Tuesday, October 30, 2012

American "leftists" whitewash Nasrallah

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

Eager as they ever are to believe that no enemy of Israel can go far wrong, two prominent figures on the American “left” have penned a righteous critique of what they call a “disastrous” and “embarrassing” New York Times op-ed that portrays Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah as anti-Semitic.

Not the easiest blemish to brush off, one might have thought, but then such people are well-practiced in furnishing bigots with excuses they haven’t and wouldn’t make for themselves. After claiming the particular “supposedly anti-Jewish” quote attributed to Nasrallah in the Times is “in all likelihood a fabrication,” Phil Weiss and Max Blumenthal proceed to paste a lengthy tract by “widely-published Marxist thinker” Louis Proyect, who has concluded after “assiduous” research that there isn’t a scrap of evidence—anywhere—implicating Nasrallah in any kind of funny business on the Jewish question.

Now, the Times article certainly wasn’t fantastic, and I happen to share Weiss’ and Blumenthal’s distaste for the manner in which Israel’s defenders cry “pogrom” at the mildest political criticism. Yet as a secularist who actually lives in Lebanon, I’ve long wearied of reading hagiographies of the “Party of God” from pseudo-dissidents and laptop-Leninists 7,000 miles away.

Weiss and Blumenthal are probably right that the quote (“If we searched the entire world for a person more cowardly, despicable, weak and feeble in psyche, mind, ideology and religion, we would not find anyone like the Jew. Notice I do not say the Israeli”) comes from Amal Saad-Ghorayeb’s Hizbullah: Politics & Religion. Though it purports to quote Nasrallah, the footnote in fact cites an interview with Hezbollah MP Muhammad Fneish on August 15, 1997.

Thereafter, however, the writers quickly wade far out of their depth. Put aside the fact that Nicholas Noe, editor of the party-approved Voice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah says the quote is genuine after all. Even if it were a fake, what Weiss and Blumenthal damningly omit to mention—presumably because they haven’t actually read her book—is that Saad-Ghorayeb also produces a number of further statements, directly attributed to Nasrallah, that are—how to put it?—difficult to read as philo-Semitic. These include:

· That Jews are “renowned for breaching covenants and promises, even with God and the prophets” (p. 171 in the 2002 Pluto Press paperback version; citing Nasrallah in Amiru’l-Zakira, February 23, 1992, p. 139).

· That Jews are “the enemies of God [and] humankind” (p. 175; citing a Nasrallah speech in Beirut’s southern suburbs on August 8, 1997).

· That God “imprinted blasphemy” on the Jews’ hearts (p. 176; citing Nasrallah, August 8, 1997).

· That the Jews fabricated the Holocaust in order to advance their plot to control the world (pp. 181-2; citing a Nasrallah speech in Beirut’s southern suburbs on “Jerusalem Day,” January 24, 1998).

When I pointed this out to Blumenthal on Monday morning, he replied, “I do not consider [Saad-Ghorayeb] reliable, though I don’t doubt Nasrallah has used some f’ed up rhetoric.” Regarding the first half of that statement, one might direct his attention to, say, this video from 2006, in which Nasrallah begins by lamenting that Salman Rushdie hasn’t been murdered yet, and then goes on to say the following:

“A few years ago, a great French philosopher, Roger Garaudy, wrote a scientific book […] in which he discussed the alleged Jewish Holocaust in Germany. He proved that this Holocaust is a myth. The great French philosopher Roger Garaudy was put [on] trial […] Why? Because freedom of expression extends [only] to the Jews.”

Regarding the second half, if Blumenthal was already in no doubt that Nasrallah was an anti-Semite, why did he contribute to an article strongly suggesting the very opposite might be the case? A curious undertaking for any “leftist,” let alone one who so piously accused Christopher Hitchens of “enabling Holocaust-deniers” (echoing—hilariously enough—Henry Kissinger, who quickly shut up after Hitchens’ lawyers threatened a libel suit). Curious also that the argument the authors set out to disprove—namely, that certain elements on the “left” are too ready to give the benefit of the doubt to Jew-baiters—is ultimately the one they succeed in advancing.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

White March

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

My Lebanese friends were in foul moods when I found them at the demonstration in Martyrs Square last Saturday, the first one to take place in the iconic space after Friday’s horror. In the hours immediately following the blast, amid the fright and anguish unleashed, it seemed there was also another, different energy in the air; a sort of quietly rousing exhilaration, as though a moment might have arrived great enough to wake the country out of a dangerous slumber. (It’s interesting to consider the etymological link between the Arabic infijar, “explosion”, and fijr, “dawn”.)

Those hopes had evidently vanished by the following evening, when I found my friends – proud veterans of the 2005 Cedar Revolution – standing on the fringes of the March 14 protest with weary faces. “It’s all party flags,” shouted one into my ear over the crowd’s exuberant chants of za’eem [chieftain] surnames. When I failed to find him and the others half an hour later, I realized they had all gone home.

It must be something similar to this disappointment that has led twenty young activists to organize tonight’s so-called White March from Martyrs Square to Sassine Square in memory of the victims of the bomb and all subsequent violence throughout the country. In the event’s Facebook description, they make a point of rejecting the sectarianism and partisanship of Saturday’s demonstration, asking attendees to wear white and dispense with party flags or slogans:

“We will walk silent to respect the souls of the dead. We will walk silent to say loudly that all the voices we have been hearing in the streets and via the media recently strengthen our will to work for realistic alternatives and means to do politics beyond confessional belongings, seeking justice and social solidarity.”

Sounds pretty reasonable to me. Join us there tonight at 6pm.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

No hope until Assad falls

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

The presence of "Free Syria" flags at Wissam al-Hassan's funeral on Sunday was no coincidence (AP)
On the streets of Tariq Jadideh Monday, only one flag challenged the prominence of the Future Movement’s blue-and-white sunrise emblem: the green, white, black and red stars and stripes of “Free Syria”. The intermittent gun battles that resumed here and, more violently, in Tripoli over the weekend are often described as “sectarian”. They are sectarian – “We are Sunnis and they are Alawites […] Yes, it’s all sectarian,” was how a Tripoli fighter put it to NOW’s Ana Maria Luca in August – but, as the flags illustrate, inseparable from and intrinsic to this religious battle is the political one underway in Syria.

This is true not just figuratively but literally. Having cut their teeth fighting the Alawites of Jabal Mohsen, some Sunnis in Tripoli have graduated to taking on Bashar al-Assad’s forces alongside the Free Syria Army in Homs and Qusayr. To call this “spillover” is to miss the point that the two battles are one and the same for them – not least because they’re firmly convinced that Jabal Mohsen’s militants (along with Hezbollah’s) are also in Syria, fighting for the other side.

The Lebanese army has done a good job of quelling the bloodshed for the moment, but there is no hope of a lasting truce as long as the Syrian war is in stalemate. Lebanon’s pro- and anti-Assad militiamen kill each other because they both truly believe history is on their side. Why make peace when you know you’re going to win?

One of two things has to happen, then, before any kind of negotiation or deal between the factions becomes thinkable: the Free Syria Army surrenders or is utterly exterminated; or the Assad regime is defeated. The first is all but impossible. If Lebanon’s leaders wish to stave off the second with the (incidentally failed) policy of “dissociation”, that’s their prerogative, but we might at least stop saying that delaying the inevitable is a safeguard of “stability”. Friday’s tragedy, if nothing else, should have taught us that much.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Blood brothers: NOW meets a Lebanese FSA fighter

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon, with Nadine Elali]

In a sparsely-furnished room just off Tripoli’s central Nour Square, Abu Huraira grins as he hands us his phone. On the screen is a video of him perched on the turret of what appears to be a Syrian army tank. Cutting a menacing figure in full mujahid gear—black robe, black headband bearing the shahada, Kalashnikov on shoulder—he is loudly and inventively cursing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In a moment of elation, proudly patting the thick gun barrel, he shouts, “I’m taking this to Jabal Mohsen!”

The clip was filmed during his three-month stint with the Free Syria Army over the summer; the glory days for 26-year-old Huraira, who also eagerly shows us a clip of him and 30 others preparing to ambush a regime checkpoint. Unusually—as his allusion to the pro-Assad Tripoli neighborhood suggests—Huraira is not Syrian but Lebanese; one of an estimated 300 to have taken up arms against the regime next door. “We hadn’t planned to fight initially,” he told NOW. “But when we discovered the regime was being assisted by Hezbollah and the Iranians and the Iraqi Dawaa Party, we felt it was a duty.” Hezbollah and Iran deny sending any troops to Syria.

Thus in May Huraira joined Liwa Ahrar al-Aasi (“Banner of the Free Orontes”), a 1,500-strong brigade falling under the umbrella of the Free Syria Army, chiefly comprising Syrian army defectors. The brigade fights mainly in Homs and Qusayr, the town between Homs and the Lebanese border in which Huraira says the video of him on the tank was taken.

Militarily, Huraira claims the brigade has been quite successful. “We have taken out 30 regime checkpoints in Qusayr. We have captured seven tanks, as well as much armor and weaponry, including anti-aircraft guns. We also liberated some 300 civilians held in bunkers by the regime—many of them wives of FSA fighters kept as hostages.” Though it is impossible to verify these claims, a number of online videos appear to show Liwa Ahrar al-Aasi fighters in Qusayr next to defeated regime tanks; in one case towing one away. Another clip purports to show them repelling an attack by Hezbollah fighters.

Crucial to the brigade’s success, says Huraira, is covert assistance provided by soldiers within the regime’s ranks. “Whenever we attack a checkpoint, we time it based on a signal received from an army soldier.” One reason army defections are lower than many had anticipated, he says, is that the FSA encourages would-be defectors to stay on the inside for this reason. “They’re often much more useful to us that way.”

Ideologically, Huraira is not straightforward to define. On the one hand, he freely describes himself as a Salafist, and certainly looks the part with his thick beard and shaved moustache (although he wears Western clothing). He recalls being discharged from his mandatory Lebanese military service for refusing to shave and disobeying other regulations pertaining to religious observance. Moreover, he says the Liwa Ahrar al-Aasi brigade deals with prisoners of war “in accordance with Islamic law,” declining to answer whether or not that meant they were executed.

On the other hand, Huraira insists that he wants a non-sectarian, democratic government in Syria. “The social fabric of Syria is very much like Lebanon,” he explains. “There are many sects, and that’s why it’s better to be democratic.” He also says that of the 1,500 fighters in the brigade, around 50 are Alawites—that is, members of the same sect as Assad. “I didn’t go to Syria to fight the Alawites. My aim was to cleanse the country of shabiha [pro-Assad militiamen], whether Alawite or Sunni.”

At this point in our conversation Huraira’s friend, a muscle-bound man of around 30 with even more prominent facial hair, butts in for the first time. “You know, we’re not extremists or terrorists just because we have beards. If we were terrorists, we wouldn’t even be talking with you. We’re not forcing our beliefs on anyone. One of my good friends is a Communist. My own sisters don’t wear the veil.”

“Yeah, one of my brothers is a women’s hairdresser, God help him,” adds Huraira with a loud laugh.

“We don’t like weapons or war. We’re young men and want to live our lives like anyone else,” insists the friend, who declines to give a name. “We want job opportunities. But the security situation is so bad [in Tripoli] that instead of spending money on vacations or going out, I’m buying weapons. If I can’t have a life, then I have nothing to lose.” Both men, it transpires, took part in the recent sporadic clashes between the mostly Sunni, anti-Assad Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood and its chiefly Alawite, pro-Assad Jabal Mohsen rival.

The friend has not yet fought in Syria, though, and says he has no immediate plans to do so. Huraira, however, is itching to be back.

“As soon as I’m able to go, I’ll go.”

“Abu Huraira” is a pseudonym.

Doctor one day, jihadist the next

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

The most ossified reactionary on the Cretaceous fringes of the Tory backbench couldn’t have imagined the British National Health Service had come to this. In what is certainly an inventive interpretation of the Hippocratic oath, it appears a public sector doctor in London has recently taken some time off – to kill the enemies of Allah in Syria.

Readers may remember the case of the fantastically-named British journalist, John Cantlie, who was abducted along with a Dutch colleague, Jeroen Oerlemans, by British and other foreign Islamists in northern Syria in July, and who described upon his FSA-assisted escape how he ran “for his life, barefoot and handcuffed, while British jihadists – young men with South London accents – shot to kill”.

It now transpires that one of his captors may be Shajul Islam, a 26-year-old NHS doctor who was arrested upon arrival at Heathrow last week and charged Tuesday with Cantlie’s kidnapping under the Terrorism Act 2000. According to the Guardian, Cantlie recalled that one kidnapper claimed to be an NHS doctor, and indeed used NHS-labelled saline drips. “I asked for his help as we were both from London,” Cantlie later told the Daily Mail, “but he refused to even send a text to my girlfriend to say we were alive”.

What exactly are we to make of this whole episode? It would be easy to throw our hands in the air, say Syria is obviously too complicated and too dangerous and the sensible policy is to stay the hell away. This increasingly seems to be the thinking in Washington nowadays, and has of course been the line of Guardianistas and related “anti-war” types from the beginning. But such a half-baked pseudo-analysis ignores the crucial positive in the story: Cantlie and Oerlemans were freed not by accident but by a deliberate and courageous effort on the part of the FSA, a brigade of which also reportedly killed the leader of an al-Qaeda-linked group near the Turkish border last month. There are factions on the ground, in other words, that are fighting both the regime’s death squads and the benighted soldiers of the Caliphate. This is not something to which the “international community” ought to be indifferent.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Game's up, Ghannouchi

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

It’s not every day one gets to savor the galvanic, visceral bliss of vindication, so I hope Tunisia’s secularists are making full use of the occasion today. Having argued from the moment of Rachid Ghannouchi’s return from exile that the leader of Ennahda was a sinister fanatic with a deeply illiberal vision for the country – and having been denounced as reactionaries, Zionists and Ben Ali agents for doing so – their fears may finally have proven accurate.

A video uploaded yesterday apparently shows Ghannouchi sitting down with a group of Salafists and recommending ways for them to safeguard and build on the political successes they’ve had so far. An AFP report quotes Ghannouchi telling them “to be patient… Why hurry? Take your time, to consolidate what you have gained […] create television channels, radio stations, schools and universities”. He also urged them to be on guard against the secularists, who “could make a comeback after their failure” in the October elections.

These Salafists are the ideological brethren, don’t forget, of those who assaulted the US embassy in Tunis last month, killing 4 and injuring 46; who smashed up a hotel in Sidi Bouzid chanting “al-sharab haram” (“drinking is a sin”) earlier in the same month; and who Ghannouchi himself outwardly affects to decry as a “[danger] to public freedom”.

Can we at last dispense with the fatuous notion of “moderate Islamism”? As I’ve long argued, the very phrase is an oxymoron; Islamism being extremism by definition. Entrusting the task of warding off theocracy to a man who is himself a theocrat is, one would have thought, an obviously problematic idea. Sadly, however, with almost the entire region now clenched in the hands of exactly such theocrats, it seems we’re doomed to find this out the hard way.

Video: Israeli police beat Palestinian teen

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

A disturbing video surfaced over the weekend showing Israeli policemen inside the Dome of the Rock compound pinning a 17-year-old Palestinian boy to the ground by the neck and punching him on the side of the head.

According to the Palestinian WAFA news agency, they continued to beat the boy, Hasan al-Afifi, until he bled on the ground, while also pepper-spraying his mother until she fainted.

The attack took place during a demonstration inside the compound, known in Judaism as the Temple Mount, in which Palestinians threw stones in protest against an earlier attempt by what Ma’an called “Israeli ultranationalists” to hold Jewish prayers inside it. The label is misleading – the ideology of these fanatics is in fact a fusion of territorial expansionism with heterodox Jewish fundamentalism.

It is, in other words, merely one more trophy in the cabinet of Israel’s ascendant extreme right wing. For decades, Israel’s chief rabbis have forbidden Jews from entering the compound on theological grounds (how, for example, are Jews to perform the mandatory cleansing ritual for entry into the Temple in the absence of the famous red heifer?). Today’s hot-headed settlers and other supremacists have no time for such craven defeatism, and are finding a growing number of rabbis only too happy to sign off on their more muscular approach (as history teaches us well, there is no political movement too sinister for the approval of the men of God).

To see how acutely dangerous this all is, one need only recall that it was Ariel Sharon’s visit to the same site in 2000 that sparked the Second Intifada. Meanwhile, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Israeli Air Force are trading blows in Gaza. Time for a large whisky, I think.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Inside the dungeons: Talking to detained and beaten journalist Rami Aysha

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

On August 30, the Lebanese-Palestinian journalist Rami Aysha was arrested in Beirut’s southern suburbs, after which he was beaten and jailed without charge for almost a month. As NOW Lebanon previously reported, Aysha’s case became something of a cause célèbre, with one press freedom watchdog describing it as the worst violation of its kind in the country for over two years. Following his release last week, NOW spoke with Aysha, who vows to continue his work despite the brutal treatment to which he was subjected.

Firstly, let’s go back to the day you were arrested. Where were you, what were you doing, and what happened?

Rami Aysha: I was near the airport road, by Al Saha restaurant. I don’t agree with the word “arrested” because only the Lebanese authorities can arrest me. The horrifying thing was I was kidnapped by people on a motorcycle amid a traffic jam. They pressed a gun to my back, blindfolded me and abducted me without anyone interfering to prevent them.

For the first three hours I was brutally tortured – they hit me with sticks and guns, placed blades against my throat, and broke my finger. One of them asked me which hand I write with. I lied, telling him “the left,” and then they started hitting it.

Some said it was Hezbollah that arrested you, others such as Al Manar and New TV said it was the army mukhabarrat (“intelligence”). Which is true?

Aysha: I cannot accuse anyone because I don’t know who they were and they didn’t identify themselves. However, I can say it wasn’t the army intelligence. I was handed to them only after three hours.

Tell us about how you were treated after that.

Aysha: At the end of the three hours, still blindfolded, I was pushed against a wall. I thought this was the end, and I started praying. Then, out of nowhere, an army intelligence member came in and said “Don’t worry, I’m army intelligence and I’ll get you out of here,” and asked me to run along a path. I was relieved because he was an official and I was in the hands of the government. Even so, on our way out we were swore at and hit by the others while this man tried to protect me. A belt blow on the back of my head still hurts now.

When I arrived at the army intelligence I was again beaten, though they later apologized and handed me to the military police. I was cuffed, blindfolded, hungry and thirsty from the moment of my detention on Thursday till Saturday night. I don’t blame the commanders in charge of the intelligence or the military police for the brutality, but I do blame their juniors.

There is a rumor that you are the journalist who carried out the famous interview for Time magazine with one of the four Hezbollah members indicted by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Is this true?

Aysha: No, I didn’t do the interview and I don’t take credit for others’ efforts. Time magazine has confirmed this. I was even investigated by former General Prosecutor Judge Said Mirza and was proven to have no involvement.

We also heard that you have worked on several arms smuggling stories before. Can you give some examples of things you’ve investigated?

Aysha: I’ve worked on [Palestinian refugee] camps and many other topics before. I’m an investigative reporter and most of my work is on sensitive issues.

Have you been mistreated while working on stories before?

Aysha: We are in Lebanon, not Europe. I have been harassed many times and even hit before, but this is the first time I was detained.

When you were in jail, your lawyer told us there were no plans to take legal action upon your release. However, you have since said you will “fight in court to prove [your] innocence.” What exactly do you plan to do?

Aysha: I will do my best to get my innocence proven, though the judges are trying to release me with a sufficiency period which in itself convicts me. I reject this move, and will take the issue to the court of cassation [the supreme court of Lebanon].

Will you continue to work as a journalist after all this?

Aysha: Definitely, I will continue my job and mission as a journalist. Let no one think I will stop journalism for a moment.

Agnes Helou contributed reporting.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Gazans reveal shocking Hamas abuses

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

In general, I thought of myself as someone who harbored few delusions about Hamas. Unlike an alarmingly large contingent of self-proclaimed leftists, I’ve never been willing or able to ignore the Islamic fascism that is the lifeblood of the group’s ideology, and that makes ridiculous any notion of it as a “resistance”. I confess, however, that I used to suspect there to be a degree of exaggeration and/or Zionist propaganda in the stories I would read about its moral policing.

Not so anymore. After meeting last weekend in Jordan with a group of Palestinian journalists that included three arrivals from Gaza, I was appalled to discover the reality is worse than I had dared imagine. Without me even mentioning the subject, they would almost tremble with rage as they described the party’s thuggery, palpably relieved at the opportunity to unload an intolerable weight off their chests.

By their account, Hamas’ rule combines the fundamentalism of Saudi Arabia with the iron fist of Saddam Hussein. Unveiled women are harassed by policemen, regardless of their faith. Even the veiled ones are banned from arguileh cafes, as are the songs of Fayrouz and Umm Kulthoum. The men have to wear tops while swimming in the sea, and unmarried couples holding hands on the beach are confronted. Nor can men and women together dance the dabka, that staple of Palestinian and Levantine identity. There is, obviously, no alcohol. Thousands of Christians have fled since the 2007 coup, and public Christian ceremonies are now illegal. “They are building an Afghanistan, step by step,” as Omar put it.

Also banned are unapproved political demonstrations of any kind, as refugees from the Bureij camp found out just last week. Public criticism of the party is unthinkable - merely “Liking” a dissenting view on Facebook can lead to a knock on the door. To be a democracy and/or human rights activist is to risk severe beatings, as the likes of Asma al-Ghul, the 15 March movement and Gaza Youth Break Out can tell you from experience.

As for press freedom, one anecdote from Ahmad gives you an idea. Happening upon a man being thrashed by Hamas forces, Ahmad managed to take a photo but failed to get away unseen. After himself enduring a minute or two of truncheons and boots while refusing to hand over his camera, he felt the tip of a rifle barrel against his kneecap, and heard a voice count “1…” Suffice to say, he never got to see that photo. “Kneecapping”, apparently, is becoming a common method of settling disputes.

All this, of course, inflicted on a people already immiserated by Israeli bombs and blockades. To be sure, Israel is and will always be the ultimate enemy for Ahmad and the others, some of whom lost close family in Operation Cast Lead. But to take what pitiful liberty is left by Israel and strangle it further is entirely Hamas’ own achievement. How “leftist”! How “revolutionary”!

“Omar” and “Ahmad” are, of course, pseudonyms.