The Brussels press corps: Shaken, not sunken

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Despite the crisis in traditional media, the Brussels press corps continues to survive and thrive, but not without difficulties.

Yanis Varoufakis, Greece's radical new finance minister, addresses reporters in Brussels. The drama surrounding Greek austerity and the EU financial crisis have helped keep the Brussels press corps on the global map. Image: europa.eu

Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s radical new finance minister, addresses reporters in Brussels. The drama surrounding Greek austerity and the EU financial crisis have helped keep the Brussels press corps on the global map.
Image: europa.eu

Thursday 26 February 2015

Europe’s financial crisis and the Greek tragedy may not be good news for those affected by them, but for the Brussels press corps, these events have helped keep their stories on or near the front page for several years, according to Gareth Harding, managing director of Clear Europe, a media consultancy company, and co-curator of a new book, Mapping Foreign Correspondence in Europe.

The book charts the major changes and challenges foreign correspondents face across Europe in the context of new media trends, the shifting political landscape in the European Union and the broader impact of the economic crisis on the industry.

“Print is still the king,” according to the book’s editor Georgios Terzis of Vesalius College (VUB), but online and cross-platform reporting are growing outlets for the foreign correspondents surveyed. The economic pinch can be seen in other trends observed in the book. Greater emphasis on generalists, travel budget cuts, and limited resources also affect the type and depth of coverage.

“Journalists say they are more prone to follow the official line and use think tanks or NGOs to get the other side of the story,” noted Terzis at the book launch. They lack resources, time and sometimes access to primary sources to check the story out. The journalists feel “kidnapped” by official sources, he added.

The mapping took two-and-a-half years to realise and involved a survey of more than a thousand foreign correspondents, hundreds of interviews and contributions from authors Europe-wide.

Perhaps surprisingly, the UK has the biggest press corps in Europe with some 1,700 registered foreign correspondents, followed by France (945), Belgium (931), Germany (729) and Spain (258). The industry is still predominantly a “boys’ club”, according to one journalist, and there has been a shift towards more single bureau offices with one correspondent wearing multiple hats, supplying content for print, online and social media channels, which is leading to increased pressure and stress.

In Brussels, despite what was purported in The Economist in 2010 (‘The incredible shrinking EU press corps’), the number of foreign correspondents accredited by the European Commission has remained quite stable in the decade following a ‘big bang’ expansion when 10 new member states joined in 2004.

“The single biggest problem is clearly economic,” noted the columnist Charlemagne. “The industry that has fed and clothed me for 12 years –being a full-time foreign correspondent – is in desperate straits everywhere. The internet has broken the link between news and advertising, establishing the idea that news as a commodity should be available for free.”

But while the EU press corps is not in “free fall”, as The Economist put it, there is some substance in the claims that new forms of online reporting, but also Belgian tax complications and the disconnect between traditional advertising and news have all hit the Brussels news business particularly hard. As too the suggestion that many, mostly older, member states have grown weary or just plain bored of the EU story unless – it should be added – it involves some sort of pain or grief that audiences in the more euro-sceptic  countries can ‘relate to’.

But the withdrawal of old Europe from the Brussels reporting bubble has not reduced the overall interest in Europe, nor its status as the new king of news and reporting, spearheaded by such outlets as the Financial Times and Der Spiegel. Terzis and Harding suggested correspondents from the former eastern countries and other regions, including China, have made up the numbers in Brussels, and where full-time posts have become rarer, the army of freelancers, bloggers and other ‘new’ journalists fill the gap.

Harding commented on some of these trends, including the growing pressure to publish or Tweet first and check later, the blurring of the line between reporting and opinion, and the need for more innovation and mashups in the sector.

Buzzfeed in the EU would shake things up, he concluded.

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Arabic: The language of confusion?

 
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By Khaled Diab

If an Arab says he’ll kill you, don’t  worry – he wants to buy you dinner. Whether Arabic dialects are a single language is politcal, not linguistic.

Photo: Aieman Khimji / Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Aieman Khimji / Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday 30 December 2014

Earlier this month, the United Nations celebrated Arabic Language Day which got me musing about whether that should be in the singular or take the plural form, Arabic Languages Day.

It is something of a recurring joke among Egyptians who do not speak foreign languages to quip that they speak two languages: Egyptian and Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic).

For language purists and traditionalists, the various forms of colloquial Arabic (amiya or darija) are simply bastardisations of classical Arabic and do not merit much attention.

In fact, it took decades of struggle before Arabic vernaculars became accepted as more than spoken languages. The late colloquial poet Ahmed Fouad Negm – who managed to piss off three Egyptian presidents enough to jail him – did not just shock the establishment with his irreverence, dissent and obscenity but also his insistence on employing Egyptian working class Arabic, rather than the refined poetic language of classical Arabic, in his verse.

But Negm, and other trailblazers before and since, have given amiya authenticity, respectability and, most of all, street cred. And today colloquial Arabic is used regularly on TV, social media and even in literature.

This is just as well. As any frustrated foreign learner of Arabic can tell you, speaking the classical language can make you sound like you’ve stepped out of a TV period drama about, say, Saladin, or give people the impression that you’re a newscaster – in other words, it’s just not natural.

Not only does standard Arabic not feel natural to most Arabs, the differences between it and some vernaculars is so great that schoolchildren sometimes feel they are learning a second language, though not quite a foreign language.

But when it comes to the dozens of Arabic dialects, some would surely qualify as a foreign language. If the definition of a language is that its speakers can understand each other, then Arabic often fails this test, since some of its dialects are mutually unintelligible.

The decision to classify all these dialects as being the same language is both political and historical. Arabic is at the core of modern Arab identity and so promoting the idea of common nationhood has required the glossing over of these linguistic differences. Such apparent linguistic unity also encouraged the illusion that Arab unity was natural and inevitable, which meant that pan-Arabism rested more on sloganeering than on concrete efforts to bridge the huge cultural, economic, social and political differences in the region.

In addition, Arabic remains the only generally accepted liturgical language for Islam – which used to confound me as a child when I came across Pakistani and Indian friends in London who knew the Quran by heart but didn’t comprehend a word they recited.

Speakers of dialects from the Arab Mashriq (East) cannot generally understand people from the Arab Maghreb (West). Try as I may, I have never managed to decipher Algerian, and Moroccan is a serious challenge, even after encountering many Moroccans in Belgium. While travelling around Morocco, I was amused by the fact that it was sometimes easier to communicate with locals in French than in Arabic, since many were not well-versed in standard Arabic.

There is a certain level of mutual unintelligibility even between dialects in close geographical proximity. Even among mutually intelligible and relatively similar dialects, like Egyptian and Palestinian, there is plenty of room for confusion.

When I first moved here, to Jerusalem, I was surprised to discover just how different the words in Egyptian and Palestinian were for many basic items. These include bread (eish/khobez), shoes (gazma/kondara) and slippers (shebsheb/babouj). Many basic phrases also differ significantly: How are you? (ezayak/kefak?), good (kewayis/meneeh), What’s this? (Eh dah/Shoo hada?).

Many common verbs vary too: look (bos/itala’), run (igree/orkod), lift (sheel/irfa’a), hug (uhdon/a’ebot), etc. This is why I sometimes feel sorry for my son. At five, he is grappling with four languages (Arabic, Dutch, English and French), but the Arabic component must feel like more than one language to him.

Sometimes, and this is where the real fun begins, the same word exists but it can have quite a different meaning, leading to much mirth or confusion or even insult.

Palestinians have repeatedly described a person to me as “naseh”. To my Egyptian ears, this means smart, clever or even a wiseass. But here it means chubby. Some Palestinians have on occasion told me that I look “da’afan” which to my ears sounds like “weak” or “under the weather,” but to them it means “you’ve lost weight.”

Speaking of health, many Palestinians bid each other farewell by saying: “Ye’tek el-afiya” which literally means “May you be given rigour.” In Egypt, we only say that to sick people and so, in my early days here, I wondered why some people thought I was unwell.

Sometimes these dialectical differences can cause bewilderment. While “mabsout” in Egypt and some other countries means happy or in a good mood, in Iraq, it means to be “beaten up.” A friend relates an anecdote in which an ICRC worker visiting Iraqi prisoners asked them whether they were “mabsouteen” and they were utterly confused by the question.

Speaking of violence. A German friend of mine who went out to dinner with a Tunisian was told in no uncertain terms that her date would “khalas aleki.” In the Egyptian dialect she knew, it meant “finish her off.” Confused, she asked him why he wanted to kill her, to which he explained that, in Tunisia, it means that he was going to pick up the tab.

Sometimes, Arabs visiting other Arab countries can unintentionally cause insult. While in many dialects “marra” is just the normal way of referring to a woman, in Egypt, it is derogatory and verges on calling her a “slut.”

Even respectful terms like teacher (me’allem, for a man, or me’allema, for a woman) mean something different in Egypt. For Egyptians, a me’allem is the boss of a gang or a group of manual workers or craftsmen, while a me’allema is a head belly-dancer.

With all these mind-boggling variations, whether or not Arabic qualifies as a single language or many languages is really in the eyes, and ears, of the beholder.

If the idea of Arab unity is to have any kind of future, these linguistic differences, not to mention socio-economic and political ones, need to be recognised and accommodated. Arabs need not speak with a single voice, but need to find harmony among their chorus of divergent voices.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 18 December 2014.

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Promised lands and chosen peoples

 
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By Khaled Diab

Protestants are the chosen people and Western Europe and America their Promised Lands, according to Israelism and Christian Zionism.

The Garden of Eden by Jan Brueghel.

The Garden of Eden by Jan Brueghel.

Thursday 3 July 2014

Israelis and Jews have it all wrong, apparently. The Promised Land is not where they think. It’s actually a few thousand kilometres to the northwest in the Netherlands and Belgium.

In fact, the Low Countries have the dual honour of being both paradise on Earth and the place where many of the Bible’s most prominent celebrities did their thing, at least according to Johannes Goropius Becanus (1519-1572).

This Renaissance polymath was not only a physician to the royals, he was also an amateur linguist. According to his bizarre theories, the Garden of Eden was actually located in Antwerp, and Adam and Eve spoke the Antwerp dialect of Dutch.

His proof? The etymology of their names. According to Becanus, Adam apparently derived from the Dutch compound Haat-Dam (Dam-Against-Hate) and Eve is Eeuw-Vat (The-Eternal-Barrel). He similarly “discovered” origins for Cane, Abel, Noah and other biblical figures. Becanus believed that these etymologies were self-evident; after all, he was convinced that Dutch was the oldest language in the world (Duits, i.e. De Oudst, or The Oldest).

He also theorised that Antwerp was founded by the descendants of Noah, though how they located this low-lying town – only 7.5 meters above sea level – after the reported deluge is unclear.

Though he did have admirers, Becanus and his theories were ridiculed even during his lifetime. His contemporary, Dutch religious leader and historian Joseph Scaliger (1540-1609) scoffed: “I have never read such nonsense.” He derided Becanus as the man who “was not ashamed to criticise Moses for drawing etymologies from Hebrew rather than Dutch.”

The lost tribe of… the Dutch

While creating his alternative mythology, Becanus is also credited with debunking the popular myth at the time that Hebrew was the mother of all languages.

He is also recognised as having taken the first steps on the road to discovering the Indo-European roots of many languages. “Both with respect to his methods and ideas … Becanus can be considered a pioneer of comparative language studies,” says Kees Dekker, a professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

Besides, Becanus’ ideas didn’t sound as absurd back in his own time as they do today. Adriaan van der Schrieck (1560-1621), another Flemish language researcher, reportedly claimed that “the Netherlanders with the Gauls and Germans together in the earliest times were called Celts, who are come out of the Hebrews.”

According to Dutch Israelites, the Dutch were one of the lost tribes of Israel, namely the Zebulun. After all, one of the children of Zebulun was called Helon, who gave his name to Holland.

Some outlying Dutch fundamentalists still believe this, as this video purports to prove.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

Biblical megalomania

Not to be outdone, across the North Sea the British soon developed their own variation, called British Israelism. The first to espouse a link between the British and the Israelites was an English Puritan by the name of John Sadler (1615-1674), Oliver Cromwell’s private secretary.

The ideas he set in motion proved amazingly enduring, enjoying their heyday in the late 19th and early 20th century, when the “sun never set” on the British empire. A sign of its cult popularity was the creation of the British-Israel World Federation in 1919, whose members included royalty, nobility and leading politicians.

In the interbellum years between the two world wars, the jingoism that British-Israelism promoted set alarm bells ringing among advocates of a more peaceful world order. “It must be said quite clearly that British-Israel turns the Bible into a handbook of national megalomania,” wrote theologian and scholar CT Dimont in 1933, “and that it is a determined foe to the League of Nations and all efforts for world peace.”

It wasn’t just nationalism, but colonialism too. In both Britain and the Netherlands, the rise of Israelism and the myth of descent from the lost tribes coincided with the construction of the two countries’ vast empires. This was no coincidence, some historians assert.

“This myth is a vital feature of colonial discourse throughout the long period of European overseas empires,” wrote the British historian Tudor Parfitt in The Lost Tribes of Israel: The History of a Myth.

This link is perhaps most apparent in the conquest and settlement of what became the United States. “From the first landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in Massachusetts, they called it the New Jerusalem and the City Upon the Hill,” says Arnon Gutfeld, professor of American history at Israel’s Max Stern Academic College. “So the theme of America being the world’s last and best hope was from the first settlement.”

The very imagery of these religious refugees and colonists as “pilgrims” is connected with the imagery of the New Testament, namely the Book of Hebrews’ reference to the “strangers and pilgrims on the Earth”.

Moreover, the Puritans may not have regarded themselves as a lost tribe, but they certainly saw themselves as the natural successors of the Israelites as “God’s chosen people”, some of whom were even carried off into captivity.

“For centuries, the American imagination has been steeped in the Hebrew scriptures,” wrote Walter Russell Mead, a professor of foreign affairs and a conservative commentator. “Colonial preachers and pamphleteers over and over again described the United States as a new Canaan.”

This also included prominent writers, such as Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick. “We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people — the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world,” he wrote in his fifth novel,White-Jacket.

And the Americas, in Melville’s view, were the Promised Land of the Anglo-Saxons. “We are the pioneers of the world; the advance-guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path in the New World that is ours,” he wrote, reflecting the then-common sense of manifest destiny, translating into the mass displacement and slaughter of the native American population.

Seeing themselves as the new chosen people, Americans felt a certain affinity with their Jewish predecessors. “One of the many consequences of this presumed kinship is that many Americans think it is both right and proper for one chosen people to support another,” observes Mead. “The United States’ adoption of the role of protector of Israel and friend of the Jews is a way of legitimising its own status as a country called to a unique destiny by God.”

But mixed in with the presumed kinship, there is also contempt. “There were Americans who saw Jews positively and others who saw them as Christ killers,” notes Gutfeld.

Yet others had missionary positions. “In the 19th century, some saw [the Jews] as lost sheep who had lost touch with God,” Gutfield adds, noting that these Christians wanted to help the Jews “for one reason only so that they would embrace Protestantism”.

And then there was millennialism, some of which carried strong anti-Semitic tones. “These wanted Israel to be strong because the prophesies say that when Israel is strong, it’ll go to war with the rest of the world and be destroyed, harkening the second coming of Christ,” describes Gutfeld.

These variegate Protestant movements on both sides of the Atlantic in favor of Jewish settlement in the Holy Land were known as Restorationists and are now referred to as Christian Zionists.

In fact, Christian Zionism as a political movement predates its Jewish counterpart, and influenced it.

For example, a full two decades before Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel, the 1878 Niagara Bible Conference professed that “the Lord Jesus will come in person to introduce the millennial age, when Israel shall be restored to their own land”.

But it wasn’t just religious. Like today, Western powers saw strategic advantage to a Jewish state in the Middle East. The earliest proponent of this secular motivation was reformist politician and philanthropist Lord Ashley, who was also the president of the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews, who saw a strategic opportunity for Britain as the Ottoman Empire faltered.

“The soil and climate of Palestine are singularly adapted to the growth of produce required for the exigencies of Great Britain,” he wrote.

Lord Ashley may have even been the first to coin the prototype of a famous phrase regarding Palestine and the Jews. “These vast and fertile regions [Greater Syria] will soon be without a ruler,” he said. “There is a country without a nation; and God now in his wisdom and mercy, directs us to a nation without a country.”

And efforts to create this Jewish state did not actually start with Theodor Herzl. Some 14 years before Herzl tried to deliver his letter to the Ottoman Sultan, another man had attempted the very same thing.

Though William Hechler, failed in his mission, this Anglican clergyman of German-British extraction who was born in India authored a treatise, in 1884, entitled The Restoration of the Jews to Palestine. Herzl’s more famous Der Judenstaat appeared a dozen years later.

Starting a pattern that would become common in future decades, secular Jewish Herzl pragmatically joined forces with prophetic Christian Hechler. “Hechler declares my movement to be a ‘Biblical’ one, even though I proceed rationally in all points,” Herzl complained to his diary. But he overcame his reservations because “I must put myself into direct and publicly known relations with a responsible or non-responsible rule – that is, with a minister of state or a prince. Then the Jews will believe in me and follow me.”

And Hechler delivered the goods, helping Herzl to gain access to the German ruling elite, including Kaiser Wilhelm II. “Without Hechler’s intercession and support, Herzl may have simply remained an obscure, eccentric Viennese journalist,” said Jerry Klinger, the president of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, who had discovered the English-German clergyman’s unmarked and forgotten grave in London.  “The course of Zionism, and possibly the very founding of the modern state of Israel, may not have been successful.”

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 23 June 2014.

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Bush, Blair en de blitzkrieg in Irak

 
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Door Khaled Diab

Gezien de verreikende gevolgen van de Amerikaanse invasie van Irak, laten we het idee om Bush en Blair voor het gerecht te brengen nieuw leven inblazen.

Iraq_Tikrit_2942924b

Dinsdag 17 juni 2014

Hoe je er ook naar kijkt, de gebeurtenissen hebben een spectaculaire wending genomen. De Islamitische Staat in Irak en de Levant (ISIS), in Syrië in het gedrang gekomen door een offensief van Syrische opstandelingen, heeft sinds begin dit jaar, na de grens met Irak te zijn overgestoken, het noordwesten van dit land stukje bij beetje in handen gekregen.

Deze week is de campagne van ISIS in een stroomversnelling geraakt, waarbij de groepering de tweede stad van Irak, Mosoel, heeft
ingenomen, evenals Tikrit, de geboorteplaats van de voormalige Iraakse dictator Saddam Hoessein al-Tikriti, op een afstand van slechts 140 kilometer van de hoofdstad Bagdad.

Naar verluidt hebben de militanten de grensposten tussen Syrië en Irak uit de weg geruimd, wat van symbolische betekenis is, maar ook kan worden gezien als een teken dat de jihadistische beweging haar doel naderbij ziet komen van de vestiging van een islamitische staat in beide landen.

Als gevolg van het offensief van ISIS zijn honderdduizenden Irakezen, die al lang lijden onder alle gevechten, op de vlucht geslagen.
Het meest alarmerend is wellicht dat ISIS, in het Arabisch bekend onder de naam al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fīl-Iraq weh al-Sham, erin geslaagd is deze snelle verovering van noordwest-Irak te verwezenlijken met een krakkemikkige multinationale troepenmacht van slechts drie- tot vijfduizend strijders.

Hoe is dit kunnen gebeuren?

Als New York Times-columnist Thomas Friedman mag worden geloofd, lijkt dit het gevolg van een ideologische strijd tussen islamisten en milieuactivisten: “De echte ideeënstrijd… is de strijd die woedt tussen religieuze extremisten (soennieten zowel als sjiieten) en overtuigde milieuactivisten”, schreef hij.

Het verhaal dat ecostrijders in oorlog zijn met de zelfbenoemde soldaten van God is voor iedereen in het Midden-Oosten groot nieuws.

Het is waar dat het milieu in de regionale conflicten van hetomwater schreeuwende Midden-Oosten een steeds belangrijker onderwerp is en dat veel deskundigen voor de komende decennia ‘wateroorlogen’ voorspellen. Maar een andere vloeistof speelt de hoofdrol in de huidige problemen van Irak: olie.

Het zou makkelijk zijn Friedman, ooit een gevierd oorlogscorrespondent, af te doen als een excentriekeling op leeftijd die zijn realiteitszin volledig is kwijtgeraakt, maar zijn holle frasen zijn niet ongevaarlijk. Als invloedrijke ‘cheerleader’ – die in een beroemde uitspraak de Irakezen “suck on this” heeft voorgehouden – heeft hij publieke steun kunnen werven voor de
invasie en bezetting van Irak.

Maar wat deze jongste episode in een lange reeks van rampen duidelijk laat zien, is dat de Amerikaanse interventie in Irak een totale catastrofe is geweest, die zich sinds de plundering van Bagdad door de Mogollegers in 1258 niet meer op deze schaal heeft voorgedaan.

De grootschalige verwoesting van het land, de ontmanteling van het leger en de ineenstorting van het Baathregime hebben zo’n leemte achtergelaten dat het land is geïmplodeerd en er een burgeroorlog is uitgebroken, waardoor het terrein rijp is gemaakt voor radicale groeperingen die wilden profiteren van de chaos.

Het idee dat Amerika Irak er met overmacht toe zou kunnen dwingen een liberale en welvarende democratie te worden bleek net zo denkbeeldig als de niet-bestaande massavernietigingswapens die Saddam Hoessein volgens Washington in zijn bezit had.

Hoewel Irak onder Saddam Hoessein een onderdrukkend dystopia was dat behoefte had aan radicale veranderingen, kunnen zulke veranderingen niet van buitenaf worden opgelegd, en al helemaal niet met het geweer in de aanslag, door een eigengereide supermacht zonder vervolgscenario.

Het was de erkenning van de misleidende aard van deze misdadig roekeloze onderneming die in 2003 tientallen miljoenen bezorgde burgers over de hele wereld ertoe heeft gebracht de straat op te gaanomte betogen tegen de voorgenomen invasie. Deze leidde ook tot de ernstigste trans-Atlantische vertrouwenscrisis uit de recente geschiedenis, toen Washington België en andere kritische Europese landen de ‘As van de Wezels’ noemde.

Toch zette Washington destijds zijn zin door. Waarom?

Het korte antwoord luidt dat de oorlog nooit over vrijheid of democratie is gegaan – dat was slechts een marketingslogan. Het gingomhet kanaliseren van de Amerikaanse angst en woede na 9/11, teneinde de controle in handen te krijgen over de op één na grootste oliereserves in de wereld en bepaalde bedrijven te verrijken, op kosten van de belastingbetaler.

Als u ook maar enige twijfel koestert over deze realiteit, kijk dan eens naar de saai klinkende maar zeer belangrijke Executive Order
13303, die Amerikaanse firma’s feitelijk carte blanche geeftomin Irak ongestraft te doen wat ze willen.

Gezien de verreikende gevolgen van de Amerikaanse invasie en bezetting denk ik dat het belangrijk is het idee nieuw leven in te blazenomde verantwoordelijken – vooral George W. Bush en Tony Blair – voor het gerecht te brengen. Hoewel de schade hierdoor nooit ongedaan zal kunnen worden gemaakt, zou het de Irakezen niettemin enige genoegdoening bieden voor de verwoesting die de Brits-Amerikaanse invasie in hun land heeft aangericht.

Het zal ook een duidelijk signaal doen uitgaan dat dit soort gedrag niet thuishoort in een wereld die op zoek is naar orde, recht en stabiliteit.

Ik moet bekennen dat ik niet weetwat er tegen de ISIS kanworden ondernomen enwat er kanworden gedaanomde desintegratie van Irak te repareren. Ik weet alleen dat welke koers de buitenwereld ook zal volgen, een militaire interventie gepaard moet gaan met een internationaal mandaat en een helder plan voorwat er moet gebeuren als de “missie is volbracht”.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in De Morgen on 13 June 2014.

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Criminally reckless in Iraq

 
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By Khaled Diab

The US invasion and occupation caused Iraq to implode into anarchy and then explode into civil war. For that reason, its architects must be prosecuted.

Iraq_Tikrit_2942924b

Monday 16 June 2014

It is a spectacular turn of events by any measure. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/S), on the back foot in Syria following offensives by Syrian rebel groups, has, since the beginning of this year, stolen back across the border into Iraq, conquering the northeast of the country one piece at a time.

Last week, ISIS’s campaign went into overdrive, with the group conquering Iraq’s second city, Mosul, and Tikrit, the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti, which lies just 140km away from the capital, Baghdad. No long after, ISIS entered Diyala province, positioning itself less than 100km from the capital, with Nuri al-Maliki’s government launching a panicked counter-offensive.

Of symbolic significance and as a sign that the Jihadist movement is approaching its goal of establishing an Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, militants reportedly bulldozed the border between the two countries.

In the wake of ISIS’s thrust, hundreds of thousands of long-suffering Iraqis have taken flight – and for good reason, in light of the videos posted by the Islamist forces which apparently show the gruesome executions of hundreds of captured Iraqi soldiers.

Most alarmingly perhaps is that ISIS, known in Arabic as al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fīl-Iraq weh al-Sham, has managed to achieve this rapid takeover of northeastern Iraq wih a ramshackle multinational militant force of just 3,000-5,000 fighters, not to mention collaborators from Saddam Hussein’s disbanded army and Sunni tribal leaders.

How was this possible?

Well, if Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, is to be believed, it is down to an ideological battle between Islamists and environmentalists, of all people. “The real of war of ideas… is the one between the religious extremists (Sunni and Shiite) and the committed environmentalists,” he wrote, shortly after Mosul had been taken.

The novel notion that eco-warriors are doing battle with the self-appointed soldiers of God would be news to just about everyone in the Middle East.

It is true that the environment in the water-stressed Middle East is an ingredient of growing importance in regional conflicts, and many experts foresee water wars in the decades to come. However, it is another fluid that is at the heart of the dire situation in Iraq today: oil.

It would be easy to dismiss Friedman, once a celebrated war correspondent, as an ageing eccentric who has lost complete touch with reality, but his rantings are not harmless. As an influential, pro-invasion cheerleader – who famously told Iraqis to “suck on this” – he managed to rally public support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Today, the mainstream US media is falling into a similar trap as during the build-up to the invasion in 2003 by misdiagnosing the problem – blaming Barack Obama^s foreign policy, rather than the true villain of this piece.

What this latest episode in a long string of disasters clearly demonstrates is that the US intervention in Iraq has been a total catastrophe unseen in Mesopotamia since the Mogul sacking of Baghdad in 1258.

The wholesale destruction of the country, the disbanding of the army, and the collapse of the Baathist regime left behind such a vacuum that the country first imploded into anarchy and then exploded into a continuous cycle of civil war, creating fertile ground for radical groups to take advantage of the chaos.

The idea that America could “shock and awe” Iraq into becoming a liberal and prosperous democracy was as illusionary as the non-existent weapons of mass destruction Washington claimed Saddam Hussein possessed.

Although Iraq was an oppressive dystopia under Saddam Hussein and required radical change, such change cannot be imposed from abroad, and especially not at gunpoint by a self-interested superpower with no game-plan.

And it was recognition of the delusional nature of this criminally reckless enterprise that led tens of millions of concerned citizens around the world to pour out onto the streets to oppose the planned invasion in 2003. It also caused the worst transatlantic rift in living memory, with Washington dismissing Belgium and other European critics as the “Axis of Weasels”.

Despite this, Washington went ahead. Why?

The short answer was that the war was never about freedom or democracy – that was just a marketing ploy. It was about channeling post-9/11 American fear and anger to gain control of the world’s second-largest oil reserves and enrich certain corporations at the American taxpayer’s expense.

If you are in any doubt about this reality, consider the dull-sounding but highly significant Executive Order 13303, which basically gives American corporations carte blanche to do what they please in Iraq with impunity.

Given the far-reaching consequences of the US invasion and occupation, I believe it is important to revive the idea of bringing those responsible for it – mainly George W Bush and Tony Blair – to justices.

Although this will not help to undo the damage, it will at least bring some redress to Iraqis for the devastation the Anglo-American invasion visited on their country. It will also send a clear signal that this kind of behavior does not belong in a world seeking law, order, stability and justice.

As for what can be done about ISIS and to repair the disintegration of Iraq, I must confess I do not know. All I know is that whatever course is pursued by the outside world, military intervention must come with an international mandate and there has to be a clear vision and plan for what comes after “mission accomplished”.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first in Dutch in De Morgen on 13 June 2014.

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De lijm die België bijeenhoudt

 
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By Khaled Diab

De nationale voetbalgekte verbergt de realiteit dat België al twee staten is. Ik gebruik mijn stem als lijm die kan helpen om België samen te houden.

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De nationale voetbalgekte verbergt de realiteit dat België al twee staten is.

Zondag 25 mei 2014

In de aanloop naar de Wereldbeker in Brazilië heeft de voetbalgekte België in haar greep, merkte ik onlangs tijdens een bezoek naar ons huis in Gent. De Rode Duivels, de beste ploeg sinds een generatie, lijken alomtegenwoordig: in de media, in uitverkochte stickeralbums en zelfs in een campagne van het Rode Kruis om bloedgevers te werven. In een land dat normaal een hekel heeft aan vlagvertoon is de nationale driekleur in haar voetbalversie overal te zien en worden zwart, geel en rood op wangen gesmeerd en in pruiken geverfd.

Maar achter die opwelling van nationale trots gaat een andere realiteit schuil: het lijkt meer dan waarschijnlijk dat de regionale, federale en Europese verkiezingen van 25 mei zullen tonen dat België in feite twee aparte staten is geworden.

Bedreigde Brusselaar
De verschillen tussen Vlamingen en Walen uiten zich in de politiek, de cultuur, de identiteit en het bewustzijn – of toch op het eerste gezicht. De peilingen voorspellen dat in Vlaanderen de neoliberale, separatistische N-VA een derde van de stemmen zal halen. Andersom zou in Wallonië de linkse PS een derde van de stemmen krijgen en de grootste partij zijn.

Los van de ogenschijnlijke rechts-linkse tegenstelling tussen het welvarende noorden en het arme zuiden, is er de taalkloof. België heeft al sinds tientallen jaren geen nationale partijen of nationale media. Ook het onderwijs is geregionaliseerd. Dat alles heeft de vervreemding en het wantrouwen tussen de gemeenschappen in de hand gewerkt.

Dit geleidelijke vervagen van ‘België’ wordt symbolisch belichaamd door de bedreigde status van de meest typische Belg: de tweetalige Brusselaar, met één voet aan elke kant van de taalgrens. Vandaag is Brussel nog altijd officieel tweetalig, maar spreekt bijna iedereen Frans en vormen de Nederlandstaligen een kleine minderheid. Buiten Brussel wordt het Engels een officieuze lingua franca voor zowel Vlamingen als Walen.

Als genaturaliseerde burger die al bijna tien jaar Belg is, vind ik die trage ontbinding jammer – voor een stuk omdat ik de excentrieke charme waardeer van een land dat ondanks zijn saaie reputatie op een subtiele manier cool is. Voor iemand als ik, die uit de immigratie komt, is het bovendien vaak gemakkelijker om je als Belg te identificeren, wat niet dezelfde etnische bagage heeft als ‘Vlaming’ of ‘Waal’. Tweederde van de Brusselse bevolking is trouwens van buitenlandse afkomst, zodat de etnische aanblik van de hoofdstad sterk is veranderd. Je ziet dat ook op het voetbalveld, met spelers als de Congolees-Belgische Vincent Kompany. Hij spreekt even vloeiend Nederlands als Frans, is aanvoerder van het nationale elftal en bovendien een figuur die de gemeenschappen samenbrengt.

Er wordt vaak gegrapt dat Belgen alleen in het buitenland een gezamenlijk nationaal gevoel hebben, als ambassadeurs van hun nationale tradities (meer bepaald bier en chocola, die tot de beste van de wereld behoren). En veel Belgen die ik ken, hebben zich verzoend met het vooruitzicht dat ze hun land zullen overleven, in de veronderstelling dat het zich in afzonderlijke soevereine staten zal splitsen. Anderzijds blijkt uit peilingen dat in de twee gemeenschappen een grote meerderheid België intact wil houden, ondanks het gekibbel tussen de politieke klassen van de gewesten.

Bovendien is de politieke kloof tussen Vlaanderen en Wallonië wel heel goed zichtbaar, maar bleek uit een recente peiling van de VRT dat de meeste Belgische kiezers min of meer dezelfde politieke standpunten en meningen delen. “Je hebt een vergrootglas nodig om de verschillen tussen Vlamingen en Walen te zien als het over de sociaaleconomische problematiek gaat, de ethische vraagstukken, de immigratie of het milieu”, zegt politiek wetenschapper en columnist Dave Sinardet. Dat zal geen verrassing zijn voor wie in de twee gemeenschappen heeft geleefd. Ik denk al lang dat de Vlamingen en de Walen meer met elkaar gemeen hebben dan met respectievelijk de Nederlanders en de Fransen, die met argwaan worden bekeken.

Stem als lijm
Een van de karaktertrekken die Vlamingen en Walen delen, is een zwak voor het ‘Belgisch compromis’, een ingewikkelde manier om problemen op te lossen waarbij alle partijen iets krijgen maar ook toegevingen doen, zodat er geen winnaar maar ook geen verliezer is. De jongste jaren heeft die politieke kunstvorm minder succes dan vroeger, maar ze heeft er wel voor gezorgd dat een conflict dat al meer dan een eeuw oud is nooit tot geweld heeft geleid.

Deze Belg zal dan ook op zondag zijn stem niet alleen gebruiken als een beetje lijm dat kan helpen om België samen te houden, maar ook als een blijk van vertrouwen in de multiculturele toekomst en de verdraagzaamheid van dit land.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article appeared in De Morgen on 21 May 2014. It was originally published in the New York Times on 18 May 2014.

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Glueing Belgium back together one vote at a time

 
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By Khaled Diab

With Belgium little more than a hollow shell, I’ll be using my vote as a squirt of glue to help hold the collapsing country together.

Friday 23 May 2014

Equipped with the best team in a generation, soccer mania has infected Belgium in the run-up to the World Cup in Brazil, as I witnessed during a recent visit home. The Red Devils, as the national side is known locally, seem to be everywhere: in the media, in sold-out sticker albums, and even a Red Cross blood donation campaign.

In a country where flag-waving is generally anathema, the soccer version of the national banner is everywhere and the national colours — black, yellow and red — are smeared on cheeks or dyed into wigs.

But the red devil, as always, is in the detail. Despite the apparent surge in national pride, the forthcoming regional, federal and EU elections, which will be held on 25 May, highlight the reality that Belgium has, in effect, become two separate states.

The divisions separating Dutch-speaking Flanders from Francophone Wallonia extend to politics, culture, identity and consciousness – at least at first sight.

In Dutch-speaking Flanders, which has long had a fractured political landscape, polls forecast that the neo-liberal, secessionist Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA) will top the ballot with a third of the vote. In contrast, in Francophone Wallonia, it is the leftist Parti Socialiste (PS) which is likely to walk away with a third of the vote, putting it in first place.

Over and above the apparent right-left split between the north and south, there is the perennial linguistic chasm, which is deepened by the parallel and separate socio-economic realities in which the regions exist.

In addition to the economic gap between the prosperous north and the struggling south, Belgium has not had national parties or national media for decades, while education too has been regionalised. This has led to the drifting apart of the country’s constituent parts, and a rise in relative ignorance, distrust and even demonisation.

This gradual fading of “Belgium” is perhaps most symbolically embodied in the endangered status of the quintessential Belgian, the bilingual Bruxellois/Brusselaar, who firmly had one foot on each side of the language frontier.

Today, though Brussels remains officially bilingual, its residents are mostly Francophone, with a minority of Dutch speakers. Beyond Brussels, English is increasingly becoming the second language of choice for Flemings and Walloons alike, making it an unofficial social and business lingua franca.

As a naturalized citizen who has been a Belgian for nearly a decade now, I find this slow disintegration to be a terrible shame. This is partly because I appreciate the eccentric and understated appeal of this country with a dull reputation but an understatedly cool reality.

Moreover, for people like me of immigrant background, it is often easier and less troublesome to identify as “Belgian” because it does not carry the same ethnic baggage that Flemish or Walloon does.

Like “British” is a more neutral label than English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish, Belgian is better suited to minorities. In fact, with some two-thirds of the population of Brussels of foreign origin (including European), the ethnic complexion of the bilingual Brusselaar/Bruxellois — and, hence, quintessential, Belgian — has rapidly shifted.

This is exemplified on the soccer pitch, among other places. Take, for example,  Congolese-Belgian footballer Vincent Kompany, the captain of the national squad. Equally at home in both Dutch and French, he not only plays for the national side but acts as a unifying figure between the country’s bickering communities, both of whom are proud of the success he has found in England, including two English Premier League titles for Manchester City in 2013/14 and 2011/12.

Although many Belgians I know have reconciled themselves to the prospect that they will outlive their country, I don’t think we should condemn Belgium to the dustbin of future history just yet.

Wits have joked that Belgians only feel a sense of shared nationhood when abroad, where they become ambassadors or even missionaries for the finer aspects of the national lifestyle, from probably the world’s best beer and chocolate to the country’s fine cuisine and music.

In Jerusalem, where I am currently based, I have found that there is more than a grain of truth to this. Amongst the surprisingly large Belgian community here, there is a shared sense of kinship, camaraderie and solidarity between Walloons and Flemings – albeit a typically understated and pragmatic Belgian variety.

While this may have something to do with the more open-minded and inclusive nature of being an expat, it strikes me that many back home share similar sentiments. Surveys regularly show that clear majorities on both sides want Belgium to survive, despite the Byzantine bickering of the political class.

Moreover, despite the visible political divergence between Flanders and Wallonnia, a recent survey conducted by VRT, the Flemish public broadcaster, revealed that the majority of Belgian voters have similar political positions and views. “Whether it relates to socioeconomic, ethical, immigration or environmental issues, you need a magnifying glass to see the difference between Flemings and Walloons,” concluded the columnist and political scientist Dave Sinardet.

And this would come as no surprise for anyone who has actually lived among the two communities. Equipped with the perspective of the relative outsider, I have long held that Flemings and Walloons have more in common with one another than they do with the French or the Dutch, both of whom are viewed with suspicion due to their colonial history in Belgium.

One characteristics which both Flemings and Walloons share is their penchant to strike “Belgian compromises”, a form of settlement by which all sides concede something in return for something else, creating a complex web of gains and losses in which there is no victor or vanquished. Although this political art form has had a lower success rate in recent years, it has ensured that this conflict of more than a century has never erupted into violence, nor captured international headlines, except in the surreal.

Come election day, this Belgian, for one, will use his ballot not only as a small squirt of glue to help hold Belgium together, but also as a vote of confidence in its multicultural future and capacity for tolerance.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

A condensed version of this article first appeared in The New York Times on 18 May 2014.

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America and Europe’s real “homegrown terrorism” threat

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Tuesday 30 April 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The same question could have been asked about Lanza.

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

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

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

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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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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