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Nomenclature, ISIS and beyond

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- accuracy in naming, and the potentially dire consequences of theological insults ]
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On February 3rd, Hassan Hassan, a columnist for the English daily The National in the UAE, wrote a piece titled Five Reasons Why It Is Stupid To Say ISIL Instead of ISIS for Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria. Here are reasons 1, 3 and 4 of his five, minus the “stupid” bit, which is intended to make the title eye-catching, while it’s dismissed as fluff (“joking, don’t shoot”) in the body of the piece:

1. “Al-Sham” is a word often used for Syria, and more specifically for Damascus. “Bilad al Sham”, on the other hand, is Levant or Greater Syria.

3. When ISIS was formed, they certainly didn’t mean the group would operate in all of Greater Syria or Levant. It was only recently that they announced they would open a branch in Lebanon. People forget that ISIS was a merger between Islamic State of Iraq and “Jabhat al-Nusra for the Support of the People of Sham”. After a year and two months from creating Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, Al-Baghdadi unilaterally announced a merger between his group and Jabhat al-Nusra, in other words between the group that operates in Iraq and the group that operates in SYRIA. Jabhat al-Nusra did not mean, and does not say, it is a group for supporting the people of all the Levant but the people of Syria. So the initial merger was Iraq & Syria, not Iraq and the Levant. It was later that the name of the new merger “broadened” to include other areas, as ISIS announced a chapter in Lebanon and more recently in Jordan. So, in short, this is less about the meaning of “al-Sham” and more about that fact.

4. Often when there are Arabic words whose translation into English is disputed, it’s better (academically speaking) to use the Arabic word and explain what it is – in this case, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (still ISIS).

I’m always grateful for informed background, and in full agreement with point #4.

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Yesterday, the NYT had a post titled What to Call Iraq Fighters? Experts Vary on S’s and L’s:

Many news outlets, including The New York Times, have been translating the group’s name as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS for short. But the United States government and several news agencies call it the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or I.S.I.L. (The BBC, curiously, uses the ISIS acronym, but “Levant” when spelling the name out.)

Al-Sham is the classical Arabic term for Damascus and its hinterlands, and over time, it came to denote the area between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates, south of the Taurus Mountains and north of the Arabian desert. Similarly, in Egypt, “Masr” may refer either to Cairo or to the whole country. Used in that sense, al-Sham takes in not just Syria but also Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, and even a part of southeastern Turkey.

That is fairly similar in extent to what Western geographers call the Levant, a once-common term that now has something of an antique whiff about it, like “the Orient.” Because of the term’s French colonial associations, many Arab nationalists and Islamist radicals disdain it, and it is unlikely that the militant group would choose “Levant” to render its name.

That’s three paragraphs, and a broad strokes version of something the article goes into more detail about…

The fighters do not like “Syria” either, though. Syria is what the Greeks named the region in ancient times, possibly after the Assyrian people who once lived there, though that derivation is disputed. And at times in the past, the term “Syrian” was used to mean specifically a Christian Syrian, while Muslims or Jews living there would be called Shami. Today, when Arabs speak of Syria, they usually mean only the modern state, which the insurgent group is fighting to obliterate.

Historic resonances are the point, said Ali Adeeb, a professor of Arabic at New York University. “When they first thought of the name,” Mr. Adeeb said of the group, “they were thinking with the mentality of the seventh or eighth century, just like their interpretation of religion and the life they want to recreate.” He noted that in the group’s statements, “they use old words like ‘ghazwa’ for invasion, instead of the modern word for battle.”

So if neither “Levant” nor “Syria” will do to translate “al-Sham,” what would? Some writers and geographers use “Greater Syria,” which preserves the distinction with the current state. But that would come at the cost of adding an adjective that is not present in the original Arabic, not to mention cluttering the acronym. Or the already familiar ISIS abbreviation could simply be said to stand for Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, though the last word is unfamiliar to English speakers.

Al-Sham is a key concept in the final 100-page apocalyptic rant in Abu Musab al-Suri’s 1,600-page Call to Global Islamic Resistance — hence my own preference for ISIS, as an abbreviation for Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham. I’d suggest it may be time for English readers to get familiar with that last word, although given our proclivity for not knowing even such basic distinctions as that between Sunni and Shia, I’m none too optimistic about that.

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But here we have the Zenpundit readership, and I have the impression that deepening understanding is a major concern. May I therefore also recommend Aaron Zelin and Phillip Smyth‘s The Vocabulary of Sectarianism over at Foreign Policy? That way we can all be clear on the theological insults conveyed by such phrases as rafidha / rawafidh, nasawi / nawasib and Hizb al-Lat.

In sectarian warfare, theological insults can carry the force of death-sentences.

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An unprecedented, unkind, under-the-radar cut

Friday, May 9th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- an argument on behalf of the Fulbrights from the words of Muhammad Ali ]
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Muhammad Ali famously described his strategy versus Sonny Liston thus:

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.

I’m not sure if it’s been noted that floating like a butterfly is here, and perhaps must always be, the precursor to stinging like a bee –but I’d like to note it, not for the purpose of making a dent in discussions on strategy which my pay grade doesn’t permit, but to use it as a simle for the non-obvious, non-brute-force side of things, such as knowing your enemy, and showing it to a depth that shows you also know what “knowing” is…

And that doesn’t just go for your enemies, it goes for your friends, your potential enemies, your potential friends, your frenemies… old uncle Tom Cobleigh and all, as we say in the UK.

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Here’s a significant example, as described by Ann Jones in three powerful punches paragraphs:

Will the State Department Torpedo Its Last Great Program?

Often it’s the little things coming out of Washington, obscured by the big, scary headlines, that matter most in the long run. Items that scarcely make the news, or fail to attract your attention, or once noticed seem trivial, may carry consequences that endure long after the latest front-page crisis has passed. They may, in fact, signal fundamental changes in Washington’s priorities and policies that could even face opposition, if only we paid attention.

Take the current case of an unprecedented, unkind, under-the-radar cut in the State Department’s budget for the Fulbright Program, the venerable 68-year-old operation that annually arranges for thousands of educators, students, and researchers to be exchanged between the United States and at least 155 other countries. As Washington increasingly comes to rely on the “forward projection” of military force to maintain its global position, the Fulbright Program may be the last vestige of an earlier, more democratic, equitable, and generous America that enjoyed a certain moral and intellectual standing in the world. Yet, long advertised by the U.S. government as “the flagship international educational exchange program” of American cultural diplomacy, it is now in the path of the State Department’s torpedoes.

Right now, all over the world, former Fulbright scholars like me (Norway, 2012) are raising the alarm, trying to persuade Congress to stand by one of its best creations, passed by unanimous bipartisan consent of the Senate and signed into law by President Truman in 1946. Alumni of the Fulbright Program number more than 325,000, including more than 123,000 Americans. Among Fulbright alums are 53 from 13 different countries who have won a Nobel Prize, 28 MacArthur Foundation fellows, 80 winners of the Pulitzer Prize, 29 who have served as the head of state or government, and at least one, lunar geologist Harrison Schmitt (Norway, 1957), who walked on the moon — not to mention the hundreds of thousands who returned to their countries with greater understanding and respect for others and a desire to get along. Check the roster of any institution working for peace around the world and you’re almost certain to find Fulbright alums whose career choices were shaped by international exchange. What’s not to admire about such a program?

I’d like to repeat a phrase that bears repeating:

  • it’s the little things coming out of Washington, obscured by the big, scary headlines, that matter most in the long run
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    Ms Jones suggests we visit the Save Fulbright site.

    The “little things” she speaks of are the ones that “float like a butterfly” in Muhammad Ali’s terms — and do we really want our foreign policy devised for us by Sonny Liston?

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    Clausewitz and Center of Gravity

    Wednesday, July 3rd, 2013

    At Small Wars Journal a provocative essay by Col. Dale C. Eikmeier:

    Give Carl von Clausewitz and the Center of Gravity a Divorce

    ….Because we love Carl von Clausewitz and the center of gravity concept, we need to grant them a divorce- for our sake.  We tried for years to make it work, but it’s time to face reality, together they are just too abstract and confusing for us to embrace.

     The center of gravity concept, a mainstay of the US military “operational art” since 1986[1], has never fully satisfied doctrine’s intent.   According to Dr. Alex Ryan, a former School of Advanced Military Studies instructor, the concept is, “so abstract to be meaningless”[2]  Now if a ‘mainstay’ is so ‘abstract’ that subject matter experts declare it ‘meaningless’ we have a doctrinal problem.  The genesis of this problem is a doctrinal foundation built on dubious authorship and editing, underdeveloped theory, imprecise metaphors, and flawed translations. [3]  This Clausewitzian foundation, which was never very solid, is now collapsing under the weight of 21st century warfare.  For this reason it’s time to end our reliance on Clausewitz’s On War as the authority on the center of gravity concept.

    ….Crack Four.  Another problem is flawed translations.  Clausewitz never used the term “center of gravity”, or in German, “Gravitationspunkt”, he used the word schwerpunkt, which means weight of focus or point of effort which is different from center of gravity, hubs or sources of power. [9]   But it is easy to understand how an English translator when picturing this point of effort could think of a center of gravity which further illustrates the danger of metaphors.  Milan Vigo in Joint Operational Warfare Theory and Practice provides a detailed analysis of the evolution of schwerpunkt from focus of effort to center of gravity which is summarized below:[10]

    1. Schwerpunkt – main weight or focus or one’s efforts.
    2. Mid 19th century, schwerpunkt is associated with an enemy’s capital as the point of focus. Germans and Austrians used the word schwerpunktlinie to mean a line of main weight or effort that links one’s base of operations to the enemy’s capital. This is where the schwerpunkt as ‘the target’ understanding comes from.
    3. Late 19th century it comes to mean a section of the front where the bulk of one’s forces are employed to reach a decision. Schwerpunkt is now the ‘arrow’ not the target.  This is a subtle shift from the point of focus on a target, to the arrow or what is focused.  Count Alfred von Schlieffen and German military practice used the ‘arrow’ understanding up to WW II.
    4. Colonel J.J. Graham’s 1874 English language translation of On War  mistranslated Schwerpunkt as “center of gravity”[11]
    5. Post World War I German military progressively adds a new meaning using schwerpunkt to mean the focus of planning efforts.  This is a natural evolution of the late 19th century hybrid of ‘the arrow’ and the ‘target’ understandings.
    6. The Bundeswehr (German Army) now uses the English term “center of gravity” while the Austrian Army uses the German term “Gravitationspunkt” which translates to “center of gravity”. 

    Hence, English translators took Clausewitz’s “schwerpunkt”, ‘the target or point of focus’ meaning mistranslated it into center of gravity which morphed into the source of power or ‘the arrow’ meaning. 

    I’m not understanding Eikmeier’s hostility to the employment of metaphor as a device for learning as it is a conceptual bridge for understanding without which human society would not have made much progress.  Yes, metaphors can be misunderstood or abused but so can just about everything else. Most important ideas were either understood by or are most easily explained by metaphor and analogy.

    “Center of gravity” in Clausewitzian theory is often misunderstood by non-experts or incorrectly identified in the enemy in practice in the midst of a war, but the same can be said of many other valuable concepts. Ask people to explain “gravity” itself and see how precisely scientific an explanation you receive, but that hardly means we should abandon the concept.

    Regarding translation from On War, Eikmeier may have a more valid point but I am not qualified to assess it. I have a fair grasp of the political-historical context but not the linguistic and cultural nuances of early 19th century German language expression. Maybe Seydlitz89 will care to weigh in here?

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    For the record: al-Raymi’s Message to the American People

    Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron -- a quick, minor note ]
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    You may of course already know this, but in case you don’t…

    May eye was caught by the words “Your leaders are assaultive, oppressive and tyrannical” in the English subtitles to Qasim al-Raymi‘s “Message to the American People” video (upper panel, below)…

    I guess it was the word “assaultive” that really caught my eye… I wasn’t looking forward to transcribing the entire video, so I went to the net to see if anyone else had done the job — which was when I realized I’d seen that same phrase before, in the latest issue, #11, of Inspire magazine (lower panel, above).

    So this is just a quick note to say if you want to quote al-Raymi, there’s no need to transcribe the video, he says what he says in Inspire #11 pp. 8-9.

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    I suspect we could glean quite a bit if we listened with careful ears to the phrasings used by jihadist sources when writing or speaking in English or translating into it. There are some interesting characteristic turns of phrase — I haven’t been making notes as yet, but “to proceed” is one that is often used to end the scriptural prelims and turn to the message of the day… And there was that curious phrasing in the Khorasanist video Tamerlan Tsarnaev favorited, “The word Taliqan not just mentions the Taliqan region of today only, but…”

    There are many interesting ways to read a text, and reading for tone and phrasing is one of them…

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    Sources, h/t to Aaron Zelin at Jihadology:

  • Al-Raymi, al-Malahim video
  • Al Raymi, al-Malahim Inspire magazine
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    Great question!

    Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron -- from Paradise Regained: Overcoming Terrorism in Star Trek Into Darkness ]
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    Matt Ford, guest-blogging at Grand Blog Tarkin [includes spoilers] asks:

    How many young Americans learned Arabic and Pashto or studied counterterrorism and international relations because nineteen men flew three planes into a building and one into the ground, killing thousands?

    Great question!

    And how many in the UK after 9/11? — and after 7/7?

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    Also worth reading [and also includes spoilers]:

    Amy Davidson, Is “Star Trek into Darkness” a drone allegory?

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