Scott Anderson, author of the 42,000-word landmark New York Times Magazine piece “Fractured Lands,” joined the Institute of Politics on November 2 along with Jon Sawyer, the executive director of the Pulitzer Center, for a discussion moderated by Kerry Luft, former foreign editor of the Chicago Tribune. “Fractured Lands,” underwritten by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting’s Catalyst Fund and enhanced by the stunning photography of Paolo Pelligrin, offers a comprehensive account of the fragmentation of the Middle East and the ensuing turmoil in a way that humanizes the experiences of those who live there. “I decided I was going to do what I’ve always done: try to tell the history of this region through individual stories,” Anderson said in response to a question about how “Fractured Lands” came to be. He has taken that approach since his first foray into the region and into foreign reporting in 1983, when he traveled to Lebanon to cover the nation’s civil war.
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Anderson spent a few minutes early on showcasing some of Pelligrin’s photography from their travels in the Middle East, pausing to offer context for the stark, black-and-white images. For a photo of men waist-deep in water, helping others off boats in the Mediterranean Sea, Anderson described their travels to Greek islands to talk with Syrians, specifically refugees, as they could not enter Syria itself. Anderson could not obtain a visa from the Syrian government, and the Times deemed the rebel-held portions of the country “too dangerous” for them to visit. Anderson explained that the men huddled together in another photograph were prisoners and accused ISIS fighters. In another photo was Majd, a Syrian refugee he interviewed and photographed from behind, shrouded in darkness amid a grove of trees. Majd’s only stipulation was that his face not be shown, in fear that the Syrian secret police would go after his family in Syria.
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Anderson stressed that the Arab revolts of recent years cannot be considered in isolation; they can only be properly understood in historical context. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 have a massive destabilizing effect on the Middle East, but the roots of the region’s fragility date back to nearly a century ago with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. The British and French divided up the region arbitrarily, creating states that were, in essence, artificial. Iraq, for example, was simply a conglomeration of three autonomous provinces, whereas Syria was part of a larger entity that was divided up. Whereas countries like Egypt possess a national identity that dates back thousands of years, Iraq, Syria, and Libya all share a similar history of “artificial” construction that has made them prone to fracture. As a result, the dictators that have ruled these three countries have attempted to fuse their own rule with the notion of the state, to personify their respective nations in an effort to create a national identity where none previously existed. To remove these dictators from power, Anderson explained, is to remove the very crux of national identity itself, leaving tribal and sectarian cleavages to resurface and in turn, tear these nations apart.
Anderson related this lack of identity to the disillusionment that leads people to join jihadist groups: the loss of identity frustrates the younger generations most of all. Anderson considers only one of the twenty imprisoned ISIS fighters that he interviewed to be “radical.” The rest he described as young men in their early twenties, from poor or working-class families, without money, job opportunities, or many life prospects. As a result, they were attracted to the power that comes from carrying a gun, the sense of fraternity from being with your buddies, the glamor, the excitement, and the $400 a month offered by ISIS. In other words, Anderson believes that joining ISIS “wasn’t about religion, and it certainly wasn’t about politics.” When asked how this conception of the typical ISIS fighter could be used to combat the group, he replied that he believes that we need to create for ISIS foot soldiers the same type of escape we created for refugees. “They will leave; they just need a way,” he said.
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Transitioning to his work, Anderson spoke of the fates of the six main protagonists of “Fractured Lands” with considerable disheartenment. Two are refugees, one hopes for the unlikely return of a monarchy in his country, another is “likely fighting ISIS, even as we speak, in Mosul,” one has children in jail because they are political dissidents, and the last one is more than likely awaiting execution. Although “Fractured Lands” ends on a note of optimism, he admitted that he doesn’t actually see a lot of room for hope, at least in the countries he focused on. “For me personally, if I have hope, it’s very much wrapped around the individual people,” Anderson said.
In the Q&A session that followed the talk, the first questioner inquired about Anderson’s personal experience in such a dangerous line of work. Anderson explained how war zones themselves have changed since he first visited Lebanon in 1983. Before, only the combat zone was a source of danger: now, “you have a price tag on your head as a journalist.” He also answered a question about his thoughts on US interventionism. “America now has an unreliable reputation,” he said, and so it cannot intervene now in the ways it once did. He added an interesting anecdote: in an interview with Libya’s late dictator Muammar Gaddafi five months before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Anderson asked Gaddafi who would benefit most from the prospective US invasion. “Al-Qaeda,” was Gaddafi’s impressively perceptive reply.
The event ended with a strikingly direct question. Anderson was asked how he returns to his own life back in the US after viewing firsthand the lives of the people he writes about. “Most news is black and white,” he responded. “However, my motivation comes from bringing things to light in these countries that have been in the dark.”
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