A ‘War on Error’ against radical anti-Islam

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By Khaled Diab

Given how many New Atheists, Christian fundamentalists and neo-cons share a distorted view of Islam and Muslims, it’s high time for a War on Error 

Tuesday 19 May 2015

What do the high priests of “New Atheism”, Christian fundamentalists and neo-conservatives have in common?

Though this may sound like the opening line to a joke, the punchline is actually not terribly funny, especially given its dire consequences. Even though New Atheists feel contempt for Christian fundamentalists, both parties share a deep distrust and a profound misunderstanding of Islam and the Muslim world.

This was amply illustrated in a recent e-mail exchange in which the well-known neuroscientist and New Atheist Sam Harris decided, uninvited, to pick an intellectual fight with America’s leading political dissident, the scholar Noam Chomsky. After reading the debate, I was left with the impression that Harris has a knack for speaking truth to the powerless, while Chomsky follows the true path of the dissident, of speaking truth to power.

Given how broad and, hence dangerous, these misperceptions are, I believe it is high time that we launch a “War on Error” to spread the values of sensibility and common sense.

Moral equivalence and moral relativism

One of the most popular methods used by some New Atheists – and which they paradoxically share with neo-cons and Christian fundamentalists – is to slam what they regard as the “moral (or ethical) relativism” of the presumably self-hating left and multiculturalists.

As someone with powerful humanist convictions, I would love nothing more than to live in a world in which the universal values of individual human rights, equality and tolerance of others are the norms.

However, my experience is that those who inveigh the loudest against “moral relativism” are the first to invoke it in the form of “moral equivalence”. When people like me try to use the same ethical yardstick for all, they explicitly or implicitly invoke American or Western exceptionalism.

Take Sam Harris, who employs both concepts in his exchange with Chomsky. He defends torture, which contravenes the universal values he claims to uphold, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as something that “may be an ethical necessity in our war on terror,” yet issues wholesale condemnations of the “cruelty,” “barbarity” and “approach to criminal justice” of Muslim society.

“Any honest witness to current events will realise that there is no moral equivalence between the kind of force civilised democracies project in the world, warts and all, and the internecine violence that is perpetrated by Muslim militants, or indeed by Muslim governments.,” Harris writes in his 2004 The End of Faith,” an excerpt he includes as part of the email debate with Chomsky .

In this, he sounds like prominent neo-cons and Cold War warriors. During the Reagan era, for instance, US ambassador to the UN Jeane Kirkpatrick penned a scathing article in which she attacked what she claimed was the “myth of moral equivalence” between America and the Soviet Union.

Though Harris, a supporter of the Iraq war, repeatedly ignored Chomsky’s question about what he made of George W Bush’s belief that God guided him to invade Iraq and his description of the war there as a “Crusade”, forutnately, not all the intellectual leaders of New Atheism are so disingenuous. To his credit, Richard Dawkins was an outspoken and staunch opponent of perhaps the largest and deadliest military folly of this young century. “George Bush is a catastrophe for the world. And a dream for Bin Laden,” he concluded in no uncertain terms, at the time.

Shackled minds and the liberation of thought

“The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: those with brains but no religion, and those with religion but no brains.”

The citation above may sound like it was uttered by Richard Dawkins but it is actually a quotation taken from Abu al-Ala’ al-Ma’arri (973-1057), the blind Syrian poet, philosopher, rationalist and hermit who was both a vegetarian and an early advocate of extreme birth control, i.e. not having children.

Despite his strident and uncompromising atheism, the Syrian was a highly respected scholar of his day, who is still admired in Syria, and lived to the ripe old age of 84. His life and ideas, as well as that of numerous other Arab and Muslim intellectuals throughout the ages, eloquently expresses how Islam and free thought are not necessarily incompatible, as many modern critics claim, and how this tradition continues into the modern day, despite the conservative backlash.

Equally eloquently, the posthumous beheading of statues and busts of al-Maari by the Nusra Front show how far modern-day jihadists and Islamists have strayed from this spirit of tolerance and acceptance, and how al-Maari was better off in the Syria of the 10th century than that of the 21st.

Islam, the root of all evil

Though he lived a millennium earlier, al-Ma’arri differed from New Atheism’s high priests in one significant respect – he regarded all religions, prophets and scriptures as being equally “fabrications” and “idle tales”. In contrast, some of his contemporary counterparts possess an inexplicable soft spot for their own religious heritage.

“I regard Islam as one of the great evils in the world,” self-described “secular Christian” Dawkins contends because “there is a belief that every word of the Quran is literally true.”

While I agree that this is highly problematic, Dawkins conveniently glosses over the fact that a quarter of the citizens of the world’s most powerful nation believes the Bible should be taken literally and another half believes it to be the word of God.

Sadly, Dawkins’ view of Islam as the greatest evil echoes that of the lunatic Christian right in America, and has an ancient pedigree in Christian thought. For instance, prominent evangelist Franklin Graham, shortly after 9/11, repeatedly described Islam as “wicked and evil”. “I don’t believe this is a wonderful, peaceful religion” and “It wasn’t Methodists flying into those buildings, it wasn’t Lutherans.” Among evangelical Christians, 52% believe that “Islam is essentially a violent religion,” according to a 2013 poll.

Both Dawkins and Franklin, despite their undoubted mutual contempt, seem to draw from the same ancient roots of mutual distrust and rivalry between Christianity and Islam, eloquently illustrated by Dante’s Divine Comedy, where Muhammad is so evil that he must occupy one of the lowest circle of hell, where he suffers unspeakable torture. Likewise, far too many Muslims are convinced that there is a Christian crusade against Islam, which is clearly untrue.

Though it would be wonderful if all Christians were like a good-natured and eccentric Vicar of Dibley, the truth is that away from the West, wide-scale death and destruction have been wrought in the name of Christianity, from the ISIS of Christendom, the Lord’s Resistance Army, to the carnage of the anti-condom movement in Africa.

Fortunately, the New Atheists’ distorted views of Islam do not accurately reflect the views of the people for whom they are presumed to speak, given that just 20% of people who claim no faith or are agnostic believe that Islam is violent, according to the same Barna Group poll cited above. Similarly, the poll found that 62% of evangelical Christians have an unfavourable perception of Islam, compared with just 7 percent of agnostics or people with no faith.

Dreams of Nirvana

As a further sign of Dawkins’s religious naivety and that of  many others, great geographical distance seems to have warped people’s view of “Eastern religions”. “Hinduism and Buddhism offer much more sophisticated worldviews (or philosophies) and I see nothing wrong with these religions,” Dawkins claims, apparently oblivious to the deadly effects of Hindu and Buddhist violent nationalist and fundamentalist movements.

If even Buddhism, widely perceived as the true “religion of peace”, can be exploited for the purposes of hate, intolerance and persecution, this reveals an important truth: religions are faulty and imperfect, but so is the human condition.

What this suggests is that if Islam (and religion as a whole) died out tomorrow, we would not necessarily reach a state of enlightened secular Nirvana. The godless utopia could easily turn into a dystopia as well, as the Soviet experiment taught us.

Any ideology, even rationalism and atheism, can be twisted for the political gain of the few and to inflict unbelievable pain and suffering on the many.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 14 May 2015.

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Bush, Blair en de blitzkrieg in Irak

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Door Khaled Diab

Gezien de verreikende gevolgen van de Amerikaanse invasie van Irak, laten we het idee om Bush en Blair voor het gerecht te brengen nieuw leven inblazen.


Dinsdag 17 juni 2014

Hoe je er ook naar kijkt, de gebeurtenissen hebben een spectaculaire wending genomen. De Islamitische Staat in Irak en de Levant (ISIS), in Syrië in het gedrang gekomen door een offensief van Syrische opstandelingen, heeft sinds begin dit jaar, na de grens met Irak te zijn overgestoken, het noordwesten van dit land stukje bij beetje in handen gekregen.

Deze week is de campagne van ISIS in een stroomversnelling geraakt, waarbij de groepering de tweede stad van Irak, Mosoel, heeft
ingenomen, evenals Tikrit, de geboorteplaats van de voormalige Iraakse dictator Saddam Hoessein al-Tikriti, op een afstand van slechts 140 kilometer van de hoofdstad Bagdad.

Naar verluidt hebben de militanten de grensposten tussen Syrië en Irak uit de weg geruimd, wat van symbolische betekenis is, maar ook kan worden gezien als een teken dat de jihadistische beweging haar doel naderbij ziet komen van de vestiging van een islamitische staat in beide landen.

Als gevolg van het offensief van ISIS zijn honderdduizenden Irakezen, die al lang lijden onder alle gevechten, op de vlucht geslagen.
Het meest alarmerend is wellicht dat ISIS, in het Arabisch bekend onder de naam al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fīl-Iraq weh al-Sham, erin geslaagd is deze snelle verovering van noordwest-Irak te verwezenlijken met een krakkemikkige multinationale troepenmacht van slechts drie- tot vijfduizend strijders.

Hoe is dit kunnen gebeuren?

Als New York Times-columnist Thomas Friedman mag worden geloofd, lijkt dit het gevolg van een ideologische strijd tussen islamisten en milieuactivisten: “De echte ideeënstrijd… is de strijd die woedt tussen religieuze extremisten (soennieten zowel als sjiieten) en overtuigde milieuactivisten”, schreef hij.

Het verhaal dat ecostrijders in oorlog zijn met de zelfbenoemde soldaten van God is voor iedereen in het Midden-Oosten groot nieuws.

Het is waar dat het milieu in de regionale conflicten van hetomwater schreeuwende Midden-Oosten een steeds belangrijker onderwerp is en dat veel deskundigen voor de komende decennia ‘wateroorlogen’ voorspellen. Maar een andere vloeistof speelt de hoofdrol in de huidige problemen van Irak: olie.

Het zou makkelijk zijn Friedman, ooit een gevierd oorlogscorrespondent, af te doen als een excentriekeling op leeftijd die zijn realiteitszin volledig is kwijtgeraakt, maar zijn holle frasen zijn niet ongevaarlijk. Als invloedrijke ‘cheerleader’ – die in een beroemde uitspraak de Irakezen “suck on this” heeft voorgehouden – heeft hij publieke steun kunnen werven voor de
invasie en bezetting van Irak.

Maar wat deze jongste episode in een lange reeks van rampen duidelijk laat zien, is dat de Amerikaanse interventie in Irak een totale catastrofe is geweest, die zich sinds de plundering van Bagdad door de Mogollegers in 1258 niet meer op deze schaal heeft voorgedaan.

De grootschalige verwoesting van het land, de ontmanteling van het leger en de ineenstorting van het Baathregime hebben zo’n leemte achtergelaten dat het land is geïmplodeerd en er een burgeroorlog is uitgebroken, waardoor het terrein rijp is gemaakt voor radicale groeperingen die wilden profiteren van de chaos.

Het idee dat Amerika Irak er met overmacht toe zou kunnen dwingen een liberale en welvarende democratie te worden bleek net zo denkbeeldig als de niet-bestaande massavernietigingswapens die Saddam Hoessein volgens Washington in zijn bezit had.

Hoewel Irak onder Saddam Hoessein een onderdrukkend dystopia was dat behoefte had aan radicale veranderingen, kunnen zulke veranderingen niet van buitenaf worden opgelegd, en al helemaal niet met het geweer in de aanslag, door een eigengereide supermacht zonder vervolgscenario.

Het was de erkenning van de misleidende aard van deze misdadig roekeloze onderneming die in 2003 tientallen miljoenen bezorgde burgers over de hele wereld ertoe heeft gebracht de straat op te gaanomte betogen tegen de voorgenomen invasie. Deze leidde ook tot de ernstigste trans-Atlantische vertrouwenscrisis uit de recente geschiedenis, toen Washington België en andere kritische Europese landen de ‘As van de Wezels’ noemde.

Toch zette Washington destijds zijn zin door. Waarom?

Het korte antwoord luidt dat de oorlog nooit over vrijheid of democratie is gegaan – dat was slechts een marketingslogan. Het gingomhet kanaliseren van de Amerikaanse angst en woede na 9/11, teneinde de controle in handen te krijgen over de op één na grootste oliereserves in de wereld en bepaalde bedrijven te verrijken, op kosten van de belastingbetaler.

Als u ook maar enige twijfel koestert over deze realiteit, kijk dan eens naar de saai klinkende maar zeer belangrijke Executive Order
13303, die Amerikaanse firma’s feitelijk carte blanche geeftomin Irak ongestraft te doen wat ze willen.

Gezien de verreikende gevolgen van de Amerikaanse invasie en bezetting denk ik dat het belangrijk is het idee nieuw leven in te blazenomde verantwoordelijken – vooral George W. Bush en Tony Blair – voor het gerecht te brengen. Hoewel de schade hierdoor nooit ongedaan zal kunnen worden gemaakt, zou het de Irakezen niettemin enige genoegdoening bieden voor de verwoesting die de Brits-Amerikaanse invasie in hun land heeft aangericht.

Het zal ook een duidelijk signaal doen uitgaan dat dit soort gedrag niet thuishoort in een wereld die op zoek is naar orde, recht en stabiliteit.

Ik moet bekennen dat ik niet weetwat er tegen de ISIS kanworden ondernomen enwat er kanworden gedaanomde desintegratie van Irak te repareren. Ik weet alleen dat welke koers de buitenwereld ook zal volgen, een militaire interventie gepaard moet gaan met een internationaal mandaat en een helder plan voorwat er moet gebeuren als de “missie is volbracht”.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in De Morgen on 13 June 2014.

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Criminally reckless in Iraq

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By Khaled Diab

The US invasion and occupation caused Iraq to implode into anarchy and then explode into civil war. For that reason, its architects must be prosecuted.


Monday 16 June 2014

It is a spectacular turn of events by any measure. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/S), on the back foot in Syria following offensives by Syrian rebel groups, has, since the beginning of this year, stolen back across the border into Iraq, conquering the northeast of the country one piece at a time.

Last week, ISIS’s campaign went into overdrive, with the group conquering Iraq’s second city, Mosul, and Tikrit, the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti, which lies just 140km away from the capital, Baghdad. No long after, ISIS entered Diyala province, positioning itself less than 100km from the capital, with Nuri al-Maliki’s government launching a panicked counter-offensive.

Of symbolic significance and as a sign that the Jihadist movement is approaching its goal of establishing an Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, militants reportedly bulldozed the border between the two countries.

In the wake of ISIS’s thrust, hundreds of thousands of long-suffering Iraqis have taken flight – and for good reason, in light of the videos posted by the Islamist forces which apparently show the gruesome executions of hundreds of captured Iraqi soldiers.

Most alarmingly perhaps is that ISIS, known in Arabic as al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fīl-Iraq weh al-Sham, has managed to achieve this rapid takeover of northeastern Iraq wih a ramshackle multinational militant force of just 3,000-5,000 fighters, not to mention collaborators from Saddam Hussein’s disbanded army and Sunni tribal leaders.

How was this possible?

Well, if Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, is to be believed, it is down to an ideological battle between Islamists and environmentalists, of all people. “The real of war of ideas… is the one between the religious extremists (Sunni and Shiite) and the committed environmentalists,” he wrote, shortly after Mosul had been taken.

The novel notion that eco-warriors are doing battle with the self-appointed soldiers of God would be news to just about everyone in the Middle East.

It is true that the environment in the water-stressed Middle East is an ingredient of growing importance in regional conflicts, and many experts foresee water wars in the decades to come. However, it is another fluid that is at the heart of the dire situation in Iraq today: oil.

It would be easy to dismiss Friedman, once a celebrated war correspondent, as an ageing eccentric who has lost complete touch with reality, but his rantings are not harmless. As an influential, pro-invasion cheerleader – who famously told Iraqis to “suck on this” – he managed to rally public support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Today, the mainstream US media is falling into a similar trap as during the build-up to the invasion in 2003 by misdiagnosing the problem – blaming Barack Obama^s foreign policy, rather than the true villain of this piece.

What this latest episode in a long string of disasters clearly demonstrates is that the US intervention in Iraq has been a total catastrophe unseen in Mesopotamia since the Mogul sacking of Baghdad in 1258.

The wholesale destruction of the country, the disbanding of the army, and the collapse of the Baathist regime left behind such a vacuum that the country first imploded into anarchy and then exploded into a continuous cycle of civil war, creating fertile ground for radical groups to take advantage of the chaos.

The idea that America could “shock and awe” Iraq into becoming a liberal and prosperous democracy was as illusionary as the non-existent weapons of mass destruction Washington claimed Saddam Hussein possessed.

Although Iraq was an oppressive dystopia under Saddam Hussein and required radical change, such change cannot be imposed from abroad, and especially not at gunpoint by a self-interested superpower with no game-plan.

And it was recognition of the delusional nature of this criminally reckless enterprise that led tens of millions of concerned citizens around the world to pour out onto the streets to oppose the planned invasion in 2003. It also caused the worst transatlantic rift in living memory, with Washington dismissing Belgium and other European critics as the “Axis of Weasels”.

Despite this, Washington went ahead. Why?

The short answer was that the war was never about freedom or democracy – that was just a marketing ploy. It was about channeling post-9/11 American fear and anger to gain control of the world’s second-largest oil reserves and enrich certain corporations at the American taxpayer’s expense.

If you are in any doubt about this reality, consider the dull-sounding but highly significant Executive Order 13303, which basically gives American corporations carte blanche to do what they please in Iraq with impunity.

Given the far-reaching consequences of the US invasion and occupation, I believe it is important to revive the idea of bringing those responsible for it – mainly George W Bush and Tony Blair – to justices.

Although this will not help to undo the damage, it will at least bring some redress to Iraqis for the devastation the Anglo-American invasion visited on their country. It will also send a clear signal that this kind of behavior does not belong in a world seeking law, order, stability and justice.

As for what can be done about ISIS and to repair the disintegration of Iraq, I must confess I do not know. All I know is that whatever course is pursued by the outside world, military intervention must come with an international mandate and there has to be a clear vision and plan for what comes after “mission accomplished”.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first in Dutch in De Morgen on 13 June 2014.

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For Buddha and country

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By Kapil Komireddi

The toxic Buddhist-Sinhala supremacism and triumphalism in Sri Lanka means the country’s fragile “peace” is just the prelude to another war.

Wednesdaw 18 September 2013

Still Counting the Dead Image“The most dangerous creation of any society,” the late American novelist James Baldwin wrote in 1963, is “a people from whom everything has been taken away, including, most crucially their sense of their own worth.”

In Still Counting the Dead, an extraordinary account of the savage denouement in 2009 of Sri Lanka’s protracted civil war, Frances Harrison introduces us to such people: Tamil survivors who, displaced from home, are now dispersed across the developed world’s detention centres and immigrant neighbourhoods. A former BBC correspondent in Sri Lanka, Harrison travelled to Australia, Britain, Norway, Germany and other undisclosed places to interview the war’s survivors. Their testimonies have no silver linings. They have escaped the fighting, but are captive to its experience. And they see in the reluctance of the world to recognise their loss an extension of the torment they endured on the battlefield.

The war itself was the culmination of a dispute that has been raging, with varying intensity, for millennia. Its origins can be traced back to the arrival in Sri Lanka, around 2,500 years ago, of Vijaya, a thuggish prince banished from his father’s kingdom in eastern India. Vijaya, the legend goes, married an indigenous ogress and established his rule over the island. This, at any rate, is the origin myth of the Sinhalese, who constitute the overwhelming ethnic majority of present-day Sri Lanka. The Tamils, emanating from the nearby peninsula of southern India, claim that their settlements predated Vijaya’s arrival. The Sinhalese embraced Buddhism, the Tamils remained largely Hindu, and there were occasional battles on the island. But on the whole the two communities cohered, if not in peace and harmony, then in cordial hostility, for more than 2,000 years. Sri Lanka generated a composite culture.

Then modernity arrived in the form of Western imperialism, overhauling ancient pluralism and exposing native elites to its most insidious ideological innovation: nationalism. Influential Sinhalese voices soon began clamouring for the creation of a “pure” homeland, rid of not just the British but also the supposedly treacherous Tamil newcomers they had brought along to work the tea plantations, banishing the ancient Tamil presence on the island to an exile beyond the popular consciousness.

In language borrowed from European demagogues of the early 20th century, Sinhalese nationalists demanded the restoration of an unadulterated past that had never truly existed. The powerful Buddhist revivalist Anagarika Dharmapala claimed that the Sinhalese were an “ancient, historic, refined people” who had transformed Sri Lanka “into a paradise” – only to see it destroyed by the “barbaric vandals” in their midst. Invoking religious histories, and citing colonial surveys and dubious ethnographies, Sinhalese chauvinists fabricated a hierarchy of citizenship within Sri Lanka and demanded corresponding political privileges for the majority. This was self-empowerment through exclusion – a majority that sought to validate its dominant position by placing minorities directly beneath itself.

Once British rule ended in 1948, the early governments of independent Sri Lanka resisted this majoritarian impulse. But theirs was a feeble attempt. By 1972, Sinhala chauvinism was enshrined in the country’s constitution. Sinhala was made the sole official language of the state, Buddhism the favoured religion, and minorities were pushed to the margins even on the national flag: the sword-wielding lion, the Sinhala totem, occupied the centre. Bigotry was now backed by the law. Tamils could not gain admissions to universities, did not have access to the language of the law, and were erased from the symbols of the state. And yet the country’s Sinhala overlords expected them to pledge allegiance to Sri Lanka.

Politically conscious Tamils scattered into various protest forums. Their appeals for equality within Sri Lanka, however, were rapidly eclipsed by the separatist cry for Eelam – a Tamil  homeland carved out of the country’s northeast. The fight for Eelam was led by Velupillai Prabhakaran, a formidable Tamil guerrilla who founded the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 1976. The LTTE heralded its arrival by slaughtering thirteen Sri Lankan soldiers in 1983. Sinhalese mobs reacted by butchering thousands of Tamils living in the country’s south. Sri Lanka’s civil war had begun in earnest.

Differences that could conceivably have been resolved through dialogue dragged on for decades on the battleground, hardening into a stalemate. India at first eagerly boosted the LTTE. Then, as if to create a balance, it engineered a brittle peace accord between Colombo and the Tamil nationalists and dispatched its own peacekeeping forces to Sri Lanka to monitor it. But Indian soldiers, far from keeping the peace, engaged in hostilities with the LTTE. Tamils accused Indian soldiers of raping and murdering civilians. The Indian mission was a disaster. New Delhi pulled out. War re-erupted in Sri Lanka.

Funded mainly by expatriate Tamils, the LTTE gradually grew into a sophisticated terrorist organisation. It pioneered the use of suicide bombers, one of whom assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 in retribution for his decision, as prime minister of India in 1987, to send Indian troops to Sri Lanka. Prabhakaran, an unyielding zealot, proved he was also a fool, alienating with this single move the region’s major power. For an entire decade, the LTTE became non grata in India.

Then 9/11 happened and the LTTE, listed internationally as a terrorist organisation, lost its legitimacy. Sinhalese nationalists seized the moment. Prabhakaran, a military tactician, could not comprehend the political shift that had occurred. He ordered Tamils to boycott the crucial presidential elections in 2005. Had they voted, the relatively moderate Ranil Wickremasinghe may well have won Sri Lanka’s presidency. Their boycott resulted in a narrow victory for Mahinda Rajapaksa.

A ruthless nationalist and a fierce believer in Sinhalese supremacy, Rajapakse waited for two years before unleashing his forces on the Tamil scrublands to the country’s north. Prabhakaran had mismanaged the Tamil cause so thoroughly that as the Sri Lankan forces marched into Tamil strongholds by April 2009, pulverising everything in their sight, none of Sri Lanka’s neighbours made a noise. Echoing the indifference of the governments, the world’s leading news media stayed away. More than 60,000 people were killed in the last three months of the fighting – yet there wasn’t a single foreign reporter on the ground.

As the government forces penetrated the rebel territory, Tamil civilians retreated further north, halting only when they became trapped between the advancing soldiers and the sea. The “safe zones” designated by the government for civilians were in fact death traps. Harrison tracks down a Tamil journalist who filed reports from the scene for as long as he could before crossing over with his father in the last weeks of the war to the government side. Every step of their journey became a prolonged arbitration with death. Corpses were strewn everywhere, jets pounded the land from the skies, and soldiers fired from all angles. Finally, when they reached the government side, father and son were stripped. An old man and his young son standing naked in a long queue of displaced people, all awaiting interrogation: Harrison’s prose frequently evokes such harrowing images. They were the luckier ones.

A Tamil shopkeeper with shattered legs, currently seeking asylum in Australia, recollects being taken from a hospital and made to witness five executions, each with a single bullet to the back of the head. It’s as if Sinhalese soldiers, long accustomed to imagining Tamils as indomitable agents of mass murder, erupted with an uncontainable fury after vanquishing them. Trophy videos recorded on mobile phones show Sinhala soldiers summarily executing blindfolded Tamil men and piling up trucks with naked corpses of raped Tamil women. Harrison meets a young female refugee in London, the wife of a possible Tamil Tiger collaborator, who was picked up from her home, taken to a villa to identify a group of blindfolded men, and then locked up overnight in a room and raped by two soldiers. These are the twice-humiliated: physically defeated by war, psychologically desiccated by its winners.

Despite her sincerest efforts, Harrison can at times seem too lenient in her cross-examination of the Tamils she meets. She interviews a young Norwegian Tamil who travelled to Sri Lanka in the hope of becoming a suicide bomber. He was raised in Norway, didn’t speak any Tamil, and it’s not clear if he had any Tamil friends. What is the proper reaction to his conduct? Is it to endorse, by offering sympathy, his self-image as a freedom fighter? What of the Sinhalese children and mothers and fathers whom he would have murdered had his tender ambition of blowing himself up been realised? Is it proper then to restrain or even a kill a person who, if left untouched, would distribute death among innocent civilians? Harrison doesn’t probe such questions.

It is to her credit, however, that she acknowledges the limits of her project at the outset: the plight of the Tamils. But the question remains: if the comforts of Norway and the complete isolation from Sri Lanka couldn’t anesthetise the Norwegian to the “cause”, how, having witnessed the horrors of the war, is this young man now likely to behave? Has the dream of becoming a martyr for the “motherland” really abated?

Perhaps these are questions better left to the Sri Lankan government and the Sinhalese nationalists who form its support base. The current generation of Sinhala nationalists, filliped by victory, have become afflicted with triumphalism. They cannot abide any criticism of the state. The overwhelming evidence of war crimes, compiled at great personal risk by individuals like Harrison, has failed to elicit even the slightest admission of wrongdoing in Colombo. Foreign activists are barred from entering the country and domestic campaigners for accountability keep disappearing.

Democracy is almost dead in Sri Lanka. Virtually every important government post is now held by a member of the Rajapaksa family. And rather than striving to heal Tamil wounds, their government is busy scratching them. President Rajapaksa recently inaugurated a luxury hotel in the Tamil heartland for the comfort of Sinhala chauvinists touring the battlefields where their ethno-supremacist narratives were so violently confirmed.

But as Harrison hints, far from coming to a permanent end, the long conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils has graduated to a new phase. The only insurance against another outbreak of fighting is to reinvent Sri Lankan nationalism in ways that will make it possible for all of its citizens to assert their identity. Sri Lanka will have to return to the political drawing board and revise the constitution to diffuse among all its inhabitants the privileges that are reserved exclusively for the Sinhalese. But Rajapaksa, busy atrophying Sri Lanka’s independent institutions, stands in the way of such a reconciliation. His immense network of executioners and torture chambers cannot, however, produce a lasting peace.

“Force”, as Baldwin wrote, “does not work the way its advocates seem to think it does.” Far from exhibiting strength, it reveals only “the weakness, even the panic” of its proponents, and “this revelation invests the victim with patience”. Ultimately, Baldwin warned, “it is fatal to create too many victims”. Rajapaksa has done exactly that. The volatile peace he presides over is only a prelude to another war.

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America and Europe’s real “homegrown terrorism” threat

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By Khaled Diab

The Boston marathon bombings have refocused attention on the threat of “homegrown terrorism”. But there is a much more dangerous domestic threat.

Tuesday 30 April 2013

The tragic and bloody conclusion of this year’s Boston marathon, and the subsequent dramatic manhunt to capture the suspected perpetrators, has  had America and much of the world transfixed.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, which left three dead and over 180 injured, I was relieved that the American media, with the exception of serial offenders like The New York Post, were reluctant to point fingers and took a largely wait-and-see approach.

They had apparently drawn some valuable lessons from the shameful Anders Breivik debacle, when early media reporting and idle “expert” speculation identified, without a shred of evidence, the worst massacre in Norwegian history as the work of Islamic extremists.

Once it was revealed that the Tsarnaev brothers, two ethnic Chechen-Dagestanis who have lived in the United States for the past decade, were the alleged suspects behind the attack, the keeps holding back the tidal wave of speculation broke.

The coverage has so far focused on connecting Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnev to radical Islamists, particularly Chechen groups, but no solid connections have yet been uncovered and plenty of contradictory evidence has been unearthed.

The semantics of the media lexicon has been interesting to observe. Even the sombre and authoritative voice of The New Yorker, whose coverage of the Boston tragedy has largely been nuanced and sophisticated, described the bombing as “the most serious terror attack in America since September 11th [2001]”.

If that were the case, then the Boston attack should be a cause for relief rather than panic, since, though every death is a tragedy, the death toll is a thousandth of that of the 9/11 atrocities.

But the United States has actually been the target of numerous “terrorist” attacks since 11 September 2001 that would make the carnage at the Boston marathon pale in comparison. One of the worst recent examples was the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton which left 28 people dead, of which 20 were children.

When I tweeted this to The New Yorker, dozens re-tweeted my observation in agreement. However, there were also plenty of dissenters. “Terror is an act of violence to achieve a political end,” one typical tweet countered.

We will never know what motivated Adam Lanza, the young gunman behind the Sandy Hook massacre, as he killed himself before police could interrogate him. But even, as seems likely, he had no explicit political agenda, his acts, at least according to US law, would count as “terrorism”.

In the mid-1970s, the Law Enforcement Assistant Administration’s National Advisory Committee on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals classified six types of terrorism, including “non-political terrorism”. Both US federal regulation and the FBI define terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence… in furtherance of political or social objectives”.

This raises a couple of intriguing questions. Why did US officialdom and the media fail to describe Sandy Hook as terrorism and why have American commentators and reporters rushed to assume a political motive for the Boston attacks, even though older brother and presumed mastermind, Tamerlan, seems to have had plenty of personal issues and private grievances?

It would seem that even if terrorism does not have to be political, the use of this loaded term is often politically motivated. Mass shootings probably don’t make it on US society’s radar as “terrorism” partly due to the polarised firearms debate. Can you imagine what kind of a stink the gun lobby and people who believe that bearing arms is their constitutional right would whip up if the media or authorities started classing Newton as a terrorist atrocity?

In addition, there is simple human nature. It is much easier to vilify and blame those regarded as outsiders than those you view as your own. This can be seen, for example, in how conservative Arabs view Muslims in the West as “oppressed” but refuse to use the same label for the Middle East’s Christian minorities.

Likewise, while Americans and Europeans, especially conservatives, do not hesitate to call a spade a spade when it comes to Islamic terrorism, even when it isn’t, the situation can be very different when it comes to their own.

Take Breivik. When the identity of the perpetrator became known, “terrorism” and its derivatives suddenly vanished to be replaced by the more neutral “attacker” or “gunman”, and the media drew comfort from describing Breivik as a “lone wolf” or “madman”.

Why all the fuss, some might grumble, it is just semantics?

Well, the selective use of such emotive words as terrorism can have very serious real-world consequences. Ask Salah Barhoun, falsely identified as a suspect on social networking sites, who, fearing for his life, turned himself in to the police to clear his name.

In addition, this selectivity can magnify certain threats while downplaying others. Almost a year to the day before Anders Breivik went on the rampage, I wrote a column for The Guardian in which I argued that neo-Nazism and other far-right ideologies constitute a greater menace to Europe than Islamic extremism.

Numerous commenters dismissed my hypothesis as “scaremongering” and “agenda-pushing”. In fact, a common refrain among conservatives and Islamophobes is that “Not all Muslims are terrorists but the majority of terrorists are Muslims.”

While this is true in Arab and Muslim-majority countries, where the threat posed by radical Islam must not be underestimated, it is certainly not the case in the West.

Yet even our gatekeepers underestimated this menace. In its 2011 report on terrorism in Europe the previous year, Europol judged that the “threat from right-wing extremism appears to be on the wane”.

Post-Breivik, the agency’s tone has changed. “Not one religiously-inspired terrorist attack on EU territory was reported by member states,” Europol noted of the previous year in its 2012 report, when “the majority of attacks were committed by separatist groups.”

“The threat of violent right-wing extremism has reached new levels in Europe and should not be underestimated,” the report stressed.

You would never have guessed this was the situation from public discourse and mainstream media coverage. On both sides of the Atlantic, “homegrown terrorism”, in most people’s minds, refers to the exotic, invasive Islamic variety, not the local common-or-garden breed.

Echoing these worries, albeit moderately, US President Barack Obama asked after the conclusion of the Boston marathon manhunt: “Why did young men who grew up and studied here as part of our communities and our country resort to such violence?”

The same question could have been asked about Lanza.

Across the Atlantic, a number of European countries have also been seized with a similar apprehension, as reports of young Muslims going off to fight in Syria surface. For example, here in Belgium, police recently raided dozens of homes of suspected recruiters and politicians are talking about taking drastic measures, such as confiscating the identity papers of young men at risk of taking flight or even passing specific legislation.

Although I understand why the state would be concerned about the security risk posed by traumatised and possibly radicalised fighters when they return, the fact that fewer than a hundred Belgian Muslims are thought to be fighting in Syria suggests that the public panic far outweighs the actual riskss.

It is high time for Europe and the United States to do some soul-searching and be honest with themselves about where the threats to their domestic security truly lie. This will not only aid them in underwriting the safety of their citizens, it will also help remove the distrust surrounding a stigmatised minority.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 27 April 2013.

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The clash within civilisations

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This year marks the 20th anniversary of the clash of civilizations theory, but Samuel P Huntington was wrong.

Thursday 28 March 2013

A decade has passed since the blood-drenched invasion of Iraq began, unleashing a wave of destruction not seen in that part of the world since at least the Mongol sacking of Baghdad in the mid-13th century.

Unsurprisingly, the 10th anniversary has prompted immense media attention, in the United States and Europe, as well as in Iraq itself and the broader Middle East. In light of the carnage that has ensued following that fateful decision to invade, a lot of the public debate has focused on whether the war was justified and worthwhile.

The cheerleaders of the war argue that the invasion was just, the subsequent carnage was an unfortunate but collateral consequence of a benign act of goodwill, and that errors were made in the execution of the campaign but the principle was essentially sound.

Critics, like myself, see the wholesale destruction of Iraq and the chaos besetting it – which was chillingly illustrated by the deadly car bombings which rocked Baghdad on the 10th anniversary – as clear proof that the US-led intervention was not only unjustified but flawed.

In order to understand why, we need to rewind another 10 years, back to another important anniversary which has largely fallen under the media’s radar. Through some fluke of history, the theory which largely justified the Iraq war and provided it with its ideological underpinning was formulated exactly a decade earlier.

In an incredibly influential essay published 20 years ago in Foreign Affairs, the late Samuel P Huntington first outlined his clash of civilisations theory, which he later elaborated on and fleshed out in a book published in 1996.

Huntington argued that “the fundamental source of conflict” in the post-Cold War era would be not ideological or economic but “cultural”. “The clash of civilisations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilisations will be the battle lines of the future,” the Harvard professor argued.

Huntington divided the world into some half a dozen major civilisational groups which, he posited, would clash at two levels: local “fault line conflicts” where civilisations overlap and “core state conflicts” between the major states of different civilisations.

On the 20th anniversary of this controversial theory and given how influential it has been and remains, it is useful to analyse whether or not Huntington was right. Has a clash of civilisations emerged, as Huntington predicted, over the past two decades?

Supporters of Huntington’s hypothesis answer with an unequivocal “yes”. They point to the inhumane atrocities committed in the United States by Islamic extremists on 11 September 2001, the subsequent clash with al-Qaeda, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the rise of Islamist parties during the “Arab Spring” as confirmation that a clash is underway.

Critics, like the scholar Noam Chomsky, have maintained that the clash of civilisations is simply the symptom of an empire, i.e. Pax Americana, in search of another justification for its imperial aspirations after the Cold War paradigm fell apart with the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

The late Edward Said, the renowned author of Orientalism, saw in Huntington’s theory an extension of the pseudo-scientific Orientalist scholarship which had been used for at least a couple of centuries to justify European and Western hegemony. In an essay entitled The Clash of Ignorances¸ published shortly after 9/11, Said argued that Huntington ignored “the internal dynamics and plurality of every civilisation” and “the fact that the major contest in most modern cultures concerns the definition or interpretation of each culture”.

Personally, I find that, though the idea, in one form or another, of a clash of civilisations is as old as the hills – examples include the historical notions of jihads and crusades, not to mention the idea of “civilisation” versus “barbarity” espoused by most dominant powers throughout the centuries – this does not make it any more valid or true.

Far more often than not, what has been dressed up as a clash of values is really just a clash of interests parading as something less selfish than it actually is. Although culture and ideology can, on rare occasions, lead to conflict, for the most part, societies enter into conflicts due to clashes of interests.

And in such a context, proximity is traditionally a far greater cause of friction than culture. That is why conflicts within self-identified cultural or civilisational groups are often greater than those between them. Over the centuries, Christians and Muslims have gone to war and killed more of their coreligionists than each other, as the carnage of two world wars in Europe shows all too clearly.

That would explain, for instance, why the United States decided to invade Saddam Hussein’s secular Iraq, even though it was a sworn enemy of al-Qaeda and jihadist Islam, yet is bosom buddies with Saudi Arabia, the hotbed of reactionary Wahhabism, which it exports around the region and the world, and the home of most of the hijackers who took part in the 11 September attacks.

And alliances which cut across supposed civilisational lines have an ancient pedigree. Examples include the Arabs allying themselves with the British and the French against the Turks, or the Ottomans fighting alongside the Germans in World War I against the British, French and Russians. In fact, throughout its centuries as a major power, the Ottoman Empire’s alliances shifted between various Christian European states, including France, Poland, as well as the Protestant Reformation against the Catholic House of Habsburg.

Moreover, Huntington’s hypothesis is further undermined by what I like to call the “mash of civilisations”. Each so-called civilisation is actually a volatile, constantly changing hybrid of ideas and cultural influences.

In fact, if we must group civilisations together, then I would place the West and Islam in the same group because they both share common roots in the Abrahamic tradition, not to mention the Greek and Hellenistic, Mesopotamian and Egyptian influences, as well as the modern importance of the Enlightenment, not just for Western reform movements but also for secularising and modernising movements in the Middle East. I would go so far as to say that Europe and the Middle East, especially the Mediterranean countries, have more in common with each other than they do with their co-religionists in Africa and further east in Asia.

So, if there has not been a clash of civilisations, what has emerged since the end of the Cold War?

At one level, there are the brewing clashes of interests between the great powers, as America tries to hold on to its waning global reach, Russia tries to claw back the influence it lost following the implosion of the Soviet Union and China, after years of quiet growth in the background, begins to flex its muscles on the foreign stage, both to advance its emerging “strategic interests” and for prestige.

On another level, cultures have clashed, but not between civilisations, as Huntington believed they would, but within them. This clash within civilisations is currently playing itself out most visibly in the Middle East.

In addition to the sectarian monster unleashed by the anarchy in Iraq, the revolutionary wave that has swept through the region has brought to the fore, and into sharp relief, the major fault lines and clashes within each society and, to a lesser extent, between them. There are the conflicts between the secular and religious, between majorities and minorities, between women and men, between the young and old, between modernists and traditionalists, between the haves and have-nots, and so on.

Although less pronounced, at least for the time being, these same internal tensions are being witnessed in the West, as reflected in the rising influence of Christian fundamentalism in the United States and the extreme right in Europe, as well as the large-scale social protests, from years of street battles in Greece to the Occupy Wall Street movement of the “99%”.

In Europe, particularly, class conflict is intensifying on the back of the economic crisis triggered by neo-liberal excess, as the poor and middle-classes are forced, through bailouts and austerity, to finance what has effectively become a welfare state for the rich. This is putting in jeopardy not only the much-vaunted European social model but also the EU enterprise itself.

If the European Union is not reinvented along more equitable lines and emerges out of this crisis, instead, much weakened, then it will likely leave a petty-nationalistic sized hole in the European arena which could eventually cause the conflicts currently taking place within individual countries to spill across borders.

In the second decade of the 21st century, a major challenge facing us all is not the clash of civilisations but the clash within civilisations. This internal cultural struggle is largely caused by the growing socio-economic inequalities that have emerged in just about every country in the world.

If these inequities are not addressed effectively, at both the local and global levels, then intolerance will grow and conflicts will continue to consume individual societies, with the danger that they will spill over into other countries, potentially spiraling out of control.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 21 March 2013.

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Aanslag op Amerikaans consulaat in Benghazi valt niet uit de lucht

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Door Badra Djait

De aanslag op het consulaat in Benghazi was geen verrassing. De voortekens waren al lang zichtbaar.

Dinsdag 18 september 2012

De Amerikaanse ambassadeur in Libië, Christopher Stevens, is samen met drie andere medewerkers om het leven gekomen bij een raketaanval in Benghazi. Aanleiding voor de aanslag is een anti-Islam film uit America.

Hoe is het mogelijk dat er raketten konden worden afgevuurd op een Amerikaans consulaat, dat de Libische betogers het gebouw in brand konden steken, en dat het lichaam van de Amerikaanse ambassadeur voor het oog van de hele wereld over straat kon worden gesleurd? De Amerikanen hadden de aanslag in Benghazi minstens moeten voorzien.

Ten eerste is zes jaar geleden iets gelijkaardigs gebeurd naar aanleiding van de Deense Muhammad cartoons. Toen in Libië bekend werd dat een Italiaanse minister, Roberto Calderoli, een T-shirt met een spotprent van de profeet droeg, verzamelden spontaan een duizendtal mensen zich voor het Italiaans consulaat in Benghazi op 17 februari 2006. De betogers waren er zelfs in geslaagd het Italiaans consulaat in lichterlaaie te zetten, waarop de Libische politie het vuur opende op de betogers. Minstens tien doden waren er gevallen.

Vijf jaar later – toen de Arabische revolutie uitbrak – riep de Libische oppositie op om de dood van de betogers tegen de Muhammad cartoons te herinneren. Er moest betoogd worden tegen Gaddafi op 17 februari 2011 omdat die bij de demonstratie tegen de cartoons de zijde van het Westen had gekozen tegen de Islam. Vandaar dat de Libische revolutie van 2011 ook wel de “cartoonrevolutie” werd genoemd.

Met andere woorden, de ambassadeur en zijn medewerkers hadden de Libische ambassade moeten verlaten, eens het protest in Cairo aan de Amerikaanse ambassade tegen de spotfilm over Muhammad is uitgebroken.

Een tweede reden waarom de VS de aanslag op het consulaat hadden moeten voorzien, is dat ze wist dat Benghazi bekend staat als een bolwerk voor gevoelige extremisten. Uit het rapport al-Qaeda’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq van de US Military Academy bleek dat 18% van de al-Qaedastrijders uit de wereld die naar Irak kwamen om te vechten tegen de geallieerde troepen voornamelijk afkomstig waren uit Oost-Libië, waaronder Benghazi.

Verbaast het dan dat na de NAVO-interventie de voorzitter van de Libische oppositie, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, in zijn overwinningstoespraak in Benghazi liet weten dat Libië de sharia tot de officiële wet van het land zal verklaren. De eerder liberale voorzitter moest rekening houden met de ideeën van zijn conservatieve achterban. Zelfs de vlag van al-Qaeda werd er omhoog gehesen op het gerechtsgebouw van Benghazi na de bevrijding van het land door de NAVO.

Ten derde is het adagium van het buitenlands beleid “de vijand van mijn vijand is mijn vriend” op korte tijd zo vaak toegepast met wisselende vijanden en vrienden dat de Libiërs de Amerikanen niet meer konden vertrouwen.

De religieuze extremisten die voornamelijk in Oost-Libië zaten, waren vanaf de jaren tachtig bekend als beduchte politieke vijanden van Gaddafi. De toenmalige Libische gevangenissen waren vol met de “bebaarde mannen”. Dat is ook de reden waarom het westen na 9/11 toenadering zocht tot Gaddafi op zoek naar steun voor haar “war on terror”.  De CIA, de Britse en de Libische inlichtingendiensten wisselden toen honderden namen van Libische islamistische verdachten uit. Vandaar dat Moussa Koussa, voormalig hoofd van de Libische inlichtingendiensten vorig jaar veilig werd overgebracht naar Qatar na een tussenstop in Groot-Brittanië.

Niet alleen werden gegevens over islamistische verdachten uitgewisseld, ook wilde de VS de marteling van al-Qaeda verdachten uitbesteden aan gevangenissen buiten hun controle. Een bekend voorbeeld is Abdelhakim Belhadj, de voormalige leider van het fundamentalistische Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). Hij werd samen met zijn zwangere vrouw opgepakt in Maleisië. Beiden werden gemarteld door de CIA in Bangkok en vervolgens uitgeleverd aan de willekeur van Gaddafi. Dat werd recent nogmaals bevestigd door het rapport van Human Rights Watch getiteld ‘Delivered into enemy hands. US-led abuse and rendition of opponents to Gaddafi’s Libya‘.

Maar Gaddafi behandelde de islamisten én hun familieleden zo slecht dat de modale Libiër zich begon te keren tegen Gaddafi. Toen Fathi Terbil werd gearresteerd in februari 2011 – Fathi Terbil was een mensenrechtenactivist die de familieleden vertegenwoordigde van de honderden gevangenen die bij rellen in de beruchte Abu Salim gevangenis in Tripoli in 1996 door veiligheidsdiensten werden vermoord en van de gedode betogers in 2006 naar aanleiding van de Muhammad cartoons – begon de oppositie in het oosten van Libië zich serieus te roeren.

De Libische oppositie kreeg al snel steun van het westen. En plots werden de “voormalige al-Qaeda verdachten” de vrienden van het westen, en werd Gaddafi de gemeenschappelijke vijand. Getuige het feit dat de door de CIA gemartelde Belhadj werd benoemd tot de militaire leider van de Libische oppositie.

Het is dan ook wereldvreemd dat de VS zich publiekelijk afvraagt “hoe zo’n aanslag kon gebeuren in een land dat met Amerikaanse steun werd bevrijd”, terwijl voorgaande info in Libië als algemene kennis wordt beschouwd. De Libiërs zien de VS niet als een land dat hen bevrijd heeft omdat ze democratie wilde brengen, wel omdat ze eigen belangen heeft. Het principe “vergeven en vergeten” geldt hier niet. De aanslag op het consulaat in Benghazi valt dus niet uit de lucht.


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Religious rites and wrongs

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By Osama Diab

The banning of a Jewish festival this year in Egypt is wrong, both from a secular and religious perspective.

Tuesday 17 January 2012

One of the conservative views in the United States during the debate on the construction of a mosque near ‘Ground Zero’ in New York was that Saudi Arabia does not t allow the construction of churches, so why then should we, Americans, be so broad-minded about this mosque?

The simple and easy answer to this is that you cannot react to Saudi Arabia’s low standards of freedom of belief and religion by adopting similar norms yourself. The standard of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia should be for no one to aspire to. Freedom of religion and belief are non-scalable rights and violations in one country should not be used to justify imposing restrictions elsewhere.

But it is not just the American Christian right which is playing this game. In Egypt, a Jewish religious ceremony, known as a “moulid” in Arabic, to commemorate the death of the Moroccan Rabbi Yaakov Abu Hasira, which takes place every year in January and attracts hundreds of Jews to the city of Damanhour, near Alexandria, usually takes place around this time of year. Security concerns have been commonplace during the festivities due to local residents’ anger over the festival. The deployment of thousands of security forces, extremely tight security measures and little media coverage was the only way to prevent any clashes from taking place during the celebration.

However, in the aftermath of the revolution, the government of Egypt has decided to cancel the celebration altogether because the time is just not right due to the current political turmoil and lack of security.

This barring of Israeli pilgrims comes as no great surprise. Despite the presence of a three-decade-old peace treaty and the successful avoidance of any wide-scale military confrontation for almost years after fighting at least four wars in a quarter century, Egyptian-Israeli relations remain strained and the flow of citizens between the neighbouring countries is still rather limited.

Over the years, several court cases calling for the cancellation of the Abu Hasira moulid have been filed but the verdicts were ignored by the government. In 2004, the Supreme Administrative Court, whose rulings were regularly dismissed by the former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, supported a lower court’s decision in 2001 to outlaw the annual festival.

The celebrations, which include a number of Jewish rituals, have mobilised various political groups from all across the political spectrum to sign a joint statement rejecting the Abu Hasira festival. Bloggers Against Abu Hasira, the Nasserist Trend, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Freedom and Justice Party, the April 6 Youth Movement and the Mohamed ElBaradei campaign have all signed the statement in what seems like a national consensus on the matter. The 2001 court decision linked the status of the site and the festival to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was also the main motivation behind the rejection of Abu Hasira by political groups mentioned above.

But this is an unacceptable example of mixing politics and religion. It is important that we, and more importantly the judiciary and politicians, distinguish between tensions between states and religious celebrations. This moulid should have nothing to do with normalisation with Israel and the Palestinian conflict. As a religious festival, it immediately becomes a matter of religious freedom, protected by the constitution, which clearly says that “the state guarantees the freedom of creed, and the freedom to practice religious rites”. This means that the ban on the festival is, therefore, unconstitutional.

Even though the pilgrims are mainly from Israel, due to its geographical proximity and because this is many of Abu Hasira’s co-religionists live today, Jews from other countries also attend the festival. If the point is to object to the actions of the Israeli state, it becomes crucial to distinguish between Judaism as a faith and Israel, which you have all right to criticise and even boycott.

Remember how moderate Muslims felt when they got lumped together with extremists in the aftermath of 9/11? Also, Egyptians and other Arabs cry “freedom of religion” and criticise Israel when it, for example, imposes restrictions on which Palestinians may pray at the Aqsa Mosque, so why the double standard in this case?

Moreover, there are so many other ways to protest the actions of the Israeli state while giving a good example of protecting religious freedoms. Egypt should not condemn suppression elsewhere by adopting similar measures at home. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Over and above these secular arguments, even Islam recognises Judaism as a “heavenly” religion and Jews as “people of the book”, along with Christians and Sabians. The essence of Islam is to treasure the members of the other Abarahmic faiths. The Qur’an quite clearly defines those who will be salvaged on judgement day: “Those who believe (in the Qur’an) those who follow the Jewish (Scriptures) and the Sabians and the Christians―any who believe in Allāh and the Last Day, and did righteousness―on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” Verse 5:69.

Islam also allows Muslim men to marry Jewish women (some older traditions even allow Muslim women to do the same). Paradoxically, this means that, both religiously and legally, a Jewish woman can raise the child of a Muslim man who lives across the road from Abu Hasira but not be allowed to visit the shrine.

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9/12: Turning over a new leaf in the Middle East

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By Khaled Diab

On the 10th anniversary of the day after 9/11, it is high time to trash the ‘clash of civilisations’ theory and the ‘war on terror’ and start a new chapter in the West’s relationship with the new Middle East.

Monday 12 September 2011

Most people recall vividly where they were on 11 September 2001, when four passenger jets were hijacked and used as highly effective targeted missiles, bringing down the World Trade Centre’s ‘twin towers’ in New York and damaging the Pentagon in Washington. In all, nearly 3,000 people were killed, making this the most devastating terrorist attack ever on American soil.

Sadly, the massive outpouring of global sympathy, support and solidarity – with people around the world saying “We are all Americans now” – was to prove short-lived, especially in Arab and Muslim countries, as the Bush administration and its neo-conservative allies hijacked this monumental tragedy to serve their own narrow interests.

After apparently taking a break for over a decade, following Francis Fukuyama’s confident assertion that history had ended with the collapse of communism in 1989, history re-awoke on 9/12, to an apparently monumental ‘clash of civilisations’ – despite the abundant evidence that most clashes are those of interests and that ‘civilisations’ more often clash within their civilisational group than outside it – which pitted the enlightened West against the benighted forces of Islam(ism).

Equipped with a brand new enemy to replace the ‘reds under the bed’, Washington declared its ‘war on terror’ to hunt down those baddie Jihadis and launched a raft of initiatives to civilise the Muslim world.

Providing strong evidence of where the administration’s actual priorities lay, hours after the attacks, then Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was already going out of his way to link the atrocity to Iraq, despite the secular nature of Baghdad’s Ba’ath regime and the mutual hatred between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden.

Washington’s democratising and civilising mission focused mainly on invading and bombing to smithereens two countries: first Afghanistan (in October 2001) and then Iraq (in March 2003), not to mention the more recent involvement in Pakistan.

Despite at least a quarter of a million deaths and up to $4 trillion in costs to the US tax payer,  the decade-old war on terror has resulted in little but death, destruction and destitution, particularly in Iraq which was once one of the most developed and prosperous countries in the Middle East.

The true gains for freedom and democracy in the Middle East have been delivered – as critics of the War on Terror have long been arguing – by the peoples concerned themselves, as demonstrated by the ongoing Arab Spring or Arab Awakening.

In fact, the Arab revolutions undermine many of the assumptions underpinning the US approach over the past decade, even under the Obama administration which took over many of its predecessor’s policies, namely that liberty and liberal values could be imposed from outside by a paternalistic West, that freedom is synonymous with free markets, and that democracy and free markets automatically bring greater prosperity and rights to the masses. Another shattered myth is that the United State is a benign power operating for the greater good and not out of the narrow self-interest of its economic and political elite at the expense not only of hundreds of millions around the world but also of ordinary Americans who have been left with a near-bankrupt system, as the recent “default crisis” frighteningly illustrated.

For the Arab revolutionary wave to succeed requires not only that Arabs successfully redefine and reinvent their relationship with those that govern them but also that the relationship between Arab, not to mention other developing, countries with the West and the wealthy industrialised nations.

Although the Arab uprisings are against dictatorship and despotism, they are also against the dictates of Western hegemony and have an economic bottom line. They are part and parcel of a global backlash against growing inequalities triggered by neo-liberal economics and the increasing economic marginalisation of the young.

Tackling this not only requires deep domestic economic reform by Arab regimes but also the reinvention and reconfiguration of the global economic order – which is currently skewed towards the interests of he West, other OECD countries and, increasingly, the emerging might of China and a few other heavy hitters in the developing world – to make it fairer and more equitable.

If the second decade following the 9/11 attacks is to be a brighter one, then Washington and its Western allies need to abandon their paternalistic approach to the Middle East, see the region as more than the sum of its oil wells and allow its people to gain their fair share of the global economic pie.

But with a major energy crisis on the horizon and with Western economies on the verge of bankruptcy, not to mention massive global and regional overpopulation, there are troubling signs that the wrong lessons will be drawn from the first post-9/11 decade. But here’s to hoping that enlightened self-interest will win out over destructive selfishness.

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David Miliband: revolution v extremism

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By Osama Diab

Britain’s former foreign minister David Miliband has high hopes for the Arab revolutions.

Wednesday 27 July 2011

David Miliband is not just the former British foreign minister, but is also a man who is genuinely interested and highly opinionated on issues relating to terrorism, political Islam, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Arab revolts. As Britain’s foreign secretary at just 41, Miliband has been a strong critic of the so-called War on Terror and also called for a “coalition of consent” with the “Muslim World” in which Britain’s foreign policy should focus on building relations with Muslim societies, rather than with regimes that are unpopular among their people.

He has also been a strong advocate of a Palestinian state and listed “Israeli government to freeze settlements and accept a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders” as one of the prerequisites to peace in the Middle East in 2009, during his time as the man in charge of Britain’s international relations.

From his office overlooking the nearly thousand-year-old Palace of Westminster, I tried to gauge as much as I could David Miliband’s opinions on the major issues facing the world today.

Knowing that my time in his office was limited, I was prepared for the interview to be short, possibly cold and to the point, without taking offence. However, Miliband unexpectedly started by jokingly requesting to be asked a question about Ahmed al-Muhammadi, an Egyptian footballer recently signed by Sunderland Football Club, which Miliband vice chairs. Even though his joke took a few minutes of the time I was allocated, it gave a much-needed charm ahead of the yet-to-be-discussed critical issues related to the emergence of Arab democracy, Arab revolts and how it might impact the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the killing of Osama Bin Laden and the decade following the 9/11 attacks.

The world 10 years after 9/11

You famously said before that there are circumstance in which terrorism is justifiable, what, in your opinion, are these circumstances?

DM: That isn’t quite right. I was asked whether the actions of the African National Congress in the 1970s and 1980s should be denounced as terrible acts and I said no because of the political system under which they were living. The question I was asked was specifically about apartheid South Africa.

So if people are denied political avenues, is it justifiable for them to act violently?

DM: I think the classic case for Europeans is always “if you were in France in 1942, would you have joined the French resistance?” and of course the answer is “yes”. But fortunately these circumstances don’t exist very often. I think the non-violence that has marked the Arab revolts has been very powerful.
It’s no secret that the 9/11 attacks did a lot of harm to the Muslim-West relations, and that also includes the relation between Muslim communities in the West and their societies. Ten years after the vicious attacks, does the tension caused by 9/11 still persist?

DM: The attacks on 9/11 were vicious. They killed Muslims, as well as Christians, Jews and people of no denomination. They were an abomination for people of all religions. I think that the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 which is now approaching is an important moment to take stock. I think one of the remarkable things about this country (the United Kingdom), which I know better than others, is that the last 10 years have not seen the tension and the hatred that maybe you are referring to. One of the remarkable things here after the 7 July 2005 bombing in London was to hear Muslim friends of mine say “look, we felt more British after this, not less British.” Now, one mustn’t avert one’s eye from the fact that there are tensions, there can be tensions, but often they exist over housing or economic issues more than international political issues. So I think one needs to be careful in saying that 9/11 was the cause of tension between the West and Muslims and the Arab world.

But the consequences of 9/11 were two wide-scale wars.

DM: A lot of people disagree with Afghanistan and Iraq, and disagreement doesn’t have to mean inter-religious tension as opposed to political debate. I think the prism from which the West is seen in many parts of the Arab world is obviously Israel and Palestine. That was not the justification that was used by al-Qaeda in 9/11, and it was obviously not the motivating factor on the streets of Egypt or the streets of Tunisia or anywhere else.

I think the remarkable thing about the Arab revolts is that they have been driven by domestic concerns. They were driven by the search for dignity and the search for national pride.

I think it’s been a very challenging decade. I call it “a decade of disorder”. But not only because of 9/11. It’s been a decade of financial crisis, it was a decade of shifting economic power between the West and emerging economies. A lot has been going on and I don’t think it’s right to just call it a decade of Muslim-Western tension.

You wrote before that “The call for a ‘war on terror’ was a call to arms, an attempt to build solidarity for a fight against a single shared enemy. But the foundation for solidarity between peoples and nations should be based not on who we are against, but on the idea of who we are and the values we share.” Was Osama bin Laden that single shared enemy, and what do you make of his killing?

DM: I think the War on Terror was announced after 9/11. It was a concept that went much further than the so-called “Axis of Evil”. I think it was a great mistake because it united a series of grievances under the al-Qaeda banner, which in a way played their game, so I think that the notion of a War on Terror was not well-founded because it aggrandised al-Qaeda in a way that is almost the opposite of what was needed. They were attempting to unite the Muslim world under a single revolutionary banner. The best strategy to take that on would’ve been to fragment and then deal with the concerns individually. I don’t support the notion of a War on Terror. I think that was not sensible. What I support is a notion of a drive against injustice.

In that light, do you consider the killing of Osama bin Laden a victory?

DM: I think the weakening of al-Qaeda, which has been done in a range of ways, some of them militarily but most of them were by Muslims rejecting al-Qaeda, is a very good thing for the whole world.

So do you think the killing of Bin Laden did weaken al-Qaeda?

DM: Yes, I do. I think that he was a symbol as well as a guiding mind, so in balance, of course, it weakens them. I am persuaded by scholars who write in the Arab and Muslim world that certainly after the bombing of a wedding in Jordan in 2005, there’s been a growing rejection of revolutionary jihad in the Muslim world, and an embrace of various forms of political Islam. I think that the notion of a “call to arms” has been rejected in favour of political engagement.

Some of the Arab uprisings were against leaders who were part of the War on Terror, such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Abdallah Saleh of Yemen, but some were seen, especially by the West, as helping terrorism, such as Qaddafi and al-Assad. Do you think the “Arab Spring” and challenging Arab dictatorships would help contain extremism or maybe spread it?

DM: I think the first thing to say is that the authors of these revolts are Arabs not Westerners. These are Arab revolts, not Western-inspired or directed revolts. It was a call for personal dignity, a call for personal and national improvement, and in Egypt it was a call to restore national pride in a 6,000-year-old civilisation that seemed to be in decline in the Mubarak years.

So I think the best way to contain extremism is to include people in the political process. What you need is inclusive politics. President Mubarak lost legitimacy in the eyes of his own people. He lost legitimacy because of corruption, kleptocracy, broken promises and a lack of mandate. He lost legitimacy because he wasn’t listening and there seemed to be no national path for Egypt.

There’s no question that his lack of legitimacy corroded the reputation of the West. We were in alliance with someone who in the eyes of his own people had growing disrespect. Violent extremism needs to be taken on politically and in security terms. Societies have to defend themselves against violence, but the best way to do that is in alliance with an open political system.

There is always a fear of instability. But Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, now has a democratic government. Turkey, which is a rising power of 80 million people, has a version of political Islam which I don’t see as a danger to Turkey’s democracy; I actually see it as part of Turkey’s democracy.

People like me mustn’t be naïve and pretend that decades of repression and autocracy are overcome overnight, and that the path to stable orderly democratic rule within international norms is going to be smooth, but I think it is better than the alternative.

Now each country in the Middle East needs to find its own path to legitimate, accountable government and respect for the dignity of people. That does not mean that every country is going to be a liberal democracy overnight, but that is something the countries would have to chart in their own way, and the monarchies in the Arab world are in a different position from the republics. I think a country like Egypt seems to be set on a very clear democratic path even in the medium term. I am confident about that. What I would say to you is that stable democracies are about much more than just votes; they are about independent institutions and civil society: media, judiciary, academia, and business that are able to hold accountable the abuse of power.

What’s your assessment of how disastrous the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were for the UK’s foreign relations with Arab and Muslim countries and what were the challenges the wars raised for you as foreign minister?

DM: There were very profound challenges raised. I think that Britain’s relations with the Arab world was strong and respectful in my period as foreign minister. I think that there’s some shared challenges that we are working on. I think the Afghan war can only be ended by political settlement, and the Arab and the Muslim world need to be part of that.

The uneasy birth of Arab democracy
How is Libya different from Syria in the eyes of the NATO. In other words, why did they choose to interfere in Libya but not Syria, even though civilians are under an equal threat in both countries, if not more so in Syria?

DM: There is a pressing humanitarian need in both countries. But in Libya there was a military option with limited geostrategic dangers, whereas in Syria there isn’t a military option and the geostrategic dangers are high.

You called for the West to adopt a “Coalition of consent” approach with Middle Eastern countries, how would that play out if the people of Egypt, for example, choose to be governed by a form of government that is unpopular in the West, like what happened in Gaza when Hamas was elected in fair elections?

DM: I believe that you live and let live, until the assertion of someone else’s rights interfere with your rights, and that’s true in our personal relations. I respect your rights to live your life in the way you see fit until you try to interfere with my life as I see fit.

What applies to people also applies to nations. Nations should be able to decide how to govern themselves, but there need to be international norms to make sure that the way they [govern themselves] doesn’t interfere with someone else’s rights. In a crowded neighbourhood like the Middle East, that is especially important.

What would you have you done differently to the current foreign secretary in relation to the Arab revolutions if they happened during your time as the man in charge of Britain’s foreign policy?

DM: I’m not seeking to make partisan points. But what I think is very important about foreign policy around the world is that it’s multilateral not just bilateral and I think it’s got to be about more than commercial diplomacy; it’s got to be about the full range of political engagement. So I think that’s the sort of foreign policy I would like to run, and that’s the sort of foreign policy I will advocate.

Do you think the war in Libya will be as disastrous and lengthy as Iraq and Afghanistan?

DM: No. I don’t. I think Libya is a very different case. I think stalemate is better than slaughter, but It’s very important that the military arm and the political arm know what the other is doing. The decision of the Arab League to call for intervention in Libya was very significant in the West, but Arab countries need to take responsibility because Gaddafi was a problem for you as well.

Do you think democracy is more sustainable if driven by the people or imposed by foreign powers?

DM: It must be driven by the people. Sustainable solutions are always driven by a sense of ownership that people have of their own lives.

Do you think then the situation in Egypt or Tunisia is more promising than in Iraq?

DM: That’s obviously the case because it’s driven from below and driven by a sense of ownership. I think one has to be respectful of the difficulties that lie ahead. This is a long process not a short process. It involves building durable institutions, such as free media, independent judiciary, etc. I do personally think that next year the economic situation will be very important. Egypt needs productive investment. It needs wealth creation because it’s still got massive inequality – one of the legacies of the Mubarak years. But over the medium term, I am confident that Egypt is a country whose people can make their own way and make a positive contribution both for themselves and the wider Middle East.

Hopes for peace and a Palestinian state
The US threatened that it might stop its funding to the UN if the general assembly voted in favour of a Palestinian state in September. Do you think the US threat is legitimate?

DM: I think the current administration have made good faith attempts to further some shared goals in the Middle East, including a Palestinian state that live alongside Israel. I am a strong supporter of a two-state solution. I think Israel has the right to exist but I think Palestinians also have a right to a state. I think it’s very important for the whole international community to support something like that. So I don’t think that’s a time for talking about retribution, but that’s a time for talking about positive constructive engagement.

How do you think the political changes in the Middle East might affect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or peace negotiations?

DM: I think Arab states with democratic mandates will be better able to advocate for the Palestinians. Egypt, as an Arab democracy, will be a far better ally of the Palestinians.

This article first appeared in al-Ahram Online on 22 July 2011. Republished here with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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