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Persepolis, for instance?

Monday, January 6th, 2020

[ by Charles Cameron — which cultural heritage sites did you have in mind, Mr Trump? ]
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Persepolis, for instance?

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So?

The Golestan Palace, in the heart of Tehran? The Masjed-e Shah in Isfahan? The Hyrcanian Forests, or Lut Desert? I suppose Trump could bomb the Lut Desert without harming civilians, and wind would soon bring the dunes back into their miraculous order..

Iran has 24 UNESCO World Heritage Sites all told.

Let’s just say that it took ISIS to destroy the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, and the Taliban to demolish the Bamiyan Buddha..

**

Of possible legal relevance:

After an al-Qaeda affiliated group destroyed ancient religious monuments in Timbuktu, Mali, in 2012, the International Criminal Court took on a unique criminal case: prosecuting cultural destruction.

Though it generally focuses on human rights violations, the ICC charged the leader of the jihadist group, Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, with a war crime for destroying cultural artifacts in Timbuktu.

The case was the first criminal charge of its kind. It “breaks new ground for the protection of humanity’s shared cultural heritage and values,” UNESCO Secretary-General Irina Bokova said at the time. Al-Mahdi eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine years in prison.

Okay, a precedent of sorts has been set.

**

BTW, Mike Knights suggests the “best way to make sure Trump does do something you oppose – say bomb cultural sites – is to engage him in a twitter war about it. The way insiders get him to forget about a course of action is to stop mentioning it.”

He did his PhD on “target selection and vetting,” and tells us:

It’s a very laborious, mechanical process for fixed sites, & there is a huge constantly-refined no-strike list. Judge Advocate Generals are involved in all target lists.

Sometimes POTUS crosses red lines and erases norms, sometimes not.

Complexity and cats

Monday, January 6th, 2020

[ by Charles Cameron — the spontaneity and consequent unpredictability of cats surely stems from their complexity, though I doubt the level of complexity described here is sufficient to account for their ornery individualisms ]
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You may have noticed that I’m collecting instances of complexity, from the wave-fronts on rocky beaches to understanding Boko Haram, from idealism to Afghanistan, and from there to simplicity under the astute guidance of Nassim Nicholas Taleb..

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Well, then there’s cats:

a cat cannot easily change where it lives: all the extraordinary knowledge in its head, of friends and enemies and hiding places, built up over time, has to do with a particular place..

That’s an excerpt from The Strangeness of Grief by VS Naipaul.. How’s that for adding complexity to our conceptual universe?

The Ping-Pong Possibility

Monday, January 6th, 2020

[ by Charles Cameron — Soleimani’s death prospects — does my title sound like the title of a Ludlum novel? Good! ]
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I’ll do this all, or mostly, in tweets — things are happening fast enough that just watching my twitter stream is keeping me pretty busy.

Okay: there’s a whole lot of mirroring going on. Commenting on the assassination of IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani, President Trump tweeted:

Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have…..

….targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!

To which a senior IRGC officer just responded:

“If [US President Donald] Trump retaliates to Iran’s revenge, we will strike Haifa, Tel Aviv and wipe out Israel,” said Mohsen Rezaei.

About Mohsen Rezaee.

In both cases, we have threats, which we might say fall half-way between words and deeds, and which may also be pure bluster. It’s a thriller, to be sure, given President Trump‘s propensity to exaggerate in both speech and action.

More mirroring, as commentator Wajahat Ali tweets:

Trump promises to blast 52 Iranian sites for the 52 American hostages held over 40 years ago. Does Iran respond by threatening 53 US sites for the US backed coup of Iran’s democratically elected leader Mossadegh in 1953?

On the other hand, as Evan Kohlmann teeeted, there are more reasoned voices on the Iranian side

Iranian military official Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehghan: “We will not enter into an all-out war with America under any circumstances and we will respond appropriately to the U.S. strike. Iran’s response will be based on wisdom and reason and will be deterrent and influential.”

No mirroring there — no ping-pong, no tit-for-tat, just restraint — an “appropriate” and “restrained” response.

And breaking symmetry completely

Former Ambassador John Limbert, one of the 52 Americans taken hostage by Iran in 1979, says “I for one want no part of the president’s posturing about Iran.”

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As Jenan Moussa tweeted:

:Expelling American troops from Iraq was a main objective for #Soleimani.

Cynically what Soleimani couldn’t achieve in life, he might well achieve it by his death.

Iraqi lawmakers have indeed voted for US troops to be expelled from Iraq.

But look, there’s more going on there — there’s death mirroring life. And if you’ll take a moment to break from national security concerns, death mirroring life is precisely what Jean Cocteau shows us in his great film Orphée:

Cocteau’s porophetic. There’s more death mirroring life in this quote from Soleimani himself, as reported in this tweet from the FARS news agency, August 2015:

“Soleimani has taught us that death is the beginning of life, not the end of life,” one militia commander said.

And that may be the wisest mirroring comment of all.. though Soleimani surely intended it in the context of that other quote I cited yesterday:

The war-front is mankind’s lost paradise. One type of paradise that is portrayed for mankind is streams, beautiful nymphs and greeneries. But there is another kind of paradise. … The war-front was the lost paradise of the human beings, indeed.

Mirrorings found, but paradise lost, I fear — not Soleimani‘s war-front, but its mirror-image, the paradise of hoped for Middle Eastern peace. That’s a mirror undone, when you consider the letter from Soleimani to the Iraqi PM that Brasco Aad tweets about:

raqi PM Adil Abdul-Mahdi: “Hadj Soleimani was in Baghdad at my invitation. He was scheduled to visit me and carried a letter with him from the Iranian leadership on how to de-escalate tensions with Saudi Arabia.”

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Okay, further reading:

  • New Yorker, Where Will U.S.-Iran Tensions Play Out? An Interview with Iraq’s President
  • The martyr Soleimani embraced by Imam Hussein

    Friday, January 3rd, 2020

    [ by Charles Cameron — as so often, religious analysis reveals a passionate motivational driver which can help us understand a national security threat — in this case not just from Iran ]
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    Yes, that’s Soleiman embraced in death by Imam Husayn ibn Ali, the great martyr of Karbala

    D’oh!

    **

    As we process the death of Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force commander, Maj Gen Qassem Soleimani by today’s US drone strike, it’s worth taking a look at religious aspects of the response to the death of an iconic figure, who is viewed in Iran as a “glorious martyr“.

    Narges Bajoghli is an Assistant Professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies {SAIS], and author of Iran Reframed” based on ten years of field research on the IRGC. She has a very pointed tweet which shows the illustration above, commenting:

    More Art on Soleimani by Iran reg cultural ctrs. Imp to note dead Soleimani embraced by Imam Hussein. W/in Iran this circulating w text “Iran’s Rostam” (hero from Persian epic). Nat’lism + rel symbols to rally around flag internally, while image alone communicates to non-Iranian Shia.

    Two points here — Martyrdom, and the tale of Sohrab and Rustum.

    **

    Martyrdom:

    Martyrdom is a central motif in Shi’ite thinking, which centers on the Battle of Karbala in which a small contingent led by the Prophet’s grandson, Ali’s son Husayn was defeated and martyred by the much greater forces of Yazid, second of the Sunni Umayyad caliphs — conceptually, the founding moment for Shia separation from Sunni Islam.

    The death of Husayn is mourned yearly on Ashura, the 10th day of Muharram, with the slogan:

    Every Day Is Ashura and Every Land Is Karbala

    Imam Husayn embracing Soleimani thus pouts him at the very heart of Shia maythology. There could hardly be a more emphatic invocation oa a current of religious thought underlying not just Iranian but all Shi’ite thinking>

    Thus Iraq’s usually quietist Grand Ayatollah Sistani, hugely admired outside Iran, may well feel called to request the departure of all US troops from Iraq as a result — should this happen, it would be a great victory, in death, for Gen Soleimani.

    For a Christian equivalent, think of the devout Catholic observance of the Stations of the Cross.

    **

    Rustum:

    The tale of Sohrab and Rustum is an except from the Iranian national epic, the Shahnameh, “relating how the great warrior Rustum unknowingly slew his long-lost son Sohrab in single combat” —a tale which is even known to English readers in the version by poet Matthew Arnold:

    But, with a grave mild voice, Sohrab replied:—
    “Desire not that, my father! thou must live.
    For some are born to do great deeds, and live,
    As some are born to be obscured, and die.
    Do thou the deeds I die too young to do,
    And reap a second glory in thine age;
    Thou art my father, and thy gain is mine.
    But come! thou seest this great host of men
    Which follow me; I pray thee, slay not these!
    Let me entreat for them; what have they done?
    They follow’d me, my hope, my fame, my star.
    Let them all cross the Oxus back in peace.
    But me thou must bear hence, not send with them,
    But carry me with thee to Seistan,
    And place me on a bed, and mourn for me,
    Thou, and the snow-hair’d Zal, and all thy friends.
    And thou must lay me in that lovely earth,
    And heap a stately mound above my bones,
    And plant a far-seen pillar over all.
    That so the passing horseman on the waste
    May see my tomb a great way off, and cry:
    Sohrab, the mighty Rustum’s son, lies there,
    Whom his great father did in ignorance kill!
    And I be not forgotten in my grave.”

    And, with a mournful voice, Rustum replied:—
    “Fear not! as thou hast said, Sohrab, my son,
    So shall it be; for I will burn my tents,
    And quit the host, and bear thee hence with me,
    And carry thee away to Seistan,
    And place thee on a bed, and mourn for thee,
    With the snow-headed Zal, and all my friends.
    And I will lay thee in the lovely earth,
    And heap a stately mound above thy bones,
    And plant a far-seen pillar over all,
    And men shall not forget thee in thy grave.

    Soleimani, then, is drawn into an embrace by Huseyn, viewed as another Rustum, heroic Iranian icon — and on today’s Middle Eastern battlefields from Lebanon to Iraq a brilliant strategist and warrior..

    **

    Reflect, then, on this 2009 quote from Soleimani, to get a sense of the man as he regards his own role:

    The war-front is mankind’s lost paradise. One type of paradise that is portrayed for mankind is streams, beautiful nymphs and greeneries. But there is another kind of paradise. … The war-front was the lost paradise of the human beings, indeed.

    Isaac Chotiner describes him thus in the New Yorker:

    If he had described himself, it would probably have been as the commander of Iran’s equivalent of CENTCOM, the regional commander of all of Iran’s operations — security, intelligence, military– outside of the Iranian border.

    And to return to martyrdom:

    The main [Iranian] news channels showed a live gathering at a mosque in Gilan Province, where the preacher reassured worshippers that “the best death is martyrdom for God” and that “great men prefer martyrdom to death by natural causes, cancer, accidents or old age”.

    **

    Recommended tweeting:

  • Vali Nasr, until recently dean of SAIS
  • Narges Bajoghli, SAIS Assistant Professor
  • Mohammad Ali Shabani, PhD Researcher at SOAS
  • Mecca, the 1979 Grand Mosque Siege

    Sunday, December 29th, 2019

    [ by Charles Cameron — watch out for movements — of any belief — that arm themselves in preparation for an end times battle ]
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    This is simply to alert you to a fine BBC recounting of the events at the Grand Mosque in Mecca on the first day of the current Islamic century — when two or three hundred heavily armed militants following a Mahdist claimant and his proclaimer —

    BBC pull quote

    really, think the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and His John the Baptist, and you have some sense of the seriousness of the affair — took over the central mosque in all of Islam — think the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, or St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican perhaps — and held the place under siege, with considerable bloodshed, until finally four French commandos were allowed in to use gas and flush out the remaining followers of the Mahdi, himself now dead.

    **

    End times arousals of this sort are far from over: ISIS espoused an explicitly eschatological ideology, while AL Qaida used an end times hadith to rally to their black banners in Afghanistan, and a 2007 Shi’ite insurgency near Najaf around a Mahdist claim, Shi’i-style, was serious enough for the government of Iraq to call in American air strikes.

    Important stuff, therefore.

    **

    Recommended Readings:

  • BBC, Mecca 1979: The mosque siege that changed the course of Saudi history
  • Hegghammer & Lacroix, The Meccan Rebellion: The Story of Juhayman al-‘Utaybi Revisited
  • Hegghammer & Lacrois:


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