This month in Middle Eastern history: the Hama massacre (1982)

Lest you think that Assads killing Syrians en masse was some kind of recent phenomenon, a brief mention of the Hama Massacre, which took place during the month of February 1982, should disabuse you of that notion. Bashar al-Assad was just 16 when this massacre took place, and the idea of barrel bombing an open market in Aleppo for larfs was probably just a glimmer in his adolescent imagination. But I’m sure Hafez al-Assad’s decision to kill thousands of unruly citizens made quite an impact on impressionable dictator-in-training Bashar.


Hafez (R) and Rifaat al-Assad, the perpetrators of this particular massacre (Wikimedia)

The Hama Massacre spun out of a much larger confrontation between the secular nationalist Syrian Baʿath Party, dominated by the Assads, and Sunnis affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Sound familiar? Although it didn’t spiral into a full-on civil war, the fault lines in Hama in 1982 looked a lot like the fault lines that started Syria’s current conflict over four years ago. Even the location sounds familiar. Hama was a historic center for Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood and its resistance to the Baʿathists–massive rioting took place there in 1964, as a result of the 1963 coup that brought the Baʿath Party to power–and it’s no coincidence that the Siege of Hama in 2011 was really the first battle of the current civil war.

In the mid-1970s the Brotherhood, partly in reaction to Syria’s move to intervene in the Lebanese Civil War, began a serious campaign of terror throughout Syria, which was naturally met with an equally violent backlash from the Assad regime. By 1982 there had been at least one (obviously unsuccessful) attempt on Hafez al-Assad’s life (in 1980), which only inspired him to be more brutal toward his opposition. On February 2, 1982, a Syrian army unit sniffing around Hama for troublemakers was ambushed by a guerrilla resistance group, who then raised a general alarm throughout the city. In the uprising that immediately followed, government and Baʿath Party buildings were ransacked and captured, dozens of Baʿath officials were killed, and the rebels proclaimed Hama “liberated.”

The government responded quickly. Continue reading

BLACK HISTORY MONTH: Islam and the American Slave Experience

As I said when I wrote this a couple of years ago, this blog only intersects with American history on a few very specific areas, and with African-American history even less than that. But there was definitely a Muslim component to the history of African slavery in America, and I hope this introduction to a couple of well-known Muslim slaves, as well as a few books on Muslim slaves in America, is well-received.

and that's the way it was

I wanted to commemorate Black History Month before it ends, but as African-American History is not my area there’s not much I can write about it that would be worth anybody reading. One area where the general thrust of this blog sort-of intersects with African-American history is in terms of African Muslims who were sold into slavery here. There aren’t great records as to the number of Muslims who came over here as slaves, but much of the slave trade originated in West Africa, a region that was and is heavily influenced by Islam and where the slave trade with Arab kingdoms to the north and east likely provided the template for the trans-Atlantic slave trade (though that in no way suggests that slavery in the Americas and slavery in the various parts of the Islamic World were identical institutions, or that the life of a slave in one place…

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Friends, I hope you won’t hold it against me if I say I need to take a couple of days away from the blog and recharge my batteries a little. I was already struggling yesterday, but I’m really feeling it today. I’ll be back for a little history on Sunday and hopefully back to normal on Monday. Next week look out for a feature on Iranian celebrity general/international pariah Qasem Soleimani, by special request. Thanks for reading!


It’s possible that I have a crayon in my brain, I’m not sure

P.S. If you’re in search of more reading on today’s Iranian elections, I recommend checking out a couple of pieces at Brookings’s Markaz blog. I’ll presumably have some thoughts on Monday once we have some idea how the election unfolded.

Today in Chinese history: the Siege of Kaifeng ends (1233)

If you pick up an academic book on Mongolian history, there’s a good bet that somewhere in the introductory sections the author will lament his or her inability to study the full range of primary sources on the topic. This is because the two most important languages for studying the Mongols (more important even than Mongolian, ironically enough) are Persian and Chinese, and there have been only a handful of scholars, ever, who have managed to learn both of those languages well enough to research primary sources on the Mongols from one end of the empire to the other. When I write about the Mongols it’s usually about their activities in the west, in the Persian half of the Mongol world, because that’s how I approached the Mongols in grad school and that’s the part of the world we mostly cover around here. Basically, I’m saying that despite today’s post, don’t expect me to start covering Chinese history on a regular basis.

I’m making an exception for the 1232-1233 Siege of Kaifeng partly because the Mongols were involved, but also because, from the standpoint of military history, there were some incredible things happening in China in this period. You see, the Jin, who were the ruling dynasty in northern China and the target of the Mongols’ offensive, were using early gunpowder weapons (the Mongols may have been using gunpowder by this point as well, but there’s no great evidence for it). Some of them appear to have been quite devastating, while others were probably more useful in terms of terrifying the enemy than in physically injuring them, but nevertheless they all played a role in the Jins’ ultimately unsuccessful defense of the city. One of them, the “fire-lance,” had actually been in use in China for a couple of centuries by this point, but its use at Kaifeng is particularly well-attested thanks to an account by a Jin official who lived through the siege.


The Jin Dynasty (Wikimeda | Ian Kiu)

Here’s the historical context. The Jin Dynasty ruled northern China (which doesn’t exactly correspond with “northern China” as we’d think of it today, but it works as shorthand) from the early 12th century through 1234, a year after Kaifeng, when the Mongols toppled them. They began as a Manchurian tribe that worked with the southern Song Dynasty to do away with the Liao, who had previously controlled most of northern China. One of the main preoccupations for whichever dynasty controlled northern China at this time was coping with raiding nomadic steppe tribes to the north. The Jin extracted tribute from the tribes, regularly intervened in inter-tribal politics in order to keep any one tribe from becoming too powerful, and at their most fanciful they actually claimed sovereignty over all the tribes. Never let it be said that 12th century Chinese ruling dynasties lacked a sense of humor. Continue reading

The day that was: February 25 2016

Hi. It’s late, I know. Today was one of those days where I just didn’t feel like writing anything, but I made myself do it. For you. Message: I care.

Today we noted that some enterprising Egyptian tried to sell his or her president on eBay, and that somebody was willing to pay 6 figures for him despite the fact that he’s been pretty terrible.

We looked at the Darayya suburb of Damascus and why it alone might be enough to derail the Syrian ceasefire almost before it actually starts.

I wrote a primer on the Iranian elections and posted it at Medium, where you should definitely go read it ASAP please.

We talked a little about the shared roots of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban movements, and the responsibility that Pakistan’s intelligence service bears for the existence of both.

Last night I posted John Oliver’s bit on Hollywood whitewashing, but the highlight of Sunday’s show was his long, funny-but-serious piece on the evisceration of abortion rights around this country. Here it is:

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Pakistani Taliban, Pakistani problem

Yes, I’m writing this so I don’t have to pay attention to the Republican debate. Sue me.

This is a few weeks old, but I’ve been meaning to flag Dexter Filkins’s January 22 New Yorker piece on the Pakistani Taliban (the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan or TTP), perpetrators of many terrorist attacks including the December 2014 attack on a school in Peshawar and last month’s attack on a university in Charsadda, and its roots in Pakistan’s intelligence service (ISI). The ISI effectively created the Pakistani Taliban when it helped birth the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s. After the Afghan Taliban were driven out of Afghanistan by the US, they took refuge in the Pashtun tribal areas of Pakistan, and their ideology caught on. Instead of working to eliminate all Taliban influence in those regions, the Pakistani military then tried to manipulate American military activity (drone strikes, for example) to target just the Pakistani Taliban while leaving the Afghan Taliban alone. That, well, didn’t work:

For years—indeed, even today—the Pakistani generals imagined they could have it both ways: that they could support the Afghan Taliban while ignoring the Taliban inside Pakistan. The Pakistani military often aided the C.I.A.’s drone campaign in Pakistan, but, while the Americans wanted to go after both groups of Taliban, the Pakistanis typically only helped them with the Pakistani cells. The Pakistani generals were playing a double game inside a double game: they took the Americans’ billions and supported the Taliban fighters who were killing the Americans, and they secretly helped the Americans kill Pakistani Taliban in the C.I.A.’S drone war, letting the Pakistani civilian leaders take the heat.

Not surprisingly, the double-double game was too clever by half. As the Afghan Taliban flourished, the Pakistani Taliban, occupying the same safe havens in the tribal areas, spun out of Pakistan’s control. By 2009, the Pakistani Taliban was so strong that they pulled within sight of Islamabad, the capital.

Pakistan has been far more effective in rolling the TTP back in recent years, and, as Filkins notes, attacks like Peshawar and Charsadda can be seen in light of the TTP’s increasing desperation over its territorial losses.

Since the Pakistani Taliban grew out of the Afghan Taliban, the two groups share an ideological underpinning rooted in Pashtun nationalism combined with Deobandi fundamentalism, heavily influenced by Wahhabism. The Deobandi movement began in India–in Deoband, India, go figure–in the 19th century as kind of Islamic revivalism motivated by resistance to British colonial occupation. A group of religious scholars founded a university, the Darul Uloom Deoband, where their teachings were (and continue to be) propagated. Continue reading