Monday, April 29, 2013

Hezbollah critic to fight "revenge trial"

[Originally posted at NOW]

After nearly three years of detention by Syrian and Lebanese authorities, a Shiite cleric has been sentenced to five years’ imprisonment on charges of collaboration with Israel – charges that activists and his lawyer say were fabricated in a bid to silence the cleric’s criticism of Hezbollah. The verdict, handed down by the Lebanese Military Tribunal on April 15, is set to be appealed.

Sheikh Hassan Mshaymish was first arrested in Syria in July 2010 on undisclosed charges. The Syrian government’s official silence on his continued detention prompted criticism from Amnesty International, and his family alleges he was tortured during this period. He was transferred to the Lebanese authorities in October 2011, after which he was formally accused of collaboration with Israel, a crime under Article 278 of the Lebanese penal code.

Mshaymish had in fact been a member of Hezbollah until the late 1990s, after which he became an outspoken critic of the party and its ideological adherence to wilayat al-faqih, the authoritarian system of religious government pioneered by the late Iranian Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. As NOW has previously reported, a number of prominent Lebanese Shiite critics of Hezbollah have long maintained that it was these open attacks on the powerful Syrian ally – typically expressed in his monthly publication Difaf (“the riverbanks”) – rather than any dealings with Israel that led to Mshaymish’s arrest.

As is typical of cases handled by the military tribunal, no information pertaining to the trial has officially been made public. However, a legal source involved with the case who requested anonymity due to its sensitivity told NOW the evidence presented by the prosecution chiefly comprised telephone records purporting to show calls made by Mshaymish to Israelis. Mshaymish’s lawyer, Antoine Nehme, alleges these records were falsified, and claims to possess originals proving as much that were ignored by the court.

In addition, the legal source told NOW the prosecution had pointed to a meeting Mshaymish had in Germany in 2005 with an individual whom he suspected of working for “an intelligence apparatus seeking to collect information about Hezbollah.” Mshaymish himself informed Hezbollah of the meeting upon his return to Lebanon. In court, says the source, Nehme argued this meeting failed to violate Lebanese law; first because the man Mshaymish met was German, not Israeli, and second because Article 278 pertains only to divulging information about the Lebanese government, not a party such as Hezbollah.

Adding to these question marks is the comparative lightness of the sentence, which some commentators have interpreted as further evidence of the dubiousness of the charges. (Collaboration with Israel carries a maximum sentence of death.)

“Is it logical that his sentence is only five years for cooperating with the enemy?” asked Ali al-Amin, al-Balad journalist and a fellow Shiite critic of Hezbollah who has campaigned for Mshaymish’s release.

“This trial is political, it’s not based on any evidence. It is a revenge trial, to punish Sheikh Mshaymish for his stand against Hezbollah,” Amin told NOW.

Similar sentiment was expressed by Lokman Slim, another Shiite supporter of Mshaymish who has raised awareness of his case through his “Hayya Bina” NGO.

“For someone collaborating with Israel, five years is not exactly the heaviest sentence he could receive,” Slim told NOW. “So for me the philosophy of such a sentence is that it achieves a moral assassination of Mshaymish. It’s neutralizing and killing the man symbolically, a kind of murder without blood.”

Looking ahead, Mshaymish still has a chance of clearing his name with a successful appeal. The legal source told NOW that Nehme, the defense lawyer, is confident of overturning the verdict.

Yet Slim told NOW the appeal, even if successful, would likely take a long time, adding to the two years and nine months of detention Mshaymish has already undergone.

“The appeal could take years. Given he’s already served nearly three years in prison, he could end up serving the full five years with his appeal still in process.”

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Sidon's Salafists eager for battle

[Originally posted at NOW]

Fadel Shaker was in a talkative mood when NOW found him standing outside Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir’s Bilal Bin Rabah mosque on Wednesday afternoon. The former celebrity pop singer turned arch-partisan of the Sidon cleric was with half a dozen young men also sporting Salafist-style beards, and could scarcely have been less reticent when approached for questions.

Would he be joining the “Free Resistance Brigades,” the new Sidon-based militia established by Assir on Monday? “Of course!” was his reply, quickly echoed by the rest of the men. NOW then asked if he and his comrades would also be heading to fight in Syria, as per Assir’s call for “jihad” against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and Hezbollah. The response was equally prompt: “Insha’Allah! [God willing]”

At this, Shaker grew animated. “All Shiites are brothers of whores!” he declared in a raised voice. “Write that down!” NOW asked if he indeed meant all Shiites, or was only referring to Hezbollah – a distinction typically made by Assir. “No: all of them! Shiites are the same as the bottom of my shoe!” he replied, to much laughter from his comrades. He continued cursing the sect for another thirty seconds or so, turning his ire on the late Iranian Grand Ayatollah Khomeini before NOW thanked him and parted ways.

In his apartment facing the mosque, Assir himself adopted a distinctly more restrained tone. “We’re not here to fight the Shia. The goal of the Free Resistance Brigades is self-defense – against Israel, if they choose to attack us, and against Hezbollah if they do,” the sheikh told NOW. “We have said many times that we refuse fighting and causing civil war in Lebanon.”

Assir has been talking of starting a militia since last November, and its formation is still in the planning stages, he told NOW. At present, he says, around 300 Lebanese and Palestinians from Sidon and its suburbs have signed on to join – a number he hopes will grow to several thousands (registration takes place outside his mosque after evening prayers) – but no formal training has taken place. He confirmed that he and his sons would personally be members of the Brigades.

These are not necessarily, however, the same people Assir intends to wage jihad across the border. “The people addressed in the fatwa[religious decree] for jihad are those living on the border, because it’s easier for them to access Syria.” He added, though, that “if there’s a need, we will back them up.”

Assir’s call to arms – seconded by prominent Tripoli cleric Sheikh Salem al-Rafei – comes at a time of intense fighting in and around Syria’s Qusayr, a rebel-held town roughly 10km from Lebanon’s northeastern border. The battle for Qusayr, which pits regime loyalists including an estimated 800-1,200 Hezbollah members against opposition militants, was reportedly described by Assad himself as the “main battle” in all of Syria at present.

“Hezbollah is fighting in Qusayr, and the Lebanese state isn’t saying a word against them,” Assir told NOW. “We’ve stayed away for two years, but now with Hezbollah attacking our Syrian brothers from one side and the regime attacking them from another, they’re under siege. We have to support them, this is a matter of shari’a [Islamic law].”

This was also the line taken by Rafei, who pledged Monday to “send men and weapons in support of our Sunni brothers in Qusayr.” Assir told NOW that due to Rafei’s substantial influence in Tripoli, he expects he will send over a thousand fighters across the border. Rafei could not be reached by NOW for comment.

With the line thus blurring between Syria’s and Lebanon’s fighters (“We say to our Syrian brothers, your war is our war,” as Rafei put it) and the prospect of organized sectarian war between Lebanese Sunnis and Shiites in Syria, analysts tell NOW the Assir-Rafei plan may bode ill for Lebanon’s security.

“This definitely drags Lebanon further into the Syrian conflict,” said Dr. Imad Salamey, professor of political science at the Lebanese American University. “We now have two sides in Lebanon – Hezbollah, which is already fully engaged in the fighting, and the pro-opposition Sunni groups promising similar military engagement. If things continue on this course, it may eventually bring the border villages and mixed Sunni-Shiite areas in the Beqaa Valley into similar conflict. This is really alarming and dangerous.”

Moreover, argues Salamey, “whether they know it or not, [Assir and Rafei] are playing into the Syrian regime’s hands, by turning the crisis into a region-wide one, which will lead the international community to prefer a political settlement in the regime’s favor.”

With that said, however, Salamey adds that the extent of the damage may be limited by Assir’s still-marginal following within the Sunni community. “Assir’s significance is not as it seems in the press. Sure, he can send some fighters to Syria, but this is also him trying to attract some attention and demonstrate his strategic relevance in swaying politics in Lebanon and Syria.”

“He and Rafei are trying to show that Hezbollah is not the only party that can play the ‘Syria’ card.”

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

From Sufism to Salafism: How Tripoli inspired the global Islamist revival

[Originally posted at NOW]

Tucked behind a wall of bushes on the banks of Tripoli’s Abu Ali river, just a hundred meters south of the Crusader fortress, sits a peculiar domed building of white stone plated with chestnut wooden window frames. The Takiyya Mawlawiyya, as it’s called, is in fact a defunct Sufi temple; a 17th-century relic of a departed era in which the mystical brand of Islam was, in many if not most Muslim cities, the predominant one.

Looking at it today, one wouldn’t think it a structure of much historical consequence. Inconvenient to access, it was entirely deserted when NOW paid a visit last Saturday. Though recently renovated with the help of the Turkish government, no street signs declare its existence. It isn’t even on Google Maps.

Yet it was at this very site that, some 130 years ago, the young man who was to become the most influential Islamic thinker of a generation had an experience that permanently shaped his ideas – and, by extension, the Muslim world today.

That man was Muhammad Rashid Rida, born in 1865 in the nearby village of al-Qalamun. After receiving what was, for the time, a fairly radically advanced education in Tripoli (that’s to say, he was taught the new European sciences and languages in addition to the traditional Islamic curriculum,) in his early adulthood he took the not-uncommon step of joining a Sufi order (the Naqshbandi one, to be exact.) Thus it was that he found himself one Friday at the same Takiyya Mawlawiyya, where, as he later recalled, his first sight of the whirling dervishes sent him into an empurpled fury of piety:

“I could not control myself, and stood up in the center of the hall and shouted something like this: ‘O people, or can I call you Muslims! These are forbidden acts, which one has no right either to look at or to pass over in silence, for to do so is to accept them’.”

Abandoning Sufism on the spot, Rida sought the “true” Islam elsewhere, and found it in the reformist movement of the renowned Egyptian scholar Muhammad Abduh, whom he met in the 1880s during one of the latter’s visits to Tripoli, and of whom he became an ardent disciple. Building on the path first paved by his own mentor, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Abduh argued for a reconciliation of Islam with the European Enlightenment; for an embrace of modern science and technology, of wider education, of accountable government, and of increased rights for non-Muslims, while yet preserving the theocratic institutions of the caliphate and absolute faith in the Qur’an.

Rida followed Abduh to Cairo in 1897, where he began publishing a periodical, al-Manar (the beacon in English.) Though this began as little more than a medium for propagating Abduh’s ideas, as Rida grew older he developed views of his own, and took al-Manar in a distinctly more hardline direction than Abduh would have endorsed. Crucially, whereas Abduh had understood the theological concept of the salaf (ancestors in English) – the companions of the Prophet, traditionally held as the “best” Muslims – metaphorically to mean the great Islamic thinkers across the centuries, Rida took it literally: the only Islam was that of the Prophet’s generation.

Accordingly, he started openly denouncing the “illegitimate innovations” of Shiism and intensifying criticism of Sufis (even, according to one biographer, saying he would have them beheaded if he were in power.) He wrote contemptuously of Christianity. When the Wahhabis conquered the Hejaz in 1925, it was only natural that Rida should have been thrilled, seeing in their unflinching puritanism an admirable return to first principles. The Encyclopedia of Islam describes al-Manar at this time as an “active center of Wahhabi propaganda,” and indeed he was even to make personal contact with Ibn Saud (thus earning him the distinction of being Tripoli’s first Saudi ally.)

Such ferocious reactionism was all the more conspicuous for being so plainly contrary to the spirit of the time. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were generally periods of dramatic liberalization and even secularization in the Arab world. Modernity required laws and governance based on reason, rather than religion, believed many writers (including another Tripolitan, Farah Antun, who was initially a friend of Rida’s before falling out for obvious reasons). Darwin had buried the myths of religion for good, said others. Feminism was gaining ground even among men, and in 1923 a group of Egyptian women led by Huda Shaarawi made history by discarding their veils altogether.

As against all this, Rida was defending concubinage (sex slavery) and polygamy, while calling for a revamped caliphate (the old one having been permanently abolished by Atatürk in 1924) that would put apostates to death. It was in this capacity as champion of the counter-revolution against the Arab Enlightenment (or nahda) that Rida was to inspire the next generation of what we would now call Islamists.

Not least among these young devotees was Hassan al-Banna, the Egyptian who in 1928 founded the Muslim Brotherhood at just 22 years old. In his office at the American University of Beirut, history professor and nahda specialist Samir Seikaly told NOW that al-Banna was “certainly influenced by Rida.” Pulling worn volumes off his densely-packed shelves, he showed NOW how the young Egyptian “frequently visited Rida [and was] animated by [his] writings,” even briefly succeeding him as editor of al-Manar after his death in 1935. In al-Banna’s conviction that secular decadence was the root cause of the Arabs’ decline and that therefore (in the Brothers’ party slogan) “Islam is the solution,” Rida’s imprint is clear.

Indeed, al-Banna seems to have consciously taken it upon himself to popularize Rida’s thought, much as Rida himself had Abduh’s: Muhammad Musa al-Sharif, a Saudi professor of Islamic studies at King Abd al-Aziz University argues that the achievement of al-Banna was to “develop [Rida’s] movement, which had been confined to […] the upper classes [into] a movement […] accessible to the ordinary people. This was the first time that anyone had been able to do this.”

Is Rida, then, the ideological grandfather of Islamism today? To an extent, says Professor Seikaly. “In as much as he influenced al-Banna, and in as much as al-Banna then influenced the following generations, Rida’s ideas can be said to be still alive,” he told NOW.

That influence is strongest in Muslim Brotherhood circles, according to Omar Bakri Muhammad, a Syrian cleric who led the Islamist Hizb ut-Tahrir party in the UK in the 1990s before being banned from the country and winding up in Lebanon.

“Rida’s thought is closest to the Brotherhood, rather than the Salafists as some people claim,” Bakri told NOW. “Salafists do not generally read Rida today. They might come across some of his articles, but they won’t read his tafsir [exegesis]; they read the tafsir of Ibn Kathir, while jihadists are more likely to read that of Sayyid Qutb. The Brothers, however, still refer to the tafsir of al-Manar.”

(It may be worth noting that Bakri’s definition of a Salafist is somewhat stricter than most: “I believe Salafism does not really exist in Lebanon. If they call [Sidon cleric] Ahmad al-Assir a Salafist, then Mother Teresa was al-Qaeda.”)

No small achievement for the Qalamun son, then, to be the acknowledged muse of a supranational organization that continues to command influence from Thailand to Turkey to Tunisia (where the local Brotherhood leader, Rashid al-Ghannushi, praises Rida even while having the nerve to name his party after the nahda.) At a time of monumental transformation in the Arab world, in which the very foundations of states are being reconstructed, the abstract disputes of Rida’s day concerning the place of Islam have perhaps never before been so consequential. It’s both tragic and fitting that Tripoli itself – where, in a sense, this whole business began – is proving one of the bloodier arenas of the contest.

The Rida quotes, and much of the background information in general, come from Albert Hourani’s ‘Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age: 1798 – 1939’.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Boris eulogizes poet-jailing Qatar

[Originally posted at NOW]

No day is a good day to pen a thousand words of uncritical praise for a violently repressive theocracy, but London mayor Boris Johnson’s decision to do just that in yesterday’s Telegraph was timed even worse than it might otherwise have been. Scarcely had the ink of his parodically rose-tinted tribute dried than a Qatari court sentenced another luckless soul to medieval punishment for crimes against the Almighty; in this case 40 lashes for imbibing the illicit Dionysian harvest. One wonders whether – as with Salam Fayyad’s resignation and the Obama visit – the authorities were putting off the announcement until his plane had safely left the tarmac.

Boris, of course, has his own history of moral policing on the alcohol question, but he’s convinced there’s far more common ground to be found than that. “There is so much we can offer [to Qatar], so many ways to build on this partnership,” he tells us. “We have more friends than we sometimes imagine.”

Which is certainly more than could be said by, e.g., Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, the Qatari poet sentenced to life imprisonment last November (later reduced to 15 years) for a poem deemed an act of incitement against the regime (it expressed admiration for the Tunisian revolution), who might conceivably expect some support from a nation claiming to value democracy and free speech.

Johnson – tipped, don’t forget, as a possible future prime minister – might also consider his “partnership” (or lack thereof) with the Arab world’s liberals and secularists, who at every turn are seeing their courageous efforts at combating tyranny knocked back by the Doha-sponsored Muslim Brotherhood, if not (as in Bahrain) by the thugs of the al-Thani regime itself. Women, too, deserve better than to have the barbaric practice of (often forced) polygamy shrugged off as a mere “traditional” eccentricity, as harmless as falconing and camel racing.

Of course, Johnson’s dilemma is obvious: Britain is poor; Qatar is the richest country on earth. The man is simply in no position to lecture what is already one of his city’s largest investors. His article is ultimately, then, a testament not to the endearing qualities of the “natives” (a word he actually uses) but rather to Britain’s frightening subservience to them, and the profoundly troubling consequences of their transformation from colonial protectorate to imperial potentate.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

There *is* a US-Zionist conspiracy - in Assad's favor

[Originally posted at NOW]

If I were the sort of person who opposed the Free Syrian Army for its treacherous subservience to American imperialism, I imagine things like this lede from the Wall Street Journal yesterday would make for rather perplexing reading:

“Senior Obama administration officials have caught some lawmakers and allies by surprise in recent weeks with an amended approach to Syria: They don't want an outright rebel military victory right now because they believe, in the words of one senior official, that the "good guys" may not come out on top.”

Nor would my confusion be any the slighter were I the kind of provincial Western reactionary who places the blame for Syria’s appalling humanitarian emergency on my own government’s excessive support for the opposition (Exhibit A: Peter Hitchens).

Yet, for those who have monitored the signs carefully, this is not in fact an “amended approach” of any kind, still less a “surprise.” In a depressingly excellent piece of analysis for Syria Deeply last week, Thanassis Cambanis made the observation that:

“A handful of voices in the Western foreign policy world are quietly starting to acknowledge that a long, drawn-out conflict in Syria doesn’t threaten American interests; to put it coldly, it might even serve them. Assad might be a monster and a despot, they point out, but there is a good chance that whoever replaces him will be worse for the United States. And as long as the war continues, it has some clear benefits for America: It distracts Iran, Hezbollah, and Assad’s government, traditional American antagonists in the region. In the most purely pragmatic policy calculus, they point out, the best solution to Syria’s problems, as far as US interests go, might be no solution at all.”

This view, he added, is one that “several diplomats, policy makers, and foreign policy thinkers have expressed to me in private.” It also happens to be the one espoused by Daniel Pipes, who has taken it to its logical conclusion by saying outright that, “Western governments should support the malign dictatorship of Bashar Assad.” Yes, that Daniel Pipes, the man who was Bush’s pick to head the Institute of Peace, who calls for bombing Iran “now” and annexing the remains of Palestine to Egypt and Jordan.

Indeed, where does Israel stand on this question? Though Assad and his groupies have naturally smeared the opposition as Zionist proxies from the outset, this has always been a transparent pantomime. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the October 1973 war, which is another way of saying it’s been four decades since the Assads have flung so much as a pebble across the Golan. It’s become standard practice for IDF top brass to refer to the rebels as “terrorists,” and if a Haaretz article today is to be believed, Netanyahu is about to tell David Cameron “to be extremely cautious about arming the Syrian rebels.”

From here it’s not a very great leap at all to Obama actually droning the FSA, something for which the CIA has reportedly already made plans (no talk whatsoever, you notice, of droning the shabbiha, let alone the regime). The best the rebels can expect is an ice-cold shoulder from Washington for the foreseeable future – a policy which, if nothing else, has the merit of consistency. This, sadly, truly is pernicious “imperialism,” though not the sort that gets condemned by those who define their politics as the negation thereof.

FSA turns guns on Lebanese village

[Originally posted at NOW, with Yara Chehayed]

The blood of Ali Hassan Qataya where an FSA rocket killed him on Sunday (NOW/Alex Rowell) 

The road from the northeastern Beqaa town of Hermel to the border village of al-Qasr doesn’t feel like one leading to a bloody war zone. Lined on both sides with neatly cultivated olive groves, the green plains of the distant Homs basin gleaming under a pastel blue sky, the scene Tuesday morning was positively serene. Even the Bashar al-Assad posters and Hezbollah flags that tile the route from the central Beqaa to Hermel grew increasingly sparse as NOW neared the village.

Nor did al-Qasr itself feel like a place hit by lethal rocket fire just two days ago. Despite an army statement Sunday declaring its increased presence in the area, there wasn’t so much as a routine checkpoint impeding our entrance. In the village center, all shops were open; adults and children alike going about their business as usual. It could have been anywhere in the Beqaa.

Except, of course, for the two crumbled walls near the main mosque, results of an unprecedented series of rockets fired Sunday by Syrian rebels that, for the first time, left one resident dead and up to nine injured (another was killed by the same attack in Hosh al-Sayyid Ali, a nearby village on the Syrian side of the border). The blood of 23-year-old Ali Hassan Qataya, light brown by now, still spans the width of the street where he died.

“He was just visiting,” said a local resident who did not give his name. “He lived in Beirut, and came here to visit his fiancée.”

Why, then, was Qataya killed? The Syrian National Coalition, the opposition body recognized by over a dozen countries as the representative government-in-exile, said Monday that “the Free Syrian Army was forced to respond to [the] repeated aggressions” of Hezbollah, whom it accused of carrying out “military operations on Syrian territory.” Reports have long suggested fierce clashes between Hezbollah and the Free Syrian Army in the Homs province, with five Hezbollah fighters killed in Syria being buried just Monday. As a result, the Free Syrian Army has been threatening to attack Hezbollah positions inside Lebanon since February.

However, NOW saw no evidence of a Hezbollah military presence in al-Qasr itself, and indeed, the area where the rockets fell appeared entirely residential – a few modest breeze block homes surrounded by others under construction.

“They call this a military area? Show me the military area!” demanded another resident scornfully.

A clue also lies in the particular weapons used by the rebels. NOW sent a video purporting to show the rockets being launched to Eliot Higgins, the Syria analyst who gained international renown after uncovering, among other things, the use of cluster bombs by the Assad regime and a Croatian arms supply channel to the rebels (as first reported by NOW’s Michael Weiss). Higgins told NOW the weapons included 107mm and S-5 rockets (both launched from a homemade device), a 2S1 Gvozdika self-propelled howitzer, and a mortar. That the Lebanese army confirmed Qataya’s death was the result of a 107mm rocket would seem to attest to the video’s veracity (as does the rebel excitedly shouting, “To Qasr, to Qasr!” after one launch). Higgins further unearthed similarities in the equipment used in other videos by the “Omar Farouq Brigade,” a possible relative of the Independent Farouq Division (IFD).

Significantly, Higgins described the weapons as “pretty indiscriminate” and “of questionable accuracy,” suggesting that the rebels ran the risk of hitting civilians even if they were aiming at military targets. And there is in any case reason to doubt that they were, given what the IFD commander told AFP: “If we have to, we will target civilians just like [Hezbollah] do. Our civilians are not less valuable than theirs.” Another rebel vowed to strike Lebanon again if the government did not “take practical steps to put a stop to [Hezbollah’s] shelling.”

Such a course of action could potentially take border clashes to levels yet unseen. The mayor of al-Qasr, Hassan Zeaiter, has publicly said essentially the same thing in reverse; namely, that if the government did not prevent rebels from attacking Lebanese villages, the villagers would “take matters into our [own] hands.” In an attempt to calm the situation, the government has declared it will file a complaint about the strikes to the Arab League.

NOW met Zeaiter after leaving al-Qasr in his Hermel dentistry, where he complained of a government “absence” from the area.

“Look at all the kidnappings,” he said. “Look at the pilgrims held in Aazaz. If we’re going to wait for the state to help us, we’ll be waiting forever.”

A fast and charismatic talker, Zeaiter’s photo of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on his shelf proved a sound indicator of his political views.

“The people who fired these rockets are not from Qusayr. I lived in Qusayr, I know all the young guys there. These ones aren’t even Syrians! I saw them on video, they’re all Chechens, Afghans, Pakistanis. The people of al-Qasr and Qusayr are one; it’s only the Jabhat al-Nusra foreigners who want to drive us apart.”

Nevertheless, when NOW asked Zeaiter if he expected further rockets from Syria, his reply was optimistic.

“I don’t think they’ll do it again. The government sent a letter of protest to the Arab League, who are financing Jabhat al-Nusra. I think President [Michel] Suleiman is negotiating under the table with the Arab League so as to ensure there will be no more attacks like this.”

Monday, April 15, 2013

[Video] Palestinian refugees from Syria launch hunger strike

[Originally posted at NOW]

There is no such thing as a lucky or privileged refugee, and to contrast the sufferings of different displaced peoples is rather like choosing between cancers. At the same time, it has for some time been an inescapable conclusion that if there’s one thing worse than being a Syrian refugee in Lebanon, it’s being a Palestinian refugee from Syria in Lebanon.

As such, it’s sad but not overly surprising that a group of such Palestinians has decided to launch a hunger strike near the United Nations office in Beirut in protest at systematic under-provision of aid by the UN Relief & Works Agency (UNRWA), the body responsible for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

“Our people are sleeping on the street, we are asking for food baskets, for medication. When we go to the hospital they say we need to pay 40% of the bill, and I don’t have a penny,” says one of the strikers in the above clip. “UNRWA, who raises the slogan of freedom and human rights, are neglecting us and treating us like animals.”

Neither the scarcity of aid nor the resentment it fosters are new. As I reported in January, Syrian refugees – who are handled by a different organization, UNHCR – simply receive better benefits than Palestinians from Syria, as UNRWA itself admits. This is not, however, on account of some conspiracy or prejudice against Palestinians, but rather the problem that plagues UNHCR and UNRWA alike: money.

Back in January, UNRWA had only about half the funds necessary to cater for the 20,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria in Lebanon. As of Monday, UNRWA estimates the number is now closer to 40,000, and there is no evidence that the funding situation has improved.

It might be worth mentioning, then, that you can donate to UNRWA here.

Thanks to Yara Chehayed for translation.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Salam seeks small "elections" cabinet

[Originally posted at NOW]

Having concluded two days of high-level consultations with each of Lebanon’s major political parties Wednesday evening, prime minister-designate Tammam Salam now faces the crucial task of appointing the members of his cabinet.

As was already apparent before Salam was formally designated PM Saturday, this process is fraught with difficulty owing to the vastly divergent demands of the country’s opposing March 14 and March 8 coalitions, who continue to disagree even on the basic nature of the cabinet-to-be. Nevertheless, Salam has been forthright about his own vision for the government – which is noticeably, and somewhat controversially, closer to March 14’s than March 8’s – and appears determined to realize it, even threatening to resign if any parties prevent him from doing so.

In brief, March 14 has called for a neutral, non-partisan cabinet, while March 8 demands a partisan “national unity” cabinet representing all parties in proportion to their share of parliament. March 8’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) is also specifically seeking to retain control over the energy and telecom ministries; a prospect rejected by March 14’s Future Movement, which advocates a reshuffling of all portfolios.

Salam’s own preferences are markedly closer to March 14’s than March 8’s, whose “national unity” proposal he dismissed on the grounds that such cabinets have failed in the past. Like March 14, Salam advocates a strictly non-partisan and “non-provocative” cabinet whose “central task”would be to oversee the parliamentary elections scheduled for June this year. Accordingly, he also reportedly foresees a smaller cabinet – that is, one with fewer than thirty ministers.

“I’m 100% sure it’s going to be an elections cabinet,” said Democratic Renewal (Tajaddod) Movement secretary-general Antoine Haddad. “And I’m also 100% sure that ministers will not be candidates for the elections,” he told NOW.

As such, Haddad added the cabinet would be as small as is practicable. “My understanding is that it will be of 24 members.”

This was corroborated by a cabinet insider speaking to NOW on condition of anonymity, who added that “Salam expects the cabinet will only last about 6 months.”

Even so, a fierce battle is still expected over the appointments, especially to financially lucrative ministries. As NOW reported Thursday, the energy ministry in particular represents a significant financial opportunity given its control over untapped oil and gas reserves, and it is perhaps no coincidence that the ministry has already become a principal bone of contention between March 14 and Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt on the one hand, and the FPM on the other.

“My sense is that the energy and telecom ministries are the most strategically important,” Haddad told NOW.

The finance ministry has also been singled out, with Future laying claim to it, prompting accusations from the FPM of corrupt intentions.

NOW’s cabinet insider source said such wrangling over portfolios is ultimately driven by financial motives, “especially in an election season, when ministry funds can be diverted for patronage and campaigning purposes.”

Haddad agreed, telling NOW that while it’s also a question of “prerogatives and authority…. the practice under the last government shows that it’s not so innocent. It’s also about financial interest, and using these resources to indirectly finance electoral campaigns, because you can provide services through these things. And this is one more reason why these ministries should be in the hands of those not running for elections.”

Nor is this the only way in which electoral considerations are likely to shape the cabinet – indeed, they appear to permeate the debate at almost all levels, with Salam himself saying the only “obstacles” in his way are “related to the elections themselves.” One hypothesis making the rounds suggests March 8 may have granted concessions to March 14 on the cabinet’s make-up in order to secure concessions from them in turn regarding the longstanding dispute over electoral law – an assessment that Haddad described as “fair.”

If so, the implication is that a cabinet will not be formed until an electoral law is agreed on. How long this will take remains unclear, though Haddad does not expect too lengthy a wait.

“Salam has alluded in several different ways that he doesn’t want to lose momentum on this. I think he won’t take long.”

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Those peaceful Buddhist monks: Slaughtering Muslim children

[Originally posted at NOW]

Anyone who still harbors the bizarre but enduring misconception of the cult of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha as one that shuns the use of violence would do well to read this excellent new Reuters dispatch from Myanmar, detailing a recent massacre by a machete-wielding Buddhist mob of at least 25 Muslim men, women and children.

Sparked by a petty dispute over a jewelry sale, the attack was just one of a series of anti-Muslim pogroms in recent weeks that have killed at least 43 and displaced some 13,000 across 14 villages. Especially interesting is that the death squads are typically led by Buddhist monks themselves, who “have played a central role in anti-Muslim unrest over the past decade,” according to the report. When not killing Muslims outright, the Buddhist clergy have organized attacks on mosques and Muslim residences, setting them alight and even sometimes bulldozing them to rubble.

Also of intrigue is the stance of widely-admired Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the country’s political opposition and “a devout Buddhist, [who] has said little [about the attacks] beyond warning that the violence could spread if not dealt with by rule of law.”

Friday, April 5, 2013

Glenn Greenwald fails the Orwell test

[Originally posted at NOW]

Given that both Glenn Greenwald and Sam Harris are men without religious faith, their recent tiff over the so-called “New Atheism” is essentially just a political disagreement, and thus mostly boring (we all know, by now, where we stand on the George Bush administration, and few of us are likely to change our minds on the strength of Greenwald’s or Harris’ cases, both of which leave plenty with which to quarrel).

But there was one moment in Greenwald’s latest rebuttal that jolted me out of my half-slumber; an astonishing admission on his part of systematic self-censorship and – there’s no other word for it – bias:

“I find extremely suspect the behavior of westerners like Harris (and Hitchens and Dawkins) who spend the bulk of their time condemning the sins of other, distant peoples rather than the bulk of their time working against the sins of their own country […] spending one's time as an American fixated on the sins of others is a morally dubious act, to put that generously, for reasons Noam Chomsky explained so perfectly” [emphasis in original].

He proceeds to quote Chomsky arguing that America is responsible for more “terror and violence” than any other country, but – this is the crucial part – even if it weren’t, “even if the U.S. was responsible for 2 percent of the violence in the world,” one would still be obliged to write “primarily” about American violence. “It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else,” he concludes. “That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century.”

The implications of this are vast, and vastly unsettling. Greenwald is saying proudly that he doesn’t care about injustice per se, but only American-inflicted injustice. You quickly see why his prolific output is conspicuously quiet on (say) the atrocities of Bashar al-Assad, and how Chomsky was able to visit Gaza last year as the guest of the blood-soaked Hamas theocracy and write a 3,000-word essay upon his return that made not one mention of their widely-documented human rights abuses.

Indeed, I’m not convinced Greenwald and Chomsky themselves have followed their own logic to its natural conclusion. Does Greenwald find it “extremely suspect” when Palestinians “spend the bulk of their time condemning” Israel? Is it “morally dubious” for Kurds and Armenians to campaign against Turkish persecution? The Chomsky Doctrine, were it to have been applied consistently throughout modern history, would have silenced every subjugated people from the Algerians under France to the Indians under Britain to, indeed, the Native Americans under the Pilgrims.

Had Greenwald read a little less Chomsky and a little more Orwell, he might have avoided this altogether, for the latter saw keenly that such self-flagellation was every bit as problematic as the jingoism it opposed. In his 1945 essay, ‘Notes on Nationalism’, he wrote scornfully of the pseudo-pacifists who “do not as a rule condemn violence as such, but only violence used [by] western countries.” He argued that this selective factionalism was ultimately no better than any other mode of thinking that discriminated between the human rights of one group vis-à-vis another:

“In foreign politics many intellectuals follow the principle that any faction backed by Britain must be in the wrong. As a result, ‘enlightened’ opinion is quite largely a mirror-image of Conservative policy.”

Chomsky and his disciples are the 21st century incarnations of the Britons who, in 1939, argued the most dangerous man in Europe was Winston Churchill. Deliberately turning a blind eye to crimes not committed by Americans might make Greenwald sleep better at night, but it doesn’t do much for the Aleppan baby flattened to oblivion by a SCUD missile. Such victims might expect a fairer hearing from those with the privileges of Guardian columns and 125,000-strong Twitter readerships.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Tammam Salam: between Future and Miqati

[Originally posted at NOW]

Having reportedly secured the nominations of Future Movement leader Saad Hariri and, crucially, Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) head Walid Jumblatt, Beirut MP Tammam Salam appears to have sufficient backing to become the next prime minister of Lebanon when President Suleiman polls parliamentarians on the matter this weekend. NOW profiles Salam’s historical, political, and personal record.

Born in 1945, the son of six-time Prime Minister Saeb Salam, Tammam hails from a family whose wealth and prestige in the Sunni community date back to Ottoman times. An Arab nationalist who in the 1958 war allied with then-PSP leader Kamal Jumblatt against the pro-Western policies of President Camille Chamoun, Saeb Salam was resentful of his displacement as de facto Sunni chieftain by Rafiq Hariri in the 1990s. Though a reconciliation of sorts later occurred, when Tammam was first elected MP in 1996 his relations with Hariri remained lukewarm, and indeed he ran against him in Beirut in 2000, the same year his father Saeb died.

It was not until Hariri’s 2005 assassination that Salam (who had opposed the emerging campaign against the Syrian occupation) grew closer to the Future Movement, and though he never joined the party, he began thereafter to run on Hariri’s electoral lists; he eventually was appointed minister of culture in Fouad Siniora’s cabinet following the 2008 Doha Agreement. Following that cabinet’s dissolution in 2009, Salam became MP for the Beirut III district, running as an independent on March 14’s list.

Analysts thus summarized him to NOW as a March 14 dove – “between Future and [Caretaker PM Najib] Miqati” – a label further borne out in his somewhat conciliatory attitude toward March 8 magnate Hezbollah. In a leaked US embassy cable from late 2006, then-US ambassador Jeffrey Feltman recalls a meeting with Salam in which he “both defended and criticized” the Party of God, reproaching the US for labeling them “terrorists” and praising their alliance with Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement. Another cable quotes him implying that the party’s arms are legitimate as long as Israel occupies Shebaa Farms.

At the same time, since 2005 he has firmly (if quietly) opposed the Syrian regime, whom he accuses in the same cable of waging a “vendetta” against Lebanon and of posing the greatest risk to the country in general. “He never joined the bandwagon of insulting [Syrian President] Assad,” said one analyst who preferred to remain anonymous. “But he doesn’t hide his March 14 credentials.” More recently, Salam condemned Miqati’s cabinet for politicizing the Syrian refugee issue and failing to “fulfill its humanitarian mission.”

As a person, too, Salam is said to be of moderate temperament – a trait that may prove useful if and when the complex business of forming a cabinet gets underway. “Anyone who knows Tammam either as a public figure or in private knows that he’s a quiet person who approaches problems in a positive manner with a firm will to get a solution rather than complicating the issue,” said Antoine Haddad, secretary-general of the Democratic Renewal (Tajaddod) Movement, an independent party that has previously run on March 14 tickets. “He’s not confrontational, but he also does not surrender on basic principles. So if he is accepted by March 8, he could be a good prime minister for the coming period.”

However, another analyst told NOW he “doubts Hezbollah would endorse” Salam. Were that the case, Salam would secure the nomination only by a slim majority, and face serious difficulties appointing Shiite cabinet ministers. “I don’t see him as someone who is ready to appoint anti-Hezbollah Shiite ministers, it’s not part of his character; he has a moderate, dialogue-prone character.”

Haddad agrees, telling NOW that Salam may try to tailor his cabinet in such a way as to bring Hezbollah on board. “My guess is that he will try to form a government acceptable by more than the majority that has nominated him [i.e. Future and Jumblatt]. I think this is the purpose behind nominating someone like Tammam and not, for example, Saad Hariri. It’s a clever approach to try to rebalance the government without excluding the other parties.”

By the same token, however, should Hezbollah reject him out of hand, his viability as a prime minister would likely prove short-lived.

Jumblatt's jockeying

[Originally posted at NOW]

As the April 5 deadline approaches for President Suleiman’s meeting with parliamentarians to decide the next prime minister, few politicians’ moves are being scrutinized as closely as those of Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) and de facto chieftain of the Druze community. Just as Jumblatt’s MPs determine which of the two March 14 and March 8 minorities becomes the majority in parliament, so too will their votes prove decisive on Friday, when a simple poll will grant the premiership to whichever candidate receives the most nominations.

Thus far, neither of the major coalitions has announced a candidate, and in the meantime they are placing fundamentally irreconcilable conditions on the nature of the cabinet overall. March 8 powerhouse Hezbollah has called for a “political” (i.e. partisan) cabinet that affirms the party’s right to bear arms – a demand roundly rejected by March 14, which calls instead for a “neutral” (i.e. non-partisan) cabinet that upholds the Baabda Declaration to “dissociate” Lebanon from Syria; an implicit jab at Hezbollah’s use of its arsenal against the rebels next door.

Nor has Jumblatt named a candidate, though in an intriguing move following a trip by a deputy to Riyadh, he reportedly cut a deal with March 14’s Future Movement leader Saad Hariri to agree to whomever he nominates. Given that Future is expected to coordinate its nomination with March 14 overall, this ostensibly suggests victory for March 14. However, informed PSP sources who spoke to NOW on condition of anonymity interpreted the deal somewhat differently.

“What actually happened was Hariri mentioned four or five names he would support, and Jumblatt will now take those to the other side [i.e. March 8] to see which one is acceptable to them,” said one source. “The candidate which has the best chance at the moment is Tammam Salam,” a former minister of culture under the cabinet of Fuad Siniora.

Conversely, another source told NOW Jumblatt’s offer to Hariri was designed to coerce him into nominating Najib Miqati, the recently resigned PM who, according to some reports, is March 8’s preferred candidate.

“The only person not on board to name Miqati is Hariri,” the source told NOW. “So Jumblatt is trying to pressure Hariri into accepting his nomination.”

“But this puts Hariri in a tough position, because he was ousted from government using Miqati last time,” the source added. “So he’s going to play hard-to-get in order to appeal to the so-called Sunni ‘street’.”

A PSP minister’s spokesperson told NOW that senior party officials were refraining from talking to the press until after Jumblatt’s interview Thursday evening on LBCI’s Kalam Ennas.

Jumblatt has, however, been quite explicit about his preferences for the overall nature of the next cabinet. In a wide-ranging interview Friday, he called for a “national unity” cabinet that would include ministers from all parties across the political spectrum.

He also specifically opposed the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) retaining control of the energy and telecom ministries, referring to the March 8 heavyweight as a “destructive political force”. “[The] FPM will not be handed over the energy and [telecom] ministries […] It’s impossible and will not happen again,” he later told as-Safir. Relations between Jumblatt and FPM leader Michel Aoun have soured after disagreements over electoral law and the extension of security officials’ tenures, reaching new lows over the weekend with mutual accusations of Zionist sympathies.

Other reports suggest Jumblatt also opposes Caretaker Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour taking up any position in the next cabinet.

NOW’S PSP sources ascribed various motives to Jumblatt’s stance on the FPM ministers. “Jumblatt always likes to empower his traditional ally, which is [Parliament Speaker] Nabih Berri. These are lucrative ministries, which neither Jumblatt nor Berri want to go to Aoun,” said one.

“Aoun is too politically contentious,” said another. “Berri, Jumblatt and of course all March 14 parties are against Aoun. So you can’t give these important ministries to Aoun and then say this cabinet is ‘non-political’.”

Dr. Imad Salamey, professor of political science at Lebanese American University, added that with potentially substantial natural gas extraction in the near future, the energy ministry in particular will take on singular importance.

“Big companies are bidding for these gas reserves, this is no joke,” he told NOW. “There’s going to be a lot of money there. So whoever controls the ministry of energy is going to be invested with a lot of political and financial gain. This ministry is going to become very powerful, and obviously Jumblatt is not in favor of Aoun having that power.”

As for Jumblatt’s rejection of Mansour, “even Berri doesn’t want this guy again,” said the PSP source. “He is the puppy of [Syrian ambassador] Ali Abdul Karim Ali.”

Jumblatt’s most important precondition, however, may be one he hasn’t explicitly stated, believes the other PSP source.

“The key ‘red line’ for Jumblatt is what the next electoral law will look like,” he told NOW. “If this law doesn’t give him enough parliamentary seats, he will not go ahead.” Ultimately, continued the source, Jumblatt’s ideal law – “what would really seal the deal” – is the 1960 law, subject to minor amendments.

If Jumblatt can indeed secure a commitment to that law – shunned by March 8 and March 14 parties alike – it will be a testament to the power his “kingmaker” status grants him. In the meantime, March 14 will apparently announce their candidate Thursday evening. Should that name differ from March 8’s nominee, it will fall – once more – on Jumblatt to decide the outcome

Yara Chehayed contributed to this report.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Don't flatter Jon Stewart - Youssef's satire is truly subversive

[Originally posted at NOW]

Bassem Youssef is a man who has been called many things, but perhaps nothing more objectionable than “Egypt’s Jon Stewart” – a description that, quite apart from its general witlessness, is far too generous to the American presenter.

Granted, Stewart’s show did come first, and Youssef’s al-Bernameg is undoubtedly modeled on it. And true, they are also both quite funny. But here the resemblances end. To speak of Youssef as a mere duplicate of Stewart is to bulldoze the difference between jokes and satire; between riskless gags and real, subversive dissent.

What are some of these differences? Well, for a start, Stewart is unlikely to be summoned for questioning by the security apparatus of an authoritarian theocracy any time soon, as Youssef was on Sunday. That’s a relatively obvious asymmetry in terms of courage expended. Yet Youssef also surpasses Stewart in a second kind of courage that is quite different to mere physical bravery.

In an excellent 2009 essay, ‘Cheap Laughs’, the late Christopher Hitchens noted that Stewart and the rest of America’s pantheon of self-described “satirists” not only pander to “an audience that has a limited range of reference”, thus reaching too easily for “the rubber hammer and the exploding cigar” rather than “the flashing scalpel”. Their “secret asset”, he realized, is their “hard-bitten and hard-line" Democrat partisanship, an irony at their own expense to which they are painfully (and humorlessly) oblivious.

Stewart inadvertently confirmed this very point yesterday, when in asegment defending Youssef (whose name he repeatedly mispronounces “Yoe-sef”) he said, “If insulting the President and Islam were a jailable offence here, Fox News go bye-bye” – an illiterate “joke” swiftly followed by roars of auto-prompted studio applause. A brief later montage of token and entirely harmless pokes at the incumbent president (whose relations with Morsi thus far have, incidentally, been warm) was noticeably more backhanded-compliment than slap-in-the-face.

One man, in other words, makes a fortune flattering the commander-in-chief of the world’s only superpower, while the other risks jail and possibly worse to expose a thuggish religious dictator. Stewart should be so lucky as to be compared to Youssef.