attwiw’s 10 best-read posts of 2015

Before you read this, if you haven’t already, please check out the fine writing to be found in the “Jon Swift Memorial Roundup 2015” over at Vagabond Scholar. Something of mine is listed there alongside a number of other great pieces.

I actually find it almost physically painful to write self-referential things, a fact that is immediately clear to anyone who’s ever seen any cover letter I’ve ever written. But since this blog’s readership ticked up markedly toward the end of the year, and because I’m desperate for content I can queue up in advance over the holidays, I thought a year-end “10 best” list of attwiw’s 2015 #content might be in order. And, again because of the self-referential thing, I figured I’d skip trying to compile some subjective “best of the year” list and rely on something objective also subjective but in a different way, so I’m going with my 10 posts that got the most traffic. Enjoy!

  1. Don’t Help ISIS Get What It Wants: Easily the most widely-read thing in this blog’s history, written in the aftermath of the November 13 Paris terrorist attack. I tried to argue that the worst thing we Westerners could do in the aftermath of such an attack was to give in to panic and lash out at Muslim communities living in the West, because doing so would be playing right into ISIS’s propaganda. It’s a message that obviously resonated with the American public.
  2. Progress Never Comes Without Cost: Also written amid the fallout from Paris. Examining ISIS’s apparent shift toward focusing on international terrorism in addition to its paramilitary activities in Syria and Iraq, I suggested that territorial losses in its core zone have caused the group to lash out. This piece got a boost thanks to being cited by columnist Ryan Cooper at The Week.
  3. Ramadan Mubarak: I have no idea why this got so much traffic, but it did.
  4. Terror Attacks in Paris: This was the piece I kept updating as the attacks were taking place, when I was thinking an al-Qaeda branch (AQAP, or maybe AQIM) made more sense as a culprit than ISIS. I realized shortly after posting this that I’d overstated the case against ISIS and said so in a follow-up post later that evening and tried to explain why I was slow on the uptake in a post a few days later.
  5. Mossadegh, 1953: history swallowed up in legend: The anniversary of the 1953 MI-6/CIA-engineered coup that ousted Iran’s elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, is obviously a big deal for a blog that covers Iran as much as this one does. In this post I tried to cut through some of the mythologizing about that coup, and about Mossadegh, on both sides of the story.
  6. The good war: I came clean about the fact that I’d been kind of OK with the US/NATO 2011 Libyan intervention (although I wasn’t blogging back then, and I’ve since seen the error of my ways) before getting into a short look at the conflict there.
  7. ISIS driving people to Zoroastrianism: This is another post whose traffic levels are a little inexplicable to me. I was just recounting a report in NIQASH, highlighting a small trend among Iraqi Kurds to “convert” to Zoroastrianism as a statement of opposition to ISIS and of Kurdish nationalism. It’s an interesting story although it’s not something that seems to be sweeping the Kurdish nation or anything.
  8. Islamic History, part 25: Early Islamic theology: Part of my ongoing series on Islamic history. I really slowed down in writing these this year, because of lack of time and because the subject matter got into areas where I felt like I needed to do more research before I could write about them. Hopefully I’ll do more of these next year.
  9. Today’s Happy Birthday wishes: Ibn Battuta: I don’t like commemorating birthdays, because most of the people whose birthdays I would commemorate on this site are people who would have reckoned their own birthdays by the lunar Hijri calendar rather than our solar Gregorian calendar, and so marking their birthdays can be a big semantic mess. But I wrote this before I really had firmed that rule up, and anyway Ibn Battuta’s story is worth making an exception to any rule.
  10. So much for resting in peace…: Again, inexplicable. Just a short comment on a story about a tree in Ireland that blew over in a storm and unearthed an 800 or so year old skeleton in the process. This was probably the first thing I’ve ever posted that got any play on Facebook (posts that my wife shares with her friends excepted), so that was exciting.

Anyway, my real point is: thanks for stopping by this year, and please keep reading in 2016. Happy New Year!

Hey, thanks for reading! If you come here often, and you like what I do, would you please consider contributing something (sorry, that page is a work in progress) to keeping this place running and me out of debtor’s prison? Also, while you’re out there on the internet tubes, please consider liking this blog’s Facebook page and following me on Twitter! Thank you!

If this is what passes for “moderate”…

Zahran Alloush in April (Wikimedia)

Zahran Alloush, Syrian rebel bigshot and leader of the Jaysh al Islam (“Army of Islam”) rebel faction, which is active in the Damascus neighborhoods of Douma and Eastern Ghouta and forms the backbone of the “Islamic Front” rebel coalition, is tragically* no longer among the living:

The commander of one of the most powerful Syrian insurgent groups in the suburbs of the Syrian capital, Damascus, was killed Friday in an airstrike, according to the government and its opponents. The death of the commander, Zahran Alloush, is a significant blow to the armed opposition, bolstering President Bashar al-Assad ahead of a planned new round of peace talks.

Mr. Alloush led the Army of Islam, a group that had recently agreed to participate in a political process seeking to end the five-year-old conflict. The Army of Islam is regarded by the Syrian government and its most powerful ally, Russia, as a sectarian, terrorist group that differs little from more extremist groups like the Islamic State.

Local opposition figures reached in Damascus said the airstrikes had been carried out by Russian warplanes, but that information was not immediately confirmed by Russian or Syrian officials.

The reason why as asterisked “tragically” up there is because, under any other set of circumstances, Zahran Alloush would be regarded by any decent human being as a vicious warlord and purveyor of sectarian violence who posed a legitimate threat to the people around him. So his death would actually be considered a good thing. But in the couple of days since his death, he’s been mourned as though he were Syria’s Nelson Mandela, except many of the people mourning him probably thought that Mandela was a dangerous extremist. Why? Well, because Alloush was that rare Syrian rebel who openly fought ISIS as well as Bashar al-Assad. It’s only a minor inconvenience that his main criticism of ISIS seems to have been that ISIS kills too many Sunnis and not enough non-Sunnis.

Here’s what we know about Zahran Alloush. First, to answer the question you should always ask when reports surface about one of these guys kicking the bucket, we know that he probably is really dead. For one thing, Jaysh al-Islam’s own media outlets are reporting it, as well as the group’s change in leadership (welcome to new emir Abu Humam al-Buwidani!), and for another thing, there have been a lot of “condolence” messages that have been sent over the past couple of days from jihadi-connected Twitter accounts. Usually that’s the kind of thing that signals that the reported death is the real deal.

We also know that Alloush was a very effective rebel leader. Continue reading

Merry Christmas Tunes: What a Wonderful Christmas

This isn’t a “real” album; it’s a collection of Christmas tunes, half by Louis and half by a bunch of other artists, that were all put together in one package in 1998. But it makes for a nice Christmas mix, especially the tunes sung by Louis, so please enjoy. Merry Christmas!

Hey, thanks for reading! If you come here often, and you like what I do, would you please consider contributing something (sorry, that page is a work in progress) to keeping this place running and me out of debtor’s prison? Also, while you’re out there on the internet tubes, please consider liking this blog’s Facebook page and following me on Twitter! Thank you!

Christmas Eve Tunes: Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas


Ella Fitzgerald shouldn’t need any introduction, and since it’s Christmas Eve, let’s just get to the album, her 1960 Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas:

Ella recorded two Christmas albums in her life; Swinging Christmas consists of secular carols, but another, 1967’s Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas, consists of religious carols. I like both, so here’s that second album for you:

To my readers who are celebrating it, Merry Christmas!

Hey, thanks for reading! If you come here often, and you like what I do, would you please consider contributing something (sorry, that page is a work in progress) to keeping this place running and me out of debtor’s prison? Also, while you’re out there on the internet tubes, please consider liking this blog’s Facebook page and following me on Twitter! Thank you!

The IAEA moves the Iran deal forward

I’m going to leave you with one last thing before I hopefully go (mostly) quiet for the next couple of days, and it’s my latest for LobeLog, on the subject of David Albright. If you’re not deeply enmeshed in the Iran debate then you may not know who Albright is, but he runs an organization called the Institute for Science and International Security, or…well, unfortunately, ISIS (in fairness, they had the acronym first). Albright produces a lot of research about Iran’s nuclear program, analysis about the negotiations/deal, etc., and the thing is, he’s opposed to it. He consistently takes the dimmest possible view of everything Iran does and the most skeptical view of any part of the deal (even as most of the arms control community seems to have warmed up to the deal for the most part), he’s co-authored reports and op-eds calling for military strikes and heavier sanctions against Iran in lieu of the talks, and he routinely attacks, often in very petty, personal terms, individuals and groups that support the deal.

And, you know, OK. There are a lot of voices opposed to the deal. I disagree with them, and I think many of them are coming from a very scary part of the neoconservative right that desperately wants a war with Iran either as the next phase of or a do-over for the disaster that was their Iraq War. I don’t necessarily get that from Albright. In observing his work, and talking to people who are more familiar with him than I am, I get the sense that he’s not really political, he just really doesn’t like this deal because he’s kind of an idealist on the subject of ridding the world of WMD. I can understand that perspective. What bugs me about Albright is that he insists, repeatedly and to anyone in earshot, that he’s not opposed to this deal, he’s “neutral” and/or “objective” about it. Well, bullshit. Nary a positive word about the Iran talks have ever escaped this guy’s lips, as compared with plenty of negative words, up to and including the insults he levels at people whose opinions happen to differ from his.

Albright is treated with deference even by deal supporters, because he’s not seen as a knee-jerk opponent but rather as somebody doing honest analysis, and this bugs me. His analysis is frequently questioned because he keeps twisting into knots to make the case against the deal, yet very few people are prepared to suggest that he’s acting in bad faith when he claims to be doing objective work. After watching his “objectivity” in action at a conference last week, an episode that I recount in my piece, I decided that I would make myself one of those people: Continue reading

ISIS, brought to you by…Saddam Hussein?

Middle East analyst Kyle Orton has an op-ed in The New York Times today, called “How Saddam Hussein Gave Us ISIS,” that, as you might imagine, is raising some eyebrows on the internets. I have to say, though, as somebody who has read Orton’s work (the growth of ISIS out of the wreckage of Saddam’s government is his most frequently recurring theme), I think what people are reacting to is an overzealous headline and Orton’s tendency to exaggerate his own material. If you dig into the substance of what he’s writing, there’s some actual meat there, even if part of his conclusion, in my view, is flatly wrong.

One thing that isn’t in dispute is that former elements of Saddam’s regime played a very important role in ISIS’s rise and continue to play an important role in its ongoing military operations. But it’s not clear precisely what the connection is between those former regime elements and the insurgent/terrorist group. The commonly accepted story is that ex-regime figures, members of Saddam’s “secular” Baʿath party governing apparatus, threw in with Islamists after the US occupiers enacted their de-Baʿathification project, starting in 2003. They ran the military side of the organization while setting up men like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as a kind of religious front to appeal to a wider array of potential recruits. What the research that Orton cites suggests is that the reality is more complicated than that.

At the root of this question is the challenge of defining “secular.” The Baʿath Party is considered “secular” and “nationalist,” which to most Western ears means “not religious.” But in fact, the Baʿath movement embraced a religious message from its very beginnings, albeit not an explicitly Islamic one (its founder, Michel ʿAflaq, was a Christian Arab who may have converted to Islam later in life, though that is disputed). As Joshua Landis writes, “ʿAflaq did not try to take Islam out of Arabism; he sought to make Arabism the central tenet of Islam.” Now, there’s obviously an easy case to be made that ʿAflaq and his fellow Baʿath leaders were faking it, using religious rhetoric to appeal to people who wouldn’t otherwise have cottoned to a secular/socialist/nationalist Baʿath ideology. But while that may be true, it’s been ~3/4 of a century since ʿAflaq started propagating Baʿathism, more than enough time for the people he was trying to fool with his fake religiosity to have taken over the movement and imbued it with genuine religiosity.

Orton’s work focuses on Saddam’s own incorporation of Islamism into Iraqi Baʿathism. Quoting from his NYT piece: Continue reading

The qualities of empire

Remember that story I mentioned around here a couple of weeks ago, the one about the Spanish treasure galleon (the San José) whose 18th century wreckage was just discovered off the coast of Colombia? Yesterday, Africa is a Country published an interesting piece about the provenance and the proper destination of that find by Camilo Ucrós, and it was thought-provoking enough that I wanted to share. The fallout from this find is evidence that colonial history still reverberates today.

Ucrós rejects Spain’s argument that the treasure belongs to them because the ship was the property of the Spanish Empire. Here he’s paraphrasing a December 10 editorial in Spain’s El País newspaper, but I figure we can trust his summary (it’s at least got to be more reliable than whatever my three years of high school Spanish would allow me to make of the piece):

But, as an op-ed in the Spanish newspaper El País conveys convincingly, there is no continuity between the idea of the Spanish Empire and the Spanish nation. Modern day Colombia was as much a part of the Empire as modern day Spain, and both of them are the result of the dismemberment of that shared past.

Furthermore, this claim has tints of an unrepentant colonization; rather than wanting to conserve the common past, it is an extractive, one-sided reclamation.

The colonization of the Spanish Americas was different from subsequent colonial ventures in North America, Africa and Asia, respectively. Describing this particular history as a bleeding of Latin America’s resources and people would simplify and obscure the complex narratives and interactions that took place in the continent.

I think this is a great point, although actually think it may be too generous to Spain. Modern Colombia was as much a part of the Spanish Empire as modern Spain, but theirs wasn’t a relationship of equals. Yes, the colonial Latin America experience involved more interaction than other, more purely exploitative or genocidal, colonial experiences, but it was still a colonial relationship. The San José was taking treasure extracted from Spain’s colonies back to the mother country to pay for the mother country’s wars (the War of the Spanish Succession, specifically), and I have a hard time imagining that any Spanish ship ever took the opposite voyage. I’m not disputing Ucrós’s point, and I imagine that he’d agree with the one I’m making here. I just think it bolsters the argument against Spain’s claim to remember that this treasure, while sailing under a Spanish flag, was extracted from people under the implicit threat of force, and without their full consent.

What really stuck out to me about Ucrós’s piece was his argument that Colombia shouldn’t get the treasure (or at least not all of it) either, and this gets into the inadequacies of replacing empires with nation-states: Continue reading