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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The Jasmine Revolution

 
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By Osama Diab

Tunisia’s revolution will spread the scent of its jasmine to oppressed nations all over the region.

1 February 2011

Analysts and experts never cease to analyse the sociopolitical nature of the Arab world. Especially since 9/11, most have set their expectations low and been cynical about any social or political change taking place in the land of strongmen and dictatorial power. We, Middle Easterners, have been accused of being passive, unable to mobilise, and unwilling to fight for our rights.

After blowing all over the globe, the long-awaited winds of political change have decided to finally visit the Middle East. North African countries have in the past few years seen a large number of riots, sit-ins, strikes and demonstrations to protest low wages and the high cost of living, but a ruthless police state has always stopped these outcries of anger and frustration from developing into a popular revolution ousting a regime from power. Tunisia’s Jasmine revolution on 14 January  2011 marked the first successful attempt to overthrow a dictator by a popular revolution. And it took place in a country that was thought to be one of the most stable in a region where autocracy was believed to be deep-rooted and nearly impossible to abolish.

The people of Tunisia proved us all wrong by forcing dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali out in a way unprecedented in the Arab world. The only way an Arab dictator would take his suitcase and escape his own country used to be through a military coup, until a few days ago, thanks to the people of Tunisia.

But what does that mean to neighboring countries like Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Egypt? No one can claim it will have no impact, because it already has. At least four people have self-immolated in Egypt out of desperation, which is how it all started in Tunisia when Mohamed Bouazizi burnt himself to death sparking non-stop riots for three weeks to protest against deteriorating living conditions and high unemployment. Riots have erupted in Yemen, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt and Algeria since Tunisia’s uprising.

Democracy, like authoritarianism, is contagious. It is hard to find a standalone democracy surrounded by dictatorships, or vice versa. In the Autumn of Nations in 1989, a few Eastern European countries overthrew their communist regimes, which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the collapse of many communist regimes in the region after that. Communism was not hurt just in Eastern Europe, but in many countries all over the world following the Soviet Union’s collapse. Another major ripple effect was Latin America’s serious steps towards democracy over the past three decades in a fashion rarely seen in the developing world. If real democracy takes hold in Tunisia, it will increase the chances of it happening elsewhere close by.

However, it’s hard to predict the extent of the effect on neighbouring countries because, even though they belong to the same region and share a lot in common, every country still has a different economic, social and political nature. Copying and pasting a Tunisian scenario in Egypt, Libya, Algeria or Morocco is unlikely to happen. However, North Africa now seems well prepared and more ready than ever to dispose of its authoritarian regimes and gradually start a new era of people’s empowerment due to a steady increase of dissidence and a growing political momentum in some of these countries, in reaction to dire economic situations, high levels of corruption and worsening human rights conditions.

Even though Tunisia’s revolution might not be replicated, it will still bring many benefits to the people of neighbouring countries.

Firstly, it acts as a clear warning message to authoritarian regimes that over-relying on security apparatuses to remain in power with no popular support is unsustainable. It also conveys the message that the economic and political rights of the masses must be dealt with, and cannot be silenced by a heavy hand.

Secondly, it ends the myth that Islamists are the only groups capable of toppling regimes in this region – an idea established after the Iranian revolution and the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, one that has been used by secular dictatorships in the North African region as a scare tactic to win the West’s support. The idea is simple: imposed secular authoritarianism has been for long preferred over an elected Islamic regime by the world’s superpowers. Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once stated that the United States has long favoured stability over democracy in the Middle East and ended up achieving neither.

It also implies that the way for a government to gain legitimacy is from its own people rather than by allying with superpowers, as they all turned their back on Ben Ali after he was overthrown by his people. France, his biggest former ally, has refused to grant him asylum. Many regimes relied solely on their alliance with Western superpowers at the expense of their own people. This might no longer be a good bargain for Arab dictators.

Whether or not we will see the fall of one North African regime after the other is hard to predict and not guaranteed, but the good news is that Tunisia’s revolution will spread the scent of its jasmine to oppressed nations all over the region, inspiring and empowering people in their fight against unjust regimes.

This article was first published by Worldpress.org on 31 January 2011. Republished here with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab.

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The Arab man’s burden

 
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By Khaled Diab

Some in the west are more likely to believe in the existence of elves in Middle Earth than in Arab men in the Middle East who are secular, modern and do not oppress women.

Saturday 6 November 2010

“Have you got another wife in Egypt?” asked N with the trademark, but innocent, lack of tact which I had grown to expect with every one of her visits. “No, why do you ask?” I queried as Iskander, my baby son, put a whole strawberry into his tiny mouth and little streams of red ran down his chin.

“Most Arab men married to European women have another wife in their country,” she said, making a daring generalisation. I did a quick mental inventory of all the Egyptians and other Arab men I knew who were married to or in relationships with European women, and I could not think of a single one who had a second wife back home or anywhere else. Occupied as I was with Iskander, who was babbling incomprehensible instructions to his courgette slices as he watched them fall over the side of his high chair, I let the matter drop. I also knew that N, who is from Ukraine, meant no malice with her remarks.

N entertains some stereotypical views of Arabs that come straight out of Hollywood central casting. Thus, she has expressed her surprise – and approval – that I can actually take care of a baby and do household chores. Her views are all the more surprising considering she’s married to a Muslim from Bulgaria, a country where the Muslim minority is less religious than the Christian majority.

And N is not alone. Although certain Arab stereotypes are positive, such as our reputed hospitality and generosity, I regularly encounter people who make automatic assumptions about me based solely on my background. One recent incident almost startled me into dropping my glass of wine when a young woman I know shrieked in loud surprise: “You drink alcohol!?” Although drinking alcohol is strictly speaking haram, you don’t have to be a non-believer like me to enjoy it – millions of believing Muslims knock back their favourite tipple every day.

Some stereotypes of Arab men with which we have to contend are less harmless. For example, one American Jew to whom I was introduced through mutual Israeli friends and with whom I corresponded for some time in a bid to build better mutual understanding, was ultimately unable to overcome his prejudices and accused me of viewing America as the “Great Satan”, of lacking the faculty of self-criticism, of having a secret agenda and of being a terrorist sympathiser wearing a mask of moderation.

In the popular imagination, the Arab man is not so much fun as fundamentalist, never a fan but always a fanatic, and whose only claim to fame is infamy. After all, the world’s most famous, and infamous, Arab is Osama bin Laden. Although his video and audio releases are keenly awaited and garner the kind of global attention most pop artists could only dream of, he is not the kind of role model the vast majority of Arab men aspire to.

Simply sharing his first name can prove problematic, as my brother has discovered a number of times. One surreal incident occurred when he went to a bank in London to open an account and the clerk phoned his superiors to say: “We have a guy called Osama here, should I open an account for him?” My brother was so infuriated that he left immediately.

The media, particularly the rightwing and conservative end of the spectrum, has a lot to answer for in this vilification of Arab men. Hollywood – where the overwhelming majority of Arab characters are reel bad villains or aliens from some Planet of the Arabs – is an extreme manifestation of this trend.

Although contemporary British and some other European television and cinema tend to be more nuanced and human in their treatment of Arabs, the situation on this side of the Atlantic also leaves a lot to be desired. My wife is often confounded by the European fixation with Islamism and conservative Islam. While watching a recent Belgian documentary that featured women who had converted to Islam and married ultra-conservative Muslim men, she wondered why such programmes never featured mixed couples like us or our friends: modern, a-religious, laid-back.

In fact, given the endless torrent of negative images of Arab men in western popular culture, ordinary people might be excused for believing that elves in Middle Earth are less mythical than men in the Middle East who are secular, modern, peaceable and do not oppress women. Arab women, whose struggle for equality I write about regularly, garner far more – often genuine – sympathy in the west than Arab men, but much of the compassion is condescending and ideologically, even politically, driven for faceless, voiceless, invisible victims.

So, what is behind this almost casual hatred and vilification? Many cite the September 11 attacks in 2001 as an important turning point. While prejudice against Arabs, and Muslims in general, certainly increased after these atrocities, the growing demonisation and the public debate it sparked also, and perhaps ironically, led to more people developing greater understanding and sympathy towards Arabs.

But history did not begin on 9/11, nor did anti-Arab prejudice. It has a long history in the west, dating back to the colonial era and even the earlier, mutual love-hate relationship between “Islam” and “Christendom”. While there were some orientalists who were Arabophiles, particularly in their admiration for the “noble and honourable” Bedouin but not for the “wily and cunning” city Arab, orientalism as a whole lent a respectable academic veneer, as Edward Said so convincingly demonstrated, to crude racism.

In this view, the Arab is indistinguishable as an individual, unchanging, backward, passive, deceitful, ruled by lust and sexuality, and “in all the centuries has bought no wisdom from experience”, as Gertrude Bell, who played a crucial role in creating modern-day Iraq and Jordan, once put it.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 30 October 2010. Read the full discussion here.

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Losing the plot

 
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By Khaled Diab

Wacky conspiracy theories cause damage by drawing attention away from the real plots being hatched by our governments.

4 July 2009

Conspiracy theories: some believe the 11 September attacks were an inside job. Image ©Copyright Katleen Maes

Conspiracy theories: some believe the 11 September attacks were an inside job. Image ©Copyright Katleen Maes

If I were paranoid, I might start believing that some sinister plot was afoot. It almost seems as though the sheer proliferation of far-fetched, madcap conspiracy theories doing the rounds has been designed by some evil genius to cause ‘conspiracy fatigue’ in the public mind and to discredit the whole idea that our governments actually do conspire. But as I’m not unduly paranoid, I realise that this is a reflection of the fact that there are legions of gullible and disillusioned folk out there who have lost their faith in the establishment.

As we approach the fourth anniversary of the July 2005 London bombings, there is one conspiracy theory that has proven particularly resilient to reason and evidence. According to advocates of this theory, the 7/7 attacks were not the work of a group of disgruntled and marginalised British Muslims angry at what they saw as their government’s war against Islam – a variation on the stubbornly persistent ‘clash of civilisations‘ theory. Instead, they believe – based on evidence so flimsy you wouldn’t sit your coffee mug on it – that the whole affair was staged by the British government (possibly with Israeli help) to draw attention away from the catastrophe in Iraq and shore up support for the so-called “war on terror”.

And how did the government achieve this? Through controlled explosions. Sounds familiar? Yes, it’s a low-budget spin-off of the 11 September conspiracy theory. And like 9/11, it comes with its very own cult film entitled 7/7 Ripple Effect.

The film bases its conspiracy theory on a number of apparent contradictions and “an unbelievable set of circumstances” in the official narrative, such as the fact that an ex-police officer organised, in a nearby office, a mock exercise preparing for a possible terrorist attack on the underground. The film also claims that the alleged attackers were not on the trains that blew up. So, where were they? Apparently being assassinated in Canary Wharf by government agents who were out to frame them for the atrocity. Given the persistent popularity of 7/7 Ripple Effect, the BBC ran a special documentary this week which investigated the credibility of the DVD’s claims.

Examining the film’s claims one by one, the BBC documentary demolished them compellingly by drawing on convincing evidence. It also unmasked the man behind Ripple Effect, a certain John Hill from Sheffield who is living in Ireland. In addition to making conspiratorial mountains out of coincidental molehills, Hill’s other beliefs include that he is the Messiah and that the ‘Force’ told George Lucas to write Star Wars.

Of course, the flimsiness of the case and the untrustworthiness of the source won’t convince a certain faction of diehard conspiracy theorists. In fact, I’ve found out that it has been declaimed as a “hit piece” by a leading rightwing conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones. No doubt, I will be seen as a mindless pawn in the plot for writing this piece.

In the absence of an official public inquiry and given the government’s lack of credibility following the ‘sexed up’ march to war in Iraq, some people are gullible or disenchanted enough to believe that the government – or other groups they don’t like: corporations, Muslims, Jews, etc – is capable of hatching the most fantastical plots.

However, the sensation and ridicule elicited by crackpot conspiracy theorists discredits talk of the very real plots that take place and enables those involved to laugh them off. But just because there are fantastical conspiracy theories out there that does not mean there are no real conspiracies taking place. In fact, behind many far-fetched conspiracies, there is a germ of fact based on precedent. For example, there are rumours in the Middle East that the US is pulling the strings of the protests in Iran, even though no one has been able to show any convincing link or explain how a mass movement can be remote controlled from Washington. What sustains the rumours and gives them life is that the US and Britain have form, having covertly engineered a coup to oust Iran’s first democratic government more than half a century ago.

Similarly, the 7/7 and 9/11 theories feed off a deep well of distrust dug by other lies. It seems clear to me that the British and American publics were misled in the run-up to the Iraq war, with all the fanciful claims of fictional weapons of mass destruction and the non-existent and farcical link between Saddam Hussein and his sworn enemies al-Qaida. Now that’s a conspiracy, if ever there was one. Instead of giving any credence to 7/7 or 9/11 conspiracy theories, we should dedicate our efforts to campaigning for a proper public inquiry into the real deceptions that took place and demand that those responsible be brought to justice.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 3 July 2009. Read the related discussion.

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