Late for the Sky

The photo below belongs in the DNC’s image bank in Philly. In my dreams, Hillary Clinton’s effort to break the glass ceiling converges with Alfred Yaghobzadeh’s picture of Djila climbing up to a lookout post in the Sinjar region of Iraq where her all-female brigade participated in a successful campaign against ISIS last fall.

Yazidi woman sky...

Most of the women in that brigade know what it’s like to have been captured and trafficked as sex slaves. A culture of shame keeps many from allowing they were raped but now “their decisions are in their hands, no longer in the hands of their families or their brothers.” The past may be close behind but Yazidi women warriors are rising above it. “There is nobody else like them.” as Yaghobzadeh noted (last fall).  “They are fighting ISIS! Even America, I’m sorry, is bullshitting—is going there and throwing three bombs: poof.”  These local heroes may even have an advantage against ISIS because wannabe martyrs are said to worry they won’t go to paradise if they’re killed by females (though there are those who claim ISIS isn’t at the mercy of that faith-based rumor).

We should all share Yaghobzadeh’s love for his subjects, but it’s important to underscore there are plenty of feminist precedents in the war against ISIS. Women are a heavy presence in the (fractious) Kurdish military coalition whose units have been the most effective boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria. Bernard Kouchner (founder of Doctors Without Borders and champion of humanitarian interventionism) has picked up on this:  “I was very impressed when I went to Syria a few months ago to see a Kurdish woman fighting as a commander-in-chief in the city of Kobane. She was the commander of a thousand men and women, and they resisted DAISH, and they won!”[1]

Kurdish fighters identified with the leftist, independence movement that’s taken a piece of territory in Syria are in the vanguard when it comes to women’s rights in the Middle East. That movement, the P.K.K., is led by Abdulla Öcalan (currently serving a life sentence in a Turkish jail) and “a pillar of Öcalan’s ideology is strict gender equality, both in society and on the battlefield.” To quote a phrase from a New Yorker report from the front lines of the war against ISIS, which hinted gender matters sometimes amped up tensions between the P.K.K.’s militia and the peshmerga of Iraqi Kurdistan:

About half of the P.K.K. fighters posted around the junction were women. Many of them—cigarettes in their mouths, Kalashnikovs on their backs, and grenades fastened to the sashes around their waists—looked no older than sixteen or seventeen. Shortly after we arrived, I heard one young woman yelling furiously. She was standing in the rotary, beneath the flag of Öcalan, facing several peshmerga soldiers.

“You don’t talk to me!” she told them…

The conflict, in this instance, was defused. And it’s important to add there are women in the peshmerga too. An article reprinted in Newsweek profiled Lt. Colonel Nahida Ahmad Rashid, who commands another all-female battalion. Rashid has a heroic past—she carried out attacks as a teenager on Saddam’s Secret Service and later fought with the peshmerga against Ansar-Al-Islam. But her profiler was intent on avoiding “sensationalistic images,” portraying her not as an amazon or superhero but as a good officer who is also a “wife, mother and daughter.” Rashid’s habit of command seems not to be at odds with her sisterly instincts:

By the manner of the soldiers entering and leaving Rashid’s office, it is clear she has the respect of those under her command. But I also noticed an almost palpable oneness between her and her officers, an equality, a “sisterhood” united in fighting a common foe.

Rashid cops to the fact: “Religion and culture have held women back.” But she noted Kurds had made real progress toward gender equality, especially in their military.

It will take the vision thing, but why can’t Hillary Clinton link her own progress—and that of American women—with the sisterhood of those resisting ISIS? Please don’t understand me too quickly. I’m not suggesting metaphorical holes in the glass ceiling should be conflated with real bullet holes. Still, Clinton should be able to make a feminist connection between the situation of women in America and that of Yazidi and/or Kurdish women without seeming like an opportunist. After all, those women in combat against ISIS are America’s allies and Clinton has stood up for women’s rights in international forums. (Her famous 1995 intervention in China comes to mind.)

A portion of the Democratic Party’s base would be against such a rhetorical move. There’s a neo-isolationist strain among Bernie bros (and sisters). They fear Clinton’s supposed hawkishness and worry about foreign entanglements. While they are more at ease in this sweet old world than the Donald, there’s something tin-eared about their versions of internationalism.

That came home to me at Bernie’s rally in Washington Sq. Park when organizers played a Bob Marley track called “Revolution.” From one p.o.v., Marley’s lyrics seemed to fit Sanders themes–“It takes a revolution, to make a solution…Never make a politician grant you a favor, they will always want to control you forever…” –but the song ends with apocalyptic images of fire next time. That rasta nightmare/promise may have been apt for 70s Jamaica–a nation that was (to borrow Trump’s phrase) a “divided crime scene”–but as a soundtrack for those feeling the Bern, it seemed unearned –out of place and time.

OTOH, there’s a currency to Marley’s millennialism. We all know mad Islamists are out to make the way we live now seem like end times. Clinton has yet to summon language/emotion that will take in the dailiness of ISIS’s atrocities.  It’s their horror shows (not T.P.P.!) that are likely to shape news cycles over the next few months. Trump may be able to trump Clinton here, though his xenophobia mixes up ISIS with nada threats from wilding Mexicans.  (His nonsense makes Lyin’ Newt Gingritch and Screamin’ Rudy Giuliani seem like consecutive thinkers.) While there’s a case to be made for the Obama Administration’s no-drama, end-of-ideology approach to Islamist extremism, I think Clinton ought to be more forthright when it comes defining the nature of ISIS and celebrating those who are fighting against this death cult.

Paul Berman worries she will shy away from cultivating moral clarity here “due to her diplomat’s bias, which is to avoid ideological confrontations, whenever possible.” He also undescores how her former boss has avoided the ideological struggle against Islamists who wish “to exterminate large portions of the human race for theological reasons.” Though he’s wrong when he insists Obama “has never discussed this ideology.” It was all there in Obama’s most famous (“Towards a More Perfect Union”) speech on race where he condemned “the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.” Yet Berman isn’t wrong to claim Obama has eschewed argufying against Islamism since he became President. That has to do with Obama’s belief he could jump off from his experience as a child growing up among Muslims in Indonesia to make a felt connection with the ummah that would help undo Islamists’ equation of America with The Great Satan.  But Clinton isn’t Obama—and the Iran deal is done!  So there’s no reason for her not to talk straighter about Jihadis’ …perverse and hateful ideology.

European politicians have lately been offering up exemplary oratory on terror. Berman has called attention to the peroration of an address by the British Labor Party’s Hilary Benn…

Mr Speaker, I hope the House will bear with me if I direct my closing remarks to my Labour friends and colleagues on this side of the House. As a party, we have always been defined by our internationalism. We believe we have a responsibility one to another. We never have and we never should walk by on the other side of the road. And we are here faced by fascists. Not just their calculated brutality, but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us here tonight, and all of the people that we represent. They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy, the means by which we will make our decision tonight, in contempt. And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated…

The first time I heard Benn’s lines on the struggle against Islamofascism, I flashed on the fight against Trump who does dirt on our democracy too. Unlike Barack Obama last night, however, I didn’t have the audacity in my own head-space to line up Trumpism with “fascists or communists or jihadists.” And there may be reasons to push back against Obama’s riff. Trump isn’t about to behead or burn anyone (though his loose lips could get a lot of people killed). His shtick owes more to Howard Stern than it does to totalitarians. Yet I hope Obama isn’t the only one with the imagination to weave the fight against radical Islamism into the resistance to our “homegrown demagogue.’

Though you have to be a masterful public narrator to pull that together. Someone like Obama or Sarah Hurwitz—the woman who wrote Michelle Obama’s speech last Tuesday. Hurwitz is up to this moment. Think of how her words—brought to life by FLOTUS—evoked the Obama girls’ little faces surrounded by men with guns in the huge dark car.  That image touched on the fear that’s alive in most sentient parents now. While Michelle Obama kept the focus on haters here at home, Clinton shouldn’t be afraid to zero in on threats emanating from outside our republic.  Tonight (and going forward) I want her to speak to those dangers and, perhaps even (Forgive me for going there again!) invoke those Yazidi and/or Kurdish women who shall overcome ISIS. Maybe Hurwitz, who once worked for Clinton, could help!  (Michelle Obama poached Hurwtiz after the speechwriter wrote Clinton’s 18-million-cracks-in-the-glass-ceiling address.) Whoever Clinton leans on, I’m with her as she takes on the muy macho scum of our time.



1 Kouchner’s angle on the role of the Europeans and Americans is less disparaging than Yaghobzadeh’s. He notes the fighters in Kobane beat ISIS “[w]ith a bit of help from the French people, and much more massively from the American people.”