Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sectarianism in the Middle East, or: the narcissism of small differences

Two weeks ago, my friend Alsajjad from Qatar posted the following on his Facebook account: „I would love to call my son Alhussain. But then he would become Alhussain Alsajjad. And this double name in a majority wahhabi population would earn him a considerable dose of discrimination for his entire life. And I don’t intend to damage the lives of my children.“

Here we go again, I thought, when reading my friend’s status update: sectarianism. So I called Alsajjad in Doha and asked him about the backstory of his post. 

„You know,“ he told me, „my own name, Alsajjad, is already a problem here. It put me into weird situations. People here assume that a person with this name must be a Shia. Of course I’m aware that it is unusual for a Sunni to carry that name.“

„Let’s say that I go to a government office,“ my friend kept on, „to have my driver’s license renewed. When reading my name, the Arab guy behind the counter is about to freak out; his look and his body language tell me that he wants to treat me like crap. Because he thinks that I am a Shia.“

While talking to my friend, I quickly looked up ‚Alsajjad‘ on Wikipedia. „There’s nothing wrong with your name,“ I told him, „Alsajjad was the son of Hussain, he was the fourth Imam of Islam. It’s a nickname, meaning ‚the prostrating Imam‘, the one who has performed the most prayers.“

„I know,“ Alsajjad replied, „it’s a very pious name. But nowadays it is simply filed under ‚Shia‘“.

„Now imagine if I would call my son Alhussain. That would make him a double Shia. Hussain doesn’t scare them, it’s very common here. It’s the ‚Al‘ that is the problem. Sunnis feel that the ‚Al‘ is the confirmation that this person is a Shia, as if Imam Alhussain bin Ali was only for Shia.“

There is a lot of talk about sectarianism in the Middle East these days. First it was the rise of ISIS, a fundamentally Sunni group that kills all the Shia, and some more, in their way. Now it is Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen against the Houthis, a Shia offshoot clan from the north of the country, that is applauded by some and condemned by others. Why didn’t the Saudi act against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but now operate in Yemen; and before that intervened by force in Bahrain to smother a (Shia based) movement that was asking for a better representation at the political level?

For centuries, coexistence of different faiths was the rule rather than the exception in the Middle East. With the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 things started to shift and religion became a political factor. Things definitely changed with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 that pulled down all the walls that had held the Middle East together until then.

„People in Qatar knew nothing about Shiism until 2003,“ Alsajjad explained. „And suddenly they became aware of Shia militias roaming Iraq and a Shia government ruling in Baghdad.“

In an article for Foreign Policy, Marc Lynch argued that sectarianism is „political to the core“ and has very little to do with intrinsic religious differences. It’s a typical example of identity politics, Lynch wrote, „one in which sectarian differences happen to be the most easily available to politicians hoping to utilize them for cynical purposes“. It ripped apart the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and now it’s tearing apart the Middle East.

„Yes,“ said Karim Emile Bitar, Director of Research at IRIS, a French think tank, whom I interviewed by phone, „the sectarian conflict is much more geopolitical than religious. Sunnis and Shias are not fighting to settle old theological quarrels, to determine who was the rightful heir to the prophet, they’re not replaying the battle of Karbala.“

„What is it then?“, I asked.

„What we have is two regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, engaged in a classical geopolitical rivalry. They are competing for political power, economic resources and regional hegemony. It’s good old machtpolitik, but for the sake of expediency and to mobilize the masses, some powers find it useful to play the sectarian card. A most dangerous game.“

It is a dangerous game indeed that everybody is playing. For Marc Lynch, it is far easier to generate sectarian animosities than to calm them down. Once mobilized, the masses are hard to contain. You can’t turn the hatred on and off as it suits the interests of the ‚identity entrepreneurs‘, as Lynch calls them. 

playing the sectarian card and its consequences

„But who is messing up the minds of the people in the Middle East,“ I wanted to know from Karim Bitar. „Who puts the ‚sectarian poison‘ in their brains?“

„To say it with Sigmund Freud,“ he answered, „it’s initially - and basically - the ‚narcissism of small differences‘. The small differences are cynically exploited by power-hungry local politicians and by regional powers.“

„Take Lebanon as an example,“ the analyst continued. „Notwithstanding their sectarian affiliations, all Lebanese are pretty much the same - they eat the same food, they listen to the same music, they speak the same language and have the same traditions. You had a significant number of mixed marriages and mixed neighborhoods. Even in the middle of the Lebanese civil war, while foreign-backed sectarian militias were slugging it out, many Lebanese of different religions refused to succumb to hatred and remained attached to national unity and coexistence, at times jointly protesting against the war.“ 

„But despite of many people wanting the civil war to end,“ I insisted, „it lasted for 15 years, resulting in an estimated 120’000 fatalities.“

„The problem was that those Lebanese were disempowered and marginalized during the war years, they were the silent majority. And the majority was unable to prevent the rise of the extremes, with local sectarian warlords playing the politics of fear and foreign powers using sectarianism to advance their own agendas.“

„Pluralism could actually be a blessing,“ Karim Bitar concluded, „but in a troubled regional context, where existential angst prevails, stressing the small differences can rapidly give rise to escalations. Then and now.“

Middle Eastern people are more aware of the small differences than during any other time in history, Alsajjad told me. There are thousands of videos on YouTube from both sides, Sunni and Shia, that preach hate speech.

Qatar naturally fears a sectarian threat coming from across the Gulf, from the Shia of Iran. The peninsula has a small Shia minority of about 10%, mostly of Persian descent. So far, they haven’t been vocal about any discrimination in Qatar. Firstly, because the Qatari constitution gives them rights, although Shia are not employed in sensitive areas such as the army or in intelligence services. And secondly because the Shia of Qatar are known to be very rich business families who don’t care too much about politics. 

„The Qataris have a smooth relationship with Iran and they don’t want to disrupt that,“ Alsajjad said. 

He too understands that faith is not the main reason for the many conflicts tormenting the Middle East. „Even a secular regime in Tehran,“ my friend noted, „wouldn’t change anything.“ The cold war in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia and Iran is an indisputable fact. 

Karim Bitar agreed. „The Iranian-Saudi rivalry fight for regional hegemony is the main factor. A conservative Saudi Arabia confronts a revolutionary Iran. Shiites being a minority in the Muslim World, it is not in the interest of Iran to use sectarianism overtly as a political strategy, at least not in a global context. They cannot really win playing the sectarian card.“

So rather than rely on sectarianism“, he went on, „Iran’s strategy plays on the nationalist and anti-imperialist chords. But still, Iran is a de facto sectarian power, with sectarian allies. And after the Iraq War, the Saudis attempted to counter the rapid rise of Iranian influence by stoking sectarian fears.“

The tool of sectarianism has evolved from a last resort to a weapon of premier choice in the Middle East. The noble cause of religion has been hijacked, bigotry reigns. „Democracy didn’t work, so I am pro al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State to fight the occupiers and the Shia“, one Yemeni citizen said in a BBC report from Yemen in march of 2015. 

Unfortunately there is not much reason for optimism that the weapon of sectarianism will cease to be used anytime soon. „The painful reality is,“ Marc Lynch wrote, „that sectarianism proved too useful to too many powerful actors, and too compelling a narrative in a violent, turbulent, and uncertain time, to be avoided.“


More to come.

This post was first published at Your Middle East online media: here.


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Syrian children and the battle for education

„Do you see yourself as a refugee?“, I ask Maria.

„People should first of all learn what being a refugee means; it is people who don’t have money and it is the government who pays for all their expenses. I am for sure not one of them: I live in a duplex apartment, I attend an expensive school and I live a normal life using my own money and not the government’s. So I don’t know the answer to your question since I am not a refugee. Thank God.“

Maria is 16, she is from Aleppo in Syria. In 2012, Maria moved to Lebanon together with her family, to escape the war in her homeland. She now lives in Keserwan, a Christian district north of Beirut. 

Her brother George, 17, shares Maria’s views: „here in this area, we are not refugees,“ he says, „since we pay for everything and we own the house and the cars… unlike the Bekaa where refugees fully depend on the government: for money, food and shelter.“

Maria and George may see it differently but they are two out of approximately 1.1 million Syrian refugees currently living in Lebanon, according to figures given by the UNHCR, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. About half of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon are below the age of 18, with roughly 470’000 being school-aged child refugees. All of them, with a few exceptions, are struggling to get a good education under difficult circumstances. 

Before the war, the Syrian school system was on par with countries such as Malaysia and Thailand. According to a UNESCO statistics, 91% of all Syrian children were enrolled in schools, a number which put Syria slightly above the average figure for Arab countries. Today, the enrollment rate of Syria’s 4.8 million children of school age, whether living in Syria or within neighboring countries, has dropped dramatically and stands at 38%. This is even way below the percentage of one of the world’s most underdeveloped regions, Sub-Saharan Africa. 

burned generation: Syrian children in times of war

„Schools, and the journeys to them,“ writes Save the Children, a British NGO, „are on the frontline of the crisis, putting the lives of children and teachers in constant dangers. More than 18% of Syrian schools have been damaged, destroyed, used for military purposes or occupied by displaced people.“

„Education was widely accessible in Syria before 2011,“ says Wardeh, a young woman in her early twenties who lives near Damascus. „The only thing that bothered me was that school focused on learning things by heart. It didn’t matter if you understood the lesson or not as long as you memorized what was written in the books.“

Wardeh is a Palestinian refugee in Syria and this puts her in a special spot. She didn’t attend a regular Syrian school but went to a school for Palestinian refugees instead, run by UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (for Palestinian refugees in the Near East).

„UNRWA schools are much better than Syrian schools,“ Wardeh explains. „I went to the UNRWA school from grade one to nine. After that I continued studying in a regular Syrian school. I always felt that there was a huge gap between the two types of school."

Inside or near Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon there are UNRWA schools too. Camps like al-Badawi in Tripoli for instance, where Samaa is living. A densely populated camp already, al-Badawi is now over flooded with Palestinians refugees having fled the war in Syria.

„Around 40% of the Palestinian (Syrian) refugees go to the UNRWA school,“ says Samaa. „However the majority of the children doesn’t attend school because the school is in a very bad condition. For example there is no heating system during wintertime, or anything else to keep the students warm.“

„The education provided at the school isn’t very good either,“ Samaa continues. „The only reason why some children keep going to school is to learn how to read and write. They don’t want to become illiterate.“

In Syria the situation in UNWRA schools has gotten worse as well. Because of the fights, Palestinian refugees were forced to change schools and ended up in classrooms crammed with over 70 students. For the school year of 2014 - 2015, Wardeh says, UNRWA has rented school space from the Syrian government. The Palestinian students go there for the afternoon shift, after the Syrian students have finished their morning classes. Lessons have become very short - only 30 minutes for each lesson, instead of the usual 45 minutes. 

„And sometimes,“ Wardeh tells me, „students are left with no classes at all, because teachers leave their job or take long holidays without being replaced.“ The situation in times of war is difficult for everybody. 

In Lebanon, the dropout rate for Syrian students in public schools is 70%, according to a report by MERIP, the Middle East Research and Information Project. The reasons for this are many. Some complain that Syrian children are humiliated and beaten in school. Some parents just don’t have the money to get their children into school. They may have to choose between rent, food and a child’s proper enrollment. 

education under stress: UNHCR school, Lebanon

A particular problem for Syrian students in Lebanon is the language. While in Syria all classes are taught in Arabic, many lessons in Lebanon are given in French or English only. A lot of students have difficulties to follow the classes because they lack the necessary language skills. This is not only a challenge for students in Tripoli’s al-Badawi camp, but also true for „privileged refugees“ in Keserwan. „When I came to Lebanon, I had difficulties to adjust with school since I used to take everything in Arabic and here it’s mainly English,“ says George.

„Some students who cannot cope with the Lebanese system,“ Samaa says, „study the Syrian method at home, on their own, hoping that they will be able to take the final exams in Syria.“ But most of the Palestinian Syrians don’t have valid visas for Lebanon, so they risk being fined and expelled when applying for one, or not being able to return to Lebanon when they go to Syria for the exams.

Syrian refugees stretch the possibilities of Lebanon, of the Lebanese social and political system, to its limits. „We have enough, there’s no capacity anymore to host more displaced“, Lebanon’s Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk said at a news conference in January of 2015. „This situation cannot continue.“

Refugee parents in Lebanon now refer to their children with the terms „burned generation“ or „lost generation“. Leading international humanitarian organizations such as UNICEF have therefore started the „No Lost Generation“ initiative. The goal is to expand access for Syrian refugee children to learning and psychological support and to restore hope for the future. 

The government of Lebanon has adopted its own strategy to get all refugee children into education: Reaching All Children with Education (RACE). Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, both initiatives are plagued by a funding gap. Whereas Lebanon’s public education system has borne the brunt to adjust to the refugee inflow, the modest involvement to date of Arab donors is particularly striking. „No Lost Generation“ required $885 million for 2014 of which only $300 million has been received. 92% of Syrian children in Lebanon age 15 - 18 remain being out of school. 

The failures to address the education crisis among Syrian refugees will have far reaching consequences. ODI, the Overseas Development Institute, a British think tank, fears the worst. „Robbed of opportunities to continue their schooling,“ ODI writes, „young Syrians will be forced to the margins of society. The danger is that vulnerable adolescents and young adults will be drawn into extremist political groups.“

„One thing that makes me feel very sad,“ says Wardeh, „is that Syrian kids have lost all their chances to get a good education. Instead of the society working on how to make education better, the children ended up without it!“

And Wardeh wonders: „what will this generation bring to the world 20 years from now? If only we could wake up to a new day without this mess!“

Stranded in Lebanon, George reflects on the good times he had in Aleppo. „I always feel homesick,“ he says, „homesick for my friends, for the rest of my family, my old school, my old basketball club. But after all, home is a feeling not a place, and I am really grateful to have my family by my side. That’s what is helping me to make it through.“

„Will you ever go back?“, I ask George.

George has learned to be realistic. „I wish I can go back to Syria, but I’m afraid this will not end soon, so it’s just wishing and dreaming for now.“


Special thanks to Wardeh in Syria and to Sasha J. Mattar in Lebanon for all her inputs and contributions to this report.

This post was first published at Your Middle East online media: here.



Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Back to the future in Saudi Arabia

Liberal Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was convicted of insulting Islam and sentenced to ten years in jail and 1000 lashes, to be received in portions of 50 lashes each Friday. A woman of Burmese descent, Leila Bint Abdul Muttalib Basim, was dragged down a street in Mecca and beheaded with three strikes of the sword. She was convicted of murder of her seven-year-old step daughter.

What is going on in Saudi Arabia? Why this public display of harsh punishments and a cruelty only matched by ISIS? How do Saudi citizens assess the state of their society – particularly in times of a change at the top of the Saudi monarchy? I called my friend Ma'an in Riyadh to have his insights. 

Ma'an is married with children and holds a management position within the country’s large energy sector. “You have to understand”, he told me, “that Saudi Arabia is currently running the biggest change management program in the world. We are still a young nation and we are reforming. But, as everyone knows who works in management, changing mindsets takes a long time.”

“This is certainly true”, I replied, remembering my own share of experience in change management. “But still”, I insisted, “why is there no mercy in pious Saudi Arabia for people like Raif Badawi and Leila Basim when Allah is the Merciful?”

“We need to separate the two cases”, my friend explained. “The woman from Mecca was a blood feud case. The father of the dead child, Leila Basim's husband, could have saved her, but he didn't. In the end, it was not the government's decision to have her executed. Actually, the government tries very often to talk to the victims' families and ask them for forgiveness. But they don't always succeed.”

“In Raif's case”, Ma'an went on (and I was astounded to hear my friend mentioning Raif Badawi by his first name only, which made it sound almost intimate), “even his own father filed a complaint against him. And the Saudi government was flooded with letters from concerned citizens asking them to do something about Raif because he had crossed a red line.” 

“What red line?”

“In the eyes of these citizens, Raif had insulted Islam, Saudi Arabia and the people of Saudi Arabia all together. After all, they argued, Saudi Arabia had a particular liability towards Islam, as custodian of the holy mosques and the holy land.”

When I read the writings of Raif Badawi, I was surprised how bold his statements were. Raif aimed his pen at almost everybody. Who should come to his rescue now? 

“I’m not in support of the Israeli occupation of any Arab country”, Badawi wrote”, “but at the same time I do not want to replace Israel by a religious state whose main concern would be spreading the culture of death and ignorance among its people when we need modernization and hope. States based on religious ideology have nothing except the fear of God and an inability to face up to life.”

“How could Raif Badawi write such things and think that he could get away with it?”, I asked Ma'an. His answer was intriguingly logic. “Look”, he said, “Raif daring to make these statements is precisely a proof that there were reforms in Saudi Arabia in the last ten years. The developments have gone further than in the seventy years before. And this made Raif comfortable to publish his ideas.”

“However,” my friend continued, “Raif Badawi pushed the envelope too fast too far. As much as I regret what is happening to him now: Saudi Arabia was not ready for his radical agenda.”

no joke women: driving in the Saudi desert

Indeed, it is not just the Saudi government or the clergy that are conservatives, it's the Saudi society as a whole. This was exactly the point that Haifaa al-Mansour made in a TV interview while visiting the World Economic Forum in Davos last month. Haifaa al-Mansour of course is the first female film director from Saudi Arabia, internationally praised for her film ‚Wadjda’. The Saudi society is very religious, she said, and secularism is undesired. 

“And that's the opinion of the overwhelming majority of the people.”

But why, the interviewer wondered, do Saudi people like to be showered with Western culture but don't want to become Western-like themselves?

“You see”, the film director responded, “we are very proud of what we are. We love the desert and the camels; this is our culture and we want to keep it this way. It's not about adapting Western ideologies, it's about building in the global topic of tolerance and mutual respect. That's not a Western value only. We must see it as our own value.”

Haifaa al-Mansour's sentiments were much shared by Ma'an. We need to transform, he told me, but we don’t want to lose our identity.

“If you take the religion out”, he said, “the culture of Saudi Arabia is the culture of the bedouins. It's a tribal culture. It's all about honor and generosity. It means being humble and keeping your word.”

I understood. While analysts often focus on easily accessible people in urban areas, polling them and gauging their internet preferences, it is in rural areas, in the mountains and the deserts, where the true culture of a people lies. 250'000 activists on Cairo's Tahrir square were not enough to decisively alter the course of 80 million Egyptians mostly living along the river Nile outside the capital.

And then: Saudi Arabia's culture is not that far away from places we naturally label as 'Western'. “I keep telling my friends overseas”, Ma'an quipped laughingly, “that Saudi Arabia is the Texas of the Middle East. We both are religious conservatives, we like big cars and guns, and we hold our families and our privacy dear.”

“And you both equate the capital punishment with 'doing justice'!”, I quickly added.

No conversation with a Saudi citizen can be complete these days without talking about women and their rights in Saudi Arabian society. I was well aware that the control of women was the basis of every tribal society: let your women go off (and therefore, ultimately, procreate) with anyone they choose, and that is the end of male tribal authority – and of the tribe itself.

“Let me tell you a story”, Ma’an said. “When I got married, my father gave me one advice only. Listen, he said, women like your mother are gone. Women now want a different role for themselves. You need to treat them as equal and not as a servant.”

“In today's Saudi Arabia”, Ma'an proceeded, “only a minority still sees women as second class persons and as mere sexual objects.”

somewhere it hides a well: the desert of Saudi Arabia

Education used to be difficult for women in Saudi Arabia at the times of Ma'an's mother as sometimes there were just no schools for girls. In the 1970s people were protesting against a decree by King Faisal that allowed girls to go to school.

However those days are over. Ma'an's wife works in a mixed environment, with men and women in the same office. She doesn't even cover her face. Ten years ago this would have been a taboo and in no way possible.

“We need more women in the workforce”, Ma'an said. “We need more women like Sarah al-Suhaimi.” Last year, al-Suhaimi became the CEO of the National Commercial Bank, Saudi Arabia's biggest commercial bank. Her appointment was a big deal in Saudi Arabia; it was unfortunately underreported in Western media.

“And when will women in Saudi Arabia finally be allowed to drive a car?”, I asked Ma'an. “Hopefully soon”, he answered, “since I am tired of driving my wife to work and my children to school every day before I can go to the office.”

Quite possibly economical reasons will do more for women to drive than 'lone wolf operations' uploaded to YouTube. Saudi businessmen understood the value of having women in the workforce first. They often are better performers and they don't have the excuse of 'driving responsibilities' for missing working hours, such as men have.

“For me”, Ma'an started to finish our conversation, “women driving cars or participating in sports are not the most pressing issues. I give higher priorities to education, job equality and salary equality. Because only education and an active participation of women in all aspects of societal life will get us to a reformed society. We cannot import a solution from Europe, the U.S. or from China.”

“And anyway”, my friend concluded”, “out in the desert, woman already drive and always have. These are no-joke women, driving pickup trucks and carrying AK 47s.”

Let the desert culture rule, I thought, when I hung up the phone. Let these women take over the country! Maybe in order to reform, Saudi Arabia shouldn't look ‚forward‘, to Europe, or to the United States, but rather ‚backwards‘, and find the true essence of where it came from again. Or, as Antoine Saint-Exupéry has said: „what makes a desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.“

This post was first published at Your Middle East online media: here.




Monday, January 19, 2015

The terrorism hypocrisy

Both intelligence agencies and military commanders were riding high on the ISIS wave in 2014. ISIS served as „the reason why“ for legislation to be passed or toughened and for military capabilities to be boosted and deployed.

How real is the danger that emanates from ISIS, particularly for someone living in Europe or the United States? And how suitable are the answers that are implemented by governments and multilateral organizations to confront ISIS? I recently attended a counterterrorism seminar organized by NATO and hereafter are my personal conclusions about what I heard.

The good news is that the actual danger coming from ISIS is rather minimal, unless you live in Mosul, Raqqa or Kobane. As Ahmed Rashid has aptly stated in an article for the New York Review of Books: „the first thing we need to recognize is that ISIS is not waging a war against the West. ISIS wants to destroy the near enemy, the Arab regimes first.“

This holds true even after the terrorist attack on the French magazine Charlie Hébdo that killed 12 cartoonists and journalists this week. An attack by a single madman (Breivik) or a group of professional, radicalized lunatics (the Paris perpetrators) can never be completely excluded. There is almost no detecting and stopping a man who takes a gun to shoot people when he flies under the radar of police and intelligence services.

The media, and particularly the social media, have been harshly criticized for conveying the terrorists’ message in every household, sowing fear among the white Western women and men. But rather than the media, there are the governments of these women and men that must be blamed for magnifying the threat coming from the Arab world.

Democracies tend to overreact when being attacked on their own soil or when one of its citizens is killed. Democratically elected leaders want to be elected again. They need to show to their constituencies that they are aware of the problem and that they are ready to do almost anything to protect their frightened voters. And as the recently published CIA torture report has shown: the line between protection and plain ugly revenge is a thin one.

Many commentators in Western media want us to believe that Islam is the root problem of terrorism. It’s an inherently violent religion, they say, with the intention to kill all non Muslims. However, at the root of terrorism are real grievances, not the teachings of the Quran. These grievance, as British author Jason Burke has put it, are „of a political nature but articulated in religious terms.“ Religion is instrumentalized by extremist groups as a useful recruitment tool. 

People in search of an identity - a condition often encountered in migrant communities in Europe - are easy prey for a message of belonging and serving a greater cause, as violent as this cause may be. This message is now easily available on the internet. Violence in the name of Islam is ground zero for those who have lost all their other landmarks. It must be by solving political and social resentments that we confront the so called religiously motivated terrorism. The coalition against ISIS bombing the bad guys will not eradicate terrorism. It is simply acknowledging our own shortcomings.

NATO is well aware that the military option to fight terrorism can only be the last resort and will produce an even more virulent form of terrorists. But they are a military organization, neither teachers nor social workers, and not responsible for the migration and integration policies of their respective governments. When your only tool is the army, you must treat every problem as a military problem.

Other actors play an equally ambiguous game. France’s anti terrorism strategy stipulates that the best way to combat terrorism is to support democratic principles. Democracy entails free speech and the liberties of a free press - both values that France defends fiercely for its own society.

But words are cheap when overruled by national interests. In November of 2014, French president Hollande received Egyptian strongman General Sisi in Paris, himself a killer of a democratic process, to talk fighting terrorism with the man and to sell Egypt weapons made in France worth billions of dollars! At the same time, hundreds of critics of Sisi and three al-Jazeera journalists were rotting in Egyptian prisons.

a killer of a democratic process: Hollande meets Sisi

Of course, most combatants for ISIS hail from Muslim countries, not from Europe. What appeal does ISIS hold for them?

These new citizens of the Islamic State didn't need the internet to become radicalized. Looking out of the window was enough. Growing up in occupied Iraq, Afghanistan or Chechnya, controlled by authoritarian figures like Gaddafi, Assad or the House of Saud, educated in school systems that emphasize rote learning, they have learned one lesson: Violence is power. Power is authority. For these young (mostly) men ISIS represents power. And they want to be a part of it.

Yet there is another factor. Some say that a democracy is the remedy for everything going bad in a country. It’s not. Why is it then that the highest number of foreign fighters in the ranks of ISIS comes from Tunisia, a country en route to a successful transition from autocracy to democracy? Because the Tunisian economy is limping.

Young Tunisian males basically have two choices: to board a boat for Europe, in pursuit of economic happiness, only to be humiliated on arrival – if they ever make it across the Mediterranean sea - and being treated as a second class human being. Or they trek to Syria, to finally have a purpose in life and the feeling of „being somebody“ when campaigning with ISIS.

Let’s make no mistake: European and US activities in the Middle East are not aimed at protecting the principal victims of terrorism, the citizens of Arab countries. Their counterterrorism policies are in place to protect Europeans, Americans and Russians. Are Arabs therefore destined to be the eternal victims of modern history, manipulated and not masters of their own destiny?

This logic would let the Arabs too easily off the hook. In the end it’s overwhelmingly Arabs that kill Arabs. Unfortunately this is nothing new. Nizar Qabbani, the Syrian poet and diplomat, whose wife Balqis was killed when a Syrian commando bombed the Iraqi embassy in Beirut in December of 1981, mourned the death of his wife when he wrote: „it’s the fate of Arabs, to be assassinated by Arabs, to be gobbled by Arabs, to be slain by Arabs, to be exhumed by Arabs. How can we evade such a fate? For an Arab dagger it is all the same, killing a gentleman or a madam.“

How determined are Arab governments „to evade the fate“ and to combat ISIS? There are good reasons to doubt their seriousness. 

Firstly, simply being a part of the anti-ISIS coalition and sending the military after terrorists is attempting a quick fix of a problem that asks for long-term structural changes how Arab societies work and are governed. However, in systems where corruption is rampant, those on top of the food chains are not interested in passing the bread.

Secondly, some Middle Eastern states cannot easily brush away the call of ISIS, because for them it rings a bell. To quote Ahmed Rashid again: „this is above all a war within Islam: a conflict of Sunni against Shia, but also a war by Sunni extremists against more moderate Muslims.“ Contrary to Europe, the Arabs’ fight with and against ISIS has - at least partly - a deeper religious background and a sectarian drift.

During the conference, I spoke to a participant from Jordan, a member of the army, and he gave me an idea about what is going on. „We got a big problem in Jordan“, he told me, „we got more than one million refugees from Syria and Iraq.“

Then my interlocutor went on: „however in Jordan, we are more afraid of the Shia than of ISIS. We are Sunni like ISIS. And the Shia want to kill us. They are more dangerous than ISIS. Probably there are sleeper cells already in Jordan. They are Shia from Syria. And Alawites too, they are like Shia.“

Nizar Qabbani was deeply depressed by the death of his wife. Her fate symbolized for him the fate of the Middle East itself. „Balqis“, he wrote, „if they blew you up, it’s because all funerals start in Karbala, and end in Karbala“. 

Since the battle of Karbala on October 10 in the year 680, the Muslim world is divided, sometimes more, sometimes less. Many want to keep it divided. A weak balance of failed states is the goal, not the integration into a unified Middle East. In division and in chaos, the resolute and the armed will prevail.

Fear mongering keeps leaders in power, in democracies, as well as in authoritarianism. They make statements to please Western backers or domestic audiences. They all call what they do „the fight against terrorism“.

Nothing could be further from the truth. With all the inadequate, even phony approaches to fight ISIS, with favoring security first over structural reforms, with all the exaggerations to reassure a frightened population, or to keep them huddled behind their leaders, paranoid, paralyzed, I call it „the terrorism hypocrisy“! We must „do different“. We must do better.

This post was first published at Your Middle East online media: here.



Monday, December 15, 2014

Art and amnesia in Lebanon

„The difference between modern and contemporary art is very simple“, a French art professor once told me. „You can frame modern art, or put it on a pedestal, which you cannot do with contemporary art.“

MACAM, Lebanon’s modern and contemporary art museum, is dedicated to both forms of art. MACAM exhibits artifacts on a pedestal, mostly sculptures, but also installations that need a lot of space, being laid out over the floor.

The museum is located on the hilltop of Alita, in the district of Jbeil/Byblos. It was inaugurated in June of 2013, in two industrial halls with high ceilings that used to be factories for lime, paint and blackboards for schools.

When I visited MACAM last summer, I was lucky to meet the two co-founders of the museum, Cesar Nammour and Gabriela Schaub. Cesar was particularly proud of the various installations from Lebanese artists such as Mario Saba that he was able to show me. „The MACAM is a museum second and a documentation center first“, he told me. 

Since the 1980s there has been a lot of installation art in Lebanon. But once exhibitions ended, installations were dismantled and disappeared. Lebanese are world champions in forgetting - their past, their present, their future - and MACAM makes it a goal to document the art of Lebanon and preserve it for the generations after.

the art of memory, the memory of art: MACAM

„In our first year of existence“, Gabriela said, „we received over 3000 visitors that came especially to see the museum, although we are 37 km away from Beirut. For Lebanese standards this is quite far.“ „Unfortunately“, she went on, „the museum’s non-Lebanese visitors were small in number due to the insecure situation in the country.“ 

In order to start their adventure, Cesar and Gabriela were successful in having 400 sculptures by 65 Lebanese artists to be exhibited in the museum. They have a special love and relationship with the Basbous brothers, the Lebanese master sculptors of the 20th century. In fact, a retrospective that presents wood sculptures of Youssef Basbous has just opened at MACAM on November 15; it will run until April of 2015.

When I strolled through the MACAM, hearing Cesar Nammour speak about „documenting and preserving art“, I involuntarily started to think about Lebanon, its identity as a nation and its national character. Why is it that many things in Lebanon are being destroyed - consciously or mindlessly? Why is it that only a few things in Lebanon seem to be given a lasting value? I had more questions than answers.

Public space means not much in Lebanon. Its importance for the society is not recognized, its maintenance is often neglected. The private space on the other hand is almost sacred. Apartments and restaurants in Lebanon are proof of the sure taste and the flair for style that many Lebanese possess.

Is art in Lebanon seen as a public good and therefore only a second rate commodity? Does Lebanon, as a distinctive „throw away society“, also trash art easily? With Cesar, I tried to go to the root of the issue. „Is there such a thing as a national identity in Lebanon, a collective Lebanese memory“, I asked him. „Or is the immense diversity of Lebanon precisely an obstacle for this?“

Cesar Nammour’s reply was well conceived and explained the state of the Lebanese as much as it is explainable. „When Lebanon was established as greater Lebanon in 1920“, he said, „it was against the will of many factions of society who opposed its creation. When all the factions agreed in 1943 on an independent Lebanon from the French mandate, each faction imagined Lebanon in a different way, so until today there is no unity in perception of what Lebanon is.“

Cesar then talked about the war. „The civil war of 1975 to 1990 is viewed in so many ways. Lebanon does not have a national identity; the Lebanese citizen is loyal to his religion or her political leader, but not to the nation. Memory to each faction is different. We do not have one memory.“

„And that is why“, Cesar concluded his lecture, „there is always an eraser of facts rather than an accumulation of facts to create one solid memory for a national identity.“

How important is it for a nation to have a collective memory? How much of the past needs to be retained and restored? Back at my apartment, I googled for scientists like Maurice Halbwachs who argued that history is the largest element in men’s self-conception, because: „for a man to lose his memory, to lose his past, is to lose himself.“

Yet other scientists made equally pervasive claims on behalf of collective amnesia and social forgetfulness. Must a people forget in order to make its history, and the memory of past events, bearable? Or in Lebanon’s case: what did the civil war and the horror of these 15 years do to the minds of the Lebanese?

„Injuries too well remembered cannot heal“, Benjamin Barber wrote. David Lowenthal went even further in his book „The Art of Forgetting“ when he underscored the close etymological connection of „amnesia“ with „amnesty“. 

injuries remembered: MACAM

French historian Pierre Nora finally evoked the pitfalls of a collective memory when he noted that „the representations of collective memory are those that have been selected by those in power; collective memory is both a tool and an object of power.“

That made sense. Destroying all the memories thus means not giving power to anybody. It’s a somewhat childish behavior. „This is not my toy but it’s not yours either, because I broke it.“ Welcome to Lebanon’s reality! Welcome to the fractured, ungovernable Lebanon. No memory, no president, no power, no tourists! 

But let’s return to the MACAM, to Cesar Nammour and Gabriela Schaub. „What are your plans for 2015?“, I asked them. „With MACAM“, they replied, „we will enter the age of iron in 2015. We will have a competition and an exhibition that will feature Lebanese artists who have excelled in iron artworks.“ The plans don’t stop there: „beyond sculpture and installation art, another future projects is to open a new hall for Lebanese paintings and photography, to reach a wider public.“

As a rule, the Lebanese can’t agree on anything. They can’t agree on which lane to drive, or whether to leave the country or stay. Some want to smoke a thick cigar in bars and clubs while others want smoking banned in all public places. It would only be fitting if the Lebanese couldn’t agree on the significance of art. 

Cesar had the final word, and once again his idealistic side came through. „We established the museum with a deep belief in the positive role of art in a society“, he said. „MACAM aims at preserving the memory of art in Lebanon, as art is a unifying factor to its people.“

And unity is everything this country needs!

This post was originally published by Your Middle East online Media, here.



Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Only a union can save the Middle East

Turkey has been much criticized lately for its policies in the Middle East and for „not doing more“ in the fight against the Islamic State. One of the latest question marks over Turkey’s position came with President Erdogan’s speech at Marmara university on October 13, in which he denounced the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 that defines the current borders in the Levant. 

„Each conflict in this region has been designed a century ago“, Erdogan said, „it is our duty to stop this.“ What are Turkey’s ideas to stop the many conflicts that plague the Middle East? How can the Middle East walk out of the quagmire that seems to be its perennial fate? For Voix magazine, I spoke with Ceylan Ozbudak, a political analyst based in Istanbul. Ceylan is also a commentator on A9 TV and a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English.

Voix: What is Turkey's vision for the Middle East?

C.O.: The Arab World post World War II suffered either from fundamentalist traditions or from Marxism, both of which never permitted the people to live in a truly secular, democratic, libertarian and peaceful environment. By distancing itself from all kinds of fundamentalist influences, Turkey has realized a democratic conception of Islam that is far removed from radicalism and bigotry. 

While in the European Muslim societies we are seeing the discussion of whether or not Sharia courts should be allowed, Turkish Muslims were protesting a politician who commented on the décolleté of a TV presenter. Despite the negative propaganda by many Western media outlets: Turkey showcases a sort of Islamic understanding which is accepting and peaceful.

Turkey foresees a Middle East that is united on financial and political issues, which offers visa-free travel, free trade and equal rights for all. Turkey is proposing to form a Middle Eastern Union. What was possible for the European countries in the second half of the 20th century must be within reach of the Middle Eastern peoples today.

This is not Ottoman era thinking, this is contemporary Western-oriented thinking. We need to stop Balkanizing the Middle East. 

„Sometimes the dreams that come true are the dreams that we never even knew we had“, Alice Sebold writes in her book „The Lovely Bones“. And that’s how we must think about a future Middle East.

Voix: A Middle Eastern Union, ok. But how to get rid of all the violence and tension that plague the Middle East?

C.O.: Let’s not forget that the sectarian wars in Europe lasted for centuries. England and France fought (almost) forever. But when the time was ripe, when there was simply nothing more to lose, they decided to elevate each other in unity. This is the same ripe environment that we see in the Middle East right now.

Voix: What would be the concrete steps to get to a Middle Eastern Union? What’s your 7 step program?

C.O.: Seven steps, I don’t know. However Turkey has already started to take the initial steps. It lifted the visa obligation for more than 70 countries, among them Lebanon. We have been aspiring for a free-travel zone and this was the first and most important step.

Another step is the bonding power of the non-sectarians in the Middle East. Turkey proves to be far away from any form of sectarian rivalry, like many analysts try to paint it. Even as a NATO member, Turkey eased the sanctions of Iran, the fortress of Shia power. Since this non-sectarian vision is embodied in Turkey itself, it is easier to extrapolate this vision to other states. 

We in the Middle East are open to embrace a less rigid form of secularism, like the one that is dominant in the USA and in large parts of Europe. Most AKP leaders also support this form of secularism.

Voix: Every development starts with the economy. How to tackle the endemic economical crisis in the region?

C.0.: Arabs, Turks, Kurds and other groups in the region could find a relative peace in an ever closer union. After all, most of the problems of the Middle East - terrorism, poverty, unemployment, sectarianism, the refugee crisis, water shortages - require regional answers. No country can solve its problems on its own.

The union must start with the economy. As did the European Union when it first started out as the European coal and steel community. Only later it transformed into a political and social union.

The next step would be to organize the capabilities of the region for the best of everybody. For example, Egypt has low-cost labour but high youth unemployment. Neighboring Libya has excess capital, huge infrastructure projects and an insatiable demand for workers. Unfortunately the security situation in Libya is very bad today.

Turkey has the expertise to build airports, bridges and roads very fast. All these dots need connecting. At least $20bn of Gulf money has been pledged to Egypt for development in recent months but where is the long-term plan?

the environment is ripe for a Middle East Union

Voix: The Middle East already has a regional organization, the Arab League. Is there a future role for the Arab League?

The Arab League, the existing regional structure, does not have the credibility, capability or creativity to help these nations pull together because it rests on the fascist ideology of Pan-Arabism. Middle East is not only home to Arabs. We all own this place. In polls, most people in the Middle East call themselves Arab or Muslim before, say, Jordanian or Saudi. Pan-Islamic identity still has more resonance than national identity.

Therefore one of the next steps must be to make the vision of a Middle East Union a mainstream idea. And this step is in the making. Calls have been echoed by the Saudi king, the president of the United Arab Emirates, Turkey's prime minister, Jordan's monarch – and also by voices among Hamas, Egypt's Salafis or the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s no question for me that Israel and Armenia need to be part of this union as well.

Voix: Let’s go back to secularism. In its constitution Turkey defines itself as a secular state. Why doesn't Turkey act more decisively in favor of a "de-religionization" of the Middle Eastern conflicts?

C.O.: Where does Turkey’s ruling AK Party stand on the secularism issue? To answer this, we must distinguish between the two conceptions of secularism prevalent in contemporary Turkey. One may be called ‘assertive secularism’. Its ultimate goal is to privatize and individualize religion and to ban or limit its visibility in the public space. The other concept, ’passive secularism’, is prevalent in most Western democracies and implies state neutrality towards the various religions and allows the public visibility of religion.

The AKP’s ideology is in conformity with passive secularism, but not with an Islamist’s worldview which aims at Islamicizing the society by using the coercive power of the state.

On the other hand, the lack of religious identity will not necessarily bring peace to the region. Look at the brutality of the Baath regimes in the Middle East where the religious identities were oppressed by a leftist Baath mindset. 

Voix: But how does Turkey justify living the passive secularism at home yet nurturing the assertive secularism, even the Islamist approach, abroad, for instance when supporting the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt?

C.O.: The Erdogan who stood in solidarity with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after General Sisi’s coup was the same Erdogan who was shunned and criticized by the very same Muslim Brotherhood when he insisted on a secular-democratic constitution for Egypt. And it was also Erdogan who advised the MB to start wearing suits and ties if they want to be taken seriously as politicians.

Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood came at a time when all nations including the U.S. recognized them as a powerful government. I’m sure that you remember the TIME magazine’s cover stating that Mursi was now the most powerful leader in the Middle East. Turkey never went to that length.

When there was a military coup, Turkey opposed the toppling of a democratically elected government by the hands of a system that was no different than Mubarak. Turkey was not supporting the MB, but it was calling a coup a coup. 

So Turkey criticized the MB when they didn’t put together a secular and democratic constitution and Turkey criticized Sisi when he staged a coup. We always need to see things in a broader perspective.


Voix: Thank you, Ceylan, for this interview.

This post was originally published by Voix magazine, here

An alternative version of this post was published at Your Middle East online media, here