Afghanistan, art of resistance

Afghanistan: Exiles of the Mountain of Oblivion.

11/photo © Seamus Murphy/

O exiles of the mountain of oblivion!
O the jewels of your names, slumbering in the mire of silence
O your obliterated memories, your light blue memories
In the silty mind of a wave in the sea of forgetting
Where is the clear, flowing stream of your thoughts?
Which thieving hand plundered the pure golden statue of your dreams?
In this storm which gives birth to oppression
Where has your ship, your serene silver mooncraft gone?

Light blue memories, Nadia Anjuman

It’s been almost a year now since I dedicated a post to Nadia Anjuman – Remembering Nadia Anjuman: One Day, My Hands Will Become Weavers.

A new book featuring her poetry came out couple of months ago, entitled Load poems like guns: Women’s Poetry from Herat, Afghanistan. It made me think of Anjuman again, made me dive into her poetry and admire it once more. And when I think about Anjuman, I think about the sorrows of Aghanistan.

Just last month, Obama extended the Afghanistan mission into 2017. And in these links of war, the news is also that his administration approved an $11.25 billion deal to sell four advanced, Lockheed Martin-made warships to Saudi Arabia (although Amnesty International has called on the US to halt arms transfers to Saudi Arabia or risk being complicit in war crimes in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is waging a U.S.-backed campaign against Houthi rebels).

Not surprised, but still surprised (you can feel both at the same time) and sad about this news, I went through Anjuman’s poetry and Seamus Murphy’s photo series from Afghanistan.

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Murphy’s photos carry the beauty I find in Anjuman’s poetry. Yes, they can be extremely sad, but yet they show a spark of resistance, a different view, a possibility other than indifference. An all of that is very subtle, very nuanced, very quiet.

One day my hands will become weavers

and upon life’s wasteland of a body

spin a gown with wheat and flowers

In one interview, Murphy said about his book Afghanistan: A Darkness Visible: “Although Afghanistan is obviously a troubled place, the book and the exhibition has very little of war in it, although most of the pictures are taken during wartime. But a lot of them are quiet pictures.”

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Unlike A Darkness Visible, the photos I chose to accompany this small note about Anjuman & Afghanistan are colorful, taken by Murphy mostly in 2009 and 2012, during his trips to Afghanistan. I think they are still quiet and still manage to catch the darkness in the most subtle of ways. But not just darkness – and that’ the beauty.

And why color this time? Because when I dream of Anjuman, I dream in color.

//all photos © Seamus Murphy//

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art of resistance

(Interview) Matthew Hoh: Veterans, America’s Wars & A Long Way To Go.

Matthew Hoh is a former State Department official who resigned from his post in Afghanistan in 2009. He did so in protest over US strategic policy and goals in Afghanistan. Prior to his assignment in Afghanistan, Hoh served in Iraq; first in 2004 and 2005 in Salah ad Din Province with a State Department reconstruction and governance team and then in 2006 and 2007 in Anbar Province as a Marine Corps company commander.

He’s the former  Director of the Afghanistan Study Group, a network of foreign and public policy experts and professionals advocating for a change in US strategy in Afghanistan. Hoh’s articles were published in The Huffington Post, Guardian, Washington Post and USA Today (to name a few) and he also runs his website, were he often writes about the torments he went through during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and particularly – about the despair he faced upon his return to USA, facing an everyday life as a veteran. I think his voice is truly important in times when, as Ingeborg Bachmann wrote:  „War is no longer declared, only continued. The monstrous has become everyday.“

In the following interview, Matthew and I talked about war, Middle East, veteran suicides, resistance, and the paradoxes of our (Western) governments.

Jonathan-Landay-Matthew-Hoh-5479cc/Matthew Hoh, photo: Dale Robbins/Moyers & Company/

This month, all over the USA, people are marking Veterans Day. You write a lot about your personal experience and hardships you went through after your second deployment to Iraq, when PTSD and severe depression took over your life. Alcohol was your weapon of choice at the time, but it couldn’t kill the thoughts of suicide. How are you today, how did you manage to go through that period? Did the strength of purpose coming from you activist work help you in that period?

I appreciate you asking me about this. I am doing much better today, thanks to the help of family, friends and many talented and compassionate mental health professionals. I must also say that I have received help from strangers. Fellow veterans who have spoken openly and publically about their difficulties, PTSD, alcohol, suicide, etc, have been of tremendous assistance. Their testimony has given me the courage to confront my problems and the strength to continue an often difficult and turbulent recovery.

My activist work helps me now, because as you describe it gives me a strength of purpose. However, I actually found that I needed to distance myself from the wars for a while and I needed to concentrate on myself. I needed to make my health and recovery my priority. I think this is an issue for many veterans, as veterans, so proud of being leaders and team players, often put others first and diminish their own sufferings and hardships to their own detriment.

Talking about suicide – we don’t have full data from all the US states, and as you said in some of the interviews you did – only a couple years ago the Veterans Administration (VA) started tracking veteran suicides on a national level. The estimates are that more than two veterans who kill themselves every day are Iraq or Afghanistan veterans. It actually means that more veterans have killed themselves after coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan than have been killed in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. Could you tell me more about that – the numbers and the dreadful presence of these demons of suicide?

Yes, that is the case. It was not until 2013 that the VA published suicide data on veterans that included data from the states rather than data only solely collected by the VA. This data is incomplete of course, as less than 40% of veterans are enrolled in the VA, and for the most recent data collected by the VA from the states, less than 30 states provided information. So we don’t really know how many veterans are killing themselves each day and this understanding, that the VA only recently began to estimate the total number of veterans suicides, belies the notion that the VA and the federal government were doing everything possible to assist veterans. This article from August in the USA Today does a good job explaining the deceit and deception that is ongoing in the VA’s handling of veteran suicides.

With regards to the numbers we do know, yes, based upon those figures, more service members have killed themselves after coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq than were killed or died in those countries. We estimate two Iraq or Afghan veterans kill themselves each day, that is 730 a year. Even taking into account latency for the suicides to begin to manifest and occur in the first few years of the wars, we still have a greater number of suicides than we do numbers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan (currently 6,841 Americans killed in Afghanistan and Iraq). Of course, even if we stopped our role in the wars today, and brought all of our troops home, we would still be coping with the suicide problem of veterans for as long as this generation lives. The suicides are not going to stop because the wars stop.

There is one other number that is startling and very foreboding and that is the number of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) among service members. TBIs have essentially tripled since 2000. There is a well known connection between TBI and suicide. This may be most well known in the American public because of the relationship that has been seen between American football players and suicide later in life. With TBIs, onset of symptoms and problems often experience a delay in emerging. Additionally, for many years during the wars, there was a requirement for service members to self report in order for a TBI to be recorded and care to be provided; self reporting is something service members are notorious for not doing, ie admitting they are hurt, weak or sick. So I believe that TBIs are under-reported and that what we know is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg in terms of future issues with veterans’ mental health needs and care.

Barack Obama recently talked about the increased troop deployment to Iraq, saying it marks a new phase against Islamic State militants. He said “we” need ground troops and it is time for an offensive strategy, rather than a defensive one. The language of “striking back” and “hitting harder” is ever-present, and it seems that we are stuck in a circle of associating courage with warfare, agreeing on a change achieved through violence. You fought in Iraq and served in Afghanistan, and you’ve seen war firsthand. What do you think about the latest news about increased troops on the ground?

I think this is a massive mistake and will lead to the widening and deepening of the war in Iraq and the war in Syria. It is a foolish decision by the President and I think it has more to do with assuaging his critics in the US than it does with dealing with the wars in Iraq and Syria.

We are seeing that the American bombing campaign has pushed Sunnis into further alignment with the Islamic State and this was to be expected  while not providing any incentive for the governments in Iraq or Syria to make political concessions or pursue any line of negotiation with the insurgents and the populations they represent in order to bring about a ceasefire or political settlement. Further, American involvement plays right into the propaganda and recruiting messages of the Islamic State. We have seen an increase in young men (and some women) heading to Syria and Iraq in order to defend their faith, their lands, and their people from Western attack. The same recruitment messages the United States used to enlist young Muslim men to go fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s is now being used to provide recruits to the Islamic State.

Finally, along with the counter-productive and short-sighted nature of the folly of introducing American troops into Iraq and Syria, there is also a moral component to this that is very, very important. The United States, under President Barack Obama, just as it did under President George W. Bush, is killing thousands of people in Muslim countries throughout the broader Middle East out of a fear and panic still emanating from the attacks of September 11, 2001, attacks conducted by an exceptionally small group of terrorists in retaliation for American policy and presence in the Middle East. Over the course of the last 13 years, American hysteria has led to the death, maiming and displacing of millions of people from North Africa to Afghanistan. This is a stain on the soul of America that has not even begun to be addressed by the US.

Returning to the previous question and the language charging politically-driven violence, being aware of the power of language and media presentations, I feel we (the public) are very often sure we know what Iraq war (and other wars too) is all about, but we are actually fed with very well selected and often distorted fragments of a broad story. Our knowledge, if we stick to mainstream media, is reduced to always repeating phrases uttered by politicians. That is how panic is created, and fear is born. I see that as a great danger for every society.

You talked about the dissonance, the disconnect between the policy that was being promulgated in Washington, D.C., statements that were being made, and the reality of the war on the ground in Iraq. The same narrative was present in Afghanistan in 2009 and that was when you decided you could no longer take part in it. Could you tell me more about that dissonance, which is, I believe, a formative tissue of all the wars we are seeing in the Middle East? And, in relation to that, how do we communicate those discrepancies to the mainstream public?

There is a tremendous dissonance between the narrative of those conducting the wars in the Middle East from the outside, the US and NATO, and those actually experiencing the wars in their homes, villages, cities, etc. To those in the West the wars are about protecting the West from terrorism, however to those in the Middle East these wars are about sectarian violence, whether it be religious or ethnic based, that has created a cycle of violence that builds on itself in a manner uncontrollable by any individual, group or nation. This has culminated in the Islamic State. The Islamic State is a Frankenstein, thought to have been an organization that outside powers could use for their own purposes, the destruction of the Assad regime in Syria, and it is a parasite of war, it gains strength and purpose as the cycle of violence spirals, recruiting outsiders with its propaganda of defending the Muslim community from outside attack, while gaining alliances with Sunnis who find no other alternative than aligning with the Islamic State.

These wars have many causes, but for those of us in the West, we cannot and should not ignore our responsibility and culpability. For decades the West, led by the United States, has pushed sectarian differences to keep dictators in power or to foster revolt and revolution in an attempt to create a power structure and political order amenable to Western interests. This culminated with the American invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, which has set forth the cataclysm that the broader Middle East finds itself enduring. Interestingly, the only nations that appear to be without the instability and violence characteristic of the Middle East are those Gulf Kingdoms that are despotic, but in line with US political interests and goals in the region. This understanding and discussion of the causes of Middle East violence is completely absent from US and Western discourse. Rather, the discussion is focused on terrorism or a line of belief that goes “those people have been killing each other for thousands of years”. Both these narratives, about keeping ourselves safe from terror or that the people of the Middle East are just crazy and full of bloodlust, are two narratives that fail to measure up to the actual ongoing wars, tragedies and events.

In one of your articles for Huffington Post, writing about recent events in Iraq, you write how “Certainly atrocities have occurred in northern Iraq and battles have waged there, but what makes this summer and its dead different than the 500,000 dead, millions wounded and the one in eight Iraqis forcibly chased from their homes since 2003? What is causing the U.S. to get involved, again, and at this time? Oil.” Could you tell me more about that, about the issues of U.S. involvement at this moment in time?

The reference I was making in that article was to the decision by the United States in August to begin attacking Islamic State and Sunni forces, with the attendant and inevitable killing of innocents, as a result of Sunni incursion into Kurdish territory, and, importantly, Sunni threatening of Kurdish oil and gas fields.

In June, this year, when the Iraqi Army collapsed in Northern Iraq, Sunni and Kurdish forces filled the void left behind.  Most attention in the West was devoted to the Sunni capture of key cities along the Tigris and a push towards Baghdad, and little acknowledgement was made to the fact that Kurdish forces expanded Kurdish controlled territory in northern Iraq by 40%. This included Kurdish capture of a majority of the oil and gas fields in the north of Iraq, as well as the Kurds gaining complete control of Kirkuk, a traditional Kurdish capital (at least according to the Kurds), and the oil capital of North Iraq.

Control of the oil and gas in the north by the Kurds was not just a gain to the Kurdish Regional Government and their many western benefactors, but was also a serious economic threat to the Sunnis, hence the push by the Sunnis and the Islamic State to capture oil and gas fields.

The threatening of Kurdish oil fields alarmed many in the West, including members of the US government and Congress, who besieged by policy experts supported by the oil and gas industry, as well as a $1.5 million annual Kurdish lobbying effort in Washington, DC, panicked at the threat posed by the Islamic State and the Sunnis. Alongside this push for the oil fields, the Islamic State publically beheaded American hostages and began a murderous campaign against the Yezidi minority. These two later “humanitarian” concerns were the focus of much media attention and public statements for the need for America to go to war again in Iraq. However, I believe it was the threat posed to the Kurdish oil fields that posed the impetus for American involvement. I think this is proven by the location of most of the targets struck by American bombers in August and September and their relation to the oil fields as opposed to the location of humanitarian concerns or atrocities.

Veteran Thomas Young died two weeks ago. He finished his last letter (The Last Letter – A Message to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney From a Dying Veteran) writing: “My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope you will be put on trial. But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live. I hope that before your time on earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness.” Do you think Bush, Cheney or Obama will ever be held responsible for what they did and what they do? Is there a way to redeem ourselves from all the moral outrage that was and is done?

Sadly, no I do not think Bush or Obama will be held responsible in any formal way. I do think history will judge them and that the folly of their actions, along with the moral failing of American policy in the Middle East, will be recognized.  Whether or not that keeps the United States from perpetuating such madness and horror in the future is another matter.

The way we redeem ourselves is to fight for acknowledgement of the truth of these wars and to put ourselves in positions to speak against not just the current wars, but future wars. If for no other purpose we do this than to give a voice to the millions of the voiceless men, women and children who have suffered, horrifically and unjustly, in these wars, than that is purpose enough.

• • •

For more on Matthew Hoh and his activism, visit his website.

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art of resistance, movie/tv propaganda

West vs. Islam: Playing The Religion Card.

In the spring of 2009, Barack Obama gave his famous Cairo speech. One of his first sentences was:

We meet at a time of great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world, tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate. The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of coexistence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars. More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunites to many Muslims.“

He continues to talk about Islam during the speech, emphasizing the partnership of Islam and America,and the fight against negative stereotypes of Islam.

Now, the terms West vs. Islam or United States vs. Muslims are quite obvious – West is not defined by religion, but (Middle) East continues to be. It is true that the dominant religion in the West is practiced differently and is maybe less obviously present in everyday life (on a personal, not on an institutional level – let’s just say that the influence of the Catholic Church is not be underestimated) and you will probably not see Christians in New York or Sydney praying five times a day, but you will definitely see Muslims doing it in Amman or Sana’a, for example. But, there are so many issues with defining people by their religion primarily.

One of them is that those terms are extremely insulting to Muslims living in the West, people who have spent their lives in – let’s say – USA, and find it as their home, find American identity as an important part of who they are. Saying that we are in conflict with Muslims generally or have an issue with Muslims is problematic for there are 1.5 billions of Muslims in the world, and they belong to diverse communities, different countries, and many, many of them – live and belong to the Western world.

Jocelyne Cesari, Senior Research Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, an the Director of the Islam in the West Program at Harvard University writes how:

One major consequence of such a polarized mindset is to mask the sociological reality of Muslims. In fact, a striking gap exists between the image of Islam as it is constructed in binary public discourse and the multifaceted reality of Muslims across countries and localities. For example, the dominant assumption is that visible Islamic identities in the West are inversely correlated to their civic and political loyalties, while there is empirical evidence that contradicts such an assumption. My book – ‘Why the West Fears Islam – An Exploration of Muslims in Liberal Democracies’ – presents first-hand data from focus groups I organized in Paris, London, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Boston between 2007 and 2010. In this regard, it is the first systematic and comparative review of the existing knowledge about Muslim political behaviours and religious practices in western Europe and in the United States.

The major conclusion is that although Muslims are challenged by their secular environment, they do not experience the incompatibility so intensely debated by western politicians and Salafi preachers alike. Then why is Islam depicted as an obstacle in political discourse and the media? Taking up this intriguing gap, I have attempted to make sense of this disjuncture between what Muslims do and the political construct of the ‘Muslim problem’. During this exploration, liberalism and secularism have appeared as the two major idioms used to make sense of the Muslim presence.

The ‘Islamic Problem’ in Europe is a consequence of immigrant settlement that in the last two decades has been phrased in cultural and religious terms. The fact that Muslims stand at the core of three major social ‘problems’ – immigration; class and economic integration; ethnicity and multiculturalism – has increased the concern about Islamic religion, increasingly seen as the major reason for all problems. I show in my book that in the United States this culturalization of all political issues related to Muslims is more recent and primarily related to security concerns. Therefore, categories of ‘immigrant’ and ‘Muslim’ overlap in Western Europe, unlike in the United States where immigration debates centre on economic and social concerns such as wages, assimilation, and language. The outcome of these social shifts is visible in the apocalyptic turn of the public rhetoric on Islam in Europe. Extreme right political figures like Geert Wilders speak of ‘the lights going out over Europe’ or of ‘the sheer survival of the West’.“

She continues to say:

This ‘new integrationist’ discourse is widely shared across European countries and, interestingly, promoted by former left-wing activists. Gender equality and rejection of religious authority, which were primary left-wing topics of struggle in the 1960s have become in the present decade the legitimate markers of European identity. In these conditions, all groups and individuals are required to demonstrate conformity to these liberal values in order to become legitimate members of national communities. The ‘Moderate Muslims’ label serves this purpose. It creates a distinction that is supposedly not based on Islam as such but on the adherence of Muslims to liberal values.

Strikingly, feminist groups have become key actors of this discourse. Some feminist figures have been particularly vehement against group rights and especially against any Islamic principles that could undermine gender equality. Curiously, this feminist discourse silences the Muslim women that it purports to defend. As a consequence, Muslim women are transformed into subalterns in a way that is similar to the colonial and postcolonial vision of the Muslim subject.“

With their book Who Speaks for Islam? John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed have performed an invaluable service in understanding contemporary Islam and the disparate views of 1.5 billion Muslims.  Relying on the work of the Gallup organization to ascertain the views of Muslims across the world, Esposito and Mogahed have analyzed public opinion in the Islamic world on all of the most important issues of the day. Their analysis provides an excellent foundation for bridging the gaps between the West and the East, and is a great read for all of those who wish to understand this topic.

There are many reasons for us to do so. For example, a 2006 USA Today/Gallup poll found that substantial minorities of Americans admit to harboring at least some prejudice against Muslims and favoring heightened security measures for Muslims a way to help prevent terrorism. The same poll found that 44% of Americans saying that Muslim are too extreme in their religious beliefs.

What is extreme? Isn’t the killing of Dr. George Tiller, a 67-year-old abortion provider who was shot point blank in the forehead as he attended church services in Wichita, extreme? Tiller’s clinic was one of a handful in the USA that performed abortions after the 24th week of pregnancy. Tiller’s case is not an isolated one, and that is only one tiny example of the wrongdoings of extreme Christians. But Tiller’s murderer Shelley Shannon was not chosen as a representative model of Christians by the media, the same way we do not see Army of God banners and flags all over the place as an image depicting Christians.

Donald_Spitz_holds_Army_of_God_BannerDonald Spitz holds Army of God banner. /image via wikipedia/

And I think that is good, since those people and those acts do not represent the majority of Christians or the religion itself (this is not to say that we shouldn’t pay attention to them, but rather not to take them as a standard and representative for all).

Now, the other issue I find disturbing when it comes to West vs. Islam, is that it allows us (Western countries – our governments) to make the religion of Islam responsible for everything bad going on in the (Middle) East. It is a way of reducing people and issues to one thing – a way in which Islam serves as a cover-up of for all the complex realities, identities and historical events of the Middle East. It is extremely ignorant and extremely dangerous. But it is also perfect – since Western governments share a great deal of responsibility for the turmoils of the (Middle) East.

Of course, part of the blame for the religious name-calling lies on the shoulders of incapable Arab leaders who – knowing not how to lead their countries and provide competent solutions for their people and issues they are facing – every now and then talk about Islam like it is going to magically solve everything (but, then again –  Obama also finishes every speech with God bless America, and when we talk about America – we do not say Christians or Christianity).

I believe that the religion is what a person makes of it. All of the holy books – whether it is the Bible, Qur’an, Torah – can be interpreted in many ways. If you are a good person, you’ll find what’s good in it and live by it. If you’re a violent, embittered person, you’ll find in it an excuse to be violent in the name of religion. Like Reza Aslan says in the interview for the CNN: „Islam is just a religion and like any other religion in the world it depends on what you bring to it. If you are a violent person your Islam, your Judaism, your Christianity, your Hinduism is going to be violent.“

So – instead of all the talk about the Islam, we must talk about the legacy of colonialism which continues to make a profound impact on East-West relations today. We must talk about the current distribution of global power, once wielded by Europe and now by the United States, which fuels a sense of alienation, frustration, and mistrust in the Eastern world. To finish this post – let’s just go back to 1996 and Samuel Huntington’s implicit claim in his Clash of Civilizations that there is a collision between the fundamental values of Islamic and Western worlds and that “Islam has bloody borders” , a point of view that justifies the current global power imbalance to the detriment of non-Western cultures and societies. It is time to finally let go of the dirty games, lower passions and superficial explanations we are being fed with.

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