Ideas still matter, by the way.

September 15th, 2014

The claim that ISIS is worse than al Qaeda has become something of an instant cliche. This type of sensationalism depends on a short memory. ISIS is better at using social media than al Qaeda, and has paraded a captured scud missile through its de facto capital in Raqaa. But ISIS is not more sadistic, or more ambitious than its competitor. It is simply richer and more effective. The beheading of James Foley is no different from the beheading of Daniel Pearl, a brave American journalist killed by al Qaeda over a decade ago. The Taliban’s atrocities against the Hazara in Pakistan, which are still going on, are no different from ISIS’ crimes against Iraqi Turkmen; both groups are singled out for belonging to the ‘wrong’ sect within Islam.

There are key ways in which ISIS is a new type of problem. But to understand its growth and to combat its ability to recruit, it is necessary to see its similarities with other, ‘less extreme’ groups. In its the goal of theocracy, and the vilification of non-Sunni Muslims, ISIS is copying al Qaeda, but it’s also drawing legitimacy from medieval philosophers and modern ideologues.

There is a tendency on the left to explain extreme acts as reactions to injustce, rather than reflections of worldview. Trusting that irrational cruelty has rational causes, liberals fall victim to a failure of imagination. From this failure, it is a short step to rationalization- the rush to cast an explanatory light, if not a sympathetic light, on terrorists who ‘resort’ to violence in perverse frustration with injustice.
Hamas in this paradigm, is a product of the Israeli occupation; ISIS’ Iraqi supporters are reacting to Maliki’s sectarianism, and its Syrian supporters, to the cruelty of the Assad regime. This is doubtless a part of the equation, but only a part. Widespread torture by the Iraqi security forces, for instance, can easily explain why a young man would want to fight Maliki’s government. It does not explain why the same young man would execute Shia civilians in an isolated rural village, or buy Yezidi women as slaves. It certainly does not explain why young men in London and Paris, not of Syrian ancestry, would go to Aleppo and Raqaa to fight ‘jihad’.

If trauma produces the mental state where violence seems attractive or justified, the particular form it takes is shaped by the ideas that permeate a time and place. The jihadist groups ravaging Syria are part of a philosophical tradition of great importance, and their sectarian hatred draws on the writings of famous theologians, from the fanatical Ibn Taymiyya to the great rationalist al-Ghazali- both of whom labelled Alawite Muslims as ‘heretics’.

The roots of ISIS can be analyzed at two levels: a decade of bloodshed in Iraq and three years of it in Syria have caused the political and social implosion of both countries, and it was in this context that the group emerged as a powerful force. Had either state been semi-stable, with governments seen as legitimate by most of their citizens, no power vacuum would’ve been waiting for ISIS to fill. But this immediate context can only explain so much. ISIS is the newest proponent of an old idea. The goal of reviving the caliphate, and the belief that its collapse was a tragedy rather than a step forward, goes back to the founding ideologues of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna. It is a goal shared by a range of Sunni Islamist movements, from Hizb u Tahrir in London to Syria’s Islamic Front, which America sees as comparably moderate. And these movements have persuaded thousands of people that theocracy, governed by God’s laws, is the best or only alternative to the secular tyrannies of the middle east- and an answer the perceived decline of Islamic civilization. As long as the idea of theocracy is able to attract support, groups like ISIS will continue to thrive.

It is not just its utopian goals that puts ISIS within this larger tradition; as important as the creative goal fo a caliphate is the destructive goal of targeting entire communities. It has been able to recruit so successfully because it appealed to currents of thought that were already widely accepted, to a discourse of hatred that other groups had helped to normalize.

Bin Laden’s long-time deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, declared in 2005 that Shia civilians were legitimate targets, because they had allegedly welcomed the ‘crusader’ occupation. This amounted, for Sunni extremists, to a tehological carte blanche. If al qaeda’s terror in New York and London killed random people, with no regard to their race or religion, al qaeda’s actions in Iraq have done the opposite- singling out people of one sect in a highly systematic way. This process was made easier by the rise of what amounts to religious segregation.

As Iraq goes, so goes Syria. Sunni clerics in the gulf states, including Yusuf al Qaradawi, once heralded by the mayor of London as a moderate, have spent three years urging Sunnis to go to Syria- to fight an “Alawite regime” in defense of “true Muslims”. Much of what prominent clerics have said in support of the revolution has reflected an extremely hateful worldview that does not bode well for Syria’s future.

Mamoun al-Homsi is a former member of Syria’s people assembly- a rubber stamp parliament of sorts- who joined the opposition early in 2011. In December of that year, in a studio with an FSA flag in the background- a secular symbol that ISIS and al-Nusra reject- he said the following: “you despicable Alawites, either you renounce Assad, or Syria will be your graveyard. We will wipe you out from the land of Syria.” Sheikh Mohammad Badi Mousaa, speaking on Egyptian television, says he has received an inquiry from FSA members about whether it is permissible, in religious terms, to kill Alawite women and children. He replies in the affirmative, saying “the Alawites know they are a minority in our country, and that all the sects hate them and want to get rid of them”.

This is why the myth of an Alawite regime in Syria, that simplification repeated in the western media, is so dangerous. It amounts to a secular translation of jihadist libel- which in turn prevents western observers from comprehending the threat of ISIS.

ISIS directs its threats against the “Nusayri regime” in Damascus, using a derogatory term for Alawites and equating them with the current dictatorship. Nearly all western news sources have echoed this simplistic equation, implying that Alawites dominate the country in an apartheid-like system. Rachel Maddow put it succinctly: “The ruling regime in Syria is a Shi’ite sect, called the Alawites.” No, the ruling regime in Syria is an alliance of Alawite military leaders and the Sunni bourgeoisie, facilitated through the authoritarian Ba’ath party. Hafez Assad, a tyrant without a doubt, launched his own military coup after a decade of previous coups; he did not single-handedly destroy Syria’s democracy, establish its brutal secret police, or normalize one-party rule; other coup leaders had done that.

In short, the problem in Syria is not one sect oppression another, but an authoritarian political system benefiting a small fraction of people. But both Assad, and his Islamist opponents, have a desperate need to obscure this fact. But it was not just regime atrocities, or the involvement of Iran and Hezbollah, that pushed Syria over the edge toward communal war. Just as instrumental in this process was the rhetoric and funding that flowed generously from the gulf states, and the skill of myriad Islamists in framing the war as a jihad- which meant amplifying the sectarian narrative ona global stage. resurrect old bigotry and fuse it with modern ideas. And this hatred acquires significance, and much of its venom,f rom the idea that so-called heretics are standing in the way of something great. We must defeat the heretics, who Ibn Taymiyya said “do not believe in God or his prophet”- so that we can declare an Islamic state in its purest form yet.
Because apart from reviving hatred as a tool of mobilization, much of ISIS’ strength comes from its ability to exploit hopes. Attempts at creating Islamic states have always ended in cruelty and misery- see Sudan and Pakistan. But like utopian socialism in the last century, utopian Islamism is an ideology to be reckoned with. There is a basic truth which many of us can barely fathom:
Totalitarian ideologies are also attractive ideologies. The idea of an modern-day theocracy is a magnetically powerful one. We cannot defeat ISIS by working with other theocratic movements, other militias seeking to impose “God’s law”, who differ with ISIS and al-Nusra on little more than fine points.

The LA Times recently ran an article on the People’s Protections Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia in northern Syria, which has been instrumental in confronting ISIS but which has not received any signals of potential support from the west. This is primarily because of its ties to the PKK, which the US and EU consider a terrorist group; but a further reason, the article suggested, was its “leftist political philosophy”, which struck many policy makers as a “throwback to 1960s revolutionary movements.”

You don’t have to be a socialist to be puzzled by this strange reality: a range of Islamist militias are seen as natural components of the political landscape, indeed, as our most likely allies in the fight against ISIS and Assad. But a secular socialist movement is seen as out of date, quaintly passé, not part of the modern world. Part of this can be blamed on America’s strange discourse, in which even euro-style socialism is somehow radical, but the contrast reflects a deeper trend in how Islamist movements are represented- not as forces to be feared but as movements compatible with democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood were peaceful reformists, Hamas was fighting for social justice, and their critics were too obsessed with the divide between religion and state; secularism was great for the west, but it wasn’t essential to democracy.

It does not require contempt for any one religion to say that no religion should have any influence on government, that the idea of an “Islamic state” is inherently terrible, because theocracy as a form of government is incompatible with the principles of human equality. A state that favors one belief system will never treat nonbelievers as equal to believers; in some cases, it will simply repress them, in other cases, it will try to kill them. This is why we cannot stop ISIS by working with other Islamist militias.

How not to intervene

September 13th, 2014

Extreme experience produces extreme reactions. If your town has been bombed for months on end by Assad’s air force, if your relatives have been tortured to death, you might join any group that gives you the chance for revenge,and even find yourself inspired by its calls for a new caliphate. If your brother were kidnapped by rebels and shot, simply for his faith, joining the brutal shabiha would not seem irrational.

There is an obvious truth that has to be restated: Wars should be ended sooner rather than later. Not intervening to stop bloodshed can allow it to continue; intervening in the wrong way can make it even worse. Our evolving policy toward Syria has done both.

Our response to Assad’s crackdown, and the beginnings of an armed rebellion, was first sluggish and then short-sighted. A few courses of action might’ve ended the war in 2011- or might not have, we’ll never know. Action against Assad’s forces, not accompanied by aid to the rebels, could’ve forced his regime to see the advantages of a negotiated settlement. An international plan for protecting minorities if he left power- for instance, by deploying peacekeeping forces- might’ve weakened his support enough for a national opposition to emerge, making the ‘rebels’ representative of the whole country, rather than mainly of Sunnis. Very early aid to the rebels could’ve prevented their radicalization, could even have built them into a decent political force; had military training been accompanied by political training, on the precepts of democracy and the importance of religious tolerance, funding the FSA might’ve been something to be proud of.

But in the brief window of time when Syria’s war was primarily political, the US did not formulate a clear policy, other than saying, rather vapidly, that Assad should go. Then, as the war dragged on, we adapted a strategy whose appropriate hour had come and gone. There are pros and cons to arming purely political rebel groups; there are no pros to arming sectarian militias, and this is what the rebels had become by the time we thought about arming them.

And here we come to the debate about intervention, which was primarily a debate about visible, overt intervention. It was not hard to mobilize the left with slogans like “Don’t bomb Syria”. But whatever the arguments, moral and practical, against airstrikes, American pilots have some control over what they strike. We do not have control over who is killed with weapons we provide to militias; or with the Americna-made arms that our allies provide to their proxies. Direct American aid to the rebels has been limited, but it hasn’t been negligible, and meanwhile the most sectarian rebel groups have become the strongest, thanks to the Saudis and Qataris, in other words, indirectly, thanks to us.

By being allied with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, we intervened by default in the worst possible way. These states have made a conscious choice to exploit sectarian hatred for all it’s worth- as a mobilizing force rather than a fire to be contained. Assad may have claimed, from the beginning, that his opponents were sectarian terrorists, but it was the gulf monarchies who turned this from fiction to fact. Qatar’s support for al-Nusra is an open secret; it has enough leverage with the al Qaeda franchise to secure the release of American journalists and Fijian UN peacekeepers. The main source of funding for ISIS has been ‘private donors’ in Qatar and Saudi Arabia; it is almost certain these donations were made with the awareness- and tacit approval- of governments we consider allies.

It is clear that we have looked the other way as our allies funded our natural enemies, extremist groups who use the rhetoric of jihad and glorify bin Laden, groups who view all Shia as their enemies, because those extremists shared, with the US, a hostility to Iran and Hezbollah and a desire to see Assad fall.

Joshua Landis explained, in September 2013, that there was no secular fighting force in Syria, and that the four strongest rebel groups all rejected liberal democracy, favoring some variant of an Islamic state. That has not changed for the better in the last year. Assad’s armed opponents certainly include real moderates; but they are militarily irrelevant, which means, in war, politically irrelevant.

It is time to discard the fiction that we are supporting moderates. Funding the rebels, today, means funding proponents of a Sunni theocracy. There might be some context, in some other civil war, where armed supporters of religious rule respect the Geneva convention, and agree, if they take power, to respect minorities as equal citizens. But that is not the case in Syria, where Islamist militias are calling for ethnic cleansing.

In addition to debating how to combat ISIS, we should be having a larger discussion about our alliance with the gulf states that have funded the al-nusra front and ISIS as brazenly as Iran funds Hamas. I’m not as optimistic as some about improving relations with Iran; the Revolutionary Guard is too powerful for real detante to be likely. The ayatollahs have too much invested in an anti-western stance; the regime’s nuclear program is a real threat to our allies. But the Saudis don’t oppose Iran for the reasons we do. They do not mind the anti-semitism in its state media or the deadly homophobia in its legal codes. They do not want ‘heretics’ becoming powerful actors in the middle east. It is as simple and depressing as that.

If we try to contain Iranian influence by siding with anyone who opposes Iran, we will continue to make horrible decisions. When our allies see a conflict through a sectarian lens, and pour flames on the fire of religious hatred, we should step back, and say no, we are not going to be complicit in this.

The problem with arming moderates

September 11th, 2014

The former US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford- a man of genuine courage who risked his life to meet with protesters in 2011- has consistently argued for more support to moderate rebels. In a recent article in the New York Times, he identified one such group- a group of militias Islamic Front, fighting both ISIS and Assad. This suggestion reveals, in stark terms, the danger of arming moderates. The Islamic Front may be less extreme than the Islamic State, but it does not differ much in its view of minorities. Its head Zahran Alloush has vowed “the mujahadeen will cleanse Syria form the filth of the Shia”; his message to the Alawites was that “you will taste the evil of torture in this world before God will make you taste it on the day of resurrection.”

This is the type of group we should be working to defeat, not assist. It is inconceivable that such a group could contribute to building an even slightly more humane regime in Syria.

It is worth asking why the fall of Mosul was what forced Americans to notice ISIS. What the proponents of a new caliphate are doing today in Niniveh province is what they did, over a year ago, in rural areas of Lattakia governate in Syria. At that point the terrorist group was still collaborating with Jabhat al Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and other Islamist rebel groups that have since become its mortal enemies. On Aguust 5, working with groups it would later turn on, ISIS took over six Alawite villages in the coastal mountain range.

The Human Rights Watch report on what followed is 105 pages long, based on extensive interviews with survivors and witnesses. 190 civilians were killed; they included an 80 year blind man and a six year old boy. Those who were not stabbed or shot are still being held as hostages- the youngest captive being a two year old Abdulkareem Darwish. The fate of one of the victims makes clear how indiscriminate, and how purely sectarian, these murders were.

“Waheeb Shaban Mariam’s body was also found in the mass grave. The activist from Lata- kia city described Waheeb as a poor, simple person, who worked as a farmer, and that it was his routine to wake up at around 4 a.m. to irrigate his land. The activist from Latakia shared two of these photographs with Human Rights Watch in which he appears to have had his throat slit.”

The ‘armed groups’ retreated from these towns after a few days, leaving graffiti on the walls. “Jabhat al_Nusra to bring victory to the people of Syria”, “Headquarters of the Islamic State” scrawled, no doubt symbolically, under the Ba’ath party’s logo on a school building. and most damningly, in Abu Makeh, “The Free Syrian Army passed through here.”

The radicalization of the Syrian rebels, as far as the west has been concerned, began when Jabhat al Nusra pledged its loyalty to al Qaeda in 2012; or when the Islamic State in Iraq crossed into Syria and rebranded itself as ISIS. But for Syrians with the most to fear from an Islamist victory, the loosely organized militias that form the FSA are nearly as frightening as ISIS, and have been so for some time.

As early as 2011 there were reports of Alawite civilians being abducted by rebel groups, and being killed if their families couldn’t pay ransom. Car bombs have been a regular feature of the bloodshed since January 2012, often targeting civilians in Christian and Alawite neighborhoods. This tactic, pioneered by the al Nusra fornt, met disturbingly little opposition from more moderate forces; indeed, the Syrian national council issued a protest statement when the US listed the al Nusra front as a terrorist group.

Even those rebel groups that oppose an Islamic state, or support a very mild form of it, have acted with indiscrimate cruelty toward members of the ‘wrong’ sect- to the point rejecting Alawite defectors who fled the regime’s forces. When Thaer Aboud tried to join the FSA in 2012, he was told “we don’t need Alawite pigs with us.”

There are notable counterexamples. Colonel Yusuf Jader, nomme de guerre Abu Furat, blamed Assad for “dragging his sect into a war” and vowed “in spite of you, we will coexist”, reassuring Alawites that “we are partners in this nation.” Abu Furat was killed in action in Aleppo in December 2012. There are probably numerous moderates as decent as him, still fighting somewhere in Syria. But this is not enough to change the increasingly communal nature of the war. The FSA has never been organized or disciplined eough to root out sectarian hatred, to impose a common ode of behavior among its members. it is a patchwork of militias numbering in the hundreds. And there is now substantial evidence of the FSA collaborating with the al-Nusra front across Syria, from the embattled Hama airport to the Quneitra border post in the Golan heights.

And thus it has failed not just the moderate test but the effectiveness test.

In order to succeed militarily in guerilla war against a much more powerful army, the FSA needed to become a genuinely national force, appealing to all of Syria’s religious and ethnic groups; that would’ve meant relying on a patriotic, nationalist discourse that emphasized equality for all Syrians, and making a conscious effort to include minorities. Instead, without a unified command, it became a series of militias appealing to sectarian loyalty. An anti-Assad army, if one existed, could warrant American funding. Militias accountable to no one, do not.

In fact rather than weakening Assad, a policy of strengthening Sunni militias will only shore up his faltering support. Anti-regime fliers have been handed out in Tartus. The fall of Tabqa air force base to ISIS inspired a deep sense of betrayal among the Alawite minority; five men were arrested after demanding the government and army be held accountable. But the growth of dissent in what is still regime-controlled territory will not gain momentum, or translate into a real political force, if the US keeps supporting the armed opposition.

The reasons for this are simple. Moral qualms do not amount to much in the face of existential fear. The Christian minority, 10% of the population, see Assad’s rule as their only alternative to becoming second-class citizens; since all the strongest rebel groups oppose a secular state, this is not an illegitimate fear. The Alawites, who were de facto serfs until the middle of the 20th century, are not willing to gamble on the moderation of the moderates.

And it is not just minorities who feel threatened by the rebels.
The secular Sunnis who form a key part of Assad’s base will not join a revolution dominated by conservative Islamists; they will only desert the regime if the opposition to it became inclusive rather than sectarian.

Rather than working with the anti-Assad moderates, it is time to consider working, covertly, with the pro-Assad moderates.

The Past is not dead in Syria. It’s not even past.

September 9th, 2014

There were many feasible forms that intervention in Syria could have taken, and could still take, but the most widely promoted strategy, and eventually our official policy, became funneling weapons to the armed opposition. Whether this was a wise policy hinged on the relative strength of the moderates, and the question of whether, if better armed, they could regain momentum against jihadists.

But the moderate-extremist dichotomy ignored essential facts about Syria’s history which are essential to formulating a long-term policy. Of all the regimes toppled, or threatened, by the Arab spring, Assad’s was the most brutal but enjoyed the greatest degree of popular support. The reasons for this lie in the historical predicament of the Alawites, the Shia minority to which Assad belongs.

Countless news reports mention the sectarian element of the Syrian conflict, explaining that Assad belongs to the Alawite minority and most of his opponents, to the Sunni majority. That Alawites fear persecution in an Islamic state, or collective punishment for Assad’s actions, is at this point well known. But these facts do not fully explain the depth, and tragedy of Syria’s communal divide.

That divide was not imported by ISIS or al-Nusra, nor was it imposed a century ago by the French mandate. It stems from a discourse within Sunni theology that sees the Alawite minority as heretics, “worse than the Jews and Christians” and guilty of ‘deviating from Islam.’ This religious prejudice has translated, for nearly a millennium, into oppression and violence.

Alawism began as a mystical interpretation of Shia Islam in 8th century Iraq, with its founder, Abu Shu’ayb Muhammad ibn Nusayr, preaching in Baghdad, Basra and Kufa. The Alawites’ esoteric beliefs were misinterpreted as a rejection of monotheism, and even mainstream Shia leaders once considered them apostates, although this has changed in recent decades. Oppressed in modern-day Iraq, they fled to Aleppo, enjoyed relative tolerance under Sayf al-Dawla’s Hamdanid dynasty, before facing more violence as the Byzantines, Mamelukes and Crusaders spent several centuries fighting to control Syria.

The “absolute historical nadir” came with the ottoman conquest of Syria in the 1500s. Under the reign of Selim I, Alawite religious leaders were summoned to Aleppo to negotiate with Ottoman officials, and were instead publicly beheaded; Alawites were expelled from major cities and fled to the Syrian coastal mountain range, where they lived in poverty but relative autonomy for several centuries. In the 19th century, the Ottoman empire began the Tanzimat reforms; this ambitious attempt at modernization included establishing clear records of land ownership. In practice this allowed urban notables to declare themselves owners of land that had previously been collectively owned by peasants. Thus a feudal system emerged on clearly sectarian lines, in which Alawites worked as tenant farmers for Sunni landlords.

This turned an already poor population into a visibly subservient one.
Allowed to keep only a fourth of their crops and subject to heavy taxation many Alawites had no choice but to “sell their daughters as maids to Sunni households.”
An Englishman named Richard Pearse travelled through Syria and Lebanon in late 1940s. In his travelogue, Three Years in the Levant, he describes a scene in the coastal of latakia: Alawite girls being sold in a public square, Sunni young men bargaining over them.

All these details form a crucial part of the current picture. Before the second half of the 20th century, the Alawite experience for nearly a millennium had been one of poverty and fear. When Hafez Assad took power in 1970, the most oppressed group in Syria suddenly became, if not actually powerful, associated with power. The price of this relative liberation was the complete censure of communal identity.

The regime’s approach to sectarianism was to deny its importance altogether, but to implicitly concede the religious discourse to Sunnis. Hafez Assad, accused of favoring his sect, in fact did everything he could to suppress a distinct Alawite identity, banning Alawite religious organizations trying to prove that Alawites were not that far from the Islamic mainstream. Religious lessons in school curricula mentioned only Sunni Islam, reinforcing what Torstein Worren has termed a “Sunni hegemony”. Thus several generations were taught nothing of what different religious groups believed- only what the majority believed. Because the Alawites could not organize as a religious group and were urged to assimilate, there was no chance of inter communal dialogue or an open discussion of differences. This enabled the underground Islamist movement to ‘define’ for Sunnis who they Alawites were and what they believed, blending the old accusation of heresy with the new accusation of being complicit in dictatorship. The regime profited, at least in the short term, by ensuring that any popular uprising would be in danger of acquiring a sectarian tone; that an armed revolution would terrify minorities and, lacking broad-based support, morph into an explicitly Islamist rebellion, which even secular Sunnis would be repelled by.

The one-party Ba’athist state in Syria is almost invariably described as “An Alewife dominated regime”, a “minority alawite regime” or some variation thereof; journalist Nick Cohen, in a 2011 editorial, said was an apartheid state, in which Alawites “controlled not just the government but business and all the forces of coercion”,
This narrative is a cruel simplification.

What Hafez Assad practiced was not sectarianism but nepotism. His brothers Rifaat and Jamil, cousin Adnan, and his brother in law Adnan Makhlouf, dominated the elite defense units charged with protecting the regime. The commander of the air force and the head of military intelligence belonged to his tribe, the al-Matawirah.
Those who did not belong to his family or tribe benefited from the regime in a strictly negative sense- they were no longer second-class citizens, and along with rural Sunnis, benefited from land reform which reduced the power of urban absentee landlords.

The awareness that they are seen as pro-regime has placed Alawites in a catch-22: historically persecuted as heretics, and now blamed for Assad’s actions, their only chance of survival is to actually support the regime. Which brings us back to the question of arming rebels.

A poorly planned or short-sighted intervention would end one set of atrocities- by the Assad regime- but enable new crimes- by the rebels. It would relieve the Sunni civilians being pounded by Assad’s air force, at the price of putting Alawite civilians at the mercy of various rebel groups. We are bombing ISIS in Iraq, and we bombed Serbia in the 90s, to prevent ethnic cleansing. We should not take action in Syria that will enable ethnic cleansing.
This is not an argument against intervention.

What’s really at stake in Ukraine

May 3rd, 2014

In 1992 when Bosnia declared independence, the Yugoslav National Army launched a brutal attack on the new state, occupying two thirds of its territory early in the war. The pretext for this intervention was concern for Bosnia’s Serb minority; Bosnian Muslims, Milosevic claimed, were trying to establish an Islamic state. This was an undiluted lie; Alija Izetbegovic, Bosnia’s first president elected in 1992, said “a non-secular Bosnia would be a nightmare”. But fundamentalist, like fascist, is an effective slander.

By 1993, though the JNA had withdrawn. Instead of direct aggression, the Serbian regime would rely on proxies, the radical nationalist militia led by Ratko Mladic. Having funded and armed the Serb separatists in Bosnia, Milosevic could claim that technically they were beyond his control.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Putin is claiming to act on behalf of Ukraine’s Russian minority, just as Karadzic claimed to be defending Serbs- he has sought to justify his aggression by calling the victims Nazis, just as Radovan Karadzic called the Bosnians “Islamic fundamentalists.” He has flooded eastern Ukraine with regular troops, but has also funneled weapons and funds to Russian separatist militias.

Few Americans believed Radovan Karadzic at the time, when he told foreign reporters, “we are fighting Muslim fundamentalism.” But what if Milosevic’s personal mouthpiece, Radio Television Srpska, had had an entire English-language branch, based a few blocks from the White House? What if Serbia Today, with its consistent criticism of American foreign policy, had attracted well-meaning young people disgusted with the “corporate” media? What if noted progressives, respected by left-leaning Americans for their stance against previous wars, had made regular appearances on Serbia Today, fully aware of its

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agenda?

Russian state television has an English-language subsidiary, Russia Today. Its frequent guests over the past few years have included Katrina Venden Heuval, editor of the Nation; Jeremy Scahill, author of the best-seller Dirty Wars; and perennial presidential candidate Ron Paul. Russia Today, in other words, has attracted some big names. Julian Assange has a regular show on the network.

And according to Russia Today, what has transpired in Ukraine is a fascist coup; and Russia’s invasion of Crimea is a move to protect oppressed Russians.
That narrative is hardly surprising, coming from what James Kirchick has called “Pravda on the Potomac”. It should be shocking, but sadly isn’t, coming from left-of-center publications in the US, journals and blogs that aligned themselves, for the last decade, with the

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antiwar movement.

The easiest way to defend a crime is to say the victims are fascists or jihadists- adherents of extreme ideologies, which most of us naturally oppose. As it turns out there were actual fascists in the Kiev protests, and by 1995, there were mujahedeen in Bosnia. The extremists weren’t the majority in either case; they weren’t even a plurality. But the libel has stuck. In describing the Ukraine crisis as a case of the US supporting fascists, the left’s favorite argument has been based on guilt-by association.

The Nation’s Alec Luhn, writing in late January, accused the western media of being “uncritical and undiscerning” in its coverage of Ukraine- by ignoring the role of far-right groups in pro-EU protests. Max Blumenthal, in an article on Salon.com, asked “is the US backing Neo-Nazis in Ukraine?” The answer, he decided, was yes. The article highlights how an immigrant lobby group, the Ukrainian American Council, has not just supported the protests, but has specifically defended Svboda- and has a disturbing record of opposing the prosecution of Nazi collaborators.

Revealing as this may be about an American lobby group, it sheds little if any light on the reality in the streets of Kiev. When Blumenthal spoke to members of the Anti-fascist Union Ukraine, they told him 30% of the demonstrators had links to Svboda. What about the other 70%? the demonstrators who toppled Yanukovch had no unifying ideology. They included a large number of people who were normally apolitical, but who felt an instinctive revulsion seeing their country become a corrupt satellite state.

It is predicted that far-right parties will win between 2 and 3% of the seats in Ukraine’s new parliament. Any percentage is too high. But to echo the Kremlin’s claim- that the protests were led by fascists- is shameful.

Not just shameful, but ironic. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a far-right Russian nationalist who calls for “the preservation of the white race”, has appeared in Crimea to lend his support to the Russian occupation. Crimea’s “referendum”, organized in barely a week, featured a series of “election monitors” from something called the Eurasian Observatory. Many of these “monitors’ were not just Putin sympathizers but bona fide fascists. They include Belgian neo-nazi Luc Michel; Johannes Hubner, fo the Austrian Freedom Party; and Pavel Chernev, of Bulgaria’s Ataka party, to name a few. Ivan Kostov, head of the largest coalition in the Bulgarian parliament, has described the Ataka party”, guilty of “aggression against the ethnic peace of this country”; his comments came after Ataka members set fire to a mosque in Sofia in 2011.

The US, in other words, is not backing fascists in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin is being backed by fascists across Europe, precisely because his attack on Ukraine is by extension an attack on the EU and the US- on liberal democracy as the norm rather than the exception.
It is unlikely that Putin will stop in Crimea; there are Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltic states, who could similarly be encouraged- or pressured- to secede. Paddy Ashdown, who served international envoy to Bosnia from 2002 to 2006, warns that Russia is urging Republika Sprska, the Serb-majority region of Bosnia, to secede. Milorad Dodik, the region’s current president, has said of Srebrenica, “there was no genocide”; he accuses the international community of blaming the Serbs “for a genocide

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which did not happen.” Dodik was in Moscow over the weekend to voice his support for the conquest of Crimea.

It helps Putin a great deal that Russia is not perceived as imperial. That pejorative term is reserved for the US. John Kerry, in his condemnation of Russian aggression, said it was wrong to invade countries on trumped-up pretexts. “That is sooo 2003″, said Jon Stewart.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, to many Americans, seems not much worse than our intervention in Iraq. This moral equivalence between two wars, Bush’s and Putin’s, has prevented many liberals from reacting with real urgency to the invasion of Crimea. Putin is bad, but so are we, and so who are we to judge and sanction? Combined with the libel against Ukrainians who oppose Putin- that they are mostly right-wing extremists – this Iraq analogy has

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created the perfect excuse for neutrality.

Now, America, like Russia, goes to war for selfish reasons, to preserve NATO credibility (in Kosovo) or its access to oil (in Kuwait). In one common narrative about the Iraq war, we are also guilty of starting wars on the basis of lies.

But there is a crucial distinction to be made. The US has never defended a military action- whether in Kosovo, or Iraq, or Libya- on the basis of helping fellow English-speakers, or fellow WASPs. When it comes to justifying their wars in flowery, righteous language, the US and Russia choose remarkably different motifs. In both cases, the rhetoric has little to do with the actual

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reasons. But it does reflect importance differences in how two superpowers

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define themselves. Putin has not defended his actions by citing human rights, in a universal sense. He has appealed to a nationalist sentiment connecting Russians to their ethnic kin in Crimea.

It is a heresy on the left to say that America should continue being a superpower, or that much- even any- good has come of American hegemony in the

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past. But in comparing great powers, there are varying degrees of evil. A democratic superpower is better that an undemocratic one. To compensate for the lack of democracy in his own country, Putin is gambling on the appeal of ethnic and communal allegiances- a modern variant on the pan-Slavism of the Tsars. What Putin is trying to revive is the logic of ethnic nationalism, in which diversity within a state’s borders is an aberration to be corrected. This logic, when acted on, has consistently led to mass slaughter. Knee-jerk suspicion of American policy should be a barrier to seeing facts.
And yet most of the left’s anxiety is focused, not on a war of aggression, but on America’s response and whether it augurs a ‘new cold war.’ That the old cold war was not our fault, but a product of Stalin’s expansionism, seems largely forgotten.

The real bigotry at Brandeis

April 26th, 2014

Recently Brandeis University rescinded an honorary degree it had awarded, as well as a speaking invitation, after an op-ed in the student newspaper labeled the recipient a bigot. You may or may not remember Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose writings and public statements have earned her many enemies in the past. A survivor of Somalia’s civil war and a victim of FGM,

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she fled to the Netherlands to avoid an arranged marriage. Enrolling at Leidin university, she discovered John Locke, Voltaire and other theorists of the enlightenment, and found herself inspired by their emphasis on individual freedom- not just from state repression but from powerful social forces, such as religion.

By 2003 she had ran for parliament and won. Once elected she focused much of her attention on womens’ rights, which she realized the Dutch government was failing to adequately protect. Domestic violence, genital mutilation, early marriages- all banned by Dutch law- were occurring largely unnoticed in immigrant ghettoes, because orthodox clerics endorsed various forms of gender oppression, and because Dutch police were reluctant to take meaningful action. Conflating oppressive realities with the essence of entire cultures, they feared being tarred as culturally insensitive.

Due to her outspokenness, Hirsi Ali began to receive death threats. In 2005, her friend Theo Van Gogh was found stabbed to death on a street in Amsterdam, with a note pinned to his chest saying she would be next. At that point she went into hiding, before immigrating to the US and taking a job at the American Enterprise Institute.

Partly because of her blunt criticism of her former religion, and partly because she now works at a neoconservative think tank, Hirsi Ali has become a highly controversial figure. Her views are often interpreted through the lens of the left-right divide. Conservatives seeing her as a modern-day Solzhenitsyn, trying to educate western liberals about serious dangers to their freedom. Liberals see her at best as a stooge of conservatives, contributing to a hysterical discourse about eminent threats.

This second view of Hirsi Ali was at the heart of Brandeis’ decision, and is echoed in the liberal

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commentary defending that choice. In a Salon article addressing concept of “liberal fascism”, a conservative catch phrase for alleged censorship by the left, Alex Perenee compared Hirsi Ali to Brendan Eich, the former Mozzila CEO who resigned under pressure from gay rights activists. Neither figures, Perenne argues, were victims of real injustice or censorship; they had suffered negative consequences for deplorable views. Hirsi Ali’s critiques of religion are as odious as the Mozzila employee’s homophobia.

She bolstered her argument- that Brandeis was right to cancel her speech- by devoting a short paragraph to Hirsi Ali’s misdeeds, making claims that were both inaccurate and slanderous.

Liberals were legitimately angry at Hirsi Ali, she said- for making “inflammatory comments bordering eliminationist”, and for having “sort of sympathized with Anders Breivik”. Her statements about Islam are really outrageous- she thinks it should be ‘crushed’, and that the entire west is at ‘war’ with it. But Perenne’s interpretation of her views is fundamentally misleading. Her criticism is directed at theology and the way its been interpreted. Christopher Hitchens’ hatred of Judaism- he called it a genocidal religion- was never interpreted as an ‘eliminationist’ anti-Semitism. Like many militant atheists throughout history, Hirsi Ali would like religion, as an institution, to disappear. That puts her in the same category as Karl Marx and Bertrand Russell, not in the sick company of say, Marie le Penn or Nick Griffin, European politicians actively stoking religious hatred.

In assessing rather Ali is genuinely an Islamophobe, its useful to look at her opinion of actual Islamophobes. Geert wilders, a prominent Dutch politician, leads the ironically named freedom party, which calls for a total halt on Muslim immigration; in march he gave a speech in the Hague, where he is running for mayor, in which he said the city would be better with “fewer Moroccans”. The Dutch newspaper Elsevier quotes what Hirsi Ali thinks of him: “Wilders should not see all Muslims as opponents” and “see differences between moderates and extremists”. Anti-Muslim bigots do not tend to distinguish moderates from extremists; they hate the latter as much as they hate the former.

The charge that Hirsi Ali is a bigot obscures the reality of her views, and the reasons behind them. More importantly, the way in which she has been tarred as an Islamophobe reveals the discrete bigotry of the left. Christians and Jews can reject their religion, and criticize priests and rabbis, without this personal choice becoming an instant controversy. Richard Dawkins is known as an

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outspoken atheist, but his name is not always prefaced with the awkward noun, ‘ex-Christian’; Kate Millet, the feminist writer, is not described in news article as an ex-Catholic. Their relationship to their religious traditions is not all that defines them. That some people are raised in the church, and grow up to loathe it, is accepted as a normal reality of the modern world. And if their defection from the faith is

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driven by an experience with say, homophobia, progressive Americans respond with instinctive sympathy- of course, if that’s your experience with religion, you’d want to get away from it.
But when a Muslim like Hirsi Ali decides she doesn’t’ believe in God, and goes on to make ‘inflammatory’ comments about the religion she was raised in, its automatically seen as an embrace of bigotry.

But what about the last charge, surely the worst- the charge that Hirsi Ali was a defender of Andres Breivik. In reality, she said his crimes were “abhorrent”, and his views, a form of “neo-fascism”. She caused outrage, though, in trying to explain Breivik’s motives: he was angered, she speculated, by the “advocates of silence” in Norway, who refused to address the genuine threat of jihadist extremism. He resorted to appalling violence because he felt he “had no other options”.

Like the leftist argument that al Qaeda is a reaction to imperialism, that analysis is based on a cliched illusion about terrorists- that whatever their ideology, violence is something they ‘resort to’ out of desperate rage, never a reflection of their own pathology. Hirsi Ali might be wrong in guessing Breivik’s motives, but her attempt to explain his crimes is not an expression of sympathy.

But blackmailing her as a terrorist sympathizer- as Perenne did- serves a clear political purpose: it’s a quick way to simplify the story of what happened at Brandeis. Admitting that Hirsi Ali was not really a bigot, just a person whose

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views on religion have been shaped by hellish experiences, would make Brandeis’ decision seem less wise.

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Hirsi Ali is controversial, but are controversial reasons a reason to deny someone a speaking forum?

The debate about Hirsi Ali- whether she is a bigot or a hero- is part of a much broader debate about the war on terror. Are theocratic political movements are a serious threat, or is “Islamic extremism” a pretext for ‘perpetual war’?
In another article supporting Brandeis’ decision, commentator Eric Levitz compared Hirsi Ali to Dick Cheney, saying they shared similar habits of ‘twisted thinking”, based on the hateful premises of “anti-Islamic logic.”
He makes a completely valid point about Hirsi Ali’s views on Islam. They may be rooted in horrible personal experience, and in that respect be understandable, but there is something “twisted”, illogical, in the claim that Islam is a violent religion. Violence committed by jihadists cannot be explained by the Qu’ran, it has to be explained by historical context. On this if little else, liberals and neocons agree, though liberals emphasize economic injustice, while neocons focus on political factors, the mukhabarat states like the one in Damascus.

Yet the main focus of Levitz’ critique is not really Hirsi Ali. It’s the war on terror launched in the aftermath of 9/11- not the way its been fought but the inference on which its based. The idea of a war on al Qaeda- as

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opposed to a police raid on al Qaeda- is based on a certain understanding of what al Qaeda is and represents. Al Qaeda is not a criminal franchise like the Mexican drug cartels, whose sadistic tactics have no ideological motive. al Qaeda is a revolutionary political movement which envisions a totalitarian state, governed by ‘God’s law’ as interpreted by repressive clerics. If one ignores this fact, analyses of islamist ideology seems obsessive and irrelevant, and the idea of a war on terror seems like an overreaction- which cn only be explained through some irrational factor in Cheney’s mind, such as “anti-Islamic logic” that distorts his perception of reality.

Cheney’s record as vice president was not mentioned in the article itself, just in the eye-catching title. Its not clear how the war on terror was based on “anti-Islamic logic”; indeed, the exact opposite seems to be true. One of the first things Bush did after 9/11 was warn Americans not to link Islam with terrorism, or blame all Muslims for the actions of armed theocrats. As for the war on terror itself, that policy became indelibly linked to what Bush called the “Freedom Agenda”- addressing the roots of terrorism by promoting democracy and human rights. The idea being that Islamist radicalism, like the Bolsheviks of Tsarist Russia, can only be understood as the product of absurdly oppressive governments. Islam, in other words, has nothing to do with it.

Yet when it comes to political sins usually associated with the right- whether being Islamophobia, or “not caring about black people”- Bush and Cheney are guilty even when proven innocent. So Levitz’s attack on Cheney is not surprising. It is based on a mistaken belief about Bush’s policies- that they reflected a bigoted worldview in which a ‘Christian nation’ was at war with Islam. Like the misrepresentation of Hirsi Ali, that perception of Cheney’s views is as common as it is false.

Brandeis forfeited an opportunity to broaden its students’ knowledge of their world, by hearing the perspective and experiences of a courageous woman. In doing so the university provoked a flurry of commentary, but very little of it transcended the left-right framework. Four years ago Paul Berman’s published The Flight of the Intellectuals, criticizing fellow liberals for their harsh critiques Hirsi Ali, arguing solidarity, not judgement, was in order. Unfortunately his arguments fell largely on deaf ears.

The revolution derailed: sectarianism in Lebanon and Syria

April 9th, 2014

The Ghosts of Martyrs’ Square is a record of a revolution, the mass demonstrations in 2005 that, combined with effective pressure from the UN, were able to force the Syrian army to end its 30-year presence in Lebanon. The protests began when Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister who had overseen the reconstruction of Beirut, was killed by a massive car bomb planted by Syrian intelligence agents; his critical stance toward Syria, combined with his immense popularity, made him a natural target of a state-sponsored assassination. Instead of its intended purpose, reminding the politically minded that dissent could be suicidal, the assassination became a catalyst for popular revolt, what the foreign press would dub the Cedar Revolution, and the Lebanese themselves, the independence intifada. That revolution promised much more than a return to sovereignty; the Syrian withdrawal became linked, in the expectations of the protesters, with a new idea of their country, transcending the dominant divisions that had marred its history. The revolt against Assad’s forces contained, or seemed to contain, the beginning of a larger revolt against Lebanon’s past.

The country’s diversity, young argues, had also long been unique in preserving a “paradoxical liberalism”; competing collective identities, even if causing tension, had led to a social contract based on mutual self-restraint: no a particular sect, or the political movement represent it, could afford to imperil peace by seeking excessive power. This pragmatic understanding is at the basis of Lebanon’s democracy- which has never purely democratic, in the sense of being majoritarian, and which, in the last few decades, has been at times dangerously fragile; but which is not Young argues, the political failure its often reduced to.

Prewar Lebanon, with its ‘national pact’ between communities, has succeeded for several decades where most of the region has failed: in establishing a working balance between stability and freedom. It was that model, endangered during the civil war and further suspended during the decades of Syrian occupation, that the 2005 revolution had promised to revive- and which Assad, through his ally Hezbollah, would try to threaten and destabilize in the coming years.

Lebanon’s pluralist reality, the ‘open spaces’ left by the tense balance of different communities, has long made it distinct from its neighbors- sometimes freer, as in the 1960s, when Beirut was a safe haven for dissidents from across the region; and at other times, more dangerous, as in the decade-long civil war. But the very cause of this difference- a need to ensure an equilibrium between mutually suspicious groups- highlights a glaring similarity it shares with its eastern neighbor.

Hafez Assad’s Syria, with divisions as deep as Lebanon’s, had for several decades suffered the dubious stability of dictatorship; and in Lebanon’s hellish decade of civil war, the contrast for many a skeptic had been irresistible: the failed, democratic state, losing almost complete control to warring militias, and the strong, if bloody state, saving its neighbor from self-destruction.

Bashar Assad invokved this contrast in April 2007, in a meeting with UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon. Summarizing Lebanon’s history in the darkest terms, marred by “divisions and confessionalism…anchored for more than 3000 years”, he said its “most peaceful years” had been those under Syrian occupation- and in a warning mixing fact and threat, asserting Syria’s continued influence on Lebanon’s affairs, said: “we are in the eye of the cyclone. you will need to keep in contact with us.”

The 3-month intifada, starting in late February occurred almost two years after the fall of Saddam Hussein. From the sectarian bloodshed that has since disfigured Iraq, different observers have drawn radically different conclusions. Opponents of the war seized it, almost opportunistically, to prove the notion of democracy in Iraq had been close to utopian, and that, as bush senior had realized and his son forgotten, middle eastern dictatorships were a necessary evil. but to scholars like Fouad Ajami and Kanan Makiya, viewing post-Saddam Iraq through the lens of its recent history, it was clear sectarian hatred had been nurtured, not contained, by the regime, that coexistence between communities, which sectarian terrorism imperils, cannot be left to depend on the violent repression of those communities; that stability, if not democratic, will sow the seeds own destruction.

The Ghost of Martyrs’ Square is a record of both success and failure.
The success- Syria’s departure- was a product of circumstance. Hariri’s murder and the protests it spawned had entered a global spotlight, provoking demands by the UN, and some of its most powerful member states. Without this fortuitous combination, a popular revolt in Lebanon and its vocal endorsement by world leaders, the independence intifada would’ve likely failed. Assad’s hands were tied in Lebanon because the world was watching: UN resolution 1559, passed a year before, had deemed the Syrian occupation illegal and called for its swift end. President Bush, in a momentous change in American policy, had linked success in the war on terror to the spread of democracy; in the peaceful rallies in Beirut, he saw the freedom agenda vindicated. French president Chirac, a friend of Hariri, was just as vocal, so much so that Emile Lahoud, the Lebanese president handpicked by Syrian authorities, would accuse him of interfering in Lebanon’s internal affairs- which meant contesting Syria’s role in Lebanon’s internal affairs. These never amounted to, or included the threat of intervention, but they gave Assad a stark choice between retreating and starting a bloodbath.

On April 27, the Syrian army withdrew from Lebanon. This did not translate to the end of Syrian influence. One of the largest political parties in this new democracy, the ‘party of God’ sponsored by Iran and Syria, maintained an armed militia completely autonomous from the national army; in much of southern Lebanon and entire neighborhoods of Beirut, it used its political muscle to form a rival state, which the cautious national government has accepted as an indefinite fait accompli- the cost of doing otherwise would be a new civil war.

After Syrian withdrawal, and the 2005 elections, three crucial events illustrated Hezbollah’s role in the new Lebanon, revealing both the extent, and limits, of its popular support. First, in summer 2006, it launched a doomed war against Israel; later that year, on December 6, in the midst of a bitter disagreement with the new prime minister Sionari, the party thousands of its supporters into the streets, with the goal of toppling his government; these protests, largely peaceful, acquired a confrontational symbolism, converging on the same spot- Martyrs’ Square where the anti-Syrian protests had begun a year before.

The protests were largely interpreted through the lens of class, Hezbollah’s Shia supporters coming mostly from impoverished suburbs, camping in the prosperous heart of a city that seemed to still exclude them. There is truth in this, young insists, but not the entire story. Hezbollah’s popularity has complicated roots, a country where power and wealth had been split between Christians and Sunnis, the Shia community had been, and continued to be marginalized. Hezbollah’s real strength was not political but military; by refusing to disarm, as the UN demanded along with Lebanon’s new government, it promised that political isolation would be a thing of the past- if Hezbollah, as a party, could not be ignored, then neither could the Shia, as a community. This practical promise, more than its radical ideology, helped get the party of god where it is today.

But the source of Hezbollah’s appeal was not the essence of its identity; its goals and actions were grounded in a particular political vision, based on the virtues of self-sacrifice and perpetual struggle. Then eight months later, in a much more brazen attempt to topple Siniora, it set up makeshift roadblocks across Beirut, evoking the capitals’ division during the civil war. The roadblocks lasted a few days, before Hezbollah called it off. Its main sponsor, Iran wanted to cause trouble for Sionoria, seen as pro-American, but it did not want sectarian tensions to spark a full-scale war. Hezbollah’s other main sponsor, young speculates, wanted exactly that- a sectarian bloodbath in Lebanon

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would prove the country could not govern itself, and would offer a perfect pretext for a new Syrian occupation.

These three shows of political force could not have been more different; a full-scale war, which it labeled a divine victory; weeks of peaceful protest, echoing the tactics and imagery, though not the ideals, of the Cedar Revolution; and a day of violent posturing, setting up roadblocks and bringing the city to a standstill. None of these dramatic actions met their purported goals- after months of disastrous ‘resistance’ against the Israeli air force, Hezbollah was forced to remove its militia from southern Lebanon, making it nearly impossible to threaten Israeli cities. Having lost its battle with Israel, it turned to domestic rivals, but neither protests, or roadblocks toppled Siniora’s administration. If the optimism of the intifada was compromised by Hezbollah’s actions, with war and political crisis leading to myriad disappointments, the singular victory of 2005- a sovereign, democratic Lebanon- remained more durable than Iran and Syria had expected and wanted.

Another dramatic test would come in early 2008. In its most aggressive attempt yet to assert power over its rivals, Hezbollah seized turned its armed might on its fellow citizens, seizing all of West Beirut from government forces and their supporters. The March 14 coalition called it a ‘bloody coup’, part of an imperial ploy by the party’s Iranian sponsors, to “extend Iran’s each to the mediterranean”. By late may, the government had accepted a bitter compromise, allowing a new cabinet to form in which Hezbollah would have an effective veto. Siniora was replaced by a new president, Michel Suleiman, not aligned with Hezbollah but seen as more neutral. It was a case of thuggish confrontation between militia and state, in which an undemocratic party used the fragility of the system to its advantage. It also shed interesting light on the the priorities of Hezbollah’s rivals. Faced with an armed takeover of half the capital city, it realized responding with force, or even with inflexibility, would play directly into Hezbollah’s hands, endangering the tense peace that Syria- and its clients- aimed to disrupt.

Moving from the Cedar revolution to its tense aftermath, Young contrasts a hopeful revolution with the ruinous effects, of sectarianism. That contrast, essential to assessing the Cedar revolution, is just as relevant today in examining how Syria’s war is affecting Lebanon- and how, in failing to assist the democratic forces in Syria, our own government has contributed to the rise of extremists, whose blatant embrace of sectarian hatred has transformed the nature of the conflict.

The murder of Muhammad Chatah, in the final week of 2013, signaled the continued ability of the Syrian regime to strike at its critics- not just at home but across the border in Lebanon. If his grip on his country has been challenged since 2011, Assad’s influence in Lebanon has grown stronger, not weaker, thanks to the central role of Hezbollah in defending his regime. Chatah, a banker and economist, had been active in the Future Movement, founded by Rafiq Hariri before his murder in 2005, and had served as a close adviser to president Sionara. Chatah’s murder was followed by another gruesome atrocity, a bomb in southern Beirut that left five civilians dead; planted in Haret Hreik, a poor neighborhood known as a Hezbollah stronghold, it fulfilled a brutal threat by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the most extreme jihadist group active in northern Syria – that in retaliation for Hezbollah’s support for Assad, it would launch attacks in Lebanon itself. Chatah when alive, embodied everything the jihadists are against, but when murdered, he became a Sunni martyr and a pretext for another crime.

The attack in Haret Hreik did more than accentuate the sectarian spillover of Syria’s war; it also revealed a growing rift in the Sunni community of Lebanon- between the liberal, conciliatory legacy of Rafiq Hariri, and the violent jihadist movements expressing the opposite values, and the opposite goals. Already in the summer of 2012, the warning signs of such a divide were appearing in the northern city of Tripoli, where a mostly Sunni neighborhood, Bab-Al-Tabbaneh, borders the mostly Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen. Worrying development in Syria, where the moderate opposition was starting to lose ground to Islamists, had quick and bitter repercussions in both communities. The Alawites militia was linked to the Arabic democratic party, a pro-Assad group embracing the ideology of Ba’athism, conceived in the early years of the Syrian occupation; the Sunnis militia in turn, was dominated by an extremist cleric who described Alawites as “snakes in the grass of Tripoli”.

A BBC Arabic documentary, My Neighbor, My Enemy, records the months of sniper warfare between the two neighborhoods- and the changing discourse in both. The walls in Jabel Mohsen are plastered with photographs of Assad, while a Free Syrian army flag flies in Bab al-Tabbaneh- ironically accompanied by a poster of Saddam Hussein, head of another Ba’athist dictatorship, albeit dominated by Sunnis. At Lord of the Martyrs mosque in bab-al-Tabbaneh, a sermon frames the war in Syria in religious, not political terms: the Ba’ath party has “insulted God” by making a holy figure of Assad.

This sermon was given in the tense context of Tripoli, but an identical message has been spreading far from any sectarian battleground- in Paris, Chicago and London, via websites and videos. Must watch- Emotional and powerful, shouts the first hit on youtube for the search “Free Syria”. The description, in all caps, begins “please spread this video for the sake of Allah.” The uploader’s sensational name, WakeUptheUmmah, invokes not the country of Syria but a global Islamic community, a term used in different contexts, to mean dramatically different things. Ummah can mean congregation, a close-knit community of worshippers; it can also mean, to political Islamists, the basis

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of a future state, the reborn Islamic caliphate for which al Qaeda is fighting and killing.

The video shows Assad’s shabiha, infamous for exceptional cruelty, forcing a captured prisoner to say “there is no God but Bashar”- a sacrilegious substitute for the Islamic testimony of faith, “There is no God but God”. The symbolic importance of this humiliation cannot be underestimated. From Stalin’s Soviet Union to Kim Jong Un’s North korea, most modern tyrants have seen the advantage of becoming Gods, demanding, not just a lack

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of dissent but an expression of worship from their citizens. In this general desire, Assad is hardly exceptional. But religious devotion remains, in Syria, is not just a central part of life, it has been, for several decades, a central part of political life. Secular dissidents have shown a lonely variety heroism; Riad al-Turk, a former communist turned democrat, is one of the longest-serving political prisoners in the world; but the most effective opposition was the Muslim Brotherhood, and the most effective meeting point for activists was the local mosque- which is why so many of the protests in 2011, when Islamist rhetoric was still rare, started in front of mosques and were held after Friday prayers. By combining literal brutality with symbolic sacrilege, the Syrian regime is giving the jihadists, a PR victory.

The sectarian reality in Syria- in which an Alawite dynasty ruled a majority Sunni country- is not as simple and linear as often assumed. There are Alawites and Christians who have supported the opposition from the beginning, and Sunni businessman and clerics who have stayed with Assad through his darkest hour. most Alawite villages- with the exception of Assad, senior’s birthplace- have remained impoverished and destitute. but the simplified perception of a clash between Sunnis and Alawites, the Islamist narrative of heretics oppressing true muslims, has become an ideological weapon for jihadist recruiters.

This narrative has transformed the struggle against Assad- from a national struggle against dictatorship to a globalized struggle against a regime perceived as heretical.. A popular rebellion, rooted in Syria’s own history, has been converted into the latest front in a global holy war.

By exploiting communal fears to foster politicized hatred, jihadists in Lebanon have gained unprecedented influence, challenging not just Hezbollah but the moderate Sunni Future movement. “Paradoxical liberalism” is now in retreat, overshadowed by the rhetoric of communal loyalty. The same is becoming true, with yet crueler consequences, in Syria itself.

Legitimate concerns about the rise of extremists

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are not an excuse for American or European inaction; they are the glaring indictment of where that inaction has already led. Assad and al Qaeda are enemies with a

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common enemy. They are both desperate to bring about, whatever the price in suffering, an irreversible defeat of Syria’s democrats. In April 2014, as jihadists expanded their influence in northern Syria, Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a demand to the opposition- that they create an Islamic emirate in rebel-held areas. The political head of the FSA, Luay al-Meqdad, issued a curt and decisive reply. “The Syrian people launched the revolution, not Ayman al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda. Therefore, he and others have no right to impose their state on Syrians. George Sabra, head of the Syrain national Council, expressed a similar conviction: “Al Qaeda does not represent any component of the Syrian people. What al Zawahiri and others in al Qaeda are calling for has no place in Syria.”

But al Qaeda has already acquired a place in Syria; it controls large swathes of land along the Turkish border, because unlike the FSA and the Syrian Revolutionary Front, the radical Islamists in Syria have the weapons they need to win battles. Not arming moderate rebels has empowered their dangerous competitors in the Al-Nusra front and ISIS. The danger for the west is long-term and far-off- that someday, years or decades from now, the Europeans fighting in Syria will return to their hometowns, more brainwashed than when they left and ready to kill their fellow citizens. The danger for Syria and its neighbors is much more immediate: acting on a brutal ideology that sees Alawites and Shia as heretics, they are turning a struggle for freedom into a choice between two forms of terror. Much of the blame for this can be divided between Assad and al-Zawahiri, but America’s non-interventionism has not helped.

Islamophobia on the left: Jeremy Scahill on the Balkans

April 8th, 2014

Jeremy Scahill’s recent fame is based on his work in Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, revealing the human and strategic dangers of America’s drone program. His appearance on best-sellers lists has made him an intellectual celebrity, not just on the far left but in the mainstream center. A former reporter for Democracy Now and a current columnist for the Nation, he has been a regular guest of Rachel Maddow and other liberal pundits. Chris Hayes, introducing Scahill on a Hardball discussion of Syria, described him as one of the “greatest reporters on national security we have.” But in their rush to acclaim a new star of progressive journalism, too many commentators have ignored his worrying record.

Reporting from Belgrade and Pristina in 1999, he portrayed Serbia’s regime as a victim of aggression, rather than the primary culprit for a decade of wars and massacres. As James Kirchick writes in Commentary magazine, “Scahill’s work…was focused almost exclusively on isolated incidents of violence committed by ethnic Albanians—to the exclusion of the vast, methodical ethnic-cleansing campaign carried out by the Serbs.” In addition to omitting some facts, Scahill has distorted others, portraying the Balkans as a hotbed of Islamic radicalism. Thus, a central paradox emerges in Scahill’s career: while now campaigning against the war on terror waged by democracies, he has portrayed real atrocities, even attempted genocide, as a justified response to jihadist threats- in a part of the world where no jihadist threat existed.

“Extremist Albanians”? Discrediting NATO by any means necessary
The International Socialist Review is a bimonthly leftist journal, published by a nonprofit called the Center for Economic Research and Social change. In this small but serious magazine, in October 2000, Scahill published

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a scathing critique of post-intervention Kosovo.

The article starts the clock in late 1999, after Milosevic’s troops had withdrawn and a transitional government was being established. In exchange for a NATO presence that would protect the region from Milosevic, the KLA had agreed to disarm. Many of its members had returned to civilian life or been recruited into the new agencies established by the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK. One of these was a police-force in training called Kosovo protection corps. Scahill saw the KPC as an indictment of UNMIK and NATO, its ethnic composition- almost entirely Albanian- at odds with the stated ideal of a “multiethnic Kosovo”.

This lack of diversity was underlined in the KPC’s founding ceremony, which was supposed to be bilingual, with speeches in both Serbian

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and Albanian. the KPC’s recruits, and their families, demanded a monolingual event. They didn’t want to hear what they viewed as the language of their oppressors. Refusing to hold the ceremony in Serbian, as well as Albanian, did nothing to assure ordinary Serbs of their place in a new Kosovo. But the relatives’ angry protest was not petty bigotry, as Scahill portrays it. The Serbian language was associated, for some, with dictatorship in Belgrade and the crimes it perpetrated in Kosovo. Every action has a reaction, but every reaction has a catalyst.

It was not just its lack of diversity that made the KPC suspect. Scahill spends several paragraphs discussing the record of its first commander Agim Ceku,who would eventually be arrested in Bulgaria in 2009. Ceku had served as a mercenary in the Croatian army, and was wanted for war crimes committed in 1993, when Croatian nationalists expelled hundreds of thousands of Serbs from the Krajina region. Under his leadership the KPC turned a deliberate blind eye to attacks on Serbian monuments and churches. “In tactics reminiscent of American tactics in central Ameica”, Scahill writes, “extremist Albanians have made the Serbian orthodox church a major target of attacks…according to the office of the patriarch, more than a hundred churches and monasteries have been plundered, vandalized burnt or leveled.”

From the reports on Albanian crimes in the aftermath of intervention, Scahill does not merely that intervention was badly managed, that UNMIK failed to protect all of Kosovo’s citizens. What he concludes is that the status quo ante should’ve been respected, preserved, by the world community: a Milosevic-ruled Kosovo from which Albanians were being ethnically cleansed, in which thousands of people, before being deported, were subject to torture and rape- this was preferable to the aftermath of NATO involvement.

But Washington’s Men in Kosovo is disturbing for yet another reason. In this bitter critique of what he terms NATO’s “reign of terror”, he makes no mention of the events that triggered NATO’s intervention. Human Rights Watch reported in October 1998, when the KLA’s rebellion began, that the Serbian army was subjecting civilian women to mass rape, repeating the cruel strategy used in Bosnia 4 years earlier, where torture and sexual violence had been recognized as effective means of inflicting terror. By April 1999, when NATO started bombing Belgrade, thousands of civilian men had, in the brutal phrase, “disappeared”- imprisoned in hellish camps or killed outright. Like in Bosnia, the anonymous graves are still being found; the latest was uncovered in December 2013. These extremes of cruelty, murder and violation, were only the worst aspects of a larger crime, the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of hundreds of thousands of people. Washington’s Men in Kosovo mentions none of this. It is not hard to understand why. It becomes much harder, knowing the extent of Milosevic’s crimes, to see western intervention as the main, or even the sole, evil.

“Admit you’re a Muslim extremist”: propaganda and fact

Most of Scahill’s work, in the last decade, has concerned the American-led war on terror. But several times since 9/11, his focus on the middle east has been interrupted by important events in Europe. The death of Slobodan Milosevic in 2006, and Kosovo’s independence in 2008, prompted Scahill to revisit his earlier views.

In the early 90s when Serbian forces were decimating Bosnia, Jeremy Scahill was a student at the University of Wisconsin; in 1995, the year made infamous by the slaughter at Srebrenica, he decided to drop out and “enter the struggle for justice in this country”. Inspired by the activist priest Phillip Berrigan, he spent the next few years devoting himself to various causes – investigating abuses by oil companies in the Niger delta and joining a dramatic sit-in at Andrews Air Force base.

Thus in the horrible decade leading up to war in Kosovo, it is safe to say that Scahill’s attention was quite far from the Balkans. His trips to Belgrade and Kosovo in 1999, as a new correspondent for the leftist network Democracy Now, was his first extensive encounter with the former Yugoslavia. He approached the conflict with a firmly engrained bias, not against Muslims but against whatever was said by the mainstream media in his own country, and whatever policies were adapted by its centrist president.

Up till 2006, though, Scahill’s main focus had been on Kosovo. He had said and written almost nothing about the longer, crueller war earlier in Bosnia. This changed in 2006. When Milosevic died at the Hague that year, Scahill took issue with how his death was depicted in the media. In a short passionate article, titled “Rest Easy Clinton, Milosevic can’t talk anymore”, he argues that had he lived longer, the defendant, could’ve become the plaintiff. Milosevic was “in the unique position of being able to expose the…US role in the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.”, and to “bring justice” for the NATO bombing of Belgrade.

(This bombing campaign, Scahill reminds his readers, lasted a total of 78 days. The number is supposed to shock. To put things in some perspective, the siege of Sarajevo- for which Milosevic was directly responsible- lasted 11,825 days, longer than the siege of Stalingrad.)

He then describes the ICTY, the UN-run tribunal which was trying Milosevic when he died, as a “poor and unfair substitute for a true international court”; he further accuses this ‘unfair’ court of practicing “victors justice.”
Since it opened in Noember 1993, hundreds of witnesses have testified to the ICTY. Many of them have remained anonymous, choosing to be identified by letters and numbers- witness VV, or witness 50. The reason for this is depressingly simple: the nationalist forces that plunged Bosnia into war are still active and powerful in the Republika Sprska; they still have the easy ability to threaten and terrorize. Challenging the court’s legitimacy, as Scahill does, implies that massive evidence can be discarded. Victors’ justice is by definition unobjective; it implies the exact opposite of credible legal judgment. If a court is practicing victors’ justice, and not actual justice, it follows that the verdicts are invalid and those convicted have been framed.

In 1992, when Serbian paramilitaries took over the town of Prijedor, the first people they rounded up were professionals and the intelligentsia. Among them a female judge named Nusreta Sivac, who was imprisoned in Omarska and repeatedly raped. After being released in a prisoner exchange she spent the next ten years collecting testimonies from other women across Bosnia, who like her subjected to horrible abuse. This led to the indictment of 8 military leaders and a groundbreaking ruling by the ICTY, which designates rape a war crime. According to Scahill’s argument, that ruling is victor’s justice. But in this inverted logic, the survivors of genocide are the victors, simply because they’re allowed to testify about what happened to them.

Scahill does not end by attacking the international legal system. A few paragraphs later, we come upon this:
“Little attention, therefore, has been paid to Milosevic’s long-term efforts…to expose the presence of al-Qaeda in the Balkans, from Bosnia to Kosovo. Following the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, many mujahedin eventually turned their sights on Yugoslavia, where they went to fight alongside the Bosnian Muslims against the Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats.”

Two French journalists, Isabelleh Weiselling and Aurnaud Vaulerin, have written a detailed account of the ethnic cleansing campaign in Prijedor- a small city in northwest Bosnia about the size of Madison, Wisconsin. They interviewed survivors of three concentration camps on the city’s outskirts, where Muslim civilians were imprisoned in 1992. From these accounts and from interviews with former guards, they have built a comprehensive, terrible picture of what life was like in Omarska, Karaterm and Tronopolje. Since most of the victims were ordinary people, the ‘interrogations’ they were subjected to were essentially a pretext for torture. There was no reason for guards to ask them actual questions; doctors, professors and restaurant workers wouldn’t know military secrets. Instead they shouted things like this: “Admit you’re a Muslim extremist. Admit you organized a rebellion.”

Long before actual jihadis set foot in the country, Serbian media promoted hysteria about an Islamist threat. Florence Hartmann, a correspondent for Le Monde, explains how this worked:” Belgrade television made out that the Serb people were again under threat in Kosovo, Croatia and Bosnia. Overwhelmed by…propaganda that inverted reality…the population backed Slobadan Milosevic’s criminal scheme or sank into indifference and apathy.” The claim that Bosniaks were fundamentalists was indeed a case of inverting reality. Alija Izetbegovic, Bosnia’s wartime president and founder of the Democratic Action party, said “a non-secular Bosnia would be a nightmare.” Like many European countries, more so because of the legacy of communism- Bosnia had a remarkably low level of religious observance; Muslim was an ethnic identity more than a religious one. All these facts had to be denied to construct an Islamist threat where none existed.

Yet as Serb nationalists acted against this imaginary threat, the war they unleashed made it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thousands of fundamentalists came from across the middle east to Bosnia, some out of religious solidarity and some out of political calculation, seeing an opportunity to spread their radical ideology. These mujahedeen included al Qaeda members from Afghanistan, two of whom would later become infamous as 9/11 hijackers.

Thus it is true, in a technical sense, that al Qaeda had a ‘presence in the Balkans,’ that foreign Islamists were fighting ‘alongside the Bosnian Muslims against Orthodox Serbs.’ What Scahill neglects to explain is why Bosnian Muslims were “fighting Orthodox Serbs” in the first place. They were fighting were for survival against an army that was committing genocide, that had thrown Muslim civilians in concentration camps. Even when it accepted help from foreign jihadists, the regular Bosnian army did not embrace their ideology; it was loyal to the elected government of a secular state, a form of governance that al Qaeda views as heretical.

This was not the last time Scahill would raise the alarm about jihadists in Bosnia. Invited to speak at a conference in Chicago called “Socialism 2006”, he gave a talk entitled “the Myth of Humanitarian intervention”. In the question and answer session, he turned to another theme, ‘blowback.’ Like his earlier comments in Rest Easy, Clinton, these brief remarks construct a picture at odds with reality.

“I think it’s a matter of time before we have blowback from what the United States did in Bosnia. There’s this phenomena, it’s actually a racist term but it’s the term that’s being used- ‘white al Qaeda.’ You have a very heavy Wahhabi influence in Bosnia, and you have a small but not insignificant minority of people in Bosnia who really are in sync with a sort of Islamic, uh, militant agenda. And those people could very easily integrate into western European capitals. I think there is a real legitimate potential for blowback for US support of these forces in

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Bosnia.”

Well, as the Duke of Wellington said: if you’ll believe that, you’ll believe anything. in suggesting that Bosnia is a hotbed of radical Islam, he echoes the wartime claims of Radovan Karadzic, who told western reporters “we’re fighting Muslim fundamentalism.” In blaming this alleged extremism on American policy, he shows the lengths to which he’s willing to go to make the case against intervention; when the facts suggest that intervention was a moral necessity, he has no problem omitting some and inventing others.

Barbara Demick, in her account of the siege of Sarajevo, noted that as the war went on, she noticed a slight but discernable increase in public religiosity- more people attending prayers, an occasional woman wearing a headscarf. That trend of a quiet revival has continued over the last two decades. “More than half a dozen madrasas, or Islamic high schools, have been built in the last few years”, reportd the New York Times in 2008. The most obvious evidence of Wahhabism in Bosnia is new mosques built by Saudi donors. Unlike older mosques, many of them dynamited during the war, these new buildings are built in a bland, austere style, since elaborate Ottoman-era architecture is viewed by the Saudi establishment as heretical.

There are less benign developments as well. An attack on a gay pride parade, men shouted ‘God is great” and “kill the gays”. (Gay pride parades in Belgrade have been similarly disrupted.)

These facts would appear to testify to some Wahhabi influence. Yet Stephen Schwartz, in his book the Two faces of Islam, documents just how much resistance the Wahhabis have faced, from the traditional religious establishment, which is theologically liberal and heavily influenced by Sufism, and by a political scene dominated by secular parties. Far from having undue influence, the Wahhabis

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have alienated the people they were hoping to convert. Mustafa Ceric, the highest religious authority in the country, asserts that wahhabism has no future in Bosnia.

There is no Bosnian equivalent of the Muslim brotherhood, pushing for a de facto theocracy and winning massive support at the polls; the largest Bosniak political party, the Party of Democratic Action, is by any measure one of the most pro-American in Europe. Former education minister Emir Suljagic, has likened Bosnia’s struggle for survival to that of the Jewish state. Scahill would not be impressed, of course, by the SDA’s support for sending troops to Iraq (which Serbian parties opposed), or by Suljagic’s sympathies with Israel. But the political reality in Bosnia testifies to the disastrous failure of the Islamists. In purely religious terms, Sufi tradition is stronger than wahhabist prosletyzing, and in political terms, Bosnia’s theocrats are as relevant as America’s socialists.

The ‘blowback’ of inaction
But Scahill is not just wrong in exaggerating ‘Wahhabist influence in Bosnia.” He is also wrong in attributing it to American intervention, which came, late and minimal, in August 1995, with a few airstrikes on Serbian arms depots and communications. The very appearance of the mujahadeen, and the Bosnian army’s reluctant willingness to work with them, in the worst days of the war, stemmed precisely from non-intervention on the part of the west. The lack of any support from Europe or America made the help offered by foreign extremists impossible to refuse.
In addition to practical necessity there was another factor at work- the psychological shock of betrayal. It could not have been hard to reach the conclusion, in besieged Sarajevo or behind the barbed wire at Omarska, that the world’s inaction was an expression of deep hatred. Europe and America, it would have seemed, did not value Muslim life.

There has been a disturbing allignment, in debates about the Balkans, between the ‘anti-imperialism’ of the left and the blatant bigotry of the right. Pamela Geller, A tea party activist, banned from the UK for hate speech, writes that Ratko Mladic was waging a “struggle against Islamic imperialism.” Few on the left are obsessing over “Islamic imperialism”, its American imperialism they’re worried about, but the mental gymnastics are the same. Geller’s worldview, in which Islam is innately evil, requires that every conflict in which Muslims are involved be the fault of Muslims. Scahill’s worldview, in which American foreign policy accounts for most of the world’s problems, requires American intervention to be the greatest evil in all conflicts. Both arguments, to be sustained, have to be supported through lies: Milosevic has to have been framed, Srebrenica has to have been exaggerated, Bosnians have to be “in sync”, as Scahill alleged, with “an Islamic militant agenda” that threatens the “capitals of western Europe.”

Sarajevo and Manhattan
But if anyone shared a worldview with Bin laden, it was the snipers on Mount Trebevic shooting at civilians in Sarajevo. The similarities go deeper than a general contempt for life. When trying to explain why Manhattan was targeted for mass murder, some commentators, including the president, talked vaguely about freedom. Others talked about the evils of American empire. But one of the most compelling explanations was the ‘way of life’ New York embodies. It is a cosmopolitan city if there ever was one, uniquely American precisely because it is so diverse. Normal interactions among cultures were anathema to bin Laden, for the same exact reason they were anathema to Radovan Karadzic. The mosques in Banja Luka were destroyed for the same reason as the Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan.
Christopher Hitchens, speaking of Serbian nationalism, described his fear that “the forces of fanaticism, of hatred” were again on the march. They were and still are. To begin to confront them requires a sober approach to history.
Sovereignty over human rights?
Two years after Milosevic died, Kosovo declared independence. Scahill responded promptly with an article in the Huffington Post, republished on Counterpunch, a website with a long history of apologetics for Serbian nationalism. (“Srebrenica revisited” is a textbook case of genocide denial.) He opened with a sarcastic line bound to appeal to liberal readers: “newsflash, the Bush administration acknowledges there is something called international law.” Incensed that President Bush had acknowledged Kosovo as a new state, Serbian nationalists in Belgrade had surrounded the American embassy, attempting to burn it. When the Belgrade police showed reluctance to disrupt the mob, an American official expressed outrage- pointing out that the embassy was technically American territory. So, Scahill argued, America was asserting its sovereignty, saying no patch of its territory, even an embassy, could be attacked without there being consequences. What irony, since Serbia was a sovereign country, and American intervention in Kosovo had been a violation of tis sovereignty.
Scahill’s thesis can be demolished by two letters and a number. Responsibility to protect, abbreviated R2P, is a legal norm ratified by the United Nations General Assembly, part of an honorable attempt to update international law, so that state sovereignty does not become a sanction for genocide. When Milosevic began “cleansing” Kosovo of its Albanian majority, he forfeited sovereignty over the ‘province’. There are moral limits to what can be tolerated in the name of

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Scahill’s statements on Bosnia and Kosovo raise serious ethical questions- about his credibility as a journalist, and his decency as a political commentator. Out of respect for

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his current work or amnesia over the recent past, critics of American foreign policy have taken little notice of his record, pretending his real career started in 2001, and that nothing he said about the Balkans has any relevance. This approach, while convenient, is morally dangerous.
The 1990s saw the return of fascism in Europe, and the failure by the world’s democracies to prevent genocide. The longer the facts are blurred- by claims, like Scahill’s, that Serbs defending themselves from al Qaeda- the harder it becomes to acknowledge their implications.

Fahrenheit 99: Michael Moore, Kosovo and Iraq

March 23rd, 2014

When Fahrenheit 9/11 was playing in theatres around the world, winning politically charged praise at the Cannes film festival, American conservatives were almost unanimous in their outrage- and with legitimate reasons, considering some of the film’s arguments. Painting a dramatic portrait of the days before march 20, the film showed images from Baghdad fit for a charming tourist brochure- kids eating ice cream, a smiling couple getting married. Then, to embody the brutal shift- from idyllic peace to terrible war- it showed a dead child being lifted into a truck by her father.

Showing the reality of war would not have been wrong in itself, even if used to encourage nausea, rather than reflection, but the dishonest portrait of Iraq under Ba’athist rule, as a country of theme parks and weddings, rather than mass graves, not only distorted the facts, but openly contradicted them.

Plenty of rational critiques had been made of the war itself, and the distortions employed to sway a frightened public into supporting it; but any examination of the reality in Iraq, unless it starts the political clock in 2003, will encounter historical realities that serve to complicate those critiques. Deciding the war was a mistake,

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and condemning the president that made that mistake, does not require adapting a binary tunnel vision of history; but replacing rational objections with emotional outrage, as sections of the antiwar movement eagerly did, required either ignoring, or simply lying about, Iraqi history. Its possible to oppose a war against a brutal dictatorship, but its hard to feel very good about doing so- unless you pretend, as in Fahrenheit 9/11, that the dictatorship in question was not that brutal at all.

It was certainly impolite to say, as one book title claims, that “Michael Moore is a big fat stupid white man”. But what is even more disturbing is that, because of political calculation, criticism of Moore’s film came almost exclusively by the right. It was imperative to all Americans, with shared democratic values and a revulsion for tyranny, to protest the blatant whitewashing of Saddam’s dictatorship, to be just as angry when Moore lied to us as when Bush did.

But 2004 was an election year, and liberals were angry. Understandably or wrongly- and possibly both- the most sensible centrists decided the Iraq war had been a catastrophe- not necessarily for Iraq, freed from a fascist regime, but certainly for American soldiers and the average taxpayer. And they realized like good politicians, that it could also be a catastrophe for the president. Antiwar sentiment, if properly appealed to, could translate into pro-Kerry sentiment- and that it was cynically hoped, could make Bush a one-term president.

Thus it was easy for conservatives to see Moore as doing Kerry’s dirty work, slandering the commander in chief as no respectable candidate could. But for all the acclaim he received from the democrats, Moore was no democrat. Nor was the war in Iraq the first he’d opposed, or Saddam Hussein the first dictator he’d whitewashed.

In 1999, as his term was nearing its end, Bill Clinton started a widely unpopular war. A noted Fox News anchor said “Kosovo is the next Vietnam”; Joe Scarborough agreed, saying “They’re going to be there for 10, 15, maybe 20 years.” And on April 15, as Michael Moore filed his taxes, he wrote a lengthy letter that started with ‘Dear friends.” Addressed to left-wing viewers of his TV nation, it explained his deeps objections to NATO airstrikes in Serbia, funded, he pointed out, by his tax dollars. The letter offered various arguments against intervention, ending with a three-step proposal for ending the conflict diplomatically. In the process of making the case against war, Moore used the same techniques that would feature in Fahrenheit 9/11, several years later- just as he’d portrayed Saddam’s Iraq as a country of peaceful weddings, he described the war in Kosovo in terms that were patently counterfactual, obscuring Milosevic’s crimes by alluding to age-old hatreds.

Moore’s letter opened on a note of moral disgust- “millions of dollars of bombs and missiles”, he wrote, were “being used to kill the people of the former Yugoslavia.” This passing description of events was a very serious distortion; American planes were bombing Belgrade and Pristina, crippling Serbia’s military, precisely to stop that military from killing” the people of the former Yugoslavia”- specifically, the people of Kosovo- who since 1989 had been subject to virtual apartheid. The region’s Albanian majority, 90% of the population, had been banned from schools and universities, and denied access to healthcare; starting in 1998, the province was represented, in Milosevic’s rubber-stamp parliament, by one Zelko Raznatovic, known by his nomme de guerre, “Arkan”. Arkan had spent the first half of the decade leading a brutal Serb militia in Bosnia; when the Dayton accords ended the war, he relocated to Kosovo. As repression continued and worsened throughout the decade, a once-peaceful independence movement had turned to violence, forming the Kosovo Liberation Army. It was at this point that what is known as the Kosovo war began. Milosevic used the KLA’s growth as a pretext for ethnic cleansing (Radovan Karadzic’s euphemism for arson and murder), subjecting Albanian civilians to the same crimes perpetrated in Bosnia.

Moore described American intervention as a “slaughter conducted in your name and mine.” But the slaughter in Kosovo was had started, a year before NATO did anything. It was the slaughter of civilians by the Serbian army that catalyzed the US to take action. Perhaps he thought the American response was just as brutal as what provoked it- indeed, he compares the bombing of Belgrade to the Allied bombing of Dresden, to prove that bombing never works as a military tactic. But precision bombing, used effectively in Kosovo for the first time, resulted in far fewer civilian casualties than any previous war.

After asking about the people of Serbia- “have they threatened you in any way?” (no, but their brutal government has threatened plenty of other people”- after asking one rhetorical question, he imagines a possible counterargument. “But Mike”, he imagines his readers saying, ‘this Milosevic is a bad guy. He’s committing genocide.”

This perception, Moore explained, was completely false. ‘We know that Clinton is lying to us.” What was occurring in Kosovo was not the systemic murder of civilians, the destruction of entire towns, and the forced exodus, at gunpoint of 300,000 people. Or rather, even though this was occurring, it wasn’t as simple as it looked- because behind the dramatic headlines lay an old back-story.

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“Two groups of people”, the Serbian army and Albanian rebels, were “carrying on their centuries-old mission to annihilate each other”. This it must be said, was not a very original statement. It was a regurgitation of the most popular myth about Kosovo, which a few years earlier had been the most popular myth about Bosnia.

Balkanism and false equivalence
“The story told here is not one I wish to believe or tell.” These are the opening words of The Bridge Betrayed: religion and genocide in Bosnia. The author is a Serbian-American, raised in the Orthodox Church, appalled at how faith and nationalism, with their interwoven mythologies, had been invoked by Serbian leaders to defend genocide. Most of the book concerns the evolution of hatred; the last chapter deals with he evolution of indifference. The preferred explanation of the war among western leaders, seizing on a rationale for avoiding intervention, was rooted it a set of falsehoods that Sells calls “Balkanism”.

Balkanism, essentially, is the theory of eternal hatreds. Neither instinctive judgments about right and wrong, nor the legal categories of aggressor and aggresse, can have any meaning in the warring societies of the Balkans, because this one region of the world is like no other. People there have always hated each other, and always will, a predisposition to murder amounts to a permanent curse. Such

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a theory cannot withstand much analysis; Serbs and Bosniaks may have had tense relations for century, but so had the Germans and the French, and the Poles and the Russians. But World War II was not the Franco-Prussian war. Hitler’s invasion of Poland was different from Bismark’s.

But Balkanism, Sells explains, is not about serious analysis; it’s a “dehumanizing discourse”, depending on public ignorance and indifference, to “explain the refusal by the NATO powers to stop the killings”. Eventually, of course, NATO decided to stop the killings- but it did so far too late, in the fourth year of war and genocide. And in the four years between the Dayton accords and the war in Kosovo, at least some political leaders started to realize this: concerned if not for his principles for his place in history, Clinton decided the lessons of Bosnia was to act early, and forcefully, to prevent genocide from starting, rather than struggling to end it once it had begun.

Michael Moore was right when he said “there is no Holocaust” in Kosovo; what he ignored, and what Clinton remembered, was there had been a holocaust in Bosnia, in Omarska and Trnopolje, in Foca and Tuzla. One could pray, with no evidence, that Milosevic had changed overnight, that exterminating ‘Serbia’s enemies’ was no longer his priority; but this was to pretend that violence was indeed arbitrary, springing from “true madness” and not from something much worse. Individual murders, individual rapes, individual crimes can be the products of madness. When that madness becomes a policy, a non-negotiable order to obedient conscripts, the language used to make it possible acquires a force of its own.

The slogan of Tito’s Yugoslavia was “brotherhood and unity”- a narrow brotherhood to be sure, including only good proletarians, and a limited, repressive unity of the party line; but it was a political model indifferent, and scornful of ethnic distinctions, which Milosevic replaced- destroyed- with a model based solely on those distinctions. The goal was not just a larger Serbia, covering more territory, but an ethnically purified country, with Muslims either expelled or killed. Ethnic cleansing, in other words, was an end in itself, bolstered in theory and action by an entire national mythology. If Bosnian Muslims could be portrayed as “Christ-killers”, guilty by descent and genetics in the ‘Serbian Golgotha” at Kosovo, it was inevitable that the same charge would made against Kosovar Albanians as well, that the same myths would be repeated, and the same crimes.

In arguing intervention was unnecessary- because there was not yet

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a holocaust in Kosovo- he showed either amnesia, or indifference, towards the lessons of Bosnia.

Peacekeepers and Patriarchs
But Moore’s letter to his fans was not just a letter of protest. He had concrete alternatives of his own to the crisis in Kosovo; the first was predictable enough- “stop the bombing”. The second, in 1999, must’ve been truly astonishing to read: “get the Russians in there to be peacekeepers.” Russian troops would eventually come to Kosovo as peacekeepers, as part of an international NATO force deployed at the end of the war- to keep the peace after Serbian forces had withdrawn from the region, this reluctant withdrawal a consequence of NATO bombing. But Moore was not proposing sending peacekeepers when the Serbian army had left- he was suggesting that, right then and there, while Kosovo was still under Milosevic’s grip, UN peacekeepers would be able to stop mass slaughter.

This was less than four years after the genocide at Srebrenica. That city had been “safe area” established by international agreement, where UN troops were stationed to protect refugees- most of whom had come there precisely because it was a “safe area”, because they trusted the UN when it vowed to protect them. On July 11, after successfully conquering the town, Ratko Mladic’s troops rounded up the civilians who had fled there. They divided the men from the women. 8000 male civilians, some as young as 12, were murdered.

The Dutch soldiers in blue helmets were not cowards; they were obedient soldiers, who’d been ordered not to take sides. They could only fire their weapons if their lives were in danger. The phrase used to describe them could not have been more dishonest- they were forbidden from keeping the peace, precisely because they couldn’t use force.

The third suggestion in Moore’s solution seems, on the surface, the most sensible. “Let the Orthodox Church play a major role in bringing about the peace”. Picturing a Serbian equivalent of Desmond Tutu, he says a ‘strong move by the patriarch” could end the

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repression and violence against Albanians. But far from a neutral observer with the potential to act as a helpful mediator, church officials had proven vocal supporters of genocide. Invoking the motifs of faith, it justified mass murder, and having incited atrocities, it denied them, and defended the perpetrators.

“In Trebinje” writes Michael Sells explains in the Bridge Betrayed, “an orthodox priest led the way in expelling a Muslim family and seizing their home. Trebinje’s 500-year old mosque and elegant Turkish-style buildings were burned and its Muslim population killed and expelled immediately following celebrations of the fast day of St. Sava, the founder of the Serbian church.” Fueling violence by dehumanizing Muslims, the church leant prestige and legitimacy to the architects of mass murder: “On Orthodox Easter Sunday 1993, metropolitan Nikolaj, the highest-ranking Serb orthodox church official in Bosnia, stood between Radovan Karadzic and general Ratko Mladic and spoke of the Bosnian Serbs under their leadership as following the hard road of Christ.”

A church that encouraged genocide- and portrayed it as “the hard road of Christ”- could not have a meaningful role in bringing peace to Kosovo, anymore that it had a role in bringing peace to Bosnia.

Had Moore been writing his list of suggestions in 1992, when the public stances of church leaders had yet to be documented, at least in English, his well-meaning proposal would have deserved attention and reflection. But this 3-point proposal was written in 1999, when the church’s role in genocide had been catalogued ad nauseum. If Moore didn’t realize this, he shouldn’t have been writing about Kosovo.

Moore was not alone in opposing intervention in Kosovo. A contributor to Mother Jones argued it was imperative to oppose both NATO and Milosevic; renowned historian Howard Zinn, while acknowledging “what is happening to the Kosovo people is heartrending”, condemned the NATO bombing and the idea of an independent Kosovo, saying the region ‘would have to settle for some sort of autonomy.” The type of autonomy that Milosevic had revoked in 1989? Edward Said, speaking to students at Columbia University, warned against the false choice between fascism and war- one could oppose ethnic cleansing and also oppose the war to stop it. But the choice between fascism and war is not always avoidable.

It was American air power that imposed a bitter peace through the Dayton accords, bombing the Serbs until they finally stopped bombing the Bosnians. A similar use of force, the “millions of dollars of bombs” that Moore was protesting, would prove the decisive factor in ending the massacres in Kosovo.

1999 was a divisive year for the left- and a transformative year. It made much sharper and much more obvious the cleavage between liberals and progressives, between those who know American power can been misused, and those who think American power is always misused.

A full decade has passed since the release of Fehrenheit 9/11, which whitewashed Ba’athist Iraq with snapshots of weddings and merry-go-rounds. That cinematic distortion was an extreme within a larger trend: the will to ignorance about crimes other than ours. From a generational reaction to Vietnam, a selfish, quasi-imperial war, the left developed its own brand of American exceptionalism. The first thing to criticize, in a crisis, is how America responds to the crisis, and the first actors to criticize, in a foreign conflict, are those supported by the US.

Michael Moore, in 1999, was preoccupied with denouncing a war, because he had adapted, long before, an ideological premise: that supporting any intervention means aligning oneself with the main

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enemy- which is not Milosevic, or Assad, but the military-corporate alliance. Setting out with this ideological premise, he refused to examine the war in Kosovo in its meaningful context. He did not take full account, for instance, of what Milosevic had done in Bosnia; of the past effectiveness of peacekeepers; or the role of the Orthodox church in fueling hatred (the military-religious complex?).

Its fine to oppose intervention against brutal regimes, on the grounds that they haven’t attacked us or that Bush lied. What is not fine is denying that things are really that bad, that evil is really being committed- by describing the Kosovo conflict as a virtual blood feud, or by reducing Saddam’s Iraq to weddings and ice cream cones. Be anti-interventionist; but at least be historically honest.

Dishonest fiction: history and omissions

January 17th, 2014

In a 2005 article in the Boston review, Natasha Radojcic-Kane describes the genesis of her first novel, Homecoming. Several years into an MFA program, working on a prospective fantasy series, she realized her literary experiments had grown disconnected from her life. In the first grim half of the 90s, her mother’s family had been trapped in besieged Sarajevo, and four years later, after the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo by Serbian forces, her uncle in Belgrade lived through NATO bombings, making nightly calls from a neighbor’s apartment to confirm he was still alive. (The phone lines in Sarajevo had been cut at the start of the siege.) One night, in 1999, during the 7-week war, she sat down at her desk, and wrote a particularly memorable sentence. It described a soldier on a bus, returning to his hometown, wearing an uncomfortably hot sweater. He couldn’t take it off, because his scar would disturb the other passengers. The returning soldier became the protagonist in her first novel.

Halid joined the Bosnian army in 1992, and fought in the defense of Sarajevo; after a bullet entered his shoulder he was sent to a crowded hospital, only to be evicted to make room for more urgent cases. In 1995 when the Dayton Accords ended the war, he had been in the surreal position of hiding from the Sarajevo police, who were forcing former soldiers to return to their own hometowns. Sleeping in half-destroyed buildings and carrying his father’s pistol, his increasing nervousness led to the grimmest scene of the novel. Seeing a person’s shadow, he had instinctively opened fire. “How he regretted that shot”.

A certain colonel from Halid’s village, in solidarity with his troops and the besieged population, had moved his entire family to Sarajevo at the start of the war. His teenage daughter, “defiant like her father”, had personified the spirit of resistance by walking, in bright colors, through the otherwise deserted streets- “tempting fate and the

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snipers” with her own fearlessness. Now, when the war was over, she died because of a fatal mistake.

But Halid’s moral reckoning- and his fear that his crime will be discovered- is only a marginal theme in the novel. Of much greater importance, to the author, is the comparably normal village to which Halid returns. An unnamed town surrounded by the Dinara mountains, where a communist-era irrigation plan had gone woefully wrong, we are told it was one of the only towns in Bosnia not conquered by Serbian forces-

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who in early 1992 had occupied 2/3 of the country’s territory. It is this remarkable anamoly that the novel is built around.

Halid’s former girlfriend is a Serb named Mira, who was forced, in the weeks before the war, to marry his childhood friend Momir- who was then killed by a mine while fighting on the outskirts of Sarajevo- on the Serbian natioanlist side. Halid has learned of his death, and is tormented by a grim possibility- that the mine that killed Momir was one of the ones his unit planted. So Instead of going home, he pauses at Mira’s window, watching, unnoticed, as she washes dishes and plays with her son. A night later, they meet in secret in what used to be his grandparents’ apple orchard, confiscated by communist authorities and now effectively ownerless. Mira is still in love with him, but is bitter and suspicious. A few days before her (forced) wedding, she had tried to contact with Halid, but he had gone out of his way to avoid her. Her marriage to Momir, he felt, was inevitable, and seeming to obstruct it would have had disastrous consequences. He’d have been seen as a member of one community, intruding in the affairs of another. And it is as a member of one community that each of the protagonists will be introduced, in a narrative where communal identity is situated in a rigid social order.

What Radojcic-Kane presents is a place where time has stood still. The hierarchy of the Ottoman empire, with

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Muslims wealthy and prominent, Serbs uniformly destitute, and the ‘cigani’, the Roma, oppressed by both- appears impossibly insulated from both Tito’s socialism, and the

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genocidal war that followed. The owner of the town’s bakery, Rade- who gets surplus flour from a state-owned company, thanks to his brother- is a “clever, crafty” businessman with few scruples. That we are told, is why he gave Muslim names to his children: “around here, people still remembered when Muslims owned everything.” Mirna’s family the author writes, were “great-grand-children of the serfs”, their kitchen sink was a giant basin, formerly used by cattle; the most prominent local family, the Vejzanics, are described with subtle sarcasm, they “ruled over the local Serbian peasants in the name of the Ottoman empire…with generosity and wisdom for over 300 years.” Halid’s parents had mocked his infatuation with Mirna; she wore plastic barrettes, they joked, because she was too poor to afford anything else.

The Ottoman empire, at its height, stretched from Bosnia to Iraq to Algiers, and like every great power before and since, it was not particularly benign in its treatment of conquered peoples. The Serbs were really oppressed, and Slavs who converted to Islam enjoyed relative favor. That fact, when it was still a contemporary fact, was essential to understanding Bosnia in the days of the Ottoman empire. It is even useful, as a matter of context, in explaining events in the 1990s. No account of the Rwandan genocide omits the origin of the Tutsis – they were lighter-skinned Rwandans preferred by Dutch colonial administrators, who gradually came to be regarded as a distinct people. But
Kane emphasizes one history while ignoring another.

The emphasis on class, linking social status exclusively to religion, turn Halid and Mirna from individuals into prototypes- Mirna is not just poor, but is poor, presumably, because she’s a Serb. Halid’s encounters with Serbs and Roma, and especially his relationship with Mirna, is defined on nearly every page by reference to inherited privilege- privilege in turn that is presented as a function of his religion.

Midway through the novel, Halid’s friend Shukri drags him along when he visits a prostitute. Shukri starts beating her and Halid demands that he stop- to which he replies, “she’s a darky Christian. Half human.”

Anti-Roma racism is a problem throughout Europe, as much so in Hungary and Bulgaria and even Ireland, as in Bosnia; but Shukri did not insult her because primarily she was a Roma, but because she was Christian.
Shukri’s hatred is not presented as a vulgar outlier, but as a casually expressed assumption; when Halid challenges that assumption he’s met with incomprehension and suspicion. “What are you a saint, a traitor? What is the matter with you?” Bigoted opinions can be readily found in any society, the important question is how common they are, and why. Implicit in this confrontation is a claim about Bosnian society as a whole: that Shukri’s comment, far from a bizarre aberration, must reflect a continuing truth about how Bosnian Muslims view Christians.

If the poverty of Christian peasants has been explained through reference to the Ottoman past, this revealing scene is portrayed as a modern extension of it. Enough assumptions of supremacy remain in Muslim discourse, based on the former social structure of the Ottoman empire, that dehumanizing Christians is a normal feature of conversation. That is what Kane implies. Yet the predominant narrative of the Bosnian government, and of the mainly Muslim party, the Democratic Action Party, suggests the opposite. Bosnian nationalism, since 1992, has meant a belief in a pluralist state and opposition to ethnic nationalism. If Bosnian Muslims viewed Christians as inhuman, they wouldn’t have elected a government committed to those ideals.

Yet these different visions of Bosnia- as an appendage “greater Serbia”, or as a tolerant state- make no appearance in the isolated world of Homecoming. The political origins of the war are conspicuous by their absence. The Bosnian army, in which the main character fought, included thousands of Serbs and Croats as well as Muslims; its second highest ranking general, Jovan Divjak, was an Orthodox Christian. This was possible because, from day one of its existence, the elected Bosnian government had been vocally committed to pluralism; as late as 1994, during the battle of Mostar, a British reporter would ask a Bosnian commander what he was fighting for. Do you want a Muslim state? “No, we are fighting so we can live as we did before”, in a multiethnic society.

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Serbian ultra-nationalists wanted to destroy that society, because it stood in the way- literally, geographically- of a greater Serbia. The war was sometimes presented as one between warring communities, but such a portrayal ignores the political visions on both sides: ethnically exclusive nationalism, or tolerant pluralism. Since the plot is effectively quarantined to a nameless town- which was not conquered, or cleansed, or even fought over- the author is able to discuss the war as one between Serbs and Muslims, omitting the complicating details that show it was nothing of the sort.

After defining the war in communal terms, exactly what the Bosnian government resisted doing, Kane, as narrator, makes an even more astounding suggestion: that the Muslims, as a community, won the war, and Serbs suffered a collective defeat. Rade, the ‘clever’ baker, has always refused to sell his flour; but when Halid orders 10 bags delivered to Mira’s doorstep, he immediately agrees. He cannot afford to endanger his store, we are told, by offending the victors. Halid, the wounded veteran, “was the authority around here”. Mirna, early in the novel, is described as a “widow of a man who had fought for the losing side.”

In this fictional context, it can appear plausible that Halid is returning as a victor; that local Serbs, outnumbered and disadvantaged, could feel vulnerable and defeated in the boundaries of

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a specific town. A novel is a self-contained universe, with its own, ahistorical rules. But the notion that Muslims won the war is, well, fiction.

The Dayton accords divided Bosnia into two entities, the Muslim-Croat federation and the Republika Sprska. the former was the political heir of the wartime Bosnian government, committed to the twin realities of democracy and civic nationalism; the latter was the continuation of Karadzic’s dream, consisting of the very areas that had been ‘ethnically cleansed’ throughout the war. Srebrenica is in the Republika Sprska. So is the town of Foca, the site of a prison camp where thousands of women were systematically raped. The legitimization of the Republika Sprska, an entity forged in attempted genocide and led, for three years, by indicted war criminals, made the Dayton accords a victory, and a reward, for Serbian nationalism- and a painful defeat, not merely for Bosniaks who suffered genocide, but for all those committed a united, tolerant Bosnian state.

The novel’s climax occurs when Halid is gambling with a Roma named Ghurge, who owns a former military barracks converted into a bar; by the end of the night Halid has lost all his money. Ghurge is ecstatic. “Balija lost” he starts shouting. He few years earlier, we’re told he had deliberately lost to “those Hajji bastards”; today he had “dared” to “beat the master”, “the hated Muslim landowner.”

“Balija” is the Balkan equivalent of the n-word, or the Russian insult ‘yid’. A man named Momir Nikolic is serving a 20 year prison sentence, for his role in the siege of Srebrenica and the genocide that followed. He served as an intelligence officer in the Bratunac brigade, assisting in the operations that led to the fall of the enclave. At his trial he mentioned a comment made, in an official meeting, by two of his military superiors. It was a simple explanation of their plans for when the enclave fell. “All balijas must be killed.”

‘Balija’ is uttered, in Kane’s novel, as an expression of gleeful triumph, celebrating the collapse of the hierarchy that has governed the world of the novel, converting Halid’s bad luck into a reversal of historical roles. Halid’s humiliation is the symbolic humbling of the great. By conflating these words with a scene of climactic release, the author obscures the actual meaning, literal and historical.

In a review of the German novel The Reader, whose protagonist is a former SS guard, Cynthia Ozick discussed the moral dilemmas of a novelist- especially when deciding to work with a historical theme. The fictional SS guard was a former factory worker, who had been conscripted after turning down a transfer to a different factory, because, being illiterate, she had not been able to read a letter from the head of her company. Her membership in the SS, though indefensible, could not be seen in the usual manichaen terms, she was less a criminal than a victim of poverty, which had prevented her from attending school. Yet the vast majority of SS members, and Wehrmacht soldiers, had enjoyed the full benefits of state education instituted by Bismark. The Reader, Ozick concludes, told a completely plausible story, but one that relied on a clear anomaly to deflect attention from a larger truth.

Kane’s nameless village, with its Ottoman social structure preserved like a fly in amber, is no more implausible than a German woman’s illiteracy. It is an exception, but a realistic exception, and makes for a fascinating story. But

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a novelist’s literary freedom is not an exemption from the basic rules applied to historians: facts can be circumvented to fit a certain storyline; but they cannot be openly contradicted to fit a revision of history. Homecoming opens, and concludes, in the aftermath of a hellish war, in which Bosnia’s Muslim citizens were ‘cleansed’ from large swathes of the country, imprisoned in concentration camps, subjected to torture, rape, and a deliberate policy of genocide. Yet the universe constructed in Homecoming, none of this has happened. It is not denied, it is just ignored.