A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Erdoğan Go

Probably no comment needed:

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

AUB's Art Exhibition on "The Arab Nude: The Artist as Awakener"

Beirut has always been a city that has seemed more cosmopolitan than much of the Arab World, and the American University of Beirut (AUB) has often been in the forefront. As part of AUB's 150th anniversary celebrations, AUB has been hosting an art exhibition called The Arab Nude: The Artist as Awakener. It closes this week, so I'm a bit late in writing about it. There was a conference held on the subject as well. At a time when puritanical censorship is growing in many Arab countries, the willingness to address artistic nudity, both male and female (though from the photos mostly the latter) is what still makes Beirut distinct.

From the reviews (a few: here and here and here and here) it's clear this is not about the Orientalist fantasy nudes, erotic harem girls who existed only in European sexual imaginings of the exotic East, so prominent in 19th century art (a subject for another post), but nudes in the work of Arab artists, and an attempt to situate their appreciation of the nude in the context of the broader Arabic cultural awakening, the nahda. The reviews emphasize that the exhibit did not minimize the obvious masculine viewpoint of the artists. A summary from the exhibition's Facebook page:
The Arab Nude: The Artist as Awakener examines the way in which artists and intellectuals of the Mandate era engaging in a double struggle against imperialism, Ottoman and European, resorted to an ideal form or pictorial device to concretize their visions of Arab modernity. For them, to be “Arab” was as much a matter of ambiguity and ambition as was the quest to be an artist. In fact, both labels required leaps of imagination over local conditions and imperial plans. What claims for identity, community, and political society were invested in the divesting of Arab bodies of their clothes? Our exhibition documents the debates that met the genre of the Nude in exhibition halls and newspapers. It situates artistic practices in relation to ongoing, urgent discussions about the meaning of citizenship, urbanity, and internationalism carried out amid movements for women’s rights, pan-Arabism, and various nationalisms, as well as educational reform, militarization, the scouting movement and nudist colonies. Without espousing the role of awakener for artists, our subtitle foregrounds the social, political or cultural motivations for these artists to embrace and adopt the genre of the Nude in their artistic careers.
Or as the last of the reviews linked above says:
More importantly, perhaps, it addresses the idea that these artists used their work to express liberation from Ottoman and European colonisation. As the title suggests, the exhibition, curated by Octavian Esanu and Kirsten Scheid, seeks to establish to what extent these artists used their artistic explorations of the nude as a means of promoting social change in line with the spirit of the nahda – a period of modernisation known in Arabic as the “awakening.” In the context of discussions about the meaning of identity, community, citizenship and internationalism, and of what it meant to be “an Arab,” what was the significance of the Arab form laid bare?

Saturday, July 23, 2016

64 Years Ago Today

July 23, 1952 (second clip in Arabic):

Friday, July 22, 2016

There's Nothing Loaded About This Question

Not "Did the US support the coup?" but "Which agency?" Daily Sabah is considered a supporter of Erdoğan's AKP.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Seemingly Credible Account of What Went Wrong in the Turkish Coup

An unidentified "correspondent in Turkey" writing at Al-Monitor's ''Turkey Pulse" offers an account of "How They Blew the Coup."

It seems credible: basically, Turkey's National Intelligence Organization (known as MIT in its Turkish acronym) got wind of the plot and this forced the plotters to move their plans up by six hours.That information failed to reach the unit tasked with arresting President Erdoğan, and he had escaped by the time they arrived. The change in timing also accounts for the failure to coordinate between military units. Of the accounts I've read, this seems to explain the collapse of the coup as credibly as any.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

July 19, 1916: Turkey Begins Advance in Sinai

In January and February 2015 I posted a detailed account of the Ottoman advance on the Suez Canal a century before. After that campaign British forces in Egypt and their Australian and New Zealand colonial troops remained in the defenses east of the canal, while heir Ottoman opponents remained in eastern Sinai, with both sides conducting forward reconnaissance by air and ground forces.

With the end of the Gallipoli campaign, both sides were able to redeploy forces on the Sinai/Palestine Front. In June of 1916 the Ottoman Fourth Army in Syria and Palestine held forward positions at Bir el-Mazar in eastern Sinai, while the forward British lines were around the wells a Romani (near the ruins of ancient Pelusium, about 42 miles to the west. The British commander. General Sir Archibald Murray, had been constructing a railroad and water supply eastward into Sinai as support for a move toward El Arish. The position at Romani was commanded by Maj. Gen. H.A. Lawrence,The Turks, with the 3rd Infantry Division fresh from battle experience at Gallipoli were under pressure to move closer to the Suez Canal, where artillery could threaten shipping.

Both sides were using the new tool of airborne reconnaissance to track the others movements. The British 5th Wing of the Royal Flying Corps had two squadrons in Egypt, mostly in Sinai and a a few in the Western Desert.

Most of these were B.E.2Cs with a few De Havilands.

Rumpler C.I. model
Opposite them on the Ottoman side was the German 300 Fliegerabteilung ("Pasha"), operating initially from Beersheba and by June from El Arish. It deployed 14 Rumpler C.I. aircraft, though the British histories call them Fokkers. The Germans had several advantages: their planes were faster and equipped with interrupter deices which synchronized their machine guns with their propellers. By mid-July, the British were detecting more German reconnaissance flights.

Gen. Chaytor
On July 19, a century ago, a British aircraft with Brigadier General E.W.C. Chaytor, commander of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, aboard as an observer, discovered an advance force of some 2,500 Turkish forces at Bir Bayud, a comparable force plus 6,000 camels were found to the north at Bir al-Abd, and a smaller force at Jamiel. By the morning of the 20th, Turkish advance forces had reached Oghratina and Mageibra. It was clear the Ottomans were advancing.

The British quickly reinforced the position around Romani and moved all their aircraft in Egypt (including those in the Western Desert) to Ismailia and prepared a forward landing strip at Romani.

This was the beginning of what is often called the second Ottoman attempt on the Suez Canal, though it never came near that waterway. It would end in a battle at Romani in early August.

Neither the senior German officer in Palestine, Djemal Pasha's Chief of Staff Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein, nor the head of Germany's Military Mission, Otto Liman von Sanders, thought the advance could succeed against a superior British force. Liman von Sanders, in his memoirs, says:
The instructions of the expeditionary corps (they came by way of Constantinople, but I do not know who originated them) required an advance so near to the canal that the long range guns could stop the passage of ships.

The instructions I have never understood. The question arises at once how long this interruption by artillery was to last. If it was to be a prolonged one, which alone was of substantial value, it entirely depended on whether the British would tolerate it, or whether the Turko-German troops could enforce it. The former as well as the latter had to be answered in the negative, without question.

The instructions were neither fish nor fowl; they reminded one of washing the hands without wetting the fingers.
He was right. In early August, we'll return to this story for the anniversary of the Battle of Romani.

Further Thoughts on the Turkish Coup as Purges Intensify

The more we learn about the Turkish coup, the more improbable it seems that the coup was staged, since it seems clear that the attempt was real. It does seem possible, however, that the government had gained some prior knowledge of the coup plans, allowing it to outmaneuver the plotters. The Air Force was clearly involved, and the Navy's role is unclear, with some naval vessels reportedly unaccounted for. 

But the sheer scale of the purges goes far beyond the actual participants in the coup, including some 35,000 people from the military, government officials, and academic institutions. If all these people were involved in planning a coup, it would have succeeded. Clearly the government had a target list ahead of time.

Why it failed is still being debated, but my suspicion that the government had foreknowledge of some sort seems likely, given the fact that President Erdoğan evaded capture despite a reported assault on his hotel, and that the plotters were unable to take key command centers in Ankara.  The failure to seize private broadcasting centers (which are more popular than the state-owned media) has been much remarked upon. Clearly, the coup failed to ensure sufficient unanimity in the chain of command. Its execution was a disastrous mess.

The what-went-wrong argument is interesting and I may have more to say as we learn more, but clearly the excessive purges have rapidly become the main story.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Coup that Couldn't Shoot Straight: Whatever Really Happened, Erdoğan Can Now Consolidate Control

It's no surprise that yesterday's failed coup (if that's what it was) in Turkey is being used by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as an excuse to purge not only the Army but the judiciary as well, perhaps clearing the way to achieve the strengthened Presidency he has been seeking. Given the haphazard execution of the coup, it is hardly a surprise that some have speculated it was staged, a burning-the-Reichstag moment. That may be overly conspiratorial, but it could hardly have worked so well for Erdoğan if he had scripted it. (One person suggesting it might have been staged is Fethullah Gülen on whom Erdoğan is blaming the coup.)

If we reject the idea it was staged, then we're left with having to explain the incompetence of the plot. The plotters seized the state television station according to the classic coup playbook, but neglected to seize private TV stations or cut social media for several hours, allowing  Erdoğan to rally support and retake the airport. It was a 1960s coup in 2016. The plotters seem to have been unaware of  Erdoğan's whereabouts, and lacked the support of most of the general staff. It's been suggested that the authorities knew it was coming and were prepared for it. Was this just a classic case of incompetence and military fuckup? Whatever it was, Erdoğan seems intent on capitalizing on it.

Friday, July 15, 2016


The apparent coup in Turkey is still unfolding, and I'm hesitant to comment on the implications until it's clearer what is happening. I'll post more soon.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

For Nice . . .

What else is there to say?

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

NYT Updates the Ongoing Gilles Kepel vs Olivier Roy Feud: The Debate in France over the Nature of Islamic Radicalism

Gilles Kepel
This week The New York Times offered a piece on the increasingly bitter personal feud between France's two best-known experts on Jihadist Islam. .
It's a fight that erupted late last year after the Paris terrorist attacks and that has grown increasingly heated, with two longtime scholar-experts and onetime friends resorting to names like "ignoramus." I've started to write about this particularly Gallic intellectual feud between Olivier Roy and Gilles Kepel more than once but my surgery delayed the post so I'll use the NYT article as an excuse..

While the US Presidential campaign spouts a lot of ill-informed rhetoric about the dangers of radical Islam, real or imagined, France, which has had much first-hand experience, is also witnessing a debate over the nature of Islamic radicalism. The difference is that the main proponents on each side actually know what they are talking about. In fact, they have long dominated the conversation.

Olivier Roy
When it comes to the study of political Islamic movements, radical and otherwise, Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy have dominated the field in France, and arguably in Europe, for decades. Both were once fixtures at Sciences-Po in Paris, though Roy is now at the European University Institute in Florence. And many of he best of the younger generation of specialists in political Islam and jihadism came out of Sciences-Po had studied under one or both. (Off the top of my head, Jean-Pierre Filiu, Stephane Lacroix, and Thomas Hegghammer, but there are many more.)

For those who don't read French, the NYT piece provides a short introduction, as does this Washington Post column. 
Subscribers to The Chronicle of Higher Education will find a good summary behind a paywall here.

If you read French, however, you might as well go to the source. Last November, in the wake of the Paris terror attacks, Roy published an article in Le Monde called "Olivier Roy: « Le djihadisme est une révolte générationnelle et nihiliste »."

His argument, oversimplified of course from its Gallic precision, is that the radicalized Muslims of the Paris suburbs are not really motivated by religion but by nihilism and anarchism, and that Islam is a rationalizing overlay, or, in Roy's aphoristic summary, "the Islamization of radicalism."

By December, Gilles Kepel was taking exception in articles such as this interview in the conservative Le Figaro: "Gilles Kepel: «L'objectif de l'État islamique ? Déclencher une guerre civile en France»." An English summary of the objections to Roy can be found in this piece by Francois Burgat. Kepel and his supporters take a more  traditional approach, seeing  European Islamists more traditionally, as radicalized Islamists.

After the Brussels attacks, Kepel emphasized his views:'"Molenbeek français': la mise au point de Gilles Kepel." Roy reiterated his views in other articles, and in March Kepel struck back with a provocatively titled article in Libération: "«Radicalisations» et «islamophobie»: le roi est nu."
"Le roi est nu," or "The king is naked," is an obvious pun (roi/Roy) on Olivier Roy's name.

And that only brings the back-and-forth up to March. The rhetoric has gotten increasingly personal.

Now, while I am generally familiar with the literature on Jihadism, I am no expert, and certainly not in a league with Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy, nor have I studied radical Islam in Europe, as both men have.  As a historian rather than a political scientist, I tend to be skeptical of theory and rigid structural analysis, and I tend to be pragmatic. From that perspective, the difference between "the Islamization of radicalism" and "the radicalization of Islam" seems to be the question of which you address first. But it also seems that both Islam and a nihilistic desperation play a role. Do we really need a Manichean dichotomy, a zero-sum construct where either one formula or the other is sacrosanct? or could we learn more from reading both Kepel and Roy?

But what do I know? I'm not even French.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Capture of Airbase from ISIS a Stepping-Stone to Mosul

The Air Base on Google Earth
Even as the Islamic State has stepped up terrorist attacks, it continues to lose ground steadily on the battlefield. The capture July 9 by Iraqi and coalition forces of the Al-Qayyarah West Air Base could prove to be a major stepping stone en route to the recapture of Mosul, some 75 kilometers to the north. The base could provide, if cleared, a base of operations for helicopter gunships and ground attack aircraft.

The capture of Mosul is still distant, however. ISIS remains in control of the town of al-Qayyarah, on the Tigris to the east of the airbase, and also of the town of Shirqat farther south on the river.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

What Time is It? In Egypt, it's Complicated.

Egypt was supposed to begin Daylight Savings (Summer) Time this week, but on Monday, just days before it was due to begin, the Cabinet voted to abolish it. The result is some confusion, and EgyptAir is warning there is likely to be much confusion in coordinating airline connections and could face losses of $2 million.

The recent history is just as confusing. In the wake of the Revolution of 2011, the summer time change was abolished. In 2014 it was restored, but suspended during Ramadan. In 2015, President Sisi temporarily suspended it.This year it was announced by the Cabinet that it would begin after Ramadan. The Parliament, however, voted to abolish it, though the Cabinet said it would begin as scheduled. Then, on Monday, the Cabinet reversed itself. So Standard Time remains in effect.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

‘Eid Mubarak

‘Eid Mubarak as an unusually bloody Ramadan comes to an end.  I wish my Muslim readers a joyous ‘Eid al-Fitr, and let us remember that the attacks in Istanbul, in Dhaka, in Baghdad, in Jidda, in Qatif, and in Medina were all in Muslim cities, and many were aimed at purely Muslim targets.