Rep. Steve King, White People and ‘Civilization’

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Rep. Steve King objected to a comment during a cable news discussion at MSNBC that this will be the last election dominated by old white people.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) offered an unusual defense of the racial homogeneity of his party during a panel on MSNBC Monday evening.

The group, led by Chris Hayes, was discussing the first day of the Republican national convention and Donald Trump’s history of racially-loaded comments and behavior. King told Hayes that he thought Trump had “modified” his behavior in that regard, but Esquire’s Charlie Pierce said he didn’t see much diversity reflected in the gathering itself.

“If you’re really optimistic, you can say that this is the last time that old white people will command the Republican Party’s attention, its platform, its public face,” Pierce said. “That hall is wired,” he continued. “That hall is wired by loud, unhappy, dissatisfied white people.”

King objected.

“This ‘old white people’ business does get a little tired, Charlie,” King said. “I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out, where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about, where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”

“Than white people?” Hayes asked, clearly amazed.

“Than, than Western civilization itself,” King replied. “It’s rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the United States of America and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world. That’s all of Western civilization.”

There are lots of basic things wrong with King’s statement, even just starting with his category of ‘whiteness’. Whiteness is not ‘natural’– it is an invented category. Were Irish white? A lot of English didn’t think so. “Whites” rioted against Greek immigrants to the US. White supremacists still argue over whether to let in Italian-Americans. Me, I don’t want to be called white and I decline that categorization whenever the government or other people with questionnaires will let me. The Appalachian side of my family probably has some Melungeon to it and some of us aren’t all that ‘white.’

As for civilization, there are lots of kinds. Archeologists were shocked to discover that African villagers did sophisticated iron-working around the time of Jesus, even though they didn’t have big cities or other infrastructure. They were just good at smithing and the technology needed for it.

If by civilization is meant urban society with high rates of literacy, scientific and technological innovation, role specialization and division of labor, and high levels of collective government, then northern European Christians did not invent it.

Iraq, Iran, India, China and Egypt did. The Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Elamites, Persians, Indians, Chinese and the Pharaohs of Egypt had civilization for thousands of years while Celts in Britain were painting themselves blue and doing hunting and gathering in the wastes.

Sanskrit gave us our numbers, otherwise we’d be doing long division of IX into XXVI. The Arabs and Iranians at the court of the Abbasid caliphate added the zero, and invented algebra and algorithms (named for al-Khwarizmi, an Iranian Muslim mathematician). Omar Khayyam, an Iranian, pioneered using geometry to solve algebraic problems. Muslims gave us the latteen sail and a whole host of other key inventions. Chinese science in the Song period (late medieval) was so far ahead of the rest of the world that others probably did not catch up until 1750 or so. Ancient Indian astronomers were likewise way ahead of their peers in Europe of the day.

As for Christianity, while it could not be proved to cause the fall of the Roman Empire in the 400s of the common era, it is certainly the case that Greece and the Roman republic were huge successes when pagan, but went into a tailspin only a century after Constantine imposed a Middle Eastern monotheism on the empire. There doesn’t seem to be a connection between Christianity and civilization. There were some negatives. Christian know-nothingism of the Tertullian sort put paid to high philosophizing in Western Europe for centuries, with deep damage to science and innovation. Abbasid caliph Haroun al-Rashid was debating Aristotle at court while Charlemagne, lord of a few muddy villages compared to the splendors of Baghdad, was desperately trying to learn to write his name.

Western Europeans and North Americans got slightly ahead of the rest of the world with regard to gross domestic product and scientific innovation from about 1750, but this should not be exaggerated. Even as the people at the center of an empire, most Portuguese were poor, and likely poorer than the Indians they hoped to rule. It certainly had nothing at all to to with Christianity. Some of it was the ‘ghost acreage’ of slavery and colonialism, which produced economic ‘cream’ for white society beyond subsistence that got invested and had a multiplier effect.

But there is another critique of what King said, which is that our model of civilization may be very damaging. It is after all a high-carbon enterprise that produces masses of pollution. It may have endangered our species with its carbon emissions. A less ‘civlized’ life like that of pre-European Native Americans would certainly have been in greater harmony with the environment.


Related video:

Raw Story: ”
CNN’s Alisyn Camerota and Chris Cuomo slam Steve King for opposing Harriet Tubman
Raw Story”

Newt Should Check out Mike Pence’s Christian Sharia

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Newt Gingrich suggested late last week on cable tv that Muslim Americans should be asked if they believe in “sharia” and if they answer yes, they should be deported. You can’t deport US citizens, so the whole remark was ridiculous.

Sharia for Muslims is the equivalent of Canon Law for Catholics, Halakhah for Jews, and I guess the entire Bible for some fundamentalists (though there are laws in Deuteronomy that it is hard to imagine anyone actually practicing). All religions have laws. Sharia is the Muslim one. But it is fluid and an arena of contention within Islam. It forbids murder, theft, adultery, and drinking. You’d think people would be happy about all that. In any case, observant Muslims would all say they believe in sharia, just as observant Jews would say that the believe in Halakhah or observant Catholics would say they believe in canon law.

Although most interpretations of sharia frown on same-sex marriage, American Muslims are more likely to support it than are US evangelicals. That datum is an example of what I mean when I say it is fluid and an arena of contention. And by the way, whatever the Vatican says, Catholics have a higher abortion rate than Protestants. You can’t read off things from abstract data about people’s religion.

The American right wing (or far right; how could you tell anymore?) has tried to substitute “sharia” for the Communist Manifesto, attempting to configure it as radical or inherently un-American. The American Right never got over losing Communism as a boogey man with which to threaten people into accepting lower wages and being obedient to . . . the American Right. So it wants to shoehorn everyday Muslims into that role, on the grounds that sharia involves jihad or holy war. But in Shiite Islam, for instance, offensive holy war is forbidden under today’s circumstances. And in mainstream Sunni Islam, state authority would have to declare it, and I don’t know of any that have any time recently (you can’t imagine secular leaders like Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi or Caid Beiji al-Sebsi talking that way). It is only for fringe extremists that vigilanteism is allowed, and that is true in all religions.

One of the alleged grounds on which people like Gingrich attack Muslim religious law is that they say they fear the 1% of Americans who are Muslims will try to impose it on everyone else. That allegation is also ridiculous.

But there is a religious law that poses such a danger to secular and liberal traditions in the United States and that is the evangelical sharia, to which Trump running mate Mike Pence is devoted.

Pence is welcome to his own private beliefs. But he wants to impose Evangelical beliefs on all Americans.

1. Pence wants to see Roe v. Wade overturned and abortion made illegal. He holds this position because of an unprovable, unscientific belief that the human person begins at conception (not something held by traditional Christianity). Pence wants to take control of 150 million women’s bodies in the United States and to inscribe his Christian sharia on them, getting in between them and their physicians. He wants to make thousands of pregnant rape victims every year bear their rapist’s baby. He wants his theology to be a ghostly presence in every OB-GYN consultation. And he wants to do this in the teeth of settled secular law. He actually signed a law requiring burial or cremation for aborted fetuses.

2. Pence’s personal and narrow theology has to be imposed on the rest of us even at the level of foreign policy. He said at an AIPAC conference, ““Let me say emphatically, like the overwhelming majority of my constituents, my Christian faith compels me to cherish the state of Israel.” If he had said that his Christian faith requires him to cherish the state of Argentina or Thailand or North Korea, we’d want to know why his weird doctrines should shape US foreign policy. There is in contrast no unanimity among American Muslims that the US must “cherish” any foreign state.

3. Pence pushed for a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage. There are no secular grounds for opposing this simple human right. He is against gay marriage because of some strange interpretation he has of some Bible verse (there isn’t anything about what we call gays in the Bible). Some conservative Muslims are against same-sex marriage on religious grounds, as well. So why is it bad if they deploy their theology for social legislation but good if Pence does it? Shouldn’t these decisions in a country with a separation of religion and state be made on rational grounds? Pence in essence wants to Establish a religion as the source of American law, which the First Amendment expressly forbids. And no, the Bible doesn’t say that marriage is between one man and one woman.

4. He signed a bill allowing people to discriminate against gays (and I guess against African-Americans or anyone else) if their religious beliefs tell them to. In other words, he is putting Evangelical sharia above the secular law, exactly what Gingrich accuses Muslims of wanting to do (but which few American Muslims would even want to). White Christian anti-civil rights groups in 1964 also argued that their religion required racial segregation, and by Pence’s logic they should be allowed to discriminate against Black people if their reading of the Bible makes that obligatory.

5. Pence opposed stem cell research done with stem cells taken from aborted fetuses, even though aborting fetuses is legal and even though stem cell therapies are extremely promising. As it happens, science has advanced to the point where stem cells can be acquired in other ways. But the point is that Pence would rather have doomed quadriplegics to permanent paralysis rather than back down from his weird theological position that blastocytes are people (which requires us to believe that miscarriages of 3-day-olds in the toilet are a form of human death; we’d all have a lot of dead siblings to mourn in such a bizarro world).

Pence and other people of faith are welcome to believe and practice as they will in the United States– that’s one of the purposes of the United States. I personally admire people of strong faith and conviction. But they are not welcome to Establish an official religion here and impose that religion’s laws on everybody; preventing that kind of thing is also one of the purposes of the United States. Muslim Americans are a tiny group and are in no position to impose anything on anyone. But Pence represents a quarter of Americans and nearly half of Republicans, and his wacky ideas could easily become law.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Wochit News: “Trump’s New VP Is Seriously Anti-LGBT And Anti-Abortion”

Long Knives in Ankara: Victorious Erdogan begins Purge of Judiciary, Army

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) – –

President Tayyip Erdogan is taking advantage of the failed coup against him to purge the judiciary and security forces of anyone who is lukewarm toward or actively critical of him.

These steps are, of course, the opposite of the ones Erdogan should be taking– he should be attempting to bring the country together in unity and to re-include in the polity those he has isolated and excluded in recent years. Instead, he is scapegoating and purging.

Erdogan characterizes this purge as against the secretive and cult-like Gulen movement, one element in Turkey’s landscape of the religious Right. He blames the Gulen movement for the attempted coup, though its leader (in exile in Pennsylvania), Fethullah Gulen, denies the allegation.

Erdogan has suspended 2745 court judges suspected of ties with the Gulen movment. These judges cannot be shown to have been involved in the coup, but Erdogan’s secret police apparently suspect them of Gulen tendencies. This is a purge, not justice.

Erdogan pursued the purge in the ranks of the military, as well.

Erdogan’s pro-Muslim coalition that began coming to power in 2002 included a number of constituents on the religious Right. These were small town and rural Muslims who felt excluded by the secular elites of Ankara and Istanbul. Some were small organized groups such as the Naksibendi Sufi orders, others were vaguer circles of Muslim entrepreneurs.

One of the larger groups was the Neo-Sufi Hizmet movement. Sufi Islam centers on visits to tombs of saints in search of blessings, figurative interpretation of scripture, the “warm heart” of ecstatic worship, group chanting or dancing, search for union with God, and loyalty to the mystical leader. The Gulen movement updated Sufism for Muslim modernist purposes. In a modern society, some aspects of Neo-Sufism look a lot like a cult, including the demand for unquestioning obedience to the leader and forms of corporate solidarity.

Here is an entry on it (scroll down):

It appears that, rather on the model of Stalinist cell formation, the Gulen movement has focused on getting its members into key positions in the Turkish government, including the police, army and judiciary, and possibly the intelligence services.

Gulen is alleged to have told a gathering in 1999:

“You must move within the arteries of the system, without anyone noticing your existence, until you reach all the power centres … You must wait until such time as you have got all the state power, until you have brought to your side all the power of the constitutional institution in Turkey.”

The movement maintains that the tape was doctored, but that should be easy to prove.

They have also surreptitiously funded trips to Turkey for many in Congress.

They secretly gathered dirt on Erdogan and his associates, though the public just yawned at the revelations.

Since Erdogan broke with Gulen a few years ago, he has been convinced that the Hizmet members are still secretly positioned in the government and plotting against him. He sees the failed coup as a reasonable grounds on which he can polish off his critics and brand them as dangerous cultists. But democracies require loyal oppositions. Erdogan needs his critics, and they should not be prosecuted or fired if they haven’t committed a criminal act.  (If someone is found to be acting criminally by posing or engaging in illegal wiretaps, then fine).   Just firing people en masse for “sympathies” is contrary to every human rights norm– it is the creation of thought crimes.  That path is a slippery one, and Turkey has already lost its footing.


Related video:

Euronews: “Turkey coup: mass arrests after uprising crushed, government says”

Nice, France, Attack: A Gandhian Response to Serial Killers

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve has extended the French state of emergency, which suspends key civil and human rights, in the aftermath of the gruesome truck attack on Bastille Day in Nice, which at this writing has left 80 dead and over a dozen in intensive care.

As with the victims in Ankara, Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad, Beirut and Sousse, my heart goes out to them and their friends and relatives. Longtime readers know that I grew up partly in France and have a soft spot for the country, the people, and the culture. This hurts.

Early unconfirmed reports suggested that the truck driver may have been a Nice native, 31, of Tunisian descent.

The elite Paris counter-terrorism unit has been mobilized. But the fact is that most unfortunately, this kind of attack probably cannot be forestalled. No amount of surveillance or suspension of civil liberties could stop a single individual or small cell of close friends or relatives from committing a soft-target nihilistic attack of this sort.

This crime has some resemblance to the murders of a serial killer, which are notoriously difficult to stop or solve. In an ordinary murder of the sort the detective or crime-solving mystery writers focus on, the police are said to look for “means, motive and opportunity.” But serial killers don’t have a specific motive, just a general one, that they get off on killing. A general motive is too vague and lacking in detail to provide any help to solving the case. That is why some serial killers can polish off dozens of victims over years before they are caught. They don’t know the people they kill, and have no ordinary motive to kill them. Nothing would show up in bank accounts or email files. For the victim, it is more like a natural disaster, like taking a mountain hike and running into a hungry black bear or accidentally driving into a tornado.

Just as a nihilistic criminal such as a serial killer cannot easily be prevented from striking again, so a lone wolf and small-cell terrorist cannot easily be forestalled from wreaking havoc.

I have argued that what Daesh is up to is not terrorism in the classic sense of killing civilians to accomplish a specific political goal or change some government policy. The driver of the truck made no demands. He did not hit an important piece of civilian infrastructure, but killed randomly, individuals attending a fireworks display in France’s fifth-largest city. If it was terrorism, he should have desperately wanted French President Francois Hollande to do something or not do something. What would that be, exactly? If it was terrorism, he should have hit a target of symbolic or strategic significance.

You could take the position that Daesh is protesting the French air strikes on its capital, al-Raqqah, in Syria. But France only began those air strikes last September because it received intelligence that Daesh was planning to hit Paris (the intelligence was correct). So they had it in for France before that country was much involved in the Syrian civil war. The motivation must lie elsewhere.

Since I made the argument that al-Qaeda and Daesh are ‘sharpening contradictions’ and trying to drive European Muslims into their arms by provoking white Europeans of Christian heritage to mistreat them, acknowledgment of that tactic has become a commonplace.

So what to do? Daesh wants us to be afraid, to hate, and to push Western Muslims into their arms. The only effective riposte is Gandhian. Show Muslims some love, and include them in political society. No, Muslims aren’t peculiar in the amount of violence they have generated in the past century. And no, the religion of Islam does not permit terrorism; the Qur’an decries each murder as a form of symbolic genocide.

France has a problem of slums around some of its cities, slums which are disproportionately African and Middle Eastern. Make them enterprise zones and site some factories there. Often the labor is not living where the jobs are. Social policy has to be implemented to close that gap. (The African and Middle Eastern labor often came to France in times of rapid economic expansion, when they were needed, but they got left high and dry by robotification or factory relocation.

Here is another Gandhian proposal: Vastly expand economic aid to Tunisia. I don’t mean military aid, which is problematic since it strengthens the security forces over democratic institutions, and typically has few economic benefits to the recipient.

I mean civilian economic aid and investment, which seems to be on the US side about $50 million a year right now. That is less than a single F-35 joint strike fighter jet. The US budget is $3.8 trillion, and foreign aid, contrary to what people think, is a piddling little part of it, especially once you get past Israel and Egypt.

Tunisia overthrew a seedy dictatorship and has moved smartly toward more democracy– has in fact been an exemplary country in the Middle East. And the US can’t help out on the civilian aid and investment side even to the tune of one airplane.

Why is this point important? Tunisia’s economic growth is anemic. In part, this slowing of growth derives from successful terrorism, which has harmed Tunisia’s tourism sector (5% of the economy). Its economy only grew by 1 percent in the first quarter, and the best it might do for this year is 2.5%. Last year it was 0.8%. Add in population growth, and the economic advance is zero or less. There have been massive demonstrations by youth protesting high rates of unemployment. And Daesh recruiters– guess what?– target unemployed youth.

If the West can’t be bothered to proffer genuine and substantial aid to a success story like Tunisia, then it will get more basket cases like Syria, which spill over onto the West. And while the terrorist in Nice was French rather than Tunisian, the existence of a pool of Tunisians driven by marginalization, humiliation and desperation to join Daesh creates a nexus of potential recruitment.

So the answer to Nice is the opposite of what the politicians think. It isn’t to declare war on Daesh (Trump), or to do more warrantless surveillance (HR Clinton), or to get rid of the Rights of Man (Francois Hollande). On Bastille Day, commemorating the French Revolution that helped invent the very idea of human rights, we should defend it by defending them, not by emulating dictators and absolute monarchs.

Finally, the West needs to play better peacemaker in places like Syria. We have former Obama administration officials like Dennis McConough, who when he was in office thought like this:

“Mr. McDonough, who had perhaps the closest ties to Mr. Obama, remained skeptical. He questioned how much it was in America’s interest to tamp down the violence in Syria. Accompanying a group of senior lawmakers on a day trip to the Guantánamo Bay naval base in early June, Mr. McDonough argued that the status quo in Syria could keep Iran pinned down for years. In later discussions, he also suggested that a fight in Syria between Hezbollah and Al Qaeda would work to America’s advantage, according to Congressional officials.”

To be fair, McDonough took this stance so as to be able to oppose arming the Syrian rebels and getting practically involved in the Syrian civil war. But both his and the CIA policy are wrong-headed. Prolonging the war by sending in weapons to Salafi jihadis creates more Salafi jihadis, and some of them hail from or go to Europe. Syria has become an infective agent in an epidemic of nihilist violence.

And tolerating or promoting the prolongation of the war gives the militiamen more military and munitions experience, and more stockpiles, and more resources for planning attacks in the West.

So that’s my prescription. You want to reply effectively to Nice? Reject fear and reject hate. Find a local Muslim and shower that person with love and respect. Speak out against Islamophobia. Work to strengthen democracy and inclusiveness and basic human rights. Stand up for the raid on the Bastille of 1789, and the freeing of prisoners of conscience. Invest some billions, not measly tens of millions, in success stories like Tunisia, to promote democracy and economic growth. And give John Kerry the backing and the resources to bring the Syrian civil war to an end.

The standard politicians’ responses will just make things worse.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

France 24: ” Nice attack: explosives and heavy weapons found inside the truck that rammed into crowd”

A Story of Two Syrian Sieges: Manbij and East Aleppo

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The relatively even-handed Arabic newspaper Oman reports that the Syrian Democratic Forces (a mixed Kurdish and Arab group) advanced further into the city of Manbij on Wednesday. Manbij is a major outpost for Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) in northern Syria, and the likelihood is that the Syrian Democratic Forces will take it entirely in coming days with US air support. On Wednesday, some 28 Daesh fighters were killed. Manbij is a major supply route for men and materiel entering Syria from Turkey. Cutting it off will hurt Daesh’s ability to resupply its capital, al-Raqqah. The SDF is a majority Kurdish organization with some Arab tribesmen, but the latter have been put in the forefront in taking the the Sunni Arab center of Manbij. When Manbij falls, the Daesh fighters will be increasingly cut off, and you could start to see defections.

At the same time, Secretary of State John Kerry is in Moscow hoping to increase US and Russian military cooperation in Syria. Kerry is offering to share information on the rebels if in turn Moscow will agree to focus solely on Daesh and al-Qaeda in Syria (the Nusra Front), leaving the remnants of the Free Syrian Army in control of their pockets of the country in preparation for a permanent ceasefire and ultimately new elections.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Arab Army again successfully resisted attacks on it by fundamentalist rebels at the Malah Farms area north of Aleppo. The SAA holds territory near the Castello Road, by which supplies used to come into besieged East Aleppo. The road is now effectively cut off.

The UN says it has enough food for East Aleppo to last its some 200,000 residents for about a month, after which they are at risk for starving to death. The rebels holding East Aleppo are fundamentalists but are not Daesh, and al-Qaeda/ the Nusra Front is weak there. These are mainly Muslim Brotherhood types. They have been sending mortar fire on ritzy West Aleppo, where many students go to university and life for the two million residents is as normal as it can be under the circumstances.

Some 600,000 civilians are under military siege in Syria.

If Aleppo falls entirely back into regime hands, the rebels seem doomed.

And that’s the way it is in Syria today, folks.


Euronews: ” Syrian rebels prepare for Aleppo siege”

Posted in Featured,Syria | 7 Responses | Print |

Is Kerry Right? Are Freemen of Syria and Army of Islam Radical Terrorists?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Josh Rogin of the Washington Post caused a stir by noticing something Secretary of State John Kerry said at Aspen last month. Kerry slammed Syrian al-Qaeda (Nusra Front) and Daesh (ISIS, ISIL), then said,

“There are a couple of subgroups underneath the two designated — Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra — Jaysh al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham particularly — who brush off and fight with that — alongside these other two sometimes to fight the Assad regime . . .”

In his opinion piece, Rogin characterizes what Kerry said as a gaffe that yielded to the Russian position that all rebels against the al-Assad regime in Syria are terrorists. Rogin also defended Ahrar al-Sham (Freemen of Syria) as not an al-Qaeda affiliate or in the line of command of al-Qaeda, though he admitted that it is Salafi and wants a radical Muslim dictatorship.

I’m not sure why the State Department officials who anonymously blasted Kerry think that Freemen of Syria are good guys just because they aren’t al-Qaeda.

And the fact is that they are in fact in a formal political and military coalition with al-Qaeda. I.e. they are playing Mulla Omar and the Taliban to al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri (the 9/11 mastermind to whom the Syrian Nusra Front reports).

I wrote some time ago:

“The Free Men are closely allied with the open al-Qaeda affiliate, the Support Front (Jabhat al-Nusra). This is not a mere alliance of convenience. They have formed joint operation offices. They coordinate closely militarily. They have a common rubric in Idlib Province of the Army of Conquest (Jaysh al-Fath).

When the two groups of holy warriors and their allies took over the city of Idlib . . . they conquered 18 villages north of that city largely inhabited by members of the esoteric Shiite Druze religion. The Free Men leadership gave control of the Druze villages to al-Qaeda, which promptly began stealing their property and killing them when they objected. Some 23 were massacred…

Note that the Free Men did not have to give the Druze in Idlib Province to al-Qaeda. They could have administered that territory themselves. That they thought al-Qaeda a suitable overlord for a group viewed by hard line Salafis as unbelievers and idolators shows that they just don’t care about human rights. They want a Salafi , Taliban-style Islamic state. We know exactly what happened to Shiite Hazara under the Taliban in Afghanistan. They were massacred.

If the Free Men are so moderate, they would renounce their close alliance with al-Qaeda and stop coddling the terrorists, who report directly to Ayman al-Zawahiri, a mastermind of the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. That this intertwining of the Free Men with al-Qaeda is all right with the Washington Post is just baffling.

Me, I’d say a formal political and battlefield ally of al-Qaeda is pretty sketchy and just the sort of sub-group to which Kerry referred. Why would the US want to protect a group that differs in no respect from Afghanistan’s Taliban and wants to turn Syria into a dictatorial Salafi society? What would happen to Syrian Christians, Druze, Alawis and leftist Kurds under a Freemen government?

As for the Saudi-backed Army of Islam (Jaysh al-Islam), it is less politically tied to al-Qaeda but it is a frequent battlefield ally, just as Kerry said.

Josh Wood at the UAE’s The National pointed out last winter that Russia and Syria are not the only ones worried about the Army of Islam and the Freemen of Syria:

“While the groups both oppose ISIL, they are allies of Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat Al Nusra and their behaviours during the war have been seen as tinged with extremist tendencies. Jaish Al Islam’s former leader Zahran Alloush spoke of Alawites and Shiites in derogatory terms and at times advocated that they be cleansed from parts of Syria. Last autumn, the group paraded captured Alawite civilians and soldiers through Damascus’ suburbs in cages, allegedly planning to use them as human shields against government air strikes. The group also does not shy away from gory displays of violence.


So what Kerry said was not inaccurate and it did not give away anything to the Russians. But it probably did anger Saudi Arabia and Turkey, who apparently roped the CIA into this business of allying with the Salafi Jihadis.

Really? In 2016, elements of the US government want to repeat the mistakes of the 1980s that in many ways led to the September 11 attacks? You don’t build up Salafi Jihadis and help them take over a country. They don’t believe in democracy, they hate minorities, and deep down inside they despise and want to harm the United States, even if they are willing to ally with it tactically to get what they want. After they have gotten it, that is when they start dreaming about taking down towers.

And by the way, that Israeli flirtation with al-Qaeda in the Golan Heights should have brought enormous US pressure to cut it out.

It is al-Qaeda for God’s sake.

So, in this instance both Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are right. A resolution of the Syrian civil war cannot come as long as the strongest groups are terrorists. It is true that the regime is also a state terrorist on a massive level. That is why it has provoked a tremendous revolution against itself. But these anti-democratic radical religious groups just give the alternative to the regime a bad name.

Or at least they would if journalists would do their homework and think straight.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Newsy: “Did Sec. Kerry Mistakenly Call 2 Syrian Rebel Groups Terrorists?”

Is Religion really Driving Middle East Violence?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Pew Research has released a report saying that

“As a whole, the region continued to have the highest levels of religious hostilities in the world. In 2014, the median level of religious hostilities in the Middle East and North Africa reached a level four times that of the global median.”

But is there another way to look at this data? Is it really all about religion?

Pew does excellent polling and I’ve used their work a great deal, e.g. in my Engaging the Muslim World . And the good thing about their polling is that they are very up front about their assumptions and methodology.

This is what they mean by “religion”:

“For the purposes of this study, religion-related terrorism includes acts carried out by subnational groups that use religion as a justification or motivation for their actions.”

So a “subnational” group might well be driven primarily by nationalism, but if its members commit terrorism that is “religion-related,” then it gets counted under the sign of religion.

Social scientists talk about people having “markers” of identity. Language and religion can be such markers, as can constructions like “race.”

In the context of Protestant Britain, Irish immigrants in the 18th century were coded as Catholics or “papists.” Where there were mob attacks on them, however, it would be difficult to prove that the fine points of theology were always the main drivers of the violence. Some of it was social class, some of it was “race.”

So it isn’t easy to disentangle religious motivations from nationalist ones.

Pew adds

“Religion-related terrorism also includes terrorist acts carried out by individuals or groups with a nonreligious identity that deliberately target religious groups or individuals, such as clergy. ”

So what Pew is really measuring is not religious fanaticism at all, but the prevalence of symbolic targets that are religious in nature.

So if two secular groups fought and a religious symbol was harmed, the incident in this study would be classified as religious violence.

In social science, you have wide latitude in making your definitions, as long as you clarify your terms to begin with.

What Pew is actually saying is that in the Middle East and North Africa, people are four times as likely to act out their ethnic violence by attacking religious symbols as in the rest of the world. It isn’t saying they are four times as likely to be religious fanatics.

My guess is that the Middle East is unusually religiously pluralistic, and this is especially true of the Levant to the Gulf. Whereas Poland is almost entirely Catholic, Iraq is 60 percent Shiite and 37 percent Sunni (counting Arabs and Kurds).

There are also relatively high rates of religious belief in the region. If you wanted to hurt a member of another ethnicity, you’d know that striking their religious edifices or clergy, etc., would hit them hard. Thus, al-Qaeda’s destruction of the Shiite Golden Dome shrine of the eleventh Imam in Samarra in 2006 set off an Iraqi civil war. You couldn’t hurt the feelings of very many French by taking a sledge hammer to a gargoyle.

A lot of the violence that gets coded in the US press as religious is actually about nationalism. This principle holds especially true in Palestine-Israel.

But take Syria. Some observers suggest that the Lebanese militia, Hizbullah, which is Shiite, intervened in Syria to help the Alawites, also Shiites. But they don’t belong to the same branch of Shiism. Most Lebanese Shiites belong to the orthodox Twelver school, with mosques, collective Friday prayers, clergymen, etc. Alawites are heterodox– lacking mosques and having wise men rather than seminary-trained clergymen. Most Sunni and Shiite Muslims don’t consider the Alawites to be Muslims. Moreover, many Syrian Alawites are members of the Baath Party, which is highly secular and socialist. So Hizbullah did not come into Syria for reasons of religious sympathy. They came in because the Baath, secular government of Syria is a vital supply route for Hizbullah.

So if a Sunni mosque was shelled by Baath Party members because even relatively secular Sunni opposition groups were hiding behind it, Pew would count that as religious violence in this study.

That outcome is legitimate, since they defined their terms to begin with. But as consumers of such studies, we should be careful about how we use the findings. They aren’t saying what we might at first assume they are. In polls as in consumer purchases, always read the fine print.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

U Chicago Social Sciences: “PANEL 2: Religious Minorities in Syria’s Civil War | Keith Watenpaugh”

Syrian Troops foil al-Qaeda riposte in Aleppo as France warns al-Qaeda could replace ISIL

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Even as the Syrian army defeated a counter-offensive by al-Qaeda in Syria and its battlefield allies at Aleppo, French President Francois Hollande warned that al-Qaeda should not be allowed to replace the declining Daesh (ISIL, ISIS) in Syria.

On Saturday and Sunday, al-Qaeda (the Nusra Front) led the fundamentalist Faylaq al-Sham and other rebel groups in an attack on the Syrian troops who have closed the last road into East Aleppo. They apparently did not believe that the Syrian Arab Army had actually come to control Castellano Road into East Aleppo, and so tried to put a military convoy down it. Syrian artillery made mincemeat of the rebel vehicles and inflicted heavy casualties on the militiamen.

The rebels called their ill-fated attack “Operation breaking the Siege.” They were, however, repulsed and suffered nearly 30 casualties.

At the same time, President Hollande of France called on the US and Russia to do more to combat al-Qaeda in Syria or the Nusra Front. He said, “There is a retreat of Daesh, which is uncontestable.” But, he added, it was necessary “that we also forestall other groups from strengthening as Daesh weakens.”

Hollande fears that as Daesh is rolled up in al-Raqqa and Deir al-Zor, al-Qaeda will step in to take that territory. France has suffered several major acts of terrorism by radicals with links both to al-Qaeda and Daesh.

It should be clarified that Hollande directed his appeal primarily to the US, which is covertly supporting the de facto allies of al-Qaeda. This CIA policy, which apparently even the US Pentagon views as crazy, is at odds with French security needs, Hollande was saying.

In contrast, Russia has been singing Hollande’s tune since it intervened in Syria last fall. Its air strikes have far more often targeted al-Qaeda than Daesh in Syria. It is the Americans whom Hollande needs to convince. And, I think it is a very dark dystopian vision that Hollande is conveying, whereby the CIA is so eager to overthrow al-Assad that it inadvertently allows al-Qaeda to take over Syria.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Al-Masdar: “Syrian Army continues pushing inside Allayramoun district in Aleppo”

Clintonites in Democratic Party Back Settler Colonialism (Not a 1905 Headline)

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Clinton loyalists debating the Democratic Party platform have defeated an amendment that would have called for an end to the Israeli Occupation of Palestine and condemned Israeli squatter settlements illegal.

The Democratic Party, in other words, backs the principle of colonialism no less than if it declared that the British should take back over India, that French commandos should storm the presidential palace in Algiers, or that the US army should march through the streets of Manila and reoccupy the Philippines. Maybe, in fact, the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party would like to rescind the Declaration of Independence and accede to the United Kingdom? With Scotland talking about leaving, there might be a place opening up, and we could get the redcoats back to harass us.

The Israeli occupation of Palestine (the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) was not originally illegal in international law, since it grew out of the 1967 Six-Day war, and wartime occupations are a recognized legal category.

However, the Israeli government has not abided by the most basic provisions of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which include:

“the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:
(a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;
(b) taking of hostages;
(c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment;
(d) the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.


“Art. 49. Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive.”

Israel expels Palestinians all the time, and does things like cut down their olive trees or undermine their village wells to encourage them to leave. All this is illegal. The relatively high rate of Israeli incarceration of stone-throwing children has to be considered a latent act of hostage-taking. Israeli troops invade people’s homes all the time without a warrant and there are allegations of theft on occasion. Palestinians are routinely humiliated on a daily basis. There are allegations of torture of Palestinian prisoners. Recent Israeli practices whereby knife-wielding resisters to occupation are shot dead even if disarmed and helpless or even if easily disarmed directly contravene (d) above. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu blasted the Swedish foreign minister for even daring complain about it. The Israeli establishment is openly contemptuous of the Geneva Conventions, which were passed to forestall the recurrence of the abuses and atrocities committed by the Axis powers during World War II.

The Hague Regulations forbid collective punishment. Israel routinely blows up the homes of Palestinian resistance fighters even if their families had no idea of their plans. That is not the only sort of collective punishment in which Israel engages.

Moreover, the Geneva Convention and its 1907 predecessor, the Hague Regulations, do not envisage occupations lasting for 50 years. They category is for the short term, during and immediately after the war. In fact, one of the actions forbidden to the occupying power is to alter the status of the occupied population. It even should have had to maintain Palestinian judges appointed by Jordan and allow them to rule on the law in accordance with 1966 statutes. Israel has occupied the 4.2 million Palestinians in Palestine for so long that their 1967 statuses are completely unrecognizable.

Most important, Art. 49 says,

“The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”

So the hundreds of thousands of Israeli squatters on Palestinian land are engaged in an illegal act, an act which is aided and abetted by the Israeli government and by the government of the United States.

So, this is no longer a legal occupation. It has evolved into a permanent colonial Apartheid society, with the Palestinians left stateless and without basic human rights and ruled or besieged by the Israeli military. South African Blacks who lived under Apartheid and have visited the West Bank have in tones of horror pronounced the Israeli system much worse than Apartheid had been in white-ruled South Africa. It is an intolerable hell on earth with no end in sight.

If the Democratic Party can’t even just state that the Israeli squatter settlements are illegal, which is what the US signed on to when it ratified the Geneva Conventions, then it should change its name to the Colonial Party.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Cornel West: For Too Long, the Democratic Party Has Been Beholden to AIPAC [CC]

8,124 Murders by Firearm in US vs. 29 (144 equiv.) in UK

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –


The United States continues to be peculiar in handing out powerful magazine-fed firearms to almost anyone who wants one and not requiring background checks on private purchases even if these are made at gun shows. 80% of civilian-owned firearms world-wide are in the US, and only Yemen vaguely competes with us for rates of firearm ownership; Yemen is a violent mess with Shiite insurgencies, al-Qaeda taking over cities from time to time, tribal feuding, southern separatism and US drone strikes. And even it has fewer guns per person than the USA.

It has gotten to the point where the increasing epidemic of mass shootings now threatens law enforcement, with the deaths of 5 policemen in Dallas at the hands of an unhinged Black ultra-nationalist.

The US is downright weird compared to civilized Western Europe or Australia (which enacted gun control after a mass shooting in 1996 and there have been no further such incidents).

In 2013-2014 (the twelve months beginning in March), there were 29 fatalities from gun-related crimes in England and Wales (equivalent to 144 because UK is smaller than US).

Number of Murders by Firearms, US, 2014: 8124

Percentage of all Murders that were committed by firearms in US: 68%

Suicides in US 2013: 41,149

Gun Suicides in US, 2013: 21,175

Percentage of all murders in England and Wales that were committed by firearm: 5.4 percent.

Number of suicides in England and Wales, 2011: 4871 (equivalent to about 25,818 in US or 31% lower)

Number of suicides by firearam in England and Wales, 2011: 84

For more on murder by firearms in Britain, see the BBC.

The US has the highest gun ownership in the world and the highest murder rate in the developed world.

It seems pretty clear, as well, that many US suicides would not occur if firearms were not omnipresent.

There is some correlation between high rates of gun ownership and high rates of violent crime in general, globally (and also if you compare state by state inside the US):

h/t Christopher Majka

In the case of Britain, firearms murders are 53 times fewer than in the US per capita. [Don’t bother with flawed citations of Switzerland or Israel, where most citizens are the equivalent of military reservists.]

Do hunters really need semi-automatic AR-15 assault weapons? Is that how they roll in deer season? The US public doesn’t think so.

PS this is a revised version of an older column; if they keep refusing to legislate rationally and go on causing these massacres, I can keep writing a similar column.


Related video:

AFP: “Guns in the US”