Communities in Conflict

During my recent visit to to the 37th Telluride Film Festival, three films in particular captured my attention with their exploration of the the subject of community, family and religion in the context of war and survival. Each narrates a compelling story told from a different perspective and set in different historical moments, yet the theme of individual conflicts within the social support structure is clear.


The most compelling of these is Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies (adapted from Wajdi Mouawad’s award-winning play), which tells the story of Nawal Marwan, a woman with a heroic and traumatic past, one so horrible she was tormented by it even unto death, insisting that she be buried face down, naked, in an unmarked grave until her children had fulfilled the promises she made in an earlier life on her behalf.

And thus began her unsuspecting children’s journey into their mother’s painful history that takes them into war torn Lebanon during the Civil war of 1975-1991 nominally between Christian and Muslim forces in the country. The movie places Nawal on a bus attacked by the Phalangists, alluding to an event on 13 April 1975 that killed about 26 PFLP members, and sparked a war that lasted 16 years and is estimated to have killed 7% of the country’s population.  Nawal narrowly escapes death by virtue of her Christian background.

Narwal’s life is recounted in fragments and flashbacks, as her history is unraveled and the details of a Greek Tragedy emerge bit by bit. In parallel, Nawal’s Canadian-raised daughter, Jeanne, explores her mother’s background, discovering that the cultural stigma of her mother’s accidental pregnancy persists a lifetime later.  She learns piece by piece and ever deeper the horror and trauma of her mother’s early adulthood, first forced into exile in the city, then being swept up in the war, hardened into partisan action on behalf of the Lebanese National Movement after pursuing her missing son to Damour, and ultimately paying a horrible price.

Jeanne’s twin brother, first dismissive of his mother’s past and uninterested in discovering anything more, finally makes the journey to Lebanon himself and continues the investigation into their mother’s past as it leads to the still-living and still powerful leaders of the Lebanese National Movement.

The audience is dragged step by step through the hell of sectarian civil war. Nawal’s tragic life is a metaphor for the tragedy of a war that pits neighbor against neighbor in brutal reprisals, creating wounds that fester to this day, even 20 years after the end of open hostilities.

The cast is very strong, the acting superb.  The footage of Lebanon is beautiful and stark. Lubna Azabal as Nawal and Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin as Jeanne are particularly excellent, though so close in appearance that it is sometimes difficult to keep straight the jumps from wartime Lebanon of the 70s and 80s to the present, especially in the areas outside of Beirut where it seems little, if anything has changed.


A close second in the narrative category is Of Gods and Men, directed by Xavier Beauvois, recounting the story of a Cistercian monastery in Algeria. It was an unexpected pleasure from a slow, deliberately paced film that built tension scene by scene, word by word, look by look to the point where one expected and would have entirely forgiven the characters for simply dying in peace from old age before meeting their historical ends.

The movie is a dramatization of the 1996 kidnapping and assassination of the monks of Tibhirine, a French Trappist monastery in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria during the Algerian civil war. The conflict between Islamic fundamentalists in Algeria and more moderate Muslims started to boil over, and foreign corporate entities and remnants of French colonial rule became targets.

News of atrocities committed against foreigners reached the monks and forced them to decide between staying true to their mission and facing likely death or fleeing the country. The government of Algeria, the Algerian military, and people aware of their plight urged them to leave, but the local population they had served for decades urged the to stay. The monks ran a small infirmary, the only medical care in the region, which made them essential to the locals and soon nonjudgmental if not apparently willing allies of the local insurgents — an uneasy alliance that turned the military against them as well.

Historically, we know 6 of 8 monks in the monastery and a visitor from the Trappist order were kidnapped, held for two months, and then beheaded. The movie takes us through the almost unbearable tension that built between 14 December 1993, when 12 Christian Croatian construction workers were murdered near the Monastery and the abduction of the monks on the night of 26 March 1996.

The movie leaves ambiguous the final fate of the monks in deference to the controversy surrounding their actual fates. While it is clear that they were abducted by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), and they were beheaded, there is some controversy as to whether the Algerian army may have killed them by mistake in a rescue attempt, and then covered the story up with the beheading.

Each of the actors put in a powerful and compelling performance, but Michael Lonsdale stood out as Luc Dochier, the doctor who had, in real life, lived in the monastery for 50 years, and was 82 at the time of the abduction. Lonsdale and some of the other actors went on retreats to prepare for their roles, learning the routines and liturgies of the order first hand.


Among the documentaries, Shlomi Eldar, a prominent Israeli journalist, follows the story of a Palestinian baby’s treatment for a rare genetic disease in Precious Life (Chaim Yakarim). Since there is no hospital in Gaza that could help, the family brought their baby to the nearest hospital in Israel.

At first the reporter is queasy about the assignment, making it clear that he does not like hospitals. Once engaged, the objective reporter provides thorough coverage of the search for a patron to pay for the surgery, the search for donors for a bone-marrow transplant, and the follow up care. Each phase has its struggles, as one would expect in such volatile territory. As various details emerge, the perspective changes, ranging from sympathy to anger. Questions arise as to the necessity and implications of this surgery, funded by an Anonymous Jewish man, and how this ostracizes the Gaza family from their friends, as well as the ethics of deed when the mother lets slip that she would be proud if her son became a suicide bomber.


These powerful films demonstrate the gamut of human existence, playing on emotion, history, culture and ethics in situations that broaden our understanding of current events and struggles. I would recommend all of them for anyone who wants to gain more perspectives on the conflicts engulfing our world today.


“The Birds of Paradise”, al-Qaeda’s Approach to Use of Minors in Combat

“You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.” -Thomas Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times

Dickens’ quote is exemplary of the 19th century attitude about children’s education, where students were regarded as vessels receiving information without the right to debate the source or validity of that information. Today’s radical Selafists supporting violent Jihad subscribe to a radical adaptation of Mr. Gradgrind’s statement – that winning the war is a reality as long as recruits are told who they are fighting for and who they are fighting against. This attitude, promoted in Salafist discussions, is in line with Ibn Taymiya’s 1400-year old reasoning and Ahmed bin Abd al-Wahhab’s 18th Century puritan thoughts on Islam. These do not harmonize with the pace of life and the 21st century reality.

The Birds of Paradise,” a group launched in 2008, is al-Qaeda’s project to use minors in combat for observation, data collection and to launch attacks. This group has been credited directly with the recruitment and brainwashing of children under the age of 15 to carry out violent activity. In its twelfth issue, the e-magazine of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the “Echo of the Epics,” published an article justifying the use of children in combat. The article “The Rule of the Boys and Young Men’s Participation in Combat” states that the four (4) schools of thought in Islam[i] agree that a boy of 15 is no longer a child, but a man, and thus compelled to participate in combat.

Jihad in Islam is not applicable unless the participant is fully aware of this duty. If most of those recruited to participate actively in violent actions under the guise of Jihad are not aware of the true meaning of this “sacred duty,” how could a 15-year old truly understand it? A child of 15 lacks decision-making experience about what he wants to pursue, making his act of detonating himself in the midst of a crowd, – committing suicide and killing others – one of the greatest sins in Islam.

The al-Arabiya Satellite Channel covered a story about a ten-year old boy in Amiriyat al-Falluja, west of Baghdad, on April 7th, 2010. The child was outfitted with an explosive belt and then asked to detonate himself as close as he could to a checkpoint barrier when it was packed with people. In scenarios like this one, violent militants seek to cultivate a dark hatred towards the enemy in the recruit, often by presenting them with facts without rational justification. In doing so, militants are overlooking the fact that teaching violence and revenge will backfire and harm the same society they are supposed to protect. The boy in Amiriyat al-Falluja was arrested before managing to detonate his belt.  This story is an example of the children who have been associated with al-Qaeda. Many of these children have gone to work planting IEDs or serving as informants for the terrorist organization after losing one or both of their parents.[ii]

The “Echo of the Epicsarticle goes on to explain that, in the case of “Fardh Kifaya,” “Collective Duty”, 15-year old boys do need parental approval to take part in combat.  This parental consent is discarded, however, in the case of “Fardh A’yn”, “An Individual’s Duty” (see Female Jihadists Part I).

The growing number of orphans in Iraq, mainly in areas still lacking a strong security presence, provides a rich source of potential recruits for militant groups that believe in violence as the only means to promote their unjustified views. The lack of government care for these orphans, the rise in unemployment rates and the increase in prices of goods are only some of the obstacles presented to immediate family members struggling to provide shelter and care for the orphans. Additionally, young widows, most in their late teens or early 20s, in areas heavily influenced by tribal codes, are forced into marriages to preserve[iii] the rising number of young husbandless mothers, and add to the fighters the unaccounted for orphans[iv]. The Emir in command of a particular area not only controls the fate of the young widows who are oftentimes married to foreign fighters, he is also the one who decides the fate of the orphan boys. In doing so, an al-Qaeda Family is formed.

Militant radicals insist on depriving the majority of the Muslim population from education, lest they lose their control and power. If the majority of Muslims realize there are numerous options where they can prove Islam is not a religion that promotes violence, the Dark Ages imposed on Islam would be over. Through their good deeds in building their own nation and protecting it from culprits, Muslims, men and women, seniors and children are able to counter the attempts of these radicals who have marred the image of Islam worldwide. How can the Muslim nation grow if its children and women are used as human bombs? How can it survive if its people are not allowed the education that goes hand in hand with the actual teachings of Islam, where they can live, worship and help each other and their Umma as God ordered them to?

[i] The four major schools of jurisprudence in Sunni Islam are, Al-Hanafi, al-Maliki, al-Shafi’e and al-Hanbali.

[ii] “Al-Qaeda Launches ‘Hareem al-Qaeda’, and ‘The Birds of Paradise,’ to Execute Suicide Operations, Al-Arabiya Satellite Channel, 04/08/2010.

[iii] “preserve” is to keep the widows safe and away from harm’s way, not to be victims of harassment for being young widows. That society looks with suspicion at young widows or young divorced females for no longer being virgins and thus could be easily involved with sexual activities outside marriage.

[iv] “unaccounted orphans,” are the orphans with husband-less mothers, that is why the Emir tends to marry these young widows to other fighters so the children would be part of the bigger al-Qaeda family.


Foundlings of The FARC?

Conflicting narratives have been emerging regarding the treatment of women and children by the FARC. Both supporters and opponents of the Marxist guerilla movement have been prolific in their praise or condemnation of the movement’s treatment of women and children.

The FARC likes to portray its movement as a healthy crèche of the next wave of Marxist guerillas trained from birth to fight for the people’s revolution.  However, while women in the FARC are supposed to be “fighters as well as mothers,” some have alleged that young mothers have been forced into unwanted abortions in order to preserve their effectiveness as fighters. Male fighters are allowed to fall in love with their female comrades, as long as they continue to perform their duties responsibly.  Through photos, the FARC publicizes the prominent roles that women in children play in the movement.  The FARC aimed to give birth to a “new socialist culture” in the jungle, poised to take the decadent cities.

Nevertheless, women in the FARC have their children stolen away from them to be raised communally, a system that harkens back to Maoist communal childcare. Since Marulanda’s death, there have been increased reports of combatants abandoning their ranks, who complain that cases of rape, boredom and lack of direction in the jungle have led to low morale and defections. Many women get punished, raped and executed, and the romantic idea of female as revolutionary fighters is long gone. If these allegations are true, they raise questions about the long-term sustainability of the FARC, given that a third of the movement’s members are women.

Colombian newspaper El Cambio published an article claiming that the FARC’s new generation of leaders has resorted to kidnapping children as young as young as 8 or 9-years-old to boost the group’s cadre of soldiers.  The daily El Specatador even went so far last January as to call Colombia “The Congo of Latin America,” because of the prevalence of child soldiers employed by The FARC.

If these developments continue, the FARC, already on the wane, will be increasingly marginalized in Colombian society.  The FARC is turning into an example of the insurgent groups that Jeffrey Gettleman described in his Foreign Policy article, groups that morph from national resistance groups into criminal syndicates, movements that prefer hiding in the bush, “where it is far easier to commit crimes.”


Kitsch Meets National Security

Different age groups adapt to and use new technology in different ways. While the study of age-based demographics for new media is far from revolutionary, there are some interesting considerations for how decision makers in the federal government choose to implement new technology.  We will use language acquisition as a metaphor for technology adaptation to understand the limitations and tendencies for each generation.

The Youth are Getting Restless

The idea of the restless youth usurping the status quo is hardly new.  For thousands of years, a younger generation waited for a chance to prove its worth while the older generation implemented ideas and made decisions.  This is not necessarily the case with new media. Older decision makers often believe themselves to be, and sometimes are, unable to fully grasp and understand how to use emerging communication technologies such as Twitter, Facebook, etc.  As a result, Subject Matter Experts in these fields are far younger than their peers advising on other issues.  Imagine President Kennedy calling in a 27-year-old Harvard PhD student to advise during the Cuban missile crisis. It would be virtually impossible for a neophyte to have an understanding of Cuba, the Soviet Union, and the political machinations behind how the U.S. government makes decisions.  But new media often works differently.  Substitute Cuba with New Media – that 27-year-old advisor IS the “Cuba” expert, because “Cuba” (New Media in this case) came into being in 2002, while the decision makers only knew it existed 2 years ago. The number of younger Subject Matter Experts overseeing various new media activities throughout the U.S. Government illustrates this point.  This phenomenon forces a heretofore unknown cooperation between organizational superior and subordinate “flattening” elements of even the most hierarchical organizations.

The Graying of the Luddites

For each “kid” who has implemented a communication platform using Facebook, Twitter or Second Life, there is still a decision maker who authorized the effort. It is useful to consider who these decision makers are and how their early life experiences with technology alters their perceptions and ability to adapt to technology. The graphic below illustrates how these technology users are different based on similar life experiences.  For simplicity’s sake we will consider 3 groups:  Generation Jones (the Post Baby Boomers like President Barrack Obama), Generation X, and the Millennium children. Keep in mind that no group is monolithic, and that early adopters and innovators abound in each. However, the behavior of the whole demographic is consistent enough to allow for some generalizations.

First, consider the Generation Jonesers, who are currently the senior decision makers in the Federal Government.  These decision makers once looked at this image on a screen with awe and wonder:


The “Joneses” had televisions with 4 channels: ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS.  They turned the “knob” on the television to change channels, before being  exposed to the idea of paying money for additional television channels, an idea many people said was doomed to fail when HBO first debuted in the 1970s.

The speed of technological innovation and evolution has left the Jonesers behind in many ways. Think of technology like a foreign language: foreign language acquisition is virtually impossible for adults, while native fluency is easily achieved by a 9 year old. Technological assimilation seems to run in the same way. The adult life of the pre-generation Xer was busy enough without the addition of New Media social obligations and distractions. The “language” of technological sophistication for this group ended with the first TV remotes, surfing the Internet and using email, and setting up the answering machine.  This lack of “fluency” means that “translators” in the form of younger advisors are needed. The use of a “translator” should not be interpreted as a negative trait. A diplomat may have some great ideas for a Russian counterpart to consider, even if the diplomat relies on a translator. In fact, the non-native can often see problems those immersed in the problem cannot.  Nevertheless, the Jonesers will always speak “technology” with a heavy accent, they will refer to things in a manner that makes younger, more astute users chuckle at the foreigner speaking “our” language.

The Bridge

Generation Xers are the transitional generation between the child who builds a multi-redundant communications suite with 15 friends for an online collaborative video game (that one was the sole job of a specialist at the Pentagon), and the 60 year old who finds Facebook horribly complicated.  Generation Xers understand the world of the Joneses and the world of the Millenium children. They played video games and often had computers growing up, but are the last generation who went outside to play because there was “nothing else to do.”  They mastered their parents’ remote controls and often had to get up and manually change the channel on the TV.
Generation Xers can mostly figure out satellite TV remotes and may not intuitively understand their cell phones, but after a quick bit of help from a Millenium child, can use the technology as intended.  The Gen. Xers became the gaming addicts obsessively playing video games like Doom or Quake.

The Gen. Xers, and those above and below them, should better understand and utilize this transitional generation for new media communication.  They are old enough to understand the organization, and they are young enough to grasp the technology for planning and policy purposes, though execution should be left to their subordinates, even when a delegation of authority is not commonly used.  In ten years , Gen. Xers will be the power brokers, and while not able to keep up with the dizzying evolution of technology, will at least “know what they don’t know.”

The Masters(?)

The Millennium Children section really cannot be written yet, as time will tell in many respects. Perhaps no one fully assimilates technology, and the Millennium Children will be bridge for a later generation. Who knows what form the next revolutionary media will take or if anyone reading this post now will intuitively understand it as well as their children.

We would appreciate your thoughts and comments on these ideas  – please post in the comments section.