Au nom de l’identite/In the Name of Identity

March 21, 2012

The latest update out of Toulouse, France, where a rabbi,  his two kids, and another child were killed by a gunman firing at a Jewish school is that the shooter is a 24-year-old Algerian-Frenchman.  A stand-off ensued after this man was identified as the suspect, with him claiming allegiance to al-Qaeda as French SWAT teams surround his house.

The background to this horrific event — the failure of the French state and society to fully integrate North African migrants into the national fabric — seems to have gotten lost in the anxiety over the financial crisis and cohesion at the EU level.   “Frenchness” has always been very narrowly defined.  After all, a thousand years ago the Frankish kingdom of Charlemange and Pippin coalesced into arguably continental Europe’s first nation state, one based then and now on two things, the twin markers of classic ethnic identity: common language and common religion.  Race — such a comparatively modern construction!–never entered the formula as such.  If French was your native tongue and Roman Catholicism your religion, well, what else could you be but white in the shade of a Parisian?

At least, this was the ideological line of French nationalism — France has never been as homogeneous as the rest of Europe or eventually the world was led to believe.  Linguistically: Bretons, the Basque, and Corsicans.  Religiously, Hueguenots and Jews, many Sephardic, descendents of those who fled the Spanish Inquisition.

The tolerance of liberte, equalite, fraternite has papered over that diversity for centuries.  France has been like Kemalist Turkey in that regard: there is one national identity, one way to be a Turkish national or a French national.   Speak Breton or Kurdish? You’re doing it wrong.  Observe Christianity or Islam or (heavens!) something else too passionately or overtly for  the careful civic secularism of the state?  You’re doing it wrong.

So besides the violent and obviously criminal nature of this shooting, it’s crossing several red lines for the French: ethnic Algerian young man (we’ll see how good his French is when they finally get him)  claiming allegiance to an organization whose goal is an Islamic caliphate, targeting an institution of the group he’s been radicalized to despise yet has been able under French nationalist ideology to make something of a place for itself.   These sorts of sectarian-based hatreds are supposed to be beyond the French.  Allegedly.  All that has led to, however, are Algerian-majority slums whose existence is ignored and whose youth are easily radicalized.  To Israel making noises about the handling of the whole thing.  To a France whose hypocrisy on the European and world stages is increasingly grating.

It’s not the wisest way to manage the aftermath of empire.  Or to manage identity in the 21st century.


Hat tip to Amin Maalouf.


Khojaly: War Crimes PR in Washington DC

March 17, 2012


Riding the bus back and forth to work here in DC, I couldn’t fail to notice a starkly understated poster occupying prime ad space behind the driver’s seat.  KHOJALY, it reads:  A Human Tragedy Against Azerbaijan.  At the top are the following stats: 444 men, 106 women, 63 children; and then a date, February 26, 1992.  “20 years ago…”

A single red drop curls downward from the O in Khojaly.  The word in its huge font dominates the poster.

And then, the ad ends with a plea to the reader: “Honor the dead: learn the truth….help Armenia and Azerbaijan find peace”.  The fine print gives the website of the group behind the ad:   In and of itself the existence of such a group, let alone one able to mount any public awareness effort, is remarkable.   The large population of Armenian-Americans who rightly lobby for maintaining recognition of the Armenian genocide would seem to preclude much visibility for any lobby group for the other side in the much more recent conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.  Perhaps related to this, perhaps not: the poster actually understates the number of children killed — the official figure is 83.

NK is of course where Khojaly is located, geographically and within the broader narrative of the conflict over the majority ethnic Armenian territory surrounded and claimed by Azerbaijan.  The conflict became a shooting war just as the USSR was breaking up and Yugoslavia was unraveling into violence.   Reading about Khojaly — yes, Wikipedia has an article on the event — feels rather like reading about Bosnia a few years later.

Here is the AAA’s Youtube video about the massacre and the campaign:

So clearly this group got its symbolic timing right.   But while “helping [two still suspicious former adversaries] find peace” is admirable, one doesn’t need much of an international relations/conflict resolution background to suspect there is more to the contemporary story behind these ads.

Sure enough, the website given includes language urging web surfers to “Click here to learn about our campaign to urge Congress to rescind the unfair, irrational ban on direct aid to the Government of Azerbaijan (Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act)”.   The backbone of nearly all the U.S.’s “alliances” with non-Western countries is aid, whether military or economic.   In this post-9/11 world, of course, this legislation sounds like some counterterrorism measure George W. Bush put his signature to in the days after the attacks.  Ironically, a waiver to Section 907 was passed in October 2001.

Turns out that the legislation was actually signed by Bush the Elder, making it the same age as the Khojaly Massacre.   Its raison d’etre was promoting democratization in the former Soviet republics through US aid.  Section 907 of the Act apparently singled out Azerbaijan, prohibiting it from receiving aid without a congressional permission slip approving of its progress due to the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.  Think about that.  There are at least two sides to every conflict, and both sides in this case were ex-Soviet republics.   Why single out the Azeris?

U.S. domestic politics is always a good place to search out answers to that kind of question.   The Armenian-American community is well-established, locally and nationally powerful, and lobbies continuously on the recognition of the Armenian Genocide.  Could they have leveraged some of that influence in regards to this latest conflict? Especially considering that NK was at the time the conflict broke out approximately 90% ethnic Armenian, there was surely a sympathetic congressional audience for treating the war as a one-sided affair.

And thus the focus on Khojaly, where the roles of that narrative were reversed, Armenians the aggressors against Azeris, in what the forthrightly calls “a slaughter”. If our narrative frame is wrong, isn’t it at least possible our aid policy is too? Particularly if you’re just hearing about NK from these posters — if you don’t have a preconceived notion of the conflict. And so the cynic in me might be forgiven for thinking that plea to “help … find peace” is really for U.S. consumption.  We are allies with both these countries, after all, albeit not the warmest with the Azeris.  The campaign gets down to this basic psychology (forget context!):

Doesn’t everyone want to see their two friends get along?

On #StopKony and the Role of Context

March 10, 2012

You’ve seen it, or at least heard about it, if you can access this blog: the 29 minute video about a central African warlord who began a guerrilla insurgency against the Ugandan government 26 years ago, an insurgency that devolved into a reign of terror against the civilian population of Acholiland.

Invisible Children, the organization behind both this viral video and aa2005 feature-length documentary on Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army, takes its name and its laser-narrow perspective on the LRA from what is arguably the most sensationally disturbing atrocities of the conflict in northern Uganda — the nighttime abduction, indoctrination, and conscription of rural children into the LRA, as well as the so-called “night commuters”, children who came into towns each night to escape the rural abductions.

The key, however, is that Uganda’s conflict has always been more complex than two white surfer dudes from San Diego (IC’s founders) could discover.  To take but one example, Kony wasn’t the only spiritualist leader preaching against the government in 1980s Acholiland.

More broadly, IC tells a very one-sided story.  And they didn’t need to! It is possible to be appalled at the LRA’s (former, more on that below) tactics, to even call them evil, while still condemning the Ugandan military and the regime of Yoweri Museveni for human rights abuses in Acholiland committed in the name of fighting the LRA.  To condemn the treatment of Acholiland by the central government that was a factor in Kony’s rise.

But IC doesn’t give that side. They barely bother to explain, at least in the 2005 documentary, what socio-economic and political forces at work in mid-1980s Uganda led to the LRA.

And as I hinted above, they do not update the story to the present day. Yes, Kony is still at large. But he and the LRA do not operate solely in Uganda anymore. They’ve moved on to neighboring countries most Americans still haven’t heard of: South Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  They are now one player among the many in the conflicts in each of these other countries.  Meanwhile, they may now only number in the few hundreds in Uganda, although estimates vary widely.

Now, it’s easy to understand why IC chose, for they did choose, to ignore all that.   Those two dudes from San Diego are filmmakers*, not historians of the non-West nor political scientists, and were not any kind of NGO worker prior to IC’s founding.   So they did what filmmakers do: they told a simple story, with an overarching narrative that had clear heroes and villains.

And Kony is clearly made into a villain, even demonized, in the 2005 film.  And nowhere in the narration and witness to the group’s atrocities is the emphasis on “one man, one story” even questioned.  For IC, context is inconvenient: the Ugandan government and the military are barely mentioned, and only in positive terms. The “solution” of essentially permanent camps of those Acholis deliberately displaced by the anti-LRA campaign is not mentioned.  And on and on. Real world conflicts have context: multiple perspectives, multiple actors, history, messy “solutions” possibly worse than the problem, and no completely happy ending.

It really does seem as though Kony is a villain in a vacuum to IC.  But that’s the thing.  If you want to see the inside of a vacuum, watch a Dyson commercial.   Out here in the real world, the Disney treatment doesn’t do real suffering and real complex problems any justice.

*I know a filmmaker, a filmmaker is a relative of mine.  And these, Senator, are two rather naive and disingenuous filmmakers.

Birds in Hand vs in the Bush

March 7, 2012

Both Russia and Chima held important elections this past week. Russia’s presidential balloting returned Putin to the presidency–a Back to the Future style machination the USSR may not have been capable of.

Meanwhile, the Chinese village of Wukan has elected the leaders of serious anti-land grab protests as its mayor and deputy mayor. The local CCP authorities apparently didn’t wish to reignite discontent by interfering. And preliminary reports are that the villagers are satisfied with the democratic process. They seem to strongly feel that democratic reform will be positive for their economic development, in an interesting potential portend for the CCP.

Russian voters, on the other hand, were on the whole much less inclined to rock the boat. Stability, preserving what they still had economically, was the theme from voters and Putin both. The young protestors in Moscow chamting “Russia without Putin!” are obviously a minority in this country which still vividly recalls the economic and political upheaval of the early 1990s. Putin’s siren song of stability was overwhelmingly attractive in the face of that memory.

In that dichotomy the youthful protesters of Russia have something in common with the U.S. Occupy movement: inability to fully engage what we Americans have called “the 99 percent”.

The contrasting example of the PRC, with its 20+ years of explosive growth, may allow us to tease out from local context the hypothesis that economic growth coupled with repression that threatens it is a more potent recipe for productive protest than repression in a land of fitful, resource-driven growth and/or growth insufficiently grounded to orient people towards future prospects.

These elections offered lessons to the United States’ policymakers, both foreign and domestic.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is the Capri Sun of Governments

March 3, 2012

“Juice and governments use adjectives to conceal the truth.” So says my friend, a Russophile who studied in Mubarak’s Egypt with me. Yet what is the truth? Zaire and ascorbic acid spiked sugar water? The perceptions constructed by careful language use are their own truth, their own set of facts, and they in turn have their own sets of consequences, whether in geopolitics or advertising.

On Studying Abroad Outside the West

March 3, 2012

The stereotype most Americans hold of studying abroad revolves around Parisian cafes, the Louvre, really authentic Irish pub crawls, and the Amanda Knox case notwithstanding, the learning of “romantic” French or Italian, the better to woo or be wooed on the Riviera.

Riding a camel around the pyramids of Giza, walking on the Great Wall of China, learning Zapotec in an indigenous village in central Mexico, or climbing Mt. Kilamanjaro tend not to even register on most Americans’ radars as “studying abroad”.

But those are the areas where the world is changing most dynamically and consequentially, where the most relevant global learning for the 21st century is going to take place.  We need a cultural shift in the U.S. toward seeing the year plus that one of my college classmates did in China as the norm, not a year in France or Italy.

Those EU countries are great — one day I’d like to go to Italy myself.  But studying abroad isn’t the same as a dream vacation.  It’s about gaining knowledge and experiences which will prepare students for their future and the future of the world.  And in most cases, that knowledge and experience is best gained outside the West.

Study abroad needs an extreme makeover, cultural perception edition.

Role Shifts and New Realities OR the Rise of the Belly-Dancing Prof

March 2, 2012

A professor in the School of International Service at American University once explained the Middle East by telling his students: “You must stick to your role.  It is Iraq’s role to balance Iran, Turkey’s role to be a secular bridge to the West, Syria’s role to be Iran’s Arab ally.  You must stick to your roles! Just as you would not expect me to get up on this table and start belly-dancing, for that is not my role!”

I never had this professor, unfortunately, but the story was well known because it sets out the long prevalent received wisdom on the latter 20th century Middle East:  these were cohesive nation states in the realist tradition who performed the function, the role, expected of them.  They did so to meet the expectations of the West and/or the Soviet Union, but more fundamentally these undemocratic regimes did it to preserve themselves in power.

Fast forward to 2003 and beyond.  What was the expected regional role of the new Shia-dominated Iraq?  The US had its expectation, but the Iranians had another, a critical difference from the old days when everyone agreed that a professor was a professor and not a belly dancer.  Saddam’s plans for Kuwait, or really the U.S. view of Lebanon’s civil war didn’t rise to the level of mirror version expectations seen for post-Saddam Iraq.

The Arab Spring has further complicated the picture.  Syria, as a whole solid billard ball in the regional game had its role, as did Iraq.  But both countries have been split open by unrest, and different subnational groups want what they want.  Iraqi Shias want to support Syrian Sunnis as fellow majorities long oppressed by Baathist sectarian minorities.  Nevermind that Iraq was the counterweight to Iran and Syria is for the moment still Iran’s Arab Levantine proxy.   That was Saddam’s reality, the reality that gave rise to Bin Laden, and Saddam and Bin Laden are dead.

The West’s established expectations for this region may in most cases be just as dead.  The U.S. and Ayman a-Zawahiri are now both supporting the Syrian opposition, in word if not fully in deed.   We may have to start expecting belly-dancing professors.   Stranger things have happened.