MERIP Blog

Striking for Dignity and Freedom

by Amahl Bishara | published May 5, 2017 - 8:28am

More than 1,500 Palestinian political prisoners began a hunger strike on April 17 for better conditions inside Israeli jails. Their demands include access to education, proper medical care and an end to the practice of solitary confinement. They are striking to make their families’ lives easier, too—for regular visitation rights and respectful treatment of visitors by prison administrators. And they are striking to protest one of the most obviously unjust Israeli policies—administrative detention, or imprisoning people indefinitely without charge.

Israel holds 6,300 Palestinian political prisoners—300 of whom are children. Five hundred are held under administrative detention; 458 have been sentenced to life in jail; 61 are women; 13 are members of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC); 70 are citizens of Israel. As of December 2016, 24 were journalists; one was a circus clown. At least 400 Palestinians have been arrested in recent years for social media posts considered by Israeli officials to be incitement to violence. In addition, it came to light that Israeli police arrested another 400 people who had committed no crime and written nothing that the police deemed threatening. Instead, they were arrested based on an algorithm that purports to predict who will commit a crime.

A hunger strike is a wrenching experience for those who do it. About two weeks in, strikers’ bodies begin to break down muscle in order to survive. Strikers feel cold; they lose the ability to stand up, then to hear and eventually to see. On top of that, Palestinians go on hunger strike inside prisons run by a state that dismisses them not only as enemies but also as “terrorists.” Prison administrators have punished strikers by moving them forcibly from jail to jail, and by placing some in solitary confinement. An Israeli youth group, meanwhile, held a barbecue outside a prison in the West Bank.

On the outside, the battle to delegitimize Palestinian prisoners continues, too. A May 1 New York Times op-ed by Gilad Erdan, Israel’s minister of public security and strategic affairs, used the terms “terrorism” or “terrorist” no fewer than 18 times—in a piece under 900 words long.

Palestinians recognize that Israeli prisons are part of a historical structure of oppression. Also in the New York Times, prisoner and PLC member Marwan Barghouti stressed the colonial nature of Israeli prisons, as well as the ways in which Israel’s detention policies break international law. Former prisoner and current PLC member Khaleda Jarrar emphasized to the Washington Post Palestinians’ right to resist an illegal occupation.

Resistance is transformative. Anthropologist Lena Meari writes of the practice of steadfastness or sumud as deployed by Palestinian prisoners. Being steadfast gives individuals the strength to endure Israeli interrogation; it connects children in prison to their parents outside; it creates a collectivity of prisoners under interrogation who refuse to give each other up. She writes, “Sumud…is an infinite creative process, a string of echoes that reflects and creates victory…. Underneath the skin of the one-in-sumud resides all those-in-sumud.” 

So it is that the prisoner has stopped eating on behalf of the right of parents to visit, while the parents, outside of prison, hold the pictures of their children, the prisoners, as they gather for marches through their home cities. The parents are free from prison, but they traverse the layers of violence and ruin that 50 years of Israeli military occupation have left behind.

Indeed, the strike mobilizes families and communities to reassert that they will stop everything so that the prisoners’ quality of life may improve. A general strike in the West Bank on April 27 closed shops, banks, factories, government institutions and universities—everything except high schools, emergency medical services and hospitals. There are solidarity tents set up in most cities. Community-based organizations have organized rallies and prepared public art. The strike is also a time for reviving the local boycott of Israeli products. As former prisoner Ahlam al-Wahsh says, “We go to the separation wall every day and cast Israeli goods there, to send a message to the occupiers that they are not welcome here. We struggle to not have their goods in our cities.” Her life has been shaped by her imprisonment as a teenager in the late 1970s: “I did not so much leave an Israeli prison as I left a Palestinian academy that built the person I am now.”

It is painful to know that one’s loved ones are on hunger strike. Notes Isra’ Abu Srour, the niece of a striker, Nasser Abu Srour, who has been in prison for a quarter-century, “It has been especially difficult for my grandmother. She spends all day in the solidarity tent. We all go to every procession. It is the least we can do.” She added, “Hopefully their demands will be met, because they are simple, humanitarian demands.” The Israeli human rights organization B’tselem agrees with this assessment. Indeed, as former prisoner Khaled al-Azraq explains, almost all of the demands are actually requests to reinstate privileges that prisoners had gained in previous strikes, but have been taken away over the years. Al-Azraq himself participated in hunger strikes in 1987, 1994, 1998, 2000 and 2004.

Al-Azraq adds that the strike is designed to mobilize the Palestinian street and revive esteem for the prisoners’ movement. “The strike is organized under the title, ‘A Strike for Dignity and Freedom,’” he explained. “The prisoners do not have their freedom because they are in prison, but they do have their dignity. Those of us outside need to restore our own freedom and dignity.” Al-Wahsh and al-Azraq, too, spend their days in the solidarity tent. “I try to be with the mothers,” said al-Wahsh, “to encourage them and lift their spirits.”

Just a few months before the Palestinian prisoners started to refuse food, there was another prison strike on another continent that denounced a history of racist dispossession. On September 9, 2016, on the forty-fifth anniversary of the Attica prison uprising in New York, 24,000 prisoners in 20 prisons in at least 12 states, including Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Oregon and Georgia, went on strike against prison labor conditions in the United States. As organizers stated, “In one voice, rising from the cells of long-term solitary confinement, echoed in the dormitories and cell blocks from Virginia to Oregon, we prisoners across the United States vow to finally end slavery in 2016.” The Thirteenth Amendment that otherwise ended slavery contains an exception for prison labor.

For anyone who would doubt that all prison is political, it is worth examining the rates of incarceration of black men in the US alongside the rate of imprisonment of Palestinians. According to the NAACP, one in six African-American men has been incarcerated. According to the Palestinian human rights group Addameer, approximately one in five Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories has been jailed since Israeli occupation began in 1967.

The justice system in each case is severely compromised, though in different ways. For Palestinians, conviction rates exceed 99 percent. In the US, 97 percent of criminal charges that are not dismissed are resolved through plea bargains rather than trials. This fact is troubling because even if they are innocent, people have many reasons to plead guilty rather than risk a trial.

In the US, prison undermines democracy, with approximately one in every 13 African-Americans of voting age unable to vote due to felon disenfranchisement laws. In three states, Florida, Virginia and Kentucky, more than one in five African-Americans is thus disenfranchised. Of course, all of the Palestinians living under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are denied the right to participate in Israeli elections despite the fact that Israel has maintained the occupation for a half-century.

The prison system feeds racism that kills. In the US, the death penalty is disproportionately carried out against people of color. In the final week of April, authorities in Arkansas scheduled a parade of gruesome executions—eventually putting four people to death—to beat the expiration dates of the drugs used for the lethal injections. This racism fuels police brutality. On April 29, a police officer shot a 15-year old black boy, Jordan Edwards, in the head as he drove a car away from a party in a Dallas suburb. Earlier in the spring, a young Palestinian man, Mohammad Aamar Jalad, died alone in a hospital room-turned-prison cell three months after Israeli soldiers shot and detained him when he crossed the street in an apparently suspicious manner on his way to his last chemotherapy appointment. Israeli army officials did not bother to update his family on his condition, even when he died.

Israeli and US prisons are, of course, distinct from one another. But when we look at them together, we can recognize that prison as a technology not only threatens the lives of those who live within prison, but also allows for the racist and deadly segregation of one part of a population from the rest. When we struggle against prison, we struggle for the dignity of black and brown people, of the dispossessed. As Ahlam al-Wahsh put it simply, speaking of the ongoing Palestinian hunger strike, “We must win, because the prisoners’ battle is the Palestinians’ battle.”

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The Subversive Power of Grief

by Paul Sedra | published December 13, 2016 - 3:09pm

The state-run funeral for the victims of the Butrusiyya Church massacre was a carefully organized, managed and controlled affair. Mourners without officially printed invitations were turned away from the proceedings, ostensibly for security reasons. Watching the ceremony on television, one could scarcely escape the impression that the relatives of the martyrs were of only secondary importance compared with the tightly interwoven array of military, state and church officials who dominated the scene.

The funeral was held at the site of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Madinat Nasr, an area that is chock full of military administration and training facilities and that, accordingly, remains rigorously monitored by Egyptian security agencies. The historical ironies of memorializing the Butrusiyya martyrs in this particular location are almost too numerous to count. Indeed, just steps away from where the mourners gathered stands the tomb of former Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat. While Sadat may be best known among Western observers for breaking with what was then Arab consensus to make peace with Israel, he is much better known among Egypt’s Copts for playing a vital role in the 1970s revival of political Islam in Egypt. Turning away from the Arabism of his predecessor, Sadat offered material and moral support to Islamist activists on university campuses and elsewhere, to say nothing of the frequent use of Islamic symbols and imagery in his public pronouncements, all of which caused great unease among Coptic Christians. Then-Pope Shenouda of the Coptic Orthodox Church repeatedly sparred with Sadat on the Egyptian political stage throughout the 1970s, interpreting the president’s actions as a threat to Copts’ rights of citizenship. This confrontation culminated with Sadat’s decision to place the pope under house arrest at a desert monastery—confinement that would ultimately last for over three years.

But one need not cast one’s mind all the way back to the 1970s and 1980s to grasp the dissonance of the funeral scene: Among the numerous sectarian tragedies with which Copts have had to grapple over the past several years, none has had the lasting impact of the one wrought by the Egyptian armed forces upon fellow Egyptians, known as the Maspero massacre. On the evening of October 9, 2011, nearly 30 protesters demanding an end to impunity for those engaging in sectarian violence became, themselves, victims of one of the most brutal and horrific sectarian attacks in Egypt’s history, with the image of armored personnel carriers crushing Coptic bodies becoming promptly seared into Coptic collective memory.

Sectarian attacks of this magnitude have repeatedly served as the catalyst for significant protest movements in Egypt. Indeed, the attack upon the Qiddisin Church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve 2010 gave rise to unprecedented protests among Copts against both the Egyptian state and the Coptic Orthodox Church hierarchy. Since that time, scholars have explicitly tied the outpouring of grief and protest in the weeks following the bombing into the development of the movement that would become the January 25 revolution. The Maspero massacre prompted the emergence of numerous organizations seeking justice for Copts, not least the Maspero Youth Union.

Accordingly, I could not help but wonder, in watching this carefully organized, managed and controlled funeral, whether both church and state sought to control the demonstrably subversive power of the grief experienced by both Copts and Muslims in the wake of so great a tragedy. And further, I could not help but wonder whether the decision to stage the funeral in this way spoke more to the fears of church and state about the destabilizing impact that grief could have on the Egyptian political scene than to their concern for the well-worn dicta of national unity.

No figure faces a greater political challenge in this context than the patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Pope Tawadros II has unmistakably thrown his lot in with the Egyptian armed forces and Egypt’s military ruler, ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi. One can certainly appreciate the circumstances that have led him to adopt this stance—not least the tremendous threat that Copts perceived in the rule of the Society of Muslim Brothers. But significant fissures have appeared among Copts about the pope’s seemingly limitless endorsement of Sisi and his rule. In the face of increasing sectarian violence and impunity for its perpetrators, Copts in Egypt, in the diaspora and indeed, in the church hierarchy are increasingly pushing back against the church’s official policy of collaboration with the regime. What I will look for most closely in the coming days and weeks is whether the pope is savvy enough to make concessions to the power of Copts’ and Egyptians’ grief, as his predecessor arguably was.

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Some Initial Thoughts on the Chilcot Report

published July 8, 2016 - 12:45pm

On July 6, an independent inquiry into British involvement in Iraq from the summer of 2001 to July 2009 released its report. Chaired by Sir John Chilcot, a veteran Whitehall mandarin, the inquiry was set up in 2009 by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The delay in publication of the report was partly a result of the sheer volume of material—nearly 150,000 documents and countless interviews, including several with Tony Blair, prime minister at the time of the 2003 invasion—that the panel examined. And it was partly a result of efforts that crossed party lines to wiggle out of publication. The Chilcot report, consisting of 2.6 million words in 12 volumes and a 200-page executive summary, is now regarded as the official assessment of British involvement in the Iraq war. It is just beginning to be digested for fresh insights into British strategy in Iraq, as well as the possible legal culpability of the figures leading Britain into war, including Blair. We asked a few MERIP friends and Iraq scholars for their reflections on what they have read so far.

Jane Kinninmont

The invasion of Iraq has had a huge impact on the debate about democracy in the Middle East—and almost entirely a detrimental one. Analysts in both the Middle East and the West routinely suggest that the war was an ill-conceived attempt to impose democracy on the region overnight with the barrel of a gun. The assumption is that democracy promotion was a key driver of the decision to go to war. Many go on to argue that the West should be less focused on promoting democracy.
 
This argument is confused. Democracy in the Middle East has never been a primary interest of Western states. Sometimes they have actively opposed it. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, neoconservatives and liberal interventionists made the case that this orientation should change. They argued that authoritarianism fostered extremism, including in Saudi Arabia (where most of the hijackers came from), and that democracy in the region was in the long-term interest of the United States. Against this backdrop, democratizing Iraq was one of several goals adopted in the run-up to the war. But it was seen as at best a bonus or a byproduct of a military intervention that was motivated by geopolitical interests—along with a host of other mooted benefits, such as unlocking the secret to Israeli-Palestinian peace. Had democratization been the fundamental driver of US and British policy, it is not clear why they would have picked Iraq as the single country to invade, or why they simultaneously reinforced military alliances with other authoritarian states in the region.
 
Instead, the Chilcot report’s 200-page executive summary does not mention the word “democracy” once. (Weapons of mass destruction are mentioned on 24 pages; terrorism on 19. Oil is mentioned six times.) The full report indicates that in the run-up to the war, there were significant debates among decision makers over whether democratization would be feasible after a regime change in Iraq. In early 2002 the Foreign Office was committed to countering WMD proliferation but the foreign secretary expressed doubts about whether a new regime would be better than the existing one in terms of democracy, while a research paper said that the external opposition was not capable of forming a credible government. The report argues that “for the UK, regime change was a means to achieve disarmament, not an objective in its own right.”

Among those more convinced of the need of regime change, democracy was still not a certainty. In July 2002, Tony Blair wrote to President George W. Bush that regime change “might involve another key military figure” in the interests of stability—but that if it were feasible for this to lead “in time” to a democratic Iraq, that would be “very powerful.” In August 2002, Britain’s deputy ambassador to the US wrote that the question of what to do on the “day after” was the “most vexed” issue, but that a senior State Department official had said that they were “increasingly thinking in terms of some form of democracy.”

Blair’s desire to stand “shoulder to shoulder with the US” is also mentioned early on as a key motivator. Blair of course did speak about democracy as part of validation for liberal intervention—and after the WMD threat was proven to be untrue, and the intelligence to have been deliberately exaggerated, his retrospective justifications for the war increasingly focused on ridding the world of a brutal dictator. A vision of transformational change for the region may have helped to shape his conception of British interests in joining the war, just as it did for the neoconservatives in Washington, but this idea was not what brought the government and parliament on board.

Adding democratization into a mix of other stated motivations for the war—including WMD non-proliferation, removing a ruler who had been belligerent toward US-allied neighbors, supposedly fighting al-Qaeda—confused the issue, and created a damaging association between Western democracy promotion and violent intervention. Iraq after 2003 has not been so much a failure of democracy as a failure to bring about the basic peace and security that are needed before a democracy can function.

Ibrahim Al-Marashi

Prior to the Iraq war of March 2003, the Blair government released a series of “intelligence dossiers” to sway public opinion and votes in Parliament. One of these documents was given to Secretary of State Colin Powell in January 2003, who referred to it during his presentation the next month at the United Nations on Iraq’s alleged WMD program. The following day, Channel 4 News revealed that whole sections of the “intelligence dossier” were copied off the Internet by the British government from an online article I published, based on my doctorate at Oxford University. From that day forward, this document has been referred to as the “dodgy dossier.”

The Chilcot report provides some understanding as to how this mistake occurred. I am mentioned in Section 4.3 of the report, entitled, “Iraq WMD Assessments, October 2002 to March 2003.” Paragraph 235 of the report includes a February 3, 2003 statement from Tony Blair referring to an intelligence dossier: “We issued further intelligence over the weekend about the infrastructure of concealment. It is obviously difficult when we publish intelligence reports, but I hope that people have some sense of the integrity of our security services. They are not publishing this, or giving us this information, and making it up.”

Blair’s statement was misleading on two counts. The dossier to which Blair is referring is made up of three sections. It is the second part that was based primarily on my research. That section, thus, was not based on intelligence about Iraq from MI-6, but on plagiarized material from an unrefined rough draft of chapter two of my thesis, at a time when I was about to change the entire argument of the manuscript.

With regard to Blair’s reference to not “making it up,” it was Part One of the dossier that proved to be contentious and, in fact, made up. Paragraph 238 of the report notes: “In Part One, the document stated that Iraqi security organizations worked ‘together to conceal documents equipment and materials’ and the regime had ‘intensified efforts to hide documents in places where they were unlikely to be found, such as private homes of low-level officials and universities.’” Thus, the public was led to infer that MI-6 had confirmed that Saddam Hussein was concealing weapons of mass destruction. This statement in the dossier was a small part of the US and British narrative about the putative threat of Iraq’s WMD threat. Nonetheless, in relation to my academic career I have had to defend myself for more than a decade by explaining that I was not responsible for Part One, which specifically dealt with the WMD aspects, and that what was plagiarized was my schematic overview of the divisions and responsibilities of Iraq’s security services. This nuance has been lost over time, especially in Turkey where I held my first academic post. I was known in the Turkish media as “the man who finished off Saddam” or “the man who started a war.”

Even though I was at the center of this affair, and took part in a British parliamentary inquiry that attempted to resolve the issue in the summer of 2003, it took until 2016 for the Chilcot report to provide a detailed chronology of how these events unfolded. The inquiry may contribute to the public’s knowledge of the opaque decision making among political elites that led to Britain’s participation in the war. Personally, I have gained a bit more insight into how the plagiarism occurred. This knowledge has not provided me any closure, however, nor will it likely provide closure for British families who lost their sons and daughters in Iraq, or the Iraqi themselves, still suffering more than a decade later from the case Bush and Blair made to go to war.

Dina Rizk Khoury

Perhaps, as commentators have said, the Chilcot report offers no new information on the debacle that was the Iraq war. I doubt that many have had time to read the 2.6 million-word document.

Yet the report is significant for two reasons. It is an official inquiry initiated by a government-appointed body, an inquiry that is critical but inconceivable in the current climate in the US. And despite the relatively innocuous statements about lessons to be learned that Chilcot has made, the report opens the door for a serious discussion about accountability, culpability and legal recourse, at least for the families of British soldiers and civilians whose lives were lost in the war. The report is an indictment of the government of Tony Blair, but offers comfort to the British public that despite its failures, the British democratic system can produce a report on such failures. That, of course, is of no importance to the Iraqis or other people of the Middle East who have suffered the consequences of US and British hubris and “mistakes.”

The verdict of the Chilcot report is that the war itself was a mistake and the result of hasty and often shortsighted and ill-advised decisions on the part of the Blair government that skirted international legal sanction and undermined the independence of British foreign policy. While the thoroughness and detail provided by the long report might shed new light on British role in the war, its conclusions are not surprising. More troubling is the framing of the war as a mistake and its refusal to make a statement on the legality of the war. In so doing, the report fails to account for the deliberate and systematic manner in which the British and US governments had been building for a full military engagement with Iraq, including regime change, since the 1990-1991 Gulf war. Punishing sanctions, intermittent military operations, the imposition of no-fly zones and the open support of opposition groups within Iraq were all carried out under the guise of a weapons inspections regime and in the name of the restoration and maintenance of international security. The UN Security Council sanctioned all of these acts by invoking Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, something it had done only once during the Cold War, to justify the view that Iraq represented a security threat to the international order. Britain and the US were unequal partners in this war by other means, working at steering Security Council resolutions to systematically overplay the threat of Iraq, well before the September 11 attacks and the attempts of Blair and Bush to hitch the wagon of terrorism to the star of non-proliferation. The question of the legality of the war is important to address, but how does one account for the international sanction provided by the Security Council and for the wide berth it allowed the US and Britain to argue that Iraq constituted a threat to international security well before 2001?

And where does this report leave the Iraqis? Certainly with no international tribunals that hold the leaders of the Iraq war accountable. I am struck by the statement made to the inquiry by Brig. Gen. Graham Burns, commander of the Seventh Armored Division responsible for Basra. Commenting on the lack of direction he received on how to deal with the post-invasion looting, he said that he decided that the “best way to stop looting was just to get to a point where there is nothing left to loot.” Indeed.

Nadje Al-Ali

It is difficult to assess a 6,000-page report in a day. Even the executive summary is challenging to read. My initial reaction is “too little, too late.”

I would like to share the words of the London chapter of the Iraqi Transnational Collective, which sum up my main responses to the report:

The inquiry, officially launched on 30 July 2009, intended to examine the decision making process that led to the war and to identify whether relevant lessons had been learned. Although the Iraqi Transnational Collective-London Chapter opposes war, as did the one million British people that took to the streets in protest, we welcome the Report’s findings in relation to the reprehensible actions of then Prime Minister Tony Blair and his government. However, the Report only lends credence in the world of officialdom to what, in the inquiry of public opinion, has long since been established—that the decision to go to war was based on misleading evidence and wholly disingenuous arguments.

The ITC-London finds the seven-year wait unforgivable and unjustifiable. Twelve volumes and over 10 million pounds of public funds later, the findings reveal little that was not known before the war began. As expected, Blair has quickly tried to absolve himself by claiming that the post-conflict violence in Iraq was not a result of the war. Whilst the ITC-London does not deny the role other actors have and continue to play, it is our position, supported by the findings of the Report that the worst excesses of violence which followed the fall of Saddam’s regime in Iraq could have been mitigated. On release of the Report, Chilcot stated that the “the scale of the war effort in post-conflict Iraq never matched the challenge.” The Bush administration and their counterparts in the British government failed to formulate and implement an effective aftermath strategy which looked to secure more than country’s oil fields.

No doubt my response is very much influenced by the July 3 ISIS bombing in the Karrada district of Baghdad, which killed 292 people (and maybe more—the death toll continues to rise). These people were shopping on the eve of ‘Id al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan. I was concerned about my relatives and friends in Baghdad but they seem to be OK. Lots of other people are not. Now I worry about my cousin who is planning to fly to Baghdad this week, taking her young daughter with her. I worry about revenge attacks. I worry about more ISIS bombings. I worry about sectarianism and the complicity of the government, the widespread corruption and incompetence.

The release of the Chilcot report is not helping Iraqis to deal with the horrendous aftermath of the war. It was never intended to. I resent how the British media, politicians and much of the public focus on the 179 British soldiers who were sadly killed, but seem to forget or only mention as an afterthought the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who lost their lives. There is hardly any mention of the large number of Iraqi civilians who were badly injured, who were internally displaced or fled the country.

Given my own expertise and long-term research into the gendered implications of the Baathist regime and sanctions, invasion and occupation, as well as sectarian conflict, I looked for gender-specific references. The liberation of women and increased equality had, after all, been part and parcel of the British government’s rhetoric pre- and post-invasion. At first glance, the report seems to be absolutely gender-blind. But maybe I need to dig deeper into the 6,000 pages.

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Letter to UN Secretary-General Concerning Saudi Arabia's Removal from List of Armies Charged with War Crimes

published June 29, 2016 - 5:09pm

June 30, 2016

Mr. Ban Ki-Moon
United Nations Secretary General

We the undersigned, a group of professors in Europe and North America, are deeply alarmed to learn that the government of Saudi Arabia has coerced you to remove the military coalition led by that country in Yemen from the UN list of armies charged with war crimes in that country. According to the New York Times, you have openly admitted to reporters that you were “threatened with the loss of financing for humanitarian operations in the Palestinian territories, South Sudan and Syria” if you did not capitulate to Saudi demands in this regard.

The same reports indicate that your office had issued a report “on violations of children’s rights in war zones, and it cited deadly coalition attacks that had hit schools and hospitals,” but soon “the coalition was taken off the list, after lobbying by Saudi Arabia and some of its wealthiest allies who help finance United Nations humanitarian operations.”

We are, sir, aghast at the brazen vulgarity of power that a single ruling family in one member state can assert against the entirety of the UN to prevent it from documenting war crimes and crimes against humanity.

This in fact is the second time in a year that your office has reversed course by openly removing the name of a state charged with war crimes from such lists. Last year under US and Israeli pressure you removed Israel from a similar list of violent states freely maiming and murdering children without any repercussions.

The UN is not the first or the only international entity to charge Saudi Arabia with such crimes against humanity.

Amnesty International has also reported: “Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces have carried out a series of air strikes targeting schools that were still in use, in violation of international humanitarian law, and hampering access to education for thousands of Yemen’s children.”

On its most recent mission to northern Yemen, Amnesty International has found “evidence of US, UK and Brazilian cluster munitions used by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces. The use of cluster bombs is banned under the Convention on Cluster Munitions.”

Such egregious violations of the human rights of a beleaguered nation by Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners, aided and abetted by the US and the UK, make a mockery of the sovereignty of nations, of international humanitarian conventions, of the rule of law, and above all of the rule of reason and sanity.

If not the UN then what international body has the duty of documenting such criminal offenses? If not the UN then who should hold Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners accountable for such war crimes?

Withholding of humanitarian aid to the UN for political gain is an affront to the very logic of cooperation among the community of nations and should be condemned as such by the entirety of the civilized world.

We the undersigned hold the UN chiefly responsible for continuing to document such barbaric violations of children’s safety and security by Saudi Arabia in Yemen or by any other member state anywhere else in the world.

The ruling Saudi regime obviously knows how to use its wealth to manipulate dysfunctional international bodies such as the UN. However, in the eyes of the global community it stands charged with overwhelming evidence of war crimes and of fundamental human indecency.

Your open and public confession, Mr. Moon, to have been forced to pander to Saudi power and wealth is the most damning indictment both against the staggering incompetence of UN and the wanton cruelty of Saudi Arabia, which is literally getting away with mass murder and an assortment of atrocities in a neighboring sovereign nation-state.

1.     Khaled Abou El Fadl, University of California, Los Angeles
2.     Ervand Abrahamian, City University of New York
3.     Lila Abu-Lughod, Columbia University
4.     Moonier Arbach, Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), Paris
5.     Geneviève Bédoucha, CNRS, Paris
6.     Peter Beinart, City University of New York
7.     Naor Ben-Yehoyada, University of Cambridge
8.     Isa Blumi, Stockholm University
9.     Laurent Bonnefoy, Sciences Politiques, Paris
10.  François Burgat, IREMAM, Aix-en-Provence, France
11.  Robert Burrowes, University of Washington
12.  Sheila Carapico, University of Richmond
13.  Steven Caton, Harvard University
14.  Don Conway-Long, Webster University
15.  Hamid Dabashi, Columbia University
16.  Fred Dallmayr, University of Notre Dame
17.  Rochelle Davis, Georgetown University
18.  Blandine Destremau, CNRS, EHESS, Paris
19.  Paul Dresch, University of Oxford
20.  Kaveh Ehsani, DePaul University
21.  Richard Falk, Princeton University (emeritus) 
22.  Mark Gasiorowski, Tulane University
23.  McGuire Gibson, University of Chicago
24.  Michael Gilsenan, New York University
25.  Andre Gingrich, Austrian Academy of Sciences
26.  Ali Ghodsi, University of Waterloo, Canada
27.  Ahmad Hadavi, Northwestern University
28.  Najam Haider, Barnard College, Columbia University
29.  Wael Hallaq, Columbia University
30.  Nader Hashemi, University of Denver
31.  Mary Hegland, Santa Clara University
32.  Juliette Honvault, IREMAM, Aix-Marseille Université, France
33.  Erik Hovden, Institute for Social Anthropology, Vienna
34.  Hossein Kamaly, Barnard College, Columbia University
35.  Mohsen Kadivar, Duke University
36.  Lamya Khalidi, CEPAM, CNRS, France
37.  Haider A. Khan, University of Denver
38.  Laurie King, Georgetown University
39.  Thomas Kuehn, Simon Fraser University
40.  Ahmet T. Kuru, San Diego State University
41.  Jean Lambert, CERMOM-INALCO, Paris
42.  Miriam Lowi, College of New Jersey
43.  Mojtaba Mahdavi, University of Alberta, Canada
44.  Elham Manea, University of Zurich
45.  Hamid Mavani, Bayan Claremont Islamic Graduate School
46.  Anne Meneley, Trent University
47.  Brinkley Messick, Columbia University
48.  W. Flagg Miller, University of California, Davis
49.  Timothy Mitchell, Columbia University
50.  Annie Montigny, MNHN-Musée de l’Homme, France
51.  Norma Claire Moruzzi, University of Illinois, Chicago
52.  Mehdi Noorbakhsh, Harrisburg University
53.  Misagh Parsa, Dartmouth College
54.  Vijay Prasad, Trinity College
55.  Babak Rahimi, University of California, San Diego
56.  Ahmad Sadri, Lake Forest College
57.  Mahmoud Sadri, Texas Woman’s University
58.  Muhammad Sahimi, University of Southern California
59.  Christa Salamandra, Lehman College, City University of New York
60.  Aseel Sawalha, Fordham University
61.  Jillian Schwedler, Hunter College, City University of New York
62.  Marie-Claude Simeone-Senelle, CNRS, LLACAN-INALCO, France
63.  Emilio Spadola, Colgate University
64.  Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Columbia University
65.  Roman Stadnicki, University of Tours
66.  Lucine Taminian, Independent scholar, Amman
67.  Mahdi Tourage, King's University College at Western University
68.  Peyman Vahabzadeh, University of Victoria, Canada
69.  Robert Vitalis, University of Pennsylvania
70.  Janet Watson, University of Leeds
71.  John Willis, University of Colorado
72.  Jessica Winegar, Northwestern University
73.  Stacey Philbrick Yadav, Hobart and William Smith Colleges

Filed under:

After Orlando

published June 17, 2016 - 10:58am

On June 12 the world awoke to news of the massacre of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. From the beginning, the media was full of misleading and politically charged speculation. In the mid-morning of June 12, for instance, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) tersely told CNN that the killer, Omar Mateen, “was from Afghanistan and had weapons training.” Within hours, it was reported that Mateen was US-born and received his training from his employer G4S, the world’s largest private security firm. He had purchased his guns legally in Florida. There was also noticeable discomfort in much of the reaction to the killings about the facts that Pulse is an LGBTQ club and that most of the dead and wounded were Latin Americans. We asked some MERIP friends to comment on the misinformation and the telling silences in the coverage.

Sima Shakhsari

In the aftermath of the horrendous shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, many people have rightly pointed out that the hyper-masculine homophobic Omar Mateen does not represent Muslims. Fearing increased violence against Muslims and Middle Eastern immigrants in the US, some have apologetically made statements about how Islam and Muslims do not condone violence, especially during the holy month of Ramadan.

But why is this sense of responsibility imposed on Muslims and not other Americans? What is in a name? Why does a man's name implicate 1.5 billion Muslims? What is erased in the racist obsession with his religion and his family’s national origin?

Let me outline a few erasures that add a level of epistemic violence to the deadly homophobic violence that took the lives of mostly working-class Latin@s (most of them Puerto Ricans) at Pulse.

The characterization of this mass shooting as a terrorist attack against the United States minimizes the gravity of the violence against queers of color and queer immigrants—the nationalist discourse erases brown and black queer immigrant bodies. Despite the fact that Latin@s are criminalized, deported and incarcerated in massive numbers on a daily basis, violence against queer Latin@s becomes newsworthy only when it is packaged as a “terrorist attack” story. As Che Gosset and Christoph Hanssman aptly point out on Facebook, the US colonial and economic violence in Puerto Rico is forgotten in performances of mourning in a seemingly queer- and immigrant-friendly America. The recent US Supreme Court decision against Puerto Rico’s bid to restructure its $70 billion debt is directly related to the economic inequalities that compel queer Puerto Ricans to migrate to Orlando and other mainland cities in the US. Claiming Latinx bodies after death for nationalistic agendas may be too little and too late in the face of anti-immigrant laws and sentiments in the US. The unquestioned characterization of the Orlando tragedy as the "deadliest shooting in the US history” also whitewashes another colonial violence—the massacre of Native Americans. Through collective amnesia, this misnomer holds Muslims and not the settler colonial state responsible for the bloodiest mass murder in the history of the US.

The focus on the shooter’s religion and national origin reproduces Islam and Muslims as exceptionally homophobic and violent, thus exonerating the hegemonic US culture of its own homophobia, transphobia and misogyny. In a time when a white male college student gets away with raping a woman, when violence against Muslims and Middle Eastern people is normalized in US popular culture and video war games, when the bashing and killing of trans people under the rhetoric of safety is legitimized, when the shooting of black people by the militarized police is considered heroic, and when gun violence is legitimized under the cloak of freedom, Mateen’s violent act is more about his toxic masculinity than it is about Islam. The fact that Mateen worked for the world’s largest security firm, which runs several Israeli prisons and checkpoints as well as many US prisons (including Medway juvenile prison where G4S was accused of abusing the incarcerated youth not too long ago), cannot be forgotten or pushed aside. Neither can we overlook his obsession with becoming a police officer and his love for a racist police force that criminalizes, kills and imprisons people of color, queer and trans people, and immigrants.

The focus on Islam as the explanation for violent acts, as Edward Said has argued, is an Orientalist approach to people from a vast region who, despite their differences and various levels of piety, are reduced to their religion. Nobody asked what Christianity or the Bible says about race when Dylann Roof opened fire in a black church in Charleston. Rather than holding Islam and Muslims responsible for this man's violent rage, perhaps we should come to terms with the fact that he was an all-American boy who took his lessons from the culture of homophobia, transphobia and violence in the US. Perhaps the problem is not Islamic terrorism; perhaps the problem is homegrown US hetero-patriarchal terrorism. This is not to downplay the violence of fundamentalist groups who have opportunistically laid claims on Islam. Nor is it an attempt to deny the existence of homophobia, transphobia and misogyny in the Middle East or among Muslims. My point is to question the hypocrisy of an exceptionalism that assumes the US to be the bastion of freedom and progress.

By now it is not surprising that when an angry white man commits a mass shooting, he is characterized as a “lone wolf,” but when a Muslim or Middle Eastern man is the shooter, he is characterized as a terrorist, and by default, an ISIS or al-Qaeda agent. There is no evidence, except for Mateen’s last-minute claim (perhaps to make his homophobic attack seem like a heroic act), that he was connected to ISIS. Yet, if we truly believe that Mateen’s murderous act was an ISIS plot, then we have to ask where ISIS gets its support and why it emerged in the first place. We may have to question the instability and chaos that the US military intervention in the region has left behind. We may have to ask questions about the Saudi government’s support of ISIS. As a friend posted on Facebook, ISIS has become the deterritorialized imagined community where anyone who wants to defy certain social rules can claim belonging (or is assigned belonging). I would add that this association only “sticks” to certain bodies, while others are assumed to be misguided or troubled white boys who were denied a proper nuclear heterosexual family upbringing. In fact, on the same day as the Orlando shooting, a white man with ammunition was arrested at the Los Angeles Pride festival. As expected, this violent homophobe was not characterized as a terrorist. Had he had a Muslim name, it would be unimaginable that allegations of a concerted terrorist attack would not circulate and produce calls for heightened national security and policing. Not only does this racist division of violence assume an inherent risk of terrorism to be hidden in Muslim and Middle Eastern bodies, but it also minimizes the terror that numerous mass shootings committed by white men (including those by the police in places like Ferguson) incite in many people’s lives.

It is also predictable how the US discourse on terrorism recycles its own regurgitations. A day after the shooting, the media was obsessed with Mateen’s alleged queer desires. Not unlike the stories of fagdom among the Taliban, Islam’s promise of 72 virgins in heaven and Mohammad Atta’s perverted desires, we are told that the Muslim terrorist fag’s pent-up sexual desires, repressed by Islam or his “culture” motivated him to kill. As Jasbir Puar and Amit Rai have argued, terrorism studies, which has been producing this form of knowledge for decades, places the blame on bad mothering or dysfunctional family structure. It is the immigrant and non-white families (like Mateen’s Afghan family), we are told, whose cultural backwardness leads their children to psychological compulsion. The homonationalist (Jasbir Puar) and homonormative (Lisa Duggan) narrative then goes something like this: “Come out, get married and be normal! You can even join the military to kill the terrorists and sacrifice yourself for this great nation! And if you are celibate, we may even let you donate blood! And immigrant families: Get with the program! This is America, land of the free!” Hidden in this narrative is also the assumption that Islam and queerness are incommensurable and that queer Muslims are in need of rescue from their “barbaric and homophobic cultures.”

The liberal valorization of coming out as the remedy for violence distracts from the nuances of this shooting. Despite the criminalization and the profiling of Muslims, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of shooters in the US are white, and all of them are cis men (Dylann Roof, Robert Lewis Dear, Aaron Alexis and George Zimmerman, among others). Perhaps it was not Mateen’s “closeted gayness,” but his performance of a homophobic and misogynistic American masculinity enabled by everyday militarism, and constructed vis-à-vis the “failed masculinity” of the Muslim other, that led to this massacre. As a matter of fact, many people in the US do not “come out,” precisely because they fear this kind of toxic masculinity on the streets, at work, in school and at home. Those of us who are queer and Muslim know what it means to be blamed for anything from natural disasters to mass shootings. We know what it means to be profiled and what it means to be bashed and spat on by those who claim authenticity on the basis of monolithic imaginations of the “Muslim culture” or the “American culture.”

In a time when the US presidential candidates call for the bombing of ISIS as a retaliatory measure, it is crucial to unravel the way that homophobic and transphobic violence, Islamophobia, domestic violence, economic violence, racial violence, police violence, increased security and prisons, and the US imperialist wars are entangled in a web that implicates all of us. It is the time, again, to say not in our name!

Roqayah Chamseddine

The hurried characterization of Omar Mateen as a foreign bogeyman goes well beyond reactionary formulas—it is the lens through which all American Muslims are viewed. The widely held belief that Muslims are incapable of existing as members of American society, and specifically that they are thus incapacitated by their Muslim identity, is used to “other” them in times of tragedy. They are rejected from the folds of American culture, and their crimes are quickly pinned upon the faith they have chosen to follow.

Pundits and politicians continue to say that Mateen’s homophobia, transphobia, misogyny and racism were all due to his Islam. They refuse to allow his actions to be divorced from the religion he is said to have called his own. His horrific crimes are attributed not to the culture of violence that continues to find safety in US politics and law, but to his parent’s birthplace and the religion they passed down to their son.

For too many Americans, indeed, there are no factors that can override an Orientalist view of The Muslim, who lives a life of irreducible marginalization. It is a caricature of The Muslim that we are sold in the media: The Muslim is only in repose so long as he is able to subdue his barbarity. He is a beast on two legs lying in wait. The Muslim feigns patriotism and practice of American customs, but it is a trick, so he must be watched for signs of savagery as he prays in the mosque and goes about his business. The Muslim American is a hyper-visible yet invisible being who will have his American-ness stripped from him the moment he errs.

What is it about Omar Mateen that made him less American than Eric Rudolph, who so hated what he called an “aberrant [homosexual] lifestyle” that he bloodied Atlanta during the 1996 Summer Olympics? This is a face of America that many refuse to come to terms with, because otherwise they would have to face the implications for the myth they peddle that this hatred is largely imported and not homegrown.

There is nothing foreign about Mateen’s beliefs, nothing alien about his actions. The conversation must change in order for there to be a remedy. What this will take is organizing against those that target marginalized communities, and there can be no organizing without first acknowledging material realities.

Alex Lubin

There are times when language and analysis seem inadequate to representing the moment, its emotion, its feeling, its horror. The murder of 49 people and maiming of 53 more in a gay nightclub in Orlando is an incident that must be analyzed, and yet it is a spectacular horror that seems to escape representation, at least at the moment. It is enough to focus on the people murdered in Orlando; and yet, the spectacle in Orlando is merely a fragment of a larger mosaic. How can we think about violence relationally without diminishing the localized, focused response to violence and victimhood? And how can we push our analysis beyond nationalism, so that it can account for the violence of the state and the multinational corporation, as well as the violence of a lone individual? 

Here is an attempt at piecing together some of the fragments, with full recognition that many more people will need to be heard in order for the full mosaic to emerge.

Just a few days prior to the Orlando massacre the United States attempted to incorporate Muhammad Ali into the nation; President Barack Obama claimed that Ali’s story was only possible in America. At the same service, Malcolm X’s daughter, Amb. Attallah Shabazz, appealed to Ali’s membership in a fraternity of black radical anti-imperialist thinkers for whom the horizons of black freedom were global and not national. At Ali’s funeral, just a few days prior to the Orlando shootings, Islam was adopted into a vision of US nationalism, even though Ali was considered un-American back in the day.

The US has a robust killing program across the Middle East, in Arab and Islamic societies, through a drone program that barely rises to the level of interest in US public debate. In the days leading up to the Orlando massacre, the US committed four murders by drone in Yemen—a country on which the US has not declared war. Arabs and Muslims have been killed with imprecision and regularity by a targeted assassination program across Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa. It would seem that precarity for most is the precondition for security for some. 

The Orlando shooter worked for G4S, the largest security company in the world. A multinational security firm based in Britain, G4S makes plainly visible the transnational scope of militarized and masculinist violence, as it secures the US national border—another way, perhaps, in which many of the Latino Orlando victims were targeted—and borders across the Middle East, such as in occupied Palestine.

The Orlando victims were in a club made necessary by a homo- and trans-phobic culture that demands that queer intimacy and sociality take place in designated queer spaces, and in which bathrooms are contested terrain. Queer spaces like the Pulse nightclub have been refugee camps, of sorts, or spaces of hope, where queer sociality and freedom are possible, even as they have also been targeted by police, the state’s executioner of rampant and violent masculinity.

The discursive machine will quickly turn to the purported Islamic motives for anti-queer violence. “They hate our freedom,” some will say, even as the queer nightclub was already a space of hope within an American society that hates queer freedom. Hillary Clinton is already appealing to “radical Islam” as a culprit while Donald Trump is, well, Donald Trump.

The state will raise the specter of gun control and some may even call for revamped hate crimes legislation, but neither of these appeals will incorporate the Yemeni family targeted by the war on terror. No nightclub protects the Afghan family—queer or not—from death by drone, just as there is no safe space for queer freedom in a society structured in heteropatriarchy. Moreover, far more people will call for increased securitization and masculinist violence in geographies designated Muslim.

I am reminded of June Jordan’s poem, “Moving Towards Home,” when, after witnessing the anti-black violence of Rodney King’s beating by the Los Angeles police and Israel’s Operation Grapes of Wrath assault on southern Lebanon, she thought about the relationality of violence. After asserting that she, as a black woman, had “become Palestinian,” she writes, “against the relentless laughter of evil, there is less and less living room, and where are my loved ones?”

Maya Mikdashi

It has been almost a week since a mass shooting at Pulse, an LBGTQ nightclub in Orlando, killed 49 individuals and wounded more than 50 on a Latinx night. These killings have inspired national conversations about gun control, the rights of LGBTQ communities and continued homophobia in the US, and Islamophobia and the war on terror. I would like to underline three points that stand out in the media coverage and look forward to action aimed at producing solidarity and political change.

First, it is critical to continue to highlight that the victims of this mass killing are mostly Latinx—and mostly Latinx youth. In much of our analysis, including my own, there is a tendency to focus on the question of terrorism, or the war on terror, and its twinning with Islamophobia and the US security-imperial state. There was also much writing on homophobia and homosexuality “in” Islam, the most helpful and comprehensive of which was written by Mehammad Amadeus Mack. Many of us felt compelled to respond in this register, and these are necessary interventions in a time of war and during a US presidential campaign where Islamophobia seems to be a political platform. 

It is necessary, however, to think through the gendered hyper-securitization of Muslim-Americans alongside the gendered hyper-securitization and criminalization of Latinx peoples in the United States. In fact, the hyper-racialization of the killer matched the deracination of the victims in much mainstream and political commentary. It was no accident, since the war on terror works in racialized, national and gendered binaries. The deracination of the victims (and the de-queerification of the club and the victims by many politicians) was necessary to produce the attack as “one on America” at a time when mainstream US political and national culture is deeply xenophobic, homophobic and suspicious of Latinx communities. As academics and as activists, it is important to critically bring together conversations on anti-Latinx and anti-Muslim discrimination and the ways that discourses on gender and sex operate as technologies of hyper-visualization and securitization both nationally and imperially. A vital part of this task is to think about the war on terror alongside the war on drugs. We must continue to research and write on criminalization, racialization and securitization within an expansive framework that includes the ways in which black, Latinx, indigenous, Muslim and immigrant Americans have been and continue to be differently and relationally incorporated into the structure of the white-dominant but “multicultural” US settler state. After all, the two communities directly targeted by anti-immigrant and anti-immigration platforms are Muslims and Latinx, and it is no coincidence that discourses on sex, gender and security are tied together in conversations around immigration and national character.

This point is directly connected to a second one, regarding the global and national hierarchy of human life and the ways in which we mourn those murdered in mass killings and terrorist attacks. It is crucial to think about the politics of citizenship, nationality and nationalism in this context—after all, there are undocumented victims of the Pulse shootings who cannot be mourned nationally precisely because, as “illegal aliens,” they are figured as threats to the nation. Furthermore, the mass shooting at Pulse and the global outcry that followed—which included the almost farcical shows of support and mourning by rulers of Arab states that routinely harass, imprison and brutalize LGBTQ communities—underscores the ways that (deracinated, de-queered) American lives and American tragedies are global tragedies that circulate as international events. In a war-on-terror world, there is an injunction to grieve in public for American lives lost to terrorism in order to ward off suspicion and further targeting. This injunction applies as well to the dead in France or Belgium, but not to victims of terrorism (state or otherwise) in Iraq or Nigeria or Syria. This phenomenon is directly related to the ways in which US political discourse on the war on terror has starkly divided the world into victims (Europeans and Americans) and perpetrators (Muslims and Arabs). Additionally, the public and international circulation of mourning related to the Pulse shooting emerges from the teleology implicit in homonationalism, where the US is configured as the end point—the resting place—of a global journey of LGBTQ struggle.
 
Finally, it is important to back up our words of outrage with action. Such action includes working toward opening up academic and professional space within the field of Middle East studies. Work in the areas of sexuality, gender and human rights is increasingly central to thinking and writing about the war on terror. More scholars from a variety of disciplines should pay attention to this work, and this frame for understanding what is happening. In terms of professional space, we could use the field’s flagship annual conference, the meeting of the Middle East Studies Association—to combat heterosexism, conservatism and tensions around gender non-conformity in our multiple academic communities.

Release Homa Hoodfar

by The Editors | published June 10, 2016 - 12:20pm

We are deeply concerned by the arrest and ongoing detention of Homa Hoodfar, an eminent anthropologist and contributor to Middle East Report, by the Revolutionary Guard Corps of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Hoodfar traveled to Iran in early 2016 to visit family and conduct scholarly research. She was scheduled to depart the country on March 10, but on the preceding evening Revolutionary Guards officers went to her home and confiscated her passport, as well as her personal computer, cellular phone and other items. Since mid-March she has been repeatedly interrogated, apparently with the aim of tying her scholarly work and research to political activity of which the state disapproves.

Hoodfar was arrested on June 6 after being summoned for still another interrogation. She is being held incommunicado and without charge in Evin prison in Tehran. Neither her lawyer nor her family have been permitted to see her since her arrest, nor have they been given any reason why she is being detained. More worrisome is that Hoodfar’s family has not been allowed to give her the medication she needs to treat a chronic neurological condition.

Hoodfar is a professor of anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal. She is a specialist in gender issues, including reproductive rights, family law and the role of women in politics, as well as the intersections of gender with development and public health. She has written for Middle East Report on such subjects on three occasions.

Homa Hoodfar’s arrest and detention are a violation of the rights to freedom of thought, opinion and speech guaranteed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the Islamic Republic of Iran is a signatory. We join Amnesty International, the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association and other organizations in calling for her prompt, unconditional release and the immediate return of her passport and personal effects.

UPDATE: Amnesty International of Canada is hosting this petition calling for Homa Hoodfar’s release.

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Arabia Incognita

by The Editors | published May 6, 2016 - 1:23pm

The disastrous Saudi-led war on Yemen has entered its fourteenth month.

More than 9,000 people have been killed, according to UN figures, one third of them civilians. Some 2.4 million Yemenis are uprooted from their homes, and a staggering 80 percent of the population lack reliable supplies of food. The displaced and the hungry are unable to flee the country—all the borders are closed—and a naval blockade has prevented all but a trickle of outside aid from reaching those in need. On May 3, the UN inaugurated a program to screen relief shipments, which may ameliorate the humanitarian emergency, but the Saudi-led bombardment and the ground battles have left much of Yemen without fuel, electricity and water.

Why did Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies mount this assault? How did Yemen’s peaceful uprising of 2011 degenerate into civil strife and external intervention? Why has the Obama administration supported the Saudi-led war effort with munitions, mid-air refueling and intelligence, even as human rights organizations have documented war crimes?
 
To help answer these and other questions, our contributing editor Sheila Carapico assembled Arabia Incognita: Dispatches from Yemen and the Gulf, an anthology of previously published MERIP material, released on May 3 by Just World Books. The collection includes her introductory commentaries as well as maps and striking political cartoons by Samer al-Shameeri.

The Institute of Middle East Studies at George Washington University and the Institute for Policy Studies hosted Carapico to discuss the volume on April 28 and May 3, respectively.

A central premise of Arabia Incognita, she began, is that the Arabian Peninsula is “a distinct political unit.” Upheavals in one country reverberate in the others. The oil-rich monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia, have long sought control over the course of events in poor, populous Yemen and its rulers. In the 1960s, the Saudis backed the imam against republican rebels; after unification in 1990, they cultivated the strongman in Sanaa, ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih. In 2011 came the shock of the revolt against Salih, whose most visible leader, Tawakkul Karman, was a woman. The Gulf monarchs’ attempt to manage the succession to Salih is the backdrop to the Houthi rebels’ overreach, the subsequent internal war, the intervention and the current catastrophe.

The US, for its part, “has a Saudi policy of which its Yemen policy is an outgrowth.” For decades, the US-Saudi “special relationship” was underwritten by the kingdom’s fervent anti-Communism, its hydrocarbon wealth and the petrodollars it pumped back into Western economies. Today, perhaps, it is rooted more in massive arms sales.

Arabia Incognita brings together four decades of MERIP coverage of the Arabian Peninsula—on topics ranging from political Islam, labor migration and resource politics to arts and culture. It is now available from Just World Books.

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Jordan Drops the Pretense of Democratic Reform

by Jillian Schwedler | published April 28, 2016 - 12:19pm

In September 2012, King ‘Abdallah II of Jordan stopped by “The Daily Show” to chat with Jon Stewart about his commitment to democratic reform in his country. In the wake of the uprisings across the Arab world, he said, “We changed a third of the constitution. We did a lot of different things—a new constitutional court, a new independent commission for elections,” all in preparation for a transition from monarchical rule to meaningful parliamentary governance. “This is the critical crossroads for Jordan to get it right, these next four years,” the king concluded.

It was a pretense that few in Jordan ever believed. Indeed, if anything, those four years have seen King ‘Abdallah peel the veneer of parliamentary governance off an increasingly autocratic system. In mid-April, Prime Minister ‘Abdallah al-Nusour submitted draft constitutional amendments to Parliament, requesting the body’s approval of changes that give the king absolute power over the judiciary, foreign policy, defense and security. By the terms of the amendments, the king would be able to appoint members of the constitutional court and the head of the paramilitary police force, which is tasked with suppressing domestic dissent, by himself and without further ado. In practice, ‘Abdallah already exercises these powers, but the draft amendments codify them, eliminating the need for lip service to checks and balances. The king would no longer need signatures from the prime minister or cabinet members to rubber-stamp his decrees.

On April 27 the draft amendments passed the lower house of Parliament by an overwhelming margin. They are sure to sail through the upper house, whose members are handpicked by the king. State-run media says the changes “strengthen the principle of separation of powers,” but this claim is too risibly thin to be called a smokescreen.

It is, in fact, a bizarre instance of greater transparency. The constitutional changes effectively acknowledge that Jordan is an autocracy, not the developing constitutional monarchy that the king markets to Western audiences eager to find a likable, “moderate” ally in the region. Perhaps ‘Abdallah thinks that no one will notice: With civil wars in Iraq, Libya and Syria, and President Barack Obama struggling to patch up relations with the Gulf Arabs while members of Congress (and other nations) call for suspending sales to Saudi Arabia of arms being used to commit war crimes in Yemen, Jordan’s amendments have attracted almost no international attention.

Let’s take further stock of ‘Abdallah’s critical four years. He told Jon Stewart in 2012 that Jordanians were politically immature, but rather than encouraging a vibrant public sphere, he portrayed Jordanians as politically ignorant, not understanding what it means to be positioned to the right, left or center. Jordan has numerous political parties, however; it is just that the regime treats them as a nuisance rather than a resource to be developed. Many parties boycotted the 2013 parliamentary elections as illegitimate because the electoral law and and the boundaries of electoral districts ensure that regions loyal to the royal court are overrepresented in Parliament. A new electoral law passed in March (ahead of the contests slated for 2017) scrapped the controversial one-vote system that significantly disadvantaged the political parties, but failed to address the skewed districting. Jordan’s elected Council of Deputies, the lower house of Parliament, has always been constrained in its freedom of action, as the royally appointed upper house, the Council of Nobles, can veto any of its legislation. The constitutional amendments formally sign away the last of the elected assembly’s nominal prerogatives of note.

The name of the game in Jordan today is security. The civil wars in neighboring Syria and Iraq, and the attempts by ISIS to launch attacks in Jordan, have led to a near lockdown of the kingdom. But the regime has not limited its repression to those suspected of connections to or sympathy with ISIS. Instead, its reach has been largely indiscriminate: It has imposed severe restrictions on freedom of expression, whether that of journalists, activists or any dissident voices. The penal code has long been banned criticism of the king. But revisions of the anti-terrorism law in 2014 go much further, classifying statements that “disturb” Jordan’s relations with foreign states as acts of terrorism. A Jordanian citizen who questions the wisdom of Jordan’s alliance with the Gulf monarchies, for example, could be prosecuted as a terrorist. So could one who suggests that Jordan’s gas pipeline deal with Israel might be bad for the Jordanian people. 

Peaceful dissenters face repeated harassment at the hands of the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), or mukhabarat. The regime has tortured government critics and shut down all forms of public assembly. An event planner at a major Amman hotel told me in March that he would not book any conference or event even remotely connected to political debate without the GID’s verbal approval.

The crackdown extends to the realm of entertainment. The Lebanese alt-rock band Mashrou‘ Leila was scheduled to appear this week at the Roman amphitheater in downtown Amman, but the concert was abruptly canceled because the group’s songs “threatened the values, customs and traditions” of Jordanian society. The band issued a statement condemning the censorship, noting that it had previously played several times in Jordan, including at the amphitheater. And what were the dangerous ideas in the songs? Gender equality and sexual freedom seemed particularly to offend some powerful regime officials.

If the global history of state repression offers any lesson, it is that wholesale quashing of dissent, even alternative voices in arts and culture, is very likely to radicalize many of those who have been silenced. King ‘Abdallah may be willing to take that risk, but it is not a good bet.

But as the king amends the constitution to concentrate power in his own hands, at last he has dropped the pretense of democratic reform—though not, of course, the parallel conceit that he and the Jordanian regime are “moderate.”

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Suspend US Military Aid to Egypt

published April 18, 2016 - 9:44am

An Open Letter to President Barack Obama

April 18, 2016

Dear President Obama,

As scholars of Egypt and the Middle East, we the undersigned would like to urge you, on Tax Day, to support civilian, democratic rule in Egypt by suspending military aid to the country.

For more than thirty years, the US government has spent billions of dollars to help build and sustain a system of rule that does not serve the interests of the Egyptian people. The core of that regime has always been a small military class whose power is underwritten by American taxpayers. This was true under Hosni Mubarak and it is just as true today.

The current president of the country, Abdel Fattah El Sisi, may have been elected, but observers have never ceased questioning the legitimacy of those elections, nor the bloody circumstances of his rise to power. As the Sisi government stumbles from one crisis to the next, it has become increasingly violent toward its critics, the vast majority of whom propose nothing more than civic, pragmatic solutions to the country’s most vexing problems. Their non-violent, civic engagement has been met with arbitrary arrests and incarceration, disappearances and torture. Free speech and expression are a thing of the past, and violations of the right to organize, travel and conduct research are rife. Today, Egypt has become a vast penal colony.

As taxpayers, we morally object to the idea that our money goes to prop up an autocratic and violent regime in Cairo. We urge your administration to turn away from the old policies that brought us here, and embark on a new course toward peace, democracy and prosperity for the people of Egypt. We call on you to suspend military aid to Egypt’s military rulers until you have time to undertake a comprehensive review of our policy toward the country.

Sincerely,

1. Khaled Abou El Fadl (UCLA)
2. Fida Adely (Georgetown University)
3. Anthony Alessandrini (City University of New York)
4. Samer Mahdy Ali (University of Michigan)
5. Lori Allen (SOAS, University of London)
6. Nabil Al-Takriti (University of Mary Washington)
7. Noha Arafa (National Lawyers Guild)
8. Andrew Arato (New School)
9. Walter Armbrust (University of Oxford)
10. Mona Atia (George Washington University)
11. Aslı Bâli (UCLA School of Law)
12. Beth Baron (City University of New York)
13. Lydia Bassaly (Columbia University)
14. Moustafa Bayoumi (Brooklyn College, CUNY)
15. Joel Beinin (Stanford University)
16. Amahl Bishara (Tufts University)
17. Audrey Bomse (National Lawyers Guild)
18. Marilyn Booth (University of Oxford)
19. Laurie A. Brand (University of Southern California)
20. Michaelle L. Browers (Wake Forest University)
21. Jonathan Brown (Georgetown University)
22. Jason Brownlee (University of Texas, Austin)
23. Rosie Bsheer (Yale University)
24. Charles E. Butterworth (University of Maryland)
25. Sheila Carapico (University of Richmond)
26. Noam Chomsky (MIT)
27. Elliott Colla (Georgetown University)
28. Don Conway-Long (Webster University)
29. Rochelle Davis (Georgetown University)
30. Lara Deeb (Scripps College)
31. Andrea Dessì (London School of Economics)
32. Emily Drumsta (University of California, Berkeley)
33. Mona El-Ghobashy (Independent scholar)
34. Mohamad Elmasry (University of North Alabama)
35. Omnia El Shakry (University of California, Davis)
36. John Esposito (Georgetown University)
37. Ilana Feldman (George Washington University)
38. Alexa Firat (Temple University)
39. James Gelvin (UCLA)
40. Alan Gilbert (University of Denver)
41. Ellis J. Goldberg (University of Washington)
42. Joel Gordon (University of Arkansas)
43. Elaine C. Hagopian (Simmons College)
44. Sondra Hale (UCLA)
45. Hanan Hammad (Texas Christian University)
46. Ian M. Hartshorn (University of Nevada, Reno)
47. Nader Hashemi (University of Denver)
48. Jane Hathaway (Ohio State University)
49. Donald Hindley (Brandeis University)
50. Elizabeth M. Holt (Bard College)
51. Deena R. Hurwitz (American University)
52. Toby C. Jones (Rutgers University)
53. Lorenzo Kamel (Harvard University)
54. Arang Keshavarzian (New York University)
55. Laleh Khalili (SOAS, University of London)
56. Dina Rizk Khoury (George Washington University)
57. Laurie King (Georgetown University)
58. Marwan M. Kraidy (University of Pennsylvania)
59. Vickie Langohr (College of the Holy Cross)
60. Mark Andrew LeVine (University of California, Irvine)
61. Darryl Li (Yale University)
62. Zachary Lockman (New York University)
63. Miriam R. Lowi (The College of New Jersey)
64. Melani McAlister (George Washington University)
65. Clea McNeely (University of Tennessee)
66. Shana Minkin (Sewanee: The University of the South)
67. Timothy Mitchell (Columbia University)
68. Pete W. Moore (Case Western Reserve University)
69. Amir Moosavi (New York University)
70. Norma Claire Moruzzi (University of Illinois, Chicago)
71. Tamir Moustafa (Simon Fraser University)
72. Bruce D. Nestor (National Lawyers Guild)
73. Roger Owen (Harvard University)
74. Sumita Pahwa (Scripps College)
75. Lisa A. Pollard (University of North Carolina, Wilmington)
76. Sara Pursley (Princeton University)
77. Noha Radwan (UC Davis)
78. Aziz Rana (Cornell University)
79. Kamran Rastegar (Tufts University)
80. Sarah Roche-Mahdi (Independent scholar)
81. Mona Russell (East Carolina University)
82. Atef Said (University of Illinois, Chicago)
83. Christa Salamandra (City University of New York)
84. Hesham Sallam (Stanford University)
85. Stuart Schaar (Brooklyn College, CUNY)
86. Aaron Schneider (University of Denver)
87. Jillian Schwedler (Hunter College & The Graduate Center, CUNY)
88. Samer Shehata (University of Oklahoma)
89. Paul Sedra (Simon Fraser University)
90. Omar Shakir (Center for Constitutional Rights)
91. Stephen Sheehi (College of William and Mary)
92. Tamara Sonn (Georgetown University)
93. Josh Stacher (Kent State University)
94. Gregory Starrett (University of North Carolina, Charlotte)
95. Rebecca L. Stein (Duke University)
96. Christopher Stone (Hunter College, CUNY)
97. Ted Swedenburg (University of Arkansas)
98. Elizabeth F. Thompson (University of Virginia)
99. Levi Thompson (UCLA)
100. Chris Toensing (MERIP)
101. Judith Tucker (Georgetown University)
102. John Voll (Georgetown University)
103. Jeremy Walton (The Max Planck Institute)
104. Lisa Wedeen (University of Chicago)
105. Max D. Weiss (Princeton University)
106. Mark R. Westmoreland (Leiden University)
107. Jessica Winegar (Northwestern University)
108. John Womack, Jr. (Harvard University)

Open Letter from Scholars of Yemen

published March 31, 2016 - 2:33pm

US Secretary of State John Kerry
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond
French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Marc Ayraut

On the occasion of a year of the bombardment and blockade of Yemen, we write for a third time as scholars of Yemen to deplore the actions of the governments you represent, which have served cumulatively to erase fundamental principles of international and international humanitarian law: a) drafting the one-sided UN Security Council Resolution 2216 used to legitimize war; b) attempting to protect Saudi Arabia and the other Coalition countries against condemnation by the UN Human Rights Council, leaving the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights alone to issue a condemnation of war crimes; c) continuing massive arms sales in the face of documented war crimes by the Coalition; and d) participating in refueling warplanes, identifying targets, and facilitating the blockade of vital imports of food and fuel to Yemen.

We are aligned with no party in the internal political divisions of Yemen and deplore human rights violations by all the warring parties. However, we note that the major targets of the Yemen war, the Houthis and the bulk of the former Yemeni army, have over the past years fought Islamic State and al-Qaeda, which your governments view as terrorist groups and which have targeted Arab as well as European cities—most recently Brussels. Against this background, we renew our call to you to do everything to obtain an immediate and complete ceasefire and the launch of unconditional Yemeni-Yemeni negotiations for the formation of a transition government. And we ask that you offer no cover to the attempts of the Coalition states to extract commercial gains from their war and to avoid, in the name of plans for Gulf Cooperation Council “reconstruction” of Yemen, legal responsibility for war reparations.

Najwa Adra, Independent scholar
Geneviève Bédoucha, CNRS, Paris
Isa Blumi, Stockholm University
Laurent Bonnefoy, Sciences Politiques, Paris
François Burgat, IREMAM, Aix-en-Provence
Robert Burrowes, University of Washington
Sheila Carapico, University of Richmond
Steven Caton, Harvard University
Don Conway-Long, Webster University
Rochelle Davis, Georgetown University
Blandine Destremau, CNRS, EHESS, Paris
Paul Dresch, University of Oxford
Ulrike Freitag, Free University of Berlin & Centre for Modern Oriental Studies
McGuire Gibson, University of Chicago
Michael Gilsenan, New York University
Andre Gingrich, Austrian Academy of Sciences
Najam Haider, Barnard College, Columbia University
Mouna Hashem, Independent scholar
Juliette Honvault, IREMAM, Aix-Marseille Université
Eirik Hovden, Institute for Social Anthropology, Vienna
Lamya Khalidi, CEPAM, CNRS, France
Laurie King, Georgetown University
Thomas Kühn, Simon Fraser University
Jean Lambert, CERMOM-INALCO, Paris
Anne Meneley, Trent University, Canada
Brinkley Messick, Columbia University
W. Flagg Miller, University of California-Davis
Martha Mundy, London School of Economics and Political Science
Michael Perez, University of Washington
Christa Salamandra, Lehman College, CUNY
Jillian Schwedler, Hunter College, CUNY
Gregory Starrett, University of North Carolina
Lucine Taminian, Independent scholar, Amman
Daniel Varisco, American Institute for Yemeni Studies
Gabriele vom Bruck, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
Lisa Wedeen, University of Chicago
Shelagh Weir, Independent scholar
John Willis, University of Colorado
Jessica Winegar, Northwestern University
Stacey Philbrick Yadav, Hobart and William Smith Colleges
Sami Zubaida, Birkbeck College, University of London

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