Sunday, September 28, 2014

Yemen Snapshot -- Part 2 -- September, 2014

The previous post has background on struggle for control in Yemen. At this writing Houthi control appears to be holding, if only by a few threads. I read in the early days of the Arab spring that Yemen was the most heavily armed population of the Arab world. It seems in retrospect that Libya may have been more infested with armed local militias and the influx of foreigners into the proxy war in Syria may have put Yemen behind those places, but how many firearms are in non-military hands does not necessarily correspond with civil disorder.
In understanding the case of Yemen these background links are helpful. 

The limits of the ‘sectarian’ framing in Yemen
By Stacey Philbrick Yadav

September 25
It was 2005 when my Yemeni friends first started talking seriously about their fears that the Houthis would march on the capital of Sanaa. The Houthis were never closer than the nearby province of Amran back then. There was a media blackout, and most of our information came from journalist friends who were in and around the city of Saada, then the center of the conflict, distributing news via SMS. Information was not the only thing the regime of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh sought (and failed) to control: Humanitarian agencies had no way to reach the civilians who were bearing the brunt of the conflict between government forces and Houthi militants. In a harbinger of things to come, a UNICEF employee told me that the only way he could get supplies to Saada was by partnering with the Islah Charitable Society (ICS), a local aid agency tied to Yemen’s largest Islamist party. He complained that ICS was padding the books and inflating the numbers of people who had been displaced to gain resources for its wider evangelical work, but he noted that it was the only non-governmental agency that he knew of that was granted a permit to work amid the stranded civilians. It was in ways like this that the Saleh regime manipulated the “sectarian” politics of Northern Yemen, seeking to ensure that the two groups were too distracted by each other to turn their attention elsewhere. 
That, of course, was not a wholly successful strategy. Over the past decade, there have been at least half a dozen military campaigns with the Houthis, a secessionist movement in the South, the relocation of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) from Saudi Arabia to Yemen, a popular uprising that lasted 11 months, a fracturing of the armed forces, an externally-brokered transitional agreement, a dramatic escalation in U.S. drone attacks in different parts of the country, and a National Dialogue Conference theoretically designed to put all the pieces back together. So, why think of this as sectarian war? The Houthi’s march on Sanaa in September cannot be easily glossed as “sectarian” just because they are Zaydi Shiites, and most (though not all) Islahis are Sunnis. The existence of nominal difference is not by itself a compelling causal story. 
The fact that the Houthis are Zaydis does not mean that their movement is aimed exclusively or even primarily at establishing a Zaydi political order, reinstituting the kind of imamate that ruled Northern Yemen for hundreds of years (though some critics will tell you so). Similarly, the fact that Islah’s membership is predominantly Sunni doesn’t mean it is working to reestablish the caliphate, or even that it is willing to cooperate with those transnational movements that would, though its detractors may allege this. Instead, the conflict that pits the Houthis against Islah is one several decades in the making, and rests as much in the structure of the Yemeni North, the hierarchies of power and privilege among Zaydis themselves, and a state apparatus that sought to manipulate them. 
Charles Schmitz recently contributed an excellent overview of the development of the Houthi movement as a political force. Additionally, the work of anthropologists like Gabrielle von Bruck and Shelagh Weir on the cultural politics of Zaydi/Islahi tension in the North is useful. While their field research mainly predates the Houthi movement as such, it outlines the dislocating impact of republican ideology in the North from the 1970s, and two interrelated developments that form a subtext to the current conflict. In “Islam, Memory, and Morality in Yemen: Ruling Families in Transition,” Von Bruck maps the ways in which Hashemites (descendants of the Prophet, from whom Zaydi leaders have historically been chosen) were maligned as “feudal” by new republican leaders and the ways in which Sanaani Hashemite families consequently worked to refashion central Zaydi religious precepts as supportive of constitutional rule and accountable governance, fitting religious concepts into the discourse of the developing state. Weir’s book, “A Tribal Order: Politics and Law in the Mountains of Yemen,” documents the efforts of Sunni evangelists (who would ultimately align with Islah) to make use of this republican critique of hierarchy to recruit or “convert” low-status Zaydis in the far North, biting in to the core Zaydi demographic base. As constitutional checks on presidential authority and more general political accountability were undermined by Saleh in Sanaa and his regime supported the expansion of Islah-oriented schools to advance Sunni recruitment in the North, these new Hashemite discourses of accountability became more evidently oppositional. The residue of this ideological refashioning is evident in the Houthi project. 
So when I say that this conflict can’t be glossed as sectarian, I don’t mean to suggest that religious conviction is irrelevant to the Houthi movement or its relationship to Islah or to the Yemeni government. Instead, it is important to investigate the meaning of “sectarian” concepts of good governance and opposition to corruption, and question whether these are (or, more to the point, are not) consistent with existing institutions and governing practices by Yemen’s transitional government.

It took a decade for the Houthis to march on Sanaa, but before they did so, they also sat in its square, participating in a broad-based social movement that called itself the “Change Revolution.” Easily forgotten is that they did so alongside many members of Islah. Over the 11 months of Yemen’s popular uprising, Houthis and Islahis managed to cooperate on a number of issues, particularly outside of top leadership circles. In the year that followed, Houthis and Islahis were co-participants in workshops for Yemeni youth, where they disagreed on principled grounds, but also carved out spaces of agreement on core issues. To be clear, this was not an easy relationship, but it was also not one characterized by implacable sectarian animus. 
The transitional agreement brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council and endorsed by the United Nations as the blueprint for a new Yemen included provisions that overrepresented Islah and excluded the Houthis from the transitional “national unity” government. It did little to address key anti-corruption demands central to Houthi and non-Houthi protesters alike. It also deferred essential transitional justice mechanisms that might have brought redress for the brutality of past military campaigns against the Houthis and civilians in the North. It moved instead to a direct (and uncontested) presidential election of someone close to ousted president Saleh and to a National Dialogue Conference that further over-represented Islah, even while cementing the importanceof the Houthi conflict as one of the key questions facing the country. 
So when the Houthis marched on the capital – a march that was not entirely military, but also included large-scale, nonviolent mobilization of protesters in the weeks that preceded it – there was no reason to interpret this as a march on Sunnis, sectarian rhetoric notwithstanding. Instead, it appears to be a campaign to target Islahis as major contenders for institutional power, designed as a renegotiation of the transitional framework. Islahi media outlets like Suhail TV have been taken off the air (though it appears that the main Houthi Web site may have been hacked by Suhail viewers). The homes of prominent Islahis have been seized or destroyed, as has the home of General Ali Muhsin, who oversaw the bulk of the military campaigns against the Houthis over the past decade, and later defected to the opposition during the 2011 uprising. It appears that his troops bore the brunt of the conflict with the Houthis in September, while President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi ordered troops from other commands to stand down. 
The ceasefire agreement, rich in detail and very quickly agreed, focuses primarily on renegotiating power sharing to increase the representation of Houthis (and the Southern Movement, also a thorn in Islah’s side), and to outline concrete benchmarks for anti-corruption and economic reforms. It calls for the quick establishment of a technocratic committee of economic advisers whose recommendations will be binding on the new government. It is not focused on the kind of “culture war” issues that might characterize a sectarian conflict, but rather seeks to achieve several genuinely popular reforms sidelined by the transitional government. That it was accomplished at the point of a gun speaks as much to the failures of the transitional framework as to Houthi ideology. Widespread dissatisfaction with slow progress of the transitional process may help to explain why so many foreign actors have been quick to support its renegotiation by backing the ceasefire terms.

Worrisome for the medium term stability of Sanaa, however, is the question of Hadi’s relationship to the Houthis. The earliest ceasefire benchmark for a new government has already passed, suggesting that all may not proceed smoothly. While the Houthis may have helped to conveniently clip the wings of Yemen’s largest Islamist party in ways that help Hadi consolidate his own position, now that the deed is done, how long before he decides that the Houthis are more trouble than they are worth? After all, as vice president, Hadi was at former president Saleh’s knee when he first used Islah to hem in the Yemeni Socialist Party, and then turned on Islah itself in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Houthis will need to quickly cultivate allies from other corners of the political field if they are to avoid a repetition of that storied past. Their window for credibly doing so becomes narrower as each benchmark is delayed.
That first paragraph is my highlight. 
This snip from Wikipedia is the reason it is important. 
I have not come across this important detail elsewhere. 

Houthis belong to the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam, also known as Fivers, a sect of Islam almost exclusively present in Yemen. They are distinct from the Shi'ite majority, the Twelvers found in mainly in Iraq, Lebanon and Iran and are known for being most similar to Sunni Muslims in matters of religious law and rulings. They do however, believe in the concept of an Imamate as being essential to their religion, which makes them distinct from Sunnis. 
The Houthis have asserted that their actions are for the defence of their community from widespread and systematic discrimination, whereas the Yemeni government has in turn accused the insurgents of intending to overthrow the regime out of a desire to institute Zaidi Shia religious law, destabilising the government and stirring anti-American sentiment. The Houthis have told people they are “praying in the wrong way” by raising their arms, as is the custom among Sunnis in Yemen 
The Yemeni government has also accused the Houthis of having ties to external backers, in particular the Iranian government, as Iran is a Shia-majority country. In turn, the Houthis have countered with allegations that the Yemeni government is being backed by virulently anti-Shia external backers such as al-Qaeda and the monarchy of Saudi Arabia despite the fact that former President Ali Abdullah Saleh was also Zaidi.
The Wikipedia article describing the Zaidi branch of Islam is quite long. It's challenging reading for anyone without a background in the history and theological minutiae of the faith. This part is what jumped off the page at me -- suggesting that these Zaidi Muslims, though Shiite in origin, are not seen as offensive by their Sunni brethren as mainstream Shiites. Look at this:

Zaidiyya or Zaidism (Arabic: الزيدية az-zaydiyya, adjective form Zaidi or Zaydi) is a Shi'a Muslim school of thought named after Zayd ibn ʻAlī, the grandson of Husayn ibn ʻAlī. Followers of the Zaydi Islamic jurisprudence are called Zaydi Shi'a and make up about 30% of Muslims in Yemen. The Zaydi Shi'a have a unique approach within Shi'a Islamic thought. Its adherents are also known as Fivers.
Zaidi Imāms
The first three Zaidi Imams were ‘Alī ibn Abī Tālib, Hasan ibn ʻAlī, and Husayn ibn ʻAlī. The Zaidi's believe that they are part of the Ahl al-Kisa (along with the Islamic Prophet Muhammad and Fatima az-Zahra). After these three Imams, the Zaidis have a number of Imams beginning with Zayd ibn ʻAlī followed by his son Yahya ibn Zayd. They believe any descendent of Hasan or Husayn can be an Imam if he exhibits two attributes: "excel[ing] in knowledge" and "call[ing] others to fight against oppressors."  If an individual possesses one of these two attributes, he can be considered an Imam of a lesser degree. For example, the Zaydis consider the fourth, fifth, and sixth Twelver Imams, Zain al-Abidin, Muhammad al-Baqir and Ja'far al-Sadiq, Imams in this lesser sense due to their high levels of knowledge, but the Zaydis do not consider them Imams in the absolute sense because they did not revolt against the oppressors of their time. An example of an Imam from the lineage of Imam Hassan isMuhammad al-Nafs al-Zakiyya.
Zaydis, the oldest branch of the Shia and the largest group amongst the Shia before the Safavid Dynasty in the sixteenth century and currently the second largest group, are the closest to the Sunnis and do not believe in the infallibility of Imāms after Husayn. Zaydis believe that on the last hour of Zayd ibn Ali, he was betrayed by the people in Kufa who said to him: "May God have mercy on you! What do you have to say on the matter of Abu Bakrand Umar ibn al-Khattab?" Zayd ibn Ali said, "I have not heard anyone in my family renouncing them both nor saying anything but good about them...when they were entrusted with government they behaved justly with the people and acted according to the Qur'an and the Sunnah."... And Imam Jafar al-Sadiq and Imam Zayd ibn Ali did not themselves write any books.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Yemen Snapshot -- September, 2014

Circumstances change frequently in the Middle East, but the delicate balance of power in Yemen seems to be holding for the moment. 
This Twitter exchange is a peek behind the curtain. 
All these people are well-informed observers -- academics and journalists.

D. Gartenstein-Ross ‏@DaveedGR
Sad to say, but AQAP is probably the group best positioned to benefit from the Houthi takeover in Yemen.

Amel Ahmed ‏@amelscript
@DaveedGR @Malanesi actually, they were doing quite well with Hadi in charge. That counterrorism cash cow is the gift that keeps on giving.

Mohammed Al-Anesi ‏@Malanesi 2h
@amelscript @DaveedGR Cash cow gift? Most of the counterterrorism aid comes in either solider training, light weapons, or vehicles ..

Amel Ahmed ‏@amelscript
@Malanesi @DaveedGR You call precision strike aircraft and drones light weapons?

Mohammed Al-Anesi ‏@Malanesi
@amelscript @DaveedGR US aircraft and drones strikes are different story. I was referring to US aids for Yemen to counterterrorism

Amel Ahmed ‏@amelscript
@Malanesi The two aren't exclusive...

Mohammed Al-Anesi ‏@Malanesi 1h
@amelscript AlQaeda is spreading their operations all over Yemen and now adopting #ISIS methods in execution

@Malanesi I don't doubt that.... US-Hadi alliance has failed to curb AQAP. Houthis, so far, have proven their ability to get shit done.

Mohammed Al-Anesi ‏@Malanesi
@amelscript Most Yemenis support Houthis because we believe our government has failed us in so many ways. #Yemen

هيكل بافنع ‏@BaFana3
@Malanesi Agree. I have too many Sunni mates and acquaintances in Sanaa who suddenly became "Houthi" overnight. Not sectarian. @amelscript

Mohammed Al-Anesi ‏@Malanesi
@BaFana3 @amelscript I am not Houthi but hell yeah I am a big supporter of Houthis even though I disagree with their slogan and other things

هيكل بافنع ‏@BaFana3
@Malanesi Abdul Malik is too moderate, really. If I had an army of 10,000 I'd topple the govt AND exile all ministers to Somalia.@amelscript

Mohammed Al-Anesi‏@Malanesi
@BaFana3 Since Houthis came into Sanaa, people felt more secure and actually pleased with security level all over the city. @amelscript

Here, in no particular order, are three links from the last day or two.

What the Houthi takeover of Sanaa reveals about Yemen's politics
Analysis: Houthi militiamen capture Yemen's capital, but it's the president's adversaries that are targeted
September 25, 2014 12:56PM ET

by Iona Craig
SANAA, Yemen — Houthi fighters seized most of Yemen’s capital of Sanaa and signed a deal with the government last Sunday. Since their lightning takeover of the city, Houthi militia have attacked the adversaries of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and political rivals of President Abdrahbu Mansour Hadi. But the apparent ease of the Houthi victory reveals much more about the smoke and mirrors of Yemeni politics than it does about the fighting prowess of the militiamen. Indeed, by allowing the Houthis free rein of the capital, Hadi has taken a gamble that could ultimately bring more violence as the backlash against the Houthi uprising grows. 
It has been more than a decade since Yemenis were last given the opportunity to vote for a parliament. After 33 years of rule by President Saleh, a popular uprising in 2011 led to an internationally backed deal and an election — in which there was only one candidate: Hadi, Saleh’s long-serving deputy. 
The government had broken the social contract with Yemen’s 25 million people long before peaceful protesters took to the streets in 2011. The Houthis — also known as Ansar Allah — joined the demonstrations against Saleh, who had presided over six wars against them between 2004 and 2010 in the groups’ stronghold in Yemen’s northern province of Saada. 
The Houthis are rooted in a Zaydi Shia youth movement in the 1990s, that grew to a movement formed in 2004, taking their name from then-leader Hussein al-Houthi. Hussein was killed during the first war in Saada in 2004. 
The 2011 uprising marked the group’s revival and, after Salehs’ ouster, saw a surge in open support. During Saleh’s rule, Zaydism was repressed, and Houthis in Sanaa were under constant threat. Many disappeared into the prison cells of the capital’s notorious Political Security Organization, while others maintained their allegiance to the movement in secret. 
During the unrest of the 2011 political uprising, the Houthis, who had been calling for autonomy, consolidated their control in Saada as the power struggle played out 115 miles away in Sanaa. Saleh’s ouster allowed Houthi supporters to emerge from the shadows, resulting in the groups’ slogan being daubed across walls from the ancient city of Old Sanaa to mountainsides across northern Yemen. The battle-hardened group soon gained popularity outside their traditional Zaydi lines. 
The 2011 protests had united political opponents around the shared goal of removing Saleh and his regime, but once that was achieved, rivalries quickly resurfaced. In the two-mile-long tented sit-in that had been home to anti-government protesters for nine months in Sanaa, fistfights broke out between Houthi demonstrators and their political rivals, Islah — Yemen’s equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood. 
At the same time, confrontations in the north turned violent, centered on the Salafist Dar Al-Hadeeth religious school in the village of Dammaj, to which the Houthis laid siege for two months at the end of 2011. Renewed fighting in 2013 led to a cease-fire agreement in January this year that included the evacuation of the Salafi students. After the fall of Dammaj, the Houthi fighters began their push south toward the capital. 
Although often painted as a sectarian conflict between Shia and conservative Sunnis, the root of the conflict is political and tribal rather than sectarian. But the Houthis’ rise could cause the sectarian narrative to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yemen’s Al-Qaeda insurgency has always had an aggressive stance against the Houthis. As the group began taking territory in northern provinces, the Al-Qaeda fighters of Ansar al-Sharia started to act upon their long-running anti-Houthi threats. In July, in a brutal Ansar al-Sharia’s attack that mirrored those by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), 14 unarmed off-duty soldiers had their throats slit and heads hacked off by militants wearing head-mounted cameras. Ansar al-Sharia justified the killings by claiming the soldiers were Houthis 
Saudi Arabia vs Iran

Conflict with the Houthis in Yemen is often framed as an Iran versus Saudi Arabia proxy battle that came to a head in 2010 when the Saudis were dragged into the most recent war in Saada as it threatened the Kingdom’s border. 
Saudi Arabia has backed multiple individuals and factions in Yemen, including Islah. But since 2011, the regional struggle between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has played out in the in the tussle for influential patronage in Yemen. The previously close relationship between Saudi Arabia and Islah has soured since the uprisings of 2011, while Qatar has been spreading its informal sponsorship networks in Yemen. In March, Saudi Arabia listed both the Houthis and the Qatar-backed Muslim Brotherhood as banned “terrorist organizations.” 
President Hadi has repeatedly thanked Saudi Arabia for its financial support while accusing Iran of inciting conflict by supporting the Houthis and the southern secessionist movement, Al-HIrak. Iran has denied arming the Houthis but is unlikely to refute credit for the Houthis’ rise when it provides a boost to Tehran’s leverage in the region. 
The takeover of Sanaa this week appeared well planned. After setting up tented encampments at the entrances to the city, peaceful demonstrators took to the streets of the capital calling for the corrupt government to be dissolved and fuel subsidies, lifted in July, be reinstated — both appealing demands to many Yemenis. On Sept. 9 those protests turned deadly when uniformed soldiers opened fire on demonstrators. Eight protesters and an ambulance driver were shot dead. 
Attempts to broker a deal between President Hadi and Houthi leader Abdulmalek al-Houthi over fuel prices and the formation of a new government repeatedly stalled. On Sept. 16 the first clashes broke out, leading to four days of heavy fighting concentrated on a major military camp, the former base of Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar — who led the wars against the Houthis in Saada — and the surrounding area in the north of the city. 
The battle was won by Houthis in four days, just in time for the signing of “The Peace and National Partnership Agreement” agreed by the two sides as fighting raged in the north of the capital. While politicians gathered in the capital’s south for a ceremony to sign the deal, the prime minister announced his resignation and Houthi militiamen turned up at key government buildings in the center of the capital. Uncontested by the soldiers and military police posted to protect the city, the gunmen asserted their control of strategic buildings across the city, including the American embassy. 
The target of the apparent takeover has not, so far, been president Hadi, but his political adversaries and those of former President Saleh. After storming the base of General Ali Mohsen, who had turned his back on Saleh in 2011 and defected, the Houthis targeted the homes of the al-Ahmar clan (no relation to the major general), including the houses of Islah backer Sheikh Hamid al-Ahmar, who had also stoked the uprising against Saleh in 2011. 
Brewing backlash

The Houthi campaign in Sanaa was the culmination of months of fighting outside the city, most notably in the province of Amran to the north of Sanaa, where the Houthis persuaded tribal leaders and their men who had previously been loyal to the al-Ahmars to turn and fight against their former potentates. In a significant symbolic act to the tribes of northern Yemen, the Houthis blew up the main family home of the al-Ahmars in July, marking an end to the family’s command over Hashed tribal sub-sects. Islah’s tribal influence was usurped — to the benefit of all their political opponents. 
Saleh, who blamed the entire regional “Arab Spring” on the Muslim Brotherhood when I interviewed him early last year, has three decades of experience in creating conflict to meet his own ends in Yemen. A weaker Islah removes obstacles for Hadi. 
The drawback may come if, in the process of allowing the Houthis into the city, the conspiracy has inadvertently created a monster that could slip out of control. What happens next is almost impossible to predict. What parts of the deal will be implemented is largely down to the Houthis. In a televised speech to thousands of his supporters in the capital’s Tahrir Square on Tuesday, Abdulmalek indicated the “peoples’ committees” of militiamen would stay until the military was able to maintain security against the threat of Al-Qaeda, while also suggesting the Houthis’ plan to continue their path south and east to the oil-rich province of Marib and al-Baydah. 
In addition, a backlash from events in Sanaa over the last week may be brewing. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has already released a statement calling on Yemen’s Sunni tribesman to unite and attack the Houthis. If representation in the new government, set to be formed within a month under the terms of the signed agreement, does not meet the expectations of Islah, there is a risk of disenfranchising swathes of the party’s supporters and driving them to take up arms or into the hands of Al-Qaeda.

Further conflict appears almost inevitable, but while the Houthis’ progress to Sanaa was tolerated, the next stage may test Hadi’s ability to prevent their so far unabated territorial gains.
This untitled link is from Yemen Online...
The leader of Yemen's Shia Houthi rebels has described his supporters' takeover of key parts of the capital, Sanaa, as a "successful revolution".
Abdul Malik al-Houthi said his movement had forced the government to give in to the demands of the people. The Houthis and the government signed a deal on Sunday to end deadly clashes.
Yemen: Houthi leader hails

Earlier, Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi denounced the takeover of Sanaa as a conspiracy that could lead to civil war. 
At least 200 people are thought to have died in the latest fighting. Under the UN-brokered deal, a new government will be formed and the Houthis and southern separatists will nominate a new prime minister.
"These great efforts created this great success - victory - for all the people, forcing an answer to popular demands," Mr Houthi said, in a televised speech on Tuesday."If it is implemented, this agreement will also change the government, which the people called to fall, to fail, because it stood on an unjust, non-consensual basis," he said

Mr Houthi also called for partnership with Islah, the main Sunni party, the AFP news agency says. The rebels have been fighting forces loyal to Islah.  Yemen has remained unstable since anti-government protests in 2011 forced the then-President Ali Abdallah Saleh from office. 
The rebels, who are based in the mountainous north of Yemen, have been advancing on Sanaa for several weeks, skirmishing with rivals and staging mass protests calling for greater rights. The Houthis belong to the minority Zaidi Shia community. They have staged periodic uprisings since 2004 to win greater autonomy for their northern heartland of Saada province.
Does the seizure of Yemen’s capital by Houthi rebels represent a gift for Tehran?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Reflections on the Power of Wealth

Another Facebook post has resulted in a comment I want to preserve and protect before it vanishes into the Facebook archives -- which in the future will be known as the Swamp of No Return. Here is the link.

In response to that link to the Center for Public Integrity citing the Koch Brothers' exercise in the power of wealth, my web buddy Brian posted a complementary piece about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as reported by MSNBC. I suspect it was intended as a rebuttal since Brian has strong libertarian tendencies. But I was pleased to have an intelligent response and the following poured out (including my non sequitur) beginning with his comment.

Brian -- It's doubtful that anyone attaches more strings to their philanthropy than does the Gates Foundation, which has actually been quite effective in changing the face of education across the nation, good or bad. [Here is a link to Dissent along those lines.]
The cost of K–12 public schooling in the United States comes to well over $500 billion per year. So, how much influence could anyone in the private sector exert by controlling just a few billion dollars of that immense sum? Decisive influence, it turns out. A few billion dollars in private foundation money, strategically invested every year for a decade, has sufficed to define the national debate on education; sustain a crusade for a set of mostly ill-conceived reforms; and determine public policy at the local, state, and national levels. In the domain of venture philanthropy—where donors decide what social transformation they want to engineer and then design and fund projects to implement their vision—investing in education yields great bang for the buck. 
John -- There is a delightful irony that MSNBC is the source of an op-ed criticizing Bill Gates, whose name is synonymous with Microsoft -- the same Microsoft for which the MS in MSNBC stands. Love it. It makes me wonder if some permutation of future broadcasting might result in a KBFOX network. This echoes the historic example of Andrew Carnegie, whom we have discussed elsewhere, whose largess is responsible for a multitude of libraries and other civic assets across the country. What would the world be if anything ever happened to Carnegie Hall?

[I read somewhere that Horowitz was so idiosyncratic that he refused to play anywhere except on his own piano, and that it had to be placed in exactly the right spot on the stage of Carnegie Hall any time he deigned to appear there. He was such a prima donna that the floor of Carnegie Hall stage had a permanent mark so that Horowitz' piano could always be properly located!] [Sorry for the distraction.]

Getting back to the links, both Dissent and CPI point to the same phenomenon, as you point out. Together they once again underscore what appears to be a truism about economics as old as written history -- perhaps even earlier -- that the more power becomes concentrated at the top, the more likely those who hold the strings of control can pull them any way they choose.

It's hardly a matter of morality, since that control swings both ways, with evil at one end and good at the other. The spectrum has monarchs and autocrats at one end and populist democracy at the other, and in both cases the results are all over the place. I can think of more examples of autocratic controls scoring better than populism. Populism tends to be too provincial to see across mountains, oceans, and barriers of language, race, tribes, ethnicity or religion.

Given the option, I'll stick with the rich and powerful, but rather than throw all the bums out, I'll lean toward the ones that come closest to where I want to go. In this case, if the choice is between Gates and Koch, you already know where I stand, even though the points about power over-reach are valid in both cases. The business about mayoral control and pipelines versus programs is disturbing, but it's a case of picking which poison is less toxic.

As I read one idea kept drumming in the background. It was the drum of Piketty -- the income gap -- which has passed the point of "haves and have-nots" to an extreme more like "those who have more than enough and those who haven't enough to survive." The unrest in Ferguson is related. In many ways the unrest in the Middle East is related (oil socialism versus "--???--"). The Ebola epidemic is related. The struggle of oligarchs from Afghanistan to Ukraine is related. And once again, the list is endless. Income gaps = civil unrest.
For some reason I'm still haunted by something else I read yesterday, the story behind the publication of Dr. Zhivago as told by a brilliant young woman, Frances Stonor Saunders, whom I didn't know about but who will now be added to my list of bright young people to keep track of. For some reason this discussion of power and influence and my memories of the cold war seem related, but I haven't quite connected all the dots.
Here is the link if you have the time.

As I write, this last link remains disconnected from the theme of the other discussion. But somehow the tensions of the cold war in which Boris Pasternak was forced to live are not too distant from the tensions that sincere people of good will face today. The central problem of history continues to be how best to resolve conflict. All the numbers tell us that history is moving in the right direction. The actual numbers of casualties of war have declined over the centuries. The size and duration of disease epidemics is moving in the right direction. Medical science and medicine is improving life expectancy. And despite durable pockets of poverty the developing world appears to be slowly but surely partaking the fruits of progress. But even as I write the specter of another war is taking shape in the Middle East as the fallout of the post-colonial and post-WWII periods brings that part of the world to a new boiling point. 

Simultaneously, the threats of climate change are as threatening to the future of the planet as an approaching asteroid, but hopes for a meaningful global response remains as unpredictable (and unlikely) as the Second Coming. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

New Word -- "Sumud"

These images and links are an introduction to sumud, a Palestinian word and idea as near the traditional concept of non-violence as I have found.  The Arab Educational Institute Center, linked below, serves as an introduction. And these images from another site, The Spirit of Sumud, also linked below, are just a few of many found at that site. Those of us with the "peace movement" of the Sixties always knew about a handful of non-violent activist groups and activities, but it is in the nature of these groups to maintain a low profile -- in part because non-violence embraces what some call a passive approach to their missions, others might use words like cowardly or weak, but the sad truth is that advocates for peace have almost never been heard when the winds of war are blowing.  And as I write this, those winds are blowing still.
This church in Bethlehem has been cut off from Jerusalem just
a kilometer away on the other side of the Apartheid Wall.
Inside the Greek-Orthodox Monastery of St George. In Byzantine times, the hermits once came
together here for mass, to hand over the basketry they crafted during the week
and to receive their weekly rations.
St George's Monastery in Wadi Kelt. In Byzantine times, the caves surrounding the monastery
were populated by hermits who lived from dates and water and sought spiritual
communion with God. On the right of the valley is the aquaduct.

This isolated Bedouin house and goat farm at a rare oasis is only accessible by foot.
These girls hailing from the Elementary Girls School in the refugee camp of Dehaisheh near Bethlehem,
beat their tambourinesat the Artas Festival. In the background, other girls are poised
for the next act, a regional fashion show.
Set in the verdant Artas valley, a meeting place for civilizations for millennia,
and heir to a fascinating history, heritage, and folklore, the small but magical
village of Artas is only walking distance from Bethlehem even though it has kept
the atmosphere of the countryside. In April 2006, it celebrated its natural and
cultural heritage at the Twelfth Annual Artas Lettuce Festival. Festivals are an
important part of Palestinian life, bringing together different segments of the
population, now facing increasing fragmentation, due to military barriers and checkpoints.

Opposite the village, the Hortus Conclusus (Closed Garden) church and monastery
tends a rich garden cultivated by the peasants of Artas. Palestinian villages are
often well-known for the special quality of a particular crop. Artas is justly proud
of its delicious crisp romaine lettuce.

The following Twitter message became the inspiration for this blog entry.
This is the Wikipedia definition, which begins a long entry.
Sumud (Arabic: صمود‎) meaning "steadfastness" or "steadfast perseverance" is an ideological theme and political strategy that first emerged among the Palestinian people through the experience of the dialectic of oppression and resistance in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War. Those who are steadfast, that is those who exhibit sumud, are referred to as samidin, the singular forms of which are samid (m.) and samida (f.). With the passing of the years since 1967, Palestinians have distinguished between two main forms of sumud. The first, static sumud, is more passive and is defined by Ibrahim Dhahak as the "maintenance of Palestinians on their land." The second, resistance sumud (in Arabic, sumud muqawim) is a more dynamic ideology whose aim is to seek ways of building alternative institutions so as to resist and undermine the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. The ultimate symbol associated with the concept of sumud and the Palestinian sense of rootedness in the land is the olive tree, ubiquitous throughout Palestine. Another icon of sumud that has often been portrayed in Palestinian artwork is that of the mother, and more specifically, a peasant woman depicted as when with child.
It is a delightful irony that the initials AEI are shared by both this Arab Educational Institute and the American  Enterprise Institute, one of America's oldest, most venerable conservative think tanks -- which puts these two organizations at political polar opposites, I'm sure, regarding Palestinian-Israeli politics. The only difference between the two urls is the addition of the word "center" to Palestinian website.

The reader is urged drill into the links and discover more about this organization and concept. I have known for some time that there has been a non-violent dimension to Palestinian resistance to Israel's protracted seizure of the Occupied Territories, but I didn't know about this quiet but durable group, a project of Pax Christi (one of the Catholic Church's less well-known traditions).  This is from the "History" section of the site.
AEI–Open Windows is a Palestinian organization that furthers education, peace building and dialogue in the Palestinian cities of Bethlehem, Ramallah and Hebron. After the Institute’s creation in 1986 its locality in central Bethlehem was used for providing classes to Palestinian youth on a broad variety of subjects, including computer programs, business administration and languages. While being forced to intermittently close and open during the first Intifada, the AEI provided complementary and remedial coaching programs for youth while schools were closed. 
In 1997, the AEI opened channels of communication and cooperation with the Dutch Euro-Arab Dialogue From Below/Interchurch Peace Movement - (EAD/IKV) initiative and in 2000 became an affiliated branch of Pax Christi International (a Catholic peace movement formerly headed by His Beatitude Mgr. Patriarch Michel Sabbah). AEI’s main local outreach is a network of some 15 schools in the Bethlehem, Hebron and Ramallah areas. 
AEI appeals to international volunteers to share in its peace work. Its supervising board is composed of distinguished community members, including teachers and headmasters from a range of schools and departments of Bethlehem University. AEI also works closely together with Palestinian NGOs at both a local and national level, especially in the fields of education and non-violent activities.

AEI’s work is growing fast. At present some 9 groups form the backbone of AEI’s activities: four women’s group, four youth groups, and a family/parents group. The youths take part in different projects supported by mainly European development organizations and governments. Several of the projects relate to international computer or face-to-face exchanges. AEI-Open Windows has a Youth House and a School of Communication in which courses on the effective communication of the Palestinian identity and reality stand central.
A Web search for "Sumud" returns a string of interesting links and images. Again, the reader is urged to do more homework than my small glimpse here. Here are a few images from this one website to whet the reader's appetite to learn more. 
This young girl looks at the olive grove annexed from its owners
by the Wall near the town of Beit Jala west of Bethlehem.

Children of AEI-Open Windows' kids group are still able
to create hopeful drawings, even when the subject is the Wall.
The Wadi (valley) Kelt to the east of Jerusalem near the road to Jericho allows the visitor to experience three
climatic zones with caves inhabited by monks during the Byzantine period; springs and natural pools; sand hills,
rocks and steep ravines; birds crying in lone silence; remains of a Roman aqueduct and King Herod's winter
palace; an oasis inhabited by Bedouins, and a monastery.

Here visitors start their walk in Wadi Kilt from the nearby Jerusalem-Jericho road.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Twitter Abbreviations

According to Twitter, my account is now five years old. 
I don't have this list committed to memory, so I'm keeping it here for ready reference. 

Technical Twitter abbreviations:

• CC = Carbon-copy. Works the same way as email
• CX = Correction
• CT = Cuttweet. Another way of saying partial retweet
• DM = Direct message. A direct-message is a message only you and the person who sent it can read
• HT = Hat tip. This is a way of attributing a link to another Twitter user
• MT = Modified tweet. This means the tweet you're looking at is a paraphrase of a tweet originally written by someone else
• PRT = Partial retweet. The tweet you're looking at is the truncated version of someone else's tweet.
• PRT = Please retweet, a plea to put at the end of a tweet
• RT = Retweet. The tweet you're looking at was forwarded to you by another user

Industry Twitter abbreviations:

• EM = Email Marketing
• EZine = Electronic Magazine
• FB = Facebook
• LI = LinkedIn
• SEO = Search Engine Optimization
• SM = Social Media
• SMM = Social Media Marketing
• SMO = Social Media Optimization
• SN = Social Network
• SROI = Social Return on Investment
• UGC = User Generated Content
• YT = YouTube

Conversational abbreviations:

• # = start to a hashtag, or a way of organizing subjects on Twitter
• • AB/ABT = About
• AFAIK = As far as I know
• AYFKMWTS = Are you f---ing kidding me with this s---?
• B4 = Before
• BFN = Bye for now
• BGD = Background
• BH = Blockhead
• BR = Best regards
• BTW = By the way
• CD9 = Code 9, parents are around
• CHK = Check
• CUL8R = See you later
• DAM = Don’t annoy me
• DD = Dear daughter
• DF = Dear fiancé
• DP = used to mean “profile pic”
• DS = Dear son
• DYK = Did you know, Do you know
• EM/EML = Email
• EMA = Email address
• F2F /FTF = Face to face
• FB = Facebook, F--- buddy
• FF = Follow Friday
• FFS = For F---‘s Sake
• FML = F--- my life.
• FOTD = Find of the day
• FTW = For the win, F--- the world
• FUBAR = F---ed up beyond all repair (slang from the US Military)
• FWIW = For what it's worth.
• GMAFB = Give me a f---ing break
• GTFOOH = Get the f--- out of here
• GTS = Guess the song
• HAGN = Have a good night
• HAND = Have a nice day
• HOTD = Headline of the day
• HT = Heard through
• HTH = Hope that helps
• IC = I see
• ICYMI = "In case you missed it," a quick way to apologize for retweeting your own material
• IDK = I don't know
• IIRC = If I remember correctly
• IMHO = In my humble opinion.
• IRL = In real life
• IWSN = I want sex now
• JK = Just kidding, joke
• JSYK = Just so you know
• JV = Joint venture
• KK = Kewl kewl, or ok, got it
• KYSO = Knock your socks off
• LHH = Laugh hella hard (stronger version of LOL)
• LMAO = Laughing my ass off
• LMK = Let me know
• LO = Little One (child)
• LOL = Laugh out loud
• MM = Music Monday
• MIRL = Meet in real life
• MRJN = Marijuana
• NBD = No big deal
• NCT = Nobody cares, though
• NFW = No f---ing way
• NJoy = Enjoy
• NSFW = Not safe for work
• NTS = Note to self
• OH = Overheard
• OMFG = Oh my f---ing God
• OOMF = One of my friends/followers
• ORLY = Oh, really?
• PLMK = Please let me know
• PNP = Party and Play (drugs and sex)
• QOTD = quote of the day
• RE = In reply to, in regards to
• RLRT = Real-life re-tweet, a close cousin to OH
• RTFM = Read the f---ing manual
• RTQ = Read the question
• SFW = Safe for work
• SMDH = Shaking my damn head, SMH, only more so
• SMH = Shaking my head
• SNAFU = Situation normal, all f---ed up (slang from the US Military)
• SO = Significant Other
• SOB = Son of a B----
• SRS = Serious
• STFU = Shut the f--- up!
• STFW = Search the f---ing web!
• TFTF = Thanks for the follow
• TFTT = Thanks for this tweet
• TJ = Tweetjack, or joining a conversation belatedly to contribute to a tangent
• TL = Timeline
• TLDR/TL;DR = Too long, didn’t read
• TMB = Tweet me back
• TT = Trending topic
• TY = Thank you
• TYIA = Thank you in advance
• TYT = Take your time
• TYVW = Thank you very much
• W or W/ = With
• W/E or WE = Whatever or weekend
• WTV = Whatever
• YGTR = You got that right
• YKWIM = You know what I mean
• YKYAT = You know you're addicted to
• YMMV = Your mileage may vary
• YOLO = You only live once
• YOYO = You're on your own
• YW = You're welcome
• ZOMG = OMG to the max

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

How Do We Starve ISIS?

I have not embedded a Facebook post in this blog before.
This is a first for me.

Post by John Ballard.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Two Assessments of ISIS

The always perceptive Issandr El Amrani (aka The Arabist) links two essential reads.
 Which antidote to the Islamic State?
By Rami G. Khouri

So the United States is bombing targets in Iraq from the air, is active on the ground with hundreds of its special forces, and is exploring targets to bomb in Syria.

Who is the enemy the U.S. is now attacking? Well, judging from domestic public political discussions, the simple answer is, “We’re not really sure.”

This reality highlights the most amazing dimension of the rise and power of the Islamic State, from its former incarnations as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda in Iraq: Very few people outside its own leadership really know very much about it, including its actual strategy and aims.

What everybody does know is that we are faced with a violent, vicious group of tens of thousands of men who have carved out for themselves a territorial base in an area of northeast Syria and northwest Iraq, which continues to engage in limited military forays in areas along the edges of their areas of control in both countries. The debates now taking place about the Islamic State phenomenon and threat focus on who is to blame for allowing it to develop, how widely will the Islamic State spread territorially and how much support does the Islamic State enjoy around the region in lands where it does not control territory?

All this is important, but the most terrifying aspect of the Islamic State phenomenon is not the extremist young men gravitating to its call, but rather the factors across the Arab region and beyond that allowed it to come into being in the first place – factors that continue to shape our troubled region today. The Islamic State is a living, expanding phenomenon, and the factors that cause people to join it remain active in many countries. So our collective challenge is to correctly identify those elements that gave birth to the mindset that has caused young men to join such movements and indulge in the kind of barbarism that the Islamic State now disseminates in its videos and in social media.

In that respect, I have no doubt that the single most important, widespread, continuous and still active reason for the birth and spread of the Islamic State mindset is the curse of modern Arab security states that since the 1970s have treated citizens like children that need to be taught obedience and passivity above all else. Other factors played a role in this modern tragedy of statehood across the Arab world, including the threat of Zionism and violent Israeli colonialism (see Gaza today for that continuing tale) and the continuous meddling and military attacks by foreign powers, including the U.S., some European states, Russia and Iran.

In my 45 years in the Arab world observing and writing about the conditions on the ground, the only thing that surprises me now is why such extremist phenomena that have caused the catastrophic collapse of existing states did not happen earlier. At least since around 1970, the average Arab citizen has lived in political, economic and social systems that have offered zero accountability, political rights and participation. States have been characterized by steadily expanding dysfunction and corruption, economic disparities that have driven majorities into chronic poverty, and humiliating inaction or failure in confronting the threats of Zionism and foreign hegemonic ambitions. They have also virtually banned developing one’s full potential in terms of intellect, creativity, public participation, culture and identity.

The Islamic State phenomenon is the latest and perhaps not the final stop on a journey of mass Arab humiliation and dehumanization that has been primarily managed by Arab autocratic regimes that revolve around single families or clans, with immense, continuing support from foreign patrons. Foreign military attacks in Arab countries (Iraq, Libya) have exacerbated this trend, as has Israeli aggression against Palestinians and other Arabs. But the single biggest driver of the kind of criminal Islamist extremism we see in this phenomenon is the predicament of several hundred million individual Arab men and women who find – generation after generation – that in their own societies they are unable to achieve their full humanity or potential, or exercise their full powers of thought and creativity; or, in many cases, obtain basic life needs for their families.

The expressions of bewilderment we hear today from many Arab and Western politicians or media analysts about why the Islamic State rose and what to do about it have zero credibility or sympathy in my book. Some of the same people who pontificate about the Islamic State threat were often directly involved in actions that helped to bring it about (corrupt Arab security states, the invasion of Iraq, and total support for Israel).

There is only one antidote in the long run to eliminating the Islamic State and all it represents. That is to stop pursuing the abusive and criminal policies that have demeaned millions of decent Arab men and women and shaped Arab countries for the past half a century. Bombing Iraq and Syria will gain some time and probably must happen in combination with serious military action by local Arab and Kurdish forces. However, if the ways of the corrupt modern Arab security state is not radically reversed, the mass desperation and hysteria that the Islamic State represents will only emerge again in more extreme forms.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.

==> [Congressional warhawks, are you listening?] <==

IS back in business
Emerging in an increasingly chaotic Middle East, IS is profiting from the region’s growing sectarianism, political vacuum and the ambivalence of the West.
by Peter Harling

The so-called Islamic State (IS) — the jihadist movement also known as ISIL or ISIS and by the derogatory acronym Da’ish in Arabic — now controls much of northeast Syria and northwest Iraq (1). In a region beset with so much confusion, it appears uniquely determined and self-assured. Despite its name, it is in no sense a new state, since it rejects the concept of borders and largely does without institutions. Yet IS tells us much about the Middle East — and especially about its genuine states — as well as about western foreign policy.

IS is an aggressive movement with a surprisingly clear identity, given its origins and the fact that it is made up of volunteers from many different places. It began in Iraq where, following the 2003 US invasion, a handful of former mujahideen from the Afghan war established a local Al-Qaida franchise. Very quickly their ideology parted company from that of Al-Qaida central: they focused on enemies close at hand rather than less accessible ones, such as the United States or Israel. Increasingly ignoring the US occupier, they instigated a sectarian war between Sunni and Shia, and then descended into fratricidal conflict, using extreme violence against supposed traitors and apostates in their own Sunni camp. The ensuing self-destruction, between 2007 and 2008, reduced the movement to a few diehards entrenched in the Iraqi desert.

That the movement is back in business — in spectacular fashion — is due only in small part to IS itself. The way has been paved for it by its enemies, who make an impressive roll-call of major players in the region: first there are Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Iraq and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, which have used every means possible and imaginable — and unimaginable in the case of Syria’s chemical weapons — to fight a Sunni opposition they first sought to radicalise, in the name of a so-called “war on terror”. Then there are Iraq and Syria’s ad hoc partners, the US and Russia respectively, which have encouraged them in this. Maliki and Assad’s loyal ally, Iran, has done more than offer unconditional support; it has pursued a foreign policy in the Arab world that has increasingly focused on supporting pockets of Shia militias, which contribute to sectarian polarisation.

Also on the list are the Gulf monarchies whose petrodollars, redistributed recklessly, finance a semi-clandestine Islamist economy. Turkey for a time left its border to Syria wide open, allowing free passage to jihadists from much of Europe, and as far as Australia. The US also deserves to be judged in absentia for its failure to act: after a decade of senseless activism under George Bush, Barack Obama has gone to the other extreme — impassive, remote and laissez-faire — even as failing states in Syria and Iraq have clearly evolved into breeding grounds for jihadists. It should be no surprise, then, that in the course of the past two years, IS has not only thrived but made striking advances, taking over cities such as Raqqa, Fallujah and Mosul. IS is thus the first movement in the Arab world to bring jihadism from the margins to the centre.

Part of its success stems from its consolidation strategy. Its aim is not so much to conquer the world, despite the claims of propagandists and critics alike, but to root itself firmly in the territory it occupies. This inclines it to greater pragmatism than is generally acknowledged. Until recently at least, its fighters would hold western captives to ransom, where previous generations of jihadists would have killed them for shock value. The filmed decapitation of journalist James Foley is thus a significant departure from recent practice. IS fighters expend great effort fighting for oil wells, which give them a high degree of financial autonomy. They are happy to attack weak Sunni rivals in selected areas, but have little appetite for confronting more serious adversaries: they mostly shun the fight with the Syrian regime, steer clear of taking Iraq’s Shia militias head-on, and when needed have moderated their antagonism towards Kurdish factions, who also defend their turf fiercely.

What political programme?

All the same, IS has little to offer to those it purports to represent. The disastrous situation in Mosul provides ample evidence of this: their considerable resources stop short of funding any sort of redistribution programme. Its vision of governance is anachronistic, amounting to a revival of practices dating back to the Prophet, which would be scarcely practical even if they were properly understood. Paradoxically, beyond this rudimentary utopia, they advance no theory of the Islamic state — the Sunni world in general having failed to develop one, by contrast with Iran’s brand of political Islam. At best, they apply a more structured code of war, which gives them an advantage over armed groups engaged in straightforward criminality. Their attempt at systematisation reinforces their cohesion through actions and language that are undoubtedly violent, but relatively elaborate.

At root, IS simply fills a void. It occupies northeast Syria because the Syrian regime has by and large abandoned it, and the opposition that might have replaced it has failed to secure a genuine sponsor, in particular the US. And, in Iraq, IS has surged into cities such as Fallujah and Mosul because the central power in Baghdad has largely neglected them: the Iraqi state maintained a presence there that was simultaneously corrupt, repressive and flimsy. IS’s rapid expansion into zones in northern Iraq controlled by Kurdish forces, but inhabited by Christian and Yezidi minorities, is unsurprising, given the lack of real interest shown in the victims by their ostensible protectors, the Kurds, who were quick to withdraw to their own territory.

IS also fills a void on a more abstract level. Simply put, the Sunni world has trouble coming to terms with its past and imagining its future. A fragmented 20th-century history, following a long period of Ottoman occupation which was seen as a period of decline, ended with a succession of failures: anti-imperialism, pan-Arabism, nationalist movements, socialism, various forms of Islamism, capitalism — all led only to bitter or ambiguous experiences. Thus far, with the exception of Tunisia, the hopes born of the 2011 uprisings have turned to ashes. So where can Sunnis turn to find inspiration, self-confidence and pride? The reactionaries in the Gulf and Egypt? The Muslim Brothers, who are on the ropes? Palestinian Hamas, locked in a perpetual impasse in its resistance to Israel?

During the same period, the Shia world has scored notable, if qualified, successes: Iran has established itself as a country the West cannot avoid dealing with and has ambitions to play an ever greater role in the Arab world; Hizbullah is calling the shots in Lebanon and there is an ever-stronger Shia axis linking Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran. This has created a new and troubling phenomenon: a Sunni majority with a minority complex — a powerful though confused feeling of marginalisation, dispossession and humiliation. More and more Sunnis throughout the region experience and express the feeling that they have been deprived of their fundamental rights and are suffering persecution.

With some honourable exceptions, minorities (Shia, Christian, Alawite, Kurdish, etc), all of which cultivate their own narrative of victimhood, are at best indifferent to the fate of the Sunni majority, and at worst complicit. The West too plays a part. The fate of the Yezidis, dying of hunger as they fled into the Sinjar mountains, has caused concern at the highest level of western governments, yet that of the inhabitants of Damascus’s besieged districts, where a greater number of Sunnis are being starved by the regime, doesn’t raise an eyebrow.

Concealing the vacuum

What is most worrying perhaps is that IS has become a means of concealing a seemingly universal political vacuum. Everyone who hated Bush’s “war on terror” — seeing it either as inadvertently pouring oil on the flames, or as an aberrant throwback to the logic of imperialism — is now happily singing from that very hymn sheet, because it saves them having to think about the real challenges the region poses.

IS provides legitimation for all the excesses of Iran’s increasing resort to Shia sectarianism in response to its Sunni equivalent; a default policy saving the West from its ambivalence, in a region where it no longer knows which way to turn; a justification for the orgy of counter-revolutionary violence condoned by elites in the Arab world; and a distraction from the growing alienation of minorities from their environment — a dynamic in which they are agents as well as victims, since they seek salvation in forms of repression that make the problem worse.

From this, there follows a sequence of statements each more absurd than the last. Iran to the West: embrace us because of the IS threat. Arab regimes to their people: we won’t give an inch because of the IS threat. The Syrian opposition: save us from ourselves because of the IS threat. Hizbullah to the Lebanese people: everything is permissible because of the IS threat. The US: we aren’t going to intervene in Syria because of the IS threat, but we will strike Iraq... because of the IS threat.

Regression is everywhere. In international relations, not only has the “war on terror” been hauled back out of the dustbin of history, but the “protection of minorities” has also been exhumed, on the colonial model, which means bombing a turbulent majority. The small number of targets hit by US planes and drones in Iraq are an act of liberation not for the Yezidis, whose future depends on many other factors, but for the conscience of the Obama administration, which has shrugged and looked away when faced with all sorts of other acts of violence in the past three years.

The US has finally intervened in Iraq because it was able to do so at little cost: there was no danger of an escalating conflict with IS, which has no means of immediate retaliation; little chance of an outcry from US or global public opinion, which broadly backs the cause; nor of diplomatic complications, since views on IS are unanimous in the Iraqi government, the Kurdish leadership and in neighbouring Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Clear message to the region

These bombing campaigns are not neutral, however. Seen from the region, they have meaning. In the grim litany of Middle Eastern slaughter, they happen to come after a month of determined indifference from the US administration over the fate of Gazan civilians under bombardment. They send a very clear message to the region: the right mix of “war on terror” and “protection of minorities” can capture and mobilise US power. Massoud Barzani, the president of Kurdistan’s regional government, knows this, as his sensationalist appeal for help in the Washington Post made clear (2). Other politicians in the region understand it too: what they remain deaf to are calls for positive change.

It took the appearance of IS in Lebanon to shake that fragile country out of its state of paralysis. But a step forward can also mean a leap back: the political class and its foreign backers think solely of military solutions, though the army is united mainly in the hunt for Sunni Islamists, while studiously ignoring the sensitive question of Hizbullah, which is left free to fight alongside the reviled regimes in Syria and Iraq. In fact, all destabilising structural factors are, as elsewhere in the region, deemed secondary compared to dealing with IS militarily. In Sunni communities, feelings of victimisation can only grow.

The future looks bright for IS if the main actors continue to exploit its presence to avoid responsibility for their own failings. Shia Islamists, secular elites and western governments are redefining their relations on the basis of a sort of holy war that is becoming an end in itself. In this context, Gaza, Yemen, Sinai, Libya and even Tunisia are fertile grounds for IS expansion. This is a part of the world which has a high degree of regional integration, both across and within borders: as a result of rural migration, outlying regions are well connected to informal neighbourhoods that often sit close to the heart of the big cities.

Close ties also exist with western societies, which have been reshaped by the flow of immigrants and new information technologies. These are producing a new generation of potential jihadists who can easily travel to Syria or Iraq, from where they can talk up their experiences through a hail of tweets that they fire just as easily as bullets.

Though it stands for little in itself, IS is being fed by a system. It can provide a default form of redemption, an ad hoc ally, a means of social advancement, or a ready-made identity for Sunnis experiencing a profound crisis. It serves as a foil or useful distraction for its most cynical critics, and a bogeyman concentrating the fears — rational and otherwise — of actors faced with their own failures. This multiplicity of meanings, against a background of chaotic change, is what has brought it success.