Sunday, May 25, 2008

I wrote a critical comment below about Jim Quilty's piece on Lebanon for MERIP on-line. Jim sent me his response (I post with his permission): "Dear Professor Abu Khalil:
I hope this note finds you well. I'm a beirut-based journalist and so have had occasion to read your blog from time to time. given my political predispositions, I regard the angry arab as a valuable platform for its unsparing criticism of the politics of the middle east, western policy towards the region, and the problematic news coverage of all the above. my friendly attitude toward your work is cemented by the fact that we seem to have a few friends and colleagues in common. An occupational hazard peculiar to english-speakers in this part of the world is that you're likely to be assumed to be an American. It's one canadians like myself have learned to cope with, just as new zealanders are accustomed to being confused with australians, and lebanese are accused of being, or at least speaking, "shami". So when you implied in a recent posting that I am "american" ["The American Left and the Middle East: the case of MERIP, again (the tale of "crazed Shi`i thugs")], I rolled with the punch. I'd like to reply to your critique of this merip-online piece, to clarify a few things. unlike your angry arab posting -- in which, as you inform your readers, you didn't have time for detailed critique -- this clarification will seem a bit windy. I apologise for this in advance: I appreciate brevity but find it hard to be brief when trying to write about Lebanon in nuanced terms. also, for all your busy-ness, you were quite generous in the sheer number of passages from which you chose to quote and comment.
The first few lines of your critique are concerned with what you see to be a pro-hariri bias at merip, and nick blanford's descriptive-laudatory book on hariri the elder. This business doesn't concern me directly. you should know, though, that in the editorial process I've experienced with merip since I began contributing to the magazine a couple of years ago, I've encountered no pro-hariri bias or editorial pressure. I realise you won't have much reason to trust my testimony in this, since you regard me to be a member of "Hariri Inc" as well, but I hope to dissuade you of this notion directly. For the record, at the time of the demonstrations of 8 march and 14 march 2005 I was contributing to a (sadly now defunct) political magazine called "Middle East International." If you'd had a chance to read my reports for mei, I think you'd find they were anything but hymns to hariri, his allies and successors. Having looked at your criticisms of the merip-online piece, in which you imply that I am a crypto-liberal ("so-called leftist"), Hariri sympathiser, orientalist, and possibly racist, I see that they all hinge on certain shortcomings in my assumptions and strategies as a writer. These have three facets: assumptions about the audience (that is the critical-minded premises of anyone reading merip); strategies concerning how to relate on-the-ground realities in lebanon in a way that appeals to westerners whose political predispositions make them susceptible to certain pro-14 march portrayals of the events of early May; an exaggerated even-handedness stemming from a desire to abstain from the hysterical polarisation of the political discourse in the country at that time. In your critique, you write: "Here, the word "Lebanese" is used to signify Jumblat and Hariri: "Lebanese did not ask themselves, "Why is Israel bombing us?"" Who are those Lebanese that Quilty is talking about? Certainly he excluded the people of South Lebanon--at least, who--perhaps to the consternation of MERIP--did blame Israel for the...Israeli bombing." I must apologise for any lack of clarity here. The purpose of the first two paragraphs of this merip-online story is to point out that the most common media representation of the 2006 war did not blame the offending party (the Israeli military) but hizbullah, even though the practice of detaining Israeli soldiers in cross-border raids in order to secure the release of Lebanese detainees was well-established by july 2006. Given what I know of merip's readership, I took it as "known" that my audience would know Israel started that war. this was the premise of my merip-online contribution about the 2006 war []. You will note that when I return to the matter of the 2006 war later in the piece, I write: "The Siniora government immediately depicted that war, and the havoc it wrought in Lebanon, as the fruit of Hizballah unilateralism -- rather than the work of, say, an Israeli government that watches warily as Hizballah becomes entrenched in Lebanese high politics." I assume that anyone reading this sentence will recognise that "work" refers to 34-days of bombing and shelling in 2006. needless to say, Israeli malfeasance in Lebanon arises from the managers of that state watching lebanon "warily", since action follows from scrutiny (in the case of 2006, bad intelligence). When, in your angry arab critique, you later pick up on this "watches warily" business, you inadvertently take it out of its proper context. You write: "And to describe the Israeli role in Lebanon--a country occupied and bombed by Israel consistently since the creation of the state--as "an Israeli government that watches warily", is like describing an elephant as a cucumber." Your remark (evidently written for comic effect) is incontrovertibly true, of course, but you appear to be accusing me of saying the worst thing the Israelis have ever done in Lebanon is "watch warily," which is manifestly not the case. unfortunately, anyone reading your critique without reading the original piece (and, let's face it, your status as an arbiter of critical thought on this region does make that a possibility) would assume that I regard the Israeli government as an innocent bystander in the affairs of this country. such an accusation is not borne out in any of my nearly 10-years of writing on this country and this region. The lead to my merip-online piece was intended to ask why hizbullah was blamed for "provoking" the 2006 war, while the Lebanese government is not blamed for provoking the opposition action in west Beirut in early May. again, I regret any lack of clarity here, but the several beiruti readers I asked to look at the piece [none of them fans of the government] all recognised these intentions, as, I assume, the editors of merip did. You then write: "The ostensibly leftist reporter then adds: "Television images of apparently crazed Shi'i thugs..." When are militia men crazed and when are they thugs and when are they uncrazed? I doubt that MERIP would accept even a description of Israeli soldiers as "crazed Jewish thugs"--can you imagine the uproar--and rightly so--if that was used?" this phrase is taken from the third paragraph of the piece, where I summarise the western and pro-government media representations of what happened in beirut on 7-9 May as a "straw man," which I then devote some words to knocking down. if "Television images of apparently crazed Shi'i thugs firing RPGs at the political offices of Parliament majority leader (and Sunni scion) Saad al-Hariri's Future Movement seem to corroborate narratives of a barbarous insurgency against a democratically elected government", then that tells you something about the shortcomings of television representations of those events and the sometimes gormless consumers of television news. as I write in the next paragraph, to draw such conclusions from these images does "no justice to the political complexities beneath the appearances." You then write: "He then says: "the international community has backed Hizballah's domestic rivals' demand that the Resistance be disbanded." The sentence is inaccurate on both counts: 1) the word "international community is used to camouflage the role of the US--there is no such thing as the "international community" with all due respect to Micronesia; 2) it is not true that the opposition in Lebanon has been calling for disarming Hizbullah. again, I am guilty. I take it as known that "there is no such thing as the "international community"" -- that is to say an "international community" that is somehow autonomous from the web of treaty and financial incentives and obligations that connect "it" to the military, economic and diplomatic interests of America and its allies. As I take this as known, I later point out that: "The order to move against Hizballah may not have come straight from the US embassy or Condoleezza Rice's office, but the speed with which UN Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen took the issue of Hizballah's security apparatus to the Security Council suggests forethought. On May 8, Roed-Larsen informed the UN that Hizballah "maintains a massive paramilitary infrastructure separate from the state" that "constitutes a threat to regional peace and security."" the UN is conventionally represented as one of the institutions of a putatively autonomous "international community"; to suggest, as I do here, that Roed-Larsen's actions look like complicity in American policy interests in this country (or at least those of the 14 march forces) contradicts any supposed belief in UN autonomy on my part, that is to say, an autonomous "international community". Now, you could say that I should not assume that merip readers share my assumptions about the international community and that it's my responsibility to spell out what these assumptions are. I suppose there are also readers out there who assume the world is flat, or that Lebanon is located in southeast asia. I'm afraid I lack the patience to re-assert such basic principles in every political story I write. Mea culpa. I must confess that I don't understand the point of your next remark: "it is not true that the opposition in Lebanon has been calling for disarming Hizbullah." indeed, I have never once heard the hizbullah-led opposition call for hizbullah to disarm, and did not suggest as much in this story - which uses the word "disband," not "disarm". I suspect you wrote these words in haste. the pro-government factions have been calling for hizbullah's coercive capacity to be curbed, of course: whether that involve absorbing hizbullah's operational capacity within the army or not, the desired effect (as far as America and its 14 march clients are concerned) is to eliminate the resistance's capacity to threaten israel. any lack of clarity here can be blamed on editorial shorthand deemed necessary in a piece whose length [I must confess] brings it dangerously near unreadable. You then write: "And he the says: "this nascent militia (mostly composed, it seems, of underemployed young Sunnis from West Beirut." How cute to call a militia nascent. Is this like Jumblat and Hariri calling their militias "non-militias"? And secondly, most of the Hariri militia men in...Beirut are from the...north. And notice that the author passes over the Hariri militia's massacre of SSNP's members in Halba. I thought that he was going to call it "a misunderstanding", just as Hariri and Jumblat called their government decision to spark the mini-civil war as a "misunderstanding."" The focus of this merip-online piece is the opposition action in west beirut, specifically on the context in which it should be understood. The piece does mention halba and the north, as it does alay, but only in passing because (unless they had succeeded in escalating the conflict and dragging hizbullah into a country-wide civil-sectarian conflict) these loyalist-initiated attacks were peripheral to the central discussion. I wasn't interested in slinging mud for its own sake because there was already quite enough of that going on at the time and, again, it wasn't a book but a report. You do raise an interesting question about the composition of the pro-government forces on the ground in west Beirut. You're right that the 'akkar is a source of reserve manpower for Future and there were reports on the first day that busloads of akkarlis were en route to west Beirut to fight for future. I don't have access to how many of those actually made it down to Beirut, or for that matter how many "north Lebanese" were already resident in Beirut in anticipation of this set-to: if you do have access to anything better than anecdotal information about this business, I'd sure appreciate you sharing it. "nascent militia" is, you are right, a generous term.Using it partly stems from the fact that the guys I know in my neighbourhood [qasqas is, as you know, overwhelmingly sunni / mustaqbal] who were involved in the fight, who donned improvised shi masks and took up positions on my building's roof, were [like the young fellow whose portrait was posted at the entrance to my building after he was killed] shabab from the neighbourhood. It stems, too, from the poor performance of the hariri fighters in beirut: I know it's a non sequitur to make competence a prerequisite of militia status, but these guys were so incompetent that it demonstrates the unique level of irresponsibility that future demonstrated in arming them, regardless where "they" came from. [as I wrote: "Anecdotes have emerged of amateur gunmen firing on non-combatants, lobbing RPGs into the sea or, more frequently, abandoning their positions without a fight."] Now, I make no pretence to be a conflict journalist, so I didn't go charging out to 'aisha bakkar to check out the action first hand, and I know Future had seasoned fighters next door in tariq al-jadideh, but the guys I saw in qasqas looked like neighbourhood shabab. Without carrying out some kind of comprehensive poll of all the pro-government forces on west Beirut streets on those days, there's no way to distinguish how many of the fighters were from northern Lebanon [a friend of mine in who lives in abi talib told me he ran into a future guy he knows who's a Jordanian citizen]. I'm tempted to speculate that there weren't many northerners involved in the west beirut fight for the same reason that the psp didn't have many people here. you know that jumblatt pulled his fighters out of Beirut you'll never get a straight answer as to why, but I assume he did so because he knew they couldn't win in west beirut and would do better on their own turf. it's still a bit muddy to me exactly what happened in alay, but the provocation of the kidnap that got the ball rolling there suggests jumblatt was contemplating a scenario in which hizbullah would engage his men on the mountain, where a/ the psp would have an advantage and b/ the chances were better that opposition fighters would alienate aoun supporters and possibly give the kataeb and quwaat a reason to enter the fray. Reports I received from shouf after the alay clashes had it that the durzis were celebrating another victory, because (as they had it at the time) only two psp men were wounded while the hizb (or whoever was doing the fighting there) lost at least 12 men. To my knowledge, in fact, neither side has confirmed their losses from alay. I didn't write any of this in the merip piece because I wanted to focus on west Beirut and because it's all complete speculation. The notion that neither the psp nor future fielded their best fighters in west Beirut suggests the crafty, media-attuned cynicism of jumblatt's original (airport) provocation but to write that they limited their armed involvement in west beirut would (in addition to being unverifiable) have given them too easy a ride. You then write: "And in the paragraph in which the author waxes poetic about representative government in...LEBANON of all places--the author seems to believe that all groups that did not oppose Syrian military presence in Lebanon should be excluded from the political process. I certainly would have agreed with that if the author remained consistent by placing Jumblat and Hariri in that camp--those were the staunchest clients of the Syrian regime after all, as was Amal and later Hizbullah." I'm afraid you lost me with this criticism, since I deny neither the opposition's right to inclusion in the process nor Future and PSP complicity in the Syrian occupation. the only reference to "representative government" in the merip-online piece comes at the beginning of the section explaining the political background to the May crisis. I write: "Anyone believing in representative democratic government, civil society activism and the like would have difficulty condoning an opposition group organizing such a paramilitary action against a national capital, regardless of how representative and democratic the government in question might be." I assume that the left-liberal audience that reads merip [and the angry arab], and that are most likely to be alienated from television representations of an "opposition coup" in beirut, tend to believe in representative government and civil activism. they are also likely to assume, thanks to western media representations of this conflict, that the sinyura government is representative. It's not, of course, which is why the sentence ends the way it does: "regardless of how representative and democratic the government in question might be." I'm a little mystified that you mistook these lines as some kind of defence of the sinyura government's "representativness," when in the very next paragraph, while discussing 2005's four-way coalition, I write: "Not the most democratic electoral legislation ever devised, the 2000 law was designed by the Syrian occupation regime to favor Lebanon's compact minorities in the Druze and Christian communities. Though, as the plurality, Shi'i politicians dislike the 2000 law, it suited both (the now anti-Syrian) Jumblatt as well as the various Christian camps -- all of whom prefer to vote for "their own" deputies." It seems to me that these lines do remind the reader that: a/ "(the now anti-Syrian)" Jumblatt was once pro-Baath; b/ because it favoured the country's compact minorities, the 2000 electoral law is undemocratic, yaani unfair to lebanon's largest minority, the Shi'a, who manifestly deserve to be included in the political process. again, I take it as known that hariri the elder was part of the drafting of the 2000 electoral law, indeed that he [that is to say, his entire reconstruction regime] was far more systemically intimate with the Syrian occupation than mere complicity a electoral law would suggest. My merip-online piece alludes to this business in its discussion of the role of the army in the west beirut conflict, but the issue is dealt with in more detail in a piece I wrote for merip-online on nahr al-barid.] You then write: "And then the author says: "Security Forces (ISF), also failed to behave in a manner that citizens of North American or Western European countries would expect." But what he is trying to say is this: o Western readers. Don't ever mistake the native for the civilized White Man." I can only assume that you mean this as a joke. These lines are from the "Whither the Peacekeepers?" section of the story. This section was written in because I assume the audience that's reading this piece (the left-liberal audience that reads merip [and the angry arab], and that are most likely to be alienated from television representations of an "opposition coup" in west beirut) will have certain expectations about how armies and police forces are supposed to operate, and so would have difficulty understanding the way the isf and army behaved in beirut in early May. the analytical utility of your accusing me of racism (in jest, surely) is unclear to me. You then write: "And then he provided this account: "When, in February 1984, President Amin Gemayel tried to deploy the army in West Beirut (to fill the vacuum left by Israeli withdrawal...." Excuse me?? What was that about? Israel had left West Beirut humiliatingly in 1982, and Gemayyel deployed that Army not to fill any vacuum but to try to crush a rebellion against his sectarian policies (ironically by sectarian Druze and Shi`ite militias at the time) and against the imposition of the May 17 Agreement between Phalange's Lebanon and Israel." The purpose of this stroll down memory lane (again from "Whither the Peacekeepers?") is to point out the difficulties entailed in mobilising the Lebanese army during civil-sectarian conflict - for the benefit of outside readers who have certain expectations of how an army is supposed to behave. your rebuke provides more detail as to what went on in west beirut between the Israeli withdrawal in 1982 and gemayel's attempt to deploy the army there but, in the context of this merip-online story [which by this point was running over 3000 words], I decided not to linger too long on the details. You then write: "And here is his description of the Lebanese Army's
savage destruction of the Nahr Al-Barid: "From May to September 2007 the army had to contend with the crisis at Nahr al-Barid Palestinian refugee camp." A crisis where the entire residents of the camp were displaced and when at least 47 Palestinian civilians were killed. Here is his account of the death toll: "420 people killed, 168 of them soldiers." He only counts
the Lebanese Army soldiers it seems. And the author seems to have been touched by the support provided to the Army's destruction fo the camp by the government and the opposition alike: he called it "national unity." This is like calling Nazism "patriotism." And then he says: "the country was principally united against the Palestinians (for having "allowed" Fatah al-Islam to settle in the camp." I don't care if you put the word "allowed" in quotation marks, the residents had no say when the fighters of Fath Al-Islam came to the camp under the watchful eyes of Hariri troops." Again you draw upon material from my effort to provide some historical context for the Lebanese army's role in the events of early May and accusations, arising from pro-government circles, that the army was complicit in the opposition action. Whether you approve of it or not, media representations of the nahr al-barid crisis did encourage Lebanese to fall in line (unquestioningly) behind the army as a symbol of national unity, effectively to unify against the Palestinian refugee community. With the exception of some people I know who were providing relief to the multiply-displaced residents of nahr al-barid and a (very) few journalists, many lebanese people seem to have obliged. From the tone of your rejoinder, you seem to be suggesting that (in this discussion of the Lebanese army) I am not sufficiently sympathetic towards the people of nahr al-barid. If you want to verify my credentials in this regard, I suggest you read the merip-online piece to mentioned above. You then write: "And then your "leftist" author absolves the Bush administration from responsibility by saying this: " On the other hand, as Washington's relationship with Israel has amply demonstrated, international clientelism leaves a fair degree of play between patron and client regimes." Oh, yeah. Sanyurh and Dahlan and Maliki exercise as much sovereignty in their decisions as Israel does. I am convinced, are you? He wants to assume that the Bush administration allows Dahlan puppets to act with freedom. This is like saying that Israel allowed Antoine Lahd to do what he wished, or that the Syrian regime allowed Birri or Hariri or Lahhud to do what they wished." I can't imagine that Washington's relationship with any of its Arab clients is so strong as to survive one of them sinking a US naval vessel, as the US-Israeli relationship has. You will note, though, that I did not write "international clientelism gives the same degree of play to arab client regimes as it does to israel." Actually, the paragraph you quote continues with this sentence: "Opposition watchers have insisted upon Hizballah's operational autonomy from Damascus and Tehran, and the same privilege ought to be accorded to Hariri and Jumblatt." The explicit comparison isn't between America's Lebanese clients and its Israeli clients, but between hizbullah and 14 march as clients of contending patrons. If I had anything better than circumstantial evidence that the US was the micro-managing puppet-master in this crisis, I'd have been delighted to blast away. It is in the nature of clientelism, I think, that local actors must be able to represent themselves as having some freedom of manoeuvre - their local credibility demands it. my piece says nothing about the thug Dahlan, of course, and the brief reference to malaki's move against sadr is prefaced: "Realities in Iraq are quite different than in Lebanon." In any case, I find it difficult to find any absolution of the US in these words, written just before the ones you quote: "Washington's responsibility resides in the culture of intransigence it has helped to cultivate in the Siniora government since the 2006 war and its consistent rejection of dialogue with the opposition." You then write: "And here he offers some words of criticisms (or praise) to Hariri media: " True, the Hariri-owned media (like most Lebanese media) is a neo-feudal institution whose principles of disinterested journalism have badly lapsed since 2005." What was that? So before 2005 those media were objective and only after 2005 their high professional standards "declined"? And is lapses a reference to deadly sectarian agitation and mobilization by Hairri media?" well you can't deny that that the journalistic standards of Future TV and its media cousins are far worse now than they were before Hariri the elder's assassination. I'm under no delusions about the journalistic integrity of the hariri media before then, but the purpose of this article isn't to attack the hariri political machine in its totality. it is a piece of limited scope that criticises and contextualises government behaviour over the last 18 months, though it does point out that "The ensuing bitterness [against Hizbullah on the part of Lebanese Sunnis] is unlikely to be assuaged by reminding them how many opposition media outlets Rafiq al-Hariri shut down when he was prime minister." You finally write: "The author concludes by a warning about Arab culture: "a complex of shame and desire for revenge." The only thing missing from the piece is a reference to shoes and how they are used for humiliation in Arab culture."This is a mischievous way for you to close your critique. Oh, and you should know that I don't imagine mischievousness is unique to arab culture, any more than a desire for revenge when one feels betrayed. The entire sentence -- that you, in your haste, could only quote in part -- runs as follows: "Among those government loyalists more comfortable with the language of militancy, this anxiety and frustration is woven into a complex of shame and desire for revenge, particularly among those whose friends and relatives were killed." As you can see, the group to whom I ascribe a "complex of shame and desire for revenge", into which is woven a more general sense of "anxiety and frustration" is made up of "those government loyalists more comfortable with the language of militancy." Once again, I must apologise for any lack of clarity here, but it seems to me that "pro-government militants" is a rather more specific group than the one suggested by your more sweeping phrase "Arab culture." I enjoy a light-hearted jab in the ribs as much as the next guy, but I fear anyone reading your blog with anything approaching the same haste with which you were forced to compose this particular critique would find reason to conclude that the author in question [me], is a bigoted, racist, three-piece suit employed by one of Future's several information services. As I know and respect your work (and have a number of trusted friends and colleagues who do the same), it seems inconceivable that you would deliberately want to misrepresent the content of my article to your readership. In lieu of this, there may be shortcomings in the clarity of my writing, an occupational hazard to which any writer and his editors must confess liability. perhaps the critic [you] at times inadvertently mis-read the piece. I'm inclined to believe the latter is as likely as the former, simply because I know how time-consuming it is to teach the middle east in a north american university and how taxing it is to fulfil your obligations as a public intellectual. I've tried to do both, but never both at the same time, as you do: in such circumstances, hasty assessments are also an occupational hazard. In beirut, the gravest danger a foreign journalist is likely to face is being thought of as an orientalist and/ or racist. It can be tiresome to be made to refute such accusations, but the work of anyone who has been given the privilege of representing any region ought to be subject to scrutiny, regardless of where his or her parents happen to come from. this is one of the great services your blog provides and it would be a great tragedy if your work was called into question by accusations of inaccuracy or wanton misrepresentation. Again, I apologise for the length of this note but I hope it has clarified a few things. Keep up the good work. Thoughtful and incisive critique of politics in this region is at a particular premium these days.
Sincerely yours,
Jim Quilty"