Posts Tagged ‘Caesar’

Accountability for Assad’s Murder of Marie Colvin: A Precedent for Justice?

February 6, 2019

Colvin RIP

On Thursday, January 31, a U.S. judge found the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad responsible for the targeted assassination of U.S. journalist Marie Colvin in Homs in 2012. A reporter for The Sunday Times, Colvin had been covering the regime’s besiegement of the Baba Amr district of Homs, whose population had rebelled against Assad’s rule as part of the Revolution which had begun in the southern city of Der’aa in March 2011. Though evacuated with other internationals and journalists within days of her arrival as a precautionary measure in light of a threatened regime offensive, Colvin returned with the French photojournalist Rémi Ochlik and British photographer Paul Conroy to the improvised community media center from where they had been reporting. As Conroy describes, he, Colvin, and Ochlik believed that, by reporting on the regime’s besiegement of Baba Amr, they could affect world opinion and bring relief to civilians under fire.  It was from Baba Amr that Colvin courageously went live on CNN, the BBC, ITN News, and Channel 4 News, on February 21, 2012, to belie the Assad regime’s fabrications that its assault on the district was exclusively targeting so-called “terrorists.” It was for this reason that the regime killed her, the very next morning after the broadcast. They triangulated her location via her cell signal due to Colvin’s bravery in broadcasting the devastating truth to the world, murdering her and Ochlik in a targeted artillery strike. As judge Amy Jackson observes in her ruling, Colvin was “specifically targeted because of her profession, for the purpose of silencing those reporting on the growing opposition movement in the country.”

Colvin’s remarkable story is told in two recent films: Under the Wire and A Private War. I will not here be discussing Under the Wire, which is brilliantly reviewed by Muhammad Idrees Ahmad in the New York Review of Books here. Instead, I will offer some comments about A Private War, a 2018 dramatization of Colvin’s life, directed by Matthew Heineman and written by Marie Brenner and Arash Amel.

Though Colvin covered armed conflicts for three decades, in A Private War, we follow her in her later assignments to war zones in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. It is amidst covering Sri Lanka’s civil war that Colvin suffers a disfiguring injury, leading her to wear a distinctive eye-patch over her left orbit. While there is little sense in the film that Colvin had an anti-imperialist critique of U.S. participation in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the film depicts her dynamic and increasingly humanist approach to journalism, culminating in her martyrdom in Homs in February 2012. During the Libya segment, which takes place shortly after the outbreak of protests against Mua’mmar al-Qaddafi, we see Colvin outright interviewing the autocrat. Though Colvin never had the chance to question Assad—she was no Vanessa Beeley, a neo-fascist propagandist, but rather the Syrian despot’s direct victim—we get the sense that the writers and director are here channeling Assad’s specter through Colvin’s interaction with Qaddafi, given their similarities, from political authoritarianism to inter-personal repulsiveness and sexism, and their common opportunistic use of nationalist, ‘socialist,’ and ‘anti-imperialist’ rhetoric to legitimize their crimes. It follows logically that both Qaddafi and Assad would present essentially all opposition to their rule as “al-Qaeda” and/or “terrorists,” as they have.

These myriad problematic and questionable characteristics notwithstanding, and regardless of prior close collaboration on the part of both Assad and Qaddafi with imperialism—including intelligence-sharing and the torture of “suspects of interests” to the U.S.—both figures have enjoyed considerable support from “left” pseudo-anti-imperialists, campists, and neo-Stalinists since the Arab uprisings challenged their rule, beginning in 2011. These Stalinist-campists go so far as to praise Assad and his allies for preventing the collapse of his regime, thus avoiding the “Libya model.” Among other claims, they often argue that the chaos resulting from Qaddafi’s overthrow and murder led to the creation of slave markets for Black Africans: and while we certainly should not deny the spread of conditions of slavery after Qaddafi’s fall, neither should we overlook the widespread pre-existing slave markets enabled by the dictator’s racist regime or the mass-detention system for African migrants traversing Libya en route to Europe, a project for which Qaddafi was compensated billions by the European Union. The autocrat knowingly played on neo-colonial and white-supremacist anxieties, promising that he would ‘protect’ Europe from the putative “risk of turning black from illegal immigration,” and even “turn[ing] into Africa [sic].”1

In an ultimately suicidal conciliatory gesture, Qaddafi abandoned his weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) programs just months after the invasion of Iraqthough it was not until late 2016 that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed the destruction of the last of Libya’s chemical-weapons stockpile. This is to say nothing of the extraction contracts he negotiated with Western energy corporations after the U.S. government subsequently lifted sanctions against his regime in 2004. By the time of his fall in late 2011, ConocoPhillips and Marathon had invested close to $1.5 billion in the country, whereas Hess and Occidental corporations had bought “rights” to several oil fields, such that, by 2008, the labor appropriated by U.S. companies paradoxically accounted for close to one-third of daily oil production in Libya.

Whereas Qaddafi’s regime was defeated through the combination of a popular rebellion aided by NATO intervention and his person summarily executed, Assad’s tyranny still reigns—unfortunately for Syrians, the region, and the world. Indeed, Qaddafi’s fate has signaled to Assad and Kim Jong-Un not to give up their weapons of mass destruction, despite the terms of the Syrian regime’s fraudulent disarmament overseen by the OPCW a year after the August 2013 Ghouta sarin massacre which killed over one thousand Syrians. In Assad’s case, Qaddafi’s destiny no doubt has influenced the Syrian tyrant not to hesitate to use chemical weapons for tactical advantage, or the sheer purpose of terror and collective punishment of civilian populations who reject his rule.

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The Baba Amr district of Homs in March 2011. (AFP/Shaam News Network)

The film’s concluding chapter in Syria is very moving. The scene is Homs, Syria’s third-largest city by population, following Aleppo and Damascus. After having repudiated Assad’s oppressiveness as the Syrian Revolution spread in early 2011, the people of Homs together with Free Syrian Army units liberated the western district of Baba Amr from regime control. It was here that Colvin arrived with her colleagues in February 2012 during a retaliatory regime offensive on Baba Amr. There, Colvin bore witness to many tragic scenes, including the acute bereavement of a father whose son, being no older than three or four years of age, is killed in the assault. She is also also depicted interviewing a young mother taking refuge with her infant daughter in the “widows’ basement,” under fire from the regime’s ill-named Republican Guard. Colvin’s final tweet reads:

“In Baba Amr. Sickening, cannot understand how the world can stand by & I should be hardened by now. Watched a baby die today. Shrapnel, doctors could do nothing. His little tummy just heaved and heaved until he stopped. Feeling helpless. As well as cold!”

As Rohini Hensman points out correctly in Indefensible (2018), there is no moral difference between this oppressed Syrian mother and a similarly brutalized Palestinian woman who is besieged by Israel.2 Neither is there is a morally relevant difference between this suffering Syrian child, and a suffering Palestinian child. Therefore, these scenes in the film serve a very critical function in allowing for the possibility that the audience will recognize the confused thinking which many Western pseudo-anti-imperialists advance: namely, that Israel’s oppression of Palestinians is horrific and must be ended immediately, but that Assad’s subjugation of Syrians is less problematic, because his regime is supposedly ‘anti-imperialist’ in orientation. For viewers who are not enmeshed in such ideological thinking, these scenes will likely speak to them on a humanist level, and therefore may serve the progressive function of illuminating the Assad regime’s brutality—a necessary prerequisite for demanding justice for the dictator’s vast crimes.

The cries of the bereaved father whom Colvin encounters—”!یا الله,” Ya Allah! (meaning “Oh God”)—recall the young Karl Marx’s critique of religious suffering as the “expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.”3 In thusly calling on Allah—who in Islam is believed to represent the qualities of mercy, peace, justice, love, and equity, among others—this Syrian man critiques Assad’s blasphemous violation of these ideal human qualities, as well as the international order’s complicity in the destruction of the country by the regime and his allies.

Watching A Private War, one may feel a great sense of gratitude and respect for those who risk their lives to report on atrocities from conflict zones, so that the world at least knows about war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the atrocious reprisals to which dissidents and their perceived supporters are subjected by fascist regimes, simply for the “crime” of organizing to overthrow dictatorship and oppression. In light of the fate of Syria over the past nearly eight years, and thinking of the fierce discursive struggle regarding happenings there, especially that advanced by “left” conspiracist thinkers who deny Assad’s crimes, it is unclear that mere coverage of the horrors of war will ensure justice or accountability. Moreover, amidst the mass-extermination experienced in Syria since 2011, it would appear that, to focus on the fate of one person—much less a white Westerner—would seem questionable. Yet the regime has murdered numerous international people of conscience, besides Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik: the anarchist Omar Aziz, who inspired the revolutionary model of the Local Coordinating Councils (LCC’s); Dr. Abbas Khan, a British orthopedic surgeon killed in a Damascus prison in late 2013 for volunteering to assist injured Syrian civilians; and the young Syrian-American Leila Shweikani, whom the regime assassinated in late 2016 for rendering aid to civilians in a hospital in Eastern Ghouta—to name just a few.

So the universal can arguably be seen in the particular: that is to say, one can find an illumination of the essential authoritarianism and injustice of capitalism and dictatorship reflected in the contemplation of several individual cases, whether they be martyred U.S. or French journalists, Syrian or Palestinian civilians, or international aid workers.

Following the recent devastation caused by Storm Norma in the Levant, we see that Syrian refugees and internally displaced people are still very much at risk, both in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria proper. The lives of infants and young children are threatened; many have perished due to storm conditions near Deir-Ez-Zor. Amidst the recent moves made to rehabilitate the Assad Regime on a regional level—given the reopening in late December of Bahrain and UAE’s embassies in Damascus, Jordan’s invitation for the Syrian regime to attend the Inter-Arab Parliamentary Union meeting in March, and the Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir’s recent in-person meeting with Assad in Damascus, which took place just days before the start of the ongoing uprising in Sudan—taken together with the regime’s consolidation of territorial control, there is a definite need for accountability and political resistance to such atrocities. To help alleviate suffering, in the U.S., within the electoral sphere, we can advocate for the implementation of the  “Caesar” bill—so named for the Syrian army defector who provided systematic photographic evidence of the mass-extermination of detainees held by regime forces—and for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, at least, we can help support the fundraiser for Med Global, which is providing emergency shelter and other life-saving treatments across the border in Lebanon.

“No justice without accountability.”

MC

1 Emphasis added.

2 Rohini Hensman, Indefensible: Democracy, Counter-Revolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018), 284.

3 Emphasis in original.

The Insurgent Kingdom of God: On The Politics of Zealot

February 18, 2016

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First published on Anarkismo, 18 February 2016

Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. New York: Random House 2013. 296pp.

Professor Reza Aslan’s Zealot is in large part the story of how the life of Jesus of Nazareth was “revised” ex post facto by the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. While Jewish themselves, these early Christians wished to break definitively with their mother religion in the wake of the brutal counter-insurgent campaign waged by Rome against the Jewish Revolt that had been launched in Palestine in 66 C.E., only to be finally put down when the Romans destroyed the Temple and ravaged Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Indeed, it was in this year or the very next one that the first Gospel, written by Mark, was composed; the rest of the gospels were written later, between 90 and 120 C.E. Aslan makes clear that the birth of Christianity was not the end sought by Jesus or his closest disciples, including Simon (Peter) and his brother James, but was rather the result of the unflagging efforts of Saul (later Paul) of Tarsus, who in his missionary epistles to the Greco-Roman gentiles stressed the divinity of Jesus, thus transforming the rebel-prophet Jesus into Christ the messiah, a “Romanized demigod” (171).

In this way, the ascendancy of Pauline Christianity was largely due to historical circumstance: with the “Jerusalem branch” of Jesus’ followers wiped out by the Roman attack on Jerusalem, Paul’s vision of Jesus was the only one left standing, with the exception of the hypothetical Q document on which Matthew and Luke were based (214). Plus, as Aslan observes, Paul’s views certainly permeate in Luke and John (215). According to the author, this geographical shift from Jerusalem to the Greco-Roman Diaspora implied the opportunistic transformation of the historical zealot Jesus into a pacifist and of the Kingdom of God he had proclaimed into an ethereal matter reserved for the afterlife. As Aslan notes, such conscious manipulation of history cannot be dissociated from the virulence of European Jew-hatred over the past two millennia, as inspired by the evangelists, who portray the Jewish rabble and/or their corrupt leaders as responsible for Christ’s execution, with Pilate merely “washing his hands,” when in fact Jesus was murdered by the State, the occupying power of Rome.

Aslan makes clear that Jesus was crucified for sedition—indeed, that crucifixion was the punishment reserved for political offenders, and that the two prisoners executed alongside Christ on Golgotha were “bandits” (lestai), not “thieves.” The author places Jesus’ rebellion within the context of the times, echoing the demands and fate of similar anti-Roman messianic figures and the movements they led from the century leading up to the general Revolt, such as the bandit chief Hezekiah, Judas the Galilean, “the Samaritan,” and “the Egyptian” (79). Ironically enough, Aslan argues that Jesus was effectively John the Baptist’s disciple, for Christ adopted John’s ascetic-defiant announcement of the Kingdom of God, and even shared the same fate as his master at the hands of the State (80-9).

In addition, the author provides a compelling clarification of Jesus’ well-known proclamation regarding the need to “render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and render unto God what belongs to God” (Mark 12:17/Matthew 22:21/Luke 20:25). Though this line has often been used to rationalize Christian subordination to the State, its meaning is in fact quite revolutionary, as demonstrated by the evangelists’ recording of the audience’s reaction, “amazed at him.” In response to the question posed by the Pharisees or their spies about whether Jews should agree to pay tribute to Rome, Jesus requests to be shown a denarius, an imperial coin, and asks “whose image and inscription hath it?” In response to his listeners’ correct identification, Christ tells the audience that the symbolic coin must be returned to Caesar, to whom it belongs, just as the land of occupied Palestine must be rendered holy, emancipated from the yoke of Roman occupation (76-8). Though the national-liberation zealot movement as represented by the Zealot Party would not formally be founded for another three decades after the death of Christ, Aslan observes that Christ’s view of the denarius and Caesar clearly communicates the prophet’s affinity for the philosophy of that movement. Of course, Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God being at hand should be interpreted similarly as a fundamental challenge to the established system of clerical-military domination, for “God’s rule cannot be established without the annihilation of the present leaders” (119).

Hence, Aslan clearly acknowledges that the “Kingdom of God is a call to revolution, plain and simple” (120). However, in his discussion of this insurgent concept, Aslan calls into question what is perhaps most radical within Christ’s teachings: the affirmation that the “greatest commandment” is to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Matthew 22:39). Aslan writes that Jesus’ declaration of this maxim was meant to be applied only to members of the Jewish nation only, and thus should not be understood as a universal humanistic declaration of equality and solidarity (120-2). “There is no reason to consider Jesus’s conception of his neighbors and enemies to have been any more or less expansive than that of any other Jew of his time” (122). To support this claim, Aslan argues that Christ’s clarification that he came not to destroy Mosaic law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17) necessarily means that the prophet must have endorsed chauvinist conceptions about peoples other than Jews. However, this claim is somewhat imprecise; it is unclear why Christ’s affirmation of the Golden Rule, if directed primarily toward Jews, could not also dialectically apply to gentiles or humanity in general. Beginning three centuries before Christ, the Stoics had identified the innateness of human equality and the unity of humankind through natural law.1 In parallel, four or five centuries before Christ, Buddha had developed the concept of the common struggle of all suffering beings. Christ’s “new commandment” for his followers to “love one another” (John 13:35) self-evidently shares a great deal with these other egalitarian philosophies.

Related to the question of Christian, Buddhist, or Stoic egalitarianism is Aslan’s presentation of the Kingdom of God. Aslan intimates that Christ’s proclamation of the Kingdom of God was “neither purely celestial nor wholly eschatological,” but rather real and physical, such that Jesus envisioned himself ruling a reconstituted, liberated Israel in God’s name, with the twelve apostles serving as his lieutenant-governors (118-25). The accusation of Christ’s having proclaimed himself King of the Jews (INRI), was, according to the Gospels, the “evidence” for the charge of sedition on which he was executed. Yet Aslan also discusses the translation of a line unique to John that may have been uttered by Christ during his interrogation by Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this order [or system]” (John 18:36) (116). Usually translated as not being “of this world”—and hence understood as being reserved for the afterlife—Christ’s “kingdom” in this sense presents a very different vision of social organization, whether we think of the classical eastern Mediterranean or the world of our own day. This is particularly the case if we juxtapose this heretical declaration with the prophet’s condemnation of private property, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes (Matthew 5-7), the parables about the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) and Lazarus and the wealthy man (Luke 16:19-31), and the apocalyptical vision of Judgment Day, when the rich would be cast into hell, while the oppressed and those promoting mutual aid would be saved (Matthew 25:31-46)—to say nothing of his physical clearing of the Temple in Jerusalem of the money-changers (Mark 11:15-19/Matthew 21:12-17/Luke 19:45-48). Though Aslan recognizes Christ’s revolutionary vision, he does not explicitly acknowledge the Kingdom of God’s proto-communist character or the materialist metaphor of Christ’s healing of the sick free of charge, preferring to associate the former concept with the national-liberation struggle against the Romans and the concept of divine sovereignty. Nevertheless, he describes how Christ’s revolutionism influenced his brother James, known as “the Just,” who too would be executed for championing the cause of the oppressed (197-212).

One final matter to discuss from Aslan’s volume is the author’s dismissal of the evangelists’ imputing to Christ a stance of pacifism and the espousal of non-resistance to evil by violence. In Matthew 5:38-44 and Luke 6:27-29, Jesus includes within his Sermon on the Mount a critique of the established lex talonis stipulating “an eye for an eye” and in its place presents the injunction to “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies.” Aslan rejects these teachings as fabrications, for they contradict his account of Christ’s zealotry; he clarifies his view that Jesus was “no fool” when it came to social change, meaning that he “understood” that force would be necessary to realize the Kingdom of God (120-2). Aslan cites Christ’s statement that he had “not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34) to support the line of argumentation, though he entirely decontextualizes this statement—with the image of “sword” incidentally being translated in Luke 12:51 as “division” to express the same idea—for in Matthew the very next lines read as follows: “I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother […]. He that loveth father or mother [or child] more than me is not worthy of me […]. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:35-8). Hence, while it is evident that Christ’s critique shares much in common with zealotry in terms of the question of the Roman occupation—as reflected, verily, in the prophet’s warning to his apostles that they would likely face execution for joining him—it is far less clear that Jesus agreed with the violent tactics used by zealots against Rome. Indeed, next to the commandment to love one’s neighbor, the calls for non-violent non-cooperation and the harmonization of means and ends are among the most innovative of Christ’s teachings. In this vein, while in no way uncritically advancing pacifism, one wonders if Aslan would also call Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., or their followers “fools.”

In sum, Aslan has certainly provided a thought-provoking account of the “life and times” of Jesus of Nazareth. He places one of history’s most fateful personalities directly within the political and economic realities that led him on the path of anti-colonial, proto-socialist rebellion. In so doing, the author implicitly condemns the depoliticized image of Christ that has been propagated by the various institutionalized churches which arose over the past two millennia to officially “represent” Christianity—however fundamentally essentially all of these churches have departed from the essence of Christ’s teachings, summarized by Tolstoy as being the proclamation of “universal brotherhood, the elimination of national distinctions, the abolition of private property, and the strange injunction not to resist evil by violence.”2 As a biographical and philosophical examination of the world-historical Jewish prophet who demanded that his disciples “call no man [their] father upon the Earth [… and] neither be called masters” (Matthew 23:9-10), Zealot bears a great deal of contemplation, discussion, and action.

1Ernst Bloch, Natural Law and Human Dignity, trans. Dennis J. Schmidt (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1986), 10-16.

2Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You and Peace Essays, trans. Aylmer Maude (London: Oxford University Press, 1960), 134.