Monday, February 27, 2012

In downtown Beirut, Assad supporters drown out anti-regime protest

Last Friday, on a particularly agreeable, sunny but cool evening, downtown Beirut was awash with fascism. I and a couple of colleagues were attending a vigil at Samir Kassir Square for Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, the two journalists slain in Homs on Wednesday. Alongside us were around fifty men and women; many of them journalists too, but also a dozen or so activists, including some Syrian dissidents and refugees. The mood was decent, in the proper sense of the word: sober; respectable; but affable too. There were no ululations, no beatings of chests, no burnings of flags, and certainly not the slightest suggestion of violence. A Kurdish refugee, hounded by the regime since the uprising of 2004, held a sign for the cameras with his mouth symbolically taped shut. Women and children held pieces of paper with ‘Baba Amr’, the besieged Homs suburb, printed on them in Arabic. A handful of young Syrians started a chant among themselves, but abandoned it after a minute or two. In summary, had we been alone in the Square, it would have been entirely unnecessary for the army to have sealed off the block with what looked like over a hundred soldiers anxiously clutching their M-16s.
Demonstrators at Samir Kassir Square, downtown Beirut

Syrian Kurdish refugees hold Kurdish flags

An-Nahar columnist Ali Hamadeh being interviewed

But alone we most certainly were not. From the moment we stepped out the taxi at Martyrs’ Square, a hideous cacophony of whistles, megaphone-enhanced shouting and distinctly militaristic music fouled the air. The source of this turned out to be a pro-regime counter-protest: a mob, essentially, waving posters of Bashar al-Assad as well as SSNP, Amal and other party flags. The shabiha, or ‘ghosts’, as they are known – indeed, one of their party proclaimed down the megaphone, “They say that we are shabiha – we say, we are proud to be your shabiha, Bashar al-Assad!” It was for these people, then, that the army had been dispatched – a fact made evident by the line of troops standing shoulder to shoulder facing them along a barricade set up for the very purpose of containing them (I was later told there have been cases in previous such situations of them breaking through the barriers and assaulting those on the other side). Apparently, no such precaution was felt necessary with us, whom the army left alone – except, that is, to escort away a woman among us identified by the Kurdish refugee as a Baathist spy (I don’t like to dwell too long on who else I may have shaken hands with that evening).
Pro-Assad counter-protesters waving Baathist Syrian flags
Such was the pattern for about forty-five minutes – interviews, introductions and polite chat on our side; exulted fascist cheering and sloganeering on theirs. And then, for no immediately identifiable reason, the army ordered us to leave. Us, mind you; the bespectacled scribblers, the middle-aged women, the refugee children – not the excited gang of hooligans. That was something of a palm to the cheeks. But what was perhaps most dispiriting of all was the realization that Assad’s fans outnumbered us by at least two to one. In other words, in the city centre of the most enlightened and emancipated capital of the Middle East, for every person willing to oppose a totalitarian murderer, there are two more prepared to support him. What a sentence to have to put down, well over one year into the ‘Arab Spring’.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Interview with Sultan al-Qassemi

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

A favorite topic of contemporary political punditry concerns the role of social media in facilitating the revolutions of the Arab Spring. At the front line of this pioneering activism is Sultan al-Qassemi, the Emirati columnist, blogger and royal family member whose Twitter feed —read by over 100,000 followers—was named by Time Magazine as one of last year’s top 140. Qassemi spoke to NOW Lebanon about his part in the historic upheavals in the region, and where he thinks we are heading.

How did you get involved in political writing?

Sultan al-Qassemi: I started off in 2007 writing for a few publications in the UAE—mainly financial op-eds but usually with a political twist. Then, of course, there was this movement that started in December 2010 in Tunisia and since I understand French I was able to keep up with the news—at first it wasn’t being reported in the English or Arabic blogospheres so much as in the French one, so I was able to follow it and tweet about it, and the story kept growing, and then suddenly an entrenched Arab dictator had fled. And then I think it was only 11 days later we had Egypt, so it was just a rollercoaster. And I think it was only really then that I began to get noticed regionally.

Were there any early experiences that drove you to politics? 

Qassemi: I was always interested in it, but when I was about 12 my cousins fled to the UAE from Kuwait, and they were telling me about this Iraqi invasion, that there were tanks in the streets, and it affected me.

What have been the successes of the Arab Spring in your opinion?

Qassemi: Firstly, I don’t like to call it the Arab Spring; I prefer the Arab Uprising. I think the biggest success has been the people saying “enough is enough.” This is a huge step compared to many decades in which people wanted to speak up but either didn’t or couldn’t. The Arab world will never be the same again. Specifically, Tunisia has been a great success. Most Arab leaders are military men, many of them brutal dictators, but in Tunisia we now have a civilian president—a human rights activist, in fact—in a country that used to be one of the very worst police states. This is an example that puts other Arab countries to shame.

What about the other side of Tunisia—the rise of the Salafists, for example?

Qassemi: There are Salafists in the UK. They are all over the world. They are part of society, and as soon as they enter the political game—as in Egypt—they will be almost neutralized. The only fear is if Salafists don’t enter the political game. Then they become a big risk.

What have been the failures of the Arab Uprising?

The very slow progress Egypt has made in handing over power to civilian rule. Egyptians are very intelligent, educated and capable of governing themselves without military interference. The other disappointment is dictators who believe they can stay in power through repression, like Bashar al-Assad.
But for me the lack of reform in the Gulf is the biggest disappointment. The fact that two Gulf countries actually saw a regression—Bahrain and the UAE—and the fact that Saudi Arabia has not seen any kind of reform.

What is the significance to you of the arrests of many of your fellow bloggers, from Alaa Abd al-Fattah to Ahmad Mansoor to, most recently, Hamza Kashgari?

Qassemi: I think the significance is two-fold. First of all, it shows you the Arab countries are still using outdated laws, sometimes from the colonial era, to prosecute people in the 21st century, so it shows you how slow the Arab countries are to adapt. Secondly, it’s very clear that when bloggers are arrested this is a message to other bloggers.

On that note, you live and do most of your work in Sharjah, perhaps the most conservative emirate in the UAE. Have you faced opposition from the establishment for things you have written or tweeted?

Qassemi: I wrote an article in defense of mixed marriages [Emiratis with non-Emiratis] and people in senior circles, tribal chiefs, were very unhappy with me. And I’m the only person in history to have received an official rebuke from the UAE parliament. I wrote a piece questioning if the parliament actually existed at all, and I got this critical letter saying shame on me. And I was very proud of that, to have instigated a debate on the parliament. And there have been several other examples, but they haven’t changed the way I write or tweet.

Has being a member of the royal family affected your freedom to write?

Qassemi: I don’t know. I hope not. I hope the law is applied equally to everybody. I’m not naïve enough to say that it is, but if I had a choice, I would rather that that be the case.

Your critics argue there is a double standard in you supporting democratic uprisings elsewhere while appearing to look favorably upon your own country’s Islamist monarchy. How would you respond?

Qassemi: I make a point of tweeting any articles or press releases that people would consider critical of the UAE. In fact I “favorite” the negative tweets about the UAE so that people can see I don’t shy away from criticizing my own country.

You once said, “I’m only interested in two countries in the region now: Egypt and Saudi Arabia.” Could you elaborate?

Qassemi: I am! I’m only interested in Egypt and Saudi Arabia—people try to stuff other countries down my throat, it doesn’t work. Listen, I sympathize, and I am so saddened by what’s happening in Syria, in Yemen, in Palestine. But I’m interested in these two for two reasons: firstly, because these are the countries I’m most knowledgeable about. And secondly, I believe that if Egypt and Saudi Arabia change, then everywhere else will change, because of Egypt’s demographic weight and Saudi’s religious and financial weight.

What, in your opinion, is the solution to the Syrian crisis?

I feel as helpless as tens of millions of other Arabs. I want to say there is a diplomatic solution, but I’m honestly hoping for a palace coup; that some honorable person will come and depose Assad and his ruthless brother, and then immediately open up the door for reconciliation and elections, because I fear it could get very ugly if it continues in this way.

What about foreign intervention?

Qassemi: I think every time we’ve seen foreign military intervention the country has descended into chaos.

Finally, what do you see for the future of Lebanon?

Qassemi: I’m very hopeful about Lebanon. It’s always been a beacon of freedom for us. We all want Lebanon to prosper, to turn the pages of civil war and sectarianism. I remember being there a few months ago, you could be in a leftist bar one minute and then walk down the road and you’re in an Islamic gathering. The Arab world needs Lebanon more than people understand.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Christian Zionists urge Americans to "Vote Israel"

As I hope and trust you have all been following, a disagreement has kindled in recent months among a number of American commentators on the affairs of a certain traditional ally of their government's in the eastern Mediterranean. This inflammation concerns the use by some of the term 'Israel Firster' to accuse an American of putting the interests of the Israeli state before those of his own.

I didn't at first feel much impelled to join either side of the argument, having reservations both ways and also thinking that I could probably argue the case both ways too. On the one hand, it would be idle to deny that the Israel Lobby continues to command a peculiar influence on Capitol Hill, and that when America vetoes Security Council resolutions condemning things that it officially opposes (like West Bank settlements) and condoning things that it officially supports (like Palestinian statehood), then this influence ipso facto both supersedes and compromises American (and humanitarian) policy interests. On the other hand, the powers of the Lobby are easily overstated, and the 'Israel Firster' formulation has an uncomfortable echo of its kindred 'neocon', a catch-all slur for anyone who advocates anything but the sheerest isolationism in foreign policy. In his Huffington Post piece, 'Why the Term "Israel First" Matters', the populariser of the term MJ Rosenberg came right out and said that "I don't think we should lose even one soldier in a war against a country that does not directly threaten the American people". Jeffrey Goldberg therefore wasn't at all far off when he defined the term ironically as one "used by [the left] to describe American Jews with whom it disagrees on American Middle East policy".

However, Goldberg and his friends went on to forfeit any claim they could have had to the moral high ground by reaching for the greasiest and most overplayed card in their deck. Just as one can't these days utter a word about, say, the stoning of adulterers in Afghanistan without being accused of 'Islamophobia', so it seems one can't express the smallest reservations about the rising tides of Israeli religious-nationalism without being denounced as an 'anti-Semite'. While being careful to clarify that those who use the term need not necessarily be anti-Semites ("they might just be ignorant"), Goldberg later wrote about the "straight line from Lindbergh to 'Israel-Firster'" and described it as a "neo-Nazi-derived anti-Semitic slur". Whatever the facts may be about the phrase's ugly history, this was a straightforward, self-pitying argument-from-injured-feelings that didn't so much as attempt to address the original points made by Rosenberg et al.

In any case, it is now no longer possible to deny that, at the very least, there do exist some groups who explicitly advocate for putting Israel 'first'. On Tuesday, the Christian Zionist outfit, Christians United for Israel, circulated a petition titled "Defend America - Vote Israel", encouraging American voters to elect precisely whichever candidate is most supportive of the Israeli government. The petition invites the signatory to assert that "When I cast my vote, I'll be looking for a candidate who affirms that one of the best ways to defend America is to stand with Israel." Below is a screenshot of the petition (click to enlarge):

As well as closing the case on 'Israel Firster', this CUFI petition also highlights what Goldberg and his co-ideologues (along with far too many Arabs) don't or won't admit, which is that the Israel Lobby is emphatically not a 'Jewish' lobby. From Jerry Falwell to Pat Robertson to CUFI's John Hagee, some of the most towering constituents of the Lobby (not to mention the most egregious apologists for Israeli aggression and expansionism) have been Christian fundamentalists, who wish to facilitate the Jewish conquest of the biblical Eretz Yisrael only to propitiate the second coming of Christ, at which point the Jews will face a choice between conversion and extermination. How 'anti-Semitic' is it to oppose that outcome?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Why no boycott of Cat Stevens?

If recent weeks have reminded us of anything about the Lebanese left, it is that they are hardly boycott-shy. The practice, which has a history in the country going back at least as far as the Israel Boycott Law of 1955, has aimed at some high profile targets in contemporary music, including concerts held by the DJs Tiesto and Armin van Buuren and the rock band Placebo (where the campaign was so successful that the event organiser has filed a lawsuit for damages). The ink has still yet to dry in the local papers about the latest one against the singer Lara Fabian, which resulted in the cancellation of her concert and a consequent spate of bad press for the boycotters, who have been decried as "cultural terrorists", "fanatics" and even agents of "Iran's elite Al-Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards Corp [seeking to establish] a state of Islamic jurisprudence". (It happens that I know the man behind the Fabian campaign. As a self-described atheist of Christian birth, he will undoubtedly have been fascinated to learn this.)

However, in such a high-voltage environment of activist enthusiasm, it seems peculiar that nothing is being said or done about the Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam (apparently he now prefers simply 'Yusuf') concert being held at the Beiteddine Art Festival next Saturday. Stevens/Yusuf, you may recall, was the man who repeatedly and publicly endorsed the fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini for the murder of Salman Rushdie. He now greasily denies ever having done this on his website, but as always in our Internet age, the evidence is only a click away. We may now all watch with our own eyes as the following exchanges take place on British television between Stevens/Yusuf and the renowned human rights lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson QC:

Robertson: You don't think that this man deserves to die?
Yusuf: Who, Salman Rushdie?
Robertson: Yes.
Yusuf: Yes, yes.
Robertson: And do you have a duty to be his executioner?
Yusuf: No, not necessarily, unless we were in an Islamic state and I was ordered, let's say, by the judge or by the authority to carry out such an act, perhaps, yes.

Robertson: Would you go to a demonstration where you knew that an effigy was going to be burnt?
Yusuf: I would have hoped that it'd be the real thing.
As Rushdie himself noted in a letter to the Sunday Telegraph titled 'Cat Stevens wanted me dead':

He added that "if Mr Rushdie turned up at his doorstep looking for help, 'I might ring somebody who might do more damage to him than he would like. I'd try to phone the Ayatollah Khomeini and tell him exactly where this man is'.''

In a subsequent interview with The New York Times, Mr [Craig] Whitney added, Stevens/Islam, who had seen a preview of the programme, said that he "stood by his comments".
Surely every leftist worth the name revolts at this call for the murder of a novelist for 'blasphemy'? Could anything be more viciously puritanical, more theocratic, more fascistic? What does it say about the state of our world when such a despicable thug not only retains his place in polite society, but thrives? One somehow suspects that were a Jewish singer to call for the murder of a Muslim novelist, citing the authority of the Torah, he would not be invited by Jon Stewart to play a song called 'Peace Train' at a rally attended by tens of thousands of American liberals. Nor would such a character likely be welcomed at one of Lebanon's preeminent cultural festivals. Yet the left in that country, which barks itself hoarse when a woman says "I love you Israel", is apparently unperturbed by a man who says that an atheist writer of fiction "deserves to die", and claims his preparedness to take the life himself if given the nod from the right "authority".

The point is not, of course, that boycotting Israel is wrong. Boycotts are an indispensable method of democratic and nonviolent protest, and the Israeli government is a deserving target if ever there was one (an observation underscored by the law passed in the Knesset last year banning the boycotting of West Bank settlements). But to boycott Lara Fabian while staying silent on Cat Stevens/Yusuf invites the accusation of Israeli exceptionalism, and undermines the supposed universalism of the radical cause.

The left can do, and has done, better. At a PEN rally in New York in the aftermath of the fatwa, it was pointed out (by the late Christopher Hitchens, in fact¹) that the text of the death sentence covered not only Rushdie himself but "all those involved in [The Satanic Verses'] publication". A petition was thus circulated in which the signatories declared themselves "co-responsible for publication". As the subsequent murder of the book's Japanese translator and the attempts on the lives of its Italian translator and Norwegian publisher demonstrated, this was not a declaration that came without risk. Nor has the threat to Rushdie's life entirely disappeared, as he discovered at the Jaipur Literary Festival only last month. There again, courageous individuals were on hand to defend him, as when the novelist Hari Kunzru decided to use his slot to read passages from the Verses in protest of the alleged plot to assassinate Rushdie if he made his scheduled appearance. I will not be in Lebanon on the day of Stevens'/Yusuf's performance, but I will be reading from my favourite pages of the novel, and I invite all my Lebanese friends - as well as anyone else who thinks it worthwhile to protect the fragile buds of free expression, literature and humour from the marching jackboots of clerical fascism - to spend their evening doing the same.

¹Hitchens, C., Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere (2000), p. 126