Stretching My Gambes

Obama’s Iran policy could quash dissent

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Published on (01/02/2010)

The United States is ramping up its military presence in the Gulf with the reported sale of patriot missile systems to Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), together with the deployment of two warships capable of shooting down missiles directed at the littoral states in the Gulf.

This can be interpreted in two ways. First, Obama is signalling its capability and intent to an Israeli regime that appears particularly interested in taking unilateral and pre-emptive strikes against Iran’s nuclear programme. Second, Obama is attempting to demonstrate that America is willing to take military action against Tehran.

Being seen to placate Israel, again, will only damage Obama’s reputation further in the region, which has sunk and sunk since its zenith – when he delivered a speech at the Al-Azhar University in June 2009.

More importantly, however, the decision is exactly the sort of American action the incumbents in Tehran need, and probably want, in order to cement their position. While Iran’s leadership has survived the protests and demonstrations that resulted from the disputed election in June, severe discontent still exists within different elements of the Iranian population. By ramping up the threat of military action against Tehran any renegotiation of political power in the country can be seized by hardline elements with a vested interest in maintaining poor relations with the US.

Since the election protest the regime has routinely attempted to cast the protests and demonstrations as a result of foreign meddling in the country’s affairs. A list of 60 blacklisted organisations has now been published by the regime, the majority of which are foreign institutions perceived as a threat.

The country’s history of interference at the hands of American, British and Russian agents developed an anti-imperialist norm that remains pervasive throughout the population. The CIA and MI6 orchestrated coup d’etat against Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 is an event imprinted in Iranian consciousness.

The very foundation of the Iranian revolution in 1979 was the rejection of foreign interference in the country’s affairs. Pre-revolutionary writings from intellectuals like Jamal Al-e Ahmad and Ali Shari’ati spoke of the “Westoxification” of Iran and the need for the country to “return to oneself”. These slogans transcended different political factions regardless of their positions as Islamists, Marxists, republicans or socialists, and manifest themselves in the revolutionary slogans of “Neither East nor West, just the Islamic Republic” and “Independence, freedom, Islamic Republic”.

Political power is in the process of being renegotiated in Iran but threatening the regime in such an overt manner gives them the material it needs to quash the efforts of brave Iranians to confront the brutal authoritarianism displayed by the regime. Iran remains a post-revolutionary state, not a pre-revolutionary state, and the upheavals of 1979 are still playing themselves out.

However, by allowing the Iranian government to divert attention from domestic matters towards the imminent threat of America and Israel, Obama would risk closing the spaces that Iranians have carved for themselves.


Written by Henry Smith

01/02/2010 at 22:36

Yemen’s next steps

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Published on the (28/12/2010)

Yesterday’s conference on Yemen made some important signals of intent for tackling the country’s fragility and insecurity. However the the need for domestic reform, the complexity of Yemen’s role in regional security and the need for investment in Yemen’s transition to a post-oil economy remain understated.

Agreeing on: ‘…respect for [Yemen’s] sovereignty and independence, and commitment to non-interference in Yemen’s internal affairs’ was an important initial step. Visible foreign interference would have merely exacerbated existing tensions, especially in light of comments from the Council of Clerics, an influential body amongst the mosaic of tribal and religious leaders through which President Ali Abdullah Saleh governs by proxy.

Aside from opposing military intervention, including covert attacks, the group has come down hard upon yesterday’s London conference. The clerics identified the event as “aggression against Yemenis” aimed at paving the way for foreign occupation of the country. A member of the Council of Clerics, Sheikh Saleh Salabani, claimed that US strikes would “drive the populace into the arms of al-Qaeda. We might not love al-Qaeda, but it is for our government to get rid of them and not anyone else.”

While direct intervention has been discounted, indeed it was unlikely given Obama’s domestic economic and political context, covert cooperation between the American and Yemeni intelligence services will continue. Being seen to fight Al Qaeda is a domestic imperative for Obama, as since the attempted bomb attack Yemen is perceived by the U.S. public as a threat to the heartland of America. However, any assistance provided to combat Al Qaeda needs to ensure that the separate conflicts in the north, with the marginalised Houthis, and the south, with southern separatists, are not conflated by Saleh under a narrative of counter-terrorism.

Domestic reform
The conference shied away from openly criticising Saleh’s government. Despite calling for reform in-line with IMF prescriptions, there was no mention of last year’s parliamentary elections, which have been delayed until April 2011 ostensibly due to issues of national security. The conference also fails to mention the presidential election in 2006, in which Saleh won 77 per cent of the vote. The EU’s analysis of the election concluded that despite positive steps towards democratic procedures it had not been fairly administered due to the use of state resources, the prevention of female participation, overt favouritism from state media, the incarceration of opposition supporters and concerns over the counting process. This was overlooked by Tim Torlot, the British ambassador to Yemen.

The uprisings by the Houthis and southern separatists, although rooted in older disputes and with their own specific grievances, are both responses to their respective economic and political marginalisation. To bring stability to Yemen, issues of accountability and representation need to be incorporated into the demands and pressure placed on Saleh.

Regional inclusion
The conference agreed that “…economic and social reform by the government of Yemen was key to long term stability and prosperity.” To this end a crucial step was made by the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) Secretary General, who agreed to host a meeting in Riyadh on February 27-28 for Yemen’s regional neighbours and international partners.

Despite Yemen’s status as the most populous country in the Arabian peninsula, the GCC has shown no sign of investing the amounts needed to develop and support Yemen’s economy. Meanwhile, they continually deny Yemen membership due to the fact that the country’s relatively large population, which exceeds the combined population of all six GGC members, would give it unwanted influence and undermine Saudi Arabia’s leadership.

Mai Yamani, an author and commentator on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, has claimed that the GCC members’ failure to open their economies, which always require migrant labour, to Yemen’s young men is short-sighted and has a potentially deleterious impact on regional security. Those who have visited Sana’a say it serves as testament to the skill of Yemeni labourers. However, since the First Gulf War in 1991 Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have routinely expelled Yemeni workers. In December 2009, Saudi Arabia expelled 54,000 Yemeni workers.

Yamani has called for America and the UK, as patrons of the GCC, to encourage the Gulf states to include Yemen in the GCC. A solution to Yemen’s numerous problems is dependent on its inclusion. In reference to the dissemination of Saudi Arabia’s severe Wahabbi doctrine, Yamani states: “…instead of exporting religious radicalism to Yemen, importing its manpower could neutralize Yemen’s problems.”

The post-oil transition
The GCC together with the international community have a crucial role to play in restoring Yemen’s economy. Traditionally reliant on oil, the supplies are drying up. Production peaked in 2002 at 460,000 b/d, but has fallen to the current rate of 300,000-350,000 b/d. It is hard to overstate the significance of Yemen’s oil sector. The World Bank estimates that oil accounts for 90 per cent of export earnings and 75 per cent of government revenue. They predict that state revenues from hydrocarbon sales will plummet sharply during 2009-10, reaching zero by 2017.

As such, investment and economic support needs to be strategically targeted at those sectors of the economy that can play a role in Yemen’s transition to a post-oil economy. Projects need to reinvest in the country’s agriculture and undermine the dominance of Qat, which has a deleterious impact on both the water table and the populations’ mental health.

Piracy and the Gulf of Aden
Future revenue from oil is reliant on establishing new offshore sites in order to improve output levels, however piracy risks in the Gulf of Aden have stunted international investment. This problem has also disrupted the development of Yemen’s nascent liquefied natural gas (LNG) sector, which came on-line in October 2009.

Yemen is not merely a victim of piracy – weapons and money are easily passed across the Gulf of Aden, supporting militancy and piracy in the region. Moreover, Yemen acts as a conduit for international arms smuggling, notably for weapons destined for Somalia, and is crucial to improving security in the region. The conference failed to address these matters, which is a significant oversight given the ability of piracy networks across the Gulf to disrupt the stability of global oil supplies.

The conference has made important signals of intent but it is not enough. It understates the need to look at Yemen and horn of Africa holistically and how insecurity is exacerbated by Saleh’s methods of governance. A lot may reside on the meeting in Riyadh.

Written by Henry Smith

01/02/2010 at 22:30

A ban on markers of difference

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Published on (21/01/2010).

The face-veil has played a political role in French society since the wearing of all “conspicuous” symbols of religion, including the hijab, was outlawed from schools in 2004. However, this debate has received new impetus in the past seven months, since President Sarkozy said that the face-veil, or niqab, was “unwelcome” in French society.

The French parliamentary panel tasked with informing policy on the matter yesterday recommended a partial ban on the niqab in all hospitals, schools, public transport and government offices. The report concluded that “the wearing of the full veil is a challenge to our republic”. It also wants women who cover their faces to be denied state services, including work visas, residency papers or citizenship.

A complete ban on the face-veil in public was pulled at the last minute, following a challenge from the Socialist opposition and concerns over the legality of such a move.

Presenting the report, the Speaker of the National Assembly, Bernard Accoyer, said: “It is the symbol of the repression of women, and . . . of extremist fundamentalism.”

However, the findings of the Muslim West Facts Project questions this claim. This collaborative research venture between the Coexist Foundation and Gallup, published as the Gallup Coexist Index 2009 at the end of last year, explores “attitudes and perceptions among Muslims and the general public in France, Germany and the United Kingdom about issues of coexistence, integration, values, identity and radicalisation”.

Perhaps surprisingly for Accoyer, the report’s findings do not corroborate his views.

With regard to “extremist fundamentalism”, the report notes: “The general European populations surveyed are more likely to associate the hijab [sic] with religiosity than fanaticism, oppression, or being against women.” Importantly, the general French population is more than three times as likely to associate fanaticism with the hijab than the French Muslim population.

Regarding the link between “repression of women” and the hijab, the views of the two communities differ by an even greater margin: 52 per cent of the general French population associate the hijab with repression, compared to 12 per cent of French Muslims.

First, it is important to note that there are differences between the hijab and alternative forms of veiling, as noted by Mehdi Hasan. The report can be rightly criticised for conflating the two. But there are more pressing points that need to be made.

Given the differences in attitude between the general and Muslim populations in France, the state should not be engaging in demonising and outlawing different forms of veiling. Rather, its resources should be invested in engaging with why such symbols and communal markers cause such consternation and discrepancies in attitude. As the report notes:

In terms of what religious signs and symbols are necessary to remove for minorities to be integrated, Gallup Poll findings show that the headscarf and face-veil strike the loudest chords among the general populations surveyed.

The removal of the face-veil from the public eye is not the way to reconcile issues of integration. Dialogue between and within different communities is the only way in which misconceptions and barriers to integration can be removed. Recognising the differences within and between communities, pluralising discussions and understanding the “other” are the steps to integration — not wholesale bans on markers of difference.

Written by Henry Smith

01/02/2010 at 22:14

The Houthi uprising: Iran as a smokescreen

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Saudi Arabia’s ongoing attempt to quash the Houthi rebellion on its border with North Western Yemen has been variously labelled as either a response to territorial infringements or placed in the narrative of a proxy war with Iran. However, both reasons fail to recognise the government’s domestic fears over the marginalisation of its Shi’ite population as the motivation behind their offensive.

Preserving territorial sovereignty is hardly a unique policy, there are few who would criticise the Kingdom’s decision to do so. Indeed, reinforcing the integrity of your borders is particularly pertinent when an ailing Al Qaeda have turned to Bin Laden’s ancestral home as their hosts.

The argument that Saudi’s response is an attempt to counter Iranian meddling remains unclear. While Yemen has accused Iran of arming the Houthis, no evidence has been supplied to support this claim aside from the unverified allegation a captured munitions vessel. In reality the Houthis would have little problem procuring weapons domestically.

Iran has denied this claim and launched a thinly veiled attack on Saudi involvement; Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki stated there were “certain people who add fuel to some crises.” Going on to add: “those people should be assured that the smoke and the fire they have ignited will entangle them themselves.”

However, Tehran appears increasingly interested in the Houthis’ plight. Take Monday’s comment by Ali Larijani (speaker of Iran’s Parliament): “the deplorable events in the Islamic nation of Yemen which have intensified over the past two weeks and the Saudi interference in Yemen through repeated bombings by warplanes is astonishing.” Further, the Iranian parliament have blocked a bill on tax cooperation with Sana’a in opposition to the treatment of the Houthis

It is not unfeasible that Saudi would pursue proxy conflicts to balance against Iran. The Kingdom’s regional influence has diminished following 9/11. Indeed, it is one of the contradictions of the Bush administration’s Middle East policy that while Iran was blacklisted and marginalised, Washington inadvertently improved Iran’s standing at the expense of its regional allies.

In Afghanistan, the Taleban had a perennially poor relationship with the Iranian government. The former held nothing but contempt for the latter’s Shi’ite inspired governmental structure; tensions probably reached their peak in August 1998 when the Taleban killed eleven Iranian diplomats. Animosity between the two was so strong that Iran even offered America intelligence support in Afghanistan.

Similarly, the Islamic Republic never shared positive ties with Ba’thist Iraq. The antagonism initiated under the Pahlavi dynasty and Hussein’s anti-Iranian narratives was exacerbated by the expansionary tendencies of the revolutionary state, which culminated in a destructive eight year war – the longest of the 21st century.

Iran no longer suffers these tensions. The Ba’thist regime is gone and the Taleban are otherwise engaged. Iran now exerts greater influence in both countries and much to the chagrin of the Saudi’s, particularly in neighbouring Iraq.

The Saudis have responded by investing resources into countering Iranian influence in these countries, but they have most recently done so in Lebanon. Hassan Nasrallah’s speech on Martyrs’ Day, Tuesday 10th November, alluded to King Abdullah’s role in establishing the Lebanese unity government.

“We take positively the Syrian-Saudi summit, and we were the first to reap its fruits. We call for a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement to establish communication between the two countries.” This call for rapprochement seems unlikely given recent posturing over Yemen.

Claims of Iranian meddling are somewhat overstated and occasionally fabricated; however Khomeini’s fingerprint is detectable in many regional disputes. This may not always be overt Iranian support but rather through the imagery of the Iranian revolution and Khomeini himself serving as a role model for the oppressed. While not attempting to perpetuate the idea of a sectarian binary or ‘Shi’ite Crescent’, this imagery can be particularly powerful for Shi’ite groups in the region.

However, as Robert Worth highlights in the New York Times, the suggestion that a link between the Houthi and Iran is due to simple sectarian proclivities remains problematic. “The notion that the Houthis are natural religious allies of Iran is misplaced; Zaydism is doctrinally closer to Sunnism than to mainstream Shiism. But a raft of misleading news reports seem to be blurring that distinction.”

Iran does not appear overtly involved at the time of writing. “There is probably next to no Iranian involvement. I have seen no evidence for it and it’s really a bit too far afield,” stated Joost Hiltermann, the deputy Middle East program director of the International Crisis Group. He added: “The Iranians are just brilliant” he adds. “They play no role whatsoever, but they get all the credit, and so they are capitalizing on it.”

If true then what motivates the Saudi offensive? The unspoken reasons are the Kingdom’s insecurities about the marginalisation and oppression of its Shi’te population, who primarily based in the oil-rich Eastern province, and movements by second generation princes to assert their suitability for succession.

The on-going competition between second generation princes is part of a broader worry over succession in the Saudi ruling elite. Khalid bin Sultan is particularly eager to establish his reputation as a strong leader to aid his push for the post of Minister of Defence, which is currently held by his struggling father, who has been recovering from illness in Morocco for over a year.

The marginalisation of the Shi’ites is well documented in September’s Human Rights Watch report. The title of which makes the situation clear: ‘Denied Dignity: Systematic Discrimination and Hostility toward Saudi Shia Citizens.’ The report details the regular repressive measures employed by Saudi authorities: preventing religious gatherings through the closure of private prayer halls; incarcerating clerics; and routine bias in the education and judicial system.

It is the fear of the Houthis fermenting and mobilising the resentment latent in the Saudi Shi’ite population that drives the Kingdom to fortify and militarise the Yemeni border. Keen to prevent any interaction between the two communities, Prince Khaled bin Sultan the Saudi assistant defence minister, has stated that the offensive will stop once the Houthis had retreated dozen of kilometres from the border. The continued bombing this week indicates the Saudis are far from feeling secure.

Doves, flowers and soccer: UK students tour the Mideast

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Published in the Daily Star (Beirut) on Monday 20th October

LONDON: Sporting events have historically served as a means to improve, or temporarily forget, otherwise tense relationships – exemplified most famously by the British and German soccer match during the 1914 Christmas armistice. Improvements in American-Chinese relations during the 1970s were marked by “ping pong diplomacy;” while in 1997 Iranian President Mohammad Khatami used wrestling for a similar means of interaction with America.

The soccer team of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) had similar, but perhaps less grandiose, intentions during their September tour of Turkey, Syria and Lebanon. The trip intended to use soccer as a medium to establish mutual cultural understanding and friendships between communities which often meet only at a diplomatic level.

However, tensions in the Kurdish region of Turkey fuelled debates about British attitudes toward Kurds and their treatment at the hands of the Turkish authorities. Some of the local community took exception to the students’ focus on soccer, suggesting that their time would have been invested better through dialogue and interaction with local communities.

The Turkish state also appeared to take an interest in the students’ activities. The team were allegedly followed by the security services and while in Diyarbakir there were claims from some students that their belongings had been searched when left unattended.

Syria provided a more hospitable atmosphere, thanks to the British Council and the National Union of Syrian Students who oversaw this leg of the trip.

Questioned regarding the source of the funding, the Union maintained that the money was not from Syrian taxpayers; rather it came from the Baath Party. The official line was: “you are students – all students in Syria are treated well.”

In this regard the outstanding moment of the trip for captain Jasper Kain was the post-match exchange of flowers and release of doves by a Kurdish team in Diyarbakir. Kain described the behavior as a “million miles away from Britain” and illustrated his pleasure from sharing iftar with around 500 of the local community.

As in Turkey, positive interactions with local communities triumphed over political difficulties. Following a festively supported match against Iraqi refugees, the teams lifted a banner painted by Iraqi children reading “every child has a wish.” The players then took small cards hanging from a tree, which expressed each child’s dreams. There are arrangements for a similar tree to be planted in London.

Ladideh Iskandarain, the regional head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, stated her pride that a group of young British people had decided to come and play soccer: “This is a big moment, we need more young people like you guys who are willing to reach beyond.”

There were also successes on the pitch. Syria provided the trip’s best quality of soccer despite support being substantially below the promised five thousand. Damascus University managed to have Syrian internationals as substitutes, or “ringers,” which lead to a rather one-sided 5-2 victory. Against Aleppo SOAS managed to hold on to win 4-3 despite the combined efforts of Syrian “amateur dramatics” and some fairly biased refereeing.

A fixture against a Damascene youth side, keen to impress the visiting side, resembled a clash between David and Goliath over a potato field. Despite taking the lead against a team literally twice their size, the locals eventually lost 2-1.

Reflecting on the success of the trip, British Ambassador to Syria Simon Collis praised it as “a great way to get through the tourist barrier,” but encouraged longer-term exchange programs to strengthen relationships further.

The director of the British Council in Syria Elizabeth White shared Collis’ views and aired her support for similar interactions in the future, suggesting that SOAS had set a wonderful precedent.

Perhaps the most significant moments for the students were the firsthand experiences of the Arab-Israeli conflict in al-Quneitra and Tyre. As a number of the team had studied the Arab-Israeli conflict, the trip provided their first opportunity to observe the protracted effects of the Israeli conflict and the remaining tensions.

In Tyre, students were greeted warmly by the extended family of a team member. The team were pleasantly surprised by the vitality and vibrancy of daily life despite the visible scars of the 2006 conflict.

In Golan the team visited the desolate town of Al-Quneitra which serves as a memorial to those killed and displaced by the 1967 Israeli incursion and continued occupation.

Standing on the roof of the bullet-riddled hospital of Al-Quneitra and looking across to the Israeli army outposts proved too much for some.

The trip left a lasting impression on the team, not merely as an adventure, but because it created a number of friendships and plans for return exchanges and trips with different communities.

Written by Henry Smith

17/11/2009 at 09:47

Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme: the most important story of the past year?

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I recently had to answer the following question for a job application: apart from the global financial crisis and American elections, what was the most important news story of the last twelve months and why? The issue of what qualifies as ‘most important’ is immediately contentious; by what or whose barometer is importance measured? However, the coward in me avoided the philosophical response.

My immediate thought was the relegation of Newcastle United, but I felt the context of the question rendered this choice somewhat inappropriate. A friend suggested either Michael Jackson’s or Jade Goody’s death, however the examples given in the question suggested events and stories conventionally identified as ‘political’.

After some deliberation and the acceptance that Newcastle United are not as important to most people as they are to me I opted for the ongoing international diplomatic negotiations over Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme.

The narrative has developed over a number of years but it has escalated over the last twelve months. The following events all occurred within this period: reports that Bush refused American support for an Israeli attack on Iran, Obama’s claim that he desired reconciliation with Iran, the Iranian response, several missile tests and the disclosure of the nuclear plant at Qom. Finally, all of these developments were followed by the recent UN 5+1 talks.

The importance of this story for international political dynamics is multifaceted.

Firstly, whether Iran has nuclear weapons is linked to Obama’s electoral pledge of a world free from nuclear weapons. Thus, being seen to contain Iran’s alleged aspirations is crucial if Obama is to be seen as fulfilling his promises; especially at a time when his domestic and international popularity is dwindling.

Secondly, the behaviour of China and Russia in regard to Iran is of crucial importance for the future of their relationships with America. The importance of these relationships for international economic and political stability is well-documented. The outcomes may act as an indicator for future interactions, however today’s developments suggest that American-Russian relations are still somewhat ambiguous.

Thirdly, Iran’s alleged desire for nuclear weapons is inextricably linked to peace in the Middle East generally. Iran is inseparable from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict due to its antagonistic policies towards Israeli interests and its relationships with Hamas, Hizbullah and Syria. A nuclear-armed Iran would redefine the balance of power in the region and question Israeli hegemony.

Finally, I suggest a point which was not included in my initial response to this question. The pressure on Iran to cease an unsubstantiated pursuit of nuclear weapons indicates the ability of the international community, and particularly Western countries and institutions, to dictate the truth conditions of global political discourse.

Think of the media coverage of Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons and then consider that these claims are unsubstantiated. Most coverage does not mention the fact that head of the IAEA, El-Baradei, re-emphasised on last Monday that there is no proof that Iran has been or is pursuing nuclear weapons.

However, speaking at last week’s Conservative party conference William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, appeared to act on the premise that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons. He stated his party’s desire ‘…to deter and dissuade Iran from the final development of nuclear weapons’, before going on to threaten that ‘unless Iran changes course, the time is approaching for serious and far-reaching sanctions by European nations on Iran’s financial transactions and oil and gas development.’

The belligerent attitude to unsubstantiated claims of Iranian nuclear aspirations detectable in the output of the media and politicians’ speeches is somewhat reminiscent of the claims made against Iraq before the 2003 invasion. Let’s hope that Iran is engaged and not subject to the sanctions regime and warfare its neighbour was. Ultimately those that suffer are ordinary citizens and not those in positions of power. The similarities with period before the invasion of Iraq have been documented elsewhere.

In my opinion it is the combination and possible ramifications of these reasons that indicates the importance of this story. However, I would be interested to hear what you thought were alternative possibilities: the Georgian and Russian clash over South Ossetia, the termination of the Star Wars program, or the ongoing Af-Pak mess? Answers on a postcode please or just put them below.

Written by Henry Smith

13/10/2009 at 16:14

Martyrdom in Lebanon

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Driving through the villages surrounding Tyre is a somewhat schizophrenic experience. On the one hand the scars of the 2006 Israeli invasion are visible due to the remaining rubble and bullet-holes, while on the other it is hard not to be struck by the vibrancy and vitality of everyday life. Experiencing the hospitality and generosity of local families confirms this and rather belies the trauma of their recent history.

A photo of a martyr.

A photo of a martyr.

This trauma is vividly displayed on row upon row of streetlights. Young men who lost their own lives gaze over the continuation of life below them. All are the brothers, fathers and sons of local families who resisted Israeli attacks; some are members of the internationally lamented but locally revered Hizbullah.

Looking at these images, these iconic representations and statements of resistance, I wondered as to how the loss of a loved one impacted on the families. Of course there is the natural grief and suffering that stems from losing a loved one. However, I wondered if a family’s identification with losing something so dear and irreplaceable to them conferred respect or status within the local community?

A community’s experience of conflict and militarism is well documented as impacting on constructions of gender roles and relationships.

For example, Achim Rohdhe argues that eight years of war with Iran led to the identification of Iraqi men, and especially soldiers, as the saviours of the nation. Although this is perhaps not an unusual claim about male gender roles during a time of war, it is curious to note the damage the conflict did to the relatively progressive policies towards women embarked on during the 1970s.

They were reneged on for a variety of reasons induced by the war. For example Hussein’s acquiescence to demands from leaders of communal groups, particularly some tribal and sectarian groups, in order to ensure their support, led to ‘conservative’ and ‘traditional’ policies towards women. This reinforced classical patriarchy’s essentialist binary of masculinity and femininity that had been previously unpicked.

Julie Peteet’s analysis of conflict in the Palestinian territories suggests that beatings by IDF soldiers conferred a sense of heroism and manhood to young Palestinian men. It also created access to roles of leadership for young males; older males became increasingly bypassed for resolving community disputes in favour of those men who had illustrated their capacity to resist the occupation. This usurped the classical pattern of the patriarchal system; senior male social dominance.

In reference to Lebanon Lara Deeb’s work on Shi’a women engages with the photos of martyrs. She claims that the public portraits of martyrs ‘…memorialized the deaths of individuals while representing solidarity with the community epitomized by the lives that were sacrificed.’ The iconic status of these men, the photos that adorn streetlight after streetlight, thus serve to establish community solidarity and political loyalties.

However, her study fails to engage with my query as to how having a martyred brother, father or son impacts on the family within the community. It appeared that the images were hoisted with pride and the men were admired within the community; they had denied their own needs in order to provide for others. Constructions of martyrdom and heroism are perhaps to be expected when conflict exists so symbiotically with the lived experiences of communities in Southern Lebanon.

Written by Henry Smith

07/10/2009 at 00:32