Yassin al-Haj Saleh: “Syria is a unique symbol of injustice, apathy and amnesia”

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

In an exclusive interview, prominent Syrian writer and dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh talks about Syria’s past, tragic present and uncertain future.

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Wednesday 20 January 2016

Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a leading Syrian writer, a former political prisoner and one of Syria’s foremost intellectuals. Ever since his student days, Saleh has been a vocal critic of the Assad regimes. He was arrested in 1980 during the presidency of Hafez al-Assad and spent the next 16 years as a prisoner of conscience.

During the early days of the Syrian uprising, his voice became louder than ever. In 2012, he was given the Prince Claus Award (supported by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs) but was unable to collect it, as he was living in hiding in Damascus. In 2013, he fled to Turkey. His wife and brother were abducted the same year. He is the author of several books,  including Deliverance or Destruction? Syria at a Crossroads (2014).

Here, he speaks to Boštjan Videmšek about Syria’s past, tragic present and uncertain future.

How and where are you right now?

I am fine, thank you. When I was in Syria, I used to say: I have no personal reasons to complain of, and no public reasons to be contented. After the revolution, with the abduction of my wife Samira and my brother Firas and my living in exile in Istanbul, the personal has become public and political much more than before. The public and political has become personal. It is a life of a struggle.

How do you feel when you see so many of your fellow citizens on the run from the most horrible conflict of our time? Did you expect an exodus like that?

Weeks ago, I helped smuggle my sister-in-law and my nephew from Turkey to Greece. As a beginner, I consulted friends, met smugglers, and chose one.

I was anxious about their safety, and was relieved when they arrived in a European country, even if it was not the one they wanted to go to. The other half of my brother’s family, he and his two younger sons, are to join the first half someday. With the help of friends, we are trying to arrange things for another brother and his family to take refuge in another European country, after a mutual friend of ours, the journalist and film maker Naji Jerf, was assassinated in Turkey on 27 December 2015.

We are helping ourselves to a world that did not help to liberate us at home. Never had I contemplated the possibility of such an exodus. I did not expect that the regime would kill hundreds of thousands of people and that its chances of staying in power would grow bigger as the numbers of its victims soared. I did not expect the emergence of a monstrous creature like Da’esh [ISIS]. I did not expect that around 70 countries would be partners in bombing my country: not against the ruling criminal, but against an offshoot of his monstrosity.

How do you see the European handling of the refugee crisis?

I am impressed by many people from many European countries, mostly individual volunteers. Their generosity, courage and humanity dignify the human race. I was touched by a message from a Norwegian woman who was in Lesbos helping refugees. As for governments, while it is not fair to include all of them in one category – Germany is not like Hungary, Sweden is not Denmark – I think they are unified in building higher walls in the face of the influx of refugees, specifically the poorest and most vulnerable ones.

For months now, European governments have been pressuring Ankara not to allow refugees to depart from Turkey. In November, they promised to pay €3 billion to the Turkish governments to guard European borders.

With all this blood that has been spilt over the past five years right under the world’s nose, humanity has led itself down the path to full ethical numbness. I suppose the indifference the world showed towards the Syrian ordeal will lead to even less sensitivity to human suffering in political institutions everywhere.

Where do you – in this chaotic situation – see the solution(s)?

One could think of a historical compromise that ends the war, guarantees full withdrawal of foreign forces, and is the basis of a wholly different political landscape in the country. A sustainable solution can only be built on a new political majority. This cannot be achieved through facing Da’esh alone or the regime alone. A new Syrian majority requires a substantial political change that is impossible to envisage without putting a full-stop to the rule of the Assad dynasty that has been in power for 45 years, a dynasty responsible for two big wars in the country: 1979-1982 and 2011-…

This change is the political and ethical precondition for a war against Da’esh with the broad participation of Syrians. The global powers have so far been putting the cart before the horse by targeting Da’esh only, ignoring the root cause of the militarisation, radicalisation, and sectarianisation that has occurred over the past five years, namely the Assad regime. This is a short-sighted and failing policy, not to mention unethical. It is a prescription for an endless war.

The new Syria could be built on a number of essential principles: decentralisation; thinking of different ethnic, religious and confessional communities as equal constituent communities; full equality among individual citizens (Arabs, Kurds and others; Muslims, Christians and others; Sunnis, Alawites and others; religious, secular and others). It is not acceptable to talk about Syria as a secular state, as the Vienna document of 30 October 2015 states, when the same document says nothing about justice and accountability, and avoids the word democracy. Lecturing about secularism reminds one of the worst traits of the colonial discourse.

What should the so-called international community do? What about the UN?

The past five years were a great chance to follow the international institutions and the world powers. For me, it is no longer Syria, it is the world, which is in a deep crisis. It is not that I do not follow what is happening in my country, but the world is in Syria (around 70 states are at war there).

I tend to think that the world lacks the potential for freedom and justice more than at any time over the past a century. In December, Vladimir Putin raised the possibility of using nuclear weapons against “terrorists”, an extraordinarily irresponsible statement that was met with utter silence form the international community. A few days later, the same man said that the Russian offensive in Syria “is not a serious burden for the budget … It’s hard to imagine a better exercise [for the Russian forces]. So we can train there [in Syria] for a long time without any serious harm to our budget.” Full of colonial arrogance, this statement stirred no reaction at all from the UN or Western leaders, not even a word from human rights groups, or any leftist organisations in the world.

The situation in Syria has developed from a revolution against tyranny to a global question, the Syrian question. Creating questions is, in my opinion, the political method of the powerful in shaping history. They create complicated, despair-inducing situations that last decades or generations (or forever, as an Assadist slogan says), during which the poor and weak are entangled in ineffectual struggles. By contrast, the method of the vulnerable is to create clarity and hope through revolutions. Crushing the revolutions in Syria and in the region has been the common job of the powerful local, regional and global powers. The Gordian knots they create will be with us for a long time.

In history, questions and big wars walked hand in hand. The Eastern Question ended in the First World War, and the Jewish Question found two “Final Solutions” in the Second World War and its aftermath (the second at the expense of the Palestinian people). One might add the Kurdish question: denying the Kurds statehood, which is also a source of hatred, despair, and war. Syria is an active field for this question now.

That is why Syria is a microcosm and a global metaphor.  Needless to say – the UN and the international community are creators of questions, or are, indeed, counterrevolutionary powers. I do not expect them to be revolutionary, but their role was criminal indeed.

Is the Sunni-Shia divide now too deep to overcome it politically?

It is. But there are no political solutions to confessional divisions. However, division in itself is not a problem; the problem is the violent struggle between the confessional groups. Contrary to the common wisdom in the West, this struggle is not something primordial that emanates from the very fact that there are Sunnis and Shia. Actually, it is the opposite: social and political struggles mobilise these idle belongings of ours and electrify them, or charge them politically. They transform into political, indeed military, parties. This is also the method of the powerful in order to weaken rebellious people and transfer the struggle from the socio-political field (the underprivileged v the elite) to the socio-cultural field (our underprivileged against theirs). What I want to say is that we need to know better the dynamics and processes of the social and political struggle in countries like Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the regional struggles to understand the ‘Sunni- Shia divide’. This is deepening indeed. It is being used as a tool to rule the masses and to exercise regional influence. Sectarianism, in general, is a strategy for political control. So it is politics, not religion or “culture”.

Can we say that Syria still exists as a country, as a state?

Again, Syria is the world. More than 70 countries are formally at war in the country, and jihadists from more than 70 countries are also there. Syria is a global question, a unique symbol of injustice, apathy, and amnesia. We have this Syria, at least – the symbol.

I am sorry to say that I am less sure about Syria as a viable country. The only chance, however, for Syria to survive is substantial political change. Unchanged, Syria is a dying land, sooner or later. Only changed will Syria become viable.

The reasons for the war and the brutality of the regime have been more or less forgotten in the Western narrative of the war. Why?

Primarily due to the identification between the regime and the major powers on the structural and symbolic levels. The modernist ideology is a common issue between the fascist with a necktie, Bashar al-Assad, and those neck-tied leaders in the world who lack vision and global responsibility. This issue is, in a way, related to the formation of the political elite in the West: high-income people who are fully isolated from politically inflicted human suffering. One source of the crisis is democracy in the West. If separated from the struggle and human aspiration for justice, democracy dies. In front of our eyes, we are witnessing democracy being reduced to political technology for dealing with crises. Crisis management, with its innate divorce from values and issues of justice, is the dominant method of politics over the past 25 years, even in the West. This method is good for nothing but creating questions, and the Middle East is the incarnation of these extremely unethical policies.

Some additional roots of this amnesia are related to the constitution of the powerful mass media in the West: the exciting is always more preferable to feed the masses on than what is humanly and politically important. For instance, beheading a man is more exciting than killing 100 with a barrel bomb. We identify with these who kill the way we do (their crimes, like ours, are not news), but we are enchanted with those who kill in a different way to the degree that we have offered Da’esh free propaganda for two years.

By the way, I think this enchantment with Da’esh that began in the summer of 2013 has deep connections with the sordid chemical deal between the US and Russia, which practically informed the Assad regime that it was okay to kill people with other tools, not with the one we had forbidden. The mainstream media was obedient in highlighting whatever Da’esh did and sidelining the crimes of the regime in order to legitimise that despicable deal between the two big global keepers of the peace (read: war). Da’eshmania is a way of suppressing the shame of that deal. Media and power elites want the masses to remain mesmerised, with their minds fixated on those exotic decapitators, who are absolutely different from us and our dear masses.

I want to add one additional thing concerning this fascination with Da’esh. I suspect that the mad extent of killing and control that Da’esh is practising in the regions it occupies is the level the power elites in the “civilized world” aspire to imitate. That violence has an essential virtue: it pushes past the limits of what can be done to the population at home, giving the power elites everywhere a sense of mastery and freedom. If this can be done there, it will be possible here someday. Da’esh is the laboratory test the elites like to peep at and hope to imitate someday. It is their utopia and our dystopia. That is why the population in the West should be anxious of what has been happening in Syria for the past five years. Do not defend us, defend yourselves!

Is there any player at all who has  a positive role?

External players? Maybe not. However, it would be a big mistake to conclude from that that all the players are equally bad. Turkey’s record is mixed: it welcomed around 2.5 million refugees. Our situation here is acceptable and, so far, Tukey has had a consistent position towards the Shabeeha regime in Syria, but it caused a lot of trouble because of it is irrational and unjust concerns about the Kurds on both sides of the border. France’s position was mostly a consistent one, too. Both countries were clear all the time that the culprit is the regime and it should be overthrown and they tried to act accordingly, but were kept back by the United States. Washington has been the worst enemy of the Syrian revolution, worse even than Russia, which was a clear enemy from the first moment, along with Iran and the latter’s satellites in Lebanon and Iraq. I am not an essentialist anti-imperialist who thinks that imperialism is an essence hidden somewhere in the US, maybe at the White House, the Pentagon, or the CIA, but I tried hard to locate any positive elements in the Syrian policy of Obama’s administration in Syria. The world at large has become a worse place, especially after the chemical deal which was a big gift to Da’esh and al-Nusra Front (and, of course, to Assad), than it was before.

As for internal players: I think one can identify obscurantism as the position of saying that there are no “good guys” in the Syrian conflict; they are all bad. I see this as an essentialist, Da’esh-like way of approaching our cause. I do not imply that there are no bad guys, there are many; neither do I want to say that there are many good guys, which is of course true, unless one is Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn, or Vladimir Putin. Rather, I want to make a paradigm shift from that reactionary distribution of labels of good and bad, to the actual dynamics of the struggle. I alluded before to the chemical massacre in which 1,466 Syrians were killed at the hand of the Assad regime, and to the chemical deal between the Americans, Russians and the regime. What was that deal? There were four actors, not three, at the time: the regime, the Americans, the Russians and millions of Syrians who had been resisting the thuggish regime for more than two years and four months, peacefully at the beginning then with arms. The regime gained not only its survival from that sordid deal but also impunity; the Russians managed to save a client regime and won a greater recognised role in the region and the world, while America (and from behind the scenes, Israel) succeeded in disarming the regime of the dangerous weapons that were thought of being deterrent to Israel. The party that was completely sacrificed is the one who had just lost 1,466 people in one hour: the rebellious Syrians. That is why that deal was despicable and its “heroes”, especially the one named Barak Obama, were extremely villainous.

Due the regime’s brutality and the baseness of the big egos of the globe, a dynamic of radicalisation, Islamisation and militarisation, was triggered and changed everybody in the country, myself included. In September 2015, I was in Oslo for a few days, where I appeared on a TV programme. Before this show, the presenter asked me, if I was “moderate”. No, I am not, I replied. She was alarmed, but she wanted to be sure: “But you are secular, aren’t you?” For the discursive habits in the West, ‘moderate’ implies that siding with us (“We are the centre of the world.”) and “good” are synonyms. You are “extremist” and “bad” whenever you side with your own people.

Of course, I am bad.

How do you see Turkey’s involvement and the future of the Kurdish question?

This is the main cause of the Turkish government’s biggest mistakes in Syria. Turkey has not been able to deal with its own Kurdish problem on a basis of equality, freedom and fraternity. Just now, there is a real war in the Kurdish regions in Turkey, with poor people being humiliated, displaced and killed. To Syria, the Turkish government exported its bad experience in dealing with the Kurds. And to make things worse, the Syrian PYD imported from Turkey its experience there, people to apply this experience, and with spades of the modernist ideological rubbish, designed specifically to enchant middle class left-wing spinsters (mostly males) in the West. This has already caused a lot of suffering, and I am afraid it will only cause more. What we are witnessing is, in my view, the building of an ultranationalist, one-party system, with hidden connections to the Assad regime and Iran, and less hidden ones with the US and Russia.

How can we effectively fight Da’esh? Personally, I don’t see any substantial political will to fight them with full force.

You do not see political will to fight Da’esh because there is none. There is political will for the war to go on. Da’esh is good for the war to continue. Its demise is the bad thing from this perspective. That is why the world seems unified against this ill-equipped (in military terms) fascist organisation, without making progress toward defeating it.

I think the American reasoning goes this way: Da’esh is strongest in its men. We have to besiege them in a certain area, so they will not spread everywhere the way they did after we (hysterically) invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Bashar should stay according to the lesson we learnt from our (unjustifiable) invasion of Iraq and dismantling the state there. As for those who are against Da’esh and fighting Bashar, well, er… they are mostly bad. The Russian monologue maybe goes like this: we want Bashar to stay in power. To achieve this we have to destroy those who are really fighting him. Of course, we will talk only about a war against terror and fighting Dae’sh, is it not that what the Americans have been droning on about the whole time? When we crush all those who are against Bashar and Da’esh, the clandestine understanding between us and the Americans will become public, and we will decide the fate of Syria and the Middle East together. Israel will side with us. We can give it more than the Americans are able to do.

Imaginary strategising aside, I think it is not at all difficult to fight Dae’sh, but you cannot do so while systematically ignoring the local forces that did face this entity in the past, and relying on another fascist organisation, namely the Assad regime.

There are three levels of a fruitful struggle against Da’esh. First, to honestly build a just cause for this war, and this cannot be but justice and freedom for those oppressed by it, which in turn cannot be achieved while ignoring the main source of oppression and injustices, the Assad regime. How do you want me to fight Da’esh while you are dealing from behind my back with a cliquish regime that killed 300,000 of my fellow citizens? Second, there should be a clear political vision of supporting a democratic transition in Syria and Iraq. Things will be messy in the two countries for years to come or even more, but this is still far better than a war that goes on for generations as both Jolly Bishop, the Australian foreign affairs minister, and Martin Dempsey, the former American head of staff, said in similar words few months ago.

Third, you need a clear military strategy that can be achieved in months or a year or two. What I see now is that we have a war without a clearly expressed aim, with no timeframe, with no local allies (The PYD is not that ally: they have relation with the fascist regime, and they are not democratic, let alone that relying solely on them will creating a very big ethnic problem in Syria). The international mobilisation against Da’esh is annihilation-oriented (not geared towards justice). But this is also the essential feature of Da’esh’s mobilisation against the world. Is it that far-fetched to say that Da’esh is a mirror reflection of the present world? How else can we explain this morbid attraction to talking and writing about Da’esh in the media of the West? This dis-disenchantment of the world?

Maybe this is the reason for this reluctance to fight this supposed global enemy.

What will be their role in the future of Syria and Iraq?

Absolutely nothing.

Da’esh is a mixture of settler colonialism, a fascist regime, and a nihilist terrorist organisation. As such, it is a pump of evil and death that should be completely dismantled.

But there should be a big shift in the current dehumanising mobilisation that affects all Muslims and promises us only a huge massacre. For effecting such a shift, the best starting point is to understand Dae’sh as a worldly power and explain it through secular tools of analysis. It is not a religious thing, not a flourishing of a primordial seed within Islam.

It is a sorry fact that one does not see any prospect for such a shift, when even people like Slavoj Žižek volunteer in this hysterical campaign, providing it with a warring classificatory logic of us and them, and stupid generalisations about the Syrian struggle (a pseudo struggle according to him) and Syria that he knows absolutely nothing about – its society, history, political system, political economy, regional environment. That postmodernist superstar wrote recently an even more combative article about the relationship between Turkey and Da’esh – one based on false information and a passion for hatred. With this in mind, I am afraid hopes for a change of course become considerably slimmer. One may even think that Da’esh, as bad as it is for Syrians and Iraqis, is something good for the West and Russia. So the question of Da’esh’s future is: will they ever do anything real to dismantle this entity? Are they really antagonistic to this combination of settler colonialism, fascist regime, and terrorist organization? Maybe they are identifying in it things that they know very well in themselves.

Are the old borders in the region being redrawn?

It is possible that we are in the process. Drawing borders in the Middle East was an outcome of two world wars and historical shifts in two questions (the Eastern and the Jewish one), under the supervision of the colonial powers as they shaped the present world system. The precedents of Iraq’s and Lebanon’s wars denoted that creating new states and redrawing borders is not as easy as we may think. For such a thing to happen, one of the following two is a pre-requirement: a new world system and/or a massive ethnic cleansing; one that surpasses Rwanda.

I do not see how redrawing new maps in the region will solve any older problems. Our present states are already a century old at least, and they are reformable far more than new states that will be either pure, and consequently less capable of ethical and political promotion, or mixed, with no guarantees of not spiraling into a new circle of ethnic or sectarian wars. And in both cases these new smaller states will seek protection from each other by resorting to the same old colonial powers that drew the old maps, and that patronised their very present struggle.

I am for (1) reforming our states (decentralisation, autonomous regions, etc.); (2) a sovereign Palestinian state; (3) a sovereign Kurdish state. I look forward to a Middle Eastern commonwealth, where Arabs, Israeli Jews, Turks, Kurds, and Iranians live together on a basis of equality, respect, and shared prosperity.

Syria has been destroyed, with 4.5 million refugees and more than 11 million people displaced inside their own country. The state has collapsed, at least two generations have been deeply traumatised, their lives irreversibly shattered. What can be done to help? How do we start from “ground zero”? How do we rebuild society?

First of all, you have to remove the knife from the loin.The  Assad regime is a knife, a poisoned one, that Syria will never recover from without it first being removed. Second, Syria will need a long time to convalesce. It is regrettable that one cannot expect help from “the international community” that helped plunge the knife in the first place. National recovery has become a formidable task, but what Syria needs most is to launch an opposite dynamic to that of militarisation, radicalisation, and sectarianisation – one of reconciliation, moderation and inclusivity. People are vengeful now just because they are still being killed. A different dynamic will encourage a predisposition towards co-operation and mutual understanding.

I believe that an increasing number of people will work for a new, more inclusive Syria, the moment the Assadic knife will be plucked out of the Syrian body. They are now scattered all over the world, but real change in the country and building a new Syria will be a collective cause for the majority of them.

Most of the educated people fled. How do you see the future of your country?

Your questions are painful. If Syria does not die, many of those who fled would come back. I will be one, definitely. I just want a minimal chance to go back home. I have to track down a loving wife and a brother, both abducted in 2013.

I believe that the creativity of people can do a lot. The alliance of the vulnerable, the underprivileged, is possible, and they will save Syria. I only want to live in a changing/changed Syria, among the people who are struggling for life. I lived there all my life.

How does the tragedy of your people affect the way you write?

I am essentially an essayist. I enjoy doing this and I am living off it.

Having survived after my wife, my brother and many of my friends were abducted with no information about them, I am trying to tell their stories, to prevent them from lapsing into oblivion. This is one of the main topics of my work.
As a writer, I think our specific participation as writers in the let-down revolution is to achieve revolution in our own sphere: writing and culture in general. A cultural revolution is extremely vital in Syria and the Arab World, and it is the only project that radically dignifies those abducted, tortured and killed. I know that my work is now imbued with a tragic sense, derived from what befell Syria, my beloved and me personally. In Arabic, there is a telling etymological relation between suffering and meaning, and I think that our culture should be rebuilt around our horrible experiences of suffering.

Besides, I feel that culture is a strategic field of our struggle in this exceptional situation. I said something before about enemies and fields of struggle: war could be a tool of struggle when you have one enemy (Assad dynasty tyranny), politics is the method when you have two enemies (say tyranny and religious extremism), but culture is the right field when you have three enemies, as we have: the Assad dynasty, the nihilistic Islamic groups and global imperialist powers, principally the US and Russia. Of course, culture should be formed in a way that responds best to the challenge of these three inhumane powers. What unifies these three fields of struggle is autonomy and creativity.

It is a matter of emancipation.

 

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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

Kos is straining under the influx of Syrian refugees.  Though locals are hospitable, the refugees are desperate to move on but where or how eludes them.

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Tuesday 23 June 2015

Over the past couple of months, the Eastern Aegean islands have become the main gateway for the refugees and the immigrants seeking entrance into the European Union. The mere few kilometres separating the Greek islands from the Turkish coast have long been one of the Turkish traffickers’ favourite approaches, while the sheer volume of people making their escape to a hoped-for better life has never been greater.

“You know the most devastating irony of all? That we have to pay one thousand euros to get from Bodrum to Kos, while the return trip costs the tourists only €10,” said Amir Obada, a thirty-year-old Syrian standing with me in the shade cast by the abandoned hotel Captain Elias on the outskirts of the Greek island of Kos.

Amir comes from the famous Christian town of Malula in Syria, where a bitter struggle between government forces, the Islamic State, various insurgent militias and armed groups of local Christians has been taking place for the past few years.

When the war broke out, Amir was just finishing his studies in chemistry. His father was one of the professors at the Malula university, which got shut down on account of the fighting. As a devout pacifist, Amir refused to pick up a rifle. Staying home, he assured me, was not an option. His family home got shredded in the crossfire. And so he set off for Turkey and then to one of the Eastern Aegean islands, where a serious humanitarian crises has been developing over the past few months.

The Greek authorities found themselves unprepared for such a massive inflow of people. So far this year, the island of Kos alone has seen the arrival of some 7,500 migrants and refugees – six times more than was the case over the same period in 2014. Most of them had come in from Syria and Afghanistan. During the second half of May and the first days of June, Kos – still much favoured by tourists from all over the world – was in a state of turmoil. Anywhere between 100 and 500 people were arriving daily by rubber dinghies and small sailboats from the Turkish coast.

One of them was Amir Obada, who set off on his journey accompanied by five of his friends and relatives from Syria. At the time of our interview, he was sharing a small room with them in the squalid, abandoned hotel with no electricity and no functioning toilet facilities.

Walk west

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

“I’m so glad I’m safe. I don’t know what else to say. These last two years I’ve seen some things that, well… I still can’t believe I managed to escape the war,” Amir confesses. “But I can’t help thinking about my parents and relatives who are still in Syria – I think about them all the time. Unlike most of my travelling companions, I’m not married and I don’t have any children. In a time of war, that is a huge advantage.”

Amir proudly produced his ticket for the evening ferry to Athens. The Greek authorities – at least partly because of the approaching peak of the tourist season – had recently introduced the so-called fast-track for Syrian refugees. This means that the people arriving daily aren’t given too much hassle. After they reach Athens, they are issued with a permit for a six-month stay, which can later mostly be renewed without great difficulty.

None of the many refugees I talked to wished to remain in Greece. They understood all too well that the country is in a state of profound crisis, and that things can only get worse. “I had to leave behind my wife and four children – they’re waiting for me in the countryside near Damascus. I promised them that, once I reached Europe, I would do everything in my power to help them join me,” Muhammad Issa, 45, told me, as he sat in a cramped room filled with old mattresses, tattered blankets and empty plastic water bottles. “Yes, I know it’s going to be very hard. But I simply couldn’t have brought them along on such a dangerous journey. It was too risky. And the children were too small.”

Some two and a half years ago, a similar task – getting his loved ones safely out of Syria – was undertaken by Yassin Sinno, 26. He somehow managed to escape Malula and reach London through Turkey. The British authorities approved his request for asylum. Earning his living as a waiter in a coffee shop in Yorkshire, he is now free to travel all over the European Union. He came to the island of Kos to pick up his brothers Mahmmoud and Hussein, who had sailed here in the same boat as Amir Obada.

“I can’t describe my joy at seeing them again… It was God’s will that we met again, and we all cried,” Yassin grinned, going on to describe how he had arranged his two brothers’ entire trip from Syria to Greece. The goal now is to get to Athens and seek out one of the more competent ‘contacts’ who can get his siblings further on their way. The official routes toward Great Britain are out of the question. At this time, the only remotely tenable way out of Greece and on to Western Europe is the extremely dangerous and arduous walk through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary.

Muhammad Issa managed to reach Greece on his second attempt. The first time around he was caught by the Turkish police. He was thrown in jail for two days and was then released. In Bodrum and all over the nearby coastal cities in Turkey, where the trafficking trade is booming, this is more or less a matter of routine. “There were 44 of us on the rubber boat. It was very dangerous. We went out around midnight. The trip only took two and a half hours,” Muhammed recalled in the ruined hotel. “I was very scared, because I can’t swim. When we got to Kos, they took us in with decency and kindness. It’s just that here, where we are now stationed, things are quite unbearable. But tonight we’re moving on.”

Amir Obada didn’t have a clear (geographical) destination in front of him. He was more than willing to go anywhere where he could continue his studies in chemistry. His country of choice would be Sweden, yet he knew all too well that this choice, for him, might prove to be an unattainable luxury. He was prepared, he said, to start from scratch. In order to reach Greece he had had to invest a great deal of his savings. This is the reason why on arriving to Kos, like most of his friends and companions, he took up lodgings in the filthy and dilapidated ruin on the outskirts of Hippocrates’ town.

In front of the main building, a few Afghan teenagers were kicking around a somewhat deflated football. On a meadow nearby, a pair of cows were grazing in the sun, while a number of Pakistani men were lying in the shade.

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

On a platform in front of what remains of the hotel, the local authorities have set up a system of pipes providing the residents with drinkable water. This was where the refugees could also wash and shave. As I strolled by, some of them were washing their clothes and mending the decrepit shoes that still needed to get them over the long trek to Central Europe.

“I’m not used to living like this,” Amir frowned at me.  “Until the war, we lived very well back home in Syria. I have to admit that the people here greeted us kindly, but there are no resources to be spared for us refugees.” Amir chose his rundown lodgings in order to save money. “I’ll need every coin I got to get me further off into Europe. I have decided to walk,” he informs me. “I intend to cross Macedonia and Serbia to get to Hungary. Once there, I will probably take a train through Austria all the way to Germany. To be honest, I don’t have much choice.”

Good Samaritans

As he told me of his plans, Amir’s comrades were nodding their silent agreement. No one among them was able to produce anything resembling a clear-cut plan. They were hoping for one of the target European countries to grant them asylum. As of yet, no one had informed them how to apply or even what basic rights had been accorded to them. In general, the presence of the international humanitarian outfits on the island of Kos was much too scarce for comfort. The necessary infrastructure for helping the migrants and refugees was virtually non-existent. For the most part, these tormented souls were depending on the help of local good Samaritans. For the most basic medical support, a small itinerant band of Doctors without Borders (MSF) was on hand to provide assistance.

“The island was completely unprepared for such a crisis. The sheer number of incoming people is staggering. And it is only likely to get bigger. The smugglers’ routes have been changed. Right now, the Eastern Aegean islands are the most popular location. Kos, Lesbos, Leros, Samos… The Greek authorities are trying to help, but they themselves are struggling under some pretty heavy loads. There’s no infrastructure here to help us help these poor people. So we had to improvise,” explains Aggelos Kallinis, the local UNHCR representative, who was speaking to me in front of the local police station, where hundreds of people were waiting every day to obtain the permits enabling them to proceed to Athens. “We’ve managed to enlist the help of the local community, some NGOs and a number of local volunteers. Surprisingly, many of them have risen to the occasion, but the situation is still rough, very rough.”

All-inclusive solidarity

©Boštjan Videmšek

©Boštjan Videmšek

On a daily basis, the Kos Solidarity volunteer group comes to the Captain Elias ‘hotel’ to distribute food, clothes, shoes and items of basic hygiene. When these local Samaritans – Sofia (a primary school teacher), Elena (a doctor), Alexander (a primary school teacher) and Jorgos (a businessman) – arrive to bring the refugees their one daily meal, a huge cheer can be heard from far away. The children, some of them not even ten years old, cling hard to the visiting humanitarian workers who can barely control the surges of the starving crowd. Under the vicious sun, the locals keep handing out the food prepared especially for the migrants in the kitchens of some of the nearby hotels.

There is plenty of food, enough to last the whole day. A tremendous gratitude can be felt emanating from the crowd, but also a great sense of shame. At home, these people weren’t used to living off their fellow humans’ pity. Quite the contrary. The Syrians and the Afghans come from arguably two of the most hospitable countries in the world. My long years of war reporting have taught me that a country’s hospitality usually bears a direct correlation to the scope of the tragedies experienced by the country’s population.

 

A tired man in his mid-forties, flanked by four of his six children, was observing the distribution of food from a distance. Visibly anxious, he obviously wanted to reach out and get his fair share, yet his pride wouldn’t let him. “I come from the Golan Heights, right near the Israeli border. Sometime before the war I moved to a suburb of Damascus, where I started a small business. I was doing very well. I built myself a big house and got married. Everything was fine. I had a good life,” Bilal informed me rather angrily.

During the first two years of war, not much trouble came to his neighbourhood, but his business slowly ground to a halt. About a year ago, his house got razed in the fighting. “The Free Syrian Army and the government forces were fighting for control of our mahala. A bomb was thrown directly on my house,” he recalled. “I don’t know who dropped that bomb, and frankly I don’t care. Me, my wife and six children – we got out of there as fast as we could.”

By now, there was a distinct tremble to Bilal’s voice. He landed on Kos last Friday. Huddled at the hotel with his family, he was waiting to proceed towards Athens, and then… And then? “I don’t know. I don’t have a plan. My only goal is to for us to be free and to be safe. To get where we are now, we had to spend quite a lot of money. The trip took twenty-two days,” he described.

“From Syria, we went to Lebanon, then we flew to Turkey. We had to pay off a huge number of people. You know that merely to go from Turkey to Greece by boat you have to pay one thousand euros per person,” Bilal continued. “I mean, of course we would like to move on! Maybe to Germany or even Scandinavia. But I know it’s going to be very hard. I want to find work. I have a lot of skills and experience.”

As I talked to Bilal, his wife and two youngest children lingered in the cold room of the abandoned hotel. The lady didn’t feel very well. Some time ago, she underwent a complicated and dangerous operation. Breast cancer had taken a visible toll, yet she still managed to endure the risky and exhausting journey to freedom. “I can’t wait for my [wife] to get well, so we can all relax and start living again,” Bilal said quietly: “Inshallah, God willing!” He was still making a strong effort not to join the line formed by his fellow refugees waiting for food.

Absolute uncertainty

In the hot Aegean mid-afternoon, a pair of young Syrian girls were simultaneously leaning against a wall and against each other. They had been doing their best not to fall asleep, but their exhaustion had finally prevailed. Sleeping, they were breathing in unison, with their mouths open, joined at the hip as if they were Siamese twins.

But the trauma of everything these two little girls had been through was etched deeply onto their young, sleeping faces.

Only a few hours before, they had arrived in Kos at the break of dawn in a rubber dinghy, along with their parents and a number of other Syrian refugees. “Hey, do you need a room? A hotel? Cheap – very cheap!” an older local woman accosted the family as they stood waiting in line in front of the police station. The two sleeping girls’ parents hesitated for a moment. As to their immediate future, they had very little relevant information to go on, even though they had been waiting in the crowd since early morning.

“Only for one night? Just to get some rest? We want to move on as soon as we can, madam,” the father replied and gently woke his daughters. Once they stopped propping each other, they nearly collapsed from exhaustion. Their mother gave them a warm hug.

They then scooped up their pitiful possessions and followed the Greek woman’s lead.

This “lucky” family may have managed to escape the bloodiest conflict of our time, and they may have just passed the major mark of having successfully landed in the EU. But their future was still heartbreakingly uncertain.

____

Follow  Boštjan Videmšek on Twitter

His website is: bostjanvidemsek.com

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Living in a selfie-centred world

 
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By Khaled Diab

The selfie fad has reached epidemic proportions, but we don’t live in more narcissistic times. Selfie-absorption is as old as civilisation itself.

Has modern technology made us more selfie-obsessed or have we always lived in a selfie-centred world?

Do we live in a more selfie-centred world than before?

Monday 23 March 2015

It was a miracle of selfie-preservation. A 14-year-old British schoolboy on a skiing holiday in Austria improbably survived, with only a few bruises and scratches, a 500-metre drop after slipping while shooting a selfie.

And if his phone survived the fall too, the teenager may just have snapped himself the kind of digital self-portrait that will make him the awe of his Facebook friends, and could even go viral.

But it is not just young people who are doing it. During a recent holiday in Thailand, I was overwhelmed by the profusion of selfie sticks. While giant representations of Buddha meditated peaceably in the background in a state of selfless Nirvana, the tourists in the foreground gave full expression to their selfie-ish impulses.

Egypt's President Sisi smiles as volunteers take a "selfie" with him during the closing session of Egypt Economic Development Conference (EEDC) in Sharm el-SheikhBeyond the clicker-happy tourist, a cursory glance shows that selfies have become one of the greatest fads around, with celebrities and even politicians embracing them, including Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who recently found it an opportunity for national selfie-actualisation.

A group selfie at last year’s Oscar ceremony became the most re-tweeted image of all time – a picture that apparently spoke a billion dollars. And with the fuss about selfies at this year’s ceremony, it won’t be too long before we start hearing about a “best selfie” category being introduced at the Academy Awards.

The selfie tsunami has also swept Arab and Muslim countries. The young and savvy Indonesian Muslim convert-turned-popular-guru Felix Siauw caused widespread offence when he declared selfies to be haram because, echoing some of the seven cardinal sins, he maintained that they were expressions of pride and ostentation. This led outraged Indonesian social media users to post selfies of themselves under the hashtag #Selfie4Siauw.

Even Islam’s holiest sanctuaries have not been immune, which has set off alarm bells in conservative quarters. Selfie fever reached such a pitch among pilgrims to Mecca and Medina that it provoked the ire of some Saudi religious scholars.

Cat jihad selfieRadical, ultra-conservative Muslims go even further and liken the idle pursuit of selfies to idol-worship. For example, during their reign of terror in Afghanistan, the Taliban banned television, video and photography, which prompted one journalist to describe it as a “country without faces”.

As a sign of the changing times (or perhaps the end-times for millennialists), today’s crop of foreign jihadists does not seem to have got this memo, or perhaps they believe that the “greater jihad” is the jihad of the selfie.

Many combatants have posted selfies of themselves on social media bearing arms, training, swimming, as well as surreally endorsing consumer products, including Nutella, not to mention a sideline in images of “mewjahideen” kittens.

The jihadist selfie is helping to transform the Spartan and puritanical image of holy war circa 1980s mujahideen in Afghanistan to make it resemble a mix between a lads’ teen movie and an 18+ shoot’em-up video game.

Some observers believe there is a deliberate strategy behind these selfies, which are seen as being part of a drive to recruit more young foreign fighters by showing how “normal” and “cool” being an extremist jihadist is, by injecting a bit of Rambo-like glamour.

With even normally camera-shy Islamic extremists indulging in this photographic fad, it is little wonder that many view this trend as a sign of the narcissistic nature of 21st-century society.

But do we really live in a more selfie-centred world than our ancestors? I happen to think not. It is no coincidence that the modern psychological term for vanity and egotism is derived from the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water (nature’s own selfie). 

I believe that this moralising is largely a manifestation of the romanticisation of bygone days when people were supposedly kinder, nobler and more selfie-less. For example, space pioneer Buzz Aldrin claimed he took “the best selfie ever” during a 1966 spacewalk.

This self-portrait of Robert Cornelius could be the world's first photographic selfie.

This self-portrait of Robert Cornelius could be the world’s first photographic selfie.

Though the word is new, the concept of the selfie is as old as photography itself. The first photographic portrait ever taken, in 1839, was a “selfie” – and required considerably more time and effort than today’s instantaneous results – while the selfie stick may be almost a century old.

Prior to the invention of photography, the world was still awash with selfies, in the form of self-portraits. Though the boom in artists painting themselves began during the Renaissance, self-portraits have an ancient pedigree. One of the oldest surviving self-portraits is a sculpture of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten’s chief sculptor Bak, standing beside his wife.

The traditional Islamic aversion to depicting human forms meant that self-portraits were rare, but there have been some examples. Perhaps the most ambitious was the Akbarnama (The Life of Akbar), which chronicles, with exquisite miniature paintings, the biography of the third Mughal emperor Akbar. Though Akbar did not paint these portraits himself, the book was the emperor’s idea and he commissioned the work.

Could this statue of Bak and his wife be the world's oldest existing selfie?

Could this statue of Bak and his wife be the world’s oldest existing selfie?

Arabs traditionally preferred word-based selfies, in the form of self-aggrandizing poetry. For example, in addition to his talent for writing panegyrics glorifying princes and kings, the legendary al-Mutanabi had a penchant for glorifying himself. In a poem chiding an ungrateful patron for not supporting him, the poet boasts that the blind and deaf appreciate his writing, and that his fame extends to the “steed, the night and the desert”, as well as “the sword, the spear, the paper and the pen”.

What this reveals is that modern technology has not made us more self-centred but has democratised our ability to express the more selfie-ish side of our nature, and on an unprecedented scale. What the ramifications of this are for the individual and for humanity has yet to be revealed, but once it is, be sure that someone will somehow make a selfie out of it.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an extended version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 11 March 2015.

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The social media’s Islamic state of terror

 
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By Christian Nielsen

ISIS has skillfully manipulated social media as a powerful propaganda tool.  Should the online community self-censor to deprive it of free publicity?

Prompted by social media, outraged Arabs and Muslims burned the ISIS flag.

Prompted by social media, outraged Arabs and Muslims burned the ISIS flag.

Tuesday 30 September 2014/Update Tuesday 18 November 2014

Quality media outlets – with their hierarchy of editors and codes of conduct – have the ability to hold or indeed withhold stories, in what they may consider the public good. Whether for ethical, legal or other reasons, though reasonably rare, there are historical precedents of newspapers and television stations, for example, choosing not to provide much-coveted coverage of terrorism events like a hijacked plane.

But the internet has proven a disruptive force – both in the positive and negative sense. Disruptive in that it gave a voice and opportunity to mostly young people in the Middle East to finally speak out against corrupt, incompetent or incorrigible rulers during the Arab Spring. But today it is also giving a loud voice – and gory platform – to a fanatical few who are intent on shocking and cajoling the right-minded world into a war which it sees no immediately viable way of avoiding. They say you should not shoot the messenger, but if social media is not part of the cause it should be part of the way out of this morass.

Is self-censorship an option?

This is a naive question, perhaps even an abhorrent one, for journalists to be asking, but it’s out there now, so let’s look at it more closely.

Of course, it is technically possible to censor social media from the top down, as amply shown by authoritarian states. This is an altogether different and unwelcome scenario. Here, I am speaking more of social media developing its own set of ethics or code of conduct beyond the people’s court of opinion after the offensive material has already been put out there.

Internet’s not insignificant influence

Already by 2008, just decades after it entered our lives, the internet had taken over traditional newspapers as a prime source of news, Pew Research reported, and for young people, it rivalled television as the main source of national and international news.

Back then a lot of the content still came from traditional sources, “usually those working in struggling newspaper companies and media outlets”, according to Global Issues in a debate broadly covering the changing media influence on society and democracy. But the online world is moving fast, with the growth of citizen journalism and blogs generating original content, and the ascent of video news and sharing sites.

Today, it is social media that seems to provide the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) and its ilk with an ideal forum for broadcasting their vitriol through cruel acts of violence, including horrific executions in the heart of war-torn Syria and Iraq, as well as further afield, such as the beheading of a French mountaineer in Algeria by IS-linked fanatics. It is a frightening frenzy of copycat behaviour fanned by a medium that has no genuine filter befitting the gravity of the acts.

The ability to easily film and almost instantaneously upload footage of these crimes brings into question the role of today’s one-to-very-many media as a possible conduit for a whole new level of terrorism. The more intense the reaction, it seems, the greater the appeal of the medium and the greater the likelihood of repeat offenses by all manner of offshoots, affiliates and IS acolytes.

How much can we blame the media for this new wave of glorified “me-too” terrorism? Can and should video-streaming sites refuse to allow – or be more stringent in their rejection of – violent content of this nature? How much should the holders and managers of these platforms be held responsible for this shocking content in much the same way as Julian Assange’s Wikileaks is being scrutinised for providing a forum for state “secrets” to be disseminated?

Some tough questions, but ones that most definitely need posing. Where is the debate on the role of new media as a seed for the decline in responsible reporting. As a supporter of the liberal press and freedom of speech, this is a hard thing to even write about, let alone contemplate. But maybe the new media have a responsibility like the old media once displayed, refusing to show the graphic, the abhorrent; reducing terrorists’ ability to promulgate their propaganda with impunity, and stopping the marketing machine that is IS from recruiting disenfranchised youth from East and West to its distorted call for a Caliphate.

I once described terror (in my now rather quaint book Tourism and the Media) in terms of its communication goals; and overlaid the way it works on people – remember terror is by definition to instil fear not necessarily to wreak carnage – and their perceptions in terms of basic communication (‘Terrorism represented as basic communication’ p157).

In the book, I touched on the early writing of PA Karber who in his unpublished paper ‘Terrorism as social protest’, introduced the communication dimension in how we conceptualise terrorism, “as a symbolic act”. In other words, the message (terrorist act filmed) being sent by the communicator/sender and received by the audience (the terrorist’s true target) whose feedback (recipient’s reaction) is communicated back to the sender.

The reactions in the case of IS are expressed in different ways, including, it now seems, the greater resolve of governments, both in the region and beyond, to stop them, in the knowledge that public support for aggressive measures is broadly accepted. The general public also “reacts” in concrete ways which “express” the fear now successfully instilled by, for example, changing their travel plans. Authorities in the West also react in terms of altering their perception of a region or people of Muslim faith or “men of Middle-eastern appearance doing nefarious things”. This kind of profiling has dangerous and far-reaching consequences on tolerance in multi-ethnic cultures like Canada, the USA, Australia and many parts of Europe. Examples of racial profiling are already coming out in Australia where the Guardian has reported a storm brewing over sensationalist journalism, press freedom and media hysteria about terrorism.

It will be telling proof to see the impact on travel to Muslim-majority countries by Westerners from the nations who have been loudest and most actively opposed to IS. The terrorist act succeeds if just one person changes their plans to visit Algiers, Petra, Casablanca or largely peaceful nations in the wider region, if people start making decisions based on fear. And with potentially millions seeing these horrible acts, or even reading about them in follow-up coverage, the probability that many more people will give in to the fear grows.

Perhaps the solution is to take out the middle men, remove the ability of these vile characters to get their message out so easily and effectively. It’s a thought. But is it a step too far? Does it take us back decades, or centuries… back to treating the press as a war propaganda machine? It amounts to censorship, one way or the other.

It would also mean articles like this are doing nothing more than adding to the “noise” of material keeping these fanatics’ dreams alive. On the flipside, if no-one reported the events, the support for action against this threat would be so much harder to muster.

Former US President George W Bush’s head-long and ham-fisted “War on Terror” in mostly Iraq and Afghanistan has brought only more trouble to a troubled region. And the loose application of the truth about weapons of mass destruction used as justification to enter this “war” doesn’t help the case for going back into the fray. Which is why the graphic nature of the crimes today (for that is what we are really talking about… Vile crimes committed by a cast of Sunni zealots, killers and misfits, to borrow from a recent story in The Economist) has worked as a wake-up call to the United States and its band of unlikely allies to go back and fix what was broken during the decade-long folly that was the War on Terror.

Now we’re terrified

Now that we really do have terror and the perpetrators are using the most powerful weapon they have at their disposal – mass, cheap, easy communications – to make us afraid. I think for the sake of clarity, it is worth recounting what terrorism is. It has no doubt existed in one form or another for millennia, but in its modern form, we need to go back more than a century.

Anarchist terrorism captured headlines and media attention back in the late 19th and early 20th century. But for modern scholars, it reached the zeitgeist in the 1960s and 70s, and first peaked (in news terms at least) in the 1980s thanks to events such as the downing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, and tensions in Israel, Northern Ireland, northern Spain, Central America and more.

Since the War on Terror commenced in the early 2000s it’s impossible to say what an act of terror really constitutes, and whether a death is a consequence of that when all parties would claim to be acting out of righteousness. But to continue on that train of thought would take us into a deep, dark recess of rhetoric and semantics on the distinction between terrorist and freedom fighter; one in which the Northern Irish have for years been digging their way out of. But with the statesman-like send-off that Ian Paisley recently received on the news of his death, it appears history is rewriting certain chapters for all of those engaged in the war/terrorism in and around Northern Ireland.

So back to our (mis)understanding of terrorism. The US government once defined it as “… premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents… intended to influence an audience.” While perhaps ignoring state terrorism in this equation it is a compact and functional definition.

And IS and its acolyte’s violent acts on civilians, journalists and aid workers would appear to fit this description, and its use of the media to “influence an audience” works here as well. RAND, a research think tank that keeps records of terrorism trends, has expressed that terrorism should be identified by the nature of the act and not by the identity of its perpetrators or the nature of their causes. But as I mention in my book, RAND’s description could be taken too literally by the world’s mass media which keep coming back to the horrors of the act, the visible carnage, and the loss of life which unfortunately seems to boost ratings. The focus here is more on the act than the nature or reasons behind the act.

Hostage-taking, beheadings, bombing, hijackings, assassinations… Audiences risk becoming addicted to the outrage, at the expense of better analysis and understanding of the causes; a trend which is likely only to aggravate the situation. What audiences must understand is that a terrorist act is intended to cause mayhem, confusion, outrage and terror, to rock the status quo.

The mass media, especially social media, needs to take a good look in the mirror and ask how much exposure they want to give these people. How much graphic detail is needed to maintain support for a just ‘War for Humanity’, if such a thing could ever exist, not another improvised ‘War on Terror’? Is the information really in the readers/viewers’ best interest, or the media channel’s?

Let’s stick to the tenets of good journalism, avoid sensationalising or fuelling the terrorists by over-publicising their horrible acts. Let’s try to sensibly limit the “feedback” they are craving.

UPDATE:

New figures published this week indicate that terrorism fatalities have increased almost fivefold since 9/11, and this is despite the US-led ‘war on terror’. The Global Terrorism Index reported some 18,000 deaths last year, a hike of nearly 60% over the previous year. According to the report, four groups were responsible for the majority of deaths; namely Islamic State (Isis) in Iraq and Syria; Boko Haram in Nigeria; the Taliban in Afghanistan; and al-Qaida in various parts of the world.

“The terrorism index raises questions about the effectiveness of a western counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 that has seen US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen and the use of proxy forces around the world,” writes The Guardian. The report’s release coincides with the latest Isis video showing the beheading of the American Peter Kassig, an aid worker who was posted in Syria.

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The dangers of a political crusade against Western jihadists

 
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By Khaled Diab

Inflammatory rhetoric and a solely punitive approach to Western jihadists is only likely to make matters worst, and could threaten multiculturalism.

British aid worker Peter Haine is the latest Westerner to be executed by ISIS.

British aid worker Peter Haine is the latest Westerner to be executed by ISIS.

Monday 15 September 2014

David Cameron, the UK prime minister, has unveiled a controversial raft of measures which he claims will help counter the threat posed by British jihadists fighting in Syria and northern Iraq. These include barring these citizens from re-entering the UK, seizing the passports of suspects before they depart and internally exiling radicals. Other European countries are also considering similar measures. Norway, for example, has announced that it is studying mechanisms for revoking the citizenship of Norwegians who take part in terror operations abroad or join foreign militaries, which would potentially also include Jews volunteering for the Israeli army.

“Adhering to British values is not an option or a choice,” Cameron told the House of Commons. “It is a duty for all those who live in these islands so we will stand up for our values.”

A “duty”, it would seem, if you are a member of a minority, but not if you are a posh Tory. Then, you can ride roughshod over these values and the principles underlying the British legal system, and grant the government even more arbitrary powers to encroach on civil liberties. Fair trials and the presumption of innocence are surely sacred British values, or is Cameron proposing a return to the medieval Germanic practice of  “guilty until proven innocent”? His home secretary certainly is, having stripped at least 37 dual nationality Britons of their citizenship with the stroke of a pen, without any kind of due process.

Fortunately, the British establishment has balked at Cameron’s demagoguery, forcing him to backpedal somewhat from the strident statement of intent he gave on Friday 29 August.

Moreover, “it absolutely sticks in the craw”, to borrow one of the prime minister’s own expressions, and beggars belief that Cameron himself posed a far greater threat to British values and the safety of British citizens than a handful of jihadistst. After all, Cameron supported the illegal and bloody invasion of Iraq, against the will of millions of Britons. And this disastrous enterprise,  which triggered serious blowback, created the vacuum from which ISIS emerged and helped radicalise some Muslims towards Britain, could not have gone ahead without his party’s support.

Should Cameron voluntarily hand over his passport for so recklessly having undermined British values and the security of his fellow citizens? Should he refuse the jet-setting Tony Blair re-entry into the UK and exile him to the Hague?

The rank hypocrisy of politicians and bigots aside, I understand and sympathise with European anxieties, especially following the murder of a third Western hostage held by ISIS, British aid worker David Haines. I witnessed, in the 1990s, the disruptive influence of returning Egyptian jihadists – then from Western-sanctioned Afghanistan. As an agnostic-atheist who believes in secularism and multiculturalism, I observe with alarm the rise, in Syria and Iraq, of violent Islamists who make al-Qaeda look like boy scouts. Their murderous brutality, historical ignorance and cluelessness about religion is worthy of the highest contempt and mockery. But they are a catastrophe for the Middle East, not the West.

That said, Europeans fighting in Syria and Iraq do pose a potential threat to their home countries. However, the British legal system is already equipped with all the legislation necessary and the security services possess the power – too much power – to protect citizens against this threat and to punish perpetrators of atrocities, but this must only occur as a result of free and fair trials.

Moreover, a solely punitive approach is far from useful. In fact, radicalisation experts say it is counterproductive and dangerous. “Treating all foreign fighters as terrorists… risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy,” wrote Shiraz Maher and Peter Neumann of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London. “It may sound tough, but it isn’t likely to be effective.”

Why? Because “their motivations for travelling to Syria are diverse, and it is wrong to think of them as a homogenous group,” explain Maher and Neumann.

In the fog of war, it is not only unclear just how many foreign fighters there are in Syria but also who they are fighting alongside and to what end. An ICSR report from the end of last year emphasised that the group affiliations for foreign fighters were known in only a fifth of cases. Of the remaining four-fifths, it is impossible to know how many are of the headline-grabbing ISIS variety of grizzly mass murderers, and how many are young idealists drawn to fight against a murderous dictator with moderate rebel groups, like generations of Europeans before them.

Even among those who go to wage jihad, many experience a change of heart once their abstract dreams are replaced by the gruesome reality. “We’re forced to stay and fight, what choice do we have? It’s sad,” one disillusioned jihadist who was afraid to return home admitted to ICSR.

This is the situation many disenchanted Arab jihadists found themselves in when their home countries stripped them of their nationality following the war in Afghanistan, forcing them further down the road to extremism and providing the nascent Al Qaeda with a core of fighters it would otherwise have been deprived of.

Egypt and some other Arab countries have since drawn lessons from this. Rather than banishing jihadists, they have put in place de-radicalisation programmes. Effective de-radicalisation initiatives can reap a threefold benefit in Europe: regaining productive citizens, mitigating a terrorist threat and providing the best advertisement against the lure of jihad for would-be hotheads.

Moreover, radicalisation is not something that only afflicts minorities. Segments of the European majorities are also being radicalised by economic and social insecurity, demagoguery and false narratives, just like Muslims, as reflected by the extremely troubling rise of the far-right and neo-Nazism.

In addition, radicalisation is partly generational. After an implicit post-war social pact in which youth expected to lead better lives than their parents, we have reached an impasse where young people are both worse off than baby-boomers and have dwindling prospects, with rampant unemployment, especially in the 18-25 age group, unaffordable housing, few pension prospects, etc.

And rather than sympathy, the plight of youth has brought them contempt. Contrary to popular belief, it is not older Europeans who are the worst victims of ageism but those under the age of 25 –  a problem that’s particularly acute in the UK and Scandinavia. This has led to huge disillusionment among youngsters, some of whom turn to various forms of radicalism. Minority youth have the additional burden of racial and cultural discrimination.

This reflects how vital it is that the problem of foreign jihadists, troubling as it is, is not blown out of all proportions by vested interest groups and bigots. No more than 500 Brits, by Cameron’s own estimate, have taken up arms in Syria (and mostly for unknown reasons). Yet the prime minister claimed outlandishly that this disparate group, which would barely make up a battalion in a regular army, was the single greatest threat facing the UK, bizarrely overlooking Ukraine and other major crises affecting Europe.

This kind of rhetoric, which panders to the far right and Islamophobic elements in European society, is reckless and potentially perilous. Stigmatising and vilifying minorities or certain ethnic groups can lead to ugly repression and persecution, as Europe’s own history shows and many parts of the contemporary Middle East are currently illustrating. In fact, what history seems to tell us is that when there’s a “problem” with a minority, one should look to the majority first because that’s where the real problem usually lies.

Although some critics are well-meaning and well-intentioned, many of the loudest voices declaring the failure of multiculturalism and demanding that minorities assimilate are those who never bought into diversity in the first place and harken back to an idealised, mythological past in which society was purer and nobler.

But multiculturalism hasn’t failed. Despite its many enemies and its learn-as-you-go approach, it has been generally a roaring success. Only two or three generations ago, western European countries were largely homogenous. Today, they are a cultural kaleidoscope of diversity in which disparate groups manage to live together in peace and relative harmony.

As the once-diverse Middle East increasingly sheds its cultural variety and persecution on the basis of ethnicity and religion grows, Britain and western Europe should cherish and safeguard the beauty of their newfound multicultural reality.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 4 September 2014.

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US intervention in Syria: Not kind, but cruel

 
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By Amira Mohsen Galal

 Punishing a dictator for killing his own people by killing yet more of them is not the answer. It didn’t work in Iraq, and it won’t work in Syria.

Friday 6 September 2013

As was the case in Iraq a decade ago, punishing a dictator for killing his own people by killing yet more of them is not the answer. Photo: US Air Force.

As was the case in Iraq a decade ago, punishing a dictator for killing his own people by killing yet more of them is not the answer. Photo: US Air Force.

As the drums of war beat once more for yet another strike on a Middle Eastern capital, one cannot help but be reminded of similar events exactly a decade ago that heralded the US invasion of Iraq. However, this time we have learnt from experience to ask the right questions and not to repeat the same mistakes… Haven’t we?

Some would argue that the general public has “over-learned” the lessons from Iraq and yet, just like back then, it doesn’t really matter. According to a recent poll, Just 19% of Americans support intervention in Syria and yet President Barack Obama seems determined to go ahead with his mission. The president set the wheels in motion by asking the US Congress for a mandate to strike the Syrian capital, Damascus, in retaliation for the alleged use of chemical weapons. The resolution was approved by Congress and is now with the House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, the US media has gone into overdrive, promoting all the reasons why it is in the American people’s interest to intervene in Syria. The most important of which, apparently, is not concern for the suffering of the Syrian people but because failure to actwould undermine the credibility of the United States of America and of the president of the United States”, in the words of one-time presidential hopeful John McCain.

Obama had stated that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that should not be crossed and would force a tough US response. Fair enough. But why did the slaughter of over 100,000 people, through the use of conventional weapons, not elicit a tough response? Is Mr Obama saying that providing that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad does not use the dreaded chemical weapons, he is free to do as he pleases? This echoes former President George W Bush’s warnings about the non-existent weapons of mass destruction, the “smoking gun”, that triggered the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Though previously Saddam Hussein was given even more leeway and allowed to use both conventional and chemical weapons on his people before any “red lines” were drawn, let alone crossed.

This indicates a certain inconsistency in American humanitarian policy and suggests that perhaps it is not the interests of the Syrian people that are at stake here but simply a desire to maintain the stalemate that has existed between the Syrian rebels and the regime since late 2011. Dramatic victories in Qussayr, Homs, as well as gains in the suburbs of Damascus, indicated a tipping of the balance in favour of the regime. It seems foolish, if not completely crazy, for the regime to halt that momentum by crossing the only line that the West had drawn.

Indeed, why would the regime launch a chemical attack, just days after UN inspectors arrived in Damascus and just 15km away from the hotel where they were staying, even if the experts were initially prevented from visiting the site? This is especially bewildering when you consider that those inspectors were in Damascus for the express purpose of investigating whether chemical weapons had been deployed? Surely, it would have been easier for the regime to allow the inspectors to do their work, send them on their way with no evidence and then resume their bloody assault without laying themselves open to the wrath of America?

Another point worth consideration is that no one is entirely sure exactly who is using chemical weapons in Syria. There have been allegations against both the regime and the rebels. The most notable accusation against the rebels was when Carla Del Ponte, a member of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria, voiced her suspicions that rebel forces had made use of Sarin nerve gas. This is in addition to Turkey’s announcement that it had seized rebels on the Turkish-Syrian border carrying a 2kg cylinder of Sarin gas. Turkish newspapers also announced, back in May, that  another 2kg cylinder of Sarin had been confiscated from the homes of Syrian militants in Adana.

The regime has not denied possessing chemical weapons but has it used them? It is certainly not a possibility that we should rule out. However, intervention in Syria based on shaky evidence seems ill advised. The declassified report issued by the White House provides little explanation of how the Obama administration decided that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons. Another curious point is how the figure of 1,429 dead cited by the White House does not correspond with the 355 confirmed by Médecins Sans Frontières or the 502 that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimatesor indeed even America’s French Intelligence allies who were only able to confirm 281 casualties. It seems that numbers are being thrown around with little care for what actually happened or to who it happened to.

However, the most significant factor to take into consideration is that it was Syria and Russia who asked for the UN to investigate the use of chemical weapons in Khan al-Assal and two other locations, which the Syrian government did not announce for fear of a repeat of the rebel attack on Khan al-Assal, allegedly to cover up evidence of chemical weapons use by the rebels. 

Most importantly, we must question what the outcome of any strike on Syria would be. One would think it would be enough to see the carnage that this kind of adventurism inflicted on Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. A succession of “wars on terror” and operations to “bring democracy” to Afghanistan has seen the country literally razed to the ground. Libya still remains in total chaos, whilst Iraq undoubtedly represents the greatest human tragedy of our time. Estimates put the death toll at between 100,000 and one million, with some as high as 2.7 million – again a bitter war of numbers that totally disregards the suffering inflicted upon the country. One would be remiss not to mention the effects that “humanitarian intervention” had on the city of Fallujah where the “toxic legacy of the US assault” – where there is, ironically, evidence that the US used chemical weapons – was considered, by international studies, to be “worse than Hiroshima.”

Of course, the pro-intervention crowd will argue that it will be different this time. But how can anyone guarantee that? Any military expert would agree that it is difficult to assess exactly how hard to strike and it’s also difficult to withdraw. And after all of that, will Assad actually fall? Well, if America manages to keep to “limited” strikes, then it is unlikely that Assad will be toppled. Already he pre-emptively relocated his personnel and artillery to civilian areas – a move which assures that America will either totally miss its targets, or civilians will be hit.

Finally, America’s strike on Syria would probably only serve to boost the morale of the regime, which is already receiving support from some segments of the Syrian population and other Arab countries for its perceived role as a champion fighting against another “imperialistic crusade”. Obvious parallels with the intervention in Iraq 10 years ago are already being drawn and the world is getting tired of America’s forays into the Middle East. Moreover, escalating matters can only be advantageous for Russia as it can now justify its backing of the Assad regime as support for a “legitimate authority under attack”. 

Military intervention is not the answer. Punishing a dictator for killing his own people by killing yet more of them is not the answer. Syria needs dialogue and carefully considered diplomacy – not more guns.

 ___

Follow Amira Mohsen Galal on Twitter

 

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Israel, the puppet master with no strings

 
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By Khaled Diab

Why is Israel, despite being a minor player, is seen by so many Egyptians and others in the region as the master puppeteer behind the crisis in Egypt?

Thursday 29 August 2013

Is this man the mastermind behind the crisis in Egypt or is he just a philosopher with "beautiful hair"?

Is this man the mastermind behind the crisis in Egypt or is he just a philosopher with “perfect hair”? Photo: Itzike

When news emerged that Hosni Mubarak was to be released from prison, I joked that Egypt was actually in the throes of a grand plot to punish the Egyptian people for having dared to topple their dictator. Part of this ‘conspiracy’ was the planting of provocateurs – Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, Mohammed Morsi and Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi – to lead the country off a cliff.

Of course, I was sarcastically expressing my frustration at the incomprehensible magnitude of the incompetence displayed by Egypt’s leaders, the shattering – one shard at a time – of the Egyptian people’s dreams of revolution, as well as mocking the improbable conspiracy theories that have been floating around.

One of the most outlandish was the assertion by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, perhaps trying to fill a little of the void left by former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that Israel was behind the ouster of Mohammed Morsi.

His evidence? A Jewish-French intellectual, unnamed by Erdoğan, who said, in 2011, that the Muslim Brotherhood would not take power, even if elected, because “democracy is not the ballot box.” The intellectual in question, an aide later revealed to AP, was none other than Bernard-Henri Lévy.

Unfortunately, Erdoğan did not elaborate on how BHL, as he is often called in France, came to work for the Israelis. Nor did he explain how Lévy managed to brainwash millions of Egyptians into coming out to the streets to demand Morsi’s departure, providing the army with the necessary cover and support to mount its coup, or what inside track the French philosopher enjoys with General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.

Although this conspiracy theory may actually appeal to Lévy’s over-inflated sense of himself – whose shallow philosophy has been described as “God is dead but my hair is perfect” – he is not a one-man intelligence agency. In fact, he is little more than the French equivalent of the “liberator of Kabul” John Simpson and “gut feeling,” “cab driver told me,” world-shaper Thomas Friedman.

[YouTube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DWnr27FvNhs]

In fact, anyone who actually watches the YouTube video can see that Levy is taking part in a panel discussion and is expressing his view that even if the Brotherhood won at the ballot box, he would not personally regard this as democratic. “Democracy is not only elections, it is values,” he asserted.

But, sadly, Erdoğan is not alone in spreading absurd rumours of this kind. In Egypt itself, there are some people in most camps who allege that Israel, usually in collaboration with the United States, is the master puppeteer behind the crisis there. For instance, one poster at the Rabaa protest shows US President Barack Obama dressed as pharaoh leading al-Sisi like a dog wearing a Star of David collar, while another –  which has stirred controversy in Egypt –  shows a Star of David stamped on the neck of a soldier. On the other side of the political spectrum, a caricature that appeared in a leading newspaper shows pro-Morsi protesters asking how to say “Occupy Egypt and save us”  in Hebrew.

This attitude strikes me as being particularly pronounced and most vitriolic in the pro-Morsi camp. “America and the Zionists were against Morsi. But they will fail in their project,” said one protester at the Raba’a al-Adawiya sit-in, which I visited days before it was violently dispersed.

One outspoken young man who pushed through the crowd to speak to me claimed shockingly, outrageously and preposterously: “Hitler killed the Jews for his people. Al-Sisi is killing his people for the Jews.”

On the other side of the political spectrum, there are those in the pro-military camp who believe that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are agents of the United States and Israel.

It may be news for many Israelis to learn that, while still in power, Morsi, who is most famous in Israel for describing Jews as “descendants of apes and pigs”, was described as a “Zionist” by one prominent anti-Brotherhood, secular cleric.

Riding the wave of suspicion toward the United States and Israel, the youth-led Tamarud movement, which helped spearhead the opposition against Morsi with a petition signed by millions calling for his departure, has launched a new petition campaign demanding the cessation of US aid and the cancellation of the Camp David accords, which would enable Egypt to fix its “broken” sovereignty.

Many Israelis and Jews will see this as yet another sign of Egypt’s and the Arab world’s irredeemable anti-Semitism. Although racism and prejudice, bred partly by generations of conflict, are certainly a factor, the reality is far more complex and nuanced.

Like Syria before it, Egypt has become a proxy political battleground for numerous regional and international players, with the biggest hitters being the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and Turkey. And the fog of conflict ensures that along with real-world conspiracies, outlandish conspiracy theories also float around.

However, compared with these other players active backing of one side or the other, and even both, Israel’s role has been a passive, backseat one. If that is the case, why is Israel included among the top league of foreign meddlers, movers and shakers in Egypt?

Part of the reason is the perception that Israel is Washington’s loyal regional lapdog – or, more outlandishly, the tail that wags the dog – and as anti-American sentiment grows, Israel suffers by association.

In addition, there is the long history of actual plots in which Israel was involved – from the Lavon Affair and the Suez war to Netanyahu’s shuttle diplomacy to defend Mubarak – that gives fantastical conspiracy theories a superficial sheen of credibility.

Another factor is the emotive weight of utilising a decades-old enemy as a powerful weapon for discrediting political adversaries, which has been a long tradition in the Arab world – though more and more Egyptians are becoming sceptical of them.

However, the danger is that this distorts the reality of the situation. In fact, what’s happening in Egypt, in my view, is more a “clash within civilisations” than between them. This is illustrated in the United States’ overriding interest in “stability” to protect its interests, and that is why Washington backs the army right or wrong, because it incorrectly sees the military as Egypt’s only guarantor of stability.

The mutual dehumanisation and demonisation that has been going on for generations has sadly made Arabs and Israelis all too willing to believe the most implausible, inhumane theories about each other. This is reflected in how a significant number of Arabs have adopted the ancient Christian idea of the Jewish “blood libel” and how a large number of Israelis have reversed that blood libel and utilised it against the Palestinians, as demonstrated in the recent al-Durah affair.

But there is a danger to this. By attributing to your enemies a subhuman character and superhuman powers, you propel them out of the real world and into the realm of otherworldliness, leading to the untrue conviction that you are powerless to transform foe into friend and war into peace. But at a time when populism is more important than wisdom, suggesting that your common enemy is your opponent’s “friend”  is just too tempting an opportunity to miss.

 

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 27 August 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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Spartan Olympics

 
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By Khaled Diab

In an era of economic austerity, we must revive the idea of a permanent venue for the Olympics, which would also help to de-politicise the games.

Tuesday 7 August 2012

The Olympics have sometimes been used as a podium for shameless propaganda. Image: okänd

The London Olympics have been an entertaining spectacle and, as usual, a thrilling sight of sporting prowess, enabling largely harmless shows of patriotism, as fans cheer on their national stars, often in some of the world’s most obscure sports.

But this carnival carries an exorbitant price tag. Although the UK government has announced that the 2012 games will cost the taxpayer less than initially advertised, the final cost will still be an astronomical £9 billion ($14 billion). At a time of severe austerity, high youth unemployment and dramatic insider bank heists, it is welcome news that the Olympics in London will cost less than half of the Beijing games.

Nevertheless, this is an enormous cost for what, judging by previous experience, is an investment in disposable infrastructure that, like in Athens and Barcelona, usually lies abandoned and decaying for years as a monument to modern excess.

Given the amount of scarce resources the games require, organisers and their supporters have for years sought to deflect criticism by talking up the regenerative power of the games on deprived urban areas and the economic dividend the raised profile delivers the host city. But research suggests that both these claims are tenuous at best.

So that leaves national prestige and/or vanity. While there is nothing wrong with channelling nationalism into the often harmless avenue of sport and people seizing the chance for some good-humoured flag waving, but it is the taking part that should matter, not the hosting.

Besides, sporting nationalism is not always harmless or good-humoured. In fact, the Olympics have sometimes been used a podium for shameless propaganda. The most notable case was the 1936 games in Nazi Berlin. The silver lining was the sportsmanship exhibited by German athlete Luz Long who helped the African-American athlete Jesse Owens to win the long jump – a poignant gesture of subversion against Nazi race politics and American racial segregation.

In the West, the Beijing Olympics were also rightly criticised as an attempt by the Chinese authorities to whitewash the country’s poor human rights record, democratic deficit and the Tibetan question, not to mention the separatist rebellion in Xinjiang which flared up shortly before the games.

But despite its self-image, the West is not above playing such political games, and the London Olympics can be seen partly as a propaganda exercise to try to repair the damage to Britain’s image abroad caused by its bloody military misadventures of the past decade. Ironically, the United States led a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics to protest the Soviet Unions 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, yet no one has spearheaded a similar boycott against the UK for taking part in the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. British double-standards here are not as blatant as America’s, given that the UK did allow its athletes who wanted to compete to go to Moscow.

So how can we both reduce the cost of the Olympics and abolish the political track and field side events?

The answer is, symbolically speaking, to make the games less Olympian and more Spartan, by re-establishing the ancient idea of a permanent neutral venue for the Olympics. This would not only depoliticise the hosting of the Olympics, but would also slash costs dramatically and ensure the efficient reuse of infrastructure.

Finding an appropriate location would not be easy. Olympia in Greece would certainly have a powerful symbolic advantage, but some of Greece’s neighbouring rivals might object.

To avoid the political wrangling that would inevitably arise in deciding where to locate a permanent Olympic venue, the International Olympic Committee could invite interested countries to bid a tiny part of their country which would be declared, rather like the UN headquarters, neutral international territory.

The different sites would be put up for an international vote and the selected one would immediately become a non-political international zone. In addition, an international fund would be set up to construct a fully-equipped Olympic city with all the necessary sporting facilities and accommodation.

Of course, though this would save a bundle in cash, it will not entirely de-politicise the Olympics since the games will remain an outlet for petty nationalism and flag waving. But it will allow a purer expression of the Olympic ideal: it seeks to make of sport an arena where countries can cast aside their political differences and build understanding through friendly competition.

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Are we now ‘friends’ of al-Qaeda in Libya?

 
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By Badra Djait

Belgium was one of the ‘Friends of Libya’ in Paris. But does the prime minister realise that these Libyan ‘friends’ include a former al-Qaeda fighter?

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Belgium’s acting prime minister, Yves Leterme (CD&V), represented the country at the ‘Friends of Libya‘ summit which took place in Paris on 1 September. The National Transitional Council of Libya, a political  body representing the anti-Gaddafi rebels, also took part in the gathering.

But can Leterme, in the name of Belgium, befriend a certain Abdelhakim Belhadj, who is  not only the Transitional Council’s military commander but is also a former al-Qaeda fighter and the former leader of the  Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG)?

“From holy warrior to hero of a revolution,” read the sarcastic headline in the London-based al-sharq al-Awsat sarcastisch.

Against the Soviets

 In 1988, Belhadj moved to Afghanistan to take part in the anti-Soviet jihad there. In 1990, the returning Libyan mujahideen set up LIFG. Belhadj was the former emir of this group which has been defined as a “terrorist” organisation since the 11 September 2001 attacks in America.

In 2004, Belhadj was arrested in Afghanistan, interrogated by the CIA and delivered to Libya, where he was eventually released in 2008. Earlier this year, he seized the opportunity to transform his defunct fundamentalist party into the Libyan Islamic Movement, which became one of the main opponents of the deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. In this capacity, he became the military commander of the Transitional Council.

Meanwhile, rumours have been circulating that Gaddafi has fled to neighbouring Algeria. A convoy of six Mercedes with tainted glass was seen crossing the border. A number of Libyan rebel leaders accuse Algeria of supporting Gaddafi. Algeria denies the allegations.

Until now, Algeria has refused to recognise the Transitional Council until it receives assurances that the new Libyan government will co-operate in combating al-Qaeda in North Africa. Why has Belgium not taken a similar stance?

In contrast with Libya, Bahrain and Syria will not be on the receiving end of a military intervention from NATO, the UN or any other international coalition, in the name of democracy, human rights or the “responsibility to protect”.

Syria has a mutual defence pact with Iran (renewed in 2006 and 2009). This means that an attack against Syria would constitute an attack on Iran. And didn’t China and Russia recently warn that attacking Iran could trigger a world war?

Why are the popular democratic protests in Bahrain, the neighbour of Western ally Saudi Arabia, not appreciated? More importantly, why were the elite Saudi troops sent to crush the uprising in Bahrain trained by Great Britain? It was confirmed in the British parliament that the Saudi National Guard was taught how to “maintain public order”.

Reconstruction

The West has declared its official commitment to help build democracy in Libya. Restoring security, improving the humanitarian situation and the establishment of a multi-party, pluralistic political system are officially the top priorities. But Mustafa Abdul Jalil, head of the National Transitional Council, knows better what it is all about. He promised, in a statement, to grease the palms of the the countries which helped Libya in the fight against Colonel Gaddafi with lucrative oil contracts. Libyan oil is highly sought after for its high quality which, among other things, makes it ideal for the production of kerosine, which is often used as jet fuel.

 A number of countries, including Britain and Germany, have promised to release tens of billions of dollars in frozen Libyan assets to the Transitional Council. Other countries which did not immediately take part in the military intervention – such as Brazil, China and Russia – are hoping to get a second chance with the transitional government.

But the question for now is whether the “friends of Libya” will co-operate with a former al-Qaeda fighter in order to acquire those lucrative oil contracts?

 

This column is based on an editorial published, in Dutch, by De Morgen, on 30 August 2011. Published here with the author’s consent.

 

 

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