Anzac Day: Digging beneath the myth of the unruly Australian digger

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Despite their reputation for being undisciplined and insubordinate, Australian soldiers who fought in World War I, known as ‘diggers’, were fiercely courageous and disciplined where it mattered – on the battlefield. These rebels with a cause would play a pivotal role in defining modern Australian identity.

Image: ©Christian Nielsen

Thursday 25 April 2019

One doctrine has dominated military thinking for centuries: only well-trained and disciplined soldiers win wars. That explains why when word reached the top brass in London of unruly and, God forbid, unshaven Australian soldiers (‘diggers’) on the battlefields of Gallipoli, an investigation was launched.

Sir Maurice Hankey, the War Cabinet’s Secretary, visited the front line in Turkey and reported to then Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith: “I do hope that we shall hear no more of the indiscipline of these extraordinary Corps, for I dont believe that for military qualities of every kind their equal exists. Their physique is wonderful and their intelligence of a high order.

Field Marshal Douglas Haig once wrote in his diary that the Australians were “very hard and determined-looking … and mad keen to kill Germans, and to start doing it at once!”

But despite reports of the incredible bravery exhibited by Australians dispatched to key battles of the war including Pozières, Fromelles, Péronne, Ypres and, of course, Villers-Bretonneaux, the Diggers never shook off their reputation as mischief-makers.

Hard-earned reputation

When it came down to it, the War Cabinet put up with a lot of this ‘indiscipline’, provided the Australians got the job done. Recapturing Villers-Bretonneux was just one example of this unpredictable brand of what war historian Rob Roggenberg calls “collective discipline ‘and’ individualism” to achieve their objective.

This idea of collective individualism is echoed in a Bartleby essay on the importance of military discipline and values: “Discipline is created within a unit by instilling a sense of confidence and responsibility in each individual.”

The ‘troublemaker’ moniker was not confined to rank and file soldiers either. According to records, Australian Brigadier-General Thomas William Glasgow demonstrated his own version of irreverence towards British command when his battalion was ordered to attack Villers-Bretonneux from a vulnerable position. Fearing too many lives would be lost, Glasgow famously replied: ”Tell us what you want us to do … but you must let us do it our own way.”

While the Diggers on-field antics seemed to be tacitly tolerated, a much shorter leash existed behind the lines, and for good reason. Right up until February 1918, according to Roggenberg, Haig noted that the Diggers were still proving to be a handful: “We have had to separate [them] into Convalescent Camps of their own, because they were giving so much trouble when along with our men and put such revolutionary ideas into their heads.”

Nine in every 1,000 Australian soldiers in the European theatre languished in military prison in 1918. That was nearly six times more than the average for Canadians, New Zealanders and South Africans – so generally wild colonial exuberance was no excuse for the Australian misbehaviour. Haig was prepared to admit that the off-field trouble probably flowed from the low standard of discipline throughout the Australian divisions. 

Bravery under fire

What British command had long failed to understand was that individual fighting spirit combined with bravery could coalesce into a collective sense of purpose – driven by mateship not military protocol.

But by the closing chapters of World War I, it could be argued that traditional rank and file doctrines of decorum were blurring. The two Battles of Villers-Bretonneux in northern France cemented the reputation of Australian soldiers as not only as individually brave under fire but also collectively disciplined when it counted most – in the heat of battle.

On 23 April 1918, Australian forces played an instrumental role in repelling the German Spring Offensive which was using Villers-Bretonneux (and its strategic location just south of the River Somme) as a springboard to the nearby cathedral town of Amiens.

Image: ©Christian Nielsen

During the night of 24 April, a systematic counter-attack by Australian and British brigades had Villers-Bretonneux partly surrounded to the north and south. By the morning of 25 April, exactly three years after the Anzac landings at Gallipoli, French and Australian flags were raised over the town, and remain there to this day.

In just a few days of the fiercest fighting, the Australian, British and French (including Moroccan) troops had almost completely restored the original front line after the First Battle of the Somme and, arguably, turned the tide on the First World War. The now famous battle is also the first on record in which tanks fought against each other.

Australian soldiers certainly distinguished themselves at Villers-Bretonneux on Anzac Day, says Lydie Vandepitte of Somme Tourism in Amiens, but their involvement in the Great War was much more than a single battle. It was a founding element in the story of this young nation exerting its independence from Britain, she adds.

But the Diggers extreme bravery came at a huge cost, according to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Some 2,400 Australians died in the effort to recapture Villers-Bretonneux in April 2018, half of them in that one fateful night.

Their sacrifice is commemorated in the Australian National Memorial outside town where the heaviest fighting took place, and in the continuing gratitude of the townspeople who pay tribute alongside Australian officials and pilgrims at the annual Anzac Day memorial celebrations on 25 April.

“Do not forget Australia”

The Australian National Memorial stands on the grounds of a vast military cemetery honouring Australian soldiers who fought bravely in France and Belgium during the First World War. Nestled into the rear of the site is the imposing central tower offering panoramic views of the surrounding countryside, where the Allies battled to retake control of the Somme from the Germans. A memorial wall commemorates the 10,732 Australian casualties who died in France and who have no known grave. Also on the site is the Sir John Monash Centre, which uses multimedia wizardry to present the Diggers’ side of the story on the Western Front as part of a dedicated Remembrance Trail 1914-2018. In just nine months since opening in April 2018, nearly 48,700 have visited the Centre alone.

Image: ©Christian Nielsen

The relationship between Australia and the Somme will forever be strong and eternal,” says Vandepitte, which together with the Amiens Tourist Board host upwards of 25,000 Australians during Anzac Week, and scores more across WWI memorial sites (second only to British visitors in terms of total numbers each year).

In fact, cities and small towns across Australia, such as Amiens and Pozières in Queensland, Hamel in Western Australia, Pèronne in Victoria, bear the name of places in the Somme region,” she noted.

Back in Villers-Bretonneux, the local Franco-Australian museum on the grounds of the Victoria School, which was rebuilt and named thanks to donations from schools in the state of Victoria, has a rich collection of original WWI artefacts shipped back to France (free of charge by QANTAS) after a nationwide call. On classroom walls in the functioning school, inscriptions remind pupils of the enduring goodwill between the two countries: “Do not forget Australia.”

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Citizenship is a universal right, even for ISIS members

 
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By Khaled Diab

The death of Shamima Begum’s infant son underscores the injustice of depriving alleged terrorists and jihadis of their citizenship. It also sets a dangerous precedent that can come back to haunt and hurt everyone in society.

A shooting range in the UK has been using an image of Shamima Begum for target practice.

Sunday 10 March 2019

Two recent cases powerfully reflect the rank hypocrisy of the moment.

Shamima Begum, a teenage girl who ran off, as a minor, to join the Islamic State (ISIS) has had her British citizenship revoked at the stroke of a pen, following which her innocent, blameless three-week-old son reportedly died of pneumonia in a Syrian refugee camp.

Meanwhile, across the Channel, in Belgium, which has also been stripping some extremist Islamists and jihadis of their citizenship, Belgians who voluntarily joined Hitler’s Waffen SS not only have retained their citizenship but still receive a state pension from Germany of up to €1,275 per month, according to Belgian parliamentarians. Worse still, Belgians who were subjected to forced labour by the Nazis allegedly receive a measly €50 a month.

An unknown number of British former SS members, who are living in peaceful retirement in the UK, are also still receiving German pensions, according to the Belgian MPs. Needless to say, they have not had their British citizenship revoked.

Despite extensive searching, I cannot find any records of British Nazis losing their citizenship, yet Britain managed to survive the existential threat of World War II without resorting to depriving people of their nationality. Even those Brits who fought for Hitler’s army, with a few exceptions who were executed for treason, were allowed to reintegrate into society after serving a prison sentence.

Moreover, many British Nazi collaborators faced absolutely no consequences for aiding the enemy, even when it involved war crimes. For example, official papers declassified in the 1990s show the extensive level of collaboration officials and some citizens in the German-occupied Channel Islands offered the Nazis, including in the deportation of 2,000 residents of the islands to concentration camps. Rather than try and prosecute the collaborators and set in motion a reconciliation process, the British government decided to sweep the sordid affair under the carpet.

While there is no excuse for not bringing war criminals and abusers to justice, there are sound historical reasons for why postwar governments resisted the lure of purging unwanted citizens from the record and, for the same reasons, we should not tolerate governments seizing the power to revoke citizenship, no matter the justification.

At the end of the war, memories were still fresh of the path from the notorious 1935 Nuremberg laws – including the Reich Citizenship Law, which stripped Jews of their German citizenship and demoted to the status of inferior “subjects” – to the genocide of the Jews and other minorities, and the persecution of groups deemed undesirable by the Nazis.

Invoking Nazi Germany may strike many as unnecessarily alarmist, but the road from discrimination to persecution can be a surprisingly short and rapid one. Although I am hopeful that we have enough checks and balances in place and have learnt enough from the past as not to return to its darkest episodes, it is worth considering that the Holocaust appeared to be a remote possibility when Hitler rose to power, which was at a time when German Jews enjoyed unprecedented rights and prominence under the Weimar Republic.

It is also worth recalling that the Nazis, faced with stiff opposition from leftists and liberals, started off gradually by, first, in 1933, stripping the citizenship of naturalised Jewish citizens who had immigrated from eastern Europe.

Beyond the possibility of future persecution, the blatantly discriminatory nature of instating a de facto two-tiered citizenship system is unfair and an extremely risky endeavour that could backfire.

Modern legal systems are supposedly based on the equality of citizens in the eyes of the law – hence the depiction of Lady Justice as blindfolded. If the potential danger posed to other citizens is good reason to deprive someone of their citizenship, why has a fanatical teenage mum lost hers, while neo-Nazi and other violent far-right extremists get to keep theirs? How does this selective system defend against the immense threat from fascists and neo-Nazis, like the mass-murdering Norwegian Anders Breivik, or the American disciple his work inspired, who has been arrested for allegedly plotting a major killing spree?

Applying the principle of revocation of citizenship only to naturalised citizens, dual nationals and citizens who are (theoretically) entitled to citizenship elsewhere, who have been almost exclusively Muslims, is an expression of blind bigotry, not blind justice.

Stripping jihadis and extremist Islamists of their citizenship stigmatises the Muslim minority by implying that Muslims must “earn” their citizenship and prove their loyalty, while citizenship is an unshakable birthright for their compatriots that cannot be taken away, no matter what.

Moreover, if citizenship must be earned, and not granted, why do European governments expect other countries to take in their refuse? Take Shamima Begum. She has no connection to her ancestral Bangladesh, which has refused to take her. This means not only that Begum faces the illegal prospect of becoming stateless, with her baby raised in a form of inhumane limbo, the British government has effectively left the burden of hosting her on ISIS’s victims.

The political rhetoric used to justify this kind of (mis)carriage of justice is extremely worrying and has far-reaching implications. For instance, British Prime Minister Theresa May issued a statement when she was home secreatry which claimed: “Citizenship is a privilege, not a right, and the Home Secretary will remove British citizenship from individuals where she feels it is conducive to the public good to do so.”

The absurdity of this logic becomes immediately apparent if we take it to its logical conclusion. If citizenship is a privilege, what have other citizens done to earn it, aside from being born with the right background? If citizenship can be revoked for “the public good”, who can and who should we trust to decide and define this general interest? If the justice system is founded on equality, why should other citizens not be judged by the same yardstick, and what kind of hell would we have created if every person who does not live by or support a certain set of “values” is liable to be erased from the record?

And there are already early signs of this kind of serious and troubling mission creep. At the end of last year, in a landmark ruling, a British-Indian paedophile was stripped of his citizenship and was set to be deported to India. This is an extremely dangerous precedent not only for migrants but also for sex offenders as a whole. And if one group of social pariahs and undesirables can be deprived of their nationality and deported, why would a future unscrupulous government stop there?

This could reach other groups. If Muslims can be treated like this, why not other stigmatised minorities? The extraordinary powers seized by numerous governments following the 11 September 2001 al-Qaeda attacks helped pave the way, in the UK, to the Windrush scandal, where Afro-Caribbeans who have been in the UK for (almost) all their lives, and now have British children of their own, have been deported or face deportation. Some were reportedly holders of British passports, while others were eligible but had never applied. Echoing, on a smaller scale, the 19th-century practice of sending unwanted citizens off to penal colonies, the deportations are being justified by the fact that the deportees allegedly committed criminal offences, some very minor.

If minority groups are targeted for the threat they allegedly pose to public safety and security, either as terrorists or criminals, what is to stop violent political fringe or opposition movements from being so targeted in the future? And if the political fringe is one day targeted, why not all perceived “enemies of the state”?

If we are not careful, our fear of violent extremists could hand increasingly authoritarian leaders in the West the power to appoint themselves gatekeepers and defenders of the nation and the national interest. If you want a taster of what this could be like you need only look to the Gulf states who have weaponised citizenship and have been stripping dissidents (and their families) of their nationality.

Citizenship is an inalienable right for everyone and no matter how terrifying and reprehensible we find terrorists, they also have human rights. Society can make these violent extremists pay for their crimes without abandoning the values of human rights, judicial impartiality, democracy and decency.

____

This is the updated version of an article which was first published by The New Arab on  February 2019.

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The unlikely demonisation of Salman Rushdie

 
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By Khaled Diab

Salman Rushdie made a very unlikely target for the fury of conservative Muslims, which is why the opportunistic fatwa issued by a Khomeini in serious decline took the novelist and the world by surprise.

A burning ‘Satanic Verses’ in Bradford, UK. Photo: Asadour Guzelian

Thursday 21 February 2019

On 14 February 1989, Salman Rushdie may or may not have received a Valentine’s card from a secret admirer. If he did, I imagine he quickly forgot about it when Ruhollah Khomeini, the self-appointed Supreme Leader of the self-described Islamic Republic of Iran, issued a fatwa calling on Muslims to execute the British-Kashmiri novelist for alleged offences to Islam in his 1988 book, The Satanic Verses (for in-depth insight into the Rushdie controversy, listen to the informative new BBC Radio 4 series ‘Fatwa’).

Although fatwas are technically non-binding theological opinions, Khomeini’s edict had the force of law in the eyes of fanatical conservative Muslims – at the time, even Sunni fundamentalists who dreamed of creating a modern ‘Islamic state’ or reviving the ‘caliphate’ admired this revolutionary Shi’a cleric.

By turning what had been isolated local protests into global fury, the licence to kill issued by Khomeini had the immediate and terrifying effect of turning Salman Rushdie’s life upside down, forcing the writer to vanish into the thin air of police protection, only to suddenly reappear, like a genie from a police van, for snatched visits to family and friends, like that of fellow writer and friend Hanif Kureishi, or rocking up on the stage of U2 concerts, as though Rushdie had become a character in one of his own books of magical realism.

Despite the self-righteous outrage of Muslim conservatives, Salman Rushdie actually made a very unlikely target for their ire, especially the allegations that he was a Western stooge and an agent of imperialism. He had been, after all, not only a harsh critic of the Shah in Iran and but had also recently published a book condemning US involvement in Nicaragua. A Persian translation of Rushdie’s book Shame was available in Persian translation as was, initially, The Satanic Verses.

Salman Rushdie’s previous works, such as the sublime Midnight’s Children, were a sympathetic but critical reading of post-colonial reality, exploring issues of migration, identity and the tensions between and within ‘East’ and ‘West’.

Even the Satanic Verses, despite its allegorical irreverence, was not actually disrespectful of Muhammad, whom it portrayed quite sympathetically, I found, just sceptical about religion. The novel was not even about Islam, Rushdie insisted but about “migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death, London and Bombay,” not to mention “a castigation of western materialism”.

The credibility and admiration Rushdie had previously enjoyed in British Asian circles did not shield him from the indignation of Muslim conservatives and the impressionable, marginalised youth they managed to brainwash on the back of this manufactured controversy, which took Rushdie, his publishers and friends by complete surprise. Some young British Muslims at the time had no idea even what a fatwa was, with one mistakenly thinking that Khomeini had called Rushdie a “fat twit”.

“I found it odd that people were reading aubergines and burning books,” confessed Hanif Kureishi, referring to the absurdity of fundamentalists intimating Quranic verses in the humble vegetable, which is delicious when roasted, while setting light to Rushdie’s novel, which is not. But as has been the case throughout history, book burnings rarely have anything to do with the book being burnt, which the burners had not read, and is often a deflection of other grievances and/or a proxy for other conflicts.

Although the Satanic Verses controversy seems almost inevitable in hindsight, it only came to pass due to political expediency and opportunism. Author, lecturer and broadcaster Kenan Malik outlines how it took months of incitement by Muslim religious radicals, first in India, then in Britain, before any semblance of an outraged reaction emerged. At the time, my teenage self had just moved back from the UK to Egypt, and I do not recall much interest in or anger towards Rushdie.

It even reportedly took two fanatical British Muslims to sway the Iranian regime to issue this fatwa, which appears to have been motivated far more by political expediency than religious fervour. It not only fed into the long-standing proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also helped Khomeini to shore up support and silence dissent following the disastrous, devastating and costly war with neighbouring Iraq, and the Supreme Leader’s unstable mental state. This was reflected in another, less famous 1988 Khomeini fatwa which led to the execution by “Death Committees” of 30,000 political prisoners in Iran.

The Rushdie affair also enabled a false narrative to emerge among Western and Islamic bigots that there is a cultural war of values between ‘Islam’ and the ‘West’ or ‘Christendom’. In reality, the true conflict is between the forces of secularism versus religion, the forces of intolerance versus tolerance, the forces of pluralism versus mono-culturalism, the forces of rationality versus irrationality, the forces of supremacy versus egalitarianism, and the forces of modernity versus perceived tradition.

In fact, as I have endeavoured to show in my journalism and in my latest book, Islam for the Politically Incorrect, Islamic societies have a centuries-old tradition of scepticism and outright unbelief, something which I discovered during my own journey towards atheism.

In fact, more irreverent and sacrilegious works of literature have been published in Arabic than The Satanic Verses. For example, The Iraqi poet, reformer and atheist Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi (1863-1936) published, in 1931, Revolution in Hell, more than half a century before Rushdie’s novel. In this epic poem, which was inspired by a significant medieval work of scepticism, The Epistle of Forgiveness, humanity’s most daring and original thinkers have been condemned to eternal damnation as punishment for their courage, while the obedient and pro-establishment are rewarded with everlasting paradise, in a clear allegory of how Arab patriarchal dictatorships operate. The subversive inhabitants of hell storm heaven and claim it as their rightful abode.

Despite the rise in Islamic fundamentalism and fanaticism in recent decades, the non-believers and atheists of the Muslim world have been regrouping and have found a new level of assertiveness, often at great personal risk to their freedom and even lives. In secular Muslim countries, such as Albania and Tunisia, this is legal and tolerated. Even in Muslim countries where “apostasy” and “blasphemy” are outlawed, such as in the Gulf region, there are vibrant, albeit clandestine, groups of non-believers and sceptics.

Regardless of this relative progress, we still live in dangerous times for atheists and sceptics in many Muslim societies and even for those who have a different interpretation of Islam, both from conservative governments and from vigilantes and terrorists.

It is high time for conservative Muslim societies and fanatical Muslims to respect the freedom of belief, conscience and expression of others, both legally and socially, and to abandon their delusional self-appointed role as “defenders of the faith”. Not only is the insinuation that their religion needs their protection an insult to the almighty God they believe in, faith is an immensely personal and private matter that cannot and must not be imposed by force and fear.

_____

This article was first published by The New Arab on 14 February 2019.

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The clash between realpolitik and principled politics

 
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By Khaled Diab

The contrast between the red card from protesters and the red carpet from officials that greeted Mohammed bin Salman on his world tour highlights the growing global battle between a principled grassroots and a ‘pragmatic’ political leadership.

Image: Bassam Bounenni

Wednesday 26 December 2018

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recent world tour was widely viewed as a brazen diplomatic drive to put behind him the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the unwanted spotlight it has cast on the Saudi-led war in and blockade of Yemen, which has triggered what the UN describes as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Judging by the official red-carpet welcome which greeted the crown prince almost everywhere he landed, especially in allied Arab states, one would be excused in thinking that MbS, as he is affectionately known in English by his supporters, has weathered the storm.

“The UAE will always be a loving and supportive home for our brothers in Saudi Arabia,” asserted Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of neighbouring UAE, while Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi stressed the “joint desire to deepen co-operation between our two countries”.

After touring the region, MbS flew to Buenos Aires for the G20 summit, where, among other things, he met India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who praised the “fruitful interaction” on “ways to further boost economic, cultural and energy ties”.

Beyond the ‘realpolitik’ of the ingratiating leaders who greeted the fumbling pretender prince to the Machiavellian throne, Mohammed bin Salman’s tour triggered cross-border grassroots protest in some of the destinations the Crown Prince visited.

Some Egyptian opposition figures and activists braved the devastation inflicted on Egyptian civil society to protest bin Salman’s visit. However, the most vocal opposition to MbS was voiced in Tunisia, the only country to date where the Arab revolutionary wave has delivered real freedom and democracy.

While Tunisian politicians from the major parties fell over themselves to make Mohammed bin Salman feel at home, they had to do so from within the confines of the airport and presidential palace, because Tunisian civil society simply wanted the Crown Prince to go home.

Had bin Salman toured the capital, he would have been subjected to scenes unfamiliar to him in his homeland. He may have seen the giant banner on the wall of a feminist NGO featuring a man dressed like the Crown Prince brandishing a whip and the unambiguous statement that the “whipper” or “flogger” of women was not welcome. A similar poster featuring MbS holding a chainsaw, in an allusion to the bone saw allegedly used to dismember Khashoggi, insisted that the Saudi royal’s presence would “contaminate” Tunisia, the “land of revolution”.

Protesters also gathered before and during the visit of the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia to air their opposition. On a Tunisian radio channel, I heard a group of comics competing to come up with the funniest jokes mocking the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and their own president Beji Caid Essebsi. In Saudi Arabia (not to mention the Gulf, as a whole), this kind of casual irreverence would not only be unthinkable, it would almost certainly land the comics in jail, or far worse.

In short, Tunisians chose principles over petrodollars, dignity over despotism, and the message reached Mohammed bin Salman loud and clear, with the Crown Prince reportedly spending only four hours in Tunisia.

Largely symbolic legal action has also been attempted. The Tunisian journalists union filed a complaint demanding that the public prosecutor investigate the possibility of referring Mohammed bin Salman to the International Criminal Court, while an earlier complaint lodged by Human Rights Watch (HRW) under Argentina’s universal jurisdiction laws is being investigated by the state prosecutor.

But like earlier efforts by HRW to hold US officials accountable for war crimes in Iraq, this latest challenge has quietly been ignored and MbS arrived at the G20 summit unharassed and apparently untroubled, with the unedifying spectacle of Theresa May, her hollow rhetoric about “British values” defeating extremism notwithstanding, determined to meet the Crown Prince on the sidelines of the G20 summit with her Brexit begging bowl in hand.

This contrast between the reaction of civil society and governments highlights the gaping chasm between the politics of principles and political ‘pragmatism’. Some of this realpolitik is driven by perceived economic and geopolitical self-interest. Ever since oil was discovered in the Gulf region, Britain and America have been in (de facto) alliance with the region’s autocrats – not just in Saudi Arabia, but also in the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman – in a kind of decades-old ‘oil for political protection programme’.

Then, there are the more shadowy factors at play, such as the Trump administration’s murky business ties, not to mention Donald Trump’s own dictatorial tendencies and contempt for journalists and the media.

Beyond self-interest, there is the issue of self-preservation. MbS has the blood of Yemeni civilians on his hands, but he is not the only one. How about the countries which supply the coalition with arms? Even Qatar, which has recently became a harsh critic of the war, was part of the Saudi-led coalition before the GCC crisis saw the alliance turn on Qatar and unfairly blockade it.

That is not to mention the living leaders, past and present, who also have brutal wars to answer for, including but not limited to, George W Bush, Tony Blair and Vladimir Putin.

But hypocrisy does not stop at those governments who support or are silent in the face of MbS’s crimes, it also extends to some of Saudi Arabia’s opponents and critics. Despite its grandstanding on the Khashoggi murder, Turkey has gone from being a country with a free press and civil society to the biggest jailer of journalists in the world and a crusher of dissent, not to mention Turkey’s bloody interventions in neighbouring Syria.

Likewise, Iran’s official condemnation of the Khashoggi murder and the strong tone taken by its state-backed media rings hollow when considering what happens to critics and dissidents in Iran, while its criticism of Saudi war-mongering is tragically farcical when seen in light of Tehran’s direct and bloody role in the Syrian war and indirect role in Yemen.

Escaping the hypocrisy and destructiveness of pragmatic support and opportunistic opposition requires the escalation of grassroots action to hold to account all countries and leaders according to the same principles and values. In the longer term, it demands an enforceable system of international law that punishes the crimes and transgressions of the powerful, not just the weak.

____

This article was first published by The New Arab on 30 November 2018.

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Steve Bannon is being amplified, not silenced

 
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By Khaled Diab

By providing Steve Bannon with an uncritical solo platform, the Oxford Union has failed in its mission as a forum of free and fair debate, succumbing instead to tabloid sensationalism.

Image: Oxford Union

In June of this year, I received an invitation via e-mail from the Oxford Union, to which I readily agreed, cherishing the idea of engaging with the promising young minds who are drawn to this renowned university.

However, I never heard back from them, which I considered rather unprofessional and impolite. But I kept the matter to myself until I discovered that one of the dates the Oxford Union had proposed to host me on had been given over to one of the high priests of the American far-right and what you might call the emerging Fascists International, Steve Bannon. This followed hot on the heels of an aborted invitation to far-right Alternative für Deutschland leader Alice Weidel, who pulled out after sustained protest.

This double whammy has prompted me to speak out.

As anyone who knows me or reads my work is aware, I am a passionate advocate of free speech, but this is not a free speech issue, since conservative, middle-aged, wealthy white men remain the most over-represented group in the public spaces of the Western world, no matter how much they protest to the contrary.

Moreover, Steve Bannon is not a silenced voice who has had his freedom of expression curbed or curtailed. Bannon has built a career saying what he wants, when he wants and has not paid any price for it, not even for his most hateful and untrue pronouncements. Quite the contrary, he has been handsomely rewarded.

Bannon carved out a prominent position for himself in the American far-right movement, which he helped navigate towards the mainstream during his stewardship of Breitbart, the website which created a toxic brand of “news” which erased the line between fact and fiction, propagating a plethora of conspiracy theories, about Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, women, the gay community, the mainstream media, and the man they regarded as the demon-in-chief, Barack Obama.

During the US presidential campaign, Breitbart threw its fantasy-weaving expertise behind Donald Trump, spreading destructive conspiracy theories, including the infamous ‘Pizzagate’ myth, which helped pave the way for not only Trump to enter the White House and make it white again, but for Bannon to join him. Even now that Bannon has been unceremoniously ditched by Trump, he has no shortage of far-right and mainstream platforms hosting him, as he himself noted during his Oxford Union address.

Rather than hosting an already overexposed Bannon, the Oxford Union should have followed through with their invitation to me or any other progressive Arab or Muslim, given the very real sidelining or drowning out of our voices by extremists, both in the Middle East and in the West. This is important both to show that there is a big, wide world beyond extremism, and also to place extremism in its broader context.

To my mind, Steve Bannon no more represents the white Christian mainstream than salafist firebrands represent the mainstream of European Muslims, yet both are given public exposure way beyond the fringes for which they speak by the segments of the media which thrive on sensationalism and baiting audiences.

Instead of living up to its reputation as a forum for genuine debate, the Oxford Union has succumbed to this tabloid sensationalism. This was reflected in the OU’s decision to allow Bannon to speak alone, uninterrupted and unhindered until the final Q&A.

If the debating society was genuine in its stated aim of holding his views up to scrutiny, then it should have invited capable and knowledgeable speakers to argue against Bannon, as occurred when Nigel Farage was invited to discuss Britain’s membership of the EU, back in 2015. It would have also been handy to have an expert and impartial fact checker on hand to wade through the many deceptions Bannon delivered during his talk and in the past.

OU president Stephen Horvath proved woefully ill-equipped for the task, and only managed to ask a handful of meek, sometimes incoherent questions – a performance which, along with the chosen format, has led many fellow students to demand Horvath’s resignation.

Steve Bannon’s long speech was cleverly designed to appeal, like far-right rhetoric often attempts to do, to the economic anxieties of the young students in the audience. He railed against the “Davos” and “Brussels” elites who created what he described as “extinction-level events” – the rise of China, the trillions spent on wars in the Middle East and the 2007/8 financial crisis – which had turned the working class into angry “deplorables”. Bannon described Donald Trump as the symptom of these trends and not their cause.

This is disingenuous deception on so many levels, and Horvath did little to challenge it. As I have observed before, the rise of Trump and of the populist right is not a symptom of growing economic anxiety and inequality in itself, but a symptom of the narratives which blame, as Bannon does, minorities, the struggle for racial equality, migrants, Muslims, feminists and leftists, amongst others, for these challenges, and which whip up anxiety about diminishing privileges among the dominant groups in society.

Moreover, Bannon failed to explain or even mention how, if it is working-class anger that led to the rise of Trump, why it is that Trump voters were generally better-off than those who voted for Clinton, gaining about half the votes of people earning over $50,000, with many very wealthy people voting for Trump. The average Trump voter is, in fact, middle-class, white and Christian.

Bannon also failed to back up his claim that Donald Trump, who is himself a member of the economic elite that Bannon so rhetorically despises, has served the interests of the “deplorables”. In reality, Trump’s tax cuts and inflated military spending, classic Republican and neo-conservative policies, have served to enrich tycoons like him and rich corporations, first and foremost, followed by the 1%, while making life harder for the middle- and working-classes, not to mention for future generations.

Rejecting the ethno-nationalist label, likely in a bid to appeal to his multicultural audience, Bannon went on to claim he was an economic nationalist and that “economic nationalism doesn’t care about your colour, ethnicity, your religion, your gender, your sexual preference.” Despite his protestations, Bannon has this incredible knack for making friends and forging alliances with feverishly ethno-nationalist parties and fascists. Moreover, Breitbart became a hotbed of white nationalism during Bannon’s tenure.

Steve Bannon’s comments on religion rang equally hollow and disingenuous. He claimed that both he and Trump were not Islamophobes, because they had nothing against Muslims, their beef was with Islam – a typical far-right defence which I analyse in my book Islam for the Politically Incorrect.

As an atheist, I have no beef against people criticising Islam, but Bannon is not some impartial or balanced critic, as I explain in my book. He believes that the West is “at the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism” that is set to “completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years,” Bannon told a conference hosted by a conservative Catholic organisation, held in the Vatican in 2014.

Bannon is also convinced that there exists an age-old cosmic clash between Islam and Christendom, and that secularism has hobbled the West’s ability to face this supposedly existential threat, leading him to wax nostalgic about recreating a past of noble crusaders in which “our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept [Islam] out of the world, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours, or other places.”

As this brief exposé shows, providing a prestigious platform to a conspiracy theorist without robustly challenging the fictions he has weaved – that we are embroiled in a world war that does not exist, and that the West is losing the battle because it is no longer Christendom – is reckless and irresponsible, especially in light of the dangerous rise in violent far-right extremism.

This is not only because these claims are demonstrably untrue but also because, like jihadist ideology, Bannon’s apocalyptic vision divides the world into two groups of enemies, the near enemy, i.e. the strength-sapping kryptonite of secularism (aka liberals, leftists, feminists, ethnic minorities, LGBT activists, environmentalists, etc.) and the far enemy, mostly Islam.

In this uncompromising vision, the only people who are right are the self-righteous of the American and European far-right, and to hell with the rest of us.

____

This article was first published by The New Arab on 28 November 2018.

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Bad blood or blood libel: When is criticism of Israel anti-Semitic?

 
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By Khaled Diab

While critics of Israel can be anti-Semitic, many who criticise Israel harbour a deep respect of and love for Jews. Similarly, supporting the Jewish state is not necessarily a manifestation of philo-Semitism and can stem from anti-Semitic motives.

A bar in Haifa.
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 5 September 2018

To many outsiders it may appear to be an overreaction, even paranoia, but the apprehension and fear that European Jews feel about resurgent anti-Semitism is very real. If you don’t get why, consider this: Before World War II, there were 9.5 million Jews in Europe (1.7% of the population). Today, three-quarters of a century later, there are as few as 1.4 million Jews in Europe (0.2% of the population).

Even when one speaks with or hears the stories of Holocaust survivors, it is difficult to grasp the apparently boundless human capacity for inflicting unspeakable cruelty and causing indescribable suffering.

Although the generation of Jews which survived World War II is gradually passing away, there is scarcely an Ashkenazi Jew who did not have a forebear who perished or came close to perishing at the hands of the Nazis. The kind of collective trauma caused by near-extermination is bound to live on for generations, as it has with Armenians and other devastated populations, in part stoked by the terrifying prospect that if there is ever a repeat performance, the next “Final Solution” will be irreversible in its finality.

While this kind of existential threat is fortunately a dim and distant possibility (for now), the dehumanising precursors of the image of te Jew as sub-human monster or super-human force of evil are re-appearing, sometimes repackaged and rebranded, at other times in the form of old-school anti-Semitic tropes.

This is most terrifyingly visible on the nativist right, especially in parts of eastern Europe. Deafening dog whistling has often given way to open racism, such as the spread of conspiracy theories in which the world is secretly run by shadowy Jewish financiers and bankers, from the classical myths surrounding the Rothschilds to the more contemporary conspiracy theories involving George Soros, particularly in his native Hungary.

The Arab world has imported similar conspiracy theories from Europe. These are particularly popular amongst conservatives and Islamists, but others are not immune, many of whom believe that Jews, in alliance with “crusaders”, are inciting a perceived war against Islam and, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they are convinced Jews were behind the 11 September 2001 attacks in America and, stretching conceivability to beyond disintegration point, that ISIS was created by Mossad.

Despite the left’s long and proud history of combating racism, some leftists have fallen prey to this form of racism, as the swirling controversy surrounding anti-Semitism in Britain’s Labour party demonstrates, while others who were already anti-Semitic conceal their racism behind the left’s humanist, universalist discourse.

This is prevalent on the fringes of the anti-imperialist left, both Western and Arab, where a commendable quest for the liberation of the oppressed has begotten a toxic world-view in which the Jewish or Zionist lobby is attributed with almost superhuman powers. According to this bizarre outlook, it is not Israel that is the client of the US empire and does Washington’s bidding, but that mighty America is, in effect, a vassal state of Israel. In addition, for some, Israel is behind or involved in pretty much every problem in the Middle East.

That said, when it comes to identifying anti-Semitism, one of the most fraught and problematic issues is the question of Israel. There are many Israelis and their allies who equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism and support of Israel with tolerance and philo-Semitism.

However, the reality is far more complex and very different. There are those who criticise Israel but harbour a deep respect of and love for Jews, and many admire the positive aspects of Israel. Similarly, there are those who are pro-Israel but support the Jewish state to conceal their own anti-Semitism, for racist reasons, such as the presence of Israel means fewer Jews in their own countries, or for political expediency, because Israel is a convenient ally and vice-versa.

One such person is Hungary’s Viktor Orbán who is a close ally of Binyamin Netanyahu and, in a show of supreme mutual hypocrisy, recently visited Israel, yet gives every sign, to my eyes at least, that he is a dyed-in-the-wool anti-Semite. Orbán has for years propagated anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, enabled anti-Semites in his own party and in the fascistic Jobbik party, and whitewashed the memory of numerous Nazi-era Hungarian leaders, including the “exceptional statesman” Miklos Horthy.

Hungary, of course, is not unique in this regard. In America, not only has the Trumpian era been marked with increasingly overt rightwing anti-Semitism, of the tens of millions of Christian Zionists who support Israel, a significant proportion do so for what could easily be regarded as anti-Semitic reasons, from reducing the number of Jews in the West to the eventual “salvation” and conversion of the Jews.

Just as not everyone who supports Israel loves Jews, not everyone who criticises and opposes Israel hates Jews. This can often be the case in the Middle East, where the opposition of many Arabs to Israel is motivated by their solidarity with the Palestinian people, rather than any deep animosity towards Israelis or Jews.

Naturally, this is not always the case, as demonstrated by the widespread targeting of indigenous Jewish communities in the region following the creation of Israel: blaming and punishing people for the crimes of their coreligionists elsewhere in the world is the very definition of racism. This has led to the tragic situation we have now, in which Middle Eastern societies have largely been depopulated of their once vibrant Jewish minorities.

Moreover, what may be anti-Semitic in the case of an outsider is not necessarily so when it comes to the Palestinians. For instance, a bigoted Westerner singling out Israel as being all-powerful is either anti-Semitic or ignorant, and possibly both. But Palestinians making the same arguments may well be globalising their local situation, expressing the anger and frustration of living under generations of occupation and discrimination, of being penned off territorially, of being treated like foreigners on their own land, of being subjected to martial law in the West Bank, of being besieged in Gaza, and, most recently, of being officially categorised as second class citizens in Israel.

When this is all somebody knows, it does not take a massive leap of illogic to go from the idea that Israel controls their world to Israel controls the entire world, however irrational that is. Another reason, which also applies to other Arab states, especially the frontline states like Lebanon and Egypt, is the psychological equivalent of saving face, whether consciously or subconsciously: by endowing their enemy with superpower might, Arabs are concealing or disguising their own abject weakness and ineptitude. This is not to argue that this kind of distortion of reality is acceptable. It is merely to point out that it is the manifestation of a different dynamic.

Of course, anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli racism does exist in Palestinian society, but it is not as widespread as many Israelis believe and it comes from a position of weakness, unlike in Europe and America. And it can be extremely virulent and hateful, especially amongst those who believe that Islamic or Arab identity is superior. This can have ugly consequences, such as the decision of Haj Amin al-Husseini to collaborate with the Nazis during World War II.

However, more often it is the kind of racism common amongst enemies and victims of oppression, one based on generations of bad blood, not a blood libel, on the fear and distrust of those who have caused you pain and suffering, not an irrational fear and scapegoating of the minority in your midst, as is the case in the West.

Moreover, despite their soul-destroying plight, many Palestinians refuse to hate ordinary Israelis and focus their anger and opposition on the system. In addition, a growing number of fair-minded and humane Palestinians are combating anti-Jewish sentiment, challenging conspiracy theories and raising awareness in Palestinian society of the historical plight of Jews, from the pogroms they suffered to the Holocaust.

With time, as the conflict is resolved and justice prevails for all, one hopes that this kind of conflict-related racism will vanish.

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Bernard Lewis and the non-existent clash of civilisations

 
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By Khaled Diab

Bernard Lewis was the orientalist scholar of choice for American neo-conservatives. His dangerous ‘clash of civilisations’ theory was not only wrong but caused enormous damage in the Middle East.

Tuesday 29 May 2018

Bernard Lewis, the British-American historian and probably the most influential orientalist thinker of his generation, was born as the Ottoman empire was tottering on its last legs. He died, just shy of his 102nd birthday, as the post-Ottoman Middle Eastern order is nearing complete collapse.

Although some of Lewis’s early academic work was groundbreaking, such as his research into medieval Islamic guilds and the insights he gleaned from the Ottoman archives, his work rapidly descended into politicised polemics, which proved extremely destructive to the Middle East.

“For the past several years Lewis has been engaged in preaching scholarship and practising politics,” Edward Said, the author of the groundbreaking study Orientalism, wrote in one of his regular heated exchanges with Lewis, back in 1982. “It is of course quite natural for scholars to have political views and even to impart those views to their students and colleagues in an honest manner. Lewis is guilty of no such balance or discipline.”

Lewis was the orientalist of choice for America’s neo-conservative establishment and “his wisdom is sought daily by policymakers, diplomats, fellow academics, and the news media,” in the words of former US Vice President Dick Cheney, and Lewis is credited, in parallel with Samuel Huntington, with providing the intellectual framework for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

One of Lewis’s most damaging theories was that of the “clash of civilisations”. Although the term is most commonly associated with Huntington, Bernard Lewis used it earlier, and somewhat differently. While Huntington focused on perceived conflicts along the fault lines between half a dozen or so civilisations, Bernard Lewis’s theory focused on the alleged centuries-old clash between Islam and the West (formerly known as Christendom).

“It should by now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them,” Lewis wrote in 1990, in what has proved to be one of the most influential essays of recent decades. “This is no less than a clash of civilisations – the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judaeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both.”

Considering that two influential public intellectuals alleged that we are in the throes of a clash of civilisations, is there any evidence to back up their theory?

Yes, there is… but only if you are ideologically inclined – like neo-cons, Christian and Islamic fundamentalists, and modern-day jihadis – to believe in such a clash, and pick and choose the evidence to support your thesis, while ignoring inconvenient facts and realities.

In fact and in reality, though the term is relatively new, the notion that Christendom and Islam are age-old and irreconcilable foes has an ancient pedigree. Examples include the historical notions of jihads and crusades, not to mention the idea of ‘civilisation versus barbarism’ espoused by dominant powers and influential voices on both sides throughout the centuries.

But as I examine in a chapter dedicated to this crucial question in my new bookIslam for the Politically Incorrect, this clash exists mainly in the fevered imagination of the fanatic or the skilled political leader, but does not stand up to sustained political or historical scrutiny.

At this point, I should point out that conflicts are extremely complex issues, which are usually poorly understood even by those involved in them, that cannot be reduced to any single root cause. That said, religious identity and culture, in my analysis, have played a remarkably minor role in the interactions between Islam (the Middle East) and Christendom (the West), both today and historically.

This is underlined, in my view, by what I call the clash within civilisations (not to mention the clashes within individual societies), the conflicts which have plagued both sides and often posed a greater existential threat than the external enemy. This is exemplified by the two world wars and the current wildfire tearing through the Middle East.

It is also exemplified by the oft surreal cross-civilisational alliances that emerge. If civilisations truly clash over values, then the largely decades-old cosy relationship between the regressive Gulf monarchies and Britain then the United States should not exist, yet what I call the oiligarchy shows no sign of losing its potency, even under the stewardship of the Islamophobic Donald Trump.

And these alliances are scarcely new. Protestant England had a long-lasting alliance with the Ottomans against Catholic Spain. Caliph Harun al-Rashid and the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne were involved in a robust, multi-generational coalition against their mutual foes, the Byzantines and Umayyads. Going even further back, the conquest of Iberia by Muslim forces would not have occurred without the encouragement and aid of the very Christian Julian of Septem (Ceuta).

Over and beyond all this, there is what I call the mash of civilisations, through which Islam and Christendom have so influenced one another, and been influenced by the same precursors, including ancient Greek, Egyptian and Mesopotamian influences, that it is impossible to separate them into two distinct civilisations.

The conflicts we are witnessing today are not so much a clash between civilisations, as a crash of civilisation. By this, I do not mean the collapse of civilisation and the end of technologically advanced human society, but rather the more mundane and periodic crumbling of the dominant political, economic and social orders, as they become unsustainable, imploding and exploding under the weight of their contradictions.

It is far easier to blame monolithic metaphysical forces for our problems than to examine the actual socio-economic and geopolitical faultlines at play, because that would require changes few are willing or courageous enough to make. But continuing to ignore the painful realities in favour of comforting illusions and delusions will lead to serious misdiagnosis of the situation, and the prescribed medication, rather than offering a cure will threaten the very survival of the patient.

This article first appeared in the New Arab on 23 May 2018. 

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Donald Trump: Universal scapegoat

 
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By Khaled Diab

Donald Trump is possibly the worst American president in history, but that does not give the rest of the political establishment a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to taking responsibility for the mess the world is in

Photo: White House

Wednesday 13 December 2017

While former US President Barack Obama regularly signalled that the “buck stops here”, even for matters that were not directly his responsibility, his successor, Donald Trump, lobs the buck way over there to escape responsibility, even for his own direct actions.

Even though Trump’s tendency to blame the political establishment for everything is legendary, less well-known are other politicians’ and leaders’ inclination to blame everything on Trump. This was visible in the tidal wave of criticism Trump received for his decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his plans to move the US embassy there. Although this has been US law since 1995 and numerous presidents have campaigned to do just that, Trump has been accused of single-handedly destroying the ‘peace process’, which has been defunct and deceased since its birth, if not its inception, and undermining America’s role as an ‘honest broker’, as if Washington was ever impartial.

Another jarring example was the unexpected transatlantic spat with the UK sparked by Donald Trump’s decision to retweet propaganda videos shared by the fringe far-right group Britain First.

Condemning Trump’s implicit endorsement of Britain First, which Theresa May slammed as “a hateful organisation,” the British premier said the extremist group “stands in fundamental opposition to the values that we share as a nation – values of respect, tolerance and, dare I say it, common decency.” Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson echoed his boss’s sentiment, calling Britain First “a divisive, hateful group whose views are not in line with our values”.

Invoking the UK’s “proud history as an open, tolerant society”, Johnson emphasised that “hate speech has no place here”.

The sheer and breathtaking audacity and hypocrisy of this statement will immediately strike anyone who has followed, even cursorily, Boris Johnson’s almost peerless ability to offend people around the world, including his offensive claim that Libya offered great investment opportunities once they “clear the dead bodies away”.

Although wittier with a manufactured bumbling affability, his persona as dishevelled as his blonde mop of hair, Boris Johnson has much in common with Donald Trump. Both the sons of privilege, their political careers rest not on any political achievements but on their popular media personas. In the case of Johnson, his regular appearances on the popular satirical show Have I Got News For You and his widely read column propelled him into the Tories’ political A list.

Long before Donald Trump became a leading advocate of the anti-Obama birther movement and officially inaugurated the era of “post-truth” and “alternative facts”, Boris Johnson is credited with inventing EU-related fake news. “He turned euro-scepticism into an art form,” a former colleague recalled. “Boris campaigned against the cartoon caricature of Brussels that he himself invented.”

Despite the very strong likelihood that Trump will live up to people’s expectations of becoming (one of) the worst American president(s) in history, he has yet to accomplish an act of collective national self-harm quite as suicidal as the cynical Johnson-led Brexit movement.

Johnson and May’s appeal to tolerance, openness and respect ring even hollower considering how much they and their party have undermined these values, from May’s infamous disparagement of the almost half of the British people who regard themselves to be citizens of the world, to the growing tide of xenophobia threatening refugees, migrants and even EU citizens in Brexit Britain.

On the other side of the Atlantic, a similar dissonance exists amongst the conservative political establishment. It is almost as though history both ended and began with Donald Trump. This is clear in the rehabilitation of the former worst American president, George W Bush, who has recently been receiving fawning media coverage for his (veiled) criticism of Trump. Without naming Trump, Bush accused the sitting president of promoting bigotry, fuelling intolerance, undermining democracy and spreading falsehood. “Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication,” Bush rebuked.

For those of us who lived through the Bush years, this is very much a case of the pot calling the kettle black, with the main exception being that Bush was not a racist – at least not by the standards of his party. “Bush paid lip service to rights and norms before crushing them underfoot. Trump is more brazen in his language and more candid in his intent,” wrote the prominent author and journalist Gary Younge.

Despite defending diversity rhetorically, Bush and his administration were not beyond using prejudice and paranoia as tools of governance or weapons of mass distraction, even deception. They exploited the post-9/11 atmosphere of fear and anger to trample on civil liberties at home, to co-opt the media, to intimidate or silence opponents, and to launch two large-scale military invasions and occupations (in Afghanistan and Iraq) that killed hundreds of thousands, destabilised the Middle East, and effectively bankrupted the United States.

In order to achieve this, the Bush administration spread exaggerated misinformation and patently fake news, such as Iraq’s non-existent WMD arsenal, and browbeat allies and enemies alike, with polarising talk of “you are either with us or against us” and the infamous “axis of evil”, which inexplicably placed Baathist Iraq in the same camp as its arch enemy, the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the process, the Bush administration squandered the tidal wave of global goodwill and sympathy towards the United States in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

This makes the fact that the conservative resistance against Trump is being led by former Bush administration figures seem extremely ironic. One of the loudest such critics is Bush’s former speech writer, David Frum, the man who coined the axis of evil and wrote a glowing biography of the former president, who is now a senior editor at The Atlantic.

It is not just neo-conservatievs and the Republican establishment who are failing to search their souls and introspect, the Democratic party’s mainstream are also falling short in that mission. While they obsess over the extent of Russian subterfuge and meddling, they ignore their own role in creating the groundwork for the toxicity overtaking Washington. This includes choosing the status quo of Hillary Clinton over the genuine change offered by Bernie Sanders, the decades of support for destructive neo-liberal economics, and the failure to push for the reform of America’s authoritarian two-party system and outdated electoral colleges, which saw Clinton win the popular vote but lose the election.

None of this is to understate the threat Donald Trump poses to America and the outside world. But just because he is the villain that does not automatically make all his opponents and critics heroes or even innocents.

—-

This is an updated version of an article which was first published by Al Jazeera on 6 December 2017. 

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Economic recovery means little to Europe’s working poor

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Europe is experiencing an economic recovery but many of the jobs being created are keeping people poor rather than lifting them out of poverty.

Friday 8 December 2017

The latest forecasts tell a story of economic recovery. Europe is emerging out of a decade-long slump that nearly crippled a handful of countries and stung employment and growth numbers in the rest. People are working again, industry is growing and business confidence is up, except perhaps in Brexit-paralysed Britain. This is surely good news for people living in poverty.

Or not. All this economic good cheer ignores a persistent and often under-reported problem in ‘wealthy’ Europe… having a job means squat if it is poorly paid, unregulated, unstable or just plain unfair. This was the general sentiment at a recent EU-backed meeting in Brussels organised by the European Anti-Poverty Network (EAPN) which heard from a range of people experiencing poverty, especially the working poor.

The European Union’s unemployment rate is currently around 7.5%, which is the lowest rate recorded in the bloc since December 2008. But according to a new EU report on ‘In-work poverty in the EU’, the number of European workers at risk of poverty has actually increased, from 8% in 2007 to 10% today.

Europe knows it has a problem and that there is a window of opportunity in the early stages of the recovery to tackle it. Alluding to Bob Dylan, European Commissioner Marianne Thyssen, who’s responsibilities include employment and social affairs, acknowledged this. “The times, they are a-changin,” she said, and everyone — governments, industry, social partners, unions — needs to ensure no-one gets “left behind or pushed aside” in this changing world.

Yet the stark reality is that Europe’s recovery is opening up an economic no-man’s land between the ownership class and the ‘working poor’. This is a precarious place — especially for the 70 million Europeans who lack the skills or basic numeracy to take full advantage of the digital revolution — where even Europe’s much-vaunted social system seems unable to gain ground. It’s occupied by a growing class of Europeans who are not poor enough for many of the social services and not rich enough to afford decent accommodation and good health, or to start a family, move away from home… or simply to enjoy the benefits of a ‘living wage’.

We live in a world of plenty but wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands,” said EAPN’s Director Leo Williams, which is an “absurd paradox”, he added, in light of the recent Paradise Papers tax-avoidance scandal.

Flexibility leads to poverty

And the causes of this wealth gap are entrenched in labour market principles which are geared towards flexibility and dynamism in order to stimulate growth, new jobs and mobility. But in practice, it engenders a power imbalance between workers and employers which translates into something called ‘low work intensity’. For others, it means low-paid or minimum-wage work, and for Europe’s legions of under-employed youths and graduates it means a succession of internships and other ‘non-standard’ or exotic working conditions crafted by employers to keep labour costs in check. This imbalance has direct consequences on the working poor, ranging from difficulties meeting childcare costs and poor or no housing, to high stress and failing health.

In this report, in-work poverty means household income is below the poverty line or threshold despite a full or part-time worker living there. The poverty threshold is defined as under 60% of the average household income (before housing costs).

Real-life struggles told by delegates invited from all over Europe to the ‘people experiencing poverty’ meeting were aimed at EU policy-makers and social actors. A single mother of four spoke of a life “treading water” and feeling socially excluded in the UK. “We really want justice, not judgement,” she said, and to be “cared for, not criticised” by society.

A delegate from Portugal said that even with two household incomes one full-time and one part-time her family struggled to make ends meet. Failing health and dwindling disposable income offered little hope for her children’s future. “I want work and stability… to be able to live not only survive,” she said.

Great stock has been put in the new European Pillar of Social Rights to guide the EU towards a more inclusive model of fair jobs and economic growth. Europe’s leaders recently gathered at a summit in Sweden to discuss a wide range of issues — education, training, lifelong learning, social protection, housing, fair wages, old-age pensions, in-work poverty, etc. — and to pledge support for the Pillar.

But for the quiet-spoken Croatian delegate back at the ‘people experiencing poverty’ meeting, who lamented the broken financial and political systems that can’t even prevent homelessness in ‘wealthy’ Europe, the imminent future looks less hopeful. He wondered how he would be able to afford to leave the shelter he calls home when his earnings are swallowed up by his poor health and the struggle for daily survival.

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Unsung death on the Nile – Part I

 
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By Khaled Diab

Once the mother of our world departed, her ghost arrived, plunging me into the memory hole which grief opens up, where the past becomes its own present and the present morphs into a kind of phantom future.

Friday 11 August 2017

Egyptians fondly refer to their country as Um el-Dunya, Mother of the World, drawing comfort for their lacklustre and turbulent present by reaching far back to the ancient past when Egypt was at the summit of the civilisational pyramid.

I am doubtful that the world could have a mother and, if it did, I suspect it would not be Egypt. But there is a mother of my world and, because I have spent the greater part of my life outside my native land, she, in many ways, is, or was, my Egypt.

That is why when mama took a sudden fall and fell seriously ill, Cairo, that heaving city of constant commotion and continuous motion, seemed to dematerialise. Although the 20 million or so souls who inhabit the metropolis were oblivious to the fact that they had become shadows, Cairo’s legendary gridlock melted away before my taxi as it hurtled from the airport to the hospital, as though someone high up had notified the city’s unruly motorists to clear a path for this worried son.

When I entered her room in intensive care, I was horrified by the sight of my mother intubated and struggling with the nurses. Although mum’s flesh was weak, her spirit was still willing and tough. Never one to accept faits accomplis, she was trying to spit out the tubes that had been rammed down her throat. It was only after we comforted her and gently explained that she could not breathe without the machine that she desisted. Cruel to be kind, flashed through my mind.

Seeing my mama bedridden, with a broken hip and a collapsed lung, unable to move and unable to speak was unbearable to witness or to endure. My ‘baby’ brother, Osama, who along with my sister, Ghada, had dealt with the brunt of the emergency, could not bear to be in the room anymore and bowed out for a breather.

Mama’s extreme frailty brought memories flooding back of the once vigorous, uncompromising, outspoken yet gentle and fair woman who raised four children almost single-handedly, and nearly super-humanely.

The same four children who, due to the geography of modern life, were gathered in the same place for the first time in years, feeling, despite their adult masks, faces and costumes they now wore, like helpless children in need of a comforting squeeze from their mummy.

When mum, her multi-shaded eyes lacking the sparkle with which they once shone, finally had the tubes removed, the first words she spoke were in keeping with her character. She asked how we were doing, expressed her satisfaction that her four kids were gathered around her, and complained about the bland hospital food. Ghada was so overjoyed that, in addition to her repeated expressions of love, she regularly told mum, like a mantra to reassure herself, that she would take very good care of her and get her home soon.

I don’t think I’ll ever leave this hospital,” mum said at one point and we, echoing the doctors’ assurances and to reassure ourselves as much as her, told her she’d be back home in a matter of days. But despite a short-lived improvement, my mum turned out to be right and a few weeks later I had to rush back, in a race against the malfunctioning clock of multiple organ failure, arriving just too late to say a final farewell.

Once mum departed, her ghost arrived, so to speak. I plummeted into the memory hole which grief opens up, where the past becomes its own present and the present morphs into a kind of phantom future, where I clasped and grasped at all mum-related remembrances with every tentacle of my mind, in a desperate effort to keep her alive, even if only in the form of my subjective image of her.

Over the years, the space mum took up in my head had diminished due to the many years we had not lived in the same country. But now she was everywhere in my consciousness, even though it distressed me to realise that I did not remember as much as I wanted to, as much as I should, as much as I must – the little essential details, the exact words uttered, the tiny shards that make up the shattered whole. I became aware that location is a vital component of memory. I imagine that when you spend your entire life in the same country, city, town or village, regularly revisiting or passing the same places constantly, this triggers and reinforces memories – when you never or rarely revisit the scene of the time, the recollections gradually fade until they appear to be so dreamlike that you sometimes wonder whether your memories are actually real, and where the real ones end and the invented ones commence.

Mum was also there at her wake, in the memories and words of family and friends, and at subsequent family gatherings. Throughout the ordeal, well-meaning people tried to comfort me by telling me mum had gone to a better place, that God must love her for taking her during Ramadan, supposedly the most blessed month of the year. But my unbelieving ‘soul’ could gain no consolation from their words. With no God, no afterlife, neither heavenly nor hellish, no blessed nor cursed times of year, I could only console myself with the thought that my mother’s pain and suffering had disappeared with her consciousness, that the hell of disease was over, and she now occupied the paradise of oblivion. Of course, she believed in the afterlife and had worked consciously her entire life towards pleasing her Lord. For her sake, I hoped that he truly existed and that he would be there to reward her goodness.

When I went to visit her tomb, mama seemed absent from this alien terrain, even though her remains lay only feet away, under my feet. My brother, Amr, who is the second eldest after me, had prepared a prayer which he recited with his head bowed in front of him, trying to conceal the tears which had involuntarily welled up in his eyes. This was the first time I had seen Amr, who prefers to shield his emotions from sight, cry ever since mum had got sick, though I understand he wept during her burial, which I missed due to a fault by the airline. When I tried to comfort him, we both cried in each other’s embrace, something that has not occurred since we were children.

Egyptian tombs are pretty homely, with an outer house and a subterranean burial chamber, a practice that stretches back to pharaonic times, which is typically shared by the various deceased members of a single family. But this being a new tomb, my mother was the only occupant. The idea that mum was all alone in that cold, dark place shook me severely. Having been born into a large family and raised one herself, my mother had rarely spent time alone, and so the idea of her now being by herself, even if she could no longer feel anything, distressed me.

Reflecting on mum’s life and the central role she had played in shaping mine led me to discover that what I call my conscience is to a large part actually her voice. Iman Khattab may not have made a visible difference to the world but for the many people she embraced and took under her wing – from her younger siblings whom she helped raise to her friends and protégés – my mum made a world of difference. Empirically, it is easy to disprove the notion that only the good die young. But they always die far too soon for the people who loved them and those who were touched by them.

My mother was only two months older than Donald Trump. I wonder what she would have made of his black comedic rise to president, and particularly his toxic views on immigrants, refugees, Muslims and women – all of which mum was, in some form, at one point or another during her life. Despite her sensitive nature and apprehension about hurting people’s feelings, she was not one to take prejudice and bigotry lying down – though she was always a connoisseur of lying down or reclining, often with a well-earned snack and a hot beverage – as demonstrated by the numerous confrontations she had with racists, one of which included a man with a barking Doberman trying to knock down our front door, the way she taught us to stand up for our rights, and how she always stood up for what she thought was right and defended the weak, with little concern for the personal costs.

Although mum was never officially a refugee, she and my father fled into self-imposed exile. In a sort of shotgun wedding, with Egypt’s state insecurity apparatus holding the barrel to their heads, my parents, who were engaged at the time, got married in a hurry when they discovered that a political case was being concocted against my father. Just how serious and far-fetched that case was would only emerge nearly four decades later, during the 2011 revolution, when a revolutionary salvaged the scorched and synched confidential file on my father which state security had been keeping on him and his family.

At first, my parents fled to neighboring Libya, where a young and not-yet-completely-unhinged Gaddafi had recently abolished the monarchy and installed himself as republican monarch, even though he had no official position. Here is where I and one of my brothers, Amr, were born. However, it would not be long before my father could no longer deal with the regime and fell out of favour with it.

Britain, which was still relatively easy to immigrate to back in the mid-70s, was decided upon as our next destination. Mum went back to Egypt to give birth to my sister, Ghada, before joining my father – but she was delayed three years as state security held us hostage by banning us from travelling in the hope of luring dad back to the country. Fearlessly, though she was probably terrified, mum, with a babe-in-arms, a toddler and a young child, sued the government repeatedly, and won every time, while holding down a job, but each time. However, state security had other ideas and defied the courts by re-inserting her name on the no-fly list at the airport.

Eventually, we made it out of Egypt. But getting to England required a multi-nation tour of the Arab world in a frustrating attempt to find that sweet spot where Arab and British bureaucracy converged, a country where my father would be allowed in and the British embassy there would handle our paperwork. But eventually we landed in Thatcherite Britain…

Read part II 

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