dianadarke

Syria and Turkey commentary

Love and hypocrisy in Iran

In Iran, they say, there are two books in every household  – the Koran and Hafez. One is read, the other is not.

To understand this joke you need do no more than join the millions who regularly throng the tomb of Hafez, 14th century poet of Shiraz and Iran’s national hero, as I did one recent afternoon.

Gardens surrounding the Tomb of Hafez, Shiraz

Gardens surrounding the Tomb of Hafez, Shiraz

The atmosphere was buzzing, happy and relaxed – Iran at its best.

Day and night the tomb, raised up on a beautifully decorated dais surrounded by its own fragrant rose gardens, water channels and orange trees, is crowded with devotees stroking his alabaster sarcophagus, declaiming his verses, relishing his clever plays on words.

Alabaster sarcophagus of Hafez being stroked in reverence

Alabaster sarcophagus of Hafez being stroked in reverence

Hafez represents all the rich complexities of the Iranian identity. His brilliant use of metaphors in their native Farsi language unites them.

But there is another reason the tomb is so popular.

In today’s Islamic Republic it is hard to express resistance to the powers that be.

The ruling clerical elite has consolidated its grip on power. It uses the rhetoric of revolution while crushing opposition. President Rouhani’s smiling face has projected a new image outside the country, but inside everyone tells me things are worse, with more executions  and more oppression than ever before. Penalties are harsh as evidenced by the recent ‘91 lashes’ meted out to defiant women dancing unveiled on a YouTube video to the Pharrell Williams song Happy. A London woman is on hunger strike in an Iranian prison, jailed for attempting to attend a men’s volleyball match.

But dissent can be displayed in subtle ways.  Thanks to Hafez,  Shiraz is Iran’s most liberal city.

Women’s fashion is the give-away, affecting the whole mood of the place. While women are obliged by law to cover themselves from head to toe, in Shiraz the women dress almost outrageously by Islamic standards.

Iran women photo _78286186_hookah624getty

The compulsory headscarf is highly coloured and worn dangling precariously from the back of the head, hardly covering any hair at all; the young sport tight black leggings topped by close-fitting slinky mini-coats, each one daring the next to raise the hemline further.

Far from concealing the feminine curves as the rules dictate, the outfits flaunt them, and the lively groups both young and old, men and women mix freely, laughing and chatting together.

This is Iran at its least compliant, a far cry from the religious conservatism the establishment seeks to impose on its population.

A famous actor arrives to pay his respects and is mobbed Hollywood-style by adoring fans.

Iran Hafez Tomb _78399474_hafez-tomb-624-think

As the sun disappears from the sky and the illuminations come on round the tomb, the atmosphere becomes ever more festive. People start singing and reciting their favourite poems.

Children dangle their feet in the pools, giggling and soaking up their parents’ infectious high spirits.

The scene conceals the paradoxes of Iran, for thanks to the mullahs’ policy of education for all, there are some surprising changes afoot in Iranian society.

For years now, more women than men have been graduating from university. The birth rate has dropped so dramatically, to just one child per family, that the clerics, fearful of a ‘Japanese curve’, have introduced financial incentives for couples to breed more. Most refuse, saying it is still too expensive.

While the West remains obsessed with Iran’s nuclear enrichment, it is an open secret that the well-connected clerics and businessmen enrich themselves through sanctions-busting.

When I hesitate over buying a Persian rug through lack of cash, knowing western credit cards are banned from use inside Iran, the carpet dealer pooh poohs  my concerns and simply rings a friend in Dubai to seal the transaction.

Unfortunately for the mullahs, the mystic poetry of Hafez, besides lauding the joys of love and wine, also targeted religious hypocrisy.

Crowds at the Tomb of Hafez, Shiraz

Crowds at the Tomb of Hafez, Shiraz

“Preachers who display their piety in prayer and pulpit, ” he wrote, 600 years ago,

“Behave differently when they’re alone … Why do those who demand repentance do so little of it?”

With prostitution another open secret in clerical circles, especially in the ‘holy cities’, such verses strike a chord.

Bans apply to many things in Iran, including the BBC. Yet the BBC’s Farsi channel is the most watched. Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and Instagram are all officially blocked. Rouhani is calling for internet restrictions to be eased, but the last word on such matters rests with the Supreme Leader who is so far unrelenting.

Small wonder the people of Iran comfort themselves with the poetry of Hafez. Even the mullahs cannot ban their own national poet.

With thanks for kind use of his photos to Richard Stoneman , fellow traveler on my Iran tour arranged by UK tour company Travel the Unknown http://www.traveltheunknown.com/tripfinder/Iran/1/to/21/days/sort-by/country/asc

First published http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-29648166

The paradox of Iran and its links with Syria

Cameron and Rouhani

How fitting it is that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani  should have used his Twitter account to announce last month’s historic meeting with UK Prime Minister David Cameron: “1st meeting b/w UK & Iran heads of state in 35 years: 1 hour of constructive & pragmatic dialogue, new outlook #UNGA” the tweet boasted, attaching a photo to prove it, of the pair engaged in earnest dialogue. A week later the brief warming in relations was over, as Rouhani criticised Cameron for calling Iran ‘part of the problem in the Middle East’; Tehran headlines again referred to Britain as ‘the old fox.’

What is the Iranian leadership aiming for, in its apparent new accessibility, its seeming new willingness to talk and engage with western governments? How seriously should we take Iran’s ‘new outlook’, as the UK joins the US-led air strikes against ISIS in Iraq (and possibly Syria in future), a fight in which Iran’s help will, sooner or later, almost certainly be needed?

In Twitter-silent Iran, it was the silence of the ordinary Iranian people that struck me most. After the failed Green Revolution of 2009 in which around 100 protesters were killed and over 4,000 arrested, most Iranians learned to be silent – unlike the Syrians. Ordinary Iranians admire the courage of ordinary Syrians. “We gave up when we saw how the regime reacted, but they continued.”

The gulf between the Iranian people and their regime is striking. Rouhani’s smiling face and his carefully managed tweets project one image of Iran to the West, but conditions inside the country tell a very different story. Far from opening up, Iran is busily clamping down on its own people. Since Rouhani took office in August 2013 executions have been on the rise, more than 400 in the first half of 2014 alone according to the NGO Iran Human Rights (to give perspective, Saudi Arabia managed a mere 79 last year). Two gay men were publicly hanged in August for consensual sodomy; in recent weeks ’91 lashes’ were meted out to unveiled Iranians dancing in a YouTube video, and a British-Iranian woman was charged with ‘propaganda against the Iranian regime’ for attending a male volley-ball match. Iran’s hard-line ruling elite back home is determined to suppress any kind of resistance, fearful that, were they to allow greater freedoms in Iranian society, a wave of dissent might rise up and engulf them. Rouhani recently declared his view that internet controls and tight restrictions on women’s headscarves do not work – but will the anti-reformist clerics take any notice?

Iran is not a particularly religious country, given the power of the mullahs. The call to prayer is muted – it took three days till I heard the first one – and mosques are places more to sleep than pray.

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Shrines on the other hand are crowded, thanks to a superstition that throwing a few notes or coins through the grille of a holy man’s tomb will resolve life’s problems. “We never did Islam the way the Arabs wanted us to,” grinned a helpful bystander inside the segregated women’s area, confirming what my Syrian friends in Damascus had always told me about the Iranian pilgrims who thronged the city in their all-black chadors. “They are pretending. Underneath they are just on holiday.”

Painted high on random buildings within view of the main highways the faces of Ayatollah Khomeini and the current Supreme Leader Khamenei  smile down on their subjugated flock like a pair of benevolent dictators.

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Closer questioning reveals that maybe some 10-15% of the population is tied into supporting the regime for their own economic reasons. Iran is at heart a trading nation. Its entire history has been built on centuries of skilful bartering. Visit any Iranian city and the bazaar is the central nervous system, the driver of the economy. The bazaaris and the clergy were enabled by the 1979 Iranian Revolution to preserve the traditional positions of power threatened by the Shah and his corruption. They do not want to lose this power now through relaxing their grip and allowing Western influence and culture to take over. They rail against the evils of the Western model – drug abuse, family breakdown, immoral behaviour – yet the paradox is that these have all increased on their watch inside Iran anyway, thanks to unemployment, poverty and their own corruption.

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Iran is said to have one of the highest rates of drug addiction in the world at 5% of the population, the divorce rate is soaring in the cities where most people now live and prostitution is so rife that even the regime itself mentions it as a problem. And the solution of the hardline clerics? More floggings.

Iran’s demographic is suffering from a ‘Japanese curve’. After 1979 Khomeini encouraged everyone to have many children, resulting in a baby boomer generation. But the middle classes of that generation, now in their mid-30s, are the ones most excluded from influence, struggling with unemployment and deprivation. The average birth rate has plummeted to one child per family, partly because of women’s education, but also for affordability reasons. Worried that this is not enough to sustain the aging population, the regime is offering financial incentives for people to have more children, incentives which are not working: couples say it is still too expensive.

Most Iranians now live in cities, meaning that traditional barriers are breaking down as different groupings find themselves living side by side. Sunni-Shi’a intermarriage is becoming commoner, much to the horror of the mullahs. In schools the clergy controls the syllabus, with Islamic religious education forming a bigger element of the day’s lessons than any other country in the world, leaving less time for other subjects. Iran’s brightest and best are leaving the country.

For those who stay there are subtle ways of showing opposition and Iran has these in abundance. The BBC is banned, yet the BBC’s Farsi channel is the most watched, while Iranian state TV offerings on religion and wildlife languish. Facebook is blocked yet 58% of Iranians circumvent the ban, gmail accounts were till recently banned yet 63% of Iranians use gmail as their preferred email address. Women, for the last ten years or so accounting for more university graduates than men, show passive resistance through pushing the boundaries on Islamic dress, so that in Shiraz, Iran’s most liberal city, the mandatory headscarf is worn tantalisingly far back to reveal a full head of hair, with figure-hugging brightly coloured jackets leaving nothing to the imagination.

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So how, in the face of such contradictions, has the political clergy of the Islamic Republic managed to retain its power and control? The answer lies in its ever-increasing dependence on its various law enforcement forces, above all SEPAH and the Basij – another parallel with Syria. SEPAH is the Iranian Revolutionary Guard set up in 1979 to preserve the Islamic nature of the revolution and to pre-empt a military coup or foreign interference, while the Basij is the volunteer militia under its control, numbering up to one million. To cement the loyalty of SEPAH and the Basij, the clerical elite has permitted them to enrich themselves through mafia-style smuggling rackets operating across the Straits of Hormuz to the UAE – shades of Syria again where Assad’s shabiha control the contraband routes through the ports of Lattakia and Tartous. A multi-billion dollar empire has grown up, transparent to ordinary Iranians who follow world affairs closely. Banned from Twitter, most use SMS, sending each other jokes by text message based on the news of the day. SEPAH and the Basij are particular targets, with messages like:  ‘How much do you think SEPAH will charge the mullahs for smuggled fridges? Reply: About five prostitutes a day for a month should do it,’ and ‘How many Basij fighters do you reckon are now in Syria? Reply: I don’t know, but a lot more than in Iran,’ and ‘Who runs Syria these days? Reply: Iran of course!’

The highly experienced Iranian commander of the Quds Force (special operations division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard), Major General Qassem Suleimani, has since early 2013 been masterminding the Assad regime’s fight against its rebels, sending advisers into Syria, helping bolster depleted ammunition/weapons supplies and re-train Syrian government troops. With consummate skill, he created the 60,000-strong National Defence Force (NDF) in Syria, modelled on the Basij, ostensibly to protect local neighbourhoods, in practice to exploit them and run smuggling rackets.

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus' Hijaz Railway with the caption: 'We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.' Blood drips from the words 'with blood'.[DD]

President Bashar al-Assad with the caption: ‘We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.’ Blood drips from the words ‘with blood’.

Rouhani is an ace negotiator and will feign flexibility while holding tight to his position. He knows that time pressure is on his side: the West needs him now in its fight against ISIS and he has till 24 November to reach a nuclear deal. The conditions are perfect for extracting concessions from the West, and of one thing we may be sure: the Iranian governing elite will do nothing that rocks the status quo domestically, nothing that interferes with its ability to enrich itself. Embassies may open in London and Tehran, cooperation over ISIS in Iraq (though not in Syria) may be forthcoming when its own border region is threatened, but the Iranian regime, SEPAH and the Basij will remain umbilically connected, to each other and to the Syrian regime. Their collective survival is at stake and their loyalty to each other is not negotiable.

Looking back at Rouhani’s Twitter account, I am struck by the fact that, set against his 257K followers, he is only following six people, one of which is his own Iranian language account. The others are Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Ayatollah Rafsanjani, Ayatollah Khatami, his own Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and his own Vice President and Environment Minister the heavily headscarved Massoumeh Ebtekar – not exactly a broad range of opinion. All of which confirms that however much Rouhani smiles abroad, at home he is beholden to his hard-line masters.

Diana Darke, author of My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution (Haus, 2014),http://www.amazon.co.uk/My-House-Damascus-Inside-Revolution/dp/1908323647 has recently returned from an extensive tour of Iran arranged through Travel the Unknown www.traveltheunknown.com.

 

 

Shi'a prayer tablets made from the mud of Kerbala

Shi’a prayer tablets made from the mud of Kerbala

Related media:

http://gatesofnineveh.wordpress.com/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/fooc/all (From Our Own Correspondent of 18 October 2014, starts at 17.25 mins)

Turkey’s dilemma over Kobane

It is a case of deja vu for Turkey’s President Erdogan.

Three years ago, as Turkey’s Prime Minister, he was urgently calling for a no-fly zone and the setting up of a safe haven on Syrian soil along its border with Turkey. No one listened. Now he is calling for it again. In late summer 2011 after many months of trying to reason with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, when high-level delegations shuttled regularly between Ankara and Damascus, Erdogan finally lost patience with his former ally, a man he had even gone on holiday with, and began his support instead of the Syrian opposition rebels. It was a bold move, partly influenced by his thinking that support for Islamist rebel groups inside Syria would act as a counterbalance to the Kurds, who make up c20% of Turkey’s population.

What he did not foresee, was that Syria’s Kurds, taking advantage of the vacuum left by the Assad regime in the northeast, would seize control of the northeast areas round Al-Hasakah and Qamishli, even seizing some of the border crossings into the Kurdish parts of southeast Turkey like Ras al-Ayn and Ayn al-Arab (known to Kurds as ‘Kobane’).

The Syrian Kurds were more prescient. They had foreseen in the Syrian revolution a major opportunity to further their aspirations for their own homeland, or autonomy at the very least. The Kurdish street slogan was: ‘Democracy for Syria. Federalism for Syrian Kurdistan.’ Bashar finally gave them citizenship in 2012 after 50 years of state deprivation, in an attempt to deter them from joining the revolution, but by then it was too little too late.

Kurds have historically been bad at uniting, with seven dialects and seven political organisations to bring together, but over the course of the Syrian Revolution some of Syria’s Kurds linked up with their fellow Sunni Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan, and have been openly receiving military training from them. Turkey’s government has been horrified, fearing the effects on their own restive Kurds, whose guerrilla activities under the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) recently flared up again after ten years of near stabilility. Some 45,000 were killed in that struggle inside Turkey since 1984.

Ankara is currently engaged in a delicate peace process with its Kurds, giving them greater freedoms and rights in return for them laying down their arms and withdrawing to Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey knows how easily Kurdish ambitions could derail plans for the economic expansion of its southeast regions and how expensive that would be.

Pre-revolution, Bashar al-Assad was quoted as saying ‘Turkey is the model [for religious toleration in a secular state] because we have the same society and similar traditions.’ Over the last ten years under Erdoğan, Turkey opened up much faster than Syria under Bashar, liberalising its economy, embracing privatisation and free enterprise. As a result its economy has been booming, with growth peaking at about 12 per cent in 2010–11, though that figure has since slackened off considerably. It declared a ‘zero problems with neighbours’ foreign policy, trading with them all, and in 2009 opened its borders to Lebanese, Jordanians, Iraqis and Syrians, dropping all visa requirements. More and more Syrians started going to Turkey for their holidays.

At first Turkey welcomed Syrian refugees from the fighting, providing camps for them along the border. They began as a small trickle, building up to about 10,000 after the first year, then increasing exponentially to hundreds of thousands once the violence in Aleppo flared up. The flow then became such that they ran out of camp space, hurriedly building more, while backlogs of desperate refugees piled up on the Syrian side of the border. Now the numbers are close to a million and the strains are becoming unbearable.

Today once again Turkey is calling for a no-fly zone and a safe haven inside Syrian territory. Erdogan wants the US-led coalition to help him achieve this, knowing it means taking on the Assad regime, knowing it is too risky alone. Once again no one is listening. The reaction of the Syrian government is unpredictable. So far the US-led coalition air strikes and the focus on Kobane have enabled them to make gains on the ground around both Aleppo and Damascus. Even Iran is now talking of getting involved, to avert a humanitarian catastrophe, though it is far from clear how it would do this.

The longer the dilemma goes on, the harder Turkey’s decision will be. It has to juggle the pros and cons, knowing that its involvement in the Syrian conflict is deeply unpopular with its own Turkish population who have no appetite for war, yet also that its international reputation is at stake. Its ideal solution would be for Kobane to be saved by US-led airstrikes and Kurdish peshmerga battling ISIS on the ground, and for its peace process with its Kurds to be saved by securing a deal with the PKK similar to that which Ankara already has with Iraqi Kurdistan, whose oil Turkey badly needs. Erdogan knows he must save Turkey’s domestic stability at all costs, for the sake of the future and of investor confidence, for once broken, it will take years to put back together again.

Kurds on the Turkish borber, supporting their fellow Kurds battling for Kobane, Syria [October 2014]

Kurds on the Turkish border, supporting their fellow Kurds battling for Kobane, Syria [October 2014]

Related:

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/10/iranians-ask-soleimani-defend-kobani.html?utm_source=Al-Monitor+Newsletter+%5BEnglish%5D&utm_campaign=59e97cd3b2-October_8_2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_28264b27a0-59e97cd3b2-93116701

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/08/us-increasingly-frustrated-turkey-inaction-islamic-state

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01gsjdw

http://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/postcard-nusaybin-turkey

 

 

Is Syria solvable?

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus' Hijaz Railway with the caption: 'We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.' Blood drips from the words 'with blood'.[DD]

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus’s Hijaz Railway with the caption: ‘We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.’ Blood drips from the words ‘with blood’.[DD]

At the funeral yesterday of a dear friend who died of natural causes in his own bed, I wept for Syria. Life coming to an end is hard to bear in any circumstances, but in Syria I cannot come to terms with why the lives of 200,000 people have ended, unnaturally, not in their beds, often with no funerals at all. What have they died for? Have their deaths achieved anything at all?

The mess that is Syria today scarcely resembles a country. Its identity has been shredded. After three and half years of a revolution that began peacefully but was met with violence, is it still even a revolution? So many opposing forces, so many countries are now involved that it has become impossible to see the way forward. Lawlessness has become the new norm. Inside Syria people are so confused about who is fighting whom and for what, that they have lost sight of what to strive for. Corruption is everywhere, the opportunism of war creating its own economy, with a ruthless few getting rich beyond their wildest dreams. Apart from the deaths, tens of thousands remain in prison. No one knows the numbers for sure. All across the country millions have been displaced and homes have been snatched – mine among them – sometimes just by needy people, but more often by immoral individuals taking advantage of the breakdown of law and order. Even in areas that used to be under tight regime control people are starting to realise that the government cannot protect them. Kidnappings purely for ransom money have become commonplace but no one is sure who the perpetrators are. More and more cases are being reported of the pro-government militia, the NDF (National Defence Force), tricking people into leaving their homes by warning them of imminent danger from DAESH (ISIS), then looting the contents and selling them on. As Lina Sinjab reports in her recent BBC piece about the NDF and its behaviour (see link below):

A few men with guns call themselves the ‘protectors of the neighbourhood’… They then set the rules and bypass the law, in a country that is already lawless.” (words of a Damascus resident)

As for the increasing cases of young people going out to Syria to fight, I cannot help but think of the scene in the film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie where Mary Macgregor’s brother goes out to Spain to join in the Spanish Civil War, trying to do something noble with his life, only to join the opposite side to what he intended and be pointlessly killed. Seen from so far away, the idealism can seem so clear. From close up, all clarity vanishes, as it has done inside Syria. The Spanish Civil War lasted less than three years but killed around 500,000. The rebels finally prevailed and Franco went on to rule Spain for 36 years till his death in 1975. But the Syrian war has no precedent in history. We are in uncharted territory.

The international community has allowed the situation inside Syria to fester so long that it has become insoluble. The US air strikes are not helping ordinary Syrians. On the contrary the bombing of Jabhat al-Nusra targets is likely to turn Syrians against the West and its belated involvement which is not to save them, but to save itself from DAESH (the locally used acronym for ISIS/IS). Syrians have been sacrificed at the altar of world indifference and now, with the rise of DAESH, we will all have to pay the price. Only a change in Iranian policy towards Syria would shift the dynamics on the ground. Lured by the incentive of a US rapprochement, might they abandon the Assad regime and do a deal with Saudi Arabia and Turkey to remove Assad and his top layers, whilst keeping the military and security establishments largely intact? It is the obvious solution, but what are the chances of it happening?  As I wrote in My House in Damascus, “Pigs might fly…”

More than ever, I will have to remain a ‘hopeless dreamer’,  for the sake of all those lives lost unnaturally.

My Damascus House

My Damascus House

 

Related articles:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-29429941

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/10/international-alliance-no-change-front-lines-syria-rebels.html?utm_source=Al-Monitor+Newsletter+%5BEnglish%5D&utm_campaign=15b8a0b861-October_2_2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_28264b27a0-15b8a0b861-93116701

Syrian Literary Festivals

This October My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution will be featured in three literary festivals:  Cheltenham, Henley and Wimbledon. Full details below with booking via their websites.

First, on Saturday 4 October 2014 at Cheltenham:

In association with Waterstones

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PRESENT TENSE: SYRIA

QUICKFIND L066

SAT 4 OCT 2014 9:00PM – 10:00PM

THE STUDIO, IMPERIAL SQUARE

£8 – MEMBERS 10% OFF

If you are a member then login to book your tickets, if you’re not a member then find out how to become a member and get access to priority booking.
Public booking opens on Mon 01 Sep at 12:00pm

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DETAILS

Anthony Loyd, The Times war correspondent who was recently injured reporting from Syria, evaluates the Syrian crisis with Diana Darke, author of My House in Damascus, and questions what might happen next.

All Literature events

MEDIA GALLERY

How #ISIS misuses early Islamic history to justify its actions

Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, leader of ISIS, declared himself ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ in June 2014. Claiming a genealogy traced back to the Prophet Muhammad and his noble tribe the Quraysh, together with a PhD from the Islamic University of Baghdad, his religious credentials are certainly stronger than previous Al-Qaeda leaders.

The caliphate in early Islam was a military and political office, not simply a religious one. The Prophet Muhammad during his lifetime was religious leader, lawgiver, chief judge, commander of the army and civil head of state all in one. ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ is following this model. The Prophet Muhammad died suddenly in 632 leaving no male children. Disputes over who was to be his khalifa or caliph, (Arabic ‘successor’) have been responsible for most of the schisms of Islam, including the major Sunni/Shi’a division. ‘Never was there an Islamic issue which brought about more bloodshed than the caliphate,’ wrote the respected historian Al-Shahrastani (1086-1153) in his Book of Sects and Creeds.

To boost his standing further, ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ appears to be modelling himself on the first four Sunni Orthodox caliphs – Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali – known as Al-Rashidoun, ‘the rightly-guided ones’, who succeeded the Prophet Muhammad. Under them the Islamic state expanded within a decade from Arabia to conquer first Syria, then Iraq, Persia, Egypt and beyond. Those early conquests were characterised by military campaigns led by brilliant strategists like Khalid ibn al-Walid and Amr ibn al-Aas, using horses and camels in lightning raids against their enemies – the Byzantines and the Sassanians – whose armies were generally on foot. Today’s ISIS attacks too are characterised by their speed and surprise, always mounted on vehicles, attacking from many sides like a Bedouin ghazwa (raid). Raiding was seen as a noble occupation in early Arabia – much poetry is devoted to its praise. Acquisition of new territories was one of the principal duties of the caliph, and it is to this tenet of jihad (religious war) that Islam owed its fast early growth.

The Prophet Muhammad’s great achievement was to break tribal allegiances and replace them with a new fraternity of Islam: “Know ye that every Muslim is a brother unto every other Muslim, and that ye are now one brotherhood.”  All new converts of whatever tribe, race or nationality were welcomed. The new ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ is using the same tradition to welcome foreign fighters to his fold.

New actors on the world stage like ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ do not come out of nowhere. Conditions have to be right for them to flourish. When the Prophet Muhammad preached the new religion of Islam in what is now Saudi Arabia, anarchy already reigned in the 7th century world around him. Arabia’s political structures had broken down, sapped of energy by never-ending tribal feuds and disputes over springs, pasture and livestock – the bare necessities of life in an arid desert environment.  Long-running wars between the Byzantines and the Persian Sassanians, heavy taxes imposed by both empires and the multiple schisms of the Christian Church paved the way for the rapid advance of the early Muslim armies.

Like the early caliphs, ‘Caliph Ibrahim’s’ conquests have been eased and enabled by the chaotic regional environment. The post-2003 ‘de-Ba’athification’ process carried out by the Americans after deposing Saddam Hussein left an Iraq reeling and beset with government in-fighting. Ripe for harvest, its oilfields beckoned tantalisingly.

Syria’s tragic revolution-turned- civil-war provided the perfect cloak to ISIS ambitions. Under a general amnesty in early 2012, Al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists were released from Assad prisons. They regrouped and organised themselves into what has evolved as ISIS. In March 2013 they captured Al-Raqqa on the Euphrates, 25 miles east of Tabqa, Syria’s largest dam, just as in August 2014 they captured the Mosul Dam, Iraq’s largest, on the Tigris – now wrested back for the time being by the Kurdish peshmerga with the help of US air cover. In Syria ISIS practised its fighting skills, not on the well-equipped Assad army, but on Syria’s Kurds and on the poorly-armed rebel fighters of the Free Syrian Army. ISIS now controls most of Syria’s eastern oilfields, and in Iraq too its strategy involves systematically seizing the northern oil installations, fuelling its wealth. Conservative estimates put ISIS income from oil alone at US$1 million a day. The bearded chiefs have grown rich beyond their wildest dreams.

Thanks to such control of oil and water, new followers flow strongly into the fold. An impoverished population suffering from the effects of drought, unemployment and disenchantment with the powers-that-be, makes fertile recruiting ground. Most of the Prophet Muhammad’s early converts to Islam were slaves and lower classes – people with something to gain. The first caliph Abu Bakr, when recruiting for his armies, wrote to the people of Mecca promising them there was rich booty to be won from the Byzantines. To raise more money from its conquered territories, early Islam also imposed a means-assessed poll tax on Jews, Christians, Sabians (and later Zoroastrians) considered ‘People of the Book’, acknowledged to be monotheists. Only groups like the Yazidis, who were misunderstood as ‘devil-worshippers’, were presented with the stark choice of ‘convert or be killed’. The poor paid a quarter of the rich, while women, children, beggars, the old, the insane and the sick were exempt. ISIS has been taking taxes from towns under its control in Syria since 2013. In Iraq it has been demanding protection money from local business, whilst also presenting a generous face through handing out food, petrol and subsidising electricity.

As well as offering an attractive and powerful identity, ISIS can offer $400-500 a month as regular income to young Sunnis only too happy to believe in a new ideology based on their own supremacy, and in which the Arabian concept of ghanimah, booty, is legitimate.  Sura 8:42 of the Koran says ‘one-fifth of the booty is for God, the Prophet, those close to him, orphans, the poor and the wayfarer’ ie belongs to the state. By implication therefore the rest can be taken by the fighters. Yezidi women and children are legitimate spoils of war in this ideology.

Under the rallying cry of religion, the ISIS of today is driven by motives it sees as sanctioned under Islam – to gain territory, to acquire new converts, and to spread its strict Islamic rule of law – the Shari’a – with punishments like amputation for theft and beheading for apostasy or for non-believers who refuse to convert. It is copying the social mores of 14 centuries ago.

But behind this religious cloak the same economic forces that drove the Prophet Muhammad’s followers and led to his early conquests are driving the speed of ISIS’s advance. Many despairing Syrians and Iraqis who have watched their countries crumble around them are now joining ISIS out of pragmatism, rather than ideology. The attraction of being on the winning side cannot be overestimated. As long as the region remains in disarray, the likelihood is that ISIS will increasingly be seen by many as the only answer – and a rewarding one to boot.

 

#Yazidi women are legitimate ‘spoils of war’ in #ISIS ideology

As reports begin to emerge on the fate of Yazidi women captured in the Sinjar region of Iraq, it is as well to understand the ideology that enables ISIS to consider its actions legitimate:

The rules on ghanima (booty or ‘the spoils of war’) are clearly laid down in the Koran, Sura 8, verse 41, and ISIS is following them to the letter in its treatment of Yazidi women:

“Know that a fifth of what ye have won belongs to Allah – to his prophet, his family, to the orphan, the needy and the traveller.”

The verse was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad after the Battle of Badr in 624, the first decisive military victory won by Muhammad and his followers against those who opposed his new religion of Islam. As part of the pre-Islamic Bedouin raiding culture of the Arabian Peninsula, Arab chiefs had by tradition kept a share of the booty. It was the norm of the times. One fifth was later considered by Muslim scholars to be the share needed to support the Islamic state’s expenses as it expanded its empire. The remaining four-fifths were divided among the fighters who had won the booty.

This same concept of booty is being followed now by ISIS 14 centuries later, and they are defining it in the same way. The accepted definition by Muslim scholars of ghanima includes all weapons and all movable possessions. It also includes ‘non-believers’ who can be taken as prisoners of war – be they men, women or children. These prisoners are to be divided as slaves among the fighters. ‘Liberating’ the women is even considered an act of pious charity, especially if the women in question happen to be Yazidi, wrongly labelled ‘devil-worshippers’.

How in the 21st century does one even begin to combat such an ideology, when it is so convinced of its own legitimacy?

Yazidi children during a religious ceremony [Getty]

Yazidi children during a religious ceremony [Getty]

Related:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/iraq-crisis-isis-militants-plan-to-marry-captured-yazidi-women-9674922.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-28686607

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-29001357

 

 

 

Iraqi/ISIS/Yazidi conflict is less about religion than about oil, water and power

Yazidi tombstone in southeast Turkey showing the peacock symbol, representing God on earth [DD, May 2014]

Yazidi tombstone in southeast Turkey showing the peacock symbol, representing the Peacock Angel, as God’s interlocutor on earth [DD, May 2014]

Article below as published in The Sunday Times 10 August 2014:

http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/focus/article1444902.ece

Oil and water, not religion, are fuelling Isis campaign to wipe out minorities

Who could have dreamt that the plight of the secretive Yazidis, stranded without food and water up Mt Sinjar, would suddenly command worldwide attention, let alone lead to US air strikes against the self-styled caliphate of the insurgent group Isis? But the epic, near Biblical scenes of this resilient group of people fleeing up a bare mountain have caught the public imagination.

Look more closely at a map and it becomes clear that this entire region is filled with religious minorities, the remnants of the intermingling of many faiths. For here in the once Fertile Crescent was the birthplace of religion, even the birthplace of civilization itself. Three of the world’s great monotheistic religions were born here – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is a deeply spiritual part of the world.

The origins of many of the religions practiced here remain shrouded in obscurity. Yazidi ancestry is Assyrian-Semitic but over the centuries they are thought to have moved north from Basra and become Kurdicised.

Successive persecutions at the hands of local rulers have stemmed from two misunderstandings:  that their name referred to the detested early caliph Yazid bin Mu’awiya (when it derives instead from the Persian for angel ized), and that they worshipped the devil (a confusion of the name shaytan, Arabic for devil, with the Peacock Angel whom Yazidis see as God’s alter ego on earth).

 

Yazidi tombstone in southeast Turkey, with symbols of the peacock and the sun, representing God on earth [DD, May 2014]

Yazidi tombstone in southeast Turkey, with symbols of the peacock and the sun, representing God on earth [DD, May 2014]

Physically they resemble Kurds and most speak Kermanji Kurdish, though the Yazidis from Mt Sinjar also speak Arabic. They live separately from neighbouring tribes and do not intermarry, mainly settled in remote villages but are sometimes nomadic with herds of sheep. They have never been politically important – till now, when they have come under the glare of the international spotlight.

They have only ever sought to practice their religion in peace, away from prying eyes. At the core of their faith is a deep belief in transmigration,  that each life gives the chance to move gradually forward towards a better future. Hell and the existence of evil are denied as absolutes. They see all evil as man-made. Their current persecutors, Isis, are evil personified, threatening them with death or conversion, but no Yazidi can convert religion – it is tantamount to forfeiting the soul. As with the Druze and Alawi minorities found across Lebanon and Syria, it is not possible to convert to their religion, only to be born into it.

The images of bleak deserts that flash across our screens today also serve to obscure the region’s two secret treasures: water and oil.  The mighty Tigris and Euphrates rivers both of which have their headwaters in eastern Turkey, run through Syria and Iraq before exiting into the Gulf near Basra. The very word ‘Mesopotamia’ means ‘the Land between the Two Rivers’.

Whoever controls these waters controls the lifeblood of the region, and IS’s seizure in recent days of the fragile Mosul Dam has the potential to change the course of history – another epic flood of biblical proportions. Downstream, were it to burst, either accidentally from lack of maintenance or deliberately as an act of maniacal vengeance, Iraq’s first and second cities, Baghdad and Mosul, would disappear underwater. The oil wells of northeast Syria, northern Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan all lie within the grasp of IS, and it is systematically taking control of them to fund its operations.

Beside the religious there are further ethnic  minorities, such as the Turkmen who divide more or less equally between Sunni and Shi’a Islam with their own language and customs, and the Shabak, mainly Shi’a  but with elements of Yazidism. They too have their own language. The numbers of all these minorities have plummeted over the last decade, none more so than the Christians, down to about 400,000 in Iraq alone from 1.5 million before 2003. There are between 70,000 and 500,000 Yazidis worldwide.

It is one of the great ironies of history that all these minorities lived out their beliefs in relative peace under the Ba’athist regimes of Saddam Hussain in Iraq and the Assads in Syria. But the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the revolutions of the ‘Arab Spring’ and now the rise of Isis have combined to turn this part of the world upside down. Into the power vacuum left by the floundering Syrian Revolution and the chaos of the Maliki-led Iraqi government stepped Isis, making its headquarters at Raqqa on the Euphrates in Syria.

As the patchwork of Iraq and Syria disintegrate under the onslaught of Isis, it is north to Iraqi Kurdistan that the overwhelming majority of persecuted minorities are fleeing. Perceived as a haven of relative stability, the Kurdistan Regional Government is seeking to gain independence from Iraq, though its Peshmerga fighters, low on cash and weaponry, will be tested to the full in the coming weeks and months. Its Education Ministry has introduced the enlightened policy that its schools must teach all world religions equally. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslim but Islam is accorded no special status. A person’s faith is seen as a private matter. For Isis such a policy is of course anathema.

Many refugee minorities would flee to Turkey, if the borders were opened, as the Turkish government now also allows its Syriac Christians and its Yazidis to live unmolested.

The biggest irony is that all the religious groups struggling to co-exist in this region believe in the same God, however they choose to address him or whatever symbol they choose to represent him – be it a peacock, a cross, the sun or simply an abstract geometric pattern. Proof if ever it were needed, that this conflict is less about religion, than about water, oil and power.

Diana Darke is author of My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution. She has specialised in the Middle East for more than 30 years.

Related posts on the Yazidis:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-28686607

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/letters/letters-now-we-can-all-share-the-boris-fantasy-9658001.html (scroll to second letter from Professor Christine Allison, Ancient community faces a grim fate)

Yazidi graveyard showing peacock symbol to represent the Peacock Angel [DD, May 2014]

Yazidi graveyard showing peacock symbol to represent the Peacock Angel, God’s interlocutor on earth [DD, May 2014]

 

 

Syrian ‘World of Interiors’

My Damascus house

In peaceful times World of Interiors might easily have been the sub-title for My House in Damascus. The Arabic concept of the baatin meaning the internal aspect that can only be sensed, as opposed to the zaahir  signifying the outward visible surface, is one of the leitmotivs of the book, re-awakened from my distant undergraduate days studying medieval Arabic literature at Oxford. From the outside the historic house I bought nine years ago in Old Damascus presented nothing but a plain facade, but on the inside it was a secret world. Even after a lifetime’s specialisation as an Arabist, I had never dreamt of buying property in the Arab world. But a chance encounter with an antiquities architect whilst researching a guidebook to Syria led me in an unexpected direction and together we spent four unforgettable years of restoration and discovery.

Inside that sanctuary I have experienced, more than anywhere else, a powerful sense of unity with nature and with my surroundings. The way the light stroked the ancient stones, the way the vibrant bougainvillea fell in a magenta trail, the way the palm doves swooped from their nests in the heavy foliage to peck at invisible delicacies, the way the tortoise meandered silently in and out of the shadows. The music of the call to prayer from the myriad mosques echoed round the walls and on Sundays the church bells chimed in melodiously.  Overwhelmed by the palimpsest of Syria’s complex past and present embodied in the multi-layered heritage of the house, I felt embraced as if by some archetypal womb.

To reach that point was hard. The path was strewn with near-impassable obstacles, blocked with bureaucratic nightmares beyond imagining.  But Syrian friends patiently helped me through the labyrinth. Only after painstaking deconstruction did I get there, a process which came to be symbolic of Syria’s own years of deconstruction, still alas ongoing.

First the breezeblock wall dividing the courtyard two-thirds one-third had to be pulled down to reunite the space as one, a move I identified as the reunification of Syria’s population, broadly two-thirds Sunni Muslim, and one third minorities like Kurds, Alawis, Christians and Druze. Next the uniform white-painted cladding had to be stripped off the walls revealing the centuries-old stonework of contrasting soft limestone and black basalt. This was a particularly lengthy stage, as we chipped away carefully with hand tools, struggling not to damage what lay beneath. The uniform cladding of the Ba’ath Party system and the tentacles of its omnipresent security system have been suffocating Syria’s identity for the last 50 years. Concrete is tough stuff.

Even so, the day will surely come when Syria too has its rotten infrastructure, its faulty wiring and its dodgy plumbing ripped out. Like the house, it will gradually emerge from the wreckage, as kaleidoscope colours begins to blend subtly with mellow shades from across the ages. The human quest for the perfect space – what I found in my magical courtyard – will never die.  Once ‘tasted’, as Islam’s greatest philosopher Al-Ghazali  wrote, the memory cannot be taken away. Today’s tragedy inside Syria leaves many wondering  how and when it will all end. How can a nation and its people endure such suffering?

Yet what I have learnt from my Damascus courtyard, is that despite the extremism and corruption currently ravaging the country, Syria’s core identity, firmly-rooted in centuries of moderation and tolerance, will survive. Its  zaahir looks hideously damaged, but its  baatin, its ‘World of Interior’ will remain intact.

The 'secret ceiling', an accidental discovery, that comes to represent the multi-coloured complexity of Syrian society [DD, 2013]

The ‘secret ceiling’, an accidental discovery, that comes to represent the multi-coloured complexity of Syrian society [DD, 2013]

As published in World of Interiors, August 2014, under Journal of an Arabist:

In renovating the house she bought in Damascus in 2005, Diana Darke has chipped away at the modern layers to find the harmonious structure beneath. A similar deconstruction is needed to recover the tolerant, pluralistic  Syria hidden by war.

‘My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution’ is published by Haus, Amazon price match paperback and ebook£10.49:

http://www.bookhaus.co.uk/shopexd.asp?id=727

My House in Damascus

 

 

Postcard from Nusaybin, southeast Turkey

POSTCARD from NUSAYBIN (as published in Chatham House’s The World Today magazine (Aug/Sept 2014 issue)

Mar Yakoub Church and university, Nusaybin [DD, 2012]

Syriac Mar Yakoub (St James’s) Church and university dating to the 4th century, Nusaybin [DD, 2012]

One glance at a modern map is enough to understand why Nusaybin is a hotspot in today’s world. Situated in southeast Turkey, it looks across the border at its southerly reflection, Qamishli in northeast Syria; its main east-west highway hosts an endless convoy of tankers with their precious cargo heading out from Erbil in oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan into oil-poor Turkey;  and another highway leads southeast to Iraq’s Mosul. This volatile triangle of territory is delineated by watchtowers and fences along the Syrian-Turkish border, erected in the 1970s, and by the long Syrian-Iraqi desert frontier which became a physical barrier only after 2003.

All this talk of borders would have made no sense at all before World War One. Sykes-Picot had yet to draw their ‘lines in the sand’ creating the modern states of the Middle East. The maps in Baedeker’s 1906 Palestine et Syrie show only the loose provincial Ottoman boundaries and the journey from Nusaybin to the ruins of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire on the banks of the Tigris opposite Mosul, is described as ‘five days on horseback requiring a strong escort.’ Even in the 1930s under the French Mandate when Agatha Christie accompanied her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan to dig the famous tells of Mesopotamia, they would arrive by train at Nusaybin via the Berlin-Baghdad railway, then head south with no customs formalities, despite their trunkloads of luggage.

The defunct border crossing from Nusaybin to Qamishli [DD, 2014]

The defunct border crossing from Nusaybin to Qamishli [DD, 2014]

Nusaybin’s strategic location on east-west trade routes ensured a complex past. Beginning with the Assyrians, empires came and went, and as Roman Nisibis it formed a fortress-frontier against the Persian Sassanids. Forever caught in the power-play of outside forces, there are two indigenous peoples, the Kurds and the Syriacs, in and around Nusaybin who rarely get a mention, stateless peoples whose aspirations for nationhood were repeatedly thwarted. But an unintended consequence of recent events like the US invasion of Iraq, the ‘Arab Spring’ and the rise of ISIS militants has changed the dynamic.

The city’s residents today, like most in the area, are overwhelmingly Kurdish, with just a small Syriac community, but in the 4th century the population was mainly Syriac, and Nusaybin’s Syriac roots are still deep. St James’ Church in the centre is one of the world’s oldest functioning churches, dating back to 325. Alongside it sits the newly excavated university where famous scholars like St Ephrem the Syrian, ‘Harp of the Spirit’ (306-73), composed  hymns and trained all-female choirs. His language was Syriac, and his descendants, ancestors of the Assyrians, still speak a dialect of ancient Aramaic known locally as ‘Suryani’, using its classical form in their liturgy.

Successive persecutions at the hands of fellow Christians, Muslims and Kurds across the centuries caused most to escape to Europe and beyond, but to ensure the language does not die, each year dedicated members of the Syriac diaspora  send their children to Syriac summer schools run by monks at the nearby monasteries. Those who stayed scattered into small broken communities across the region within cities like Raqqa and Aleppo in Syria, Mosul and Baghdad in Iraq.  Qamishli was largely created by Christians fleeing the fighting of World War One.

Next summer  will be the centenary of their worst ever persecution, the 1915 Sayfo (The Sword), little known in the West, a massacre in which tens of thousands of Syriacs were slaughtered alongside Armenian Christians, mainly at the hands of Kurdish tribesmen.  Yet remarkably, today the highly educated and talented Syriac community is reviving, fed not only by families from abroad, but also by refugees from Syria,  returning to their ancient homeland. Most significantly of all, they are gradually healing historic rifts with their Kurdish neighbours, acknowledging that they were manipulated during the 1915 Sayfo by their Turkish masters.

Roman columns of Nisibis in the no-man's land between Nusaybin (Turkey) and Qamishli (Syria) [DD, 2013]

Roman columns of Nisibis in the no-man’s land between Nusaybin (Turkey) and Qamishli (Syria) [DD, 2014]

Looking across today’s barbed-wire border from Nusaybin, through the no-man’s-land where the last relics of Roman Nisibis still rise, the houses and grain silos of Syria’s Qamishli are clearly visible. Blessed with fertile wheat fields, Syria’s largest oilfield and three major rivers, this panhandle of northeast Syria  is quite a prize, and in January 2014 Syria’s Kurds, as the dominant population, declared Qamishli capital of ‘Rojavo’  or western Kurdistan. The 22 cabinet ministers are a Christian/Muslim/Kurdish mix, in line with their secular ideology. Kurdish identity is defined by ethnicity, language and culture not by religion, a fact reflected in Iraqi Kurdistan’s schools where all world religions are taught equally.

Today’s fragile balance is now threatened by new invaders, the Sunni militants of ISIS, who want to rid the region of imperialist borders, and impose an ultra-conservative Islamic state across Iraq and Greater Syria.  A year from now, at the centenary of the Sayfo, will Nusaybin still be in Turkey? What will the map look like? Only one prediction can safely be made – that it will still be a hotspot.

 

 

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