Middle East update: September 19 2018


Yom Kippur began at sundown on Tuesday, and Ashura begins at sundown tomorrow, so Columbia University professor Hamid Dabashi has put together a little piece on the two religious observances’ shared heritage:

Both Jewish and Muslim observers have noticed this proximity between Yom Kippur and Ashoura. On the occasion of the two holidays coinciding in 2016, Rabbi Allen S Maller noted how “both holy days occur on the 10th day of the month, Muharram for Muslims and Tishri for Jews.”

By way of explanation, he adds: “In ancient times the two branches of Abraham’s house followed the same lunar-solar system of intercalating an additional month 7 times in a cycle of 19 years. Thus, the 7th Jewish month of Tishri coincided with Muharram; and the ‘Ashura (10th) of Muharram synchronized with the 10th of Tishri, the Jewish Day of Atonement – a day of fast.”

On the occasion of a similar concurrence in 2015, Haroon Moghul , a Muslim American writer and a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, wrote in a piece for CNN: “If you’re wondering why Muslims would celebrate a Jewish holiday, that’s because neither [Prophet] Mohammed nor the Early Muslims saw themselves as part of a new faith.”

The story, as found in the Sahih Bukhari at least, goes that in the early years of his stint in Medina, before he turned on the Jewish tribes there and/or vice versa, Muhammad noticed them observing Yom Kippur. He asked what was going on and according to Bukhari they told him it was to commemorate the day when God parted the Red Sea and rescued the Israelites from Egypt. This isn’t quite accurate–Yom Kippur commemorates Moses receiving the second copy of the Ten Commandments and the Israelites’ atonement for the whole golden calf incident–but I guess you can chalk it up to either Bukhari, one of his sources, Muhammad, or Arabian Jews not quite getting the day’s origins exactly right.

It so happens that this took place in a year when Yom Kippur, the tenth day of the Jewish month of Tishri, fell on the tenth day of the Islamic month of Muharram, which became known as “Ashura” after the Arabic word for “ten,” ʿashr. Muhammed decided that he and his followers had a stronger claim on Moses than the Jews, so he began observing the fast and ordered his followers to do likewise. Nowadays it’s not obligatory, but many/most Sunnis do observe a fast on Ashura to commemorate the Israelites’ deliverance from Egypt. You might also hear Ashura referred to as yawm al-ghufran, which is “Yom Kippur” with a couple of very common consonant shifts, though you could also hear that term applied to Yom Kippur (only occasionally do the Jewish and Islamic calendars align so closely that these two days are so near one another).

Ashura of course has much more significance for Shiʿa Muslims, who hold that it’s the day Ali’s son Husayn was killed in the Battle of Karbala in the year 61 (October 10, 680, give or take, for us Gregorian calendar types). This is arguably (well, it’s not that arguable, really) the foundational event in the development of Shiʿism. Shiʿa commemorate Husayn’s martyrdom and lament his betrayal (as they see it) by the people of Kufa, who had invited Husayn to establish his caliphate in their city but then refused to help him when the Umayyad army arrived. The theme of repentance for that betrayal is a big part of the day, and in extreme cases involves the practice of self-mortification using whips, chains, and so forth.

Many Shiʿa make a pilgrimage to Karbala on Ashura, though this is dwarfed by the pilgrimage on Arbaʿeen, which comes 40 days later (arbaʿeen is Arabic for “forty”) and commemorates Husayn’s burial. Many more stay home and participate in marches or other gatherings. The pilgrimage and these local gatherings have frequently been prime targets for extremist Sunni terrorist groups, most especially ISIS and its forerunners in Iraq. I suppose we’ll see how things go tomorrow, but already Shiʿa in Afghanistan especially are bracing themselves for violence.


The AP is reporting that at least 4500 Syrians and perhaps many hundreds more who were displaced in the initial government offensive in Idlib have returned home in just the couple of days since Russia and Turkey worked out their deescalation plan there. They may not want to get too comfortable, though. The second phase of that agreement calls for implementing a demilitarized zone in Idlib that will be patrolled by Turkish and Russian forces, starting October 15. But before that can happen the rebels in Idlib have to agree to it. So that gives Turkey about a month to disarm, displace, or co-opt every rebel faction in the province, including and most especially Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Not an impossible task, but a pretty challenging one.

If the Idlib deal does hold up, it should allow Turkey to refocus its attention on the YPG and in particular on Manbij, where the June deal Ankara cut with the US apparently hasn’t really gone anywhere:

The deal brokered by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo foresaw the evacuation of all YPG elements from the region and the start of joint Turkish-US patrols inside Manbij city. All of this is to be concluded within 90 days of the announcement of the roadmap.

At least this was the reading of the roadmap by Ankara. The full details of what was actually agreed on were never officially made public. What we know about the roadmap is that it is mostly based on leaks to the press by the Turkish side.

Ankara is complaining now that the United States is dragging its feet over this agreement. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spelled this out while talking to reporters on his presidential plane on Sept. 3 as he was flying back from a visit to Kyrgyzstan.

“The job is being delayed. We have to see this fact. We are not at an ideal point. The agreement that we had reached is not being implemented in the right direction,” Erdogan said.


The United Nations World Food Program raised new alarms about famine in Yemen on Wednesday. The WFP says that 8.4 million Yemenis are now at imminent risk of starvation, and the collapse of the Yemeni rial has put another 3.5 million people on the brink. The renewed coalition attack on Hudaydah threatens to exacerbate the problem by putting Yemen’s main seaport at risk.

At TomDispatch, Rajan Menon revisits the US role in enabling this atrocity:

For years now, a relentless Saudi air campaign (quite literally fueled by the U.S. military) has hit endless civilian targets, using American smart bombs and missiles, without a peep of protest or complaint from Washington. Only a highly publicized, completely over-the-top slaughter recently forced the Pentagon to finally do a little mild finger wagging. On August 7th, an airstrike hit a school bus — with a laser-guided bomb made by Lockheed Martin — in northern Yemen, killing 51 people, 40 of them schoolchildren. Seventy-nine others were wounded, including 56 children. Soon after, a U.N. Security Council-appointed group of experts issued a report detailing numerous other egregious attacks on Yemeni civilians, including people attending weddings and funerals. Perhaps the worst among them killed 137 people and wounded 695 others at a funeral in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, this April.

The attack on those schoolchildren and the U.N. report amplified a growing global outcry against the carnage in Yemen. In response, on August 28th, Secretary of Defense James Mattis let it be known that the Trump administration’s support for the Persian Gulf potentates’ military campaign should not be considered unreserved, that the Saudis and their allies must do “everything humanly possible to avoid any innocent loss of life.” Considering that they haven’t come close to meeting such a standard since the war started nearly five years ago and that the Trump administration clearly has no intention of reducing its support for the Saudis or their war, Mattis’s new yardstick amounted to a cruel joke — at the expense of Yemeni civilians.


One of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s (former) top lieutenants, Ismail al-Ithawi (AKA Abu Zaid al-Iraqi), was sentenced to execution by an Iraqi court on Wednesday. He may be the highest level ISIS official yet captured and convicted in court. Ithawi had apparently cooperated with Iraqi authorities, but that wasn’t enough to spare him the death penalty. And while nobody will miss him, there are ongoing concerns that Iraq’s legal system is violating people’s civil rights on the regular under the protection of anti-terrorism statutes.


Palestinian officials say that a 15 year old boy was shot and killed by Israeli forces on Wednesday in the town of Rafah, near the Gaza-Egypt border. The Israeli soldiers apparently fired on a crowd of protesters.


The State Department released its annual Country Reports on Terrorism for 2017, and it wants to make sure you know that Iran is still doing Evil:

The State Department released a report Wednesday identifying Iran as the leading state sponsor of terrorism with a “near-global reach” and accusing it of sending suspected operatives to the United States.

The annual Country Reports on Terrorism for 2017 said Iran and the proxy groups it finances were responsible for attacks or attempted attacks in the Middle East, Europe, South America and Africa.

“It brings to its terrorist activities the resources of a state,” said Nathan Sales, the coordinator for counterterrorism, in a call with reporters.

“Iran uses terrorism as a tool of its statecraft,” he added. “It has no reservations about using that tool on any continent.”

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