Destroying Yemen: Brothers and Friends Alike, Where Art Thou?

This guest post is part of our MESA blog series published in conjunction with the meeting of the Middle East Studies Association in Washington, D.C., Nov. 18-21. #MESA2017DC


By Isa Blumi, author of Destroying Yemen: What Chaos in Arabia Tells Us about the World, forthcoming January 2018

I wrote Destroying Yemen with the fumes of anger, frustration, and resignation still potent; friends, family, and enemies alike got whiff and knew to stay away. I cannot help, with now almost 1000 days of incessant violence directed at 18 million Yemenis, to feel my initial, and interim inspiration to write, has any hope of changing a thing. Indeed, it was my conclusion, somewhat reconfirmed in light of the recent events in the region, that ultimately my frustration, fear, and outrage cannot offer much support to the real corrective force of Yemeni resistance. As this book begins its journey as part of a public discussion over what has happened in South Arabia, I hope, therefore, to initiate not only an exchange of reactions, denunciations, and snide competitiveness, but an acceptance to ask broader questions about just what we are doing when writing about Yemen, the larger region, and indeed world.

In much of this effort to account for why Destroying Yemen constitutes the concluding strategic calculation of hitherto obscured global interests, I have tried to identify historic roots, as much as future consequences, to chaos in South Arabia. I believe it is not a regional issue, confined to an arena secured by think-tankers or regional experts. Rather, the destruction of Yemen, as a project, an agenda, a frustrated last-ditch strategic shift, implicates a much broader array of interested parties. This is a war with deep roots, reflective of ideologies that expected, demanded, and justified violence to impose an entirely self-serving process of wealth sequestration. Yemen for decades, in other words, has been at the forefront of globalist projects that objectified Yemen’s millions as collateral to a more potent concern with the natural resources that lay under their feet.

Like most scholars working on the region, I fell in love with Yemen. I had the good fortune to experience Yemen as it just became a unified potential reality in the early 1990s. Traveling the breadth of this stunning land, my wish to keep it entirely romantic could not resist, in the end, the intellectual potential of my growing interests. In Yemen, I recognized counter-narratives that begged for deeper analysis. As evident in Destroying Yemen, I refuse, for example, to surrender the relevance of the Ottoman story in Yemen’s modern story; and in this book, I feel I have made my most emphatic case yet for just how crucial it is to bring historic depth to what are clearly not uniquely (post)modern phenomena. Indeed, Yemen’s destruction is so systematic, so deep a crime, largely because of Yemeni resistance to Empire—be it Ottoman and British, or non-governmental agencies empowered by a mission enshrined in neo-liberal discourse. In this respect, I wrote a book that is contemporary as much as historically revisionist.

And yet, I write while millions are going hungry, dying of cholera, and terrorized (but not defeated) by bombs made in the United States, France, Britain, and Sweden. In this light, I end this blog post as I end my book:

… there has been little to admire from the world’s entanglements with beautiful Yemen. In the end, we must conclude that the imprint of would be global hegemons’ ambitions on Yemen takes its most enduring form in graves, bombed medieval cities, and a whimper from starving children no one wants to hear. And with this stark reality, I have nothing left to do. This in the end is just a book.


Isa Blumi is Associate Professor in the Department of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Turkish Studies at Stockholm University. In addition to Destroying Yemen What Chaos in Arabia Tells Us about the World he is the author of Ottoman Refugees, 1878–1939, Foundations of Modernity, and Reinstating the Ottomans.


We Live in a Culture of Commentary

This guest post is published in conjunction with the annual meetings of the Middle Eastern Studies Association in Washington, DC and the American Academy of Religion in Boston, MA, both taking place November 18-21. #MESA2017DC &  #AARSBL17


By Joel Blecher, author of Said the Prophet of God: Hadith Commentary across a Millennium

In many ways, we live in the age of commentary. It seems like every cough, sneeze, and throat clearing is swiftly rendered into text, algorithmically circulated across social media, and subject to endless comments from every perspective. A pundit on every phone, a guru in every garage, and an interpreter on every internet browser.

And yet, our commentarial culture, when viewed historically, is remarkably constrained. Terse, even. We even have a phrase for it: “hot takes,” instant reactions that would seem to tap into humanity’s stream of consciousness in a hundred and forty characters or less. Two-hundred and eighty if you’re lucky.

I have spent the last seven years studying a very different culture of commentary—commentary on Muhammad’s sayings or practices, called hadith. While similar to our contemporary commentarial culture in many respects—a key hub of social and intellectual life—hadith commentaries were multi-volume works of art, monuments to knowledge that required deep learning and decades of training and continuous revision. Commentators dedicated their lives to commenting on a collection of hadith—often passing away before they could complete their work—and meticulously crafted their texts to speak not only to their present, but across long periods of time. These commentaries were built for a kind of time travel—their authors bundled up into quires of paper and ink all of the knowledge they could find in the hopes that readers on the other side of the globe and centuries into the distant future might find some benefit in them. While many perished, the greatest ones actually succeeded, and are still read assiduously today.

I first discovered my interest in hadith commentary when I was invited to attend a live commentary session in Damascus, Syria in 2009. The commentator had spent seven years explaining a single hadith collection, and was only a third of the way through explaining the entire work. Attended by hundreds of students from across the globe, the commentator drew on a rich tradition of commentaries from classical Andalusia, medieval Egypt, and modern India to illuminate the meaning of the hadith for his present audiences. Emulating the practices of his predecessors, he read each hadith aloud, and used each word or phrase to digress on almost every aspect of the human experience. But when I returned to Princeton later that year to begin my doctoral research, I found that virtually nothing had been published on this complex and multi-layered tradition. I could not even find an entry dedicated to the subject in the Encyclopedia of Islam.

After a little digging into the sources, it became clear just how important and exciting this understudied field was. A quick search yielded hundreds of hadith commentaries produced over a thousand years, and each one told a unique story. A hadith commentary sparked public furors in 11th-century Andalusia. In Egypt in the 14th and 15th centuries, live hadith commentary sessions were the stage for spectacular and sometimes destructive rivalries among Muslim chief justices, while the sultans and emirs in attendance doled out gifts, jobs, and even tax breaks. The tradition found new life in British India in the age of print and mass literacy, and Urdu and English commentators emerged to address the political challenges of colonialism but also to solve intellectual problems that, they claimed, their pre-modern predecessors had missed.

Said the Prophet of God tells the story of this living tradition across a millennium, and I hope it will be clear why it deserves more than a “hot take.” As a central hub of Islamic social and intellectual life, the story of how Muslims interpreted and reinterpreted hadith has been a missing piece in the academy’s patchwork understanding of Islam and Islamic history. But this tradition is too vast for a single book or a single scholar to undertake. My hope is that this book spurs on future students and scholars to begin to mine this vast literature. In that spirit, Said the Prophet of God does not pretend to offer the last word on the subject, but rather an introduction to further debate, questions, and commentary.


Joel Blecher is Assistant Professor of History at George Washington University. His writings have appeared in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Oriens, and the Atlantic

Said the Prophet of God explores the rich social and intellectual life of hadith commentary and offers new avenues for the study of religion, history, anthropology, and law.

 

 


Women’s Rights in Afghanistan: Strategic Dilemmas

This guest post is part of our MESA blog series published in conjunction with the meeting of the Middle East Studies Association in Washington, D.C., Nov. 18-21. #MESA2017DC


By Torunn Wimpelmann, author of The Pitfalls of Protection: Gender, Violence, and Power in Afghanistan

A few days ago, on the 11th of November 2017, Afghan Second Vice President Sarwar Danesh proudly presented his country’s new penal code. To most legal scholars, justice officials and aid workers it was a moment of satisfaction. Afghanistan’s last penal code was issued in 1976 and outdated. Moreover, since 2001, when the country became awash with expatriate advisors, a large number of standalone codes with criminal provisions had been promulgated, mostly by presidential decree. Regulating issues such as anti-narcotics, money laundering and terrorism, these new codes had been produced in isolation from the overall legal framework, but all (un)conveniently contained a clause stating that it abrogated any other law in contradiction to it, ( and on many occasions there were indeed contradictions, sometimes multiple). Judges was required to refer to ever-increasing number of laws containing criminal provisions, (some fifty according to one estimation) and so the idea of creating a new comprehensive penal code appeared a sensible one.

But one law has not been incorporated into the new code. The Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women ( EVAW Law) will continue to exist as a stand alone piece of legislation, due to some considerations, as the Vice President said. He did not elaborate further but in my book The Pitfalls of Protection, Gender Violence and Power in Afghanistan, the EVAW law features centrally, as it has done in the gender politics of Afghanistan over the last decade and a half. To follow the trajectory of the law, how it was conceived, promoted, contested, and (partly) implemented is to travel alongside some of the major political, religious, sexual and ideological faultlines of the order erected upon the US-led invasion in 2001.

The law, criminalizing 22 acts as violence against women was conceived in 2005. After a series of strategic and substantial battles within the country’s women’s movement, it was enacted as a presidential decree four years later. The EVAW law failed however to be ratified in parliament where conservative MPs denounced it as an anti-Islamic, foreign product and objected in particular to the law’s criminalization of underage and forced marriage, as well as certain forms of wife beating and polygamy. As such, the law had an unclear legal standing, but was nonetheless celebrated as an historical achievement by many in Afghanistan, both Afghan women’s activists and their allies in Western embassies who had been important in securing the law’s enactment. For years now, despite its ambiguous status as a decree, the law has been the focus of a massive implementation apparatus underwritten by development aid.

But not without some controversy. The conservative parliament aside, legal scholars argued that the law had technical flaws and unclear terminology, and that women’s protection would be better served by merging its provisions into the upcoming comprehensive penal code, which would anyway be the main reference point for judges henceforth. Yet, supporters of the law refused, arguing that to dispossess Afghan women of the law especially dedicated to them would be a reactionary move and a setback for women’s protection. The position reflected the particularities under which women’s rights advocates had been working in post-2001 Afghanistan. Both enabled and disabled by the international presence, which had offered them unprecedented political leverage yet also strengthened both Islamist actors and resentment to foreign influence more generally, many women activists seized on opportunities to get (sometimes discretely) progressive frameworks and institutions in place with the help of external allies and untainted by compromises with more conservative national actors. Whether this strategy will stand the test of time remains to be seen. One indicator will be whether the EVAW law will be applied alongside the new penal code, or fade into irrelevance as a mainly symbolic item and a product of a particular era.


Torunn Wimpelmann is a researcher at Chr. Michelsen Institute.

The Pitfalls of Protection is published in University of California Press’s Luminos open access book program. Click here to download a free digital copy.

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