Bombing ISIS in Syria will not tackle extremism in Brussels

 
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By Khaled Diab

Rather than airstrikes against the Islamic State (ISIS), Belgium should strike at the root causes of homegrown extremism.

Bruxelles est (Re)belle. Miguel Discart https://www.flickr.com/people/miguel_discart_vrac/

Bruxelles est (Re)belle.
Miguel Discart https://www.flickr.com/people/miguel_discart_vrac/

Tuesday 5 April 2016

When we moved from Europe back to the Middle East, some of our Belgian friends who were unfamiliar with the region were worried about us and expressed concern for our safety.

So it felt bizarre that my wife and I found ourselves checking on the well-being of friends in Belgium after the terrorist attacks at Brussels airport and in the capital’s metro system, which claimed at least 31 lives and left another 330 injured, some in critical condition. To add to the irony, colleagues and friends in Gaza, who have more than enough on their plates, contacted my wife to check that her family was all right.

The scenes of the destruction and slaughter seemed almost unreal when juxtaposed against the casual, everyday mundanity with which I have used both hubs over the years. However, although the onslaught was shocking, it was sadly not surprising, especially following the Paris attacks in November of last year. “We feared a terrorist attack, and it occurred,” declared the Belgian premier Charles Michel solemnly.

Brussels is, after all, not only the capital of Belgium, it is also the unofficial capital of the European Union and hosts NATO’s headquarters. It is also home to a pool of disillusioned and marginalised young Muslims who can be preyed upon by jihadist recruiters.

In the aftermath of the attacks, the fear is palpable, even for those who are determined not to allow terror to guide their lives. “It’s not easy not to have fear,” one Belgian admitted to me, “and I try not to fear, just love.”

Belgium’s Muslim minority is not only fearful of the terrorists but also the almost inevitable backlash from the mainstream. “It was always a dream for me to have a [trendy] beard,” recalls Hassan Al Hilou, a 16-year-old Iraqi-Belgian student and entrepreneur who has started up an online platform for youth. “But I am scared of my own hair and scared of my own name.”

Syrian refugees are also feeling the heat. “I have escaped from a war zone and now I am feeling threatened just walking down the street.” one refugee who has received threats was quoted as saying.

In addition to the solidarity, defiance and soul-searching has come the inevitable finger pointing, with reports of suspected intelligence failures and bungling, which prompted Justice Minister Jan Jambon to try to tender his resignation.

However, it is easy to find fault and condemn in hindsight, as happened previously in the United States after the 11 September attacks, or in Paris, London and Madrid, amongst others. But, at the end of the day, even after all the precautions are taken, determined killers will eventually locate a weakness or gap to exploit. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in Belgium’s defence.

Some criticism is also agenda-driven. It seems to have become almost routine for governments and interest groups to seize on every terror attack to roll back civil liberties and trample on our privacy.

The EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove hinted at this in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre when he urged European representatives to “never let a good crisis go to waste”. And true enough, Kerchove pounced on the Brussels bombings to try to blast through controversial legislation on airline passenger data.

This tendency has me and many others who value our hard-won freedoms worried. “We are gradually moving towards a state in which our security will come at a heavy price,” says my friend Jan, despite his concern about extremist activity in his neighbourhood, Molenbeek, an area of Brussels dubbed as “jihad central” by the more sensationalist segments of the media. “I hate the voices who say that it is either freedom or security.”

Just as occurred with the Front National in France following the Paris attacks, the latest atrocities have provided Belgium’s faltering far-right with a surge in support, with its ripple effects empowering everyone from Geert Wilders in neighbouring Holland to Donald Trump across the Atlantic.

The anti-immigrant Vlaams Belang claims that its support has grown by 25% since the attacks while the fringe white supremacist Voorpost says its membership doubled in just three days. Vlaams Belang’s leader Tom Van Grieken has already seized on the opportunity to demand a “water-tight” border policy and the “preventive detention” of known Islamic extremists, which sounds like far-right code for harassing Muslims.

Later, the far-right party went further to demand the reintroduction of the death penalty for Muslim terrorists and their accomplices (but preusambly not for non-Muslim ones) and, like Trump across the Atlantic, the VB wants to ban foreign Muslims from entering Belgium.

But some are hopeful that the combined power of young Muslim and mainstream moderates of the divide can overcome the religious and racial supremacists. “I believe in this generation,” insists Hassan Al Hilou. “We know how to accept everyone and their cultures, how to live together with love and not with hate.”

For its part, the Belgian government immediately unveiled plans to resume airstrikes against ISIS targets, as if bombing Syria or Iraq would somehow de-radicalise extremists in Brussels.

As I’ve argued in before, the government’s fixation on security and the “war on terrorism” diverts vital resources from the policies that would prevent the homegrown terrorist threat, which draws on the alienation, disenchantment, exclusion and marginalisation felt by inner-city Muslim youth, making them softer targets for extremist brainwashing.

The way to deprive jihadist recruiters of a fresh supply of young people willing to die would be to give youth greater reasons to live, by promoting respectful integration and mutual tolerance, as well as investing in education and job creation.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an updated version of an article which first appeared in The National on 28 March 2015.

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The myth of the European jihadist hordes

 
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By Khaled Diab

The terrorist attacks in Brussels will reinforce the idea that returning jihadists pose an existential threat to Europe. But the facts say otherwise.

Bruxelles est (Re)belle. Miguel Discart https://www.flickr.com/people/miguel_discart_vrac/

Bruxelles est (Re)belle.
Miguel Discart https://www.flickr.com/people/miguel_discart_vrac/

Monday 28 March 2016

It has been described as a “treasure trove” and “goldmine”. German intelligence has reportedly obtained the recruitment documents of 22,000 members of Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

While some have cast doubts on the authenticity of the information released in the media or raised questions about whether this was perhaps an intentional ISIS leak, the German security services are satisfied that the documents are authentic.

One thing this cache of documents and earlier finds clearly point to is the basic breakdown of where ISIS recruits come from. An analysis of 1,700 ISIS documents obtained by Zaman al-Wasl found that nearly three-quarters of recruits were from Arab countries, with Saudi Arabia leading the pack, followed by Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt.

Interestingly, Syrians only make up under 2% of the recruits listed in this cache, lending greater credibility to the notion that ISIS’s blood-soaked theocracy is a kind of foreign imposition.

However, while ISIS depends heavily on foreigners with no connections to the local social fabric, thereby facilitating its brutality, this figure is probably too low, especially considering how long the terror group has now ruled.

“It’s possible that [Syrians] are mentioned in other documents, and these are mostly about foreigners,” Hassan Hassan, co-author of the acclaimed ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, told me. “Syrians have a sizeable presence within ISIS, particularly young people or former insurgents.”

Despite all the media hype and political frenzy accompanying the phenomenon of European jihadists, only a small minority of ISIS recruits in the leaked documents actually come from Europe.

This chimes with the estimates of Western intelligence agencies and independent think tanks. In early 2015, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London estimated the presence of 4,000 Western European fighters in Syria and Iraq. At the end of 2015, another estimate, released by intelligence consultancy the Soufan Group, put the number of Europeans combatants in Syria and Iraq at 5,000.

Although the number of European recruits appears to have risen significantly over the past couple of years, it still represents a miniscule proportion of Europe’s Muslim minority.

The European Union is home to 13-20 million Muslims, while Europe as a whole has a Muslim population of 44 million. This means that European jihadists in Syria and Iraq represents a maximum of 0.04% of the EU’s Muslim population.

Despite this microscopic fraction, the concave mirror of sensationalist politicians and media outlets makes it appear to be a monstrous phenomenon of giant proportions – as if a European jihadist foreign legion is marching to the Levant, while a similar army, disguised as refugees, is marching in the other direction, to conquer Europe.

This magnifying and amplifying effect has serious real-world consequences. One significant effect is how the hype shifts government responses away from holistic policies and towards narrow, security-focused punitive measures.

While fear of the terrorism potential of returning jihadists is understandable and we must be vigilant so as to prevent future atrocities, such as the recent attacks in Brussels which left at least 31 dead, this overlooks the fact, as the experience of some Muslim countries shows, that the most effective form of de-radicalisation of jihadists is often “jihad” itself. Confronted with the discrepancy between their “utopian” ideals and the ugly, murderous reality, many return wishing to turn over a new leaf and reintegrate into society.

Instead of locking ex-jihadists up and throwing away the key, or stripping them of their nationalities, thereby giving them no path towards de-radicalisation and re-integration, we need a more nuanced approach.

Though war crimes committed should be punished, the growing ranks of disillusioned ISIS defectors can be utilised to undermine the group’s appeal and propaganda, and assist in state efforts to prevent radicalisation among vulnerable individuals.

“Governments and civil society should recognise the defectors’ value and make it easier for them to speak out,” contends Peter Neumann, ICSR’s director. “Where possible, governments should assist them in resettlement and ensure their safety.”

Moreover, the exaggerated hype around jihadists makes ordinary Europeans feel far, far unsafer than they actually are and shakes their trust in their Muslim compatriots. It also causes a sense of greater marginalisation and isolation among ordinary Muslims in Europe, as they endure a mounting wave of racism and hate crimes.

“It’s like I can’t do anything anymore without feeling unsafe,” a young Muslim woman from Brussels told me recently. A young Arab man in Brussels told me that he was now afraid of his own beard and name.

This hysteria strengthens the hands of extremists. Islamist and jihadist recruiters are able to prey on the vulnerabilities and sense of alienation felt by young, disaffected Muslims to radicalise more of them. It also weakens and undermines the role of secular and moderate Muslims as cultural bridges.

Far-right and neo-Nazi hatemongers exploit the actions of the few jihadists to demonise the majority of peaceful Muslims – a strategy exploited by groups as diverse as the Front National in France, Jobbik in Hungary and numerous Republican presidential candidates in the United States, most vociferously by frontrunner Donald Trump.

In fact, the fixation on jihadists, Islamic terrorism and Muslims is distracting much-needed attention away from the odious and troubling phenomenon of the rise of far-right white and Christian supremacism and extremism, both in Europe and the United States.

On the other end of the scale, it has given the distorted impression that the bulk of Westerners are hostile towards Muslims. While this holds true in places like Italy and Poland, this is not the case in Western Europe.

Despite two major Islamic terrorist attacks in France over the past couple of years and the growing vocalness of the far-right, the vast majority of French people have a positive view of Muslims (76%), according to a Pews survey. Britons and Germans also hold similarly favourable views.

This points to a way forward out of the growing hate and animosity marking the public discourse. The silenced and increasingly side-lined sensible majority must seize back the podium from the extremists, whether they be Islamists or the anti-immigrant far-right, and the media and politicians must pay greater attention to us.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 17 March 2016.

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Brussels attacks: A stark new reality

 
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By Christian Nielsen

In Brussels, people are resigned to a stark new reality of uncertainty and insecurity until a way is found to channel destructive energy positively.

Sunday 27 March 2016

Brussels attackersA week is a long time in the fight against terrorism.

A dangerous display of triumphalism over the capture of Salah Abdeslam – the ISIS-affiliated terrorist who was at large since the Paris attacks last November – gave way to bewilderment and shock folllowing the dual attack in Brussels on Tuesday this week. Who could have predicted that?

Quite a few people, it seems, including Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who said Turkey warned Belgium about one of the men involved in  the Brussles attacks – and even postulated its possibility during a UN speech not long after the recent Ankara attack.

Last June, Turkey is reported to have held one of the terrorists, Brahim el-Bakraoui, at Turkey’s border with Syria and released him to the Netherlands with a warning that he had been a foreign fighter in Syria.

And then there are the conspiracy theorists and, of course, Donald Trump’s claims that he saw it coming, plus countless others with a powerful sense of hindsight.

There are also those of us who live or work in Brussels and have our own theories, ideas and fears concerning the plight of the city and Europe’s struggle dealing with the enemy within.

Close to home

As colleagues and I left an emergency staff briefing and discrete head count, I noted the time was 9:30 – just 30 minutes or so after the Maalbeek metro bombing and a little over an hour following the airport explosions. There was a moment of stunned silence. Management urged us to stay in the office, which is just opposite Brussels Central Station, and we watched as  security men blocked the entrance  and workers in the offices above the station were evacuated.

My colleagues popped in and out of meetings  to take calls or answer queries from loved-ones. Several had to leave while they could still get out of the city before it was completely locked down.

A French colleague said she was not that surprised by the events: “When you kick over a termite mound, where are they supposed to go?” she remarked on the recent capture and security shake-up in the Brussels suburbs of Forest and Molenbeek the week before.

I understood what she meant. These actions would not pass without repercussions. Perhaps the speed with which the reprisal was issued by this Brussels ISIS terrorist cell – it is now clear that it is following their claim of responsibility in the hours after the bombing – is more the surprise element here. Unless of course Salah Abdeslam was only caught because of increased activities in preparation for this pre-planned attack.

Jan Jambon, Belgium’s minister for security and home affairs, admits as much when he said there had been some chatter between Europe’s security forces that something was brewing. But Belgium and France seemed too satisfied with the small victory the week before. Overstretched security forces have since learned that a week is long time in what is clearly a much longer battle against home-grown terrorism than anyone cares to fathom.

“How do you see this ever ending?” a friend from England asked in one of the many enquiries from loved-ones in the hours that followed the attacks. “I don’t!” was the only answer I could muster as the realities and tiredness started to take effect.

Different this time
During the lock-down and level 4 security alert in Brussels after the Paris attacks in November 2015, life more or less carried on. Colleagues still showed up to work, despite shuttered shops and an eerie quiet around the station. There were more sirens than usual and the military trucks camped out in front of the luxury hotel opposite the station was a bit surreal, but there was no real sense of danger.

But this time is different. My back faces a big window overlooking the station just 40m over Rue Cantersteen. It sounds silly as I write this, but I worked half-slouched most of the day; not because of the despondency brought on by this sad day but because subconsciously I found myself wanting to be below the window blast level.

That’s the new reality. Do I fear more horrific acts like this? It would be naive to say no. Will I succumb to the fear? No, of course not! This is the first reaction. Then after some thought, the more honest answer comes… I’m more vigilant, and if that means I change my behaviour even a little, then the effects of ‘terror’ are there. For example, I used to get a coffee and sandwich quite often inside the main hall of the Central Station. I did that less after Paris; it just seemed such an obvious target. And now? I hate to admit it but I’m likely to steer clear of places like that… for a while or at least until the memory starts to wear off.

As I write this, I’m looking at a photo I took from my office on Tuesday evening as a massive line of workers snaked out from the station. With most trains and the metro out of action, they were all waiting to see how to get home to their safe villages. Strangers were offering a couch to crash on, taxis and volunteers were driving people around for free. Kind acts in an unkind world.

Anticipate the day

Some anticipated this day. Others hoped it would all be over with the capture of Abdeslam. But most are now resigned stoically to a stark new reality.

Termites are  industrious creatures and work with an absolute sense of purpose and order. You can’t stop them by knocking down their homes. They just rebuild. A new order is needed to channel that purpose in constructive ways.

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Brussels: Radicalism, surrealism and multiculturalism

 
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By Khaled Diab

In many ways, radicals in Brussels are more a product of the local language war than they are of global holy war.

magritte golcondeWednesday 9 December 2015

Like a 21st-century reinterpretation of Belgian surrealist René Magritte’s famous Golconda, the sky over Brussels has been raining heavily armed soldiers and armoured personnel carriers, instead of the bowler-hatted gentlemen wearing raincoats in the original.

Though a familiar sight in cities undergoing a revolution, coup or popular uprising, images of the laid-back city of cosy cafes which I called home for many years under lockdown seemed too surreal to fathom – and an overreaction of mega-proportions. In response, Belgians mobilised their quirky dry wit and understated humour to poke fun at the quasi-Orwellian reality that had overtaken the streets by tweeting photos of cats.

The mood in the immigrant quarters of the capital was sombre. Already outraged by the Paris attacks, which were partially linked to the Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek, described in the media as a “hotbed of extremism” and “jihad central”, Moroccans and other Muslims feel a mix of anxiety and fear.

“They are afraid of how society sees them,” describes Maher Hamoud, an Egyptian journalist and academic currently based in Brussels. In contrast to the Islamophobic narrative which claims that Muslims do not condemn Islamist terrorism, Hamoud has found that, even though he is himself a Muslim, that “they always open the topic and clearly condemn the attacks”.

Many fear a backlash. “It’s like I can’t do anything any more without feeling unsafe,” admits Kaoutar Bergallou, 16, who studies audiovisual arts in Anderlecht, a neighbourhood with large pockets of poverty and deprivation.

Meanwhile, many native Belgians also feel unsafe and threatened by the Muslim “other” in their midst. “We mustn’t just talk about the problems, but the causes of these problems,” asserts Hassan Al Hilou, 16, an Iraqi-Belgian student and entrepreneur who has started up an online platform for youth.

A growing proportion of Belgians are succumbing to the simplistic narrative that Islam(ism) is at the root of all evil. While Islam, like other religions, can be abused for violent, inhumane ends, this myopic assessment misses the vital issue of what draws young people to such cults in the first place.

Although each radical is driven towards radicalisation by a peculiar, complex set of motives, I am convinced that socio-economic and political marginalisation are major factors.

In many ways, radicals in Brussels are more a product of the local language war, which has hollowed out the state and turned it into a slow and reactive beast, than they are of global holy war.

The frontline of this conflict is Brussels, with its shocking inequalities. The presence of the EU, Nato and the daily arrival of tens of thousands of commuting professionals and civil servants, make the capital the third-richest region in Europe, per-capita.

However, the inner city has suffered enormously from the decades-old conflict between Flemings and Walloons, which has geared the country’s political machinery along ethno-nationalist lines and focused politics on the rivalry between these two communities to the detriment of everything else, including the needs of minorities. The devolution of power to the provinces and the exodus of the well-off to the suburbs and other towns has only amplified the problem for Brussels.

This means that though Brussels generates a huge proportion of Belgium’s GDP, little of that wealth stays in the capital. Today, the city has the highest unemployment rate in the country and one of the highest in Europe. Poverty is rampant and marginalisation rife. “There are young people who have lost hope,” observes Al Hilou.

Some cite examples of jihadists and terrorists who were from middle-class backgrounds or had no money troubles. For instance, they point to Paris attacks suspect and fugitive Salah Abdesalam, who used to run a bar with his brother.

But this misses the point. It is about social, not just economic, marginalisation and exclusion, not to mention aspirations to actual, not just notional, equality. Abdesalam was reportedly raised in Molenbeek, where youth grow up with the idea that either they will be unemployed or need to find a technical vocation to pay the bills. They also have to contend with discrimination and racism from mainstream society, not to mention the demonisation of their cultural heritage.

This may partly explain – though does not excuse – why Abdesalam turned to crime long before he considered terrorism. Social exclusion and growing contempt towards his community, not religious conviction, may also partly explain – but not excuse or justify – how a young man enamoured of drugs and alcohol abandoned his hedonism to pursue violent Islamist terrorism.

The media can raise awareness of these issues and politicians can strike at the root causes. However, despite exceptions, both seem to be generally failing in this mission. “The media frenzy and the politicians are just dirtying Brussels’ reputation,” opined Zouhair Ziani, 16, from Molenbeek, who is also studying audiovisual art.

To tackle this bad press, a group of classmates from Ziani’s school in Anderlecht released a video titled “I hope”, which has garnered much-needed positive media attention. In it, they express silently, by way of handheld signs, their mundane hopes. “Here, we live together, through the power of multiculturalism,” they assert defiantly, adding their hope that the “fear and hate” surrounding them does not destroy their friendships.

Social and community workers are also frustrated by this simplistic, binary narrative. “What bothers me and makes me despondent is all the whining about the left-wing ‘politically correct elite’,” complains Eric Gijssen, a video artist and social worker who works with marginalised youth. “But from what I can see Islam-bashing is the new ‘political correctness’.”

The vilification of Brussels also misses its beautiful and rich social tapestry, and discourages the well-off from moving there to enjoy its many delights and help revive the city. “Brussels is multicultural and will remain multicultural,” observes Ziani, lamenting that this “magical mixing of cultures” does not get through to the rest of the country.

Beyond Brussels’ villainous reputation lies a small metropolis of vibrant, energising diversity. Etched on to its native bilingualism, waves of immigrants have added to its rich patchwork.

But this tapestry is becoming patchier, as Belgium drifts towards polarisation, according to Badra Djait, an Algerian-Belgian academic and researcher into Islamic extremism and immigration. This is reflected in how, while mainstream Belgium had its gaze turned exclusively towards the atrocities in Paris, many Muslims were transfixed by the civilian carnage and death caused by French air strikes in Syria. “Images are important,” emphasises Djait. “Foreign fighters were originally drawn to Syria by the ugly pictures they saw of the Syrian president’s atrocities.”

Many youth workers fear that the government’s security-centric and heavy-handed handling of the situation, as well as institutionalised racism and ignorance, will only make matters worse. “Like this, they are cultivating radicalism on all sides, Islamophobic as much as Islamist,” says Bie Vancraeynest, the art director of a youth centre called Chicago which serves marginalised communities in the city centre. “Institutional racism has ensured that nobody in the police, state security, or the federal authorities understands these neighbourhoods or their inhabitants.”

And this relative cluelessness is manifested in the misguided, panicked setting of priorities. Despite the painful austerity measures, prime minister Charles Michel somehow managed to dig up an additional €400 million for tighter security and the “war against terrorism”, but did not whisper a word about unemployment, discrimination and urban decay.

But, ultimately, people who feel they are integrated and integral members of society are much more resilient towards radicalisation. This requires huge investment in deprived inner-city areas, improvements in education there, creating better prospects for minority and majority youth, who are becoming increasingly marginalised and radicalised, and combating exclusionary ideologies, whether they be Islamist or Islamophobic, through dialogue.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in The National on 28 November 2015.

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The Brussels connection: Turning the tide on radicalisation

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Belgium says it is working to combat radicalisation in Brussels. But is it doing enough to counter jihadist narratives and address exclusion?

A man stands in front of mural in inner-city Brussels. Photo: ©Simon Blackley

A man stands in front of mural in inner-city Brussels.
Photo: ©Simon Blackley

Tuesday 17 November 2015

I almost felt sorry for Jan Jambon, Belgium’s Interior Minister, as he tried not to stand out too much during a joint press conference on 16 November with his French counterpart, Bernard Cazeneuve, in the wake of the Paris terror attacks last week.

But even if he could shrink by 30cm, there would be no hiding from the evidence that Belgium’s intelligence community may have dropped the ball… or were perhaps never in the game.

Belgium stands accused of being a “hotbed” for terrorists, or more euphemistically, disenfranchised Muslim youth, mostly in and around the poorer inner suburbs of Brussels, and that this is apparently not news to anyone in the intelligence community.

Only a few days before the Paris attacks, on 9 November, the Belgian interior minister claimed during POLITICO’s What Works event that Belgium was making some headway, citing its actions to shut down a terror cell in Vervier last January, and its awareness-raising efforts or “counter-narratives” for would-be youth thinking of, for example, joining ISIS. He said a tailored, one-to-one approach is more successful than top-down narratives like ads and internet campaigns.

He spoke to POLITICO’s Matt Kominski about the challenges he and the Belgian authorities face in dealing with ISIS fighters returning from Syria. Many don’t come back more hardened and angry, but rather feel “disgusted” at what they experienced. This, he suggested, is a useful counter-narrative weapon.

But the audience wasn’t buying it, asking why Belgium hadn’t put these young people on television or in internet ads as powerful, personal testimonials, or tried more mainstream approaches to stopping the momentum towards radicalisation, such as investing more in rejuvenating poor neighbourhoods and helping to integrate immigrant families better.

By his own admission, Mr Jambon said: “People think that mosques are the places of recruitment, but I think that today, most of the recruitment is done by the internet… The mosques were too moderate and they find their ‘truth’ on the internet.”

Then, as the saying goes, shouldn’t you fight fire with fire?  If the internet is the medium of choice for young people – and it clearly is – then well-meaning teachers and social workers are only going to have so much impact. The problem is, governments (not just in Belgium) are playing catch-up as they grapple to deal with the growth in online propaganda and extremism.

“Modern terrorists have embraced social media and ‘weaponised the internet’ to achieve their goals,” Mark Wallace, former US ambassador to the UN, told journalists at the Brussels launch of the European arm to the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) in July this year.

Yet Mr Jambon argued targeted messaging like that might lack credibility or come across as government propaganda. Maybe this is true, but it would at least send ‘a’ message, rather than leaving everything in the hands of overworked social workers in Brussels communes like Molenbeek, which has been identified as something of a ground zero for several incidents, including the recent Paris attacks and possibly the Jewish Museum murders in 2014 and the Thalys attempt last August.

Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel said his government’s efforts until now have focused on prevention but that they now realise tougher measures are needed against jihadists returning from the battlefields in Syria and Iraq to Belgium.

But in Belgium sometimes it takes a shock event like the Paris attacks – and the extra heat Belgium is now getting from its neighbours who will no longer accept excuses – to galvanise its people and the authorities into action.

Mr Jambon acknowledged during the POLITICO event before the Paris attacks that Brussels was a hotspot for trouble (and it is reported at one point to have had more foreign fighters in Syria than any other European country per inhabitant). He said information-sharing between federal, regional and communal police forces is complicated, and that terrorism is a cross-border issue which only exacerbates matters. Indeed.

The Daily Beast confirms this fragmentation problem: “Security services in the city of Brussels have another significant issue: for a population of 1.3 million inhabitants, the local police force is divided up in six police corps spread over 19 boroughs. Sharing security information in that setting could only be complicated.”

In a piece about the role of the internet in dealing with terrorist extremism (‘Defusing the social media time bomb’), I wrote: “At some point, probably at the lowest ebb, enough people (digital natives presumably) will have had enough of their youthful innocence being stolen from them by radicals and extremists… murderers hiding behind a perverted cause. But have we reached the lowest ebb?”

That was back in July and I wrote that it already seemed like we had reached that point. But I was wrong. A new low water mark has been reached. Can we turn the tide before it gets any lower? I certainly hope so.

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Orientalism for kids

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite the racism contained in Tintin and other classic children’s tales, I believe that children should be exposed to them.

C01-36

Tuesday 3 November 2015

My son’s long-standing love for comics betrays his Belgian side. At nearly six, he has now graduated to more advanced comic-books, including Tintin.

But the Cigars of the Pharaoh edition had his Egyptian side scratching his head, as its depiction of his other homeland did not match what his own eyes and ears had witnessed of that country and the wider region.

From the mummies of Egyptologists and the pharaonic wall-paintings of bowler-hatted Europeans with cigars and briefcases to bloodthirsty and violent Arabian tribesmen, none tallied with his real-life experiences.

Iskander’s reaction reminded me of a caricature by Kevin Moore I have seen of Tintin with a frown of concern on his face as he flicks through the pages of a book. The caption reads: “Tintin discovers Orientalism.”

In a similarly orientalist vein, Belgium and the Netherlands have been discovering the latent racism of Zwarte Pieten in recent years. These traditional characters, translated as “Black Petes”, are Moors who help Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas or Santa Claus) distribute sweets on his saint day (December 6), which is a huge deal in the Low Countries.

But Zwarte Pieten are usually depicted by actors in “black face”, with exaggerated thick red lips and a mop of thick curly hair, a racist representation of African faces once common in the West. Now, the Netherlands is phasing out the character’s trademark look from its schools, sparking controversy and outrage, particularly among conservatives.

While the tradition undoubtedly has its roots in early 19th-century attitudes to African slaves, my wife and I take it all with a pinch of salt. Overt references to the race of the Zwarte Pieten were excised a generation or two ago and, with the far more ominous forms of racism around today, this is hardly a battle worth fighting.

Besides, as is the case with many other children, Iskander loves the Zwarte Pieten far more than Sinterklaas. In fact, when he was a toddler, he was terrified of the old man’s long beard and would not go near him.

Back to Tintin. Should he and other classic tales be banned for their offensiveness?

Tintin in the Congo – which the comic genius and pioneer Hergé was specifically instructed by his ultraconservative Catholic publisher to draw to shore up colonial sentiment among a people who had never possessed a colony before and were not terribly interested in one – is probably the most obvious example of this bigotry.

Framed in the classic mould of the “white man’s burden”, our swashbuckling young reporter travels to the Congo to investigate conditions there, uncovering a sinister diamond-smuggling operation in the process.

The album depicts the indigenous Congolese as “noble savages” who are essentially good but lazy. In contrast, the white Belgians are portrayed as efficient and industrious, building villages and facilities for the natives, educating them and leading them down the path to Jesus.

In one panel, a missionary shows Tintin his mission. “This is the schoolroom, and there, in the middle, is the chapel,” the priest explains. “When we first arrived here a year ago, this place was bush.”

“Missionaries are the tops,” barks Tintin’s dog, Snowy, brimming over with admiration and enthusiasm.

At one point, a young native, eager to be educated by the white man, rushes up to the missionary to inform him, in pidgin, that the priest tasked with teaching them is too sick to give them lessons.

Helpful to a fault, Tintin volunteers to be the replacement teacher for the geography lesson, despite, presumably, not being much older than the pupils. “Today, I’m going to teach you about your country: Belgium,” Tintin pompously informs the class.

When Tintin finally departs the Congo, the supposedly primitive and dim-witted Congolese erect a shrine for him and his dog Snowy, and a pious native is pictured prostrating before it.

For a strong believer in equality and human dignity, this kind of superiority and casual racism makes me highly uncomfortable and leaves a bad taste in my mouth. That said, I don’t think it should be banned.

After all, many children’s classics contain at least some content that we would consider unacceptable today, from Walt Disney cartoons to popular Arab fairy tales.

For instance, the frame story of the 1,001 Nights involves an insulting depiction of a black slave who sleeps with Shahryar’s queen, portrayed as a fickle and untrustworthy woman, and a tyrant who feels it is within his rights to murder a woman every night. As this example attests, it is not just racism that is a problem with old tales.

Sexism is a major issue too. Tintin, for instance, has almost no female characters and the only notable one, Bianca Castafiore, is whimsical, absent-minded and self-centred.

As a strong believer in freedom of expression and thought, the idea of bans does not appeal to me, especially since unsavoury attitudes need to be actively tackled, not swept out of sight. This is especially the case when it comes to historical literature.

Tintin was very much a product of his time, as reflected in the runaway success of the series and how little controversy around the world it elicited when it was published – ironically, Tintin’s adventure in the Congo remains hugely popular there and across francophone Africa.

Despite how unsavoury and even alien the attitudes above seem to us from our 21st-century perspective, when Hergé first published Tintin in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the views of his young hero were sadly commonplace, especially in the conservative Christian circles to which Hergé belonged.

Four decades later, Hergé expressed regret, describing the Congo strip as a “sin of youth”. “All I knew about the country was what people said at the time,” he admitted.

In some later adventures, in which both Hergé and Tintin matured, the cartoonist sought to atone for this “sin”.

In Blue Lotus, Hergé, who had consulted a Chinese art student who became a friend, tackles colonial attitudes head on. Tintin defends a rickshaw driver against a savage beating from a white man who complains: “Can’t we even teach that yellow rabble to mind their manners now? It’s up to us to civilise the savages!”

“Tintin himself is vehemently anti-racist,” one reader contends, “and is often seen sticking up for downtrodden locals over the objections of imperial powers.”

Whether or not Tintin, the character, is anti-racist does not absolve the comic, especially its early editions, of racism.

However, episodes of racism and sexism notwithstanding, Tintin was a pioneering work of comic art and his boyish adventures tickle the hero instinct in children and appeal to their longing for the independence and self-determination of which we adults deprive them.

In addition to not wishing to deprive my son of such simple pleasures, I feel Tintin and other classics of bygone eras present a wealth of educational opportunities. As the enduring appeal of the far-right suggests, these bigoted attitudes are, sadly, still alive and well in our societies, and so it is our duty to prepare our children by making them aware of this reality.

An unthreatening comic full of exotic destinations and outlandish storylines could be utilised as a great teaching tool. Although my son is still blissfully oblivious to the ogres of discrimination, I intend to use Tintin and other stories to discuss with him and to help him learn, as he gets older, about these unsavoury aspects of human culture.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 17 October 2015.

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The West’s hidden tribalism

 
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By Khaled Diab

Tribalism and sectarianism afflicts Western societies too. So why is that they seem to be tearing the Middle East apart?

Charles Rogier leads revolutionary volunteers during the Belgian revolution against William I of the Netherlands.

Charles Rogier leads revolutionary volunteers during the Belgian revolution against William I of the Netherlands.

Thursday 17 September 2015

The disintegration of Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya – and the increasingly likely redrawing of their maps once the dust settles – are widely regarded, both in the West and within the Arab world, as a symptom of tribalism and sectarianism which the “artificial borders” imposed by the imperial powers were unable to contain.

While it is true that many of the conflicts in the region have taken on a tribal, sectarian or even religious dimension, or a combination of the three, they did not start that way. The idea that centuries-old Sunni-Shia animosities are behind the violence in, say, Syria or Yemen, are simply self-serving myths and half-truths.

Yet the media and politicians continue to fixate on this conviction, echoing  the late Egyptian diplomat Tahseen Bashir’s infamous quip that: “Egypt is the only nation-state in the Arab world – the rest are just tribes with flags.”

While a number of countries in the region are small enough to qualify as a tribe with a flag, this is not unique to the Arab world. And I’m not just thinking of Africa and other developing societies here.

Despite the Enlightenment’s focus on individualism and the shining light of reason, the West, after all these centuries, has not shaken off many elements of its traditional tribalism, and new forms of tribalism have also emerged.

As a small example, take Belgium, the country of which I am a naturalised citizen. Not belonging to either of its two main linguistic communities, I have often been baffled by the amount of mutual bitterness and distrust on view.

The quiet conflict between Flemings and Walloons that has been simmering for over a century could easily be framed in “tribal” terms – what is (ethno-)nationalism, after all, except a broader form of tribalism. However, to do so, would be to oversimplify an extremely complex situation.

As for “artificial borders”, Europe, like the Middle East, is replete with them. The two world wars were, at least partly, a case of borderline insanity.

Belgium is a prime example of how fake European frontiers are. Following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, and the dissolution of the First French Empire, what is today Belgium was handed over to the Dutch king William I.

Like Sunnis in modern-day Iraq, the Protestant minority controlled the state, though all citizens theoretically enjoyed legal equality.

Some 15 years later, as revolution fomented in neighbouring France, the Catholic majority of the Southern Netherlands revolted in what become known as the Belgian Revolution. How much of it was sectarian and religious and how much a reaction to William I unlimited (despotic) power and his bulldozer approach to modernisation (imposing modern notions of equality on his traditionalist subjects and stripping the Catholic church of its centuries-old privileges) is hard to ascertain.

Sect was the apparent driver of the conflict back then. Language is today.

Responding to the uprising, the great European powers agreed to give “Belgium” its independence, drawing lines in the mud similar to those they would draw later in the Middle Eastern sand. Belgium was destined to serve as a buffer zone (read: regular punching bag) between Germany, France and the Netherlands.

And faultlines like this abound across Europe. In fact, there isn’t a country in Europe whose borders are not artificial, whose historical frontiers do not overlap with that of its neighbours and whose population is not a messy mix of peoples.

This raises the question of how and why it is that European states manage to keep their tribal undercurrents in check, while the Middle East is apparently being torn asunder by the very same forces.

That’s because it is not. If it were, then Egypt should be – due to its apparently more homogenous nature and far clearer historical boundaries, not to mention the regional headstart it got as a modern nation-state – the most stable country in the region.

Tribalism is the symptom, rather than the cause, of the Middle East’s ills. Unlike the generally much older nation-state experiment in Europe, many Arab states have failed and others are on the brink of failure.

This is due to a complex mix of poor governance, corruption, authoritarianism, economic and gender inequality, poverty, under-education, foreign domination, overpopulation, environmental stress, and more. The vacuum left by this enormous, state-shaped black hole has enabled the demons of  tribalism and sectarianism to rear their ugly heads.

That does not mean that the West is immune. It is simply cushioned by effective governance, relative prosperity, greater freedom and the painful memory of the totally destructive power of modern-day tribalism, both between nations and within them.

But there is no room for complacency. Disintegration can come fast, like a chain reaction, order can quickly descend into disorder, and the most “civilised” can rapidly more into the most “barbaric”.

Many of the ingredients of that sort of unravelling are already in place, but the secret combination that unleashes mayhem has not yet been mixed together. Early signs of this include the growing “tribalism” within and between European states, including the Greek-German standoff and the rising spectre of far-right nationalism from France to Hungary, not to mention huge levels of youth unemployment, growing hardship and inequity.

Across  the Atlantic, the United States has among the greatest inequalities in the advanced industrialised world, enormous inter-racial tensions, massive gun crime, mass incarceration, growing class divisions, and rising animosity between the north and south.

While Western societies appear robust enough today to deal with these challenges, the chance still exists that, with time, the “never again” of yesteryear will become the “not again” of tomorrow. Let’s hope that does not happen.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 14 September 2015.

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The leper priest who lost his marbles

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Father Damien’s dying wish of marbles for his children may seem odd, but this saint’s caring for lepers can teach us a lot about selfless sacrifice.

Father Damien, shortly before he too succumed to leprosy. Photo: Sydney B Swift

Father Damien, shortly before he too succumed to leprosy.
Photo: Sydney B Swift

Thursday 4 June 2015

There’s a dedicated ‘day’ for everything now. Pick any date in the calendar and something momentous happened. Take 4 June, for example. On that day in 1783, the Montgolfier brothers demonstrated their miraculous hot-air flying machine. The Battle of Midway kicked off in 1942 and dozens of other battles and bloody victories share the same date. The actors Russell Brand and Angelina Jolie were both born on 4 June, in 1975.

Or how about remembering something just as obscure but a bit more existential? Ten years ago this day, the ambitious son of a grain farmer from Belgium was beatified in Rome by Pope John Paul II for his sacrifice to the church and the Kalawao leper colony. There is more to this celebration than the neat passing of a decade. It is an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of altruism in a ‘selfie-obsessed’ era, where the decision to join a colony of outcast lepers would be derided by today’s me-generation as madness, a one-way ticket to crazy town.

Born Jozef De Veuster in the rural town of Tremelo in 1840, the practical and head-strong youth spurned the family business in favour of a missionary’s life dedicated to the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (Picpus Fathers). At an age when most youth today are still living off their parents, young Father Damien, as he became known, was building chapels and perhaps a little too zealously converting the natives of the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) to the Christian faith.

After a decade in the priesthood, his faith was put to the test as the islands struggled to contain a worsening outbreak of leprosy, or Hansen’s disease. Anyone showing signs of leprosy – skin discoloration, sores, wart-like lumps – was quickly isolated… cast out. A local newspaper report of one such “leper colony” in 1873 paints a grim picture: “It is a terrible place, where people lie rotting away, a place full of death and manslaughter, drunkenness, prostitution and rape. A place that could use a brave missionary.”

This gauntlet, as well as calls from church seniors for ‘volunteers’ to do shifts in the colony, were answered by Father Damien. He set out to alleviate the human suffering and indignity in Kalawao. He wanted the dead to be granted a Christian burial, not “eaten by wild pigs”, as described in the booklet Damien’s Way.* He wanted to provide better healthcare, contain the extortion, drinking and gambling, and stop the abuse of orphans in the colony.

But as the leprosy crisis spread, health officials in Honolulu tightened the quarantine, ordering all who entered the colony into effective exile. Father Damien had become one of the outcasts. He spent 16 years of his life taking care of the spiritual and physical needs of his leper family until he too ultimately succumbed to the disease in 1889.  The local press called him a “Christian hero… an apostle of the lepers.”

More than Christian zeal

In his dying days, when asked if there was anything he or his mission needed, the ‘leper priest’ simply replied: “Yes, marbles for my children.” These odd but moving words sum up the Picpus father’s selfless view.

Would we take that same one-way journey? Would we let our children volunteer to treat Ebola victims in West Africa? And what qualifies as a sacrifice – religious or non-religious in nature – nowadays? A week without a smartphone? A booze-free month after New Year’s over-indulging?

It is hard to reconcile his unflinching act of sacrifice with today’s norms. Sure, it was in the name of God, and the whole ‘converting the heathens’ European missionary ideal is less than savoury in a 21st-century setting. We might also be inclined to look cynically for ulterior motives in light of the Catholic priesthood’s more recent track record.

In fact, Damien’s early Christian fervour was put to the test by the Old Testament teachings that lepers were sinners and should be shunned. It’s been said that he preferred the pre-mission Hawaiian stance on the illness, which would never exclude the sick on such grounds.

So if you discount the original motives for being in Hawaii and look at Father Damien’s response when his humanity was directly challenged by the Old Book, on paper it looks like he made the ultimate selfless choice. “We lepers,” he is reported to have said, “stand together in solidarity, in simple acts or ordinary life with no superior detachment, reaching out to the sick and caring for them.”

Perhaps he hadn’t lost his marbles after all. Maybe he found them while the rest of us are still looking to win them on Mystic Marbles.

More info

Father Damien is the patron saint of the Diocese of Honolulu and Hawaii. He was canonised by Pope Benedict XVI on 11 October 2009. Several memorial days celebrate the Belgian priest’s contributions to the islands and humanity, including Father Damien Day on 15 April and a Feast Day on 10 May.

*Damien’s way is distributed in the Sint-Antoniuskapel on Pater Pater Damiaanplein in Leuven, which contains Damien’s crypt and tomb.

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War and peace in the Middle East and Europe

 
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Europe’s history of total war and mass displacement can help create more sympathy for today’s refugees and keep hope alive in the Middle East.

Like today's refugees, Belgians fleeing World War I often took to the sea in overcrowded boats.

Like today’s refugees, Belgians fleeing World War I often took to the sea in overcrowded boats.

Tuesday 28 April 2015

Some 800 refugees lost their lives in the Mediterranean sea last week. While this has prompted calls for the European Union to do more to deal with the refugee crisis created by the current turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, voices on the far-right have demanded that Europe do less.

Among them was Katie Hopkins, a popular columnist with UK tabloid The Sun, who has over half-a-million followers on Twitter. Shortly before the latest tragedy, she wrote a column in which she described these migrants as “cockroaches” and “feral humans,” suggesting outrageously: “What we need are gunships sending these boats back to their own country.”

On social media, the reactions were even more shocking and disgraceful. Supporters of the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom), or PVV, founded by the anti-immigrant firebrand Geert Wilders, expressed stomach-churning euphoria and ecstasy at the tragedy.

“600 fewer benefits,” one rejoiced.

“Good so. The more who drown, the fewer the problems,” another volunteered.

“Now the seabed is even more polluted,” joked yet another.

Judging by this small sample of comments, what has actually hit rock bottom are the moral compasses of many Dutch people and Europeans

Despite the clear racism of these comments, the European anti-immigrant right wing in general also taps into deep-seated public anxiety towards the violent upheavals and conflicts taking place in the Middle East, which many fear refugees might bring with them.

For some on the far-right, “refugees” and “asylum seekers” have become dirty words, terms of abuse and subjects of hate. While right-wing nationalists may claim to be defending their heritage and tradition, in their attitudes to refugees they are actually betraying it.

Europeans weren’t always so hostile towards those fleeing war and conflict. During World War I, the Netherlands welcomed so many refugees that the Germans saw it necessary to construct a 200-kilometre-long fence along the Belgian-Dutch border in an effort to curb the influx of Belgians pouring from the German occupation into neutral Holland.

The Wire of Death's deadly innovation claimed hundreds of Belgian victims. Source: http://www.dodendraad.org/index.php/wire-of-death

The Wire of Death’s deadly innovation claimed hundreds of Belgian victims.
Source: http://www.dodendraad.org/index.php/wire-of-death

Known as the Wire of Death, it was the world’s first-ever high-voltage electric barrier. Built at a time when Europeans were largely unaware of electricity and its attendant dangers, the fence claimed hundreds of victims who were unaware of how deadly it was or were desperate enough to risk death to cross the border.

In order to shorten the barrier’s distance, German engineers took shortcuts that left large swathes of Belgian territory stuck in the no-man’s land behind the fence. Like in the contemporary West Bank, this meant that a large number of farmers could not reach their land and many families and friends were forced to live in enforced separation. Using a system that would be familiar to modern-day Palestinians, the Germans only allowed those with hard-to-obtain passes, which excluded men aged 16 to 45, to cross the barrier.

This is a far cry from the current situation, where the Benelux countries (Belgium, Netherland and Luxembourg) are tightly integrated and even acted as a precursor and “experimental garden” for the EU. The Middle East, especially the former Ottoman Empire, has gone in the other direction. While the Levant was once largely a borderless economic and cultural area, with many mixed marriages and friendships, today many of its borders are tightly sealed, especially Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon.

Many generations on, the vast majority of Belgians, including my wife and myself, are unaware that such a deadly barrier ever existed and almost no physical signs remain. In fact, I still remember clearly the first time I “crossed” between Belgium and Holland and my wife (girlfriend, at the time) challenged me to identify the border. As the two countries flow so seamlessly into each other, I failed.

It was not just the Dutch who gave refuge to their unfortunate Belgian neighbours. Even though Britain is famed for its oft-isolationist island mentality, it was, during World War I, home to a quarter of a million Belgian refugees, many of whom were housed in purpose-built villages.

Unlike today’s image of asylum seekers as being spongers and cheats, these refugees were regarded as heroic and people wanted to help the “plucky Belgians.” It would be welcome if, instead of shirking its responsibilities, Europe rediscovered this spirit and took in more refugees today.

To understand the fundamental shift in attitudes over the ensuing decades, one needs to delve into the nature of contemporary (Western) Europe. It’s not just a matter of selfishness and ill-will but also a question of profound misunderstanding.

It is said that the past is a foreign country, and the Europe of war and near-annihilation has become just that – a distant memory which only the oldest of Europeans has partly experienced first-hand. When viewed from the peaceful, still-largely prosperous and borderless European Union, the madness and mayhem in the Middle East and Africa seems inexplicable and barbaric, and this makes it far easier to blame the victims for the situation they find themselves in.

But the Europe of the First and Second World Wars resembled the contemporary Middle East to a frightening degree – except Europe was deadlier still.

While an estimated 3 million Syrians have fled the war that’s ravaging their country, the situation is not unprecedented. A century ago, there were over 10 million refugees in Europe, while World War II resulted in tens of millions of displaced people.

A century ago, Belgium, like Syria today, was a devastated nation of refugees and internally displaced people. Some 1.5 million Belgians fled to neighboring countries, and possibly as many again sought refuge from the fighting in other parts of the country. And this was in a country of just over 7.5 million inhabitants.

To Europeans, another inexplicable aspect of the contemporary Middle East is the horrendous levels of mindless killing and blood-letting, which leaves the impression that our region has a unique bloodlust.

Though comparative carnage is a rather macabre undertaking, it is nonetheless a useful exercise to highlight, both to Europeans and Middle Easterners, that the current situation is not unique and, hence, can eventually be overcome.

The first day of the Battle of the Somme, one of the deadliest clashes in human history.

The first day of the Battle of the Somme, one of the deadliest clashes in human history.

While the carnage and destruction in Syria and the wider region today is horrendous and troubling, it pales in comparison with the butchery that took place on the Western Front, where the average trench soldier held onto life for just six weeks. The Battle of the Somme alone claimed over a million dead and wounded.

Despite the tens of millions of Europeans who perished in the two world wars, Europe was able to turn over a new leaf in its history and herald in an extraordinary era of peace and coexistence.

It is inevitable that the fire engulfing our region will eventually die down. I only hope that it happens sooner than it did in Europe, and that, out of the rubble of conflict, we draw similar lessons to those of the architects of the European Union, and construct a frontierless Middle Eastern Union.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 23 April 2015.

 

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The mystery of Arab joy at Netanyahu’s re-election

 
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By Khaled Diab

When Netanyahu’s election victory was declared, rather than grieve, Arabs in Israel were out on the streets celebrating. 

Wednesday 25 March 2015

Dashing the hopes and wishes of the Israeli centre and left, the rightwing Likud party came out as the top party in the country’s notoriously fractured political system, which would give those of Italy and Belgium a run for their money.

Despite the depressing prospect of another Netanyahu-led hard-right coalition, rather than mourning, Palestinians in Israel are in a celebratory mood. In the northern city of Nazareth, for example, motorists beeped their horns as if on their way to a wedding.

The reason for their apparently paradoxical jubilation had nothing to do with the Likud or Netanyahu but was related to the unprecedentedly strong showing of the Arab-dominated Joint List. “This is an excellent result because it represent a renewed vote of confidence from Arab citizens to their representatives,” reflected a friend from Nazareth.

And two men were to thank for this “vote of confidence” and the large Arab turnout following years of apathy.

One was Avigdor Lieberman of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party. The outgoing foreign minister initiated legislation to raise the electoral threshold which was widely interpreted as a bid to muscle out Arab parties, who tend to draw fewer votes than their Jewish rivals, from the Knesset. This, along with his and the far-right’s vitriolic anti-Arab rhetoric, pushed these small parties to form an unlikely alliance, the Joint List, between Palestinian nationalists, Arab and Jewish progressives, not to mention Islamists.

The other was the lawyer-turned-politician from Haifa, Ayman Odeh, who came from relative obscurity to lead a charismatic campaign for the Joint List which had some observers describing him as the most exciting Arab politician in the Middle East.

“Our Joint List calls for the unification of all the weak and oppressed populations, regardless of race, religion or sex,” explained Ayman Odeh in the UK’s Guardian newspaper. “We will be an alternative camp, the democratic camp – where Arabs and Jews are equal partners, not enemies.”

And with Arabs making up the bulk of Israel’s under-privileged, the Joint List has devised a 10-year plan to close the socio-economic gap between them and the mainstream. “We intend to march on Jerusalem… to raise awareness of our 10-year plan and demand justice and democracy,” Odeh declared, echoing civil rights pioneers such as Martin Luther King.

Another important plank is strident opposition to the occupation in an Israel apathetic towards its subjugation of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and fixated on “managing” the conflict. “We say that there can be no real and substantial democracy as long as the 1967 occupation of Palestinian territories continues,” Odeh observed.

It is unclear how successful the Joint List can be in its declared goals when faced with a possible ultra-nationalist rightwing coalition or a status-quo-friendly “national unity” government. But one thing is clear: the Joint List’s success at the ballot box has finally and belatedly put Palestinians in Israel on the political map in which they may end up leading the opposition.

This carries the potential of being a game-changer and future historians may look back at this time as being the turning point when the Palestinian struggle began to morph into a civil rights movement.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Corriere della Serra on 19 March 2015.

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