Prestone on the rocks

I’m co-opting Charles Pierce’s “Thing in Politico That Make Me Want to Guzzle Antifreeze” genre, but I think it’s worth the theft. Politico ran a piece yesterday by Akbar Ahmed, the Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, called “What Washington Doesn’t Get About ISIS,” that would have been better titled “What Akbar Ahmed Couldn’t Be Bothered to Research About ISIS.” Dr. Ahmed’s conclusion is that ISIS is a “tribal group” whose violent acts are retribution for violence perpetrated against the tribe by the Americans, by regional governments, and ultimately by (here it is again) Sykes-Picot. He never really defines what “tribal group” means in a way that makes it possible to see ISIS, a group that employs a considerable number of foreign fighters in its ranks, as one. He also never explains how “understanding” ISIS in this way is so critical to defeating it, apart from pushing the idea that governments in Damascus and Baghdad need to treat Sunnis in eastern Syria/western Iraq better, which it seems like Washington actually does understand. He seems to be arguing that the air campaign is a bad idea that will only spur ISIS to pursue retaliatory aggression against the other peoples in the region, but frankly it seems fairly unlikely that an end to the U.S. airstrikes will cause ISIS to stop massacring religious minorities or trying to seize and hold more territory.

We don’t really get into Havoline territory until we get into the details of Dr. Ahmed’s piece, which seems to have been thrown together about 5 minutes before he needed to send it in to the editors at Politico. The most glaring error is this:

Obama—and his administration—are not even sure what the name of the enemy is. Obama calls the entity ISIL. His administration talks of ISIS. In one joint news conference, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel referred to the group as ISIL and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey called it ISIS. Others call it IS or the Islamic State. The group refers to itself as daiish, which is an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Yeah, well, not so much, actually. In fact, here’s the AP, based on sources in Mosul, reporting that ISIS leaders “threatened to cut the tongue” of anybody who used daesh or daiish to refer to the group.

Then there’s a funny and repeated misquote:

An “Existentialist Enemy”?

ISIS is being widely projected, in the words of the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, as an “existentialist enemy.” Analysts have cited the adoption of an Islamic title by its leader, its control of territory, its brutality towards women and minorities, and its beheading of prisoners to underline its unprecedented nature.

Crocker referred to ISIS as an “existential enemy,” which admittedly is pretty overblown. For ISIS to be an “existentialist enemy” would, I assume, mean that they shout Kierkegaard quotes at you on the battlefield and read a lot of Sartre in their down time. Otherwise the term “existentialist” doesn’t make any sense.

While Ahmed is explaining the historical grievances of tribal societies in the region, he tries to talk about the Kurds (a good example of a group with some hefty legitimate grievances, I’ll grant you), and it doesn’t go well:

Perhaps the most unfair example of the division of a tribal nation is that of the Kurds. The Kurds have always had a very strong case for their own nation—they have a common language, territory, history, and culture—but were split into half a dozen states including Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. The Kurds have been very poorly treated by the central authority in each state. It is only with the very strong support of the Americans recently that the Kurds have had some breathing space in north Iraq and live with some dignity and autonomy.

Well, they have a common territory and some cultural commonalities, but the Kurds are a diverse lot just like any other large ethnic group, and specifically they do not “have a common language.” They have a common language family, Kurdish, but within Kurdish are several individual languages, the two biggest being Kurmanji and Sorani, but there are others as well. I guess you could call these “dialects,” but dialects within the same language typically share some mutual intelligibility, and as far as I know Kurmanji and Sorani are largely unintelligible. Admittedly, Kurdish isn’t my area, but since Dr. Ahmed’s errors are starting to accumulate I’m not inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one.

That’s the thing; a piece like this relies on the authority of the writer, who is being stamped as an expert on the topic by the publication running that piece. Any one of these errors in isolation is unfortunate, but taken together they undermine any confidence the reader should have in the overall thrust of the writing. And the fact is that at least the “Daesh” and “existentialist” errors should have been caught by somebody on Politico’s staff before the piece went live.


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