The Arab knowledge constituency vs. the ignorance lobby

The saga of Prof. Dajani is a subset of a broader Arab struggle between the forces of intelligence and stupidity

Professor Mohammed Dajani has resigned from his post at Al-Quds University following controversy over his leading of a Palestinian student delegation to Auschwitz


Chalk up another victory to the mighty Arab ignorance and stupidity brigade. Or should we?

Professor Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi, who runs the Al-Quds University Department of American Studies and University Library has been allowed to resign his position following the uproar over a trip he led of Palestinian university students to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Some Palestinians, including some of his own university colleagues, attacked Prof. Dajani with a mishmash of incoherent and utterly irrational condemnations.

The whole saga has been most impressively chronicled by the redoubtable Matthew Kalman of the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, whose latest report suggests that Prof. Dajani sought and received promises of support from the university leadership, only to have his resignation letter accepted rather than rejected. Presumably Al-Quds University just doesn’t want to hear any more criticism and prefers to turn its back on the entire “controversy” rather than uphold academic freedom in its own institution.

Prof. Dajani told Mr. Kalman that he saw his letter of resignation as “a kind of litmus test to see whether the university administration supports academic freedom and freedom of action and of expression as they claim or not.” If this was indeed a test, they just got a resounding F.

But the whole squalid affair is redolent with Palestinian, and broader Arab, collective neurotic symptoms about others. What, after all, do Palestinians have to gain by insisting their students remain ignorant of the Holocaust? Prof. Dajani argued from the outset that it is essential to understand the Israeli mentality and the Jewish experiences, especially in Europe during the first half of the 20th century, that inform it. It’s an unassailable argument.

Nonetheless, there are those, including professors, who, with a straight face, argue that Palestinians should only be taught, and by implication think, about their own Nakba.

Others tried to argue that the problem was not with the trip to Nazi death camps itself, but rather that Prof. Dajani’s trip was coordinated with an Israeli university that took Jewish students to a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank.

Shock! Horror! Normalization! It’s laughable.

There’s little hope of Israelis and Palestinians improving their dreadful relationship without, among many other things, trying to understand each other’s histories and narratives. That’s hardly a panacea. Real coexistence can only emerge in the absence of occupation, and the structural relationship of dominance and subordination built into that profoundly unhealthy and abusive structure. But better mutual understanding may be an essential component of helping to end the occupation and the conflict.

Even if none of that’s true, knowledge is, nonetheless, power. The constituency for keeping Palestinian students ignorant of certain facts, presumably because they present the truth about Jewish suffering in Europe during the 20th century and that this complicates the understanding of Jewish Israelis simply as oppressors in the occupied Palestinian territories, is a perfect example of the “stupidity lobby.”

And it’s not just restricted to Palestinians and their relationship to Jewish history and the Holocaust. There is a broader conflict throughout Arab culture between those who want to embrace the world, in all its complexity and challenges, versus those who want to crawl inside a warm cocoon of insularity. Relying on nostalgic fantasies about former periods of greatness, the broad Arab ignorance constituency is very powerful.

It includes not only Islamists and other religious dogmatists, including apolitical clerics, but also strident nationalists, leftists, fascists, and chauvinists of every possible variety. Among all of these groupings, as well as the important open-minded and globally-conscious constituencies that are most in favor of engaging the world, there are people who push back against insularity. But for the past century at least, the majority trend in the Arab world has been to try, insofar as possible, to shut out knowledge of and engagement with outsiders, except for commercial purposes.

Many Arabs seem to be suspicious of and hostile towards real knowledge of others (as opposed to myths and stereotypes, of course), and even more engagement with them. Too many of us just don’t want to hear it. Those, like Prof. Dajani, who try to break through this curtain of insularity are frequently punished, or at least criticized, for their embrace of broader realities, some of which are uncomfortable and destabilize reassuring mythologies.

Prof. Dajani says he doesn’t regret the turn of events. Why should he? He’s done something noble and constructive, and he will continue to do so without the support of his former university, through many other venues such as his Wasatia movement. But he, and all those like him throughout the region who want to smash the shackles of decades of carefully cultivated ignorance and embrace history and reality in all its troublesome complexity, are pointing the way.

The whole Arab world is at a turning point. If it continues to allow the stupidity and ignorance lobby, in all its myriad forms, to insist on cultural insularity, chauvinism, and deafness to the outside world, it will remain utterly stuck and unable to successfully join and compete in a globalizing world. But if the intelligence and knowledge constituency, as embodied by Prof. Dajani and so many other important leading Arabs, succeed in turning their societies away from decades of enforced parochialism, they will be among the most important groups in building a better future for the Middle East.

The saga of Prof. Dajani, and the whole battle between the Arab ignorance versus knowledge constituencies, is far from over. My money is on the intelligence community ultimately defeating the stupidity brigade, but it’s going to be an uphill struggle.

Australia’s decision to no longer call East Jerusalem occupied is an attack on international law and order

Australia’s foreign minister and attorney general announced last Thursday that their country would no longer be referring to East Jerusalem as a territory under occupation. They argue that “Occupied East Jerusalem” is “a term freighted with pejorative implications”, which is “neither appropriate nor useful”. Even more preposterously, they deemed it inappropriate “to describe areas of negotiation in such judgemental language”.

It’s hard to know where to begin in picking apart the absurdity of these declarations. The occupation of East Jerusalem is neither “pejorative” nor a “judgement”.

It is a legal and political fact established in countless UN Security Council resolutions beginning with 242 in 1967 and continuing to the present day.

Australia voted for many of these resolutions. And withdrawing recognition of that fact could hardly be more prejudicial to the outcome of talks.

Most significantly, UNSC Resolution 476, passed on June 30, 1980, reaffirmed “the overriding necessity to end the prolonged occupation of Arab territories occupied by Israel since 1967, including Jerusalem.”

The reason for this unanimous international consensus, as explained in the preamble to 242, is the absolute prohibition in the UN Charter against the acquisition of territory by war.

Australia should be required to explain what it thinks East Jerusalem’s legal status is, if it’s not occupied. Becoming the first country in the world other than Israel to reject the judgement of the Security Council, the International Court of Justice, and other definitive bodies – as well as an otherwise unanimous international consensus – that East Jerusalem is under occupation, is tantamount to an act of violence against the occupied Arab population of that city.

It strips them of their rights and protections, as people living under occupation, guaranteed by binding international documents, most notably the Fourth Geneva Convention.

And why stop at East Jerusalem? Why not apply this same twisted “logic” to the entirety of the occupied Palestinian territories, including Gaza? They are all subject to negotiations, and by the sophistry of the Australian government, isn’t it also pejorative and prejudicial to describe any of it as occupied?

Earlier this year, Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop said: “I would like to see which international law has declared [the settlements] illegal.” Let me help her out.

The Fourth Geneva Convention was adopted in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War to provide protection to civilians living under occupation. Article 49, paragraph 6, strictly prohibits any transfer of its civilians by the occupying power into areas under occupation. Israel’s settlement activities are hence manifestly illegal under international law.

The convening body for the Convention, the International Red Cross, compiled explanatory notes to the drafting process. These notes explain that paragraph 6 “is intended to prevent a practice adopted during the Second World War by certain powers, which transferred portions of their own population to occupied territory for political and racial reasons or in order, as they claimed, to colonise those territories. Such transfers worsened the economic situation of the native population and endangered their separate existence as a race”.

Therefore, the prohibition against settlement activity is a human rights protection for those living under occupation who have a right not to be colonised.

Since 1967, Israel has been playing a disingenuous double game over whether, in its view, these territories are occupied or not, because both positions raise profound difficulties for them.

Here’s Israel’s conundrum: if territories seized in 1967 are, in fact and under the law, occupied, (as the whole world, with the sole and sudden exception of Australia, believes) then much of its military activity there may be lawful. But its settlement project is definitely not.

Much of what the Israeli military has done is arguably permissible. Establishing military bases, checkpoints and other security measures, in some cases expropriating land for these purposes, and even creating a military government, are potentially within the legal purview of an occupying force. So, when it comes to military matters, the Israelis have based much of their conduct on the legal and political fact that they are conducting an occupation which is, by definition, temporary.

But if the territories are merely “disputed”, in the factually incorrect jargon of some Israelis, then settlement activity might not be unlawful, but much of its military activity must be. Israel would have to immediately dismantle most of its military installations, return the land to its owners with compensation, stop subjecting the population to martial law, and effectively abandon its system of discipline and control over the occupied Palestinian people.

So Israel likes to have it both ways. When it comes to the military, there’s an occupation. When it comes to the settlements, there is no occupation. But the uncontestable truth is these areas are occupied, as all global arbiters have established for almost half a century.

Australia’s sudden refusal to recognise this when it comes to East Jerusalem is not only morally, legally and politically indefensible. It’s an attack on international law and order, and an assault on the basic human rights of the Palestinian people living under occupation in East Jerusalem.

Sisi will be judged on performance, not election numbers

For all the brouhaha over voter turnout, Egypt’s new president will be judged on his conduct in office



After an election that focused on a bizarre tug-of-war over voter turnout, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been sworn in as the new president of Egypt. Yet he and his new government will not be judged by the minutia of turnout percentages or the size of his mandate, but rather by their performance in office. They face a daunting set of challenges.

In the first, officially scheduled, two days of the voting, Mr. Sisi’s critics made much of what appeared to be a very low turnout. In a move that suggested undue insecurity about these numbers, the election was extended under dubious legal circumstances for a third day, which was also made a national holiday. In the end, turnout was officially tallied at 44%, with over 90% voting for Sisi.

Despite the extra day of voting, this is not a low turnout, particularly given the number of elections Egyptians have had to vote in over the past few years and the overwhelming likelihood of a massive Sisi victory. And it is a gigantic mandate. Yet in the aftermath of the voting, bickering over the question of turnout continued, as if it were actually a major issue.

It’s not.

Mr. Sisi will undoubtedly be judged based on performance in office, and both the turnout and the size of his mandate won’t assuage the Egyptian public if they feel let down again. He faces three major challenges that will be daunting: security, the economy, and a presidency whose powers are greatly curtailed by the new constitution passed after the ouster of former President Mohammed Morsi.

As both his campaign and that of his rival, Hamdeen Sabahi, emphasized, security is a paramount issue in Egypt, given the undoubted terrorist threat the country faces from armed extremists. But the security and economic questions are deeply interconnected. Foreign investment and the Egyptian stock market have been on the rise since Mr. Morsi’s ouster, but investor confidence will depend on multiple factors, including a sense that security and stability are steadily being restored. Without such confidence, it will be harder to attract sustained foreign direct investment.

In addition, Mr. Sisi’s new government faces myriad structural economic difficulties, some of them deeply fraught politically. Egypt’s currency has been steadily losing value, which could deter additional investment. Unemployment has increased to 13% of the labor force, an unsustainable figure. The generation of jobs will have to be a major priority. Egypt also faces a substantial fiscal deficit, and has yet to fully rebuild ties to the International Monetary Fund, which may be key in reducing that deficit on favorable terms.

The country’s ongoing energy crisis is a crucial indicator of how difficult reconciling necessary economic measures with politically unpopular steps is going to be. The country owes almost six billion dollars to international energy companies, and the inability to pay for needed energy has resulted in power shortages across the country.

Eliminating subsidies and electricity tariffs is an obvious measure to reverse this trend. But one can hardly think of a more politically unpopular move. This tension between what may be economically necessary for a major recovery in the long run, and what will prove politically unpalatable in the short run, is a consistent theme throughout Egypt’s economic puzzle. The conundrum, simply, is that a new government cannot maintain credibility and popularity without achieving significant economic progress, but at the same time, the measures required for such progress may often be deeply unpopular.

Mr. Sisi, whose overall economic approach is still unclear, has spoken of massive building projects that he calculated would cost approximately $140 billion. That’s well over half the country’s gross national income, so how even those job-creating measures would be paid for remains unexplained.

The backdrop to these profound challenges is that Mr. Sisi inherits a presidency whose powers have been enormously curtailed by the new constitution. Once a parliament is in place, the president will be able to do little without its cooperation and approval. This is a major change in Egypt’s traditionally presidential-centric system, and how these new theoretically impressive checks and balances will work in practice to get things done quickly, especially if they anger important constituencies, isn’t clear. The ability of public groupings and entrenched interests to use parliament to block executive action – on paper – would be significant. Mr. Sisi is used to running a military. The new Egyptian political system, as laid out in the new constitution, will be a profoundly different matter.

The overall atmosphere in Egypt isn’t particularly reassuring. In addition to profound and deeply interconnected security and economic challenges, the country has suffered yet another blow to political openness: Bassem Youssef’s irreverent and profoundly healthy “Al Bernameg” television satire program, based on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” has been canceled. The host cited fears for his “personal safety and the safety of [his] family,” although he did not say anything to suggest that Mr. Sisi was directly or indirectly involved in making it impossible for his program to continue.

Whatever the source of these intolerable pressures, Egypt has lost an invaluable and highly positive contribution to culture and discourse. Even when facing serious security and economic woes, a healthy society must be able to tolerate, and indeed should celebrate, satire and irreverence. Whoever were exactly the forces that made Mr. Youssef finally throw in the towel, it’s unlikely they did themselves a favor in the long run.

Even in the context of serious security threats, it’s vital that the new government move quickly to improve the political atmosphere in the country, begin to scale back a crackdown that has been far too indiscriminate and heavy-handed, and open, rather than restrict, the free expression of ideas, including critical ones.

Mr. Sisi now has a clear mandate, significant popularity, and will enjoy a political honeymoon – or at least a grace period – from the general public. But without significant indications of an improving security and economic climate, that honeymoon certainly won’t be open-ended, and may not last all that long. When former President Hosni Mubarak fell, so did the era in which Egyptians would tolerate decades of misrule with patience.

Mr. Morsi managed to exhaust his welcome in less than a year through intolerably arrogant and dictatorial conduct. Mr. Sisi is highly unlikely to repeat such a dismal performance, but his presidential authority is much more limited than that enjoyed by either of his two immediate predecessors. And yet the Egyptian public will undoubtedly still be judging him on a performance basis. They have shown their willingness to withdraw consent from unsatisfactory presidents twice in recent years. Anyone, Mr. Sisi included, is potentially subject to some form of popular expression of no-confidence if they don’t meet minimum expectations.

But it’s in the interests of all responsible parties, and especially Egypt and its people, for Mr. Sisi’s new government to succeed with constructive policies. Therefore he’ll need, and should get, substantial foreign support to meet the daunting problems he faces, in addition to as much patience as the Egyptian public can muster given the depth of these shared national challenges, and, once it’s in place, as much cooperation and as little obstruction from the next parliament on reasonable, constructive policies as possible.

An “Obama doctrine” could have far-reaching consequences

Barack Obama’s graduation speech at West Point Academy last week said much about the way the US may intend to proceed in the Middle East.

Mr Obama’s vision of force as a last resort, terrorism as the primary threat and a strikingly narrow definition of American interests does seem to sound a new tone, albeit one that elaborates on his long-standing foreign policy approach. Those most persuaded by the speech note that it’s strongly in line with American public opinion and commensurate with the US role in a world that is no longer strictly or simply monopolar.

Perhaps Richard Nixon’s landmark Lakeside Speech at the Bohemian Grove in July 1967 is an apt analogue. At this confidential meeting, Nixon first floated the logic that became the “Nixon doctrine”: that both economically and strategically the US could no longer “fight others’ wars for them.” It would provide support, funding and weapons to allies and clients, but there would be no repetition of Korea or, once it was concluded, Vietnam.

This vision held for decades. Even the First Gulf War was more of an anomaly than a repudiation of it. It was only the invasion of Iraq in 2003 that fully broke with Nixon’s Lakeside logic. And it is precisely the folly of the Iraq war, and the mishandling of the Afghan one, that most fully informed Mr Obama’s new conceptualisation, summed up in an analogy about the dangers of people with hammers seeing nails everywhere. Mr Obama, though, seemed to go even further than Nixon had in rethinking the American worldviewArguably this is because the US is now operating even more among economic and political, if not military, equals than it was several decades ago. But his approach has significant implications for US policy in the Middle East, for its regional allies and for the area’s most volatile issues.

Mr Obama did not mention the problem of Palestine at all. This might be seen as curious, given that even a few months ago it continued to rank among his administration’s top foreign policy priorities. Nonetheless, the president has expressed scepticism in interviews with David Remnick of the New Yorker and Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg about the prospects for diplomatic progress between Israel and the Palestinians. And this is hardly the first significant recent speech in which Mr Obama has avoided the topic altogether.

Still, that a major US presidential foreign policy address could go forward without even an implicit reference to the conflict and the occupation can only be alarming for Palestinians. And it should worry Israelis as well.

Palestinians have seen their issue receding from not only the world stage, but the regional agenda. Former prime minister Salam Fayyad was, perhaps, most forthright in ringing alarm bells about this towards the end of his term in office. It seems that secretary of state John Kerry, who has been courageous and resolute in pursuing the issue, may not have given up entirely. But when, and how, he intends to revisit it, is not clear. For the meanwhile, the policy appears to be to allow the parties to “stew in their own juices.”

The problem is that such a recipe will not have its desired effect if the experience feels more like a gentle candying than boiling in oil. And political leaders on both sides, particularly in Israel, may find the hiatus a relief. Palestinians have found an alternative in the national reunification project, which so far has not resulted in a profoundly negative response, even from Israel. Yet, the price that will ultimately be paid has yet to be reckoned.

The Israeli government and right-wing are probably very comfortable with the current hiatus. But if they were listening carefully to Mr Obama’s address, they should think twice. Not only does “benign neglect” of Palestine almost always end badly for everyone involved, reduced American interest in the Middle East in general, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular, does not suggest a bright future for Israel’s strategic position.

Indeed, the one Middle Eastern issue that seems to have genuinely captured the president’s sustained attention from the outset of his second term is Iran. Looking for some accommodation with Tehran is perfectly consistent with the rest of his stated worldview. A limited understanding preventing a confrontation over nuclear issues may indeed be achievable. But a broader rapprochement is unlikely to be attempted, and, if it were, almost certainly would create more problems than it would resolve.

Mr Obama had been expected to announce a much more robust engagement with Syrian rebels, including US training. He didn’t. That, too, may reflect both an Iran-centric agenda – with Syria policy seen as essentially a subset of that – and the generalised reduction in American power projection he described.

Syria may indicate where Mr Obama is going well beyond where Nixon had. Not only will the United States not fight others’ wars for them. Now, perhaps it might be increasingly less inclined to offer them as much support either. Everyone in the Middle East, Israelis included, should think seriously about the long-term implications of that, if this is indeed what Mr Obama was implying and if, in fact, it presages a sustained new era in American foreign policy.

Don’t squander the Pope’s pro-Palestinian message

Palestinians should ensure the world long remembers images of Pope Francis’s recent visit

Pope Francis prays at Israel


Cynics have dismissed Pope Francis’s visit to the Holy Land as a largely meaningless gesture by a religious figure that will change nothing on the ground and therefore has little, if any, significance. Idealists, on the other hand, have celebrated some of the implicit messaging as a turning point for peace, especially from a Palestinian point of view.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. The Pope’s trip doesn’t actually transform the basic situation on the ground. But Pope Francis has, in a message aimed directly at the Israeli government and public, rather dramatically underscored the international expectation that there must and will be a Palestinian state.

His trip was characterized by competing images and recognitions of the iconography of the national narratives of both sides. But, because there isn’t a balance between the parties, there also wasn’t a balance in the significance of the images that will linger from his trip.

The Pope dutifully laid a wreath at the tomb of the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, and visited Israel’s Holocaust Memorial and a memorial for victims of terrorism. These are fairly standard diplomatic gestures, though of course they take on new significance when done by the head of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet none of them should cause Palestinians any particular discomfort.

The same cannot be said for Francis’s gestures toward Palestinians. He called explicitly for recognition of what he described as “the State of Palestine.” He singled out the issue of Palestinian prisoners, which is not only dear to the heart of virtually every Palestinian family, but was also a major factor in the breakdown of recent Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.

And, most dramatically, the Pope made an unscheduled prayer stop at Israel’s separation barrier, the hideous, gigantic wall that snakes through the occupied West Bank. The most lingering image of his trip will undoubtedly be Pope Francis quietly pressing his head against one of the ugliest monuments to conflict in the world and silently praying. He did not say what he was praying for or about, but the imagery was powerful and unmistakable.

This was not lost on Israelis. There was an outcry from many on the Israeli right, and the Israeli government said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had tried to explain to the Pope that Israel believes the wall has been a great deterrent to Palestinian terrorism. That argument is belied by numerous revelations that the route of the wall has been “political” as well as strategic, and it begs the question of why Israel, if it wants a wall, doesn’t build it on its own territory but instead in areas under its occupation.

Many Israelis and their allies were reduced to blustering about aspects of the graffiti near that part of the wall where Pope Francis stopped, so dramatically, to pray. This, of course, is another effort to change the subject, which will be essential for Israel and its friends every time international attention focuses on the wall. But no one is going to remember the graffiti that the Pope almost certainly neither knew nor cared about. Everyone is going to remember the image of him stopping and praying at a structure that the Israeli government hopes all outsiders will simply pretend either doesn’t exist or somehow isn’t a gigantic monument to the cruelty of occupation.

There was a final message on the Pope’s parting. Francis invited Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to come to Rome to pray with him for peace in coming weeks. He did not invite Mr. Netanyahu. This was not a “snub,” the Vatican was quick to claim, it’s just that the Pope has a particular regard for Mr. Peres, and so he invited him.

Maybe. But, again, the optics send a fairly clear message, and not one that endorses the current policies of the present Israeli government. Indeed, the implicit critique is unmistakable.

Nobody expects that prayer meeting to produce any diplomatic progress, let alone a breakthrough, particularly without Mr. Netanyahu’s presence. And the criticism that Pope Francis’s Middle East trip won’t change any realities on the ground is true, despite its numerous striking gestures in favor of Palestinian claims and aspirations.

But the “all or nothing” attitude that many Palestinians and their supporters take toward international diplomacy and politics has been, and remains, debilitating. Francis’ gestures were highly significant and meaningful. They should be pocketed, and referred to time and again.

Too often Palestinians and their allies squander diplomatic gains by dismissing important rhetorical or symbolic gestures in their direction as insufficient because they do not immediately or independently resolve any of the determinative realities on the ground. “Empty words” is a typical response. At the same time, they are quick to assign enormous significance to, and raise a hue and cry about, words that undermine their basic interests, according them even more importance than they often deserve.

Words matter, and words of support are crucial to the success of any international and diplomatic project. Palestinians just got an enormous boost from Pope Francis, who underlined – particularly for the Israelis – the strong international expectation that there will indeed be a state of Palestine in the foreseeable future. Palestinians would be well advised to embrace that message and not to allow the Pope’s visit, and its striking iconography of peace and an end to occupation, to be forgotten soon.

As Al Maliki struggles to find support, Kurds seek an exit

Although his party won the most seats in the recent Iraqi parliamentary election, it’s not easy to see how Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki can form a new governing coalition. And while attention is focused on developments in Baghdad, particularly the dynamics of a bitter inter-Shiite power struggle, events in the Kurdish north may have a more significant long-term impact.

Mr Al Maliki’s coalition has 95 seats, but 165 votes are needed to secure a majority. Where the other 7o are going to come from is distinctly unclear as Mr Al Maliki ­faces stiff opposition, not only from Kurdish and Sunni parties, but also from within the Shiite community.

To form a governing alliance with the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq and the Sadrist Ahrar group – which are working in close cooperation with each other and could add 65 of the required extra votes, thereby bringing Mr Al Maliki in easy reach of a majority – the current prime minister would have to make some very significant concessions. His Shiite rivals are reportedly demanding the re-establishment of the defunct National Alliance, and in effect conditioning their cooperation with him on a relationship of equality in the government.

The trouble for Mr Al Maliki, though, is that his increasing political vulnerability appears to have created a zero-sum equation with competing Shiite groups. They resent him and sense an opportunity to cut him down to size. However, they, too, face the same dilemma: how to get to a 165 majority with even fewer seats than he has?

Mr Al Maliki knew this all along, and has been hoping to build a new governing coalition around an alliance with Kurdish parties, in particular the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Masoud Barzani. Mr Barzani has, in recent years, been emerging as not only the key Kurdish leader in Iraq, but regionally as well. And when it comes to Mr Al Maliki, he is playing distinctly hard to get. Indeed, both sides in the Iraqi Shiite divide are courting Kurdish support against each other.

In a recent visit to London designed to bolster Mr Barzani’s international credentials – and therefore, by implication, the KRG’s global diplomatic profile and prospects for eventual independence – the Kurdish leader launched a blistering attack on Mr Al Maliki. “The authorities in Baghdad want to control everything,” Mr Barzani complained. “It is not acceptable to us. We want to be partners; we don’t want to be subjects.” He described Mr Al Maliki’s governing style as “totalitarianism”. Mr Barzani even threatened to “boycott everything” to do with national governance in Iraq.

Erbil has several significant grievances against Baghdad in general and Mr Al Maliki in particular. The Kurds feel let down by Mr Al Maliki on the resolution of “disputed territories” especially the flashpoint city of Kirkuk. Along with many Iraqi Sunnis, Kurds have also been highly critical of the government crackdown in Anbar province.

But disputes over oil contracts and revenue-sharing are almost certainly the greatest fault line. With negotiations over a new mechanism for managing the KRG’s energy resources and 17 per cent share of Iraq’s national income at a total impasse, Baghdad has effectively frozen the capital transfers on which Erbil’s budget is deeply dependent. An enraged Mr Barzani said the withholding of this money is “as bad as the gassing of Halabja [by Saddam Hussein] – if not worse”.

Kurdish deeds have been even stronger than this hyperbolic rhetoric. Throughout 2013, the KRG worked with the Turkish government and companies in a series of unilateral agreements and contracts that theoretically required, but did not receive, the approval of the authorities in Baghdad. And last week the Iraqi Kurds began independently exporting petroleum through Turkey’s Ceyhan port via a makeshift pipeline that became practically operational last December.

Both sides accuse each other of violating the law and the constitution through these actions. But the Kurds are doing more than simply making a point. Now that they have crossed the Rubicon of unilateral, independent oil marketing and exporting, there’s likely to be no turning back, no matter what political and financial agreements are reached with Arab Iraqi leaders in Baghdad. This, of course, is why Erbil waited half a year after it became technically possible before taking this momentous step.

Mr Al Maliki’s best bet for staying in the premiership may actually be striking a deal with Kurdish leaders and enough Sunni politicians to form a majority in parliament. But that potential coalition is also theoretically available to his Shiite rivals, and it’s not clear which of them may be able to make a more effective and compelling case to these key constituencies. And, despite the profound antagonism between them, it’s still possible that Iraqi Shiites might find a formula that allows them to unite in a coalition to form a new government.

But whatever happens in Baghdad, by beginning to unilaterally market and export its own oil resources without the consultation or approval of other Iraqis, the KRG just took another major step towards independence. When he was asked about the prospect of Kurdish independent statehood during his UK trip, Mr Barzani did not mince words.

After bitterly complaining about Baghdad’s and Mr Al Maliki’s ­behaviour, he bluntly said: “We are going to have a referendum and ask our people.” It would be folly to dismiss these stated Kurdish intentions as bluster or brinkmanship.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this commentary incorrectly sited 174 as a majority in the new Iraqi parliament. It is here corrected to 165,

Attacks on dissenting journalists show how scared Hezbollah really is

The vicious lies about NOW editor Hanin Ghaddar are a symptom of Hezbollah’s panic

Shiite Muslim clerics pray over the coffin of Al-Manar cameraman Mohammad Mantash, who was killed in Syria, during his funeral in the southern Lebanese village of Kfar Sir on April 15, 2014


I suppose it’s completely pointless to expect gangsters to have any regard for free speech, or, for that matter, the truth. After all, their stock in trade is brute force. It’s always set up on a sliding scale: first comes “friendly advice,” then a “word to the wise” warning. Then the bullying. Then blatant threats. And the logical culmination is some sort of physical attack. Nowhere has this progressive logic of the political hoodlum been in greater evidence than in Lebanon in recent decades.

So when a nationally- and internationally-noted Lebanese journalist has clearly been dragged into the bullying and borderline blatant threat stage of attack by thugs and their henchmen in the public press, it’s essential to raise the loudest possible outcry. The only reasonable collective response is: back off and don’t you dare think about going a step further.

As it happens, Hanin Ghaddar, managing editor of this website, is facing precisely such a campaign of threats and intimidation by Hezbollah, its Lebanese allies, and the hacks and propagandists they employ. Hezbollah front or fellow traveler publications like Al-Akhbar, Al-Manar, and Tayyar all piled onto the lies that she had broken Lebanese law by appearing with Israeli officials at a conference in Washington.

The record is clear: she did no such thing. On the contrary, she stipulated that the conference she attended was structured to enable her to scrupulously abide by Lebanese law. This is confirmed by the hosting organization, all attendees, and the published schedule.

So Hanin is completely innocent of the charges leveled against her. But let’s imagine, counter-factually, that she had actually shared a stage with an Israeli. That might’ve been a violation of Lebanese law. But how would it have compared to the grossly unlawful conduct, on the daily basis, by Hezbollah and its allies?

What would that have been compared to blowing up former prime ministers in the middle of crowded streets? Assassinating journalists or rival politicians on a routine basis? Maintaining a large, well-supplied, and foreign-funded and -dominated private army? Dragging Lebanon into a devastating and pointless war with Israel in 2006?

Or how about Hezbollah’s unilateral intervention in the Syrian conflict, in direct contravention of the Baabda Declaration? And what have they done in Syria except, in effect, help ‘Amo Bashar wipe out scores of thousands of his own people, and drop sarin gas, barrel bombs, and, most recently, chlorine weapons on innocent Syrians?

The idea of such people and their propagandists concocting a campaign of vitriol and hatred against someone based on false accusations of having spoken on a stage with an Israeli, given their own conduct, is the height of effrontery. They even sank to the level of having some of her relatives issue public “denunciations” of her, a familiar tactic Hezbollah has used in the past to try to intimidate Lebanese Shiites who don’t toe the party line.

There’s no doubt why Ghaddar is being targeted so viciously. Hezbollah is sinking into a profound crisis in Lebanon generally, and within the Shiite community in particular, because of its disastrous intervention in Syria. The organization is finding it very difficult to explain to ordinary Lebanese Shiites why their sons should be dying for towns they’ve never heard of, and for a vicious dictator who has nothing to do with their daily lives.

Everything Hezbollah ever claimed about why other Lebanese, including Shiites, should find it somehow acceptable that the organization maintains a huge private army and a foreign policy that has allowed them to drag the country into calamitous conflicts with both of its immediate neighbors has been totally exposed in recent years for the lies they are. Ostensibly Hezbollah’s state-within-a-state is for “resistance” and to protect Lebanon from Israel. In reality, of course, its weapons are used mainly to enforce its domestic political agenda on other Lebanese, and in the service of its Iranian and Syrian patrons, most notably through the intervention in the Syrian conflict.

This is becoming increasingly obvious to even the most credulous of Lebanese. Hezbollah therefore feels particularly vulnerable. Cue the attack on Ghaddar, along with other vicious efforts to fend off its critics, particularly within the Shiite community. There has been a significant push-back in Lebanon against the attacks on her, but so far it’s insufficient.

And what of the media organizations that have led the charge against her? Well, the odious Ibrahim al-Amin, editor-in-chief of Al-Akhbar, has been accused of obstruction of justice for refusing to appear at a hearing of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Amin is the same charmer who recently opined that the suffering of the Palestinian refugees in the Yarmouk refugee camp outside Damascus was entirely the fault of the refugees themselves.

Al-Akhbar also regularly features the gurglings of one Assad AbuKhalil, who “teaches” unfortunate students at a school called California State University, Stanislaus (no, I’ve never heard of it either). AbuKhalil is quick to condemn anyone and everyone of being a traitor, Zionist, imperialist stooge, or lackey, and every other epithet imaginable.

Yet it was recently revealed that, some years ago, the US Central Intelligence Agency paid him to do something. He issued a denial, in which he asserted that he had never been an employee of the CIA. One plausible explanation, given what’s known and what can be inferred from his own statements, is that some while back the CIA may have paid him to give one or two unclassified briefings. There is no reason to be embarrassed about that, except given what he and his newspaper would have said about anybody else who had done that makes admitting a simple and otherwise banal and straightforward truth quite impossible.

AbuKhalil threatened to sue everyone in sight, but of course he didn’t. And he won’t. Because he would have to submit to discovery and there may be something there, even though no one thinks he was a staff employee of the CIA. But given the attitudes he and Al-Akhbar peddle, is this not the very height of hypocrisy? These are the people who put themselves in the vanguard of the attack on Hanin Ghaddar for giving a public talk at an established Washington think tank on a serious topic, and carefully arranging things to remain within the confines of Lebanese law?

So everybody involved in this campaign of bullying and intimidation against Ghaddar should be on notice. First, she has an extensive national and international base of support. The world is watching. Second, she has bravely vowed to continue her journalism and commentary undaunted by these outrageous scare tactics and abuses. Third, those who are attacking Ghaddar – who did not in fact violate any laws or norms – are shills for mobsters and murderers of the first order, who are guilty of some of the worst crimes imaginable.

And fourth, and most importantly, it’s obvious that this entire outrageous attack on Ghaddar is prompted by a sense of desperation  on the part of Hezbollah and its lackeys, and an intensified impulse to try to squash any dissent within the Shiite community. That’s because such dissent is growing, and the reputation of the organization, even in its main constituency, is rocked to the core for dragging the Lebanese Shiites, and the rest of the country, into by its reckless intervention in Syria.

Hezbollah is clearly scared, and with good reason. The cowardly bullying of an independent-minded and serious journalist – who, thankfully, refuses to be intimidated – could not provide a clearer sign of incipient panic in the self-appointed “Party of God.” So, back off and don’t you dare think about going a step further.

Ibishblog Interview: Richard Byrne on Pseudo Neros and his new Glam Musical

My friend Richard Byrne, author of Burn your Books, has a new play, Nero/Pseudo being performed by the WSC Avant Bard at The Shop at Fort Fringe in Washington DC. After watching Friday night’s performance, I sat down with him for the following conversation in which he discusses his “glam rock musical” about the first and most successful of the imposters who pretended to be the Emperor Nero after his death.


Ibishblog: Let’s begin with the title, which is not Pseudo-Nero but Nero/Pseudo. And the subtitle is “Imposters Rule” which seems to me to be intimately connected to the same idea, if I’m not mistaken.


Richard Byrne: The subheader was one of our marketing tools. But that’s very much one of the things that the play is about.


Ibishblog: Okay, so what are the principal themes of the play? The basic conceit is that in Greece, a little bit remote from Rome, as with the rest of the Empire, people can’t quite believe that Nero is dead and the end of the Empire, or at least the old Augustinian empire, is at hand. The Augustinian system is gone and they can’t quite believe it. And so a guy shows up, or is discovered, and is either willing or compelled to pretend to be Nero for a time. That’s the fundamental conceit. But you’ve done it in the form of a glam rock musical. But let’s begin with the question, why did you want to write about the most successful of the pseudo-Neros?


Richard Byrne: It began when I read that little digression in Tacitus, which is the main source of information about this and which was so startling. It was profoundly jarring and I felt drawn to it immediately. This was the kind of thing that happens when there is a tremendous rupture in the system and things that normally wouldn’t happen at all are not just happening, but are normal. And that appealed to me profoundly, so I almost immediately started making notes about it and dove into it, researching it. And it was interesting to me too in that there have been a lot of portrayals of Nero, and in fact even recently there have been some theater pieces about Nero and about the family drama of Nero. Another thing that appealed to me is, how do you get at Nero without having someone try to portray Nero as such. And that challenge really appealed to me too.


Ibishblog: Well, that’s really interesting, because you actually do stage the family drama with Agrippina and Poppaea, and all that legendary horrible family drama, as a play within a play with masks. But it’s a mocking and satirical version of it. You’re making fun of it.


Richard Byrne: Yes, it’s sort of a “Behind the Music” of Nero. And that’s what I wanted to do with it. It’s such an improbable and, on some level, a profoundly oppressive story. The carnage is just so intense in the story of Nero, his whole rise to power and then his maintenance of power. And, you know, the other thing that appealed to me was that you get a sense from the historians that Nero was always being acted upon, as opposed to acting directly; that he was capricious and you didn’t want to be in his immediate orbit, but that this was not a political player in any way, shape or form. The real politics of the Empire were happening outside his orbit and people were just sort of trying to keep him in some sort of lane, and yet he was persistently veering out of his lane.


Ibishblog: Okay, so Nero was like Mao Zedong between the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution? An icon who was basically being ignored?


Richard Byrne: Exactly! There’s a lot of that in Nero.


Ibishblog: But I guess he didn’t have Mao’s political genius to destabilize and overthrow the whole system and then take it over again from within.


Richard Byrne: No, he kind of had someone else do it for him. And why that is a particularly interesting comparison is that within Mao’s personal orbit during that time you could be destroyed very easily.


Ibishblog: Many of them were.


Richard Byrne: Right, but the larger events were happening sort of outside the room at some level.


Ibishblog: Well, Mao could only get to Peng Zhen, and then one by one all the others, culminating in Liu Shaoqi, through the streets. He couldn’t get at them, especially Liu, just through committees.


Richard Byrne: It is really interesting is that that model perpetuates itself a lot, of being very personally powerful but then the larger ripples are happening somewhere else, inside rooms and meetings that you’re not really in. It’s interesting.


Ibishblog: In a sense Nero/Pseudo is about “imposters rule,” but it also might’ve been called Nero, The Sequel. What I want to sort of get at is that you frame it in terms of a set of dynamics that emerge during a time of rupture, but also it’s very much reflective of a kind of static, frozen contemporary Hollywood culture where movies are expensive to make, and really almost the only way to pitch a movie, or play even now, is nostalgia. Tell the money people they’re going to get their cash back because people will attend due to familiarity. Or it has to be explained in terms of “this movie meets this other movie meets a third movie,” or it’s got to be based on a TV show or comic book that people grow up with or something. So what’s the relationship, if any, to this in Nero/Pseudo, or is it a very different kind of repetition compulsion?


Richard Byrne: No, I think that’s right, and it’s reflected in the history of that time. The Julio-Claudian empire was doomed. It was not going to last. The question is what was ultimately going to kill it. And what’s interesting historically is that the first pseudo-Nero was such a reflective phenomenon. What happened historically was that Nero was out, and then a more responsible military guy came in, but he didn’t last 3 months before they brought in Nero’s best friend to the throne. And then Nero’s best friend ended up in a miserable Civil War that bled the Empire. And then Vespasian basically reasserted order in a different way.


What was interesting was that the first pseudo-Nero had ripples way beyond his own brief misadventure because this first pseudo-Nero was seized upon by the Jewish and Christian apocalyptic writers. The whole notion that Nero could die and then return was, well, basically the Book of Revelation on some level.


Ibishblog: Or the much older myths of all the dying and resurrected gods.


Richard Byrne: Exactly, it also plays into all of those older myths, so it was at once familiar and very disruptive, and it had immense ripple effects. Which is why again, as I started researching and wanting to write it, this was one of the things that drew it to me most powerfully. It was clearly a very desperate and misbegotten episode, but it had all of these ripples in the culture that continue, well, until now. It was a very powerful, weird thing.


Ibishblog: So the present ripples include monotheistic apocalyptic millennialist thought?


Richard Byrne: I think there’s a direct link from the sort of thing to David Koresh or directly to all the Elvis sightings. There’s all sorts of these things.


Ibishblog: Or the “bin Laden isn’t really dead” phenomenon because, yeah, we need to see the body. Show us the body! “Where is your birth certificate, President Obama?” This business of, “I won’t believe it even if I see it.” It’s that old trope of Groucho, “who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”


Richard Byrne: I think when you’re not in it, you know, when you’re not soaking in it, it seems gullible. But the power structure and the need to buy into the power structure and maintain it is very, very powerful and it can induce what we would see objectively as gullibility. I don’t tend to reach for Freud too quickly, but it is a big concern in his writing: how do these things perpetuate themselves through time. How do these conflicts, desires and needs for structure, order etc. perpetuate themselves over time? That’s what the play’s getting at too.


Ibishblog: And so obviously that has a lot of contemporary resonance.


Richard Byrne: Definitely!


Ibishblog: So it began as a play, and then became a play with songs, and then it finally developed into a full-blown glam rock musical? Why a musical, apart from the fact that Nero was a “rock star” God-Emperor? Or is that basically it?


Richard Byrne: Honestly, I think it’s a play with music. It’s definitely flouting, and then tweaking, and at some points wreaking some havoc, with the traditional musical. But I basically call it a play with music.


Ibishblog: Here’s what it looks like from the audience: it looks like a play and a concert that oscillate back-and-forth.


Richard Byrne: Yeah and I think it’s very much what I wanted it to be and what it needed to be, because if we were going to go back a little bit to that family drama of Nero, I don’t think that that’s something that lends itself to anything interesting musically or emotionally. What’s interesting is how does the performative aspect of his rule play on the audience? What is it trying to do? How do people use it or not use it? Now that, for me, was interesting. And just knowing that he had written this epic poem about the fall of Troy, I wanted to use that.


Ibishblog: Is it true that those passages about Priam and such appear mainly at the end, because that’s how it seemed to me?


Richard Byrne: There are only three lines of it that actually survived. And they are towards the end. And again, that’s another thing that just kind of blossomed in my head, because this was probably the most famous poet of his age, and yet only three lines of his have survived. And why? Of course you can be the most famous poet of your time and still be horrible. It seems to have been doggerel on some level. Or worse than doggerel. I mean, when you read people writing about Nero there is a sense that he was competent, but not distinguished. And that it took him a hell of a lot of practice even to be competent. So, that again suggests that there was probably somebody in a monastery who thought Nero was a monster and just burned all his writings instead of transcribing them for us. And that’s a really interesting thing too.


Ibishblog: Okay, so we’ve got the musical, which is a concert playing merry havoc with the form, but specifically it’s very glam. Why?


Richard Byrne: I just thought that was the music that best reflected it. On some level it was a process of elimination, because Nero is not punk at all, and Nero is not really acid rock or anything like that. There are a lot of genres that aren’t bombastic and narcissistic enough to really lend themselves to a Neronian concert. Glam really does.


Ibishblog: Maybe there are some that are too much so, like prog? That should be bombastic enough, but maybe too much?


Richard Byrne: Yes, but also too musically subtle.


Ibishblog: Too cerebral?


Richard Byrne: Yes, too cerebral. It can’t really cow an audience.


Ibishblog: So you needed a genre that’s glamorous, bombastic and narcissistic and hard-driving but also very simple, and glam fit the bill perfectly.


Richard Byrne: Yes, exactly, that’s it. That’s why it’s perfect.


Ibishblog: And glam is also outrageous, and Nero was outrageous and flamboyant.


Richard Byrne: Yeah, and I think there is a lot of debate as to how exactly gender bending or whatever he was. But it’s very clear that he did marry this boy who looked like Poppaea. There’s a lot of debate about the other thing about him marrying his freedman, and whether that was just sort of vile gossip or whether that was part of a initiation rite into a specific cult. There’s just a lot of question about how ambisexual he was, but the historical residue about him is very ambisexual and pansexual and glam helps bring that out.


Ibishblog: Yes, you can build that into glam. There’s a lot of androgyny in glam, but also, which brings me to the other point about the genre, glam is such a broad category that there’s that saying, “it’s just rock ‘n roll with glitter.” Your musical cohort and co-author Jon Langford said it best when he pointed out, “glam covers everything from Brian Ferry to Slade.” So glam has a certain set of theatrical or modish stylistic touch points, but it doesn’t have a coherent set of musical stylistic identifiers, does it?


Richard Byrne: No, and that’s the thing, it was a mode. It was more than a fad, but it was a mode. And what’s interesting is to take just one very clear example of it. Mott the Hoople was essentially a pub rock band. They were a throwback. They were kind of an anachronistic band for 1969-70. They weren’t blazing any musical trails. But David Bowie just sort of, like Tinkerbell, gives them THE glam anthem.


Ibishblog: “All the Young Dudes.”


Richard Byrne: Exactly, and it’s the most “glam” song of all done by probably the least “glam” glam band of all. I find that very interesting. Roxy Music was much more consciously glam than Mott the Hoople. But what’s interesting is that you see groups like T. Rex and Slade who could not transcend the mode versus actual geniuses like Eno and Ferry and Bowie who transcended the mode: who went into the mode and then emerged from it again.


Ibishblog: Bowie came close to inventing it. T. Rex maybe comes first, but Bowie really solidifies what glam meant. By the time you get early Roxy Music, you’re getting at least 50% satire.


Richard Byrne: Yeah, but there’s just so much churning energy and intelligence that you know eventually it is going somewhere else.


Ibishblog: Completely, of course, you can already hear it in early Roxy Music because it’s such a bizarre mashup of styles and you’re talking about very intelligent people playing with everything they can dig out of everybody else’s dumpsters, usually making fun of it.


Richard Byrne: And take note of the way, especially after those first two Roxy Music records, how the third and fourth Roxy albums really run the gamut. There is everything there, from straight pub rock to prog rock. It’s all kind of muddled and mixed up. Like you say, it’s all there.


Ibishblog: I do think if you had to single out a specific glam band for maximal achievement artistically in that mode, it would have to be Roxy Music. With all due respect to Bowie, I think they went to a lot of different places a lot more quickly and moved beyond it really fast. Maybe they were seeing through it from the start. With Bowie, on the other hand, he simply leaves it behind.


Richard Byrne: He was bored with it, and he felt like ultimately it was both career defining and ending.


Ibishblog: It would’ve been.


Richard Byrne: It would have been, and he needed to reject it publicly and categorically.


Ibishblog: Probably the biggest difference is that he had more to say than anybody else, so he keeps on exploring, which is not quite true of Ferry. David Bowie’s the guy in that mix with the most ideas. Bowie and maybe Eno.


Richard Byrne: Ferry is comfortable now.


Ibishblog: With Bowie, you get the sense that he’ll never be comfortable. I mean he’s always going to be looking for the next thing, probably in his wheelchair.


Richard Byrne: So that’s why for me, glam was the most useful mode for this play.


Ibishblog: I have to say I think that it works spectacularly well, by the way. It’s something that makes no sense on paper, but the minute you walk into the theater, even before the play begins, as soon as the musician start playing you enter into that world very, very quickly and the glaminess of it all.


Richard Byrne: I have to give my applause to the director, Patrick Pearson, and the designers because they really did embrace the kind of anarchy and artistic anachronism that I was trying to foist on people and it really does work. They made it work, and I’m grateful to them for that.


Ibishblog: If there is a song that seems to define the mood, “Soul Love” seems to be a very strong presence.


Richard Byrne: Yes, and while I can’t speak for them, I think that when Jim Elkington and Jon Langford, who wrote the music, were looking for a way into the project that was helpful. Often you look for a touchtone first, that gives you an entry into a project. I think this was that for them. It’s a song that’s very recognizable from Ziggy Stardust, but it’s not one of the hits.


Ibishblog: Moving on from the glam stuff, at the end you have a remarkable piece of writing that’s beautifully delivered by your lead, Bradley Foster Smith, which is the decapitated head of the pseudo-Nero speaking in what would appear to be the voice of Nero himself. His voice certainly changes, and becomes contemptuous and angry and sounds embittered and imperial – whether of a monarch or a rock star. I find that passage, even though it comes at the end, to be a sort of the epicenter or the navel of the play. And most of the crucial ideas in the play, in my view, and correct me if I’m wrong, are expressed in that soliloquy. But the irony of the soliloquy is that it is in what would appear to be the voice of Nero, but coming out of the decapitated head of the pseudo-Nero, and so what is the audience to make of that, if you want to help us?


Richard Byrne: There are a couple of things, but I don’t want to tell you what to think. It’s not one thing. I tried to achieve a careful layering effect. I thought was very important that three things had to happen. One thing that had happened was that the two schemer characters of the play, the ones who make it all happen, had to see Nero for real. And I also felt that the audience needed to see Nero for real. The question is, how does that happen? And the ending is very much my attempt to, within the universe of the play, make that happen. And I do think it’s crucial, in a play about imposters, to have some nod to the real. Or at least to the author’s understanding of the real. I think the other thing that’s really important is that this was probably a very desperate and misbegotten misadventure, but it did have such powerful ripples and I wanted to acknowledge that. I felt responsible to the characters. I felt I needed to give them their due.


Ibishblog: Which character is getting his due here?


Richard Byrne: All of them. All of them are getting their due on some level. It helps to do a couple things. It gets the audience to a certain place. It recapitulates and underscores some of the earlier points. It brings the strands together. It serves a lot of functions, and the audience reaction to it has been really positive and I’m happy about that.


Ibishblog: Well, it’s a very thoughtful moment, I think without doubt the most powerful moment in the play, and anyone who thinks they’ve been watching a lark will be immediately disabused once that speech starts. I’d like to just push you a little bit more on the intersection between this ancient phenomenon and the quasi-contemporary, at least early 70s style, that you have put together here. What can we learn from this?


Richard Byrne: When you write something like this you want it to have layers, you want it to speak in different tongues, but with the unity within that difference. You want different voices that harmonize. Doing a play like this as a mere allegory on X is just not useful. I’m a little baffled by people who find it unclear. The spine of the play is an Emperor singing songs about the glory of elective war and conflagration as creative destruction as his acolytes are celebrating his divorce from the so-called reality-based community. There are definitely points of reference to our times.


Ibishblog: There is a hint of the “known unknowns” here?


Richard Byrne: There is definitely some of the “known unknowns” here, but I don’t want to give anyone answers. I really want people to use this collision of history and glam and politics and celebrity to just reflect a little bit on where we are, what do we clap for, and why do we engage or not engage with this very messy and often very narcissistic phenomenon of politics and celebrity and so forth.


Ibishblog: So what’s the future for Nero/Pseudo? This production cannot be the end of it! There is no way it’s just having this one run.


Richard Byrne: I’m talking with my musical collaborators and we will certainly be pursuing another production of it, and hopefully it will be as good as this one. I’m really proud of what we’ve done with it.


Ibishblog: You should be proud. I fully intend to see it again before it closes.


Anti-Semitism survey has the potential to mislead

Anti-Jewish rhetoric and the perception that Arabs are anti-Semitic is a blight on the contemporary Arab world, and poison for the Palestinian national movement. Palestinians must arrive at an agreement with Israel, and therefore have little hope of success if they are seen to proceed from an attitude of ­hatred.

That stipulated, the recent report on global anti-Semitism issued by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) – an international Jewish non-government organisation – is simultaneously illuminating and potentially misleading. Its findings are hardly surprising: it says there are high levels of anti-Semitism globally, and particularly among Palestinians and, to a lesser extent, other Arabs.

The methodology is revealing. The ADL pollsters asked a series of questions regarding Jewish power, conduct, international influence, and loyalty to Israel. In most countries, that’s probably a reasonable barometer of anti-Jewish sentiment, because it may indicate irrational suspicion of Jews and fear or exaggeration of their supposed influence.

However, for Palestinians who have lived under Israeli occupation since 1967 with no end in sight, such questions can’t and don’t mean the same thing as they do to populations in which Jews are a minority.

It’s absurd to ask Palestinians in the occupied territories about Jewish power, loyalty to Israel, influence in the United States, or placing their own ethnic interests first. After all, few Palestinians can remember a time when Israel did not control virtually every aspect of their lives, entirely in the interests of the Israeli military and Jewish settlers. Jewish settlers are privileged by the Israeli state at the expense of Palestinians in a manner that has no present-day analogue.

What answers could one rationally expect? The ripple effects of the occupation naturally flow throughout the Arab world. There is an additional wrinkle: in the Arab world the word “Jew” connotes “Israeli”, which in turn connotes the Israeli military or government.

It’s unlikely that most Palestinians being asked these questions would imagine ordinary Jewish people and families going about their daily business.

This is not to suggest the numbers are wrong or that there isn’t a dreadful, central problem for the Palestinians and Arabs to overcome. Until they do, the Palestinian ability to achieve their national goals will be badly hamstrung.

The ADL survey is potentially misleading in at least two other ways.

It did not, of course, measure Jewish or Israeli attitudes towards Arabs and Muslims, which are likely to be similarly negative if the existing survey results are any guide. Further, in many countries anti-Semitism is part of a broader constellation of chauvinism and xenophobia. In the West in particular, Jews and Muslims tend to be hated by precisely the same people in precisely the same way.

In France, other European states, and even the United States, the correlation between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia is instantaneously obvious both in its manifest and latent rhetorical content and in the perpetration of hate crimes directed against both communities by the same gangs of racists. Hatred of Muslims by others globally is unlikely to be significantly less of a problem than anti-Semitism.

Nonetheless, as Islamists have increasingly adopted classic European anti-Semitic tropes, there’s no question that anti-Semitism has been spreading among Arabs and Muslims. Some Arab-left nationalists, too, spread this poison. While they don’t have much of a political constituency, they continue to define much of the political correctness in the Arab world, with Islamists often mimicking their fundamental worldview.

All data suggest that hatred of Arabs and Muslims is also growing among Jewish Israelis and their allies around the world. What we are looking at, then, is not a decontextualised problem or a cause of the conflict. It is undeniably a consequence of the conflict.

The Zionist movement was not formed because European Jews hated Palestinians or Arabs. The Palestinian and Arab resistance to Zionism was not based on anti-Semitism, but anticolonialism, and their reaction would’ve been the same had the colonists been from Japan or Bolivia.

The most dangerous confusion surrounding the hatred between Arabs and Jews that has arisen over the past century is that it is a cause of the conflict and not an effect. Indeed, supporters of Israel, especially when they want to try to rationalise or justify the occupation, invariably speak in terms of a “culture of hate” or “terrorism” among Palestinians and other Arabs, of a refusal to accept the very concept of a Jewish state merely because of deeply ingrained anti-Semitism.

This gesture, which is the substitution of an effect for a cause, is, in fact, a familiar technique of classical rhetoric, a narrative device familiar from an ancient Greek form of metonymy known as metalepsis.

During the second intifada, at a debate at Harvard Business School, law professor Alan Dershowitz raised the “culture of hate” canard, trying to explain why there was a conflict without acknowledging the central, defining reality of the occupation. I pointed out that he was cynically substituting what was manifestly a predictable and inevitable effect of such a bitter and prolonged conflict for one of its causes.

“I guess I’m a metalepsist, then,” he quipped. I assured him that he was actually just an ordinary sophist.

Because hatred between Jews and Arabs is a direct consequence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the occupation – and not anything deeply seated in Jewish or Arab culture or religious beliefs – the key to ending this hate is, of course, ending the occupation and the conflict.

Bassem Sabry: An appreciation

The untimely death of public intellectual Bassem Sabry is a blow to Egypt and the entire Arab world

One always hesitates to write a eulogy. It inevitably feels unspeakably tawdry, because nothing one can put into words can do justice to the person being remembered. Worse, it feels vaguely exploitative. It may not come across that way as a reader, but writing fondly about the departed often feels transgressive. It’s the same sickly feeling one would probably get by crashing an intimate family gathering.

Time, perhaps, ameliorates that feeling of transgression, which is probably why all of my remembrances of those who have passed away tend to come later than people would expect. I suppose I’m hoping that a “decent interval” will make the experience somehow feel less obnoxious.

I waited as long as I could before putting together my thoughts on Bassem Sabry, who passed away at the tragically young age of 31 last month. When I heard about his death, it was immediately clear to me that the Arab world in general, and Egypt in particular, had lost a major asset, someone who would certainly have made an extraordinary contribution in coming years.

Even at his young age, he had already made his mark. He was respected internationally as an activist and thinker of the first caliber. And he takes with him rare qualities that Egyptians and other Arabs have in disturbingly short supply. We simply cannot afford to lose people like him: we just don’t have enough of them.

First, he was an extraordinarily good person. Decent, right down to the core. There are a lot of people all over the world, including the Middle East, who are fundamentally good and decent. Probably most are.

But the unusual thing that Bassem was able to do was to be good and decent both in his politics as he conceptualized them, and in his dealings with those he disagreed with.

The outpouring of shock and raw emotion at his death from people on every side of a deeply divided Egyptian society is the most powerful testament. Radicals, liberals, Islamists, traditionalists, and others all expressed profound sorrow. It’s not that they all agreed with him; most of them didn’t. It’s that he had demonstrated an unusual willingness to treat them all with respect and consideration.

Bassem was a genuine liberal in the best sense of the term. He actually wanted a pluralistic society in which people with serious differences could openly and passionately disagree without being disagreeable. In the contemporary Arab world, Egypt included, there are very few people who are able to not only espouse that ideal but to demonstrate in practice how it looks. Bassem did exactly that. Through openness, patience, and a serious, practical commitment to the values of pluralism and tolerance, he was living out the principles of a decent society.

I regarded his work as crucial not only because I fundamentally agreed with his values, but even more so because, in my view, there was a powerful pedagogical element to the way he was conducting himself: modest and respectful, but unwavering on core ideals. This, his public engagement seemed to say, is how reasonable people ought to conduct themselves in a society in flux and under difficult circumstances. This is what it looks like.

What’s more, Bassem was brilliant in a region and a world that cannot spare its brilliant sons and daughters. He was initially one of a cadre of young Egyptian public intellectuals and bloggers who became known outside of their country in the course of the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak. However, Sabry, at least in my own mind, established himself as particularly insightful when he was the first to predict, several months in advance, that Mohammed Morsi would be the next Egyptian president.

Bassem pieced together a straightforward puzzle, but one that had previously eluded everybody else. Khairat el-Shater would not be allowed to run on technicalities. The Muslim Brotherhood would nonetheless field a Freedom and Justice Party candidate. Morsi would almost certainly be that candidate, and would probably win. No sooner had he sketched out the scenario than the pieces began to fall into place, and exactly what he had anticipated happened.

But even if it hadn’t, because things can always change, it was a brilliant piece of political analysis. After that, I didn’t read Bassem occasionally: I read him religiously. And I had numerous Skype conversations and meetings with him, which I will always treasure. Particularly when discussing Egypt, he invariably managed to teach me something important.

His death was a tragic and untimely loss, not just for his friends and family, but for his country and the region. Bassem Sabry was a rare talent and a remarkable young man. Selfishly, and somewhat transgressively put, we simply do not have enough people of his caliber to spare them to the cruel caprices of fortune.