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Sanctified payback, blowback

Friday, August 29th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- so IS is using waterboarding? meditating on copycattism as a jihadist strategy ]
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1902waterboarding

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Here’s the basic news, from Adam Goldman and Julie Tate, Captives held by Islamic State were waterboarded, in the Washington Post today:

At least four hostages held in Syria by the Islamic State, including an American journalist who was recently executed by the group, were waterboarded in the early part of their captivity, according to people familiar with the treatment of the kidnapped Westerners.
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James Foley was among the four who were waterboarded several times by Islamic State militants who appeared to model the technique on the CIA’s use of waterboarding to interrogate suspected terrorists after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

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Some have tried to downplay the implied similarity:

“ISIL is a group that routinely crucifies and beheads people,” said a U.S. official, using one of the acronyms for the Islamic State. “To suggest that there is any correlation between ISIL’s brutality and past U.S. actions is ridiculous and feeds into their twisted propaganda.”

In this case, sadly, correlation is almost certainly causation, in the sense that the Qur’an permits the otherwise impermissible when one takes an action in war against enemies who have previously taken the same action against one.

And we have taken the action of waterboarding:

Three CIA detainees — Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Abu Zubaida and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri — were waterboarded while held in secret CIA prisons. Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was waterboarded 183 times, according to a memo issued by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.

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Others have vaguely waved their hands in the direction of the idea that what we do may rebound on us:

Critics of waterboarding have said for years that the practice endangered Americans, putting them at risk of being subjected to the same brutal treatment at the hands of the enemy.

“Waterboarding dates to the Spanish Inquisition and has been a favorite of dictators through the ages, including Pol Pot and the regime in Burma,” Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) said in an op-ed in 2008. “Condoning torture opens the door for our enemies to do the same to captured American troops in the future.”

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But there’s more specificity to it than that.

I suppose I first caught on to it when Osama bin Laden said:

And as I looked at those demolished towers in Lebanon, it entered my mind that we should punish the oppressor in kind and that we should destroy towers in America in order that they taste some of what we tasted and so that they be deterred from killing our women and children.

and I was instantly reminded of Qur’an 2.194, which contains the phrase in the Pickthal version:

And one who attacketh you, attack him in like manner as he attacked you.

Yusuf Ali translates the whole verse thus:

The prohibited month for the prohibited month,- and so for all things prohibited,- there is the law of equality. If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, Transgress ye likewise against him. But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves.

But I’ve said all this before, talking about that speech of OBLs in more detail in Close reading, Synoptic- and Sembl-style, for parallels, patterns.

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Finally, waterboarding is not the only procedure that our own actions have opened us up to in this sense:

François said Foley was subjected to mock executions — something suspected al-Qaeda operative Nashiri also endured while being held in a secret CIA prison, according to a report by the inspector general of the CIA. The Justice Department did not sanction mock executions.

There’s plenty of room for innovative brutality on the part of IS, even without this kind of divine sanction — but it still might be useful for us to be aware of Qur’an 2.194 when considering psssible second-order effects of our own tactics, eh?

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Black Banners in the Washington Post

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- the one point missing IMO in an otherwise fine piece ]
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In WaPo, under the header How the violent Islamic State extremists got their signature flag, Abby Phillip tackles what I believe is a very significant question, that of the black banners, but doesn’t mention their “end times” significance:

Since the Islamic State began consolidating territory in its bloody campaign over the last year or so, it has gone from relative obscurity to global notoriety — and so has its flag.

The black-and-white banner is not only being flown in Iraq and Syria, where the group has claimed a “caliphate,” but also in London — and now, apparently, New Jersey and outside the White House.

Mark Dunaway — a Garwood, N.J., resident who converted to Islam about 10 years ago — seemed to have no idea that the flag he was hanging outside his house was associated with a violent militant group that’s on the march in the Syria in Iraq.

“I hang it every Friday and every Ramadan which ended not too long ago and I keep it up a little longer than I normally do,” Dunaway told FoxNews.com. “I guess some people saw it and got offended so I took it down. I do not support any militant group or anything like that.”

Dunaway removed the flag from the front of his house, replacing it with one for an American football team, the San Diego Chargers, according to NJ.com.

“I understand now that people turn on CNN and see the flag associated with jihad, but that’s not the intention of that flag at all,” Dunaway told NJ.com. “It says ‘There is only one god, Allah, and the prophet Muhammad is his messenger.’ It’s not meant to be a symbol of hate. Islam is all about unity and peace. I am not a part of any group like that, and I’m not anti-American. I love my country, but I am a Muslim.”

Dunway did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday and Friday.

Putting aside the question of whether he had ever heard of the Islamic State or seen the flag flown in photos accompanying dozens of media reports in recent years, the real history of the flag is fairly recent and inextricably linked to jihad.

So how does an unsuspecting New Jersey man end up with a flag associated with a brutally violent militant group? Well, for one thing, you can buy the Islamic State’s flag on eBay for a mere $20, as of this writing.

[ .. more .. ]

That’s all okay, that’s interesting. But there’s one salient aspect of the “black banner” story that’s missing from Ms. Phillip’s account — the hadith which claims that an army with black banners will sweep victoriously from Khorasan (roughly, Afghanistan / Iran) to Jerusalem in the Islamic equivalent of the Christian “end times” war culminating in the battle of Armageddon.

The important thing here is that the black flag signals belief that the army and war in question are those associated with the Mahdi, Islam’s end times awaited eschatological figure.

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It’s very easy for us to overlook the Mahdist / end times aspect of IS and other jihadist rhetoric, because we tend to dismiss end times belief as somehow quaint and outdated. I’ve been suggesting it’s more like an undertow that may catch us unawares if we don’t pay attention.

I’ve written quite a bit about this myself [eg 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 -- see also Aaron Zelin's On flags, Islamic History and Al-Qaida.]

The meaning attaching to symbols morphs over time, sure, and the “black banners” hadith may or may not be the “central” meaning of the flag with shahada and seal, now strongly and almost exclusively associated with the IS attempt at a caliphate — but the IS magazine Dabiq in its first two issues (1, 2) makes that end times connection pretty clear, even if the flag itself doesn’t.

This kind of end times appeal is always something to be particularly watchful of.

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Gaza: the video, Lex’s comment, my response

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- a powerful video with strong implications for Israel and keen insight into Gaza -- thus far the best I've seen ]
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The video:

I found this video extremely powerful. Lexington Green pointed us to it via a link in a comment on a recent post of mine, and I responded to Lex’s comment — but links, comments and counter-comments easily escape notice, and I wanted to bring the video itself — and our conversation thus far — into a post of its own, in the hope that it will receive closer attention, and that the discussion will progress from here…

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Lex’s comment, which he posted with a link to the video:

This video shows what Israel is up against, and why images of grief are not an argument for letting Hamas survive to continue to attack Israel.

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My response:

Thanks for your comment — I found the video remarkable indeed.

I see very easily how it can be read as proof that this particular woman and Hamas more generally are dedicated to the destruction of Israel. .. That’s there, in her words — and in the Hamas charter, which I’ve written about many times — but it’s far from all that I see there.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the video for me is the part where, speaking of her two daughters who died, she says “Allah gave them to me, and Allah took them away from me.” That’s of a piece with what she means when she says that life (according to her worldview) is not precious — and it’s also an exact counterpart to a central Jewish tenet: 

Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord

As I read such sayings, that’s a lofty teaching — and she reaches for it as she thinks of her two daughters, telling us that her grief was difficult for her, but that she found comfort in this perspective — which is also Job’s perspective: Baruch haShem.

The second point of interest to me was that the conversation turned to Tisha b’Av, and thus to the Temple, the Temple Mount and Jerusalem as a whole — which is claimed in toto by both parties, even though the physician floats the suggestion of a 50/50 split. She’s unwilling to become “a heretic” — even if it costs her the life of her son.

Martin Luther King is alleged to have said, “If a man has not found something worth dying for, he is not fit to live.” I don’t know if he actually said that, and I’m not sure that I’d agree with him even if he did, but I do believe there may be things worth dying for — and as I understand her, she’s claiming that life is not precious when weighed in the balance against such things.

The problem, for me, is that she thinks the physical space of Temple Mount / the Noble Sanctuary is worth dying for. Her claim that Jerusalem is sacred to her and her companions because the Mount / al-Aqsa is where the Prophet ascended to heaven from on the night of the Miraj is as sacred in the Muslim calendar as the destruction of the two Temples is in the Jewish calendar on Tisha b’Av. The claim on Netanyahu’s side, “Jerusalem is the heart of the nation. It will never be divided,” is no less inflexible, and likewise driven by scripture, tradition and faith.

That’s the level on which the battle of scriptures, traditions and faiths is fought..

Gershom Gorenberg has called the Temple Mount / Noble Sanctuary “the most contested piece of real-estate on earth” — and Naomi Wolf just the other day ended her “open letter to Rabbi Boteach” with the suggestion:

What if “the holy land” is not a place on the globe but a way of behaving to one’s fellow man and woman? I choose that place.

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And now…

What say you all?

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Yezidis / Yazidis: more gleanings

Sunday, August 10th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- continuing on from Yezidis / Yazidis: first gleanings with a diverse set of data points ]
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Here, to get us started, is some Yezidi music which I downloaded to give myself an insight into the heart of the Yezidi and our common humanity: music as touchstone.

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To recap my previous post on the Yezidi / Yazidi:

The Yezidi / Yazidi are a theologically fascinating group, and it’s a pity that their Peacock Angel has been misinterpreted by Muslims and others on many occasions as equivalent to the Islamic Iblis / Christian Devil. Like Iblis / Devil, the Peackock Angel Melek Taus is ordered by God to bow down to Man / Adam, and refuses to do so — but here’s where the narratives divide. In the Yezidi telling, Melek Taus had been forewarned by God *not* to bow down to Man, since Man was a creature and not God (defined as the proper object of worship). So in the Yezidi view, the Peacock Angel was obedient, not disobedient, good, not bad — but because Muslims when they hear the story conflate Melek Taus with Iblis, they consider the Yezidi to be worshipping the Devil — and thus fair game for numerous rounds of persecution across the centuries, with the current caliphal phase being the worst and arguably likely to be the last.

Furthermore…

The various conspiracies, fictions & hermetic adaptations of Yezidi religious thought (in Gurdjieff, Crowley, Gnostic/Templar circles, HP Lovecraft and his source, E. Hoffmann Price‘s The Stranger from Kurdistan) spring from the same misunderstanding of the role of Melek Taus. In their own rights they are interesting, but as revelations about Yezidi thought, not so much.

Matthew Barber of the University of Chicago, whose twitter stream I recommended in my earlier post, has been blogging from the ground in Iraq on Landis’s Syria Comment blog — recommended.

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Here’s an interesting interview on the History and Genocide of the Yezidis, which points out among other things just how difficult it is to get an accurate picture of Yezidi thought:

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Pat Lang, blogging at Sic Semper Tyrannis, comes at the issue of US military asistance with both an appreciation of local culture and a keen sense of military feasibilities:

Another awkward truth is the fact that getting the tens of thousands of Yazidis down off their mountain will require creation of a land bridge to Kurdish Syria or Turkey. (It is just too far to expect too be able to move all those civilians to the Kurdish mountsins in the east.) To build such a land bridge would require the participation of thousands of soldiers with heavy equipment, functioning logistics and lots of air support. Who would provide that, the pesh merga? Not! They lack the men, the equipment and the air support.

US air is still flying off an aircraft carrier in the Gulf. This is very far away and the distance, in itself, lmits the amount of air power that can be projected. It limits it a lot! If the administration is serious about the Yazidis or the Kurds they will have to start operating from Batman and Incirlik in Turkey as well as Irbil and Suleymaniyah in the KRG or start using heavy bombers like the B-52.

I make no claim myself as to the correctness of Col. Lang’s estimate, lacking the competence to agree or disagree with him. I simply have the impression that on topics of logistics, he is usually (unusually) well-informed.

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On a less tasteful note…

At least one embodinment of far-right US Christianity had to get the Yezidi wrong, mistaking them for devil worshippers:

and:

I don’t doubt that there are many more factors in Pres. Obama’s seemingly reluctant decision to intervene at this point than the somewhat dubious one suggested here. My point, however, is that Bryan Fischer is simply echoing the caliphate’s own misinterpretation when he claims the Yezidi are devil-worshippers — and the caliphate is hardly the best authority on Yezidi theology to follow…

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FWIW, on the differences in IS treatment of Christians and Yezidis, the Christian Science Monitor has this:

Unlike Christians, who have been told they must either pay a religious tax or convert to Islam to avoid death, the Yazidis are considered by Sunni militants to be infidels who deserve extermination.

“We believe that what they have done may be classified as genocide and a crime against humanity,” Gyorgy Busztin, the deputy special representative in Iraq of the UN secretary general, tells the Christian Science Monitor. “Regrettably the information indicates that they are not even given the choice of life or conversion but they are being treated as a group to be eliminated from the face of the earth.”

The persecutions, killings and explusions of Christians from the ancient churches of the Middle East is terrible enough: I had not expected to find horrors even worse..

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Last but likely not least, here is a video documentary in two parts I ran across with further Yezidi background, including several clips from the scholar Philip Kreyenbroek, whose books I’ve recommended.

Part 1:

and Part 2:

Note particularly here Prof. Kreyenbroek’s assertion in the first two minutes of Part 2 that the “honor” stoning of the young woman Du’a Khalil Aswad, which brought considerable negative world press attention to the Yezidis in 2007, was uncharacteristic of Yazidi culture, and clearly instigated by pro-Saddam political forces intent on smearing the Yezidi good name.

Here we find ourselves, as so often, at the level of group hatred — but also at the level of individual humans, their aspirations and their griefs.

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One grief, all worlds

Sunday, August 10th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- from Gaza to Mt Sinjar and beyond, the universality and singularity of grief ]
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One grief at a time is enough. It is “unbearable”, meaning that it arrives at the limit of what we single humans can possibly endure.

How can one match this father’s face at the funeral of his son — one of the four boys killed while playing on a Gaza beach — caught here (above) by photographer Hosam Salem?

How can one match these words of Yassin Suliman, speaking of his cousin, also killed in Gaza?

We buried his legs this morning and we will bury his body this afternoon.

Do the fathers and mothers of the Israeli dead feel any the less grief?

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The Talmud, at Sanhedrin 37a, tells us:

For this reason was man created alone, to teach thee that whosoever destroys a single soul of Israel, scripture imputes [guilt] to him as though he had destroyed a complete world; and whosoever preserves a single soul of Israel, scripture ascribes [merit] to him as though he had preserved a complete world.

The mention here is of a single soul “of Israel”, a phrase that many contemporary Jewish sources omit — perhaps because the immediate context indicates a that it should be taken in a universal sense, since those particular words are immediately followed by the observation that the very diversity of HaShem’s creation of humanity is evidence of his greatness:

Furthermore, [he was created alone] for the sake of peace among men, that one might not say to his fellow, ‘my father was greater than thine, and that the minim might not say, there are many ruling powers in heaven; again, to proclaim the greatness of the holy one, blessed be he: for if a man strikes many coins from one mould, they all resemble one another, but the supreme king of kings, the holy one, blessed be he, fashioned every man in the stamp of the first man, and yet not one of them resembles his fellow. Therefore every single person is obliged to say: the world was created for my sake.

Qur’an 5.32 picks up the idea and continues it:

On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.

Likewise, Qur’an 49.13 celebrates human diversity as evidence of the merciful intentions of the Merciful at ):

O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).

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Somewhere in my recent readings — on Gaza, Hamas, Iraq, Syria, the caliphate, the Yezidis — I found a sentence to the effect that one person’s grief is about as much as we can savor. It was a casual observation, but the same idea has been stated as a philosophical and theological proposition by Wittgenstein, CS Lewis and others: I catalogued those I knew in Of Quantity and Quality II: Holocaust, torture and sacrament.

Matthew Barber, blogging about Sinjar and the Yezidi at Joshua Landis‘ Syria Comment in a post titled Sinjar Was Only the Beginning, tells us:

In my conversation with Osman, it struck me that I was encountering the pain of just one man among several hundred thousand new refugees in the Dohuk governorate, each with a unique story.

I ask again, how can one fully and richly feel the utmost grief of a single person, and multiply it? And in circumstances where so many are bereaved at once, how can one not attempt to multiply their individual griefs?

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