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Warfare tactics in the US and a lawless state look eerily similar

March 14, 2013
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Earlier this week, The Guardian brought to light one of the tactics employed by the Syrian Army to repress the opposition. In an investigative piece about the Aleppo massacre in January, when 110 bodies washed ashore the Quwaiq River in Syria rather
mysteriously, The Guardian shared testimony of victims’ families and eyewitnesses. According to them, the Syrian Army rounded up young men in one area of Aleppo, accusing them of being part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Shiekh al-Aurora, whose cousin Mohammed died in the massacre, says: “Mohammed was going to the dentist in Jamila, and he was taken by the military. He was arrested because he was young and the military thought he was the FSA.”

The tactic of targeting young men because of their geographic proximity to the actual FSA speaks to the desperation of a regime trying to hold onto power, even at the cost of violating war convention and international law to quell the opposition. Furthermore, it speaks to the deteriorating situation in Syria, and the intensifying challenge of providing justice after the war is over.

Except that Syria is not the only who uses such tactic. As we know, the United States employs this strategy in its global war on terrorists. As part of the Obama Administration’s secretive drone and targeted killing program, the US considers
all “military-age males in a strike zone as combatants”. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the UK, drones killed an upward of 880 civilians in Pakistan alone between June 2004 and September 2012. That does not count the men of military age that the US loosely defines as “militants”.

How can we discern the differences between the tactics employed by the Syrian Army and the United States? Is it that the US’s actions are supported by the rule of law? Not unless you count the Executive’s authority to conduct this program, which is in violation of international law. As Rand Paul pointed out through his filibuster, we have yet to receive substantive evidence of a legal framework for the Obama Administration’s drone program. No, the difference here is that the US believes it has a moral authority— one that allows it to target men based on their proximity to actual extremists, and one that dangerously allows it to expand its battlefield to Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere.

Despite 50 years of trying to create world order and establishing laws that protect human rights, the US still believes it alone has the authority to violate these standards. This was apparent most clearly this week, when the US State Department spokesperson, Victoria Nuland, said that a recent rebel attack on the Syrian army was considered an act of “terrorism” because the Syrian troops were “non-combatant”. The irony was not lost on reporters, who prodded her about the US drones that target non-combatants that are not engaged in fighting at the time. Her answer? “It depends on the circumstances”.

But the circumstances are not clear. What is clear is that the US has embraced a carte blanche to employ any tactics and any means to fight “terrorists”—despite the flawed assumptions and the illegality of such tactics. As we see in Syria, the repercussions
of such lawlessness can be damaging. The act of fighting without any adherence to standards and law, killing indiscriminately, is not a tactic that is not morally reprehensible, but is entirely self-fulfilling.

The Guardian quotes the family of another victim, who was not part of the FSA, nor any other combatant organization fighting the Syrian Army. Amer al-Ali, cousin of the victim, explains how the young man’s death changed the family: “The mother asked
if she can join the FSA to take revenge and so did their father. They only have two daughters left and now the whole family wants to join a jihad.”

Maybe the US should reconsider what it is that it is trying to accomplish in the first place.

The politics of silence

February 21, 2013

When, by August 2011, it looked as if the uprising against him was not going to quell anytime soon, Bashar Assad tried to control the narrative in Syria. It came in the guise of reform, when he approved a new media law. On paper, it stated that the state guarantees freedom of the press and right to access information—but it also made clear journalists could not discuss anything affecting ‘national unity and national security’.

The problem, of course, was that ‘national security’ was a vague term that served to sideline protestors as ‘terrorists’ harming the state. President Assad continues this rhetoric even now: “We didn’t launch the war…You have terrorists coming with very sophisticated armaments…killing people, destroying infrastructure, destroying public places, everything.”

Meanwhile, voices that could legitimately challenge this narrative were weeded out. Even after the new media law was signed, journalists continued to be imprisoned or killed. Committee to Protect Journalists says Syria was the most dangerous place for journalists in 2012. Today, both the regime and the opposition are guilty of targeting the media.

But back in August, and today, Assad’s feeble attempts to reclaim legitimacy were recognized as a tactic to tar the opposition’s image. It’s almost flabbergasting then why, just south of Syria, Egypt has waged a similar war against the media.

After Mubarak, Egypt enjoyed a brief period in which news outlets could criticize and poke fun at state heads. Since late last year, however, the Muslim Brotherhood has been targeting journalists, reprimanding them and investigating them for criticizing the president. One of the more famous cases was of TV satirist Bassem Youssef who was accused of “insulting the president”. The situation has worsened as an increasingly overpowering (and nervous) MB, tries to control the media, and as the economic situation spirals.

Last Sunday, Hani Shukrallah, managing editor of the English-language Al-Ahram Online, was forced to leave by supervisors appointed by the Muslim Brotherhood [as he suggests on his Facebook page]. A secular Christian, Mr Shukrallah arguably provided a critical voice to the political discourse. Journalists have been put on trial and prosecuted as criminal cases for insulting the Muslim Brotherhood and the president. Late last year, Salafi Islamists burnt down media headquarters of Al-Wafd, the newspaper of the Wafd opposition party, without facing repercussions.

Meanwhile, a downward-spiraling economy has put relatively liberal media in danger. After stating that it would close down Egypt Independent, an English-language weekly, due to cost pressures, the parent company Al-Masry Al-Youm said on Monday that it is reversing its decision and keep the newspaper open. But it is hardly out of danger.

Though the Muslim Brotherhood’s heavy hand can’t be blamed for the economic forces threatening existence of a balanced media landscape, the two trends leaves a rather limited space in which the discourse filling it sounds eerily familiar:

Mohamed Beltagy, secretary of the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood, to Al-Monitor on why he asked Mr Morsi to impose state of emergency in Port Said: “The violence in Port Said led to dozens of deaths. This is something unusual and new, and proves the use of excessive violence. An immediate intervention to confront the ‘thugs’ by all legitimate means was necessary.”

President Morsi should’ve learned by now that silencing voices, even if they are of ‘thugs’, is not a sustainable legacy.


Writing about my trip to Pakistan — and the baggage that comes with it

January 10, 2013

This past October, I returned to Pakistan — after 22 years. I moved to the US when I was five, so my memories are limited and dull. That said, my mind was wheeling even before the plane took off. Just the anticipation of seeing relatives for the first time in over two decades, or visiting my homeland, was developing into a string of analysis of what it means to be an immigrant, and to have a ‘home’ and a ‘land’ to call one’s own. But it took weeks after I came back from the trip to put pen to paper. The task of writing about my trip was trying — oddly enough, it meant that my words were boxing in my experience and my schizophrenic feelings in a neat little package. So when people asked me how my trip was, I would answer in a chronological order of what I did, because it was the easiest way to explain what happened there.

After some months, I was feeling restless and agitated, realizing that I had to write down my thoughts for my sake, no matter that an essay would only grasp a fraction of my thoughts. I’m gracious to The Wheelhouse Review for giving my musings a home.

Syria, civil war, and the murky details

December 14, 2012

With its announcement earlier this week, the Obama Administration seems like it’s taking a decisive step in Syria, but it seems to be the only one who thinks so. President Obama’s designation of Jabhat al-Nusra, a militia wing fighting in Syria, a terrorist organization, has many wondering the point during a civil war. Most the opposition is fighting the regime, and some have even been called out for human rights violations.

With signs that the regime’s ground forces strategy is weakening, Obama’s move points to a long-term strategy. Bashar Assad’s recent use of scud missiles seems more like a last desperate attempt to scare the rebels (and the international community) after 20 months of conflict. The Obama Administration wants to make clear that when a post-Assad Syria emerges—which might be soon—extremist forces should not co-opt the political transition. Especially one that has ties to Al Qaeda in Iraq, and that has been targeting Alawites in Syria. Sidelining Jabhat al-Nusra on the international stage diminishes the clout the group can have in a post-Assad Syria, which will inevitably need the international community for support.

But, that’s long-term strategy. The present reality on the ground isn’t as clear as President Obama’s designation of “good opposition” and “bad opposition”. Twenty months in, Assad is still in power, and rumors of chemical weapons have been growing everyday. A diplomatic solution seems more like wishful thinking than a real option. The rebels will essentially have to take down Assad by force. It’s no surprise, then, that the leader of “Friends of Syria”, the opposition coalition that Obama recently recognized, is protesting the blacklisting of Jabhat al-Nusra. The group is considered one of the more effective fighting forces on the ground.

US strategy seems unclear too—perhaps because the Administration is struggling with the appropriate strategy. There has been no talk of military intervention and there is no indication that the US will arm the rebels. Yet, it’s also limiting the agency of a fighting group that many in the opposition deem essential to reaching their objectives. Details get murky in a time of civil war.

President Obama’s move poses some tough questions for the opposition. What does the blacklisting mean for them when they need Jabhat al-Nusra to take down Assad in the short term? How will they deal with those Syrians who have joined al-Nusra to fight Assad, not to immerse themselves in an radical ideology? And what, if anything, does this mean for a post-Assad regime that has had ‘dealings with terrorists’?

Welcome to international diplomacy, Friends of Syria.

Morsi changes his tune

August 15, 2012

Egypt’s president, Muhammad Morsi’s, big reshuffle on Sunday raised plenty of red flags. In a rather quick swoop, the president-elect sacked two top SCAF officials, Field-Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi and deputy General Sami Enan, and appointed a new vice-president, Mahmoud Mekki. This was all done surprisingly without the verbal ire of SCAF or the judicial system that once put in doubt whether Morsi’s would be able to preside over his own country.

But what do Morsi’s zealous and over-confident actions mean for a post-revolutionary Egypt, especially one that needs direction?  Unfortunately, it doesn’t look good.

Mekki’s announcement as vice president was a beneficial move for Mr Morsi. A historically outspoken critic of Hosni Mubarak, and a former judge, the newly appointed official has friends in the judicial circles. But Mr Mekki is neither a woman nor a Coptic Christian—a fact that may foreshadow things to come.

As recently as the end of June, Morsi insisted that he would appoint a female vice president and a Coptic vice president. Instead, Egypt got Mekki, whose appointment looked like an opportunity for Morsi to wield the might of the Muslim Brotherhood. But even if he does appoint a woman and Coptic Christian to vice presidency, there is little evidence to suggest that the three vice presidents wouldn’t be more than a miniature confessional system to appease factions in society. Morsi’s new administration has done little to protect or grant rights to women and minority groups, let alone integrate them into the larger political system.

From the presidential palace to the Arab street, the situation doesn’t look any brighter. On Monday, the Egyptian Print Censorship Authority banned imports of “A History of the Modern Middle East”, a history book that had been used regularly in the country’s colleges. The government provided no reason for the ban. Meanwhile, the media landscape is showing the tell-tale signs of the beginning of a long struggle between government and journalists. Last week, the Freedom and Justice Party was accused of attacking Khaled Salah, editor-in-chief of Youm7 newspaper, during a protest against critics of the president, in front of a media complex in Cairo. The Muslim Brotherhood provided defensive statements, denying involvement in the attacks, while Morsi stayed silent.

The actions of Morsi’s administration and the Muslim Brotherhood seem to undermine the big task ahead: to rule a rather diverse country, with barely 51% voter support, and not do what the preceding ruler did. Instead, Egypt’s civil society is—once again—starting to feel the strong hold of the man on top.

Perhaps, a bit of a history lesson to just 2010 will help Egypt’s president remember he has to balance a precarious situation. The Muslim Brotherhood should know better than any other group that silencing breeds discontent.


NYT Room for Debate: Is the threat from hate groups overlooked?

August 13, 2012

Perhaps the one good thing that came out of the Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting is that it relaunched the debate about what constitutes terrorism. The question is even more crucial as more research finds that domestic hate groups, rather than Muslim extremists, may present the biggest threat to security. The New York Times graciously invited me to contribute my two cents to the debate here. (Also glad that I got to represent women on the panel!)

The unaffiliated lota: it knows no religion

July 18, 2012

Last week published a story about a pot used to clean one’s butt when using the bathroom. It got over 3k likes on Facebook and nearly 350 tweets. The article was about navigating the secret of the lota –as the pot is called in parts of South Asia.

I find the popularity of the article incredible and mind-boggling. Many time it crept into the territory of bad journalism–from misinformation about the lota’s history to, frankly, unbelievable anecdotes. Even life-style pieces require factual basis. Anyone who publishes their work on a major news site–or any place for public consumption–has a responsibility to share accurate information.

I’ve summarized the reasons I didn’t find this article enjoyable in four main points. Let’s start with the bad journalism.

  1. The lota is not just a Muslim thing: The lota is used among many South-Asians (Muslims, Hindus, Christians, atheists!). There is no reason for this story to have a religious component to it. Unfortunately, such a religious component is the premise of this article. Not only does Wajahat Ali, the writer, make false generalizations about who uses the lota and why, but he tries to substantiate those false generalizations with anecdotes, examples and misleading history lessons.
  2. The aforementioned misleading history lesson: As one commenter pointed out, the article fails to describe what a lota actually is. I assumed the section titled, “Origin of the lota”, was meant to do that. Instead, it describes how Islam may view the left hand as ‘impure’. He also inserts the tradition of Prophet Muhammad and the practice of cleansing, but this serves no purpose: it does not explain how long the lota has been used, why it is used or where it originated.

But now let’s talk about why this bad journalism is bad to spread, and what I find frustratingly wrong with this article:

  1. Overuse of “us versus them”: I’m not sure if anyone—ever—needs to start a paragraph about cleaning one’s bottom with “As a Muslim”. The article hypes up the writer’s and a lota-user’s Muslim identity–so much so that every paragraph seems to want to explain why “Muslims” are different from “Americans”. I know that the topic for the story is silly, but what Wajahat does, even in this silly story, is put further distance between Muslims and “Americans” – implicitly stating that they are two different people. He’s creating distances where they don’t have to be created. Needless to say, that is incredibly counterproductive during a time when the US media needs to understand substantive grievances of Muslims in the country. It’s also nice to be able to explain parts of a Muslim culture to a non-Muslim audience, but… [see point #1]
  2. Offensive to women: I wasn’t the only woman shocked by his comparison of the lota to a “homely girlfriend we adore but are ashamed to date in public”, or his anecdote about how a woman not having evidence of butt-cleaning in her bathroom is enough to break a relationship. But no one seemed to call Wajahat out on his (subtle?) insults . If Wajahat Ali really is letting out the ‘secret of the lota’, will he do the same with girls he’s “ashamed to date in public”? In fact, why not write something about how Muslim-American men are ashamed to date girls in public? Just please, stop talking about what a woman does in the toilet.

Wajahat’s story about the “Muslim bathroom” does not deserve a lot of time and critique — I understand it was meant to be funny. But what does deserve our attention is a news media that is willing to publish this type of inane, inaccurate and generalized stories.  In today’s US climate, we desperately need people to explain Islam. Just not like this.