Monday, April 24, 2017

Nazi World Theory by Waldemar Gurian

One of the most amazing instances of human self-deception –which, unfortunately, are all too frequent – is that there are    hundreds of thousands of thousands of unsuspecting Christians who after reading his book, Mein Kampf, are somehow able to consider Adolf Hitler as a well-wisher or even, due allowance being made for error in matters  of detail, as a firm adherent, of the Christian faith. No one in Germany would dare to make a public and impartial inquiry into the religious content of his work, of which  millions of copies have been distributed throughout the country, accompanied by the most intensive official publicity – the work which Ministerprasident Goring, speaking at Breslau as recently as October 26th, 1935, designated as “the fundamental document” of National Socialism. Consequently, controversial religious literature in Germany, no matter whether it emanates from the Christian or the neo-pagan camp, invariably presents a distorted picture of the “Fuhrer’s” attitude towards Christianity. Since the key to the policy of the N.S.D.A.P. [National Socialist Labor Party] in cultural and ecclesiastical affairs, and that of the State which is in its power, is to be found only in his book, the official exposition of the Nationalist party program, we have no option but to investigate the fundamental religious views set forth in this Bible of the Third Reich.*

We shall begin by discussing passages which are relatively frank, for without them it is impossible  to grasp the true meaning of those which are cited as nauseam by the Christians as proof of the Fuhrer’s good will, but where, in fact, he is not sincere.

Our first quotation, Fromm Part II (Ch.5), which deals with the National Socialist  Weltanschauug (world theory) and the organization, seems to us to be more enlightening than any other.

A world theory is intolerant and is not content with being one Party amongst a number of other Parties; it insists on exclusive and persistent recognition of itself and on an absolutely new conception of the whole public life in accordance with its views. Thus it cannot tolerate continuance of a force representing former conditions.
It is the same with religions.
Christianity was not content with merely erecting its own altar; it was forced to proceed to destroy the alters of the heathen. Such fanatical intolerance alone made it possible to build up that adamantine creed; it is an absolutely essential condition of its existence.

The objection may well be made that most of these phenomena of world history are productions of a specifically Jewish mentality, that this kind of intolerance and fanaticism is the very embodiment of the Jewish character. This may well be so, and we may deeply deplore the fact and with an all too justifiable misgiving determine its appearance in the history of mankind as something that had been foreign to it hitherto – but this makes no difference to the fact that this is the condition of things today. The men who want to rescue our German people from its present condition have not to worry about how nice it would be if such and such a thing did not exist, but they must try to make up their minds how the actual state of affairs can be done away with. A world theory animated by devilish intolerance can be broken only by a new conception impelled by a similar spirit and fought for with an equally strong will, but a conception that is pure and sincere.

The individual may realize with pain that with the appearance of Christianity there came into the much freer world of the ancients the first instance of spiritual terrorism. He cannot, however, dispute the fact that thenceforth the world has been oppressed and dominated by this force, and that force is broken only by force, and terrorism by terrorism. Only by building up on thee methods can a new condition of affairs be brought about.

What is the difference between “world theory” and “religion” according  to Hitler?  He has been very careful not to give a direct answer to the question in his book, but were his hints to be formulated into a definition it would read as follows: A world theory claims to say everything essential that there is to be said about this life on earth and from a practical standpoint to totally govern it; a religious belief, on the other hand, is an aggregate of dogmas concerning the world to come, which  “helps to raise man above the level of animal existence” and thus “contributors to the solidification and the safe-guarding of his existence,” but it has nothing to say about earthly matters any more more than a political, “this-world” movement ought to interfere with its “other-world” theory, provided its keeps within its proper bounds. This is what is meant by: “Political parties ought to have nothing to do with religious problems, as long as they are not undermining the morals of the race; in the same way religion should not be mixed up with Party intrigues.”

Hitler considers that this duty of keeping religion and world theory separate is especially incumbent on a people that is religiously divided (i.e,. divided as to its creeds) as the German. Wherefore, by reason of its super-sensitiveness in matter of belief , every temptation to mix world theory with religion must be resisted

Even when it is inspired with the idea of promoting the higher interests of the national community. For religious feeling is still more deeply seated than any political or national expediency. And this condition will not be altered by driving the two creeds into bitter warfare against each other, but it could be altered if by mutual conciliation the nation were given a future whose greatness would gradually have a pacificatory effect in this sphere.

What is it then, that will bring about a state of affairs in which religious feeling will no longer be so deeply seated as the people’s welfare, as Hitler understands it? A great national future, the foundation for which , according to Hitler himself and the National Socialists who have played a part in public affairs, has already been laid.

The most overwhelming proof of this was afforded on the last occasion when our people was summoned before he judgment-seat of history to fight a life-and-death struggle for existence. As long as there was leadership the people did its duty in the most impressive manner. Both Protestant  pastor and Catholic priest helped enormously to sustain our powers of resistance which held out for so long, not only at the Front but also, even more, at home. During those years, and especially at the first blazer-up, for both camps there was only one Holy German Empire, for whose preservation and continued existence each man besought his own particular Heaven.

 To repeat the pithy formula uttered by Kerrl ( Reich Minister for Church Affairs) on October 16th, 1935  in Berlin: 
Religion has nothing to do with practical affairs in this life” and, since it threatens to split the Germans into various denominations, it must be thrust into the background by great national, unifying experiences. This is Hitler’s opinion expressed in his book, according to which he has no intention of declaring war on the Church, but, on the contrary, is doing his level best to whistle off those of his followers who favor over-drastic measures and want to emulate the escapades of a Dinter or a  General Ludendorff**, which do not good to his cause from a propagandists point of view.

“A political leader must never meddle with the religious doctrines and institutions . . .any other attitude would lead to catastrophe, especially in Germany.”

Hitler foresaw very clearly that nothing would be more dangerous for his movement for people to realize in good time that their faith was being taken away from them or was being gradually being transformed. Consequently he has no desire to take it away or transform it so long as it confines itself to the next world, to metaphysical speculation and pious other-worldliness and keep sits hands off the world. But should it follow in the steps of John the Baptist and refuse to connive at wrong as though it were right,. Should not be content to be an emotional religiosity of “pure inwardness” or a “dogmatic faith”, of some abstract pseudo –orthodoxy, then Hitler has nothing severe enough to say about the the abuser of religion for political purposes.

“At all periods of history there have been unscrupulous rogues who have used religion to further their political ends, and it was nearly always politics and politics only which was the motive.” But, continues the experience propagandist, no more ghastly error could be committed than to attack the creed itself (“which these cunning foxes know perfectly well has nothing to do with politics”) and thus enable scheming hypocrites to play the role of defenders of the faith.

*I.e. the National Socialist  State. The first Reich, or Empire, lasted from the ninth century till 1806, the second was established by Bismarck (1871-1918).

** a pagan worshiper of the Nordic god Wotan (Odin); he detested not only Judaism, but also Christianity, which he regarded as a weakening force.
 Dinter's goals were not so much political as overridingly religious. In 1927 he founded the Geistchristliche Religionsgemeinschaft ("Spiritual Christian Religion Community")

Hitler and the Christians by  Waldemar Gurian; Sheed &Ward, London, 1936

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Rap-e Farsi by Nahid Siamdoust

By the time this new generation of underground rappers came of age, a few years into the new millennium, the world was a whole different place from the one in which Iran’s first post-revolutionary generation of alternative and underground musicians (mostly rock and fusion artists) had grown up. The youth of Iran’s Third Generation ( nasl-e sevvom) came of age entirely during the Islamic Republic, with no memory of the revolution and little or no memory of the war. For most of them, the worst years of repression were over by the time they hit their later teens. Their consciousness was born with the election of the reformist president Mohammad Khatami in 1997, whose policies allowed for greater cultural and intellectual freedom and tolerance. Despite serious pushback by hard-liners – in the form of renegade groups within the Intelligence Ministry, carrying out the “Chain Murders” of intellectuals and journalists or basijis meting out violence to students in the 1999 Tehran University protests- Khatami’s policies continued to allow for greater openness in the public and cultural spheres. Concurrent with the Khatami government’s policies of greater freedoms, two important factors affected the lives and worldviews of this particular generation.

The first of these was the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the ensuing Manichaean proclamation by George W. Bush to the world, “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” putting Iran into a vulnerable position. Over the following years, as  the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, anti-Islamic and anti-Iranian rhetoric was prevalent in Western politics and media, and no Iranian could be oblivious to it. With images of death and destruction pouring in from neighboring countries, and their own country under the threat of attack by the US, Iranian youth were forced to define their positions vis-a-vis this new world order. As reflected in their cultural productions, this younger generation was less reactionary against the state and patriotic themes pervaded its rap songs.

The other crucial development during the early years of the new millennium was an increase in access to the Internet and its transnational system.  Defiance against the international order combined with openness to global influences. Music, especially hip-hop and rap, became a “vehicle for global youth affiliations and a tool for reworking local identities all over the world.” The Internet, not-with-standing the often vicious cat and mouse game of government control and censorship ( Iran has one of the world’s toughest), became a means by which Iranians were able to communicate political and social sentiments in a shared ‘semi-secret’ public sphere [to make a long story short!] Furthermore, no one can now accurately estimate  the number of satellite  dishes in Iran today. Underground workshops are kept busy replacing those that are confiscated by the government, and  new channels originating inside and outside Iran keep proliferating. Blue-tooth  technology also serves to circumvent government restrictions to spread live-events, music and audio clips.  Recognizing the limits of its abilities to control the situation, the government itself provides programming and on-line downloading  sites run in semi-official ways that satisfy consumer demands without too often raising the ire of the more conservative elements of society.

Hence, the Third Generation  has found itself under a magnifying glass, not only because it constitutes a large proportion of Iran’s population, but also because its  its cultural productions have entered into the households and families of at least half of all Iranians. Some call them “Satan-Worshippers” but even some conservatives take a more measured view. A report commissioned by the Islamic Revolution Document Center titled “ The Islamic Revolution and the Confrontation with the Third Generation” first quotes the most revered Shia Imam Ali on young people, saying: “Don’t constrict your children in your ways and customs; they have been created for a different time than yours.” The report expressed confidence that this generation would support the continuation of the Islamic revolution in their own way, mostly through aesthetics and art, that it has a critical soul and is committed to Iranian culture and  traditions, to religion and morality.

In an address to students at Amir Kabir University on 27 February, 2001 Supreme Leader Khamenei derided “ the enemy’s claims that the Third Generation is no longer committed to the ideas of the revolution. . . "Seeking justice will never become old; seeking freedom and independence will never become old; fighting foreign interference will never become old; these are values that will always appeal to the generations.”

But such positive remarks did not eliminate government censure of the rap genre, As it turned out,  however, Iranian culture, with its strong poetic heritage, has accommodated this new word-centric music well and has been embraced and Iranianized in a way that rock music still has not. ‘People understand its language and stories . . . since its base is among the common people  with common language.’( wrote musicologist Arvin Sedaqatkish).  Repressive measures by the government just helped make it more popular with young people.

There is a lot of writing on Rap-e Farsi, with a number of academics taking part in seminars and publishing papers on ‘underground’  music. Observers overlap in their view that rap’s most pertinent quality within the Iranian sphere is its capacity for divulging ‘the truth’ or criticism. One writes that “Persian rap is a form of social commentary and empowerment through self-expression . . .an act of retaliation against authority and prejudice,’ and others agree. Its popularity with youth is attributed to directness , openness and capacity to allow for biographical storytelling as a means of protest and critique.

Neither do rappers need formal training. Rap doesn’t cost much and is easy to produce and share its main feature. It’s more open to women than any other musical genre in Iran.

Soroush Lashkary’s artist name, Hichkas, means ‘no one’ in Persian. In earlier interviews he said he chose the name to ‘create a contrast between the name that I want to have with my words.” In later interviews, once he was well known, he said that he chose the name because it signifies the humility of the luti (neighborhood enforcer – javanmard in the old days) and the importance of remaining down to earth.

Prior to the population explosion of Tehran in the 1960s and 70s, there existed a sort of public sphere within each neighborhood and district, where people knew each other and the neighborhood lutis were prominent. In its best modern embodiment, the luti is an exemplary, chivalrous man of neighborhood or regional repute who agitates for justice, often in a gang with other such lutis, whose social ethic is centered on selflessness and who possesses the quality of a man, referring to his courage, honor, modesty, humility and rectitude. A lutis social capital and power is of course entirely dependent on his recognition by others, especially other lutis, as bearing those qualities and their subservience to him. In  the context of this structure , Lashkary portrays himself at the top luti within Rap-e Farsi, reaching back into Iranian tradition and drawing on an old ethic based on notions of honor for the construction of a public persona.

First, like the lutis of earlier times, Hichkas claims the streets for himself and his gang, whom he variously refers to as bachchehha or bax (an abbreviation  denoting ‘children’ or ‘guys’ in English) or ‘a bunch of soldiers.’ This claiming of the streets gains even more meaning within the context of the Islamic Republic, wherein the government claims to control the street.  Second, Hichkas follows the code’s great emphasis on the quest for justice. Hichkas presents this preoccupation both in his songs –often protesting unjust conditions- and in his barely veiled political comments in interviews and public appearances, where he says, “We are against oppression in general, wherever it appears; whether it comes from my mother or anywhere else, opposing oppression is a priority.” Third, as contained in the etymology of the word itself, the javanmardi value sytem is based on ideas of mardanegi (manliness), which in turn are ultimately built on notions of honor. This aspect of the old value system or ethic expresses itself in Hichkas’s work though an emphasis on the pride he feels in his Iranianness, i.e. modern-day nationalism. That same idea of honor (namus) or pride in one’s country also extends to other entities that are under a man’s protection, such as his wife, family and reputation. Hichkas  confirmed  this in the response he gave when I asked him why he cared so much about Iran’s honor. He responded, “I don’t know. It’s kind of like gheyrat.” ( a term that connotes a combination of zeal and honor-based jealousy). As gender studies scholar Afsaneh Najmabadi has explained, historically, in Iran, namus was closely linked to the maleness of nation and the femaleness of homeland and was constituted as subject to male possession and protection in both domains; gender honor and national honor intimately informed each other. Hence, Hichkas’s discourse of protecting the nation’s honor allows- heteronormatively- for the performance of masculinity among a wide segment of disenfranchised young men who this form an entity – a ‘bunch of soldiers’- to rival the might of the state.

Borrowing the recent form of rap diction yet integrating Persian instruments, Hichkas blends macho elements of the Iranian javanmardi ethic with those integral to American rap culture, creating a unique sound that resonates with his mainly young, male, Internet-savvy, and globally aware listeners from mostly traditional family backgrounds. With sabers on their belts, Hichkas’s gang is proud to live and die Iranian and is prepared to take up arms if there is war. Again, Hichkas offers an alternative gang to other organized groups within Iranian society: one based on religion, namely the tekkiyehs (spaces, often private, that are clubs for religious commemoration), and others based on the might of the state, namely the Revolutionary  Guard or its associates, the basij, from whom his ‘gang’ is to be distinguished not by lack of religious faith but by a relatively permissive lifestyle.

 Thus Hichkas’s  posture of fearlessness is compelling in an environment where Iranians are subject to the austere ethics of  an authoritarian government. They assert their subjectivity and defend their honor vis a vis a state that directly and indirectly humiliates them through its adverse economic  and socially restrictive policies.

An important aspect of the javanmardi ethic is the Robin-Hoodesque drive to seek justice and remedy inequalities; the luti acts as an arbiter within the public realm where other instances and institutions, such as the family or the state, fail. The real or perceived increase in inequality and disparity among people is a much discussed subject in daily conversation in Iran, and is often pointed to as the most potent sign of failure of the Islamic revolution. To decry disparity within the Islamic Republic is to be inherently critical of the state, which has claimed since its beginning as to be based on a revolution that ‘belonged to the disinherited’ and the barefooted’ and promised large-scale redistribution of income and wealth. Thus the themes in Hichkas’s music resonated across the broad base and he became widely known after the release of Inja Teghran-e (This here is Iran) in 2006.

In other songs, Hichkas takes the position of the  thug who is the victim of the lawlessness of the streets. A ‘harmless hoodlum’ whose words are nothing but posture, necessary for survival. He presents a world in which the police and the constitution mean nothing and the protagonist must fend for himself, giving agency to the individual lat, not unlike the traditional neighborhood javanmard who must take matters of justice into his own hands.

 Until his departure from Iran in earlty 2010, Hichkas’s work never contained direct criticism of the government, critiquing social ills and injustice instead. Then, following the post 2009 election unrest, the government cracked down on social and artistic spaces, detaining dozens of journalists, activists, artists, and prominent persons who expressed sympathy for the Green Uprising. Hichkas says that he was deeply affected by the events of that summer and fall, but waited with his artistic response until he had planned his departure. “A Good Day Will Come” was released after he  left the country. He still did not directly criticize the state’s handling of internal affairs but points to its failures by elaborating on the blood that was shed and the dire circumstances of the country.  He ends his images of bloodshed on a hopeful note and in traditional phrases familiar to Iranians, seeking God’s help and a mother’s prayers:

After all this rain of blood
Finally, a rainbow will emerge
The sky won’t appear cloudy from all the stones
The water in the aqueducts won’t turn red like tulips
Muezzin, call to prayer
God is great, harm be far
Mom, tonight, pray for us.

Even outside of Iran, Hichkas has refrained from making explicit political statements against the government. It is likely that this has more to do with his views about ‘keeping Iran’s flag raised’ than out of caution for his own safety in case her should return. I last met him in the summer of 2014 in London, and he was hard at work on his new album, Mojaz (Permitted), due out in 2016. He joked to me, “This title means that we give ourselves permission to produced whatever music we want.” By 2016, Lashkary had still not returned to Iran. Despite his original intentions, the tumultuous 2009 Green Uprising and its political consequences seems to have shattered his plans for now. Indeed, the political, social and cultural repression following 2009 ruptured the futures of not just Lashkary but many other young Iranians, including civil society activists, students, artists and musicians who emigrated from Iran. Although the unrest led to the scattering of many lives, the Green Uprising presented a unifying force of a kind that was unprecedented since 1979 and within which music played a crucial role.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Evolving Forms of Poetic Protest by Nahid Siamdoust

Poetry has long played an important role in the Persian language for expressing critique and discontent of a social or political nature. However, until the modern period, this kind of poetry was mostly confined to the unofficial or more informal spheres. The classical poet Omar Khayyam openly criticized the hypocrisy of the clerics and preachers a millennium ago, as did Hafez three hundred years later, but the recorded history of Persian poetry suggests that there was little by way of critical poetry between the giants of almost a thousand years ago and the “awakened” poets of the early twentieth century.

A revealing and much repeated anecdote says that the nineteenth- century Qajar chief minister Amir Kabir – often referred to as ‘Iran’s first reformer’- severely admonished the court’s poet laureate, Habib Allah Qa’ani, after the poet recited a panegyric qasida in the minister’s honor. Recent authors speculate that Amir Kabir  grew angry because he could not tolerate the hypocrisy of the court poet, who had previously written  a dozen qasidas  disparaging the Minister as cruel and unjust. This incident is taken  as heralding an early turning point in ‘the long and eventful project of poetic modernity in Iranian culture’ but it would be several more decades before the first generation of socially aware or politically critical and freedom-seeking poetry appeared in the works of writers like Ali Akbar Sheyda, Malek –Sho’ara Bahar, and Abollqasem  Aref Qazvin, some of the most enduring Iranian songs of all time were written by these poets or originated in their works.

We do have other, older anecdotes about socially or politically conscious or critical rhyme in informal communications, Edward Scott Wearing’s 1807 A Tour to Sheeraz recounts some ‘popular ‘ poems. Later in that century, in his Year Among the Persians, the famous orientalist E.G. Browne also remarks on the currency of ‘popular’ lyrics that Iranians recite or sing during their leisure and work, which reflect on their current social and political conditions, but states that “their authors are not known and prefer to remain anonymous.”* Abdollah Mostofi, a prominent man of politics whose memoirs are considered an indispensable guide to the social history of the end of the Qajar period and the first three decades of the Pahlavi era, records several such lyrics, among them a song of protest over Naser al-Din Shah’s pilgrimage to Karbala in Iran’s years of famine.

Still, these “popular/folk” (mardomi) lyrics were never recorded as part of Iran’s cultural heritage or body of literature, as happened with folk culture in much of the rest of the world, in part because they were usually short and short-lived, their authors unknown, and print and recording technology were either non-existent or much more limited than they are today. And more generally, historically, traditional popular music –mardomi, ruhowzi, or motrebi music – was disparaged and excoriated because of the perceived low class of its performers and its content, context, and consumers.

During the years of  Iran’ Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911), the number of these spontaneous mardomi rhymes incorporating social and political critique multiplied. The Mashruteh, as the Constitutional Revolution is called in Persian, was the culmination of  the people’s movement to put an end to the Qajar dynasty’s tyrannical rule and reckless mismanagement of the country, as well as foreign  domination. Following widespread protests, the king was forced to sign Iran’s first constitution- and indeed, the first constitution in the Middle East – in 1906. In the absence of mass or broadcast media, which today facilitate the existence of a public sphere, these mardoni songs were used to relay news about events as well as people’s sentiments about those events.

Around this time, works of formal poetry also turned political. As calls for a constitution gained momentum, several prominent and often politically active poets lent their voices to this nascent movement. Their poetry is full of talk of freedom. In fact, that is when the enunciation of the word freedom (azadi) in a way synonymous with notions of Western democracy emerged for the first time. Also around the time –spurred on by several nineteenth-century intellectuals  ( e.g. the anti-imperialist  Sayyid Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī), the modern notion of a nation-state was cultivated in the Islamic context.

At the turn of the twentieth century poetic protest  in Iran took on a musical form and became more widespread, thanks to the forums of salons, concerts and, later, gramophone technology. The poet and singer Aref Qazvini is often recognized as the one who lent form to the short, rhythmic tasnif:   turning ‘effective words combined with expert rhythms’ into  a publishing  and advertising medium for revolutionary beliefs and liberal opinions.

It was also during these years that the public concert, in the form in which we know it today, emerged [there is archeological evidence of concerts in Iran going back @5,000 years]. At first, concerts were held in private homes and gardens, but over the course of the nineteen twenties, musicians began performing in hotels and other halls open to the public via ticket sales. The public performance of music transformed it into a socially and politically significant medium through which people shared Ideas and showed political allegiance to certain attitudes. This was unprecedented, as Aref himself relates in his memoir: “at the time when I started composing tasnifs and made national a patriotic songs, people thought songs were meant to be made for the courtesans or “Babri Khan,’ (the cat of the long-reigning Qajar ruler Naser al-Din Shah).

It was not until several years after the 1921 coup d’etat against the last Qajar government by Reza Khan that relative stability allowed for trade and technology to begin flourishing again and the gramophone became more affordable and widespread, around 1925.  Indeed, the scarcities of 1906-1915 and the absence of any recording technology  or mass communications infrastructure seems to have contributed even further to the importance and popularity of concerts. Relative stability also allowed for the establishment of cultural institutions and schools and so the early nineteen twenties were a sort of golden era of the concert, with frequent performances in the salons of Tehran’s Grand Hotel and other newly established venues. In his memoirs, the music historian Khaleqi describes the impact of a concert:

It was enough for Aref to perform a song about social conditions of the time in one or two places, and it would travel from mouth to mouth and reach everyone, it would even travel from town to town.

Inspired by the example of Turkey, the new ruler initially planned to establish a Republic. Aref, the era’s most political musician, was elated over Reza Khan’s plans but as early as 1923, when an adolescent Khaleqi attended an Aref concert, the new ruler had already started to curtail free political talk, and Khaleqi’s father told him, “Don’t forget Aref’s tasnifs, you may never hear their like again… his tongue may be tied.”

Khaleqi later wrote about his concert experience:

At that time I still didn’t fully grasp the real reasons behind the power of the song-maker. But I understood this much: that the majority of audience had a hidden secret in their hearts, and without revealing it, when the would see others of the same mind, with one look alone, would share that secret. That same secret that wasn’t expressed in front of strangers, but in burning hearts lit a luminous fire.
As the political page turned, Aref chose silence; he spent the rest of his life in the Moradbek Valley of Hamedan in solitude and misery.

Following Reza Shah’s take-ober in 1925, the new modernizing state devised policies base on a utilitarian attitude towards music. The political  tasnif receded into the background as the state promoted the patriotic sorud – a combination of march, hymn, and anthem that was often taught in schools and expressed pride in one’s country, history and flag.. The state regarded Iran’s traditional music as backward and neglected it in its official institutions. Instead, it promoted the Western musical canon and provided means for teaching Western music and musical instruments in schools. When Iran launched radio in April  1940 the first programs offered a preponderance of European music, in combination with news , talk and Iranian music The folksier, popular motrebi and kichen-bazari music was still offered by bands that performed at weddings and other private occasions and later in cafes, restaurants, and eventually cabarets. But immense repression- especial y in the nineteen- thirties –suppressed all open and even lightly disguised social or political critique in songs.

After the abdication of Reza Shah in 1941 more attention was given to Iranian music by the Music Bureau and the Higher Academy of Music and on the radio. During the 40s a kind of performance art called pish-pardeh-khani (‘before-scene performance, short political pieces) became significant for airing critique. This genre consisted of skits between acts, and combined song and play to express social and political criticism- mostly directed at the misdoings of Allied occupying forces and the negative impact of foreign influence. Musically, these sentiments culminated in the era’s most lasting patriotic song Ey Iran, which to this day remains Iran’s de facto national anthem, though never the official one. It was inspired by its author’s witness of the maltreatment of Iranian civilians by English soldiers on the streets in 1944. In a country where history has long been told through a prism that pits people and the state against one another, this song is able to override this binary and express a patriotic love for the land independent of domestic politics.

IN the early 1950s foreign interventions and Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq’s attempted to nationalize Iranian oil created a highly politicized atmosphere; a period that continues to have a significant impact on Iranian’s understanding of their own history and current political predicament  and foreign relations. Surprisingly, the only widely popular song from this period is a heartfelt, passionate ballad titled Mara bebus (Kiss Me), which hardly sounds political at all though those who were privy to the political environment of that era could instantly de-code its meaning.

Although the new Shah’s government made effortys to re-introduce Persian poetry and music to a wider public, little of it was allowed to express political opposition. In the 1960s and 70s radio a television played a growing role in bringing Western cultural productions into Iranian homes. Then, as (ironically) now, an economic and cultural obsession with all things farangi ( foreign, Euro-American) had a tendency to place Western goods, customs, and values above Iranian ones, a trend that fueled growing discontent with the Shah’s regime. As Shajarian- Iran’s foremost traditional singer during the period- remarked: “ Radio and television cared more about taraneh (light rhythmic sons) and the cabaret-type singers, who would last just a couple of years and sing hit songs that were sometimes broadcast seven to eight times in one day! Radio was no longer a place for our music.” None-the-less, by the early 1970s the first ‘mainstream’  political songs expressing themes of grief, poverty and misery began to reappear, couched in metaphors to work around  state censorship. By the mid-seventies there was such a prevalence of sadness in the themes and melodies of popular songs that the Shah complained to his minister of culture and asked for countermeasures to be taken.

Although the soundscape of the time was filling up with songs of a political or oppositional bent, classical Persian music had yet to partake of the spirit. It was criticized for its conservative nature and condemned as being removed from contemporary circumstances, a state of affairs that critics blamed on its practitioners strict adherence to traditional forms. The performances of Ramin Sadighi, Sohrab Mahjdavi and Sharjarian at the 1977 Shiraz Arts Festival transformed the genre, bringing to the fore once again the potential of Persian classical music to express politically and socially critical messages- signaling a return to the spirit of the constitutional era. The resurgence of Persian classical music at that time, as well as its continued popularity to this day, is an expression of the nativism that was part and parcel of the dominant ideals of the revolution of 1979.

. . . . . . . . . . . . 

Guided by their  benevolent leader, Iranians were promised a truly Islamic society that would be the exact opposite of the corrupt, Western Pahlavi puppet regime. This new Iran “would be free of want, hunger, unemployment, slums, inequality, illiteracy, crime, alcoholism, prostitution, drugs, nepotism, exploitation, foreign domination, and yes, even bureaucratic red tape. It would be a society based on equality, fraternity, and social justice.” The discrepancy between these lofty promises and the inevitable unfolding of reality has not ceased top offer substance for critique in cultural productions.

In July 1979, the all-powerful new leader Ayatollah Khomeini shared his views on music in a speech to state radio employees:

One of the things that intoxicate the brains of our youth is music. Music causes the human brain, after one listens to it for some time, top become inactive and superficial and one looses seriousness . . . Of course music is a matter that everyone naturally likes, but it takes the human being out of the realm of seriousness and draws him towards uselessness and futility . . . A youth that spends most of his time on music becomes negligent of life issues and serious matters, and becomes addicted –just like someone who becomes addicted to drugs, and a drug addict can no longer be a serious human being who can think about political issues .  .  . Now you must take these issues seriously, and turn away from jokes and light matters .  . . There is no difference between music and opium. Opium brings a sort of apathy and numbness and so does music. If you want your country to be independent, from now on you must transform radio and television into educational instruments – eliminate music.

In the new Islamic Republic, then, music was to be neglected, if not eliminated altogether. Most kinds of music were soon prohibited on radio and television, music schools shut down, and musicians, especially female singers, were badly treated. Soon the new state prohibited the importing of foreign cassette and video tapes and recorders. The state regularly deployed its forces, at the time known as the komiteh or just basij (‘committee’ or ‘volunteers’), to confiscate such equipment from cars and homes, punishing the owners with lashes or fines. In  the first decade of the Islamic Republic, when thousands of young people were falling in the Iran-Iraq war, the only tunes broadcast on state television were marches, patriotic hymns and songs, and religious lamentations (noheh-khani).

But, the permissibility of music in Islam has always been a matter of interpretation, and views have ranged from a total ban to permission for all music and instruments, including dance. Since the ultimate authority inn Islam, the Qur’an, does not mention music explicitly, and the Sunnah – traditions of the practices and sayings of the Prophet Mohammad as recorded through hadiths – offer little clarity on the subject, Muslim  scholars and authorities  have interpreted various verses in the Qur’an according to their own points of view. Most of the Islamic discussion has revolved around three verses where abstention from idle talk is advised, which conservative clerics have interpreted to mean music, espousing the view that music is ‘futile folly’.
However, some of the most important and influential Islamic theoreticians on  music, including Al-Ghazali, Al Frarabi, and Avicenna – all of whom happen to be of Persian origin – viewed music favorably. A major point in Ghazali’s argumentation, which has since been replicated by some authorities in the Islamic Republic, is that the impression that music leaves on the heart “follows the rule of what is in the heart,” meaning in effect that it is the intention of the listener that determines his or her reception of a piece of music.

Despite Khomeini’s harsh pronouncement at the beginning of his reign, his views on music actually turned out to be close to those expressed in Ghazali’s writings.  He followed the line of his close ally Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, as given in a Hamburg mosque almost a decade before the revolution:

“Not all singing is haram, not all instrument-playing is haram; those kinds of singing and instrumental music are haram which draw listeners or the audience in a gathering towards sin .  .  . That is considered law (idle entertainment/play), which makes the human being heedless of God’s remembrance.”

But how is it decided what type of effect a kind of music has? Khomeini’s position manifested itself best shortly after the end of the war when the conservative Ayattollah Mohammad Hassan Qadiri criticized a television series called Dawn’s Autumn for showcasing a female actress whose neck was exposed, and also took exception to the music used in the series. Khomeini responded that if someone feels excited by watching a certain image, he should prevent himself from watching that image , and that the same applied to music. Furthermore, in response to numerous estefta (religious questions) on music, most clerics – including  the current Supreme leader Ali Khamenei- have responded in line with Ghazali and Beheshti. Often clergy have further explained that it is orf – meaning custom or convention- that determines which music distances one from God and which does not.**

It is not practical, however, in an authoritarian political system, to act based on on statements that music’s effects can be judged by the listeners themselves, on the basis of custom or convention, id we are to take the term orf at face value. The state official controls music and does not leave judgment of that music up to the listener. Nor, in the absence of a free public sphere and solely democratically elected bodies, can truly popular customs, conventions, or laws be debated and established. For that matter, nor have the highest of clergy ever unanimously agreed on one custom or convention to apply to all. That is not the job of the ulama, who study a life long in order to lend their own interpretations to the original texts. As for the state and governmental bodies that regulate the production and distribution of music, they too have to make do with these ambiguous edicts, and so the field of music regulation remains a Kafkaesque labyrinth that cause a great deal of frustration and consternation for most artists. This interpretational ambivalence, as well as lack of resolve or action on the part of the country’s highest leaders, has created an atmosphere of uncertainty regarding music in post-revolutionary Iran. Not surprisingly, the most repeated plaintive expression in conversations about music is taklif-e musiqi roshan nist (music is in limbo).

*  Bibliography:

A Literary History of Persia
The Persian Revolution of 1905–1909

** I won’t go into the theological/sociological question as to how Muslims could have come to the notion that they are anything but greatly distant from God in the first place, since “God the Father” as Christians and Jews might perceive it was NOT part of the original ‘Islamic hypothesis’.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Unwanted Advances

This book is about the application and enforcement  by University Administrations of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, a federal law that states: "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." 

Following the copyright restrictions imposed by the publisher (for a change) I will not reproduce or try to summarize this remarkable and credibly argued book. The situation is a mess  and I recommend it  to all my blog followers if they want to know  ‘How so” and “How far”.

Two passages in the Ms. Kipnis’s work sparked my particular interest.  The first concerned the general symbolic order in which all the obfuscations and injustices entailed in the application of Title IX  in the academic environment occur.

“Woman yearn to have adventures and be reckless too (just like men), and sexual adventurism is still the main envoy of freedom we’ve got.”

I don’t disagree in the least. That’s what’s what most people seem to be thinking and is even the foundation  of the controversies now surrounding the debates on gender identity. Even ‘non-adventurism’ in contemporary society is the envoy of freedom. Adventurism  and non-adventurism serve to define each other in the context of what is perceived to be essential freedoms. My point would be to say that this symbolic order is somewhat illusory and certainly a distraction from what I perceive to be more pressing matters in the realms of freedom like work and other economic and social arrangements. The freedom to get a fair return on our labor, not to be governed by oligarchs, not to have  prosperity engendered by a modern economy squandered in war? Of course the issues  of sex and its freedoms are deeply personal, more than any other, and the desires, conflicts and contradictions it engenders appear very early in the lives of individuals without requiring that they know much about the rest of life. The consequences or ramifications of the ideas people have about sex and the decisions they make about it  last well past adolescence and often persist for a lifetime, including  ambiguities and self-contradictions that pertain to it. But it seems doubtful to me that if the mores and behaviors of society towards sex were settled generally- in some sort of universal regime personal freedom and tolerance- that would eliminate all the other un-freedoms which plague us on a daily basis. In may be just the reverse: eliminate the latter disease and the former might finally be resolved. In other words, ‘adventurism or non-adventurism’ in sex is a false envoy, it offers the  ‘mere’ semblance of freedom, as important as it seems to be.

I’m not disputing any thing Laura says in her book, just enlarging the context with a bit of structuralism, or post structuralism (who knows?)

I love the way she characterizes the testimony of feminist philosopher Jessica Wilson in her account of the ‘trial’ (if you want to call it that) of the main character by his academic peers, administrators and lawyers at the end of the book. It points to what is being lost in all the interpretations and enforcements of Title IX- a point she makes well through-out her book.

It probably sounds bizarre to  say, given the circumstances, but it felt like there was an erotic current in the room. It reminded me of my own student days, when the excitement of learning made me feel alive in such profoundly creative, intellectual, erotically messy ways – which were indistinguishable from one another, and no one thought it should be otherwise.

Not bizarre at all. Reading this book; me too.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Lacan's Milieu

It was his contacts with Alexandre Koyre, Henry Corbin, Alexandre Kojeve, and George Bataille that introduced Lacan to modern philosophy and set him reading Husserl, Nietzsche, Hegel, and Heidegger. Without this widening of his frontiers, as well as his encounter with the surrealists, Lacan might have been imprisoned forever within the confines of psychiatry and an academic understanding of Freud.

[Koyre’s ideas on the history of science were splendidly exemplified in his studies of Galileo, begun around 1935 . . .The science of Galileo rejected all finalist explanations of the universe and brought the idea of a hierarchically ordered cosmos a step closer to destruction. The notion of a infinite and autonomous universe undermined traditional proofs of the existence of God, banished man from his place at the center of creation, and forced him to seek for God within himself. Medieval man had lived in a space where the truth was ‘given’ in the form of revealed religion. But the man of the new Galilean order, who Descartes bade “philosophize as if no one had ever philosophized before,” found himself in a space where thought reigned supreme and thought was lodged in him. The closed, finite, hierarchical world of the Middle Ages was being replaced by a limitless universe in which man stood alone, save for his reason, his uncertainty, and his dismay. The philosophical parallel to this scientific isolation is to be found in Descartes’s cogito, subjected to the opposing poles of truth and freedom. The individual is free, he has nothing to lean on outside himself; and he has to confront a truth  to which no existing authority  has set any bounds.

Such meditations on the birth of modern science  and the status of the cogito had originated in the great philosophical shake-up brought about by Husserl, Koyre’s former teacher. Knowledge of Husserl’s theories had been gaining ground in France since the 1920s. Husserl’s phenomenology asserted that nothing could be known for certain except my existence as a thinking being.  At the cogito stage, being must be reduced to the I who is thinking, i.e., to the being of the ego. Hence the notion of phenomenological reduction, which posits the primacy of the ego and of thought and goes beyond ordinary experience to see existence as consciousness of the world. If the existence of the world presupposes that of the ego, phenomenological reduction makes my existence consciousness of the world. The ego then becomes transcendental, and consciousness becomes intentional, since it is directed at something. As for ontology, that is an egology in which, if my idea of an object is real, then the object itself is real. Thus the ego acquires a sense of the other or of the alter ego, through a series of experiences that define transcendental inter-subjectivity as the reality out of which each individual ego emerges.

In ‘The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology’ [1935], Husserl showed how the quest for inter-subjectivity could save the human sciences from inhumanity.  In other words, by saving the ego from scientific formalism, transcendental phenomenology was preserving the possibility of a science of man in which the ego could be seen as life itself. So, in the face of the rising tide of barbarism and dictatorship that was threatening the peace of the West, Husserl’s phenomenology appealed to the philosophical consciousness that Europe had inherited from antiquity and that found an echo in men and women who wanted to be free to govern their own lives:

“There are only two escapes from the crisis of European existence: the downfall of Europe in its estrangement from its own rational sense of life, its fall into hostility towards the spirit and into barbarity, or the rebirth of Europe from the spirit of philosophy through the heroism of reason that overcomes naturalism once and for all. Europe’s greatest danger is weariness.”

 Husserl’s writings made it possible to situate the tragic side of existence and the flaws in being within the individual, thus striking a decisive blow at the popularity of Bergsonian optimism about the possibilities of ego. The resulting critiques of the idea of progress led sometimes to the rejection of democratic values in favor of a return  to the original roots of being and sometimes to a notion of nothingness, or void, a tragic symbol of the finiteness and mortal end of a human existence devoid of all transcendency. But Husserl’s philosophy did offer modern reason two escape routes. One lay in refocusing Western spirituality  on a philosophy of experience and the individual; in France this path was followed by Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The other solution was to construct a philosophy based on knowledge and rationality, as did Alexandre Koyre, Jean Cavailees, and George Canguilhem. Lacan would follow a middle course between the two which involved both a new exploration of the subject – i.e., of individual experience – and an attempt to define a form of rationality based on a deeper knowledge of the Freudian Unconscious.]

Be all that as it may . . .

Koyre’s views on the evolution of science were in tune with the work of historians who in 1929, led by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, had started the review ‘Annales histoire economique et sociale. As early as 1903, in the Revue de synthese founded by Henri Berr and Charles Simiand had challenged the positivist methods of Earnest Lavisse and Charles Seignobos and advocated the destruction of the three graven images of orthodox history: the idol of politics, which required events affecting society as a whole to be reduced to the conscious decisions and deeds of the princes of this world; next, the idol of individuality, which limited the story of all mankind to just the lives of the famous; and last, the idol of chronology, which favored a linear narrative made up of strings of facts supported by sacrosanct “documents.”

It is no coincidence that Annales, which would give birth to a new school of history , was founded  not only in the same year as the Wall Street crash but also at the time that the Husserl revolution was preparing a philosophical rethinking of the question of human existence. At the heart of both the historical and the philosophical movements lay deep doubt about the idea of progress as inherited from  eighteenth-century philosophy. Not only had any descriptive history based merely on stirring battles and idealized heroes been rendered obsolete by the recent horrors of Verdun, but these new perceptions of the complexity of “real” and living history ruled out restricted or simplified theories purporting to explain past phenomena,. So instead of Manichean representation of events, Bloch and Febvre and their friends aimed at creating a vast multiple history that would include the study of lifestyles, habitats, attitudes, feelings, collective subjectivities, and social groups. All these would combine in an epic narrative that could bring a whole era back to life in the reader’s imagination. The pioneers of this new history were encouraged in their task by researches in three other fields: the teachings of Vidal de la Blache, who had freed geography from its obsession with administrative divisions and changed it into a largely visual science studied in the field; the work of Emile Durkheim, who had transformed sociology from mere fact collecting into a study of structural patterns; and developments in economic history.

The Annales revolution tended in the direction of a temporal and spatial deconstruction of the subject not without analogy in Husserl’s philosophy and Einstein’s theory of relativity. In this new type of history, man, immersed in the infinite duration of the “long term”, was master of his fate no more. Torn between a social and a geographical time dimension no longer limited to his own personal experience, he was nonetheless denied any place in a universal nature, since nature was now ‘relative,’ varying from one culture and one period to another.

The cultural relativism of the “Annalists,” together with their condemnation of narrative history with a patriotic or nationalist stance, challenged the high-handed assumptions that made Western civilization see its history in terms of progress: a progress based on the colonization of “minority” cultures. The new historians didn’t reject the heritage of the Enlightenment  philosophy, but they did apply it to different ends. Their object was not so much to reassess “reactionary,” “primitive,” “barbaric,” or prejudice-ridden forms of social organization as to find a new way of thinking about difference and identity, sameness and otherness, reason and unreason, science and religion, error and truth, the occult and the rational. And the demand for relativism, and for an end to the idea that one civilization is superior to another, made possible a new universalism, able to create a living encyclopedia of human societies by incorporating into history the work of other sciences –psychology, sociology, and ethnology – now also expanding rapidly.

Febvre’s attitude to the possibility of a history of philosophy can be best seen in a review he wrote in 1937 of a book by Georges Freidman on the current crisis concerning the idea of progress:

It struck me that it would be useful to compare the history of philosophy as written by philosophers with the way we historians proper deal with ideas when the occasion arises. And having done so I was dismayed at how often ‘historians proper” are content just to describe new concepts as though they were generated spontaneously, without any reference to their different economic, political, and social backgrounds; as if they were produced by disembodied minds living unreal lives in the sphere of pure ideas.

Instead of showing lone eccentrics spinning  atemporal systems of thought out of their own entrails, Febvre’s history of ideas would deal in real people inventing new thoughts, whether consciously or unconsciously, by means of the outillage mental (intellectual apparatus) of their age.

The idea of mentality, or mental outlook, revived in the work of Lucien Levy-Bruhl, had first been used to compare the pre-logical thought systems of children and “primitive” peoples with the more abstract functioning of the modern, “Western” mind. But in the 1930s the notion acquired a structural tinge through the use of the phrase outillage mental. Whether in Marc Bloch’s ‘symbolic representations,” Lucien Febvre’s “psychic universe,” or Alexandre Koyre’s ‘conceptual structure,” the aim was always to definer a model of what was thinkable at any given period, using the categories of perception, conceptualization, and expression then available for the organization of individual and collective thought.

All this reflected a French approach to the structural analysis of human societies that could be seen in Jacques Lacan as early as 1938 and that a new intellectual generation would take up again twenty years later in the light of Saussurian linguistics

Monday, March 27, 2017

End Game for the Saudi Kingdom of Arabia by Christopher Davidson

Even in the most bearish scenario of a fully moth-balled US shale oil industry, a consensus began to emerge that such reversals would only be temporary as even modest future price rallies would soon see idled rigs roaring back to life. Moreover, with such new technologies spreading across the world, shale and other new oil production methods were thought to unlikely to remain a US-phenomena for much longer. In this sense Saudi Arabia had already lost its long-held status as the world’s sole ‘swing-producer’ capable of influencing prices on its own. Further eroding the kingdom’s historically privileged position in Western policy circles, the impact of the new oil era on its domestic economy was beginning to undermine rapidly its ability to keep recycling oil revenues back to its Western allies. Certainly even in the most bullish scenarios of oil; prices eventually trebling or quadrupling, it became evident that Saudi Arabia would soon have little or no surpluses left to keep financing its historically massive arms purchases or overseas investments.

Already there were signs that Riyadh’s difficulties were going to jeopardize its standing as the US’s primary Middle Eastern client. With several indications by the end of 2015 that Saudi Arabia had either begun to withdraw or had begun to consider withdrawing some of its holdings in US  treasury bonds.  In something of warning shot for Saudi Arabia, within weeks of these rumors the first ever mainstream media coverage of these secretive investments began to appear, with former and current US officials calling  for more details on the true extent of the kingdom’s investments in the US – an unpalatable prospect for a regime presiding over millions struggling with unemployment and poverty.

As a series of unprecedented Bloomberg reports described, the bond purchases had been part of a special agreement reached between Saudi Arabia and the US after the 1973 oil price shocks, which allowed them to remain above scrutiny and not fully included  in the Department of the Treasury’s otherwise comprehensive breakdown of more than a hundred other sovereign investors. “It’s mind boggling they haven’t undone this special agreement, its hard to justify such special treatment at this point,” argued one former  Dept. of Treasury assistant secretary in January 2016.

In March 20-16, following a fresh flurry of 9/11- related accusations about Audi Arabia in the mainstream media, Saudi Arabian officials became a bit  threatening, telling US lawmakers that if US courts too any further 9/11-related actions against the Kingdom, then Riyadh would be ‘forced to sell; up to $750 billion [sic] in treasury securities and other assets in the United States before they could be in danger of being frozen by American courts. A few weeks later the Saudi foreign minister  warned  that such actions could cause ‘an erosion of investor confidence in the US.”

Unfazed, on 17 May 2016 the Senate unanimously passed a bill allowing the families of the 9/11 victims to sue the state of Saudi Arabia for any role it may have had in the attacks. Perhaps coordinated, just five days earlier one of the 9/11 Commission members came forward in what was described ass the ‘first serious public split among the ten commissioners since they issued their 2004 reports.’ John F. Lehman claimed ‘there was an awful lot of participation by Saudi individuals in supporting the hijackers, and some of those people working in the Saudi government.” He also revealed that the commission had been aware of ‘at least five Saudi government officials who were strongly suspected of involvement in the terrorists’ support network’ and that although ‘they may have not been indicted . ,. .they were certainly implicated . . .there was an awful lot of circumstantial evidence.” More cautiously, two other commissioners also stated that ‘when it comes to the Saudis, we still haven’t gotten to the bottom of what happened on 9/11,’ and that ‘lines of investigation pursued by Congress were never adequately explored by the commission.”

Less than twenty-four hours before the Senate’s vote, and this time almost certainly in co-ordination, the Department of the Treasury chose to respond to a Bloomberg freedom of information request and finally ended forty-three years of secrecy on Saudi Arabia’s treasury bonds which, unsurprisingly, had already declined by 6% from January to March 2016.

Straining the relationship further, the new oil dynamic and mounting pressure on Riyadh was also beginning to raise the prospect that Saudi Arabia might finally have to ‘de-peg’ its riyal currency from the US dollar. Throughout 2015 speculation grew that the kingdom would eventually have little choice in the matter, as it would inevitably need some fiscal autonomy and a currency devaluation inn order to buy breathing space. Indeed, having run out of options, oil-exporting Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan had already done that, while rumors whirled that other ‘petro states’ would soon follow suit. By January 2016 the riyal was certainly more volatile, hitting an all-time low against the dollar in forward markets and with the Saudi Central Bank then warning all commercial banks in the kingdom against betting on future currency depreciation. Sensing the danger PointState Capital’s Zachary Schreiber revealed that he was shortening the Saudi riyal. As he saw it, the kingdom’s economy would be ‘structurally insolvent in two or three years,” its central bank’s asset sheet was ‘much lower than expected,’ and any selling of the Aramco ‘golden goose’ would be insufficient to meet the deficits.’

How exactly Saudi Arabia’s dramatically changing fortunes would factor into the US Middle East policy was not clear, as for some the existence of a functioning Saudi state was undoubtedly still perceived as the best option, not the least for the exploitation of its remaining hydrocarbon resources at a time when its stricken economy and major assets were about to be prized open by foreign investors. Furthermore, for those who saw the Saudi-Iran stalemate and the associated sectarian conflict as the best way to retain regional balance, the survival of Saudi Arabia as a military power was obviously preferable, especially if, as already seemed the case, it could be left to its own devices on the battlefield and corralled into further wars of attrition. Hinting at his support for such a strategy, in an exclusive conversation with the Atlantic published in March 2016, Barack Obama agreed with his interviewer that he was less likely than his predecessors ‘to axiomatically side with Saudi Arabia in its dispute with arch rival, Iran.’ He also called on Riyadh ‘to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace with Iran.’ Moreover, he described how ‘sectarian conflicts continue to rage and our Gulf partners, our traditional friends, do not have the ability to put out the flames on their own or decisively win on their own,’ but made it clear that if this meant the US needed ‘to start coming in and using our military power to settle scores’ then this would ‘be in the interest neither of the US nor of the Middle East.”

Not all, of course, have seen things this way, as the US and other Western powers have long planned for the prospect of the Saudi state’s collapse and, of course, how best to benefit from it. Undoubtedly by the late 2015 there were stronger signs than ever that influential elements in the West believed the kingdom must soon be framed as a former ally and perhaps even a rogue state. Riding on a relentless media wave of ‘Saudi-bashing’ articles and even denunciations of the US-Saudi alliance in the New York Times and Washington Post editorials, numerous officials and politicians, including US presidential hopefuls and British opposition leaders, all began to stake out their anti-Saudi positions.

Providing additional indications of this shift of mood, in January 2016 the British government announced it was launching a full investigation into the foreign funding and support of jihadist groups in Britain. As something that had never happened before, even after 9/11 and the July 2005 London bombings, the British press predicted its findings were likely to lead to a stand-off with Saudi Arabia. Beyond Britain, the German government also seemed to be hedging its bets, with Vice Chancellor  Sigmar Gabriel telling the media that ‘the Saudi regime poses a danger to public security through its support for Wahhabi mosques around the world’ and that ‘we have to make clear to the Saudis that the time of looking away is over.’

More subtly there is evidence that Western intelligence agencies had also begun to harden up their positions and were more willing to spill the beans on Saudi Arabia. In December 2015, for example, German intelligence uncharacteristically issued a statement declaring that Saudi Arabia was ‘destabilizing the Arab World’ and that its deputy crown prince was pursuing an ‘impulsive intervention policy.’ Starkly different to all previous public Western criticism of Saudi Arabia, it did much to shift opinion further against Saudi Arabia. Equally out of place. A few weeks later a length report in the New York Times that was ostensibly focused on Saudi Arabia’s support for CIA-backed rebels in Syria, but in fact went much deeper. Citing unnamed former diplomats and intelligence officials, it not only reminded readers of the kingdom’s role in financing the Afghan jihad but also printed the first mainstream acknowledgement of Saudi intelligence’s old “Safari Club’- an organization that used to run covert and black operations in Africa on behalf of several other countries. Going further, it also made the allegation that a former Saudi ambassador to the US had personally helped fund the Nicaraguan contras and broker the Iran-Contra deal.

If the large body of existing proof of Saudi Arabia’s activities does end up being more widely publicized, and Western governments are obliged to take action, there are it seems only limited options available to them beyond publically chastising the kingdom or perhaps imposing Iran-style sanctions. Destroying it from the outside, or mounting a Henry Kissinger-style ‘teaching it a lesson’ operation, appear distant prospects, especially given the West’s proxy-based Middle East Policy. Much more likely in this scenario is for Saudi Arabia to be maneuvered into a position in which existing regional forces are more able to degrade it from within and, if necessary, eventually destroy it. Naturally the 2008 long war re[port had considered such an outcome, with its scenario of a ‘major Muslim state going bad’ having specified the prospect of jihadist as launching a successful ‘fundamentalist uprising’ in Saudi Arabia.

In this sense, the Islamic State (of its next incarnation) may be poised to serve another important strategic function, so it is undoubtedly one of the best placed organization to drive a wedge through Saudi Arabia. AS discussed, the Islamic State not only enjoys a significant support base within the kingdom, including elements of the religious establishment, but any Saudi sponsors that it has seem to be much more diffuse and some steps removed from the sort of state-backed institutions that had historically helped finance al-Qaeda. Moreover, in the etes of many of the country’s more restive conservatives, the Islamic State’s ideologies and seductive sectarian rhetoric offer something  of a purer and more consistent vision of an ultra-conservative Sunni Islamic state than that currently being administered by the financially and militarily struggling al-Saud regime and its McKinsey-advised deputy crown prince.

The divisions certainly run deep, with fifty-two senior Saudi clerics, including associates of the royally appointed Council of Senior Scholars, and some with millions of Twitter followers, jointly issuing a pointedly sectarian statement in October 2015 asking the public to ‘answer the call to jihad’ and go to Syria to ‘aid the oppressed and the mujahideen.” Although neither the Islamic State nor any other group was mentioned by name, it was still a significant step as it brazenly undermined a 2014 Saudi decree that had designated such entities s terrorist organizations and had criminalized any attempt by Saudi citizens to go and join them. Only a few months later, a former preacher at Mecca’s Grand Mosque declared that ‘we follow the same thought as the Islamic State . . . we do not criticize the thought on which it is based.’ Reflecting on who actually started it all, however, he latter suggested that ‘intelligence agencies and other countries may have helped it to develop,, providing them with weapons and ammunition, and directing them.’ Soon after this, with the Western media reporting on a ‘flurry of new fundraising campaigns in Saudi Arabia in the wake of an Iraqi army advance on the Islamic State stronghold in Fallujah, even a spokesman for the kingdom’s ministry of interior admitted that ‘you can not control the sympathies of the people.”

From the Islamic State’s perspective, much as al-Qaeda had eventually seen it, the destabilization and the the occupation of Saudi Arabia would be a grand prize given its resources and control over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Though not a priority in the early days, with Iraq and Syria as the main focusm\, by 2015 Abu Bakr al Baghdadi had nonetheless begun to increase the pressure on Riyadh. Most of the Islamic State’s early attacks on the kingdom were aimed at the Shia minority in the East or the ‘rejectionist Ismailis’ in the South in an effort to underscore its better anti-Shia credentials and prove al-Saud weak. But more worryingly for Riyadh there were soon also a number of attacks on Saudi military and security targets, with a mosque frequented by special forces being blown up in August 2015, and two Saudi generals assassinated separately on the northern and southern borders, along with numerous killings and car-bombings in other cities across the kingdom. By early 2016, the frequency of such attacks had noticeably increased, with repeated gun battles taking place in and around Mecca, Bishah, and even outside the capital.

Unable to mount a convincing response to the Islamic State’s challenge and the rather asymmetrical nature of the threat, Riyadh has done little more than make mass arrests of suspects hooping at least some are key Islamic State operatives, along with issuing hollow warnings that the Saudi government will sue those who dare to compare the kingdom to the Islamic State. Meanwhile, the al- Saud regime has been goaded further by the Islamic State, which has issued maps depicting the country as a future governorate – Wilayat Najd – and has released numerous propaganda videos laying claim to Mecca. More provocatively, and something of a departure from earlier attacks on Houthi  targets in Yemen, the Islamic State also began to target Saudi-liberated Aden. By late 2015 Saudi-led forces were being killed in coordinated suicide bombings while wave of assassinations commenced, including  that of the city governor. In January 2016 the Islamic State even mounted an assault on the presidential palace while President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi was still inside it.

In these circumstances Saudi Arabia’s riskiest move would be to end up militarily confronting the Islamic State, either in Yemen or even worse by taking the fight to its heartlands in Syria and Iraq. With little chance of overall victory, especially if the Islamic State morphs into a more diffuse insurgency, and with Riyadh having to sustain a concurrent struggle against Iran and its allies, such a campaign would only serve to weaken the kingdom further. Nonetheless, for those who seek the demise or further debilitation of Saudi Arabia, it is certainly possible that Riyadh may buckle under pressure, as many of its concerned citizens have been calling for firmer action, while numerous Western officials and politicians have demanded it takes a more active role in cleaning up its own backyard. As US secretary of defense Ashton Carter contended, the kingdom and its Gul allies needed to stop complaining and to ‘get into the game,’ while Obama implied Riyadh was a ‘free rider’ on US foreign policy.

By the beginning of 2016 it seemed at least some senior Saudi officials had begun to think the unthinkable, with cautious statements made that the kingdom would consider deploying thousands of special forces troops to Syria to ‘fight the Islamic State.” Although the proviso was made that this would only take place under the banner of an ‘international US-led coalition,’ and even though Washington was already aware that the Syrian and Iraqi armies had managed to begin clawing back at least some territory from the Islamic State, the prospect of direct Saudi intervention, no matter how potentially calamitous and unnecessary, still seemed to be music to the US’s ears. As a Department of State spokesman put it, “We welcome this proposal by the Saudis to intensify their efforts by introducing some sort of ground elements into Syria . . .[but] exactly what that’s going to look like and how that’s going to play out I just don’t think we can say right now.”

Alea iacta est?

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Who Funds The Islamic State by Christopher Davidson

In solving any mystery, at least with regard to an organization as wealthy and capable as the Islamic State, perhaps the second most important question that needs to be asked after qui bono is qui solvit or ‘who pays?’ After all, not only has the Islamic State proven itself capable of procuring or buying advanced weaponry that has been more than a match for its adversaries, but , as demonstrated, it was also able to set up very quickly public services for a population of several million along with  an extensive network of public sector employment, and, so it would seem, a subsidy system far more generous than that of any of the states or groups it has been supplanting. In this sense almost overnight the new caliphate was able to establish some of the same sort of allocative state structures, albeit more modest, than one might find in the oil-rich rentier state Gulf Monarchies. But puzzlingly, of course, this new Islamic proto-rentier state does not seem to have the kind of sustained access to the billions of dollars in export revenues it would really need to pay for everything.

To forestall or undermine a real investigation into ISIS funding, most efforts through the latter part of 2014, and most of 2015, duly concentrated on building up a ‘self-funding narrative for the Islamic  State. In many ways this was a better orchestrated repeat of an earlier attempt to do the same for al-Qaeda in the weeks following 9/11. The self-funding narrative was also applied to Abu Musab al- Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2006 and then ultimately to the same Islamic State in Iraq that Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi was to join and eventually lead. In particular, a classified  US intelligence report from October that year cited by the New York Times stated that al-Zarqawi’s Sunni insurgency had  managed to become ‘self-sustaining financially, raising tens of millions of dollars a year from oil smuggling, kidnapping, counterfeiting, connivance by corrupt Islamic charities and other crimes that the Iraqi government and its US patrons.’  Declining to take the document at face value, on this occasion the Times made sure to interview a number of independent analysts, one of whom described the report’s findings as ‘imprecise and speculative’ while another noted ‘the absence of documentation of how the authors of the report arrived at their estimates.’[Lengthy testimonies by former veteran jihadists published by Oxford University since, has helped exposed such facile self-funding narratives].

Adopting much the same template as the 2006 US intelligence document after the Islamic State’s dramatic capture of Mosul in 2014, a slew of analysis pieces and think-tank reports have tried to build up a similar self-funding  narratives. Mostly fueled by tidbits of gossip from the intelligence community or heavily recycled factoids only loosely checked at the point of origin, these have collectively, though mostly unwittingly, served to distract attention from the real networks responsible for boosting and then sustaining the Islamic State’s coffers.

First out of the starting blocks was the Brookings Institution, with a report published by its Qatar branch in November 2014 practically being a reproduction of the 2006 assessment. Of ISIS’s multiple sources of funding, these were understood to ‘include oil, gas, agriculture, taxation, extortion, kidnapping for ransom, black market antique selling, and other illicit trades.’ In an excellent article for Middle East Policy, Ahmad Hashim rightly cautioned against ‘many unverified statement’s about the sources of the Islamic State’s funding but nonetheless made no mention of possible external sponsors and instead simply put forward oil, tax, and extortion as the most likely explanations.

With the consensus quickly building, by March 2015 the Washington Post was confident enough to support the lede “It’s all about oil and extortion.” Neither the article nor its accompanying video included any discussion of possible donor networks. Similarly in May 2015 the New York Times broke down ISIS financing with extortion, bank looting and oil representing the lion’s share, again with no mention made of external sponsorship. In December 2015, the director of the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence told a British audience that  “ the Islamic State has  made more than $500 million from black market oil sales and looted between $500 million and $1 billion from bank vaults captured in Iraq and Syria… ‘unlike many other terrorists groups, the Islamic State derives a relatively small share of its funding from donors abroad.” Even as late as January 2016 the defense editor of the Daily Telegraph still felt comfortable in coming to the same conclusion adding that ‘a Saudi initiative to fund moderate Muslim leaders could prove vital in curbing the growth of Islamist-inspired terrorism.’

There is no doubt that the activities briefly cited in such reports have been generating at least some income for the Islamic State. According to a local activist’s account, for example, the organization was said to have been collecting 2.5 percent of all proceeds from business owners under the guise of zakat or obligatory religious charity.  The same sources did, however, acknowledge that the zakat was then being used for services. But most of the more widely circulated claims, including those put forward by US and British officials, that the Islamic State has been enriching itself by running a punishing tax heavy regime, have simply made no sense, not least given the organization’s need to boost its popularity, but also in view of its efforts to provide local businessmen with a fairer and more consistent fiscal system than those found in neighboring territories.

Likely derived from comments made by Iraqi lawmaker and one-time CIA asset Ahmed Chalabi, Fox News came up with a surprisingly accurate figure of $429 million that had been supposedly looted from Mosul’s central vaults. Quickly gong viral, the narrative went mostly unchallenged, and US officials waited for more than a year before acknowledging that the Mosul Central Bank had in fact not been pillaged and that the Islamic State kept it open for several months, while even continuing  to pay the salaries of its staff. Indeed, as the Financial Times noted, ‘Not a single witness account has emerged of the Islamic State making off with any money, and the executives and employees from among twenty private banks and fifteen government bank branches in Mosul say there is no evidence that militants stole any money. Adding more to the picture, in May 2015 the chairman of Jordan’s Capital Bank revealed in an interview that his Mosul branch was still going strong, having been completely unaffected by the Islamic State’s presence. He also remarked that everything was ‘business as usual’ in Mosul and that the ‘lifestyle of the people’ was also unchanged.

Neither is there any evidence that the Islamic State issued a ruling permitting the removal of organs from apostates in order to save the lives of Muslims and it seems unlikely that such activity could really have been serving as a major source of income. A bit more credible, it seems, has been the idea that the Islamic State is doing a healthy trade  in selling off  Iraqi and Syrian antiquities.  By Spring 2015 Interpol estimated that $100 million a year was being made in this way, with its database having logged more than five thousand missing artifacts. Using archives of satellite imagery of archeological sites to investigate these claims, a Dartmouth College anthropologists determined that antiquities were certainly being stolen, but that the activity was actually more widespread in areas controlled by Syrian rebels and Kurdish groups.

Of all the self-funding explanations, the most convincing has been that the Islamic State operates a lucrative black market oil-smuggling network. No other combination of funding sources is  enough to explain the hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars to which the organization seemed to have access. By the summer 2014 descriptions began to circulate of the new caliphate being effectively a “petro state” on the basis that it had cut out the oil middleman and was receiving as much as $25 to $60 a barrel from oilfields in its possession. Others, meanwhile, claimed that ISIS was generating between $3 and $5 million a day from an estimated daily production of eighty thousand barrels. For the next six months, more or less every Islamic-State –related article that appeared in the Western media recycled at least one of these statistics, but in almost every case offered no further evidence.

Only in February 2015 did the Department of Defense officials acknowledge that oil was unlikely to be the Islamic State’s main income stream. Within a few weeks the G7’s intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force managed to reach the same conclusion, stating that although ‘the Islamic State has been engaging in energy-related commerce’ there was no sound estimate in existence for its revenues and that the trade ‘had probably diminished in importance,’ though some US officials persisted with claims that oil continued to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for the Islamic State. Nonetheless, as the secretary general of the Union of Arab banks described, a number of banks in the Middle East had been coming under increased scrutiny by the US because, as he put it, the Department of the Treasury knows that the Islamic State ‘needs constant funding, unlike al-Qaeda, which may require a small amount of money to conduct specific operations.’

By September 2015 the self-funding myth seemed to be coming to an end, with the Department of the Treasury’s assistant secretary for terrorism financing admitted that the Islamic State had ‘immense wealth’ and was a ‘sprawling international network with tentacles across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. After describing this latter scenario to them, more than ninety percent of the author’s interviewees on this topic agreed it was accurate, although a substantial number pointed out that the tentacles were actually going into the Islamic State rather than coming out of it.

Given their ideological similarities and the demonstrable strategic value of the Islamic State to their foreign policies, some have naturally suggested that the organization is the latest baby of conservative Gulf monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait (in addition: Oman, UAR,  Dubai and the Gulf Cooperation Council generally). Indeed, in the context of the well-documented roles of some of their state-backed bodies in the earlier financed al-Qaeda, along with known permissiveness of their security and judicial institutions towards al-Qaeda operatives, this has been  both a reasonable and logical inquiry. Getting the ball rolling just a few weeks after the Islamic State arrived in Mosul,  former M16 director Richard Dearlove told an audience that he had no doubt that wealthy Saudis had ‘played a central role in the Islamic State’s surge into Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria.. Going further, he pointed to a Riyadh-led sectarian plot by noting that in the immediate wake of 9/11 a senior Saudi had once warned him that ‘the time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will be literally be God help the Shia.” A few months later US vice president Joe Biden waded in, telling a gathering at Harvard University that ‘the biggest problem the US faces in dealing with Syria and the rise of the Islamic State is America’s allies  in the region.” Adelfattah Sisi has used these disclosures as an opportunity to pin Islamic State funding on Qatar, the backers of his Muslim Brotherhood enemies.” In Kuwait, despite the government’s public efforts that aim to show it is at least its trying to do something about the Islamic State, MP’s such as Faisal al-Duwaisan have continued to claim that ‘parties in Kuwait are contributing to the Islamic State and have warned that ‘if the government does nor educate its children. . . the Islamic State would be in Kuwait in less than two years.

Understandably, such high profile and widely read accusations have greatly unnerved those who still seek to protect the reputation of the Gulf monarchies.

Shadow Wars; The Secret Struggle for the Middle East by Christopher Davidson, Chapter 9.