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Ebola: two curious questions of language

Friday, October 17th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- when misunderstandings beget panics, we're not too conceptually far from rumors of wars becoming wars ]
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Hilton Garden Inn, Liberia, Costa Rica

Hilton Garden Inn, Liberia, Costa Rica

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Language matters.

I know I keep saying this, but it is true, and in the past few days I have run across two cases where false assumptions about the meaning of language have led to erroneous “hearing” of a message, with consequent unfortunate results.

I’ll post the press reports first in each case, then my own comments.

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Red Cross and Rose Cross:

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies recently posted Fighting superstition in Congo’s Ebola zone:

In mid-February, at the peak of the epidemic, the situation took a dramatic turn for the worse. A local sorcerer accused four teachers of killing people to acquire supernatural powers.

According to him, the four belonged to the Rose-Croix, a Gabonese sect. The teachers – all from the same political party – were lynched by a mob wielding iron clubs and machetes.

Most of the terrified population of Kellé fled in the forest. From this time, a dangerous confusion has developed in people’s minds: Pink-Cross and Red Cross were seen as indistinguishable, all the more so because in the local Lingala language, the word for red and pink is the same.

My suspicion is that the Rose-Croix in question is not “a Gabonese sect” but Rosicrucians in the AMORC tradition familiar to those who chase divine secrets through ads in the back pages of esoteric journals — in this case, under the supervision of Serge Toussaint, Grand Master of the French court of AMORC, who visited Libreville, Gabon in July 2010 to address the Rosicrucian Central African Convention “On the Trail of Light”.

The original Rosicrucians were a key group of intellectuals in the early enlightenment period, best described in:

  • Frances Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, and
  • Christopher McIntosh, The Rose Cross and the Age of Reason
  • The Red Cross, or more precisely The International Committee of the Red Cross, is a global humanitarian organization whose founder, Henry Dunant, was one of two recipients of the first Nobel Prize for Peace in 1901, and the Red Cross has subsequently been awarded the Peace Prize three times, in 1917, 1944 and 1963.

    Red is not pink, though a rose may be a rose be a rose.

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    Liberia and Liberia:

    Rebecca Gordon, in Ebola & Immigrants and Muslims, Oh My! Operating the Fear Machine, writes of Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly, commander of SOUTHCOM:

    The general has proof that they’re already coming – all the way from Africa. In fact, he says, a U.S. embassy employee in Costa Rica told him about a group of migrants he’d met on the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border. And where were these migrants coming from, Kelly asked? The embassy worker told him, “Liberia.” Liberians traveling to the United States through Central America. Who knew?

    As it turns out, these folks may well have been from “Liberia,” but they probably weren’t Africans. Chances are they came from Liberia, Costa Rica, the state capital of Guanacaste province there. This from the man in charge of all U.S. military operations in Latin America.

    Gen Kelly’s remarks were reported by DoD News in Kelly: Southcom Keeps Watch on Ebola Situation, October 8, and more widely in Time‘s General: Expect ‘Mass Migration’ to U.S. if Ebola Comes to Central America, October 9. Neither story picked up on the “two Liberias, one in Africa and one in Costa Rica” aspect of the story.

    The two reporters, and likewise the General, were presumably unaware of the Costa Rican Liberia. Rebecca Gordon has worked in and published on Nicaragua, holds an M.Div. and a Ph.D. from Graduate Theological, and has a sharp eye for telling detail.

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    And we all have our blindspots. The question is, what can we do about them?

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    Some wrenchingly sad news, 3: the possibility of rescue revisited

    Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- there is possibility, there is hope -- concluding post in this series ]
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    I am not the one to calculate the logistical, strategic, or tactical implications here, nor the possibility of unexpected consequences and negative feedback, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t end this series by offering you Barber‘s glimpse from the ground of what might be feasible.

    The possibility of rescue, redux:

    Despite the enormous challenge of responding to such a monumental tragedy, the possibility exists of freeing a very large number of those kidnapped in a short time. I’m referring to around 2,000 kidnapped Yazidis currently imprisoned in towns and villages in the vicinity of the Sinjar mountains.

    Specifics of available intel:

    Just south of Sinjar are a number of sites where kidnapped Yazidis are being held. Through phone conversations with captured victims, Yazidi leaders in the Dohuk governorate who are working on the problem have been able to get counts and exact locations for most of them. In over a dozen primary holding sites within at least six separate towns, approximately 2,000 Yazidis are trapped. Most of these contain just women, but at least one site contains entire families that have been kidnapped, including male members.

    A helicopter assault:

    Most of these kidnapped people know where they are. They’re in familiar territory, not far from Sinjar. If their captors were subjected to an aerial campaign — an intense helicopter assault on IS targets for as little as a half-hour — most of these people would be able to flee. The attacking force wouldn’t even be required to regain control of these towns, they would only need to occupy the moderate numbers of IS fighters in the area. The window of distraction would allow many to escape.

    Failing which…

    What I do know is that without greater US air support, 1) Sinjar will not be regained by Kurdish forces and the people of Sinjar will not be able to return home, and 2) large numbers of Yazidi women who might otherwise be freed will continue to be sold by IS jihadists as sexual objects.

    The plea:

    Sinjar is the population center for the largest segment of Yazidi people in the world. The Yazidi religion is also inextricably linked to holy places in Sinjar. If they are unable to return, it will do lasting damage to one of the Middle East’s last non-Abrahamic minorities, and thousands of victimized women will remain enslaved in 2014. Let’s do what it takes to get these people safely home and free of the most selfish form of evil I’ve personally witnessed in my life.

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    Matthew Barber’s post is a remarkable one, and I recommend those interested should read it in full:

  • Matthew Barber, If the U.S. Wanted To, It Could Help Free Thousands of Enslaved Yazidi Women in a Single Day
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    Some wrenchingly sad news, 2: nuanced theological implications

    Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- some surprising twists here, if you think of IS as entirely lacking compassion or religious and moral consideration ]
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    I am going to take the religious issues out of their original order to create a smoother reading experience with regard to the theological surprises in Barber’s article.

    Barber’s perplex:

    I have also been perplexed by the question of IS’ methods and behavior and have felt a need to understand the fact that they work according to specific ideals and a strict religious code for behavior, yet often seem to act outside of what such a code would permit. They are not alien creatures but human agents with aspirations of state building who even demonstrate acts of compassion.

    Once again, religion turns out to be crucial to a full understanding.

    We tend to treat IS — not surprisingly considering their barrage of beheadings videos and other publicized horrors on social media — as utterly unconstrained thugs and brutes. There’s no denying the brutalities, but a more sophisticated reading finds some relevant background in Abu Bakr Naji‘s book, The Management of Savagery, as Will McCants, lately of CTC West Point and now at Brookings, explains.

    Booty, both literal and metaphorical:

    First, it is worth noting that the taking of captured women as slaves / booty does have religious precedent:

    The philosophy underpinning the taking of Yazidi slaves is based in IS’ interpretation of the practices of Muslim figures during the early Islamic conquests, when women were taken as slave concubines—war booty—from societies being conquered.

    It’s hideous, it’s “medieval” if you like that term, but it does have arguable religious precedent.

    People of the Book vs Polytheists:

    Taking the brutality as a given, then, what are we to make of the preferential treatment afforded Christians vis-à-vis Yazidis?

    Though they have robbed them of their wealth, IS has not targeted the Christian community in the same way that they have the Yazidis. As “People of the Book,” Christians are seen as having certain rights; Yazidis, however, are viewed by IS as polytheists and are therefore seen as legitimate targets for subjugation and enslavement, if they do not convert to Islam.

    Acts of Compassion:

    This is perhaps the aspect of Barber’s piece which is most unexpected, and as such deserves our consideration. It is a part of the puzzle, after all is said and done, and our reflexive disgust at the many other brutalities of IS should not blind us to it:

    Christians who fled one Iraqi town described to me how IS fighters provided food for their elderly and disabled Christian relatives who were not able to flee, and then later transported them to an area near Kirkuk where they would be able to rejoin their relatives.

    The question:

    Barber poses the question — to himself, to the analytic community, and to all of us:

    How are we to reconcile these humane instances of goodwill with the apparent criminality and destruction that is so pervasive with IS?

    The answer:

    The answer is not yet in:

    Many discussions will continue regarding the similarities and differences between IS’ methods and the actual practice of the early Islamic community. Historical context will be discussed by scholars, and God’s intentions will be parsed out by those with a theological bent.

    The situation, therefore:

    But regardless of how our contemporaries interpret the past, IS’ attempts to recreate and relive a period in which slaves were taken in war have shattered families that now reel in pain after their children have been snatched away from them.

    The imperative:

    The imperative to relieve such gross suffering, if it is possible to do so without causing suffering that is even greater in so doing, is the topic of the third and last post in this series, in which I’ll post extracts of Barber’s assessment of the possibility of rescue.

    There is hope here, amid all the suffering and hate.

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    Some wrenchingly sad news, 1: Yazidi women captured in the thousands

    Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- first of three posts collecting key points from a major article on Yazidi women, IS & possibilities of rescue ]
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    Today Matthew Barber posted one of the saddest stories I have read in several years of monitoring religious violence on Syria Comment, Joshua Landis‘ blog: If the U.S. Wanted To, It Could Help Free Thousands of Enslaved Yazidi Women in a Single Day. It is a very long post, so I have extracted those paras that give the basic details, touched me most deeply, or in my view call for particular comment.

    I’ll post these short excerpts under my own headings, reserve some specifically religious materials of considerable interest for a second post in the series, and close with Barber’s comments on the feasibility of a successful rescue effort.

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    The basic news:

    The plight of thousands of Yazidi women, kidnapped by the Islamic State (IS) during its August 3 attack on Iraq’s Sinjar mountains and in the following weeks, has received some media attention, but most people are unaware of just how far-reaching this disastrous phenomenon is.

    The significant comparison with Boko Haram:

    Boko Haram kidnapped girls in the hundreds, prompting international outcry and an online campaign demanding that they be freed; IS has kidnapped Yazidi women and girls in the thousands in a sexually-motivated campaign that has rent apart countless families and wrought unimaginable levels of pain and destruction.

    Difficulty in verification:

    During the Syria conflict there have been numerous allegations of forced jihadi marriages that have been difficult to confirm, and widely denied by IS supporters online. Many of those stories were dropped, lacking credible evidence. As the past few years in Syria have demonstrated, rumors run rampant in contexts of conflict, and the initially difficult-to-confirm cases of kidnapped Yazidi women of this summer have been treated with appropriate caution.

    Confirmation:

    Having stayed in northern Iraq all summer, I can confirm the assertions of the journalists who have written about the problem. I have worked directly with those involved in rescue efforts and have personally interacted with families whose daughters have been kidnapped and are now calling their relatives from captivity.

    I have no trace of doubt that many women have been carried off and imprisoned; the question that remains is about the numbers. Restrained estimates have posited numbers of kidnapped Yazidi women in the hundreds. However, the reality is likely to be in the thousands.

    The Possibility:

    Though the picture is grim, if the US is willing to back up its overtures of support for Iraqis and Kurds with action, we have the ability to help quickly free a large percentage of the kidnapped Yazidis.

    Cell phones:

    It is no longer a secret that many of the kidnapped women still have their cellphones with them and are calling their families. Many of their captors haven’t even taken steps to prevent this; in some cases jihadists have exploited this contact as a means to sow further terror, in other cases the new “masters” are allowing their “slaves” to have contact with family as they seek to incorporate the kidnapped woman into a slave’s household role with certain privileges and duties.

    Freelance rescue:

    It is also no longer a secret that extensive rescue operations are underway, through the participation of local Arabs and Muslims in the communities where the girls are entrapped. Some have been able to purchase girls from IS jihadists and then return them to their parents. Others have been able to escape on their own. [ .. ]

    Other kinds of rescue efforts are underway as well. A Yazidi friend I’ve been working with in Dohuk arranged for a group of gunmen to be paid to carry out a rescue operation in one Iraqi city, far to the south of Mosul, where girls had been taken. They broke the girls out of the house where they had been imprisoned by their jihadist “owner” and carried them to safety. Those who conducted the operation are Sunni Arab fighters who do not align with IS (and who are willing to conduct such an operation in exchange for compensation).

    The horror:

    One of the rescued girls was only 15 and was tortured for resisting the demands of her captor for sex. Another suffered such severe psychological trauma due to the kidnapping, subsequent rape, and being shipped across Iraq that she is now very ill.

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    In the second post in this series, I’ll focus in on the unexpected theological nuance Barber reveals in these Yazidi and comparable Christian abductions. I believe there’s an important — but mostly overlooked — angle here that we should be aware of — and this time it’s to do with Islam, not eschatology.

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    Eric Cantor and the invisible menagerie

    Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- who is personally blind to the ultraviolet, the infrared and the classified -- and speaking of intel analysis, to a subset of elephants and gorillas, too? ]
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    Noting quickly that I don’t “do” American politics, I’d still like to point to the occasional specifically religious aspect of the matter. In today’s New York Times, for instance, under the heading Cantor’s Loss a Bad Omen for Moderates, we read:

    David Wasserman, a House political analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said another, more local factor has to be acknowledged: Mr. Cantor, who dreamed of becoming the first Jewish speaker of the House, was culturally out of step with a redrawn district that was more rural, more gun-oriented and more conservative.

    “Part of this plays into his religion,” Mr. Wasserman said. “You can’t ignore the elephant in the room.”

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    Talk about an elephant in the room — or was it a gorilla? Have you seen this brilliant remake of a classic video?
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    How helpful is Richards J. Heuer‘s Analysis of Competing Hypotheses in finding invisible gorillas — or elephants? I wouldn’t even know how to test the question using PARC’s ACH software: the evidence is there, but if we’re “blinkered” we won’t even see it.

    And just how blinkered are we?

    There may be known elephants in the room — to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld — and also unknown elephants. How will we ever know about the unknown elephants, before they tusk us?

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    Question and Answer:

    Q: When is an elephant a gorilla?
    A: When it’s in the room with you.

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