Monday, 31 March 2014

The State is Dead

Nation-state politics and contrived borders from an era of geo-political colonialism are being actively deconstructed by the emergence of video exposing the participation of Chechen rebels in the Syrian civil war. As the war passed into its fourth year last month, the multiple ideologies, religious perspectives and politics that extend outside of the conservative notion of what war consists of have become increasingly clear. The traditional concept of a war fought by nations with flags fails to address the geographical and social make-up of the Syrian conflict.

The Syrian conflict provides for the discernment of a restructured world, where the nation-state, its flags and bunting are abandoned. The number of stakeholders and the diversity of their make-up and the multitude of ideologies prevents any easy form of definition. It's in this myriad of postmodern-labelling that the realities of violence are presented.

The history of the nation is relevant: some of the difficulties stem from the imposition of a government of disputable legitimacy by the French in 1936. Their withdrawal in the 1940's was followed by a long period of instability, governments lacking authority and the repeated failure to provide for political institutional development. The lack of understanding of the various sects of Islam on the part of the French had a role in the country's difficulties. The 1970's saw the Assad family come to power, who are of the Alawite sect, which takes influence from Shia Islam. They have opposing beliefs to Sunni Muslims about the appropriate leaders within the faith which has been a source of contention between the groups throughout the development of Islam. The division between the two groups in Syria is roughly 13% Alawite and 70% Sunni.

The Alawite sect of Islam stretches along the Mediterranean coast in Syria and Lebanon, with populations in Beirut and Damascus. There is growing tension in Lebanese cities between the Alawite sect and other Muslims.
The Assad family remained the dominant force in Syrian governance for the past forty years, despite being part of a religious minority. This religious minority was mostly from the Damascus region and along the Mediterranean coast, including parts of the Lebanon. Much like the Hussein regime in Iraq, the Assad family took a nationalist, secular stance towards development, generating tension between government and those who favoured an Islamic state. This led to the repression of the views of Sunni Muslims and their disenfranchisement from politics and administration.

Sunni Muslims, lacking political expression and angered by the Assad family's single-party regime and authoritarian approach banded together to create the Free Syrian Army (the FSA). Their goals reflect some of the shared values seen throughout the Arab Spring. A former colonel with the Syrian Air Force, Riad al-Assad is thought to be the leader of this group. The FSA are seen as religious and political moderates within the conflict. On a spectrum of religious fundamentalism, they're seen as the least religiously motivated.

Sunni Muslims make up the largest religious group within the country. They occupied large portions of the military command before defecting to fight with the FSA.
Jabhat al Nusra, who resemble the Free Syrian Army, have expressed more radical Islamic beliefs. Philosophical leaders in Islam, such as the extremist Ayman al-Zawahri have promoted this group's vision of an Islamic state with the imposition of Sharia law. It's difficult to accurately represent a religious ideal in a war, and their real vision of statehood is uncertain. The group with the most extreme religious views in the conflict is the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS); a group who have a support base stretching from the western regions of Syria down into the centre of Iraq. Their vision of a strict Islamic state is so at odds with the anti-government forces of the FSA and Jabhat al-Nusra that the Assad government is now supporting ISIS.

ISIS has a support base in Iraq and Syria, having fought against Coalition forces since the invasion of Iraq with the goal of imposing a hardline Sharia law system across a Pan-Islamic state. ISIS now fight against the FSA and Jabhat al-Nusra.
The aspect of the Syrian conflict most difficult to understand is the diversity of agendas appearing within the conflict. The instability in the region has allowed long-affected groups who have been fighting for decades to resurface and to take advantage of the breakdown power structures. Chechen rebels (who demand an Islamic state in the Caucasus region) from the northern parts of the Caucuses have travelled south to join the fight. Various reasons for the Chechen participation can be put forward: the Assad regime had close military links to Russia, purchasing the majority of their military equipment from the former Soviet Union who oppressed the Chechen independence movement.

The video below from the channel 'Akhbar Sham', displays the Chechen rebels fighting in Allepo province, to the north of Damascus. Russian chatter can be heard over the radio. The Chechens distinguish themselves from other groups fighting in the war by their clear uniform and more disciplined fighting style.

The Soviet Union had the effect of stifling religious and political expression and denied the group the opportunity to develop autonomy from Moscow. Chechen rebels also will also be taking the opportunity to gain experience and practise techniques ready to return to Chechnya with new skills and a new ability to strike back at Russian troops.

Chechnya: predominantly Muslim and has fought for Chechen independence from Russia in two wars since the breakdown of the USSR in the early 1990's. 
The long-struggling Kurds of the region have banded together with the FSA and Jabhat al-Nusra to battle against government forces. As previously reported here on Skríobh, groups associated with the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) have published videos of attacks against government forces. The reporting by Aris Roussinos for Vice has provided an insight into the undereported, fractious nature of the conflict. The Kurdish group 'YPG' are attempting to secure the northeastern region of Syria and appear to be the best chance of a stable government in the future of the region.
 Kurdistan stretches from central Turkey, parts of Armenia, northern Syria and south down into to the federal region of Kurdistan in Iraq. Mountainous territory has slowed political domination of the group.

To the west of Syria, Hezbollah has continued to support the Assad government in their battle against opposition forces. Hezbollah has received weaponry and financing from the Iranian government, angering Israel and has been the target of air-strikes as well as the 2006 incursion by Israel into the Golan Heights. The Golan Heights are the much-disputed geographical border of mountainous land between Syria, Israel and the Lebanon. Hezbollah are predominantly Shia and the Assad government provides greater support for Shia Islam in the region, to the detriment of Sunni Muslims.

The Lebanon is one of the most ethnically diverse places in the world. Hezbollah is thought to have a superior fighting force than the Lebanese army and has received support for decades from Iran.

What frightens countries in the EU is the Islamic concept of brotherhood throughout the religion, rather than on a statehood basis. Thus, an attack on Islam is an attack on the brotherhood. Those travelling from western Europe to train and fight with the rebels are seen as a possible threat to government if they ever return. An example of one of those with a high-profile has been Yilmaz, a Dutch national who trained as a soldier with the Dutch army before leaving for Syria. During an interview with a Dutch television network, he set out his reasons for joining the conflict and his role in training rebels. which can be viewed here. He also runs and Tumblr accounts.

The presence of Chechens, Hezbollah and the Kurds along with a scatter of European Union citizens in the war will have implications far beyond the governance of Syria. Using the conflict as a war-by-proxy, the regional stakeholders such as Iran, the EU and Russia will have to take a hard look at their involvement in the war. The inadequate map-drawing by colonial powers facilitated authoritarian and repressive regimes to take control of land, people and power and prevents meaningful social engagement. The nation-state as the modern world knows it fails to have influence in a crisis dominated by non-state actors. The concept of national self-determination needs to be reconfigured if there is to be a meaningful politics in the Middle East.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Setup, a device

'Setup, a device' is an exhibition by six Dublin artists. The work is situated in a warehouse space formerly used for the storage of files related to the Mahon Tribunal in Dublin 8.

Renèe Helèna Browne, Avril Corroon, Kerry Guinan, Tara McKeon, Saoirse Wall and Eimear Walshe's work investigates subversion, pretence and their participation in the construction of illusion.

The work is open to the public from midday to 6pm on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the 28th, 29th and 30th of March on Mill Lane, west of Fumbally and Clonbrasil Street and south of the Liberties. For directions, view the map:

Friday, 21 March 2014

Long Dresses

This shoot originally appeared in the University Observer on the 4th of March; issue X, vol. XX.

Pink Valentino Dress - Covet. Fur stole - Shutterbug. Necklace and bangle - River Island. Ring - Asos.

Backless indigo dress - Covet. Shoes - River Island. Gold clutch - Dublin Vintage Factory. Ear rings - Zara.

White Peplum dress - Covet. Hairpiece - Asos.

Models - Hannah and Rebecca Durkan. Styled by Christin McWeeney. Make-up by Kine Good. Directed by Emily Mullen.

Friday, 14 March 2014

The Rhetoric of the Freeman on the Land Movement

The Freeman on the Land Movement is an unaffiliated group whose main belief is that the current legal system lacks legitimacy. Some of the main beliefs are that the state is prejudicial to those who choose to not recognise state authority and aspects of contract law. The ideology has gained traction amongst parts of Irish society in the economic slump as anti-state sentiment grew in the wake of several bank bailouts and various government controversies.

Those associated with the ideology often find themselves in conflict with the Gardaí and the courts due to mortgage related issues and court orders relating to contempt-of-court proceedings. A style of argumentation often put forward by the group is that the current legal system is based on a system of contract that they have not consented to and that the courts lack jurisdiction over their case because of procedural issues. These arguments are often ignored by judges as they fall outside the accepted standards and norms of the courts. Leaders in the group respond that this is a further sign of prejudice and is the application of a foreign legal system which has no grounding in Irish law, where Irish law is an unwritten, assemblage of Brehon and anarchist thinking.

The primary argumentative style is based on what resembles strict positivist constitutional thinking; that all law should be grounded in a constitutional document and that if it does not appear in the constitution then it has no validity. Arguments put forward by the Freeman movement often relate to the sovereignty of the state flowing from the people and that arguments based on constitutional law have the highest merit. The accepted system in Ireland is that constitutional rights can be limited for the smooth functioning of the state. For example, article 4 of Bunreacht na hÉireann says "No citizen shall be deprived of his personal liberty save in accordance with law". The caveat seems to be ignored by Freemen when it suits.

These photographs are some of the material distributed throughout Dublin on street-furniture related to semi-state owned bodies, such as An Post. They do not reference any political group and have no branding. The materials do not provide a context or surroundings on which their application should be based. Anti-contractual semantics about the meaning between the words "bill" and "notice in law" presents itself as pseudo-legal thinking and is purposefully confusing. By engaging in this confusing style, the lay-person is led to believe that these arguments would have weight in front of a judge, which they don't. They lack the accepted precedent of the common law system that is employed in Ireland.

The employment of Freeman thinking is indicative of a disenfranchised group who see no remedy through ordinary, accepted means. The use of a continuously rejected approach only further deepens the crisis these people often find themselves in. Resembling a ramshackle group of middle-class anarchists, those engaged in Freeman arguments appear on shaky ground, not quite confident of their own approach, lacking any expertise on the issues they profess that 'the state' doesn't understand. It is an interesting but misguided approached to solving legal issues.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

What Were They Wearing

Grace wears: black floppy hat, American Apparel. Grey dress, Asos. Gold choker, Miss Selfridge.

Grace wears: houndstooth strap top, PVC skirt, both from Misguided. Metallic bag, Topshop.

Rory wears: red/white stripe top, Topman. Black chinos, Topshop. Fedora and loafers, Asos Marketplace.

Rory wears: t-shirt with leather look panel, Asos. Cable knit jumper, Boohoo.

Models: Rory Mullen and Grace McGuinness. Styled by Christin McWeeney. Directed by Emily Mullen.

Photos originally appeared in the 8th edition of Vol. XX of the University Observer. First published on the 4th of February 2013.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Kerrygold Butter and the Human Capacity to Empathise

The US Secretary of State, John Kerry condemned the Ugandan government for passing legislation that allows prison sentences for homosexual behaviour. At the same time, an Arizona Governor was required to veto a bill that would allow businesses to discriminate against customers on religious reasons. Just how ready is the US to act as the global judge of human rights? In examining the behaviour of ourselves and others, there may not be clear answers as to what marks the true extent of our understanding of "the correct thing to do".

The United States of America takes centre stage in the discussion of rights and duties because of its strong economic, social and military power. Vulnerable countries often submit to the power of those who can bring foreign aid and direct investment, and it may be through this pressure that Uganda will change its law. Arizona's desire to discriminate against gay people wavered when companies like Apple and Intel started suggesting that they would review their business arrangements in the state should the bill be enacted into legislation. Money makes a difference in convincing people of your moral authority.

In this process of affecting change, the moral authority of Kerry and the US are cast into doubt. A domestic comparison of the recent Jailbreak competition provides equally challenging questions. While probably one of the most efficient methods of raising substantial funds for worthwhile charities in a novel way, the competition's individualist tone compromises its good intentions. It must be asked, what is the appropriate response to real and significant problems around the world? Are we left in a situation where the only acceptable objective of all charitable work be the reconstruction of a society where gross inequality of all types are impossible? In empathising with human suffering, there is a limit and capacity to feel for others. The human capacity to use reason provides the social crutch necessary to make the world better beyond those who we can feel for.

There are levels of moral authority and there is a spectrum of charitable work. Those in a position of authority, such as John Kerry, find themselves in peril of undermining their noble causes by lacking the will to challenge the status quo, either within their own establishments or by failing to recognise that values outside of their establishment differ greatly from their own. The Law Society of Ireland faces this challenge in their representations to the Oireachtas committee on tobacco advertising. The Law Society sought to highlight to the committee that an introduction of plain-packaging on tobacco products could "adversely impact on business and employment". In an interview on Newstalk, the Director General of the Law Society said "So if the beginning is with tobacco where would it end?...would Kerrygold Butter not [sic] longer be allowed to have a gold package, if it is seen as fattening?".

This facetious approach is difficult to understand, in light of the decades of research showing the link between tobacco products and premature death, and the absence of addiction problems related to butter. Choosing to engage in legal advocacy on tobacco packaging rather than on a more socially contentious point, the Law Society have damaged their standing in the eyes of the public. They seemed to have engaged in wilful denial that tobacco consumption could be massively harmful. (Much to the ire of colleagues who feel misrepresented.) Much like John Kerry, the Law Society have taken a position without considering the public perception of the position they've taken. The Jailbreak competition has been scrutinized for this same reason. Charity and well-intentioned intervention may not be enough to address the more serious, underlying systemic flaws that permeate society.

Establishing who has the moral authority to champion the rights of others is a difficult task. The human capacity for empathy is limited, and when that limit is reached the ability to reason provides a means for addressing problems. There is an infinite yardstick by which to calibrate what is meant by "the right thing to do". In addressing the problems that afflict society, there are no moral certainties; only reason, empathy and trust.