Friday, July 25, 2014

ISIS and "Friends"

Way back when ISIS seized Mosul, I emphasized how it was dependent on alliances with other Sunni militants and that the fraying of such alliances could be the key to its downfall.  Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel has more analysis along those lines:
Most of the Sunni groups have insisted that they are in control of key areas and facilities and have pushed back ISIS where necessary. For example, the Islamic Army of Iraq prevented ISIS from entering Dulu’iya after they took control of it due to ideological differences between the movements (al-Arabiya [Dubai], June 11). Al-Maliki has tried to manipulate Sunni tribal anxiety by encouraging Arab tribal leaders in northern areas to fight ISIS (BasNews [Erbil], July 8). There have been skirmishes between these tribes and ISIS militants but for any real impact on the ground Sunnis must turn against ISIS in much greater numbers.
What is clear, however, is the increasing tension between former the Ba’ath party, JRTN factions and ISIS. These groups have already been involved in deadly clashes in the Kirkuk area with reports of JRTN assassination campaigns against ISIS leaders in the Diyala region (al-Sumaria [Baghdad], June 22; Shafaq News [Erbil] July 9). There are other reports of generalized clashes between tribal forces and ISIS in Mosul, Salahuddin and in other areas (al-Mustakbal [Baghdad], July 12; al-Estiqama [Baghdad], July 11). 
With so many groups and varying end games, the danger of Sunni infighting can only grow. Furthermore, the more Sunni groups in the field, the more difficult it becomes to establish a negotiating partner. Sunni tribes have to find a solution to ISIS, but are more likely to deal with that problem when al-Maliki is removed from power and a Sunni region is endorsed under an agreement. Either way, Sunni tribes have learned their lesson from the disappointments of the first Awakening initiative and Sunni support to expel ISIS or offer Baghdad any respite will not come cheap this time around. 
This comes at the end of a careful overview of the major armed forces in the anti-Maliki coalition.

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Some Medieval Travelers on Jonah and Mosul

Today ISIS destroyed the Mosque of Jonah in Mosul, which some articles suggest contained his tomb.  Here is what the tenth century Muslim traveler al-Maqdisi (sometimes al-Muqaddasi) reported about the prophet and Mosul (in Basil Collins' translation):
In the countryside near Mosul are the Mosque of Jonah, and other places associated with his name.  Close to ancient Nineveh is a place known as Hill of Repentance atop which is a mosque, and residences for the devout.  It was built by Jamila, daughter of Nasir al-Dawla, and she settled a considerable bequest on it.  It is said that seven visits to it equal a Pilgrimage to Mecca; it is visited on Thursday nights.  It is the place whither the people of Jonah went when they were convinced of impending chastisement.  Half a farsakh from this place is the Spring of Jonah.  Outside the town of Balad is a spring out of which it is claimed Jonas emerged: healing of leprosy is its waters.  Here is a mosque in his name, and also the place of the gourd plant.
I don't know the geography in question, but I think the destroyed mosque is a much-renovated version of the one endowed by Jamila, a princess of the 10th century Hamdanid dynasty whose territory roughly parallels that ruled by ISIS now, with Aleppo and a chunk of southeastern Turkey as important additions.  In the Qur'an, a gourd grew to cover Jonah (Arabic "Yunus") after the whale spit him out.  Here is Ibn Jubayr in the 1100s (Roland Broadhurst translation):
Among the benefits God has especially conferred on this town is that about a mile to the east of it, across the Tigris, is the Hill of Penitence.  It is the hill on which stood Jonah with his people and prayed with them until God relieved them of their distress.  Near to this hill, also about a mile away, is the blessed spring named after him.  It is said that en enjoined his people to purify themselves in it and to take thought of repentance, and that then they ascended the hill praying.  On the hill is a large edifice which acts as an asylum for the needy with many chambers, rooms, and ablution and drinking chambers, all approached by one door.  In the middle of this door is a pavilion over which hangs a curtain, and below this is bolted a blessed door, wholly inlaid.  It is related that this is the place where Jonah stood and that the mihrab of this pavilion was the chamber in which he worshipped.  Around the pavilion are candles, thick as the trunks of palm-trees.  Men go out to this asylum every Friday night and there devote themselves to God's worship.

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Laylat al-Qadr Protest

Laylat al-Qadr, the Night of Power, the night when Muslims believe Muhammad had his first revelation, saw the West Bank's largest protest in years:
At least three Palestinians were killed and more than 100 wounded in clashes with Israeli security forces in the West Bank and East Jerusalem late Thursday night, as thousands of Palestinians marched from Ramallah to the Qalandia checkpoint, which separates Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The protest was the largest in the West Bank in years – according to some Palestinian activists, the largest in decades – and quickly spread to East Jerusalem, where police were said to be clashing with protesters in the Old City, Silwan, and other neighborhoods. Protests were also reported in Nablus and Bethlehem.

According to Haaretz reporter Amira Hass, Palestinian ambulances, blaring their horns, were streaming in the opposite direction of the march, evacuating protesters wounded by Israeli fire at the checkpoint.
The West Bank has had other protests:
He was speaking at a demonstration on Wednesday organized by the Ramallah municipal authorities. Hundreds of Palestinians carried 600 mock coffins wrapped in Palestinian flags through the city and laid them in front of the United Nations headquarters, labeled with the names and ages of Gaza’s dead.
At a main junction, a huge screen ran a loop of pictures of death and destruction from Gaza. In a bustling street near Manara Square where crowds were shopping for Ramadan, a souvenir store selling music CDs and Palestinian paraphernalia was blasting out Hamas songs and doing a brisk trade in kaffiyehs, the traditional black-and-white checkered head scarf that has become a symbol of Palestinian resistance, going for about $4 apiece.

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Tripoli Gets Worse

Fighting in Libya's capital has spread beyond the airport:
Officially Libya is not at war, but for the thousands of residents of the capital, Tripoli, who fled their homes at the weekend it is starting to feel like it. Fighting spilled across Tripoli's western districts after a battle between rival militias on July 19th and 20th for control of Libya’s main airport left 47 dead, marking it as the most violent day since the end of the 2011 revolution that toppled Muammar Qaddafi.
Militias from Misrata, frustrated at their failure to capture the airport after a week of fighting with the Zintan militia that holds it, arrived with tanks to pound the perimeter. The Zintanis responded with shells and anti-aircraft fire. As the violence expanded, huge fires burned in the city's western districts. “A shell hit my neighbour’s house and a lot of people left,” says Seraj, a resident of the western suburb of Janzour.  “We stayed inside, it was not safe on the streets...”
Without command of any troops willing and able to intervene, Libya's foreign minister, Muhammad Abdul Aziz, on July 17th asked the UN Security Council to send military advisers to bolster state forces guarding ports, airports and other strategic locations. He warned that Libya risks going “out of control” without such help. But he found no takers.

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Mosul's Christian Exodus

The latest news from Caliph Ibrahim's Land of Horrors is that the last remnant of Mosul's Christian community has fled.  The group which I prefer to still call ISIS had summoned them to a meeting Thursday to discuss the community's status.  When Christians did not appear, the group issued the declaration they were probably going to issue anyway, requiring Christians to convert to Islam, pay a special tax, or depart.  The option of departure means giving up their possessions, but that is the one Christians have apparently chosen en masse:
A YouTube video shows ISIS taking sledgehammers to the tomb of Jonah, something that was also confirmed by Mr. Hikmat. The militants also removed the cross from St. Ephrem’s Cathedral, the seat of the Syriac Orthodox archdiocese in Mosul, and put up the black ISIS flag in its place. They also destroyed a statue of the Virgin Mary, according to Ghazwan Ilyas, the head of the Chaldean Culture Society in Mosul, who spoke by telephone on Thursday from Mosul but seemed to have left on Friday...
For the Christians displaced from Mosul, sudden departure has meant a series of treks — first to nearby Christian villages like Bartella and Hamdaniya, already badly overcrowded, then to Kurdistan, a semiautonomous region of Iraq where there is more tolerance for Christians.
As the Christians leave Mosul, ISIS has painted the Arabic letter that means “Nasrani,” from Nazrene, a word often used to refer to Christians, on their homes. Next to the letter, in black, are the words: “Property of the Islamic State of Iraq.”
The militants have also told Muslims who rent property from Christians that they no longer need to pay rent, said a businessman who rents from a Christian. The landlord now lives in Lebanon.
Jonah is a prophet in Islam.  The militants are probably destroying his tomb out of concerns veneration of the prophet distracts from worship due only to God, the same reason many Muslim sites have been destroyed in Saudi Arabia.

Mosul's Christian community, which via the city's absorption of neighboring Nineveh may even date from apostolic times, will probably never come back.

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Transitional Justice in Tunisia

Carlotta Gall reports on the controversy in Tunisia surrounding how to deal with crimes of the Ben Ali regime:
Of the approximately 20 former senior officials detained in the aftermath of the uprising, almost all are now free. Only Mr. Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia with his wife and son on Jan. 14, 2011, and his family still face stern punishment. The president has been sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia, and arrest warrants have been issued for his wife, Leila Trabelsi, and other relatives. A nephew of the former president, Imed Trabelsi, is in prison, convicted of drug possession and check kiting, and faces further charges of embezzlement.
Lower-ranking police officers and soldiers have also faced charges for shootings during the uprising, when at least 320 protesters were killed and over 2,000 wounded in the weeks of unrest. But they have invariably received lenient or suspended sentences or been acquitted by the military tribunals, victims’ relatives and human rights organizations say.
Gall links this to policies of the Ennahda party government by which former regime officials are also allowed to continue to seek office.  Ennahda leaders apparently decided it was better to let them into the political arena where they will almost certainly lose than exclude them and face potentially destabilizing opposition from their supporters, particularly in the security services.  The party did, however, pass a transitional justice law:
Under the law, a 15-member commission was inaugurated on June 9 and will work for the next four or five years to expose the repression of citizens since Tunisia gained independence in 1956. The commissioners will hold hearings and will have the power to search government archives and detain or fine people who obstruct their work. Special chambers will be set up to hear the most grievous cases...
Sihem Bensedrine, a human rights activist and former journalist who heads the Truth and Dignity Commission, said the tens of thousands of cases of torture, rape and murders over 50 years of dictatorship would be investigated. Those of the martyrs of the revolution, however, will be a priority because of the symbolism of the uprising against tyranny...
Her main aim is to prevent any return to dictatorship. “To have a Seriati in prison is not sufficient for me,” she said. “We want to show all the pieces of the machine, and show this is how you construct a dictatorship and this is how you deconstruct it. We do not want it anymore."
This sounds like what happened successfully with South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and perhaps closer to home the Equity and Reconciliation Commission set up in 2004 to investigate the human rights violations of Morocco's "Years of Lead" under King Hassan II.  The latter, which was in part an effort simply to boost the popularity of the new King Muhammad VI by contrasting him with his predecessor, has been found inadequate by Amnesty International.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Tripoli Airport Battle

It is easy to watch events in Iraq and Israel/Palestine and forget that Libya is also in turmoil.  Today marked the fourth day of a battle for control of Tripoli's main airport, a crucial line to the rest of the world.  Yesterday the New York Times reported:
At the Tripoli airport, no quick end to the fighting was in sight. Fighters from the western mountain city of Zintan took control of the airport in 2011, after the revolt against Colonel Qaddafi, when the militias involved in the revolt embarked on a mad dash for spoils.
Hundreds of Zintani fighters were in the airport on Tuesday, defending their turf. In the passenger terminal, some cooked dinner, preparing to break the Ramadan fast. On the airfield, the fighters used tanks, mortar shells and antiaircraft guns against their enemies: rival fighters, including from the coastal city of Misurata, who had taken up positions in a village next to the airport...
The violence had links to a battle on the other side of the country, in the eastern city of Benghazi, where a general named Khalifa Hifter has declared that fighters loyal to him constitute the national army, with a mission to vanquish Libya’s Islamist militias and politicians. The fighting at the airport also seems to reflect the unsettled politics in Libya, where recent elections were expected to return fewer Islamist lawmakers to Parliament.
To complete the circle, the militias attacking the airport are affiliated with Islamists, the political tendency targeted by General Hifter and his allies.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Salim al-Jubouri

Iraq's parliament has managed to elect a speaker:
Salim al-Jubouri, a moderate Sunni Islamist, won the speaker’s post with 194 votes of 272 cast. Joining him as deputy speakers were Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite, who is a member of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s Dawa Party, and Aram al-Sheikh Mohammed, a Kurd from the Goran Party.
The Parliament had tried and failed twice before to elect a speaker, so Tuesday’s decision represented something of a breakthrough since it starts the clock for setting up the entire government. The Constitution requires that in two weeks, the speaker must nominate a president. The president then has four weeks to nominate the prime minister. 
An amusing quote from the article: "By custom, a Sunni holds the position of speaker; a Kurd has the presidency, and a Shiite is prime minister."  That "custom" can be at most a decade old, right?  Lebanon has had a similar customary system for much longer, with a Maronite president, Sunni prime minister, and Shi'ite speaker.

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Saturday, July 12, 2014

KDP, PUK, and Kurdish Independence

There are two important Kurdish political factions in Iraq: the KDP, which leads the Kurdistan Regional Government, and the PUK, which has more influence on the national stage.  I last blogged a bit about them here.  Mohammed Salih writes for The Christian Science Monitor of their differing attitudes towards independence:
But behind the front of Kurdish secessionism lies a quietly simmering battle between two dominant political faction that could undermine any independence push. On one side is Massoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdish Regional Government, whose Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP)  wants independence now. On the other is the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani, which is divided on the question and distrust the KDP's motives...
The predominantly Kurdish parts of northern Iraq are now divided into two zones of influence, a legacy of the 1980s conflict. The KDP controls the local administrations and security forces in Erbil and Duhok provinces, while the PUK is the dominant force in Sulaimaniyah and Kirkuk provinces...
Unlike the PUK, the KDP has a relatively centralized decisionmaking process and Barzani is its undisputed leader. The PUK has lacked a strong leader since Talabani was reported to have suffered a stroke two years ago. The party is split on the bid for independence – some officials support and others oppose...
The KDP, with its dominant role in the regional government, has developed strong ties with neighboring Turkey, which sees the benefit of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan with its own oilfields. The PUK is more mindful of Iran's influence and its sensitivities towards its own Kurdish minority. Some PUK officials argue that many countries in the region are opposed to a breakaway state and that could undermine it. 

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Sunday, July 06, 2014

ISIS's Electricity Binge and Water

In Syria, the ISIS has sharply increased electricity generation from a critical dam, causing water shortages elsewhere:
Under the watch of the  Islamic State group - formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) - levels in Lake Assad have dropped so low that pumps used to funnel water east and west are either entirely out of commission or functioning at significantly reduced levels. The shortages compel residents in Aleppo and Al Raqqa to draw water from unreliable sources, which can pose serious health risks.
The primary reason behind the drop appears to be a dramatic spike in electricity generation at the Euphrates Dam in al-Tabqa, which has been forced to work at alarmingly high rates...
"Ten years ago the government told engineers to forget this dam for energy [generation] … that it is only a strategic reserve of water," Waleed said. "Normally we should not use more than one or two of the turbines for more than four or five hours per day. But for the last month and a half they have been using eight at full [capacity]..."
At the beginning of May, electricity supply in rebel-confrolled al-Raqqa suddenly spiked, reaching up to 16 hours per day - unheard of in Syria's conflict-ridden northern provinces.
It sounds like ISIS tried to endear themselves to the inhabitants of Raqqa by providing more electricity, but in a way that was unsustainable and that continues to cause significant water shortages elsewhere, most notably in Aleppo.

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Thursday, July 03, 2014

Drying of Azraq

In his piece about dessication in the Middle East, Scott Greenwood singles out Azraq in Jordan:
One dramatic effect of groundwater over-abstraction was the destruction of the Azraq wetlands in eastern Jordan. The wetlands had served as an oasis for humans and animals for centuries before the unsustainable extraction of groundwater caused the springs feeding the wetlands to dry up in the early 1990s. Today the wetlands are only 0.04 percent of their original size, and groundwater from the Azraq aquifer continues to be pumped to satisfy the needs of Jordan’s northern cities. One relatively positive development for the wetlands —and for Jordan’s water security in general — is the recent completion of the Disi Water Conveyance Project. This project is provides nearly 100 million cubic meters of fossil groundwater annually to the capital. Amman, and this has lessened the need to pump water from Azraq to Amman for municipal use. However, the Disi project is not without its own challenges as the water from Disi is naturally radioactive and must be mixed with other sources of freshwater to make it safe for consumption. In addition, the cost of pumping the Disi water to Amman – about 400 miles away – has greatly increased the budget deficit of the Water Authority of Jordan and is putting pressure on the government to raise water prices for consumers.
On an ancient history note, the earliest named Arab in the historical record, "Jindibu the Arab," was probably from Azraq.  He was an ally of Israel's King Ahab against the Assyrians.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Baladhur the Memory Drug

In the medieval Islamic world, those wishing to improve their memory would take a drug called baladhur, a sap drawn from the nut of the Indian plant Semecarpus anacardium.  I had run across this previously in the story of a ninth-century historian's grandfather whose death was attributed to an overdose, but recently found full discussions in Kristina Richardson's book on disability in late Mamluk and early Ottoman period and an article by Gerrit Bos in the 1996 Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies.  In addition, baladhur could reduce stress.  Because in the medical theory of the time it was seen as promoting the hot humor, those who were easily sexually excited were advised against it, and its medical use was mainly forgetfulness associated with old age.  Side effects could include itching, leprosy, hearing demonic whispers, and having one's flesh begin to rot.  (Can't you just see the TV commercial for this now?)

Baladhur was widespread from at least the 9th century into Ottoman times, and seems to have had a social profile among the educated classes because of its addictive qualities.  In fact, many physicians advised against it altogether because overuse and/or improper preparation could actually lead to dementia and irascibility, the opposite of why people were taking it.  Stories abound of scholars who ultimately suffered because of their baladhur use.  Richardson focuses on a man named Shihab al-Din al-Hijazi, who early in life was an outstanding student of Islamic Studies, but during his 20's suffered a period of acute mental instability attributed to his years of baladhur use.  Even upon his recovery he suffered chronic memory loss, and so had to make his career elsewhere.

The social context for baladhur's popularity leads me to relate it to steroids in modern sports.  Put simply, memorization was the key skill scholars possessed in the medieval Islamic world, and the scholarly world was known for its intense competition such that it is unsurprising many sought an edge despite the pitfalls.  The use of writing as a memory aid only became accepted during the 9th century.  Even during the Mamluk period of the 1300's and 1400's, the prevailing view was that you could only claim as knowledge what was in your head, and scholars were often called upon to recite long books during public performances.  In public debates, scholars would have to draw on any number of memorized accounts and traditions, complete with lengthy chains of authorities verifying the information, and errors would open one to ridicule.  At stake was a great deal of wealth, for not only would rulers heap financial rewards upon prominent religious scholars, but as Michael Chamberlain has shown, the key to maintaining wealth and influence across generations of political instability was to earn and keep positions in mosques and madrasas that went to the best scholars.

Semecarpus anacardium is still used in India as an herbal remedy.

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Monday, June 30, 2014

Qawasmeh as Spoilers

Shlomi Eldor situates the murder of three Israeli teenagers within a historical pattern of the Hebron area's Qawasmeh clan working to undermine Hamas moves toward moderation:
The total number of people belonging to the clan is estimated at about 10,000, making it one of the three largest clans in the Mount Hebron region. At least 15 members of the family were killed during the second intifada, nine of them while committing suicide attacks against Israel. All of the terrorists lived in the Abu Qatila neighborhood, within a radius of less than 1 kilometer (0.6 mile) from one another. Whenever the head of the terrorist organization within the clan was assassinated or arrested by Israel, one of his brothers or cousins was selected to replace him...
Marwan Qawasmeh, the man behind the abduction (of the teenagers), emerged as a dominant figure in the clan after Israel arrested Imad Qawasmeh and sentenced him to life in prison.
Each time Hamas had reached an understanding with Israel about a cease-fire or tahadiyeh (period of calm), at least one member of the family has been responsible for planning or initiating a suicide attack, and any understandings with Israel, achieved after considerable effort, were suddenly laid waste.
Back in the days of the peace process, people spoke of a "bomber's veto," in which terrorist attacks would disrupt the negotiations whenever they made progress.  Israel and the Palestinians are not negotiating at the moment, but Hamas has reached an accord for Palestinian unity with Fatah, one in which Hamas is allowing Fatah to take the lead.  If the Qawasmehs are the party responsible for the deaths of the three youths, then they are using Israeli as their willing military force to push Hamas toward more hardline policies.

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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Iraq's Sectarian Media

Daoud al-Ali writes about how Iraq's sectarian media is inflaming the crisis:
While some media organisations were strident in their support of the fight against Sunni Muslim extremists, others described them as revolutionaries who were taking part in a popular uprising. It quickly became clear that the Iraqi media was giving in to sectarian sentiments, just as the Iraqi people on the street were...
Over the past two to three weeks it has become quite normal for Iraqis to spend two hours watching news programmes which basically feature a lot of battle songs, while the presenter answers calls from Iraqis who were volunteering to fight the Sunni Muslim extremist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS...
On the “other side” of the media, the opposite was happening. Various media organisations began to promote the idea that the extremist fighters were revolutionaries and that they were leading a popular uprising. These media organisations began to celebrate the “liberation” of Mosul...
Over the past week or so, many local journalists have started saying that they were pressured to cover the news in a biased way. 
His whole article is worth reading.  An academic study of the Iraqi media, Media Practice in Iraq, was written by Ahmed K. al-Rawi.

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Saturday, June 28, 2014

Summer Ramadan


This picture was taken during Ramadan 2007 at Midan Hussein in Cairo, a popular place for large groups to eat during Ramadan.  This brings out the point that Islam's holy month isn't just about fasting, but breaking the fast.  As the sun sets, spontaneous meals break out all over the Islamic world.  What I found in my brief Ramadan stints in Egypt and Turkey was that lots of people would bring food primarily to share with others when eating became legit.

In 2007, Ramadan was in the fall.  This weekend Northern Hemisphere Muslims begin a summer Ramadan, a season in which fasting is most difficult.  The original Ramadan fast, however, was also during the summer, as the month's name comes from an Arabic root whose words all refer to intense heat and sunlight.  Islam uses a strictly lunar calendar, but the Arabian calender of Muhammad's day kept months in season with intercalary months, much as the Jewish calendar does.  I blogged here about some reasons why Islam might have done away with intercalation and let the months drift through the seasons.

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