Arab Gulf

Gli utenti dei media arabi tra ottimisti, scettici e reazionari

Un sondaggio della sede qatarense della Northwestern University americana (NU-Q) rivela un pubblico arabo attraversato da tendenze contrastanti: dalla fiducia nella professionalità dei mezzi d’informazione allo scetticismo, dalla difesa della libertà d’espressione agli appelli per un monitoraggio dei contenuti. Internet galoppa verso il sorpasso della televisione. Il Qatar finanzia lo studio, ma si mantiene all’ombra dei riflettori. (Pubblicato originariamente su ArabMediaReport)

La NU-Q ha pubblicato il 18 giugno 2014 i risultati di un sondaggio condotto tra il 2012 e il 2013 su un campione di 10.027 partecipanti provenienti da otto paesi arabi: Egitto, Giordania, Libano, Tunisia, Arabia Saudita, Emirati, Qatar e Bahrain.

La televisione rimane il mezzo di comunicazione più popolare nella regione, incalzata da internet, soprattutto tra le nuove generazioni. Prevedibilmente, si riscontra una certa incidenza del cosiddetto “digital divide” tra le ricche petromonarchie del Golfo, dove il web fa quasi concorrenza al tubo catodico, e paesi come l’Egitto e la Giordania, dove l’accesso alla rete è molto meno capillare. L’informatizzazione si traduce in social network in tutti le nazioni, con lo strapotere incontrastato di Facebook, seguito da Twitter. Ciò non impedisce al web di essere prima di tutto fonte d’informazione, preceduto in questo ambito solo dalla televisione, seppur la maggioranza dei giovani vi si affidino tanto quanto ai notiziari. Di fatti, lo stesso Facebook raggiunge la terza posizione tra le fonti d’informazione, soprattutto tra i più giovani, citato dal 10 per cento complessivo degli intervistati e preceduto solamente daAl-Arabiya, seconda con il 15 per cento, e Al-Jazeera, prima con il 26 per cento.

Per quanto riguarda il genere di notizie “consumate”, circa due terzi (73%) dei partecipanti prediligono gli affari nazionali, poco più della metà (53%) le questioni regionali e un numero ancora inferiore (43%) ciò che avviene al di fuori del mondo arabo. Tali dati sono condizionati dalle varianti nazionali: nel Golfo si riscontra un interesse maggiore per gli affari regionali e internazionali per la presenza di grosse comunità di espatriati arabi e occidentali, al contrario di quanto avviene in Tunisia ed Egitto (nel secondo caso incide anche l’imperitura tendenza all’ “egittocentrismo” storico, politico e culturale dell’opinione pubblica). Interessante anche quanto emerge sulla propensione del pubblico a informarsi “da più campane”, con circa un terzo degli intervistati che si rivolge ai siti internet occidentali sia per le notizie sul mondo arabo che per quelle relative ad altri continenti. L’accesso al web non arabofono è prevedibilmente una prerogativa dei paesi dove è più diffusa la conoscenza dell’inglese, guidati dalle monarchie del Golfo.

La sezione più interessante dello studio della NU-Q sembra quella in cui vengono analizzate le connessioni tra media e politica. Se da una parte emerge un consenso omogeneo sul progresso della qualità dell’informazione nel mondo arabo nel corso degli ultimi due anni, i paesi più critici della credibilità delle piattaforme mediatiche sono quelli caratterizzati da maggiore instabilità (Tunisia, Libano, Egitto), mentre le realtà accomunate da apparati di potere “fossilizzati” come la Giordania, l’Arabia Saudita e gli Emirati raccolgono un maggiore consenso intorno alla professionalità degli strumenti d’informazione. Allo stesso tempo, la maggioranza degli intervistati provenienti da paesi contraddistinti da media più asserviti alle classi dirigenti – monarchie del Golfo, in primis – esprimono un sostegno deciso per “il giusto corso” perseguito dalle politiche governative, mentre gli abitanti dei due stati con i mezzi d’informazione che godono probabilmente della maggiore libertà – la Tunisia dal 2011 e il Libano da ben prima – si rivelano totalmente pessimisti sul futuro del loro paese.

Per altri aspetti lo studio riflette i venti di restaurazione che soffiano sugli scenari post-rivoluzionari e, se da un lato la maggioranza (61 per cento) difende la libertà d’espressionein rete, colpisce dall’altro il sostegno espresso dal 50 per cento degli intervistati per una regolamentazione più rigida dei contenuti. In fondo, solo il 46 per cento ritiene che internet debba permettere di criticare le autorità governative.

I media oltre che fonti d’informazione rimangono mezzi d’intrattenimento e in questo ambito la televisione continua a detenere il primato, seguita dal web (con l’eccezione singolare del Qatar, dove il divertimento è prima di tutto online). Un’altra sezione viene dedicata all’impatto di internet sulle relazioni familiari e le amicizie, con una maggioranza (70 per cento) dei partecipanti che riconosce al web un ruolo centrale nei loro contatti più frequenti con gli amici prima che con famiglia, colleghi o correligionari. Lo studio della Northwestern University si attiene però ai consueti taboo socio-morali e non ci è dato pertanto di conoscere la percentuale degli intervistati che fa ricorso al web allo scopo di facilitare relazioni sentimentali e sessuali.

Al di là dell’indubbio valore del sondaggio, è obbligatorio menzionare le palesi intromissioni delle autorità qatarensi, segnalate abbastanza esplicitamente dal team di ricercatori nel corso del testo. Si premette infatti che la formulazione di alcune domande, nell’unico caso del Qatar, è stata modificata dietro richiesta del dipartimento di statistica dell’emirato: ciò significa che la domanda “È sicuro dire qualsiasi cosa si pensi della politica sul web?” viene neutralizzata dalla sostituzione di “politica” con “affari pubblici”; i “governi” assumono i contorni nebulosi delle cosiddette “istituzioni potenti” e si parla di “influenza sulla società” invece che di “influenza politica”. La domanda sulla valutazione dei partecipanti circa il percorso intrapreso dal proprio governo è stata infine semplicemente omessa nel caso del Qatar, sempre su richiesta del dipartimento di statistica.
Doha conferma pertanto il suo approccio nei confronti della politicizzazione dei media, sistematicamente proiettata sugli affari esteri e centellinata nelle questioni interne.

Categories: Arab Gulf, arab media, media arabi, Qatar, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Al-Arabi al-Jadid: Al-Jazeera pt.II o riscossa mediatica del Qatar?

Su al-Arabi al-Jadid, nuova realtà mediatica nata da finanziamenti qatarini. Pubblicato originariamente su ArabMediaReport.

Doha annuncia da mesi il lancio del suo nuovo gioiellino televisivo, il canale Al-Arabi al-Jadid, concepito per riscattare le sorti di Al-Jazeera, decaduta da emittente pioneristica a “portavoce” dei Fratelli Musulmani, soprattutto a causa della sua copertura assolutamente parziale dell’Egitto. Il nuovo canale doveva originariamente prendere il via a gennaio, ma l’inaugurazione è slittata a data da definirsi, probabilmente all’inizio dell’anno prossimo. Ciononostante, Al-Arabi al-Jadid, di cui non si conoscono ancora con esattezza i finanziatori, fa parlare di sé già da mesi, sull’onda delle aspettative sulla sua futura linea editoriale. Il quotidiano inglese basato negli Emirati The National riporta che la forza motrice del nuovo canale sarà Azmi Bishara, analista politico palestinese, nonché volto storico di Al-Jazeera molto vicino alla casa regnante qatarense. La scelta di Bishara potrebbe spiegarsi con il tentativo di allontanare Al-Arabi al-Jadid dai Fratelli Musulmani: Bishara non ha infatti risparmiato le sue critiche al partito islamico anche in occasione delle proteste cruciali del 30 giugno 2013.

Secondo alcune fonti anonime a cui aveva avuto accesso il quotidiano palestinese Al-Quds, le stesse dimissioni del direttore di Al-Jazeera Wadah Khanfar nel settembre del 2011 sarebbero state il risultato delle pressioni di Azmi Bishara, panarabista e contrario alle simpatie di Khanfar nei confronti dei Fratelli Musulmani. Il presunto progetto di Bishara è stato però sepolto dalla nomina alla direzione di Al-Jazeera del membro della famiglia reale Ahmad Bin Jassem al-Thani e dalla linea editoriale degli anni successivi. Detto ciò, Bishara rimane un intellettuale ben visto anche tra i seguaci dei Fratelli Musulmani, che apprezzano per esempio la sua opposizione alla messa al bando del partito in Egitto in qualità di organizzazione terroristica: Bishara l’ha infatti definita una decisione controproducente nel percorso di riconciliazione tra laici e islamici e un incentivo alla radicalizzazione di questi ultimi. Mentre Bishara potrebbe rivelarsi il candidato ideale per rimettere in carreggiata la credibilità dei progetti mediatici dell’emirato, l’ombra di Al-Jazeera è fin troppo palese nell’orientamento del sito di Al-Arabi al-Jadid e del quotidiano omonimo, che hanno anticipato il 30 marzo scorso l’avvio delle programmazioni televisive.

Il sito è di proprietà della Fadaat Media, i cui rappresentanti hanno assicurato di ricevere finanziamenti esclusivamente da investitori privati, senza alcuna connessione alle casse dell’emirato. Si tratta comunque di rassicurazione alquanto fragili, se si osservano i profili di alcune personalità coinvolte nel progetto, come Sultan Ghanim al-Kuwari, indicato come direttore del gruppo mediatico, e membro di una dei clan politicamente più influenti a Doha, che annovera ministri e diplomatici tra le sue fila.

Come direttore è stato scelto il giornalista egiziano Wa’el Qandil, altro volto noto di Al-Jazeera, vicino al gruppo che ha redatto la dichiarazione contro il presidente egiziano Abdel Fattah al-Sisi dell’Alleanza di Bruxelles del maggio 2014, in cui figurano diversi sostenitori dei Fratelli Musulmani. Le posizioni di Qandil sono ben note in Egitto e il suo ruolo come caporedattore ha già spinto i media egiziani filo-governativi ad accusare Fadaat Media di essere stata fondata da Ibrahim Munir, membro dei Fratelli Musulmani a livello internazionale. In questa intervista su Al-Jazeera del 22 maggio scorso, Qandil sottolinea però come la riduzione dello schieramento contrario al “golpe” (inqilab) del 3 luglio 2013 a gruppo di sostenitori dei Fratelli Musulmani contrapposti a Sisi sia pienamente negli interessi del regime attuale. Tuttavia, si guarda bene dal definire “rivoluzione” (thawra) la deposizione di Mohammed Mursi conseguita dalla rivolta popolare del 30 giugno, liquidandola come un’ “onda” (mawja) e affermando che il “sogno” (hilm) della rivoluzione del 25 gennaio 2011 “sia stato rubato” (suriqat) proprio in quel giorno.

Il taglio e la scelta degli articoli pubblicati sul sito sull’attualità egiziana non sono del resto così diversi da quelli di Al-Jazeera, passando dalle testimonianze dei massacri commessi da esercito e polizia a quelle dei prigionieri delle “carceri del golpe” (sujun al-inqilab). Negli altri articoli pubblicati, la centralità della causa palestinese è l’ennesimo tratto di continuità con la linea editoriale di Al-Jazeera, con tanto di corredo retorico panarabo e scelta “premeditata” (muta’ammada) del lancio del sito il 30 marzo, in occasione della Giornata della Terra Palestinese (Yawm al-Ard). Tra gli opinionisti figurano, prevedibilmente, diversi esponenti dell’opposizione siriana di orientamenti molteplici, da Michel Kilo a Burhan Ghalioun e Salama Kayleh. Non passa poi inosservata l’assenza totale di copertura dedicata alle petromonarchie del Golfo, Qatar compreso, secondo un altro tratto di continuità con l’emittente madre qatarense: la difesa dei diritti umani rigorosamente “in trasferta”.

Se l’emittente dovesse attenersi alle premesse del sito, le novità saranno alquanto ridotte, mentre sembra delinearsi un quadro allargato di realtà mediatiche al servizio della linea editoriale di Al-Jazeera: anche il quotidiano panarabo londinese Al-Quds al-Arabi sembra essere stato rilevato dai capitali dell’emirato dal luglio del 2013, quando lo storico caporedattore Abdel Bari Atwan è stato costretto a fare le valigie da un non meglio precisato cambio di proprietà del giornale. Atwan non ha fornito ulteriori dettagli, ma ha confermato di essere stato costretto a lasciare a causa delle ristrettezze economiche, rifiutandosi di “sacrificare l’indipendenza della linea editoriale”.

Tale indipendenza appare ormai imbrigliata dalla liquidità qatarense, a giudicare dalla prima pagina che il giornale ha dedicato alla partecipazione del sovrano Shaykh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani alle corse di cammelli in occasione della giornata dello sport dell’emirato l’11 febbraio 2014. E tutti i conti sembrano tornare, se si osserva il nome del caporedattore del sito Al-Arabi al-Jadid: il giornalista Amjad Nasser, ex-redattore di al-Quds al-Arabi. Per il momento, al di là delle aspettative connesse al lancio del canale Al-Arabi al-Jadid, il Qatar non sembra pertanto essere interessato a un cambio di rotta, mantenendo le scelte “di campo” che hanno danneggiato la reputazione di Al-Jazeera.

Categories: Al-Jazeera, Arab Gulf, arab media, media arabi, Qatar | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Dr. Tim “Asad” Anderson: the abuse of academia to spread out propaganda

SYRIA-CONFLICT-AUSTRALIA

 

Part I

 

My name is Andrea Glioti, I’m the journalist who intervened at Dr. Tim Anderson’s talk at Sydney UNI “Why I went to Syria” on March 6 (2014), an event promoting a blatant apology of the Syrian regime under the pretext of “counter-information”. A professor of political economy, Tim Anderson (https://www.facebook.com/timand2037?fref=ts) has been part of a delegation led by the Wikileaks Party and the Asadist activist group “Hands Off Syria”, which paid its homage to the Syrian regime during a visit of solidarity in December 2013. This is a response to some of the absurdities I heard about the Syrian conflict and, apart from the single case of Anderson, it addresses several points continuously raised by the so-called “anti-imperialist left”. It would be actually fair to rename this ideological stubbornness on Syria as a Stalinist-Soviet approach, if we were between the 1950s the 1960s, Anderson and his likes would be probably denying the Hungarian and Czech revolts ever took place. If we were in the Spanish Civil War, they would probably defend the Soviet decision to crush the anarchists. As long as a government sits in the anti-American camp (no matter the hypocrisy of Syrian foreign policies in this regard), it doesn’t really matter if it tortures leftists in its own prisons. Dr Anderson and his likes claim to hold the truth on what’s going on in Syria, this truth could be sum up in a Western-backed plot denying any sort of agency to the Syrians who took the streets in 2011. In their eyes, they’re only puppets, they would have never risen up after more 40 years of authoritarianism , they needed the Zionist-Salafi-American trust to give them a green light.
I’m an Arabic speaking Middle Eastern politics graduate, who has been covering Syria from inside the country for 10 months between 2011 and 2013 and I spent the rest of the time between Turkey and Lebanon, mainly in the border regions, where most of the Syrian refugees are located. I’ve worked with a wide range of media including “corporate” and “leftist” magazines (The New Internationalist, the German TAZ, the Swiss-German WOZ fall in the second category), being a freelancer, therefore I don’t even fit into the category of mainstream corporate media. Having said this, the sources Dr Anderson relied upon during his presentation could hardly be considered “independent” sources of information, despite his efforts to present them as such: Russia Today, in the words of Putin, reflects the views of the Kremlin, just like the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reflects the views of the pro-Syrian (regime) 8 March coalition. Among the sources quoted there was also Mother Agnès de la Croix, a Palestinian-Lebanese nun closely related to the Asad regime (http://pulsemedia.org/2012/08/21/dead-journalists-and-sister-agnes-mariam/) and the French far-right (http://vicinoriente.wordpress.com/2012/05/20/la-monaca-di-assad/). Anderson’s talk was covered by the Iranian Press TV: if the station’s anti-US biases were combined with a minimum degree of professionalism, then my intervention wouldn’t have been censored, after I raised several critical points Anderson intentionally ignored.
Notwithstanding the political biases of Western and Gulf media [the focus on Syria in contrast with how Bahrain has been overlooked and the role played by certain American media in advocating war on Iraq in 2003, despite the lack of any evidence on its chemical arsenal, just to quote two examples], the solution is not to take at face value the version of events provided by pro-Syrian regime sources to come up with a credible alternative narrative. Journalism is about verifying facts, a strong ground-driven knowledge of the context you’re talking about, a reliable network of local contacts and, ideally, some fluency in the local language (Arabic): all these aspects were totally absent in Dr Anderson’s conference.

While retaining the right to be skeptical about the Western media’s coverage of Syria, everyone should bear in mind that the main reason of the conflicting news reports coming from this country is the restrictive context journalists are forced to operate in: while based in Damascus in 2011, I had to pretend being a student to avoid being monitored 24/h by security forces, my Brazilian colleague Germano Assad has been detained in confinement for five days under the only accusation of being a journalist. I have been denied access to Syria in 2012 and told I was not welcome there anymore on the grounds of the interviews I conducted with local political dissidents. I’m sure this was the reason, because of the content of the questions posed to my colleague Assad under interrogation. This is just an idea of what you have to endure as a Western journalist, if you’re not there on an official parade organized through government press visas. It goes without saying that Syrian journalists “enjoy” a much worse treatment: one of my personal acquaintances had to leave Syria recently, after having been tortured and put on trial for “working without a license” and “spreading lies”. Let us not forget WHY it is so difficult to work in Syria and inform about the ongoing events.

Going back to Anderson’s talk, first of all, you don’t claim to show support for one “nation”, if you only sat for pastries with Asad, that’s not showing solidarity with the “Syrian people”, that’s an official delegation voicing its support for a Government.
During my stay in Syria I had the chance to walk around without any escort, both in Damascus in 2011 and in the province of Hasakah in 2013: this clearly makes the difference from an official visit to Damascus (actually, to a certain extent, it makes the difference even in comparison to some other journalists, who have only been escorted into Syria by rebel brigades). As a matter of fact, Anderson didn’t meet with anyone from the opposition, neither from the armed factions nor from the civil peaceful movements (and there are lots of peaceful activists still active in Syria… http://www.syriauntold.com/en) .

There was a lot of talk on US imperialism and Zionism: could Anderson provide any actual evidence that the US have been willing to overthrow Asad? All the red lines have been crossed (including the use of chemical weapons), three years have passed and I haven’t seen any intervention. If they really wanted, they could have done it much earlier. This picture of Asad as a staunch anti-American also stands in contradiction with the rapprochement between Washington and Damascus in 2010, marked by the appointment of ambassador Robert Ford. The position of the US on the Syrian events has been largely stumbling, due also to the fact that they didn’t receive any green light from the Israelis. Did Anderson bother to listen to Rami Makhluf- Bashar al-Asad’s cousin and one of the most influential business figures in Syria- when the revolt started in 2011? He said clearly that the Israeli security was dependent on the permanence of the Asad regime.
If you brand the Asad regime as an anti-Zionist vanguard, then you probably disregard some historical facts: no offensive was launched against Israel since the October war in 1973; Hafez al-Asad’s Syria was willing to reach a peace agreement with the Israelis in 2000, on condition of the return of the occupied Golan Heights and a renewed access to the Sea of Galilee, hence a pragmatic approach concerned about national sovereignty rather than the Palestinian cause; Palestinians were slaughtered by far-right Lebanese Christian militias in cooperation with Syrian troops in the massacre of Tel Zaatar during the Lebanese civil war; the PLO has been at odds with the Syrian regime for a long time, since the latter was not willing to jeopardize its national interests for the sake of the Palestinian cause (See what the socialists have to say about this http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2000/06/assa-j16.html). I would also suggest Anderson and his likes read more on the so-called Red Line agreement between Israel and Syria during the Lebanese civil war, a deal brokered by Kissinger to share regions of influence (http://www.merip.org/mer/mer236/syria-lebanon-brotherhood-transformed#_5_).
The Israeli officials maintained an extremely low profile position on Syria during the events and why on earth should they have pushed for the removal of Asad, if he kept the Syrian-Israeli border quiet for forty years? They look more worried about a new unknown diverse galaxy of rebel groups controlling the border, whereas they know exactly what to expect from Asad. Have a look at what Noam Chomsky had to say about the Israeli stance on Syria (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9MQeGHoiPj4&feature=youtu.be Is he too part of the corporate media?): he clearly points at the fact that, if the Israelis wanted to support the opposition, they could have just opened another front on the Golan. Such a move would have weakened the Syrian army by opening a new front in the South: a much less costly option to support the armed opposition than an open scale offensive on Damascus. But nothing like this happened and Anderson still define it as a regime from the “Resistance” axis.

Until now, the Syrian regime is enforcing a devastating siege on the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, because part of its inhabitants joined the rows of the opposition. I have been collecting evidence of the first anti-regime demonstrations in Yarmuk on my blog since June 2011 (in Italian https://mabisir.wordpress.com/2011/06/28/2-blogging-five-months-of-revolution-inside-syria-5-6-june-2011-golan-to-yarmuk-palestinians-joining-the-syrian-uprising/), when Palestinian protesters were shot at for chanting against the exploitation of the Naksa day at the hands of Ahmad Jibril’s PFLP-GC: in that case, the demonstrators voiced their indignation, after several residents of the camp were literally “thrown” in front of the Israeli rifles at the border in order to divert the attention from the Syrian uprising. Khaled Bakrawi, a Palestinian activist from Yarmuk, was killed under torture in the Syrian prisons in September 2013: he took part in the Naksa march and was outspoken about the way the Syrian regime had exploited the fervor of the Palestinian youth, despite having been himself wounded by the Israelis at the border (http://budourhassan.wordpress.com/2013/09/15/death-under-torture-in-syria-the-horrors-ignored-by-pacifists/).
I personally know several Palestinian leftist dissidents unknown to the media who had to leave Syria or ended up in its jails, but I cannot name them, as it might affect their upcoming trials or their return to Syria in the future. One of the most famous ones, Salameh Kaileh, a marxist Palestinian (http://links.org.au/node/2841), had to flee to Jordan after having been arrested and detained in 2012. Was he an Islamist too? Perhaps a Zionist?
Has Anderson ever read how the Palestinian anarchist Budour Hassan has totally debunked the claims of those who portrait Damascus as a champion of the Palestinian cause (http://budourhassan.wordpress.com/2012/07/22/analysis-the-myth-of-palestinian-neutrality-in-syria/)? What about the experience of Omar ‘Aziz, a Syrian anarchist who returned to his country upon the outbreak of the uprising to help organizing the first local revolutionary committees in Barzeh, which are considered “some of the most promising and lasting examples of non-hierarchical self organization” (http://tahriricn.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/syria-the-life-and-work-of-anarchist-omar-aziz-and-his-impact-on-self-organization-in-the-syrian-revolution/)? He died because of a heart attack in February 2013, after having been detained for three months in the Adra prison. During his talk, Anderson mentioned a visit to Adra, blaming the “radical Islamists” for the constant shelling, but I doubt he ever asked about whom is detained in the local prison, didn’t he?

A comparison with Afghanistan and its pre-Taliban empowerment of rural classes was made in the introduction and Anderson repeatedly labeled the Syrian regime a “socially inclusive” Government. This means he didn’t even bother to check the map of the areas controlled by the opposition: basically a wide portion of the countryside is in the hands of the rebels. Why? Because the uprising was more popular among the rural outcasts, namely those who have been impoverished by Bashar al-Asad’s shift towards neoliberalism and those who have been always marginalized under the Ba’th, like the Kurds living in the Northern countryside (See another Syrian socialist perspective on the “inclusiveness” of the regime’s economic policies http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article3380). Although it wouldn’t be objective to argue that the social gap in Syria was as wide as the Egyptian one, for example, the Syrian case is remote from “social inclusiveness”, it looks more like an economy controlled by a gang of affiliates and tycoons like Rami Makhluf, who are the antithesis of social justice.
Anderson depicted the uprising in Aleppo as led by religious fundamentalists, but he didn’t mention at all that a vast segment of the urban classes who sided with the regime are actually part of the Syrian bourgeoisie, epitomized by Aleppo’s traders. Did the so-called “anti-imperialist left” embrace a moral struggle to defend the urban upper classes against peasants, on the basis of the length of the beards of some of these peasants, who are homogeneously branded as “Islamists”? In July 2011, I visited a group of metalworkers in their workshop in Qadam (Southern Damascus), they were all taking part to the protests, one of them was a Syrian in his twenties with a degree in computer science he was never able to use: his father passed away and he had to seal shawarma machines to cover the expenses of his young brother living with him. This young graduate was also a hip hop singer from the group Refugees of Rap and we recorded a track together called “The Age of Silence” (Zaman as-Samt) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=umQ3xGj4E2Y), which deals with the drive behind the protests. Is the “anti-imperialist left” supposed to empathize with the demands of this kind of marginalized urban youth or to side with the ruling classes?

Was the regime “socially inclusive” towards 2 to 4 million Kurds, who are mostly secular minded? Not at all. In 2013, I’ve spent five months in the province of Hasakah, a region affected by chronic poverty, despite its natural resources. The history written by the Ba’th is made up of racist Arab settlement policies confiscating wide shares of Kurdish lands in Hasakah (the so-called al-Hizam al-Arabi, the Arab Belt policy). The regime has also abided by a census conducted in 1962, who stripped off the Syrian citizenship thousands of Syrian Kurds. Even though the Kurdish regions are rich of oil, all the refineries were built in Homs and Banyas to impede the economic empowerment of rural peripheries.
During Anderson’s talk, I heard him praising “elections” and “pluralism” under the Ba’th and I confront this with the story of one of my close acquaintances in Hasakah, whose nails have been removed under torture on the grounds of its affiliation to the Yekiti Kurdi Parti. Is this the pluralism he’s talking about? Or is this pluralism about the Minister of Reconciliation Ali Haidar, the secretary general of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), that Anderson mentioned in the ridiculous attempt to provide evidence that other political forces are tolerated inside the Ba’thist government? Is Anderson aware that from 2005 until 2012, despite the dissident history of Antoun Saadeh’s party, its Damascene branch has been part of the National Progressive Front established by the Ba’th to create an umbrella of loyal parties behind the facade of pluralism? Is he aware that Ali Haidar has recently endorsed the candidacy of Bashar al-Asad for the upcoming presidential elections? I personally know some SSNP members, who quit the party, after they realized to which extent it had become involved in the recruitment of pro-government militias (shabbiha) in 2011.

As I said during my intervention at the talk, I attended several demonstrations both in Damascus and in the suburbs of the capital in 2011: I heard no sectarian slogans, saw children and women taking part to the uprising and witnessed live fire opened on demonstrators by security forces. Peaceful protesters were even beaten up in front of my eyes as soon as July 2011 in the Old City (in Italian https://mabisir.wordpress.com/2011/07/27/6-blogging-five-months-of-revolution-inside-syria-in-italiano-proteste-nel-centro-di-damasco-se-rimaniamo-fino-a-domattina-saremo-mezzo-milione-27-luglio-2011/), in the center of Damascus. My colleague Germano Assad has been prevented by government supporters from filming this demonstration, he had to escape after they started shouting at him: “This is not Syria!”. This is just an example of the state of denial some regime supporters live in, when it comes to recognizing the occurrence of peaceful protests: one of the attendants of Anderson’s talk, a Syrian who claimed to have lived in the Old City, insisted he never saw any protest in that part of Damascus. The aim is to deny protests ever took place, then to deny massacres occurred (as this was what Anderson’s conference was all about): it reminds me of the attitude of Holocaust’s deniers, or that of those Lebanese Phalangists who assert their party never slaughtered Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila. No matter the extent of evidence and accounts you gather, they will keep denying. In the end, their angle of view is identical to the one adopted by the Syrian State television: I remember very well the cameramen of al-Ikhbariyya filming the empty streets of Barzeh (Damascus) patrolled by security forces, while they were perfectly aware that a demonstration was going on a few blocks away.

I used to know personally one of the peaceful protesters who were chased by regime supporters in that occasion in the Old City: he died in 2013, after taking up weapons to fight the regime in Aleppo. Should we consider him as a terrorist as well? On which moral ground are we denying protesters the right to take up arms? One of the points raised during Anderson’s talk was that protesters were indeed armed since the beginning of the revolt. This was definitely the case in some regions, like Idlib, where demonstrators from Jisr ash-Shughur took up weapons to defend themselves as early as June 2011: I wrote about it and I criticized the way some Western media denied the presence of armed elements (http://www.majalla.com/eng/2012/04/article55230561), but I don’t understand why Syrians should be condemned for having resorted to violence against a brutal security apparatus.

 

Part II

 

The main argument used by Anderson to advocate support for the Syrian regime was the stereotypical juxtaposition between an allegedly secular government and a radical Islamist opposition. When I stressed the genuine roots of the Syrian uprising, the only answer Anderson could provide was: “Well, I don’t deny there have been mistakes committed by the police (what a nice euphemism for forty years of “mistakes”), but could you name one secular/non Islamist brigade in the opposition?” The premise of such response is that, as long as they’re Islamists, it’s perfectly fine to kill them. Islamists have been on the Middle Eastern “stage” for almost one century, they’re still there despite what happened in Hama, but Anderson (and numerous other Islamophobic “analysts”) still perceive them as a cancer implanted by Western agendas to be uprooted with violence. I wonder whether Anderson has ever argued the same about Hamas and Hezbollah on their resistance against Israel, weren’t they to be condemned on the grounds of being Islamist forces? If the West was to keep looking at Hezbollah through the lens of its original plan for the establishment of an Islamic republic in Lebanon and the abductions of foreign civilians carried out in the ’80s by the party’s first embryos, no one would have imagined to see the Shi’a militia accepting its current role in the Lebanese electoral system. The same goes for the recent prospects for US negotiations with the Talibans in Afghanistan, which were completely unforeseeable after 9-11. Then, why are we to rule out the possibility that some of the jihadist groups fighting in Syria today might change their position and accept to engage in parliamentarian politics later on?
What about the Iraqi resistance under American occupation? Has Anderson paid attention to the fact that most of the insurgents were actually jihadists and many of them are currently fighting against the Syrian regime? Are they to be considered “fallen heroes of anti-imperialists” suddenly turned into “NATO-backed mercenaries”, even though nothing changed in their ideological background?

Furthermore, Anderson made no reference whatsoever to what has been written on the ties between Damascus and a wide range of Islamist Sunni militant groups previously active in Lebanon and Iraq, now fighting on the side of the Syrian opposition, including Fatah al-Islam (http://wikileaks.org/gifiles/docs/214642_analysis-for-edit-syria-throws-fatah-al-islam-under-the-bus-.html) and Ghuraba’ ash-Sham (http://www.thenational.ae/thenationalconversation/comment/radicals-are-assads-best-friends). It was also completely omitted the fact that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the militia responsible of the worst atrocities committed in Syria in the name of jihadism, has actually spent more time fighting other rebel factions than the regime and its headquarters are rarely targeted by air raids. There has been plenty of accusations from different political and military factions with regards to the ties between Damascus and ISIS ( https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=508278592619820&set=a.473931262721220.1073741828.473917376055942&type=1&theater, https://twitter.com/JadBantha/status/421263028978343936/photo/1, http://hawarnews.com/index.php/component/content/article/43-2013-02-24-21-16-12/7835-2013-11-13-12-04-59, http://claysbeach.blogspot.com.au/2014/01/bashar-al-jihad-is-isis-child-of-regime.html), whose rise perfectly suits the Syrian State media’s relentless efforts to portray the uprising as an Islamist one since its early phases. During my stay in Syria in 2013, I gathered local witness accounts on Ahmad Muhammad “Abu Rami”, the former Syrian military intelligence chief in Rmaylan (North-Eastern Syria), who allegedly joined the rows of the al-qa’idist Jabhat an-Nusra in November 2012. I also spoke with a former Syrian security official in Ras al-‘Ayn, who confirmed me how easily certain rebel brigades were infiltrated by figures known for their ties with the regime.
In addition to this, Anderson failed to mention how the regime granted amnesty to some of the top-leaders of the Islamist opposition back in May 2011 (including for example the Islamic Army’s Zahran ‘Allush), a few months after the outbreak of the uprising, in a move which could hardly be seen as “coincidental”, as it contributed to the sectarian drift of the revolt.

This is not meant to say that the Syrian regime and the Islamist hardliners share the same agenda and the latter ones do not aim at overthrowing the government; it also remains challenging to evaluate the truthfulness of certain reports, even when they’re built on intelligence sources, but we should bear in mind that they are often as credible as the reports putting the blame exclusively on the Gulf for the rise of radical Sunni groups. What is unquestionable, in my opinion, is the completely misleading portrait of Damascus as a champion in the struggle against Islamism in the light of its historical connections with Islamist networks.
These historical connections include the Syrian support for Hamas, Hizbullah, the Amal Movement (a group established with the explicit purpose to crush Lebanese communists), the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and several other Islamist groups. If the Syrian regime was a promoter of secularism in the region, then it should have restricted its support to secular anti-Zionist militant groups. If the Syrian regime were secular, then it shouldn’t allow Lebanese and Iraqi Shi’a militants to fight on its side against Sunnis, or did Islamism suddenly become an exclusively Sunni phenomenon? If the Syrian regime were secular, it wouldn’t have supported the ethnic “cleansing” (tathir, in the words recorded on video of one of the perpetrators, https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/nownews/pro-regime-militant-speaks-of-cleansing-banias) of Sunnis in Bayda and Baniyas in May 2013. If the Syrian regime were secular, the Constitution wouldn’t prevent a Christian from becoming the president of the republic until now just like it wouldn’t state that “Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) is a fundamental source of legislation.” (http://www.al-bab.com/arab/docs/syria/syria_draft_constitution_2012.htm). If the Syrian regime were secular, Alawis wouldn’t dominate the intelligence branches to the extent that their coastal dialect is mocked in every single joke on the security forces.
Having said that, I honestly don’t understand the point of defending a regime on the ground of its alleged secularism, if we take a look at how history is rich of examples of authoritarian secular rule such as the Reign of Terror in post-revolutionary France, Kemalist Turkey and the Soviet Union.

Another aspect of the rise of Islamist factions in the opposition Anderson and his likes fail to grasp is where “money and guns” come from or, to put it clearly, they know where they come from, but they consider this an outcome of the Islamist ideology of all the insurgents. They seem to ignore the reality of those fighters who had to turn to an outward version of Islamism to catalyse financial and military support: this was the case of the Farouq Brigades from Homs, that quickly became the equivalent of a franchise capable of attracting Qatari funds and, for this reason, it started to attract a wide range of groups under its name (http://www.arab-reform.net/sites/default/files/empowering%20the%20democratic%20resistance.pdf). This didn’t mean there was an Islamist unified vision among all the groups gathered under the Farouq brand, whose Islamist outlook might well have been as pragmatic as the Salafi-looking beard grown by the Farouq’s young commander Abdul-Razzaq Tlass, upon his rise to fame. During Anderson’s talk, when I mentioned the Farouq Brigades as an example of a non-Islamist group, I probably failed to make clear that this was not meant to claim that they are secular, but that their Islamist facade has been pragmatically motivated rather than related to an uncompromising commitment to the establishment of an Islamic state. It is the same pragmatism which led Hezbollah to accept funds from Qatar – a State with whom the party could hardly share any political and religious identity – for the reconstruction of war-ravaged Lebanon following the Israeli aggression in 2006. It is the same pragmatism which saw Hamas, on the other hand, receiving Iranian funds, regardless of their political and religious affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood.
As the Syrian conflict kept growing in intensity, securing funds became a crucial factor behind the mushrooming of Islamist hardline factions, in comparison with the initial “low cost” peaceful phase almost void of sectarian drifts. In 2013, I spoke with a Syrian journalist who visited the Eastern Ghuta (Damascus) between March and April and he reported to me how Free Syrian Army soldiers had a daily limit of around 30 bullets (the figure might be higher, but the point was that their ammunition was limited), whereas the Islamic Front could count on unlimited ammunition. This obviously led to an increased number of fighters joining the ranks of the Islamist factions. In June 2013, I travelled towards al-Hul (Southern al-Hasakah) on a truck driven by a Kurdish rebel fighting on the side of ISIS and Ahrar ash-Sham: he kept joking about his beard and how he had to grow it to be accepted among jihadists, while promising to go back drinking arak as soon as the war was over. The umpteenth confirmation of how pragmatism was often a priority at the expense of the ideological drive.

As a matter of fact, there are few groups with a distinct leftist stance within the rows of the opposition: one of these exceptions are the recently formed Factions of the People’s Liberation (Fasa’il Taharrur ash-Sha’b https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=sR5wcCzLyzo), set up in Duma in March 2014. These groups saw the light in the explicit attempt to counter both the regime and the most obscurantist forces of the opposition, but their capabilities are clearly limited due to lack of funds.
Anderson thinks he can wave the banner of anti-imperialism from the pulpit of his lectures in Australia, but he doesn’t seem to care about the fate of those real Syrian anti-imperialists, who are perishing on the ground without receiving a single cent from the Gulf monarchies. It would have been enough to use the funds wasted on the Wikileaks delegation’s trip to Damascus to relief the budget of the Factions of the People’s Liberation, if the aim was to support popular resistance, but Anderson’s farce is more about “copy pasting” Hugo Chavez’s quotes on Asad to feel the revolutionary vibes on Facebook.

Another paradox of Anderson’s unconditional support for secularism against Islamism is that he resorts to the good-for-all-purposes scaremonger of Christian persecutions to back the Asad regime, so that when I mentioned the Farouq Brigades, I got reminded the way “they expelled Christians from their neighbourhoods in Homs”. First of all, to argue that Christians were evicted on the basis of their faith and not as a result of the conflict is an assumption even contested by Catholic sources (www.catholicculture.org/news/headlines/index.cfm?storyid=13804). Secondly, Anderson and other “minorities-obsessed” scholars take for granted that Christians are always persecuted because of their religion, while dismissing the possibility for some of them to have been targeted as collaborators of the regime or because of their affluence (for example, the wealth of some urbanized Syriacs was behind their kidnappings in Hasakah and Qamishli in 2013): the implicit premise to this discourse is that Christians are all innocent, they never took sides (not a single word is spent on the loyalist stance of most Syrian clerical institutions throughout the uprising) and they are suddenly in need of Western assistance to escape Islamic zealots. When the idea that Middle Eastern Christians are in need of protection was part of the French Mandate’s search for legitimacy, it was despised by “anti-imperialists” as colonialist propaganda, whereas now it is at the core of the concerns they happen to share with pro-Asad Western fascist and Catholic circles (with whom they also share sources like Mother Agnès de la Croix). As the French scholar Thomas Pierret wrote on his Facebook page, after the hypocritical indignation aroused by the displacement of Armenians from Kassab at the hands of Syrian rebels among the same people who turn a blind eye on the regime’s daily use of barrel bombs on the neighbourhoods of Aleppo controlled by the opposition, “whoever cares more for an Armenian from Kassab than for a Sunni from eastern Aleppo is a racist”.

During his visit to Syria, Anderson claims he had the chance to witness the coexistence between Christians and Muslims under the shelter of the regime, thus envisaging a future of religious persecutions, if the opposition will ever take over the country. First of all, this is a distortion of Syrian history, where there is absolutely nothing proving a higher rate of anti-Christian violence before the Ba’thist coup in 1963. Anderson went on specifying that most of the rebels are actually foreigners, an allegation common among Asadists returning from government-sponsored tours of Syria, where they never met with one single opposition fighter, just like Anderson did. I personally met with combatants from a wide range of anti-government factions in Lebanon, Turkey and Syria, and the overwhelming majority of them were Syrians, including the hardliners from Ahrar ash-Sham , Ghuraba’ ash-Sham and Ansar ash-Shari’a. Most foreigners fight within the rows of ISIS and they advocate a brutal form of Islamic autocracy Syrians are unfamiliar with: when the militants of this group vandalized a church in Raqqa, its Syrian residents took the streets to protest against religious intolerance, but they didn’t certainly call for the return of the regime. Of course, all of this was not mentioned in Anderson’s talk, where the message needed to remain “foreign Islamists make up most of the opposition and they pose a threat to the Ba’thist religious tolerance.” This was actually the same message conveyed by a Syrian woman who stood up to intervene during Anderson’s talk, when she accused the opposition of organizing protests from inside the mosques, thus suggesting the movement was already an Islamist one since its outbreak. As usual, it went completely ignored the fact that mosques were used by all protesters, regardless of their political and religious beliefs, because of the ban on unauthorized public gatherings. Over these years I spent covering the Syrian uprising, I never met someone who obtained a government license to organize a rally against the regime.

During the conference, there was also room for some racist remarks on the Bedouin roots of the Gulf sponsors of the opposition, as Anderson reported, laughing at the comments of a Syrian government official on their status of camel riders/shepherds (I cannot recall the exact words, but it was definitely a stereotypical racist joke on Arab Gulf tribes). As if it wasn’t enough to resort to Islamophobia under the guise of secularism and religious tolerance, Anderson turned to blanketing the (Sunni) Arab tribes as a bunch of rural barbarians, probably ignoring the fact that millions of Syrians are clan members with kinship links in Gulf countries.

Lastly, Anderson attempted to prove Syria never witnessed an uprising by asserting that “no revolution has ever targeted schools and hospitals and prevented kids from education.” Such assertion implies the absurd claim that the government forces have never targeted schools and hospitals. In addition to this, Anderson ignores all the initiatives launched in opposition-held areas to support education, civil society and local projects, despite the continuous bloodshed (http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/04/education-aleppo-syria-war.html?utm_source=Al-Monitor+Newsletter+%5BEnglish%5D&utm_campaign=23ea4fcada-January_9_20141_8_2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_28264b27a0-23ea4fcada-93102377). In 2013, I visited several times the city of Ras al-Ayn (North-Eastern Syria), when it was still under joint Arab-Kurdish control without any presence of the regime: no one told me of kids prevented from going to school and the hospitals and the small clinics were actually struggling to function, thanks to the voluntary efforts of the doctors affiliated to the rebel militias. Unfortunately, most of these armed groups were prioritizing the arms trade over the availability of medicines and I wrote about this issue (https://mabisir.wordpress.com/2013/05/16/free-syrian-army-neglects-health-sector-in-ras-al-ayn-sere-kanye/), but I was also aware that the same hospitals could not be used to heal wounded protesters when they were controlled by the regime. The reality is much more complicated, if you verify it on the ground, but what you get from Anderson is just that the rebels are medieval bogeymen targeting schools and hospitals.

In conclusion, if some of you had the patience to read through all of this, my personal advice is to remain sceptic of those scholars who abuse their academic positions to spread out ideological propaganda on issues they are completely unfamiliar with. If I happen to spend two weeks during a phase of political turmoil in Cuba, a country Anderson is probably more knowledgeable than me about on the basis of his experience, I would remain aware of my ignorance on Cuba and wary about claiming to hold the truth on the unfolding events. I would expect Anderson and his likes to do the same. Thanks.

I also welcome every Syrian who lived through the uprising to express his/her indignation at Anderson’s denial of his/her efforts to depose the current regime.

Categories: Arab Gulf, Israel, Kurdistan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Volgograd bombings shed light on Russia’s “Chechen” approach to Syria

ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH Investigators work at the site of a blast on a trolleybus in Volgograd December 30, 2013. A bomb blast ripped a trolleybus apart in Volgograd on Monday, killing 14 people in the second deadly attack in the southern city in two days and raising fears of further violence as Russia prepares to host the Winter Olympics. REUTERS/Stringer (RUSSIA - Tags: CIVIL UNREST CRIME LAW DISASTER TRANSPORT) TEMPLATE OUT


Investigators work at the site of a blast on a trolleybus in Volgograd December 30, 2013. A bomb blast ripped a trolleybus apart in Volgograd on Monday, killing 14 people in the second deadly attack in the southern city in two days and raising fears of further violence as Russia prepares to host the Winter Olympics. REUTERS/Stringer

An article I originally wrote for WOZ Die Wochenzeitung, which was not published in the end. A shorter version was published in Italian for Europa Quotidiano on 19 January 2014. The subheading of the Italian version emphasizes the role of the Gulf monarchies in backing al-Qaeda factions in Syria, which is a bit of a simplification, in my opinion (the reality is more nuanced, some Gulf rulers are not particularly supportive of Islamist factions, in some cases it’s more about private Gulf citizens, religious preachers, etc.). The English version I wrote for WOZ went deeper in analysing the similarities between Chechnya and Syria. I am copying both texts below. 

(January 8, 2014) Between the 29th and the 30th of December 2013, two twin blasts hit the Russian city of Volgograd, resulting in the death of 33 people and 85 injuries. Most analysts link the bombings to a backlash of the Russian stance on Syria: in particular, the speculations hint at the involvement of the Saudis, on the basis of the meetings held between Putin and the Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan in August 2013. According to the content of the talks leaked to the Russian press and the Lebanese daily As-Safir, Bandar was turned off despite the set of economic, political and military deals offered to the Kremlin, including the containment of a Chechen insurgent network financed by Riyadh, in exchange for the end of the Russian support for Bashar al-Asad.

After the Americans – the historical ally of the Gulf kingdom – failed to fulfill their promise to intervene militarily against the use of chemical weapons in Syria in August 2013 and they reached a nuclear agreement in November with Iran – regional nemesis of Saudi Arabia – the Volgograd bombings look like the tail strike of an isolated Riyadh.

However, the interests served by the Volgograd bombings stretch to include even the opponents of Riyadh, the Syrian regime and Moscow. Russia might have preferred to fight the Chechen mujahidin in Syria rather than back home, but it would be naive to assume the Kremlin didn’t expect a blowback “bred” in the Syrian training camps.

In an op-ed published on January 2 on the website Ra’i al-Yawm (Today’s Opinion), the veteran editor in chief of the pan Arab daily al-Quds al-Arabi, Abdul-Bari ‘Atwan, points out how the Syrian opposition has actually been weakened by the Volgograd attacks, which are likely to set the so-called “War on Terror” rather than the replacement of Bashra al-Asad as the priority of the upcoming Geneva II peace talks (scheduled on January 22). The negotiations are in fact due to happen in a tense regional situation dominated by the escalation of al-Qa’ida-linked attacks in Lebanon, the al-qa’idist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ad-Dawla al-Islamiyya fil-‘Iraq wa Bilad as-Sham, known in English as ISIS) persistent sway over Northern Syria and its recent conquest of the city of Fallujah in Western Iraq. This means that the vision of Damascus and Moscow on the Syrian uprising, which equates it to a foreign-backed destabilization of the regional security, is likely to prevail.

‘Atwan suggests that “those who planned the bombings might have taken [the blow to the Syrian opposition] in consideration.” In relation to this, it ought to be reminded that the strongest battalion of Caucasian mujahidin – the Army of Migrants and Supporters (Jaiysh Muhajirin wa al-Ansar) led by the emir Abu Omar as-Shishani, who is a Chechen from Georgia – has recently merged into ISIS. This latter faction has been accused of having been infiltrated by the regime from all sides: Syrian activists, the Western-friendly armed rebels of the Free Syrian Army, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and even the Salafi Islamic Front (al-Jabhat al-Islamiyya), which is currently fighting a newly erupted war against ISIS. During my stay in Syria in 2013, I gathered witness accounts on Ahmad Muhammad “Abu Rami”, the former Syrian military intelligence chief in Rmaylan (North-Eastern Syria), who allegedly joined the rows of the al-qa’idist Jabhat an-Nusra in November 2012. Numerous Jabhat an-Nusra’s fighters subsequently joined ISIS after its rise to prominence in 2013. The ties between the Syrian regime and the al-qa’idist networks in Iraq at the time of the US occupation are also a matter of fact, and some of the commanders of the major Islamist factions active in Syria today have been “surprisingly” granted amnesty in May 2011, a few months after the outbreak of the uprising. All these factors bring grist to the mill of a Syrian-Russian coordination to stage a false flag attack in Volgograd.

As usual, the truth is exclusively known behind the curtains of intelligence circles, but the Volgograd bombings should convince more observers of the large extent to which the Chechen wars (1994-2009)- and the Caucasian separatism in general- shaped the Russian policies on Syria. As already observed by the Brooking Institution Senior Fellow Fiona Hill in a piece appeared in Foreign Affairs in March 2013, Putin crushed the Chechen insurgencies to prevent what he envisaged as a Balkanization of Russia. And Syria doesn’t look that different to him: it needs the Russian support to maintain national integrity and crush an Islamist-led rebellion, since the Americans would probably behave like in Afghanistan and Lybia, supporting a regime change at the cost of seeing “terrorists” in power.

In February 2012, I met in Istanbul ‘Ammar al-Qurabi, one of the most televised figures of the Syrian opposition, and he confessed me how Georgia was crucial to any shift in the Russian position on Syria already in 2011. Qurabi met with a delegation of Duma representatives in November 2011 and he was told that the US was required to stop interfering in the Russian interests in Georgia.

There are also some striking similarities between the Caucasus and Syria in the religious radicalization of the rebels, as Wahhabism was not popular in Chechnya until the Gulf sponsors started to channel ideology and funds into the Caucasian battlefields. Syria and Chechnya were home to a wide range of moderate Sufi schools, until the Gulf monarchies exported their brand of orthodox Islamism in a bid to support armed resistance. The most well-known Chechen emir fighting in Syria nowadays, ISIS Abu Omar al-Shishani, is believed to be sponsored by the Kuwaiti Salafi preacher Hajaj bin Fahad al-‘Ajmi.
Even the security solution (al-hall al-amniyy) adopted in Syria to crush the uprising has clearly resembled the atrocities committed by Moscow in dealing with the Caucasian insurgents: Chechen families were prevented from burying their dear ones killed by the Russian army and the snipers were regularly deployed to “enforce” this ban. In June 2012, the Syrian director Haytham al-Haqqi wrote for the Pan Arab daily Al-Hayat that it would be enough to replace “Syrian” with “Chechen” in the official statements of the Russian FM Sergej Lavrov to realize that it’s the same old discourse: “the army is legitimately intervening to rescue civilians from terrorists.”

 

Le Olimpiadi di Sochi e la “Syria connection” degli attentati in Russia

L’ombra delle monarchie del Golfo – finanziatrici di al Qaeda in Siria – dietro la nuova ondata di attentati nel sud della Russia

Il 17 gennaio un nuovo attentato ha causato il ferimento di 14 persone a Makhachkala, in Russia, nella repubblica meridionale del Dagestan, una delle roccaforti degli insorti islamici caucasici insieme all’Inguscezia e alla Cecenia. L’attacco fa seguito alla doppia esplosione di Volgograd (29-30 dicembre), che ha causato la morte di 33 persone e 85 feriti. Il tutto a ridosso dei giochi olimpici invernali in programma a Sochi dal 7 febbraio.

La maggioranza degli analisti riconducono gli attentati alla posizione della Russia sul conflitto in corso in Siria: in particolare, i sospetti puntano in direzione di un coinvolgimento saudita, sulla base degli incontri avvenuti tra agosto e dicembre tra Vladimir Putin e il capo dell’intelligence saudita Bandar Bin Sultan. Secondo quanto è stato rivelato al quotidiano libanese As-Safir il 21 agosto scorso, i tentativi del principe Bandar di porre fine al sostegno russo del regime di Bashar al Assad sarebbero infatti falliti, nonostante le offerte economiche, militari e politiche comprendessero la neutralizzazione di una rete di ribelli ceceni finanziata dalla petromonarchia.
Gli attentati di Volgograd sembrerebbero pertanto il colpo di coda di un’Arabia Saudita isolata, tradita dall’alleato storico statunitense, venuto meno alle sue promesse d’intervento militare in Siria a seguito dell’uso di armamenti chimici in agosto e riconciliatosi con l’arcinemico di Riyad, l’Iran, tramite l’accordo sul nucleare siglato a novembre.

Tuttavia, gli attentati di Volgograd e del Dagestan giocano paradossalmente a vantaggio di Mosca e Damasco. Sebbene alla Russia non fosse dispiaciuto “delocalizzare” il conflitto caucasico in Siria, divenuta catalizzatore di centinaia di mujahidin russi unitisi alle file dei ribelli, il Cremlino aveva di certo tenuto in conto il ritorno in patria dei combattenti.

In un editoriale del caporedattore del quotidiano panarabo Al-Quds al-Arabi, Abdul-Bari al ‘Atwan, pubblicato il 2 gennaio sul sito Ra’i al-Yawm (L’Opinione del Giorno), si sottolinea come l’opposizione siriana esca indebolita dagli attentati di Volgograd: la priorità degli imminenti negoziati di Ginevra II (22 gennaio) è infatti diventata la guerra al “terrorismo” piuttosto che la deposizione di Bashar al Assad, in un contesto regionale dominato dagli attentati di matrice qaedista in Libano, dalla persistente influenza dei qaedisti dello Stato islamico dell’Iraq e del Levante (Isis l’acronimo inglese) nel nord della Siria e dalla loro recente conquista della città di Fallujah, nell’Iraq occidentale.

Ciò significa che la visione di Mosca e Damasco sulla rivoluzione siriana, ridotta a destabilizzazione della sicurezza regionale finanziata da varie potenze internazionali, potrebbe avere la meglio al tavolo dei negoziati. Come suggerito da ‘Atwan, lasciando supporre un coinvolgimento di forze alleate al regime siriano, «chi ha pianificato la realizzazione degli attentati potrebbe aver tenuto questo [danno inflitto all’opposizione siriana] in considerazione».

Al di là dell’identità dei perpetratori, nota esclusivamente alle sfere dell’intelligence internazionale, gli attacchi verificatisi in Russia ricordano la stretta connessione tra il separatismo caucasico e la posizione del Cremlino sulla Siria. Come già osservato dalla studiosa Fiona Hill della Brookings Institution, in un articolo pubblicato da Foreign Affairs a marzo del 2013, Putin guidò la repressione della seconda insurrezione cecena (1999-2009) spinto dalla convinzione di lottare contro la balcanizzazione della Russia. Ai suoi occhi, la Siria non è poi così diversa: necessita il sostegno di Mosca per preservare l’integrità territoriale e reprimere una rivolta guidata da “terroristi” islamici.

Il 29 febbraio 2012, a Istanbul, Europa aveva appreso da ‘Ammar al Qurabi, uno dei volti televisivi più noti dell’opposizione siriana, come la Georgia – e quindi il Caucaso in generale – fossero cruciali ai fini di un cambiamento della posizione russa sulla Siria già dal 2011: nel corso di un incontro con Qurabi del novembre 2011, la delegazione della Duma aveva infatti posto tra le condizioni la fine delle interferenze statunitensi in Georgia.

Tra Cecenia e Siria, non sfuggono poi le somiglianze nella radicalizzazione religiosa dei ribelli. L’ortodossia wahhabita – corrente ultraconservatrice dell’islam nata in Arabia saudita – non era affatto diffusa nella repubblica caucasica finché le monarchie del Golfo non hanno iniziato a sostenere la causa dei mujahidin: la Siria e la Cecenia erano al contrario terreni fertili di numerose correnti moderate di sufismo.

Attualmente, stando a quanto riportato da uno dei massimi esperti di Siria, il professor Joshua Landis, il principale comandante ceceno attivo in Siria, l’emiro dell’Isis Abu ‘Omar al Shishani, viene finanziato dal predicatore salafita kuwaitiano Hajaj bin Fahad al ‘Ajmi. Il regime siriano sembra poi aver trovato una fonte d’ispirazione anche nelle tecniche repressive adoperate da Mosca: alle famiglie cecene veniva infatti impedito di seppellire i familiari uccisi dall’esercito russo, pena la morte incombente dai cecchini appollaiati sui tetti.

Il 16 giugno 2012, il regista siriano Haytham al Haqqi ha scritto in un articolo pubblicato dal quotidiano panarabo Al-Hayat che basterebbe sostituire il termine “siriano” con “ceceno” nelle dichiarazioni sulla Siria del ministro degli esteri russo Sergej Lavrov per accorgersi di come si tratti dello stesso vecchio discorso: «L’esercito è legittimato a intervenire per salvare i civili dai terroristi».

Categories: Arab Gulf, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Siria | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Se Al-Jazeera English eclissa Al-Jazeera

Un’analisi che ho scritto per ArabMediaReport sull’ascesa di Al-Jazeera English come media più professionale e meno parziale dell’ominima emittente panaraba.

Se Al-Jazeera English eclissa Al-Jazeera

Analisi
Al-Jazeera news anchors Veronica Pedrosa
(photo: aaron-sekhri.com)

Sono passati ormai diciassette anni dalla nascita dell’emittente satellitare panaraba Al-Jazeera (AJ), un progetto rivelatosi in grado di rivoluzionare una regione abituata alla rigida censura governativa. Nel 2006, una volta conseguita l’affermazione del canale quale fonte giornalistica più autorevole del mondo arabo, l’emirato del Golfo ha deciso di imporre il suo marchio nel club degli imperi mediatici anglofoni attraverso il lancio di Al-Jazeera English (AJE), originariamente nota con il nome di Al-Jazeera International.

Fin dall’inizio, l’emittente è stata oggetto di accese polemiche sia nel mondo arabo, preoccupato che l’obiettivo fosse uno smorzamento occidentalizzato delle posizioni anti-imperialiste, sia in Occidente, data la demonizzazione islamofoba attuata per anni dalle aree politiche conservatrici nei confronti del canale. Simili pregiudizi e l’ostracismo della concorrenza hanno finora relegato la popolarità di AJE tanto in Asia che in Africa e mettono ora a dura prova il successo di Al-Jazeera America appena sbarcata negli States.

La chiave del successo delle due emittenti anglofone del network del Qatar sui mercati europei e americani sarà la mobilitazione dell’opinione pubblica in favore della libertà d’espressione e del pluralismo mediatico, senza aspettarsi che l’orientamento trascenda il contesto mediorientale d’origine e venga meno alla missione di megafono del ‘sud globale’ [1].

L’altro lato della medaglia è il parallelo declino della credibilità di AJ, divenuta strumento della politica estera della famiglia reale al-Thani, in netto contrasto con la professionalità di AJE: il rischio è che il canale anglofono diventi un biglietto da visita dell’emirato al di fuori della regione, riducendo AJ a innocuo strumento di propaganda.

Perché Al-Jazeera English non ha mai inteso emulare la BBC o la CNN

Alla nascita di AJE, molti giornalisti di AJ avevano espresso il loro timore che il modello di resistenza mediatica, reso celebre dallo smascheramento dei crimini di guerra commessi dalle truppe statunitensi in Afghanistan e in Iraq, venisse filtrato dal team di giornalisti ‘importati’ da canali come la Bbc. Stando alla testimonianza di William Stebbins, caporedattore di AJE a Washington dal 2005 al 2010, il Ministero degli Esteri statunitense aveva promesso maggiore accessibilità alle fonti governative in cambio di pressioni sullo staff arabo ostile alla Casa Bianca.

Doha aveva subito resistito a un simile snaturamento dell’identità del marchio Al-Jazeera, promuovendo l’artefice del successo del canale arabo, il palestinese Wadah Khanfar, alla direzione generale del network televisivo; Khanfar aveva quindi provveduto a mutare il nome dell’emittente anglofona da Al-Jazeera International ad Al-Jazeera English, in un chiaro ridimensionamento delle aspirazioni dei ‘nuovi arrivati’. A dispetto dell’indipendenza da Doha sbandierata dall’ex-direttore amministrativo di AJE, Nigel Parsons, Khanfar ha cercato di mantenere l’emittente anglofona fedele alla missione di Al-Jazeera di essere una voce degli emarginati del “sud globale”.

Diversi analisti hanno però bocciato la professionalità di AJE, dando per scontato fosse stata concepita per ‘redimere’ i presunti eccessi anti-americani della ‘sorella’ araba. In questo senso, erano state emblematiche le dimissioni del 2008 di David Marash, celebre presentatore americano assunto da AJE, il quale aveva dichiarato di non identificarsi nella visione “araba e post-colonialista” del canale. Marash aveva dimostrato di non tenere così in alcuna considerazione l’orientamento del pubblico di AJE. Come messo in luce dagli studiosi di media Mohammad al-Nawawy e Shawn Powers, chi preferisce AJE alla Cnn o alla Bbc si distingue infatti per una posizione critica nei confronti della politica estera americana.

La chiave di lettura dell’orientamento di AJE risiede nelle teorie formulate da Kai Hafez [2], che considera gli spettatori un ‘elettorato’ piuttosto che un pubblico universale privo di idee pregresse. Nel contesto contemporaneo saturo d’informazione, i telespettatori cercano delle conferme delle loro convinzioni, quelli di AJE tanto quanto quelli della BBC.

La possibile via del successo per Al-Jazeera English in Occidente

Se finora i pregiudizi sul mondo arabo e alcuni calcoli di natura commerciale della concorrenza hanno limitato la popolarità di AJE negli States e in Europa, una piccola esperienza locale di successo può indicare le carte da giocare per assicurarsi il pubblico occidentale. Il dottorando William Youmans ha seguito in dettaglio il caso di un provider via cavo del Vermont (Usa), la Burlington TV, una delle pochissime piattaforme ad aver accettato di trasmettere AJE nel 2007, in un Paese dove l’emittente qatarense è riuscita ad assicurarsi un canale solamente quest’anno con l’acquisto di Current TV, l’emittente posseduta da Al Gore.

Si tratta di un caso particolare, in considerazione della natura semi-pubblica della Burlington TV, che è solita consultare i suoi telespettatori in quanto fruitori di un servizio, e dell’orientamento politico a favore del partito democratico prevalente nello stato del Vermont. Nel 2008, il fatto che alcuni residenti si fossero opposti alla trasmissione di Al-Jazeera ha spinto le autorità locali a indire una serie di dibattiti, a cui hanno partecipato cittadini e membri dello staff di AJE: in merito alle obiezioni avanzate dal fronte del ‘no’, è stato concluso che non vi fossero prove sufficienti né del contenuto anti-israeliano né dell’influenza della natura anti-democratica dell’emirato sul palinsesto. In nome della libertà d’espressione e del dialogo interculturale, il comune di Burlington ha deciso di non interrompere le trasmissioni di AJE.

Alcuni dei partecipanti al dibattito hanno confermato la validità delle teorie di Hafez sul pubblico inteso come ‘elettorato’ dalle posizioni predefinite, sminuendo l’eventualità che i telespettatori sviluppino tendenze anti-americane a causa di Al-Jazeera English. L’esperienza di Burlington potrebbe suggerire alla direzione di AJE e AJA la strategia migliore per guadagnare popolarità in Occidente, promuovendo dei dibattiti tra fasce di pubblico politicizzato e già incline alla ‘contro-informazione’.

Al-Jazeera English guadagna credibilità a spese di Al-Jazeera

Pur condividendo una visione contro-egemonica nei confronti dei media occidentali, il divario creatosi tra AJE e AJ in termini di credibilità è invece evidente in determinati contesti, Egitto e Bahrain in primis, dove la mano pesante dell’emirato ha condizionato la copertura degli eventi. A differenza della questione palestinese, dove l’insistenza di Doha nel mantenere dei buoni rapporti con Tel Aviv sin dal 1996 non ha condizionato la copertura del conflitto in senso filo-israeliano, la tutela dei legami con i Fratelli Musulmani e l’Arabia Saudita ha limitato la professionalità di AJ nell’occuparsi di Egitto e Bahrain.

Nel primo caso, i segnali della faziosità di Al-Jazeera Mubashir Misr (Al-Jazeera in diretta dall’Egitto- il canale creato ad hoc per seguire gli eventi egiziani) sono innumerevoli: basti constatare il dominio assoluto delle interviste a opinionisti a sostegno del deposto presidente islamista Mohammed Mursi sulla pagina YouTube del canale o la scelta di concedere oltre venti minuti al dotto islamico Yusef al-Qaradawi, da sempre vicino ai Fratelli Musulmani, per rivolgersi “al popolo egiziano” alla stregua di un presidente.

In merito invece al Bahrain, nonostante lo spazio concesso all’opposizione bahrainita anche su programmi di punta come Al-Ittijah Al-Mu’akis (La Direzione Opposta), la presa di posizione del canale al fianco della monarchia è palese in servizi come quello di Fawzi Bushra del 16 marzo 2011, dove l’insurrezione bahrainita viene definita “confusa” rispetto ai moti popolari egiziani e tunisini, in quanto divisa tra sciiti e sunniti.

Il Qatar, in qualità di membro del Consiglio di Cooperazione del Golfo (Ccg), ha acconsentito all’invio delle truppe del Dir’ al-Jazirah (Scudo della Penisola) in Bahrain il 14 marzo 2011 in supporto del regime. Come rivelato da un documento dell’ambasciata statunitense di Doha pubblicato da Wikileaks, al-Jazeera è riuscita a mediare la riconciliazione con l’Arabia Saudita nel 2010 attraverso una copertura favorevole della famiglia reale; Riyadh si è del resto collocata in prima linea nel supportare l’intervento in Bahrain, temendo pericolose ripercussioni nelle regioni sciite saudite.

Al contrario, AJE ha riservato maggiore spazio alla rivoluzione bahrainita, approfondita tramite un documentario intitolato ‘Shouting in the Dark’. In questo caso, il canale anglofono ha seguito una politica redazionale indipendente da Doha, evitando per esempio di applicare due pesi e due misure in Bahrain e in Siria, contesto quest’ultimo in cui AJ si è schierata apertamente con i rivoluzionari, omaggiandoli di una copertura continua degli eventi. L’intensità del conflitto esploso in Siria non legittima completamente la scala di priorità, considerata l’attenzione maggiore dedicata ai rivoluzionari pacifisti egiziani in confronto ai loro omologhi bahrainiti.

Le dimissioni di Wadah Khanfar del 2011 e la nomina alla direzione del network di un membro della famiglia reale senza alcuna esperienza giornalistica, Ahmad Bin Jassem al-Thani, avevano già suggerito un giro di vite delle élite qatariote. Un ulteriore passo indietro è stato il ripristino del Ministero dell’Informazione nel rimpasto ministeriale guidato dal nuovo emiro Shaykh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, asceso al trono il 26 giugno scorso: tale ministero, da sempre utilizzato come strumento di controllo nel mondo arabo, era stato abolito dal padre Shaykh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani in un gesto di apertura coinciso con il lancio di Al-Jazeera nel ’96. Lo stesso Khanfar aveva del resto motivato il suo abbandono sostenendo di aver portato a termine la sua “missione”, trasformando Al-Jazeera in un network internazionale d’informazione.

Ora che il Qatar è riuscito ad affermarsi come potenza, si trova immerso in un contesto costellato da realtà mediatiche intraprendenti quanto Al-Jazeera, emerse dalla caduta dei vari regimi (si pensi al ricco panorama satellitare iracheno): non trattandosi più di un’eccezione regionale, AJ potrebbe iniziare a essere percepita come realtà nazionale, chiamata a monitorare l’operato della classe dirigente. Secondo l’analisi dell’ex-caporedattore di AJE William Stebbins, l’emirato ha preferito limitare i danni e ripiegare su una missione molto meno ambiziosa di quella di Khanfar.

Nonostante dipenda finanziariamente dalle stesse casse e sia già stata oggetto delle pressioni di Doha, AJE sembra mantenere livelli superiori di professionalità. L’abdicazione volontaria di Shaykh Hamad, per esempio, è stata sì erta a “passo senza precedenti” [3] nella regione, ma senza scadere negli elogi sperticati dell’emittente araba, la quale non ha esitato a dedicargli una sezione speciale sul sito. AJE si è invece distinta mandando in onda una puntata di Inside Story (26 giugno 2013), in cui il corrispondente del The Guardian britannico, Ian Black, ha ricordato come il Qatar abbia prorogato di recente il mandato del Consiglio Consultivo, procrastinando ulteriormente le elezioni parlamentari. Sempre Inside Story (14 giugno 2013), ha dedicato un’altra puntata ai timori connessi allo sfruttamento dei lavoratori stranieri nei preparativi per la Coppa del Mondo di calcio, in programma a Doha nel 2020.

D’altro canto, come suggerito dall’ex-caporedattore Stebbins, le maggiori libertà concesse ad AJE potrebbero essere parte di una strategia volta a presentare un’immagine più liberale al pubblico anglofono esterno alla regione, mantenendo invece un controllo più rigido sul contenuto di AJ. Paradossalmente, considerando l’originale funzione di resistenza svolta nei confronti dei media occidentali, Al-Jazeera finirebbe per rassomigliare alla Cnn, di cui ai tempi della guerra in Iraq veniva criticata la disparità dei contenuti a seconda del pubblico: propaganda militarista per i telespettatori americani e commenti più sobri su Cnn International. Un’ Al-Jazeera lontana dagli albori da paladino della libertà d’informazione, rifondata sul consenso interno e le immagini edulcorate all’estero.

———————

Note

[1] Nelle parole di Ibrahim Helal, vice direttore delle notizie e dei programmi di AJE. Si veda: Mohammed el-Nawawy e Shawn Powers, Mediating Conflict. Al-Jazeera English and the Possibility of a Conciliatory Media [2008].

[2] Hafez, K. (2000) The West and Islam in the Mass Media: Cornerstones for a New International Culture of Communication in the 21st Century. Center for European Integration Studies Discussion Paper, 61, 3.

[3] In realtà esiste un precedente: il sultano dell’Oman Taimur bin Faisal bin Turki (1913 – 1932) abdicò infatti volontariamente in favore del primogenito.

Categories: Al-Jazeera, Arab Gulf, Bahrain, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Conversing with a Bahraini activist about the Bahrain Revolution in light of the Syrian events (May 2013)

Image

(Picture taken from: http://www.jakeinbahrain.blogspot.com)

A. H. is a Bahraini engineer and activist in the 2011 Bahrain Revolution, victim of detention and torture of Ibn al Khalifa’s regime. Today he is a political refugee in Australia.

I think the conservation I had last 30th April with A. in Auburn – western suburb of Sydney – is worth being published here. The information I have collected has been jotted down with no selection process: this might not fulfill the reader’s expectations in terms of empirical details, and the expressed ideas have not intentionally been “rectified” in the name of political correctness. Nonetheless, I believe A.’s words have raised interesting points that would be worth further understanding, particularly on the way revolutions’ protagonists feel unrepresented from outside and on the contradictions that emerge between political opinion and private life.

The name of my interlocutor cannot be revealed to protect his identity, as he told me that “the number of Bahraini refugees in Australia is too small to pass unsuspected”. Moreover, a part of his family is still working for the government and living in al Manama. On this purpose, I would really like to highlight that the co-existence – not necessarily to be interpreted in terms of “cooperation” – of the lives of the revolutionaries and their regime, is often considered by “revolutions’ spectators” as a deplorable sign of incoherence, applying ethical labels to the phenomenon. Yet, the chances to get a good job and build life opportunities in a reality of long date dictatorship are totally linked to the governments, as it also happens in the case of many Syrian activists I personally know. Things cannot be seen from a universal perspective when people grew up in social contexts where, in order to get livelihoods, are somehow forced to pay lip service to the regime they are fighting. These people are even more honorable, as, even though they have no choice but behaving in a compromising way for their survival, they are still contesting their power structures with all their strength instead of adulating them – as they could do if they did not care about social and political changes.

  1. Estella: What is your personal experience in the Bahraini revolution?

A.: I got detained and tortured twice from the regime during n this revolution. After that, the regime released me but kept persecuting me. So, when I was in Dubai for work, my family told me not to go back home, since I’d have jeopardised my life. From Dubai I therefore went to Thailand, and then I asked for political asylum in Australia. I finally found a job few weeks ago.

  1. Estella: How did the revolution in Bahrain start? Was it a leaderless revolution or guided by specific popular movements?

A.: The outset was like all the other revolutions: there is not a leader guiding the protests or promoting a singular ideology. In the same way as it started in Syria, it is a reaction to years of de facto dictatorship, tortures and corruption in the government. Every 5 to 10 we actually have protests in Bahrain. This time it has been very big as it has happened in the wake of the Tunisian and the Egyptian revolutions. Bahrain, insurrecting on February 14 2011, has been the fourth after Tunisia Egypt and Yemen, but it occurred before the revolts in Syria. We were 500,000 out of 700,000 people in the streets at that time.

  1. Estella: Some scholars have often talked of “Shi’a cosmopolitanism” across Lebanon, Syria, Iran and Iraq. Do you think this kind of cultural and emotional closeness among the Shi’a living in the region is able to influence the way of revolting and advancing political plans? In other words, would you differentiate a “Shiite” way of protesting from the “Sunni” contestation strategies, as some people contend?

A.: No. I don’t think there is a difference. We certainly have the element of public crying in Shi’ism, that you can witness in the streets in al Manama when demonstrators protest. But I don’t personally think there is a real difference apart from that: the act of protesting makes all of us even more similar in our struggle for justice and equality in the Arab world. However, of course, there definitely is general empathisation with Shi’a. But this is another matter, it has nothing to do with politics. This sort of cosmopolitanism you’re mentioning has to do with me as a Bahraini Shiite, just in the sense that I prefer gathering with my family in Iran or Iraq, rather than going to Egypt or Tunisia. Ok, maybe in this sense “Shi’a cosmopolitanism” is real, but the connection with politics is far more complex. All revolutions have been started by marginalised and neglected people that were fed up with their current political system, either Shi’a or Sunni. But the media sold different truths and focused instead on confessionalism.

  1. Estella: I have never been to Bahrain and I have no clue of how life is there and how it has recently changed. What spaces that the so-called potential (or invisible?) “civil society” used to occupy when the revolution had not started yet? I mean… I was living in Cairo a few years before the January 2011 revolution, and I can still remember the informal spaces where the political discussion was taking place and discontent was expressed…

A.: The civil society in Bahrain has always been there. It was just silenced by the regime and not organised at all, as we didn’t have the chance to organise ourselves. We used to gather in houses and discuss about social changes, but the mass phenomenon of the revolution involved much more people. It turned into something that had never existed before. At a political official level instead, we presently have seven different parties.

  1. Estella: The Bahraini regime is told to manipulate the confessional parties to maintain its power. Do you agree with this, and in what sense does it manage to do that?

A.: It can be a simple thing like denying a scholarship at the university if you have a Shiite surname and you are not politically affiliated to the central state. They are going to prefer a Sunni. And this happens not because Sunnis want to divide people: the regime rather wants to generate social frictions between the two parts. It is the same strategy as that used by Bashar al Asad. I mean, in Bahrain there is more Shi’a than Sunna protesting against the regime, and this is due to the fact that we outnumber Sunna by far. This significative detail is under-mentioned in the media. You usually look for answers: that’s the problem of the West, and the easiest answer you can give to your questions is to confessionalise the events and their root causes.

  1. Estella: What kind of governance do you envision in Bahrain if the regime departed?

A.: No one wants an Islamic state, that’s for sure. We don’t have anything like Jabhat al Nusra in the Syrian war. In legal terms… I will be honest with you… I don’t know that much about that and everything is pretty vague. Our problem lies in not having a real written law: our law is the will of the king. Citizenship is formally considered an equal principle for everyone, but, pragmatically speaking, it does not work that way. We face social hierarchies of citizenship that the regime has confessionalised to push us to fight each other.

  1. Estella: How do you assess the media coverage on the Bahraini Revolution, after having lived the events in person?

A.: They are not really giving an idea of it as much as they should: they show the atrocities in Bahrain and then they say that all that is happening in Syria. Especially al Arabiya is the voice of Ibn al Khalifa: the media cannot therefore raise awareness of what is really happening in Bahrain. The problem is that activists, throughout the world, just advocate for what they hear about. So, this creates a vicious cycle. As a result, we don’t have any visibility.

  1. Estella: When I was in North Lebanon, Syrian refugees used to tell me that the main reason for the international community’s abdication of responsibility was islamophobia: that triggered among people apoliticisation and moral detachment from the Syrian events, to their mind. What do you think about this, in relation to your country and your participation in the revolution? Do you think also Bahrainis feel a sense of abandonment due to the international community’s neglect?

A.: Absolutely. The international community has totally overlooked us. I hate Asad with all myself and he was also feeding confessional frictions among his people, but, yet, I think the media have not ignored the events in Syria if compared to Bahrain.

  1. Estella: What do you think of what is happening in Syria?

A.: The things started as a popular uprising against a tyrant, but now the confessional elements are playing quite a big role in Syria. In Bahrain it’s still a popular thing instead, with no weapons, and also many Sunnis are taking part in it. The social media don’t talk of them though, as they want to show that it’s just a Shiite thing. Syria has now become a sort of “Vietnam of the Arabs”: it’s the war of everyone that is being fought on their soil. With Syrians, Bahrainis tragically share the interference from the Arab Emirates: the latter also entered Bahrain in March 2012 to support the king, and they still contribute to the social repression we are undergoing. We are not facing yet a confessionalisation of our revolt, unlike Syria. Now the salafists in Syria hold the country’s future as a hostage for warranting their future power. Don’t’ get me wrong, but I must say that, at this point, I hope Asad won’t step down, unlike what I was hoping for at the beginning of the Syrian revolution.

  1. Estella: Really? What would you think if, at some point, the uprising in Bahrain ended up in the hands of an armed “extremist” militia of Shiite zealots? Do you think you would be able to wind back your revolutionary plans and begin to support Ibn al Khalifa, in a bid not to risk “religious extremism” in Bahrain’s future?

A:. No, I would never support al Khalifa. If you put it this way, you are right. But in Bahrain such confessional extremism could not take ground.

Categories: Arab Gulf | Leave a comment

Golfo-Iran, quando un film sul Profeta è guerra fredda

Mio breve articolo pubblicato oggi su ArabMediaReport in merito ai risvolti politici della competizione Qatar-Iran sui rispettivi film sul Profeta…

Iran VS Qatar: la rivalità sul set cinematografico della pellicola su Maometto

Andrea Glioti

message

La guerra fredda tra Iran e Paesi del Golfo travalica lo scacchiere delle relazioni internazionali e inizia a combattersi sui set cinematografici. A creare l’ennesima diatriba è la vita del profeta Maometto.

Il progetto da un miliardo di dollari di Doha è un prodotto della Al-Noor Holdings, sette episodi per un vero e proprio colossal in stile hollywoodiano, prodotto dal pluripremiato americano, Barrie Osborne famoso per Il Signore degli Anelli. Il rivale iraniano da 30 milioni di dollari sarà la creazione dell’acclamato regista Majid al-Majidi (I bambini del cielo), le cui riprese sono già iniziate nell’ottobre 2012. Majidi conta anche su Vittorio Storaro, direttore della fotografia de L’Ultimo Imperatore di Bertolucci.

A differenza dell’intento provocatorio di alcune rappresentazioni occidentali di Maometto- si pensi alle vignette danesi del 2005 o al trailer del film The Innocence of Muslims dell’anno scorso- l’obiettivo comune dei due progetti mediorientali è di illustrare la vera natura del messaggio islamico a un pubblico non musulmano.  Lo stesso Majidi è noto per essersi ritirato dall’edizione del 2006 del festival cinematografico danese Natfilm, in segno di protesta contro le vignette pubblicate dal quotidiano danese Jyllands-Posten.

Tuttavia, a prescindere dalle buone intenzioni, le rappresentazioni artistiche della vita del Profeta sono regolarmente seguite da reazioni violente, dietro il pretesto dell’ortodossia ‘iconoclasta’ islamica. Si pensi anche solo al più illustre precedente cinematografico, The Message di Mustafa Akkad del 1976. Nonostante il consenso alla proiezione della pellicola di una delle fonti più autorevoli dell’ortodossia sunnita, la moschea di Al-Azhar, e il rispetto del divieto di mostrare la persona del Profeta, il film venne citato tra i moventi di un sequestro di ostaggi a Washington nel 1977.

Le eventuali conseguenze assumono tratti confessionali ancora più preoccupanti, se si considera la decisione di Majidi di interpretare Maometto, senza mostrarne il volto, in linea con la tradizione sciita, ma in affronto all’Islam sunnita.

Non a caso, il progetto di Doha si atterrà al divieto di impersonare il Profeta, seguendo le direttive dell‘alim sunnita Yusuf al-Qaradawi, figura di spicco dei Fratelli Musulmani egiziani, che deve la sua consacrazione mediatica ad Al-Jazeera. L’inclusione di Qaradawi nella pianificazione del colossal è già un segnale della sua connotazione politica. Non passa poi inosservato come Al-Noor Holdings sia anche impegnata in una joint-venture con una casa di produzione turca (Kalinos) per la realizzazione di una serie televisiva sulla vita del sultano Mehmet II Al-Fatih, Il Conquistatore che si propone di fare luce sulle relazioni arabo-ottomane in quell’importante periodo storico. Il tutto sembra parte di un disegno mediatico, che riflette l’allineamento del Qatar e della Turchia sull’asse anti-iraniano innescato dalle rivoluzioni del 2011.

Del resto, la scelta di Majidi di recitare il Profeta ha già sollevato un’onda di polemiche provenienti da una commissione saudita connessa alla Lega Musulmana Mondiale, che ha chiesto all’Iran di mettere al bando la pellicola e incitato i credenti a boicottarla. Non si è fatta attendere la reazione analoga della moschea di Al-Azhar del Cairo, dove il divieto di recitare la parte di qualsiasi profeta risale addirittura al 1926. Non si tratta nemmeno della prima diatriba con una produzione iraniana. Già nel 2010 una serie televisiva sulla vita del profeta Giuseppe era stata oggetto dell’intolleranza dell’istituzione egiziana.

D’altra parte, ai suoi tempi, nemmeno The Message era rimasto immune alla strumentalizzazione a fini politici, se si pensa al consenso di Qaddhafi a completarne le riprese in Libia. Fu con questa mossa che il deposto raìs libico assicurò Akkad come regista per il successivo manifesto cinematografico anti-colonialista: Il Leone del Deserto sulla vita dell’eroe rivoluzionario Omar al-Mukhtar.

 

Categories: Arab Gulf, Egypt, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Saudi-Qatari hegemony struggle over the spoils of the ‘Arab Spring’

About the rivarly between Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the struggle for hegemony over the context shaped by the ‘Arab Spring’. This never got published, as it was due to appear on The Majalla, but the Saudi magazine is reluctant to publish features it considers detrimental to Saudi interests. It was written in May 2012

Qatar has been undoubtedly the leading actor of the Arab spring on the international scene. Doha finalized its bid for power started in 1996, when Al-Jazeera was founded and Shaykh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani overthrew his father in a silent coup. The tiny emirate provided a powerful media platform for Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan and Syrian revolutionaries and further consolidated its financial support for the different branches of the dissident Muslim Brotherhood (MB), banking on their electoral success. On the other hand, Qatar remained fully aware that political turmoil was in its interests as long as it wasn’t a threat to Gulf monarchies, therefore it agreed on the deployment of GCC troops in Bahrain to help the Sunni ruler resisting a Shi’a uprising.

While cultivating its dreams of expansion, the emirate has always been living under the Saudi shadow. Even Al-Jazeera became wary of annoying Riyadh and was allowed to open its offices in the kingdom last January, only after allegedly toning down the coverage in the last years. However, the future of Qatar’s political leverage in the region is highly dependent on its will to challenge Saudi Arabia by maintaining good ties with the MB and the Iranian camp. At the same time, Doha needs to balance carefully interferences in post-revolutionary contexts to avoid cleavages between its Islamist allies and their rivals.

 

qatar saudi

 

For what concerns the low profile competition with Saudi Arabia, Egypt is a particularly crucial context. Although tracking down the foreign funds received by both the MB and the Salafi Al-Nour Party is particularly difficult, due to their recent history as legal political forces, the Qataris- and Turkey’s ruling AKP- have been focusing on the Brotherhood, whereas the Saudis preferred sponsoring the Salafi newcomers. Former MB leader Sayyid ‘Abdul-Sattar al-Malija claims $95 million have been received by the Brotherhood from Qatar for the parliamentary elections. Saudi Prince Talal Bin ‘Abdul-Aziz al-Sa’ud denied Government funds have been channeled to Al-Nour, but he didn’t exclude financial support coming from Saudi Salafis. In the end, Wahhabism, the Saudi branch of Salafism, is a homebred version of apolitical Islam the Sa’ud family has always been keen on exporting, whereas the originally militant Islamism promoted by the Egyptian MB and its ties with Iran have often been perceived as a threat. Riyadh would have clearly preferred Mubarak to stay and relations with Egypt are already tense, after demonstrators assaulted the Saudi embassy in Cairo, protesting against the arrest of an Egyptian lawyer in the kingdom.

Bearing in mind the dependence of the Egyptian military from the US, the MB is not left without any alternative to Saudi Arabia, as Iran is just waiting around the corner: the former head of Tehran’s political bureau in Cairo, Sayyed Hadi-Khosrow Shahi, called on the Iranian authorities to be patient, because once the military junta will be handing over its powers- if it ever will- the MB will be the first party interested in establishing new relations with Tehran. After all, Iran has been waiting for this moment for the last thirty years.

In this context, Qatar is in a really favorable position, taking into account its ties with Iran and the influence held over the most prominent expatriate of the Egyptian MB, Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. The Sunni cleric is significantly indebted to the emirate, where he was granted Qatari citizenship, after fleeing from Nasserist Egypt in the ‘60s. Qaradawi is known for his political opportunism, the leftist Lebanese-American professor As’ad Abu Khalil said of him that he “would subtract a daily prayer if ordered to do so by the Emir who sponsors him”. The Brotherhood’s spiritual guide has been functional to Qatari interests for a long time, being also one of the pillars of Al-Jazeera’s popularity, but to which extent is the emirate willing to jeopardize its relations with other Gulf countries, by following the Brotherhood’s emboldened political status? A significant episode was the quarrel between Qaradawi and the head of Dubai’s police, Dahi Khalfan: the latter was attacked virulently by the Egyptian Brotherhood’s spokesperson, Mahmud Ghozlan, who threatened to mobilize the Muslim world against the Emirates, after Khalfan dared attacking Qaradawi for his criticism on the UAE’s alleged deportation of several Syrian protesters. What if this is only the beginning and the MB will feel entitled again to raise its voice against Gulf countries? The Emirates and Saudi Arabia are not likely to stand on the side of the Egyptians and the Qataris might be asked to take distances from Qaradawi, but what if they refuse and choose to defy their neighbors? Doha’s leadership needs to ponder over its choices, but it clearly doesn’t lack ambitions.

Tunisia is another political battlefield, where the Qataris are more in the position to pull the strings than the Saudis, taking in consideration their ties with both the ruling Al-Nahda Movement – the closest to the Brotherhood, ideologically speaking – and its supporters in Tehran. In Cairo and Tunis, the Brotherhood and al-Nahda have been struggling for decades against Western-sponsored autocrats, hence they pursued good relations with the Iranian camp. In April, the Central Bank of Tunisia received a half a billion dollars loan from Doha.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia are more likely to act hand in hand in Syria, where the Syrian MB is opposed to a regime closely allied to the Iranians, thus earning the Saudi support under any circumstances. However, the main political body of the Syrian Brotherhood, the Syrian National Council (SNC), is rapidly losing popularity among revolutionaries for its little achievements, whereas Salafi trends are gaining wider support in an increasingly sectarian confrontation with Alawis. If Asad will be overthrown, figures like the Saudi-based Syrian Salafi preacher ‘Adnan al-‘Ar’ur and his followers could rely on Riyadh’s support to enter politics. This would open room for confrontation with Doha’s favorites in the SNC.

Besides the possibility of triggering Saudi concerns, Qatar is facing an equally serious risk of splitting post-revolutionary contexts by favoring certain parties over the others. In an interview I had with Samir Nashar, one of the members of the SNC executive committee, he motivated his rejection of the extension of Burhan Ghalioun’s presidential mandate, by claiming it was dictated by foreign pressures possibly coming from Qatar. Already in November, the former Libyan Prime Minister Mohammad Jibril accused Doha of promoting the rise of some rebel factions. In Algeria, according to secular parties, Islamists received Qatari financial support for their recent electoral campaign. The Egyptian presidential candidate and former member of the Brotherhood, ‘Abd al-Mun’im Abu al-Futuh, has been targeted with similar allegations. In Yemen, the independent MP Ahmad Sayf Hashid blamed the local MB branch, the Reform (Islah) Party, of being more despotic than the ousted President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Saleh and he accused the bloc of using Qatari funds to win over its foes. The Qatari selective support has become an increasingly common reason for attacking political rivals and it could be enough to question electoral results and stir up violence.

“Qatar is reacting to the fact that the traditional heavy-weights in the Middle East – namely Egypt and Saudi Arabia – are not playing their customary roles”, explained the veteran correspondent of the New York Times, Anthony Shadid, “there is a political void in the region that both Qatar and Turkey to some extent have stepped into”. The continuation of Qatar’s rise to power is largely dependent on its skills to carefully erode Saudi regional hegemony and weigh out interferences in the countries of the Arab awakening.

Categories: Arab Gulf, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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