America and Europe’s real “homegrown terrorism” threat

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By Khaled Diab

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

Tuesday 30 April 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The same question could have been asked about Lanza.

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

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

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

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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Intimate strangers in a splintering world

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By Khaled Diab

Multiculturalism is enriching and as easy as child’s play. But as the winds of intolerance blow harder, it may become a liability for my son and his generation.

Monday 29 April 2013

You don’t need to belong to a place to have a sense of belonging and you can be a foreigner in your own land. Image: ©Khaled Diab

You don’t need to belong to a place to have a sense of belonging and you can be a foreigner in your own land. Image: ©Khaled Diab

As Iskander and I enjoy a rare sunny Sunday during this northern European spring that has not yet found its spring, our son quite literally sings the praises of multiculturalism, as he recites nursery rhymes and songs he likes in different languages.

While I bask in his sonshine, I marvel at how the intricacies of different cultures and identities become, in his tiny hands, quite simply child’s play.

Not only does he act at home in his two native cultures, Belgium and Egypt, he also took the complexities of the Holy Land, where he spent more than half his short life, in his, at first wobbly, stride. In that sun-kissed, trouble-drenched corner of the world, his blond locks went down a treat on both sides of the bitter divide, as did his nonchalance, charm and tenderness.

When we returned to Belgium recently from our 20-month stint in Israel-Palestine, we were a little concerned about how long it would take him to adjust to life back in Europe, especially the demanding task of starting pre-school.

But he took to it like a rubber duck to bubbly bathwater. Within a few short weeks, Dutch switched back to being his dominant language after a hybrid Palestinian-Egyptian Arabic had been during most of our time in Jerusalem.

Multilingualism, as researchers are increasingly discovering, enhances children’s cognitive abilities and helps them to do better in school. As the world continues to shrink, Iskander’s polyglottic childhood should place him in a good position to enjoy an international adulthood.

Although like any parents we hope that the future is bright for our son, there are a number of clouds on the horizon that trouble me. My wife and I take the benefits of multiculturalism as a given, as do most people in our circles. Not only is the microcosm of our family confirmation of this, but our own experiences back up this conviction.

For my part, I find that dividing my childhood, youth and adulthood between the Middle East and Europe has been a generally enriching experience, despite certain challenges – I feel both out of place and at home everywhere. My well-heeled Belgian wife developed a keen wanderlust early on which influenced her choice of studies, her extensive travels and her choice of careers.

Iskander is the next step along this evolutionary line. While both my wife and I grew up in monocultural families, Iskander has been born into diversity, with all its inherent richness and complexities.

My own personal experiences have taught me that in human interactions personal culture and disposition are more vital factors than collective culture. For example, my wife and I – both secular progressives with an inclusive, humanist outlook – have far more in common with each other than we do with our supposed cultural kin.

But as the winds of monocultural intolerance swirl evermore-menacingly overhead, not everyone sees the situation this way. A growing number of people (re)subscribe to the notion that there is an innate, cliquey cultural essence which unites a certain group to the exclusion of others.

This is partly a by-product of the social and economic alienation many people encounter, and the consequent desire to manufacture a sense of belonging. As I get older, I’m growing to understand better the attraction some people feel to having deep roots: the security derived from the familiar, the ability to read the various chapters of your life inscribed on every paving stone for miles around, and the convenience of being in the comforting proximity of family and lifelong friends.

But you don’t need to belong to a place to have a sense of belonging and you can be a foreigner in your own land. I know people who have lived in the same place their entire lives and feel alienated from their surroundings. I know others who move constantly but settle into each station as if it were their final destination.

With petty nationalism seemingly on the rise, partly on the back of the crisis afflicting global capitalism, this exclusiveness often manifests itself along nationalistic, even patriotic, lines. Given our aversion to nationalism, we hope that Iskander will grow up to become a proud citizen of the human nation.

But I appreciate that peer pressure, or rejection, may force him to jettison, or at least to underplay, one of his identities. And so, paradoxically, he may come full circle: returning to one of the monocultural roots of his multicultural parents.

Although balancing national identities can be done relatively painlessly, especially between societies that are not in conflict, a tougher nut to crack is religion. Of course, Iskander is still too young for religion to be a real issue, but we plan to raise our son to appreciate the beauty of his triple heritage – the secular, non-aligned humanism of his parents, his father’s Muslim and his mother’s Christian heritage – and to choose his faith for himself.

Even though the millet system, which gave a high degree of autonomy for recognized religious communities, was once an admirable expression of pluralist tolerance in action, its survival in much of what was once the Ottoman empire, including Israel and Palestine, grates against 21st century reality and aspirations. This outdated system defines faith as a birth right, no matter how wrongly or incorrectly this may describe a person’s actual convictions.

In Egypt, this means that my identity papers say that I am a “Muslim” – which I partly am, in the cultural sense of the word. In addition, given the legal assumption that the son of a Muslim man is also, by default, a Muslim, Iskander, regardless of his actual beliefs, would still be a Muslim in the state’s eye. If Iskander rejects Islam or religion in general, this could result in the surreal situation where two generations of non-believers are still officially defined as Muslim – a situation not unlike that of the historian Shlomo Sand in Israel, who is a third-generation non-believer, but cannot change his ID card to reflect this.

However, the sands may be slowly shifting: the well-known writer Yoram Kaniuk has won the right in the courts to be registered as “without religion”.

Our refusal to predefine our son’s convictions have made me so far reluctant to register Iskander’s birth in Egypt, in the hopes that one day the religion field will disappear from birth certificates and IDs, or until I find a legal means to keep it blank.

However, even if the state becomes more amenable to diversity – which seems unlikely under the current Islamist stewardship but is conceivable under new management given the  protection of personal freedoms guaranteed by the new constitution – society as a whole will not necessarily follow suit.

In Egypt, especially in traditional and conservative circles, the idea that religious identity is inherited runs deep, both among Muslims and Christians, and the traditional model of tolerance is to live as good neighbours and friends but not generally to intermarry. That said, I have met a number of conservative Muslims who accept the rights of other Muslims to convert and even to become atheists.

More troublingly, the increasing marginalisation of Christians in society and their targeting by Islamic extremists bodes ill if the country fails to rediscover its pluralism. For Iskander, this could be problematic if he decides to pursue his Christian identity or, worst, in the eyes of society, abandons religion altogether. And even if he chooses to become a Muslim, it would cause him to feel shame towards an integral part of his personal heritage.

But our son’s mixed heritage is not just potentially problematic in the Middle East, it can also cause him difficulty in Europe. Although European society has evolved into a multicultural kaleidoscope which, at its best, is incredibly tolerant and accepting of diversity, there are numerous worrying undercurrents.

Here in Belgium, the law guarantees equality regardless of background and people possess the legal freedom – both nationally and at the EU level – to choose the belief system that suits them. Moreover, the apparent unceremonious death of organised religion has left questions of faith almost completely in the private and personal sphere.

But even if Christianity has to a large extent fallen by the wayside, Christian rituals have been secularised, as reflected in the enduring popularity of Catholic sacraments, such as baptism and confirmation. Moreover, for some, old Christian prejudices have combined with secular distrust of religion or old-fashioned racism, to stigmatise Muslims. This manifests itself in the increasing mainstreaming of Islamophobia, as well as xenophobia in general.

The trouble with the push towards greater monocultural conformity, whether in Europe or the Middle East, is that the rolling boulder of intolerance gathers no nuance as it hurtles down the slippery slope to ever-greater rejection. Today’s “in” could easily become tomorrow’s “other”, as eloquently expressed by pastor Martin Niemöller in his famous “First they came for…” statement.

This is reflected in how certain salafist groups devolved from the rejection of the non-Muslim other to declaring Muslims who have a different interpretation of Islam to theirs as the enemy within. It can also be seen in how extremist settlers have widened their attacks on Palestinians, to target Jewish-Israeli peace activists and even the Israeli army, as well as the growing segregation between the religious and secular within Israeli society.

For the sake of my son, and all our children, I hope that multiculturalism prevails. In this, we can takea leaf out of Iskander’s book, who shares his affections indiscriminately, based solely on a person’s individual merit, without regard to nationality, religion, gender, ethnicity or creed.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 23 April 2013.

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A brief history of Western ‘jihadists’

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By Khaled Diab

From Guy Fawkes and Lord Byron to Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, Westerners have an ancient tradition of doing ‘jihad’ in foreign lands.

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Does this dandy Englishman qualify as a European "jihadist"?

Does this dandy Englishman qualify as a European “jihadist”?

After weeks of public debate about the small number of Belgian Muslims who have been lured to Syria to join jihadist groups fighting the oppressive Assad regime, Belgian police recently raided 46 homes in the country’s second-largest urban area, the port city of Antwerp.

Authorities across Europe are also on a similar high level of alert.

The sting was said to be targeted at groups suspected of recruiting volunteers to fight in Syria. The arrests included at least Fouad Belkacem, the leader of the notorious fringe salafist group, Sharia4Belgium, the Islamic equivalent of white supremacists. It remains unclear whether Belkacem will be formally charged.

The police said that they had been planning the operation for months and were not spurred into action by all the media reports of young Belgian jihadists in Syria.

No one knows exactly how many Belgian Muslims – including converts – have landed themselves in Syria, but estimates tend to be on the very low side. Among the latest, two teenagers, described as “model youth” by their school, managed to make their way to Syria, the Belgian media reports.

This could suggest that, far from their demonised image as mindless fanatics and nutters, at least some of the young Belgians fighting in Syria are idealists there to fight against a gross injustice which their government condemns but the world has done nothing to arrest.

While I do not advocate that people should take up arms in this way, even as a pacifist, secular, flower-power type of liberal watching the civil war in Syria with growing frustration, I understand what their motivation could well be.

As someone who recalls the disruption caused by returning jihadists from Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia in my native Egypt, I also understand why the Belgian state, like other European countries, would be concerned about the security risk posed by traumatised and possibly radicalised fighters when they return.

The Muslim community is also concerned about the risk posed to their sons, as reflected by the preacher who risked his life to go to Syria to convince young Belgian fighters to return to their anxious families, only to be abducted by a radical group for “betraying Islam”.

Worrying as this trend may seem, it is important to place it in its proper perspective, and not allow bigots, racists, Islamophobes, or those with vested interests, including radical Muslims themselves, to blow the situation out of all proportion.

Belgium’s Muslim Executive puts the number of fighters in Syria at somewhere between 70 and 100, while Britain estimates a similar number of its nationals are taking part in the civil war.

In contrast, large waves of indigenous European “jihadists” – for, ultimately, jihad, regardless of its Islamic connotation, is a struggle for justice, not to mention an inner spiritual struggle – have been wandering off to foreign lands for centuries, lured by a heady mix of idealism, romance and rebellion.

For example, the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s was a major draw for foreign fighters. In fact, it is estimated that some 18,000 foreign volunteers, mostly anti-fascists from Europe and the Americas, joined the International Brigades against Spain’s as yet uncrowned rightwing dictator Francisco Franco. Their ranks even included highly regarded writers and intellectuals, such as George Orwell, WH Auden and Ernest Hemingway.

Moreover, while the trickle of European fighters to Syria is unlikely to pose a major security threat for Europe, the thousands of volunteers who fought on the side of the Republicans and the backing Franco’s Nationalists received from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy could easily have become the trigger for World War II, rather than Poland.

Going further back, Lord Byron was not just Britain’s most famous romantic poet and dandy who scandalised conservative England with the tales of his sexual misadventures, including his quest to find homosexual love in the fabled “East”. Byron’s career as wealthy agent provocateur and freedom fighter has some rich-boy-turned-revolutionary parallels with Osama bin Laden’s early mujahideen days in Afghanistan.

Byron was perhaps the most prominent of the Philhellenes, volunteers from the European and American aristocracy who – besotted by visions of classical Greece and feeling solidarity with their fellow Christians – took up arms against the Ottoman Empire in the Greek War of Independence.

In 1823, Byron spent an enormous £4,000 (around $15 million in today’s money) of his own fortune to refit the overstretched Greek fleet and increase its fighting capacity. But as he sailed to do battle, his life was cut short by a fever. Even if he personally didn’t see combat, Byron’s intervention, which was regarded as unhelpful trouble-making at the time, drew Britain reluctantly into the conflict after the Ottomans failed to assert their dominance.

Just as there is nothing new about Europeans going to do battle overseas, stigmatising minorities as fifth columns and potential traitors also has an ancient pedigree. In Europe, before the Muslims, the Jews were there, as were the Catholics in Protestant lands and vice-versa.

Speaking of the Catholics, security services were able to foil a conspiracy to blow up Parliament and destroy the government by a fanatical sleeper cell of religious zealots led by a foreign-trained British convert.

But unlike today’s headlines, the foreign-trained convert in question was not a Muslim but a Catholic who went by the name of Guy Fawkes. Born a Protestant, Fawkes converted to Catholicism at the age of 16 and went off, in the 1590s, to fight for the Spanish in the Spanish-occupied Netherlands.

When he returned to Britain, equipped with the explosives training he had received in Europe, he became involved in the Gun Powder Plot of 1605 to blow up the Houses of Parliament. The plot was a reaction to both the harsh anti-Catholicism instated by Queen Elizabeth I and the so-called Hampton Court Conference.

The plot served the interests of the Puritans very well and set back the cause of Catholic emancipation for at least another two centuries.

The risk we run today is in the other direction. Muslims in the West have entered societies in which they are, in principle, equals. However, stigmatisation, ignorance, prejudice, fear and vested interests are conspiring to keep many Muslims on the margins of society, and on the constant verge of suspicion, unable to take full advantage of their legal emancipation.

More troublingly still, since the tragic 11 September 2001 atrocities, the pretext of security has been used to reduce the civil liberties of some Muslims and to keep the community under close surveillance.

But like the Catholics and Jews before them, and with time and effort on the part of inspired grassroots activists, the West’s Muslim minorities can become accepted and valued threads in society’s colorful, multicultural tapestry.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 16 April 2013.

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The human wrongs of the Holocaust

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By Khaled Diab

A new museum in Belgium seeks to make the Holocaust relevant for contemporary visitors by placing it in the wider context of human rights.

Wednesday 6 February 2013


The original Kazerne Dossin. photo: ©Khaled Diab

Located half way between Belgium’s two largest cities, Brussels and Antwerp, prosperous Mechelen, which was once the capital of the Low Countries, has for centuries played a pivotal role in the economy and the arts.

During the Industrial Revolution, the first railway line in continental Europe connected Mechelen to nearby Brussels. Just over a century later, when the Industrial Revolution gave way to industrialised devolution in Europe, the extensive rail network running through Mechelen led the Nazis to choose it as the location for an infamous transit camp for Belgium and Northern France.

Between 1942 and 1944, the camp, which was located in Kazerne Dossin, a 17-century infantry barracks constructed during the Habsburg era, deported 25,500 Jews (as well as 352 Roma) to Auschwitz-Birkenau, of which only 5% survived the Nazi’s Final Solution.

In 1996, Belgium’s Jewish community set up the Jewish Museum of Resistance and Deportation (JMRD) on the ground floor of one wing of the Kazerne Dossin. Last month, a larger state-of-the-art museum and memorial opened its doors to the public.

The two generations of museums owe their existence to two men touched personally by the tragedy of deportation. One was Nathan Ramet, an Auschwitz survivor who reportedly refused to speak about his ordeal until he decided to establish the JMRD, who sadly died a few months before the new museum was opened. The other was the then Minister-President of Flanders Patrick Dewael whose grandfather, Arthur Vanderpoorten, died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp for his anti-Nazi activities.

The €25-million cubic complex is a sombre white mausoleum-like structure which its designer, the celebrated Flemish architect Bob Van Reeth, says was built with a brick for each person deported from the site, while the museums entire volume is equivalent to the freight cars in the 28 convoys which transported the victims to their eventual death in Poland.

Inside, echoing the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, a wall rising the entire height of the building carries photos (or empty spaces where no pictures survive) for every single victim transported from Mechelen, in a bid to re-humanise them.

But with dozens of Holocaust museums and memorials around the world, including in nearby London and Paris, how does Kazerne Dossin intend to stand out?

“Naturally, we can’t tell the story of Auschwitz here. We focus ourselves on the Belgian story,” Sarah Verhaert, the Kazerne’s spokeswoman, told me.

And the Belgian story is retold through photographs, newspaper clippings and other material from the time, as well as interactive personal testimonies from a number of survivors.

Caricatures and newspaper clippings from the time illustrate clearly that Judeophobia was not just a German ill but infected significant strata of Belgian society, as it did much of the West, though there was also great opposition to it too.

With its own ready supply of home-grown antisemites, a natural question arises of whether or not any Belgians actively took part in the Nazi persecution. The issue of collaboration remains, in fact, a touchy one in Belgium, even today – but the museum does not shy away from addressing it.

The accepted narrative is that only a tiny minority aided and abetted the Nazis out of ideological conviction, while others, such as the civil servants who helped draw up Belgium’s first-ever register of Jews, did so because they had no other choice.

“We have to challenge the myth that the Nazi occupation left no room for manoeuvre,” explains the museum’s curator Herman Van Goethem, a prominent professor of history at Antwerp university. “In the hierarchal context of the time, Belgian civil servants had a margin for administrative resistance without putting their lives in danger.”

This margin for dissent could help explain why only roughly half of the 85,000 Jews in Belgium at the time (many of whom were refugees from further east) were registered and how deportation occurred more smoothly in some places and with difficulty in others, such as Brussels.

“This museum has had to deal with a lot of sensitive issues, such as the role of the palace,” notes Verhaert. “At a certain moment, the palace had turned its head and looked away from what was happening.”

The part played by the Belgian monarch at the time, Leopold III, is particularly controversial. Although he defied the German occupiers at times and was kept under house arrest and even deported, his sympathies seemed to lie more with the Nazis than the Allies, whose expected entry into Belgium to push out the Germans he regarded as an “occupation”.

That said the monarchy, as well as the Catholic Church, played a pivotal role in in extracting assurances from the Nazis that no Jews with Belgian citizenship would be deported, and Leopold’s mother, Queen Elisabeth, organised the rescue from deportation of hundreds of Jewish children.

But the most heroic, dangerous and defiant forms of resistance came from ordinary people, who harboured and hid Jews, at great personal risk. Some 1,500 of these everyday heroes are commemorated among the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. These include Yvonne Nèvejean, who helped hide some 4,000 Jewish children.

Jews also played an active part in the resistance, with many joining the Belgian underground. Perhaps the most audacious (and simple) example of this underground resistance was the daring rescue of Transport XX, one of the convoys from Mechelen. A Jewish doctor, Youra Livchitz, and his two non-Jewish friends, Robert Maistriau and Jean Franklemon, managed, equipped with little more than a makeshift red lantern, to stop the train to Auschwitz long enough for 231 of those on board to escape, half of whom were recaptured or killed.

21st century relevance

In addition to shedding light on the Belgian page of this dark chapter of European history, the new museum approaches the Holocaust from what it describes as a unique perspective. “Kazerne Dossin is the first Holocaust museum that explicitly takes up human rights in its mission,” explains Herman Van Goethem, the museum’s curator.

Linking the Holocaust to the theme of human rights in general was chosen as a way of enabling modern audiences to better relate to this tragedy and to draw the necessary lessons from it.

The installations explore the dynamics of intolerance and exclusion, from bullying in the playground to discrimination against entire groups in society, and how this can escalate to mass violence. Segregation in the United States and Apartheid in South Africa are among the case studies highlighted.

“Visitors find the link that is made between the Second World War and human rights today to be very interesting,” observes Sara Verhaert.

But the connection has sparked some controversy. “The most common question that we get is, ‘Why haven’t you included the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’?” admits Verhaert. “But that is such a sensitive issue to address, especially here, which is a memorial for so many Jewish people.”

Although the atrocities committed in King Leopold II’s “Congo Free State” get a passing mention, questions have also been raised about why Belgium’s colonial ghosts have not been given greater prominence at Kazerne Dossin. Moreover, Belgium has no museums dedicated to its dark history in Africa. Though she admits that this is an unfortunate oversight, Verhaert notes that: “No country likes to be confronted with its war history and its colonial legacy.”

And her observation rings true in many instances. For example, though Washington is home to a centrally located Holocaust museum, the nearby National Museum of the American Indian has been criticised for failing “to confront the clash between foreign colonists and the native people they found here”.

Moreover, echoing a debate that is familiar elsewhere in Europe, Israel and the United States,  the question of whether it is valid to compare the Holocaust to other atrocities also played out over the decade it took to plan and construct Kazerne Dossin, with some leading politicians insisting that  “the unique character of the Shoah” must be preserved.

Herman Van Goethem finds such objections to be both unfounded and potentially dangerous. “The exclusive focus on the uniqueness of the Shoah can lead to us isolating it, placing it completely outside ourselves, and viewing it as a completely incomprehensible event,” he argues.

And the greater the distance in time and social reality grows, the harder it becomes for people to get their heads around the sheer scale and inhumanity of the Nazi’s Final Solution. “The younger generation find it all very hard to imagine,” notes Verhaert. “I conducted a tour and the multiracial group of young people found it hard to believe that there were some things that people were not allowed to do, that Jews were not allowed on the tram, or in the park or the cinema.”

Verhaert sees this as a good sign, despite the growth of discrimination and intolerance in some quarters of Belgian society. Kazerne Dossin, she believes, can help make upcoming generational more appreciative of how special the multicultural reality they live in today is, and the need to be vigilant in order to preserve it.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 31 January 2013.

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A careless killer on the loose…

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By Khaled Diab

Gun and knife violence gets a lot of public attention but one killer prowling our streets goes largely unnoticed… apathy.

Thursday 24 January 2013

It was a case of senseless violence followed by a needless death. Peter Vercauteren, a 43-year-old Belgian artist and local community leader, was heading home late one night in the heart of Sint-Niklaas, not far from the picturesque market square, the largest in the country, for which this smallish town is best known.

Vercauteren, “Pee” to his friends, was followed by another punter with whom he’d allegedly had a bit of a shouting match in the pub, even though, by all accounts Vercauteren was a jovial man with a big heart and a booming laugh that could be heard long before its owner could be seen.

His assailant, Wesley L, head-butted Vercauteren so hard that he collapsed on a dark street and died… eventually.

Had this been the whole story then this tragedy would have remained a largely private one. But what happened next has had locals, who went on a silent march to express their outrage at his preventable death, searching for explanations.

While Vercauteren lay dying outside a kebab shop, under the apparently unwatchful eye of a police surveillance camera, a number of people walked past him without stopping to offer assistance, including his attacker who returned for a second look. An hour and a half later, someone finally put in a call to the emergency services, by which time it was too late.

This carries echoes of a similar tragedy, in 2006, when Joe Van Holsbeeck, 17, was not only stabbed for his mp3 player on a busy rush-hour train platform in Brussels, but no one came to his aid.

One explanation for why no one lifted a finger to assist Vercauteren, as one friend, Steven, put it to me, is that passers-by may have assumed he was just a drunk who had fallen into a booze-induced stupor.

While this could well be what (de)motivated some from rushing to the fallen man’s aid, I find this diagnoses the symptom more than the underlying condition. Even if Vercauteren was a passed-out drunk, surely this, in a cordial, educated society whose sense of solidarity is reflected in its high tax rates would prod people to act, despite knee-jerk snobbery towards “tramps”. After all, in addition to the danger of choking on vomit, an unconscious drunk also runs the risk in winter of developing hypothermia or freezing to death.

Another, more convincing reason is simple, instinctive, gut-wrenching fear. “The uncertainty in society has increased the level of fear, and this undoubtedly played a role,” says Roel Thierens (23), who volunteered in a youth centre, Kompas, where Vercauteren also worked.

And, indeed, though much of Europe is perhaps the safest it has ever been, a neurotic media and fear-mongering politicians induce in many people a sense of disproportionate fear and distrust of, not to mention alienation from, others, especially immigrants and minorities. But fear, especially in a situation as unthreatening as this, can be overcome.

At heart, what this could all boil down to is that the true accomplice in this crime was apathy and indifference. “Passers-by might well have thought that somebody else is bound to help him,” notes Wouter Thierens (26), Roel’s brother who also volunteers at Kompas.

Many social conservatives see such apparent apathy as a sign of the breakdown in traditions and family values. But what this overlooks is that, though families have become less central than they once were, they still play a pivotal and central role in the lives of most Belgians.

Additionally, in countries where family is still paramount and traditional community remains important, such wilfull blindness also occurs, as demonstrated by the recent outrage when passengers reportedly stood by as a young woman was gang raped and beaten to within an inch of her life on a Delhi bus. And similar incidents occur in the Middle East.

Moreover, in a modern, well-oiled, mechanical society, like that which is prevalent in northern Europe, it is not that people have abandoned their sense of community and solidarity, though some erosion has occurred thanks to the greater individual alienation witnessed in contemporary society, but that it has changed to become more impersonal and distant. Citizens, aka taxpayers, have grown to expect the ‘system’ to take care of everything and everyone: the destitute and the desperate, the weak and the sick, and the criminal and their victims.

However, important as such systemic solutions are, we still need a certain sense of personal social responsibility.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 21 January 2013.


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Zwarte Piet, a bitter treat

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By Laura Boerhout, Mariska Jung and Paul Marcinkowski

Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) brings joy  to millions in the Low Countries. But his dark-faced helpers, Zwarte Pieten, are racist and a colonial throwback.

5 December 2012

Zwarte Piet and Sinterklaas on parade. Photo: ©Hans Splinter

The fifth and sixth of December are the most joyous days of the calendar for most Dutch citizens. Family and friends gather to celebrate the country’s largest holiday, Sinterklaas (Sint Nicolaas), when presents, candy and pepernoten are exchanged.

Already in mid-November Sinterklaas, who is the forefather of the American “Santa Claus”, arrives on a steamboat together with his black-faced servants called Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes). Riding his white horse and dressed in a red bishop’s cape, Sinterklaas towers above his dark helpers.

Across the world, people have been appalled by the Zwarte Pieten and their painted-on black skin, bright red lips, curly black-haired wigs and 17th-century page costumes, but this outrage has generally failed to make inroads in the Netherlands. Nevertheless, a growing number of Dutch citizens are struggling to convince mainstream public opinion that the figure is a hurtful and racist caricature and as such should be abandoned or transformed.

Last year, two Dutch social activists tried to challenge public perceptions of the Zwarte Pieten. Quinsy Gario and Kno’Ledge Cesare joined the crowd awaiting the arrival of Sinterklaas’s steamboat holding up T-shirts which read “Zwarte Piet is racism”. The two protesters were quickly tackled to the ground by the police and arrested while the media painted them as the bad guys.

In fact, the public mood is so supportive of Zwarte Piet that any utterance against the practice is almost always immediately silenced and ridiculed, preventing a real discussion from ever getting started. But what is behind the strong opposition of grownups in the Netherlands to transforming a children’s holiday into something less offensive by removing these black-faced servants? This requires a consideration of Zwarte Piet’s history and colonial symbolism.

 The dark history of Santa’s little helpers

Zwarte Piet has been a reflection of fluid and shifting racial biases and political developments since the colonial period. Prior to the 19th century, Sinterklaas’s helpers tended to be demons and spirits. Then, amid the campaign to abolish slavery, it was in the mid-19th century that Zwarte Piet was introduced in the classroom as an educational tool to scare children into behaving well. While dark-skinned slaves were being freed from their enslavement, Zwarte Piet continued to be imprisoned in the colonial ideology of the superiority of whiteness.

In the 1960s, when it became socially unacceptable to physically punish children for misbehaving, Zwarte Piet shifted from one stereotypical caricature to another – from an angry and scary servant to the childish, simple buffoon who spoke with a fake Surinamese accent and poor Dutch grammar.

As cultural sensitivities grew in the 1980s and 1990s, resulting from protests articulated predominantly by people from the former colonies, Zwarte Piet lost his big, bright red lips and golden earrings in an attempt to make the figure less offensive. It is this transformation that makes proponents of Zwarte Piet argue that he and Sinterklaas are now friends in an equal relationship with each other. Nevertheless, Zwarte Piet is still depicted as inferior to his white master – after all, he still wears a costume that was worn by enslaved servants.

The concept of Zwarte Piet evolved simultaneously with the way race is perceived at any given point in time. Defenders who claim that the figure is not inherently connected to racism obviously miss this point.

In contrast to the US, where the practice of blackface became a taboo following the civil rights movement, the Dutch continue to deny the racist elements in the Zwarte Piet figure. Jan van Wijk, president of Sint Nicolaas Genootschap Nederland, an organisation fighting to get Sinterklaas on to the UNESCO World Heritage list, argued in an interview that Zwarte Piet has been transformed from a racist caricature to “a family-friendly holiday icon on par with Sinterklaas”.

Arguments like this seem to imply that the Dutch have moved past race. But as long as Zwarte Piet is forced to be a black person, the argument that the Sinterklaas celebration has moved on past race is simply a farce. Moreover, ignoring the history and blackness of Zwarte Piet does not change the racial context in which the figure originated and has developed ever since. After all, if it isn’t about race, why did Sinterklaas’s original helpers, who were demons, evolve into Zwarte Pieten?

Colonial amnesia

The transatlantic slave trade lasted from 1519 until 1867. During this period, a total of 11 to 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the “New World”, many of whom would not survive the voyage. The Dutch involvement in slavery and the slave trade would last for more than 200 years and was only formally abolished in 1863. In contrast to the United States, where slavery was an explicit system embedded in every aspect of life, people enslaved by the Dutch never reached the soil of the motherland from the colonies.

“The history of slavery and the slave trade became situated outside of Europe, as an element of African, Caribbean or American history. It kept the visible realities of the slave trade away from the Netherlands. This crucial separation was helpful in further ignoring the role of Dutch trading companies in the transatlantic trade of slaves,” historian Dienke Hondius explained in an interview.

The absence of slavery on Dutch soil is reflected in the way Dutch merchants discussed their business. They referred to themselves as ‘shareholders’, trading in coffee or sugar. By naming only the final products, the slave labour itself was made implicit, and invisible. This geographical schizophrenia and the distancing terminology are not without consequences. On the contrary, they lead to a “reframing of history”, as Hondius stresses.

In the United States, slavery took place on US soil itself and as such was explicit and publicly present. So, though the Netherlands and America both perceived enslaved people as chattel, the Americans proudly held on to their dehumanised possessions, whereas Dutch merchants passed the blame on to others, portraying themselves solely as disconnected investors. After the United States finally abolished slavery, it experienced a long and painful struggle for equal citizenship rights for former slaves and their descendants. In contrast, the Netherlands only began to be truly confronted with its colonial alter ego in 1975, when the former Dutch colony of Suriname gained its independence and a relatively large influx of immigrants from the former colonies moved to what was once called their ‘motherland’.

This longstanding pattern of keeping colonialism and slavery both out of sight and out of mind has resulted in the distortion of Dutch collective memory. Traditionally, a one-sided narrative has been presented in the media, history textbooks, and the public debate, contributing to general indifference and a lack of consciousness. As a result, it is possible simultaneously to glorify Dutch mercantilism during the nation’s “Golden Age” and neglect the suffering of the enslaved and Dutch responsibility for this. This lack of a comprehensive understanding of Dutch colonial history has led to the absence of vocabulary to discuss the ideology of racism that underpinned these undertakings and to trace its present-day legacy. This is why it is possible for an unreconstructed colonial mentality to seep through into contemporary discussions of discrimination, racism and the practice of Zwarte Piet.

Inciting racial consciousness

Although it has become more controversial in recent times, the Sinterklaas celebration in its current form continues to be a tradition enjoyed by many in the Netherlands. Many fans of the Zwarte Pieten wonder what all the fuss is about, and why activists attack these cultural icons and, by association, attack the thousands of people who enjoy celebrating the Sint and his little helpers.

Activists are simply trying to start a conversation. After all, what better way to get people thinking critically about Sinterklaas than to open up a national dialogue on the topic? When Gario and Cesare were protesting, they were not whining about having their feelings hurt, nor were they complaining about the hurt feelings of a woman that was reportedly called Zwarte Piet as a “joke” by a colleague, or the dark-skinned children who are upset because they are not allowed to dress up as Sinterklaas.

Rather these activists are criticising a practice that is quite literally the personification of centuries of racism and oppression. As the national conversation on Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet grows, and as voices that were silenced in the past continue to get louder, the connection between past wrongs and present traditions will grow clearer. It is about time, especially given the upcoming 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the Netherlands, that the Dutch public starts to associate Zwarte Piet’s bright red lips, wooly wig, and black-painted face with their country’s bloody colonial past and contemporary race relations and injustices.

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A knack for the exclusive non-interview

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By Christian Nielsen

The Belgian magazine Knack did something shocking, brilliant, or lazy… depending on how you look at it.

Thursday 4 October 2012

The Flemish-language weekly has published a Q&A with Bart De Wever, a Flemish politician and popular TV personality, thanks to his successful run on the quiz show De Slimste Mens Ter Wereld (The World’s Smartest Person), and more recently for his amazing transformation from chubby leader of the Flemish nationalist NV-A party to slim Antwerp mayoral candidate in next week’s elections. Oh, and he just published a book about his miraculous diet.

Magazines interview celebrities, politicians, actors, etc. because people want to hear what they have to say. There is nothing outlandish about that.  But on this occasion Knack ran a cover story promoting an interview that never happened!

In a short introduction to the story, the editors explain that De Wever was asked a couple of times to answer some questions but was just too busy – or, as implied, ‘too important’ – to find the time. So, the publication was probably faced with a rotten choice. Ditch the cover story, then scramble to adjust the flat plan (the content structure), find a replacement story, and may be even adjust the advertising line-up.  In a weekly magazine, that would be a nightmare scenario.

Or do what Knack clearly decided to do … run the story anyway. Run with what? You rightly ask. They published the article with a full-page photo of the new-look De Wever in his freshly tailored pin-striped suit, followed by a spread with the Q&A in the usual format Knack: Blah blah followed by De Wever:  Blah blah. Except in place of De Wever’s responses, they wrote ‘No answer’ or something to that effect. It’s a gimmick, sure, but a brilliant one if you think about it. They got to keep their cover story, reinforce their reputation as an edgy political publication and … well … take the piss out of De Wever for being too arrogant, it would seem, to answer their journalist’s requests for an interview.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. The way it was presented made it seem like he chose not to answer, which in media terms always smells of hiding something. Public relations experts insist that spokespeople never say ‘no answer’ or ‘no comment’ for that reason. Whether De Wever actively chose not to answer or just genuinely didn’t have the time or interest to appear in Knack for the nth time is, of course, irrelevant because the result is the same.

The fallout from the story, including resignations at the magazine and political intrigue, runs in concentric circles. Observers of the Flemish media told me that the journalist seemed to be just trying to make a name for himself with this trick, that a good journalist would have tried harder to reach De Wever or his people. There is an election going on, after all, and De Wever is busy promoting his book to boot. Others wonder how any politician would pass up a potential cover story in a major weekly (with a print run of around 130,000 copies), let alone one who has shown in the past to have a strong nose for publicity.

Alternatively, it could all simply have been a mix up, a classic communications breakdown. This is the way NV-A would want the incident to be remembered. The party posted what the answers to Knack’s questions would have been had they been given more time to reply – to show they had nothing to hide, presumably.

Is this incident a shocking piece of PR, lazy journalism, or a brilliant stunt which shows that the print media is not going to give in to the digital upstarts without a fight? You be the judge.

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From the Chronikles: In the name of equality

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By Khaled Diab

As Belgium toys with the idea of allowing mothers to pass on their surnames, is there a way to make naming practices fairer?

Wednesday 18 January 2012

According to Arabic naming practices, my name reveals a fair bit about my family history. In fact, a casual observer can trace my ancestry back three generations – not to mention the nth generation in which the original Diab lived. However, this only applies to my male ancestors. My name keeps a discreet silence when it comes to my female forebears.

In Europe, middle names are generally chosen and, so, often reveal little about intermediate ancestors (unless they are the names of grandparents). Nevertheless, names here still carry the patriarchal seal of the male founder of the family.

It is still common practice, at least in Anglo-Saxon society, for women to adopt their husbands’ surnames. And a wife’s identity can be so subsumed by her husband’s that she takes on his full name, especially in official correspondences or more traditional ceremonies.

Luckily for my wife and I, given our belief in equality, this is not the practice either in Belgium or Egypt, where a woman keeps her maiden name. I don’t know if this is a sign of greater equality in this particular aspect, an accident of history, or simply reflects a different patriarchal emphasis, i.e. that of a woman’s father rather than her husband.

Nevertheless, children still take on their father’s name. Of course, the practice may have originated partly for practical reasons – my wife speculates that it may have started off as a simple acknowledgement of paternity, a way for a man to say to society that I recognise this child as mine, too, and the way for a woman to ensure that he does his share of the caring.

Nevertheless, I find this inherently unfair to the mother. Because I am a Diab, that means I am labelled and pigeon-holed in society’s consciousness as belonging to my father’s family but not my mother’s.

Where is the mother acknowledged in all this? Barack Obama illustrates this conundrum well. Although his father had little role in raising him, the president elect bears his name – whereas his mother and her family get little acknowledgment, in his name, for their far greater role.

Personally, I have previously toyed with the idea of taking on my mother’s surname, Khattab, at least informally, in order to acknowledge the greater role she has played in my upbringing and my closer affinity to her family.

Intriguingly, there is a tribe in Indonesia in which, contrary to most of humanity, children’s family names follow the matriarchal line. In fact, with a population of up to 7 million, the Minangkabau are the largest group of people to use a matronymic naming system. And it is not only names that are passed down along the mother’s line – property, too, is matrilineal. Men’s role is to handle affairs of state and religion.

It will probably surprise many to learn that the Minangkabau are ardent Muslims. However, they have striven to preserve their native matriarchal culture and strike a balance between it and Islam’s more patriarchal worldview. And this women-friendly society, which reveres the importance of learning, has not done at all badly for itself, over-represented as it is in Indonesia’s professional classes and top government offices. Unsurprisingly, the country’s first female minister was a Minang.

That said, replacing patronymic names with matronymic ones is still not an ideal solution, since they replace one inequality with another. My wife and I have mused over how children could be named in a way that would be fair to both parents. There’s the option of merging family names.

But, here in Belgium, that’s no longer possible – apparently it creates confusion regarding people’s identity – while, in Egypt, the bureaucracy is so rigid as to rule out such flexibility. Besides, given their profusion among the aristocracy, double-barrelled names carry a certain pomposity that can be lived without.

Another option is to give alternate children alternate surnames. The drawbacks are that you need to have at least two kids and, ideally, an even number of sprogs. It would also prove confusing to outsiders, particularly the authorities, in terms of ascertaining parent-child and child-child relations – which could actually be rather entertaining.

It seems there is no easy way to make naming practices egalitarian (i.e. both patronymic and matronymic) without each of us being given a name as along as the Channel Tunnel. But is showing lineage really that important, at least when we become adults? Perhaps the only truly fair solution is to let everyone invent or choose their own surname when they come of age. That way, we’ll be celebrating the individual and sending out a message that family is a private affair.

Since this article was first published, this theoretical conundrum became a practical one. When my wife was pregnant with our son, in addition to the challenge of choosing an appropriate first name for whom that sounds good and can travel, we discussed the issue of his surname. Ideally, we’d have liked to give him both our surnames, but the law does not allow this, either in Belgium or in Egypt. We also discussed the idea of giving him Katleen’s surname, but since that, too, is still not permitted, the debate was a hypothetical one. The upshot of this is that, although Iskander Diab, is a joint project, so to speak, his name only acknowledges his father.

The Belgian initiative currently being considered to strike a fairer gender balance in naming conventions should not only allow mothers to pass on their own surnames but be expanded to allow both parents to be recognised in their child’s family name. And, ideally, our naming conventions should be adapted to give power to children to ultimately choose their own surnames when they come of  age. This could even become a 21st century rite of passage to adulthood, alongside drinking alcohol and driving (though not simultaneously).


This is the updated version of column which appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 16 November 2008. Read the related discussion.

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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”.


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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Feeling Europe’s pain

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By Christian Nielsen

All is not well in the old world of organisational paternity, job security and economic rationality. But the silver lining is that we have millions of virtual ‘friends’ to feel our pain.

Friday 9 September 2011

As the networked society lurches from place to platform, and younger generations rail against babyboomer notions of working, saving and, indeed, living, very little of the Europe’s cradle-to-grave social paternity pact looks likely to survive. 

Greeks are on the streets protesting that austerity measures imposed on them as a pre-condition for bailout loans by the European Union and World Bank are crippling the small country. Those with an understanding of economics are claiming it will stimy demand and further hobble the economy’s ability to ‘grow’ itself out of the debt crisis that the Greeks have saddled their children with. 

Rational observers of the situation in other EU member states, but especially Germany, shake their heads in disgust that their hard-earned savings are being squandered on profligate states, in other words ‘lazy good-for-nothings’. But no one is allowed to say that for fear it stirs up the sort of divisions that in the past have led to fragmentations in Europe’s social order, and even wars. 

Portugal and Ireland have also faced harsh economic realities of late, but appear to have taken their medicine with a degree of understanding based on the thinking ‘we probably got ourselves into this in the first place’. 

Facing the ire of the world’s financial markets, the Italians are now also on the ropes. Parliamentary promises of sweeping cuts to bring the country’s bloated debt under control are being watered down by an ineffectual Italian government bent on safeguarding the wealth of the few.

Belgium, the place where the European Union starts – and perhaps ends – is not looking so good either, with markets starting to grow weary of the country’s inability to form a federal government which, as outsider’s perceive, is the only body capable of addressing the small nation’s own financial woes.

Britain’s got its own troubles, both economic and social, which largely coalesce under the banner of ‘what to do about youth disenfranchisement’. Well, more jobs and social mobility would be a start, so the chorus goes.

France, Holland and Germany are trying to pick up the economic pieces, while Spain is doing its best to put its own house in order. And the Nordic bloc are trying to remember why they got themselves into this Union in the first place – though Denmark and Sweden probably knew something by opting out of or neglecting to sign up to the euro. 

Friends like these

With economic stress, the usual issues of health, wellfare and social protection come under serious scrutiny. Younger generations, perhaps with the exception of those in Greece, are largely under no illusions that the systems set up by their parents and grandparents to provide a secure net and a way forward for post-war Europe will serve them equally as well.

Graduates and entrants to the labour market today are increasingly working on ‘contracts’ with minimal perks and protection and maximum ‘flexibility’, as it is no doubt sold to the X and Y generations who, according to Entrepreur  magazine, are sincere in their comittment to jobs but for a ‘limited time’. Employers, who perhaps initially lamented this new twist on company loyalty, are now spinning it to their own good. It costs way too much in most EU countries to hire and fire people under permanent work contracts, so this is a win-win, as they see it.

With this so-called ‘job mobility’ in overdrive – a euphamism for hidden, and even real unemployment – the contributions to Europe’s once highly valued pension and social welfare system are thinner or more fragmented, at best. And then the whole ageing European population argument pops up, which is a ticking timebomb for the current 35 to 50 year-old workers who are like the factory, the factory worker and vaccuum-sealing machine in the corner. This worker bee generation is struggling to pay for the babyboomers who are exiting through the gift shop, their own teenage children’s education and (potentially bleek) future, all the while hearing that the social contributions they are squirelling away may well be a dry well when and if they are ever allowed to retire.

Troubling as this all sounds, there is a silver lining … social networks have apparently got our backs. ‘Job for life’ may not be trending right now, but who the hell cares? We’ve friends for life, millions of them all over the world who ‘like’ us even though we don’t have a job or can’t pay for the next round. In fact, we’re all gurus in our own minds with more ‘followers’ than James Jones ever mustered.

We’ve got faster, better, ‘funner’ smart devices and no shortage of apps to serve our every whim. And there is the whole ‘future internet’ (which is, by the way trending) thingy that promises to unleash the power of all the data we’ve been happily putting out there, joining up stuff, services and infrastructure in a federated wonderland which has the potential to create new business models, more and even better jobs, and the ever-illusive economic growth. Yes, we’re in hommage to the European Commission’s ambitious Digital Agenda.

So, a message to all you belt-tightening Greeks, confused Italians, stoical Swedes, miffed Germans … you’ve got loads of friends who feel your pain, and that’s really all that matters.

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