Actually, Oldest Qur’ans are in Sanaa, Yemen & in Danger of Saudi Bombing

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) |

The discovery of a couple pages [apparently actually 18] of a very old Qur’an (the Muslim scripture), probably from the 640s CE [“AD”], in a library in Britain, has provoked a good deal of press reporting. Muslim tradition holds that the scripture was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad between roughly 610 CE and his death in 632, during the era when Heraclius was the emperor of Byzantium and the Tang Dynasty ruled China. While this find at the Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham is important, the press seems unaware that a copy of the Qur’an that dates from the 640s and has about half of the entire book was discovered by a German team in Sanaa, Yemen two decades ago.

The oldest nearly complete Qur’ans in the world are just sitting there in the middle of Sanaa, and Birmingham is not the really big story here.

And Sanaa is being daily bombed from the air by Saudi Arabia, which has hit civilian buildings and a refugee camp and part of historic downtown Sanaa. I am petrified that it has hit the Manuscript Library where this precious book was held. (I am also petrified every time I hear about a strike that it has killed people– don’t get me wrong. But hey, I’m a historian of Islam so I worry about cultural destruction too).

Islam grew up in Western Arabia at a time when the capital of the old Roman empire had been moved east to Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) and when that eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire ruled much of the Middle East (what is now Turkey, Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Syria). The rest, Iraq and Iran, was ruled by the Zoroastrian, Persian Sasanid Empire. Islam grew up about six centuries after the beginning of Christianity, but only about 300 years after it had been officially recognized as one of the legitimate religions of the Roman Empire by Emperor Constantine.

The Great Mosque of Sanaa, Yemen, was founded by a companion of the Prophet Muhammad. In 1965 as a result of rain damage, an ancient storage room was discovered in its west wing that had had no door. It was full of old leaves of the Qur’an. Muslims were reluctant to throw copies of the Qur’an away when they aged, and the room was used as a geniza or storage for codex books that were falling apart. The story of this discovery is given here (click).

Yemen brought in a German team to reassemble whole copies of the Qur’an from the jumbled leaves. I visited the facility, part of the Sanaa Manuscript Library called the Dar al-Qur’an, in 1988. I was shown several hundred drawers, each representing a different copy of the Muslim scripture, with different dimensions and script and media (lambskin, papyrus, etc.) Each page was being matched to the specifications of one of the drawers. I was told by the German staff that they were sure that some of these copies of the Qur’an went back to at least the late 600s, i.e. the first half of the Umayyad period (661-750), though there was at that time no absolute proof. It was just that the block Kufi script and the papyrus medium suggested ancientness.

This was an exciting idea to me, since at that time a lot of skepticism had been raised by John Wansbrough, Michael Cook, and Patricia Crone about whether the Qur’an as a book was really assembled 610-632, or whether it evolved over a couple of centuries. There was nothing wrong in principle with their theory– it was just an application of Descartes’ method, of radical doubt. And at that time the history of the Qur’anic manuscript text as a discipline barely existed (it is still very undeveloped compared to e.g. biblical studies). These authors turn out to have been wrong, but this is how science progresses, by people making bold hypotheses and then seeing if they can be knocked down.

Some of the manuscripts in the Dar al-Qur’an were very old and weren’t showing significant variants from modern Qur’ans, showing that the text had not in fact changed after the late 600s.

What the German team did not know then was that one of the copies of the Qur’an they had found was a palimpsest. That is a manuscript that has been written over and so replaced with a later text. But nowadays ultraviolet photography can reveal the original manuscript underneath.

The leaves of the ancient Qur’an found in Birmingham University’s archives. Photograph: Birmingham University/EPA h/t The Guardian.

The original manuscript was the Qur’an, but it wasn’t in the order prescribed by the Caliph Uthman (r. 644-656). That Caliph had issued an official version of the Qur’an in manuscript and had it copied out and spread around. It arranged the chapters (surahs) in order of length, with the longest first. This way of doing it meant that the book was more or less arranged backward from a chronological point of view, since the earliest chapters tended to be shorter than later ones. Westerners trying to read the Qur’an should thus begin at the back and read forward, and should read it along with a good biography of the Prophet Muhammad for context (I’ve always liked Montgomery Watts’ “Muhammad Prophet and Statesman”).

So the palimpsest Qur’an was likely older than 650 CE when `Uthman’s official version was promulgated. Later on, radiocarbon dating showed a high likelihood that this book was at least as old as the 640s and so certainly the oldest Qur’an known to exist, going back to within a decade of the Prophet Muhammad’s death. By the way, although the order of the chapters is different from the later standard, the text itself doesn’t show significant variants from today’s Qur’an. It shows that the religion of Islam has a firm grounding in history.

The earliest fragment of the New Testament in manuscript is from 125 CE and full manuscripts are later. So we now have (most of) a Qur’an that is within a decade or two of the death of the Muslim prophet, something that cannot be said for Christianity. I suspect we’ll eventually find very old New Testaments, too. I’m just underlining the historical importance of the Yemen find.

The discovery has been analyzed and published by Behnam Sadeghi of Stanford and Mohsen Goudarzi, though apparently a Yemen MA thesis found about 40 pages of which they were unaware.

I can’t understand why the palimpsest Qur’an isn’t more famous or the work of Sadeghi and Goudarzi not better known. Even in Middle East studies circles, whenever I have brought the Yemen finds up with colleagues, they often seem surprised and hadn’t known about them. And, the flurry of reporting about the Birmingham 2 pages also seems not to know about the Yemeni texts.

Let’s hope the fruitless war in Yemen (you can’t defeat a guerrilla movement with aerial bombardment) ends as soon as possible, and that civilians can stop being endangered, and Yemen’s vast cultural treasures can be safeguarded from further destruction. Since Bush went into Iraq in 2003, Middle Eastern history is disappearing, in what I call Cliocide, even as the security and lives of people are being lost. People need history and identity and it is a crime to rob them of it. The Saudis take pride in being the guardians of the two holy shrines, Mecca and Medina. They should be guardians of the Qur’an, too, and stop hitting Sanaa.

Are Arab Oil Monarchies divided over Iran Deal?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) comprises Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. In recent years it has faced severe internal divisions, especially a Saudi-Qatar split over the Muslim Brotherhood, which Riyadh wanted to crush but which Qatar generally has supported. After enormous Saudi pressure, Qatar is said to have reduced its support for the MB. There is reason to think that the fabulously wealthy Gulf sextet is also deeply divided over the UN Security Council deal with Iran.

Saudi Arabia, despite publicly welcoming the Iran deal, is said to be very unhappy about it. The Sunni Bahrain monarchy likely is, as well, because of its suspicion that Iran is stirring up trouble among its Shiite majority. It is hard to read Kuwait on this one, but Kuwait usually stands with Saudi Arabia.

But the reaction of other GCC states has been much more enthusiastic.

Soon after the agreement was concluded, Iran leaked the information that Oman had played a key role at the beginning of the negotiations. Muscat hosted secret US-Iran meetings beginning in 2011, and these continued for years. Sultan Qaboos risked his relationship with the other GCC nations by not revealing these contacts to his allies. I don’t think there is any doubt that Oman is delighted at the successful conclusion of the negotiations.

Qatar said it had long encouraged talks between the US and Iran. This is plausible; Qatar has a reputation for insisting on dealing with all sides. Qatar said it has no bilateral problems with Iran, with which it has a “historic” relationship. President Hasan Rouhani of Iran said he was sure the agreement would improve Iranian relations with Qatar. When I was in Qatar last May, locals told me that Iranian navy ships sometimes show up off the coast as a signal that Iran is not happy with Qatar’s gas exports (the two countries share a vast gas reserve, but Iran has been unable to exploit its side and the two have no treaty on how to divvy up the wealth). Rouhani may have meant in part that with an end to sanctions, Iran will be able to begin exploiting the gas reserves, and won’t resent Qatar as much.

Dubai has in the past expressed hopes for a Western rapprochement with Iran. Unlike Abu Dhabi within the United Arab Emirates, Dubai is a commercial and trade hub, and its The deal is a windfall for Dubai. Abu Dhabi may feel differently, since it is a rival oil state to Iran and the deal will lower oil prices over time.

So when you hear that the Gulf Arab monarchies are against the deal (as though that should sway US politics), it is more accurate to say that some of them have strong reservations. Others are more positive.

Related video added by Juan Cole:

Euronews Business: “Dubai’s ancient dhows look east to Iran and an end of sanctions”

Requiem for the Home Front: Before War was Covert & Elite

By Tom Engelhardt | ( | – –

Almost three quarters of a century ago, my mother placed a message in a bottle and tossed it out beyond the waves. It bobbed along through tides, storms, and squalls until just recently, almost four decades after her death, it washed ashore at my feet. I’m speaking metaphorically, of course. Still, what happened, even stripped of the metaphors, does astonish me. So here, on the day after my 71st birthday, is a little story about a bottle, a message, time, war (American-style), my mom, and me.

Recently, based on a Google search, a woman emailed me at the website I run, TomDispatch, about a 1942 sketch by Irma Selz that she had purchased at an estate sale in Seattle. Did it, she wanted to know, have any value?

Now, Irma Selz was my mother and I answered that, to the best of my knowledge, the drawing she had purchased didn’t have much monetary value, but that in her moment in New York City — we’re talking the 1940s — my mom was a figure. She was known in the gossip columns of the time as “New York’s girl caricaturist.” Professionally, she kept her maiden name, Selz, not the most common gesture in that long-gone era and a world of cartoonists and illustrators that was stunningly male.

From the 1930s through the 1940s, she drew theatrical caricatures for just about every paper in town: the Herald Tribune, the New York Times, the Journal-American,PM, the Daily News, the Brooklyn Eagle, not to speak of King Features Syndicate. She did regular “profile” illustrations for the New Yorker and her work appeared in magazines like Cue, Glamour, Town & Country, and the American Mercury. In the 1950s, she drew political caricatures for the New York Post when it was a liberal rag, not a Murdoch-owned right-wing one.

Faces were her thing; in truth, her obsession. By the time I made it to the breakfast table most mornings, she would have taken pencil or pen to the photos of newsmakers on the front page of the New York Times and retouched the faces. In restaurants, other diners would remind her of stock characters — butlers, maids, vamps, detectives — in the Broadway plays she had once drawn professionally. Extracting a pen from her purse, she would promptly begin sketching those faces on the tablecloth (and in those days, restaurants you took kids to didn’t have paper tablecloths and plenty of crayons). I remember this, of course, not for the remarkable mini-caricatures that resulted, but for the embarrassment it caused the young Tom Engelhardt. Today, I would give my right arm to possess those sketches-on-cloth. In her old age, walking on the beach, my mother would pick up stones, see in their discolorations and indentations the same set of faces, and ink them in, leaving me all these years later with boxes of fading stone butlers.

She lived in a hard-drinking, hard-smoking world of cartoonists, publicists, journalists, and theatrical types (which is why when “Mad Men” first appeared on TV and no character ever seemed to lack a drink or cigarette, it felt so familiar to me).  I can still remember the parties at our house, the liquor consumed, and at perhaps the age of seven or eight, having Irwin Hasen, the creator of Dondi, a now-largely-forgotten comic strip about a World War II-era Italian orphan, sit by my bedside just before lights-out.  There, he drew his character for me on tracing paper, while a party revved up downstairs.  This was just the way life was for me.  It was, as far as I knew, how everyone grew up.  And so my mother’s occupation and her preoccupations weren’t something I spent much time thinking about.

I would arrive home, schoolbag in hand, and find her at her easel — where else did mothers stay? — sketching under the skylight that was a unique attribute of the New York apartment we rented all those years.  As a result, to my eternal regret I doubt that, even as an adult, I ever asked her anything about her world or how she got there, or why she left her birth city of Chicago and came to New York, or what drove her, or how she ever became who and what she was. As I’m afraid is often true with parents, it’s only after their deaths, only after the answers are long gone, that the questions begin to pile up.

She was clearly driven to draw from her earliest years.  I still have her childhood souvenir album, including what must be her first professionally published cartoon.  She was 16 and it was part of an April 1924 strip called “Harold Teen” in the Chicago Daily Tribune, evidently about a young flapper and her boyfriend.  Its central panel displayed possible hairdos (“bobs”) for the flapper, including “the mop,” “the pineapple bob,” and the “Buster Brown bob.”  A little note under it says, “from sketches by Irma Madelon Selz.”  (“Madelon” was not the way her middle name was spelled, but it was the spelling she always loved.)  She would later go on to do theatrical sketches and cartoons for the Tribune before heading for New York.

I still have her accounts book, too, and it’s sad to see what she got paid, freelance job by freelance job, in the war years and beyond by major publications.  This helps explain why, in what for so many Americans were the Golden Fifties — a period when my father was sometimes unemployed — the arguments after I was officially “asleep” (but of course listening closely) were so fierce, even violent, over the bills, the debts, and how to pay for what “Tommy” needed.  But other than such memories and the random things my mother told me, I know so much less than I would like to about her.

“A Lady Drew It for Me”

As I turn 71 — two years older than my mother when she died — I can’t tell you how moved I was to have a small vestige of her life from the wartime moments before my birth wash ashore.  What my correspondent had bought in that estate sale — she later sent me a photo of it — was a quick portrait my mother did of a young man in uniform evidently being trained at the U.S. Coast Guard Machine School on Ellis Island (then occupied by that service).  On it, my mother had written, “Stage Door Canteen” and signed it, as she did all her work, “Selz.”  It was April 1942, the month of the Bataan Death March and Doolittle’s Raid on Tokyo.  And perhaps that Coast Guardsman was soon to head to war.  He signed my mother’s sketch “To Jean with all my love, Les” and sent it to his sweetheart or wife.

”Les” sketched by my mother at the Stage Door Canteen on April 20, 1942.

Click to enlarge

Later that April night in the midst of a great global war, Les wrote a letter to Jean in distant Seattle — the framed sketch from that estate sale contained the letter — filled with longing, homesickness, and desire. (“Well, I see it is time for the ferry, so I will have to close and dream about you, and can I dream.  Oh boy.”)  And here’s how he briefly described the encounter with my mother: “Well, I said I would send you a picture.  Well, here it is.  I was up to the Stage Door Canteen, a place for servicemen and a lady drew it for me.”

That institution, run by the American Theater Wing, first opened in the basement of a Broadway theater in New York City in March 1942.  It was a cafeteria, dance hall, and nightclub all rolled into one, where servicemen could eat, listen to bands, and relax — for free — and be served or entertained by theatrical types, including celebrities of the era.  It was a hit and similar canteens would soon open in other U.S. cities (and finally in Paris and London as well).  It was just one of so many ways in which home-front Americans from every walk of life tried to support the war effort. In that sense, World War II in the United States was distinctly a people’s war and experienced as such.

My father, who volunteered for the military right after Pearl Harbor, at age 35, became a major in the Army Air Corps.  (There was no separate U.S. Air Force in those years.)  In 1943, he went overseas as operations officer for the First Air Commandos in Burma.  In Terry and the Pirates, a popular comic strip — cartoonists of every sort “mobilized” for the war — his unit’s co-commander, Phil Cochran, became the character “Flip Corkin.”  Strip creator Milton Caniff even put my father jokingly into a May 1944 strip using his nickname, “Englewillie,” and in 1967 gave him the original artwork.  It was inscribed: “For Major ENGLEWILLIE himself… with a nostalgic backward nod toward the Big Adventure.”

My mother did her part. I’m sure it never occurred to her to do otherwise. It was the time of Rosie the Riveter and so Irma the Caricaturist lent a hand. 

Here’s a description from her publisher — she wrote and illustrated children’s books years later — about her role at the Stage Door Canteen.  “During the war, she was chairman of the Artist’s Committee of the American Theatre Wing.  She helped plan the murals, which decorate the Stage Door Canteen and the Merchant Seaman’s Canteen.  Miss Selz remembers setting up her easel and turning out caricatures of servicemen.  Some nights she did well over a hundred of these skillful, quick line drawings and many servicemen still treasure their ‘portraits’ by Selz.”

My mother and father in front of a mural she painted for the Stage Door Canteen.

Click to enlarge

Imagine then that, on the April night when she drew Les, that “lady” might also have sketched another 100 or more soldiers and sailors, mementos to be sent home to family or sweethearts.  These were, of course, portraits of men on their way to war.  Some of those sketched were undoubtedly killed.  Many of the drawings must be long gone, but a few perhaps still cherished and others heading for estate sales as the last of the World War II generation, that mobilized citizenry of wartime America, finally dies off.

From photos I have, it’s clear that my mom also sketched various servicemen and celebrities on the set of The Stage Door Canteen, the 1943 home-front propaganda flick Hollywood made about the institution.  (If you watch it, you can glimpse a mural of hers at the moment Katharine Hepburn suddenly makes a cameo appearance.)  In those years, my mother also seems to have regularly volunteered to draw people eager to support the war effort by buying war bonds.  Here, for instance, is the text from a Bonwit Teller department store ad of November 16, 1944, announcing such an upcoming event: “Irma Selz, well-known newspaper caricaturist of stage and screen stars, will do a caricature of those who purchase a $500 War Bond or more.”

Bonwit Teller ad — my mother “at war.”

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While my father was overseas, she also mobilized in the most personal of ways.  Every month, she sent him a little hand-made album of her own making (“Willie’s Scrap-Book, The Magazine for Smart Young Commandos”).  Each of them was a remarkably intricate mix of news, theatrical gossip, movie ads, pop quizzes, cheesecake, and cartoons, as well as often elaborate caricatures and sketches she did especially for him.  In the “March 1944 Annual Easter Issue,” she included a photo of herself sketching under the label “The Working Class.”

I still have four of those “scrap-books.”  To my mind, they are small classics of mobilized wartime effort at the most personal level imaginable.  One, for instance, included — since she was pregnant at the time — a double-page spread she illustrated of the future “me.”  The first page was labeled “My daughter” and showed a little blond girl in a t-shirt and slacks with a baseball bat over her shoulder.  (My mother had indeed broken her nose playing catcher in a youthful softball game.)  The other is labeled “Your daughter” and shows a pink-cheeked blond girl with a giant pink bow in her curly hair, a frilly pink dress, and pink ballet slippers.

Inside one of those little magazines, there was even a tiny slip-out booklet on tracing paper labeled “A Pocket Guild to SELZ.”  (“For use of military personnel only.  Prepared by Special Service Division, Eastern Representative, Special Project 9, Washington, D.C.”)  It began: “If you start worrying about what goes with Selz, here is your reference and pocket guide for any time of the day or night.”  Each tiny page was a quick sketch, the first showing her unhappily asleep (“9. A.M.”), dreaming of enemy planes, one of which, in the second sketch (“10 A.M.”), goes down in flames as she smiles in her sleep.  The micro-booklet ended with a sketch of her drawing a sailor at the Merchant Seaman’s Club and then, in front of the door of the Stage Door Canteen, heading for home (“11:30 P.M.”).  “And so to bed” is the last line.

The cover of one of my mother’s “scrap-books” sent to my father at war.

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I know that my father wrote back fervently, since I have a letter my mother sent him that begins: “Now to answer your three letters I received yest[erday]. No. 284, 285 & 289, written Apr. 26, 27, and 29th.  It was such a relief to read a letter saying you’d had a pile of mail from me, at last, & also that the 1st of the Scrap-Books finally reached you, & better yet, that you enjoyed it.”

For both of them, World War II was their moment of volunteerism.  From 1946 on, I doubt my parents ever again volunteered for anything.

People-less Wars

Here’s the strange thing: the wars never ended, but the voluntarism did.  Think of it this way: there were two forces of note on the home front in World War II, an early version of what, in future years, would become the national security state and the American people.  The militarized state that produced a global triumph in 1945 emerged from that war emboldened and empowered.  From that moment to the present — whether you’re talking about the Pentagon, the military-industrial complex, the intelligence services, private contractors, special operations forces, or the Department of Homeland Security and the homeland-industrial complex that grew up around it post-9/11 — it’s been good times all the way.

In those seven decades, the national security state never stopped expanding, its power on the rise, its budgets ever larger, and democratic oversight weakening by the decade.  In that same period, the American people, demobilized after World War II, never truly mobilized again despite the endless wars to come.  The only exceptions might be in the Vietnam years and again in the brief period before the 2003 invasion of Iraq when massive numbers of Americans did mobilize, going voluntarily into opposition to yet one more conflict in a distant land.

And yet if its “victory weapon” robbed the planet of the ability to fight World War III and emerge intact, war and military action seemed never to cease on “the peripheries.”  It was there, in the Cold War years, that the U.S. confronted the Soviet Union or insurgencies and independence movements of many sorts in covert as well as open war.  (Korea, Tibet, the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Libya, to name just the obvious ones.)  After the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, the wars, conflicts, and military actions only seemed to increase — Panama, Grenada, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, Iraq (and Iraq again and yet again), Afghanistan (again), Pakistan, Libya (again), Yemen, and so on.  And that doesn’t even cover covert semi-war operations against Nicaragua in the 1980s and Iran since 1979, to name just two countries.

In the wake of World War II, wartime — whether as a “cold war” or a “war on terror” — became the only time in Washington.  And yet, as the American military and the CIA were loosed in a bevy of ways, there was ever less for Americans to do and just about nothing for American civilians to volunteer for (except, of course, in the post-9/11 years, the ritualistic thanking of the troops).  After Vietnam, there wouldn’t even be a citizens’ army that it was your duty to serve in.

In those decades, war, ever more “covert” and “elite,” became the property of the national security state, not Congress or the American people.  It would be privatized, corporatized, and turned over to the experts.  (Make what you will of the fact that, without an element of popular voluntarism and left to those experts, the country would never win another significant war, suffering instead one stalemate or defeat after another.)

My mother draws a soldier on the set of the movie The Stage Door Canteen.

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In other words, when it comes to war, American-style, the 73 years since Irma Selz sketched that jaunty young Coast Guardsman at the Stage Door Canteen might as well be a millennium.  Naturally enough, I’m nostalgic when it comes to my mother’s life.  There is, however, no reason to be nostalgic about the war she and my father mobilized for.  It was cataclysmic beyond imagining.  It destroyed significant parts of the planet.  It involved cruelty on all sides and on an industrial scale — from genocide to the mass firebombing of cities — that was and undoubtedly will remain unmatched in history.  Given the war’s final weapon that took out Hiroshima and Nagasaki, such a war could never be fought again, not at least without destroying humanity and a habitable planet.

My mother welcomes me into a world still at war, July 20, 1944.  My birth announcement drawn by “Selz.”

Click to enlarge

Nonetheless, something was lost when that war effort evaporated, when war became the property of the imperial state. 

My mother died in 1977, my father on Pearl Harbor Day 1983.  They and their urge to volunteer no longer have a place in the world of 2015.  When I try to imagine Irma Selz today, in the context of America’s new wartime and its endless wars, conflicts, raids, and air assassination campaigns, I think of her drawing drones (or their operators) or having to visit a Special Operations version of a Stage Door Canteen so secret that no normal American could even know it existed.  I imagine her sketching soldiers in units so “elite” that they probably wouldn’t even be allowed to send their portraits home to lovers or wives.

In these decades, we’ve gone from an American version of people’s war and national mobilization to people-less wars and a demobilized populace.  War has remained a constant, but we have not and in our new 1% democracy, that’s a loss.  Given that, I want to offer one small cheer, however belatedly, for Irma the Caricaturist.  She mattered and she’s missed.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

[Note: I’d also like to offer a final salute to Henry Drewry, one of the last of the World War II generation in my life and one of the great ones. He died on November 21, 2014. Tom]

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Tom Engelhardt


Terrorist kills 31 at Socialist Rally for Kobane in Turkey

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

According to Alarabiya, on Monday a young woman aged 18 detonated a suicide bomb belt at a socialist youth rally in Suruç, Turkey, just ten miles from the border with Syria.

Some three hundred members of the Federation of Socialist Youth Associates were on a summer trip to help reconstruction of Syria’s Kobane, just across the border from Suruç. They were staying at the Amara Culture Center, which is administered by the local municipality, which answers to the pro-Kurdish, leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Suruç is a Kurdish-majority town of some 60,000.

Selfie taken by leftist youth shortly before the blast

Although there is speculation that the bombing was the work of Daesh (ISIS, ISIL), that allegation cannot yet be confirmed.

Daesh was forced out of Kobane by Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), along with US and allied aerial bombardment. The far rightwing believers in a revived caliphate had targeted the Kurdish population in Kobane but were repelled.

The HDP issued an angry memorandum complaining about lax security along the border. HDP got 11% of seats in the most recent election.

Kurds in Istanbul demonstrated against the atrocity, implying that the Turkish government is supporting or winking at Daesh, and were cleared by riot police.

Also on Monday, YPG fighters took the southern reaches of the city of Hasaka, trapping Daesh forces within. A Daesh assault on Hasaka has been repelled. The Kurdish forces once shared duties with their Syrian Arab Army counterparts there, but are now increasingly in control.

Many Turkish Kurds feel that the ruling Justice and Development Party bigwigs are soft on Sunni Arab terrorism, while they are hard on progressive Kurds.

Kurds are among the few good fighters on the Allied side and have taken substantial territory in Syria from Daesh in recent months. This development in turn disturbs Turkey, since it fears Kurdish separatism.

Related video:

Euronews: “Turkey: Death toll climbs in Suruc attack”

Iraqi Government halts al-Anbar Campaign over Sectarian Fears, US Pressure

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Kuwaiti press (al-Siyasah) is alleging that the Iraqi government, under American pressure, has hit the pause button on its campaign to take al-Anbar Province back from Daesh (ISIS, ISIL). The report was also carried by in the United Arab Emirates.

A source in the Iraqi government said that there were three reasons for the halt in the week-old campaign, all of them stemming in part from American pressure.

First, the Iraqi army and its Shiite militia auxiliaries have staged 60 attacks on Falluja and Ramadi during the past weeks and not once were they able to break through Daesh lines. The Americans suggested that better coordination be set up between US and coalition air strikes and the Iraqi forces so that the latter could take full advantage of the air strikes. Apparently this past week the US views the Iraqi attacks as having been indiscriminate.

Second, the Iraqi government had suspended recruitment of Sunni tribesmen to a training program run by US troops at Base Progress in Habbaniya. The US is convinced that this step was taken to play down the Sunni role in the campaign to retake al-Anbar and to strengthen that of the Shiite militias.

Third, the Shiite militias had massed some 20,000 fighters outside the strongly Sunni city of Falluja, raising fears in the American command that if such a force took a Sunni city like that, it would provoke severe sectarian tensions that would weaken the campaign against Daesh and might even lead to the break-up of the national unity government of Haydar al-Abadi, who at the moment has Sunni political allies.

Although the Iraqi government had announced the beginning of the campaign 7 days ago, when he was in Baghdad this weekend, Gen. Martin Dempsey said that in his opinion the beginning of the al-Anbar campaign was a ways off.

One Arabic newspaper maintained that during his visit Dempsey advised the Iraqi government to withdraw Iranian military advisers from the al-Anbar campaign. He is alleged to have urged PM al-Abadi to depend more instead on Sunni tribal levies.

The Shiite militiamen are said by this source to have taken extremely high casualties over the past week with nothing to show for it.

I read these leaks to suggest that, as with the Tikrit campaign, the initial planning and strategy has been carried out by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, and it has failed because the Sunnis in Falluja and Ramadi simply won’t accept what they see as an Iranian, Shiite conquest. Also as with Tikrit, the Iraqi government half way through has had abruptly to turn to the United States to re-plan the assault because of Iranian failures and because of the sectarian issue.

Reading between the lines, I suspect that this campaign had been mainly spearheaded by the Shiite militias and their Iranian advisers, and perhaps the US has been unwilling to give them close air support in a sustained manner, insisting on working with the formal Iraqi army. To get the US aerial bombardment it needs to take down Daesh, the Iraqi government is going to have to bring Sunni forces into play in a much bigger way, to make the American side happier.

Related video: Juan Cole:

PressTV: “Iraqi forces pound ISIL positions around Ramadi”

Trump Swiftboats McCain the Way W. Swiftboated John Kerry

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The chickens of 2004 have come home to roost in the Republican Party. The Republican strategists around George W. Bush in that year decided to rip John Kerry’s face off by attacking him, in accordance with Karl Rove’s dirty tactics, at his strength. Bush, who hid out from the Vietnam War in the Texas Air Reserve faced a decorated war hero in Senator Kerry. A campaign of falsehoods and vilication was gotten up against him by unscrupulous propaganda gangsters that questioned his heroism and his medals. Their charges were shown to be without merit, but they no doubt did hurt Kerry’s reputation and campaign with their falsehoods.

Now another Republican candidate is trying to swiftboat a decorated veteran. But this time the candidate is Donald Trump and the veteran is Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). (McCain, by the way, defended Kerry in 2004; but then he had been the victim of Bushie dirty tricks in the 2000 primaries and knew the filthy ends to which they were willing to go).

Trump attacked McCain on Saturday in an act of petty revenge. McCain had complained of Trump’s demagoguery, saying he had “fired up the crazies.” Trump replied that McCain is a “dummy”, having been last in his class at Annapolis. Then yesterday at a conservative forum in Iowa, the moderator called McCain a war hero, and Trump replied, “He is a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

The problem with Sen. McCain is not that he isn’t heroic– he is. It is that he proposes US wars too often and too lightly.

It is worth noting that the only brush with the military Trump ever had came when he was expelled from middle school for behavioral problems at age 13 and was placed by his parents in the New York Military Academy in hopes that it could straighten him out (obviously it couldn’t).

There is no shame in having been against the Vietnam War (I was, too), the reason Trump gives for having sought student deferments. But people who haven’t been in war, in my view, are not in a position to question the valor of people who have. Someone who served in a war can be wrong about politics and then we should argue with them on political grounds. But if we weren’t there, we don’t know the test of character they faced and can’t speak to that.

Hanoi had among the most extensive anti-aircraft batteries of any city in the world when McCain was flying missions over it. That takes courage, so Trump is wrong that the senator only became heroic by virtue of being shot down. That he was downed shows how dangerous his multiple missions were in the first place.

McCain was in brutal captivity for 5 and a half years at the hands of an authoritarian regime. He was tortured. He declined an opportunity to leave his mates behind because his father was an admiral. Getting through all that takes courage. So too does getting over it and showing the resilience to go on to serve his country in the senate.

You can be against the war he fought in and still recognize heroism there.

Trump clearly spoke out of annoyance (he really, really dislikes being disagreed with or dismissed as unserious).

Trump is a one-man advertisement for campaign finance reform, socialism and banning casinos. Whatever circumstances made him a plausible candidate for president should be immediately changed to make sure that kind of thing never happens to our country again.

But in addition, I think all the Republicans who say they are outraged at Trump’s comments need to step up and apologize to John Kerry if they didn’t, as McCain did, defend him from the swiftboaters.


Related video:

CNN: “Donald Trump questions if McCain is a ‘war hero'”

Iran’s Khamenei Praises Nuclear Deal, but slams US Foreign Policy

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s clerical Leader, appeared to be attempting to mollify hard liners on Friday in his Friday prayers addresses.

On the one hand, he praised the negotiators at Vienna who in long and arduous negotiations crafted the deal on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. He said its path to ratification would proceed in accordance with the law. He said, “Hopefully it will be.”

He said Iran’s security and policy are unaffected.

He expressed annoyance at repeated American assertions that they had closed off Iranian paths to a nuclear weapon with these accords. He said,

“Many years ago I gave, on the basis of Islamic principles, a fatwa forbidding the construction of a nuclear weapon. We have a legal prohibition on the production of such a weapon. The Americans, despite sometimes recognizing the importance of this fatwa, in their instructions and remarks have lied and allege that they have prevented Iran from making an atomic bomb.”

ما سالها قبل براساس مبانی اسلام، فتوای حرمت تولید سلاح هسته ای داده ایم و برای تولید این سلاح، مانع شرعی داریم اما امریکاییها با وجود اینکه گاهی به اهمیت این فتوا اذعان می کنند، در تبلیغات و رجز خوانیها دروغ می گویند و ادعا می کنند تهدید آنها جلوی ساخت سلاح هسته ای ایران را گرفته است.

So he reasserted his fatwa (which there is a concerted attempt in some quarters in the US to deny) against nuclear weapons. That he has this stance tells you why he agreed to the nuclear deal. He never wanted an atomic bomb, indeed, has forbidden them, and I think President Hassan Rouhani convinced him that Iran would be better off if it acquiesced in the inspections that would convince the suspicious west of Iran’s good intentions.

He also said, “We do not accept any war, and will never start a war.”

On the other hand, he defended chanting “Death to Israel!” and “Death to America.”

He said with regard to Iran’s foreign policy, nothing will change and it will go on supporting its friends regardless of what the US thinks. He condemned the US for branding Hizbullah a terrorist organization. He said the US is supporting Israel, which has killed children [during the Gaza War last summer].

He expressed his sorrow for the travails many people in the Middle East region are living through, mentioning Bahrain, Palestine, Syria, and Yemen.

His subtext is that the United States is supporting the far right wing Sunni monarchy of Bahrain in its crushing of protests by Bahrain’s disenfranchised Shiite majority. The US actively collaborates with Israel in punitive policies toward Palestinians and enables Israel to keep them stateless and under economic siege. The US supports the Saudi and GCC war on the Houthis in Yemen. And the US says it wants to see Bashar al-Assad overthrown in Syria, though Khamenei clearly thinks what will come after that overthrow will be ISIL or al-Qaeda rule over the 10-14% of the Syrian population that is Alawite Shiite.

That is, in these four countries, Iran is at odds with US policy. Khamenei played up this policy differences with the US to underline his continued anti-imperialism.

Khamenei did not mention all the ways that the US is now de facto allied with Iran, e.g. against Daesh (ISIS, ISIL). For instance, in Iraq (which he did not mention in connection with popular suffering), the US Air Force has bombarded ISIL targets while helping Iraqi Shiite militiamen, who in turn are supported by Iran.

So Khamenei was ignoring his partial alliance with the US, and playing up the places where he has policy differences with America. I conclude that he was playing to the hard liners in the audience.

His speech was an attempt to convince the hard liners that he is still an anti-imperialist, and that he has not gone over to the Americans. He underlined that he will continue to have deep policy differences with the US. None of those differences, he implied, is affected by the nuclear deal, which is narrow and specific.


Related video:

Press TV: “Ayatollah Khamenei: Iran’s stance toward US ‘won’t change’ (Full speech)”

Iran Deal: Winners & Losers in the Greater Middle East

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The end of most UN and European sanctions on Iran and the likely end of US third party sanctions are shaping how regional states see the Vienna agreement between Iran and the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.

Iran is expected to restore its pre-2012 level of petroleum exports, i.e. 2.5 million barrels a day (it is now down to 1.5 million barrels a day because of US arm-twisting of countries such as South Korea, Japan and those in the European Union).

With what is likely a permanent slowdown of the Chinese economy as it matures, demand for petroleum is already weak. China grew 10 percent a year from the mid-1980s until just a few years ago. It is now slowing to 7 percent a year. Even that level may be difficult to sustain given the country’s current stock market meltdown. Until other Asian economies begin rapidly growing and their citizens begin driving, that demand could remain weak for two or three years. After that, demand could pick up if Indians and Indonesians go toward automobile ownership.

The addition of a million barrels a day from Iran in this market could depress prices further.

Low oil prices benefit non-oil states with large populations.

Pakistan is therefore extremely excited about the deal. Its leaders had been working on a gas pipeline from Iran into Pakistan and perhaps thence to India or another neighboring country. Pakistan gets about half of its electricity from natural gas. But because of the US financial blockade on Iran, the Asian Development Bank in Manila pulled out of financing the pipeline. Now, the gas pipeline into Pakistan is plausible again. Pakistan suffers from extreme electricity shortages, which can cripple its factories and interfere with export of e.g. textiles. Its drivers and transporation infrastracture will benefit from low oil. Pakistan could also earn tolls if pipelines across its territory to China.

Also Egypt will benefit, even if it would be impolitic for its leaders to admit it, given the pledges of billions of dollars in aid Cairo has gathered up from Saudi Arabia, which opposes the deal. Egyptian transportation costs will fall. Shipped goods will be cheaper and there could be increased traffic in the Suez Canal, which Egypt is widening to allow two-way traffic. Egypt collects tolls on goods going through the canal, so this income should increase.

Dubai will benefit, because its banks do a lot of business on behalf of Iranian firms. Its import-export merchants will recover access to the Iranian market.

Morocco, another populous country that lacks its own hydrocarbons, will benefit from lower petroleum prices.

Because the extra million barrels a day will flood the market and drive down prices, the big losers are the Gulf oil states. They will see oil income fall. Saudi’s Stock Market fell on the news of a breakthrough. Saudi Arabia will likely also have smaller reserves, which it is squandering on bombing Yemen. So the development has postive geopolitical implications for the producers, weakening Saudi Arabia.

Related video:

Press TV: ” Pakistan to complete Iran gas project after nuclear agreement”

Chattanooga: Assault Weapons a Security Problem for U.S. (Cole @ Truthdig)

By Juan Cole | (Truthdig) | – –

My column is out in


The United States is peculiarly prone to mass killings by people armed with semi-automatic weapons. There is no good reason for ordinary citizens to own military-style weapons, and they have long posed a threat to American national security.

The mass murder of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., or the theater massacre in Aurora, Colo., both in 2012, were insufficient to spark a serious national legislative debate about this threat. Now that four Marines are dead at the hands of a civilian armed with such a weapon, can we discuss again a ban on those weapons, of the sort enacted in the Clinton administration?

Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez on Thursday rented a Mustang convertible and drove to a military recruitment facility in Chattanooga, Tenn., where eyewitnesses reported that he fired some 30 rounds from a rifle in just a matter of minutes. It sounded, one said, like a jackhammer. In other words, he used a semi-automatic weapon. He then drove seven miles to a reserve center for the Navy and Marines where he parked, propped up his assault weapon on the door of the car and opened fire, killing four Marines and wounding four others, including a policeman.

Also Thursday, a jury found James Egan Holmes guilty of first-degree murder for opening fire in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. Holmes, a brilliant student, had long suffered from mental illness and was considered dangerous by his psychiatrist. On June 7, 2012, he bought a Smith & Wesson M&P-15 semi-automatic rifle from a Gander Mountain store in Thornton, Colo. He also bought a shotgun and two Glock semi-automatic handguns. He passed the background checks…

After Sandy Hook, the National Rifle Association (NRA), which is the publicity arm of a handful of big gun manufacturers who make billions selling military-style weapons to civilians, blamed video games. After the Charleston, S.C., black church shootings last month, the Confederate flag became the issue. Despite the Colorado jury’s rejection of Holmes’ insanity plea, his case was reported through the frame of his mental illness. Initial reporting on Abdulazeez in the Chattanooga shooting focused on his praise of jihad. One television commentator suggested bulletproof doors for military recruitment offices.

In other words, anything to avoid talking about the real issue, which is the startlingly easy availability of extremely deadly and powerful weapons…

Read the whole thing


Related video:

ABC News: ” Chattanooga Eyewitnesses Describe Shooting Scene”

Iran Deal: Why doesn’t US Media interview Real Allies on American Policy?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

So after France and Britain and Germany conducted negotiations with Iran over its civilian nuclear enrichment program alongside the United States, you would expect American television news eagerly to seek out interviews on the deal from David Cameron, Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel– or foreign ministers Philip Hammond, Laurent Fabius and Frank-Walter Steinmeier. I.e., from American allies also involved in the negotiations.

The United Kingdom fought al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan alongside the United States, as a NATO ally. Article 5 of the NATO charter says that an attack on one is an attack on all, and Britain stepped up to fulfill its treaty obligation to Americans after they were attacked on September 11, 2001. The UK lost 453 troops killed in Afghanistan. Since its population is about a fourth that of the US, its losses were proportionally similar to those of the United States. That’s an ally.

France also joined the US to fight in Afghanistan, losing 86 men killed. Same deal. Ally. Its troops operated in provinces where the Taliban were weaker, but there were plenty of horrible attacks on the French.

Even though Germany sent a peacekeeping force rather than a war-fighting one, for constitutional reasons, it still lost 54 troops killed in Afghanistan. It was there for the same reason as the others– NATO ally pledged to defend the US when it is attacked.

It could be good television to interview politicians from among our allies. We know that Fabius had a lot of doubts and at one point seemed poised to torpedo the whole process. Shouldn’t someone, like, ask him what changed his mind and why he swung behind the deal? Likewise Merkel was quite hard on Iran and suspicious of its enrichment program. How was she convinced. Doesn’t anyone in American television news care?

Nope. As far as I could see, not one. We get to hear about the Iran deal from minor congressmen and senators who represent almost nobody, and who have not read it. We get to hear from Donald Trump, who has never been elected to anything and represents no one at all. We got to hear at great length from Likud officials and spokesmen from Israel. All of them fulminated against the Vienna diplomatic breakthrough.

Is this balanced journalism? Is it even journalism at all?

How can this serious defect in our news gathering be explained? Well, of course, our news in corporate news, aimed at making a profit. So things that don’t deliver eyeballs to advertisers are not categorized as news. Other things, like Arianna Grande licking doughnuts, which are not news, get to be classed as news because they will deliver the eyeballs to advertisers.

But I actually think Fabius or Merkel would be a feisty interview and compelling television.

Why Israel, a small country of 8 million with a gross domestic product the size of Portugal’s, which is not a treaty ally and lost no troops in Afghanistan or Iraq, gets right of rebuttal on American public airwaves to everything the president of the United States does is a great mystery.

Here’s one theory: The American public is only interested in potential enemies and in countries that might actually go to war. It isn’t interested in peaceful countries that can reliably be counted as American allies.

So Britain, France and Germany are discounted by audiences and therefore by networks (except when the British royal family has a photogenic member who gets married or has a baby).

It is a very odd situation. In all the 8 years of the Iraq War I don’t think American television gave an extended interview to the British minister of defense even once, despite the very important role the British army played there. Television news barely covered Afghanistan, but likewise US allies there were invisible.

I have concluded that with a few rare exceptions, US television news just isn’t very good because the editors and managers aren’t very good. (This is not a slam at the great journalists– Ben Wedemann, Richard Engel, Arwa Damon, etc.– it isn’t the correspondents’ fault if their editors won’t cover real news).

Tom Fenton made the point after 9/11 that the turn of US television news to infotainment and fluff, and its allergy to hard news gathering, is a security danger to the United States.

I think it has gotten worse.

And, certainly, if the Iran deal fails in Congress because, in part, of the way television news covered it, then we will owe the networks credit for fostering yet another major war, and bankrupting the country.

Related video:

PressTV: “British foreign secy. says Iran agreement “victory for diplomacy”