cannot know if the behaviors of the different parts of ISIS are expressions of these doctrines.

And yet, much of the analysis that we have available relies precisely on ISIS’ propaganda and doctrinal statements. What does this emphasis obscure? Here I will point out several of the issues I consider most important.

First, we lack a good grasp of the motivations of those who fight for or alongside ISIS, so we assume that they are motivated by Salafism and the desire to live in a caliphate. What information we do have comes almost entirely from ISIS propaganda and recruitment videos, a few interviews, and the occasional news report about a foreign fighter killed in battle or arrested before making it to his or her destination.

Focusing on doctrinal statements would have us homogenizing the entirety of ISIS’ military force as fighters motivated by an austere and virulent form of Salafi Islam. This is how ISIS wants us to see things, and it is often the view propagated by mainstream media.

For example, CNN recently quoted former Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Ruba‘i as claiming that in Mosul, ISIS was recruiting “Young Iraqis as young as 8 and 9 years old with AK-47s… and brainwashing with this evil ideology.” A Pentagon spokesman is quoted in the same story as saying that the U.S. was not intent on “simply… degrading and destroying… the 20,000 to 30,000 (ISIS fighters)... It’s about destroying their ideology” [6].

The problem with these statements is that they seem to assume that ISIS is a causa sui phenomenon that has suddenly materialized out of the thin ether of an evil doctrine. But ISIS emerged from the fires of war, occupation, killing, torture, and disenfranchisement. It did not need to sell its doctrine to win recruits. It needed above all to prove itself effective against its foes.

In Iraq, the cities that are now controlled by ISIS were some of those most resistant to American control during the occupation and most recalcitrant in the face of the newly established state. The destruction that these cities endured seems only to have hardened their residents’ defiance. Fallujah, the first Iraqi city to fall to ISIS, is famous for its devastation during U.S. counterinsurgency operations in 2004. It still struggles with a legacy of rising cancer rates, genetic mutations, birth defects, and disabilities blamed on depleted uranium in American munitions [7].

In Mosul, many of those who joined ISIS last summer had been previously imprisoned by the Iraqi government. They numbered in the thousands and included peaceful protesters who opposed Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s increasingly authoritarian rule [8].

The situation in Syria is not entirely different. ISIS emerged on the scene after a long period of strife that began with peaceful protests in 2011 and deteriorated into civil war after President Bashar al-Asad’s military and security forces repeatedly deployed brutal force against the opposition.

A large number of ISIS fighters in Syria (as in Iraq) are indeed foreign, but the majority are local recruits. The emphasis on ISIS’ Salafi worldview has tended to obscure the many grievances that may motivate fighters to join an increasingly efficient militant group that promises to vanquish their oppressors. Do they need to “convert” to ISIS’ worldview to fight with or for them? Do they need to aspire to a caliphate, as does ISIS leadership, in order to join forces with them? These questions are never asked, and “beliefs” are made simply to fill the explanatory void.

Second, the puzzle of foreign fighters is no less obscured by an overemphasis on the allure of Salafism. Again, the tendency here is to ignore any motivation except the overriding call of the Salafi jihadist who persuades converts of the truth of Islam and of their responsibility to wage war in defense of the Islamic community. In ISIS’ case, the aspiration to create a caliphate is added to the equation. Foreign fighters must be joining ISIS, we are told, because they desire to live in a pristine Muslim utopia.

Some analysts allow the possibility that the jihadi convert is mentally unstable, a privilege usually reserved for white non-Muslim mass murderers. But rarely do they consider that sensibilities and motivations other than or in addition to mere commitment to Salafi Islam or a desire to live in a utopic state may guide their decisions.

For example, could it be that a sense of compassion for suffering fellow humans or of altruistic duty—sensibilities that are very much valued and cultivated in American society [9]—has prefigured their receptiveness to a call to arms to aid a people they consider to be oppressed?

The novelist and journalist Michael Muhammad Knight has recently argued that his own flirting with jihad in the Chechen war of the 1990s did not grow out of his then commitment to Salafi Islam, but from American values: “I had grown up in the Reagan ‘80s. I learned from G.I. Joe cartoons to (in the words of the theme song) ‘fight for freedom, wherever there’s trouble.’ I assumed that individuals had the right—and the duty—to intervene anywhere on the planet where they perceived threats to freedom, justice, and equality” [10].

Unfortunately, such first-person accounts that give us a view beyond recruiter-side doctrine are rare. The situation is even more difficult with non-Western foreign fighters, about whose conditions and motivations we know still less.

Finally, the belief that Salafi Islam is exceptional in its extremism has made it convenient to view ISIS brutality as likewise exceptional. We are variously told that ISIS’ killings—especially the beheadings of victims, most recently of foreign journalists—are medieval, barbaric, pornographic, and ends in themselves (rather than means to any end). This violence is apparently counterpoised against civilized, non-gratuitous, means-end rational forms of killing, such as those practiced by the American military.

The anthropologist Talal Asad has questioned the presumptions that guide these distinctions between what we might call “humanitarian” and “gratuitous” violence and cruelty [11]. It is not my intention to pursue that line of thought here. Instead, I want only to point out that once again, ISIS’ brutality did not emerge in a vacuum; rather, it is part of a whole ecology of cruelty spread out over more than a decade.

Perhaps a decapitation is more cruel than blowing a body to bits with a high-caliber machine gun, incinerating it with a remote-controlled drone, or burning and lacerating it with a barrel bomb. But even if we limit ourselves to close-up, low-technology brutality, ISIS beheadings are hardly out of place.

The earliest video-taped decapitation of an American citizen in Iraq was conducted by ISIS’ predecessors in 2004 in response, they claimed, to the photographed and video-recorded torture, rape, and murder of detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison [12]. In 2011, it emerged that some American soldiers in Afghanistan had been hunting civilians for sport and collecting their fingers and teeth as souvenirs [13]. In the sectarian bloodshed that engulfed Iraq after the U.S. invasion, beheadings by Sunni insurgents turned into a morbid form of reciprocity with Shi‘a militiamen who bore holes into their victims using power drills [14].

The point is not to identify when cruelty emerged in the long American-led Global War on Terrorism—only that the view that one particular religious doctrine is uniquely extremist will not help us understand the cycles of brutality that have fed on years of circulating narratives and images of torture, violent murder, and desecration.

[This article ws originallly published on]


[1] For example, see Bonnefoy, Laurent. Salafism in Yemen: Transnationalism and Religious Identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012; and Hirschkind, Charles. The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (Cultures of History). New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Gilsinan, Kathy. “The Many Ways to Map the Islamic ‘State’.” The Atlantic. August 27, 2014.

[4] Sayigh, Yezid. “ISIS: Global Islamic Caliphate or Islamic Mini-State in Iraq?” Carnegie Middle East Center, July 24, 2014. (Originally published in Arabic in Al-Hayat).

[5] Caris, Charles C. and Samuel Reynolds. “ISIS Governance in Syria.” Middle East Security Report.

[6] Karadsheh, Jomana, Jim Sciutto, and Laura Smith-Spark. “How foreign fighters are swelling ISIS ranks in startling numbers.” CNN, September 14, 2014.

[7] Dewachi, Omar. “The Toxicity of Everyday Survival in Iraq.” Jadaliyya, August 13, 2013.

[8] “Inside Mosul: Why Iraqis are celebrating Islamic extremists’ takeover of their city.”Niqash, June 12, 2014.

[9] Graeber, David. “Army of Altruists.” Harper’s Magazine, January 2007.

[10] Knight, Michael Muhammad. “I understand why Westerners are joining jihadi movements like ISIS. I was almost one of them.” Washington Post, September 3, 2014.

[11] Asad, Talal. “Reflections on Violence, Law, and Humanitarianism.” Critical Inquiry. Accessed September 30, 2014.

[12] Nichols, Bill. “Video shows beheading of American captive.” USA Today,November 5, 2004.

[13] Boal, Mark. “The Kill Team: How U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan murdered innocent civilians.” Rolling Stone, March 27, 2011.

[14] Democracy Now! “Nir Rosen on “Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World.” November 10, 2010.

Further Reading:

Armstrong, Karen. “The Myth of Religious Violence.” The Guardian, September 25, 2014.

Haddad, Bassam and Basileus Zeno. “ISIS in the News: Extensive Media Roundup (August-September 2014).” Jadaliyya, September 26, 2014.

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[Crop of image from Slide presentation from Department of Defense Press Briefing by Rear Adm. Kirby in the Pentagon Briefing Room. Fighter aircraft from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and the United States attacked modular oil refineries in eastern Syria controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Sept. 25, 2014.]O.I.L. Media Roundup (20 October)
[Bullet-pocked buildings in Daraa City, in the south of Syria. 14 October 2014. From Lens Young Hourany.]Syria Media Roundup (October 20)

Monday, October 20, 2014

"Theonlydemocracyinthemideast":More tales of the great Jewish democracy's hatred of free speech

Lieberman: Time to jail 'terrorist' MK Zoabi
Foreign minister urges law enforcement to act against lawmaker who equated Israeli pilots with Islamic State.
By Haaretz | Oct. 20, 2014 | 2:20 PM | 3

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Monday said that "terrorist" MK Haneen Zoabi should be jailed and called on Israeli law enforcement to take action against her.

Lieberman's remarks come a day after Zoabi, not one to shy from controversy, equated Israeli army pilots with Islamic State terrorists.

"The law must be used to put the terrorist – there is no other word for it – the terrorist Haneen Zoabi in jail for many years," Lieberman told Israel Radio.

He also said that Zoabi should have stayed in Qatar when she visited over the summer. "There is no reason she should be here in Israel or have Israeli citizenship," he said.

"She can also live in Gaza. As a single woman, dressed the way she dresses, she will feel very comfortable in the company of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. I am just looking forward to law enforcement's action."

Zoabi on Sunday told Channel 2 Online that an Israeli pilot “is no less a terrorist than a person who takes a knife and commits a beheading.”

She said she believes that “both are armies of murderers, they have no boundaries and no red lines.”

“In Iraq and Syria they have their picture taken with a knife and here they have their picture taken with dead bodies and with their bombardments and they also laugh,” she said. “The M-16 and the bombardments kill more than a knife.”

Her remarks drew harsh responses from fellow Israeli lawmakers, including Likud MK Miri Regev, who said, "Zoabi is a dangerous enemy of the Israeli public who should not be in the Knesset." Regev also said Zoabi's "incitement are as grave as the acts of a terrorist who harms innocents."

Zoabi's remarks are "nothing more than cheap provocation," said Labor MK Itzik Shmuli, who added that this was not an issue of left-wing versus right-wing views. Zoabi is "a fundamentalist Israel-hater who knows how to take full advantage of Israeli democracy."

Lieberman also intends to try, once again, to disqualify Zoabi's Balad from running for Knesset.

“The Balad party has turned into an arm of Hamas," Lieberman wrote on his Facebook page. "It aids it while using the Knesset to promote terrorism, and taking advantage of its Knesset members' parliamentary immunity.”

"After its previous leader, Azmi Bishara, fled the country because he was suspected of espionage against Israel and assisting Hezbollah," Lieberman wrote, "Balad members continue their activity against the state."

Fellow Balad MK Basel Ghattas also joined the fray on Monday, saying the Islamic State is murderous and cruel, but that unlike the IDF it has not committed crimes against humanity.

"Israel is the one that has the ability to commit crimes against humanity," Ghattas told Army Radio on Monday morning.

"Even [Defense Minister Moshe] Ya'alon said that they shelled Shejaiya ruthlessly to prevent the abduction of a soldier. That quote will bring Ya'alon before prosecutors at the Hague," he said, referring to a Gaza neighborhood that was hard hit during this summer's war between Israel and Hamas.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Sectarianism In Mideast Is Not At All Coincidental

By Ramzy Baroud

October 16, 2014 "ICH" - "Arab News" - Consider this comical scene described by Peter Van Buren, a former US diplomat, who was deployed to Iraq on a 12-month assignment in 2009-10.

Van Buren led two Department of State teams assigned with the abstract mission of the “reconstruction” of Iraq, which was destroyed in the US-led wars and sanctions. He describes the reconstruction of Iraq as such:

“In practice, that meant paying for schools that would never be completed, setting up pastry shops on streets without water or electricity, and conducting endless propaganda events on Washington-generated themes of the week (“small business,” “women’s empowerment,” “democracy building.”)”

As for the comical scene: “We even organized awkward soccer matches, where American taxpayer money was used to coerce reluctant Sunni teams into facing off against hesitant Shiite ones in hopes that, somehow, the chaos created by the American invasion could be ameliorated on the playing field.”

Of course, there is nothing funny about it when seen in context. The entire American nation-building experiment was in fact a political swindle engulfed by many horrifying episodes, starting with the dissolving of the country’s army, entire official institutions and the construction of an alternative political class that was essentially sectarian.

Take the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), which was founded in July 2003 as an example. The actual ruler of Iraq was the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), headed first by Gen. Jay Garner, then by Paul Bremer, who, affectively was the governor of Iraq. The figureheads of the IGC were mostly a conglomerate of pro-US Iraqi individuals with a sinister sectarian past.

This is particularly important, for when Bremer began mutilating Iraqi society as dictated to him from Washington, the IGC was the first real sign of the American vision for Iraq with a sectarian identity. The council was made of 13 Shiites, five Sunnis, five Kurds, a Turkmen and an Assyrian.

One would not dwell on the sectarian formation of the US-ruled Iraq if such vulgar sectarianism were embedded in the collective psyche of Iraqi society. But, perhaps surprisingly, this is not the case.

Fanar Haddad, author of Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity, like other perceptive historians, doesn’t buy into the “ancient hatred” line between Sunnis and Shiites. “The roots of sectarian conflict aren’t that deep in Iraq,” he said in a recent interview.

Between the establishment of the modern Iraqi state in 1921 and for over 80 years, “the default setting (in Iraq) was coexistence.” Haddad argues that “Post-2003 Iraq... identity politics have been the norm rather than an anomaly because they’re part of the system by design.”

That “design” was not put in place arbitrarily. The conventional wisdom was that the US army is better seen as a “liberator” than an invader, where the Shiite community was supposedly being liberated from an “oppressive” Sunni minority. By doing so, those in their name Iraq was “liberated” were armed and empowered to fight the “Sunni insurgency” throughout the country. The “Sunni” discourse, laden with such terminology as the “Sunni Triangle” and “Sunni insurgents” and such, was a defining component of the American media and government perception of the war. In fact, there was no insurgency per se, but an organic Iraqi resistance to the US-led invasion.

The design had in fact served its purposes, but not for long. Iraqis turned against one another, as US troops mostly watched the chaotic scene from behind the well-fortified Green Zone. When it turned out that the US public still found the price of occupation too costly to bear, the US redeployed out of Iraq, leaving behind a broken society. By then, there were no more Shiite vs. Sunni awkward football matches, but rather an atrocious conflict that had claimed too many innocent lives to even be able count.

True, the Americans didn’t create Iraqi sectarianism. The latter always brewed beneath the surface. However, sectarianism and other manifestations of identity politics in Iraq were always overpowered by a dominant sense of Iraqi nationalism, which was violently destroyed and ripped apart by US firepower starting March 2003. But what the American truly founded in Iraq was Sunni militancy, a concept that has, till recently been alien to the Middle East.

Being the majority among Muslim societies as a whole, Sunnis rarely identified as such. Generally, minorities tend to ascribe to various group memberships as a form of self-preservation. Majorities feel no such need. Al-Qaeda for example, seldom made such references to being a Sunni group, and its targeting of Shiite and others was not part of its original mission. Even its violent references to other groups were made in specific political contexts: They referred to the “Crusaders” when they mentioned US military presence in the region, and to Jews, in reference to Israel. The group used terror to achieve what were essentially political objectives.

But even Al-Qaeda’s identity began changing after the US invasion of Iraq. One could make the argument that the link between the original Al-Qaeda and current group known as the Islamic State (IS) is Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. He was the founder of Al-Tawhid Wa Al-Jihad group, and didn’t join Al-Qaeda officially until 2004. A merger had then taken place, resulting in the creation of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)

While Zarqawi’s move to Iraq had originally targeted the US occupation, the nature of his mission was quickly redefined by the extremely violent sectarian nature of the conflict. He declared “war” on the Shiites in 2005, and was killed a few months later at the height of the civil war.

Zarqawi was so violent in his sectarian war to the extent that Al-Qaeda leaders were allegedly irritated with him. The core Al-Qaeda leadership, which imposed itself as the guardians of the Muslim Ummah (nation) could have been wary that a sectarian war would fundamentally change the nature of the conflict — a direction they deemed dangerous.

If these dialectics ever existed, they are no longer relevant today. The Syrian civil war was the perfect landscape for sectarian movements to operate, and, in fact, evolve. By then, AQI had merged with the Mujahideen Shura Council resulting in the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), then the Levant (ISIL), which eventually declared a Sunni-centered Caliphate on land it occupied in Syria and, more recently in Iraq. It now simply calls itself the Islamic State (IS).

Sunni militancy (as in groups operating on the central premise of being Sunni) is a particularly unique concept in history. What makes IS an essential sectarian phenomenon with extremely violent consequences is that it was born into an exceptionally sectarian environment, and could only operate within the existing rules.

To destroy sectarian identities prevalent in the Middle East region today, the rules would have to be redesigned, not by Paul Bremer type figures, but through the creation of new political horizons, where fledgling democracies are permitted to operate in safe environments, and where national identities are reanimated to meet the common priorities of the Arabs.

While the US-led coalition can indeed inflict much damage on IS and eventually claim some sort of victory, they will ultimately exasperate the sectarian tension that will spill over to other Middle Eastern nations.

Ramzy Baroud ( is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of - Email: