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mardi 1 avril 2014

Thoughts about ideology and economy

Veteran jouralist Masood Farivar has an interesting opinion piece in the New York Times, reflecting on foreign fighters in  Syria. Farivar explains that the motives of foreign fights kept them apart from the Afghans fighting agains the Soviets.
Their foreign tongues, their strange garb and mien and, above all, their reasons for fighting kept them apart. Their novice’s clumsiness drew giggles; their religious dogmatism baffled us. And their suicidal embrace of martyrdom caused revulsion.
He then examines the motivations some fighters have, but while acknowledging they may be complex, he does not find them to pose a threat to the US. 

This is interesting to hear. There's been a lot of talk about the threat posed by returning fighters, while has struck me as overblown. Or, that it's the wrong way to look at the issue.

Farivar dismisses the idea of typing foreign fighters, yet it does have some utility.
In an attempt to understand the foreign fighters, some Western experts have crafted caricatures — the revenge-seeker, the status-seeker, the identity-seeker and so on — but the legion of fighters with varied and often overlapping motives defy easy stereotypes.
Certainly, real people will not fit nicely into one of these profiles, but understanding the issue through this lens offers some insight. In Anthropology, it is important to differentiate between individual change, often linked to the life cycle,  and larger, cultural change. So, we can observe that the phenomenon of men (and women) going abroad to fight for a cause is nothing new. A good example is the Spanish Civil War, which attracted soldiers worldwide. A similar comparison can also be made with the wave of leftist guerrilla violence throughout Europe in the 1970s and 80s (Baader-Meinhof, Brigate Rosse, Action Directe). Jihadist groups can be viewed as the current manifestation, not necessarily a unique or different threat.

My argument is that the problem is not young people in search of meaning, but conditions that allow the general population  to sympathize with them. Thus focusing on returning fighters, or even on the threat of lone wolves, is not a particularly useful endeavor. Instead, if states are genuinely interested in cutting down on violence, their best course of action is to right the wrongs that most concern their populations.

Looking at the above examples, one may notice that both coincide with periods of economic turmoil (the Great Depression, Oil Crisis/stagflation). I don't wish to reduce a complex situation to a numbers game, but as Bill Clinton famously said "It's the economy, stupid." Thus, when people suffer economically and concerned about inequality, this kind of movement seems more attractive. 

And here's why Farivar's article is relevant to this blog's theme. Many commentators have speculated on the mayhem that returning fighters could cause in the Maghreb countries. In Tunisia especially, where the population is less used to this kind of violence, tensions run high. But I maintain that the most serious problems in Tunisia are not religious or political, but economic. Similar arguments could be made relative to the inequalities in Morocco. I'm not sure if the same can be said for Algeria, and would welcome feedback.


lundi 13 janvier 2014

Cultural Preservation, Collaboration, ...Colonialism?

The New York Times ran a piece about the National Museum in Afghanistan. While your blogger whole-hardheartedly sympathizes with the conservators working so hard to put objects back together, the way the article was presented posed several problems.

The first was the harping on the role of the Taliban in destroying cultural property. The story of the Bamiyan Buddhas is well known, and the idea of destroying centuries old treasures turns the stomach, but focusing on the Taliban obscures and downplays other threats to cultural property. In fact, the article does detail some of the looting:
The looted objects have also been returning, as word has gotten around to customs agents worldwide about how to identify Afghan artifacts. In recent years, Interpol and Unesco have teamed up with governments around the world to interdict and return at least 857 objects — some of them priceless, like 4,000-year-old Bactrian princess figurines that had disappeared from the National Museum. Another 11,000 objects have been returned after being seized by the border authorities at Afghanistan’s own frontiers.
Of course, some of the people destroying certain objects may have been the very same people turning a profit on stolen goods. After all, the Taliban does not hesitate to profit from drug trafficking, even though using drugs is generally considered to be forbidden. Whoever is stealing from the Museum and other institutions, it is a threat that will remain, with or within the Taliban. 

The next troubling point was the emphasis placed on the team from the University of Chicago. Having worked on a museum collection-focused project that included Chicago, the issue is not their expertise or professionalism. Rather, the problem is minimizing the other international teams, and even more importantly, the Afghani professionals. For instance, why don't the French archeological  teams, who apparently did the majority of the work, deserve to be mentioned by name? 

Minimzing the contributions of the Afghani team is an even greater problem. Consider this man:
Afterward, people like Abdullah Hakimzada, a restorer who has spent the past 33 years working at the museum, were on hand to sweep up the fragments of the objects that the Taliban smashed — sorting many of them hurriedly into sacks and boxes that later would help the reassembly work.
Imagine spending more than three decades, almost all of it during wartime, working at something that requires great skill, concentration, and more than likely, great personal sacrifice. The others mentioned by name in the article (Mohammad Yahyeh Muhibzada and Omara Khan Masoudi) likely demonstrate similar commitment and Mr. Muhibzada (the archivist) probably has specialized training. The write-up seemed to overly exoticize the Afghan Museum and to paint its staff as colorful characters, rather than professionals. 

This view has been overly present in reporting about looting and museums, as reported in the NYT and elsewhere. It's easy to draw a parallel with the Timbuktu manuscripts. And it taps into an attitude toward cultural property that assumes the residents of the countries from which is comes are unable to appreciate its worth and need an outsider to do the work or make them realize its importance.


The reality is more complicated than that. From a strictly technical viewpoint, their training and materials may not measure up to the prevailing international standard. Many of these workers are acutely aware of this. And they are also aware of the threats to these treasured objects in dangerous situations. Refering to objects on tour in Europe, Mr. Hakimzada said, "I personally hope they never return. At least where they are now, we know they are safe.” 

And yet, they are equally aware of their importance. Mr Muhibzada's statement is clear: “Archaeological artifacts are our national identity. It’s our national responsibility to protect them so future generations will know who we are and who we were.”

The Western view of Afghanistan (and other current war zones, like Mali) is a reductive one, composed mostly of tribesmen, misery and lawlessness. Calling the Museum's collections "relics" plays into this idea. It assumes that the culture in museums is the only one worth saving. As I am lucky enough to work in a large university library, I am aware of the works of literature that Afghan authors have managed to publish over the past fifteen years. Thanks to Twitter, I know of many courageous people in Mali who are tremendously dedicated both to expanding education and to preserving cultural artifacts. 

Certainly, these countries suffer from poverty, war, and lack of educational and cultural resources. The people there do not need outsiders to point out these deficits. But they also don't need to be viewed as uncultured and backward. In the United States (or in France, where I have also lived) there may be a high level of official culture, but there are plenty of social problems as well. It's unfair and arrogant to adopt such a condescending attitude towards the cultural production and preservation happening elsewhere in the world.

Some of the other problems with the article are not speciic to the situation in Afghanistan, but are instead gripes with the way the media portrays museums and conservation. And let's pay attention to the term I used; restoration and conservation are not really the same thing. 

Since I have been working since my undergraduate days in related fields, I may be especially sensitive to how this work is described. And yet, insisting on employing the correct term is directly germane to the issues raised in this article. Conservators subscribe to a code of ethics, they do not put something in an object that was not there before, nor do they intentionally erase anything original. And they treat every object with the same respect, from priceless national treasures to family documents. And this outlook was clear from the comments made by the National Museum's staff.

Finally, it is important to address the idea of professional exchange and collaboration as it was portrayed in the article and more widely in the field. Differing levels of professional training exist around the globe. It is wonderful to be able to benefit from other practitioners' expertise and I know personally of wonderful collaborations that have taken place around the world. However, I am also aware of others that have gone less well. In order to be successful, it is imperative to approach the situation with the right attitude. An experienced practitioner can share his or her skills, but everyone brings something to the plate. The contribution of the Chicago and French teams is important, but the Afghan staff are not empty vessels.

This is something about which I have very strong feelings. I hope to see less of this hierarchical, one-directional understanding of Culture, and instead see a more inclusive view emerge. I believe that this change in attitude may also serve to diminish future destruction of cultural property, by breaking down unnecessary barriers and feelings of resentment from people who have felt slighted.
 


dimanche 10 novembre 2013

Taking a Break/Une petite pause

This blog has been silent for quite some time now, not because there is nothing to say, but in fact because there is too much. The events taking place in the Maghreb region (and in the Sahel) have led me to see that I am lacking some background information that would allow me (and many others) to understand current developments more completely. Therefore, I am embarking on a new adventure. Since I have recently gotten a new position at a university library, I have access to a wealth of works on every imaginable topic. I will choose and review those that are useful to readers who share my interests. Keep an eye out for some to be posted shortly and hopefully, readers can benefit from this resource.

Depuis un certain moment, ce blog reste muet -- non pas parce qu'il n'y a rien à dire, mais plutôt l'invers : les événements se succèdent un peu trop vite. L'actualité au maghreb (et au sahel) me fait découvrir des lacunes des connaissances du fond et du contexte. Alors, je me lance dans une nouvelle aventure. Ayant décrochée un poste dans unebibliothèque universitaire, j'ai accès à toute une panoplie des ouvrages, dont je choisirai les plus intéressants pour en faire de brèves critiques. Affaire à suivre et profitez-en!

mardi 6 août 2013

Single mothers in Tunisia

Your blogger translated this in-depth report about single mothers and the work of the Amal Association in Tunisia.

It's useful that Nawaat includes these kinds of dossiers (Society, Economy) as well as the up to the minute political content. Many people, even those who may have visited Tunisia on holiday, don't know very much about the country, or only know what they see in headlines. Nawaat helps fill that void and your blogger is proud to help, even if the contribution is minute.

mardi 29 janvier 2013

Who gets to interpret religion?

Hannah Armstrong, who is a Institute of Current World Affairs fellow in the Sahel and someone your blogger follow enthusiastically on Twitter (), wrote another interesting piece on Mali in the New York Times.

She contrasts the violent, authoritarian attitude of the various jihadi groups in Northern Mali with the gentler tactics of the High Council of Islam:
who uniformly decry violence and defend the importance of working alongside the Malian state — unlike the jihadis up north. And unlike the Gulf-inspired radicalism of those jihadis, the H.C.I. groups together Muslims of wide-ranging ideologies. Some represent the local brand of Sufism, for which music, fetishes and gender mixing are quite ordinary; others subscribe to the conservative Wahhabi strain of Islam, an import from Saudi Arabia.
While some of the comments on her piece took issue with the statements of one of the cheikhs she interviewed, the role that religion takes in public life is an important and complicated issue, throughout the MENA region (and related territories, like Mali). The controversy in Mali over celebrating the Prophet Muhammad's birthday mirrors similar tensions elsewhere, much as religious firebrands destroy saints' mausoleums from Timbuktu to Tunis.

While recent turmoil in Egypt has tarnished Western views of the Muslim Brotherhood, this doesn't mean that religious leaders can't play a useful and constructive role in the civil society of Muslim countries. However, these leaders are a varied group and there is no single version of what Islam is, or how religion and politics should co-exist. Hannah's points are interesting, and the questions her piece raises about the Arab-centric nature of Muslim discourse and its racist undercurrents warrant further investigation:


One Malian recently tweeted ... : “These Arab Islamists are racists for they only conceive of Islam as being by Arabs, blacks are just second class.” He, like most black southern Malians, who overwhelmingly support the intervention, do not grant Arab countries a monopoly on the interpretation of Islam. They favor their own version, leavened by pluralism and compromise-seeking.

mardi 15 janvier 2013

How We Can Mimize the Chance of Future Tragedies

In the wake of the shooting in Newtown, myriad theories have been trotted out to the tragedy, and an even wider selection of solutions proposed to prevent similar attacks. Because America is so atypical in terms of gun violence, we focus on what these killers do and not what drives them to do so. And while the gun issue is serious, our focus should be on bringing disaffected young men into the fold and removing the factors that cause them to snap.

It is not an accident that most of these atrocities are committed by men, nor that their frequency is increasing. And while they may be hard to profile, we can still do something about it. Dr. Michael Stone of the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City explains: “People usually don’t commit mass murder more than once. Usually you’re dealing with an angry, dissatisfied person who has poor social skills or few friends, and then there is a trigger that sets them off.”

Let's focus on that characterization: angry and dissatisfied with poor social skills. There is a link between poor social skills and depression and both of these factors seem to be at play with mass killers. Further, men struggle with depression differently from women and have trouble seeking help. However, among the healthy coping mechanisms suggested are support from friends and family and taking part in enoyable activites.

Discussing gender gets complicated quickly, and brings out strong feelings. As a variety of commentators have pointed out, changes in our society are difficult for men, who suffer from what they perceive as giving up some of their entitlements. Yet proposing anything geared toward men provokes a defensive reaction from women, who justifiably fear losing their gains. Any viable solution, therefore, needs to address men's needs without shortchanging women.

Here are three concrete suggestions to improve men's social skills and reduce the frequency of tragic violent incidents:

  • Expand educational and training opportunities. While a college education is useful for those who succeed academically, it may not be the best choice for everyone. Training programs that provide skills needed for employment would play an important role in preparing men for jobs.

  • Increase recreational opportunities for youth and adults. Evidence suggests that engaging in sporting activities has a positive effect on psychosocial health, particularly for people who are depressed.

  • Decrease the emphasis on drug crimes in the justice system. Many people in jail on drug charges do not necessarily pose a threat to others. Limiting incarceration for these kinds of crimes would cut down on pulling families apart, refocus police resources, and prevent non-violent offenders from being exposed to criminal networks in prison.

While these three initiatives are designed to support men, they would also benefit women. Training and apprenticeship programs help prepare people for a changing job market. And men and women alike can improve their health, happiness and create social bonds through recreational activities. Finally, while keeping non-violent offenders out of jail would help these men by allowing them to remain employed, it would also help their families, especially by making them available to their children and more stable partners for their spouses.

These measures would not completely eliminate tragic, violent incidents. It's unrealistic to believe there is any kind of panacea. However, responses that don't address the root of the problem will do less good than the initiatives proposed above, and might do more harm. Although it requires funds and effort, using these resources for a constructive purpose now is better than using them later to respond to tragedy.

samedi 29 décembre 2012

Friend or Foe?

There's an interesting piece of analysis in the New York Times about rising Sunni power in the Middle East. 

It focuses on Egypt, Turkey and Qatar and the role they play in countering the so-called "Shia Crescent", of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. And while it's true that power is shifting in the Middle East, choosing to side with emerging powers is not the best move for the US or European allies.

Your blogger responded to the article in the comments section:

A longer view of who is an ally and who is enemy shows that none of these situations is immutable. Iran was a close ally under the Shah, but not as the Islamic Republic. However, the mistake is interpret a link between religious governments and anti-American sentiment that does not take into account American actions. If populations vote for Islamist parties, it means those parties were able to appeal to enough people to win an election.
The question is why they are appealing and part of why is that secular leaders, often in concert with America, were often a disaster, enriching themselves while failing to develop their countries, repressing their populations, and leading many of their citizens to feel powerless and humiliated. Choosing an alternative (which is usually Islamist, since dictators made organizing other opposition next to impossible) is a way for them make their voices heard and maybe secure governments more responsive to the needs of their population.
While none of this augurs a situation where these countries are close American allies, nothing prevents useful cooperation on areas of shared interest, which might be better for the US in the long run, anyway.
The article does question US relations with leaders in the changing Middle East, but it continues to assume that American governments should and will exercise influence over these leaders.
Clearly the old leaders Washington relied on to enforce its will, like President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, are gone or at least eclipsed. But otherwise confusion reigns in terms of knowing how to deal with this new paradigm, one that could well create societies infused with religious ideology that Americans find difficult to accept. The new reality could be a weaker Iran, but a far more religiously conservative Middle East that is less beholden to the United States.
If newly elected governments in the Middle East are more conservative, that reflects the choice of their populations. Now, there is a big difference between voting for an alternative and that vote signaling a mandate to implement widespread social changes, as opposition in Egypt and Tunisia demonstrates.

Your blogger also takes issue with the way that anti-American sentiment and religious conservatism are linked. Islamists are not nearly so concerned with how Americans live their lives at home as they are with US Foreign Policy's effects on their lives. Thus, being religious does not make someone anti-American, but suffering the effects of American policies may drive Middle Easterners to identify more closely with their religion.

Currently, populations in the Middle East are debating the role religion should play in government and more broadly in society. Although this debate is not new (there is a great deal of scholarly writing on the subject, throughout Islamic history and not just the 19th Century thinkers whose influence is still important), the difference today is that it is more democratic. Higher levels of literacy and the interconnectedness that technology makes possible allow a far greater number of people to take part in the discussion.

However, this is not a discussion that the US should expect to influence directly. There is a large difference between a useful exchange of ideas and a heavy-handed imposition of norms.  Many of the freedoms that underpin the American constitution do serve as an inspiration for people the world over, but how they choose to protect them is their business. 

The best course is for Western powers to avoid being too closely bound with any Middle Eastern governments. Where cooperation is possible, working together should be encouraged, but taking sides, either with particular leaders, or with one faction against another risks not only embroiling the US in conflicts we do not fully understand, but also further hurts our reputation abroad and adds legitimacy to anti-American sentiments.

And if that didn't convince you, there's a hilarious send-up of the Iran-Contra scandal from American Dad that demonstrates the pitfalls of taking sides and being overly involved in the internal affairs of other countries:



Update: Juan Cole also wrote a piece about the same issue, although less America-focused. Here are what he sees as the biggest changes from a US perspective:

A Sunni-dominated Levant would not necessarily be hostile to the US, though it is likely to bear some grudges for US inaction in Syria. But it would likely be severely hostile to Israel. A galvanized Syrian population and a revolutionary government, plus their support for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, could introduce dangerous new frictions, at a time when the Likud Party in Israel is moving even further to the right. Increased Syrian-Israel tension is likely to be one outcome. A strengthened Hamas might well be another (Hamas is realigning away from Syria-Iran and toward Egypt-FSA).