Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Standing against and standing for - in Syria

The Islamic State movement (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) has enjoyed spectacular success in Iraq.  More recently it has done very well against the Assad regime in Syria.  Why is that?

Another question: why has it done better, overall, than the moderate rebels in Syria?  The reasons cited for the moderates' difficulties seem also to apply to IS.  Neither, contrary to some ideologists, have huge outside funding.  Neither have protection against air cover.  The moderates have had to fight both the régime and IS, but IS of course has chosen to fight the moderates and, when it was not heavily engaged with the régime, the Kurds.  Though the moderates were often said to lack heavy weapons, like ISIS they now possess quite a few tanks, armored cars and heavy artillery.

Especially in Syria, moderate and especially secular activists have often dismissed IS as a bunch of thugs, or worse, foreign thugs.  Yet some report that despite their atrocities, IS has popular support.  In the areas it controls, IS is said to offer clean government, justice, social services and infrastructure, as well as Draconian assaults on crime.   In these areas, apparently, it is the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that is characterized as a bunch of thugs.  Certainly no one disputes that some groups claiming to be secularist rebels sometimes act that way.

But even if any of this explains IS' success, a puzzle remains.  The moderate (or relatively moderate) opposition is known to include many individuals - almost certainly many thousands - of outstanding ability, decency, and courage.  Is there something they lack that the extremists (Jabhat al Nusra as well as IS) possess?  Well there is.  Whether or not it makes any difference I can't say, but it's there.  The extremists stand for something.  The moderates may seem to stand for something as well.  But on closer inspection, they don't.

When someone considers the prospect of joining or being ruled by IS, they know what they're going to get - at least if they know IS' record.  For a substantial number of Syrians, that prospect isn't unmitigated horror.  I can't even speculate why, but I offer one factor for consideration.

IS imposes a society nothing like what has gone before.  Its justice, however perverse, is thought to be even-handed in the sense that at this point it is not the province of a privileged élite.  Their world is no longer that of the 'notable families' whose prominence in Syria goes back to Ottoman times, nor of the rich who were favored by Assad.  All in all, their rule represents a profound social change, at least for now.  And if they have at least seemed to sweep away the society of past decades, even generations, someone might suppose that further change is possible.  Maybe things are better, and maybe they could get a lot better still.

What then do moderate and especially secular rebels represent?  Freedom and democracy, we often hear.  But 'freedom' is no longer a code word for some American-style paradise that has become a faded memory in America itself.  It now is a very vague promise that there won't be a repressive dictatorship.  So freedom has become little more than the handmaiden of its partner, democracy.

The trouble is, democracy is not a society, not a social order.  It is an institutionalized procedure. People vote, they decide on things according to majority rule, perhaps restricted and improved by a bunch of 'safeguards'.  The Syrian people, it is said, will at last shape its future.  Well, what shape will that future take?  The question hangs in the air, unanswered.

In other words, when it comes to programs or policies or objectives for Syria, the moderates stand for approximately nothing.  What then might someone expect if they win?  There's little to go on, but one hint can't be ignored.  The moderate and especially secular leadership, unlike IS' leadership, isn't a collection of shadowy figures.  Many of them are known.  Some of them come from those same families that have been 'notable' for so long.  Some are highly educated professionals, in other words from Syria's more comfortable classes.  A cynic might suppose that the moderates' triumph would amount to little more than a reshuffling among the élites that have dominated Syrians in the past.  There could be a great liberation from Assad's horrors.  Beyond that, there's little reason to expect change.

Moderate resistance movements of this sort have frequently been eclipsed by movements which offered something more concrete.  In roughly the World War II era, this often mean communists, who gained more support than liberal democrats in, for instance, China, Nazi-occupied France, Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece.  Syrians moderates are said to be divided, but they might still find some programmatic common ground, or at least be divided over concrete visions of Syria's future.  Perhaps they might promise, even implement in areas they control, the beginnings of social democracy, or some other equalizing society.  Perhaps the only realistic alternative, for now, is a moderate Islamic state.  Would standing for something, in this sense, make a difference?  I don't know; I can't say if it's possible; I can't even say it's worth a try.  That is for others to consider in their search for more effective ways to counter IS and its escalating horrors.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Is anything to be done about Israel?

(this is the original English text of an email interview on Israel and especially the Boycott/Divest-ment/Sanctions movment.  An Italian translation appeared 21 July 2014 in Il Secolo XIX

Do you agree with Mr. Chomsky when he says that parallels drawn between campaigns against Israel and apartheid-era South Africa are misleading?
Which are in your opinion the differences between this two cases?

-- Chomsky is correct when he says that Cuban intervention in Angola played a significant role in ending Apartheid.  So did the township violence.  The effect of BDS in South Africa has been exaggerated.  But so what?  The situation of the Palestinians and of black South Africans under apartheid have practically nothing in common except that they are cases of oppression.   Internally and externally, Israel is in a much, much stronger position that the Boers ever were.   Moreover there was never any shortage of land or resources in South Africa; there was always enough for all.

Beyond that I am like others, a bit unclear just what Chomsky's objections are.   There is a lot of worrying about the right of return, which in any case isn't always part of BDS demands.  (I wonder if Chomsky is even arguing in good faith when he brings this up.)  But the demands and therefore the right of return don't matter in the least.  What matters is to make Israel uncomfortable or, ideally, to actually harm its economy.  This isn't a little game about small matters; it's about Palestinian survival.   It's time to stop fussing about what sort of impression BDS might make on Jews, or Israel, or Western governments.  None of these parties are going to make some momentous decision that offers up a solution in a blaze of moral grandeur.  This is about putting pressure on Israel, period.  Israel complains bitterly about BDS.  That's all the justification the movement needs.   As for Chomsky's apparent but obscure concern about how BDS might affect the Palestinians, well, the Palestinians are completely screwed if Israel doesn't get pressured.  It's hard to see how some concern about BDS could outweigh that simple fact.

Members of the BDS say that the movement is merely 9-years-old, while the BDS in South Africa was already 30 years old when it started to have success in the 80s. Do you think it can only be a matter of time?

---  In a way.  I'm surprised at the speed with which BDS has grown.  But as in South Africa, BDS can at most contribute to any real solution - and to an unknown extent - not provide one.  So it's not a matter of when BDS will, say, end the occupation.  It certainly won't on its own.  To repeat, its role is to pressure Israel, because only pressuring Israel can produce results.  Since BDS is already exerting pressure on Israel, it has already had some success.  That's more than can be said for many other pro-Palestinian initiatives, and more than enough to justify the movement.

The whole discussion of BDS proceeds, as is so often the case, as if the Israel-Palestine conflict was something to be settled between Westerners and Israel, with the Palestinians as an audience of victims and the rest of the Middle East completely out of the picture.  This is annoyingly antiquated.  The West is now too weak, too terminally timid, and too irresolute to do anything much about Israel.  If there is any solution it will come from within the Middle East.  That means Turkey and, if there is drastic change, Egypt, Syria, and perhaps Jordan.  Iraq, Iran and the Gulf States can play a role if any of these nearby powers become active.  When Israel believes that the wishes of its neighbours are worth considering, things will change, and not before.

Change doesn't require any of these nations become much stronger but it does require Israel to believe that might well happen.  Frankly the new element most likely to push things along is if some Middle Eastern power stated its intention to develop nuclear weapons.   In any case efforts to change Israel should look far more at the Middle East itself and not at feckless Western governments or the paralytic United Nations.  BDS is a positive development because it at least aims to pressure Israel itself, rather than to 'demand' that Western powers take actions they are never going to take.

You are one of the few critical voice of Israel, what do you think of this initiative that call Jewish academics to condemn the actions of Israel in Gaza? http://electronicintifada.net/blogs/ali-abunimah/handful-israeli-academics-responds-call-condemn-gaza-slaughter

--  It's hard to say.  I tend to think it's not utterly useless because Israelis seem very sensitive to criticism, so the initiative might have an effect on their morale.  But it has nothing to do with initiating any useful dialogue within Israel.  If we know anything we know Israel's commitment to settlement expansion increases with the passage of time, and that dissident voices within Israel are mere voices, without influence.  So if the call is useful, it is in its potential to cause discomfort, not any potential to change minds.  In addition I'm a bit uncomfortable with the antiquated suggestion that Jews in particular speak with special moral authority about Israel.

Finally I don't think you can still say there are 'few critical voices'.   On the contrary criticism of Israel, even revulsion against its cruelties, is more widespread than ever before.  Only in certain limited North American environments does it even seem otherwise.  What a pity that Israel has lost the battle of public opinion only when it is too strong to care about public opinion any more.

By chance do you know and you have any opinion about the newest spokesperson of Hamas, Azmi Bishara?

--  I'm sorry, I know nothing about him and wouldn't venture an opinion if I did.  I don't feel in any position to evaluate the Palestinian leadership or even Palestinian strategies and I'm surprised by others' confidence.  The Palestinians presumably have a much more fine-grained understanding of Israeli strategies and intentions, as well of course of the Palestinians' own needs and tolerances.   I'm not sure why someone outside Palestine would suppose they know better.  We outsiders are much better situated to understand the West and we can have a good knowledge of Israel's stature in the world.  That seems a more profitable point of departure than any attempt to second-guess Palestinian political developments.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The secularist's extremism problem

Extremist (and not-so-extremist) Islamic movements in Iraq and Syria receive the most minute attention.  Yet amid all the cataloging, analysis and advice, one element essential to any response to these movements is conspicuous by its absence:  an assessment of the alternatives.  By this I mean alternatives that someone in the region might actually have available to them, political choices they are likely to be able to make.

The choices don't include the never-neverland ideals like justice and freedom and democracy so often offered up as if, inexplicably, Middle Eastern people were in a position to accept or reject these fine things.  The real alternatives are those which seem plausible in the light of recent history and contemporary experience.  So, for example, a Syrian might look at what secularism has had to offer in the recent past, and think it a good guide to what it might offer in the future.  Secularism, then, might be associated with Nasser, the Assads, or a host of short-lived governments that usually usher in a brutal dictatorship.

Nothing could be further from the minds of Arab and Western secularists when they pass judgement on extreme Islamists.  The result is a complete inability to accept that even extremist Islamism might be a rational alternative, not to secularist ideals, but to secularist realities.  Instead secularists adopt the sort of half-truths and falsehoods typical of close-minded perspectives on social movements.  The extremists, they say, are foreigners, they are a bunch of thugs, they are funded by rich Gulf State Arabs, they are creations of the Syrian regime, they are allies of that regime...  they are anything but a local movement with its strength deriving from deep-seated local injustice.  This makes it impossible even to conceive of a serious strategy against them.

Why the seeming inability to compare the secularist and Islamist realities?  It seems that secularists do not look at their record because they do not even conceive of such a thing as a secularist record.  Were they to concede that secularism is most fairly represented by what it has delivered rather than what it promises, the shocking excesses of extreme Islamists would fall into an unpleasant perspective.

Take the 'Islamic State' movement.  What exactly have they done?  Cut off hands and heads, flogged dissidents, killed perhaps several hundred civilian 'apostates' and several hundred - but possibly several thousand - prisoners of war, largely for sectarian reasons.  In addition they have placed the most severe restrictions on women, suppressed free speech, persecuted religious minorities, employed 'child' - that is, adolescent - soldiers, destroyed ancient monuments, and desecrated the shrines of 'heretics'.  They have preached hatred and promoted all sorts of reactionary values.  They abhor democracy.

Understandably this record, combined with a reputation for relatively un-corrupt judicial procedure and efforts to maintain public services, has won them quite a bit of support.  After all, it is so much better than what secularism has brought to so many!  The level of misery they inflict is in about the same league as secularists Nasser or Sisi, not as sadistic as Pinochet, but these are small-time players.  Every one of the far worse catastrophes visited on, broadly speaking, the Middle East, was the work of secularists, and there are many instances of this.

The secularist record

If it's obvious to you that Islamist extremism hasn't anything like as bad a record as secularism's, please skip this section.

There is the excruciating slaughter Saddam Hussein brought on both Iranians and Iraqis in the Iran-Iraq conflict.  There are the atrocities he inflicted on his own people.  There are perhaps a million deaths the Western democracies caused in their decades-long campaigns to remove him.  There are the horrors attributable to the Shah of Iran.  Reaching further back, there is the French repression in Algeria, a comparable toll.  And topping all this, there is Assad.  One 'analyst' speaks of him 'slaughtering demonstrators', as if he had killed dozens rather than hundreds of thousands.  That's just one example of the paroxysm of dishonesty that engulfs allegedly sober analysts of the Islamist menace.  And of course there is Israel's kindler, gentler, decades-long attempt to wipe the Palestinians off the map.  Oh, and the secularist murder-fest in Lebanon: sectarian carnage is no less a blot on secular states for being sectarian.

Beyond the Middle East, just looking at atrocities visited on Muslims,  there are the agonies of Bosnia and earlier, the raging communal massacres of India - under secularist rule - in 1947.  But why stop there, since secularism is hardly a Middle Eastern phenomenon? Forget old stories like American slavery and King Leopold's Congo.  There is there is the enormous slaughter in Indonesia in 1965.  There is the ongoing Congolese civil war, an ignored and secularist phenomenon that may be the greatest horror since World War II.  There are Pol Pot's killing fields for millions, and the millions who died in the Vietnam war.  Earlier in the century there is of course Hitler, the Ukraine famine, the Armenian genocide, the rape of Nanking and so many other Japanese atrocities.  There is Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Vile dictators and warlords like Idi Amin and Bokassa and Charles Taylor? all secularists.

What a tiresome recitation!  But it needs reciting because there is not the faintest recognition that what all these blotches on humanity have in common is secularism.  This probably hasn't escaped the notice of 'jihadis', who for all the contempt visited on them seem to have paid some attention to history.  And of course the atrocities are not even in same ball park as those committed by the secularists, including Western democracies.

Much the same might be said of the secularist record in less dramatic areas. No doubt there are relatively 'comfortable' secularist nations, as there are relatively 'comfortable' Islamic nations like the Gulf States.  However the greatest cesspools of injustice and misery such as India and Mexico are without exception secularist.  No one even claims that secularism has worked wonders in, say, sub-Saharan Africa.

But the point of the exercise is not to highlight Western hypocrisy - hypocrisy is in itself a quite minor and enjoyable sin.  It is that effective opposition to 'extreme Islamism' can't even get started without appreciation of the secularist record.  Many may find it absurd to lump all these horrors together in one historical category.  It hard, though, to see how secularists can complain.  The label 'secularist' doesn't seem less dubiously broad than 'Islamist', which encompasses both Mohammed Morsi and Boko Haram.

Secularists opposing Islamic extremism

What, in the light of this record, can the West do about Islamist extremism?  Military action may sometimes be necessary, but it can never be sufficient.

It should be pretty clear by now that military defeats of extremist Islamism are ephemeral, because the same tendencies pop up again at a different time or place.  So nothing lasting can be gained by examining the minutiae of 'jihadist' alliances or killing individuals tendentiously identified as 'key operatives'.  Beyond that, few even believe that wreaking destruction on an Islamist territory is productive.  This strongly suggests that the only effective counter to extreme Islamism is to destroy, not its adherents, but its motivation.

The idea isn't new.  The Bush administration, despite its criminal idiocy, at least realized that extremism could not be countered by force alone: hence its project to remake the Middle East into mini-American democracies.  This is just a stupid way of saying that extremism is going to take root in bad societies, not good ones.

There are limits to this project.  There will always be religious fanatics, so some level of extremism is inevitable.  More important, the idea that there is some 'we' who will make good societies in the Middle East is an infantile fantasy.  No one is going to bring justice and freedom to the Middle East, or for that matter anywhere else.  In the real world, the most that can be achieved is to improve secularism's record by countering or removing some of its very worst - most extreme - excesses.  And for the West today, that boils down to one significant act:  supporting the Syrian revolution.

Why is that?  There is nothing the West can do in Iraq that won't simply blacken its reputation even further.  It hasn't the will to repress ISIS on its own.  If it deploys massive air power - the only politically possible move for nations utterly unwilling to incur high casualties on the ground - there will be massive civilian deaths.  So the West in Iraq could only aid Maliki's criminal régime and Iran.  At this point backing Maliki would entail giving Iran a free hand in Syria to back the criminal secularist Assad, hardly a redeeming move.  And it is hard to see just how the West might actually obtain justice for Muslims elsewhere in the world - certainly not in Israel, which by now is virtually immune to outside pressure. That leaves Syria as the only theatre in which secularism can combat the worst excesses of secularism.

For secularists, supporting moderate forces in Syria is all the more urgent because it is the only practical way secularism can begin to redeem itself in the Middle East.  It is an option which does not require massive bombing campaigns or supporting criminals, nor does it hark back to the ambitious idiocies of the Bush era.  And it is the only option that can actually save millions from misery or death in short order.  Finally it will contribute to isolating and overcoming ISIS, which will find itself cut off from its main supply routes.  Yet aiding the Syrian rebels won't reinforce Maliki or any other criminal regime.

The support moderate forces need is simple - not the insolent offer of 'training', but lots of good arms and ammunition.  It should be very clear that, given this strategy, significant quantities of those arms are certainly going to end up in extremist hands.  To panic about this is again to misunderstand the situation.  Extremists have never gained ascendancy because they find access to 'advanced arms'.  On the contrary, extremists have never had access to the latest and greatest in weaponry.  They don't seem particularly interested in changing that.  They do very well with simple, obsolescent weapons such as are readily available all over the world - no arms control measures have shown the slightest prospect of eliminating that supply.

It's not fancy weaponry that nourishes extremism, but injustice.  Though there isn't much the West can do to eliminate that problem, it must do what it can if it is to have any hope of countering the extremism with which it is so uselessly obsessed.  Arming the Syrian rebels is the first, and for now, the only step.