Bourgeois Terrorism

The late scholar John Bowyer Bell described terrorists as “real gunmen in imaginary gardens.” By emphasizing the ideological world-view of terrorists- their perceived reality– Bell was going against popular wisdom. It is easy to form the impression that terrorists are driven to desperate measures by harsh, hopeless economic realities. In other words, an environment of poverty and no jobs leaves angry young men with no choice but to lash out violently against the government. This is more or less what Malcolm X meant by a “sociological explosion.”

Is terrorism, though, really about poverty and jobs? A new piece by Peter Bergen argues that it is not. If anything, terrorism is largely a middle-class phenomenon. A terrorist is likelier to be an educated professional such as a surgeon, engineer, or computer programmer than an unemployed laborer. Some, like Osama Bin Laden, are fabulously wealthy. “These are not the dispossessed. They are the empowered.”

If the empowered are the ones resorting to terrorism, it is hard to argue that it is due to economic oppression. These, after all, are people with degrees that epitomize western ideals of applied science and progress, not some sort of unwashed masses. Basically, creating jobs and business opportunities is important, but unlikely to stop radicalized programmers from becoming terrorists. Effectively responding to terrorism requires responding to terrorist ideologies with perceived grievances, and there is no getting round that.

Bergen’s piece draws from top-notch studies providing interesting information on the socioeconomic backgrounds of terrorists, so check it out.

Hezbollah, Charlie Hebdo, and Politics


Much is being made of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah’s indirect condemnation of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Perhaps too much. I understand why the statement is considered a big deal. When Muslims are condemned as a group for terrorist attacks, it is good to see prominent Muslim voices condemning violence. It shows that violence is not an integral part of Islam. However, I find Nasrallah’s statement highly problematic. After all, Nasrallah is hardly a moderate himself. Under Nasrallah’s command, Hezbollah has fired rockets at an Israeli hospital, blown up a bus of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, and bombed the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, to name but three examples. The number of fatalities in the Argentinean attack alone far exceeds the body count in the Charlie Hebdo massacre. I’m excluding attacks on military and political targets as it could be argued that these have their own form of legitimacy, but I might as well add another example. Hezbollah for years had targeted Jewish towns and villages with rocket fire. It never distinguished between the military and civilians, and sometimes deliberately targeted civilian areas. Then, in 2006, a rocket fell quite close to my parent’s house. There luckily were no fatalities in our village, but I guess that I do have a personal reason for not taking Nasrallah’s statement at face value. It is not a simple condemnation of religiously motivated violence. I think that the explanation is simple. Nasrallah is a Shiite militant, and al Qaeda are Sunni militants. They are opposed to each other on sectarian grounds, and are also political rivals. While the two groups may have collaborated on occasion, they generally do not peacefully inhabit the same spaces. Hezbollah (and its Iranian backers) have been fighting al Qaeda directly ever since the Syrian civil war, seeing in it an existential threat. Condemning the Charlie Hebdo massacre allows Nasrallah to increase his prestige and moral capital at the expense of al Qaeda’s, his bitter rival. This is not a principled condemnation of terrorism as something opposed to the fundamental principles of Islam. It is little more than political maneuvering. There are so many worthier Muslim voices decrying violence (such as many of the entries on this list) that it is a shame to mention Nasrallah’s alongside them.

Alternatives to Torture

Intelligence agencies are not filled with moral philosophers by any means. Cheating and deception kind of go with the territory. The recent report on the CIA’s use of terror has raised two questions. First, is torture moral. Second, is torture effective. The first question is very easy to answer. Torture is not moral. The second question, to my mind, has more far-reaching implications. Basically, if torture is not effective, then one has cruelly abused another human being for nothing. It can be defended neither on moral grounds, nor on those derived from expediency. If a deed is ugly but must be done, that is one thing. If it is ugly and pointless, then it is completely reprehensible. Ultimately, the goal of an interrogation is to gain correct and useful information. This might seem counterintuitive when dealing with terrorists, but treating the person under interrogation softly and kindly will actually lead to better results than anything extracted by torture. There is an interesting article on two of the most successful interrogators of the Second World War. Hans Joachim Scharff and Sherwood Ford Moran came from different backgrounds, were on different sides, and faced different conditions for interrogation. Neither ever resorted to torture or other forms of coercion. Scharff created an easy-going atmosphere for captured aviators when they were expecting to be brutally tortured. Scharff cared for his prisoners’ well-being, and upheld an illusion of knowing everything, so none of his prisoners thought that they had given away important information even when they had. Moran, too, genuinely cared for the well-being of his Japanese prisoners. If they were hungry, they got fed well. If they were wounded, they got good medical treatment. Because of this, they saw Moran as someone who cared, rather than a personal enemy Moran needed to be direct with his questions because he was on the front lines, but having lived in Japan as a missionary, he knew Japan and the Japanese intimately. When he couldn’t make a prisoner relax enough to talk, he would use the Japanese concept of honor to make the prisoner feel ashamed for his behavior. Both Scharff and Moran were able to piece together the big picture out of seemingly small, inconsequential details. Modern interrogators will face different circumstances, but employing a similar approach they can get good results without the need for torture. Treat your prisoners as human beings, understand their culture and language, and get them talking. Simple enough, really.

Learning from history what works—and what does not—can make a world of difference in terms of future interrogation practices.

Sauron and the Metaphysical Moscow

A friend of mine from Moscow has been posting for several days about a cool event scheduled for December 11th. The Eye of Sauron was going to appear on a tower in the Moscow-City business center. It would have been huge, and very prominent. Well, Svecheniye- the art group behind the project- have just announced that they are scrapping the whole thing. They stated that there was nothing political or religious about their Eye of Sauron project, but they received intensely adverse reactions. While the Russian article I read did not specify who pressured Svecheniye, it seemed pretty obvious. Several news articles have been more explicit.  The Russian Orthodox Church strenuously objected to prominently displaying a “demonic symbol of the triumph of evil” in Moscow because it would bring disasters upon the city. For the Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow is a profoundly holy city, the Third Rome. As an Estonian scholar noted, it is crucial to that church’s self-identity.

Moscow is not only the most important city but it is chosen by God and in a way set apart from other places on the earth. Moscow has a special religious function. It is the Christian centre. It is in some way closer to God. But that is not all… Moscow is the Third Rome and “the third stands, and there will never be a fourth.“ Moscow is the last Rome. Moscow was the centre of history and therefore its fulfilment. This means that Russia had to preserve its rich store of faith in purity in the last phase before the end of the world. And this fact puts a heavy responsibility on the shoulders of the Russians.

With this kind of metaphysics, the Tolkien fans never stood a chance. Never mind that Sauron symbolizes the hubris and ultimate futility of evil, not its triumph. The political power of the Russian Orthodox Church means that it can win these battles quite easily.

Five Books on War


Reflecting on Armistice Day, that is, Veteran’s Day, I want to recommend two memoirs, two novels, and one stage play dealing with war. Something a little outside the obvious choices.


Bugles and a Tiger – John Masters.

John Masters was one of the last British officers in India, where his family had served for generations. In the book he relates how he became an officer in a Gurkha regiment, how he came to love his men, and how he himself grew into a man. For Masters, this meant honour and loyalty. He bitterly regretted not defending a subordinate early on in his career. “I discovered now that being ashamed of yourself is worse than any fear.  Duty, orders, loyalty, obedience – all things boiled down to one simple idea:  whatever the consequences, a man must act so that he can live with himself.” The Gurkhas were mercenaries from Nepal, and their wives were frequently loose. Masters explains that he resisted the temptation by remembering that to act on it would be to betray the trust of his men. The depiction of his first assignment in the Afghan frontier in the 1930s is superb. Masters was a warm, intelligent, and sensitive writer who never lost track of how every person is an individual.


Quartered Safe Out Here – George MacDonald Fraser.

George MacDonald Fraser was nineteen when he was sent to fight the Japanese in the jungles of Burma. Genteel and academically inclined, he was the youngest in a section of very hard men from the

In one incident, MacDonald Fraser had been made to carry a large, unlabelled tin of fruit, and fallen down a ravine. After being nearly blown up by a Japanese ambush because of his youthful stupidity, he brings the fruit tin back to his unit. The ‘gastronomes’ and ‘Epicureans’ expect to add some fruit to their condensed milk, and are not at all pleased to discover that the tin contains carrots in brine.

The book is a powerful window into the experience and mentality of soldiers during war. MacDonald Fraser freely admits that the campaign in Burma was nasty, ugly, and brutal. He really has no patience for what he terms “virtue for mere appearance’s sake,” and explains very persuasively how attitudes were different in his generation.


The White Guard – Mikhail Bulgakov.

This is first and foremost a deeply spiritual book. It is also semi-autobiographical. The novel tells the story of a family in Kiev during the chaos of Russian Civil War, and portrays the collapse of old values, embodied by the officer’s ethos. People abandon their honour for self-preservation and their ideals for opportunism, and it is all subtly shown to be the outward manifestation of a massive spiritual crisis leading up to Judgment Day. Bulgakov is my favourite Russian writer and his ability to tell a story is unrivalled. One of the most moving passages involves the officer of a cadet unit. When the cadets are abandoned by the rest of the army during battle for the city, the officer commands them to rip off their insignia and flee for safety. He dies covering their flight with a machine gun, and this sense of duty- honour- is shown to be love, and ultimately godly.


The Good Soldier Schwejk – Jaroslav Hasek.

Without this book there would be no Catch-22, or any other book on the absurdity of military service and war. Schwejk is a middle-aged Czech in 1914, when they still (unhappily) belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He joins the army, it seems, with the sole purpose of making it a laughing-stock. He plays the good-natured fool, but always manages to subvert Austria’s oppressive authority. For example, when he receives a draft notice, Schwejk claims to suffer from rheumatism, but insists on being pushed to the recruiting center in a wheelchair. Along the way, he brandishes his crutches shouting patriotic victory slogans. Schwejk’s deliberate misadventures are vastly entertaining, and Hasek was one of Eastern Europe’s masters of the absurd.


Journey’s End – R. C. Sherriff.

There is no war play more powerful than this. Since 2014 is also the 100th anniversary of the First World War, it would be a disgrace not to mention Journey’s End. Ten years ago I visited a good friend in London who took me to the West End to watch a revival of Sherriff’s play. I was absolutely floored. The play is set in an officer’s trench in 1918, several months before war’s end. By this point, the cast has practically seen it all. They are four years into a war where going over the trenches is almost guaranteed to be a death sentence. The boredom is excruciating, but who wants to replace it with action? What they are all trying to do is to escape from the realities of war. Some plant flowers, some read, and some drink. Raleigh, a new, very young officer arrives at the front to serve under Stanhope, a man who is dating his sister, and whom he worships. Stanhope knows that as an officer, his duty is to stand by his men, and his obligation to society requires that he display nerves of steel. He refuses to take leave in order to escape danger like others are doing, but he has become an alcoholic. He is deathly afraid of letting people down. Raleigh is excited to be selected for a raid behind enemy lines, but when almost everyone else is killed, his naïve enthusiasm is gone, and he is killed shortly after. The play intersperses the horrors of war with flashes of brilliant, dark humour, and deals with topics from food to love to honour and cowardice. None of the characters are caricatures, and Sherriff is not preachy. The British comedy, Blackadder Goes Forth, is actually a tribute to the play, which is where it gets most of its ideas and characters.

I Put a Spell on You: Remembering Screamin’ Jay Hawkins


Since Halloween is almost here, it is worth remembering one of the truly original weirdos- Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

Possibly the only person to be equally detested by civil rights groups and the American Casket Association, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins would make his entrance onstage as a witch doctor springing out of a casket. His demented laughter and howls even sent some of his audience running for the doors!

Still, there (sometimes) was more to Hawkins’ music than macabre gimmickry. If you don’t believe me, have another listen to CCR or Nina Simone performing I Put a Spell on You.

Head over to Biography and check out the fun post on Hawkins’ life.

Do Muslim Women Need to be Saved?

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Ironically, even feminism can become a form of imperialism, colonialism, and oppression­­- the very constructs that figure so prominently in academic and popular feminist discourse.

In 2010, the anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod visited a friend in an Egyptian village.

“I said I was now writing a book about how people in the West believe Muslim women are oppressed.

She objected: “But many women are oppressed! They don’t get their rights in so many ways – in work, in schooling, in …”

I interrupted her, surprised by her vehemence. “But is the reason Islam? They believe that these women are oppressed by Islam.”

It was her turn to be shocked. “What? Of course not! It’s the government,” she said. “The government oppresses women. The government doesn’t care about the people. It doesn’t care that they don’t have jobs; that prices are so high that no one can afford anything. Poverty is hard. Men suffer it too.”

It was just three weeks from the day that Egyptians would take to the streets and the world would watch, riveted, as they demanded rights, dignity and the end of the regime that had ruled for 30 years.”

Abu-Lughod describes her friend as a traditional, observant Muslim villager covered from head-to-foot in black, the mother of seven children. However, she was also deeply involved in community affairs and politics, and had even started her own business. She knew what her rights should be, and she cared about providing opportunities for her village and family. From Abu-Lughod’s brief description, her friend emerges not as a hapless victim of patriarchal and religious oppression, but as an intelligent, savvy, and committed individual working to better her community. It can be argued that it is precisely her traditional and religious outlooks that inspired her to fight injustice. “Her shock at my suggestion that anyone would think Islam was oppressive was telling. Her faith in God and her identity as a Muslim are deeply meaningful to her.” This, in fact, is why Abu-Lughod insists that indiscriminately applying the ideas and ideals of western feminism to women in Muslim societies can, in fact, do more harm than good. At the very least, it shows insensitivity to them as human beings, and marginalizes their voices.

“So why are conservatives, progressives, liberals and radical feminists in the West convinced that Muslim women – everywhere and in all time periods – are oppressed and in need of rescue? Why can’t other voices be heard? Even more troubling, why does it seem so hard for them to focus on the connections between worlds instead of imagining Muslim women as distant and unconnected to themselves?”

This in no way is meant to bash western feminism. There really is no need to stress the obvious good that it has done, and still does. What I find so compelling about Abu-Lughod’s perspective is that it doesn’t dismiss the plight of women, but asks that we see them first and foremost as human beings with individual views and voices.

We can learn from Muslim women no less than they can learn from us.

The Peshmerga Vs. ISIS: A Military Appraisal

This is a fascinating article by Kenneth Pollack on what likely occurred when ISIS attacked the Kurds this summer, and is well worth a read.

The long and short of it is that the Peshmerga is still a good force, but it is not quite what it used to be.

For one, the manpower has changed. Between the 60s and 80s, most of the Peshmerga recruits grew up in the harsh, rugged environment of the mountains. Being able to handle a rifle was necessary for survival (wolves still preyed on flocks and the various tribes settled scores with each other and with the government) so it is no surprise that the Kurds were “uncanny marksmen” in the words of an Israeli military advisor who trained them in the 60s. In recent years, Kurdish society has become increasingly urban. The recruits are “not terribly different from young city-dwellers across the world… more likely to have played “Call of Duty” than to have hunted or fired an actual weapon in anger.”

Second, the Peshmerga hasn’t seen significant action since 1996, and that was a civil war amongst similarly-armed Kurdish factions.

Third, they have rested on their laurels a bit, and have let training and discipline slip. “In that respect, they were probably unprepared to take on the highly-motivated ISIS troops they were suddenly forced to fight.”

Fourth, they suffer from a deficiency of heavy weapons like artillery and armoured vehicles, and what they have got is very dated, being at least 30-40 years old, if not older.

ISIS took the Kurds by surprise, but they fought back, managing to negate some of ISIS’s advantages. Still, as Pollack notes, “ISIS’s modus operandi is that when it is thwarted on one axis of advance, it simply turns and attacks in another direction,” and the article helps explain what is going on right now

ISIS has advanced to the Kurdish town of Kobane in northern Syria, triggering a massive flight of Kurds. The situation in Kobane is desperate, and despite its valiant efforts, the YPG, the Kurdish militia, suffers from many of the same disadvantages that gave ISIS its initial victories against the Peshmerga. The YPG is less than ten years old (and has been fighting for only three), is formed of Urban youths, and has no heavy weaponry at all. ISIS, on the other hand, has deployed its newly acquired tanks. The Kurds of the YPG are literally fighting with their backs to the wall, but due to these weaknesses they cannot hold out against ISIS if they receive no outside help on the ground.

October 12th, 1940: The Warsaw Ghetto

Today marks the 74th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto. Warsaw had been home to vibrant Jewish culture, religious and secular. Before the war’s outbreak, 30 percent of the population was Jewish. The ghetto was set up in order to better control and contain the Jewish population before deporting it to death camps.

I have a personal interest in the Warsaw Ghetto. As far as we know, all of my Dad’s side of the family that remained in Europe perished in the Holocaust. That, however, was much further south, in Bukovina. My interest in the Warsaw Ghetto comes from a couple of different things. As a child, I had some wooden trains made by a survivour of the ghetto who lived on a kibbutz where my Mom had volunteered in the 70s. Then, in high school, I participated in a program where a mixed group of Jewish and Arab youth engaged in dialogue about current politics, while learning about the Holocaust in a museum that emphasized two aspects- children’s life, and armed resistance. At the end of it, we were certified as guides in the museum. Due to transport issues I was never able to fully take advantage of the opportunity, but the interest in the Warsaw Ghetto has remained with me.

Here are the stories of three individuals from the Warsaw Ghetto. All three were killed, but each one tells us something a little different about what the Nazis tried to, but could never destroy.

Janusz Korczak.

Janusz Korchak was a pioneering pedagogue, children’s author, and orphanage director. Because of his professional fame, Korczak had the chance to save himself, but refused to abandon the children of his orphanage.

Mordechai Anielewicz.

Mordechai Anielewicz formed an armed resistance group in the ghetto. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising came as a nasty shock to the Germans, convinced as they were that the Jews were broken and defeated. The liquidation of the ghetto that should have taken three days, took instead a month, and the uprising inspired further resistance.

Hillel Zeitlin.

Hillel Zeitlin was born into a religious Jewish family, but abandoned religion in his youth before undergoing powerful spiritual and mystical experiences that caused him to regain his faith. He died at age 71 proudly wearing in a prayer shawl, and carrying a volume of the Zohar, the preeminent work of Jewish mysticism.

Grim Sunday reading, I know, yet these three things are beautiful beyond words. To love others when you must pay the ultimate price for it, to refuse to remain passive while people being murdered or wronged, and to devote oneself to God even in the depths of despair, that is kind of what Sunday is all about.

Muslims in WWII and the Holocaust



The Washington Post has recently published an article by Michael Wolfe entitled “Meet the Muslims who sacrificed themselves to save Jews and fight Nazis in World War II.”

I’m glad that the article tries to present a forgotten side of Jewish-Muslim relations and the positive role of Muslims in Western society, but after reading it I have some concerns.

First, Wolfe somewhat blurs the distinction between rescuing Jews and being involved in the Allied war effort.

Noor Inayat Khan was certainly remarkable, and deserves her own article. Her fiancé had been Jewish, and the Nazi treatment of Jews was one of the factors leading to her involvement in the war effort. She found Nazism “fundamentally repulsive and opposed to all the principles of religious harmony that she had been brought up with by her father.” Her father, Hazrat Inayat Khan, was fond of an old Sufi proverb, “Be the follower of love, and forget all distinctions.” This is a beautiful example of how religious spirituality (in this case, Muslim), however, Noor Inayat Khan was not directly involved in the rescue of Jews, and her motivation was universalist.

It is unlikely that the majority of Senegalese Tirailleurs- conscripts- were motivated by a desire to assist Jews, let alone sacrifice themselves for that cause. There was growing resentment of France for the distinctive uniforms they wore (“slave’s clothing”), and for the insensitive treatment by their officers, so when they helped liberate French towns and discovered that not everyone was fighting in the resistance, they were understandably outraged. This is not to denigrate the Senegalese in any way. They fought bravely, loyally, and often suffered more than other troops. All it means is that they were human, and did not necessarily respond enthusiastically to sacrificing themselves for what they considered a stranger’s cause.

Second, Wolfe presents an entirely rosy view of Muslim efforts to rescue Jews.

The Iranian diplomat Abdol-Hossein Sardari comes across as genuinely good, a dedicated servant of his country. However, the claim that he issued Iranian passports to 500 French Jews is unsubstantiated, appearing only in a statement made by his nephew many years after Sardari’s death. Sardari himself never mentioned it. The actual story involves the Jugutis- a community of crypto-Jews whose ancestors had been forcibly converted to Islam in Meshed in 1839. They lived outwardly as Muslims whilst secretly adhering to Judaism. Several of them resided in France, alongside Jews from Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Iran. One of their leaders, Dr. Atchildi, came up with a plan to save his community by claiming that Jugutis were religiously Jewish, but ethnically Aryan. Sardari helped him achieve legal recognition exempting Jugutis from anti-Jewish laws, and then requested that he place Iranian Jews on the list of Jugutis as well. Sardari’s chief concern was to help his compatriots, which is not a bad thing at all.

The other diplomatic examples in the article pale in comparison. Corry Guttstadt extensively researched Turkey’s role in the Holocaust, and her findings exploded the myth of Turkish rescue. Some consuls, it is true, did save Jews, but the documented cases do not reach thousands of people saved, and the motivations were rarely very noble (though on this score many diplomats of other nations also fare rather poorly). Rescue was often the result only of sexual and monetary exchanges. Lives were saved, which is a good thing, but it hardly does credit to those diplomats who primarily benefited themselves. The Neçdet Kent story of the train seems very moving and inspiring, but is pure fabrication. Kent is the only source of the story, no survivor testimony corroborates it, and it is contradicted by material evidence.

Wolfe’s other Turkish example is even uglier. Not only did Behiç Erkin not issue Turkish passports to thousands of Jews with only distant connections to Turkey, he actually stopped the one individual on his staff- a French national- who did. Beginning in 1942, the Nazis had Jewish nationals of neutral countries deported. The passage to Turkey was neither funded nor organized by Turkey. Individuals either had to pay from their own pocket, or receive funding from a Jewish relief organization. Turkey, in fact, was not only slow to save its Jewish citizens, it even rescinded the citizenship of many Turkish Jews, leaving them stranded and vulnerable.

Ahmed Somia apparently was a dedicated resistance fighter, and the hospital did rescue many parachutists and members of the resistance, although everything that I have read accords Abdelhaffid Haffa- the hospital’s guardian- with a far bigger role than Somia. Haffa led the resistance activity, working secretly with a Jewish doctor. Si Kaddour Benghabrit, a religious leader of Paris’ Algerians and rector of the Grand Mosque, played a far more ambiguous role. Benghabrit saved some Jews, washed his hands of others (even as late as 1944), and generally pursued a range of actions from collaboration to resistance. In Benghabrit’s defense, we tend to approach WWII and the Holocaust with considerable hindsight. Things were usually not as clear to participants. Benghabrit pursued what he considered the best course for preserving his community. This did not always involve rescuing Jews.

By all means, Muslim assistance to Jews in the Holocaust should be highlighted, but romanticized myth-making does not build better bridges, and might make reconciliation and cooperation even harder.

“Generally, the myths historians interrogate are those that reinforce, rather than contradict, univocal narratives of conflict. In such cases, while the more complex truth may be painful, it can offer recognition to both sides, providing a more blended version of a disputed history and paving the way for possible reconciliation. By contrast, in the case of the Grand Mosque, the more mythical story does not seem to reinforce entrenched hatreds but rather to offer promise for reconciliation. Yet in so doing, it obscures a more complicated historical reality, and… reinforces a wider series of problematic perceptions that mar Jewish-Muslim understanding.”

In other words, we cannot have a meaningful discussion about Jewish-Muslim relations, or Muslims and the Holocaust, or the modern role of Muslims in Western society if we stick to myths. Even if the myth is positive, it obscures the real history and the real problems.

Of course, I also think that history matters, whether or not it leads to meaningful dialogue.

Still, I would like to end with a very positive example from Wolfe’s list. Albanian Muslims (and Catholics, too) were dedicated in saving Jews to an extent rarely found elsewhere. They were moved not only by besa– their code of honour- but also in many cases were influenced by the teachings of the Bektashi Sufi order.