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Nazis, Ataturk and Islam-MUHAMMAD ALI SIDDIQI

Posted by admin On April - 3 - 2016 Comments Off on Nazis, Ataturk and Islam-MUHAMMAD ALI SIDDIQI


General Toydemir and his entourage travelling across Nazi-occupied Europe. Photo from the book Ataturk in the Nazi Imagination
Nazi interest in Islam and Turkey, especially in Kemal Ataturk, is nothing to be proud of. But the interest in Islam precedes the Nazi era, for German focus on the Muslim world during WWI was equally intense. Because millions of Muslims lived in the British, French and Russian (later Soviet) empires, and hundreds of thousands of the faithful were a vital part of the colonial armies, German propaganda in both the wars sought to win Muslims over and present Kaiser’s Germany and the Third Reich as defenders of the Islamic faith.

The two books under review — Ataturk in the Nazi Imagination by Stefan Ihrig and Islam and Nazi Germany’s War by David Motadel — make fascinating reading and highlight the variety of ways in which the German state sought to subvert the Muslim soldiers’ professional loyalty to the Allied armies in the two wars. The first book explains in detail why Ataturk fascinated German diplomats, politicians, academicians and journalists and how Mustafa Kemal’s repudiation of the Treaty of Severs and defiance of the Entente powers fired German imagination. The failure of the German nation to produce a ‘German Mustafa’ was a theme common to the narrative by both Nazi and non-Nazi press and politicians in the Weimar republic.

Major newspapers ‘Germanified’ the Turkish topic, wondered why they could not produce a ‘German Mustafa Kemal’, asked German leaders to keep Turkey in mind as their role model and, even before he had entered Constantinople, were describing him as “a man of steel” and a “Fuhrer personality”. Cartoons showed German leaders signing the Treaty of Versailles abjectly while Kemal, even before he was proclaimed Ataturk, was shown as ordering the Entente around. What impressed the press most was Turkey’s threat, even while negotiations were going on at Lausanne, to resume fighting if an agreement was not acceptable to them. In about four years, one German newspaper published 2,300 articles, reports and news items on the Turkish war of independence and demanded that the Turkish fight be “replicated” in Germany.

A study of two different books on similar historical themes
Also active in propagating the Turkish model of resistance were the large number of German officers who had served with the Ottoman army during WWI and were often referred to as “German pashas” or “German Ottomans”, including Kemal’s commander at Gallipoli, Otto Liman von Sanders. The popular cry was, “Let’s have a German Ankara”.

Hitler too made frequent references to the Turkish resistance and said Ataturk was “a star in the darkness” — a reference to Germany’s humiliation under the Treaty of Versailles, especially, for a racist like Hitler, the use of African soldiers by the French in occupied Ruhr. When accused of treason after the abortive Munich Putsch, Hitler said he had copied Ataturk, who had begun his mission not from “decadent” Constantinople but from rural Anatolia. He too had begun his mission from Bavaria and wanted to march on to Berlin just as Ataturk had proceeded from Ankara to the Ottoman capital and Mussolini to Rome.

In an interview with Turkish daily Milliyet, Hitler called Ataturk “the greatest leader of the century” — a remark not wide of the mark then, because in 1933, when Hitler came to power, the world had not yet heard of the giants who were to follow — Jinnah, Gandhi, Mao, Stalin, Nasser, Khomeini and Mandela.

The second book dwells on German propaganda techniques in WWII, especially the use of Islam and Islamic symbols, besides Quranic recitals, in broadcasts and pamphlets dropped on Allied-controlled Muslim lands in North Africa and the Soviet Union, with Hitler portrayed as a defender of Islam as Kaiser was projected in WWI. Muslims were told that they had common enemies in the British, French and Russians, who had enslaved Muslim peoples, besides the Jews. Because the Arabs are also Semites, broadcasts and writings avoided the use of the word Semites and instead focussed on Jews.

The names of Mahdi, Dajjal and Isa were widely used in pamphlets, with the Information Ministry ordering the printing of one million flyers that quoted Tabari and Bukhari as saying that Dajjal was a Jewish king, “fat with curly hair”, who would try to rule the world. “O Arabs! Do you see that the time of Dajjal has come [… and he has stolen] the land of Arabs? Truly, he is a monster, and his allies are devils!” There was an implied reference to Hitler when it said that a man “has already appeared in the world [… who has] turned his lance against the Dajjal and his allies […and] will kill the Dajjal, as it is written, destroy his palaces and cast his allies into hell.” The attempt to translate Mein Kampf into Arabic couldn’t materialise, but sections were translated, with the text written in the “solemn tone” of the Quran so that Muslims worldwide could appreciate it. While German propaganda referred to Der Fuhrer as Adolf Effendi, the British too replied in Islamic terms and called Hitler “khanzir” (pig).

Handbooks were distributed among German soldiers to teach them do’s and don’ts in the Muslim world, to respect mosques, to avoid talking to Muslim women or taking their photographs and not to interfere with prayers, which the book said were a daily affair for Muslims. A more vigorous drive was launched in Bosnia, Crimea and the Caucasus, mosques closed by the Soviets were opened, Eids were celebrated, German soldiers presented gifts to the population, and Soviet Muslim prisoners were treated differently.

So high was the number of Soviet soldiers taken prisoner that the Wehrmacht raised new army divisions out of Soviet Muslim soldiers, while thousands of Balkan Muslims, especially those of Bosnia and Albania, were recruited in the Waffen SS, with a school opened for field imams to train them in rituals and burial rites. While the German focus in the Arab world was on pan-Islamism, in the Soviet world German propaganda aimed at arousing pan-Turanian feelings as well. Yet in both the Middle East and the USSR, the Muslim religious class, even if pro-German, refused to give a call for jihad.

To ensure the broadcast’s reception throughout the Muslim world, the Germans set up the world’s most powerful short wave transmitter, which also broadcast in Urdu and Persian. A careful listener of the Persian broadcasts was one Mullah Musavi. Forty years later, the world would know him as Ayatollah Khomeini. He was appalled by Nazi philosophy and called it “the most poisonous and heinous product of the human mind”.


Germans were not the only ones using Islam as a propaganda tool in European wars. The Allies too did this, as did Napoleon way back in the late 18th century in Egypt, and let’s accept that Muslim potentates and dictators, too, have never been far behind in exploiting Islam for political purposes. The authors of both the books must be lauded for their painstaking research in producing these highly readable volumes that include relevant photographs as well.


The reviewer is Dawn’s Readers’ Editor.

India in the new world order-TALMIZ AHMAD

Posted by admin On December - 17 - 2015 Comments Off on India in the new world order-TALMIZ AHMAD


Author: Edited by David M. Malone, C. Raja Mohan and Srinath Raghavan
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2015
Pages: 746
Price: Rs.1,921.15
A comprehensively structured book that is a substantial contribution to the debate on India’s foreign policy approach and engagements in the new era. By TALMIZ AHMAD
THIS handbook of Indian foreign policy is a serious and substantial contribution to the debate on India’s foreign policy approach and engagements in an era that is witnessing significant changes: a new world order is emerging and India needs to contribute to shaping this new order and create a place for itself within it commensurate with its historical, political, economic and cultural achievements.

The editors of the handbook—Srinath Raghavan, C. Raja Mohan and David M. Malone—are distinguished scholars. To provide space for the broadest possible comment, they have brought together writers from different parts of the world: out of over 55 contributors to the handbook, fewer than half are Indians working in India. The list of contributors includes established authors as also 17 young specialists in Indian studies in Indian and foreign universities.

The structure of the book is comprehensive. The introduction, which contains a joint essay by the editors, sets the framework for India’s foreign policy amidst the emerging challenges. The next section looks at the context in which the country’s external priorities and policies were shaped from the mid 19th century to the present and also has essays on resources, India’s development assistance programmes, and its “soft power”. Part III studies the institutions and players who have a role in foreign affairs in the country—the government, the foreign office, Parliament, the corporate sector, think tanks, defence scientists and the media. Part IV looks at “Geography”, namely India’s immediate and extended neighbourhood. (I have contributed the essay titled “The Gulf Region”.)

Part V analyses India’s “Key Partnerships” outside the neighbourhood, that is, the United States, western Europe, Russia, Brazil, Israel and South Africa. The next part looks at India’s role in multilateral institutions and its diplomatic effort with regard to global issues such as finance, trade, nuclear matters and climate change. The last part, titled “Looking Ahead”, has two essays that reflect on the dynamics of India’s international engagements and highlight the serious challenges that India will face in safeguarding and promoting its interests in the new world order emerging in this century.
Geography has linked India with neighbours from the Mediterranean to Indonesia; nearer home, Partition has handed India a poisoned chalice that has led to confrontations and war and has even corroded inter-community ties within the polities of South Asia. In terms of national capability, India had experienced poverty and deprivation for much of its early period as an independent nation, and only in the last few years has it emerged from this quagmire with high growth rates and the promise of prosperity for a larger number of its citizens. But challenges of resource access and human resource development remain as serious constraints on the national success story.

India has enjoyed a diverse but remarkably capable leadership in its 68 years as an independent country. The main challenge that its Prime Ministers have had to face has been to pursue the national interest in an uncongenial environment characterised by discord and limited economic capacity at home and divisions and conflicts abroad, as also war with neighbours—China and Pakistan—that have sapped national capacity by diverting considerable national resources to augmenting defence capabilities. In terms of identity, Indians generally view themselves as moderate, accommodative and peace-loving, but this view has frequently been contested by neighbours, such as Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh, and even by the U.S., which believes that India harbours aspirations of hegemony in South Asia.

In sum, one can agree with Kanti Bajpai that India’s foreign policy has been marked by “ambivalence” in that “its deepest instincts have been internationalist and cosmopolitan… [while] Partition and war scarred its foreign policy psyche, leaving it unable to transcend narrow, gnawing anxieties over sovereignty”.

Strategic legacy
India’s strategic legacy is diverse. The intellectual bases of its world view veered from the principles of universal brotherhood and peaceful coexistence of Keshub Chandra Sen and Vivekananda to the militant nationalism of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and V.D. Savarkar, while also embracing the liberalism of Dadabhai Naoroji, Pherozeshah Mehta and Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who decried the opium trade with China and defended the interests of Indians settled abroad. The Constituent Assembly debates on foreign policy reflected this diversity, with Mahavir Tyagi calling for a militarily strong nation, K.M. Munshi advocating defence preparedness and international cooperation among nations, Begum Aizaz Rasul voicing opposition to communism, and Frank Anthony insisting that “India’s strength should be built up most rapidly”. As Rahul Sagar points out in his essay, both Nehruvian idealism and “realism” in present-day Indian discourse have strong roots in the Indian intellectual tradition.
The realist school in contemporary Indian thinking draws heavily from the legacy of the Raj. This is most palpable in regard to India’s ties with its neighbours: the British had developed the concept of the “buffer state” to safeguard India’s frontiers, maintaining Iran, Afghanistan and Tibet as the “outer ring” and Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan as the “inner ring”. The Raj also set out the “orbit” of the Government of India: it stretched from the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf to the Malay Peninsula, and from China to the southern edge of the Indian Ocean. While treaties with local rulers were signed by the government in London, the Indian government paid for the properties and facilities, met the recurring expenditure, and provided its armed forces to maintain British interests across the region. Thus, an Indian “sub-imperialism” was put in place.

Sneh Mahajan notes in her essay that “free India inherited the territory bequeathed by the British… [and] accepted that the inherited boundaries were legal and sacrosanct and had to be defended”. The lasting legacy of the Raj is the country’s northern border, which is now “the most dangerous border in the world”. At the same time, its immediate neighbours are convinced that India is seeking a hegemonic role in the region; even China believes that India would like to revive Tibet as a buffer between itself and the People’s Republic.

Nehruvian legacy

Given Jawaharlal Nehru’s influence on India’s foreign policy in its formative years and even beyond, it is not surprising that several essays in the book refer to his thinking and his impact on specific issues. Andrew Kennedy points out that “realism and idealism are not wholly incompatible and… Nehru’s foreign policy was an attempt to reconcile the two”. In general, he believes that Nehru “sought to transform international norms and institutions on the basis of moral principles”, but in doing so he was also interested in obtaining advantages for India. Although shocked by the way the United Nations Security Council handled the Kashmir issue, Nehru continued to believe that the U.N. was an important organisation for world peace. Hence, he used it to campaign for nuclear disarmament and supported its peacekeeping operations. Surjit Mansingh quotes Indira Gandhi describing herself as a “tough politician” who conformed to the principles of realism: she saw national interest in terms of power and was conscious of India’s limitations in this regard. Hence, she avoided direct confrontation with the superpowers and used non-alignment to defend India’s autonomy but was also willing to use force in the national interest. Mansingh, however, faults Indira Gandhi for not institutionalising national power, defining it entirely in personal, dynastic terms, even as her “mismanagement” of domestic insurgencies corroded national capacities from within.
Srinath Raghavan, in his article on the Rajiv Gandhi years, notes that in the mid 1980s far-reaching changes in the global order were already apparent, particularly the easing of Cold War tensions and increasing differences between China and Russia. Rajiv Gandhi seized the opportunity to effect some important domestic and foreign policy changes by liberalising some sections of the economy and reaching out to neighbours, above all, China, and the U.S. He describes Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China, the first by an Indian Prime Minister in 34 years, as his “finest hour”.

Other initiatives, though equally bold, were less productive: the outreach to the U.S. did not yield the expected results, mainly because of the U.S.’ abiding military commitments to Pakistan and deep suspicions in the U.S. security establishment about India’s nuclear aspirations and its “hegemonic” intentions in South Asia.

The post-1990 scenario, discussed in an excellent essay by C. Raja Mohan, has been described as “transformation through incremental adaptation” characterised by a stable adjustment to far-reaching challenges emerging in that turbulent period at home, regionally and globally. Looking ahead, Raja Mohan insists that India give up the mantra of “strategic autonomy”, which he believes is outmoded and sterile, and instead pursue the “quest for strategic influence”, though he does not spell out how this is to be achieved.

‘Triad of troubles’

The end of the Cold War, the economic resurgence of Asia, and the decline in U.S. influence following its debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq expanded India’s strategic space, enabling it to build new relationships, consolidate old ones and, with high growth rates from the turn of the century, carve a larger regional and global role for itself. But, the resurgence of China as an emerging economic and political power further complicated the security terrain for India. The bulk of the narrative now set out in the handbook looks at the complex triangular relations between the U.S., India and China.

Sumit Ganguly points out that India has yet to reach “a working consensus on the contours of a strategic relationship” with the U.S. in spite of the tremendous domestic and international capital expended by the George W. Bush administration in finalising the civilian nuclear agreement with India. He ascribes this to “lingering memories of the U.S. involvement with Pakistan” during the Cold War years. Surprisingly, he fails to mention the U.S.’ sustained support to Pakistan throughout the past 25 years, during which Pakistan has unleashed jehad upon India and attacked iconic Indian symbols even after 9/11, culminating in the Mumbai terror attack of November 2008. The U.S. has also backed Pakistani interests in Afghanistan, even looking for the elusive “good” Taliban at Pakistan’s behest. U.S.-India differences are not just a “shadow of the past”, as Ganguly believes, but an ongoing reality.
Rajesh Basrur, in his essay on Pakistan, strongly advocates U.S.-India security ties, but his writing lacks nuance or subtlety. According to him, India has no clue about how to deal with Pakistan besides “the old combination of threats and offers to negotiate”; it has foolishly not used the option of backing radical groups fighting the Pakistani state, perhaps fearing Pakistani state failure. In fact, “Indian policy lacks the thrust that might nudge Pakistan toward a closer relationship”, a truly fatuous remark. These failures have left India “a weak power in a world where power is central to ensuring national security”. The answer to the Indian predicament: “India is likely to perform better by drawing strategically closer to the United States.”

Ashley Tellis, a long-standing advocate of a robust U.S.-India strategic partnership, is much more realistic in his assessment of U.S.-India ties. The principal source of disagreement, Tellis notes, is that the U.S. wishes to retain its primacy in world affairs and sees the value of an alliance with India only insofar as it supports this aspiration. Thus, the U.S. will view the rise of China as “dangerous” if it “precipitates a power transfer at the core of the global system and undermines the U.S.-backed security and trading systems in Asia”. Tellis recognises that whatever may be India’s concerns relating to a resurgent China, it sees itself as a subaltern in the U.S.-led world order and desires a multipolar world order.Tellis notes that U.S.-India ties will be determined by a “triad of variables”: the extent of China’s rise and its conduct, the U.S.’ strategic response to China’s rise, and how India views the interplay between the two giants. Tellis concludes that the U.S., China and India are already so enmeshed with each other economically and politically that security competition between them will be a complex “mixed-sum” game; this mutual interdependence will effectively dilute the pressures on the U.S. and India to converge.

The veteran scholar of South Asian affairs Stephen Cohen offers a trenchant critique of India’s strategic situation, saying: “There has been ambition aplenty, but marked strategic underachievement.” Infrastructure development has been ignored so that “India has disconnected itself from regional neighbours”.

The Kashmir issue represents “the worst kind of Wilsonianism [i.e., self-determination], Pakistani irredentism and the failure of the Indian imagination”. Most of India’s outreach initiatives have failed, particularly in Central and South-East Asia. Above all, “India has no answer to the military and economic expansion of China, except to bemoan it”.

Cohen comes up with some tantalising possibilities when he asks the following: Can India build on common interests with China? Could India turn to China as an Asian partner?

Imperatives of partnership
Alka Acharya in her essay on China first sets out the central significance of the triangular U.S.-India-China relationship: from the Indian perspective, she notes that “the triangular dynamic rests on seeing the United States as a natural ally on the one hand, and China as a partner in building a multipolar world on the other”. She goes on to point out that the growing international footprint of China and India has gradually expanded the platforms of dialogue between them on a wide range of issues: terrorism, piracy, energy security, the West Asia scenario, Afghanistan, U.N. reform, the iniquitous world financial order, climate change and human rights. Most of these issues are discussed in depth at the annual BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summits and other meetings and are reflected in the substantial consensual joint communiques finalised at summit meetings, which witness considerable mutual accommodation and understanding.

As brought out by different writers, Sino-Indian cooperation is not just productive at multilateral fora but could also ease contentious situations in a number of countries in South Asia where there is a nascent Sino-Indian competition. In Nepal, S.D. Muni has urged that India work with China towards putting in place a framework for “developmental coexistence”. Afghanistan would also benefit from a concerted Sino-Indian effort to strengthen the Central government and combat extremist forces.

Pakistan is, of course, a more complex challenge. China has an “all-weather” relationship with Pakistan.

These ties have been deepened with promised Chinese investments in developing logistical connectivities between Pakistan, China and Central Asia, and the long lease of the Gwadar port offered to China which has considerable economic and strategic significance. However, China also has deep concerns relating to Pakistan’s affiliation with jehadi elements, many of whom recruit from China’s Muslim-dominated provinces and also carry out terrorist activities.

China and India have shared interests not only in combating extremist elements but also in integrating Pakistan into the regional economic success networks of which China and India are the major role players.

The Indian Ocean, usually seen as the premier space for Sino-Indian competition, also throws up important opportunities for cooperation between the two countries.

As noted above, over a hundred years ago, a British commission described the Indian Ocean littoral as part of the “orbit” of the Indian government. This led to the setting up of colonies and protectorates across East Africa, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the ports of Oman and Yemen on the ocean and its choke points.
Much of the projection of British power was realised through the deployment of the Royal Navy, which patrolled the ocean and kept hostile elements at bay. India inherited interests in the Indian Ocean littoral but not the naval capabilities essential to assert its authority over those interests. This has changed since the turn of the century, with the Indian Ocean being increasingly seen as a “geography of opportunity”, as David Scott puts it, and government sources expressing the same strategic interest in the ocean that their British predecessors did, projecting “combat”, “constabulary” and “diplomatic” roles for the Indian Navy now being developed as a “blue-water” navy.

India has balanced this military posture with institutionalising regional economic engagements through the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), anti-piracy operations with international partners such as the U.S. and China, and expanding economic links with the littoral African countries of the Indian Ocean.

Scott in his essay postulates a growing Indo-U.S. naval cooperation in the Indian Ocean as part of the two countries’ “soft-balancing strategy” vis-a-vis China. But, the flaw in this prognosis is that the U.S. is more focussed on the so-called Indo-Pacific region, specifically the South China Sea, while India’s crucial interests lie in the Persian Gulf and the western Indian Ocean in general, an area of limited interest to the U.S., and from which it is reducing its security role in favour of other players whose core interests are involved in regional security. The security of the Persian Gulf, for instance, is of deep and abiding interest to both India and China. With the U.S. increasingly withdrawing from security responsibilities in the region, the space has opened for India and China to work together for Gulf security.

Return to Nehru

In the last section of the book, Sunil Khilnani ruminates on the wellsprings that influenced Nehru’s world view and shaped the foreign policy of his country. While conscious of India’s great destiny, Nehru was aware of its relative weakness in conventional definitions of power. He had no wish to see India enmeshed in the two blocs competing for power and influence. He sought instead “an alternative conception of the international order”, one that was outside the Cold War framework and that would at the same time take cognisance of the emerging significance of Asia, particularly the place of China in it.

He saw Asia as composed of four power blocs: the Chinese, the Indian, the Near East (now West Asia) and Soviet Asia (now primarily Central Asia). He was concerned that once the glue of anti-Westernism wore off, these blocs would turn against each other. After several years of war, Asia needed to be at peace and Asian nations prevented from joining military alliances so that India could develop its economic potential. China was a beneficiary from Asian conflicts and was likely to expand its domination from Korea to Indo-China, particularly over the smaller states.
It is against this background that Nehru proposed the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, or Panchsheel, converting Asia into a “zone of peace” at one stroke, as Khilnani puts it. This doctrine provided the basis for larger states to accept the sovereignty of the smaller states of Asia, particularly those where China was asserting “historical” claims. Nehru, Khilnani concludes, was thus putting in place a balance of power on the basis of a new definition of power founded on China and India acting in concert.

Most of the commentators in this handbook of Indian foreign policy have based their analyses on conventional power equations, seeking to accommodate India as an emerging or rising power in the straitjacket of these power structures.

Cohen, for instance, notes that India’s great state status is restricted to South Asia; even then, it is “the weakest of the great states”.

Cohen believes that India “will have one foot in the developing world and one in the world of advanced economic and military powers for the indefinite future”.

What contemporary challenges demand is not fitting India into the emerging power competitions and the structures that define them but contemplating new definitions of power and arrangements to pursue national interests that will be cooperative and collegial and in the long term more effective. The challenge before India, as Khilnani puts it, is to “maintain a policy of positive engagement with China where interests may converge, while also acquiring capacities to check China from overriding India’s interests.… It will require discerning once again… how power asymmetries can be turned to India’s advantage.” This will be the central challenge for Indian foreign policy in the coming years.

Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat.

John Hope Franklin: Race & the Meaning of America-Drew Gilpin Faust

Posted by admin On December - 7 - 2015 Comments Off on John Hope Franklin: Race & the Meaning of America-Drew Gilpin Faust

Bill Clinton and John Hope Franklin discussing race relations in America at the New York Public Library, October 2005

Bill Clinton and John Hope Franklin discussing race relations in America at the New York Public Library, October 2005
The historian John Hope Franklin, who died in 2009, would have turned one hundred this year. I have thought of him often in recent months as we have seen a conservative Republican governor call for the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House grounds, as the Democratic Party has renamed the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in order to distance itself from two slave-owning forebears, as Yale University debates removing the name Calhoun from one of its undergraduate colleges.

Many Americans in 2015 seem to be undertaking an unprecedentedly clear-eyed look at the nation’s past, at the legacy of slavery and race that has made us anything but a colorblind society. There could be no more fitting tribute to Franklin’s one hundredth birthday than this collective stock-taking, for no one has done more to delineate the contours of that shameful legacy and to insist upon its importance to America’s present and future. And in that effort he has also done something more for history itself: insisting not just upon its relevance, but indeed its preeminence as the indispensable instrument of change and even salvation from legacies that left unexamined will destroy us. “Good history,” he remarked in 1989, “is a good foundation for a better present and future.”

Franklin’s childhood in segregated Oklahoma introduced him to racism’s cruelties at an early age. He was just six when he and his mother were ejected from a train for sitting in a white-only car. His father was so embittered by his treatment as a black lawyer that he moved his family to an all-black town after resolving to “resign from the world dominated by white people.” Yet Franklin’s parents insisted that he was the equal of any other human being, and his mother repeatedly urged him to tell anyone who asked him about his aspirations that he planned to be “the first Negro president of the United States.” If you believe in yourself, his mother urged, “you won’t be crying; you’ll be defying.”
Defying, not crying. That captures John Hope Franklin’s life, and it captures the history he wrote, a history that would, in his words, “attempt to rehabilitate a whole people” and serve them as a weapon of collective defiance. Inspired by a brilliant teacher at Fisk University, Franklin came to see how “historical traditions have controlled…attitudes and conduct,” and how changing history, challenging the truth of the “hallowed past,” was the necessary condition for changing the present and future. In important ways, the study of history was for Franklin not a choice; it was an imperative. “The true scholar,” he wrote in 1963, “must pursue truth in his field; he must, as it were, ply his trade…. If one tried to escape,…he would be haunted;…he would be satisfied in no other pursuit.” History, in the many meanings of the term, chose him.

But the “Negro scholar,” Franklin wrote, should not imagine he could disappear into an ivory tower. The choice to “turn his back on the world” was not available. From Jonathan Edwards, to Thomas Jefferson, to Ralph Waldo Emerson, to John Kenneth Galbraith, Franklin observed, the American scholar had been drawn into policy and the practical. The black scholar must fully embrace this tradition of American intellectual life. “I now assert,” Franklin proclaimed,

that the proper choice for the American Negro scholar is to use his history and ingenuity, his resources and talents, to combat the forces that isolate him and his people and, like the true patriot that he is, to contribute to the solution of the problems that all Americans face in common.

Fundamental to the task at hand would be rewriting the history of history, revising the “hallowed” falsehoods, illustrating how the abuse and misuse of history served to legitimate systems of oppression not just in the past but in the present as well. Misrepresentations of the past, Franklin came to recognize, had given “the white South the intellectual justification for its determination not to yield on many important points, especially in its treatment of the Negro.” Post–Civil War southerners had endeavored to “win with the pen what they had failed to win with the sword.”

Franklin detailed the way the antebellum South rewrote the history of the American Revolution to justify its increasing commitment to slavery, how the popular history represented by the 1915 film Birth of a Nation worked to justify the early-twentieth-century revival of the Klan, how in a volume commissioned for a prominent series on southern history, respected historian E. Merton Coulter’s racist assumptions produced a distorted view of Reconstruction that made an implicit argument against the extension of civil rights in the years immediately following World War II.

But Franklin did not simply critique and revise; he did not just overturn existing interpretations by bringing a different lens to bear, or even by just grounding the narrative of the past in what were quite revolutionary assumptions of common human capacity and dignity. Franklin, the scholar, unearthed reams of new facts—facts no one had bothered to look for previously, facts buried in archives, newspapers, government records, facts no historian had searched for until history decided black lives mattered.

Franklin’s approach to the doing of history is perhaps most faithfully and explicitly chronicled in the introduction to his biography of the nineteenth-century African-American historian George Washington Williams. A pioneer in charting the black experience, Williams, who died in 1891, had been all but forgotten until Franklin began “stalking” him. Franklin recounts the story of how over three decades he traveled to countless offices, libraries, and archives on three continents. He pursued clues and leads with imagination and unquenchable curiosity until he was able to piece together a full portrait of the man and his work. Franklin rescued Williams from oblivion to install him in his rightful place as a pathbreaking black intellectual, a precursor to Franklin himself in creating a true history of the nation’s past and the place of African-Americans within it.

The kind of exhaustive research Franklin undertook and described for this biography underpinned all his efforts to expand the scope of American history. He discovered the ironies and contradictions of American unfreedom in the lives of free blacks in antebellum North Carolina; he demonstrated how the pervasive presence of violence shaped and controlled every aspect of white—as well as black—lives in southern slave society; he illustrated the hunger for liberation in the records of runaways determined to free themselves. And in From Slavery to Freedom (1958) he sought to create an overarching American and global narrative to explain it all. The book has sold more than three million copies.

Even Franklin, who had personally felt the brunt of segregation, who had understood the terrors of racial violence and oppression, was sobered by what he found. Writing From Slavery to Freedom, piecing together a comprehensive account of five hundred years of black history, brought tales of horror before his eyes:

I had seen one slave ship after another…pile black human cargo into its bowels…. I had seen them dump my ancestors at New World ports as they would a load of cattle and wait smugly for their pay…. I had seen them beat black men…and rape black women until their ecstasy was spent leaving their brutish savagery exposed. I had heard them shout, “Give us liberty or give us death,” and not mean one word of it…. I had seen them lynch black men and distribute their ears, fingers, and other parts as souvenirs…. I had seen it all, and in the seeing I had become bewildered and yet in the process lost my own innocence.

The past and present of racial oppression in America angered Franklin. His own treatment in graduate school, in the profession, in humiliating incidents that occurred till the very last years of his life provoked him to express his outrage—in autobiographical writings and in what he called “literary efforts” that he refrained from publishing. He was scrupulous and insistent that such emotions and any of what he called “polemics” or “diatribes” should not “pollute” his scholarly work. Yet he acknowledged that “the task of remaining calm and objective is indeed a formidable one.”

Franklin reserved a particularly vehement resentment for any effort to co-opt or distort his own historical work—to undermine its truths in support of a particular agenda. What he came to regard as one of the worst of such incidents occurred in the early 1960s when the US Commission on Civil Rights invited him to write a history of civil rights since the nation’s founding, to be completed in time for the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1963. When Franklin delivered the manuscript, however, it was greeted with disappointment by commission members who had anticipated “a note of greater tolerance and moderation.” Franklin reminded the commission that the history of blacks in the United States was “not a pretty picture,” and continued, “I am afraid that I cannot ‘tidy up’ the history that Americans themselves have made.” Forty years later, Franklin still deplored the commission’s “blatant and crude use of me in its effort to present a false picture of ‘Negro progress.’” Just as bad, it was also a blatant and crude use of history.

The truth that was at once scholarship’s product and purpose must not be undermined. The black scholar, he wrote, “must understand the difference between hard-hitting advocacy on the one hand and the highest standards of scholarship on the other.” This commitment embraced both idealism and instrumentalism. I am struck as I reread John Hope Franklin’s meditations on history by his sense of vocation, by the awe with which he regarded the role of scholar, by the almost sacred language with which he spoke of what I fear is today now more often regarded as just another job or profession. For Franklin, it was a transcendent calling, one that in the logic of his era and origins should have been unattainable for him.

Franklin recognized an irony in this. The black scholar must “pursue truth while, at the same time, making certain that his conclusions are sanctioned by universal standards developed and maintained by those who frequently do not even recognize him.” The revisionist history Franklin sought would, he believed, be unassailable, would overtake past interpretations and exert its force in changing the world because it would, within the clearly articulated standards of the prevailing historical enterprise, be more exhaustively researched, more powerfully argued. It would be a quintessential use of the master’s tools to take down the master’s house. Franklin had a deep and inextinguishable faith in the power of an accurate and just history to change the world. It was, as he put it, “armed with the tools of scholarship” that he did battle against laws, superstitions, prejudices designed to destroy “humane dignity” and even “his capacities for survival.”
Harvard University Archives
A photograph of John Hope Franklin from his Harvard University admissions file, circa 1935
Yet the historian did not need to be entirely confined to the realm of pure scholarship. The tools of history could also—though separately—be deployed in policy work where past realities could illuminate pressing contemporary dilemmas. Perhaps the most meaningful of such engagements for Franklin was his work with Thurgood Marshall and the team of lawyers and advisers building the case against school segregation for Brown v. Board of Education. The legislative history of the Fourteenth Amendment would be a crucial element in the case. This was an instance, Franklin proclaimed with some pride, of “historians to the rescue!” In this circumstance, he deemed it appropriate to present his findings “like a lawyer’s brief,” rather than aspiring to the more “objective” and dispassionate stance of the disinterested scholar.

Ultimately, Franklin concluded as he looked back, “I could not have avoided being a social activist even if I had wanted to,” but the tensions between this activism and his scholarly ideals compelled him throughout his long life to self-consciously negotiate the treacherous shoals between advocacy and objectivity. “While I set out to advance my professional career on the basis of the highest standards of scholarship,” he observed in his autobiography, “I also used that scholarship to expose the hypocrisy underlying so much of American social and race relations. It never ceased being a risky feat of tightrope walking.”

In 1980, in an address that marked his departure from the University of Chicago, where he had taught for sixteen years—what proved to be only his first retirement—Franklin announced an explicit shift in perspective in relation to the past. With now unimpeachable credentials as a highly distinguished historian, with a large and influential oeuvre of historical writing, and as the recipient of almost every imaginable honor, he perhaps felt the burden of establishing legitimacy partially lifted. He had earned the right and freedom to speak his mind. Up to this point in his career, he said, he had regarded himself as among “the faithful disciples of Clio, concerned exclusively, or at least primarily, with the past.” He had for four decades, he said, left it to “sociologists, political scientists, and soothsayers” to chart a course for the future. But now, as he was leaving formal teaching responsibilities, “I propose to shift my focus and to dare to think of Clio’s having a vision of the future.”

In actuality, Franklin can hardly be said to have abandoned his accustomed rigorous historical research during the twenty-nine remaining years of his life. Nor had he been entirely silent about the future in his first sixty-five years. His evolution would perhaps better be described as an expansion of focus rather than a shift. But as the twentieth century approached its end, Franklin began to envision the century to come and to anticipate the persistence of race and its legacy into a new time.

In April 1992, while Franklin was in the air en route to the University of Missouri to deliver a series of endowed lectures, a Simi Valley, California, jury announced the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers who had beaten Rodney King. By the time he reached the St. Louis airport, Los Angeles had erupted in riots that ultimately killed fifty-three people before the California National Guard was summoned to quell the violence. For Franklin, these events seemed a tragic affirmation of the argument at the core of his already-prepared Missouri lectures: racism, “the most tragic and persistent social problem in the nation’s history,” had not been eliminated—even with the notable progress of the civil rights movement. As W.E.B. Du Bois had proclaimed the problem of the twentieth century to be “the problem of the color line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea,” so now Franklin cast his eyes forward to declare it the fundamental challenge for the twenty-first. “I venture to state categorically,” he proclaimed, “that the problem of the twenty-first century will be the problem of the color line.”

And again (or still) he worried about willful distortions of history—this time including more recent emerging histories—that threatened to undermine the nation’s capacity to confront and eliminate racial injustice. The myth of a colorblind society, often erected upon a cynical celebration of the achievements of civil rights legislation and the Voting Rights Act, was being developed in the 1980s and 1990s, Franklin believed, to end the struggle for racial equality by proclaiming it already achieved. “A color-blind society does not exist in the United States,” Franklin stated emphatically to his Missouri audience, “and never has existed.” But to advance the myth, Franklin asserted, was not simply a delusion; it was a far more pernicious act of bad faith. “Those who insist we should conduct ourselves as if such a utopian state already existed have no interest in achieving it and, indeed, would be horrified if we even approached it.”

Brown had, in Franklin’s words, been “no magic wand.” “Litigation, legislation, and executive implementation, however effective some of it was, did not wipe away three centuries of slavery, degradation, segregation, and discrimination.” Color remained “a major consideration in virtually everything Americans thought, said, or did.” Rodney King’s beating was clear testimony to the persisting force of race. Today, more than twenty years later, Franklin could deliver the same message. We are neither colorblind nor post-racial. Franklin would have been deeply saddened, but I doubt he would have been surprised, by the events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Charleston, Cleveland, Baltimore. He would have been equally saddened and, one guesses, angered by the recent evisceration of the Voting Rights Act and by the threat to student body diversity in higher education implied by the Supreme Court’s decision to reconsider Fisher v. University of Texas.

In the last months of his life, Franklin was buoyed by the rise of Barack Obama, which he declared “amazing.” “I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime.” He dared hope that the nation had “turn[ed] a significant corner.” But he knew that erasing the color line required far more than electing a black president. Until we had a new history, we could not build a different and better future. The fundamental requirement, what we

need to do as a nation and as individual members of society is to confront our past and see it for what it is. It is a past that is filled with some of the ugliest possible examples of racial brutality and degradation in human history. We need to recognize it for what it was and is and not explain it away, excuse it, or justify it. Having done that, we should then make a good-faith effort to turn our history around.

In other words, it is history that has the capacity to save us. “Historians to the rescue!” Dare we think that the recent rejections of Confederate symbols and of the reputations and legacies of slaveowners might be the opening for such a revisionist and clarifying effort? How can we lodge the truth of history in national discourse and public policy?

In an editorial on September 4, 2015, The New York Times underscored how a full understanding of history must be at the heart of any resolution of America’s racial dilemma. In words that come close to echoing Franklin’s, the Times wrote of what it called the “Truth of ‘Black Lives Matter’”—a truth rooted in the legacies of the past. “Demonstrators who chant the phrase,” the Times noted,

are making the same declaration that voting rights and civil rights activists made a half-century ago. They are not asserting that black lives are more precious than white lives. They are underlining an indisputable fact—that the lives of black citizens in this country historically have not mattered, and have been discounted and devalued. People who are unacquainted with this history are understandably uncomfortable with the language of the movement.

Only if we understand and acknowledge this past can we grapple with the conflicts of the present and the promise of the future.

“To confront our past and see it for what it is.” Franklin’s words. The past “is.” Not the past was. The past lives on. What would it mean to confront it, to see it clearly? Recent history can offer us some examples of nations that have taken on the burden of their history. Germany and its Nazi past. South Africa and apartheid. The principle, and in South Africa an explicit policy and practice, was that of “truth and reconciliation,” a recognition that only a collective investigation and acknowledgment of past wrongs can exorcise them and liberate a nation and a people for a better future. History must move beyond the academy, must become a recognized part of everyday life and understanding for all those who would themselves be free from its weight.

Recently, two powerful new advocates have taken up Franklin’s call for history to come to America’s rescue, echoing many of his observations and insights for a new time and across new and different media. These two twenty-first-century black intellectuals are outside the formal precincts of the academy, yet speak explicitly about why historical scholarship and understanding must play a central part in addressing the tragedies of race in American life. They offer us new, yet in many senses familiar, ways of approaching a moment when it seems possible that both history and policy might change.

Nearly a half-century younger than Franklin, Bryan Stevenson, who grew up in segregated southern Delaware, remembers saving his money for a first youthful book purchase: From Slavery to Freedom. Stevenson’s life and work reflect the historical sensibility that characterized Franklin’s understanding of the American present. In a TED Talk that has been viewed more than two and a half million times, in a best-selling book, and in a life dedicated to the pursuit of equal justice, Stevenson has joined in summoning history to the rescue.

Before the Civil War, we as a nation created a narrative of racial difference to legitimize slavery, he explains, and we convinced ourselves of its truth. As a result, instead of genuinely ending slavery, we helped it evolve into a succession of new forms of unfreedom, culminating in today’s mass incarceration. “Burdened” by a past of racism and cruelty, “we don’t like to talk about our history,” he observes. We have been “unwilling to commit ourselves” to a necessary “process of truth and reconciliation,” so we have not succeeded in transcending our past, in confronting and abandoning its assumptions and inequities. We have been too “celebratory” about the civil rights movement; we “congratulated ourselves too quickly” that the ugliness of racism was eliminated when it continued to infuse our institutions and our attitudes.

Aside from his teaching at NYU, Stevenson’s day job is directing the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama—suing to stay executions of innocent prisoners, persuading the Supreme Court that children should not be tried as adults and sentenced to death or life imprisonment. But he has made himself a historian as well. The EJI recently issued a detailed report on the slave trade in nineteenth-century Montgomery—part of a project its website describes as

focused on developing a more informed understanding of America’s racial history and how it relates to contemporary challenges. EJI believes that reconciliation with our nation’s difficult past cannot be achieved without truthfully confronting history.

EJI joined with the Alabama Historical Commission to sponsor three historical markers in downtown Montgomery memorializing the domestic slave trade in which the city played such a prominent part. Now Stevenson has embarked on a new project to erect markers at the sites of the thousands of lynchings that terrorized blacks in the post–Civil War South.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, nearly sixteen years younger than Bryan Stevenson, was born six decades after John Hope Franklin. Martin Luther King was seven years dead; much of the hope of the civil rights movement had evaporated; racism, bitterness, and a combination of militancy and despair prevailed. Coates’s father, a former member of the Black Panther Party, was an initially self-taught intellectual who became an archivist of black history and created a press to share the record of those of African descent from ancient Egypt to Marcus Garvey to Attica. Paul Coates grounded his son “in history and struggle,” lessons that would make Franklin’s work seem a bit old-fashioned, conciliatory, perhaps even compromising.

It was Malcolm X who became Ta-Nehisi’s hero. “I loved Malcolm because Malcolm never lied…. He was unconcerned with making the people who believed they were white comfortable in their belief.” Coates resisted white tools or rules. And he would flee the academy—dropping out of Howard without completing a degree. But he too embraced history. “My reclamation,” he wrote, “would be accomplished, like Malcolm’s, through books, through my own study and exploration.” Perhaps, he mused, “I might write something of consequence someday.”

It would seem he has done just that. On the second page of his recent meditation on race, Between the World and Me, Coates proclaims, “The answer is American history.” His own deep immersion in the past—“I have now morphed into a Civil War buff,” he confesses—served as epiphany and impetus: “I could not have understood 20th-century discrimination without understanding its 19th-century manifestations.” Searching for a deeper understanding of the forces underlying the realities of black oppression that he already knew so acutely, Coates turned to scholarship and the traditions of African-American history that John Hope Franklin had done so much to build. Coates has mastered the academic literature and from it he has come to understand that slavery was not “ancillary to American history” but “foundational.” It remains as a “ghost” all over American policy today, as Coates has demonstrated in his call for reparations to counter the enormous inequities of race reinforced by modern federal housing and zoning legislation.

In Coates’s view, whites have been urged away from their real history by myths that have hidden the violence and injustice at its core. America must reject Civil War narratives that have obscured the war’s origins in slavery, that have permitted unexamined celebration of Confederate gallantry, and that have turned the “mass slaughter of the war into a kind of sport in which one could conclude that both sides conducted their affairs with courage, honor and élan.” The “lie of the Civil War,” he explains, “is the lie of innocence.” It is a dream, a myth that has lulled and blinded white America as it denied and evaded so much of its past. White Americans “have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs.” It is the denial of this history that sustains an emollient innocence and makes the injustices of the present possible.

As John Hope Franklin learned when he undertook the research that he fashioned into From Slavery to Freedom, an understanding of history destroys innocence. And the brutal and undeniable truths of murders captured and shared on social media challenge our national presumptions of innocence as well. Can this unavoidable confrontation with the realities of our present open us in new ways to the meaning of our troubling past? Can history help relieve us once and for all of the burden of that ignorance and the evil it can produce? Are we as historians committed—and prepared—to seize this responsibility to extend history beyond the academy? Are we as a nation at last ready to welcome the truth that can yield reconciliation?

If so, it is in no small part because of the kind of history John Hope Franklin dared to write and the ideals he represented as he walked the “tightrope” between engagement and objectivity, as he struggled to unite history with policy and meaningful change, as he sought truths to save us all. Black Lives Matter. History Matters. John Hope Franklin showed us how much they matter to each other.

Looking for Primo Levi-Tim Parks

Posted by admin On October - 21 - 2015 Comments Off on Looking for Primo Levi-Tim Parks

Studio Pericoli
Tullio Pericoli: Primo Levi, 2014
Can one ever know “too much” about a writer?

Take the delicate case of Primo Levi, the Holocaust survivor who combined the careers of writer and professional chemist. Until recently I had only read Levi’s three most renowned works, his two great war memoirs, If This Is a Man and The Truce, and then The Periodic Table, a series of autobiographical pieces exploring the author’s relationships in the light of his work as a chemist. My response—many years ago—was in line with that of most of the articles I had read on the author, which tend to hagiography. The story of Auschwitz in If This Is a Man is so overwhelming, Levi’s humanity and healthy bewilderment in the face of the surreal collective cruelty of the Nazi camps so resolute and right that one cannot help but admire the book. The Truce, in contrast, is full of positive energy and optimism, describing Levi’s experiences in Russian refugee camps after Auschwitz and up to the moment of his repatriation and return to his home town of Turin, while The Periodic Table is clearly the work of an older, more determinedly sophisticated writer. Neal Ascherson’s 1985 review in The New York Review sets out the typical reader reaction: “a wonderful store of irony, of humor and observation,” Ascherson calls it, coming out of Levi’s work not as “a supervisor … in some enormous multi-national concern, but a struggling freelance chemist….a sort of packman-chemist, an alchemist on the road.

How different things begin to look when one tackles the almost three thousand pages of The Collected Works and browses the long chronology of Levi’s life offered in the first of these three hefty volumes, as I have just done for a review essay.

The first surprise is the dates: If This Is a Man (1947), The Truce (1963), The Periodic Table (1975). What was Levi doing in the years in between? On the road with his chemistry? No, from 1948 to 1975 he worked for the same locally-based paint and chemical company, first as a chemist, then as technical director and later (when he was writing The Periodic Table) as general manager. So Ascherson had got an entirely skewed and romanticized view of Levi’s working life. But this was hardly his fault. It’s the view The Periodic Table suggests. So was Levi unhappy, one wonders, with his long managerial career?

The next curiosity is that while there are no publications in the eighteen years between the first two books, between The Truce and The Periodic Table there are two collections of short stories that no one ever mentions: Natural Histories (1966) and Flaw of Form (1975). Reading through them, I’m astonished at the fall-off in performance. It’s not that they are badly written, but there is a frivolity, a childishness almost, that strives for but never quite achieves comedy. Essentially, these are science fiction pieces in which the twin fears of sexual experience and invasive impersonal power structures play out in a wide variety of paranoid fantasies, but without the urgency or commitment that might really involve us. They are, as it were, at once frightened and complacent. “Little transgressions,” Levi called them. Why was he writing this stuff?

The question pushed me to look at a proper biography. Obscurely, I felt that if I could understand the inspiration behind the short stories, I might learn something new about the memoirs. Here again there were surprises. Ian Thomson’s Primo Levi: A Life (2003) offers a wealth of facts, some of the most important of which are not in the chronology offered by the new Collected Works. For example, a number of the details in the three auto¬biographical works are distorted or invented. Thomson lists these details and I pondered them. It seemed that Levi tended to make his close companions less cultured and educated, but more vital and enterprising, than they actually were, such that they become foils for the cautious and highly educated Levi; they are not as smart as he is, but admirably courageous, and above all free. However, doing this involved inventing details that the people in question found insulting, or just plain false.

What is most surprising in the biography, though, and barely hinted at in The Collected Works, is the intense monotony and eventually chronic unhappiness of Levi’s domestic life, his deep depressions and profound pessimism. Aside from the two-year parenthesis that was Auschwitz and the Russian refugee camps, he spent his whole life in the same Turin apartment in the company of his mother, to whom he was intensely attached. After the war, the still virgin Levi married in very short order the virgin Lucia Morpurgo, but rather than set her up in a new home, Levi brought her, against her wishes, into the apartment with his mother and sister, bringing up two children in an atmosphere fraught with frustration and resentment. Meantime, Levi, who desperately wished to leave his office job for a literary career but feared he wouldn’t make it, spent much of his free time corresponding with Auschwitz survivors and establishing intimate but non-sexual relations with other women, and in general, stayed out of his home absolutely as much as possible.

But is this information “important” or even useful when we read a great book like If This Is a Man? Though his mother was absolutely central to Levi’s life, she barely gets a mention in his autobiographical work, nor is there any projection of her that one can see in the fiction. Surely the book is the book is the book and that’s that. The rest, gossip.

None of us can read a story without relating it to the knowledge and experience we bring to it. When we read Levi’s memoir our reaction is conditioned by what we already know about the Holocaust, about fascism, about Judaism. The story stands in relation to the things we know. That, after all, is the main reason for including a life chronology at the beginning of The Collected Works; the facts of the life condition, or inform, our response. Returning to the celebrated works equipped with the rich context of the extended biography, I began to notice things I hadn’t really seen before. “If, from inside the Lager,” Levi writes at one point of If This Is a Man, “a message could have seeped out to free men, it would have been this: Be sure not to tolerate in your own homes what is inflicted on us here.”

What can Levi mean? Surely not that there may be beatings and gas chambers and forced labor in our homes. The comment comes immediately after a reflection that the deprivations of Auschwitz have forced him to acknowledge how little he really lived when he was a free man. Is Levi suggesting that one’s manhood can be challenged as profoundly in the domestic environment as in the camps? Toward the end of The Truce, with Levi now in sight of home after his long travels, he offers a reflection that at once explains the book’s curious title and throws the whole narrative into a new perspective:

We knew that on the thresholds of our homes, for good or for ill, a trial awaited us, and we anticipated it with fear. … Soon, even tomorrow, we would have to join battle, against still unknown enemies, within and outside us. … Although the months just passed, of wandering at the edge of civilization, were harsh, they now seemed to us a truce, an interlude of unlimited openness, a providential gift of destiny, never to be repeated.
Never to be repeated! Writing almost twenty years after that truce, Levi appears to be telling us that this had been his one experience of real freedom. A page later the book ends with the author safely home, but dreaming that he is again back “in the Lager, and nothing outside the Lager was true.” Home and the camps are bizarrely superimposed.

Realizing only now how frequently notions of freedom and imprisonment occur throughout Levi’s work, I began to suspect that the small changes to the facts that Levi makes in his memoirs are driven by a desire for freedom. His commitment to bearing witness to the truth of Auschwitz was becoming a kind of straitjacket, something people expected of him, imposed almost. He was also expected to behave in a proper fashion, receiving warnings from the Turin synagogue when it became known he was flirting with a woman journalist. Was writing about the imprisonment of Auschwitz becoming itself a kind of prison? The short stories are largely frivolous perhaps because Levi yearned for the freedom of frivolity; many of those who knew him report his occasionally infantile behavior (“My impression was of a child trapped in a man’s body,” said one close associate). But the short stories did not bring him the respect that the memoirs did and Levi wanted both the freedom and the respect.

In the later works it’s easy to see Levi searching in every way for a freedom of expression that will nevertheless carry the weight of the memoir; the books, that is, become part of his search for a modus vivendi, one that will allow him both to stay home with mother and feel courageous and free and be respected and admired. This is particularly the case with If Not Now, When? Levi’s only novel, where an alter ego in the guise of a Russian Jew becomes an anti-Nazi partisan, successfully fighting and killing and seducing women, being simultaneously, as it were, free and good, committed to the right cause but not trapped in it. This is wishful thinking and in fact the story is unconvincing from start to finish.

The picture of this man deeply conflicted between the imperatives of freedom and the fear of disappointing his nearest and dearest inevitably influences the way I come to his last book, written in the early Eighties. Levi’s mother was now an invalid. His wife’s mother was blind. Whenever he left home for a day or two he was extremely anxious about them. He was on anti-depressants. Philip Roth, the writer Fulvio Tomizza, and the great German publisher Michael Kruger all found Levi “pathetic,” even “excruciatingly pathetic.”

It was in this miserable atmosphere, in his sixties now, that Levi turned away from the freedoms he had been looking for in fiction and went back to Auschwitz, this time in a moral essay of ferocious reflection, without any suspect details. The book is called The Drowned and the Saved and is remarkable for its sense of exasperation, its masochism almost. As I note in my review, Levi sometimes seems more determined to insist that Auschwitz survivors were degraded and contaminated and that all “the best” inevitably died, than to explore the psyche of the Nazi torturers. He seeks, that is, in every way to break down the consoling image of the sanctified survivor, the image he himself had become trapped in.

It is hard not to feel how this stands in relation to Levi’s domestic situation and general feeling of entrapment. He goes back to Auschwitz as so many of his readers wanted, but claims the freedom to tell them things they don’t want to hear. Meanwhile he was frequently referring to his mother and mother in law as “the drowned” and “like Auschwitz victims,” a comparison that made any “betrayal” (putting his mother in a home, for example) unthinkable, while simultaneously confirming that Levi himself felt he was somehow still in prison.

Nothing of what I said here diminishes Levi or his writing. Great works come out of great psychological intensity, in his case great suffering, great frustration. Why insist, then, in offering a sanitized, optimistic version of an author’s life, as if his work might be the less if we acknowledged his difficulties? Isn’t this, in the end, precisely the kind of denial that Levi fought against? Even the way the chronology of The Collected Works acknowledges Levi’s suicide is anodyne and vague, as if hoping the fact might go away: “April 11 [1987] Levi dies, a suicide, in his apartment building in Turin.”

In fact, Levi threw himself down the stairwell of the building he had lived in all his life. “Suicide is an act of will, a free decision,” he had written years before to his German translator. “Either you die or your mother dies,” the editor Agnese Incisa, a Jewish female friend of Levi’s, put it to him a few days before his death. In any work of fiction the symbolism of Levi’s suicide would be clear enough and amply commented. The household becomes the instrument of death; using it to kill himself he simultaneously frees himself from its imprisoning grip. It was the drama he had never quite put in his books.

October 20, 2015, 12:20 p.m.

A Revolutionary History of Interwar India: Violence, Image, Voice and Tex

Posted by admin On October - 14 - 2015 Comments Off on A Revolutionary History of Interwar India: Violence, Image, Voice and Tex


Role of the revolutionaries
review by A.G. Noorani
Author: Kama Maclean
Publisher: Hurst & Co., London
Pages: 342
The story of the intersection between the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, the Congress, and the British government in India’s movement for independence is told with a wealth of documentation. By A.G. NOORANI
This book breaks new ground in the study of India’s movement for independence. Until 1920, the movement had two strands, constitutional and terrorist. Gandhi introduced a third, civil disobedience. There have been able studies of all the three strands. James Campbell Ker, Indian Civil Service, (retired) wrote an able study for the Criminal Investigation Department titled Political Trouble in India 1907-1917. If the notorious Rowlatt Committee on revolutionary movements in India was able to submit its report in a record time of three months it was because it was heavily indebted to that confidential study, a fact “the Rowlatt Report” did not acknowledge. Whole chapters were reproduced verbatim or in a somewhat altered form. This was exposed in 1973 by Mahadevaprasad Saha in his introduction to Ker’s book (Editions Indian; Calcutta). It is a shame that a judge of the High Court of England Justice S.A.T. Rowlatt stooped to this level. In 1937, the Intelligence Bureau produced a follow-up titled Terrorism in India 1917-1936 written by H.W. Hale of the Indian Police (Frontline, March 14, 2008).

What distinguishes Kama Maclean’s work, based on stupendous research, is that it explores the zone in which civil disobedience and terrorism met; if not merged. She is Associate Professor of South Asian and World History at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney and editor of South Asia. Many a Congressman rejected Gandhi’s non-violence. Maulana Azad, for example. But, as on other matters, Gandhi’s views on violence were not unambiguous. When he met the Viceroy Lord Wavell on August 27, 1946, “Gandhi thumped the table and said: ‘If India wants her blood bath, it shall have it’.” (Panderel Moon (Ed.); Wavell: The Viceroy’s Journal; OUP, page 341). Wavell was shocked to hear this. In 1942, secret instructions were issued to volunteers to use violence, if need be, if Gandhi was arrested for giving the “Quit India” call (Azad, India Wins Freedom; pages 82-83). Gandhi told Woodrow Wyatt on April 13, 1946, that “he would urge non-violence on Congress but did not expect them (sic.) to observe it. (Transfer of Power, Vol. 7, pages 261-262). The interaction should, therefore, cause no surprise. There was no triumph for the Gandhian ideology of non-violence.
The author writes: “The contribution that this book makes to the scholarship of this era is both epistemological and methodological. It aims to reconsider the impact of the revolutionaries on nationalist agitation; to deploy oral histories and factor in other ‘un-archived’ materials such as satire, hearsay and rumour in reconstructing a history of nationalism in the interwar period; and to lean on visual cultural artefacts to open a window onto debates about the anti-imperial struggle in British India. …

“In revisiting this period, my aim is to factor in the political impact of the north Indian revolutionaries—the votaries of violence who coordinated attacks on colonial interests in an attempt to undermine British confidence and expedite decolonisation—on the broader nationalist movement. Focussing on the activities of one organisation in particular, the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army (HSRA), formed by Chandrashekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh, this book draws on new evidence to deliver a fresh perspective on the ambitious ideologies and practices of this short-lived but influential party. I argue that it was no coincidence that then Civil Disobedience Movement —often thought of as the second great campaign directed by Gandhi and the Congress, after the Non-Cooperation Movement —substantially overlapped with the wave of revolutionary action unleashed by the HSRA.”

She has laboured as hard to procure and publish the visuals, which enrich the volume, as to unearth material from several archives. “A substantial body of these poster-montages were produced by presses in Kanpur and Lahore, both important bases of HSRA activity. Their referencing of revolutionary portraits (which, with the exception of Bhagat Singh’s and B.K. Dutt’s, were only circulated underground), and their apparent knowledge of revolutionary praxis belied an active sympathy, if not actual liaisons, with subversive organisations. In this, their highly coded enunciation in allegory and culturally dense tropes allude to a politics pushed underground. Thus, these images echo contemporary narratives and theories —of which there were many in the 1930s—about politics in general and imperial perfidy in particular. Such images murmur hints about what transpired in nationalist circles and in imperial schemes, and how the two came together in clash; they speak of legal travesty, nationalist imbrications, secret pacts, and implicitly understood strategies devised to challenge the empire.”

In a country in which literacy rates were low, posters helped arouse the masses. They support the central theme of the work. “The core argument of this book is that the presence of the revolutionaries on the political landscape during the crucial interwar years served to radicalise the Congress which, in turn, injected a fresh urgency into the slow British projecting constitutional reform.” They influenced the British to speed up the progress of the reforms.

The story of the intersection between the revolutionary HSRA, the Congress and the British government is told with a wealth of documentation. (For the text of the HSRA’s Manifesto vide Biswakesh Tripathy, Terrorism and Insurgency in India; 1900-1986; Pacific Press; pages 271-277.)
Revolutionaries were impatient and the impatience grew as Gandhi’s movements fizzled out, one after another. Gandhi imagined that his satyagraha provided a “safety valve” to divert “the reign of terrorism that has just begun to overwhelm India”.

Historians tended to give centre stage to the Gandhian narrative prompting Manmathnath Gupta, formerly of the HSRA, to call them “hired historians”; an epithet which some of them deserved for other reasons as well. Revolutionary politics had a clandestine nexus with the Congress. It strengthened the latter’s claim to be a barrier against the spread of violence—and also provided auxiliary support should the British try repressive methods. The author discusses the ways in which the two interacted and the interaction between the Congress and the HSRA and analyses the “revolutionary imagery”.

Gandhi faced a real challenge. Intelligence reports said that Bhagat Singh was more popular. Gandhi riveted his control of the Congress. Some interesting facts surface. In 1929 there was a plot to assassinate Mohammad Ali Jinnah. By the mid-1930s, the revolutionary surge subsided. One gets a better understanding of Bhagat Singh’s personality and his outlook. He did not want “a replacement of a white rule at Delhi by a brown rule”. It is a measure of the author’s scholarly modesty that she regards her pioneering work as but the beginning of a larger project. None better qualified to pursue it than the author herself.

Nehru sought U.S. help during 1962 Indo-China war: book

Posted by admin On October - 14 - 2015 Comments Off on Nehru sought U.S. help during 1962 Indo-China war: book


Former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had sought American assistance and wrote to the then U.S. President, John F. Kennedy, to provide India jet fighters to stem the Chinese tide of aggression during the 1962 Sino-India war, according to a new book titled, “JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA and the Sino-Indian War,” written by Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official. British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan also received a similar letter from Nehru, the American scholar writes.
Bruce Riedel says Mao’s decision to attack India was to “humiliate Nehru.”

Former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had sought American assistance and wrote to the then U.S. President, John F Kennedy, to provide India jet fighters to stem the Chinese tide of aggression during the 1962 Sino-India war, according to a new book.

The main objective of Mao Zedong, founding father of the People’s Republic of China, to attack India in 1962 was to “humiliate” Nehru who was emerging as a leader of the third world, it said.

Major provocation

“India’s implementation of the Forward Policy served as a major provocation to China in September 1962,” Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official, wrote the book titled JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA and the Sino-Indian War.’

“Mao’s focus was on Nehru, but a defeat of India would also be a setback for two of Mao’s enemies: [Nikita] Khrushchev and Kennedy,” Mr. Riedel wrote.

Heavy casualty

As India was losing its territory to China fast and suffering heavy casualty, Nehru in a letter to Kennedy in November 1962 said India needed “air transport and jet fighters to stem the Chinese tide of aggression.”

“A lot more effort, both from us and from our friends will be required.”

Nehru wrote another letter to Kennedy in quick succession, Mr. Riedel writes.

This letter written by Nehru in a state of panic was hand-delivered by the then Indian Ambassador to the U.S., B.K. Nehru, to Kennedy on November 19.

‘Request to join in air war’

“Nehru was thus asking Kennedy to join the war against China by partnering in an air war to defeat the PLA [Peoples Liberation Army of China]. It was a momentous request that the Indian Prime Minister was making. Just a decade after American forces had reached a ceasefire with the Chinese Community Forces in Korea, India was asking JFK to join a new war against Community China,” Mr. Riedel wrote in his book.

Ahead of Nehru’s letter, the then U.S. Ambassador to India, J.K. Galbraith, sent a telegram to the White House giving the President an advance notice that such a request was coming from Nehru.

Sought 12 U.S. air force squadrons

In the letter, Nehru asked for 12 squadrons of US air forces, Mr. Riedel told the Washington audience during the preview of the book at an event organised by the Brookings Institute — a top American think-tank — on Tuesday.

“A minimum of 12 squadrons of supersonic all-weather fighters are essential. We have no modern radar cover in the country. The United States Air Force personnel will have to man these fighters and radar installations while our personnel are being trained,” Nehru wrote in the letter, which has been quoted by Mr. Riedel in the book.

In addition, Nehru also requested “two squadrons of B-47 Bombers” to strike in Tibet, the author says quoting the letter.


In the letter, Nehru assured Kennedy that these bombers would not be used against Pakistan, but only for “resistance against the Chinese.”

The stakes were “not merely the survival of India”, Nehru told Kennedy “but the survival of free and independent Governments in the whole of this subcontinent or in Asia.”

Mr. Riedel said in the second letter that Nehru was, in fact, asking Kennedy for some 350 combat aircraft and crews: 12 squadrons of fighter aircraft and crews: 12 squadron of fighter aircraft with 24 jets in each and two bomber squadrons.

“At least 10,000 personnel would be needed to staff and operate jets, provide radar support and conduct logistical support for the operation,” Mr. Riedel said adding this was a substantial force, large enough to make it a numbered air force in the American order of battle.

Even a letter to British PM

The British Prime Minister received a similar letter from Nehru, the American scholar writes.

Referring to the subsequent instructions passed by Kennedy to his administration, Mr. Riedel described them as the one that of a President preparing for war.

But before the U.S. would take further steps, China announced unilateral ceasefire.

China rattled by U.S., U.K. support to India

After making major advances and being in a strong position to annex entire of North-East and reach as far as Kolkata, the Chinese leadership surprised the world by announcing a unilateral ceasefire fearing that both Britain and the United State were getting ready to provide material support to India in the war.

“Of course, we will never know what the specifics of American assistance to India would have been if the war continues,” he wrote in the book set to be officially released in the first week of November.

“We can be reasonably certain that America, India and probably Great Britain would have been at war together with China,” Mr. Riedel concludes.

‘JFK thwarted Pak. attack’

The book also notes that Kennedy played a “decisive role” in “forestalling a Pakistani attack” on India, even as Islamabad then was clearly capable of initiating war with India and taking advantage of the situation — New Delhi’s vulnerability.

Nehru, Mr. Riedel argues, ignored the advice of his general on the scene and instead listened to the top brass in New Delhi.

“Nehru’s serious mistake”

“This was a serious mistake. Having surrounded himself in New Delhi with ‘courtiers’ who told him ‘only what his top military advisors believed he wished to hear,’ Nehru took their bad advice,” he wrote.

Mr. Riedel writes that Mao probably finalised the decision to go to war in a meeting in Beijing on October 6, 1962 with his senior generals. Mao told them that China had defeated Chiang Kai-Shek and the Nationalists Imperial Japan, and the United States in Korea, he wrote.

“For a painful blow to India”

Responding to a question, at the Brookings panel discussion, the former CIA official said: “The PLA was ordered to impose a ‘fierce and painful’ blow on India and expel India from the territory of China claimed in Kashmir west of the Johnson Line and in NEFA South of McMahon Line.

According to Mr. Riedel, on October 8 the Chinese Foreign Minister informed the Soviet Ambassador in Beijing that a massive attack by China was eminent.

“Russia didn’t dissuade China”

“Because the Soviets were engaged in their own high-stakes gamble in Cuba, Moscow did not discourage the Chinese, despite Khrushchev’s close relationship with Nehru,” he said in the book.

““At the same time defeating India would answer the question Kennedy had raised in his 1959 speech in the Senate about which country, democratic India or communist China, was poised to win the race for great power status in Asia. For Mao, the conflict with India provided a surrogate for his rivalry with Moscow and with Washington,” Mr. Riedel wrote in his book.

“On October 28, 1962, the day before Nehru asked for American military help, the U.S. Ambassador in Pakistan, Walter McConaughy met with the then Pakistani ruler Ayub Khan.

U.S. wanted Pak. to assure India

“The Ambassador urged him to send assurances to Nehru that Pakistan would not take advantage of India’s war with China,” he wrote.

In response, Khan proposed that “the Americans and Pakistanis work together to seek the surrender of Indian territory just as the Chinese were grabbing land. This the U.S. considered as ‘blackmail,’” Mr. Riedel said.

Galbraith immediately sent an “alarming telegram” to Washington and Karachi “asking for God’s sake that they keep Kashmir out” of any American message to Pakistan, Mr. Riedel said in the book, adding that Washington sided immediately with Galbraith on Kashmir. At the advice of the U.S., Nehru then wrote a letter to Ayub Khan.

“Pakistan was clearly capable of initiating war with India, but decided in 1962 not to take advantage of India’s vulnerability,” Mr. Riedel writes.

“Mao’s move dangerous”

“Kennedy’s message to Ayub Khan, reinforced by similar message from [British] Prime Minister [Harold] Macmillan, left little in doubt that the United States and the United Kingdom would view a Pakistani move against India as a hostile and aggressive action inconsistent with the SEATO and CENTO Treaties. The Americans told Pakistan that the Chinese attack was the most dangerous move made by Mao since 1950 and that they intended to respond decisively,” he wrote.

Mr. Riedel, a well-known American expert of South Asia and advisers to four successive U.S. Presidents including Barack Obama, is a senior fellow and director of the Brookings Intelligence Project


Inside the Islamic State-Malise Ruthven

Posted by admin On August - 16 - 2015 Comments Off on Inside the Islamic State-Malise Ruthven


Al-Furqan Media/Anadolu Agency/Getty Image
SIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi preaching in a mosque in Mosul, from a video released in July 2014
Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate
by Abdel Bari Atwan
London: Saqi, 256 pp., £16.99 (to be published by University of California Press in September)
In November 2001, two months after the al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, James Buchan, a novelist and a former Middle East correspondent, published an article in the London Guardian in which he imagined the triumphant entry into Mecca of Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted terrorist:

It was no ordinary evening, but possibly the holiest in the holiest month of Islam, the so-called Lailat al-Qadr, or the Night of Power, on which, according to the Koran, God’s revelation was sent down to the Prophet Mohammed…. More than 50,000 people had gathered on the hot pavement of the mosque enclosure and in the streets outside to pass the evening in prayer. Millions of others were watching on a live television broadcast at home.
As Sheikh Abdul Rahman, famous all over the Islamic world for the beauty of his voice, mounted the pulpit, a hand reached up and tugged at his robe. There was a commotion, and in the place of the Imam stood a tall man, unarmed and dressed in the white cloth of the pilgrim…, and recognisable from a million television screens: Osama bin Laden, flanked by his lieutenants….
Armed young men appeared from the crowd and could be seen padlocking the gates, and taking up firing positions in the galleries.
So began the insurrection that was to overturn the kingdom of Saudi Arabia….
While the details in Buchan’s fantasy describing “the west’s worst nightmare” have changed, the scenario he outlined appears more plausible today than it did fourteen years ago. Bin Laden is dead, thanks to the action of US Navy SEALs in May 2011, but as Abdel Bari Atwan explains in Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s official successor as leader of “al-Qa‘ida central,” looks increasingly irrelevant. Bin Laden’s true successor is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the shadowy caliph of ISIS, the so-called Islamic State. As “Commander of the Faithful” in that nascent state he poses a far more formidable threat to the West and to Middle Eastern regimes—including the Saudi kingdom—that are sustained by Western arms than bin Laden did from his Afghan cave or hideout in Pakistan.
One of the primary forces driving this transformation, according to Atwan, is the digital expertise demonstrated by the ISIS operatives, who have a commanding presence in social media. A second is that ISIS controls a swath of territory almost as large as Britain, lying between eastern Syria and western Iraq. As Jürgen Todenhöfer, who spent ten days in ISIS-controlled areas in both Iraq and Syria, stated categorically in January: “We have to understand that ISIS is a country now.”

In his book, based on visits to the Turkish-Syrian border, online interviews with jihadists, and the access to leaders he enjoys as one of the Arab world’s most respected journalists, Atwan draws a convincing picture of the Islamic State as a well-run organization that combines bureaucratic efficiency and military expertise with a sophisticated use of information technology.

For security reasons, and to enhance his mystique, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled caliph, keeps a low profile, rarely appearing in public. He is sometime known as the Phantom (al-shabah) or “‘the invisible sheikh’ because of his habit of wearing a mask when addressing his commanders.” His real name is Ibrahim bin Awwad bin Ibrahim al-Badri al-Qurayshi. He was born in 1971 in the Iraqi town of Samarra, once the seat of the caliphs in the Abbasid period (750–1258), whom he seeks to emulate. Crucially, the Bobadri tribe to which he belongs includes the Prophet Muhammad’s tribe of Qurayshin in its lineage. In the classical Sunni tradition, the caliph is required to be a Qurayshite.

According to Baghdadi’s online biography, supplied by the IS media agency al-Hayat, he is from a religious family that includes several imams (prayer leaders) and Koranic scholars. He is said to have attended the Islamic University of Baghdad where he received his BA, MA, and Ph.D., with his doctorate focusing on Islamic jurisprudence as well as including studies of Islamic culture and history. He first attended the university during Saddam Hussein’s “Faith Campaign,” when the Iraqi dictator encouraged Islamic religiosity as a way of rousing national feeling against the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after the US liberated Kuwait from Saddam’s occupation in 1991.

While Baghdadi’s academic credentials confer legitimacy on his claim to be a religious guide as well as a political and military leader—an authority possessed by neither bin Laden nor Zawahri—his extensive battlefield experience and reputation as a shrewd tactician have enabled him to gain the support of experienced commanders and administrators from the former Baathist regime. As Atwan writes:

Islamic State always has the advantage of surprise and is able to seize opportunities as and when they arise. Rather than “fight to the death,” its brigades will slip away from a battle they are clearly not going to win, regrouping in a more advantageous location….
In January 2015, for example with the US-led alliance bombarding Islamic State targets in Iraq, the Military Council decided to redeploy its efforts to Syria. Fighters inside Iraq were ordered to lie low…while battalions and sleeper cells in Syria were reactivated. As a result, the group doubled the territory under its control in Syria between August 2014 and January 2015.
While skeptics may doubt the sincerity of the ex-Baathists, assuming they are seeking a return to the power they enjoyed before the US invasion, it seems more likely that their support for ISIS has been motivated by religious conviction. With their former hegemony lost, and the previously despised “infidel” Shias in the ascendant in Iraq, these erstwhile secularists are returning to their faith.

This is not to say that the expertise they acquired under Saddam has been lost. As Atwan explains, ISIS is a “highly centralized and disciplined organization” with a sophisticated security apparatus and capacity for delegating power. The caliph—as “successor” of the Prophet—is the ultimate authority; but despite his sermon exhorting believers to “advise me when I err,” any threat, opposition, or even contradiction is instantly eradicated. Baghdadi has two deputies—both former members of the Iraqi Baath Party. Both were his fellow prisoners in Camp Bucca, the sprawling American detention center in southern Iraq now seen as the “jihadist university” where former Baathists and Sunni insurgents were able to form ideological and religious bonds. Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, Baghdadi’s second-in-command, was a member of Saddam’s feared military intelligence. Baghdadi’s second deputy, Abu Ali al-Anbari, was a major general in the Iraqi army.

Baghdadi and his deputies set the group’s overall objectives, which are then communicated down the hierarchy, with local commanders and administrators allowed to fulfill their tasks at their own discretion in territories under ISIS control. There are advisory councils and several departments run by committees, with leaders of each department sitting in Baghdadi’s “cabinet.”

The most powerful of these is the Sharia Council, which oversees draconian implementation of the penalties for “crimes against God’s limits” (called hudud), which include amputations and capital punishment, as well as the punishments for other crimes (called tazir), largely aimed at shaming offenders and inducing repentance. The Islamic State has also established a sharia police force (similar to the religious police in Saudi Arabia) tasked with enforcing religious observance. Regular police are brought under ISIS administration, and wear new black uniforms. Police cars are resprayed with the ISIS insignia.

“Sharia courts deal with all complaints, whether religious or civil, and cases can be brought by individuals as well as the police,” Atwan writes.

In conurbations were there has been no policing and no judiciary owing to the collapse of central government, these courts are largely popular; citizens can bring cases directly to the courts, which are able to process cases quickly and, in most cases, reasonably.
Justice is said to be impartial, with ISIS soldiers subject to the same punishments as civilians.

An anonymous Sunni Muslim described as “non-extremist” living in Manbij, near Aleppo—under ISIS control since 2014—told Atwan “that crime is now nonexistent” thanks to “the uncompromising methods of the extremists and their ‘consistency.’” The taxes called zakat (one of Islam’s five “pillars” of religious obligation) are collected and given to the poor and to the displaced families from other parts of Syria who make up half the city’s population.

Atwan’s informant told him that most of the people living under ISIS rule approve of its educational policies, despite a focus on Islam, with the teaching of science seen as being generally strong. (Atwan claims no other evidence for this view.) More importantly perhaps, teachers are receiving their salaries after months of nonpayment.

The Education Council oversees the provision of education and the curriculum, based on the strict Salafist, or ultra-orthodox, interpretation of the Koran and sharia law. In many cases the curriculum used in Saudi schools—especially at the middle and high school levels—has been adopted in its entirety. Several subjects are banned, including evolutionary biology. Contrary to some media reports, girls are not deprived of education. Indeed ISIS in its online magazines makes a feature of its all-female schools and universities. While gender segregation is rigorously enforced, women are not forbidden by law to drive, as in Saudi Arabia.

The jihadists of ISIS may be terrorists—to use an imprecise, catch-all term—but as Atwan explains, they are both well paid and disciplined, and the atrocities they commit and upload on the Internet are part of a coherent strategy:

Crucifixions, beheadings, the hearts of rape victims cut out and placed upon their chests, mass executions, homosexuals being pushed from high buildings, severed heads impaled on railings or brandished by grinning “jihadist” children—who have latterly taken to shooting prisoners in the head themselves—these gruesome images of brutal violence are carefully packaged and distributed via Islamic State’s media department. As each new atrocity outdoes the last, front-page headlines across the world’s media are guaranteed.
Far from being an undisciplined orgy of sadism, ISIS terror is a systematically applied policy that follows the ideas put forward in jihadist literature, notably in an online tract, The Management of Savagery, by the al-Qaeda ideologue Abu Bakr Naji. This treatise, posted in 2004 and widely cited by jihadists, is both a rationale for violence and a blueprint for the Caliphate. It draws heavily on the writings of Taqi al-Din ibn Taymiyyah (1263–1328), the medieval theologian who inspired the Arabian Wahhabi movement and is highly regarded by Islamists for holding rulers to account in the practice of true religion.

Naji, who was killed in a US drone strike in Waziristan in 2008, considers the violence inherent in conflict a necessary stage in the establishment of the Caliphate. He refers in particular to the campaigns of Muhammad and the “Wars of Apostasy” fought by the first caliph, Abu Bakr, who reigned 632–634 and fought the tribes that had abandoned Islam after the death of Muhammad when they no longer considered themselves bound by their bayat (oath of allegiance). Naji sees the coming period of savagery as a time of “vexation and exhaustion” when, as Atwan summarizes, “the superpowers will be worn down militarily by constant threat…from the jihadists.” The Americans, he writes, “have reached a stage of effeminacy which makes them unable to sustain battles for a long period of time.” Naji’s aim here—as Atwan explains—is “to provoke the US to ‘abandon its war against Islam by proxy…and the media psychological war…and to force it to fight directly.’”

While the inspiration for the “savagery” detailed by Naji relies on transplanting the early battles of Islam and projecting them forward in an apocalyptic showdown in northwest Syria, ISIS maximizes the impact of its terror strategy by encouraging scenes of violence and death to be shown on screens and phones.* Brutality, however, is only one element in the stream of images uploaded by its sophisticated media outlets. The Islamic State, according to Atwan, is also presented as

an emotionally attractive place where people “belong,” where everyone is a “brother” or “sister.” A kind of slang, melding adaptations or shortenings of Islamic terms with street language, is evolving among the English-language fraternity on social media platforms in an attempt to create a “jihadi cool.” A jolly home life is portrayed via Instagram images where fighters play with fluffy kittens and jihadist “poster-girls” proudly display the dishes they have created.
The idea of the “restored Caliphate” has been the dream of Islamic revivalists since the formal abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate by Kemal Atatürk in 1924. The appeal, carefully fostered by Baghdadi and his cohorts by means of the Internet and social media, is for a transnational body that stands above the various tribes or communities making up the Muslim world. They are achieving impressive results, with pledges of allegiance (bayat) from militants in places as far removed from one another as Nigeria, Pakistan, and Yemen, and in Libya ISIS now has an airbase in Sirte, the hometown of former leader Muammar Qaddafi.

The jihadists’ most potent psychological pitch is exploiting dreams of martyrdom—a theme that is cleverly juxtaposed with images of domestic normalcy. Close-ups of dead fighters’ smiling faces are frequently posted, along with the ISIS “salute”—the right-hand index finger pointing heavenward. In one Twitter feed a British-born woman shares her “glad tidings”:

My husband Rahimuh Allah has done the best transaction you can make his soul [sic] and in return Jenna [heaven] may Allah accept you yaa shaheed [martyr].
“Five hours earlier,” Atwan writes, “she had posted a picture of a bowl of cream dessert with bits of Toblerone chocolate stuck on top.” For young viewers already used to simulated violence on television and computer games, Naji ups the ante, insisting that in suicide missions jihadists should use “a quantity of explosives that not only destroys the building…[but] makes the earth completely swallow it up. By doing so, the amount of the enemy’s fear is multiplied and good media goals are achieved.”

The use of explosives for propaganda as well as military purposes can be compared to the “shock and awe” tactics favored by Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell in the assault on Baghdad in 2003. The online reputation achieved by these ferocious jihadists inspires such fear that government troops in Iraq and Syria have fled rather than put up a fight. Only Kurds and Shias still have the motivation to offer resistance.

Fear-inducing terror is also personal. Naji writes that hostages whose ransoms have not been paid should be “liquidated in the most terrifying manner which will send fear into the hearts of the enemy and his supporters.” American citizens—James Foley and Steven Sotloff—were executed, on camera, in the orange jumpsuits worn by prisoners in Guantánamo Bay. The online theatricals serve to legitimize murder as a type of qisas—“retaliation in kind”—which is one of the well-known punishments in Islamic law.

As Atwan points out, these horrifying scenes are expertly disseminated by the ISIS media department, which is run by a French-born Syrian-American trained in Massachusetts. The public information department is led by a Syrian, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami, whom Atwan describes as “the most significant figure in Islamic State after Caliph Ibrahim and his deputies.” This Goebbels of the Islamic State has been responsible for some of its most inflammatory propaganda, including an online speech urging “lone-wolf” jihadists living in the West to kill “citizens of countries which have entered into a coalition against Islamic State” by “any means you chose,” such as deliberately running over people with vehicles. His speech was followed in quick succession by hit-and-run attacks in Canada, France, and Israel.

Atwan explains how the Islamic State’s media department employs an army of journalists, photographers, and editors to produce slick videos with high production values that are disseminated on the Internet without their source being detected. Activists use “virtual private networks” that conceal a user’s IP address, in conjunction with browsers—including one originally developed for US Navy intelligence—that enable the viewer to access the “dark Internet,” the anonymous zone frequented by child pornographers and other criminals.

In 2014 the US State Department’s intelligence unit oversaw the removal of 45,000 jihadist items from the Internet, while Britain’s Metropolitan Police deleted some 1,100 items per week. It seems doubtful, however, that this “electronic counter-jihad” will prove any more successful than efforts to abolish Internet fraud or close down pedophile rings. Like other criminals the “cyber-jihadists” keep one step of ahead of the government agencies and service providers seeking to close them down.

Confronting believers with the choice between heaven and hell, salvation and damnation, using fiery rhetoric and imagery, has long been the stock-in-trade of preachers, as famously analyzed by the psychiatrist William Sargant in his classic study of religious conversion and “brain-washing” in Battle for the Mind (1957). ISIS can dispense with preachers and instead use social media to stimulate a process of self-radicalization, with thousands of foreign Muslims (and some converts) flocking to join the Caliphate.

Atwan, who visited the area in late 2014, considers the number of fighters for the Islamic State considerably larger than the 100,000 or so usually cited by the Western media, a third of whom—at least 30,000—are foreigners (i.e., non-Iraqis and non-Syrians). The most numerous, according to the Washington Institute, are Libyans (around 21 percent), followed by Tunisians and Saudis (16 percent), Jordanians (11 percent), Egyptians (10 percent), and Lebanese (8 percent). Turkish volunteers, he says, have been underestimated, with some two thousand Turks in ISIS. Europeans are led by the French brigades (composed of French and Belgians of North African descent), with some 6 percent of the total, followed by the British with 4.5 percent. “Australian authorities were shocked to discover” that some two hundred of their nationals had joined ISIS, “making the country the biggest per capita exporter of foreign jihadists.”

Conversion and recruitment, however, are far from the only benefits achieved by the Caliphate’s mastery of the Internet. Like criminal gangsters, the jihadists use bitcoins and other forms of “crypto-currency,” such as “stored value credit cards” linked to prepaid disposable mobile phones, to avoid detection when accumulating or transferring funds. The group’s main source of revenue, however, has been oil. Although ISIS lost two of the Iraqi oil fields it controlled after the Iraqi government’s security forces reconquered Tikrit in April, it is still a wealthy organization, having “numerous legal and illegal revenue streams that involve both local and global partners.” The budget is managed by an Economic Council that produces annual reports each March. The reports describe in detail attacks and military operations, along with revenue and expenditures. In January 2015 overall receipts were reported to be $2 billion in all the territories controlled by ISIS, with a surplus of $250 million added to the war chest.

Ironically ISIS has benefited from the ban on Syrian oil exports imposed by the US and European Union by selling oil directly to the Assad regime—thereby increasing the suspicion that Assad has been an active collaborator with ISIS, in order to eliminate any vestiges of the “moderate” Syrian opposition that retains some Western support. Damage caused by US air strikes to the Syrian oilfields in Deir el-Zor has been compensated by ISIS’s conquest of Palmyra (Tadmor), which has two fields of natural gas and a phosphate mine, the largest in Syria.

Other sources of income include bank robberies, kidnap ransoms, “fees” at roadblocks, and “taxes” imposed on traders living in ISIS-controlled areas. Atwan sees management of these funds as “indicative of a large, well-organized, state-like entity” governed in strict accordance with Islamic law. Jizya—the per capita tax paid by Jews and Christians prior to nineteenth-century Ottoman reforms—is now exacted from non-Muslims, while booty and “spoils of war”—including captured women and slaves—may be distributed in accordance with Koranic prescriptions.

Also among such spoils of war are the antiquities taken to buyers from ancient archaeological sites, such as Palmyra. In general, sites are destroyed only after everything of value that can be transported has been removed. In addition to Palmyra—the first site in Syria captured directly from government forces—the looters in Syria have been at work on Hellenistic and Byzantine remains in Apamea, Dura-Europos, and the ISIS-controlled city of Raqqa.

As well as describing the internal structure of the Islamic State and its uses of the Internet, Atwan provides an authoritative account of its beginnings in the branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq dominated by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who—contrary to bin Laden’s more inclusive approach—adopted violently sectarian rhetoric and organized atrocities at Shia mosques and places of pilgrimage in line with his ultra-Wahhabist theology. Atwan thinks that Zarqawi’s overall strategy was to fight the US occupation by dragging the ruling Shias into a civil war with Sunnis. This would allow his group to increase its influence among the indigenous Sunni population and bring in Sunni fighters from neighboring countries (Syria, Jordan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia) where Sunnis are the majority. Given the current state of Iraq and Syria, the strategy seems to have paid off handsomely.

In June 2006 Zarqawi was tracked down and killed by a fighter jet after posting Rambo-style pictures of himself on the Internet, enabling US surveillance to pinpoint his location. The lesson was not lost on his successors, who joined with other Sunni groups to form the umbrella Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), the nucleus of ISIS. By a Darwinian process, jihadists who failed to master complex systems of cybersecurity were rapidly eliminated, leaving the field to their more sophisticated and technically proficient brethren.

Atwan notes that none of Zarqawi’s successors, including Baghdadi, pledged allegiance (bayat) to bin Laden or his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Technically ISI and its heirs (now ISIS or Islamic State) have been independent of al-Qaeda for the past eight years, a factor that helps to facilitate defections from members of other Islamist groups, such as the Syrian-based Jabhat al-Nusra, which retains its formal links with al-Qaeda. Jabhat al-Nusra, supported by Qatar and other Gulf states, now spearheads internal opposition to the Assad regime. Rather than threatening Damascus politically, ISIS has focused on building its state.

The obvious question that arises is, where will all of this end? A meeting in Paris in early June of twenty-four coalition partners led by the US and France failed to come up with any new strategies. With ISIS in control of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, and nearing the outskirts of Aleppo in Syria, coalition air strikes are plainly insufficient to deter the Caliphate’s expansion. Only the Kurdish Peshmerga and Iranian-trained Shiite militias have the capacity and will to halt the Caliphate’s amoeba-like growth in Iraq. But the deployment of Shia militias can only escalate an already dangerous sectarian conflict.

Shia mosques are being targeted by ISIS not only in Iraq, where Shias are in the majority, but also in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, where most of the oil is located. Efforts by the Saudi regime to defend its Shia minority (who already suffer discrimination) must surely play into the hands of the ISIS militants, who like their stricter Wahhabi counterparts regard the Shias as heretics. As Atwan explains, both the House of Saud and the Islamic State lay claim to the “true path” of Islam as outlined by the eighteenth-century scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, yet each considers the other to be in a state of apostasy.

There seems little doubt about which of these claims is perceived in Saudi Arabia as more authentic. In an online poll conducted in July 2014, a formidable 92 percent of Saudi citizens agreed that ISIS “conforms to the values of Islam and Islamic law.” In mounting its challenge to the Saudi monarch’s quasi-caliphal claim to lead the Muslim world as “Guardian of the Two Holy Shrines” (Mecca and Medina), ISIS highlights “the royal family’s love of luxury and acceptance of corruption which, it claims, renders its members ideologically and morally unfit for the task.”

The values and hubris of the Saudi dynasty are exemplified by its astounding exploitation, not to say desecration, of Mecca’s holy city, where the world’s largest hotel (seventy restaurants and 10,000 bedrooms) is under construction in the dynasty’s favorite wedding-cake style—with five of its forty-five stories reserved for exclusive use by the royal family. As oil prices decline the princes and their friends expect to benefit by “catering to the increasingly high expectations of well-heeled pilgrims from the Gulf.” By appropriating Wahhabism’s iconoclastic rhetoric, along with its anti-Shia theology, ISIS challenges the legitimacy of the Saudi rulers as guardians of Islam’s holy places far more effectively than any republican movement. With Iraq and Syria falling apart and the US caught between conflicting impulses (fighting alongside Iran in Iraq while opposing it in Syria), it may only be a matter of time before the nightmare imagined by James Buchan becomes a reality.

—June 9, 2015

Syria’s ongoing autopsy-VIJAY PRASHAD

Posted by admin On June - 28 - 2015 Comments Off on Syria’s ongoing autopsy-VIJAY PRASHAD


the two books reveal a great deal more about the prevailing mood among Syrians than the news reports that track the minutiae of this battle and that battle in the country.
Four years into the conflict, Syria remains a bare shadow of itself. Morticians have stopped counting the dead, and the United Nations only has estimates of the displaced (about half the population). Life expectancy is said to have dropped by 20 years to a meagre 58. The suffering is acute. It cannot be captured in numbers. One gauge of it is the extreme step taken by Syrian refugees to flee the area, even to risk going to chaotic Libya from which they chance the Mediterranean moat. Walking through Syrian refugee camps provides both a sense of the desolation and the pure relief at human resilience; even the most scarred people try to plant flowers outside their tents.

The war itself is relatively dull, battles here and there threaten human lives and seem to make little progress in the civil war. Over four years none of the players have been overly threatened. The government of Bashar al-Assad, which the West thought would fall on several occasions over this period, remains intact. It continues to control the major population centres. Despite their antipathy to his government, Western journalists and diplomats feel safest in his realm. Areas of the rebels sow fear, whether the slowly depleting zones of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or the various Islamist extremist groups (from the Jabhat al-Nusra, affiliated to Al Qaeda, to the Saudi-backed Jaish al-Islam). Kidnappings for ransom and for spectacular killing are the threat. There are no longer any reliable forces that carry the “moderate” banner for the West. The rebels lean largely towards extremism of one shape or form. In his elegy for the civil war, the journalist Charles Glass notes, “No one, apart from the undertaker, is winning.”

The entrails of this war suggest little hope. No sign of peace is visible. Even exhaustion—which is the mood amongst many fighters—is not a guarantee of a ceasefire. The combatants resemble boxers in the final rounds of their championship bout, blinded by pain and fatigue, groping for a target on the body of the other; except that in this case, there are no rounds, no bells, no going the distance, since the war seems to stretch to infinity. The journalist Reese Erlich’s book does not even bother with an assessment of the way ahead. He closes his learned book with pen portraits of those who prolong the conflict: the United States, Russia, the Gulf Arabs and Iran. Halfway through his book, Erlich writes, “The struggle for a peaceful, secular Syria has been diminished, but not crushed.” Here is hope. It dies on page 121. A hundred pages remain of the book.
The Rebellion

Was Syria fated to join the Arab Spring? Assad did not think so. He was confident that the wave would wash across North Africa and settle before it entered the Arab east. The southern city of Daraa was the epicentre of small-scale protests, a vicious retaliation from the local governor and then escalation outwards across Syria. What provoked the multitudinous uprisings? Erlich and Glass share a narrative here. Both go backwards to the colonial past to suggest that what emerged out of it—the one-state Arab regime—could not be sustained. Too many complex desires and aspirations had been suppressed by these regimes, whether in Egypt or Syria or Iraq. Popular discontent is legion. Each of these regimes had a basic contract with the population—we will provide for your economic, social and cultural needs as long as you leave the politics to us. By the 1990s, the contract frayed. These regimes turned to neoliberal policy frameworks that whittled at welfare schemes and encouraged corruption. The beneficiaries of the new reforms, Glass writes, “were newly privatised bankers, Bashar’s cousins who obtained licences to sell mobile phones, middlemen and brokers with urban educations and customs, not the newly landless trying without money or education to adapt to metropolitan life”.

The frustrations of the newly landless were compounded by the drought that hit the area around the Euphrates river (in September 2010, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter, said that as many as three million Syrians had been thrown into extreme poverty by the extreme weather). Dr Bassam Barakat, an adviser to the Assad government, told Erlich of the neoliberal reforms, “The Syrian regime made a big mistake. We had an army of unemployed young people.” These would be the ones who would rise against Assad in 2011.

If the contract to provide the basic needs was withdrawn, the other side of it—political suffocation —was not changed. The vocabulary of violence in the dungeons of Syria is highly developed, from the dulab (to be hung from a suspended tyre and beaten) to the bisat al-rih (the flying carpet, namely to hang the prisoner on a piece of wood and then beat him or apply electric shock treatment). Promises of a political opening came as early as the Damascus Spring of 2001, but Assad dithered. Opponents went to prison or exile. At several points Erlich suggests that Assad should have conducted reforms “in response to popular opinion”. Why Assad did not is clear. Crony capitalism, a condition familiar around the world, prefers less accountability and so less democracy. Those prisons came into use during the West’s War on Terror, when the U.S. government outsourced incarceration and torture to Damascus. In February 2011, a month before the rising, the Syrian Association for Human Rights and the Arab Organisation for Penal Reform published a report on prison overcrowding. Who was in prison? People like the former judge Haitham al-Maleh (age 80), who was convicted by the Emergency laws for “weakening national sentiment”. His crime: calling for civil liberties.

Revolutions, Glass writes, “produce surprising outcomes, and those who start them must be prepared for the unintended consequences of success as much as for failure”. It is the latter that stalks Syria. Both Erlich and Glass show that the early phase of the uprising that began in March 2011 had an ecumenical character, which was evident in the Local Coordinating Committees. Armed by Syria’s geopolitical rivals, extremist groups supplanted these committees by November 2011. “The uprising,” Erlich writes, “was becoming a civil war.”

Both Erlich and Glass detail the tentacles of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey as well as the West in the hapless opposition groups that had their headquarters in Istanbul. On the ground meanwhile, the FSA led by Salim Idris faced blow upon blow not only from the Syrian Army but also from the extremist outfits. Al Qaeda affiliates emerged, as did Saudi-backed extremists. The character of the rebellion changed dramatically into sectarianism. Syria, which has a long history of relative tolerance, heard chilling slogans of extreme violence:

Massihiyeh ala Beirut. Alawiyeh ala Taboot.(Christians to Beirut; Alawis to the coffin.)

Zahran Alloush, backed by Saudi Arabia and considered by the West to be a “moderate”, told his followers near Damascus, “The jehadists will wash the filth of the rafida [an anti-Shia slur] from Greater Syria, they will wash it forever, if Allah wills it.” This is the character of the rebellion. Glass’ assessment of the current impasse is bleak: “The war has reached the stage at which many on both sides no longer regard the others as humans let alone as citizens of a country in which all must coexist.”

Old-style journalists, Erlich and Glass know Syria well. They have spent long periods drifting about, making friends, and enjoying the social worlds that they encounter. Neither feel the lash of a corporate media industry, pushing them to file breaking news and ignoring the density of social life and the passions of the people.

Glass wrote a lyrical book about his journey through Syria in 1987, Tribes With Flags (1990), in which he introduces us to his friends, the Aleppo hotelier Krikor Mazloumian, the people of Yusuf Basha, the Damascenes such as Sehem Turjuman and Hani al Raheb. There is deep love here for the people he encounters and writes about. Glass returns to Syria throughout the civil war, meeting his old contacts and friends. They remain committed to the complexity of Syria, many of them from minority groups who did not always see themselves as minorities but as a part of Syrian culture.

Glass sits with Khalid Khalifa, the Aleppo-born novelist who wrote In Praise of Hatred (Madih al-karahiya, 2006), a novel that considers the conflict between the Syrian state and the Muslim Brotherhood. His most recent novel, No Knives in This City’s Kitchens (La Sakakin fi matabikh hadhini al-madina), is an indictment of the Baath rule.
Khalifa tells Glass, “Stop the war. Stop the blood. The Syrian people are tired now. You can play revolution for some time. But not for a long time.” This is the attitude captured by Erlich and Glass. It reveals a great deal more than the reports that track the minutiae of this battle and that battle.

Neither Erlich nor Glass sees an easy way out. Both are gloomy. The geopolitics does not allow it. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the West remain obdurate with their slogan, “Assad must go”, a recipe for the prolongation of the war. Iran and Russia will not allow the Syrian regime to collapse. No one can win this war.

Syria is ground down beneath these determinations. Omar Abdulaziz Hallaj, a wise and distinguished architect from Aleppo, runs the Syrian Initiative, a group that seeks to build grass-roots linkages inside Syria. He maintains hope.

“Peace in Syria,” he recently wrote, “will need sustainable roots. It must be built from the bottom up; the top down process advocated in the Geneva Communique, can work only if it is supported by transforming the dynamic of the conflict on the ground.”

He is hard at work building trust through local ceasefires. People who live cheek by jowl will have to learn again to rely on each other. It takes people like Hallaj to create the basis for this, although even he is pessimistic. “The longer the war is prolonged,” he writes, “the smaller the window of opportunity may become.”

Triumph of humanism-Shelley Walia

Posted by admin On April - 22 - 2015 Comments Off on Triumph of humanism-Shelley Walia


The book calls for serious reflection on the demands of notions of community, solidarity and public life. By SHELLEY WALIA

THE philosophy of Hannah Arendt, a person who remained stateless for 18 years after the Gestapo hounded her out of Germany and who was an ardent admirer of Karl Marx, is underpinned by a Hegelian framework that uses dialectical negation for introducing emancipatory politics. Standing between Hegel and Jurgen Habermas, we see the towering figure of a thinker who has always had a deeply problematic relationship with the Left. Hannah Arendt often said: “You know the Left think that I am conservative and the conservatives think I am Left or I am a maverick or God knows what. And I must say that I couldn’t care less. I don’t think the real questions of this century get any kind of illumination by this kind of thing.”

Nevertheless, her philosophy has always had a powerful impact on the New Left and contemporary debates on bureaucratic workings of the nation-state and its inherent paradoxical nature of laying down the rights of its citizens, and yet, on the contrary, taking the extreme step of statelessness, dispossessing a huge section of its public on the basis of race, as visible in mainly three cases: Nazism, Zionism and, on a massive scale, in the Partition of India with implicit cultural and political dilution of liberation and individual consciousness.

Hannah Arendt’s involvement in the cold-blooded uses of power had its beginnings with the suspension of civil liberties and dissent on February 27, 1933, the day the German Reichstag (Lower House) burned down. Integral to her philosophy was the dilemma of the Jewish question and the contradictions in Adolf Hitler’s drive towards finding a solution to the minorities by first dispersing them and then gathering them for extermination. Added to this unsolvable problem were the creation of Israel and the dispossession of the Jews. These forces apparently stand in opposition to the notion of performative dispossession affected by injustice that has sparked uprisings from Zuccatti Park to Puerta del Sol, from north Africa to Turkey and India recently. Dispossession indeed constitutes “a form of suffering for those displaced and colonised” and therefore “could not remain an ambivalent political ideal”.


Though the question of nationalism is legitimate for a stateless people, it is not possible to support Zionism and its implications of illegitimate neocolonial confiscation of land as well as the pillage of the people of Palestine. In such a state of affairs, it is rather impossible to deal with the question of a nation especially because it is not possible to define the boundaries claimed by such nation(less) people. The dispossession of Palestinians must take into consideration the illegitimacy of dispossession as well as the rights of refugees to return to their land. Judith Butler in her book Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence elaborates on the question of dispossession: “Whether or not we continue to enforce a universal conception of human rights at moments of outrage and incomprehension, precisely when we think that others have taken themselves out of the human community as we know it, is a test of our very humanity.”

Such an early engagement with questions of the human condition and the inhuman use of power led Hannah Arendt to examine human action and judgment with respect to one’s duty and behaviour according to the demands of official work even if it means death for some. To her, the nature of evil was within human grasp, and if it was not, the world would be an inhospitable place to live in. We are, therefore, not naturally flawed as human beings and we could save ourselves if we worked on it.

In a bureaucratic world, what matters is the work assigned to you, not the nature of the work, even if it entails death and misery for many. This, according to Hannah Arendt, is the “banality of evil”, a fact intrinsic to the working of overbearing machinery around the world. Legitimation of state policies through individual assignments ensures subservience to state ideology as seen in the case of adherents of Nazism responsible for the genocide of the Jews; the task given to them by the state by virtue of which they stood absolved of all guilt or responsibility for any crime perpetrated in the name of oppressive systems.

In such a system, one confronts two kinds of people: the intellectuals, who have the conviction and the disposition of dissidents, and the others who deem themselves “normal” participants, who value conformism and compliance to the rules of the state. On the human level, the choices we make resolve our destiny and label our ideological stance. Rules are too straight and narrow in scope to cover the paradoxes and ironies of our way of life.


As argued rigorously by Philip Hansen, Hannah Arendt’s philosophy stresses the defence of human dignity in the face of evil. She argues that in each one of us there is the urge for public self-promotion, but our freedom really lies in our “inability to disclose who we are”. This is, paradoxically, a trait that dictates certain invisibility for the purpose of gaining power. Hannah Arendt gains in her relevance to oppositional politics and the radical delegitimising of institutions and established assumptions that begin and end with the design to essentialise public opinion, moulding it in the complexion of the ideology of the ruling class. Individual identity stands in conflict with the state’s ideological engineering that promotes overwhelming subservience. As Hansen argues, “if in the modern age we have seen in totalitarianism an unprecedented threat to human plurality, we have also seen the emergence of a unique expression of the human ability to begin anew, to act in freedom, to create a genuine public realm.” This is the specific “phenomenon of revolution” for Hannah Arendt’s “exercise in political theory”. It is, Hansen explains in the chapter on Hannah Arendt’s book Revolution, “the peculiar modern attempt to reclaim our political inheritance…. Revolution, then, is about acting individuals, spaces of appearances, genuine power, freedom itself. It is, therefore, also about hopes and possibilities, and not just social, political and historical forces, or states, parties and classes.”

Taking her important writings, particularly The Human Condition, The Origins of Totalitarianism, On Revolution and Between Past and Present, Hansen scrutinises history from the perspective of Hannah Arendt’s focus on what it is to think and act politically. As is visible in the dissident movements from the 1848 world revolution to the rise of Bolshevism and the demonstrations against the Vietnam War, from the Occupy Wall Street agitations to the Arab Spring, there arises a need for contemporary “citizen rationality” in the face of threats to a genuine politics of active political freedom within a free public life. Here lies Hannah Arendt’s sense of democratic liberalism, which had been unfortunately overrun by an anti-parliamentarian predatory politics. Her growing significance to the rise of revolutionary movements, to the concept of historical consciousness and totalitarianism, which tries to extinguish any sparks of rebellion smouldering within a bureaucratic world, exhibits her deep-seated interest in political humanism and a free space in the world inhabited by people who are inspired by public principles and an ethics that inherently remains essential to their world view.


Hannah Arendt, in the words of Marx, asserts that “stable societies develop sites of resistance: contradistinctions built in the social systems that ultimately lead to social revolutions and the development of a new society upon the old”. Tension, dialectics and revolutions must continue and conflictual politics emphatically develop into the only solution for countering the state apparatus and its overpowering role. Whatever the polemics, it is clear that her overriding rationale is to elucidate and defend political action in its essential freedom and dignity. Politics is indeed a public activity and the magnitude of political action lies in being “human among humans”. In this lies the gravity of any political action where individual distinction without the element of self-aggrandisement becomes the sine qua non of clean politics.

The question, therefore, arises about the fundamental assumptions of genuine politics in the context of the uncertainty following the end of the Cold War and the rise of neoliberal global politics “under the auspices of transnational capital”. The regional institutions of power and coercion stand under interrogation in a world overtaken by “the national security state, exercising and preserving its sovereignty in a hostile Hobbesian world”. To struggle for control of state power is to either buttress one’s goals for more power, instilling hegemony underpinned by hopes and fears, desires and aspirations for a society that evolves through complete regimentation by the vision and ideology of the ruling class. Intellectuals who are anti-establishment remain at logger heads with the illegitimacy of such systems. However, as Hansen argues, “This dilemma of supposedly anti-statist movement, which remain implicated in the exercise of state power is unavoidable—there can be no withering away of the state nor an autonomous civil society without the supportive structures of state power as critical elements of its very make-up.”

Nevertheless, state power remains a hostile force to any solidarity of the masses or individual autonomy. The book, therefore, calls for a serious reflection on the demands of notions of community, solidarity and public life. The question remains: How far have such intellectual interventions helped in the stemming of powerful forces of social and political control? Probably, as Hannah Arendt saw it, only the “free spectators of action” determine the meaning of action and it is such public meanings that save humans from the void of futile existence.


After eight decades, Arab poet Kahlil Gibran’s writings live on-Joumana Bou Fakhreddine

Posted by admin On April - 10 - 2015 Comments Off on After eight decades, Arab poet Kahlil Gibran’s writings live on-Joumana Bou Fakhreddine


On the 84th anniversary of legendary Arab poet Kahlil Gibran’s death, his verses still resonate in a region mired by political upheaval.

His talent was recognized the world over, with the 28th U.S. President Woodrow Wilson once telling Gibran: You are the first Eastern storm to sweep this country, and what a number of flowers it has brought!”

Just a few years ago, when a U.S. reporter interviewed the late Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who led the coalition to victory against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War, the footage showed that Schwarzkopf kept a copy of what is perhaps Khalil Gibran’s most famous work, The Prophet.

“If you love somebody, let them go, for if they return, they were always yours. And if they don’t, they never were.” Kahlil Gibran His writings have even made their way deep into pop culture.

When John Lennon, the lead of top 1960s group The Beatles, sang the lyric: “Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it just to reach you,” he was quoting Gibran’s famous lines from the aphoristic Sand and Foam: “Half of what I say is meaningless; but I say it so that the other half may reach you.”

Elvis Presley, known even today as the indisputable “King of rock and roll” was also a fan and was known to read verses of “The Prophet” out loud to his mother and even gave copies of the book away.

“The Prophet” has since been adapted into an animated film, with Hollywood stars Liam Neeson and Salma Hayek providing voiceovers.

Small beginnings

Gibran, who was born in 1883 from a poor family, hailed from Bsharri, a picturesque town in northern Lebanon.

The poet’s youth was spent among the rugged cliffs, cascading falls and towering cedar trees that surrounded the town, leading Gibran to later write: “Nature reaches out to us, with welcoming arms and bids us enjoy her beauty.”

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars. ” Kahlil Gibran His childhood was not, however, idyllic due in part to his father being sent to prison for tax evasion. Eventually, the Ottoman authorities confiscated the family’s property and left them homeless.

On June 25, 1895, Gibran travelled by sea to New York and then settled in Boston in a predominantly Arab district where Arabic was widely spoken and Middle Eastern customs were practiced.

In Boston, Florence Fierce, an art teacher recognized Gibran’s talent and connected him with Fred Holland, a prominent figure in the city.

In the summer of 1898, Gibran returned to his homeland and studies at the Maronite Catholic College, where he learned to speak French and worked on a student magazine called “Al Manara,” or “The Beacon.”

“Only the dumb envy the talkative.” Kahlil Gibran Returning to Boston, Gibran held his first art exhibition in 1904 where he struck up conversation with a wealthy local patron of the arts, Mary Haskell.

‘Life is naked’

“Why do you draw bodies always naked?” Haskell is said to have asked him.

Gibran answered: “because life is naked. A nude body is the truest and the noblest symbol of life. If I draw a mountain as heap of human forms, or paint a waterfall in a shape of tumbling human bodies, it is because I see in the mountain heap if living things and in the water falls a participate current life.”

As his relationship with Haskell edged toward romance, Gibran continued to contribute to local Arab newspapers. The couple never married, perhaps because Haskell’s parents did not approve.

“Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair” Kahlil Gibran In 1912, the gifted Gibran moved to New York which was witnessing a golden era. He continued to showcase his art and gained recognition from American artists of the age, with artist Albert Pinkham Rayder telling him: “Your pictures have imagination and imagination is art.”

In 1920, he formed a literary society called “The Pen League” which increased his profile.

Then in 1923, when “The Prophet” was published, Gibran’s status as a leading philosopher-poet was firmly in place.

Due in part to ongoing sales of “The Prophet,” Gibran is still the third best-selling poet of all time, behind only Shakespeare and Lao Tzu.

Less than 10 years later, in 1931, Gibran died, at the age of only 48. He had suffered from tuberculosis and cirrhosis of the liver. Due to the love of his homeland Lebanon, he had never been an American citizen. A year later, his wishes to be buried near home were fulfilled by Haskell, who purchased a Lebanese monastery which has since become a dedicated museum to his life and work.

“Love… it surrounds every being and extends slowly to embrace all that shall be. ” Kahlil Gibran Written next to his grave are the words:

“A word I want to see written on my grave: I am alive like you, and I am standing beside you. Close your eyes and look around, you will see me in front of you.”


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