New York- Yesterday marked the centenary of the 1915 Armenian genocide. Armenians and their supporters in the international human rights arena describe the massacres as a calculated genocide undertaken by the Ottoman military in the midst of the Great War (World War I) in eastern Anatolia whilst many nationalist Turks insist on referring to the murderous episode as the ‘events’ of 1915 with their own narrative of victimhood at the hands of great powers.
In the summer of 1999, I explored some of the remnants of ancient Armenia that reside in the present day Turkish republic. The scant remains of Urartu, the proto-Armenain Iron Age civilization, set my imagination alight at the time. This setting is where I first discovered the highly complex, painful history of Turks, Kurds, and Armenians as a university student. In the days before the rise of Erdogan and the Islamist-imbued AK Parti, Turkey was still steeped in secularist 20th century Kemalism which contained a heavy element of historical denial when it comes to the minorities cultures within Turkey’s borders.
After my tour around Ararat that summer, I continued on to the devastated ruins of Ani, a capitol of ancient Armenia that was rocked by an earthquake in 1319 A.D. from which it never recovered. I had to run around Kars to get permission to visit the place and was escorted by a young English-speaking conscript who made sure I didn’t point my camera toward the guard towers across the ravine where Armenian soldiers gazed upon us. There was even a hostel legend that a Japanese tourist who thought he was immune to the rules was shot by an Armenian (or Soviet/Russian) soldier looking down from a guard tower for attempting to photograph the other side. I never learned whether the story was myth or fact but I didn’t want to find out first hand.
These ruins once represented the boundary of the Cold War dividing NATO member Turkey and then Soviet Armenia. They were gained by the Ottomans in Istanbul following the signing of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty of 1918 where the Bolsheviks ceded the ruins to Ottoman Turkey. The cultural angle is a humiliating one for Armenians who seek territorial concessions from modern day Turkey as the ruins are visible from Armenia in the same manner as the aforementioned Mt. Ararat. Not having control of these sacred places is part of the larger narrative of the genocide as a mechanism of disenfranchisement. A crying out not universally accepted.
In the hundred years that have followed the genocide, sometimes described as an ethnic deportation of disloyal Ottoman subjects gone awry in the Turkish narrative, relations between the two ethnic nations have still not come to a lasting accord to the benefit of both sides. Though anti-Turkish Armenian terrorism ebbed long ago from its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, the war of rhetorical stances continues. Ani was totally abandoned by the 1700s but it seems to symbolize the purge of the Armenians that would come later during the early 1900s as the people descended from this civilization were mostly purged, never to return en masse. The mountains and the partially intact churches stand. The grievances persist. History seems to be at a standstill on this issue despite a 100 years having passed. Yet life must move forward.
New York- It’s such an obvious thing to say but it’s really hard to believe it’s been two solid decades since the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995. I viscerally remember sitting in the dormitory at San Diego State University when a friend had the news on. He was from Fontana but had Oklahoma roots and was deeply saddened. I remember that one crackpot analyst being so sure that it was Islamist (Salafist in today’s speak) in nature and how incredibly wrong he was.
That vast tragedy overshadowed the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in terms of both the number of casualties and the fact that it forced–for a time–a paradigm shift about how we think about terrorism. With the East Africa bombings in August 1998, the threat of domestic terrorism was once again diminished in the face of an external threat. Al-qaeda with its obscurantist worldview was seemingly more easily interpreted from a national security standpoint than those in league with Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. Those whose duty it is to protect the land from attacks must be analytically agile and intellectually nimble in order to reevaluate the constantly shifting threat landscape.
The memorial is beautiful yet somber. It is a symbol of tragedy and renewal.
New York- Regarding the planned nuclear deal to be reached by late June, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani announced “Today is a day that will remain in the historic memory of the Iranian nation.” Could a statement like this indicate the Islamic Republic is finally falling back into line with the Great Power political order after decades of U.S. estrangement? Possibly. Are there leagues of people who desperately seek to derail such an initiative? Undoubtedly.
Without getting into the granular details of the proposed quid pro quo arrangement whereby Iran will cull centrifuges in exchange for the letting up of sanctions, my angle is how the battle for Tikrit in neighboring Iraq and the coming battle for Mosul factors into this.
Part of what I suspect has changed the decades long game in toxic U.S.-Iran relations is the rise of the Islamic State. President Obama met one of his campaign foreign policy goals by fully withdrawing American military personnel from Iraq (minus those protecting the gargantuan embassy in Baghdad). Guantanamo hasn’t closed and Afghanistan is still festering. Iraq seemed like something of an accomplishment. But when I visited Iraq in mid-2013, it was clear to me that the Pentagon had left behind a fractious mess that was vulnerable to infiltration by non-state groups working to undermine both the Kurds and the then highly divisive Maliki government.
Then we have the twitter-fueled IS takeover of Mosul with a nascent state building to create a salafi-hihadi entity bent on perpetual warfare until an apocalyptic utopia can be achieved. Now as things stand, the Americans and Iranians are working together if purely by default. Notorious militias like the Badr Organization and Asaib Ahl al-Haq have been battling IS with bravado during the siege of Tikrit. Of course, American military planners don’t want to work with Iranian-backed war fighting groups in Iraq. War, however, is not about the ideal. It’s much more often about the pragmatic.
Military planning is constantly a re-evalutation of the lesser of evils on the battlefield. The least worst option always seems better than total defeat. In the Second World War, the Allies partnered with Stalin to defeat the Axis and achieve the near term goals of eradicating fascism from Europe and Pacific. This led to the death of tens of millions of Soviets both in the Red Army on the battlefront and then those who were felled in the Great Terror, Great Purge, ethnic deportations of nationalities collectively accused of Nazi collaboration and the Gulag system. The Cold War and the nuclear arms race immediately followed the Axis defeats.
For the US to preserve what little is has left in Iraq, it will have to work with those it has been fighting in the mid-2000s. This is not to the liking of the Israelis and their vast support network here in the United States. Nor does it please King Salman and the House of Saud who operate in a bizarre realm where the theological and geopolitical are conflated to the detriment of an entire region. In turn the U.S. is supporting the un-imaginitively named Operation Decisive Storm to rout the Houthis in Yemen which sort of proves that the Americans aren’t taking sides in ancient Sunni-Shia fitna. The Israelis and the Saudis have traditionally had a common goal of keeping the Iranians isolated by the U.S. but this paradigm looks to be both shifting as well as no longer sustainable.
I’m not saying the decades of mistrust will suddenly evaporate in a few months time. But the de facto cooperation for lack of a better term on Tikrit may be a prelude to the eradication of IS from Mosul. The Iraqi military simply isn’t up to the task. It has neither the willpower nor the esprit de corps to effectively carry out this mission in my view. One thing endemic to battlefields is that alliances shift with time owing to perceived necessity.
New York- As the faux caliphate referring to itself as ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyyah (Islamic State) continues to smash the shared human heritage of Iraq and Syria, the world watches in revulsion with no strategy to halt it. The threat posed by salafi-jihadis to precious sites is nothing new unfortunately. In 2012 and early 2013, a jihadi outfit in northern Mali called Ansar Dine destroyed Sufi shrines and graves to prevent any form of veneration that they believed diverged from the purest monotheism. These groups style themselves as purifying movements that are merely carrying out the will of god as if they have no choice in cultural destruction. The demolition of nodes of Sufi culture in Libya has also been taking place but to far less condemnation globally as it is categorized as sectarian strife for which the outside world has no authority to judge as it doesn’t retain the Sunni jurisprudence of a particular ulama. The head of UNESCO or President Obama condemning a particular act carries no weight among the militants. It likely only further emboldens them.
Egypt, with its plethora of what seems like the world’s most famous ancient sites per square kilometer from the Sudanese border to Cairo, has been spared the large scale devastation occurring elsewhere in the region. Terrorism in Egypt has concentrated on mass casualty attacks on places frequented by Israelis or presently on security forces, most often in the Sinai peninsula.Egypt’s hulking monuments owing the pharaonic period have survived the erosion of time, vandalism eons ago by Islamists (possibly), and hordes of tourists for countless decades. When priceless monuments have been wrecked by salafis in recent years, or Deobandis in the case of the Bamian buddhas, they are attempting to erase the complexity of the lands they temporarily control. Their use of the internet to disseminate these acts is entirely hypocritical but one can be sure they have cherry picked a way to justify doing so.
When I visited the magnificent ruins of Cyrene while taking a break from covering the war in Libya in 2011, they were totally unprotected. I doubt this has changed significantly if at all. Naively, I viewed Libya’s past as being a possible key to its post-Qaddafi future. With places like Cyrene, Leptis Magna and Sabratha situated not far from sprawling beaches, Libya could’ve theoretically developed a nascent tourist industry just south of the EU. Instead, Libya is mired in a factional, fratricidal war with no effective legitimate government. At present these spellbinding sites are under threat. With Cyrene’s proximity to Derna, it may be first on the list.
As I mentioned in a previous post, there is this concept that somehow the plight of human lives and historic places are in some twisted competition for the world’s attention. This is an immense oversimplification of international affairs. It is framed as if the world community has to choose between UNESCO or UNHCR. All these challenges must be met simultaneously. The idea of the issues are somehow at moral parity is offensive to some but the two priorities really aren’t in any acutual competition. Most of this perception comes from media’s emphasis of events.
The ruins of the ancient world have the capacity to surpass the petty politics that isolate and entrap us in the present. These ancient marvels can bridge an understanding that predates our present impasses. Therein lies their intrinsic value to all humankind.
New York- I’ve been delving through my archives of late in preparation for an upcoming series of television appearances the rise of dictatorships mostly in the latter half of the twentieth century. Poring over my stock from Baghdad and thinking about the current offensive to retake Tikrit, it all just seems so utterly unnecessary. How many times can the Republic of Iraq be torn asunder? For years, people have predicted Iraq’s imminent: demise, federalization, breakup, fissuring, and even inevitable unity based on the fact that Iraq has stayed together this long. The central government just seems to plod forward, rudderless, ill adept at maintaining control of the whole of its territory.
Whether Iraq will hold together as a single political geographic entity or can’t stop from breaking up is neither inevitable nor unthinkable. What is not terribly helpful is the sheer polarity of such predictions that often don’t consider the interests of ordinary Iraqis who have been in a state of war or siege essentially since 1980.
New York- With each coming day lately there is a new tragedy being announced by the takfiri evangelists who refer to themselves as ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyyah (the Islamic State). With a campaign noted for executions believed to be taking place in ar-Raqqah Governorate and sieges upon the bastions of religious minorities or anyone is simple doesn’t adhere to takfir practices, IS risked the global public becoming inured to their atrocities. So their latest meme is destroying artifacts and smashing some of the Levant’s most prized ancient sites in parts of Ninewa Governorate under their control.
My interest in the Middle East began not with its intermittent warfare but with its rich archaeological history. My first trip to the region was to help excavate King Herod’s palace in Caesarea Maritima, not to cover an adrenaline-fueled war. As is my luck, war broke out during that dig between the IDF and Hezbollah. Suddenly digging around the biblical building blocks of the ancients felt somewhat irrelevant.
What they are doing is not complete foreign in contemporary Islam as the state-orchestrated destruction of sites in Saudi Arabia is in keeping with Wahabi ideology that forbids the worshipping of ancestry lest it be deemed a form of shirk (idolatry) that runs counter to the narrowest interpretation of tawhid (monotheism) and is at least partly intended to marginalize Shia religious practices within the boundaries of the Kingdom.
Little to no global outcry has slowed the demolition of holy sites in both Mecca and Medina. The Saudi monarchy has been obliterating history in accordance with its state-sanctioned ideology since the mid-1920s under the auspices of purifying the Arabian Peninsula. Many holy places in Mecca have been simply bulldozed to make way for mass market capitalism. Profit has replaced the physical history of the prophet. In a sense IS is continuing this policy writ large against Muslim, non-Muslim and pre-Islamic sites alike.
In March 2001 when when a Taliban set out to demolish the Hellenist-inflected Buddhas of Bamyan in central Afghanistan’s Shia-majority Hazarajat region, it was speculated that the Deobandi Islamists did so to thumb their nose at the world that isolated their largely unrecognized regime while collectively punishing the Hazara minority who they’d fought to bitterly in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1997-1998. The comparisons to the crime in Bamyan were inevitable. The reported razing of Hatra is but the latest of atrocities against Iraqi, and well pre-Islamic civilizational history of all mankind, following the demolishing of statues inside the unguarded Mosul museum, and destruction at the Assyrian capital of Nimrud and Ninevah.
One of Iraq’s greatest Islamic monuments from the height of the Absassid caliphate is the spiral minaret known as the Malwiyya in Samarra. Along the banks of the Tigris, Samarra sits about midway between Balad and Tikrit–where a large scale offensive is currently under way–in a hotly contested area between the Iraqi state and its allied Iranian-backed Shia militia movements versus IS.
Ostensibly the Malwiyya would not be slated for IS destruction as it represents a pillar of Sunni religio-cultural history, is in no way idolatrous, and does not depict graven imagery. But I’m being far too logical in my assessment I suppose. In its wedding cake-like tiers, it is somewhat evocative of, if not inspired by, a ziggurat.
When the U.S. military barged into Iraq in March 2003, vandalizing Iraq’s Ba’athist history, namely the iconography of Saddam Hussein’s carefully crafted personality cult, seemed to be part of official Pentagon policy. Iraq had been vilified ever since the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the ensuing Gulf War in 1991 that sent Iraqi troops retreating along the “highway of death”where stifled images showed the cruelty of such a precision air war.
Although Iraq, and to a lesser extent neighboring Syria, are thought of as the ‘cradle of civilization,’ this geography has known little other than war and deep, violent internal repression for decades. Iraq’s culture coupled with the civilizational landmarks that remain within its present day geographical boundaries have not been incentivized to be respected. Aside from the well publicized destruction such as that which occurred in the Mosul museum, there has been widespread looting of sites for years to fund criminal enterprises and now outright salafi-jihad. The destruction gets the attention, the looting nets the income.
Thus the IS assault on the country’s treasures in Ninewa comes as no shock. There is also a knee jerk response in social media that if one emotes a deep, genuine sadness for such an immeasurable loss, that one is somehow lessening the ongoing loss of human life in these places. It is as if the intertwined plights of history and humanity are inherently mutually exclusive. This makes advocating for these treasures appear to be a possibly insensitive act.
Preserving Iraq’s vulnerable heritage was never explicitly part of the occupational mandate of U.S. forces in the 8 1/2 years they served in Iraq. Though it would seem Washington has the power, the military power, to stop this vast crime spree, it is not considered to be of paramount importance in the national security interest. Plain and unfortunately simple. Though there are initiatives like the State Department funded Syrian Heritage Initiative, the overall large scale political will is just not there. Iraq is too mired in intractable sectarian and ethnic fissures to do much to save its treasures while the Assad government in Damascus is concerned with solely with regime preservation.
The future of the past indeed looks bleak for the time being.
New York- An image I shot back in 2008 in Karachi was employed to tell the tragic story of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s disappearance and murder in the early days of the War on Terror. The programme, titled Witness: Remembering Daniel Pearl’s murder aired on BBC on 17 February.
Pearl’s gruesome beheading was a watershed moment in the post-9/11 period. More than two years on, the beheadings of Nick Berg in Iraq and Paul Johnson in Riyadh signaled a spate of horrific online violence where the internet became a conduit devoid of the most fundamental human dignity. With the recent beheading videos coming out of Syria, the Pearl case now in hindsight appears to have been a template, albeit a comparatively more elaborate plot, for the terror that was to come. Orchestrating such brazen executions in the cause of supposed ‘defensive’ jihad in salafi Islam seems to have become a norm.
I remember being gripped by the Pearl case after returning home from covering the war in Afghanistan and hoping against hope for a positive outcome. I’d done my university thesis in Pakistan in late 2000 which provided me with the last glimpse of the ummah before Afghanistan. I’d mixed with petty traders, warm tailors, drug dealing scoundrels with wild stories to tell from the frontier, gem stone smugglers, and gun runners. My memory of the country was fond. The hostage drama that unfolded had me reexamining my own experiences in the country.
Then in 2008 I walked in his and the plotters footsteps in Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, and Karachi to create the visual narrative for a report being done in Washington by a student group at Georgetown University. When it was finally published in January 2011, I barely had a moment to reflect upon it as the Arab uprisings were in full force, leading me to cover the war in Libya.
More of my images and the completed projected can be viewed in a free e-book called The Truth Left Behind: Inside the Kidnapping and Murder of Daniel Pearl.
New York- How did we get here? This is what you may be wondering with the news today that a group of 21 Egyptian Copts were mass beheaded in an unspecified area of coastal Tripolitania by salafi-jihadis in Libya that pledged bayah (oath of allegiance) to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State a continent away. Like my recent post on the revolution lost in Syria to anti-everything elements, Libya was a place in 2011 that, while incredibly dangerous, welcomed journalists in droves.
Nearly a decade after 9/11, the Tunis and Tahrir revolutions ushered in a new wave of journalist wunderkinds, several of whom are today well established while still not yet 30. Now Libya is a hostile place across the board riven by parallel governments concomitantly claiming to be the legitimate rulers while salafis move in and operate freely. I would perhaps return to Libya, but with far greater caution than during my trips in 2011.
With the news of the Copts’ execution, there may be am even larger state actor moving into the fray. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has stated that Cairo has the right to “retaliate” in what would transparently be an act of revenge..if Egyptian security forces could discern who carried out the executions. The Egyptian air force, along with that of the UAE, already carried out bombing runs last August to smash Islamist weapons caches in and around Tripoli to no avail.
Egypt has been deeply intertwined in the Libyan remittance economy for decades. I recall speaking to my uncle in Heliopolis in March 2011 who had been a geologist for the Libyan petroleum industry in the first half of the 1970s. He described lightly-populated Libya as a migrant worker “colony” of the Nile Valley dwellers who left their densely people region to send much needed cash home to their families in Anwar Sadat’s Egypt.
The gruesome IS video reportedly alludes to “Rome” in the context of the medievally framed apocalyptic prophecy regarding the village of Dabiq in Aleppo Governorate. In IS propaganda, Rome symbolizes the West as a whole, the lands of ancient Christendom, and frankly anyone deemed kufr in IS’s takfiri thought world. The group has tightly shrouded itself in the mantle of the Judgement Day speak as part of its purported belief to be defending the prophet and the ummah as a whole. A battle for the town of Dabiq would spark the ushering in of the end of days in which Constantinople and Rome would fall to ‘the Muslims’ (orthodox Sunnis only).
Seeing as Libya was part of ancient Rome (see Cyrene and Leptis Magna), and in the early twentieth century the Italians colonized Libya, their reference to being “south of Rome” is duly a calculated one meant to get Libyans themselves onto their agenda. Should Egypt formally enter the battle for Libya, it will likely only complicate that mess further. The Egyptian state is struggling in Sinai these days with regular attacks on the military there demonstrating the lack of knowledge of the physical and human geography on the Peninsula. I’m not sure what purpose it would serve to have the Egyptians expand their failing war on terror into their western neighbor. For the Coptic hostages, it is too late.