The War with Images

My article at Opendemocracy on the use of images in war situations.

ISIS and the West


ISIS is the expression of different social and political phenomena that must be understood separately. One of them is undoubtedly the significant amount of “Western” fighters of which some elements are also at the forefront of their media campaign. By Western I mean people who have lived and were educated in Western countries (mostly Western Europe and the US) either as Muslim minorities or as recent converts (or who knows maybe just random Westerners with searching for a cause).

Most media article and think-tank papers (I haven’t come across any serious academic work on ISIS) have by now narrated the story of their success in Iraq countless time. Their alliance with Sunni tribesmen and former Baath regime establishment is what tipped the balance in their favor. This explains one particular victory but it does not really tell us more on the movement as a whole and on their different political visions and strategies. The easy answer here is that there isn’t one but many visions or strategies. Yet looking at the various media campaigns led by ISIS and the reaction to them coming from Western media outlets is revealing of the extent to which the struggle is framed along “Western” concerns and imaginaries (and subsequently somewhat alien to local Middle Eastern concerns).

I think that a lot of what ISIS represents is a war that a disgruntled minority from the West is waging against their respective host countries. The problem is that the battlefield is not theirs, it is a fantasized one that the West has imagined but could not provide for them. Moreover, these groups cannot wage this war within these liberal countries as they are tightly policed and where these types of political questions cannot be asked. Here is the dangerous dimension of ISIS: it is a movement that fantasizes about a territory (Arab world, Islamic land etc) it does not come from, using ideological toolkit that the West has provided through decades of Orientalist studies. The most scary aspect of ISIS is that it represents everything the West has stigmatized about Islam for decades, nurtured (whether consciously or not) in the suburban areas of European cities amongst Muslim minorities or even people in search for identities, and internalized by the Muslims themselves.

This also is proof that ISIS knows Western societies very well. It feeds it with what it fears the most: security breaches and pitiless slaughtering of human lives (something that has been already imagined in countless possible ways for decades in Hollywood movies). These members of ISIS grew up feeding on this culture of constrained violence (constrained in films and other cultural productions). Now they have a vast terrain to experiment on.

One drawback of this is that ISIS is one of the many instance that blurs the boundaries between what is Western and “Other” or even “Peripheral” in many ways. It emanates from a Center and tries to imagine a a type of living that was thought of in the center but as the latter thought of the periphery as it was exposed to a myriad of cultural material.

وفي الحديث

أن جبريل عليه السلام أتى آدم عليه السلام فقال له

إني أتيتك بثلاثٍ فاختر واحدةً، قال: وما هي يا جبريل? قال: العقل والحياء والدين

فقال: قد اخترت العقل

فخرج جبريل إلى الحياء والدين فقال

ارجعوا فقد اختار العقل عليكما

فقالا: أمرنا أن نكون مع العقل حيث كان

من كتاب السؤدد – ابن قتيبة

While Israel is pounding Gaza and killing in the hundreds, demonstrations in support of the Palestinians and Hamas’ fight are taking place all around the globe. Of course this doesn’t reflect dominant public opinion in the West that still is apologetic of Israel’s actions. Not one official state declaration has condemned the Israeli attacks. If anything, the few who bothered to issue a statement reiterated Israel’s right to defend itself as it was perceived to live under a constant threat of rocket shower. Check here if you want to have goose bumps.

But there is one place where no demonstrations are in sight: the Arab world. Also, not one condemnation was issued by any Arab government, not one declaration. It is taken for granted that no Western government has condoned Israeli attacks either. But how can we explain this apathy sweeping the Arab region? Surely, they have their own problems all linked to one or other form of occupation. But this conflict used to be called the Israeli-Arab conflict for crying out loud!

A couple of centuries ago, the situation in the region looked very similar: the crusaders were well entrenched on the coast of the “fertile crescent”, and the rest of the Muslim world was completely paralyzed, accepting, if not complicit, in the status quo of occupation until Nur ad-din and his successor Saladin challenged the paradigm. This is at least what the history books say. Some of this dominant cultural apathy or nonchalance, the surrender and normalization, must have existed so that these two individuals and the movements they represented have gone down in the books as changing the face of history.

Modern Arabs have not used their historical consciousness as an agent of ideological change or political action. The basic nationalistic experiments that were fashioned by colonial encounters left Arabs struggling over questions of terminology and then categorizing history in one way or another. Devising points of reference and of origin. The crusades episode was barely glossed over (until now the only book that presents an interesting take on that episode is Amin Maalouf’s. That tells you about the state of the literature).

On one hand, Arab leftist movements were too busy looking towards a brighter socially more “evolved” future and being ashamed of their Islamic heritage, helplessly wanting to teach social and political “progress” of the West. On the other hand, nationalist movements were quarreling amongst each other finding all kinds of identitarian anchors to justify their causes (the Omayyad period was a favorite as it looked the most “secular”, but also anything pre-Islamic).

No one thought of approaching history as giving lessons for political practice. More recently but still a couple of centuries ago, the “Renaissance” Italian writer Machiavelli looked at the history of the Roman Empire in this particular vein as he hoped to provide advice to unite the various Princedoms feuding over Italy. Interestingly, Machiavelli was categorized as ushering a new era of thinking politics outside the scope of religion, a state that had lasted since the advent of Catholic Christianity in Europe.

In modern times, we have fallen in to the trap of categorizing Machiavelli a secular thinker as opposed to one that was just opposed to dominant categories of analysis that happened to be held at the time by the Catholic Church with its particular understanding of history. The point of thinkers such as Machiavelli was to say that the Catholic Church could not provide the needed leverage to create political unity. Ideologically speaking, there was a need to produce new categories of thinking. Machiavelli called for a new political science, one that does away with traditional categories of analysis, not because they were bad or “backward”, but because the institutions backing them did not have anymore the means to create new political realities.

All this is to say that Arabs have been obsessed with categorizing things as either secular or religious as intellectuals of all creeds desperately clung on to the categories of colonial heritage. How could they have done otherwise? The colonizer had also captured their texts and by this token had controlled the creation of knowledge emanating from these writings! The primary victim of this reversed Orientalism espoused by Arabs was historical consciousness. The past became a cumbersome process that was only used to create identities, differences and reactionary discourse and not be a repository for good action.

The rise of Political Islam was a direct reaction to this awkward and clumsy attitude towards history. Suddenly the past was all important. But what kind of past? For example, during the Lebanese “civil war”, the crusader episode was visited in history by various Muslim groups but only to identify them to the contemporary Lebanese Christians who they were fighting between 1975 and 1990. Even though one could retrieve lessons in political practice from these uses of the past they were also creating group differentiation (here Christian VS Muslims).

And every time history was revised it was to create identitarian differences. Such as fomenting trouble between Sunni and Shia denominated groups. Books and articles, talk-shows and documentaries, all proliferate on relentless questions and searches of authenticity, developing either an alleged Sunni or Shia take on the Islamic tradition. No wonder we’ve been busied away from other conflicts.

As I looked for what was written on Nur ad-din, most of what I found was how much he was a great Sunni leader who opposed Shia Fatimid Egypt of the time. In effect, this is not incorrect. But that’s not what the prevailing historians of the time want us to remember, at least in the aftermath of the defeat against the crusaders. The point here is not that the “right” conflict is looking for the right identity to conflict with. The point is to look at the location of forms of occupation, oppression, unjust violence, etc. and understand how to remedy that through the legacy of others who did before us. How can one create the necessary form of consciousness through learning from the past in order to produce community change?

With technological revolutions and every single group or individual having a media channel of his own this ideological rallying is an immense challenge. It is ironic that Arabs are said to be closer to democracy or accountability given that they don’t even pressure their government to do something about Palestine. Is this a sign of apathy, a change of heart, or just a failure to understand and return the debt to the past?

In Lebanon, I’d say half of the population parks the cars of the other half. And when they are not parking cars, valet youngsters roam around the streets with scooter bikes reserving spots for potential customers.

You also have another sizable portion, serving as security guards for residential areas, political figures, and other “big projects”. Say, Saifi village, or very recently now the Sanayeh gardens. Imagine! Who would have thought that a garden needs a security guard? But in Lebanon all gardens (and there are maybe 3 in total with a maximum of 5 trees in them) have security guards.

But someone might ask what is the relationship between security guards and valet parking. I have to say it took me a while to find it but here it is.

One thing this type of presence on the street do, is that it makes streets a very unfriendly and unpleasant place to be. Valet parking telling you off because you’re trying to park in a spot they’re trying to snatch, security guards complaining for anything they could invent on the spot just to demonstrate that they have some form of power in the most Kafkaesque of fashions.

But most importantly, these are jobs that don’t produce anything socially useful, they don’t promote useful communitarian values. They cultivate relations of subservience of one class to another and reinforce whatever social structure are in place to define different communities (in the case of Lebanon read as the confession).

I’m not a “unionist” preacher, whatever that means, but Lebanese are divided socially and this is reinforced by the way streets are populated, the way streets are uninviting to any human individual who is circulating just to breath air or look around.

People are astonished that confessionalism is so deeply entrenched in Lebanon but confessionalism is in every social act you undertake from the moment you are born until the day you die (and afterwards). And Liberalism as an economic project goes hand in hand with this type of social structure because it makes everything security sensitive which constrains people to fall back on their communities.

Marx was not wrong to think that capitalism wrecks any traditional social system and erects new classes continuously. But liberalism which is the ideological backbone of capitalism is obsessed with security, with domestification, gentrification. It does not care about classes in a material sense but preserves a “culture” of social categories.

More on this later.


If you thought Beirut was a complicated place in a complicated (made-up) country, in a chopped-up region, then wait until you travel to one of the Balkan territories where different religions, languages, tribal affiliations are stacked in territories formerly part of different age-old empires. Their entry into “modernity” is paved with tragedies: first joining the communist hemisphere, subsequently creating their own movement such as in the case of Yugoslavia, and finally ending up broken down to a myriad of countries eagerly waiting to enter the EU or NATO (which basically means the same there as the motive for joining is mostly security-related).

Yugoslavia’s Tito was surely one of the strangest instance of late nation building. Did Attaturk, with all the cleansing of dominant cultural Ottoman forms that he engaged in, have an easier task at hand in fabricating the Turkish nation? The answer is not so evident. Turks were as much an invention as the Yugoslavs, and the territory that constitutes modern Turkey is as much a random draw on a map by some bold general in the turn of the century as is Lebanon, Syria, Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, and so many other parts of the former Ottoman empires.

Why did nation building “succeed” in Turkey when it failed miserably in the Balkans, or at least in former Yugoslavia. Nation-building seems to only work where it is fierce, violent, drastic and uncompromising. the more the cultural changes were drastic and even  I’m sure that many people proposed answers to the question of the failure of Yugoslavia. I mean what’s there to succeed really. But asked through this odd comparison, the question leads us to an interesting problem.

It seems that Tito was “kinder” than Attaturk where the main language, serbo-croat, could be written in several scripts depending on where you lived. In contrast, Attaturk not only imposed Turkish everywhere, a significantly different language from Ottoman but he also changed the script from Arabic to Latin. There is a language committee of some sort that, until now, annually meet and gradually remove from Turkish, words with Arabic origins and replaces them with words that older Turkic tribes may have used. Ironically the Croats have adopted this method to distance themselves from their Serbian compadres.

Another thing that got me thinking is that Yugoslavia was a collection of territories that were at the crossroads of so many different age-old empires: most importantly, the Austria-Hungarian and the Ottoman empire. The worst historical combination is cross empire failure succeeded by cross nation building. At the frontier of traditional empires seem to coalesce a rich mix of communities suffusing religion, languages, sense of history etc. But empires attract the concentration of communities as they are a center of prosperity. How ironic that one type of political system (empire) could bring communities to live side by side, even if for pragmatic reasons, as another (nation-state) tended to create ethnic-cleansing urges or authenticity quests. yet one system (empire) is mostly pre-capitalist where the other (nation-state) is the sine qua non of what economist believe was the take-off of prosperity for mankind.

But here are some random analogies between Zagreb and Beirut. So for example, the Croats were much luckier than the later called Lebanese as Zagreb seemed to be an important city for the Austria-Hungary an empire. The buildings are numerous and magnificent. In contrast, Beirut was a marginalized province of the Ottoman backyard (so much so for all the historians or just ideologues who claim that Beirut is such a historical place). In general, apart from Istanbul, the Ottomans did not really care for building much. They were mostly interested in collecting taxes through local magnates and let them decide on urban planning (sorry for the historical anachronism here but you get what I mean).

In any case, what strikes me the most as soon as I leave Beirut and step into any other country is how poor Lebanon is. And by poor I mean in the many ways you can use this term. Mostly though, in providing the basic necessities of life and in creating a space for people to interact as a community. Zagreb is a magnificent city, with huge sidewalks, parks, markets selling the best agricultural local produce in the middle of downtown. Imagine for one second this happening in our plastic Gulf occupied Beirut downtown, between a parking lot and another, between the Aishti and Prada shop. You do have an agricultural produce market in downtown, Souk El tayeb, but it only works every Saturday and where a cucumber is most likely to sell at 5$ a piece.

Also, just for posterity, if a country is between East and West (what a horrible appellation) it is more likely to be Croatia rather than Lebanon who’s well entrenched in the East if anything. This appellation was used by several Croatians. And when I said that I was from Beirut I got as an answer “Oh how exotic!”. So let’s push the boundaries of East further to the west.

The most memorable moment of my trip was when a Croatian guy drew some parallels between our two “civil” war torn countries. He told me that people who lived in war zones for a long time seem to think that they have a special or unique experience which makes them more special than the rest of humanity. “But as soon as you get out of your country you realize how the world is way ahead of you in every way”, he concluded. On this, I have to say, he is completely right.

Le Marteau sans maître (1934)

Commune présence

Tu es pressé d’écrire,
Comme si tu étais en retard sur la vie.
S’il en est ainsi fais cortège à tes sources.
Hâte-toi de transmettre
Ta part de merveilleux de rébellion de bienfaisance.
Effectivement tu es en retard sur la vie,
La vie inexprimable,
La seule en fin de compte à laquelle tu acceptes de t’unir,
Celle qui t’est refusée chaque jour par les êtres et par les choses,
Dont tu obtiens péniblement de-ci de-là quelques fragments décharnés
Au bout de combats sans merci.
Hors d’elle, tout n’est qu’agonie soumise, fin grossière.
Si tu rencontres la mort durant ton labeur,
Reçois-là comme la nuque en sueur trouve bon le mouchoir aride,
En t’inclinant.
Si tu veux rire,
Offre ta soumission,
Jamais tes armes.
Tu as été créé pour des moments peu communs.
Modifie-toi, disparais sans regret
Au gré de la rigueur suave.
Quartier suivant quartier la liquidation du monde se poursuit
Sans interruption,
Sans égarement.

Essaime la poussière
Nul ne décèlera votre union.


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