Trapped inside Fortress Europe

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO, Chios

The plight of the 63,000 refugees and migrants still marooned in Greece should give Europeans pause for thought.

Photo: ©Jure Eržen/DELO

Wednesday 31 January 2017

In a cave below the remains of a mile-long city wall, a small band of freezing and utterly exhausted men had manged to get a fire going. Outside, the wind was turning vicious. It felt like even the ocean was exasperated, splashing onto the cliffs as if trying to smash through the huddling men’s final illusions. Seeing how these fantasies were already so few and far between, it seemed a rather daunting task, even for an ocean.

Dusk was descending over the damp stone cave in Greece. True, it was somewhat less cold inside, but the men were still shaking like leaves. All of them were Algerian migrants placed at the bottom rung of the food chain here on the modern-day Medusa raft set afloat by the European anti-refugee and anti-migrant policies.

In the moments of relative calm before the wind picked up again, no one much felt like talking. These men had long lost their flair for chatting, and most of their hope had been buried back in the Sahara, in Turkey and somewhere at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. The rest of the metaphorical mortgage on their future had been foreclosed by the European bureaucrats. By now, the refugees’ stories had become etched on their faces, especially around the eyes. Gazing back at me were the hopeless, worn-down eyes of men who had played the game and lost so horribly they could no longer afford to admit it.

At the moment, some 63,000 refugees and migrants are marooned in Greece, unable to either forge on to the promised land or return to their respective conflict zones.

For months, thousands have been waiting for their first interview after applying for asylum. Many have already had their application turned down. In reaching that decision, the local bureaucrats had decided that Turkey – a country teetering on the brink of war – is a safe country for the refugees.

The bureaucratic apparatus is excruciatingly slow to act. Its members, almost without exception, are ‘only fulfilling their duties’ and ‘obeying the law’. Their collective actions form a perfect algorithm for the banality of evil that has already led to the birth of a new Europe, a morally bankrupt continent stripped of its last vestiges of shame and empathy.

Slogging through humiliation

The Eastern Aegean island of Chios has been described as the “magical Greek island which cures all wanderlust”. It is also one of the frontlines of Europe’s war against refugees and migrants.

For a long time, the local population on Chios distinguished itself with its exemplary and at times heroic care for the incoming refugees. Then last spring, after the EU-Turkey deal on refugees was struck and the Balkan route shut down, the Greek authorities under Brussels patronage set up the infamous “VIAL hotspot“. The first of many, the VIAL was a mix of prison and latter-day concentration camp – vile like its acronym.

In no time at all, similar facilities sprung up on many Aegean islands located near the Turkish coast. Some hotspots have also been set up on the mainland. Like the Moria camp on the Lesbos island, quite singular in its combination of inhuman living conditions and police brutality, the VIAL is by far the most notorious.

On my first visit last April, the entire camp seemed poised on the brink of an explosion. A hunger strike was underway, and the authorities were struggling to quiet things down by relocating hundreds of people to the Souda camp. The improvised camp was located by the sea and close to Chios town. It was run by a coalition of NGOs, whose activists brought food to the refugees and helped them with the horrendously intricate paperwork.

Nine months ago, the fresh arrivals to the island were still filled with hope, enthusiasm and the will to thrive. They had somehow managed to survive both the devastation of their respective homelands and the infinitely treacherous journey to what they thought was the civilised world. Slogging through endless humiliations while grappling with the fact their entire past had been erased, they whole-heartedly gave themselves up to the present to find a semblance of a future.

Today, with Fortress Europe closed off and most of its lustre as the land of refuge and opportunity trampled in the dirt, things are very different.

True, many of the refugees managed to strike on to Athens, and some of them even further on. But on Chios, hundreds of people have been trapped in such shocking conditions for months.

The depression epidemic

The mornings in front of the Souda camp see dozens of refugees come out to kill some time. The camp is situated right by the sea, beside a long canal along the ancient city walls.

The men are conversing quietly and without much enthusiasm. Most of them don’t even seem angry anymore. The muddy and bitterly cold camp has been ransacked by the flu. But even worse has been the epidemic of depression – the collective form of the disease, in firm alliance with the symptoms of what is so clearly post-traumatic stress disorder.

Nine months ago, one could still discern much empathy among the locals, even though the refugee crisis had already deprived them of their tourist-based income. But since then, things have taken a sinister turn. Both empathy and hospitality have a limited shelf-life, at least when not actively cultivated. The masks of political correctness have now fallen, and long-dormant Nazi sleeper cells are stirring back to life.

As ever, the weak and the downtrodden are bearing the brunt of it. Less than two months ago, rocks and Molotov cocktails rained down on the refugee camp. The message couldn’t have been clearer: the island is no longer safe for the refugees and the migrants.

In the nine months following his arrival at Chios, Mustafa E became one of the most recognisable faces on the island. His excellent English and distinct flair for companionship have made him the favourite both of his fellow sufferers and many foreign activists. Yet the robust 42-year-old’s fixed smile cannot fully conceal his pain.

After losing his wife and two children in an Aleppo air raid, Mustafa hasn’t really stopped moving. Even here, in the Souda camp, where he lives in one of the huge tents bearing the UNHCR logo, he gets frequent flashes of paranoia. He literally can’t keep still. When he tries to do so, he gets utterly crushed under the weight of his loss. His family is the one thing he refuses to talk about. Everything else he is all too eager to discuss in an often unstoppable and obsessive fashion.

Apart from flashes of his war-torn land, he is also haunted by the future. For what future can there be for one of tens of thousands of faceless refugees here? And in Greece, of all places – a country once again sacrificed on the altar of Europe’s opportunist agenda, conscripted to serve as the continent’s human waste dump?

The answer, Mustafa feels, is all to apparent.

“Nine months of humiliation was enough. I feel I am about to lose my mind. Everything here is wrong and stupid, everything. What a farce – we are worse off here than dogs without a master. We definitely get treated worse,” he asserts. “Enough already, enough! I will do everything in my power to get away from here. Where will I go? Anywhere, I don’t care. But it is now clear I won’t be allowed to do so legally.”

I was talking to Mustafa in his very poorly heated tent. The words kept pouring out of him like a feverish litany. This man so clearly and so badly needed to state his case.

Before the ground opened up beneath him and swallowed his entire existence, Mustafa Alkhtyibe was the head of a successful marketing firm in Aleppo. But as soon as he started describing his life back then, he all but fell apart with despair. From then on, all he could manage were short, sometimes almost completely unrelated sentences detailing his plight.

His most immediate problem right now was that the Greek authorities had denied his application for asylum. He had already appealed the decision, and had lost the appeal. After all, the European and Greek bureaucrats happen to feel Turkey is perfectly capable of providing safe haven. In Mustafa’s case, being single proved a further factor against him. The fact that the war robbed him of his entire family had made him even more undesirable than he would have otherwise been. And the local paper-shufflers were equally unswayed by the fact that his beloved city of Aleppo had been razed to the ground.

“It seems almost impossible now,” Mustafa winced as he recalled the not-so-distant past. “But before the trouble started, I was totally convinced that Aleppo would be spared most of the fighting. And let me tell you, I quickly lost all faith in the revolution! Why? Because all the smart people soon got arrested or escaped abroad, and were quickly replaced by extremists, criminals and idiots.”

Alternative routes

Mustafa patiently explained to me how he was always looking for alternative routes. “Each day, at least five of my mates here move on to Athens – totally illegally, of course. But the trucks, the traffickers, the false papers, all of that costs money… And I don’t have much left,” he explained. “I’m also counting on some help from my friends. I’m one of the few here ready to stay in Greece, no matter how horrible the situation. I have many skills; I know I can trust myself to survive. But first I need to get out of this awful place.”

Mustafa was serious about getting out. Every day I spent with him served up its own plan, each one more fantastical than the last.

One morning it struck him that his best chance for smuggling himself onto a ferry for Athens would be to bring a small dog. All the attention would be diverted to the dog, Mustafa reasoned, while he himself might go completely unnoticed.

When confronted with the fact that even dogs need their own passports to travel across the European Union, he was completely shattered. “Oh my God, oh my God… What I want more than anything is to go to Luxembourg. Ali Baba-style, of course, there is no other way. They have so few refugees there and so much money… But to get there you need at least €4,500, and I don’t have anywhere near that.”

Mustafa also told me the traffickers have an actual menu. Business is booming, and one can get anywhere one wants, as long as one provides the currency. Canada – €9,000, Germany – €3,500, France – €5,000, Great Britain, €7,000.

With a violent sneeze, Mustafa poured himself another coffee. It was possibly his tenth that day.

The problem is that he doesn’t get much sleep at night, so he broods and scours the internet for possible solutions. In the morning, he would give anything not to get out of bed. “As soon as I get up, I start losing money,” he winces and finishes the coffee.

“I’ll keep trying. I can’t give up.”

A large crowd had gathered in front of the Souda camp. The men were lining up for food, focused on getting their daily rations and bringing them to the women and children waiting somewhere further back. These mealtime conflagrations have long become the emotional fulcrum of camp life, offering the only solace to a radically impoverished existence.

“I am trying not to lose my soul,” said Omar al Salem, 28, from the Syrian town of Deir er Zur. “I’m staying away from conflict. I follow the rules. I don’t stick my neck out for any reason. But it is no good. I’m never going to get out of here this way.”

Omar has been held in the island fort the past five months. What seems like a lifetime ago, he had been lucky enough to get into college just before the war started. He studied economics in the city of Latakia, a regime bastion and, therefore, untouched by most of the war. “Life was good,” Omar remembers. “If always a bit dangerous, since war-profiteering thugs had long taken over control.”

Omar was kept busy with his studies and with his job waiting tables at a restaurant. His greatest hope was for the war to end before he completed his university education. That would free him from the ever-looming prospect of getting conscripted into the army, where he would have to kill friends and neighbours in the vilest armed conflict of our generation. But it was not to be. When Omar graduated, the carnage had only just begun in earnest.

As a Sunni in a Shiia-dominated town, he felt much too exposed to even think about staying. He certainly didn’t feel like helping a thoroughly discredited regime butcher tens of thousands of its own citizens. His other option – to throw his lot with the extremist-controlled Islamic militias – seemed just as unappealing.

So he struck out for Quamishli, a Kurdish town next to the Turkish and Iraqi border. Even though his parents had been residing there for a while, the town wasn’t safe for him. The members of the YPG Kurdish militia, which controls a large part of northern Syria, weren’t exactly welcoming to a fighting-fit Sunni Arab. And so Omar opted to follow the lead of his two brothers who, eighteen months ago, had braved the gauntlet of the Balkan refugee route to reach Germany.

The expensive help of the local smugglers got him through the heavily guarded border, where dozens of refugees had recently been gunned down by the Turkish border patrols. Omar didn’t have enough money to purchase ‘the classic’ on the smugglers’ menu. So he was forced to make do. The smugglers got him a free place on one of the outgoing boats, but in exchange he was tasked with steering it himself all the way to Greece.

Little did he know that his assent could very easily have landed him in jail as a sub-contractor for the smugglers.

It was equally likely he could have proven unequal to the task of navigating the motor boat. He had never before attempted anything like it in his life. For the boat’s 35 passengers, the consequences could have proved fatal.

“We were about half an hour out. Suddenly, I noticed a Turkish coast guard vessel heading straight for us. The sea had turned restless, water was leaking into the boat, so I revved the engine to the max. No, I didn’t feel any fear. I was running on pure instinct. The Turkish boat chose not to follow. It was only after the sea started settling down that it occurred to me how easily we could all have died.”

Omar, too, is one of those dejected souls whose application for asylum has already been turned down by the Greek authorities. He is now awaiting the decision on his appeal, but the most likely outcome by far is that he, too, will soon be deported back to Turkey. This is all part and parcel of the EU-Turkish deal. Yet in the gathering dusk over the bitterly cold refugee camp, he told me he still refuses to lie down and accept defeat.

He had already risked too much to do so. He informed me he was the only person on his boat who had not yet managed to leave Chios. He takes this as proof that it is still possible to reach at least Athens if not the actual promised land. But reaching the Greek capital would set him back €500, and he has no money left. His parents are unable to help him. Perhaps the two brothers will be able to chip in if and when they make any money. Omar proudly informed me they had both been granted asylum in Germany and were doing very well.

Omar is convinced that once he reaches Athens, things are bound to get easier. “I tried several times to get myself to an Athens-bound ferry, but I always got caught. I once bleached my hair so they wouldn’t recognise me. But I still didn’t make it. The last time around, the policemen only gave me a kind smile and redirected me back to the camp. But I’ll keep trying. I can’t give up.”

More than anything else, this young Syrian seemed terrified of losing hope. Hope, after all, is the chief driving force for the traumatised survivors in camps like these all over the Greek coastline. Small wonder then that the European bureaucracy has long been waging a monstrous campaign to confiscate every last shred of hope and rob the incomers of the will to press on.

Second-class refugees

“I could never have imagined I would witness such horrible things – such utter degradation of human life,” says Sharif Alimi, 28, an Afghan Hazara from the Gazni province. I got talking to him as he was boarding the ancient bus regularly transferring the refugees and the migrants between the VIAL hot spot and the Souda camp.

For the previous five years, Sharif had been living in Sweden. But in November he decided to return to Greece, which had served as the first European port of call on his long and arduous path to freedom. The reason for his recent return? Two months ago, his parents arrived to Chios after spending the last years as refugees in Quetta, one of the most dangerous cities in the world for the brutally persecuted Hazara people.

This forced Sharif’s hand. “I simply had to act. I had no choice but to come here and help my parents. I knew what they would be facing. I was imprisoned in many European countries – all told, they put me in jail 17 times. And without a single conviction. The worst of it was in Slovakia, where I was imprisoned for six months. Trust me, I saw very well what Europe had become. How it chooses to treat our people.”

When he got word his parents had arrived in Chios, Sharif managed to put his good job in Sweden on hold and immediately departed for Greece.

After hearing less than half of it, I was convinced Sharif’s story was worth a trilogy of both books and movies. During the 11 years of being Europe’s plaything, he was deported to Afghanistan, Turkey, Greece and twice to Iran. Giving up was not an option. He was treated to an insider’s view of the various flavours of Slavic policemen, the savageness of life on the Italian streets and the recent build-up of French racism. He was only accepted by Sweden a little over five years ago, and he says the Scandinavian country has been very kind to him. He was quick to get a job, which enabled him to get the rest of his life in order.

Today, this would no longer be possible. As reported, Europe is now repatriating Afghan refugees daily, declaring them safe in a land which has scarcely seen any respite from butchery for the past 40 years.

“See You In Sweden”

Photo: ©Jure Eržen/DELO

“I couldn’t let my parents share my fate,” Sharif nodded heavily. “So I came down here to help get them to Sweden. So far we have not been successful, but I have no doubt that we soon will be.”

Foregoing the option to sleep in a hotel, this dutiful son has been spending his nights with his parents inside the VIAL hotspot. Every single day he has to crawl in through a hole in the fence that is the best-kept secret around these parts. The VIAL hotspot is otherwise heavily guarded, but once Sharif manages to slip inside, no one finds him particularly suspicious.

Talking to him, it soon became clear he has little interest in comfort and is totally committed to his goal. He had been through everything and more; his pain threshold has been raised to a previously unimaginable level. Once you get to know him, you can so clearly see it written in his face, the scarred and grizzled visage of a true survivor.

In the days we spent together, Sharif and his Swedish girlfriend Zara did everything in their power to relocate the parents to a hotel. Omar was set on providing his mother and father with at least a modicum of comfort and dignity, even if it meant running the risk of himself being jailed again. He was both dignified and fearless in fighting off the policemen and fellow migrants out to humiliate his parents. Without his Swedish passport, Sharif would be quickly and literally vanished from the continent. As things stand, he could clutch this tiny piece of paper and keep fighting for that elusive and infinitely fragile thing called human rights.

“I have made my decision: we are all going to live in Sweden, and that is how it’s going to be,” Sharif told me as we got ready to part ways. “We Afghans, we’re second-class refugees, you know. Absolutely no one here has any time for us, and this goes doubly for the Hazara people. I mean, even in our own country we are mostly seen as foreigners. But what are you going to do? I know nothing can stop us now. So I guess I’ll see you in Sweden, huh?”

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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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Send Qatar off and bring on Tunisia for 2022 World Cup

 
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By Khaled Diab

If Qatar gets a red card for the 2022 World Cup, Arabs should enter a joint bid to host it in Tunisia, regional role model for revolution and reform.

Jubliant Qataris celebrate news of 2022 win. Image: Qatar 2022 official site

Jubliant Qataris celebrate news of 2022 win. Image: Qatar 2022 official site

Thursday 12 June 2014

Like many people of conscience around the world, I am alarmed that Qatar is set to host the 2022 World Cup.

Qatar’s successful bid to organise football’s greatest tournament has trained the international spotlight on the inhumane and dangerous treatment of South Asian migrant workers in the tiny emirate and the wider Gulf region.

Many Qataris and some other Arabs see hypocrisy in the controversy. “Over 20 countries have organised the tournament and they only make this fuss about Qatar,” one Twitter user complained.

Some went even further: “We have to stand assertively against this kind of racist behaviour,” said Kuwaiti politician Ahmad al-Fahad al-Ahmed al-Sabah, who is also the president of the Olympic Council of Asia.

Though I don’t think racism comes into it, at a certain level there do appear to be double standards.  After all, there is a long history of the World Cup being abused as a political football by unscrupulous regimes: from fascist Italy in 1934 to junta-ruled Argentina in 1978. Inmates at the notorious Esma detention centre could hear the ecstatic crowds cheer Argentina to victory against the Netherlands in the final.

Even the 2014 Brazil world cup has not been without controversy, with protests over the costs and the treatment of indigenous tribes.

But it looks likely that allegations of bribery, which Qatar denies, rather than human rights abuses, may drive the final nail in the coffin of the Qatari tournament.

Both Qatar’s initial awarding of the 2022 World Cup and the possibility that it may lose it have stirred mixed emotions in the wider Arab world. It sparked enthusiasm in Qatar and some quarters that an Arab country had finally joined the major league of organising football.

“Congratulations to Qatar and to us for the football victory,” wrote Jihan al-Khazen in the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat back in 2010. “Winning the right to host the championship is an honour to all Arabs.”

Even if they were perplexed as to why minute Qatar with little footballing tradition to speak of had gained this “honour”, many Arabs echoed al-Khazen’s sentiments. For example, both Egyptian fans and the Egyptian Football Association sent Qatar congratulatory messages at the time.

However, the recent strain in Egyptian-Qatari relations over allegations that Qatar bankrolled and supported the despised Muslim Brotherhood have curbed the enthusiasm of some Egyptians.

This prompted Kamal Amer of pro-government Rose al-Youssef to urge his readers last year to overlook what he described as temporary differences and to focus on the “Arab, Middle Eastern and Islamic dream” of hosting the World Cup. He even suggested that Qatar could benefit from Egyptian expertise in the run-up to the event.

So far, the latest round of allegations has elicited little reaction in Egypt, which is preoccupied with meatier matters, such as the recent presidential elections and the anointing of its probable latest dictator, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.  Nevertheless, the FIFA corruption allegations have received a civil handling. For example, the outspoken, pro-regime TV presenter Amr Adeeb, rather than gloat at Qatar’s predicament, focused on the ethics of the matter.

“It’s not a question of whether Qatar should host the World Cup, it’s a question of morality,” he said on his popular talk show Cairo Today. “We were happy that Qatar was the first Arab country that would embrace the World Cup,” Adeeb noted.

However, if Qatar gets the red card for the 2022 championship, which I think it should still stay in the region. The World Cup has left its traditional venues of Europe and Latin America, to visit Asia, the United States and Africa, so the Arab world should get a shot too.

Although I prefer the idea of a fixed venue  classified as international territory, I believe holding the World Cup in the Middle East can be an opportunity to honour all those who sacrificed for the dream of the Arab Spring, provide relief to a troubled region and promote some inter-Arab co-operation amid the strained relations afflicting the region. This can be done through a joint Arab bid from several countries.

Given how it spearheaded the Arab revolutionary wave and has been a relative trailblazer in democratic reform, I would argue that the honour should go to Tunisia to be the actual host. Moreover, the Eagles of Carthage have significant footballing pedigree. Tunisia has qualified for four World Cups and was the first African side to win a match at the championship, back in 1978.

However, given the country’s modest means, a regional fund should be established, bankrolled by the rich Gulf states, including even Qatar, to finance preparations for the tournament. Other regional footballing heavyweights – like Egypt, Algeria and Morocco – can provide their technical expertise.

In addition, to avoid the waste associated with the tournament (which can only truly be curbed with a fixed venue), a blueprint should be drawn up that creates the maximum number of jobs ethically and every piece of infrastructure must be recyclable.

This would not only help to raise Tunisia’s prestige and stimulate investment in the country, creating much-needed jobs, it would also promote a deeper sense of shared identity across the region.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Guardian on 5 June 2014.

 

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Spain, return and the other 1492

 
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By Khaled Diab

Spain’s recognition of the Jews it expelled ignores another historical crime: the Muslims forced out of Andalusia.

Granada was the last Muslim stronghold to fall to the Reconquista. Image: Bernjan

Granada was the last Muslim stronghold to fall to the Reconquista. Image: Bernjan

Thursday 20 February 2014

Spain has further opened its doors to the descendants of Jews expelled from its land half a millennium ago – though the actual application process remains as mysterious as alchemy.

It is welcome that Spain is striving to right a historical wrong. However, what is overlooked in Spain’s public atonement is that it was not only Jews who were expelled during the Reconquista and the subsequent Inquisition, but also an untold number of Muslims.

A decade or so after the fall of Granada and the expulsion of the Jews who refused to embrace Christianity, Muslims were given the option either to convert or leave. But even the converts, known as Moriscos, were forced out a century later.

This omission has caused some anger among North African Muslims. Jamal Bin Ammar al-Ahmar, an Algerian professor at the Ferhat Abbas University in Sétif, was outraged by “the injustice inflicted on the Muslim population of Andalusia who are still suffering in the diaspora in exile since 1492.”

There have actually been some low-level attempts in Spain to address this. For example, in 2006, the Andalusian parliament considered the issue of granting the Moriscos’ descendants Spanish citizenship.

But even if Spain were to extend an equivalent right of return to the descendants of Moriscos as it is offering Sephardi Jews, it would involve enormous practical difficulties. It is already a major challenge determining, some 20 generations later, who exactly qualifies as a descendant of an Andalusian Jew. In fact, many Jews, including those not belonging to Sephardi Judaism, and even non-Jews, could have Sephardi ancestry.

Four centuries after the expulsion of the last Moriscos, ascertaining who their descendants are is even tougher, given that they blended into the general population far more than the traditionally more isolationist Jews did.

Intriguingly, however, all these centuries down the line, there are still pockets that proudly identify as Morisco and trace their families back to Andalusia. For instance, there are even Morisco towns in Tunisia, such as Sidi Bou Said, Testour and Sloughia which maintain their unique Andalusian identity.

“It was very rare for Andalusians to marry ‘outsiders’, that is, Arabs not of the same origin,” explained Professor Abdeljelil Temimi, one of the foremost experts on Morisco influence and heritage in the Arab world, in an interview in the early 1990s. “This is one of the biggest reasons so much of their heritage still exists today.”

And many still feel nostalgia towards the old country. “Being Morisco to me is belonging to a historic time that comes from Valencia, a civilisation, culture, art, agriculture,” Moez Chtiba who is from Zaghouan but traces his family back to Andalusia was quoted as saying.

And I can understand the source of the nostalgia. In its heyday, multicultural Andalusia was the most advanced and cultured place in the Europe of the time, where science, philosophy and art flourished. As I discovered when visiting Spain, this can still be detected in the region’s architectural gems, from the Mesquita in Cordoba to the breath-taking Alhambra in Granada.

Andalusia also had a profound cultural impact on Europe, even defining the concept of Western “cool” and teaching Europeans how to “love” in a poetic, courtly and tormented fashion.

Yet Spain has failed to recognise Moriscos, while embracing Sephardi Jews. One Moroccan journalist called the oversight “flagrant segregation and unquestionable discrimination, as both communities suffered equally in Spain at that time.”

And this is partly true, given the centuries of bad blood between Muslims and Christians and the rampant Islamophobia on the European right, as reflected in a UK opinion piece arguing Spain has no reason to apologise for expelling its Muslim population and freeing itself from “Islamic Jihadist rule.”

But another reason is simple and straightforward demographics. While there is potentially a couple of million Jews who could theoretically qualify for Spanish citizenship, probably only a few thousand at most will actually bother to apply.

In contrast, there are unknown millions of Arabs and Muslims who may be able to trace themselves back to Andalusia, from Morocco in the Maghreb to as far afield as Turkey, where the Ottomans gave refuge to Andalusian refugees.

If only a fraction of these were to apply, it could significantly and rapidly alter Spain’s demographic make-up. And in a country that was devoid of Muslims for half a millennium but lies on the fault line separating the two “civilisations,” this could well spark civil strife or even conflict.

Then, there are those who would argue that the circumstances of Jews and Muslims were different: while Jews were an oppressed minority, Muslims represented the conqueror. In many ways, this would be like asking the Levant to grant the descendants of the Crusaders the right to return and live in their midst.

Though true, this misses a number of important nuances.

One is the fact that during its seven centuries of presence in the Iberian peninsula, Islam became an indigenous faith, not just an elite one. There is plenty of historical evidence that Islam permeated all strata of society, and that Arabic was spoken widely, as reflected in its extensive fossilised remains in modern Spanish.

Moreover, the Moriscos, like other Conversos, were so attached to their homes that they preferred to, at least ostensibly, abandon their faith rather than be banished from their homes.

Regardless of whether or not the descendants of Moriscos will ever be granted the right to move to Spain and become Spanish citizens, Spain at the very least owes them an apology.

Much closer in terms of space and time, as a first step towards reconciliation, Israel owes the Palestinian an unreserved apology. Likewise, the Arab countries that were once home to significant Jewish minorities need to apologise unreservedly to their former citizens and would-be citizens.

One day perhaps we will even see Arab countries and Israel extending some kind of right of return, which would be a boon to a region that has seriously lost its diversity, would spell the end to exclusionary nationalisms and would prove that Arabs and Jews are “brothers” and “sisters,” not feuding “cousins”.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 18 February 2014.

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The Arabs, apartheid South Africa and Israel

 
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By Khaled Diab

Reactions to apartheid South Africa differed across the Arab world and were coloured both by anti-colonial solidarity and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Nelson Mandela with troops from the Algerian Liberation Army. Photo: www.sahistory.org.za

Nelson Mandela with troops from the Algerian Liberation Army. Photo: www.sahistory.org.za

Friday 27 December 2013

Like just about everywhere else, the death of Nelson Mandela triggered passionate responses across the Arab world. “Men and women everywhere feel they have lost someone very close to them,” said the respected international diplomat and peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

“Humanity has lost its greatest son,” tweeted former IAEA chief, prominent anti-Mubarak opponent and short-lived transitional vice-president Mohamed ElBaradei, himself also the winner of a Nobel peace prize.

Egypt even took the extraordinary measure of announcing three days of national mourning to mark the great man’s death. Algerian president Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika went a step further and ordered eight days of national mourning during which all flags were to be flown at half-mast.

Unlike in the West, however, Arab sentiment and sympathy towards Nelson Mandela stretch back decades, back to the days he was a radical rebel and not yet a hallowed peacemaker – some Arabs even prefer that Mandela of yesteryear.

Previous generations of Arabs saw in the long and bitter struggle against apartheid and its precursors in South Africa – spearheaded by the African National Congress (ANC) – the reflection of their own plight under the boot of European colonialism and imperialism. This was particularly the case in North Africa, which also felt a sense of African solidarity.

According to Mandela himself, who admired Algeria’s long battle for independence, the situation in French Algeria most closely paralleled that of South Africa.

In this light, it is unsurprising that the ANC received training, funds and support from Algeria. In 1961, during his clandestine Africa tour after which he was arrested, Nelson Mandela spent time with the Algerian Liberation Army and the rebels of the National Liberation Front in Algeria.

Although Mandela was impressed by what he saw, even back then he realised that “there was no point in trying to overthrow the apartheid regime; the ANC had to force them to the negotiating table.”

Algeria also provided the ANC with constant diplomatic support, such as helping spearhead the pan-African charge against apartheid South Africa. For instance, Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika, when he was president of the UN General Assembly in 1974, ruled that South Africa could not participate in its proceedings.

And Algeria was there right to the end. For example, Lakhdar Ibrahimi was the UN Special Envoy for South Africa and monitored the transition to democracy. Ibrahimi is also a member of The Elders, a group of world leaders founded by Mandela to promote global peace.

Nasser’s Egypt also provided the ANC with strong support, in its multiple roles as a member of the United Nations, the Arab League, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the Non-Aligned Movement. Although Egypt did not shut down the South African embassy in Cairo until May 1961, the Egyptian capital hosted offices for the ANC from the late 1950s.

Mandela’s time in Egypt clearly impressed him, both in cultural and historic terms, but also for the new regime’s efforts to develop the country. “President Nasser had an impressive programme of economic development based on African socialism,” he wrote in his unpublished memoirs written on Robben Island.

Solidarity was not one way either, and the ANC supported Egypt whenever it could. In Egypt’s hour of need during the Suez Crisis, known as the Tripartite Aggression in Arabic, the ANC said: “We pledge our solidarity with the Egyptian people and are confident that the people of Africa will not allow themselves to be used against their fellow Africans in any predatory war.”

Showing early signs of his conciliatory humanism and inclusiveness, Mandela spoke up and lobbied robustly in 1962 against strong sub-Saharan African opposition to the entry of North Africa to the Pan-African Freedom Movement for East and Central Africa (PAFMECA), which became the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) and eventually evolved into today’s African Union.

“An aspect that particularly disturbed me was the attitude of most delegates in the PAFMECSA area to visitors from West Africa and the Arab countries,” Mandela recalled. “The whole issue upset me and I felt I could not keep quiet.”

“The trouble Nelson is that in North Africa you have Africans who are not Africans,” one delegate yelled out, not without justification. Nevertheless, Mandela carried the day and paved the way to Egypt, Algeria and the rest of North Africa to become full members of the African club.

It should be pointed out that the Arab world was not uniform in its stance towards apartheid. North Africa and the secular, revolutionary states were generally more sympathetic to the ANC than the conservative monarchist regimes, which feared that the contagion of radical socialist politics would spread within their own borders.

Moreover, some corners of the Arab world, namely some countries in the Gulf, still lived under the dark shadow of perhaps the worst form of apartheid: slavery. Saudi Arabia, for instance, did not abolish slavery until 1962, and only under immense pressure from Egypt’s then-unrivalled propaganda apparatus.

This may in part explain the Saudi regime’s ambivalent attitude towards apartheid and how Riyadh was quite happy to supply South Africa with oil until the oil embargo which accompanied the 1973 war with Israel forced its hand. This may have not lasted long, however, as there is some evidence to suggest that Saudi became South Africa’s leading supplier during the sanctions-busting secret trade of the 1980s.

That said, Saudi Arabia, despite its contradictions, also deserves credit for being among the first nations to push for international action against the apartheid regime. It was, for instance, a co-signatory of a 1952 letter to the UN Secretary-General asking for South Africa’s apartheid policies to be placed on the General Assembly’s agenda.

In addition to anti-colonial solidarity, many Arabs saw South Africa through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, drawing parallels between the two. This remains the case, as the rest of the region, the general view goes, has gained its independence but the Palestinians continue to live under occupation and subjugation. While this is sadly true, this overlooks the fact that there are others who remain deprived of their right to self-determination, such as the Kurds and Sahrawis.

The ANC and Mandela’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause has won them many Arab hearts and minds, as illustrated by the genuine sense of grief felt across Palestine at Mandela’s passing.

However, what both Palestinians and Israeli critics of Mandela do not seem to realise  is that the great reconciler’s solidarity with the Palestinian struggle did not equate to hostility towards Israelis. “I always thought it unrealistic to ignore the existence of Israel and maintained that the Jewish people are as entitled as any other nation in the world to have their own national home,” Mandela reflected on Robben Island.

Beyond the Holy Land, South Africa’s experience continues to resonate and remains relevant. As Arabs struggle against dictatorship, Mandela stands as a shining example of a liberation leader who not only established a largely functioning democracy but also stepped down graciously, in stark contrast to the Arab model of leader-for-life or until revolution strikes.

Despite post-apartheid South Africa’s many imperfections, this rainbow nation also provides our bitterly divided region with an inspiring model of reconciliation and healing.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 19 December 2013.

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The paradox of military-backed civilian rule

 
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By Osama Diab

Supporting a military dictatorship to impose secular ideals is paradoxical and will only perpetuate and entrench the deep state in Egypt.

Tuesday 26 June 2012

The soft military coup currently being orchestrated by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) has the backing of many Egyptians who think that they are supporting “civilian” rule. This is roughly the same group who voted for former Prime Minister and Air Marshal Ahmed Shafiq.

It might sound paradoxical that those who support a civilian state would wholeheartedly back an army man and the ruling military council in the hope of realising their aspirations.

This oxymoron exists partly for linguistic reasons. The words “secular” and “liberal” have become taboo because religious conservatives have denigrated them to mean anti-religion and used this to demonise the secular camp.

We all remember the Islamic preacher Hazem Shuman infamously screaming his lungs out trying to explain to his mosque audience what “liberalism” means. “It means that your mother won’t be allowed to wear a headscarf,” he told his audience.

Faced with this kind of pressure, secular Egyptians began using the term “civilian” (“madaniya” in Arabic) as a more socially acceptable way of referring to secularism without actually employing the word. Egypt’s deep state, which some are trying to preserve to act as a defence line against Islamism, is neither civilian, for obvious reasons, nor secular, for perhaps less obvious reasons.

Secularism, in essence, means that the state does not impose any system of belief on its citizens. The Egyptian state officially allows its citizens to belong to one of the three main Abrahamic religions: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and places enormous obstacles in the way of people wishing to convert from one to the other.

In practice, the situation is even gloomier. The security-obsessed state, which invariably links security to religion, views only adherents of one interpretation of Islam as “safe” citizens. The state only sponsors a moderate and soft Azhari version of Islam; and either bans or keeps a close state-security eye on anyone who diverts from this path, let it be a Salafist, Coptic Christian, atheist, Baha’i, Shiite Muslim, Jew, etc. They are normally treated in state security offices as a threat to the country.

“The security state considers religion and religious minorities, and pretty much anyone who does not follow the officially sanctioned brand of Islam to be a matter of national security” says Karim Medhat Ennarah, a security sector researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “How they dealt with them varied depending on various factors. The way state security handled Salafi groups or issues related to Copts was very different from how they dealt with the Baha’i or Shiite minority, which they consider a direct threat to national integrity and security.”

Ugly ideological and religious wars like the ones in Algeria, Ireland, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and even in Egypt in the 1990s could be avoided by establishing a political system which allows for everyone to express their ideals peacefully. Political rights would be developed according to a constitution that clearly and unconditionally emphasises these freedoms and a state that is determined and serious about protecting them. Many countries have come to this conclusion after going through costly and bloody conflicts. We should be wise enough to learn from the experience of others rather than learn it ourselves the hard way.

It is about time for proponents of a “civilian state” to stop trying to impose their agenda through the back doors of democracy. The best we, secularists, could do now is to embrace a system that might not be perfectly reflective of our hopes and ideals of equality, but that is reflective of the reality on the street, while negotiating with and pressuring Islamists groups and state institutions to remain neutral politically and religiously and not fall prey to a single ruling party.

Accepting this situation is the price we have to pay for remaining in our philosophical castles in the air. In contrast, supporting a military dictatorship to impose our ideals is paradoxical. It is neither civilian nor secular and will only perpetuate the presence of the deep state, if not further entrench it. It also carries the risk of turning the situation into the very thing it tried to prevent, a broken society that is divided along sectarian lines.

 

This article first appeared in The Daily News on 24 June 2012. Republished here with the author’s permission.

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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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An ode to Arab love songs

 
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By Khaled Diab

Love is a universal theme in music, but there are good reasons for the Arab world’s preoccupation with romance.

24 August 2010

Love them or loathe them, love songs seem to be written into the DNA of just about every culture. One of the most private and personal of emotions is also, paradoxically, the most public. Although I’m of the conviction that being in love – not to mention making it – is far more pleasurable to hearing about it, I would hazard to say that most of the songs ever sung are about this ever-fascinating subject. Even the alternative forms of music I prefer, though they don’t quite wear their hearts on their sleeves, do deal with love, as well.

Despite the universality of love songs and certain common themes, each culture has its own peculiar way of going about it – and this can say a lot about the nature of the society behind the songs.

Whereas love is a regular theme in modern western music, in Arabic music – both modern and traditional – it often seems to be just about the only theme (with a few exceptions like some Algerian raï music, certain forms of sha’abi music and a new generation of alternative musicians). In addition, while modern Anglo-Saxon music expresses a wide range of forms of love and relationships, and has a tradition of challenging taboos, Arabic pop usually focuses on a safe range of socially acceptable emotions and feelings.

This fixation on love is partly practical, because singing about politics or thorny social issues – or even sexual attraction – can get you banned or land you in serious trouble, as was the case with sha’abi artists like Sheikh Imam and Ahmed Adaweyah.

On another level, the Arab obsession with love in music may reflect the large number of social barriers that keep the sexes apart, as well as the disempowerment and lack of choice many young people feel in their love lives.

The fact that in real life love often plays second fiddle to other considerations – such as social standing, class and familial cohesion – is mirrored in the large preponderance of dramatic (often melodramatic) songs that deal with the torment of romance, the large distances separating lovers, desperate longing, pain, separation, unrequited emotions and dashed hopes.

Arabic songs may often begin with a description of the beauty and inaccessibility of the object of the singer’s desires. The moon is often evoked to express the beauty, mystery and distant other-worldliness of the object of one’s desire, while eyes and eyelashes are weapons of not just seduction but also destruction. While innuendo is rife in Arab love songs, they rarely venture explicitly below the neckline. More bizarrely for the non-Arab, fruit can often be a marker of beauty.

The lyrics often don’t translate well, but here’s a verse I penned in English (along with some others below) to give you a flavour:

Hibiscus cheeks, pomegranate lips
You’re sweeter than any smoothie I’ve sipped
As beautiful and distant as the moon
I howl when you appear like a loon
I am your majnoon

[Chorus]

See me soon

Love, your majnoon

There is said to be a fine line separating pleasure from pain, and many Arabic love songs confirm this theory. In fact, the torture endured – sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, etc – by many Arab crooners is surely the kind of infringement on their human rights that should be referred to the international criminal court.

All day, I dream of you
All night, I scream for you
Your killer eyelashes slash me
Tormented by the smile you flash me

[Chorus]

Aloofness, reserve and remoteness on the part of the singer’s love interest are part of the painful reality of the parallel world of Arab love.

Every day, I send you love letters with my eyes
But your faraway, unlisted face betrays no reply
How about just a short postcard to say hi
Written in your glance as you walk on by

[Chorus]

Far-fetched and even impossible promises are a staple of Arabic lyrics.

Since we can’t afford to rent or buy
Because property prices are sky high
I’ll wrap you safe inside my eyes
And fly you to our castle in the sky

[Chorus]

Seas and oceans also regularly lap against the shores of Arab love songs, partly to express the bottomless depth of emotion the lover allegedly feels and partly to reflect the unseen emotional and societal rocks against which their love boat can crash and sink.

Before I could swim, I dived in your sea
With hindsight, I realise that was stupid of me
But when your swirling currents pulled me down
Why, ya habibi, did you just leave me to drown?

[Chorus]

This raises the question of why Arabic love songs so often navigate such narrow, cliched straits. Part of the reason is the “precautionary principle” that governs so much formulaic mainstream culture, which sees artists wanting to stick to the tried, tired and tested.

Beyond that, the reverence of tradition and “timeless” musical principles – as well as fear of the subversive nature of creativity and youth – remains strong in Arab societies, while in the west innovation and subversiveness elicit far less resistance and, up to a certain extent, have actually become part of the process.

But when all is said and sung, you have to admire the tenacity of Arab love lyrics, or pity their dedication to hopeless causes. Even if the deck is stacked against their impossible love, some refuse to admit defeat and may still harbour, in the devastated haven of their broken hearts, the dream of reunion.

Never again will I invite such pain
But meet me just this once, then – never again!

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 20 August 2010. Read the related discussion.

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Foreign hegemony or repressive self-rule?

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Arab world may debate the merits of external occupation versus repressive self-rule, but neither are acceptable.

24 February 2010

The al-Jazeera debate programme, al-Itijah al-Mua’kes (Opposite Direction), is well-known across the Arab world for tackling thorny, controversial and offbeat issues. Earlier this week, the show got stuck into the taboo question of whether Arabs, after decades of self-rule, were better off under the oppression of their current regimes or whether the yoke of the former imperial powers was preferable.

At one point, the programme’s moderator Faisal al-Qassem described the modus operandi of Arab leaders as a form of internal imperialism and said that some were of the view that home-grown colonialism, which consumes the body from within, was tougher to combat than foreign occupation, which behaves more like an external parasite.

As is the format of al-Itijah el-Mua’kes, the two guest panellists had opposing views on the topic. One, a member of an Arab parliament, was of the opinion that no matter how bad local rulers were, they were preferable by far to a foreign occupier whose sole concern is the pillaging of a society’s resources and the subjugation of its people. In contrast, local leaders ultimately have the interests of their society – or at least parts of it – at heart and, with reform, self-rule can be made to work.

 The other, a lawyer with the International Criminal Court, argued that the European powers brought the Middle East into the modern age and set it on the road to progress. In some cases, he opined, there had not been much progress since. As an example, he referred to the railways in Sudan, which were built by the British but have not been improved by the Sudanese.

 Despite the eccentricity of these views, they seem to have a certain resonance with ordinary Arabs. Surprisingly, some two-thirds of respondents to an online poll conducted by al-Jazeera were of the view that their countries had been better off under colonial rule.

 Of course, polls of this kind are unscientific, the make-up and demographic spread of the respondents are unknown and the sample size was too small (6,808). Nevertheless, the result is an interesting one, and it speaks volumes of the frustration felt by ordinary Arabs, caught as they are between the rock of repressive rule and the hard place of foreign hegemony. 

Long gone, it would seem, are the days of heady, post-independence optimism in which Arabs believed that, after shaking off the shackles of centuries of European and Ottoman rule, a new golden age was about to be born. 

So, which is better? Well, as with most things, the issue is neither black nor white because the track records of both imperialism and self-rule have been patchy. In addition, the diversity of imperial and post-independence experiences are enormous. Moreover, even within a single empire, performance changed dramatically over time and the colonial experience in each country was marked by key differences. 

In the Arab world, the early centuries of Ottoman rule, for example, were relatively benign, tolerant and prosperous, but the latter period was increasingly repressive and stagnant. In their favour, the European powers brought in ideas of modern science and the Enlightenment, helped abolish slavery and sparked Arab interest in modern technology.

 On the negative side, they often stripped countries of their resources, put in place repressive colonial power structures which were perpetuated by local rulers, and, intentionally or unintentionally, planted many of the seeds of the internal and cross-border conflicts that plague the region to this day.

 Algeria, for example, is still staggering from the wounds of having once been annexed by France, with the mass displacement of the peasantry and the marginalisation of the urban professional classes that this involved. In addition, the roots of the bloody north-south conflict in Sudan, and the massacres in Darfur, can be traced back to the destructive period of Anglo-Egyptian rule.

 The record of self-rule is also difficult to assess and compare, partly because the Arab world of today is so very different from that of colonial times. On the plus side, self-rule has led to massive improvements in such areas as education and healthcare. In addition, a number of post-independence regimes embarked on huge and ambitious programmes to industrialise, with mixed results.

 On the negative side, most domestic regimes have been as oppressive in their handling of the population as the former colonial powers, and human rights abuses in many countries are rife. An extreme example of this would be Saddam Hussein and his murderous rule. But, then again, those who dream of a return to colonial rule would do well to examine the case study of contemporary Iraq, where the US-led occupation is giving the country’s former dictator a serious run for his money in terms of destructiveness and malignancy.

 In fact, the question posed by al-Jazeera is perhaps the wrong one, since, in many ways, colonial rule has not ended. Although direct rule stopped more than half a century ago, with the exception of Iraq since 2003, indirect rule never ceased. In broad terms, the region’s regimes fall into two general categories: those who have accepted the role of client states and those who have opposed it and been punished and “contained” for stepping out of line. Then, there’s the privatisation and franchising of imperialism to multinationals.

 So, in reality, today’s Arabs are living under the crushing burden of domestic and foreign imperialism. To my mind, the issue is not which one is better but how to bring both to an end.

 This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 19 February 2010. Read the related discussion.

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The power of false reporting

 
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 By Osama Diab

Reckless journalism is held responsible for the violence and tensions following the Algeria-Egypt World Cup playoffs.

24 November 2009

If I try to include a statistic or a quote without properly citing it, the article will immediately bounce back to me with the editor politely asking for a proper citation and source for the information.

It is sometimes frustrating to spend hours, and sometimes days, searching the internet and making phone calls to track down sources, studies or reports to back up information that you are already sure is accurate, but it’s the responsible media’s role to respect the reader and go the extra mile to provide them with absolutely correct information.

The Algerian newspaper Echorouk decided, for God knows what reason, to report that eight Algerian fans were killed (the story has since been pulled from their site) on the streets of Cairo during their stay in the Egyptian capital to attend the decisive World Cup qualifier game. There’s no evidence anything of the sort occurred and it’s unclear how the newspaper obtained such information.

The reaction to this report was quite extreme. Thousands of Algerians took to the streets to damage all things Egyptian as revenge for their fellow compatriots who were allegedly “killed”, according to the Algerian daily. Death threats were sent to Egyptians living and working in Algeria and Egyptian businesses were bombarded and set on fire.

In a press statement given by Naguib Sawiris, an Egyptian billionaire who owns Algeria’s mobile operator Djezzy, he said that, according to preliminary estimates, losses could be as high as tens of millions of dollars. Egyptians are fleeing Algeria in large numbers.

The violence and madness was not confined to Algeria. In Marseille, Algerian youths set fire to boats, smashed shop windows and clashed with the police right after the game.  

Unfortunately, both North African teams had to play again four days later. Thousands of Algerians flew to Khartoum full of rage with an unwavering determination to seek revenge for the lives of their brothers that they believed had been cut short by the Misraelis, a portmanteau combining Egypt and Israel in reference to the peace treaty signed between the two countries three decades ago and which is still thought of as a source of disgrace by numerous Algerians and other Arabs. Echorouk referred to Egyptians as Misraelis and the Zionists of Arabia on several occasions.

The Algerian government sent more fans than the stadium could accommodate in the hope of scoring a political victory. For its part, the Egyptian government sent thousands of members of the ruling National Democratic Party, led by the president’s sons Gamal and Alaa, to attend the game along with a vast number of celebrities. Both Egypt and Algeria were hoping for a victory that would divert people’s attention from the chronic domestic problems plaguing their countries, and used every method possible to achieve such a triumph, even recruiting the local media to help.

Egypt lost the game and Cairo, the city that never sleeps, turned into a quiet, sad and empty place. Egyptians were on tenterhooks awaiting a victory against the people they had branded “barbarians”. After the loss, the Egyptian media reported that that at least 20 fans were injured, and that Algerian fans were roaming the streets of Khartoum hunting for Egyptians.

The unfortunate incidents in the Sudanese capital were witnessed by the Egyptian president’s sons. Egyptian celebrities were also hiding from fuming Algerian fans in the office building of an Egyptian advertising agency in Khartoum.

Numerous television shows and newspapers in Egypt devoted intensive and exaggerated coverage to the aggression towards Egyptian fans and celebrities. This led to thousands of Egyptians staging a protest in front of the Algerian embassy in Cairo chanting, “You either kill us or let us in,” to the police guarding the embassy. Three days later, demonstrators were still demanding the departure of the Algerian ambassador.

Egypt now wants to restore the country’s lost “pride” and compensate for the humiliation Egyptian fans, politicians and celebrities experienced in Khartoum by calling for the severing of diplomatic ties with the North African “enemy”. Some went as far as to call for military intervention in Algeria to save the threatened Egyptians residing there. Egypt also threatened to freeze its football activities if FIFA does not react to the Algerian assaults.

This could all have been avoided if the Algerian daily had been more conscientious in its reporting.

Published with the author’s permission.  ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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