Fa’iz al-Ghusein (1883-1968): An Arab Eye-Witness to the Armenian Genocide

When it comes to the Armenian Genocide, there is no shortage of documents and sources written in multiple languages ranging from Ottoman Turkish, Russian, French, German, English, Armenian and Greek, that shed light on this historical fact. Despite the fact that most of the most atrocious massacres during the genocide took place in Arabic-speaking Syria, the Arabic sources have been largely ignored in discussions of the genocide. As early as the Hamidian massacres (1894–1896) and the Adana massacre (1909), Arabs—Muslim, Christian and Jewish—were concerned with the increasingly repressive direction that the Ottoman Empire was heading towards. In 1909, the Shaykh of al-Azhar Salīm al-Bishrī (d. 1916) even issued an edict condemning the violence against Armenian Christians in Adana as racially-motivated and in violation of the principles of Islam (for my translation of this document, see: https://ballandalus.wordpress.com/2015/04/22/condemnation-of-the-adana-massacre-1909-by-shaykh-al-azhar-salim-al-bishri-d-1916/) . In this post, I want to highlight another document of major importance for understanding the Armenian genocide from the perspective of Arabic sources: Fā’iz al-Ghusein’s “Martyred Armenia”. (For an excellent overview on the importance of Arabic sources for the history of the Armenian genocide, see: http://www.ancme.net/studies/407).

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikisource/en/thumb/3/3f/Martyred_Armenia_-_El-Ghusein.djvu/page3-220px-Martyred_Armenia_-_El-Ghusein.djvu.jpg Continue reading

The Islamic State’s (ISIS) Destruction of Shrines in Historical Perspective

Over the past year and a half, people around the world have watched with horror as the terrorist organization known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has seized large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, murdering thousands (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/18/iraqi-civilian-death-toll-5500-2014-isis ) and displacing hundreds of thousands of people from their homes in the process (http://www.cnn.com/2014/06/19/world/meast/iraq-refugee-statistics/ ). One of the most disturbing aspects of ISIS political control of conquered regions—aside from the obvious policy of mass murder, forced exile and the instituting of a terrifying version of Islamic law—has been the group’s systematic destruction of the cultural and religious heritage of northern Iraq and Syria. In the space of a few weeks in late 2014 alone, numerous Alid shrines, the tomb of the great Muslim mystic Ahmad al-Rifa’i (d. 1182), and the shrines of the prophets Yunus (Jonas) (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/25/isis-jonah-tomb_n_5620520.html), Seth (http://conflictantiquities.wordpress.com/2014/07/28/iraq-mosul-islamic-state-destruction-shrine-seth/ ) and Nabi Jirjis (St. George) (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/28/islamic-state-destroys-ancient-mosul-mosque) have been reduced to rubble. In the past few days, Yezidi shrines have been destroyed as well: http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=3e8_1407121523. In  June 2015, the organization has begun to destroy shrines in the Palmyra region of central Syria as well (http://www.wsj.com/articles/islamic-state-destroys-two-mausoleums-in-palmyra-1435143620). This is to say nothing of the countless heritage sites, including Roman ruins, Christian monasteries and other structures that ISIS terrorists have obliterated.

Mideast Iraq (Tomb of Nabi Jirjis in ruins after ISIS destroys it) Continue reading

Habib Ali al-Jifri addressing Women’s Rights in US and UK Muslim Communities

Habib Ali al-Jifri, a Yemeni Muslim scholar, emphasized the importance of engaging in constructive, serious action to address the problem of abuse against women in Muslim communities in the Western world rather than merely making grand statements about ideals:

“Abuse of women and [even] sexual assault against women has become common in our communities…Enough of this talk that ‘Islam gave the women her rights’ and Islam empowers women. Yes, certainly Islam as a religion has done all that. But this is not the primary question of concern. The real question is, if Islam has indeed done this, then why have Muslims in our own time failed to implement this in society? Why has the language of women’s rights been only employed by Muslims as a way of countering narratives and in grand speeches or in apologetics? Place yourself in the position of an abused woman. When she comes to you seeking help, O Muslim, all she hears you do is speak about how great Islam has been for women’s rights. But when she goes to the human rights organizations, she finds that they actually defend her and assist her.”–Shaykh Habib Ali al-Jifri

(taken from a longer speech: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fZG6ibK8mwo)


Morteza Motahhari (d. 1979) on the Values of Humanity

“Why does it happen so often that nations are forged during periods of unjust treatment, deprivation, oppression, aggression, exploitation, and colonialism? It happens so because it is in difficult times, in deprivation, under denial of dignity and inhuman treatment and during endeavor and struggle for liberation from such circumstances that man’s true nature is revealed to him; then he discovers his real identity and realizes the significance of sublime human values. When man stands against tyranny, crime, oppression, unbelief and corruption and is moved to anguish and pain by them, the yearning for justice and truth is awakened in the depths of his being. These are the values that unite and integrate humanity. Man is a being that is a lover of justice, piety, and truth in the depths of his conscious being. This passion has been manifesting and expressing itself in all forms and colors at all points of space and time.”–Morteza Motahhari (1920-1979), excerpted from his introduction to his book Khadamat-e mutaqabil-e Islam wa Iran (published in 1960)


‘Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi (d. 1902) on the Nature of Oppression

“Oppression manipulates facts in people’s minds, leading people to believe that whoever seeks truth is sinful, that whoever abandons his rights is obedient, that the one who cries out [against oppression] is mischievous, that the perceptive and intelligent are godless, and that the useless one is upright. It transforms genuine advice into intrusiveness, caring for others into enmity, magnanimity into transgression, enthusiasm/zeal into foolishness, mercy into illness, just as it considers hypocrisy to be a policy, manipulation to be civility, and pettiness/villainy to be kindness.”

الاستبداد يقلب الحقائق فى الأذهان، فيسوق الناس إلى اعتقاد أن طالب الحق فاجر، وتارك حقه مُطيع، والمُشتكي المُتظلم مُفسِد، والنبيه المُدقق مُلحد، والخامل المسكين صالح، ويُصبح -كذلك- النُّصْح فضولا، والغيرة عداوة، الشهامة عتوّا، والحميّة حماقة، والرحمة مرضا، كما يعتبر أن النفاق سياسة والتحيل كياسة والدنائة لُطْف والنذالة دماثة


Abu Baqa’ al-Rundi’s “Ratha’ al-Andalus”: From Al-Andalus to Modern Syria

One of the most famous pieces of Andalusi poetry is the Ratha’ al-Andalus (“Lament for al-Andalus”)–written in the late thirteenth century by Abu Baqa’ al-Rundi (d. 1285)–which laments the fall of various towns and cities in the Iberian peninsula to the Castilian and Aragonese conquerors between 1220 and 1248.  In the poem, al-Rundi mourns the fall of Muslim civilization in Andalusia and decries the atrocities committed against the conquered Muslim population, devoting particular attention to the oppression and subjugation of his compatriots. In many ways, his poem is also a major critique of the Muslim powers of the day for their failure to act to prevent the tragedy. Although there is much that can be said about the poem in its historical context, it is to the present which I hope to draw attention.


Al-Rundi refers to the city of Seville–the effective capital of al-Andalus after Cordoba–as Homs, which was one of the ways in which the Arabs residing in Islamic Spain referred to the city. It is said that they named it Homs because the city reminded them of the illustrious beauty of Homs in Syria. Today, Homs tragically lies in ruins after being bombarded and destroyed by the ruthless Baathist regime in Syria. As I write this, Homs and Aleppo provinces in Syria are being subjected to unspeakable atrocities by the Baathist regime and its allies.  I hope that the words of Abu Baqa’ al-Rundi will be appreciated and their relevance to the tragic reality of Homs and Aleppo will be understood upon reading the poem:

وأين حمصُ وما تحويه من نزهٍ * ونهرها العذب فياض وملآنُ
قواعدٌ كنَّ أركانَ البلاد فما * عسى البقاء إذا لم تبقى أركان
تبكي الحنيفيةَ البيضاءَ من أسفٍ * كما بكى لفراق الإلف هيمانُ
حتى المحاريبُ تبكي وهي جامدةٌ * حتى المنابرُ ترثي وهي عيدانُ
يا غافلاً وله في الدهرِ موعظةٌ * إن كنت في سِنَةٍ فالدهر يقظانُ
وماشيًا مرحًا يلهيه موطنهُ * أبعد حمصٍ تَغرُّ المرءَ أوطانُ
تلك المصيبةُ أنْسَتْ ما تقدَّمها * وما لها مع طولَ الدهرِ نسيانُ
كم يستغيث بنا المستضعفون وهم * قتلى وأسرى فما يهتز إنسان
لماذا التقاطع في الإسلام بينكمُ * وأنتمْ يا عباد الله إخوانُ
ألا نفوسٌ أبيَّاتٌ لها هممٌ * أما على الخيرِ أنصارٌ وأعوانُ
يا من لذلةِ قومٍ بعدَ عزِّهُمُ * أحال حالهمْ جورُ وطغيانُ
بالأمس كانوا ملوكًا في منازلهم * واليومَ هم في بلاد الضدِّ عبدانُ
فلو تراهم حيارى لا دليل لهمْ * عليهمُ من ثيابِ الذلِ ألوانُ
ولو رأيتَ بكاهُم عندَ بيعهمُ * لهالكَ الأمرُ واستهوتكَ أحزانُ
يا ربَّ أمٍّ وطفلٍ حيلَ بينهما * كما تفرقَ أرواحٌ وأبدانُ
وطفلةٍ مثل حسنِ الشمسِ * إذ طلعت كأنما ياقوتٌ ومرجانُ
يقودُها العلجُ للمكروه مكرهةً * والعينُ باكيةُ والقلبُ حيرانُ
لمثل هذا يذوبُ القلبُ من كمدٍ * إن كان في القلب إسلامٌ وإيمانُ

–ابو بقاء الرندي “رثاء الأندلس”


Where is Homs and the righteousness it contains, as well as its sweet river overflowing and brimming full?

It was among the capitals which were the pillars of the land, yet when the pillars are gone, it may no longer endure!

The tap of the white ablution fount weeps in despair, like a passionate lover weeping at the departure of the beloved,

Even the prayer niches weep though they are solid; even the pulpits mourn though they are wooden!

O you who remain heedless though you have a warning in Fate: if you are asleep, Fate is always awake!

And you who walk forth cheerfully while your homeland diverts you [from cares], can a homeland beguile any man after [the loss of] Homs?

This misfortune has caused those that preceded it to be forgotten, nor can it ever be forgotten for the length of all time!

How often have the weak, who were being killed and captured while no man stirred, asked our help?

What means this severing of the bonds of Islam on your behalf, when you, O worshipers of God, are [our] brethren?

Are there no heroic souls with lofty ambitions; are there no helpers and defenders of righteousness?

O, who will redress the humiliation of a people who were once powerful, a people whose condition injustice and tyrants have changed?

Yesterday they were kings in their own homes, but today they are slaves in the land of the tyrant!

Thus, were you to see them perplexed, with no one to guide them, wearing the cloth of shame in its different shades,

And were you to behold their weeping when they are sold, the matter would strike fear into your heart, and sorrow would seize you.

Alas, many a mother and child have been parted as souls and bodies are separated!

And many a maiden fair as the sun when it rises, as though she were rubies and pearls,

Is led off to abomination by a barbarian against her will, while her eye is in tears and her heart is stunned.

The heart melts with sorrow at such [sights], if there is any Islam or belief in that heart!

Old-centuries Khalid bin Walid mosque, destroyed by war - al-Khalidiya neighbourhood of Homs, Syria 2013-600x400

Homs (February 2013)

Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect: Williams-Chomsky Debate

Ban Ki Moon and R2P by Ian Williams, Foreign Policy In Focus, August 3, 2009:

Kofi Annan’s greatest achievement as UN secretary general was his deft steering of the UN General Assembly to accept the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine at the 2005 World Summit.

Rather than attempting the impossible task of rewriting the UN Charter, Annan got the assembled delegates to reinterpret it. The assembled government leaders declared that the threats to international peace and security that came under the organization’s remit included crimes against humanity, even when committed by a sovereign state within its borders.

Annan’s successor Ban Ki Moon is a staunch supporter of the concept of R2P. The report he delivered last week, as requested in 2005, framed the discussion in a way that precluded reopening the principle. But opponents at the General Assembly and their ideological allies outside were sedulously determined to weaken R2P in practice as much as possible.

The Chinese delegate, for instance, stood the whole concept on its head by declaring that the UN must not waver from “the principles of respecting state sovereignty and non-interference of internal affairs.” In contrast, Ban’s report referred with more nuance to the “abiding principles of responsible sovereignty.”

Debating R2P

To avert attempts to reverse the 2005 declaration R2P’s proponents, not least the UN secretariat, are keeping to a tightly written script. R2P isn’t the same as humanitarian intervention, they argue. Its three pillars are the responsibility of sovereign states to prevent crimes against their people, the responsibility of the international community to detect and avert such criminal situations, and the responsibility to apply varying degrees of coercion against the perpetrators from monitoring to sanctions to, if necessary, military intervention.

Proponents of R2P stress that only the UN Security Council can authorize such intervention. Ban Ki Moon’s report, however, does mention the General Assembly’s Uniting for Peace procedure, which the United States originally invoked to fight the Korean war in spite of the Soviet veto in the Security Council. Washington has since dismissed the procedure after the Palestinians used it to bypass the U.S. veto for Israel.

Humanitarian intervention — invoked by Hitler in the Sudetenland and Japan in Manchuria — is indeed a slippery and easily abused concept. Most recently, Tony Blair’s attempt to justify the invasion of Iraq as humanitarian intervention and Moscow’s attempt to invoke in Georgia the principle it denied in Kosovo show the dangers.

Of course, expediency is a global disease. Cuba, which sent Che Guevara to lead rebellions across the globe, is a determined advocate of national sovereignty. Ironically, some of the most determined upholders of state sovereignty are heirs to the Leninist tradition which, in the name of proletarian internationalism, took the Red Army variously to Warsaw, Budapest, and Hungary. One of the most vocal opponents is Hugo Chavez’s government, which has hardly been reticent to interfere in the politics of the neighbors.
Chomsky’s Intervention

The president of the General Assembly invited noted critic of U.S. foreign policy Noam Chomsky to address the audience on the issue of R2P. Chomsky quite rightly raised the question of why there was no intervention in East Timor or why the UN stood by as Israel attacked Lebanon and Gaza. However, he claimed that the NATO air raids on Serbia actually precipitated the worst atrocities in Kosovo. This latter claim isn’t only untrue but morally unpalatable in its spurious causality, like claiming that the British air raids on Germany precipitated the Nazi gas chambers. But at least Chomsky admitted that atrocities had taken place in Kosovo, which is much farther than some of his would-be acolytes have gone.

It also begs the question: Does Chomsky want international action to stop atrocities in Gaza, the Congo, or situations like Timor, or is he only opposed to “Western” interventions? Indeed, the astute delegate from Ghana took him to task for failing to address the principle of “noninterference.” The African Union’s charter specifically adopted “non-indifference.” Its charter includes the organization’s obligation to intervene.

Chomsky is quite right to point out the core weakness of the R2P proposals, which puts the onus of decision-making on the Security Council. The permanent five members of the Security Council (P5) use their veto power to protect their friends even as they accuse others of doing likewise. China protects Sudan, North Korea, and Zimbabwe, in the latter case following in British footsteps, since Britain vetoed resolutions on Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in times past. France covers for Morocco in Western Sahara. The United States has until now automatically covered for Israel, and Russia for Serbia. Britain and the United States were confident that they could use their vetoes to prevent their invasion of Iraq from appearing on the Security Council agenda just as Beijing ensures the exclusion of Taiwan from the UN and the issues of Tibet and the Uighurs from its agenda.

This expediency has given opponents of the R2P plenty of ammunition, even if their high-minded declarations about the sacredness of sovereignty tend to conceal an ugly, oligarchic self-interest. In effect, apologists for authoritarian sovereignty imply that they would happily let all murders go unchecked because some states get away with it. This argument boils down to saying that if the United States can do something, everybody else can as well, an anti-imperialism that ends up playing into the hands of leaders like Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Fidel Castro, and Kim Jong Il. Despite their disparate ideologies, these authoritarian leaders share a deep rhetorical attachment to their countries’ national sovereignty combined with a cavalier disregard for the sovereignty of others, including their own citizenry.
The Problem of Implementation

While the 2005 summit overturned the principle that what governments did within their national borders was no one else’s concern, it has some way to go before achieving practical implementation. In fact, despite Bolivarian bluster from Venezuela and a few others, the real problem is not the possibility of a complaisant Security Council authorizing dubiously humanitarian interventions. The problem remains the paralysis of the body in the face of humanitarian disasters. In fact, conditioning the principle on reform of the Security Council is tantamount to making it contingent on pigs flying in formation past UN headquarters.

The possibility, the probability, and even better the certainty, of retribution would surely give pause to future leaders. The R2P principle will in the end come to life because of global public opinion forcing action. For example, even China was forced to moderate its support of Sudan in the face of international public opinion.

But Ban Ki Moon, who is tougher than his mild diplomatic manner may suggest, strongly reminded delegates that the “Secretary-General has an obligation to tell the Security Council — and in this case the General Assembly as well — what it needs to know, not what it wants to hear.” His report says that the Secretary General “must be the spokesperson for the vulnerable and the threatened when their Governments become their persecutors instead of their protectors or can no longer shield them from marauding armed groups,” and he singles out the P5, who “bear particular responsibility because of the privileges of tenure and the veto power they have been granted under the Charter. I would urge them to refrain from employing or threatening to employ the veto in situations of manifest failure to meet obligations relating to the responsibility to protect…and to reach a mutual understanding to that effect.”

Ban can do a great deal to foment that global opinion, and is giving every appearance of wanting to do so. While the U.S. press treats Ban as invisible, the rest of the world has leant him their ears. In a recent global poll, he was the second most trusted global figure after Obama. Only global public opinion can force the P5 to live up to their responsibilities — the first of which is to ensure that no regime, not even their close friends, has a guaranteed veto against international action.

The single most significant step the United States could take to disarm some of the critics is to reverse John Bolton’s dubiously legal “unsigning” of the Rome Treaty on the International Criminal Court. Washington can hardly call upon the Sudanese to respect the indictment of a court that it has refused to accept itself. To ensure greater global public support for R2P — and answer some of the legitimate charges of the doctrine’s critics — the United States must end its own double standards on international treaties and military intervention. Obama is more likely than any president in 40 years to make moves in that direction, so R2P has more of a future than it did a year ago.

Kosovo, East Timor, R2P, and Ian Williams By Noam Chomsky

In a discussion of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in Foreign Policy In Focus, Ian Williams vehemently denies my uncontroversial observation, well-known to everyone familiar with the Kosovo events, that “NATO air raids on Serbia [beginning March 24 1999] actually precipitated the worst atrocities in Kosovo.” He declares that this familiar observation “isn’t only untrue but morally unpalatable in its spurious causality, like claiming that the British air raids on Germany precipitated the Nazi gas chambers.”

Williams doesn’t explain what he regards as untrue and morally offensive, so let us review carefully what he should certainly know well, and ask what might support his charges.

There is massive evidence about Kosovo in impeccable Western sources, never questioned. That includes two compilations of documents by the State Department, detailed reports of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe Kosovo Verification Mission monitors, a British parliamentary inquiry, reports of NATO, the UN, and more. As I wrote in the paper on R2P to which Williams refers, the results are unequivocal: The worst atrocities began as the bombing started (to be precise, there was a slight increase a few days earlier when the monitors were withdrawn, over Serbian objections, in preparation for the bombings). On March 27, NATO Commander General Wesley Clark informed the press that the vicious Serbian reaction was “entirely predictable.” He added shortly after that the sharp escalation of atrocities had been “fully anticipated” and was “not in any way” a concern of the political leadership.

Clark clarified the matter further in his memoirs. He reports that on March 6, 1999, he had informed Secretary of State Madeline Albright that if NATO proceeded to bomb Serbia, “almost certainly [the Serbs] will attack the civilian population,” and NATO will be able to do nothing to prevent that reaction. Correspondingly, the Milosevic indictment kept to crimes after the bombing, with a single exception, which we know could not have offended the consciences of the United States, the United Kingdom, and their supporters, as discussed in my R2P paper.

We may ask, then, what is untrue and morally offensive in my repeating uncontroversial facts that Williams doesn’t happen to like. Was it untrue and morally offensive, for example, for General Clark to inform the White House and the press that the bombing would precipitate the worst atrocities — correctly, as it quickly turned out?

Considerably more remarkable even than these apologetics for NATO is what Williams says about the crimes in East Timor at the same time. These crimes were far worse than anything reported in Kosovo prior to the NATO bombing, and had a background far more grotesque than anything claimed in the Balkans. He writes that “Chomsky quite rightly raised the question of why there was no intervention in East Timor.” It would have been outlandish to raise that question, and I did not do so. Since Williams favors Holocaust analogies, it would be like raising the question of why Nazis didn’t intervene to stop the slaughter of Jews by local forces in the regions they occupied.

The question doesn’t arise, and for a simple reason: The United States and United Kingdom had been intervening for decades, providing decisive support for atrocities committed against Kosovars, and continued to do so right through the escalation of crimes in 1999, even after the vast destruction in early September. There was no secret about the reasons. In my R2P paper I quoted National Security Council advisor Sandy Berger who, after the September atrocities, dismissed the matter by saying “I don’t think anybody ever articulated a doctrine which said that we ought to intervene wherever there’s a humanitarian problem” — in this case, a “problem” we are directly expediting. Britain and Australia reacted the same way. As discussed further in the same paper, there would have been no need for any form of intervention: it would have been enough for the United States, United Kingdom, and their allies to have withdrawn their decisive participation in Indonesia’s crimes. That was demonstrated a few days after Berger’s dismissal of the “problem” when, under strong domestic and international pressure, Clinton finally informed the Indonesian generals that the game was over and they instantly withdrew, allowing a UN peacekeeping force to enter unopposed — a step that could have been taken at any time during the 25-year horror story.

It is understandable that Williams doesn’t like to look at the blood on his hands, but it cannot be so simply washed or wished away.

If Williams really is uninformed about the topics he is addressing, he can find easily accessible sources that review them in some detail, including my book A New Generation Draws the Line (Verso, 2000) and a great deal more since.

On R2P, I have nothing to add beyond what is in the R2P paper. As pointed out there, the version of R2P adopted by the 2005 UN summit affirms what had already been accepted, at most with a shift of emphasis, which is why it was so easily adopted. There is, however, a radically different version of R2P, presented by the 2001 Evans Commission, which adds a provision allowing “regional” organizations to act without Security Council authorization in their “area of jurisdiction.” That provision is sharply distinct from the African Union (AU) exception, which permits AU intervention within the AU. In practice, the Evans extension refers solely to NATO, which claims an extremely broad “area of jurisdiction.” The Evans version of R2P simply reinstates “the so-called ‘right’ of humanitarian intervention,” which has always been vigorously opposed by the non-aligned countries, the traditional victims.

Much of the discussion underway evades or obscures this crucial distinction, as well as the fact, which I also discussed, that the great powers right now are adopting Berger’s principle, refusing to exercise the responsibility they like to orate about, as could be done in some cases in quite straightforward ways. I also discussed the AU exception, and why it differs so radically from the OAS Charter. Judging by the irrelevant question on non-intervention he raises, Williams did not hear or read that section of my talk. I cannot, of course, take responsibility for his baseless beliefs about my views on this and other matters.

Response to Chomsky By Ian Williams

I am afraid that simply because Noam Chomsky makes an ex cathedra observation does not make it “uncontroversial” — not even when he hyperbolically accuses me of having “blood on my hands.” He still defends his statement that “NATO air raids on Serbia [beginning March 24, 1999] actually precipitated the worst atrocities in Kosovo,” and is surprised that I find this untrue — let alone morally unpalatable.

One hesitates to teach logic, let alone linguistics, to the distinguished professor, but his use of the world “precipitate” shifts the blame for the massacres and mass deportations that he admits took place from the actual perpetrators to those who were trying to stop them. (Incidentally, at the time Bogdan Denitch and I called for intervention but also condemned the form of intervention that President Clinton chose — high-level bombing.)

One can certainly accuse the West of neglecting the plight of the Kosovars, but it was Milosevic and his regime that deprived the Kosovars of their rights and then began to kill and deport them. It was that regime that had recently killed up to 8,000 Bosnians at Srebrenica, whose dismembered and reburied bodies are still being found. There was no NATO bombing to blame for that rather shameful inaction.

In fact, faced with that cold-blooded massacre, NATO leaders had every reason to fear the worst in Kosovo.

I would recommend that Chomsky read the judgment of the UN war crimes tribunal, after it had considered the evidence of 113 witnesses for the prosecution and 118 for the defense, not to mention tens of thousands of pages of documents submitted by both sides. It found five Serb officials guilty of the “criminal enterprise” that he attributes to NATO. It concludes that “the direct testimony from many witnesses demonstrates that the Kosovo Albanian population was fleeing from the actions of the forces of the FRY [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] and Serbia, rather than the NATO bombing and the KLA.”

For a flourish that should excite some indignation, the report added that “there is no doubt that a clandestine operation consisting of exhuming over 700 bodies originally buried in Kosovo and transferring them to Serbia proper took place during the NATO bombing” and adds that the “great majority of the corpses moved were victims of crime and civilians, including women and children.”

In finding the Serbian officials guilty, the tribunal noted that “the NATO bombing provided an opportunity to the members of the joint criminal enterprise — an opportunity for which they had been waiting and for which they had prepared by moving additional forces to Kosovo and by the arming and disarming process described above — to deal a heavy blow to the KLA and to displace, both within and without Kosovo, enough Kosovo Albanians to change the ethnic balance. And now this could all be done with plausible deniability because it could be blamed not only upon the KLA, but upon NATO as well [italics mine].” The blame-shifting certainly seems to have worked with Chomsky, but the judges looked at the mass of evidence and decided to the contrary.

Chomsky betrays a persistent Manichaean worldview in which the United States is always the source of evil in the world. Even with that in mind he would surely like to reconsider his implied comparison of the United States with Nazis. (“It would be like raising the question of why Nazis didn’t intervene to stop the slaughter of Jews by local forces in the regions they occupied.”)

The United States is often, but not always wrong, and its enemies are sometimes, but not always right. The United States was certainly wrong in East Timor, and indeed in the near contemporary situation in Western Sahara, and I have been reporting on those injustices for many decades. Along with the other members of the Security Council the United States had a clear duty to intervene to assert international law. In the absence of effective international (i.e., U.S.) intervention, the Indonesian military would have been every bit as brutal and aggressive.

We could deplore this intervention as much as we like, but I fail to see what was going to stop Indonesia’s brutality otherwise. Indeed, Chomsky points out that it was Clinton’s intervention that persuaded the Indonesian general’s that the game was up in East Timor. Yes it was long overdue, but it was an American intervention, which deserves some grudging credit. Also, by delegating U.S. forces to the UN on the Macedonian border, the United States successfully prevented yet another former Yugoslav republic being sucked into Milosevic’s bloodstained mire. There are hundreds of thousands of dead Rwandans who would have welcomed a U.S. intervention there.

However, Chomsky takes an absolutist position on intervention in principle, which would have had him picketing the Normandy beaches to stop the war against German workers.

The United States is culpable in many ways over East Timor, but that should not detract from the primary role of the Indonesian government and military. Nor should any person of ethics try to shield the Milosevic regime from its unique culpability for events in Srebrenica and Kosovo. Chomsky’s quasi-theological conception of the United States as the supreme evil power tends to exonerate the less evil powers, turning Ariel Sharon, the Indonesian generals, Milosevic, and the others into mere secondary agents. Meanwhile, condemning in principle any effective action to stop these malign actors actually lends them aid and comfort — while doing nothing for their victims.

Response to Williams By Noam Chomsky

Ian Williams angrily denied that “NATO air raids on Serbia [beginning March 24 1999] actually precipitated the worst atrocities in Kosovo” and charged that it is deeply immoral for me to say so, “like claiming that the British air raids on Germany precipitated the Nazi gas chambers.”

In response, I asked the obvious question: Why does he issue this quite serious charge against NATO Commander General Wesley Clark and the White House, comparing them to Nazi apologists? The question is quite apt. I quoted Clark’s statement, made to the press a few days after the bombing began, that Serbian atrocities in reaction to the bombing were “entirely predictable,” “fully anticipated,” and “not in any way a concern of the political leadership”; and several weeks earlier to the White House, that if NATO attacked, “almost certainly [Serbia] will attack the civilian population” and NATO will be able to do nothing about it. Thus Clark very explicitly predicted, and the White House recognized, that NATO bombing would precipitate Serbian atrocities — exactly what happened, as the voluminous Western record demonstrates.

In responding, Williams ignores all of this completely and instead haughtily affirms exactly what I wrote: that the Serbian crimes followed the bombing. Throughout, he pretends not to understand the difference between “perpetrate” and “precipitate” (my accurate paraphrase of Clark’s warning). He writes that the bombing provided “an opportunity” for which Milosevic had been waiting. Perhaps true, but if so that clearly reinforces the conclusion of General Clark and the White House that the NATO bombing would precipitate these crimes, as it did. (I’ll put it aside here because it is irrelevant, but there is a good deal more to say about the nature and timing of the Serbian buildup to which he refers, matters I’ve reviewed elsewhere, relying on the Western records). He writes further that NATO “had every reason to fear the worst in Kosovo,” because of what had happened in Bosnia. It is quite true that NATO had “every reason to fear” the atrocities it regarded as an “entirely predictable” consequence of its bombing — a small fact that Williams omits.

I can only interpret the bluster and evasions as his way of admitting that his charges are groundless, mere slander, and that he recognizes, at some level, his own complicity.

Much more shocking are Williams’ continued efforts to deny U.S.-UK crimes in East Timor. His reference to Bosnia as a justification for bombing Serbia illustrates again the depth of his commitment to denial of Western crimes. As I wrote, the crimes in East Timor — carried out with decisive U.S.-UK support throughout — were vastly greater than anything charged in Bosnia, coming as close to authentic genocide as anything in the modern period. If he means what he is saying, Williams should have been calling for the bombing of Jakarta, Washington, and London as the crimes in East Timor escalated again in 1999, to a level far beyond Kosovo before the NATO bombing, always with firm U.S.-UK support. And as I also pointed out in the article to which Williams is responding, East Timor is only one of many such cases as NATO prepared to bomb Serbia, facts that tell us a lot about the orgy of self-congratulation that accompanied the bombing, part of the hypocrisy about R2P that continues dramatically to the present, one of the topics of the paper of mine to which Williams responds in his curious way.

Williams writes that the United States was “certainly wrong” in failing to intervene to prevent the horrendous Indonesian crimes. That has been the standard line of apologists: We “looked away” instead of intervening to stop the crimes. But as Williams and others who resort to this evasion know very well, the United States and United Kingdom most definitely did not fail to intervene during the quarter-century of Indonesian aggression and atrocities. Rather, they did intervene, and massively: By providing decisive support for these crimes, continuing to do so as the crimes accelerated again in 1999, even after the destruction of Dili in September, which elicited from Clinton’s National Security Adviser Sandy Berger the statement that “I don’t think anybody ever articulated a doctrine which said that we ought to intervene wherever there’s a humanitarian problem” — so therefore the United States and United Kingdom continued their crucial participation.

Even more remarkably, Williams writes that “Chomsky points out that it was Clinton’s intervention that persuaded the Indonesian generals that the game was up in East Timor. Yes it was long overdue, but it was an American intervention, which deserves some grudging credit.”

The intervention Williams praises was Clinton’s termination of U.S. participation in the aggression and atrocities. By Williams’ logic, he should praise Russia for intervening in Afghanistan by withdrawing its troops in 1989. It would be instructive to see if even the most extreme Communist Party loyalist stooped to that.

The nature of his apologetics becomes even clearer when we consider the statement of mine to which he is responding:

To end the atrocities in [East Timor] would not have required bombing, or sanctions, or indeed any act beyond withdrawal of participation. That was demonstrated shortly after Berger’s reaffirmation of Western policy, when, under strong domestic and international pressure, Clinton formally ended US participation. The invaders immediately withdrew, and a UN peacekeeping force was able to enter facing no army. That could have been done any time in the preceding quarter-century. Astonishingly, this horrendous story was soon reinterpreted as vindication of R2P, a reaction so shameful that words fail.

Williams’ reiteration of this shameful stance leaves one truly speechless.

In responding to Williams’ praise for Clinton’s “intervention,” I wrote: “Since Williams favors Holocaust analogies, it would be like raising the question why the Nazis did not intervene to stop the slaughter of Jews by local forces in the regions they occupied.” Williams claims falsely that I was implying a comparison of the United States to the Nazis (the reference, explicitly, is to his stance), and omits the phrase in boldface, which shows that I was borrowing the resort to Nazi analogies from him — and I agree with him that his resort to this practice is objectionable. The analogy referring to his stance is, however, quite accurate, unlike his slanderous Holocaust analogy, which was flatly and unequivocally false.

The rest is an effort to blow smoke that merits no comment. Along with his evasion of everything relevant, it merely underscores the fact that, as I wrote, the blood on his hands is not easy to wish or wash away.


Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement

I just finished reading a really powerful new book (more like a collection of extremely well written articles) called “Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement” (http://www.amazon.com/Global-Salafism-Religious-Movement-Columbia/dp/0231154208/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1278300055&sr=8-1). Rather than give a traditional review, I wanted to share some thoughts and provide a few excerpts from the introduction to encourage some of you to research further into the topic. From the outset, let me say that for someone who has researched extensively in the field and who has made it his business to read most major studies about the rising tide of Salafism and political Islam, “Global Salafism” stands apart as a monumental achievement, extremely well-researched, powerfully-argued, and beautifully written. Everyone should try and find a copy of it as soon as they can and read it, as it would be useful for beginners and specialists alike.

In the introduction to the articles Roel Meijer (the editor) explains that much of the scholarship on Salafism has been shrouded in confusion or overshadowed by studies of political violence often linking the rising tide of Salafism (which is almost always conflated with “Wahhabism”) with terrorism. In order to challenge this view and to provide a more academic definition of Salafism by reframing the debate, Meijer and his colleagues in “Global Salafism” seek to address several salient questions: what are the basic tenets of Salafist doctrine, why does it have such an appeal, and what is its relationship with politics and violence? Meijer asserts that Salafism is so difficult to define due to its ambiguity and fragmentation. Hence, contrary to previous analyst’s view of Salafism as a rigid or monolithic movement, Meijer asserts that although Salafism possesses clearly defined characteristics, it is a heterogeneous movement with mixed, and even contradictory, tendencies which have sprung up in different regions at different times.

Following a useful elucidation of the doctrinal aspects and internal divisions within Salafism (far too complicated and elaborate for me to summarize), Meijer goes on to discuss Salafism within the context of (Muslim) identity and empowerment. He explains why Salafism is so appealing and how it should be understood. Here, rather than attempt to summarize, I think some excerpts would be more effective:

“In a contentious age, Salafism transforms the humiliated, the downtrodden, disgruntled young people, the discriminated migrant, or the politically repressed into the ‘chosen sect’ (al-firqa al-najiya) that immediately gains privileged access to the Truth. Salafis are therefore able to contest the hegemonic power of their opponents: parents, the elite, the state, or dominant cultural and economic values of the global capitalist system as well as the total identification with an alien nation which nation-states in Europe impose. Because its emphasis is on doctrinal purity and not politics, Salafism–more than the Muslim Brotherhood or Ḥizb al-Taḥrīr–has been able to empower individuals by providing a universal alternative model of truth and social action. Due to its universal quality and its de-territorialized, de-culturalized character it has become a highly powerful model of identification and is eminently suitable for the creation of new virtual communities. But the real power of Salafism lies in its ability to morally upstage the opponent [instilling a sense of superiority among its followers].” (p. 13)

“This sense of superiority has six dimensions. First it is not explicitly revolutionary, i.e. it does not directly challenge the status quo by claiming to overthrow it by foreign ideology. Rather it claims to a build a superior moral order by purifying existing structures on the level of the individual, the family, or the community…Second, its empowerment derives from its claim to intellectual superiority of religious knowledge (‘ilm). Few competitors are as thorough, or so demanding in the knowledge of the sources of Islam as Salafism, and joining the “Saved Sect” means not only obtaining the moral high ground but also acquiring a superior knowledge of Islam that every Muslim should have. Moreover, direct access to the text enables one to challenge the religious establishment, which is mostly based on the fiqh of the four jurisprudential schools as well as on “folk Islam,” both of which are associated with the dominant power structure or prevalent culture. Third, Salafism provides its followers with a strong identity. Fourth, it allows its followers to identify much more easily with the larger ummah, which enhances its universal pretensions. Fifth, it is activist while being (mostly) quietist…Sixth, as all religious movements, and in contrast to political ideologies, it has a tremendous advantage of ambiguity and flexibility. Although it claims to be clear and rigid in its doctrine and its striving for purity, in practice it is malleable. Its ambiguity allows its followers to be politically supportive of regimes as well as reject them.” (p. 13-14)

He then moves on to discuss a specific manifestation of Salafism, that of Jihadi-Salafism:

“Like any modern identity, Jihadi-Salafism can be adopted and shed and people have reinvented themselves from pietistic Salafis to Jihadis and vice versa. They are transnational like modern capitalistic markets, and promote a Western idea of changing the world by action, and like the West they promote a subjective experience of the world and the privatization of pleasure and pain, gain and loss, and wealth and poverty, to improve life, spread prosperity, and dominate as a world system. Jihadis, however, plunder the Salafi terminological toolkit of intolerance, xenophobia, sectarianism, and violence, turning them into a terminology supporting total war against apostate governments and unbelieving forces of global oppression with which Islam is locked in an apocalyptic clash of civilizations.” (p. 26)

There follows a discussion of how Salafism is able to succeed/fail in certain circumstances:

“It appears that where either the population is strongly embedded in local practices and individualization has not evolved strongly enough, or where an ethno-nationalistic struggle is prominent, transnational Salafism is unable to take root. It can only succeed in making inroads when its quietest current can find a niche or the nationalist movement has failed and the national struggle can be linked with a larger global struggle, or it fits into the politics of identity in Western Europe.” (p. 29)

Obviously this is just a small preview of a far more detailed and complicated study (18 articles by the top scholars in the field), but I wanted to give many of you an idea of where academia on this subject was headed and perhaps encourage some of you (sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, historians) to delve more into the field.



The Assassination of Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti

After learning about the assassination of Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti—along with 40 other civilians—in a suicide attack against his mosque in Damascus earlier today (http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/03/2013321174113479353.html), I was absolutely shocked. This was a figure that was enshrouded in controversy, given that he was both one of the most eminent scholars of the Sunni Muslim world but also one of the pillars of support for the Assad regime. His extension of legitimacy to the crimes committed by the Baathist regime against its own people cannot be excused or defended. However, the reaction to his death—although understandable given his association with a murderous regime—has been absolutely appalling. Declarations justifying the bombing of a mosque, the murder of 20 civilians, and the assassination of a religious figure strike me as simply contributing to the hatred which has engulfed Syria.

As much as I disagreed with Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti for his major support of the Assad regime, it should be pointed out that his political stance was predicated upon a clear understanding of classical Sunni theology, as can be gleaned from the Aqeedah al-Tahawiyya which asserts that “It is impermissible to rebel against any of the leaders or the administrators of public affairs, even if they are oppressive. We also do not pray for evil to befall any of them or withdraw our allegiance from any of them. We also do not pray for evil to befall them any one of them or withdraw our allegiance from them. We consider our civic duty to them concordant with our duty to God and legally binding on us, unless they command us to the immoral [not referring to the perpetration of injustice]. We pray for their probity, success and welfare.” This doctrine can also be found in many other places throughout various Sunni doctrinal and legal texts, which developed within a specific historical context and for particular reasons. Nevertheless, the perspective that it is absolutely impermissible to rebel against tyrannical rulers has become a core belief of traditional Sunni Muslims, a group to which Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti belonged. This doctrine has obviously been applied selectively, invoked continuously by clerics in Saudi Arabia to forestall any critique of the kingdom there, but completely ignored in the case of Syria where revolution and uprising are strongly encouraged.

There is certainly a broader issue at play here than simply the opinion of one elderly cleric, no matter how much I disagreed with him. If you have an issue with clerics supporting the government in their respective countries, it would be prudent to engage with this idea which dominates much of the discourse about rebellion in Sunni Islam (who can ever forget the Grand Mufti of Saudia Arabia declaring that Imam Husayn [A.S.] was justly killed for rising up against Yazid??) rather than looking at al-Buti as a particularly diabolical or evil individual. If past religious scholars have been willing to legitimate the murder of the grandson of the Prophet (SAW), why wouldn’t they view the murder of lesser people as justified? This is precisely the issue at stake, which completely transcends the opinions of Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti, Shaykh Ahmad Hassoun or others. As many scholars have noted, the Sunni world is at a crossroads in its history, challenging the legitimacy of the above mentioned doctrine for the first time. It remains to be seen whether or not it will be overturned altogether. This is a complex debate which is deeply rooted within the theological and legal understandings of the faith and is ultimately an issue which can only be resolved among the scholars. Our Shi’i and Ibadi brothers and sisters have also grappled with the issue of rebellion vs. quietism in various ways, but I won’t get into that now. It’s simply an issue that needs to be brought to the fore when considering why Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti held the views that he did.

This event also sets a dangerous precedent for the assassination of clerics with whom one disagrees. There exist many religious figures throughout the Islamic world—Sunnis, Shi’is and Ibadis—who hold views that differ vastly from one another on a variety of matters. Some of these views are bound to contradict or offend the worldviews of other individuals in the Islamic world. The solution is to engage critically with these perspectives, not to use violence. As Shaykh Muhammad al-Ya’qoubi asserted: “People should not be killed because of their opinions.” I do not mourn Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti because I was particularly fond of his views or an admirer of his religious knowledge, but only that his death underscores the transformation of Syria into a land of murder and destruction, where the logic of violence and retribution prevails over reconciliation, peace, and justice.

I firmly believe that it is necessary to understand that only God can determine the ultimate fate of al-Buti and all others who have supported this regime. This is a matter which depends upon the inner reality of things which are not discernible to any human being. Since when did human beings become the arbiters of anyone’s salvation or damnation? Only the Supreme Judge can exercise that authority. For our part we should only say: inna lilla wa inna ilaihi rajji’un (We are from God and unto Him we shall return).


“Zero Dark Thirty”: Righteous Vengeance and the War on Terror

Last night, I had the opportunity to watch Kathryn Bigelow’s new film, “Zero Dark Thirty,” which follows the CIA’s manhunt for Osama bin Laden between September 2001 and May 2011. Following her earlier film, “The Hurt Locker” (2008), Bigelow once again puts the spotlight on the United States of America’s “War on Terror”, although this time by shifting the spotlight from the minefields of Iraq to the mountainous terrain of Pakistan and Afghanistan (“AfPak”).  Overall, I felt the film left much to be desired and I feel it frames the hunt for Osama bin Laden rather problematically. As such, the film needs to be critically scrutinized in several ways. As most people are already aware, the film has raised much controversy due to its representation of torture, as well as its rather detailed information about the purported inner workings of the CIA. With regard to the first issue, voices ranging from Glenn Greenwald (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/14/zero-dark-thirty-cia-propaganda) to Senator John McCain (http://insidemovies.ew.com/2012/12/18/sen-mccain-rejects-torture-scene-in-zero-dark-thirty/) have expressed major concern and strongly critiqued the film. Nevertheless, there were other voices which rushed to the film’s defense and insisted that it was not attempting to depict torture as “morally excusable” but rather as an effective means of extracting information (http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/01/zero-dark-thirty-is-not-pro-torture/266759/). Other reviews (notably http://andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com/2012/12/the-torture-narrative.html ) have sought to provide a more “balanced” approach to the issue, by praising the film for its presentation of torture as an incontrovertible fact of the War on Terror, while leaving it to the audience to draw their own moral conclusions. The film’s controversy, especially as pertains to the representation of torture, has even prompted the US Senate to launch an open investigation into the links between the filmmakers and CIA officials (http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/tv-movies/senate-panel-opens-zero-dark-probe-article-1.1232118). In this review, I will not weigh in on either of these issues, since there are an increasing number of articles on the issue, addressing the problem from various legal, moral, and political perspectives. If one is interested in this developing controversy, the articles linked above are a good start.

My review, which is informed by my interests in the geo-politics of the Middle East and political Islam, is an attempt to locate some of the strong points of “Zero Dark Thirty” while also providing some critical perspective on the film.


Perhaps the film’s greatest accomplishment was its ability to tell a story spanning several continents, and a period of ten years through the eyes of a single CIA agent without losing pace or the engagement of the audience. It successfully maintains a level of suspense throughout. Although the runtime of 157 minutes was rather long, the film is well-paced . The unfolding of the events which culminated in the assassination of Osama bin Laden through the eyes of a CIA agent, known to the audience only as “Maya”, reflects good story-telling which captures the interest of the audience, who are left in the dark about the sequence of events (unless, ofcourse, they are intimately familiar with the chronology, names, and events of the War on Terror) which takes the viewer on a long journey through the narrow alleyways of Rawalpindi to the fast-paced politics of Washington D.C. to the undercover nightclubs of Kuwait. The unfolding of these events occurs exclusively through the eyes of Maya and it is her journey/perspective which is the main plot of the film. Naturally, this approach to the story of the War on Terror presents its own set of problems, which I will discuss more below. In addition to the plot, the cinematography is excellent and some sequences (especially that of the raid itself) are quite stunningly executed.

The most compelling aspect of the film, in my opinion, is that it depicts the viciousness and brutality of torture, terrorism, and war in a manner which I believe no previous mainstream film has done. I felt that by underscoring the horrific terrorist attacks of 9/11, 7/7 (and others) which were committed by Islamists worldwide, the film highlighted an uncomfortable truth: a global terrorist threat did (and does) exist.  Moreover, by showing—in graphic and painful detail—the use of tactics such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation on detainees, the film throws into sharp relief the reality of torture in a way which is intended to be discomforting to the viewer. Torture, Kathryn Bigelow seeks to remind us, is not merely a theoretical concept which one either supports or abhors depending on their political or moral philosophy. Instead, we are forced to endure torture in its raw form: the methodical imposition of pain and suffering upon another human being, whose humanity is highlighted by the very act of their dehumanization. These scenes were quite faithful to the psychological and physical reality of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in which the victims is at the utter mercy of their tormenters. The way in which these scenes are filmed makes the viewer a reluctant spectator (and, thus, a participant) in the horrific process endured by the detainees as they are subjected to indescribable horrors. Whether these scenes serve to reinforce torture as a “necessary evil” or whether they represent a critique of this tactic as an abuse of human rights is up for debate, and (as mentioned above) has dominated the discussion of the film. (For the record, my own perspective on the matter falls closest to Glenn Greenwald’s). Another element of the film which I think deserves praise is its highlighting the violence associated with the raid itself, in which the reality of the raid is shown as faithfully as possible. The filmmakers have no illusions about the nature of warfare or the unrestrained manner in which the US Special Forces carry out their mission. Questions of limiting civilian deaths or impinging upon the sovereignty of an independent nation are non-issues, and do not even enter the discussions of the CIA represented in the film. For the CIA, the question is whether or not Bin Laden was indeed hiding in Abbotabad, not whether a raid would be launched without the knowledge of Pakistan.  As for the raid itself, the situation is uncertain, confusion is rampant, women and children are harmed, and a level of violence becomes acceptable which would be unthinkable in any other situation. The woman in the compound, who was shot and left to bleed to death by the US Special Forces, is a case in point. The seeming willingness of the US Special Forces to open fire upon an unarmed Pakistani civilian population also demonstrates this point quite aptly. The screams, horror, and tears of the women and children of the Bin Laden household are contrasted with the euphoria of the US soldiers following the assassination of the world’s most wanted man. This contrast seems reflective the director’s overall attempt throughout the film to remain faithful to the reality of the situation rather than glamorize or demonize the various participants in these events.


Unfortunately, I feel that the film’s strengths are almost completely overshadowed by various shortcomings and weaknesses. As powerful as the depiction of torture may have been in the film, one cannot help but feel troubled that the audience is encouraged to accept the contention that there is a direct relationship between the use of torture to extract information and the prevention of terrorism. Indeed the protagonist herself is transformed from an individual who is a rather reluctant observer of the application of torture to one who becomes one of its most enthusiastic advocates. The fact that the entire premise of the film is that torture led to the assassination of Osama bin Laden leaves a bitter taste…not just because this is a blatant lie but because it expects the audience to acknowledge that the use of such cruelty is justified. I also had major issues with the way that Islamic culture was represented, with each society depicted in very monolithic and stereotyped ways. Burqas (those associated with Taliban rule) are depicted as the norm in Pakistan’s urban centers, nightclubs with scantily-clad women are apparently representative of Kuwait, and absolute emptiness and US military bases are all we see of Afghanistan. Everywhere Muslims are shown, they are either angry or scowling; except, ofcourse, for one Muslim CIA official who is shown as praying in his office. In short, the Islamic world is definitely not a place any “civilized” person would like to be and Muslims are only “there” insofar as they can provide valuable intelligence on the whereabouts of terrorists or as part of the cultural landscape. The devout CIA officer aside, there is not a single positive representation of Muslims in the entire film. Moreover, Levantine Arabic seems to be the only foreign language used in the entire film. It is used to communicate with militants in the Arab world, Europe, the Persian Gulf, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan, even when those being communicated with are not even Arab. And apparently Falafel, Hummus, and Tabouli have become staple foods in Pakistan.

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the film was the narrative which it promotes. By focusing exclusively on the hunt for Osama bin Laden, key facts of the War on Terror are completely obscured.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (in which thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Muslim civilians were killed) are completely glossed over. The strategy of drone strikes which intensified during the Obama administration also receives no attention, and is referenced—in passing—only once (and even then with no real implications). The invasion of both Iraq and Afghanistan, the numerous atrocities of US soldiers in those countries, and the direct impact which this had upon anti-American feeling in the Islamic world is totally ignored and brushed aside. In fact, the War on Terror which is represented in this film would be unrecognizable to most social scientists and security studies experts. It is a reality in which the US is essentially the victim (“they killed 3000 of us on 9/11, and we only killed 4 of them [high-ranking terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda]”) fighting an uphill battle against a well-organized, global network of Islamist terrorists devoted to the utter destruction of the Western world…all with one man—Osama bin Laden—at the head. As such, the film completely disentangles the hunt for Bin Laden from the broader context of the War on Terror (as experienced by millions of individuals across the Islamic world) and US foreign policy in the Middle East. We are led to believe that US foreign policy is driven by the singular purpose of capturing Bin Laden–thereby exacting retribution for 9/11–and preventing global terrorism. Moreover, the film further decontexualizes the existence of Islamist violence by depicting the militants as relishing in the murder of Americans for no other reason than the apparent pleasure which these individuals derive from human suffering. Unlike films such as “Syriana” or even “Body of Lies”, absolutely no attempt is made in “Zero Dark Thirty” to give the audience any perspective or understanding of the enemy, their raison d’être, or even their complexity.  It is extremely unlikely that even with this information, the viewer would even conceive of Islamist violence as in any way justified. But in refusing to even offer the viewer the opportunity to place Islamist violence in its appropriate context and to understand the roots of terrorism, the film insults the intelligence of its audience. It reinforces the mistaken belief that global terrorism simply exists (and reproduces itself) independent of any socio-economic or geo-political context and is simply a dangerous threat that ought to be completely eliminated (by force).  The inevitable result is a regurgitation of the “they hate us because we’re free” narrative. At one point, a television monitor displaying the news in the background utilizes this very phrasing, hence reminding the audience about the “real cause” of terrorism.


By failing to even mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, explicitly identified by the terrorists who committed the attacks in Madrid and London as their rationale, the film seems to advocate a perspective of Islamist violence which completely eliminates causality. By this, I simply mean that by taking the reality of drone strikes, major wars/occupations, and a massive civilian casualty rate out of the picture, Islamist militancy is left as a nihilistic, destructive ideology which draws adherents for no other reason other than the apparent appeal of such a worldview. No explanation whatsoever is given for the expansion of the al-Qaeda network, even though the Iraq war and the subsequent transformation of al-Qaeda from an organization into an ideological force (stretching from Indonesia to the US), both key developments of the War on Terror in which the US played a decisive role, were the reasons for this expansion. Again, the audience is simply left to imagine a massive, trans-national, centrally-directed terrorist network bent on the absolute destruction of the Western way of life (there is not a single reference to any of the tens of thousands of Muslims claimed by al-Qaeda ofcourse!). All that lies between this looming threat and the civilized world is a small group of CIA operatives, whose activities, we are told, have a direct bearing on the preservation of life as we know it. Maya, in particular, seems to take this sense of mission to heart and stubbornly continues the hunt for Bin Laden for over a decade, convinced that his elimination would bring down the entire network al-Qaeda network. (Maya, it should be said, is one of the most unlikeable characters in the entire film, or for that matter any recent film I’ve seen). This conception of al-Qaeda as a centrally-directed, trans-national network/organization animates much of the film and paints a very misleading picture of the War on Terror. By making the issue all about Bin Laden and forgetting the broader issues at play, the film unnecessarily keeps the audience bogged down in a “September 12th” mindset, in which the entire decade of events following the September 11th attacks are secondary. True, this is reflective of Maya’s own character and worldview (whose obsessive passion for finding Bin Laden is seemingly her only animating force in life), upon which the film’s plot is based. However, I thought it was a rather irresponsible decision on the part of the filmmakers to completely obscure the very important developments between 2001 and 2011, which greatly transformed not only the course of the “War on Terror” but the entire regional dynamic as well.


It seemed that the filmmakers feared that an incorporation of this context (i.e. the actual reality) would have lessened the significance of Bin Laden’s death.  Vengeance, not solving the problem of global terrorism or “protecting the homeland” (a phrase used over and over again), is therefore the main theme of the film. This becomes clear as the US Special Forces deliver bullets into the bodies of militants (and one woman) with ease and satisfaction, and the gratification which Maya exhibits upon looking down on the bullet-ridden body of Bin-Laden. One would almost be forgiven if they were to believe that in that moment global terrorism was defeated and world peace restored. This “mission accomplished” attitude which the film aproaches the assassination of Bin Laden, while serving the purpose of accommodating the desire for vengeance felt by many Americans for the man’s crimes, does more harm than good because it puts forth the mistaken notion that this assassination had any impact upon global terrorism, which continues unabated and is as serious a problem as ever.  By refusing to even integrate the hunt for Bin Laden within the larger context of the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan (which claimed about 7000 American lives, more than double those killed on 9/11), the very important question of “at what cost [to US and the Islamic world] was vengeance/justice exacted?” by the killing of Bin Laden is never even raised, and the questions of “was it worth it?” or “did it matter?” are inconceivable. These are questions which the audience and the American public will certainly be asking in the years to come, as the economic, geo-political, and human consequences of the War on Terror become more apparent. It is these repercussions which will remain with us all for decades to come, long after the name Osama bin Laden has been forgotten. Bin Laden may have been killed (and good riddance!), but each drone strike and atrocity committed by the coalition forces in Afghanistan creates new terrorists every day, many of whom advocate ideological and political visions far more radical than that even conceived by Bin Laden. If the terrorist networks which have arisen in Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Mali and the Arabian Peninsula are any indication, the War on Terror has entered a new, troubling phase.

The utter silence, shrugs, and lack of any applause/cheers at the end of the film in the theater is perhaps an indication that many Americans are thinking along the same lines. At the end of the film, one is left with very little with which to take away and, despite some compelling sequences, the critical questions which the audience sincerely hopes the film will address are ignored altogether.