Saturday, August 30, 2014

ISIS/ISIL again (expanded)

Now that this Administration is toying with the temptation of dragging us into yet a third war in (or against) Iraq,  we should pause  and once again set the record straight about the name of our new foe:  ISIS or ISIL?

We examined the matter from a linguistic perspective  at great length  here:

Upshot:  “Levant”, rather than “Syria” (in its contemporary sense) is more accurate -- and indeed, in ways crucial to policy-making -- as a translation of the Arabic term in the group’s (former) official name, al-Shâm.  

Updated upshot:  Now that ISIL has morphed into plain IS, the “Islamic State” tout court (et tout grand), claiming the status of a Caliphate, the distinction between “Levant” and “(lesser, nation-state) Syria” falls moot.  They want it all.  At a minimum, de jure, the whole of the ummah, the Islamic oecumene;  long-term, the entire planet, since it is a settled point of Muslim doctrine that Islam is the natural, inborn  state of mankind (left to himself, Robinson Crusoe becomes a de facto Muslim);  only via parental manipulation does the child get twisted into becoming a Magian (or other sects we shall not mention).

[Herewith the original posting from 10 Aug 2014]
In her column this morning, after quoting some correct linguistic information from the BBC, Maureen Dowd goes on to get matters  exactly backwards:

It’s a bit odd that the administration is using “the Levant,” given that it conjures up a colonial association from the early 20th century, when Britain and France drew their maps, carving up Mesopotamia guided by economic gain rather than tribal allegiances. Unless it’s a nostalgic nod to a time when puppets were more malleable and grateful to their imperial overlords.

It was precisely to oppose the legitimacy of colonial arrangements, that ISIL chose the term al-Shâm ‘Levant’ rather than Sûrîa ‘modern Syria’.   The latter was a post-WWI colonial creation;  the Levant (etymologically: "[the land of the sun-]rise") has been there since the beginning of time.  Additionally, the choice of the geographically more inclusive name  early signaled their outsized ambitions.

In quite the same fashion, jihadis regularly refuse to use the official terms for modern Muslim nation-states, substituting words with hoary historical associations:  instead of Egypt,  “the Land of Kinânah” (after an ancient tribe);  instead of Afghanistan or Pakistan, “Khurasân” (sort of “AfPak plus”); instead of Iraq, “the Nation of the Two Tributaries’ (Bilâd al-Râfidayn -- essentially the same metaphor as in Mesopotamia ‘[region between] two rivers’).   And most of all: ‘the Nation of the Two Sanctuaries’ (viz. Mecca and Medina), for the horrendous name Saudi Arabia.   That one really is offensive, though in ways that owe nothing to colonialism, since here a clique of despots have renamed the ancient nation after a family dynasty (as though Dubya had renamed America “Bushistan”, or FDR  "Rooseveltia").


So much for the linguistics.    Serious political analysis we must leave to wiser heads(** vide infra);  but we can at least offer an observation from our other credentialed specialty, irony.

There have been all sorts of dreadful events and developments in Iraq, these past couple of years (not to mention  in half the other nations of the Third World), which we wisely refrained from wading into.   The excuse this time is that the ISIL is so menacing, so evil, such an existential threat, that it warrants throwing caution to the winds.
Yet here is a fine irony.   Awhile back (a dim memory now, for most)  John McCain and his crew were egging America on to get militarily involved on the side of the anti-Bashar ‘Opposition’.  Well, the most powerful component of that ‘Opposition’ (a granfalloon; it is not a coalition and never was) turns out to be … ISIL (some of whom, one reads, may have received paramilitary training from the U.S.;  I have no idea whether that is true).  So:  Best buddies on the Syrian side of the border;  worst enemies over in Iraq.

Another irony:
Had we gone McCain’s route, we would have been the allies, “objectively” (as the Leninists used to say) of the ISIL, against the Syrian Christians, whose chief defender is Bashar.  (McCain himself did not understand this, which is why the alliance would have been objective, rather than subjective.)   And now, in ordering airstrikes to protect Kurds and Yezidis against the ISIL, the Administration is “objectively” allying itself with a group that includes the Kurdish PKK (which is on the State Department list of terrorist groups) and a sect widely slanged (and not only by the ISIL) as being “devil-worshippers”.  (I am deliberately stretching things now to the point of absurdity, simply indicating the sort of factoids that would be more than enough fodder for Tea Party fanatics to start ranting “Obama allies with terrorists and Satanists!!!”)

[Update 12 August 2014]  That allusion to the State-Department-proscribed PKK  was not just a random free-association prompted by the notion ‘Kurdish’;  they really are actively involved.   Headline in this morning’s Le Figaro:

Dans Makhmour repris aux combattants de l'État islamique
Les Pechmergas irakiens ont bénéficié de l'aide des militants kurdes turcs du PKK pour reprendre la petite ville du Kurdistan irakien.

 Americans, meet your new allies.

[Update 29 August 2014]  Wack-o, crack-o, Boko Haram, has released a rant on video:

We mention it only because it was (mis)reported as the declaration of a Caliphate.   Since there can only be one of these at a time, that would have represented an open declaration of warfare against “Caliph Ibrahim” al-Baghdadi.   But as sagely noted by the Long War Journal, Shekau mentions neither the term ‘Caliphate’, nor the traditional caliphal title “amir al-mu’miniin”.

Scenic details:
(1) He brandishes a sort of scepter, or juju, or phallic symbol, or whatever it is, to emphasize his points;  and at one point he pauses and … cleans his teeth with it.
Not making this up.
(2) He begins speaking accented but grammatically correct Classical Arabic;  but eventually breaks into (presumably) Hausa;  the effect is jarring.
(3) An alert watcher comments:

I hate to sound like the usual conspiracy fuckwits, but something's wrong with this video. The cunt on the left and the cunt on the right don't move at all._

Check it out yourself.  Layer upon layer of bizarrerie.

[More soberly:  The background is a static backdrop, apart from the flag, which is an animation.  The reason for this is OPSEC:  don’t give the analysts anything to geolocate on.  UBL’s videos used to be scrutinized down to the last grain of sand.  The background here was probably shot in the parking-lot of a WalMart in Nairobi.]

[**Footnote]  Wiser heads, such as these for instance:

"Let Iran Save Iraq"
Die USA taeten gut daran, dem Iran die Loesung der aktuellen Krise im Irak zu ueberlassen, meint Zachary Keck. Fuer diese Zurueckhaltung spraechen gleich mehrere Gruende: "The first reason the United States should not intervene in Iraq is because the situation is not nearly as dire as some have claimed. (...) ISIS has not transformed into a formidable conventional army, or a 'daunting military power' capable of waging 'jihadist blitzkrieg.' It most certainly doesn’t have any realistic prospect of toppling the Iraqi government and taking control of Baghdad. (...) The United States should also pass the buck to Iran so it doesn’t have to fight for one side in a sectarian conflict. (...) Another reason the United States should allow Iran to save Iraq is because it is even more committed to this goal than Washington is. (...) If the past is any guide (...) Iran will likely be more effective at propping up the Maliki government. (...) The major objection to allowing
  Iran to save Iraq is that it would strengthen Tehran’s influence in Baghdad. Perhaps. But Iran already exercises substantial control over Iraq’s government, and it’s hard to see what concrete gains any additional influence will bring Iran."
(The National Interest vom 17.06.2014)

"America’s Late Imperial Dilemma"
US-Praesident Obama werde sowohl von liberalen Interventionisten als auch von konservativen Falken vorgeworfen, "Schwaeche" auszustrahlen und einen internationalen Rueckzug der USA voranzutreiben, schreibt Ian Buruma in seinem kurz vor der aktuellen Irak-Krise veroeffentlichten Beitrag. Obamas Kritiker glaubten nach wie vor, dass es die Mission der USA sei, der Welt den amerikanischen Willen aufzuzwingen, sei es nun im Namen der Demokratie oder aufgrund von Machtinteressen. Obama selbst habe dagegen erkannt, dass die Reichweite der amerikanischen Macht in der neuen Weltordnung begrenzt sei. "At least he has recognized the limits of America’s power to impose a global order by force. His success as a president rests less on the good things he has done (although he has done plenty) than on the stupid things he has avoided, like getting into more unnecessary wars. This does not resolve the late imperial dilemma of how to reduce dependency on the hegemon without causing more tyranny and violence. But that painful and risky process will have to be launched eventually, and it will be better served by Obama’s brand of caution than by the tough talk of his critics."
(Project Syndicate vom 06.06.2014)

[Update 3 Sept 2014]  Our favorite Franco-Moroccan Dutch radio journalist, M. Fouad Laroui, weighs in here:

[Update 5 Oct 2014]  A nice article on the political battle over ISIL terminology:

Note:  That article is utterly buried on the NYT website;  after much scrolling around, I never did find it;  and the "Search" feature was not functioning.  The only reason I could find the article was by googling the name of the reporter, which I'd seen in the print edition (Dan Bilefsky).

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