Hugh Eakin is a Senior Editor at The New York Review. His reporting on the Syrian humanitarian crisis is included in Flight from Syria: Refugee Stories, published last November. Research for the article in this issue was supported by a grant from the Fritt Ord Foundation. (March 2016)
Known for its free health care and university education for all, its robust defense of gay rights and social freedoms, and its vigorous culture of social and political debate, the country has long been envied as a social-democratic success, a place where the state has an improbably durable record of doing good. When it comes to refugees, however, Denmark has long led the continent in its shift to the right—and in its growing domestic consensus that large-scale Muslim immigration is incompatible with European social democracy.
At the heart of the current crisis is a fundamental problem: there are virtually no legal ways for a refugee to travel to Europe. This situation has led to a vast, shadowy human-smuggling industry, based in Turkey, the Balkans, and North Africa, which European officials have recently estimated to be worth as much as $1 billion per year.
Yet one more horror in a war that has delivered them almost daily, the mass exodus of Syrians through a narrow opening in a chain-link fence at the Syrian-Turkish border this past June nevertheless stood out for what it showed about the sheer complexity of the human catastrophe now unfolding in Syria. The US has accepted fewer than one thousand Syrian refugees so far—more made it through that hole in the fence during a few hours.
Despite Tunisia’s unusual political and cultural assets, it has now suffered the two worst terrorist attacks in its history—both involving radicalized young Tunisians, both seeming to target the post-revolutionary order the country has worked so hard to construct. How can the Arab world’s most promising and ambitious new democracy also be one of its greatest producers of violent jihadists?
Norway seems an unlikely place for Islamist extremism. Exceptionally wealthy, this small Nordic country has an unemployment rate of 3.7 percent and offers enviable welfare benefits to citizens and new immigrants alike. Though Muslims account for less than 5 percent of the country’s five million citizens, there are both Shias and Sunnis, including sizable Pakistani and Somali communities, as well as smaller numbers with Iranian, Turkish, and North African backgrounds. This diverse population is comparatively well integrated. But in early February, security officials told the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet that as many as 150 Norwegians have joined jihadist groups in Syria.
Mark Danner has been writing in these pages about the use of torture by the US government since the first years after September 11, 2001. Following the release in December 2014 of the Senate’s report on the CIA torture program, Hugh Eakin spoke to Danner for the New York Review …
One of the main findings of the Senate investigation of the CIA’s torture program was not simply the abuse, or the law-breaking, or the moral reprehensibleness of it. It was that there was a fundamental corruption of governance, in which the CIA persistently lied, not only to Congress but to the executive branch to which it ostensibly reported.
With the Gulf region, and much of the greater Middle East, entangled in civil strife and sectarian divisions, Oman looks increasingly like an anomaly. Dominated by formidable mountains and huge tracts of uninhabited gravelly desert, the country has a population of four million people dispersed across a territory the size of Italy. It is sandwiched between Saudi Arabia and the hinterlands of Yemen, in which al-Qaeda has much influence. And its government is one of the most absolutist in the world. Yet Sultan Qaboos seems to enjoy more legitimacy than most of his Arabian peers, even among Omanis who are deeply critical of the government.
After more than a dozen years of the US-led “war on terror,” as Pakistan has slid between military and civilian rule, crackdowns and suicide bombings, the cosmopolitan city of Lahore has struggled to maintain its old values. A group of Lahori intellectuals have decided to fight back in the way they best know how: with words and books and open debate.
In sheer numbers alone, the scale of Syria’s humanitarian crisis is difficult to grasp: a third of the country’s 22.5 million people have abandoned their homes; 10 percent have fled the country, including more than one million children. The crisis has also been hard to understand because the Syrians who have fled are dispersed in hundreds of villages, towns, and cities across the region. These photographs, taken during reporting this summer in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq, show some of the many different situations in which the refugees now find themselves.
By last September, the number of Syrians fleeing abroad had grown to more than 300,000, a figure that doubled again over the following three months. In March of this year, it reached one million. At the beginning of September, more than two million Syrians had left the country, while the average pace had reached five thousand people a day. The UN projects there will be 3.5 million refugees by the end of the year.
While the dramatic images of refugees pouring into Northern Iraq are new, Northern Iraq’s troubled relations with Syria—and Syria’s Kurds—are not. As I discovered during a trip to Northern Iraq earlier this month, the war in Syria has lately been anything but a boon to the region. The Barzani government has had to deal with ten times as many Syrian refugees as anticipated a year ago—numbers which have quickly exhausted its political will or administrative capacity to deal with them. And now it faces growing agitation among its own people to enter the war, despite indications that sending in KRG-backed fighters might be disastrous for Kurdish unity in the region.
On a hot afternoon in late July, Lebanese aid workers were handing out boxes of food to Syrian exiles in a town just a few kilometers from the Syrian border: on the face of it, an unremarkable event in a war that has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee to Lebanon. But the town was Hermel, a Hezbollah stronghold in the northernmost part of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley that has sent numerous young men to fight for the Syrian regime. And the food boxes were donated by the Red Crescent of the United Arab Emirates, a Sunni country in the Arabian Gulf that, along with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, has backed the Syrian opposition.
Runners who have completed the historic race from the village of Hopkinton, in Massachusetts’s Middlesex County, to downtown Boston, 26.2 miles east, invariably have their own favorite parts of the course and those they dread. But it seemed beyond any runner’s imagination that the Boston Marathon finish line itself—the final moment of triumph—could turn into a nightmare, a zone of horror and devastation that stood the entire logic of the race on its head.
On September 25, 2011, the aging ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah, gave a remarkable speech to the Majlis al-Shura, the formal advisory body to the Saudi monarchy in Riyadh. Beginning in 2013, the king said, women would be allowed to serve on the 150-member body; and beginning in 2015, they would also be permitted to vote and run for office in municipal council elections. To most outside observers, these moves were hardly worth noting. Yet in a country whose only written charter asserts the Koran as its basic law and in which women have few legal rights, let alone the right to vote, the announcement struck many as revolutionary.
In March 1548, having brought the Ottoman Empire to the height of its power, Suleiman the Magnificent decided to build a mosque in Istanbul. “At that time,” an anonymous chronicler explains, “His Highness the world-ruling sultan realized the necessity to leave behind a monument so as to be commemorated till the end of time” and “ordered the construction of a matchless mosque complex for his own noble self.” In late May of this year, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—Turkey’s powerful Prime Minister, a devout Muslim, and the self-styled leader of the new Middle East—announced that he would be erecting his own grand mosque above the Bosphorus. It will be more prominent than Suleiman’s.
The United States is quietly being drawn into an escalating conflict in Yemen. Following the discovery earlier this month of a new bomb plot aimed at American airliners, the US government has been aiming drones at alleged members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) at an unprecedented rate. Last week, US and Yemeni officials revealed that US special operations forces are on the ground in Yemen and that more may be on the way. Meanwhile AQAP, the Yemen-based organization now regarded by some officials as one of the principal terrorist threats to the United States, has stepped up attacks around the country, including a huge suicide bombing in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, on Monday, that killed at least sixty people.
Over the past few years, the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Qatar has created—from scratch—one of the most important museums of Islamic art in existence as well as a distinctive collection of modern and contemporary painting and sculpture by artists from all over the Arab Middle East. Now it is building a National Museum so large and complex that the structural engineering alone will cost some half billion dollars. How did the rulers of this parched and featureless desert peninsula—a place that until recently was peripheral even to the politics and culture of the Gulf itself—come to take such a far-reaching interest in the aesthetic traditions of the Arab and Muslim world?
Qatar, a tiny and enormously rich monarchy in the Persian Gulf, has played a provocative part in uprisings ranging from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya and Yemen. But its own population has few political rights and little interest in democracy. What is it up to?
Over the past ten days, the alarming flight of more than 11,000 Syrians to Turkey—and the prospect of thousands more to come—has brought the international press to Hatay, the dusty Turkish border province with a large Syrian minority where most of the refugees have been put in camps. With impressive speed, Turkey’s Red Crescent has launched a large-scale humanitarian effort to provide a safe haven for victims of Assad’s horrific crackdown. But while journalists seek to interview those who have fled, they have also had to confront a surprisingly recalcitrant Turkish government: for more than a week after the refugees arrived, access to the camps where they are being housed was denied; and Turkey has until now refused support from international humanitarian agencies to deal with the crisis. What is Ankara so nervous about?
The subject of plundered art has long retained a special hold on the popular imagination. Beginning in the early twentieth century, if not earlier, it has also increasingly been a matter of law. Many countries have declared state ownership of artifacts found in (and on) their soil; more recently, some, including Italy and Greece, have shown a readiness to prosecute those who trade in them. Indeed, over the last few decades, the market for ancient art seems to have become ever more murky with the kind of dark dealings that Cicero, at his most prosecutorial, would have delighted in.
There are many ways to train for the New York Marathon. My own method involved running three days a week and watching as many running movies as possible—and not just films about famous runners or historic races. (By far the best known of these, Chariots of Fire (1981), about the …
There are many ways to train for the New York Marathon. My own method involves running three days a week and watching as many running movies as possible—and not just films about famous runners or historic races. (By far the best known of these, Chariots of Fire (1981), about the British heroes of the 1924 Olympics, is hard to watch: the races are shown in absurdly overdramatized slow-motion, making one want to fast-forward through the entire thing.) Far more interesting are movies that in some way explore the psychology of running, even if they are mostly about other matters. In this vein, Benjamin Heisenberg’s remarkable new film Der Räuber (The Robber, 2010), about a serial bank robber, may be the most eloquent, and disturbing, portrait of the running mind ever made.
Among the many consequences of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the plight of millions of Iraqi refugees is seldom mentioned. The stories of such people as Burhan Abdulnour, whom we met in Sweden in 2008, have hardly been told.
In reporting on the two million people who have fled Iraq since 2003, Alisa Roth and I have been struck by the extent to which their experiences have eluded visualization. Unlike during other refugee crises, we have seen no columns of people on foot pushing their belongings in carts and wheelbarrows; no large camps with blue UN tents; no legions of starving, half-naked children gathered in dusty rural terrain. Instead, hundreds of thousands of ordinary, middle-class men and women—educated city-dwellers like ourselves—have fled from Baghdad and other Iraqi cities to similarly anonymous urban areas outside the country.