Talisman Gate

Friday, August 25, 2006

Islam and the City

August 25, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Islam and the City

BY NIBRAS KAZIMI

August 25, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/38534

While meeting in the Algerian capital in 2004, the foreign ministers of the Organization of the Islamic Conference decided that it was time to showcase Islamic civilization to the rest of the world. They resolved to pick a set of cities each year and designate them as Capitals of Islamic Culture within the categories of Asia, Africa, and the Arab states. Mecca, being Mecca, was designated as the sole capital for the first year of the program, but for the year 2006, Iran's Isfahan, Mali's Timbuktu, and Syria's Aleppo each carried the grand title of Capital of Islamic Culture.

Of the Arabian heartland of Islam, Aleppo claimed the glory, and that in itself beckons the question, why not Damascus, Baghdad, or Cairo? Why not Jerusalem? Each of these was a seat of empire, or a cause for warfare.

Aleppo, it was assumed, could present the softer side of Islam civilization: a home for philosophical thought, poetry, architecture, and the civilizing habit of intercontinental trade. Aleppo, one of the world's most ancient cities, could claim to be the romanticized setting for that most chivalrous of warrior princes: Seif Al-Dawla al-Hamdani, memorialized in the pageant poetry of one of the most celebrated, and most eccentric, of Arab poets, who is still remembered in a nation priding itself on the richness and color of its language by his epigraph, Al-Mutannabi, or "He who claimed to be a prophet."

Eleven centuries ago, while warding off Byzantine excursions into the domains of Islam, Seif Al-Dawla, a young local prince of the Hamdanid tribe roaming the environs of Mosul to the east, seized Aleppo, a town whose purpose over the millennia was caravanning loaded goods back and forth between the west and the east. Sometimes that extended to the farthest corners of whatever passed for the civilized world, whether in China or Medieval Europe. Here, this young prince held court and patronized the arts, and opened some breathing space for independent thought. In addition to textiles, grain and slaves, caravans began to bring in mystics and charlatans, as well as heresies and luminous words.

Between his military successes and his death at the age of 53, Seif Al-Dawla gave Aleppo that brief shining moment that this year, after many centuries, still resonates to give it right of place over the various seats of the caliphs across the Middle East. And the ethos of his rule can be summed up in one word: tolerance. But here's the catch: he wasn't even a Muslim, if measured by the standards of today's jihadists and some of their Wahhabi patrons. History remembers him as a Shia, but the "heretical" Alawites claim him as one of their own, and they are probably right.
One can be forgiven the pained look of confusion when trying to determine whether a non-descript white-domed mausoleum in the northern reaches of Aleppo was indeed the grave of Al-Hussein Bin Hamdan Al-Khasibi. Al-Khasibi, one of the chief propagators of the Alawite movement that was subsidized and encouraged by Prince Seif Al-Dawla, had died in Aleppo in 968 AD. However, this tomb, with its locked gate, was tucked behind a later disused Ottoman mosque, and carried no inscription save that it was renovated in the 1950s by a benefactor. In fact, most Sunnis know this tomb as that of Sheikh Yabruq, a holy man of the 15th century whose real name, according to their texts, was Shamseddin Al-Ahmadi, and who has nothing to do with Khasibi.

Inside the cramped, incense-soaked dome is a modern white marble sarcophagus with no markings, but to get inside, one needs to get the key from a gruff and very reluctant military officer in charge of the conscription office nearby. His accent is a dead giveaway to his Alawite roots. He will finally confirm that this is indeed Khasibi's tomb, and shall instruct you not to let anyone in on the secret — a secret supposedly held for 1,000 years from the area's Sunnis lest they desecrate the remains in vengeance against the Alawites. Clearly, if one has made it this far, then it wasn't a very well-guarded secret. The tomb lies today within a military barracks, and has a fantastic view of Aleppo's citadel. The Alawites are the masters of Syria and rule through their iron-fisted control of the armed services, yet they are still trepid with fear and fearful of unmasking the final resting place of one of their most important holy men.

Further north from Aleppo, one finds the dusty town of Nubbul tucked away in the nondescript hills. Its inhabitants claim to be the descendants of those who survived a massacre in the wake of the fall of the Hamdanids.They are mainstream Shia, and are still very scared. A schoolteacher, an engineer, and a historian sat me down and gave me a rundown of their sanctuary's timeline: they escaped 1,000 years ago, and 400 years later, Tamerlane, who the Alawites also claim to be one of their own, waltzed down here on his way to Aleppo where he avenged the Hamdanids by laying waste to the Sunni town.A small band of stragglers were left behind from his Tatar horde, and today their descendants inhabit the smaller town to the south that has been alternately called Maghawleh (in reference to the Mongols) or Naghawleh (a derivative of the word "bastards") and now given the nicer name of Al-Zahra — meaning the flowery one, and also a name for the matriarchal figure of Fatima, the Prophet Muhammad's daughter. My hosts in Nubbul claimed to be Shia Arabs, while their neighbors were derisively called Tatars. I could not help but notice that all three had pronounced Central Asian features.

Those guys in Nubbul were pessimistic about their chances of surviving for another 1,000 years. They see darkening clouds approaching, a Sunni storm that will do away with these remaining pockets of heterodoxy. A nearby town is called Bayanoun, the namesake of the current head of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, a name that brought on shudders to my interlocutors. Their pessimism is echoed by the evident past, for Nubbul, as well as hundreds of villages surrounding it, were at one point Christian, now mostly deserted and ghostly. These were the stomping grounds of Saint Maroun, whose followers number in the millions in the Middle East, and whose broken sarcophagus allegedly lies among the ruins of the village of Barad, according to the tourist brochures and the Yezidi Kurdish farmers who have inherited these empty lands, and who themselves are turning away from their ancient pagan religion to the folds of Sunnism. Clustered nearby on higher ground are the Druze, probably one of the earlier communities of this faith, who like the Maronites, found sanctuary from orthodox persecution in the Lebanon Mountains, and left a dwindling presence in the Aleppine hinterland.

So much for an ethos of Islamic tolerance then. The Alawites and the Shi'a, as well as the Maronites, Druze and Yezidis have some very different memories of whoever held court over the centuries in the palace-citadel of Aleppo. Ditto for the mystics and eccentric poets; most often hanged or enduring worse fates. It is a history of human suffering that goes unacknowledged except by the victims and their survivors, while most choose to selectively remember the brief blip of glamour under Seif Al-Dawla in a timeline of tumult. That is why today Aleppo is adorned with Hezbollah flags and pictures of Hassan Nasrallah, and its people make "sacrifices" to Lebanon that involve doing away with a couple of hours of municipal electricity in the afternoon when the current is rerouted to Beirut. Falafel joints advertise free sandwiches for Lebanese refugees. Young Syrian men are excited when they are called in for military mobilization, seizing the chance to fight in a glorious war.

The past is remembered as the present is considered; selectively and unrealistically. This makes for a fantasy land that is at once dangerous and pathetic. Aleppo, with its musty alleyways, exquisite minarets and Ottoman souks, and its Hezbollah flags, is indeed a showcase of Islamic civilization: too haughty to reflect on the price in human suffering that is proffered in return for momentary grandeur.

Mr. Kazimi was recently in Aleppo, and can be reached at nibraska@yahoo.com

August 25, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Battle of Baghdad

August 9, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Battle of Baghdad

BY NIBRAS KAZIMI

August 9, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/37573

For the past few weeks, Baghdad was astir with news of an imminent coup d'etat. Those in power were worried, and those near power were looking forward to a political reshuffle from which they would emerge ahead. The scene included ambitious officers who half-jokingly promised plush diplomatic posts to their civilian friends, and prominent politicians who assumed that the military conspirators would call upon them to lead the country through a government of national unity. Desperate times require desperate measures, and most of the Iraqi political class in the Green Zone reasoned that the Americans could see no way out in Iraq except through bringing in a man of steel to save the day. No more rowdy democracy, no more muddled constitutional interpretation; stability would be measured by boots marching in unison and military bands banging away in tune.

I was recently challenged to a bet by a prominent Iraqi officer: the Americans will give the go ahead to the Iraqi Army to seize power within six months. I was looking forward to meeting this officer, who had made a name for himself in the press as a can-do enforcer giving chase to the terrorists. He was relatively young, charismatic and confident. But he was also afflicted with every Middle Eastern officer's fantasy: the belief that he alone can bring about national order and glory. As the head of a security brigade, his men had recently been outfitted with armored troop transports and heavy guns, and he made the claim to me that he could occupy Baghdad in four hours. He believes that it was only a matter of time until the Americans come to him and ask him to take over. If he wins, I buy him lunch, and if I win, well, I get to vote again in three years for a new parliament.

Iraq has had a bad experience with coups; after all, the Saddam regime came about through one. There had been such a rash of coups in the 1950s and 1960s and in some of these coups, an American hand could be discerned, including the first time the Ba'athists came to power while riding a tank through the palace gates.

Baghdad is paralyzed with fear, the shops are closed and the streets are empty. It seems that entire middle class neighborhoods have moved to Amman, Damascus, and Cairo. It has never looked or felt so bad, never mind the numbers of innocents who are daily getting chewed up by sectarian strife. In despair, there are many who would trade away such messy luxuries as freedom, democracy and constitutional rights for khaki-tinged tidiness. Hence the whispers and now audible warnings of a coup in the making.

But barring a serious (not to mention disastrous) turn-around in American policy, such a jarring change in the political order will not come about. Most Iraqi army officers, when asked if they were planning something illegal, did not even feign a commitment to their limited role as guardians of Iraq's defenses under the command of a civilian leadership, but rather dismissed such speculation by saying that they can't do much with the American military in Iraq looking over their shoulders. But the desire for a coup is there, and that in itself is a dangerous flaw in how the new Iraqi military is being trained by the Americans — even though they are nominally the only level of oversight holding them back.

Iraq's new defense minister, General Abdel-Qader Al-‘Ubaidi, gets many accolades both from the officers under him as well as the politicians in the cabinet and parliament. He was a good choice for the job, but an unconstitutional one. The founding document of Iraq's democracy states that no one in uniform can take on a civilian governmental position after leaving the armed services, unless a specified period of time had elapsed. It was ordained so with Iraq's history of turbulent coups in mind, and as a reminder to the military brass that it was the civilians who now called the shots. This was not the case with General ‘Ubaidi, who left his command of Iraq's infantry and took on the defense portfolio without the constitutionally mandated grace period. What is more dangerous is that no one is talking about it. That encourages the younger officers to be contemptuous of the political leadership and await an opportunity to seize the controls for themselves.

Ayad Allawi's camp is fueling talk of a military take-over, with the caveat that the Americans want him back in charge of a national unity government. Some are also interpreting the charm campaign by the suave and gentlemanly deputy commander of Iraq's Joint Forces Command, General Nasier Abadi, who was making the rounds in Washington and New York last week, as an American Plan B to introduce a new Iraqi face for some future political exit strategy. The whole thinking is precipitated on the notion that liberal democracies cannot fight virulent insurgencies, and that only a military dictatorship can hold Iraq together. But officers are trained to kill and destroy, not to build and govern. All too often, this basic fact is forgotten in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The battle for Baghdad can be won by the Iraqi government and Coalition forces in three weeks. There is a one month opening until mid-September to convince Iraq's middle class — the people who run the country and keep it together — that the state is still salvageable. Otherwise, with the summer drawing to a close, they will have to decide whether their exile and hiding is going to be of a more permanent nature and will plan ahead accordingly. The good news is that Sunni insurgency is exhausted and there is plenty of internal chatter questioning just how long they can keep up the pace of the violence. Their equal numbers in mayhem, the Mahdi Army militias, have descended into a chaotic grab for money, rather than a concerted effort to wage a civil war. The latter are not Hezbollah, and they can be confronted and scattered relatively easily. Secure Baghdad, and those who stand against the state will be demoralized and broken, and the middle-class will be tempted to risk retaking their country back from the hooligans. Success hinges on how many people can be made to believe that victory is still tenable.

The nascent political process in Iraq is worth sacrificing for. In the grand scheme of things, the prognosis for Iraq looks much healthier than the stale regimes around it in the Middle East, each resting for now atop a nest of time bombs. Although the numbers of dead and dying speak otherwise, the storm has passed Iraq, and there are many positive achievements to take advantage of in order to cripple the militias and the insurgents further, and to begin the process of turning them back. One such advantage is the new and disciplined Iraqi army that clearly enjoys confidence and leadership. Such a tool should not be encouraged to spend its time contemplating idle fantasies of a coup, but rather should be wielded now in an all or nothing battle for the preservation of the state of Iraq.

Mr. Kazimi can be reached at nibraska@yahoo.com


August 9, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Quietly Smiling

August 3, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Quietly Smiling

BY NIBRAS KAZIMI

August 3, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/37293

Who knew the Syrians were this clever?

But then again, wits are sharpened when survival instincts kick in. Most people, including Israel's strategists, are busy wondering how Hezbollah's actions three weeks ago complement Iran's grand designs. All along, though, the timing and the scope of the melee were being decided in Damascus.

I can imagine a graying general, sitting in his new office in Damascus, one that had just been vacated by a high level defector. The general sits there pondering, while his face is engulfed in cigar smoke, and his fleshy lips are moistened with coffee. He is wearing casual attire, a luxury afforded by advanced age — well beyond that for compulsory military retirement — and stature. To his back is a window with closely drawn velvet curtains and to his right and towering above is a touched-up portrait of the President al-Assad, highlighting the pale blue eyes of an obscure ethnicity. The general's thickset forearms animate large, steady hands that shuffle newspapers around his desk, and prioritize memos to be read by presidential eyes. This general's eyes, peering through gold-rimmed spectacles, have seen their share of history, blood, and mind-numbing paperwork. They would probably rather be looking out from the high perch of an ancestral village unto a luxuriantly green valley far below. But retirement must wait, for there is a regime to save, and an ancestral sect along with it, and to do that, a limited conflict must be unleashed.

This general was born an Alawite, and for a variety of reasons, converted to Shi'ism. He understood that to rule a country, one could not purposely provoke the most basic sentiments of those who are lorded over. Yet, the very existence of the Alawites provoked the hostility of Syria's mainstream Sunnism, which many centuries ago tried to deal with this nuisance through religiously sanctioned mass murder. The "otherness" of the Alawites was much too pronounced, and the obstinate survival of their paganism too unsettling for the triumphalism of Islamic orthodoxy. Like many schismatic faiths, the Alawites took on the veneer of Islam by adopting Shia symbolism; substituting Shia saints for older local deities through a studied subversion of the new monolithic faith. However, through the rewards of power, officers such as our general and Bashar's father had hoped to lure the rest of the Alawites away from their age-old fertility rites to the confines of Islam, by at least turning them into mainstream Shias like the ones in Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran — a category more palatable to the Sunnis. But the peasants balked and held on to what they knew.

For several months now, the general has been gravely concerned. He is not worried about Syria's eviction from Lebanon a year earlier, or the international isolation it engendered. The Syrians have played the Lebanese game longer than anyone, and understood it far better than the novices in Washington or Riyadh. It was only a matter of time until they had reoriented their setbacks towards paralyzing their adversaries and then slowly devouring them. They had done it before in the mid-1980s, and were well on their way in gaining back much of what was lost through a very similar pattern. No, the general is worried about those Alawite hold-outs; they are a bleeding gash attracting all the jihadist sharks.

Jihadism had been undergoing a transformation: its tendencies for bloodletting were growing disproportionately beyond the available opportunities for killing Americans and Israelis. A new enemy needed to be created to fill the time and sustain the fervor in between future September 11s; an enemy that was easy to target and kill. A convenient enemy that can take the fall for all the failures that had befallen Islam. Abu Musaab Al-Zarqawi did some research and resurrected age-old feuds: "the Shias must be destroyed. They are agents of the Crusaders and Zionists. There can be no total victory without their annihilation." Zarqawi was met with some criticism, for even the most virulent of his ideological ancestors were a little queasy when it came to the wholesale murder of people who were technically fellow Muslims — albeit waywardly so. But there is no gray area when it comes to the Alawites; in their case, the jurors many centuries ago gave the go-ahead for mass extermination. Syria, the seat of Sunni orthodoxy and home to many of its symbols, would be the natural setting for the rebirth of a caliphate, the jihadists are reasoning, and the hated and despised Alawite rule would focus the passions and energies to catalyze the process.

The jihadists' war on the Shias is the gravest threat facing the Syrian regime, and the general resorted to what amounts to a sure bet in deflecting the challenge: Israel is the touchstone issue by which the Alawites can demonstrate to the Sunnis of Syria and the Middle East that they are on the right side of the big issues that matter. Hating Israel is tantamount to supporting motherhood; the emotional buttons are there to be pressed and one cannot lose by starting a little and containable war with the Israelis. The Alawites sense that the only way they can make sense of their otherness is to don the true and tried mantle of Arab nationalism with its Islamic fundamentalist trimmings, and only then they can slip unnoticed into the howling, clench-fisted masses of the Arab street.

Damascus is full of pictures of Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah, a superstar of extremism, who came to the fore in the age of satellite TV and a dearth of heroes in the Middle East. The Syrian public has been led to see him as one of Bashar's soldiers, and as such his popularity burnishes that of his master. Nasrallah's presentation is supposed to make him accessible and real: he can't properly enunciate his "r"s and breaks into colloquial Lebanese after delivering the conventional diatribes. And he comes fully equipped with a soppy story; the martyrdom of his eldest son Hadi many years ago in a raid on Israel. Empower him to claim victory, and the combination is unbeatable. But there are also subtle messages in there too — Shia messages: Nasrallah's wardrobe and his rhetorical symbolism is very Shia, and for the last year or so, his public utterances have almost all referred to rising Shia-Sunni tensions in Lebanon and beyond. Like the general, Nasrallah has also been worried of late, but when Zarqawi accused Hezbollah of actually protecting Israel's northern border a couple of months ago — a major challenge to his bona fides — something had to be done.

These Shia fears of standing outside the Sunni consensus on issues such as Israel were the driving force behind Hezbollah's operation. It was a major risk taken by Nasrallah and the Syrians at a time when Damascus was liable to be hit anyway for housing Hamas's Khaled Mashal during the Gilad Shalit crisis. They calculated that the Israelis were behaving erratically through employing overpowering force in Gaza, and would retaliate against Lebanon in a very big way. The calculation proved correct and the dividends for the Syrians were huge: not only was Nasrallah resurrected as the regional superhero, but countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, who had been mumbling for some time about those uppity Shias, were forced to backtrack on earlier criticism to keep up with the fervor of their populations. Even Al-Qaeda had to play catch-up, and leave behind the anti-Shia rhetoric they have been honing as of late. The weakening of the Lebanese state was also an added bonus, as well as the increasing chorus in favor of international engagement with Damascus as a major regional player. The inevitable images of dead babies would only reenforce what the Middle East wanted to keep on believing: Israel is the eternal enemy, and must be destroyed.

The Syrians probably even thought that some sort of kick to the groin would come their way, and they were willing to take it. The price was worth it as far as they were concerned. To them, at issue is not Israel or Lebanon or Iranian policy. The war was simply a ploy to buy back some time in the face of the looming Sunni-Shia civil war ahead in the Middle East that threatens their hold on power. So far into this miserable situation, they seem to have done quite well for themselves, and that general must be quietly smiling to himself.

Mr. Kazimi can be reached at nibraska@yahoo.com

August 3, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >