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Ed Webb

How to Think About Empire | Boston Review - 0 views

  • In your book, An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire (2004), you identify a few different pillars of empire: globalization and neoliberalism, militarism, and the corporate media. You write, “The project of corporate globalization has cracked the code of democracy. Free elections, a free press and an independent judiciary mean little when the free market has reduced them to commodities on sale to the highest bidder.”
  • updates now would include the ways in which big capital uses racism, caste-ism (the Hindu version of racism, more elaborate, and sanctioned by the holy books), and sexism and gender bigotry (sanctioned in almost every holy book) in intricate and extremely imaginative ways to reinforce itself, protect itself, to undermine democracy, and to splinter resistance
  • In India, caste—that most brutal system of social hierarchy—and capitalism have fused into a dangerous new alloy. It is the engine that runs modern India
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  • You once wrote that George W. Bush “achieved what writers, scholars, and activists have striven to achieve for decades. He has exposed the ducts. He has placed on full public view the working parts, the nuts and bolts of the apocalyptic apparatus of the American empire.” What did you mean by this, and ten years and two presidents later, is the American empire’s apocalyptic nature still so transparent?
  • The assertion of ethnicity, race, caste, nationalism, sub-nationalism, patriarchy, and all kinds of identity, by exploiters as well as the exploited, has a lot—but of course not everything—to do with laying collective claim to resources (water, land, jobs, money) that are fast disappearing
  • The freer global capital becomes, the harder national borders become. Colonialism needed to move large populations of people—slaves and indentured labor—to work in mines and on plantations. Now the new dispensation needs to keep people in place and move the money—so the new formula is free capital, caged labor. How else are you going to drive down wages and increase profit margins? Profit is the only constant.
  • In the Obama years, you had to ferret out information and piece it together to figure out how many bombs were being dropped and how many people were being killed, even as the acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize was being eloquently delivered. However differently their domestic politics plays out on home turf, it is a truism that the Democrats’ foreign policy has tended to be as aggressive as that of the Republicans. But since 9/11, between Bush and Obama, how many countries have been virtually laid to waste?
  • I don’t think in some of the categories in which your question is posed to me. For example, I don’t understand what a “global” novel is. I think of both my novels as so very, very local. I am surprised by how easily they have traveled across cultures and languages. Both have been translated into more than forty languages—but does that make them “global” or just universal?
  • I wonder about the term postcolonial. I have often used it, too, but is colonialism really post-?
  • So many kinds of entrenched and unrecognized colonialisms still exist. Aren’t we letting them off the hook? Even “Indian English fiction” is, on the face of it, a pretty obvious category. But what does it really mean? The boundaries of the country we call India were arbitrarily drawn by the British. What is “Indian English”? Is it different from Pakistani English or Bangladeshi English? Kashmiri English? There are 780 languages in India, 22 of them formally “recognized.” Most of our Englishes are informed by our familiarity with one or more of those languages. Hindi, Telugu, and Malayalam speakers, for example, speak English differently.
  • In India today, storytelling is being policed not only by the state, but also by religious fanatics, caste groups, vigilantes, and mobs that enjoy political protection, who burn cinema halls, who force writers to withdraw their novels, who assassinate journalists. This violent form of censorship is becoming an accepted mode of political mobilization and constituency building. Literature, cinema, and art are being treated as though they are policy statements or bills waiting to be passed in Parliament that must live up to every self-appointed stakeholders’ idea of how they, their community, their history, or their country must be represented.
  • I recently saw a Malayalam film in the progressive state of Kerala called Abrahaminde Santhathikal (The Sons of Abraham). The vicious, idiot-criminal villains were all black Africans. Given that there is no community of Africans in Kerala, they had to be imported into a piece of fiction in order for this racism to be played out! We can’t pin the blame for this kind of thing on the state. This is society. This is people. Artists, filmmakers, actors, writers—South Indians who are mocked by North Indians for their dark skins in turn humiliating Africans for the very same reason. Mind-bending.
  • we are buying more weapons from Europe and the United States than almost anyone else. So, India, which has the largest population of malnutritioned children in the world, where hundreds of thousands of debt-ridden farmers and farm laborers have committed suicide, where it is safer to be a cow than it is to be a woman, is still being celebrated as one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
  • The word “empire” has often been invoked as a uniquely European and U.S. problem. Do you see India and other postcolonial nations as adapting older forms of empire in new geopolitical clothing?
  • How can we think of empire now in the Global South, especially at a time when postcolonial nations are emulating the moral calculus of their old colonial masters?
  • India transformed from colony to imperial power virtually overnight. There has not been a day since the British left India in August 1947 that the Indian army and paramilitary have not been deployed within the country’s borders against its “own people”: Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, Assam, Kashmir, Jammu, Hyderabad, Goa, Punjab, Bengal, and now Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand. The dead number in the tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands. Who are these dangerous citizens who need to be held down with military might? They are indigenous people, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, communists. The pattern that emerges is telling. What it shows quite clearly is an “upper”-caste Hindu state that views everyone else as an enemy. There are many who see Hinduism itself as a form of colonialism—the rule of Aryans over Dravidians and other indigenous peoples whose histories have been erased and whose deposed rulers have been turned into the vanquished demons and asuras of Hindu mythology. The stories of these battles continue to live on in hundreds of folktales and local village festivals in which Hinduism’s “demons” are other peoples’ deities. That is why I am uncomfortable with the word postcolonialism.
  • When you think about the grandeur of the civil rights movement in the United States, the anti–Vietnam War protests, it makes you wonder whether real protest is even possible any more. It is. It surely is. I was in Gothenburg, Sweden, recently, when the largest Nazi march since World War II took place. The Nazis were outnumbered by anti-Nazi demonstrators, including the ferocious Antifa, by more than ten to one. In Kashmir, unarmed villagers face down army bullets. In Bastar, in Central India, the armed struggle by the poorest people in the world has stopped some of the richest corporations in their tracks. It is important to salute people’s victories, even if they don’t always get reported on TV. At least the ones we know about. Making people feel helpless, powerless, and hopeless is part of the propaganda.
  • I think we all need to become seriously mutinous
  • We fool ourselves into believing that the change we want will come with fresh elections and a new president or prime minister at the helm of the same old system. Of course, it is important to bounce the old bastards out of office and bounce new ones in, but that can’t be the only bucket into which we pour our passion
  • as long as we continue to view the planet as an endless “resource,” as long as we uphold the rights of individuals and corporations to amass infinite wealth while others go hungry, as long as we continue to believe that governments do not have the responsibility to feed, clothe, house, and educate everyone—all our talk is mere posturing.
  • In certain situations, preaching nonviolence can be a kind of violence. Also, it is the kind of terminology that dovetails beautifully with the “human rights” discourse in which, from an exalted position of faux neutrality, politics, morality, and justice can be airbrushed out of the picture, all parties can be declared human rights offenders, and the status quo can be maintained.
  • How might we challenge dominant voices, such as Niall Ferguson, who put so much faith in thinking with the grain of empire? On the flipside, how might we speak to liberals who put their faith in American empire’s militarism in a post–9/11 era? Do you see any way out of the current grip of imperial thinking?
  • The “managed populations” don’t necessarily think from Ferguson’s managerial perspective. What the managers see as stability, the managed see as violence upon themselves. It is not stability that underpins empire. It is violence. And I don’t just mean wars in which humans fight humans. I also mean the psychotic violence against our dying planet.
  • I don’t believe that the current supporters of empire are supporters of empire in general. They support the American empire. In truth, captalism is the new empire. Capitalism run by white capitalists. Perhaps a Chinese empire or an Iranian empire or an African empire would not inspire the same warm feelings? “Imperial thinking,” as you call it, arises in the hearts of those who are happy to benefit from it. It is resisted by those who are not. And those who do not wish to be.
  • Empire is not just an idea. It is a kind of momentum. An impetus to dominate that contains within its circuitry the inevitability of overreach and self-destruction. When the tide changes, and a new empire rises, the managers will change, too. As will the rhetoric of the old managers. And then we will have new managers, with new rhetoric. And there will be new populations who rise up and refuse to be managed.
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    "It is not stability that underpins empire. It is violence."
Ed Webb

Liberal Islamophobia: Anti-Muslim hostility is not just a conservative phenomenon | Middle East Eye - 0 views

  • it would be wrong to view Islamophobia as a strictly conservative phenomenon. Polling data indicate that 49 percent of Democrats hold unfavourable views of Islam. Also, Brookings Institution scholar Shadi Hamid has argued that US President Barack Obama, a Democrat, holds views that amount to “Islamic exceptionalism”. Hamid argues that Obama’s statements about Muslims suggest that he is “frustrated by Islam” and that he has bought into Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis
  • American news media, including liberal outlets, have done a poor job contextualising stories about Muslims and Islam. A growing body of empirical research into American news media coverage of Islam reveals deeply problematic patterns - negative, stereotypical portrayals, almost no Muslim sources, and few mention of Muslims or Islam in the context of positive news. That American news outlets apply the “terrorism” description almost exclusively to Muslim-perpetrated violence cannot be lost on anyone paying attention
  • while denunciations of terrorism by Muslim groups generally go unreported, Islamophobic statements drive news narratives
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  • the CIA estimates that there are around 30,000 Muslim jihadists in the entire world. A Kurdish leader has suggested that the CIA underestimates the jihadist threat, and claims that the total number is closer to 200,000. Even assuming the larger figure, jihadists represent a grand total of 0.01 percent of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims
  • A 2011 Gallup poll found that American Muslims were the least likely of all polled American religious groups to accept vigilante violence against civilians. In all, 26 percent of American Protestants, 27 percent of Catholics, 22 percent of Jews, 19 percent of Mormons, 23 percent of atheists, but just 11 percent percent of Muslims said that it is “sometimes justified” for an “individual person or a small group of persons to target and kill civilians”.
  • Glaringly absent from American news media are opinion polls showing that Muslims are no more likely to accept violence than other groups. For instance, a 2011 Gallup World Violence poll showed that Muslims were just as likely as non-Muslims to reject vigilante acts of violence against civilians
  • Media scholar Jack Shaheen carried out a content analysis of more than 900 Hollywood movies featuring Arab or Muslim characters. Shaheen found Muslim characters are almost never cast in positive or neutral roles. The overwhelming majority of films that feature Arab or Muslim characters cast them as enemies, terrorists, violent, savage or backwards
  • compared to other threats of violence, Muslim terrorism garners exaggerated attention in American news and politics.
  • In the 14 years since 1 January, 2002, Muslim terrorists have killed 45 Americans in the United States, a smaller number than right-wing conservative terrorists have killed during the same time period. Also, since the start of 2002, there have been more than 200,000 firearm-related homicides in the United States
  • More realistic, proportionate presentations would greatly improve American political life. However, given the extent to which the Islamophobia industry is funded, people shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for fairer, less sensational presentations.
Ed Webb

GOP litmus test: Sharia opposition - POLITICO.com - 0 views

  • Invoking Sharia and casting it as a growing danger at odds with American principles has become a rallying cry for conservatives. It’s also quickly becoming an unlikely pet issue among 2012 presidential contenders: Potential candidates have almost unilaterally assailed the Islamic code, making it as much a staple of the campaign stump speech as economic reform, job creation and rising gas prices.
  • “Even immediately after Sept. 11, we didn’t see this kind of hatred mainstream in our society,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “There seems to be a coordinated effort to both marginalize American Muslims and demonize Islam.”
  • Bill sponsors interviewed by POLITICO could offer no examples of cases from their home states, instead pointing to a 2010 New Jersey case that used Sharia as a defense, though that decision was reversed by a higher court.
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  • Herman Cain was labeled a bigot by CAIR after he pledged not to appoint any Muslims to government posts if he is elected president
  • The exception has been Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who dismissed the idea that Sharia is threatening the United States. “That’s not coming here. What we have to do is defend our principles,” Paul told Fox News host Sean Hannity late last month. “You have radicals in all religions; if there is some way to incite them, their numbers will grow.”
  • we’re going to have American laws for American courts because we are America
  • Missouri state Reps. Paul Curtman and Don Wells both introduced bills aimed at stopping the use of Islamic law in the state’s courts, though neither could provide evidence that it’s actually happening. That measure passed the Missouri House over opposition from Democrats who said it could make it more difficult for the state’s businesses to enter into contracts with companies from other countries. Wells has likened Sharia to polio, saying it could have a diseaselike influence on secular judicial proceedings
  • model legislation, called American Laws for American Courts, put forward by Arizona-based attorney David Yerushalmi
  • Yerushalmi himself has ties to a stridently anti-Muslim group
Ed Webb

Trapped in Iran | 1843 - 0 views

  • Iran has a complicated, and at times paranoid, government. Elected parliamentarians give a veneer of democracy but power ultimately resides with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the regime’s most powerful security force, answers directly to him. Rival arms of the state, including the security forces, jostle for influence. And the rules are unclear.
  • I had gone to report on the impact of American-imposed sanctions. Some news stories were claiming that Tehran was on the brink of collapse, but I saw few signs of it. There was no panic buying. The city looked cleaner and more modern than on my visit three years before. It has the best underground in the Middle East, with locally made trains. Parks and museums were abundant and well-tended, pavements were scrubbed and the city’s many flower-beds immaculately maintained.
  • America’s sanctions had hurt people, of course. Average monthly salaries were worth less than a pair of imported shoes. I saw people sleeping rough or hawking junk on the streets. One former university lecturer I met had been reduced to busking. But few people went hungry and there seemed to be a joie de vivre among many of those I talked to. Cafés, theatres and music halls were packed. An earlier bout of sanctions had forced Tehran’s Symphony Orchestra to disband but I wangled a ticket for the opening night of the reconstituted Philharmonic.
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  • My captors wore no identifying uniforms, but on the second day the doctor told me that he was an officer in the intelligence arm of the Revolutionary Guards. Iran’s security agencies are many tentacled. In 1979 the new Islamic Republic retained much of the existing state apparatus, including the army and a good part of the bureaucracy, but it added another tier to keep existing institutions in check, and the parallel systems have competed ever since. The government’s own intelligence ministry would be unlikely to detain a Western journalist whose entry it had approved. My accusers were from its more powerful rival.
  • Over the course of four days the men spent most of their time glued to phone-screens, watching Bollywood films, or American or Chinese schlock full of street fights, which they accessed through virtual private networks to evade the censorship they were supposed to enforce.
  • Self-censorship ranks as one of an authoritarian regime’s strongest tools, and I was complicit.
  • Despite Iran’s pious reputation, Tehran may well be the least religious capital in the Middle East. Clerics dominate the news headlines and play the communal elders in soap operas, but I never saw them on the street, except on billboards. Unlike most Muslim countries, the call to prayer is almost inaudible. There has been a rampant campaign to build new mosques, yet more people flock to art galleries on Fridays than religious services. With the exception, perhaps, of Tel Aviv, I had visited nowhere in the Middle East where people read as voraciously as Tehran. “The Handmaid’s Tale”, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian fable of women enslaved to a theocratic caste, is a particular favourite, the owner of one bookstore told me.
  • Life in Iran has always swung both ways. Nothing goes and everything goes. Alcohol is banned but home delivery is faster for wine than for pizza.
  • The space for veil-free living had grown since I last visited. In the safety of their homes, women often removed their head coverings when chatting over the internet. Darkened cinema halls offered respite from the morality police who enforce discipline. In cafés women let their scarves fall languorously. The more brazen simply walked uncovered in the streets, risking imprisonment. And, in an unusual inversion of rebellion, ties have made a reappearance some 40 years after Ayatollah Khomeini denounced them as a symbol of British imperialism.
  • The listing of plays in Tehran was almost as long as London’s West End and I devoured them. Directors are adept at finding ways to evade the censors. A striking number of plays and films I saw were set in prisons – a commentary on the Iranian condition – but under bygone regimes. Opera was taboo, but a performance one evening in the red-cushioned opera house of the former shah, which was billed as Kurdish folk music, included Verdi. Beneath a vast glittering chandelier the audience threw bouquets of flowers at the Iranian singer, who is acclaimed in both Rome and Berlin; for an encore, she finally dared to sing a solo.
  • Of course not everyone got away with pushing at the strictures. In my first week in Tehran the authorities pulled a production of Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” – the play is about suicide, which is forbidden in Islam – and another about poor women reduced to hawking to feed their families. Cafés that hosted live bands risked closure until they had paid off fines. Women without head-coverings who were spotted on one of Tehran’s many surveillance cameras received police summons by text. But the morality police, who drove around town in new green-and-white vans, seemed too stretched to suppress every challenge.
  • as well as being an intelligence officer, he was an academic and wrote a newspaper column
  • It was liberating to have the run of Tehran, without minders, deadlines or chores. But of course, I wasn’t truly free. I policed myself on behalf of the regime, becoming my own jailer and censor, aware that any lapse could have consequences. Sometimes I tried to speak over colleagues or relatives who were saying things that I feared might enrage my captors. I felt the presence of hundreds of electronic eyes. The friendliest faces who greeted me might be informers. And I could not leave Iran. It is an odd experience to know that you can be caught out at any time. But this was the way of Tehran. Some avenues open up, others close. Everyone feels like a captive. There are those who say that it is all a grand plan of the ayatollahs to keep people on edge.
  • I was caught in a political game involving high-seas tankers and international diplomacy that far exceeded my ability to influence it.
  • I feared either that the Revolutionary Guards thought they could use my presence to negotiate some kind of deal, or that I was becoming a pawn in the internal rivalry within the Iranian government. I was beginning to see at first hand the glaring tensions between the two arms of the state. My hotel seemed increasingly nervous about hosting an over-stayer without a passport. In an attempt to evict me one evening, they cut the lights and blamed an unfixable electrical fault. The following morning the Guards arrived to transfer me to another location. En route we were chased by two motorbikes and careened up and down the alleyways of northern Tehran. Only when we pulled into a cul-de-sac did the Guards succeed in shaking them off.
  • A new interrogator – toad-like and clad in leather – told me that the Guards had found incriminating material on my laptop that touched on matters of national security: he had found a note from a conversation I’d had with a government flunkie about smuggling rings connected to the offspring of senior Iranian officials. This proved, he said, that I had crossed the line from journalism to espionage. They were reopening the case.
  • Notes he had discovered on Iran’s spiralling brain drain confirmed, to his mind, that I was seeking to undermine national morale.
  • I wasn’t even sure how genuinely religious many of those I had met were. When we drove about town, Ali talked of his student days, his young family and his passion for British football. Ideology rarely came up. Within the parameters set by the vice squads, Tehran’s dominant culture was defiantly secular. Iran called itself a theocracy, yet religion felt frustratingly hard to locate and the truly religious seemed sidelined, like a minority.
  • For ten nights in Muharram these passion plays were performed with growing fervour. Even an irreverent man who taught me Farsi, who devoted much of his spare time to picking up waitresses in cafés, said Muharram was the one religious occasion he observed. The streets were lined with mokebs, stalls offering tea and dates and decorated with tragic representations of the battlefield using decapitated toy soldiers. At one mokeb, I came across a camel being readied for sacrifice. Many of these rites drew on ancient folklore rather than Muslim practice, akin to the celebration of Easter in the West. Since its inception the clerical regime had sought – and failed – to purify Iran of its non-Islamic elements.
  • “You feel a direct connection between people and God here,” a 40-year-old programme manager told me. He had stopped going to government mosques altogether, he said. Like some other pious Iranians I met, he feared that politics had sullied their religion rather than elevating it.
  • Panahian preached from a cushioned, teak throne beneath a vast chandelier while his acolytes crowded around him on the floor. He projected so much power, I got the feeling that if he’d read from a phone directory his disciples would still have sobbed. “Are you a servant of God or of man?” he said, scanning the crowd for suspects. “Choose between the tyranny of westernisation and God.” After he’d left a woman in a black chador took me aside. I steeled myself for an ideological harangue. Instead, she held up a plastic bag of bread and a plastic container of beans that the Husseiniya distributed after the sermon. “That’s why we came,” she said. “If you ask about the contents of the sermon, no one can tell you. If you ask about the contents of breakfast, they’ll all remember.”
  • the largest and most vibrant Jewish community in the Muslim world. Since the ayatollahs toppled the shah, Iran’s Jewish population has shrunk from 80,000 to around a tenth of that number. The ayatollahs have largely kept the remaining Jews safe, but they have also confiscated some of their property, particularly that of those who have left the country. Tensions between Iran’s Jews and the regime ebb and rise depending on the country’s relationship with Israel. But over time the Islamic Republic seems to have grown more at ease with the community
  • Iran has 22 mikva’ot – pools for ritual immersion. Many of Tehran’s dozen active synagogues are vast and packed with worshippers
  • There was a Jewish café, two kosher restaurants and a maternity hospital funded by the Jewish community in the south of Tehran, where less than 5% of those born were Jewish. A Jewish sports centre was also under construction
  • By rare coincidence the first service of selichot, the penitential prayers recited for a month in the run up to the High Holidays, began on the first day of the solemn month of Muharram. The synagogues were packed. At 1am Iran’s largest synagogue still teemed with families. At 2am the congregation swayed in prayer for Israel and its people. The communal chest-beating was gentler than in the Husseiniya, but more ardent than in Western congregations. Women walked up to the ark and kissed the smooth Isfahani tiles painted with menorahs and stars of David, acting like Shia pilgrims at their shrines. People milled around on the street outside chatting. I must have recited my prayers for forgiveness with conviction.
  • two men in black entered and introduced themselves as officers from another branch of intelligence. They apologised profusely for the difficulties I had faced and blamed the Guards for the inconvenience. They hoped that I had been well treated and expressed outrage that the Guards had made me pay my own hotel bill. They assured me that they’d been working strenuously for weeks to fix matters. My ordeal was over, they said. But could they just ask a few questions first?After 40 minutes of interrogation, they disappeared. Ten minutes later they were back with embarrassed smiles. One awkward matter needed resolving. Because I had overstayed my visa, I needed to pay a fine of 4m toman, about  $200.“Of course, the Guards should be paying since the delay was of their making,” they said.I called Ali and asked him to clear the fine.“No way,” he replied. “Can’t they waive it?”The intelligence officers apologised again but remained insistent. There were regulations. They couldn’t foot the bill for a mistake of the Guards.
  • Only when the flight map on my seat-back screen showed the plane nosing out of Iranian airspace did I begin to breathe normally.
Ed Webb

Reinforcing Laïcité? Loi Confortant le Respect des Principes de la République - 0 views

  • The 1905 debates, rich in passion and reasoning, are replaced today by pragmatism and politicians substituting for public intellectuals. Jean Baubérot points out the factual errors and serious misinterpretations made by Minister Delegate for Citizenship Marlène Schiappa in her book, Laïcité, point! Shortened deliberation, substituting intellectuals with politicians, factual errors: it looks nothing short of the neoliberal age of France.
  • Ghettoization was undermining vivre ensemble, the expression that has become the key to laïcité and integration. The president explained, “we can have communities in the French Republic...these belongings should never be considered as subtractions from the Republic.” With separatism, he was referring to the abuse of religion for “building a project of separation from the Republic.” 
  • A focus on “public neutrality” as the principle of laïcité under challenge overshadows the fact that it is a process of privatization of state enterprises, which changes the boundaries of the public and gives rise to a “problem of neutrality.”
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  • Privatization is a bigger challenge to the French republican and laic traditions, since both are built upon a strong state. When Macron not only shrinks state infrastructure but also invests in the police forces, the neoliberal background to this particular reemergence of the question of laïcité becomes even more visible.
  • A republic of values and “civility” is empowered over a republic of rights, procedures, and socializations as the state shrinks its infrastructure, and expands with values and security into associational life
  • The Republic has every right to control international influence in religion in terms of finance and personnel; however, when it plays the age-old game of state-encouraged soft religion as a solution to hard religion, it relinquishes the thesis that religions are “the rocks of ages” and sticky
  • Macron carefully refused the option of concordat with Islam after having pronounced the term in 2018, but he insisted on “the structuration of French Islam.” Instead of only investing in the laic socialization mechanisms of the Republic and guarding their boundaries, he inserts the state into the process of community-building, which risks opening the paths to communitarianism by the very hands of the state
  • Another development casting unfavorable light on the Macron line is the discontinuation of the Observatory of Laïcité. The observatory was performing a slow pace strengthening, repairing, and reproducing laïcité at the public and social levels. The government’s intolerance in the face of its disagreements with the observatory over the law and its single-handed reaction to close the observatory sadly mark an anti-intellectualism, a disinclination for deliberation and a particular approach to institutions as governmental mouthpieces
  • Adding law to law for reinforcing values marks a use of law beyond its democratic capacity
Ed Webb

So Why Did I Defend Paul Bowles? | by Hisham Aidi | The New York Review of Books - 0 views

  • Long a sanctuary for Spanish and French writers, American writers began visiting Tangier in the late nineteenth century: Mark Twain on his way to Jerusalem in 1867, the painters Louis Comfort Tiffany in 1870 and Henry Ossawa Tanner in 1912, and Edith Wharton in 1917. In 1931, when Bowles first visited, the American artists living in Tangier were primarily black: Claude McKay, Anita Reynolds, Juice Wilson, Josephine Baker. These African-Americans came to Morocco from Paris, where they had formed a community after World War I, and as the Harlem Rennaissance spread to France. Upon arrival, Bowles began to socialize with both McKay and Anita Reynolds. Like the other Americans, he had also discovered North Africa through France. In high school, he had read Marcel Proust, Comte de Lautréamont, and André Gide—the latter’s accounts, in particular, of his travels and sexual trysts in Algeria and Tunisia had conjured North Africa in Bowles’s teenage imagination.
  • in December 1923, France, Spain, and the United Kingdom signed the Tangier Protocol in Paris, setting up a new administration and placing the city at the center of a 150-square mile International Zone overseen by a committee of nine Western powers. The city was henceforth governed by a court that included French, Spanish, and British judges, along with the mendoub, the Moroccan sultan’s representative. It is this international period, from 1923 to 1956, especially postwar, that has shaped the image of Tangier as a free port, a tax haven, and a place of international intrigue and excess.
  • His first novel, The Sheltering Sky, told the story of an American who flees the numbing modernity of New York and meanders through the Algerian desert, only to disintegrate psychologically. Published in the fall of 1949, it became a bestseller and made Bowles a household name. Three more novels and a handful of short stories set in Tangier followed.
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  • Bowles did not create the “myth of Tangier,” but he gave it a literary respectability and an American cast.
  • In the early 1950s, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Bryon Gysin, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Susan Sontag all gravitated to this “portal to the unknown,” as one author christened Tangier. So did European writers like Genet, Juan Goytisolo, and Joe Orton, but Bowles’s influence was not limited to the literary community. In later decades, his recordings and promotion of Moroccan music would draw producers and recording artists from Patti Smith to the Rolling Stones.
  • Bowles’s defense of the Amazigh, or Berber, population was daringly transgressive. Morocco’s culture “is not predominantly Arabic, but Berber,” he insisted—in the face of Arab nationalists who acted as though they believed “Berbers have no culture at all,” as they tried to drag the country into the Arab League. “The general opinion is that the autochthonous population must at all costs be Arabized if it is to share in the benefits of independence,” he observed acidly. “No one seems to have conceived of the possibility of an independent Berber Morocco. In fact, to mention the Berbers at all qualifies one as a pro-French reactionary. At present, to become modern means to become Egyptian.”
  • I gave him a copy of my thesis. He looked up from the title page: “‘Orientalism’?—that’s a bad word, isn’t it?” Faux-naïveté, I would learn, was part of his manner. He told me to come back the following day.
  • I was, he said, the first Moroccan researcher—a Tangier native, to boot—to defend him. He added his signature beneath my printed name. (A few weeks ago, I got goosebumps when I found the same copy that I gave him, albeit coffee-stained, in the archives at the University of Delaware’s Paul Bowles Collection.) Later, the thesis was included in a collection titled Writing Tangier (2004). I still see citations occasionally in student dissertations on Bowles noting that one Tanjawi, at least, did not regard him as an Orientalist.
  • Tangier’s collective memory is steeped in nostalgia and centered around the medina, the old city. The medina, the elders told us, was once the epicenter of the Islamic world: it was from the port where the medina meets the sea that Tariq ibn Ziyad had set sail and conquered Spain in 711. After the fall of Granada in 1492, it was to Tangier’s medina that the Jews and Moriscos fled, settling in its alleyways, preserving the mosaic of Islamic Spain
  • The economic misery and political repression of the 1980s and 1990s made it hard to believe that the medina was ever a free space. Most locals had never heard of these famous writers. I only heard of Bowles when, in 1988, a film crew began working in front of our family restaurant at the entrance to the Kasbah as Bernardo Bertolucci began filming The Sheltering Sky. As teenagers, we came to wonder what truths the books from the Interzone contained, and if Tangier had indeed been better-off under Western rule, as the nostalgists, local and foreign, seemed to imply
  • The narrative we learned at school was that the monarchy had liberated the north from colonial oppression. But what liberation did the regime (makhzen) bring? After independence, as a local intelligentsia began forming in Tangier, many came to see the American corpus of writings about 1950s Tangier as an invaluable record of a lost golden age.
  • I made a point of reading the American authors who had written about Tangier’s Interzone. Besides Bowles, I was intrigued by the Beats, especially the Columbia University alums—Kerouac, Ginsberg, Lucien Carr—students of Lionel Trilling and fans of Arthur Rimbaud who had somehow mapped Greenwich Village onto Tangier, turning the Boulevard Pasteur into a “North African Bleecker Street.” But even as a college sophomore, I realized that their writings were more about the straitjacket of McCarthyite America that they were running from, rather than about Morocco as such.
  • It was even gratifying to see that Tangier, like Berlin, had played a significant role in launching a gay literary movement—in some ways ahead of the West, in having its finger on the “prognostic pulse of the world,” as Burroughs called it. But what was startling was that, while these writers basked in the city’s pleasures, they—with the exception of the Bowleses—didn’t really like Tangier. The Beats had a casual disdain for the natives, invariably describing Moroccans as “rakish” or “raffish.” Capote found Tangier too alien, describing the men as “noisy heathens” and the women as “anonymous bundles of laundry.” He warned friends in New York about the “smell of the arabe.” Burroughs referred to the locals as a “bunch of Ay-rabs,” and in 1958 he pronounced: “Tanger [sic] is finished. The Arab dogs are among us.”
  • Paul Bowles traced the history of the medina from the early 1930s to independence. He chronicled how the sultan’s crackdown on Sufi practices (“the great puritanical purging”) in central Morocco inched northward.
  • In 1972, Tahar Ben Jelloun publicly accused Bowles (and the Beats) of exploiting illiterate, vulnerable youths in Tangier not just artistically but sexually. Choukri in 1997 would echo this charge, claiming Bowles suffered from a sexual illness. These allegations became more commonly heard once Farrar, Straus and Giroux published Bowles’s correspondence in 1994, although he expressed some reluctance about its release. The volume included letters in which he described the boys he slept with, in one letter even bragging about how cheap sex was in Algeria. “Where in this country [America] can I have thirty-five or forty people, and never risk seeing any of them again? Yet, in Algeria, it actually was the mean rate.” (In the correspondence, he reminisced about how he “never had sexual relationships without paying,” and viewed paying for sex as a form of “ownership.”)
  • Reading these words in my dorm room in wintry Pennsylvania in 1992 was both thrilling and frightening. We as Moroccans—especially those of us from the northern Berber region—grew up in a climate of fear, and I had never heard or read anyone publicly criticize Arab nationalism, or speak so openly of the Moroccan hinterland’s animus toward Fez, the city of the interior regarded as the seat of the regime. To hear this American writer openly excoriate the Moroccan ruling elite for its cruelty and skullduggery was exhilarating
  • Bowles prompted me to think beyond the binary of “Western” versus “Arab.”
  • The Moroccan reaction against Bowles began to take form in the early 1970s. His earliest critics were the philosopher Abdallah Laroui and Ben Jelloun, who both chided the American writer for promoting an image of the country as a land of primitivism, drugs, and unlimited sex. Laroui also lambasted the Moroccan bourgeoisie for buying into and reproducing Bowles’s “folkloric” portrayal of their country. Ben Jelloun, writing in 1972, accused the American of belittling the nation’s literary patrimony.
  • Bowles, in the mid-1960s, had begun translating the memoirs and stories of down-and-out illiterate youth in Tangier. (While he could not read Arabic, Bowles did understand darija, the spoken dialect.) The most prominent of these were Larbi Layachi’s A Life Full of Holes (1966), about a petty thief and male prostitute and his experiences dodging police and servicing tourists (the book was made into a BBC film); Look and Move On (1967), the tales of Mohammed Mrabet, a hustler and golf caddie who worked for an American couple; and the best-known, Mohammed Choukri’s For Bread Alone (1972), an account of his migration from the Rif to Tangier, his life as a street kid in the International Zone, and his becoming a schoolteacher, which he recounted to Bowles in Spanish. These books were marketed in the West as “Moroccan literature,” and for many in the Anglophone world, this was their introduction to it.
  • in effect erased an earlier literary tradition that had seen Moroccan writers published in French and Spanish since the 1930s, let alone the preceding centuries of poetry and other writing in Arabic
  • Laroui acted as an adviser to the king and was a strong proponent of Arabization. Tangierians saw his attack on Bowles as another attempt by the Arab nationalist elite to subdue the “sin city.” Ben Jelloun also had a complicated relationship to Tangier. The son of a merchant, a Fassi (a person from Fez) who settled in Tangier in the early 1960s, he had attended the French lycée and was seen as part of the new Francophone Fassi upper class—comprising the Alaoui, Alami, Ben Jelloun, Berrada, Omrani, and Tazi families—that had fanned out across the country as the French departed, assuming top government positions. Like Laroui, Ben Jelloun spoke neither of the two common local tongues of the north, Spanish and Tarifit (the Berber language). A paradox of Ben Jelloun’s work, in particular, was that it often featured the very tropes of mysticism, violence, and sexual deviancy he denounced in Bowles’s work. For his part, the American writer dismissed his Moroccan critics as “confirmed Marxists.”
  • Through the 1960s and 1970s, he focused instead on recording and translating from darija (Moroccan Arabic dialect) the oral histories of men he met in Tangier’s cafés. By the time of his death, in 1999, the idea of Tangier as a place for self-discovery had become received wisdom in the West and the Arab world, and Bowles was established as a giant of American letters despite decades of silence.
  • I myself was part of this trend—defending Bowles against the Arab nationalists who were trying to tear him down and impose their political preferences on us. In his final interviews, when asked if he was an “Orientalist,” Bowles would often cite me, noting that a Tangier-born scholar now in America had judged him not to be.
  • “Paul Bowles loves Morocco, but does not really like Moroccans.” Choukri had some powerful evidence on his side. Over the decades, Bowles had made countless derogatory remarks, speaking of Moroccans as “childlike,” “purely predatory,” and “essentially barbarous.” He claimed also that Muslims aimed for world domination through “the sword and the bomb.”
  • He was sympathetic to the Amazigh, whom he saw as the original inhabitants of North Africa, a fiercely independent people only “partially Islamicized.” This affection nevertheless rested on some unsettling ideas about racial hierarchy. Bowles was profoundly influenced by the “Hamitic hypothesis,” a late nineteenth-century anthropological theory that saw almost everything of value in Africa as imported by the Hamites, a branch of the Caucasian race, who were held as superior to the Negroid peoples. Berbers, whatever their actual skin tone—even the typically dark-skinned Tuareg—were for Bowles essentially a white “Mediterranean race.”
  • In Bowles’s idiosyncratic hierarchy, it was Berber music that encapsulated Morocco’s true African identity—and this cultural essence was threatened by the Arabs and their music. The recently released Music of Morocco collection reflects this bias, giving credence to Choukri’s claim that Bowles deliberately misrepresented local culture to reflect his personal vision of Morocco.
  • I began to realize that Bowles’s fondness for the Berbers and his animus toward Arabs was, in many ways, a reflection of French colonial policy. Although he was well aware of the violence of French imperialism, he enjoyed its amenities—“the old, easygoing, openly colonial life of Morocco”—and as early as the 1950s, Bowles began to lament the loss of “colonial Tangier.” Above all, he believed in the International Zone, seeing its “anarchy” and “freedom from bureaucratic intervention” as an extraordinary political experiment. But these liberties, which is what drew many of the Beats, were the privileges of Europeans and Americans—ones generally not enjoyed by the city’s Muslim and Jewish natives.
  • as long as America was seen as a political friend, Bowles was viewed favorably. Not surprisingly, after the Gulf war of 1990 and the release of Bertolucci’s film of The Sheltering Sky that same year, more articles started to appear across the Middle East critiquing Bowles’s representations of Morocco, accusing him of racism and Orientalism
  • Although the letters simply lent credence to rumors long circulating in Tangier, Choukri and other Tanjawi writers were still shocked by them. The literary reaction in Morocco fed into a larger effort there by human rights activists campaigning against sex tourism and child prostitution. Whereas Bowles had always seemed more judicious and reputable than the Beats—in contrast, say, to Burroughs’s open bragging about buying “pre-pubescent gooks” and Ginsberg’s boasting about “paying young boys” for sex—it became increasingly difficult to defend him. For a man who had called Moroccans “purely predatory,” his own behavior now appeared in rather grotesque relief.
  • The more time I spent at the Schomburg Library uptown, the more I discovered an alternative American literature about Tangier. I stumbled upon Claude McKay’s memoir A Long Way from Home about his time in Tangier in the late 1920s, where he completed his novel Banjo; the actress Anita Reynold’s diary about life in the Interzone in the 1930s; Josephine Baker’s papers, where she talks about filming Princess Tam Tam (1935) in the International Zone, and jazz recordings produced by African-American musicians living in Tangier. Although they had their own dreams about a “Mother Africa,” the African-American writers did not see Tangier as a brothel, or its residents as primitives who needed to be contained or civilized. Most wrote and produced art in solidarity with the disenfranchised local population, connecting the civil rights struggle to North Africa’s anticolonial movements.
  • In 1998, armed with this newfound knowledge, and as a conscious revision of my earlier guiding, I began giving walking tours of “Black Tangier.” We would would meet at Cinema Mauritania, the theater where Josephine Baker had performed many times, up until her last show there in 1970. She had lived in the International Zone, then joined the French Liberation forces during the war, and later had an affair with the vice-caliph of Spanish Morocco. On the first floor of the Mauritania, pianist Randy Weston had once operated African Rhythms, a music spot that drew the likes of Max Roach and Ahmed Jamal. Then we’d walk down to the Fat Black Pussycat café where the poet Ted Joans, one of few black writers in the Beat movement, played trumpet and “blew” jazz poems.
  • Next, we’d hit Galerie Delacroix, where Joans once hosted a four-hour tribute to his mentor Langston Hughes, and had the late poet’s verse read in Arabic, English, French, and Spanish. (In 1927, Hughes had visited Tangier and written a lovely poem about travel and unrequited longing, “I Thought It was Tangiers I Wanted.”) Then we’d walk to the majestic Teatro Cervantes built in 1913, where Weston had organized the first pan-African jazz festival in Morocco in June 1972 (revived in 2002), which brought Dexter Gordon, Odetta, Billy Harper, and Pucho and the Latin Soul Brothers to the city. Our last stop was the Hotel Chellah, where, as local legend had it, the Martinican anticolonial thinker Frantz Fanon stayed overnight on July 3, 1959, following a car crash on the Morocco–Algeria border rumored to be the handiwork of La Main Rouge, the paramilitary group run by French intelligence to assassinate leading supporters of Algerian independence. Fanon was flown to Rome the following day on a Moroccan passport.
  • Paul Bowles and King Hassan II died in 1999, a few months apart. The novelist and the tyrant who had towered over Tangier for generations had more in common than either would have admitted—and that in part explains the reverence Bowles still enjoys in official Morocco
  • both shared a disdain for leftist, Third-Worldist politics. Both hated pan-Arabism, and loved Berber culture as long as it was “folkloric” and apolitical. They each thought Moroccans were congenitally ill-suited for democracy.
  • both Bowles and the monarch celebrated a “primitive,” mystical, unlettered, unfree Morocco, sharing a special appetite for the intoxicating rhythms of the Berbers. No wonder King Hassan II, who expelled numerous critics—from Arab intellectuals to French journalists and American professors—never bothered Bowles.
  • The Ministry of Culture, which almost blocked his recording project in 1959, published a remarkable essay in 2009 on the tenth anniversary of his death defending Bowles against criticism from Moroccan nationalist intellectuals, underscoring how he presciently warned of the threats that modernization posed to Morocco’s cultural and physical landscape. Government mouthpieces such as Hespress run flattering pieces about “the American who loved Morocco.”
  • The Morocco that Bowles dubbed a “land of magic” is one the Ministry of Tourism sells to the West
  • his emphasis on Morocco’s “African” essence suits the country’s recent geopolitical turn and reentry into the Africa Union
  • for all his misgivings about Western modernity, he thought Morocco as an African country would be better off attaching itself to the West. This is now the position of a significant segment of Morocco’s ruling elite.
  • That the regime celebrates Berber folklore and the oeuvre of a novelist who wanted an “independent Berber republic” even as it imprisons Berber activists across the country is evidence for many of the regime’s fraudulence and bad faith. In this respect, Bowles’s continuing eminence suggests how little has changed in the kingdom since the colonial era, with an authoritarian regime and repressive social order remaining largely intact.
  • As for Bowles’s work, I had come to realize that it reflected poorly on Morocco and America. Yes, he had brought attention to the suppression of Berber history and made invaluable musical recordings, but decolonization was supposed to dismantle colonial representations, and instead, the Moroccan regime was validating and institutionalizing Bowles’s depictions of Morocco
  • today, a new generation of Moroccan writers—among them secularists, Berber activists, music critics, and pan-Africanists—are claiming Bowles as an ally. And that is why I found myself writing about Bowles once more.
Ed Webb

Sonic controversy: "Hinduistic music" in Pakistan - The Immanent Frame - 0 views

  • hostility toward Sufi music is increasingly visible across denominational lines in Pakistan’s religious discourse
  • Spiritual music has long been a vital element of Islam in the region comprising areas of Pakistan and North India. What explains the growing antagonism toward mystical sound art in a country that has inherited a rich legacy of devotional music?
  • shifting assumptions about “authentic Islam” have catalyzed the scandalization of mystical music in Pakistan. The emergence of Arabization, with its emphasis on rediscovering true Islam in Arab culture, has vilified local sonic genres in the Islamic republic.
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  • liturgical music has been a site of audacious spiritual experimentation in prominent Persian and South Asian Sufi traditions since the medieval era
  • For al-Ghazali, music was a divine blessing because it could elicit preconscious and automatic emotional reactions. Sound was felt before it was thought. Thus, melody was a secret potion for mystics because it facilitated intense intimacy with God in a manner that minimized ritualistic mediation. Al-Ghazali was one among many crucial figures whose groundbreaking mystical theorization of sound reverberated and precipitated liturgical creativity in transcultural Sufi orders
  • a growing faction of scholars who insist on banning qawwali
  • Casual observers might assume that the polemic against qawwali is a symptom of rising “Talibanization,” when in fact, even pro-Sufi scholars participate in this discourse.
  • Zia believed that divesting Pakistan’s Islam from Persian, Indian and all non-Arab layers would usher a new golden era in Muslim history
  • determining a musical instrument’s moral status requires deciphering its cultural identity
  • Although these instruments have a complicated cross-cultural history, most ulema associate them with different musical streams: they consider the daff a part of an “Arabian musical system,” while the tabla, they explain, comes from the Hindustani (North Indian classical music) tradition
  • I listened to some of these mystically inclined scholars dwell on qawwali’s feminizing effects. Muscular manhood, they pointed out, consists of physical robustness, extraordinary bravery, and superior tactical acumen. Far from nurturing these traits, however, qawwali promotes soft emotions. The sound of the tabla, a pair of hand drums used in qawwali, was said to “breed soft men” who are “gentle, submissive, and vulnerable.” The pervasive use of the tabla, they concluded, poses a grave threat to Muslim masculinity
  • During the 1980s, the state framed an ideological narrative by partly disassociating Pakistan from some of its inherited traditions, including Hindustani music
  • President Zia ul-Haq emphasized that Pakistan must emulate “authentic (Arab) Islamic culture” and cast “Hindu influences” aside
  • the Hindustani system is a product of Hindu-Muslim musical syncretism. It is a blend of Persian, Arab, and Indian musical elements, and has been prevalent in the northern parts of the subcontinent since the thirteenth century CE. So why does this legacy of religious and musical synthesis pose a pressing problem for ulema today?
  • To paraphrase one Pakistani Television (PTV) executive, President Zia-ul-Haq did not wish to merely police Pakistan’s music; he wished to recreate it. To that end, his regime patronized Arab vocal and instrumental arts in the country
  • the authorities regulated the music market and selectively censored sonic material on state-owned radio and television
  • Zia’s regime incited widespread religious hatred against such “Hinduistic” sonic art.
  • popular preachers laud the “great deeds of the pious men of the 1980s” who raised their voice (and sometimes their hands) against “paganistic musical ceremonies” in the “land of the pure.”
  • This story of “Hinduistic” melodies reveals unexpected connections that challenge us to broaden our analysis of religion’s sonic dimensions. It exposes how complex debates about bodies, emotions, masculinity, and national religious identity have shaped notions of cultural purity in Pakistan.
  • the state has not banned music but done something more consequential: it has sought to transform Pakistan’s soundscape
Ed Webb

The Perils of the Past | The Point Magazine - 0 views

  • hough the Centre des Archives Nationales possesses the administrative prerogative to house and archive all state documents, it lacks the power to enforce its interests. It’s not just cultural institutions that are jousting over Lebanon’s archival legacy, however. The country is riddled with small bookshops run by collectors, each of which has a basement or closet where the owner hides a personal stash of archival documents, collected over decades, to be sold on the private market. Bookshops in small alleys of Ashrafiyeh and Basta dominate this trade, where everything is priced by the dollar. At a time when the national currency has lost 95 percent of its pre-crisis value, private markets have become a lucrative source of profit.
  • According to Shehab, future sectarian violence could be avoided if socioeconomic parity could be established between sects and regions. Development planning in Lebanon—directed both by outsider experts and Shehab himself—began as a response to the deep divisions in Lebanese society and politics laid bare by the civil war. To this day, political power and resources continue to be allocated along confessional lines.
  • During the 1960s, the state intervened on behalf of many: establishing a social security system modeled after America’s own Social Security Act of 1935, building hundreds of miles of roads connecting rural villages with the country’s main highway system, and rehabilitating thousands of acres of farmland while also undertaking massive affordable public housing projects. Many Lebanese people, from various confessions, still characterize the Sixties as the country’s golden period.
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  • this was not a uniquely Lebanese story, but one that rippled out across the postcolonial world. The head of the French think tank that Shehab hired to draw up Lebanese development plans was a Dominican priest and former naval officer named Louis-Joseph Lebret, who had earned his developmentalist pedigree designing similar schemes in Senegal and Brazil. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) sent a statistician to help reorganize the Lebanese Ministry of Agriculture’s statistics department in 1959, who not long after left for a similar mission in Peru. The FAO then chose Lebanon as their Near East headquarters, where agricultural experts from around the region would gather for training. For a brief period in the mid-twentieth century, Beirut had become a crucible and testing ground of global development.
  • I became politically active during the early days of the Arab Spring, radicalized by fellow—predominantly leftist—anti-sectarian activists and organizers. These people, many of whom I call my colleagues today, strongly believed that the system of political sectarianism in Lebanon could be dismantled if we could only somehow reach the levers of power and enforce some form of social democracy—a vision of political life where state resources and services would be allocated equitably across the country, regardless of any confessional affiliation
  • the rationale of many vocal opponents of sectarianism eerily mimics the basic idea that took hold within Shehab’s administration—that fixing the country’s problems was a matter of having the right competent people manning rehabilitated state institutions.
  • for the year I’ve spent back home, I’ve been witnessing things cease to exist, fully aware that the worst is still to come. I find myself mourning something that isn’t quite dead yet, but that was never actually alive either.
  • The reality is that we—the anti-sectarian, broadly progressive political activists—have been consistently losing battles for more than a decade. In 2013 and 2014 we failed to prevent parliament from unconstitutionally extending its mandate. In 2015, when Beirut sank in trash, our protests shook the government’s resolve but ultimately stopped short of achieving any concrete long-term solutions. The Syrian revolution next door, which many of us saw as our own, escalated into a bloody civil conflict where Lebanese, Iranian and Russian forces killed thousands of Syrians to help keep Bashar al-Assad in power. The defeat of the Arab Spring nearby reverberated negatively in Beirut as spaces of protest, contention and civil liberties shrank, particularly as political elites and the Lebanese police state went after journalists and activists. In 2018, despite a somewhat more organized presence, opposition groups failed to break through in the parliamentary elections. And finally, our own uprising, which erupted in October of 2019, hastily hailed by many as the “end of the civil war,” was crushed only a few months later under the weight of state repression and sectarian militia violence. These disappointments were then followed by a global pandemic that crippled any form of organizing, the Beirut port explosion of August 2020 and an economic collapse that wiped out most people’s savings.
  • Many of the state’s institutions and agencies remain barely staffed today, which has driven governmental function—already crippled by negligence and rampant corruption—to a halt.
  • Everyday urban life has turned into a struggle to provide for basic needs. Informal strategies have proliferated to meet those needs, and all across the country regional markets for goods and services—not just gas but also food, medicine and other essentials—have sprouted and disseminated through word of mouth, social media websites, texting services and local gatekeepers. In the vacuum left by a state no longer capable of guaranteeing security for its citizens or regulating the distribution of necessities, a space has opened up for reconfiguring social and political ties, particularly among city-dwellers, away from the established sectarian status quo
  • I was living in a place and a moment where everything seemed ad hoc, where a travesty lurked at every corner and the existing social contract was lit aflame. A country? More like a set of elements somehow still stitched together, decaying into oblivion.
  • A network of decentralized activist groups and NGOs provided food, medicine and care for the victims of the blast. These were the same people who provided mutual aid during the pandemic and economic collapse and formed the nucleus for various legal and advocacy cooperatives that challenged the state’s austerity measures and defended protesters in court. A nascent, decentralized movement of self-governance quietly emerged from the cracks of the decaying sectarian state. Yet even this failed to mature into an ambitious political project. When it came to national politics, many activists retreated into the Shehabist default position of expecting the state to serve as guarantor of national unity, the only viable safeguard against sectarian disintegration. 
  • On May 15, 2022, Lebanon held its most recent round of parliamentary elections. Just 49 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot, according to the Ministry of Interior. Buoyed by diaspora voters seeking to punish Lebanon’s rulers, low voter turnout and a political class reviled for causing the worst economic crisis since the country’s founding, thirteen anti-sectarian candidates won, unseating established sectarian politicians and household names. Though their success was a bright spot in a dark time, it remains to be seen what this heterogeneous opposition bloc can achieve in a deadlocked parliament.
  • Any oppositional political incursion in Lebanon will have to be resoundingly inclusive, democratic and respectful of the agency of everyone involved, not solely because this is the most morally correct approach but, more importantly, because this might be the only way for us to start imagining a political movement robust enough to challenge sectarianism.
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