talking to enemies

there is a certain challenge to working on military merging processes. for starters, the military is a sensitive matter in any nation. suspicions are high to look for spies and anyone who might use information against themselves. because, despite europe believing that we as a human kind have moved passed the ‘primitive’ instinctive power that is based on fists and sticks and guns to a time of human rights and values and morals, even in europe one only has to ask about the size of their fists and sticks and guns to realize their rhethoric does not fit their actions and perceptions. in the middle east, and other areas of the world, at least no one denies the fact that the forces are a vital part in personal and societal survival. it is therefore the most natural thing for them to be protective about information. the understanding of that fact as a researcher helps in chosing the most careful approach to the forces. the second and most important step following this first understanding is the building of trust.

the currency of trust
trust can not be put in numbers. there is no recipe to achieve it. trust is a matter of sensitivity to different characters, honesty in the intention, and humbleness in the approach.
i personally see it as my own honor to protect those who i approach. this is not just about journalistic morals of protecting ones sources; to me this is bigger than a job description. trust is a two way street. and since i am the one approaching them, asking them to trust me, it is up to me more than them to keep up my end of the bargain. and with the honest intention in my heart to truly understand the situation from their perspective and maybe, through the abilities of academic thought i have attained over the years, be able to find a new angle and maybe even a solution, i approach the delicate issue of building trust on a delicate topic like the armed forces. and in that effort, the protection of those who i ask to trust me for the pleasure of my own research and understanding is of the utmost importance.

yet among the trust building and the imperative of protecting those i speak with, i constantly balance on the edge of the sword. it is both the great risk and the excitement that comes with the job on top of the intellectual pleasure. the sword is my bridge between the different parties involved in the merging process.
no matter how careful i am; no matter how honest i mean it not to be interested in taking sides or in playing one against the other, eventually i will end up talking to enemies.
and this is where the balancing act begins. different from approaching one state’s military, politically divided forces, guerilla, and militias have their different groupings and with each one the trust building effort is its own task and experience. beyond that, however, a lot of the groups are interlinked in a manner that the increase of trust with the one group diametrically decreases the trust with the other.

examples of experience – how the balancing act works in practice
while in kurdistan in 2014 and ever since, for example, this need to balance the different sides, affected the way i traveled, the amount i chose to talk to people on different sides, and the company i chose to take research journeys with. to speak honestly, it is very tiring and probably the hardest part of the job to make people on the one side believe that just because you talk to people on the other side or spend some time there, you do not necessarily ‘take their side’ or buy into their ideology. and this goes both ways. but the idea of academic neutrality, or the ‘elfenbeinturm‘ as we call it in german referring to the detachment of any sides that an academic takes on by viewing the entire field from above rather than simply from one angle, is unknown to this part of the world (for a good reason as also the elfenbeinturm idea has been raped front- side- and backwards by european politicians and so called academics that hid their own agenda behind big moral values and loud proclamations of interest for the nations). it is therefore both a tiring and a delicate task to stay in the balance with all sides (consider that these sides are also constantly in flux and changing) to build the trust necessary for any kind of actual in-depth work of analysis. in talking with enemies, to me there is no recipe except the constant awareness of ones own work’s fragility… to be continued …

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Peshmerga: united in future?

Tell History is an awesome project which collects short stories about people’s experiences during historical events and processes.

To support this project, I was recently asked to talk about my experiences in Kurdistan – see: Visiting Iraq without Iraqi approval – discovering Kurdistan and my analytical assessment of the unification of the Peshmerga – see: Peshmerga: united in future?

I’m looking forward to comments, input, thoughts and reflections.

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why i love to travel

in the german language there are two words that very well suit my spirit and have been used to describe me by others: wanderlust and fernweh. the first is the lust, the want, the desire to wander, to travel, to journey, to explore. the latter is the sense of missing and longing towards the far-away. this far away is neither a person nor a specific location, however, it describes more the sense of distance, of something new, of adventure maybe, and of exploration. it is the journey rather than a certain goal that builds the underlying value and sentiment. now, me, i seem to have been born with these sentiments. yet regardless of their consistent presence, i have not come around to ask myself and be asked by others why i seem to fail to feel at home in my home country and why i seem constantly restless to journey to ever far away lands. more so, my increasing habit of fulfilling my desire to not just far-away places, but to what are largely considered ‘dangerous’ places, like iraq and pakistan, have left wonder and worry in many of my closely related friends and family.

the reflection on these matters that i am to present here now is to be understood as a construct of many years of wondering and thinking. a process, which i believe, will never be fully resolved. but in my current journey, in pakistan, i have come to a new sense of clarity that, for the first time, i feel like sharing.

about my home country, austria.

it is no secret to most that i have a troubled relationship with my ‘motherland’. i myself trace this primarily repulsive sentiment back to the story of my childhood, where my being different -primarily in language (dialect)- has been equated to a sense of not-belonging to the community around me. until today, when i hear the question ‘you are not from here, are you?’, i hear them say ‘you do not belong here, do you?’. children back in my days where most expressive about it when they told me to go back to where i came from; which to me did not make any sense, given i was born in the region and even my parents, despite being of a different region, where still ‘austrian’ by passport, paper and birth. and hence commenced my life-long wonder with the categories ‘us’ and ‘them’; given i was made a ‘them’ in a context that by birth-certificate and definition of nation-state should have been an ‘us’. it is in this difference that i observed my surrounding more from an outsiders perspective while trying to be an insider for many years.

now, when traveling to far away lands, i am actually different. and here i feel alright with being different. in fact, it has been the being different in other parts of the world that has made me more confident with being different also at ‘home’. and still i could not help but have the question cross my mind that whether i feel more comfortable being abroad that being at ‘home’ because i am in fact more austrian when being abroad than when being in austria. it is abroad that i realize my germanic values of precision and order; it is abroad that being austrian matters. this question has plagued me for obvious reasons – what an irony and self-illusion would it be if the essence of my desire to travel would be the need to feel like ‘an austrian’! it was now in pakistan that i finally found an answer to this question. i do not travel abroad to seek identity; yes, i find it in parts regardless, but it is not what excites my heart and soul. instead, at the bottom of my desire lies a simple fact:

traveling is constant learning.

when traveling afar, my eyes are wide open. everything is new and exciting. and under this rain of new impressions, as my eyes are open like those of an innocent child seeing the world for the first time, my heart and mind open as well. at this moment one would rightfully point out that there is also places that i have not seen in austria, germany, orswitzerland; but to me ‘new’ alone is not the essence i seek. all those areas are still the same culture. things are in order. beauty is obvious. structure is appreciated. discipline is lived. the difference that actually exist between those areas to me are too small as though they would touch more than just my eyes. it is only in the chaos of the thai streets, in the morning prayers of istanbul, in the long beards and adidas clothes of arabic men, or in the individually colorful trucks of pakistan that i find my spirit moved. it is in the discomfort of a cold shower, in the sudden dissapearance of light in another electricity shortage, and in the bumpy roads and trash-littered streets that i find appreciation for life and the luxury of the first world.

but more than that, there is so much that happens when traveling afar that no journey could ever be captured in a photograph. or maybe it is just this the art of photography, when one manages to put even a distant viewer into a certain moment of clarity; touching more than just the eyes, but instead the heart and mind and all the senses. what i learned from traveling, after all, is this: when you just travel with your eyes, you don’t travel yet. go somewhere, snap a picture (a pretty picture, at that! who would want to show the relatives at home a dirty beach, a broken house, or a starving kid; unless of course it is in the expression of ‘how poor those people are’; capturing both a sense of broken heart and continuing inaction) and leave. many a traveler and philosopher has said ‘the road is the goal’ and it is a sentiment i can only echo. it is why i also desire living in those far away places – and yes, to me, this is still ‘traveling’. it is the living there that gives me time to extend my journey, my discovery of something new. it is the living there that allows me more insight into the struggles and realities, into the subtle humors on the streets, into the daily matters of getting water, electricity or a government permit. it is there, where, despite not moving somewhere new constantly, one still receives a constant input to reflect about life, oneself and ones position in this world.

of stories, hearts, and smiles

even more than what i see and do, however, it is the stories of the people around me -some of which i can only guess from the short moment in which i lay my eyes on a stranger and observe their walk, their faces, their actions. there are so many stories still breathing alive in the middle and far east. and behind each face one can only start to guess the many ties of ancestry and family and tradition. in the west, i feel, these stories are written -preserved forever in the terms of right and wrong- and education, the act of learning, has to be artificially created. here, in contrast, the stories still live, in all their complexities and re-tellings; they live in the people who tell them, they live in the memories of those who hear them, and they live as a presence between every rock and tree and stone in this area. and as i move and feel and smell and touch and listen to all that is around me, this is when my heart is truly touched. and with my heart, so is my mind; it is engaged, in so many questions and so many answers; trying to understand the way life happens here, trying to comprehend the way people look at life and love and values and everything else there is between heaven and earth. it is here that light is shed on new dark spots of my own horizon. it is here that i learn so much about myself as well. and it is here that i discover the boundries of my own being.

and one of the things i learned about myself in these lands is that i appreciate the strength of these people who are so often looked down upon as ‘the poor’ and ‘the victim’ and ‘the stupid’ (yes, we use the word ‘uneducated’ in the western world, but let someone call it the way the word is intended!). yes they struggle -in fact they struggle with so much that any ‘problem’ in the west can only be smiled upon- but as they struggle, they smile. horror and terror is faced with humor. commemoration and shock, yes, but also with resilience and smiles (see ‘being pakistani ain’t no joke’ by syed ali abbas zaidi), while every incident in the west causes huge outcries and symbols of solidarity on every major social webpage (nothing against showing solidarity and not trying to de-value the shock and horror to those affected, but the fact is that human-made tragedies of terrorism, killings and attacks do not just happen in europe, and it is as much a tragedy if it happens in pakistan, libya, syria, lebanon, russia, iraq, afghanistan and anywhere else in the world – and i have yet to see the same amount of outrage and solidarity to these episodes of tragedy!). it is this strength, particularly compared to my own heritage and what i observe around me ‘at home’, that sparks both admiration and desire in me; desire to understand how they look at the world, maybe even to find the source of their resilience against everything they are facing in their lifetimes. yes, i am truly inspired by those souls that refuse to smile -even if not on their lips sometimes, i still see it in their eyes; by those hearts that are not yet poisoned with greed and want and ‘having’; and by those minds that still remember -remember the stories of a distant past, remember the values of living, and remember that there is more than one way to look at the world – a plurality, by the way, that i, at least, deem worthy of preserving. and so i go out into the world and seek it…

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what i think about isis

today i was asked what i think about isis. i – as a western scholar, a person who has been physically close to the islamic state in iraq, and as a simple human being. figuring that this might be something of interest to a bigger audience, i am now summarizing my explanation of opinion and personal account in this post.

first of all, i believe that one can not kill ideas. and isis is as much an idea as it is a movement.
the idea that supports isis today -and al-qaeda the day before, and others before that…- is a believe of imperial suppression by the western world, by the western way of doing things, by the western mindset and ideology. individual freedom and liberty is in fact not a universal human value, contrary to predominant us-american believe. some societies value honor, community, or loyalty. in fact, there are many different values and moral codes, some religious and others not, that may be more important to the culture and character of a society and its people than those promoted and believed in by the west. forcing upon any of them any idea of liberal peace, market economy, and democracy -despite even best intentions- is prone to create systems susceptible to corruption, nepotism, and so many other fancy concepts western academia has developed to explain why other countries and nations have failed to implement their way of doing things. in the mind of the people, however, a connection between fraud and corruption is directly drawn to ‘the west’ and its ideas in total.
what i believe needs to be recognized from western scholarship and policy-makers is that there are other ideas and values other than their own in this world. another example here is the russian federation, china, or any other part of the world outside the western sphere. the islamic world, after all, is not the only one struggling with an experienced western patronization.
so, if one accepts that there are other believes and values and ways of organizing societies other than what is propagated as ‘the’ model for all human kind and all human times by the western world, one also has to recognize that any (softly or harshly) externally enforced push towards the western way of doing things is largely conceived as intrusion, if not even patronization.
and if one gets this far in trying to understand other peoples perceptions of the world and its current order, i wonder how one could fail to at least acknowledge that eventually this struggle with experienced suppression might also take violent forms. this does not mean that i support violence, or believe in violence as an end or means to finding a solution or relieving suppression. on the contrary, i very strongly feel my own western upbringing here in the preference of peaceful solutions. but this intrinsic value of peaceful solution also tells me that i need to listen and understand the struggle from all perspectives in order to even start to think towards any form of resolution. and just because i do not agree with the perceptions, the ends or the means of a group in this world, does not mean that i can not listen and acknowledge that their perspective has as much value and truth to them as my opinion and values have to me.
bringing this thought back to the islamic state, i personally strongly condemn the acts of brutality and atrocity conducted by isis and its members. i am horrified by the amount of cruelty and inhumanity that is part of their practice and propaganda. and i can not support any of their actions or their interpretation of islam.
at the same time, as a scientist and observer of international affairs, i have to be sober and clear minded enough to realize that isis is yet another form of an idea that is sparked, fed, and sustained by the experience of us-american imperialism and hegemony as well as western ideological patronization.

the reasons i see for why such a brutal form of this idea developed lies in a combination of factors in the area of iraq and syria.
the iraq invasion by the united states in 2003 was a mess. i am not the first person to say this, no surprise there. the western lens of identifying the struggle in iraq as a secular conflict turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. and the radicality of the de-baath-ification programme cemented these new cleavages as much as the maliki-government did upon u.s.-exit. and if a part of the population is expelled from government, put into prison randomly and without justice and trials, and peaceful protests get no attention or are even shot at – eventually the people will radicalize. this has nothing to do with islam. this has nothing to do with ‘arabic culture’. enter syria: given the bad treatment and low levels of opportunity in iraq, anyone with any military talent or the necessary youth to fight, went to syria to support one group or another, to fight for money, for spoils, for thrill. back comes a group that is more organized, more weaponized, and more willing to take a stance – starting by freeing prisoners. until, in one of such operations, in mosul, the iraqi army collapsed, retreated, and enter isis on the stage of international media attention.

putting this historical understanding of the development of isis (as roughly as it was sketched here -for a well done analysis see pbs frontline ‘the rise of isis’, august 2014) together with the understanding and acceptance of there being some in this world who feel suppressed by western ideas and values -simply because they have other values and ways of organizing societies- one can not help but at least acknowledge the presence of isis. and by presence i mean the realization that the people creating this (or other) movement(s) are rationally calculating that the violent form of action is most supportive to their struggle according to their perception of the world’s status quo; which in turn leads to a legitimacy of this movement and action in the supporting society.
and despite isis’ level of brutality seeming like a ‘new’ issue, the thought supporting this and other movements, organizations and groups in fact dates back to the 1950s – at least following adam curtis’ wonderful documentary analysis, in which he shows the irony of us-american neo-conservativisim and radical islamism -as two ideas that faced each other most violently in the bush administration and its wars with afghanistan and iraq- actually having the same root problem: the realization that individualism can lead to a decay of society as a community (the pinnacle of which is foreseen to be an ultimate decay of humanity). and while the neocons come up with one solution, sayyid qutb and others come up with an islamic solution -an idea, a conservative (meaning: facing-backwards-towards-the-past-as-having-been-a-better-time) ideology- which has supported the taliban, boko haram, al-qaeda and many others until today. and even if isis might be gone one day, or might change in its form, this idea, just as any other, can not be killed, no matter the amount or rpgs, f16s, or even size of icbm storage.

second, i believe that isis is here to stay. the only way i see there to be any physical end towards the current form of the movement is in a combination of resolution of the syrian conflict, military containment and engagement of them in iraq, and monetary drying-out of the movement.

now, a solution to the syrian conflict is unlikely at best. international balance of power is still more important than the suffering of the population. (if it was not for the for-european-standards-massive amount of refugees, let’s be honest, we might still not pay attention to the human suffering in syria. yes we would, you say? so what did the european states do 2011? 2012? 2013? 2014? did people not suffer then? if that argument is not enough, i have another single-word-argument for you: libya. libya is as much a mess as syria, the human suffering is to no extent lower, and yet hardly any country takes in libyans – but we care about the human suffering… i see…) let’s just leave it at that -this is an entirely different can of worms.

if there were a solution and stabilization in syria, hypothetically, i could see isis retreat to iraq, where they still have massive holds on territory and the not-to-be-underestimated strategic position of holding the city of mosul. from there, military containment would be realistically doable. yet, anything that goes into the direction of ‘destroying’ them, has to think further than military options. again, bullets do not kill ideas.
the most realistic option, i see is in the economic dyring-out of the movement -which is in itself unrealistic given the many supporters of isis and their access to oil and gas resources (yes, also the black market pays in money; meaning that even if an official economic ban could hurt isis, the black market is still providing a life line). more than resources however, the support from private sponsors as well as diverse governments (note the regional polarization of saudi arabia vs. iran) supporting the idea of a(ny) force engaging and disturbing the kurds or the shias in the region, is a source of revenue that can not be underestimated and that would be hard to effectively dry-out. so instead, when speaking of drying-out, one needs to think in terms of relativity rather than totality.

the level of relativity i see as realistic is one where the local population is forced to rethink their allegiance to the islamic state due to severe suffering from high food prices, impossible living standards etc. (the other question is how long any self-proclaimed-humanitarian-causes-supporting government could uphold such a strategy legitimately…) so far, at least this is my personal impression, these levels of distress are not high enough to the local population in order to rethink their allegiance. and even if it were, what’s the alternative? the iraqi government -which played a big part in creating isis in the first place? or the kurdish autonomous region?
and with that many variables of ‘unrealistic’, ‘potentially’, and ‘maybe’, i feel safe to conclude that isis is here to stay at least for a little while longer.

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i am afraid

fear is clenching my throat and i yet i do not know where to point first to identify the problem. what i know is that it is not an overwhelming or imminent fear. i do not feel personally threatened or harmed in any way. but maybe this is only because the problem is not clearly identifiable. yes, i am talking about “the migration crisis”, as media calls it – but not just about that. this crisis is only one piece of the puzzle. look at the bigger picture! it is a slow fear; almost like a shadow, cold and dark and ever expanding the further i try to run from it.

i am afraid of the wars; of those that already are, those we still deny happening, those we blatantly ignore, and those we do not yet see coming. where to start explaining this world? the south chinese sea is brewing. china and japan and by extension the united states are eyeing each other. east and west are bumping horns again. ukraine is a mess. and so is libya and syria; and iraq despite most media ignoring it. and have you ever heard of yemen in the past few weeks? people are starving, dying, suffering. egypt and turkey harden their grip on their population. and let’s not even speak of israel and palestine. the balkans are as always in a state of imbalance with nothing but a strong lid of international pressure keeping this bomb from ticking. and i don’t even know what is going on in the continent of africa or latin america! but, to tell you the truth, i am also afraid to ask because i can guess that corruption, civil strives, and suppressions are ever mounting. in gambia, i happen to know, the homosexual laws top those of russian homophobia by miles. and in mali, south sudan, and burkina faso daily life is a mess as well. sadly, some of my readers won’t even know where most of these countries are. and those of you who do are likely to shield themselves in the bliss of ignorance, as i do it quite honestly myself as well; just think if we were aware of all those problems for real – i would not know how to sleep at night! all we get to do, blissful population of those lucky ones born on the right side of the planet, is to relax in the fortress of europe, swing flags of international solidarity, and put some buckets of water onto a conflagration; and then we get to be shocked by the amount of people who are running in our doors.

i am afraid of the migration crisis. either way, either reaction, either action – there will be consequences that are yet unknown. what are the possible scenarios? 1) europe closes the doors to migration. shielding itself from the many ‘imported problems’ in health, expenses and other religions. but thereby europe will lose the standing in the world it worked so hard to build – a european foreign policy based on human right demands will be hard to uphold now without being called hypocrisy. and consequentially, the european union of states loses the only connecting variable across its 28 members. 2) europe opens the doors to refugees. might be that migration becomes even more than what we already see. either way, the right wing parties will gain in the next elections. the society will be increasingly polarized. media puts gasoline on the hot coals. and the social system of central european states will be overstretched to an extent where we will need to rethink it entirely. yes, we would relief those countries surrounding the conflict zones; countries like lebanon, jordan, turkey and the kurdish region of iraq and thereby likely avoid a potential collapse of another few states in the region. and yes, we would be able to put some integrity into europe’s external posture of valuing humanity and rights and solidarity. – either way, there will be consequences. openness of the borders makes people afraid. and closeness of the borders confirms to people that they were right to fear “the other” from the beginning. the unknown makes people afraid; it always has and always will. it’s just that i am not sure whether to be more afraid of a restrictive european migration policy or of the consequential rise of right wing politics due to liberal migration policies? 

i am afraid of rising nationalism and right wing politics. it seems an unavoidable consequence. the more we stand up to declared values, treaties, and rights for humanity, the more fear takes over politics. people are worried about being “overwhelmed”. overwhelmed by “the other”; “our nation” is in danger. welcome back, nationalism! “us” versus “them” becomes the main tone of conversation again. and i already had more than one friend of mine tell me “i was shocked to realize how many friends i have who are racist and mean and ignorant towards refugees”. if friendship circles start to break and those you think to know suddenly show sides you never thought possible – you know that society is polarizing. right and wrong. black and white. and suddenly, as the stupid find themselves thinking they are the many, people start voicing ideas and thoughts that might have caused a social exclusion just a few years ago. “burn them all” they said. who thought that oh so gloriously civilized europe would be able to hear a sentence like that again – publicly! on social media. welcome back, far-right! i just wonder which color the new national-socialists will wear this time around.

i am afraid of the radical left. but just as much as the right is frightening me – and it frightens me as i can not, by the life of me, understand how (apparently) non-existent human empathy can be! – the left is frightening me too. as fear is mounting in society, sides have to be chosen. with us or against us? for me, this is the root cause of the problem. as a german singer and songwriter, konstantin wecker, once said quite wisely “following without thinking (meaning: critical reflection) can not be good, not even for the best cause”. and when some people on the left see fit to utter statements of wanting to burn police stations, i can not help but freeze in astonishment of their equal radicalization to the right wing which they so openly criticize and fight. to me, radical is radical; left, right, religious or atheist – and them fighting each other is like the pot calling the kettle black.

i am afraid of the state. in both a left and a right wing state, in both a small and a big nation, in both, fear breeds polarization and nationalism. but fear also prepares the breading ground for terrorism. why? because terrorism feeds off fear. if you are afraid already, a tiny act can make a crown jump. and this, by definition, is the character of terrorism: “if the act itself is disproportionat(ely smaller) than the consequential fearful reaction” (gerard chaliand). so what does this have to do with the state, you ask? well – remember charlie hebdo? i assume you do. but what most people do not remember is the consequences of hebdo. european states, most of them in fact, increased their level of alert. “level of alert” however is not a nice phrase of a meaningless metaphor expressing the need to be cautious. in every country the level of alert comes with actual legal(!) consequences. suddenly, for example, “in dubio pro reo” is no longer a necessity. you can be put under any form of police pressure and attention by mere suspicion only. obviously, the “normal” french or german or austrian or polish citizen will not feel this limiting of civil rights a lot. it is “them” who the state seeks. but, remember, remember, the 27th of February 1933 – eventually ‘the state’ might turn towards you as well. why, you ask? for “national security”. bollocks, you say? did david cameron not call the labor party a threat to national security as recently as yesterday? if political parties and opinions can be called a threat … where does it start, where does it end? or let me ask you differently, at which point are you afraid?

dear reader, my intention is not to spread fear. i would even hate to intensify it with this message. what i aim to do with this message instead is make you aware of your own fears – and the consequences to them. all i am saying, apart from ‘i am afraid’ (and i am!), is ‘be aware’ – wars and conflicts approach slowly; like a shadow. after all, also the second world war generation expressed how they were “surprised” by the societal polarization, the extremism, the radicalism, and the resulting hatred and violence and inhuman behavior of “civilized societies”. it is only in the aftermath that it seems “so obvious” that this was coming. and i personally would rather jump too early than be too ignorant to ever see it coming; so yes, i am afraid.

i am afraid for the many who are too ignorant, too little informed, too stupid, or too weak to resist following the right or the left in pursuit of belonging and expressing what they dare to call an opinion. i am afraid for the few who are still able to resist both the pressures of right and left tearing them into polarization and the waves of media hyping fears. i am afraid for the many who died and are still to die in the wet grave of the mediterranean sea, the burning heat of the desert, or the dark and lonely infinity of yet another forest border crossing. and i am afraid for the few who actually manage to escape the suppression, the fear for life and existence, and the burning pain of suffering from losing loved ones on the way only to end up in the most dehumanizing of all conditions in a country of physical safety and psychological torture.

and i am afraid for my own life, because sooner or later, i fear, i will have to make a decision; between acting through actions or acting through blissfully ignoring the world around me, between leaving a right wing country and continent or staying and fighting back, and between my own ‘career’ and the values i grew up with and stand to defend.

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the big-empire syndrom; or the story of hungary

in a fantastic book, john grey analyzes different forms of belief systems and ideologies over time – starting from different religions, all the way to the enlightenment and liberal thoughts; and in conclusion he realized there to be two basic forms of ideology: those that understand ‘utopia’ to be in the future and those who see in the past. thereby, utopia is the idea of any ‘better’ form of society than the current status of being – if you can think it, you name it; any form of ‘better’ you wish to reach. and john grey realizes that both of these tendencies have effects on the way policies are taken.

now, discussing this thought with many friends, i found support for his theory in the warning notion of some historians who declared how easy it is to overstylize the past. it is easy to make something sound good when no one actually is there to hold witness to the times one imagines to define ‘the grand years of our society’. everything used to be better – right? – wrong?
in my opinion, the answer is: neither. it depends on how you look at it; which variables and factors of ‘society’ and ‘community’ one focuses on. the same, by the way, is true for those ideologies that see ‘utopia’ in the future – and scenario that has not yet been is easy to be presented in a most lovely way – without any consequences of course. how could good intentions ever have bad outcomes, after all, right? and is not building the best society in the world, in the full belief in education and opportunity – if only more people would be well educated, even smart, and economically well off, we would live in a much more peaceful world, right? have you ever heard this belief before? – the best reason to take some ‘colateral damage’ on the way to an ever peaceful and prosporous ideal? well, just recently a brilliant czech economist, tomas sedlacek, made me aware of a fantastic irony in this world: no paradise, ever!, was described in terms of its system and structure. how will things actually work in ‘paradise’? no one knows – and why? because any system, particularly with human beings, will eventually be questioned as in ‘is this the best there is or could be’. the answer is irrelevant, because the ‘damage’ to ‘paradise’ has already been done. and the question itself is the source of the human capability to think, strive and develop. so can there ever be a utopia on earth then? a place where everything just ‘is‘ “perfect”? just a thought…

well, let’s leave the future for a while and actually look into the past – or more correctly into those systems of beliefs and ideologies that position utopia in the past; an ideal form of society that can not be reached by striving into the future but by going ‘back’ into the past. the most prominent example is the islamic state at the moment. the story line is simple: “the world has beaten us, laughed at us, patronized us – and yet we were once the hub of civilization, the heart of progress and the spirit of greatness. no one laughed at the great islamic empire. we were a force to be reconned with. if only we go back to those times; and bring purity into our own society, we can show the world our true greatness and shuff their laughter down their throats.”
isis of course did not invent this. even before isis, there were some who exhibited exactly this kind of behavior and attitude – it is those most often not understood by the international community of the west: former empires. think russia, iran, turkey. and it was exactly this tendency i saw coming when the baath party was released of duty and surpressed in iraq. a ruling elite who grows up, for decades and generations, in the belief that it has an inherent right to rule will not just ‘go away’ after a defeat. they lick their wounds and they come back at you.
obviously, not all empires show this tendency in the same manner. great britain for example shows the behavior in a much more subtle way. old western galantry, of course. and some even do not show it at all – in the case of austria i always said, more jokingly but by actually trying to make a point, that the luck of austria is that we have been beaten down so good twice (!) that we really got the revisionist great power posture out of our system. but this morning, as i am flipping through the newspapers and read about the astonishingly frightening behavior of hungary, and how successful orban’s strong state posture seems to be in the wider population, i could not help but wonder whether hungary has caught the shadow of a big-empire syndrome from the austro-hungarian past…

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the good news for political scientist students

technically, – at least i believe so – this is good news for all students no matter their field, but since i am indeed not well equipped to judge other areas of study, i will only declare the good news for the field i know personally: political science.

dear bachelor and master students (and to all of those i recently had this discussion with),
as you enter the field of science and the hallowed halls of your university, i dare to guess that some of you may feel like i did once upon a not too distant time: overwhelmed. and a certain characteristic level of arrogance by your professors -who, in every sentence they utter make you aware of how little you know and, even worse, make you feel as though you, little student, could not possibly have anything valuable to contribute- does not help to make this first impression get any less.
particularly the thought -and dare i say pressure- to ‘come up with something new’ -the core discipline and goal of all sciences- seems to be a frightening wall of ‘impossible’ in the first semesters. with all the knowledge that is presented in class and everything there is to read in libraries one gets the impression that there is absolutely no topic in the world that has been untouched. no adventure spirit. no great columbian and marco polo sort of discovery. the world has been mapped, history sorted, and theory developed. we can all die now. job done. good night.

well, my dear students, this is were my good news come in. i feel excited, almost like a little prophet, to be in the wonderful position to call this message out into the unlimited universe of the digital world and to the few readers of my blog: we -and i mean the human race in the most general terms- we don’t know shit!
what a blessing to those who seek to contribute!

we do not know anything! for starters, the entire believe into the following cause-effect-formula: “the more we know, the more we can predict the future” is nothing but a product of the time in history we call ‘enlightenment’ -it is just as much a theory or believe or ideology (call it as you will) as all the other theories, believes, ideologies and dare i say religions. and, at least if we follow popper -“hold on to a theory until proven wrong”- we should have already tossed the entire enlightenment thought alltogether. but, just like with newton’s mechanics, we hold on to it, not because it is actually ‘true’ or ‘correct’ but because it works for what we need it for – just as we would not start calculating breaking distances with quantum mechanics or string theory, we will not let go of the idea that eventually we will be able to ‘predict’ something, simply because the thought of “we simply did not yet have enough ‘variables’ to predict reliably” reliefs the brain that wants to know and relaxes the sense of responsibility after a horrifying failure of the own ‘prediction’.
sure, you may argue that this whole prediction thing works in math or natural sciences – fine, but that is why i am not talking about those fields of science – i am talking about political science; and the thing is that people, masses, groups, and states are not predictable. even if we had every information about every person in a group, groups develop their own dynamics, people change their mind, and ‘rationality’ is a very flexible concept that actually depends on each individuals point of view and perpective on the world. what may be rational for one person, may be horrifying to the other. think of terrorists, national socialists, racists… oh and self-rationalization is just another fantastic trick of human kind.
so, in fact, dear student, celebrate, because there is so much more knowledge to be discovered. starting from individual’s perspectives, to different systems of believes and perspectives on the world and international realtions and life and the economy and whateverelse you can think of. dare to leave your hallowed halls and open your eyes and hearts. dare to go beyond ‘undeniable truths’ and linear explanations. things are never either or. things are never ‘just like this’. try another theory to the same case – original thought. try the same theory on another case – original thought. find what is wrong with the theory – original thought. it truly is easy to contribute something ‘new’ to sciences. and the value, should you ever dare to question yourself (don’t!) derives from the new angle and the perspective you manage to open up in the process.
question. test. requestion. retest. and don’t you dare be intimidated by a big name or an arrogant professor. if you do your work scientifically – according to the rules and procedures – and you manage to add a new perspective, or manage to support the prior theory or assessment, your work is valuable! there is too many who only think in straight lines, too many who only recycle what has already been said, and too many who take the words ‘of the great masters’ for granted without reflection.
in my personal case, just as one example, i find myself irritated by publications of great and powerful institutions on kurdistan and all i can give as a reaction is the shrugg of my shoulders; “every child knows that in kurdistan”. there is no original thought. no reflection. no substance. or it is recycling of news stories and pictures. and to tell you the truth, it calms me down immensly; a) it is very easy to get to ‘original thought’ in a field where understanding perspectives matters (and what a blessing there are so many perspectives in this world!) and b) if not even the ‘big ones’ in the field are capable of doing that – whatever i have to contribute will be just fine.
and this is a thought i wanted to share with you, dear students, and all of those who feel insecure or overwhelmed by the sacred halls and secret clubs of social sciences.

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the return of nationalism – a critical reflection

nationalism is coming back. us against them. let’s do it all over again.

well, technically, i would argue that nationalism has never left. it is a phenomenon of ‘return’ only to those who immersed their head into european politics -not even that: into european idealism- who nowadays identify a rise in nationalism. true, europe has learned in the most brutal way what consequences ‘us against them’ has in its ultimate climax. yet, when have we ever learned from history, oh glorious human race?

in front of the european parliament there is a beautiful museum commemorating these experiences. starting with a basic 101 on european institutions, the museum is built up like a story of progress and human, intellectual and economic development. in a dark corridor with only black and white pictures showing war and poverty and destruction, history is brought to the visitor’s attention in the most gruesome way – pictures speak for themselves. dates and numbers of innocents killed, children suffering and economic potential lost are scattered among quotes of european peace and prosperity. yet, let’s be honest, numbers are too big, too foreign and too distant for our hearts and minds to truly imagine their meaning. and idealism is, well, always too good to be true. it is only the pictures that might still touch our hearts but luckily for the visitor there is light at the end of the tunnel – there is hope, there is progress, there is the european ideal. step by step, it seems to the visitor, one leaves behind the shadows of the past. we go beyond the nation-state; an idea that in itself was never more than a mere construction itself. we create the european economic cooperation, institutions, enlargement. peace. oh glorious development.

it is an irony of life that it is this story of hope and the believe in transcendence of the past cruelty that goes the first step towards digging a grave to the european ideal. this ‘european bubble’ that dares to dream of ‘going beyond’ nationalism, beyond the ‘us versus them’, creates the illusion of superiority. and like from a plastic bubble, sheltered against every evil of the world, when we see nationalistic struggles, religious wars and ethnic cleansing happening, we scoff about the other’s low level of development. they are not educated enough to understand our way! they. and us. and right there, we reinforce a thinking that we pride ourselves to having moved past it. but, after all, we know, they don’t, right?

do we? within our own european bubble, there is still nations waving the flag of woodrow wilson’s 14 points, granting each nation a state to themselves; because yes we might think the idea of ‘us versus them’ outdated, but we forget this to be a thought of luxury to those people who do not find themselves suppressed by a system; let alone a state. scotland, the basques and catalans, south tyrol, the balkans, ukraine, transnistria, bergkarabach, south ossetia, abchasia. and that is not to name the palestinians and kurds, let alone the many nations currently suppressed within a system of state boundaries drawn on an artificial map of this planet in the continents of south america, africa and south east asia.

so, what to make of this situation? recognizing that it is those who do not find themselves surpressed but instead more or less propperly represented and ruled, those who feel a sense of belonging to which ever concept they care to identify with as long as it does not directly challenge the status quo, those who even dare to believe in a european ideal, that worry about the ‘return’ of nationalism, the question demands both empathy and critical reflection.

yes, nationalism leads to violence; at least more often than not. it is the idea of a majority that creates a minority. but that does not mean that we should frown upon what i find to me a most natural component of humanity: the need to belong; the need for identity in community. let’s instead question the idea of the nation-state. homogeneity is a constructed idea that in itself does not exist. or are we talking ‘poor blooded’ again? -with all the nazi jargon coming back in popular refugee discussions in austria, we might as well use the same to highlight the danger in the idea’s successful reawakening.

yet, the nation-state and the idea(l) of the same has been enshrined in international relations since the first world war. another proof that sometimes the most well intended gesture – wilson’s promise of a state to every nation – can have catastrophic consequences. why? a) define “nation”, b) define “state”; if it is unitary states we build -within the borders already on the map to make matters worse- we will not get around a certain form of supression (spain) or forced assimilation (turkey) of those who do not agree with the ruling or identify themselves as a separate nation. how dare you say you are kurdish if you live in turkey? no, you are turkish! how dare you say you have another ethnic background, another language, another culture? assimilate, leave or die! generous options, right? no? you dare to throw bombs at us? us, your state? terrorists! all of you! welcome to the real world. those who think differently, despite claiming the same norms you yourself uphold – the right to a state for every nation and the right to rule ‘yourself’-, they are terrorists, guerilla, separatists, anarchists. pick the label currently in fashion.

now, to draw a long rant to a close, i want to say that i believe one cannot deny the same right to another that one claims for oneself. yes, nationalism has the potential to most destructive consequences. and yes, in europe the idea of ‘returning’ to the idea of nationalism -with the votes for independence rising (scotland, catalonia) and the thoughts of national politics and interests dominating brussels-  is rightfully seen as ‘a step back’; at least if one dares to believe that ‘us against them’ has ever left the european thinking. instead, i believe nationalism not to be the problem; the problem is an international system of institutions, state-clubs like the united nations, as well as norms and believes that upholds the constructed idea(l) of nation-states; of pure, easily definable ‘nations’, clear boundaries of their distribution, and no mixing or trespassing in between. if we quit believing and thinking in terms ‘pureness’, homogeneity, and clearly definable lines we can address separatist struggles, refugee crises and any other ‘us versus them’ scenario. but, regretfully, i realize, that this in itself is a purely idealistic thought…

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why ‘game of thrones’ helps you understand the middle east

several months ago, a washington post article took up the delicate task to parallel the houses of westeros, the fictional entities of the game of thrones books and series, with the countries of the middle east. what started as a far stretched endeavor, resulted in an exceptionally well placed comparison. my heart as a fan of game of thrones was of course immediately taken by the writing. but more so, my mind as an analyst of the middle east was also impressed by how well the author made the shoe fit. it is, of course, foolish to believe that the situation in the middle east might ever continue according to the game of thrones script, but at this point in time and game of thrones season, the comparison succeeded surprisingly well.

more so than the comparison of houses in westeros and states in the middle east, however, the fiction of game of thrones does indeed hold a value for understanding the realities of the crisis-torn region: it provides a new perspective. in this article, i would like to highlight three important lessons learned from game of thrones: 1) when the central power disappears, instability and a multiplication of forces occur; 2) thinking in categories, such as ethnicity or religion, is too shortsighted to understand the situation on the ground; and 3) power is a shadow – it resides where people believe it to reside.

when the central power disappears…

it is hardly a new thought to contemplate that the downfall of a powerful center comes along with rising instability. be it the succession claims of hereditary monarchies, the formation of a new government out of the revolting forces, or the consolidation of a military take-over through a civilian cover – change comes with instability. the source of this instability arises from the opportunity structure that is created in the immediate power vacuum. different interest become (more) visible and all kinds of groups, organizations, clans and tribes will contemplate at least their own survival but if possible a bettering or maintaining of their situation in the new circumstances. when the rules of the game change, opportunities arise and insecurities skyrocket. having increased force show up as a result of these circumstances can hardly be surprising.

what game of thrones and the middle east have in common in this regard is the depth of division in interests, ethnicities, religions and tribes or “family-houses” as well as the wide availability of weapons. yet it was the fiction of westeros and not the analyses of reality that portrayed the right picture. as the “arab spring” was sweeping through several countries, joy and relief was the reaction of western scholars observing the region. already back then i wondered, whether they had not read what happened after the french revolution – to this day the scholarly pivot of democratization effort. have you heard of the jacobins? napoleon? instead, game of thrones painted a much more refined, and dare i say more realistic, picture. when the king died, questions were raised about his succession, new interests arose to challenge the authority, rumors were as much a force of alliance formation and violence as realities, and violence erupted among the different forces.

this is not to say that the correct conclusion or policy option then is to stabilize the center at all costs; but it is to point towards the likely consequences of the actions to support a weakening (syria) or downfall (libya, iraq) of a strong center.

why thinking in categories is misleading…

more importantly than the lessons learned about the dangers of removing a central power, however, is what game of thrones can teach about the invalidity of thinking in categories such as “religion”, “ethnicity” and “tribe”. even “alliances” are not a category worth counting on.

let me provide you with an example. listening to the popular media reporting and even some scholars, i am afraid to say, one gets the impression that the kurds are their own ethnicity, culture and interest group. and they are. but kurds are not kurds. the danger lies in considering the kurdish populations of turkey, syria, iraq and iran as one group. and i will now show why it is indeed outright dangerous: thinking in these terms will make you overlook the reality unfolding in front of you; or how else would you explain that a kurdish party in the north of iraq is cooperating with ankara, the well-known forefront of anti-kurdish measurements, against other kurds in turkey? or how would you explain shia and sunni cooperating against other shias or other sunnis respectively?

thinking in terms of “ethnicity”, “religion” or other clear cut categories denies the actual realities on the ground. and game of thrones shows exactly that: the show makes so valuably visible that allegiances are not necessarily permanent – even if they have existed for hundreds of years; they arise on the basis of common features, such as geography (the northern tribes), ethnicity (the houses) and religion (the old god’s or the fire god’s), but also on the basis of mere interests (tyrells and lannisters) or personal rationale (not to say ‘ego’) (house greyjoy). alliances form and break; sometimes out of calculation, sometimes out of irrational longings, sometimes out of rumors, and sometimes out of forces beyond anyone’s control. without recognizing at least the forces behind the fluctuation of alliances in the middle east – not just between states, but between all actors involved in a conflict – the region can not be understood.

power resides where people believe it to reside…

in one of the first seasons of game of thrones, the figure ‘varys’ posts a riddle to ‘lord tyrion’. It goes like this: in a room there are a king, a priest and a rich man. between them is a common sell-sword. each of them wants the others to die; who wins, who dies?

lord tyrion gives the answer that the sell-sword himself could kill all three of the others and keep the power to himself, but varys then asks why it is not soldiers ruling the lands but kings and queens instead. and the solution to the riddle is such that power is a shadow – it resides where people believe it to reside. if the sell-sword (“the people”) believe in religion, no money in the world could corrupt them. the same goes for money and religion, if the person has a true allegiance to the king. but the allegiance of the people depends on each person themselves.

it is in this riddle, that the different alliances become a new dimension. groups will form and dissolve on the basis of many factors. some are opportunity, others are deep loyalty. but in either case, people follow what they believe the power they believe to be rightfully powerful. and this is not always the one western observers might like to judge as “right”.

and it is with all these additional variables in mind, that suddenly the “mess” in the middle east becomes a little bit less messy. after all, if one can follow some ten or more fictional houses in a popular tv series, with all their intrigues, conflicts and shifting alliances, one can just as well follow the happenings in the middle east without being surprised about their dynamic character.

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why the europol strategy of targeting isis web-accounts won’t work

due to a lack of other options for input, here is a message to europol:

according to the guardian, europol will started targeting isis web accounts in july. given an astonishing output of around 100.000 tweets a day from around 45.000 accounts and the constantly changing network of the internet, this endeavor seems to be the true equivalent of a hercules task. and despite me recognizing that there is probably more to the europol strategy than has been disclosed in the guardian, i would like to flag why the current strategy of europol is likely not work as well as it sounds at first.

for those not aware of the article, the strategy of europol is to work with social media companies to identify the most important accounts and monitor those who may be vulnerable and those who are ‘preying’ on them. with the help of network analytics the most active accounts would be identified and eventually shut down or hindered in their output.

now, the nature of network analytics is such that it identifies the nodes on the network that are most strongly interlinked, strongest in their output, or most dominant in any other characteristic that is searched for. like any money laundering operation expert will tell you, however, the truth is not always in the big numbers.

the problem of europol’s strategy is hidden in the proclaimed aim of the mission: “to hinder or stop further european recruitment”. as any halfway decent scientist knows, the best goal in mind is worth nothing without the correct method for execution. given the hypothesis of europol seems to be that it is “online ringleaders” that recruit people, taking them out would lessen recruitment according to this simple cause and effect analysis. and this is where talking to scientists would actually help…

according to prevalent research on isis and in reference to patterns of recruitment by other terrorist networks (please refer to hriar cabayan and sarah canna (eds.). a strategic multilayer assessment periodic publication 2014), numbers as high as 70-75% show up in the “recruited by friends” category.

if recruitment dominantly happens through personal friends however, and not, as targeted by europol’s strategy, through “online ringleaders” of social media output, it is once again, the “small numbers” that might actually lead to a more effective resolve to the identified problem. another, even more obvious, reason why the current strategy won’t work is that the idea of shutting down online ringleaders is likely to work as effectively as shutting down pirate bay or wikileaks – it does not; at all. and even if one were to identify and physically capture the person behind the propaganda messages and online recruitment strategy, the entire concept of isis and any other functioning terrorist network is based on a level of adaptability and agility that modern day states and organization can only dare to dream about.

in all of this, i would like to note that i am not discouraging europol’s activity or their potential ability to make a difference. on the contrary, i support the cross border network of counter-strategy and i believe that europol might have a better shot than any nation by itself. what i am trying to do is to point out weaknesses and faults in thought in order to give europol at least a fighting chance in keeping this continent safe. to echo alan turing’s thought that one needs a machine to fight a machine, i believe that it needs a network to beat a network. it is therefore that europol is technically fit to approach the issue – if only one could put national interests to the back seat to focus on the task at hand and if only one could listen to already existing knowledge to develop a solid strategy.

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