Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 19, 2018

The Confessional

Filed under: Film,middle east — louisproyect @ 6:15 pm

This Saturday evening at 6pm and showing at the Rich Mix theater, Londoners will be able to see the premiere of Lucas Jedrzejak’s “The Confessional”. The film is part of the East End Film Festival and is based on a play by Andrew Woodward who adapted it into a screenplay in combination with Emily Swain. Swain plays an Irish nun who is working with refugees that have fled violence in the Middle East. We are not told where they have come from but it is just as possible that they are Yazidis from Iraq or Sunnis from Syria. Unlike documentaries such as Jedrzejak’s “Ketermaya” that is explicitly about Syrian refugees in Lebanon, “The Confessional” operates on another plane. It is much more about people trying to find absolution in a period of apocalyptic warfare under ever-increasingly conditions of savagery. It may not be possible to find such absolution, not even for a nun.

As Sister Claire, Emily Swain is frayed at the edges. We are not exactly sure why she is wound so tight but it likely has much to do with her work on behalf of refugees that Jedrzejak is intimately familiar with as having spent months at a time in Ketermaya.

One day as she is out on a walk with some refugee children, they are nearly run down by a caravan of cars that is filled with men in suits who have come to Iraq to finalize a deal with some of the country’s elite. In a conversation between two of the investors beforehand, we are told that one of the men is troubled but we only find out how troubled he is when his path accidentally crosses that of Sister Claire.

She has found sanctuary in a church’s confessional box where she sits by herself swigging on a pint of whiskey. Not long after her arrival, the troubled man stops at the church to confess his sins to a priest. His role in launching the war in Iraq keeps him up at night even if its proceeds line his pocket. Even though he is still in the business of neocolonial exploitation, something keeps nagging away at him. Was the invasion of Iraq a sin? Were all the deaths and the ongoing chaos worth it?

Instead of a priest, he runs into Sister Claire who perhaps lubricated by alcohol or perhaps angry over what England did to Iraq as well as her native country decides to extract a confession out of the man that is much more like what a cop gets out of a criminal than any feel-good Catholic rite.

Needless to say, the film is very topical and worth seeing even though it offers no pat solutions to the ongoing agony of the Middle East, as no film could.

June 16, 2017

The Perils of Sectarianism

Filed under: Counterpunch,Islam,middle east — louisproyect @ 3:17 pm

Throughout the Middle East, sectarianism is a problem that has existed for decades but more recently has reached catastrophic dimensions with ISIS declaring just about ever religious rival as a takfiri. This has led to stoning, beheadings, the rape of Yazidi women and an iron enforcement of sharia law that makes every person living under its sway worried about becoming the next victim of its religious enforcers.

While ISIS was a virulent strain of sectarianism from its outset, you also see a level of brutal and relentless warfare between the majoritarian Sunni sect and its rivals in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere unknown in the past, no matter how sharp the differences over who inherited Mohammad’s mantle of authority. For people who have more than the usual interest in Syrian politics, the problem of sectarianism is particularly acute since the early days of the revolution were largely devoid of such conflicts.

Addressing the need for serious scholarship on the origins of these seemingly intractable fissures, Nader Ashemi and Danny Postel have put together a collection of articles by experts in the field that is must reading for both those within the academy and those working for the cause of peace in the Middle East. Ashemi is the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Islamic Politics at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies and Postel is the Center’s Assistant Director. I have been in contact with the two authors over the past six years and have had a high regard for their scholarly integrity and even more so after reading their Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East.

Continue reading

March 23, 2016

Gilbert Achar: What happened to the Arab Spring?

Filed under: middle east — louisproyect @ 10:41 pm

March 30, 2015

Sectarianism Unbound

Filed under: middle east,religion — louisproyect @ 7:43 pm

On August 22, 2013,  a letter to the Financial Times went viral on the Internet:

A short guide to the Middle East

Sir, Iran is backing Assad. Gulf states are against Assad!

Assad is against Muslim Brotherhood. Muslim Brotherhood and Obama are against General Sisi.

But Gulf states are pro Sisi! Which means they are against Muslim Brotherhood!

Iran is pro Hamas, but Hamas is backing Muslim Brotherhood!

Obama is backing Muslim Brotherhood, yet Hamas is against the US!

Gulf states are pro US. But Turkey is with Gulf states against Assad; yet Turkey is pro Muslim Brotherhood against General Sisi. And General Sisi is being backed by the Gulf states!

Welcome to the Middle East and have a nice day.

K N Al-Sabah, London EC4, UK

Not long after the letter began making the rounds, some bright chap at Slate created a graphic to illustrate the points being made by K.N. Al-Sabah:

Screen shot 2015-03-30 at 1.04.15 PM

About a year later, an article appeared on the Think Progress website that took up the same pretzel-logic Byzantine alliances:

And one year later, and within the past few days, the ultimate graphic on the schizoid alliances in the Middle East and North Africa showed up at Karl reMarks, a very smart and witty blog about the region.

I suppose none of this matters to the conspiracy theorists on the left who continue to insist that the USA and Saudi Arabia are responsible for all the woes in the Middle East and North Africa that stem from their desire to crush the secular and progressive Baathist government in Syria as a prelude to war with Iran.

One supposes that the wind has been blowing the sails of this analysis given the situation in Yemen, where the USA has lined up behind Saudi attacks on the Houthi who are depicted as Iranian puppets even if that is a simplification. More often right than wrong, Juan Cole provided some useful insights to the conflict at the Nation:

The Houthis have pledged to topple the Saudi throne; they chant “death to America” and have friendly relations with Iran. Nothing could be more threatening to the Saudis than a grassroots populist movement of this militant sort, and that it springs from a Shiite population makes it worse. The Saud dynasty is allied at home with the Wahhabi movement, which typically views Shiite Muslims as worse idolators than Hindus. Still, the late King Abdullah appointed two Shiites to his national Advisory Council, the embryonic Saudi parliament, and deployed the Ismaili Shiites of Najran against Yemen. It is not Shiite Islam that is the red line for the kingdom, but populist movements that talk dirty about the Saudi monarchy.

Not long after General al-Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, he pledged his support to Bashar al-Assad who he saw as fighting a common enemy, the dreaded Islamist terrorists. Given his hatred for alleged Sunni extremists, you’d think he’d take the same side as the Shiites in Yemen. But as the bizarro chart put up by Karl Sharro would indicate, politics is not that simple. The NY Times reported on March 26 that Egypt was about to join with Saudi Arabia in crushing the Houthis:

Egypt said Thursday that it was prepared to send troops into Yemen as part of a Saudi-led campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthi movement, signaling the possibility of a protracted ground war on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

A day after Saudi Arabia and a coalition of nine other states began hammering the Houthis with airstrikes and blockading the Yemeni coast, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt said in a statement that the country’s navy and air force would join the campaign. The Egyptian Army, the largest in the Arab world, was ready to send ground troops “if necessary,” Mr. Sisi said.

So, if the Egyptian military shared the Baathist determination to root out and destroy religious extremists, why would it now side with their ultimate source, the geopolitical equivalent of the Queen monster that Ripley ejects from the spaceship in the final moments of “Aliens”? Or maybe, as Cole points out, the real enemy is any social or political formation that challenges oligarchic rule whether it upholds Sunni or Shia theological precepts. In Syria, it was the Sunni farmers and small businessmen who rose up against crony capitalism.

In a very useful article by Gabriele vom Bruck, an anthropologist with a focus on Yemen, that appeared on CounterPunch, you can get an idea of why the Saudis might have it in for them:

Against the background of the wars fought by the Houthis since 2004 and the distribution of power in the new government, it comes as no surprise that when they entered Sanaa, their first targets were Al-Iman University (a Salafist-inspired college run by the controversial Islahi leader Abd al-Majid al-Zindani and illegally built on an endowment belonging to the Houthi family), a military complex under the command of General Ali Muhsin, and the homes of members of the al-Ahmar family and other leaders of Islah [the former ruling party].

Reminiscent of the pictures of the luxurious homes of the Qaddafi family in 2011, Yemenis are now presented with images of the villas of Islah leaders on a television channel owned by the Houthis. Sanaa residents tell tales of beautifully lush gardens with gazelles and swimming pools, large diwans and automatic generators — aware of the fact that half of Yemen’s population lives under the poverty line. The underlying moral discourse serves to reinforce the Houthis’ claim that the “real” revolution is only now occurring. By the time Houthi militias occupied central government buildings in Sanaa, the losers appeared to be Islah and the GCC countries [Gulf Cooperation Council, an alliance led by Saudi Arabia]. Those countries sponsored the transition agreement because they saw it as a way to demobilize the very social and political forces who had in 2011 demanded wide reaching structural changes which might have collided with their interests in Yemen and the demands of their own domestic constituencies.

Just as is the case in Syria and was true in Libya earlier, the Houthis are rebels that combine religious, tribal and other non-class allegiances that stand in the way of them becoming an instrument of national salvation as was the case with the July 26th Movement in Cuba or the NLF in Vietnam.

Indeed, at the outset the Houthis had a distinctly ISIS ring, even if based on a different lineage as Charles Schmitz explained in an article in the Middle East Institute, a think-tank run by Richard A. Clarke, a career State Department official who opposed the war in Iraq. Schmitz refers to Zaydism, the religion of the Houthis:

Zaydism, the religion of the imams that ruled Yemen for a thousand years, was severely repressed by Republican leaders during the years of the Yemen Arab Republic. A key component of Zaydism under the Imams was the idea that only the Sada, those in the blood line of the family of Fatima and Ali, are eligible to rule the Muslim community. In spite of the political diversity among the Sada, Republican leaders attack them all as agents of the ancient regime; the government promoted Sunni Salafism and Wahhabism, imports from Saudi Arabia, in the Zaydi heartland as alternatives.

The notion that bloodlines have any value in creating a modern state that is committed to the welfare of all its citizens strikes one as counterproductive to say the least. If some Sunnis dream of restoring the caliphate and beheading anybody who gets in the way, what makes Zaydism any better even if its adherents forsake beheading?

My last article for Critical Muslim appeared in issue #10 that was devoted to an examination of the Sect form. A number of articles can be read on the journal’s website that I strongly recommend, starting with an article by editor Ziauddin Sardar and co-author Merryl Wyn Davies titled “Sectarianism Unbound” that begins:

Taz’, a new channel on the Pakistani Geo TV network, is dedicated to twenty-four-hour news. There is a rapid-fire news bulletin every fifteen minutes: hence the name, Taz, or fast. But even after an endless stream of stories about sectarian violence, terrorist atrocities, suicide bombings, ‘target killings’, ‘load shedding’, political corruption and the defeats of the Pakistani cricket team with mundane regularity, there is still ample time left in the schedule. So the slots between the news bulletins are filled with what they call tazaabi tottas – acidic bits, short satirical skits. In one particular sketch, a man, sitting on a bridge, is about to commit suicide by jumping into the river. He is spotted by a passer-by who runs towards him shouting ‘Stop! Stop!’ The two men then engage in the following dialogue:

‘Why are you committing suicide?’

‘Let me die! No one loves me.’

‘God loves you. Do you believe in God?’


‘Are you a Muslim, or…’

‘Allah be Praised! I am a Muslim.’

‘I too am a Muslim. Are you a Shia or a Sunni?’


‘I too am a Sunni. What is your school of law?’


‘Me too! Do you belong to the Deobandi or Bralevi sect?’


‘Me too! Are you a Tanzihi (pure) Deobandi or a Takfiri (extremist) Deobandi?’


‘Me too! Tanzihi of Azmati branch or Farhati branch?’

‘Tanzihi Farhati branch.’

‘Me too!’ Tanzihi Farhati educated at University of Amjair or Tanzihi Farhati educated at Noor University of Mawad?’

‘Tanzihi Farhati educated at Noor University of Mawad.’

‘Infidel, kaffir! You deserve to die!’

The man who came to help then pushes the suicidal man over the bridge.

As someone who has been struggling against socialist sectarianism for the past 35 years, I of course am in no position to feel superior to Muslims dealing with a similar problem. And in a very real sense, the surmounting of sectarianism on the left is a possible key to surmounting it in the Middle East and North Africa beset by tribalism and confessional hair-splitting.

As long as there are insecurities in a world based on commodity exchange and wage labor, religion will meet certain emotional and psychological needs. But perhaps an injection of godless communism in a region that has been torn apart by different notions of obeisance to god will create the conditions in which Muslim leaders will arise who see the world as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz did: “True Islam taught me that it takes all of the religious, political, economic, psychological, and racial ingredients, or characteristics, to make the Human Family and the Human Society complete.”

El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz was better known as Malcolm X.

December 12, 2014

We are the Giant; Maidan

Filed under: Film,middle east,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 11:15 pm

Two documentaries open in New York today that provide a close-up look at the Arab Spring and Euromaidan. If you think that these upheavals were plots concocted by the CIA to weaken Iran and Russia, you will benefit from watching both since they present flesh and blood human beings in struggle rather than geopolitical abstractions–chess pieces being moved across a board. For those who identify with the struggles and have offered solidarity in one way or another, the films will help sustain you in these most trying of times when dark reaction rules almost everywhere.

Playing at the Cinema Village, “We are the Giant” focuses on the anti-government protests, both peaceful and violent, in Libya, Syria, and Bahrain. While there is little to distinguish the ideals and self-sacrifice of the protagonists in each arena, those from the first two countries are regarded by much of the left as tools of American imperialism while the Bahraini activists get a clean bill of health purely on the basis of not opposing an ally of Putin’s Russia. Such a litmus test of course does not do justice to the human beings risking their lives for the right to express their ideas without being tortured or killed. It is indeed ironic that a left so aroused at the new revelations about CIA torture managed to overlook how Gaddafi and Assad opened their torture chambers for the victims of the CIA extraordinary rendition program.

A Libyan man named Osama living in the USA and enjoying the good life has a 21-year old son named Muhannad who decides to join the armed struggle against Gaddafi. As is the case throughout the film, there is hair-raising footage of protests and street fighting. Muhannad, who has no previous military training, gets a crash course in how to fire an automatic weapon and soon becomes the bravest and most dedicated fighter. Like most young men and women who joined the rebellion, there was a failure to come to terms with both the military odds against them and the daunting tasks of building a new society out of the wreckage left by 40 years of dictatorship. Muhannad was willing to take the risk simply on the basis of knowing what life was like under Gaddafi. Students were tortured or killed for undertaking the most modest steps toward democracy. In risking his life to secure a measure of freedom, he did not ask for a promissory note that the new system would not bring along a new set of ills. While the film makes no comments on post-Gaddafi Libya, it is only people intoxicated by their own ideology who will reduce Muhannad to a symbol of US global domination.

Post-Gaddafi Libya is often held up as a poster child for what might happen in Syria if the “moderate” rebels prevailed as if anything could be worse than the prevailing conditions where barrel bombs are routinely dropped on outdoor markets and working class apartment buildings. Activists Ghassan and Motaz favored peaceful resistance and were key media activists in the early stages of the revolution when the masses took to the streets just as they had throughout the rest of the Middle East and North Africa. The film depicts in graphic detail how peaceful marchers were shot down in the streets. Even as Syria has descended into a hellish war of attrition with jihadists threatening to impose a Salafist regime as evil as Assad’s “secular” nightmare, Ghassan and Motaz continue to support Gandhi-type nonviolent resistance.

For me, the final section of the film that deals with Bahrain was most revelatory. Two sisters Maryam and Zainab Al-Khawaja share their father’s commitment to nonviolent struggle. As soon as the Arab Spring reaches Bahrain, he returns from exile and becomes a pivotal figure. Unlike Libya and Syria, Bahrain was an ally of the USA and the film shows John Kerry glad-handing a Bahraini despot while the father is facing 12 years in prison for speaking up against the dictatorship. The two sisters are powerful tribunes for a society trying to live in freedom and security. If you like me have only a sketchy idea of what the struggle in Bahrain has been about, “We are the Giant” will spur you to find out more and to join the solidarity movement to free their father and the rest of a long-suffering population.

“Maidan”, which opens today at the Film Society at Lincoln Center, is a strict cinema vérité production that adopts the fly-on-the-wall perspective of Frederick Wiseman. However, unlike Wiseman who tends to pan his camera on rather quotidian locales such as high schools or hospitals, director Sergei Loznitsa—a Ukrainian—and his crew are immersed in the Euromaidan protests and could not portray normalcy even if they intended to. From the opening minutes of the film, you realize that you are in the crucible waiting for sparks to fly.

In some ways, the film has the character of a live feed on the Internet as you simply watch people gathered together in an immense crowd or fighting with the cops. The obvious purpose is to allow you to make up your own mind about what was happening there rather than to impose some kind of ideological framework with facile conclusions such as the kind RT.com is famous for.

Although I have obviously made up my mind about the Euromaidan protests, I will reprise what I gleaned from Loznitza’s footage. To start with, the speakers at the early, peaceful rallies were decidedly non-ideological. The most common themes were redemption of the Ukrainian nation and the need to lead normal lives, with ample appeals to the crowd’s Christian beliefs. When speeches were not being made, folk singers were raising spirits with patriotic tunes that the crowd sang along with. If there were fascists on the stage, the film either made sure to ignore them or—more likely in my opinion—there were none to be found.

Undoubtedly the fascists did play a role in the street fighting as Yanukovych sent the cops out to clear Maidan of protestors, just as his Chinese counterparts are doing now in Hong Kong. But it is unlikely that any ordinary Ukrainian who was there simply to fight for the right to protest cared much who was fighting the cops or what they stood for. Since Svoboda and Privy Sektor were better organized than those who came to Maidan to protest the regime as individuals, they were able to control the facts on the ground. Despite this, Ukrainians continue to vote for centrist politicians no matter the RT.com inspired warnings about an immanent fascist takeover.

While RT.com ratchets up its rhetoric about the fascist threat posed by the Ukrainian government, the French National Front campaigns with funds it borrowed from a Russian bank at the behest of Vladimir Putin, something that the pro-Putin left is indifferent to.

Director Sergei Loznitsa is a skilled documentary filmmaker who has excelled in narrative films as well. If you ever get the opportunity to see his “In the Fog”, grab it since it is a perceptive look at how Byelorussia, another “lesser nation”, fared under Stalinist rule during WWII. Its hero is a railway worker who faces threats from Nazis and Communist partisans as well. Based on a novel of the same name by Byelorussian author Vasil’ Bykaw, it depicts the difficulties of making moral choices in a world where immorality prevails—in other words, a film very relevant to our situation today.

September 16, 2014

The growing intimacy between Bard College and the American military

Filed under: bard college,middle east — louisproyect @ 4:09 pm

Parents, don’t let your kids grow up to be Bardians.

I say that as a Bard graduate who went there when it was a bohemian outpost even if it wasn’t very radical. There’s one thing I know, however. Under President Reamer Kline, an Episcopalian minister who ruffled the feathers of the student body on more than one occasion, you would have never seen the kind of outrageous partnership with the US military that has been developing under President-for-life Leon Botstein, who once had the temerity to invoke Karl Marx in a commencement address in the early 1990s. Well, you know what they say about the devil quoting scripture.

As an alumnus, I get the occasional email from the school. Most often they are innocuous items about a weekend up at the school to hear Leon lecture on Dvorak or some such thing. But you can imagine my consternation when I received this last Friday:

Screen shot 2014-09-16 at 10.10.48 AM

Malia Du Mont, who is leading this macabre tour of Murder, Inc. strikes me as the same sort of character that Jessica Chastain  played in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty”, a woman capable of administering torture in the morning and then going out later to dinner at a quaint restaurant with another well-educated chum where they could discuss Rilke’s poetry. Here’s some information on her from the Bard alumni website:

Malia Du Mont ’95 is special assistant to the chief of staff in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas’ Security Affairs. Malia majored in Chinese at Bard, and after graduation moved to China, where she spent a year teaching English and a year doing graduate studies. In 1997 she moved to Beijing to serve as a Defense Intelligence Agency intern and bilingual research assistant at the United States embassy. “At Bard, joining the military never entered my mind,” she says. “But I was interested in service to my country, and living in China, I gained an appreciation of American freedoms.” Sheen listed in the United States Army Reserve in 1999, and, the same year, entered the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, eventually earning a master’s degree in public policy. After several years working as an Asian security analyst at The CNA Corporation, she decided to volunteer for deployment with the Army Reserve, and in 2006 was sent to Afghanistan, where she was responsible for providing strategic political-military analysis to the commanding general and other senior United States officials. After a year in Kabul, Malia continued her military service as an Afghanistan analyst at NATO’s Allied Command Operations in Belgium. She returned to Washington D.C. in 2008, and volunteered for further military service in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, where she participated in the Obama Administration’s Afghanistan Strategy Review.

There was about as much chance of a Bardian from my generation following such a path as there was me being invited to Botstein’s house for tea and crumpets. (What the fuck is a crumpet anyhow?)

That’s not the end of it. On the Bard College website, there’s an announcement for a joint Bard-West Point conference on the Middle East:

The Bard Globalization and International Affairs program, and the West Point–Bard College Exchange will present a panel “New World Disorder: U.S. Grand Strategy in a Chaotic Middle East,” featuring Walter Russell Mead and James Ketterer of Bard College and Ruth Beitler of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The panel will address the increasing and overlapping challenges facing the United States across the Middle East and North Africa. It will take place, on Monday, September 22nd at 6:30 p.m. in the Weis Cinema at the Bertelsmann Campus Center at Bard College. For more information, go to http://www.bard.edu/bgia/.

The Middle East and North Africa present a wide variety of foreign policy challenges for the United States. The panel will discuss U.S. policy toward the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the aftermath of the conflict between Israel and Hamas, ongoing tensions in Libya, strained relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and continuing negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear program. There will be opportunities for questions and comments from the audience.

Walter Russell Mead is James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and the Humanities. He is the author of many articles and books, including Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World. James Ketterer is director of international academic initiatives at Bard’s Center for Civic Engagement and was previously Egypt country director for AMIDEAST. Ruth Beitler is associate professor of international relations and Comparative Politics in the Department of Social Sciences at the U. S. Military Academy, where she serves as course director for Middle East Politics and Cultural Anthropology. She is also director of the Conflict and Human Security Studies Program.

I’ve written about Walter Russell Mead in the past. He is Bard’s Thomas Friedman. People like Friedman understand the true nature of globalization. In a March 28, 1999 NY Times article, he put it this way:

The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist — McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the builder of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

That’s clearly understood by Mead and by Bard’s Globalization and International Affairs Program that should be renamed the Program for Globalization and American Hegemony if the people running it had a shred of honesty. Like Du Mont, the character running the program is a Bard graduate–his name Jonathan Cristol. In an article about Cristol I wrote in February 2011, I took note of his disgusting take on the Arab Spring in an article for Mead’s “The American Interest”, where he wrote:

Am I really arguing that these states should brutally suppress the protestors and that the United States should encourage them to do so? Not really. The optics of America supporting brutal suppression would not be good for Washington. However, if these governments wish to stay in power, the best means of doing so is to scare the people sufficiently enough to stop them from marching through the street.

Maybe liberty and justice are indeed for all, but these particular protests are not necessarily good for the United States. America’s love of democracy sometimes blinds us to the potential results of the democratic process (re: Gaza) and to the fact that liberty and democracy do not always go hand in hand.

Just the sort of person qualified to organize a conference on the Middle East, at least if you see things from the perspective of the Pentagon and the CIA.

James Ketterer is a new name to me. I have grown to expect new hires at Bard to follow the State Department script and he did not disappoint. He was “country director” for Egypt under the auspices of Amideast, an outfit dedicated to promoting American and Middle Eastern ties. Its past President was Robert S. Dillon, the Ambassador to Lebanon from 1981 to 1983. You have to assume that anybody serving in such a capacity was there to promote imperialist goals, no doubt provoking such anger among the natives that they had the nerve to bomb the American embassy.

Finally, there’s Ruth Beitler, the West Point professor that we can assume was chosen to reinforce the idea that Arab protest was not necessarily good for American interests. She’s the author of “The Fight for Legitimacy: Democracy vs. Terrorism”, a Praeger book that came out in 2006. With a title like that, you can be sure that she would feel right at home on the Sean Hannity program. On February 24, 1967, the NY Times reported that Praeger had published 15 or 16 books on the advice of the CIA. When asked whether the spooks had financed their publication, Frederick Praeger said that he had “no comment”. Back then, you could be sure that Bard students and professors would have been outraged by such interference with American intellectual life but now I am not so sure.

Like all works in this genre, you will never see a reference to how democracies can act in a terrorist fashion. Hamas is terrorist but when an IDF jet drops a bomb on a UN School harboring women and children, it is the act of a democracy defending itself. Too bad Orwell did not live long enough to see how doublethink functioned when it came to the Middle East. I am sure he would have some pungent words for the likes of Ruth Beitler.

It should be acknowledged that Leon Botstein is not an outlier in building ties to the American military. Like most college presidents, he understands that corporate and military power go hand in hand with the health of the American academy. The corporatization of the American university continues apace. If the U. of Illinois bends over backwards not to alienate its bourgeois Jewish funders, you can bet that Bard will be even more solicitous since its President is a Zionist ideologue. In a January 2nd Chronicle of Higher Education article, Botstein spoke about the role of alumni in his opposing the BDS movement: “As an active member of the Jewish community, I recognize that the American Jewish community is disproportionately generous to American higher education. For the president of an institution to express his or her solidarity with Israel is welcomed by a very important part of their support base.”

All of this is part and parcel of the deadly grip of American corporate and military on the American academy, with the full impact being felt in Middle East politics. Just as Steven Salaita was victimized by the U. of Illinois, so was Joel Kovel at Bard College. Leon Botstein much prefers a faculty that will not have the brass to complain about a conference like this rigged to favor the Netanyahu agenda. I guess for that kind of faculty, we would look to a place like Brandeis University that despite its official ties to Judaism at least hires professors willing to stick out its neck when it comes to Israel, as this Fox News report would indicate:

Emails within a tight circle of academics at an exclusive university just outside Boston founded by American Jews reveal a long-standing and vehement anti-Israel bias and anger at Fox News and a human rights advocate who renounced her Muslim faith.

Thousands of messages on a Brandeis University ListServ obtained by conservative students and reviewed by FoxNews.com were hyperbolic in their condemnation of Israel, regarding the recent fighting in Gaza and prior conflicts with the Palestinians. Accusations that Israel has committed war crimes and “holocaustic ethnic cleansing” against Palestinians appear in the messages from academics at the school.

In one message, Brandeis Professor of Sociology Gordon Fellman urged Israeli academics to sign an “open letter” to “end the illegal occupation in Palestine.” The letter states that “the government of Israel, having provoked the firing of rockets by its rampage through the West Bank, is now using that response as the pretext for an aerial assault on Gaza which has already cost scores of lives.”

It goes on to note that “an atmosphere of hysteria is being deliberately provoked in Israel, and whole communities are being subject to collective punishment, a war crime.” Fellman later encourages participants to read a work titled, “S. African Nobel Laureate Tutu likens Mideast crisis to apartheid.”

So, if you are trying to figure out where to send your kid to school, my suggestion is to give Brandeis a second look. It is there where professors are defending true Jewish values rather than at militaristic Bard College.




September 8, 2014

After Gaza War, One-Third of Israelis Consider Emigrating

Filed under: middle east — louisproyect @ 12:20 pm

(And those who don’t end up in Berlin probably end up in New York, the true homeland of the Jews. And among them, I sometimes get the feeling that most of them end up in my building on the Upper East Side. The language you hear most in the lobby and elevators after English and Spanish is Hebrew.)

Hat tip to http://www.richardsilverstein.com/

After Gaza War, One-Third of Israelis Consider Emigrating

Israel’s Channel 2 published a poll which found that in the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge, one-third of Israelis are considering emigration.  56% would not emigrate were they given the opportunity.  Unlike in the past, only 36% would think badly of anyone who did emigrate.

In some ways, this is nothing new.  The great national poet of Israel’s post-independence era, Natan Alterman, decried Israeli emigration to West Germany as early as 1953!  Pollsters too have produced similar numbers in the past.  But it’s interesting that in the aftermath of this particular war, the numbers of those considering abandoning Israel have risen.  This may be considered a massive vote of no confidence in the leadership of the nation, and the nation itself.

A major pop hit these days is this song, Berlin, which treats the notion of yeridah (a pejorative reference to emigration) as jolly, fun, hip and cool.  This jarring, ironic treatment of emigration is something that is new to Israel, which traditionally views leaving as a traitorous act of abandonment.  I don’t particularly like the song musically.  It has a robotic rhythm and circus-like melody which I suppose is precisely the intent of the performers, who’ve devised an alienating musical format to convey an alienating social phenomenon.

But in this case, I think the song offers telling commentary on an important development in Israeli society.  The truth is that a huge number of young, well-educated, professional Israelis have already decamped, or are making plans to do so, to more hospitable climes in Europe or elsewhere.  They do so for many reasons: some are economic, seeking greater financial, professional or educational opportunities.  Some are security-related: they simply don’t want their own children facing the same burden of war and danger that they’ve faced.  And some find the climate in Israel to be stifling either culturally or politically.

The lyrics of the song savage a number of sacred national institutions from Ha-Tikvah to Naomi Shemer’s Jerusalem of Gold.  Even Berlin, the city from which the Holocaust emanated and home of the exterminators of European Jewry, becomes a more desirable refuge (“Reichstag of Peace”) than the “Jewish homeland.”  Here are the lyrics translated (I’ve amended Emily Hauser’s translation slightly):


Why stay here
Everybody’s asking
When you can catch a plane and begin to breath.
Even the newly Orthodox are leaving
And getting far away from me
How long can family be an excuse?
The neighbor’s lived in LA for 15 years already
She says we need to shut that watchful eye,
And everyone who comes back from abroad
Tells me how good it is there.

Berlin, Berlin
Even if I forget my right hand
You’ll wait forever
For us to return to you.
Reichstag of Peace
And of the Euro and of light
For all your songs
I don’t have a passport.

Let’s be honest.
Grandpa and Grandma didn’t come here [Israel] because of Zionism,
They fled because they didn’t want to die.
And now they understand that here there’s no life [possible],
They’d rather we be far away than poor.
No, it’s not a fleeing for convenience’s sake
It’s fleeing flat out
To keep your head above the water.
Even our forefather Jacob went down [emigrated] to Egypt
Because rent there was a third
And salaries double.

The whole world migrates everywhere
Only here is it considered betrayal of the [Jewish] people
By leaders who want us to remain alone
To remain afraid
Because everybody hates Jews.
And every time they open their mouths
They pin the yellow star on me again
Like a medal of honor
Like it’s a boutonniere.
They degrade all of us
Without a scrap of pride.
Liberate the Ghetto already
Let us live like a normal people.

I don’t really want anywhere else.
It’s cold there
Strange there
And Hebrew is the only language I love speaking.
Give me a bit of the Kinneret
If there’s any left, I’ll be happy.
But how long can we ignore tomorrow?
How can I raise kids in a place that
Chased away Dudu Zar ?

Israel will increasingly become a poorer, more ultra-Orthodox, more settler, Mizrahi society (though of course Mizrahim will be emigrating as well).  With this will come a rising tide of hatred, intolerance, ethnic division, and religious extremism.  The IDF, already dominated by Orthodox-settler commanders, will become more so.  If you think present-day Israel is extreme, the future promises even worse.

Young people with ambition, and their lives and families ahead of them, understand that there is little hope that things can change for the better.  Foreign cities beckon and offer the pluralism, opportunity, freedom, tolerance and democracy that Israel lacks.  A more reasoned, rhetorically articulate defense of emigration is offered in this Haaretz op-ed by Rogel Alpher.

To be clear, I’m not celebrating this development. I don’t want to see Israel become a backwater, a dysfunctional state. In fact, I’d prefer to see Israel as a thriving, vibrant multi-cultural oasis with opportunities for all and welcoming to all. But I must describe what I see, not what I wished I’d see. That’s the difference between me and liberal Zionists. They see what they think is there or what should be there. Not what is.

August 13, 2014

Qatar, Hamas and the Islamic State (IS): in defense of dialectics

Qatar: the heart of darkness?

Yesterday I received email from a Bard College graduate:

Could this be Gaza and the West Bank under Hamas?


The Vice article was about IS brutality. So the implication was that Hamas constituted the same kind of threat as IS. Now it should be said that the Old Bardian, as we like to refer to ourselves, votes Democrat and oscillates wildly between support for Palestinian rights and fear of Hamas.

But he does raise an interesting question. If Qatar and Turkey are behind both Hamas and IS, at least according to some pundits, how can you not oppose both? Indeed, if your methodology is based on formal logic, that is a foregone conclusion. Since Seymour Hersh is the source for many of the Qatar and company as an orchestrator of jihadist terror in the Middle East reports, it is worth reminding ourselves of his latest LRB article:

The full extent of US co-operation with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in assisting the rebel opposition in Syria has yet to come to light. The Obama administration has never publicly admitted to its role in creating what the CIA calls a ‘rat line’, a back channel highway into Syria. The rat line, authorised in early 2012, was used to funnel weapons and ammunition from Libya via southern Turkey and across the Syrian border to the opposition. Many of those in Syria who ultimately received the weapons were jihadists, some of them affiliated with al-Qaida.

Now it should be said that the evil trio has been reduced to an evil duo ever since Saudi Arabia ended up on the side of the angels against IS. According to Business Insider, Saudi Arabia has asked Egypt and Pakistan to help patrol its borders against incursions from IS. The article cited The London Times: “The kingdom is calling in favors from Egypt and Pakistan. No one is certain what ISIS has planned, but it’s clear a group like this will target Mecca if it can. We expect them to run out of steam, but no one is taking any chances.” Adding to the abject failure of reality to live up to “anti-imperialist” projections, Saudi Arabia never had much use for Hamas. Along with Egypt and Jordan, it is the strongest supporter of IDF terror in Gaza next to AIPAC and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

It is not precluded that Qatar will also call upon Egypt and Pakistan for military assistance if ISIS is still around 9 years from now. Its deranged leader has warned FIFA that it would attack the 2022 World Cup games because soccer was “a deviation from Islam.”

Even more confusing is the newly announced pact between Iran and “the Great Satan” over the naming of a new prime minister in Iraq, who will be more effective against the IS threat. Enjoying a military embarrassment of riches, Iraq’s skies are now dotted with drones from the two nations only six months ago described by a thousand “anti-imperialist” websites as mortal enemies.

If Qatar is an archfiend threatening secular values and benign “national development” in Syria through its proxy war, what do we make of its willingness to back Hamas? Does that conform to “anti-imperialist” guidelines or are we dealing with a profound formal logic problem equal in its complexity to the Poincaré conjecture?

The evil duo—Qatar and Turkey—are not only the targets of daily Orwellian two minutes of hate organized by the “anti-imperialist” left but also Israel’s increasingly fascist state as the Times of Israel reported:

Qatar’s recently attempted to transfer funds for the salaries of Hamas civil servants in Gaza, following the formation of a Palestinian unity government, but was blocked by the United States, which pressured the Arab Bank not to process them. But former national security adviser Maj. Gen. (res) Yaakov Amidror told The Times of Israel that the emirate’s funding for the organization’s terror apparatus, including tunnel diggers and rocket launchers, has continued unabated.

“Hamas currently has two ‘true friends’ in the world: Qatar and Turkey,” Amidror said. The small Gulf state is currently Hamas’s closest ally in the Arab world, after the movement’s relations with Egypt soured following the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi in June 2013. Qatar, which has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in reconstruction and infrastructure projects in Gaza, is also home to the movement’s political leader Khaled Mashaal in Doha.

This is not to speak of Qatar’s role in funding al-Jazeera, the sole source of pro-Palestinian television coverage as well as some very good reporting on domestic and international news. Just go to their website and you fill find a hard-hitting article on Ferguson, Missouri that points out that “in 2013 nearly 90 percent of vehicles pulled over by Ferguson police were driven by African-Americans. The arrest rate was of those drivers was more than 10%, nearly double that of white drivers who were pulled over.” But if you evaluate Qatar solely based on which side it supports in Syria, then you will be forced to treat it as a mortal enemy as MRZine did.

Turkey’s Prime Minister, of course, is everybody’s favorite villain with his suppression of the Gezi park rebellion and his allowing jihadists to infiltrate Syria, not to speak of his corruption and attacks on journalism, either print or electronic.

But there are those times when he has the kind of backbone every other politician lacks. It was Erdoğan after all who put the power of the Turkish state at the disposal of the flotilla sent to Gaza. He has also threatened to send Turkish warships to defend the next flotilla, although I suspect that this is bluster more than anything. But if he did, what would we make of that? How can someone be on the side of the angels (Hamas) and the devil (IS) at the same time—leaving aside the question of whether he ever had much to do with that gang?

On August 22, 2013 the Financial Times printed a letter that served as a cautionary note against oversimplifying the Middle East:

A short guide to the Middle East

Sir, Iran is backing Assad. Gulf states are against Assad!

Assad is against Muslim Brotherhood. Muslim Brotherhood and Obama are against General Sisi.

But Gulf states are pro Sisi! Which means they are against Muslim Brotherhood!

Iran is pro Hamas, but Hamas is backing Muslim Brotherhood!

Obama is backing Muslim Brotherhood, yet Hamas is against the US!

Gulf states are pro US. But Turkey is with Gulf states against Assad; yet Turkey is pro Muslim Brotherhood against General Sisi. And General Sisi is being backed by the Gulf states!

Welcome to the Middle East and have a nice day.

K N Al-Sabah, London EC4, UK

That letter prompted the blogger Big Pharaoh to diagram the relationships:

Screen shot 2014-08-13 at 2.53.14 PM

If anything, the letter and the diagram are out of date. To keep track of the latest developments, you’d need a super-computer of the sort that the NSA uses to snoop on our email. But this matters little to people who are bent on dividing the world into two spheres, which are not only mutually exclusive but a taxonomic guide to determining where a government or armed movement fall in terms of their historical role.

For much of the left, there is a driving compulsion to reduce world politics to a binary opposition between Good and Evil. It is understandable why they would do this since the Cold War shaped our consciousness for 45 years until the end of the Soviet bloc and even continues to do so in a rather problematic way. In 1971, when I was a member of the Trotskyist movement, we condemned the Kremlin for doling out aid to the Vietnamese as from an eyedropper as we used to put it but at the same time understood that Soviet aid was critical.

Now in 2014 the left carries on as if Putin was Brezhnev and Assad was Ho Chi Minh. Just as long as the USA is still the “evil empire”, syllogistic reasoning will prevail. 1) The United States is the evil empire; 2) The United States supports the Syrian rebels (whether or not that is true); 3) Therefore, the Syrian rebels are part of the evil empire.

So what’s going on here? I have been critical of Trotsky’s adoption of Zinovievist organizational principles that have had a baleful effect on the revolutionary movement even to the current day, but I find myself coming back to his writings when it comes to the question of dialectics.

Oddly enough, the failure to see world politics dialectically was a failing of both James Burnham and the “anti-imperialist” left today. Marx transformed Hegelian dialectics into an instrument of revolutionary analysis. In almost every major watershed debate on the left, there has been a need to return to dialectics in order for the debate to receive a proper resolution. In Trotsky’s day, the fundamental difference was over the Soviet Union that Trotsky ultimately refused to identify as “socialist”. Whenever I ran into syllogistic attempts to define the USSR over the years, I always came back to how Trotsky put it when challenged to subsume it under fixed categories: “Doctrinaires will doubtless not be satisfied with this hypothetical definition. They would like categorical formulae: yes – yes, and no – no. Sociological problems would certainly be simpler, if social phenomena had always a finished character. There is nothing more dangerous, however, than to throw out of reality, for the sake of logical completeness, elements which today violate your scheme and tomorrow may wholly overturn it.”

That would certainly apply to the Middle East today: “There is nothing more dangerous, however, than to throw out of reality, for the sake of logical completeness, elements which today violate your scheme and tomorrow may wholly overturn it.” Trotsky was referring to the Soviet Union, a society that incorporated some of the most retrograde political aspects that on the surface resembled fascism with some of the most progressive, including a planned economy. For the foreseeable future, the Middle East will have many contradictory aspects that will make the USSR look like a grade school exercise by comparison. It will continue to perplex some for being a backdrop for a religious zealotry that can cut both ways. It can serve rulers who seek to reinforce their rule through the authoritarian use of the Qur’an as it also serves the fighting spirit of men and women determined to put an end to authoritarian rule. It would be best in some ways that religion played less of a rule, thus allowing class divisions to become more transparent. But we have to start with reality, not wishes—at least if we want to influence the course of historical events.

July 15, 2014

Jon Stewart getting tired of Israel? It’s about time.

Filed under: middle east,Palestine — louisproyect @ 10:45 pm

March 21, 2014

The People Want

Filed under: middle east — louisproyect @ 11:54 am
Counterpunch Weekend Edition March 21-23, 2014

What Do the Arab People Want?

Is a Real Revolution Possible in the Arab World?


At first blush, the term “Arab Winter” makes sense given the restoration of military rule in Egypt, Syria’s descent into sectarian chaos, and Libya’s coming apart at the seams. Can a case be made for guarded optimism, however? If so, then there is probably nobody more qualified to make it than Gilbert Achcar, the preeminent Marxist scholar of the region whose 2013 study “The People Want” attempts to get beneath surface impressions, especially those based on changing seasons. If Marxism seems deeply troubled as a political movement and lacks a sizable contingent in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), it still has a use as an analytical tool. Owing much to its Hegelian roots, the dialectical method at the heart of Marxism is ideally suited to resolving contradictions. And no other region in the world is more riven with contradictions than MENA, arguably the source of its failure as of yet to deliver on the promises of 2011.

In a September 4, 2013 article for “Guernica” titled “What is a Revolution”, Tariq Ali adopted a rather frosty tone in sizing up the undelivered promises of the region, described mostly as a failure to qualify as a genuine revolution. He wrote that only “a transfer of power from one social class (or even a layer) to another that leads to fundamental change” could qualify as a revolution. Now, of course, there was a time in which Tariq Ali would have been more generous with movements that were so lacking, including many of the national liberation movements he embraced as a young radical. Using his yardstick, Vietnam had no revolution when it drove out the American imperialists.  Just look at the millionaires in Vietnam today, profiting off of sweatshops. But that is no argument for not protesting against B-52 bombing raids and Operation Phoenix. If Ali was referring to the classical socialist revolution that have been far and few between since 1917, rarer in some ways than the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker that was supposedly last spotted in Arkansas back in 2005, he certainly had a point even if it did not do justice to the social realities of Egypt, Syria, or Libya.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/03/21/is-a-real-revolution-possible-in-the-arab-world/

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