[ by Charles Cameron -- nota bene: numbers are my piano, words are my forte ]
The New Scientist in its feature Charting Syria’s civil war http://syria.newscientistapps.com/index.html claims that it “crunched the numbers on violent events in Syria” and then says “the resulting view suggests that the violence has subsided in recent months”.
As Deborah Gerner and Phil Schrodt describe in a paper from the late 1990s, press coverage of a sustained and intense conflicts is often high when hostilities first break out but then declines steadily thereafter. That decline can happen because editors and readers get bored, burned out, or distracted. It can also happen because the conflict gets so intense that it becomes, in a sense, too dangerous to cover.
I’m interested in close reading versus sloppy writing, and from my POV the likelihood of that sort of almost axiomatic decline not being factored into New Scientist‘s conclusions slides in when they write that they “crunched the numbers on violent events in Syria”.
If instead they’d written that they’d “crunched the numbers on reports of violent events in Syria” — wouldn’t it have been a little harder to then write, “the resulting view suggests that the violence has subsided in recent months”?
Wouldn’t it have made more sense to write, “the resulting view suggests that the reports of violence have subsided in recent months”?
I’m sorry, but from where I sit it’s not the numbers, it’s the sloppy language that seems problematic.
[ by Charles Cameron -- not good branding, not Islamic, dumbstruck? -- not a whole lot else to say ]
Commander Abu Sakkar / the Farouq Brigades logo
Let’s take the bald facts first:
Commander Abu Sakkar of the Farouq Brigades, Free Syrian Army, had himself videotaped this month cutting open and seeming to eat the flesh of a just-killed Syrian soldier loyal to President Assad — to send a message. According to a New York Times “Lede” blog-post, he preceded this act with the words:
I swear to God, soldiers of Bashar, you dogs — we will eat your heart and livers! … God is great! Oh, my heroes of Baba Amr, you slaughter the Alawites and take their hearts out to eat them!
His rhetoric as reported speaks of eating the heart: in the event, it is a portion of lungs that he eats, or mimics eating.
This has to be seen in many contexts — one of them, the branding of the Syrian rebels in general and the Farouq Brigades in particular.
Twelve activists in an office in Reyhanli, Turkey near the border run Farouk’s Facebook page, web site, and Twitter account. They’re working on the TV channel, which Mr. Awad says they’ve envisioned as a tool to resocialize fighters off the battlefield.
“The regime will fall one day,” he says. “We have 20,000 fighters–they all won’t stay fighters. They will put down their weapons, and need to integrate into the world. TV, radio, these things will help.”
The media office’s latest brand offering? A three-dimensional version of the Farouk logo, which will be used in videos and other online material.
“The guys complained the logo wasn’t nice enough,” Mr. Awad said, laughing. “They wanted a 3D one.”
Moralizing about someone eating the flesh of a deceased enemy is pretty easy to pull off — unless one still thinks it’s a potent way to acquire one’s enemy’s courage, which is now something of a curiosity in the anthropologist’s cabinet of concepts. Here, dug up from the section on Homeopathic Magic of a Flesh Diet in Sir JG Frazer‘s 1922 edition of The Golden Bough, now long out-dated, is the picture as it used to be seen:
When Basutos of the mountains have killed a very brave foe, they immediately cut out his heart and eat it, because this is supposed to give them his courage and strength in battle. When Sir Charles M’Carthy was killed by the Ashantees in 1824, it is said that his heart was devoured by the chiefs of the Ashantee army, who hoped by this means to imbibe his courage. His flesh was dried and parcelled out among the lower officers for the same purpose, and his bones were long kept at Coomassie as national fetishes. The Nauras Indians of New Granada ate the hearts of Spaniards when they had the opportunity, hoping thereby to make themselves as dauntless as the dreaded Castilian chivalry.
Even as a cannibal delicacy, the white man’s heart seemed to have special virtue! As I say, though — that’s all a little out of date.
Eating one’s enemy, however, is a distinctly un-Islamic behavior, whatever century we’re in. One early Islamic narrative concerns Hind bint ‘Utbah avenging deaths in her own family by eating the heart of a great Muslim warrior, dear to the Prophet — far from being an example of what is permitted in Islam, she’s an example of what Muhammad was up against by way of enemies in the early days of his preaching:
Hind Bint `Utbah, the wife of Abu Sufyaan, ordered Wahshiy to bring her Hamzah’s liver, and he responded to her savage desire. When he returned to her, he delivered the liver to her with his right hand, while taking the necklaces with the left as a reward for the accomplished task. Hind, whose father had been killed in the Battle of Badr and whose husband was the leader of the polytheist army, chewed Hamzah’s liver hoping to relieve her heart, but the liver was too tough for her teeth so she spat it out and stood up shouting her poem:
For Badr we’ve paid you better
In a war more flaring than the other.
I was not patient to revenge the murder of
`Utbah, my son, and my brother.
My vow’s fulfilled, my heart’s relieved forever.
Hind did eventually become a Muslim — but on account of this very event, was never fully included among “the Companions of the Prophet”.
I don’t want to moralize over Commander Abu Sakkar‘s act, not having been in his shoes — but it is vile under pretty much any moral standard you might choose. A problem arises, though, when one attempts to use it to justify one side or another, in a conflict in which brutality of one kind or another seems to be present on both sides. As Sakkar himself told a Time correspondent:
You are not seeing what we are seeing, and you are not living what we are living. Where are my brothers, my friends, the girls of my neighborhood who were raped?
Abu Sakkar is just one man, and there are many other armed fighters in Syria who reject such sectarian actions and would be horrified by the mutilation and desecration of a corpse — let alone an act of cannibalism. But he is a commander in a decisive battle in Syria — hardly a marginal figure.
[ by Charles Cameron -- always we need the rapid response, always we need the slow, thoughtful understanding ]
It’s almost axiomatic, isn’t it, we need two brain speeds, two types of intelligence, two modes of analysis, to handle the moment and the times we live in. Both.
Chevra Hatzolah Israel has the immediacy of Twitter, Cheryl Rofer and Aaron Stein the longer view from the Globe and Mail. Both.
Cheryl Rofer, a good friend of this blog, “supervised a team developing supercritical water oxidation for destruction of hazardous wastes, including chemical warfare agents, at the Los Alamos National Laboratory” — bio from the Globe and Mail article. I don’t want to pick and choose excerpts from her piece, I’m certainly no expert on her topic — but as things heat up in Syria, the considerations she describes offer us significant background.
Syrian state TV is claiming that Israel hit a “research center,” while opposition Facebook pages are saying that several elite units on Mt. Qassioun, overlooking Damascus, were the targets.
Because it’s so difficult, not to mention risky, to destroy chemical-weapons stocks from the air, the next-best thing is to take out Assad’s means of delivering them. And Mt. Qassioun is reportedly where many of the Syrian regime’s best missiles are kept.
That’s a lot less worrisome.
As the “fog of war” slowly clears, the longer and slower insights will prove to be the more reliable and enduring.
[ by Charles Cameron -- convinced that the architecture of sacred geography is of extraordinary importance, now and always ]
On April 24, the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo’s UNESCO world heritage site was destroyed… with both the rebels and government forces blaming the event on the other. There’s a beautiful post at Syria Deeply about the mosque and its destruction, which is worth reading in full – here I’ll simply excerpt the paragraph which explains the graphic at the head of this post:
It’s very symbolic. People are really devastated. A lot of people changed their picture on social media to show the minaret. Or rather, a broken minaret. It’s part of our identity [in Aleppo.] The BBC got backlash for heavily covering it, because people said, ‘Why are you covering the destruction of a minaret when so many people are dying?’ But there is that sense that it’s part of our identity, and people are mourning it.
and two more, which convey in the poetic words of Amal Hanano, a rich sense of the accompanying tragedy:
The lesson of the minaret: every tyrant will fall and the city remains. History has taught us that the people find a way to pick up the pieces of their city and rebuild. One thousand years from now, these years will be a chapter in history books. The future people of Aleppo will visit this sacred site and will feel the calm and peace once more. The stone will be old again. They will point to the square tower and whisper to their children the tale of this minaret that falls every few centuries when the lesson of tyranny must be taught to a people who had forgotten. Those people of the future are lucky. They will be unaware of the pain of living those years, unaware of the shame of writing this chapter. History is abstract and seamless to them, like it once was for us. It is merely a story they can recite while they trace their fingers over the stone and remember without consequence. I envy them.
We were once like those people, telling tales of barbaric Mongols or tragic fires that had destroyed the Umayyad Mosque, the Great Mosque of Aleppo. Instead we will have to be the ones to pick the pieces this time and find a way to rebuild, to heal and to restore what was erased. Even when the rebuilding is done and the blood has stopped flowing, we will never be able to enter these sites without remembering what was lost. It will never smell timeless again for us. History will never be seamless with our memory again.We know that what we will rebuild is a replacement for something that was once perfect. Something that can never come back and will never be the same. We will be destined to whisper to our children and grandchildren: “Once upon a time, there was a minaret that was 1,000 years old. We loved it and we loved our city. But we had forgotten our history. We had forgotten that the hatred of men destroys all that we love, all that is sacred. And one day we woke up and the minaret was gone.
My thoughts turn now to another Umayyad mosque…
The Umayyad mosque in Damascus is one of the holiest shrines in Islam, including within its precincts the tomb of the great warrior Saladin / Salah al-Din, but also featuring a minaret described in Muslim eschatology as the place where Jesus will return to earth. The hadith, presented by Aaron Zelin in a post on Jabhat al-Nusrah at al-Wasat, says in part:
it would at this very time that Allah would send Jesus, son of Mary, and he will descend at al-Manarah al-Bayda’ (the white lighthouse or minaret) in the eastern side of Damascus wearing two garments lightly dyed with saffron and placing his hands on the wings of two Angels
The burial of al-Bouti — who had supported Assad and called the Syrian opposition “scum” — in the Umayyad, close to the tomb of Saladin, is therefore a potentially incendiary move, giving extraordinary high honor to the imam in the aftermath of a revolutionary strike against another mosque in which that same Assad-supporting imam was killed while preaching.
May the Umayyad mosque of Damascus, now a locus of possible contention, avoid the fate of its sister in Aleppo. May the “white lighthouse” minaret be preserved…
Zenpundit is a blog dedicated to exploring the intersections of foreign policy, history, military theory, national security,strategic thinking, futurism, cognition and a number of other esoteric pursuits.