Islam, science fiction, and space mosques

This was different, and cool.

The Muslim world is not commonly associated with science fiction. Religion and repression have often been blamed for a perceived lack of creativity, imagination and future-oriented thought. However, even the most authoritarian Muslim-majority countries have produced highly imaginative accounts on one of the frontiers of knowledge: astrobiology, or the study of life in the universe. Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life: The Culture of Astrobiology in the Muslim World by Jörg Matthias Determann (I.B. Tauris, 2020) argues that the Islamic tradition has been generally supportive of conceptions of extra-terrestrial life, and in this engaging account, Jörg Matthias Determann provides a survey of Arabic, Bengali, Malay, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu texts and films, to show how scientists and artists in and from Muslim-majority countries have been at the forefront of the exciting search. 

New Books Network | Jörg Matthias Determann, “Islam, Science Fiction…

During the interview, Jörg mentions the SpaceMosque as part of an art exhibition. It is also very cool!

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Two recent podcasts on Fallujah

I haven’t listened to an Urban Warfare Project podcast for awhile – this one was good.

In this episode of MWI’s Urban Warfare Project Podcast, John Spencer is joined by retired Colonel Leonard DeFrancisci. He served thirty-two years in the Marine Corps and in 2004 he was a civil affairs detachment commander for Regimental Combat Team 1 during the Second Battle of Fallujah, Iraq.

Civil Affairs and the Second Battle of Fallujah – Modern War Institute

I don’t usually get too excited about Civil Affairs, especially USMC Civil Affairs. In the episode, we learn about civil affairs contracts as military deception, the effective use of PSYOP and loudspeakers to clear an area of civilians, and whisper campaigns.

Incidentally, I recently listened to another podcast on Fallujah, titled “Toxic Legacy of War in Iraq,” which discusses the lingering effects of warfare on the health of the people of Fallujah.

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Arabic literature and beyond: Bulaq | بولاق

I’ve been listening to the Bulaq podcast since episode one. I’m not exactly sure how I found it, although it was probably from the Arabist or Jaddaliya.

Bulaq has become one of my favorite podcasts, despite the fact that I read very little Arabic literature. And most of the Arabic literature I have read came based off of recommendations from the podcast or ArabLit.

While the episodes mostly focus on works of Arabic literature – in Arabic and in translation – I specifically enjoy the commentary and cultural criticism from the episode’s two hosts, Ursula Lindsey and M Lynx Qualey.

In their latest episode (Women in Love and Lust), they discuss the topic of sex in Arabic fiction and poetry over the past 1500 years with editor Selma Dabbagh.

Here, Ursula raises how troublesome it can be just having these converations.

“The topic of Arab women’s sexuality is a kind of cultural minefield in which there is a long history of Western attention to the status of women in the Arab world, and specifically of their sexual freedom which is loaded with all sorts of stereotypes, and really is self-interested and sometimes malicious agendas.”

Women In Love and In Lust | Sowt

Yes. Afghanistan being the most palpable recent example.

The conversation goes on and is related to the topic of imperial feminism. That is, the idea that the defense of women can be (and often is) used as justification for empire or empire-building. It’s an important topic and one that can be shocking if you’ve never heard it before.

We’re all in our own unique information bubbles. It’s good to have things in your information diet that challenges the status quo and might even make you feel a little uncomfortable.

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Saddam, eradicating illiteracy, and the Ba’athist propaganda machine

Fascinating interview on women, writing, and the Ba’athist state.

Hawraa Al Hassan’s Women, Writing and the Iraqi Ba’thist State: Contending Discourses of Resistance and Collaboration, 1968-2003 (University of Edinburgh Press, 2020) is unique because it both explores discourse concerning women and how women themselves used literature to create a site of resistance to the state. Al-Hassan’s work is also inclusive, as it joins a wider call to make literary studies a space in which works which were previously considered propagandistic can also be seriously considered.

New Books Network | Hawraa Al Hassan, “Women, Writing and the Iraqi…

There are some great gems in this episode and areas I would like to dig deeper on, such as:

-Saddam eradicating illiteracy chiefly to build a wider audience for Ba’athist propaganda.

-Book covers as messages (not many read the book, but they do see the cover).

-The novels of Saddam Hussein. You may recall, it is believed that Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy The Dictator was inspired by one of these novels.

For more, here’s a print interview with Dr. Al-Hassan over at ArabLit.

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The Shadow Commander

Just finished this after hearing about it on the Angry Planet podcast.

In this gripping account, Arash Azizi examines Soleimani’s life, regional influence and future ambitions. He breaks new ground through interviews with Iranians, Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians who knew Soleimani for years, including his personal driver, the aides who accompanied him to his Moscow meeting with Vladimir Putin, and his brother. Through Soleimani, Azizi reveals the true nature of Iran’s global ambitions, providing a rare insight into a country whose actions are much talked about but seldom understood.

The Shadow Commander

I listened to the audiobook version. It was a great narrative, telling the story of Soleimani’s life and the military-political machinations of the Middle East over the forty years. The mini-Cold War in the Middle East is such a deep and fascinating subject. There’s so much more we need to know.

I thought this quote from Ryan Crocker that comes towards the end of the book nailed it pretty well:

Over the last several years, it seems that General Suleimani allowed his ego to overcome his judgment. The shadow commander came out of the shadows, holding news conferences and conducting media tours. This time we were waiting. 

Opinion | The Long Battle With Iran – The New York Times

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On the Iraqi “will to fight”

iso group photo

You may remember the way policy makers and anonymous sources blamed the Iraqi Army’s failure to hold territory in the wake of ISIS’ advances on their lack of a “will to fight.” It was hard, as you can imagine, to figure out how a numerically superior and better equipped professional military could simply wash away when faced with what amounts to a lightly-trained criminal gang. The Iraqi Army had more people, more guns, and were trained by the the best military in the world leading up to their defeats in Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul.

Barely hidden in many of the accusations of lacking “will” was the idea that there are impenetrable cultural reasons that explained it.

Or stated another way, Iraqis just don’t have the guts to fight.

Of course, that’s a silly argument since a great number of ISIS fighters are Iraqi, and they don’t seem to have a problem waging effective warfare. Still, it doesn’t stop people from making it.

When Mosul fell, there was a great deal of outrage from outsiders over the seeming unwillingness of the Iraqi Army to defend their own territory. Here was the Iraqi Army with the real opportunity to engage ISIS on the battlefield – an opportunity that a lot of arm-chair generals seem to fantasize about – and instead of wrapping their hands around the necks of ISIS’ throats, they ran away.

As someone who researched the nature of Iraqi military service, and spent time in Iraq and watched an entire Army disintegrate overnight, it didn’t seem that strange to me.

Major Adam Scher, a professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point, also didn’t think it seemed that strange. He tackled the issue in a good article on The Army Press called Collapse of the Iraqi Army’s Will to Fight: A Lack of Motivation, Training, or Force GenerationHe also wrote a shorter piece on the same issue for Task & Purpose back in December.

The thing that Scher does that many do not, is engage his own empathy in an attempt to try to understand why something might actually happen instead of just going for the low-hanging fruit – in this case, “culture.”

Scher writes:

“The Iraqi Army lacks trust in its equipment, training and its soldiers because between 2011, when coalition forces left Iraq, and 2014, when ISIS attacked, the Iraqi Army executed almost no training, effectively recruited no new soldiers, and broke or sold the majority of the military equipment it had acquired between 2004 and 2011.”

And:

“As Iraqi forces tossed their weapons, abandoned their vehicles, and fled the battle, many blamed the Iraqis for a lack of motivation without investigating the myriad administrative and logistical failures that set the conditions for even the bravest fighters to flee the battlefield.”

An even more important point that Scher makes is the proximity of the Iraqi soldier to the battlefield. This is a war that is happening in their own cities and neighborhoods. Soldiers, and even potential soldiers are under the constant and near threat of violence. Army recruiting lines are rich targets for suicide bombers. The severe brutality of ISIS doesn’t need to be recounted here, but imagine what it would be like to join a teetering Iraqi Army facing a vicious, highly motivated group that has no qualms about using just about any techniques necessary to defeat you.

And more importantly, what you might feel if you were joining the Army and leaving your family behind.

On this, Scher writes:

“Another key administrative aspect of the will to fight is the belief that one’s family is protected during the fight and will be taken care of if the soldier makes the ultimate sacrifice. Between 2011 and 2014, Iraqi Army soldiers were not trained in proper first aid or medical evacuation procedures, meaning they had almost no confidence they could survive a battlefield injury, and a lack of a veterans health program means that any soldier who dies in battle effectively economically cripples their family.  ISIS exploits this failed administrative system by specifically targeting family members of the Iraqi military:

“ISIL capitalized on soldiers’ fear that they and their families would be targeted if they fought as rumors spread. Soldiers had little faith in the military’s ability to protect them, their families, or prevent infiltration … reducing [the Iraqi army] to a state where innuendo and psychological operations could push units towards collapse without prolonged direct combat.””

One of the key takeaways of my research on Iraqi military perspectives was that notions about military service are not universal. This is especially true in the Iraqi case, where men drafted into the Iraqi military complained that their youths were wasted. Unlike most Western nations, simply being a member of the military does not garner a person significant social status, and there is usually very little in terms of veterans’ benefits.

While I don’t necessarily agree with Scher that the solution to these problems reside in replicating the American force generation model, his understanding of some of the root causes of the Iraqi collapse is refreshing, especially when so many others are content to simply blame “their culture.”

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The Post-9/11 Veteran and Middle East Studies

city-college-campus-in-harlem

When people ask me what my major in college was and I tell them Middle East studies, they almost always follow up with “was it because you went to Iraq?”

The answer is yes. That is exactly why.

I remember very clearly, sitting in decrepit telecommunications building in Baghdad sometime during the summer of 2003, scouting for a supposed truck loaded with rockets while having a conversation with a buddy about “what to do when we get out.” It struck me that had we known more about Iraq, the Iraqi people, and the language, we would have had an easier time getting things done there.

So as a pragmatic solution to a complicated problem, I thought it would be good to study the Middle East in college.

When I left the military I dealt with all of the normal transition issues that most veterans face – getting money, dealing with the VA, interacting with civilians, hyper-awareness. On top of that, I jumped head first into the academic world of Middle East Studies, which has its own subculture of norms and biases that are difficult to navigate, even for the most well-adjusted student.

Over the years I’ve had a number of strange experiences as a post-9/11 veteran Middle East Studies student. These often came in the form of anti-military tirades from both professors and students, but sometimes were more intimate interactions. There was the time a graduate student in a class of mine casually dismissed General Petraeus and members of the military as akin to the Nazis; the time a girl in a history class thought only “thirty or something” soldiers had died in the Iraq war; a very uncomfortable exchange with my Middle East Studies professor in Egypt when she learned I had served in Iraq – she visibly became uncomfortable, shifting in her seat and suddenly ending the converation; being asked by a good professor to talk about my Iraq war experience to add color and context to a class, which was probably helpful for them but odd for me. The list goes on.

Six years ago, when we were still knee-deep in Iraq, Middle East Studies scholar Marc Lynch wrote a couple of articles on the topic (here and here). He was generally optimistic about the idea of veterans pursuing the field.

When they enter academic programs, these veterans will (and already do) bring a great deal of on-the-ground experience to the classroom and to their research. Many will (and do) enter their programs with far more advanced language skills than did earlier generations of students, although perhaps with more familiarity with colloquial spoken dialects than with Modern Standard Arabic (reversing a common traditional pattern). Their point of reference will be (and is) Iraq and the Gulf, not Israeli-Palestinian affairs, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, or other areas where a great number of current faculty began their encounters with the region. And they will have much greater familiarity and comfort with military and security issues than do many currently in the field.

In my experience, I think that prediction is accurate. As a graduate student, despite wanting to, it was hard to focus on Iraq because of the lack of source material. In the general Middle East Studies literature, Iraq is often left out, its history put on hold due-to-war.

In response to Marc Lynch’s article, commenters posited other points, which I think are also true.

“I wonder if you are not overly sanguine about the likely result of the influx of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. I agree that many will have a tremendous amount to offer. But what has tended to bother me is how instrumental some of their perspectives tend to be. I’ve taught many returning vets as a professor at the National War College from 2004 to 2006 and at Georgetown’s Security Studies Program since 1997 (fulltime 1997 to 2004, as an adjunct since). And for every one who has a rich and granular understanding and an ability to put his experience in some sort of broader analytical perspective, I have three who have great experience but whose insights run to: “here’s how to get Arabs (or Afghans) to do what I want.” They have instrumental knowledge, but not necessarily the kind of empathy that is conducive to kind of positive outcome you envisage.

History is, unfortunately, not always kind to the notion that experience as a occupier translates into durable understanding. The Brits had plenty of career colonial administrators and soldier, as did the French. I am not really sure that their often voluminous writings on their areas always holds up well. Will they be mostly Bernard Falls or Rudyard Kiplings?”

Even in my most recent deployment in 2014-2015, the amount of boiling down that occurs when discussing “the Afghan” in terms of how to get him to do this or that based on very old stereotypes and ideas is prevalent – even among highly educated officers and NCOs.

I think there is one interesting aspect of the trends you describe that you didn’t touch in your very thoughtful post on veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan joining ME Studies. This is that, given the current generational composition of the professoriate in the field (the senior professors being mainly of the Vietnam and post-Vietnam generations) and the ideological and philosophical views that dominate amongst its membership regarding the US’s role in the world, the bias or prejudice these veterans might face in the classroom is most likely to come from their professors, not their fellow students. Like many folks, I sat through a lot of tirades on US imperialism and perfidy in college classes over the years, as well as many manifestations of the denigration of government service and antimilitary prejudices that pervade US academia overall. I never had a reason to take it personally, and of course US policy should be discussed and debated, but for a veteran it will feel awfully personal. So it’s a challenge faculty should keep in mind, to be more sensitive and thoughtful in their dealings with their students, to recognize the value of students’ experiences and perspectives coming from government service, and to avoid alienating this generation of potentially very rich contributors to the field.”

As the commenters above noted, there is an extra challenge for the veteran navigating Middle East Studies precisely because there is – generally speaking – an anti-imperialist bent in the discourse. That’s not to say that veteran MES students are imperialists, but as I once told a professor who asked, for a veteran who fought in Iraq, whether he agrees with the war or not, he or she left something there, and to hear it casually dismissed as a mistake can feel extremely personal.

Over the years, I’ve only met a handful of other student veterans who pursued Middle East Studies. They almost all followed a similar path to myself, interested in learning more because of their wartime experience. Having been out of school since 2011, I’m not sure how many student veterans took this path. The VA could probably produce the number based on GI Bill date paired with their declared majors.

With both Iraq and Afghanistan significantly scaled down in terms of American military action, I wonder what effect that will have on veterans who leave the service and pursue an education. The Middle East is no more well-understood now than it was six years ago, and with the Arab Spring, the rise of ISIS, and the war in Syria, we are no closer to figuring it all out. I finished graduate school in the midst of the Arab Spring, and it was wildly perplexing to students and teachers alike, who spoke in class about long-standing and seemingly intractable dictatorships that were suddenly crumbling. I wonder if current discourse in the classroom is hyper-focused on the contemporary situation. I hope it’s not, because I think understanding “how we got here” is important in figuring out “how to get out of here.”

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Accidental Empire and the British Colonial Service

four feathers 1939

When I initially got out of the Army and went to college, I liked to have conversations with people – mostly International Studies students – about how America could be more effective overseas. This was between 2007-2011, and the limits of what military power could accomplish in foreign lands in terms of democracy-building or statecraft was becoming well known, with then Defense Secretary Robert Gates famously urging more funds to go towards the State Department, even if that meant less for the Department of Defense.

Between classes, over coffee, or at some dive bar near the City College of New York, I argued to anyone who would listen that what we needed was a more “expeditionary” State Department. We needed young Foreign Service Officers who weren’t afraid to get out on the streets and do the hard work on the ground, even if that meant strapping a pistol to their belt and taking a couple of IEDs along the way. In my mind, the stereotype I had of the foreign service was a risk-averse, cubicle-chained organization. In 2007, as the United States began its “surge” in Iraq, there was backlash from some foreign service officers over potentially being sent to Iraq, some describing it as a “death sentence.” I remember reading those stories at the time and feeling frustration, as it exacerbated the idea that the military was fighting the war in Iraq, while everyone else – including the State Department – looked the other way.

On a scholarship application in which I discussed the State Department, I wrote this:

Specifically, the State Department will need Foreign Service Officers who have an expeditionary mindset and are willing to sacrifice personal safety and comfort to meet the nation’s objectives.

Still fueled by the fire of being an enlisted infantryman fresh from Iraq sling-shot into college life, I was adamant that what the world needed was a more aggressive foreign service. At CCNY, we had a diplomat-in-residence, a State Department official who holds an office at a college to recruit and teach classes. Ambassador Robert Dry, a former Middle East hand (and Navy veteran) was the diplomat-in-residence at CCNY. I often visited him in his office and tried my best to keep up with him – he’s exceptionally intelligent. When I spoke confidently about my ideas of a more robust and aggressive State Department, citing the recent examples of the resistance to go to Iraq by some, he quickly fired back, saying that it sounded like I wanted to recreate the defunct British Colonial Service.

I remember feeling a bit of shock at hearing it. What was he implying? At the time, I wasn’t really aware that there was a thing called the British Colonial Service but I instantly understood what he meant. The argument that I was making, and one that continues to be made by prominent figures, is that we have found ourselves managing an accidental empire and that requires different mechanisms than the ones we’re familiar with. Not an “empire” in the sense of territorial conquest, but rather we have “boots on the ground” in lots of places, and as a result, the need to “do it right” becomes apparent.

The conversation between the Ambassador and I then shifted to what then to do; if you find yourself running an accidental empire, do you create the institutional structures to adequately manage it, or do you address the policies that led to its origin? Or in paratrooper parlance, do you try to “slip-away?”

As I’ve gotten older and have watched things develop, I’m not as gung-ho about the idea of simply strapping a pistol to the leg of a foreign service officer as the antidote to America’s challenges overseas. I suppose the continuing troubles in the Middle East and the recent stories (linked above) about more frequent deployments and calls for reforming how we do whatever-it-is-you-call-it that is being done, reminded me of these old conversations in the dark, granite recesses of the ‘Harvard of the Proletariat.’

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Return of the Infidel

The other day, a reader who named himself كافر (infidel) left this comment on my post Infidel Redux:

I’m curious to know if you still think that things shouldn’t be looked at in a religious sense, now that ISIS is beheading Christian children. I for one am a proud Christian infidel, and IMHO this battle is religious in nature, whether you want to see it or not.

There’s been a lot of traffic to my infidel posts over the past few weeks, no doubt spurred by interest based on the lightning advance of ISIS in Syria and Iraq (see here for a good documentary on the group from Vice News). To answer the question the reader raised – has my position changed now that ISIS is beheading Christian children (an un-verified accusation, by the way), my answer is “no.”

The tragic news of James Foley’s gruesome murder also does not change my position. To summarize, I am of the belief that proudly wearing, displaying, or seeing oneself as an “infidel” is unprofessional in a modern military force (and potentially punishable under UCMJ), colors the conflict in religious hokum that doesn’t have a place in our war rhetoric, and plays directly into the enemy’s plan.

One of the smoldering remnants of the Global War on Terrorism is the way troops have embraced the term “infidel” as a kind of scarlet letter. Tattoos, t-shirts, bumper stickers, custom patches, knives forged in pigs blood – a whole industry has cropped up around the term. Dehumanization in war is normal – it happens in every war. That, however, is not an excuse for it.

From Foreign Affairs (ISIS’ Gruesome Gamble):

If the United States decided to step in on behalf of its allies — as it did — then ISIS must have believed that it would be able to strengthen its position within the jihadi camp. ISIS could use the bombings as evidence that the United States is waging a war on Islam, and to portray itself as the defender of Muslims from “Crusader” aggression. In other words, ISIS would steal a page right out of al Qaeda’s playbook.

I'll see your jihad

The advance of ISIS, their brutal behavior, and the language they use themselves (constantly referring to others as infidels) has revalidated those who have embraced the infidel term. It’s an affirmation of their beliefs and it’s convenient to cast a conflict in religious terms – a cosmic struggle where both sides have the backing of God. On social media and on the web, outrage is spilling out – rightfully so – over the behavior of ISIS. But among military folk, that response is often being colored through “proud infidel” language. “I’ll see your Jihad and raise you a Crusade” is a popular phrase, often coupled with an image of a fantasy medieval knight.

It’s unlikely that the infidel trend will dissipate any time soon. Troops are still rotating in and out of war zones in the Middle East and there is an aggressive market ready to cash in on t-shirts and patches. No matter how nasty things get, and no matter how much “they” call us infidels, wrapping ourselves in their terminology plays into their own twisted fantasy while putting ourselves at risk of further dehumanization.

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