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.


Lebanese Journalist Examines, Challenges Violent Extremists

If you asked Osama bin Laden to compile a list of Al-Qaeda’s greatest enemies, most of the names on that list would probably come as no surprise.  The United States would probably top that list, followed by selections such as Israel, U.S. President Barack Obama, Western Europe, the government of Saudi Arabia, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Christianity, Zionism, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and Iran – no real surprises there, as bin Laden and other radical Salafist-jihadists rail against the evils of these individuals, countries, institutions, and movements on a regular basis.  But you might also find an unfamiliar name on that list:  Rima Salha, a young female Lebanese journalist who is challenging Arab and Muslim television audiences to take a hard look at extremist groups like Al-Qaeda and the violence that they commit in what those groups say is the defense of Islam.

Rima Salha, the host of Al-Arabiya TV’s Death Industry program

Rima Salha, the host of Al-Arabiya TV’s Death Industry program

Salha is the host of “Sina’at al Mowt” (Death Industry), a weekly program appearing on Al-Arabiya TV, a pan-Arab satellite TV news and entertainment channel that is one of the most prominent TV channels in the Middle East.  Death Industry typically focuses on people who join violent extremist groups like Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the Somalia-based Shabaab al-Mujahideen Movement, and the consequences that joining such groups has on those individuals and the people close to them.  The program provides insights from experts and scholars in order to examine the phenomenon of violent extremism from political, religious, social, and economic perspectives.  But the program also places a major emphasis on personal perspectives by interviewing people who are former, or even current, members of violent extremist groups, or friends and family members of people who join such groups.  For example, she has interviewed family members of the late founder and leader of AQI, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and also Kamal Habib, who was one of the organizers of the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat but has since renounced violence.  The recent May 8, 2010 episode of Death Industry focused on former Islamic State of Iraq leader Omar al-Baghdadi[1] and featured interviews with his father, the mother of his second wife, and former friends from his childhood. To feature these kinds of guests, Death Industry travels to dangerous places – refugee camps, insurgent strongholds, Iraq, Yemen.  Al-Arabiya TV general manager Abdul Rahman al-Rashed said, “There are a lot of programs debating the issue of terrorism, a lot of debating. But this is the only program with field trips, with special footage, with a lot of revelations in it.”[2]


Dawood al-Zawi, the father of slain Islamic State of Iraq leader Omar al-Baghdadi, from the May 8, 2010 episode of Death Industry

Salha’s motivation for hosting this program is to discourage people from embracing violence as a means for achieving political and social change, as she indicates in a statement given to Fox News“As we know, there are lots of Muslims who are brainwashed so they believe in terrorism but there are also big sections of Muslims who sympathize with terrorists,” says Salha. “We are targeting those people and trying to explain to them that terrorism is not a good thing.” She also seeks to counter the assertion frequently made by Salafist-jihadist groups that violence acts are necessary to defend.  In much the same way that the United States has grown increasingly aware of the importance of its image in the non-Western world, Salha stresses that these Islamist assertions in fact tarnish the image of Islam held by many non-Muslims: “Terrorism is illegal violence, as it targets innocent people to achieve a political objective. Terrorists who are acting under the name of Islam are killing civilians without thinking.”  Extremists engaging in terrorism, she argues, defame the image of Islam and Arabs who reject and criminalize these inhuman actions. “There is what we call now ‘Islamophobia’ worldwide. But in reality, terrorism knows no religion, sect or nationality.”[3]

Al-Arabiya TV was founded in 2004 to be a direct competitor to Al-Jazeera TV.  At the time, Al-Jazeera was a target of significant criticism in some circles for not providing objective coverage of violent extremist groups in Iraq and for its clear hostility to the U.S. military’s presence in the country.  At that time, the station had a tendency to portray Iraqi insurgent groups with some degree of sympathy (because of their opposition to the U.S. military presence in the country) while tending to overlook some insurgent groups’ attacks against civilian targets.  Al-Arabiya TV now generally offers more balanced views of such topics and has instituted a number of practices to reinforce this balance in coverage, some of which have been adopted by other Arab media outlets.  For example, it is now much more common for Arab media outlets to refer to Iraqi insurgents by the term musulaheen, or armed men, instead of muqaawama, or resistance, which was a common practice in the early days of the war in Iraq.  The Death Industry program seems to fit in with Al-Arabiya TV’s approach of providing a more objective and balanced coverage of major issues in the Arab and Islamic worlds by providing a much more in-depth look at violent extremist groups and the people who join them than most other Arabic-language media outlets.

A program like Death Industry has the potential to be a great complement to U.S. efforts to combat violent extremism because it emphasizes messages similar to those that the U.S. frequently emphasizes in strategic communications efforts targeted at Arab and Islamic audiences, and because it can reach a huge viewership thanks to the extensive reach of Al-Arabiya TV.  The fact that the program comes from an Arab media source rather than a Western one, as well as the fact that the program often features actual former members of violent extremist groups speaking in their own words about their own experiences, lends considerable credibility to the program.  The program’s emphasis on the impact of family members makes the program’s messages particularly effective, given the importance of family in Arab and Islamic societies.

How do we know that the Death Industry program is having an impact?  Because unfortunately, Salha has received death threats from jihadists who have called her derogatory names such as “Christian Crusader” and “sister of the Jews,” and have declared her “fair game for the mujahideen” for her criticism of extremist groups for conducting violence against civilians.  Even Al-Qaeda deputy leader Ayyman al-Zawahiri has reportedly singled out Death Industry and Al-Arabiya TV for criticism in one of his video diatribes.  But Salha seems undeterred by such criticisms and threats:  “They accuse me of fighting jihad, they accuse me of destroying the image of Islam. This is not true. We are not distorting the image of Islam,” says Salha. “The program is just trying to show some facts about terrorism and these so-called jihadists. Of course I receive threats on a regular basis, but that does not prevent me from doing my mission.”[4]

[1] The Islamic State of Iraq is an AQI front organization; it basically serves as the public face of AQI in an attempt to give the organization more of an Iraqi character and to downplay the group’s links to foreign organizations and leaders (namely Osama bin Laden and his global Al-Qaeda network).  Al-Baghdadi was killed, along with AQI leader Abu Hamza al-Muhajir (aka Abu Ayyub al-Masri), in Iraq during a joint U.S.-Iraqi security operation on April 18, 2010.

[2] This excerpt is taken from the Fox News story on Death Industry titled “Popular Arab TV Program Exposes the Real Al-Qaeda” which is available at (accessed on 14 May 2010).

[3] Excerpt from (accessed on 14 May 2010).

[4] Excerpt from “Popular Arab TV Program Exposes the Real Al-Qaeda”.