Syria, Bombs, and Political Rhetoric: An Interview With Zaman Stanizai

By Shelley B. Blank
Shelley B. Blank
Shelley B. Blank
April 27, 2016 Updated: April 30, 2016

Dr. Zaman Stanizai is a professor of Mythological Studies at the Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, Calif. He also teaches Political Science at California State University, Dominguez Hills. He received his M.A. in Linguistics from the University of Washington and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Southern California. His post-doctoral studies centered on Sufism. As a Fulbright scholar he has worked in Indo-Iranian languages, and as a political scientist he writes on the politicization of ethno-linguistic and religious identities in regional conflicts. He blogs on The Huffington Post and Middle East Institute, among others.

SBB: We recently did an article on the pharmaceutical industry and the lack of assistance in making the U.S. medical infrastructure …

ZS: There is no medical infrastructure left in Syria. It has all been bombed out. In Syria, there is no functional medical program, there are no healthcare facilities left standing, and even if any such facilities were still operational, there is no public transportation to carry the elderly and the poor to such facilities. If you have an 89-year-old mother that needs urgent care, there is no place for her to go or any means by which to take her. In Syria, just as in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Yemen, Libya, and many of the other Middle Eastern and North African countries, cities have been bombed to a degree that would put Dresden to shame.

SBB: Dresden being a non-military target that was leveled in WWII, and it did not produce any international outcry. When you wipe out an entire city, you wipe out the universe: medical, education, libraries, public transportation. There is no city left anymore. You are killing people and cultures.

ZS: Western powers have wiped out city block after city block in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Raqqa, and other major cities in Syria. The refugees are flocking out of these cities and are heading to Europe. They know the risk of drowning as they cross the Aegean Sea, but that risk is less than living in Syria under the constant threat of being bombed by the indiscriminate bombing of Western powers.

As far as their survival in Syria is concerned, the tumultuous sea crossing is less risky than living under the endless, uncoordinated, random bombing by the different Western countries that are literally “smoking out” the skilled and the talented out of Syria. In this intended or unintended brain-drain bombing strategy, the West is impoverishing Syria of the only resources it has—human resources.

The lives of people in Syria are threatened not only by the indiscriminate aerial bombardment, but also by the ground troops that come from the West—the disenfranchised, marginalized, and radicalized Muslim youth from the European slums. These unintegrated and unassimilated Muslim youth in their frustration embrace anything anti-Western. So while the European countries look the other way in their attempts to “get rid of the menace in European slums,” once they join ISIS, European powers simply go after them and bomb them. While this unspoken solution of getting rid of the restless Muslim youth from the European slums by letting them join ISIS may be the unintended consequence of an undeclared policy, Europeans do not have the foresight to predict that one unintended action could have unforeseeable unintended consequences, such as the recent blow-backs in Paris and Brussels.

SBB: How do you view the present political rhetoric?

ZS: Donald Trump is wrong about Muslim Americans and has no idea how significant the role of Muslims is in the American economy. In the healthcare profession alone, American Muslims have a substantial presence.

According to the Islamic Medical Association of North America, there are more than 20,000 Muslim physicians in the United States. Similarly, an analysis of statistics provided by the American Medical Association indicates that 10 percent of all American physicians are Muslims. Add to that the substantial number of medical professionals such as nurses, technicians, hospital staff, etc., and one realizes that without American Muslims healthcare in the U.S. would collapse.

A bit of sarcasm notwithstanding, Trump and the fanatic Republicans, through their Islamophobia, could not only get rid of the Obamacare, but they could bring down the entire healthcare system in America—a feat they have not be able to achieve through the futility of successively passing obstructionist legislation.

While the present generation may have lost hope altogether in those war-torn countries in the Middle East, in Europe and America there is at least the hope of survival for them—a luxury they can’t even dream of in their countries.

SBB: When did war become a civilian activity in terms of targets? When and what changed our mentality regarding civilian bombing? Since the Korean War, there are no military targets. We are just leveling cultures.

ZS: In warfare around the world, civilian casualties have consistently increased from 10 percent of the total war casualties in WWI to over 95 percent in Afghanistan—this in spite of the Geneva Conventions prohibiting harm to non-combatants. Yet, as a signatory of such Conventions, American officials such as General Tommy Frank during the 2003 Iraq War declared that “we are not in the body-counting business.” Similarly, General Boykin, who is eager to lead the charge in the “Armageddon,” is a consultant in Ted Cruz’s 2016 election campaign.

It seems that the more civility we claim in terms of general human progress, the less civil we behave in wars. In fact, our technological advances in the development of remotely operated weapons have made us less human as war has become game and entertainment for the so-called advanced societies, while in the less advanced countries the worth of an unidentified human on the screen is fast approximating the value of the electronic beep of a pixilated target, with no conscious registry that, with an imprint of a thumb from thousands of miles away, a life has been snuffed out.

SBB: Are the new technologies and the new media overload desensitizing us to the point of moral distraction? Has making war become almost the new Roman coliseum—an entertainment of moral abandonment?

ZS: In the past, we would lose our lives in a war, but now we lose our humanity to war games. We cannot live in a shrinking world with two drastically different norms.

SBB: How can we expect the rest of the world to live by our norms, if we are so totally oblivious to theirs? 

ZS: Unless we do right by our people, not as a mere political slogan, but as a commitment to a democratic principle demanded by the American Constitution, we may not survive as a republic. 

For years, the West has tried to establish new norms of civility, distancing itself from earlier civilizations. The main trait of this trend would have to be the norms of civility and non-violence.

The reality is that more violence is perpetrated on the Third World than ever before. That violence cannot be kept away from the public eye for long merely by sanitizing the viewings on TV screens, because social media and smart phones will come to their rescue as it has in revealing the pain we inflict on our pigmented citizens. Black lives do matter.

Our resorting to violence in every turn where diplomacy may be a civil alternative calls into question whether we in the West have really evolved to a higher moral plane as we claim. If we are acting more violently than the cultures we despise, we take the risk of losing the identity we claim to have attained. The more effective our war and warring technology becomes, the less sensitive we become to the woes of others. Will we in the West take the challenge to right ourselves by not doing wrong to others regardless of our ability to justify it?

SBB: Thank you, Zaman.

ZS: Thank you, Shelley.

Civilian Bombing & the Munitions Industry

I fear we have lost our moral compass.
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On April 26, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, the town of Guernica was bombed into oblivion by the Condor Legion of Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe. According to the official figures, 1,654 civilians were killed.

Many military historians consider this air raid to be an excuse for Germany to test and perfect its new aerial bombing technics and equipment that it would later use on its military conquests 

during WWII.

On Feb. 13, 1945, a series of Allied firebombing air raids began against the German city of Dresden, reducing the city known as the “Florence of the Elbe” to flaming rubble and killing as many as 140,000 civilians. The single most destructive bombing of WWII—including Hiroshima or Nagasaki, little, if anything, was accomplished strategically because Germany was already about to surrender.

During this air raid, the Allied forces tested and perfected the incendiary bombing technique of creating “Firestorms” in which an all-encompassing storm of flames draws all the oxygen out of large areas of civilian populations. These technics were later used on civilian centers in Japan. Reliable reports indicate that during these fire storms, human lungs have been known to implode for lack of oxygen.

“You guys burnt the place down, turned it into a single column of flame. More people died there in the firestorm, in that one big flame, than died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.”—Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

In “The Aftermath of Dresden,” Richard Knell wrote, “One can say that the losses and destruction were unnecessary and do not represent a leaf of honor in the analysis of mankind. They cannot be excused. The best one can do so many years after the wars is to analyze and assess them, dispatch them to history, and hope and pray that they will never happen again.”

Something similar is happening again, today. An 80-page report by Human Rights Watch, “Death from the Skies: Deliberate and Indiscriminate Air Strikes on Civilians,” is based on visits to 50 sites of government air strikes in opposition-controlled areas in Aleppo, Idlib, and Latakia governorates, and more than 140 interviews with witnesses and victims. The air strikes have killed more than 4,300 civilians across Syria since July 2012.

Rights groups have reported on the recent use of cluster munitions in the Ukraine and increasingly in Syria. Global interests of various human rights groups came out against the use of cluster bombs because some of the bombs fail to explode, resulting in ongoing danger to civilians long after the conflicts end.

Two of the largest cluster bomb manufacturers are based in the United States: Alliant Techsystems of Minnesota and Textron Systems in Rhode Island.

From 2010 to 2015, 151 financial institutions—banks, pension funds and other groups based in the United States—invested, at least $28 billion in companies that manufacture these weapons. Some of the biggest names in global finance are involved, including Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo. JPMorgan’s investment is estimated to be more than $671 billion, according to PAX, an international rights group. 

We now have laws on how to kill people and level communities. Where are the laws on how to stop war, munitions profiteering, and military intervention? War is political aggression unleashed for munitions profiteering. It is now unregulated industrialized corporate politics. The munitions companies are now Fortune 500 corporations that you can buy stock in. Show me a great fortune, and I’ll show you a great crime.

We have not only legalized the ultimate crime, but we now can earn dividends from it. War is no longer a political, nationalistic or idealistic endeavor. It is an industrial, global empire, and a nation in and of itself. Not only does it have its own economic structure, it, in one way or another becomes part of other countries’ economic structures, either by contributing manufacturing sites or destroying the infrastructure of its targeted nations. 

More than any other industry or concept, war is part of our financial system and is cannibalizing our morality. And it is by its nature an aggressive and dominating financial nation. I think the time has come to question how many of us have or will swear allegiance to that which truly could be called an empire of war.

Shelley B. Blank has worked with major national and international newspapers as a journalist as well as a corporate executive. He has produced programs for Public Radio and lectured on modern multimedia communications and technology.

Shelley B. Blank
Shelley B. Blank