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November 2015

Human, a masterpiece by Yann Arthus-Bertrand

Turn on the Closed Captions (CC) to know the countries where the images were filmed and the first name of the interviewees.

What is it that makes us human? Is it that we love, that we fight? That we laugh? Cry? Our curiosity? The quest for discovery? 
Driven by these questions, filmmaker and artist Yann Arthus-Bertrand spent three years collecting real-life stories from 2,000 women and men in 60 countries. Working with a dedicated team of translators, journalists and cameramen, Yann captures deeply personal and emotional accounts of topics that unite us all; struggles with poverty, war, homophobia, and the future of our planet mixed with moments of love and happiness. 

Watch the 3 volumes of the film and experience #WhatMakesUsHUMAN. 


Yann Arthus-Bertrand

Little boy who gave $20 to vandalized mosque receives a special surprise


Jack Swanson receives a “Thank you” package in the mail after doing a good deed.

A little boy in south Texas did something pretty great last week, and the news spread quickly across the world, via social media. Seven-year-old Jack Swenson took $20 from his piggy bank and decided to give it to a community mosque that had been grossly defaced during a Muslim hate crime.

Twenty dollars might not seem a lot to some, but to Jack Swanson, it was a life’s savings.  And to Faisal Naem, a board member from theIslamic Center of Pflugerville, Jack’s gift was comparable to “$20 million” to the Muslim community.

Jack Swanson shakes hands with Faisal Naem, a board member of the Islamic Center of Pflugerville, TX after presenting the mosque with his treasure.

What many didn’t know last week was that Jack Swanson was saving his pennies for an Apple iPad. Ardalan Iftikhar heard about the story and said he was moved to tears. Known to some on social media as The Muslim Guy, Iftikar contacted Jack’s mother, Laura Swanson, and within days, Jack received a package in the mail along with this note from Iftikhar:

‘Dear Jack, you had saved $20 in your piggybank for an Apple iPad. But then a local Islamic mosque was vandalised. So you donated your $20 to this local Texas mosque. Because of your amazing generosity & kind heart. ‘Please enjoy this Apple iPad with our sincere thanks :-). Love The American Muslim Community.’

Jack Swanson will most likely always remember how his kindness was received by many around the world. What a wonderful lesson to learn so young — that when we give to others, from our hearts, expecting nothing in return, the good often comes back to us, multiplied. Thank you, Jack, for this lovely reminder.

The Digital Hadrian’s Villa Project: State vs. Reconstruction

“A Trip to the ‘Caliphate’: Oppressive Justice under ISIS,”

By Omar al-Wardi

A Trip to the “Caliphate,” Oppressive Justice under ISIS
By OMAR AL-WARDI (a pseudonym for a Syrian who was brought up in the Jazeera region of Syria, where ISIS now rules and who has visited the region many times since.)
For Syria Comment, Nov 21, 2015

Translated by Richard Hanania, a political science PhD student at UCLA

Many believe the subjects of the Islamic State (ISIS) live in a constant state of terror. Some may also think that there is no such thing as normal life in these areas. I myself have written a great deal about the crimes and inhumane acts carried out by the group in its territories in Eastern Syria, particularly Raqqa and Dar al-Zour. Indeed, most of what has been written on these topics is true. But most authors have written from a narrow point of view and with one eye closed. Many of these authors haven’t spent time on the ground and only imagine the reality. They accept the stereotypes repeated ad nauseam by the media. I grew up in the Jazeera and have traveled their a number of times since ISIS took over, spending time in different cities in order to explore the attitudes of acquaintances and relatives alike.

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Region around al-Bukamal

When I traveled to al-Bukamal the first time since after had been conquered by ISIS in the summer of 2014, I believed that I was traveling to hell. I was terrified. At any moment, I expected to be picked out on my vehicle, manically and tortured. I thought I would never return from ISIS-controlled territory alive. I had internalized the notion that ISIS rules only through terror. I nearly passed out from fear at the checkpoints along the way. But, aside from the natural intensity of security barriers and checkpoints, I did not see a picture that fit with the ISIS stereotypes that I had accepted and which had been propagated by the media.

In al-Bukamal, I found a city that was surprisingly safe; one where individuals are unable to attack others, defraud people in the market, or festoon the streets with cigarette butts. Indeed, the city looked cleaner and seemed healthier than I had ever seen it; smoking has disappeared completely, as did any appearances of people sitting around wasting time in cafes as they used to do. It was a city completely different than the one I knew at the outbreak of the Syrian crisis. A consensus among its inhabitants, which number around 400,000 in the city and its surrounding towns, has emerged regarding ISIS rule. Perhaps the biggest proof of this is the fact that ISIS areas are among the regions of Syria from which young people are least likely to flee to Europe, a point that many seem to have missed. For if life were truly hellacious in this city and its surrounding towns, everyone would have migrated to Germany, Austria, or even Turkey. Yet most people have stayed put; they do not abandon their homes and land.

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I disregarded the well-known question: Do you hate ISIS? This is because I already know the answer of why some people hate this group, and the question I had come to answer was how others can love such a bloody and criminal organization, which cuts off heads and drags people in the street after killing and cutting them up. The answers I was given were realistic and coherent, converging on a single theme: ISIS had brought “justice” to the city.

With my own eyes, I saw how the people of al-Bukamal are not as oppressed as they had been in the past. In al-Bukamal most of the people that ISIS have imprisoned are ISIS members themselves. The ISIS regime does not hesitate to punish its own members when they break the law. Even an ISIS emir was prosecuted and thrown in prison by the local governor when it was found that he had abused his power and assaulted innocent people.

This is the model of justice that ISIS is strives to bring the residents of al-Bukamal as well as to Raqqa. The cities of the region have embraced ISIS and ceded their right to use violence in order to punish those who commit crimes or do wrong. They forfeit the use of violence willingly in order to live a life of greater justice and equity. The strong are not permitted to dominate the weak, nor the rich exploit the poor, nor tribal leaders their tribesmen. All live under ISIS law equally, without “wasta” or exception.

The single most important factor that has persuaded people to accept the “Caliphate” is the fact that citizens can go out at any time of day or night without being harassed by the Free Syrian Army or being robbed blind by men claiming to be from Jabhat al-Nusra. This is most true in the tribal areas of the province.

More than one person has told me that the honor of women is never violated. Even the enemies of ISIS in the region concede this. They admit that since ISIS assumed authority, not a single incident of assault against a woman or young girl has occured. This is contrary to the desultory state of social life when Jabhat al-Nusra ruled al-Bukamal. Then, brothels operated openly. Today, you can rest assured that traveling from Dar al-Zur to al-Anbar, a distance of some 350 kilometers, you will not be harmed as long as you obey the law.

One of the main reasons ISIS has been accepted by a vast majority is that corruption was rampant in the area during the first years of the uprising against Assad. First, the militias that called themselves the Free Syrian Army ruled. They disported themselves no differently than thieves and bandits. Civilians lived in a state of anxiety that their possessions would be lifted from them one after the other and fear that they would be harassed and possibly killed. Then came al-Nusra, which was concerned only with power and gave little care to justice or good government. Between the Free Army and Nusra, society was lost. No one dared approach the authorities to resolve disputes. Once the Caliphate established control over the region, however, people have breathed easier and feel less oppressed.

In fact, the residents of al-Bukamal cannot hate members of the organization and those who work with them when they see them trying to deliver water and electricity to the people at affordable prices. Nor can they hate the organization when prices are set at reasonable levels. The ISIS fighters are vigilant on their behalf and up into the night in order to provide for them. This reality destroys hatred, and although some people in the area may not want the organization to remain in power, the weak do, as do the poor who have no one else to fend for them. It is true that some fighters have special privileges, but these are a minority and do not compare to those enjoyed by the officials who were previously aligned with the government, or the fighters of the Free Syrian Army or al-Nusra.

ISIS has all the moral and material capability it needs in order to rebuild the cities it controls. More importantly, it possesses the will to provide a better life for the people. It is still unable to adopt the modern techniques necessary to improve the lives of its people as it promises, but it strives to attain them.

The planes that fly over ISIS-controlled territories have had only one real victory. It is not the killing of fighters or the obstruction of the movement of the organization. Rather, they have simply prevented the group from delivering services to the community, and this is the only real achievement of the coalition fighting ISIS.

I seek to draw a realistic image of ISIS, one that can be compared with and contrasted to the picture of a bloody organization. For it is impossible for a bloody murderous regime to rule without inducing physical and societal security. But this is rarely mentioned in order to tarnish the image of the organization, one that does not need any more than the truth to do so.

The question is, has there developed an ISIS society, meaning has the organization integrated into the larger community? Until now, the group cannot speak of an “ISIS society” in any real sense; in that it is fear and terror that still rules the community. But with the passage of time, if the regime stays in power at least three more years, I expect that there would be a real ISIS society, and this is the biggest fear with regards to the Eastern regions. From this ISIS society will be born extremist and terrorist ideas.

In the next report: How ISIS exploits societal contradictions and historical grudges.

15. SYRIALOVER said:

“They forfeit the use of violence willingly in order to live a life of greater justice and equity. The strong are not permitted to dominate the weak, nor the rich exploit the poor, nor tribal leaders their tribesmen. All live under ISIS law equally, without “wasta” or exception.” (from lead post)

Oh sure!!! Syrians are thrilled to be living under the self-appointed “rule” of misfit, fantasist, power drunk, thrill seeking(frequently criminal and mentally ill) invaders from Pakistan, Egypt, Chechnya, Belgium, Tunisia etc. Having their businesses, homes, school buildings etc commandeered, personal freedoms curtailed and a sinister atmosphere of brutal public punishments for alleged “spies”, blasphemers, homosexuals, cigarette smokers, adulterers – often people dobbed in for personal gain.

I didn’t read this, I have heard it from friends with family caught in the ISIS net around Raqqa.

But the author is 150% right about one thing – the Assad regime has managed to make ISIS look good, having set the bar so low it’s buried underground. After failing to make serious efforts to contain the spread of ISIS across Syrian territory, the regime ruthlessly cut the power and water supplies to the local population when its officials quit Palmyra, then came back and savagely bombed the town into dust without making a dent on its ISIS friends.

I suspect the writer would not necessarily know (or admit) details about the treatment of women by ISIS, especially those arrested or traded. That is one of their main recruitment drawcards.

There are also local collaborators and opportunists who are happy to offer their daughters as ISIS brides in return for loot and privileges, regardless of how the women are treated and subsequently handed on if their “husbands” are killed or leave. (See


Magical Thinking about Isis


Adam Shatz

You are invited to read this free essay. Register now for 24 hours of free access to the entire LRB archive here


Before the Lebanese civil war, Beirut was known as the Paris of the Middle East. Today, Paris looks more and more like the Beirut of Western Europe, a city of incendiary ethnic tension, hostage-taking and suicide bombs. Parisians have returned to the streets, and to their cafés, with the same commitment to normality that the Lebanese have almost miraculously exhibited since the mid-1970s. Même pas peur, they have declared with admirable defiance on posters, and on the walls of the place de la République. But the fear is pervasive, and it’s not confined to France. In the last few weeks alone, Islamic State has carried out massacres in Baghdad, Ankara and south Beirut, and downed a Russian plane with 224 passengers. It has taunted survivors with threats of future attacks, as if its deepest wish were to provoke violent retaliation.

Already traumatised by the massacres in January, France appears to be granting that wish. ‘Nous sommes dans la guerre,’ François Hollande declared, and he is now trying to extend the current state of emergency by amending the constitution. Less than 48 hours after the event, a new round of airstrikes was launched against Raqqa, in concert with Russia. With a single night’s co-ordinated attacks, IS – a cultish militia perhaps 35,000 strong, ruling a self-declared ‘caliphate’ that no one recognises as a state – achieved something France denied the Algerian FLN until 1999, nearly four decades after independence: acknowledgment that it had been fighting a war, rather than a campaign against ‘outlaws’. In the unlikely event that France sends ground troops to Syria, it will have handed IS an opportunity it longs for: face to face combat with ‘crusader’ soldiers on its own soil.

Recognition as a war combatant is not IS’s only strategic gain. It has also spread panic, and pushed France further along the road to civil strife. The massacre was retribution for French airstrikes against IS positions, but there were other reasons for targeting France. Paris is a symbol of the apostate civilisation IS abhors – a den of ‘prostitution and vice’, in the words of its communiqué claiming responsibility for the attacks. Not only is France a former colonial power in North Africa and the Middle East but, along with Britain, it helped establish the Sykes-Picot colonial borders that IS triumphantly bulldozed after capturing Mosul. Most important, it has – by proportion of total population – more Muslim citizens than any other country in Europe, overwhelmingly descendants of France’s colonial subjects. There is a growing Muslim middle class, and large numbers of Muslims marry outside the faith, but a substantial minority still live in grim, isolated suburbs with high levels of unemployment. With the growth rate now at 0.3 per cent, the doors to the French dream have mostly been closed to residents of the banlieue. Feelings of exclusion have been compounded by discrimination, police brutality and by the secular religion of laïcité, which many feel is code for keeping Muslims in their place. Not surprisingly, more than a thousand French Muslims have gone off in search of glory on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. Most of these young jihadis became radicalised online not in the mosque. Some, like the perpetrators of the attacks in January and November, have histories of arrest and time spent in prison; about 25 per cent of IS’s French recruits are thought to be converts to Islam. What most of the jihadis appear to have in common is a lack of any serious religious training: according to most studies, there is an inverse relationship between Muslim piety and attraction to jihad. As Olivier Roy, the author of several books on political Islam, recently said, ‘this is not so much the radicalisation of Islam as the Islamicisation of radicalism.’

By sending a group of French – and Belgian – citizens to massacre Parisians in their places of leisure, IS aims to provoke a wave of hostility that will end up intensifying disaffection among young Muslims. Unlike the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the 13 November attacks were universally condemned. The victims were of every race, the murders were indiscriminate, and many Muslims live in Seine-Saint-Denis, where the bombing at the the Stade de France took place. In theory, this could have been a unifying tragedy. Yet it is Muslims who will overwhelmingly bear the brunt of the emergency measures and of the new rhetoric of national self-defence. Fayçal Riyad, a Frenchman of Algerian parents, who teaches at a lycée in Aubervilliers, a few hundred metres from where the 18 November raid against the fugitive attackers took place, pointed out the change in the air. ‘In his January speech,’ Riyad said, ‘Hollande clearly insisted on the distinction between Islam and terrorism. This time he not only abstained from doing so, but in a way he did the opposite by speaking of the necessity of closing the frontiers, insinuating that the attackers were foreigners, but above all in echoing the National Front’s call for stripping binational French people of their nationality if they’re found guilty of acts against the interests of the country. So that is aggravating our fear.’ Marine Le Pen, whose National Front expects to do well in the regional elections in December, is exultant. But anti-Muslim sentiment is hardly confined to the far right. There has been talk in centre-right circles of a Muslim fifth column; a leading figure in Sarkozy’s party has proposed interning 4000 suspected Islamists in ‘regroupment camps’.

IS achieved a further strategic objective by linking the massacre to the refugee crisis. The memory of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy from Kobani who was found drowned on a Turkish beach, has now been eclipsed by a passport found near the corpse of one of the attackers. That this assailant made his way to France through Greece, carrying a passport in the name of a dead Syrian fighter, suggests careful planning. The purpose is not merely to punish Syrians who have fled the caliphate, but to dampen European compassion for the refugees – already strained by unemployment and the growth of right-wing, anti-immigrant parties. Marine Le Pen called for an immediate halt to the inflow of Syrian refugees; Jeb Bush suggested that only Christian Syrians be admitted into the United States. If the West turns its back on the Syrian refugees, the effect will be to deepen further their sense of abandonment, another outcome that would be highly desirable to IS.

It is hard not to feel sentimental about the neighbourhoods of the 10th and the 11th, where IS attacked Le Petit Cambodge and the Bataclan theatre. I know these neighbourhoods well; a number of my journalist friends live there. In a city that has become more gentrified, more class-stratified and exclusionary, they are still reasonably mixed, cheap and welcoming, still somehow grungy and populaire. Odes to their charms have flooded the French press, as if the attacks were primarily an assault on the bobo lifestyle. ‘They have weapons. Fuck them. We have champagne,’ the front page of Charlie Hebdo declared. But as the journalist Thomas Legrand noted on France Inter, ‘the reality is that we have champagne … and also weapons.’


France has been using those weapons more frequently, more widely, and more aggressively in recent years. The shift towards a more interventionist posture in the Muslim world began under Sarkozy, and became even more pronounced under Hollande, who has revealed himself as an heir of Guy Mollet, the Socialist prime minister who presided over Suez and the war in Algeria. It was France that first came to the aid of Libyan rebels, after Bernard-Henri Lévy’s expedition to Benghazi. That adventure, once the US got involved, freed Libya from Gaddafi, but then left it in the hands of militias – a number of them jihadist – and arms dealers whose clients include groups like IS. France has deepened its ties to Netanyahu – Hollande has made no secret of his ‘love’ for Israel – and criminalised expressions of support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.​1 Hollande’s pursuit of ‘economic diplomacy’ in the Arab world is a euphemism for an ever cosier relationship with the Saudi kingdom, whose export of Wahhabist doctrine has done much to spread jihadist ideology. The alliance is an old one. It was a team of French commandos who came to the kingdom’s defence during the 1979 siege of Mecca by a group of radical Islamists; the Saudis then beheaded 63 of the perpetrators, in public executions of a kind now practised by IS, the kingdom’s bastard children. Exploiting Saudi anger over Obama’s pursuit of a rapprochement with Tehran, France has aligned itself with the Saudis on Iran’s nuclear programme and on Syria, and is now competing with the US to become Saudi Arabia’s top supplier of advanced military technology.​2

In one of his last interviews, Tony Judt said:

When Bush said that we are fighting terrorism ‘there’ so that we won’t have to fight them ‘here’, he was making a very distinctively American political move. It is certainly not a rhetorical trope that makes any sense in Europe, [where politicians recognise that] if we begin a war between Western values and Islamic fundamentalism, in the manner so familiar and self-evident to American commentators, it won’t stay conveniently in Baghdad. It is going to reproduce itself thirty kilometres from the Eiffel Tower as well.

The French government refuses to accept any such thing. Most people in Paris were stunned by 13 November, but not those who were listening to IS. Weeks earlier, Marc Trévidic, a magistrate who specialises in terrorism cases, warned in Paris Match that France had become IS’s ‘number one enemy’ because of its activities in the Middle East. ‘It’s always the same story,’ he said in an interview after the attacks. ‘We let a terrorist group grow into a monster, and when it attacks us, we’re surprised … And we’re friends with countries that are responsible for disseminating this ideology – Saudi Arabia … We’re in a total paradox.’

There has been a lot of magical thinking about IS. Liberal hawks, like Roger Cohen in the New York Times, have called for a ground offensive in the usual Churchillian terms – something no Western leader has any appetite (or sizeable constituency) for after Afghanistan and Iraq. Leftists have demanded an end to the drone war, a breaking of ties with Saudi Arabia and the creation of a Palestinian state. According to a writer in the online magazine Jadaliyya, only ‘hallucinating’ neoconservatives could argue that the attacks target the West or France for what they are, rather than for what they do. But IS says very clearly in its communiqué that it’s attacking Paris both for ‘the crusader campaign’ and as ‘the capital of prostitution and vice’ – and it seems obtuse not to take it at its word. To be sure, anger over Western policies is among the drivers of recruitment for groups like IS, but IS is not a purely reactive organisation: it is a millenarian movement with a distinctly apocalyptic agenda. As Elias Sanbar, a Palestinian diplomat in Paris, points out, ‘One of the most striking things about Islamic State is that it has no demands. All the movements we’ve known, from the Vietcong to the FLN to the Palestinians, had demands: if the occupation ends, if we get independence, the war ends. But Daesh’s project is to eliminate the frontiers of Sykes-Picot. It’s like the Biblical revisionism of the settlers, who invent a history that never existed.’ The creation of a Palestinian state is a necessity, above all for Palestinians, but it’s not likely to make much of an impression on IS, which rejects the Middle Eastern state system entirely.

A far more subtle – but in some ways just as wishful – analysis has come from Olivier Roy, who argued in the New York Times that the Paris attacks are a sign of desperation rather than strength:

Isis’s reach is bounded; there are no more areas in which it can extend by claiming to be a defender of Sunni Arab populations. To the north, there are Kurds; to the east, Iraqi Shiites; to the west, Alawites, now protected by the Russians. And all are resisting it. To the south, neither the Lebanese, who worry about the influx of Syrian refugees, nor the Jordanians, who are still reeling from the horrid execution of one of their pilots, nor the Palestinians have succumbed to any fascination for Isis. Stalled in the Middle East, Isis is rushing headlong into globalised terrorism.

It’s an intellectually seductive and almost reassuring argument: IS appears to be on the march, but it’s actually in its death throes, having suffered losses in Kobani and Sinjar. But it’s also an argument that has been made before. After 11 September, it was widely argued that al-Qaida attacked the ‘far enemy’ in the West because it had failed to defeat ‘the near enemy’, the regimes of the Middle East. Today that theory seems less credible. Al-Qaida experienced a regional revival, thanks in large part to the Iraq war. And for IS, an offshoot of al-Qaida in Iraq, the distinction between near and far enemies is porous: all apostates are enemies. Although it has conquered a significant piece of territory – something bin Laden and Zawahiri never dared attempt – its power is only partly rooted in the caliphate. It is as keen to conquer virtual as actual territory. It draws on a growing pool of recruits who discovered not only IS but Islam itself online, in chatrooms and through messaging services where distance vanishes at the tap of a keyboard. Indeed, the genius of IS has been to overcome the distance between two very different crises of citizenship, and weave them into a single narrative of Sunni Muslim disempowerment: the exclusion of young Muslims in Europe, and the exclusion of Sunnis in Syria and Iraq.

Roy is right that IS can’t ‘win’ in any conventional sense, but it doesn’t have to expand the caliphate in order to remain in business. In the global society of the spectacle, it’s on a roll. Paris has seen its share of terrorist attacks since the 1970s, but the assault on the Bataclan felt very different, and even more disquieting than al-Qaida’s strikes in Madrid and London. Bombings on trains, because the perpetrators are invisible and death is as sudden as in an earthquake, are somehow more easily absorbed than killings by men in balaclavas, armed with Kalashnikovs, haranguing their victims before methodically mowing them down. The message seemed to be: this is what it feels like in Baghdad and Aleppo, this is what it feels like to be utterly helpless, this is what it feels like to be at war. And because the massacre was followed by promises of similar attacks in Paris and other ‘crusader’ cities, it has thrown into relief the impasse in which the West now finds itself, an impasse in large part of its own making.

Hollande may speak confidently of a war to destroy IS once and for all, but his options are limited, and unpalatable, and his lack of imagination imposes further constraints. Mass arrests, interrogations and surveillance could make France safer in the short term, only to drive another generation of alienated youths into the hands of IS. The state of emergency, which he is the only president other than Sarkozy to have invoked since the Algerian war, could quickly turn against him, deepening the sense amongbanlieue residents that they are an internally colonised population.​3 The most important task of the French state is arguably to combat the roots of jihadist terrorism in France, where a Muslim name remains a liability. Third and fourth generation citizens of North African descent are still routinely described as ‘immigrants’, and the neighbourhoods where they live have been called ‘the lost territories of the Republic’, as if they weren’t even a part of France. A long-term project to end discrimination against Muslims, and ensure their participation in the workplace, civic life and politics, would help to reduce the temptations of radical Islamism. So would an effort to address the fact that 70 per cent of the prisoners in French jails are Muslims. But boldness and foresight are in short supply among French politicians, and terrorism and economic austerity may make them still scarcer. Hollande doesn’t want to be too far to Le Pen’s left in the next election.


The airstrikes France is conducting with Russian co-operation may provide the public with a taste of revenge, but airstrikes seldom turn people against their rulers and often do the opposite. In co-ordinating the strikes with Russia, Hollande is moving in a direction fervently advocated by the French right, which has been suffering from an acute case of Putin envy. But such an alliance could, yet again, play into IS’s hands: other than Assad, there is no figure more reviled by Syrian Sunnis than Putin, so an air war in concert with Russia and in tacit alliance with Assad would fan the flames of Sunni anger, and be further fuel for IS propaganda.

In a recent interview with Vice, Obama described IS as a child of the Iraq war. It’s true that if it weren’t for the dismantling of the Iraqi state, and its replacement by a Shia-dominated sectarian system, IS would probably not exist. And in its war against the Sykes-Picot frontiers, IS has paid a peculiar homage to the neoconservatives who have always viewed the post-Ottoman borders as artificial constructs, a map to be redrawn in blood, with multi-confessional states replaced by ethnically exclusive, weak statelets: Christian Lebanese, Kurdish and Shia.

But the problem of IS can’t be laid exclusively at the door of Bush, Blair et al. The war in Libya, and Obama’s accommodation with the Sisi regime in Egypt, have encouraged the spread of IS well beyond Iraq. It is, however, the US’s dangerously incoherent Syria policy that has perhaps done the greatest damage. When Obama called for Assad to step down, apparently confident that his days were numbered because an American president had said so, he raised the expectations of the opposition that the US had their backs, in the event that Assad began firing on them. But Obama had no intention of sending troops, or imposing a no-fly zone. His determination to will the means for Assad’s removal has never matched Russia’s or Iran’s determination to keep him in power. The result was to leave the Syrian opposition exposed to Assad’s war.

Assad, who read American intentions better than the opposition, was emboldened by Obama’s obvious wish not to be drawn directly into the war, even after the famous ‘red line’ was crossed. Unable to secure direct support from the US, the various, increasingly fragmented rebel groups looked for arms and aid wherever they could find them: Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and sheiks and businessmen in the Gulf. The support came with strings attached: namely, ideological guidance, and an increasingly assertive anti-Shia orientation. Thanks to the recklessness of Erdoğan and the Qataris, jihadist groups from Jabhat al-Nusra to IS hijacked the rebellion, while the West turned a blind eye, until it was forced to create its own, ineffectual ‘moderate’ rebels, who didn’t stand a chance against the Islamists. By insisting that Assad step down before any transition, Washington prolonged the war, and made the European refugee crisis inevitable: only so many refugees could be dumped in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

All the actors in the Syria cauldron – the Gulf states, Turkey, Hizbullah, the Russians, the Americans – have had a hand in creating this monster, but no one seems to want to fight it, apart from the Kurds. The question of Assad’s fate has prevented the emergence of a unified Russian-American front against IS. Assad’s forces and their allies, including Hizbullah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, have focused their attacks on Syrian rebel groups which, unlike IS, have directly challenged the regime. The Gulf states, whose imams have played no small part in the expansion of jihadist extremism, are too worried about Iran’s nuclear programme and the Houthis of Yemen to lift a finger, particularly if their actions end up strengthening Assad. Erdoğan’s main concern is not IS but the Kurdish rebels. The Americans and the French, until last year, took comfort in the notion that IS was a local actor, loathsome to be sure, but unlikely to strike at Weste1rn interests: an irritant, rather than a national security threat.

Now IS is unrivalled among jihadist groups, and no one knows quite what to do that won’t make the problem worse. Anything that can be done now risks being too little, too late. It’s true that IS is no match, militarily, for the West. The attacks of 13 November were in the anarchist tradition of the ‘propaganda of the deed’, and we shouldn’t fall for it: the social order of Europe isn’t in jeopardy. But it would also be a mistake to underestimate the problem. IS has managed to insert itself, with no small amount of cunning, and with acute sensitivity to feelings of humiliation, into two of the most intractable conflicts of our time: the relationship of European societies to their internal, Muslim ‘others’ and the sectarian power struggles that have engulfed the lands of Iraq and Syria since 2003.

In an earlier era, these conflicts might have remained separate, but they are now linked thanks to the very devices that are the symbol of globalisation, our phones and laptops. It no longer makes sense to speak of near and far, or even of ‘blowback’: the theatre of conflict has no clear borders, and its causes are multiple, overlapping and deeply rooted in histories of postcolonial rage and Western-assisted state collapse. The attacks in Paris don’t reflect a clash of civilisations but rather the fact that we really do live in a single, if unequal world, where the torments in one region inevitably spill over into another, where everything connects, sometimes with lethal consequences. For all its medieval airs, the caliphate holds up a mirror to the world we have made, not only in Raqqa and Mosul, but in Paris, Moscow and Washington.

20 November



Birds-of-Paradise Project

Talking about Disaster Capitalism in Britain


I was interviewed by Foyles, one of Britain’s best independent bookstores:

Antony Loewenstein is an award-winning independent journalist, documentary maker and blogger. He has written for, amongst others, the BBC and the Washington Post, and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. For his most recent book, Disaster Capitalism, he has travelled across the world to witness first hand the hidden world of making profit from disaster. Here, he talks to us about what disaster capitalism is, why we should be concerned about it, and what we can do about it.

How do you define “disaster capitalism”?

People and corporations making money from misery, from immigration to war and aid, and development to mining. It’s a global problem that is not unique to any one territory, region or country.

Can you give us three fundamental features of “disaster capitalism”?

Opportunists looking to exploit a disaster, man-made or otherwise. Corporations pushing for a deregulated business environment. Moral blackmail from companies who argue, like I examine in Papua New Guinea and Afghanistan, that only their mine or operation can assist local communities (when the truth is often the opposite).

You write that “Disaster has become big business” – couldn’t this be positive? Businesses are nimble, so perhaps it is best that they rather than cumbersome states focus on solutions to today’s problems?

Exploiting people and communities when they’re vulnerable can never be noble. For example, in my book I examine how UK companies such as Mitie, Serco and G4S have spent years running privatised detention centres for immigrants and providing poor care for both detainees and the guards minding them. A lack of accountability, both in the media and government, is an issue here. Ultimately, with immigration, Britain’s insistence on warehousing immigrants is the problem, regardless of whether these facilities are run by the state or for profit. But the profit motive by definition removes an incentive to provide adequate care for all.

Can you give us some real world examples of big business causing problems “in the field”?

In my book, I examine the reality of the post-2010 Haiti earthquake environment and the litany of profiteers and aid organisations who flocked to the country and largely failed to help the people most in need (Wikileaks cables from the US embassy in the capital Port-au-Prince explained that there was a “gold-rush” for contracts). During my two trips there in the last years I’ve witnessed how a flawed USAID system is designed to benefit US corporations, and make them a profit, as opposed to empowering, training and hiring local staff. This breeds local resentment. Besides, the US claims to have spent over US$10 billion on aid since 2010 and yet the country remains framed in Washington as little more than a client state to make cheap clothing for Walmart, Gap and others.

There have always been disasters, and then apocalyptic doom-mongering about those disasters. What is new about this particular phase?

Yes, disaster capitalism has been occurring for centuries (the East-India Company was arguably the first example) but since the 1980s, and the era of mass globalisation, more corporations have embraced a deregulated world where they have become more powerful than the states in which they operate. International law remains very slow to act when, say, a US company behaves badly in Afghanistan, and independent nations on paper are shown to be little more than helpless in the face of overwhelming US corporate and government power.

Back in 1972 Jorgen Randers wrote The Limits to Growth – that’s now nearly half a century ago! Are we really reaching the limits to growth? What’s different now compared to the 70s? What’s to say that we don’t have another 50 years of growth in us?

Growth, if defined by increasingly rapacious acts to exploit natural resources, could continue for decades to come but at a massive cost to the environment and people, especially in developing nations. What I hope to achieve in my book is to bring awareness of how Western companies and aid dollars too often cause more problems than they solve in nations with little media coverage. An exploitative ideology has been exported globally. But closer to home, in Greece, UK, US and Australia, often the same firms working with abuses in the non-Western world, are allowed to buy the increasing number of public services being sold. In comparison to the 1970s, today’s inter-connected world makes awareness much easier but also the scale of the exploitation (and dwindling resources) all the most urgent to address. 

What are the three things we could do immediately to ease the problem?

Pressure politicians and journalists to properly explain why companies that continually fail continue getting contracts to manage the most vulnerable people. Engage with local communities in developing nations and listen to their concerns (when, say, an earthquake strikes, don’t presume outside contractors have all the answers). Force our elected leaders not to sell off public assets that the majority of the public wants to remain in public hands (and throw them out of office if they do).

What three books would you recommend as further reading for those interested in “disaster capitalism”?

Iraq, Inc by Pratap Chatterjee

The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein

Private Island by James Meek


Talking Descartes with Syrian Refugee Children


Maysaloon Talking Descartes with Syrian Refugee Children

Posted: 18 Nov 2015 01:13 PM PST

There are a lot of things people might go and teach to Syrian refugee children in Turkey, but philosophy isn’t usually one of them. In spite of doing an MA in Philosophy at Birkbeck years ago, I felt hopelessly unqualified for the task at hand. In fact, I wasn’t even sure what I was planning to accomplish. Tightly holding my copy of Peter Worley’s, “The If Machine: Philosophical Enquiry in the Classroom” I travelled to Reyhanli, near the border with Syria, to meet the seven hundred and fifty children of the Ruwwad school. Housed in a commercial part of the town, the school was really a converted office that took over a whole floor, with a massive indoor hallway that the children could dash around in during their break. The classrooms were small and cramped, windows were optional, and going to the toilets was a horrifying experience. Sure, I thought, we could talk philosophy here, I mean how hard would it be once we got the discussion going? Harder than I thought, I would later discover.

Owing to the ongoing war in Syria, Reyhanli is full of Syrians, and as they don’t speak any Turkish, Arabic language schools have sprouted up to provide some form of education for the community. The children themselves come from a variety of backgrounds, but the fact that they are even in a school meant they were some of the lucky ones. For a lot of Syrian refugee families, life is too wretched and hard right now for them to worry about sending the children to school.

I started off my first sessions by hurriedly introducing myself to the classroom and, while apologising for my child-like Arabic handwriting, deliberately mis-spelling philosophy. Turning around, I could see some of the children already chuckling. I’d wanted to get the children to relax and so instead of “falsafa” I wrote down “fasfasa“, which literally means farting about. I’d do a mock cringe and apologise when one of the students laughingly pointed out the error, and then correct the word. In explaining philosophy, I used the duck-rabbit picture Wittgenstein liked, and they sort of got my point about being able to see things differently in philosophy.

Right, I’d ask as I turned around, who has heard of philosophy? I’m greeted with total silence, but only a few of the children would raise their hands. In the Middle East, parents usually scold their children when they try to get clever or give cheeky answers, telling them to “stop philosophising”. It’s basically an insult for someone who is being pedantic. None of them ventured to explain what they knew, but they all nodded and grinned when I explained how I thought they’d heard the term. So far we seemed to be on to a good start. Prior to the class, I’d written a few study cards for the topic of the day, and I thought it would be a brilliant idea to start the children on one of the exercises mentioned in Worley’s book, the story of the “Chair”. I started off by asking the children what they thought the chair was, they looked at me like I was crazy. “It’s a chair” one of them would say, and I’d say OK, we’ll see by the end of the session. As it turned out, this lesson was much tougher to get across to the children than I expected. I tried to ask open questions and trigger a bit of controversy but they would only smile back at me nervously, unsure of what I was expecting.  They just didn’t seem to “get” where we were going with this, and their answers were cautious and flat. If the more outspoken children used a particular answer, the next dozen children would all raise their hands and then say the same thing. 

In Worley’s book, he recommends that the children all sit in a circle in order to promote discussion. As soon as I saw the state of the classrooms I knew that this would be impossible. There were forty children crammed into the room, all facing one direction, and all used to only one type of teaching and to rote learning. Furthermore, the teacher, a kindly older man, stayed on, ostensibly to help “control” the classrooms. I was too polite to ask him to leave and that turned out to be a mistake. As I tried to get the children to respond to the story before each “discussion”, he would helpfully repeat what I said, sternly asking the children to sit up straight and “think carefully, then answer the Teacher’s question!”. I cringed inwardly. This was not going to work, and I was conscious of Worley’s recommendation to avoid “leading” the children to the answers they might think I want to hear. The same kind of problems occurred in the other grades, and by the end of the first day, my head was reeling and my confidence was in tatters. I began to have serious doubts about whether this was going to work. After all, my previous three volunteering trips with Karam were about running a “writing” workshop that I’d slowly built up through experience. This was totally outside my comfort zone, and I’d even picked the exercises to match all the ages for the classes. The book had made it seem so easy, and yet when it came to trying to have a philosophical discussion about our perception of objects, my mind seemed to draw a blank. There just didn’t seem to be any feedback.

Steeling my nerves, I decided to follow through the next day, as planned, with the next subject. This time, I threw politeness out of the window and point blank asked the teachers to leave me with the children. “No”, I’d reply, “I’ll manage to control them fine. Sit this one out, go have a coffee and I’ll see you in forty minutes. Thank you.” I closed the door and put on my “theatrical” hat. Building up the story with suspense and dramatic pauses, I finally managed to get the children’s attention and told them the story of the Ring of Gyges, transliterating his name in Arabic on the whiteboard. I stopped and stared at the classroom. “What would you do if you were walking home tonight, after school, and found this ring in the street? What would you do?” I asked them.

At first, they all answered uniformly that they would do good and “help people”. Very nice, I thought, but this isn’t what we’re here for. I could tell some of the boys were grinning mischievously. I walked up to one of them and asked him what he was really thinking. After seeing my enthusiastic acting, and enactment of the story, I felt like I’d broken the teacher/student barrier, and earned their cautious trust. “Well, sir, are you saying that nobody would know if I did something? Or catch me?”

I nodded and waited. “Well, I’d be in paradise. I’d go and smack the people I don’t like and get myself a fast car and all the things I’d want!”

From here, we got the ball rolling. The story “clicked” in the student’s minds far better than my “chair” story, and I felt like this was something they could relate with. A lot of the children in all four grades said they would use the ring to go and “kill Bashar al Assad” and I chuckled at that. I hadn’t wanted to bring Syria up in the workshops, but, as I would later find out, this was not only inevitable, but extremely useful. The girls were not so ready to accept the idea of actions without consequences. Within minutes, the first girl brought up the A-word, Allah. 

“Even if no body sees you, Allah sees everything, and He will punish us for any wrong we do”, she explained. OK, this was getting interesting, and I was aware the whole class was listening intently. Here, I used Worley’s “If” machine, and it turned out invaluable. In Arabic, “If” translated directly doesn’t quite carry the same meaning, in my opinion, so I used the word “Iftirad” – which can be loosely translated as “Assume”. I’m not an expert on this stuff, but I know enough Arabic to know when a word works and it doesn’t. I also quite liked the idea of being the first to introduce Worley’s “If Machine” to Syrian students as the “If-tirad Machine”. So I asked her, “If Allah said that anybody who wears this ring can do whatever they want, what would you do with it?”. She thought for a minute, and then replied that “yes but I would still know I did those things, and I’d be punishing myself”. A tough, but evasive answer. We ran out of time sooner than I expected, but we did get to ponder briefly Socrates’ question of why somebody should do good even if they suffer. Not many had heard of him, so telling them a bit about ancient Greece and how he’d been put to death for basically being “annoying” was the first time many of them had heard about the classical world. Still, I felt that the discussion rolled a lot easier from here, and though the children were still talking mainly to me rather than each other, I felt a lot more confident by the end of the second day that things were going to work out.

The third workshop I carried out with them proved to be much more successful. The children, even the older ones in grades six and seven, all remembered the story of Giges and the magical ring and were now interested to hear my next “story”. I introduced them to the old fable of the frog and the scorpion, and now the children were starting to get active. Differences of opinion were starting to emerge, and even the bashful children were feeling more confident in voicing their opinion. Even the ‘rebels’, sitting in the back wanted to have a say in the matter. I was now rolling with it, so I complicated the story by substituting it with people, again with appropriate theatrical flair. From here, the classes started to take a life of their own, but the discussion still wasn’t as active as I’d have liked. We talked about human nature and whether it was fixed, and asked for a show of hands to see what the children thought, then I told them what Schopenhauer, Sartre, and Aristotle thought. Surprisingly, most of the children changed their mind when they heard of Aristotle’s idea (which I mentioned last) that “habit” was what shaped our character. They nodded their little heads sensibly and asked to be moved to “his” side. Schopenhauer had a few die hard supporters who remained adamant that people can never change.

During my discussion with one of the grades, and through no prompting from me, the subject of “good” and “bad” people came up. I asked the children whether they thought people were inherently good or bad, and they all, unanimously, said that people are bad, and that given half a chance everybody would take advantage of you. After seeing war, exile and a hard life in a border town in the middle of nowhere, these children all had a firm idea of what human nature was essentially like. I took the chance to talk about Thomas Hobbes and his view that the life of man was “nasty, brutish and short”. The children shrugged indifferently. I felt at the time that maybe I hadn’t explained properly, and that that’s why they weren’t that interested in discussing this idea further. It’s only now, as I recall that class and sit writing about my experience, that I realise why that was the case. To them, this Hobbes chap wasn’t saying anything profound or controversial, it was just life. That this is the world they live in (at this very moment), that it’s all they know, is unsettling to me. It might as well be a million miles away from the brightly lit lecture halls in London where I read my masters.

On our final day, all the stops were pulled. My final “story” was the “Identity Parade” question: A criminal takes a pill to wipe his memory and gains a new identity, but the police arrest this new person who is law abiding and nice, and want him to go to prison for the crimes of the previous personality. The discussions were getting surprisingly sophisticated, and the children were starting to disagree with each other openly. Here, a fundamental problem with the size of the classes got the better of me, they were too big, and I went hoarse trying to make myself heard and to get the children to speak in turn. I watched with some amusement as one of the formerly disruptive boys turned around to a mate of his who was chattering in the background and told him to shut up because he wanted to listen to the discussion.

The discussion was flowing so smoothly that I had just enough time to broach the topic of identity, and that moved us nicely to Descartes and his famous thought experiment, “I think therefore I am”. I doodled a stick man with arms and legs outstretched, closed eyes and closed mouth, and wrote the phrase in Arabic after I’d acted out the thought experiment to them. At this stage, one really needs to have been in the room to see the light come up in their eyes. For some of the children, I could see them staring at me thoughtfully as they pondered the implications of what I was trying to explain. Then I gave them the counter argument from Locke, at the risk of being slightly more controversial. At this stage, the teachers were asking to sit in the classes, and seemed very interested in the topics we were covering.

On the final two days, an unexpected challenge came up. I was asked to do a workshop with the ninth grade, older boys and girls. So far, my style was geared more towards children. How would the Identity Parade go down? My “Frog and Scorpion” workshop went down quietly, unlike with the younger grades, and again I had to overcome the uncomfortable silences and uncertainty about what we were trying to do. I felt like they hadn’t been impressed with our earlier encounter. Sweating nervously, I walked into their class for the last workshop of the week. It was showtime.

To my surprise, they were now fascinated with what I had to say. It turns out my little whirlwind tour of philosophy in the Arabic and Islamic world, and its Greek origins, had fascinated them. The discussion kicked off in ernest, and the students started vigorously debating their ideas about whether the man should go to prison or not. What did it mean to be one person and then another? When was it right to ascribe the blame for something? In what conditions? What would they do if they were that person? The points flowed effortlessly and with little guidance from me. As I started to wind down the class, I noticed that many of the students were of the opinion that the “new” person in the Identity Parade story should not be punished for the previous personalities actions.

“OK”, I asked them “now imagine that the person who did those crimes was Bashar al Assad, and that he’d taken a pill and was now a completely different person with no recollection of his previous crimes”. The class literally erupted as most of the students said no, several making cutting gestures across their necks saying that they would still execute him. “Why not?” I asked them. I hadn’t planned on this little twist, but it just came to mind, and it seemed so right. Many sat silent and didn’t have an answer, but I could tell they were pondering the question extremely seriously now. Some of the students now started arguing bitterly with each other about whether the thought experiment still applied. With this small question, I concluded the class and explained to the students that philosophy was about asking the hard questions, the unsettling ones, that challenged our view of what was right and wrong, and that this is why it was as important today as it was two thousand years ago. I think I was talking mainly to myself, because I walked out of that class with unexpectedly new insights about what philosophy meant.


Husband writes defiant tribute to his wife killed in Bataclan massacre

A Frenchman whose wife was killed in the Bataclan massacre has written a defiant message to the gunmen and a touching tribute to his wife.

Antoine Leiris, who has a 17-month-old son, has told the attackers they “will not have my hatred”.

Gunmen stormed the Bataclan venue on Friday during an Eagles of Death Metal concert and fired into the crowd, killing 89 people.

The Parisian met his wife 12 years ago and described her as an “exceptional being”.

Emergency service responding to the incident at the Bataclan
Emergency service responding to the incident at the Bataclan Credit: Reuters

He wrote online:

On Friday night you stole away the life of an exceptional being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hatred. I do not know who you are and I don’t want to know, you are dead souls.

If the God for whom you kill so blindly made us in His image, each bullet in my wife’s body would have been a wound in His heart.

We are only two, my son and I, but we are more powerful than all the world’s armies… every day of his life this little boy will insult you with his happiness and freedom.

 Antoine Leiris's Facebook picture
Antoine Leiris’s Facebook picture Credit: Facebook

Mr Leiris said he will not give the gunmen “the gift of hating” them.

Therefore I will not give you the gift of hating you. You have obviously sought it but responding to hatred with anger would be to give in to the same ignorance that that has made you what you are. You want me to be afraid, to cast a mistrustful eye on my fellow citizens, to sacrifice my freedom for security. Lost. Same player, same game.


He said he will give the attackers the “tiny victory” of “being devastated with grief” but it will be short-term and she will “join us every day”.

I saw her this morning. Finally, after nights and days of waiting. She was just as beautiful as she was when she left on Friday evening, as beautiful as when I fell madly in love with her more than 12 years ago.

Of course I’m devasted with grief, I will give you that tiny victory, but this will be a short-term grief. I know that she will join us every day and that we will find each other again in a paradise of free souls which you will never have access to.

We are only two, my son and I, but we are more powerful than all the world’s armies. In any case, I have no more time to waste on you, I need to get back to Melvil who is waking up from his afternoon nap. He’s just 17 months old; he’ll eat his snack like every day, and then we’re going to play like we do every day; and every day of his life this little boy will insult you with his happiness and freedom. Because you don’t have his hatred either.

Last updated Wed 18 Nov 2015

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