Lesbos: “No matter how hard you swim, you can never save all of them”

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek, DELO

Despite the massive efforts of volunteer lifeguards, refugees are losing their lives in the Mediterranean. Europe must act… and out of compassion.

These conscientious and courageous lifeguards take time off work to volunteer to save lives. Photo: ©Elio Germani

These conscientious and courageous lifeguards take time off work to volunteer to save lives.
Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

 

Thursday 28 January 2016

Still shivering with the cold even in the golden foil they’d been wrapped in, two young Afghan girls were having a lively chat. Their mother was gazing out to the sea, mostly back towards Turkey, which they had departed two hours earlier on a grey dinghy.

Some 20km from the shores of Lesbos, the grey rubber boat’s engine had given out. The boat started rapidly filling up with water, but fortunately the passengers were spotted by the staffof the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms. All of its members are experienced lifeguards, veterans of Catalonian and Basque beaches. Almost routinely, they set out and made sure the three rubber boats reached the small port in the picturesque village of Skala Skaminies, where at least 20 lifeguards from all over the world are currently stationed.

“It is cold, but I’m very relieved. We were getting desperate, but now we’re finally safe. I am so grateful to the people who came to rescue us,” smiled a black-garbed elderly lady from Douma, one of the quarters in Damascus hit hardest by the war. Madam S has lost both her sons to the conflict. On her long journey to Lesbos, she was accompanied by her grandchildren and the widow of her eldest son. They had seen and experienced it all. They were visibly exhausted and not up to a long conversation.

“We just want to get safe. We’re hoping Europe will take us in,” shrugged the younger of the two boys while fiddling with a pile of fake life-jackets. Most of these deadly fakes, it should be noted, had actually been made by Syrian children in garage factories all along the Turkish coast. Right now, the Syrian children are the ones who can provide the dirt-cheapest labour to be found.

Proactively saving lives

"The worst part is when you have to decide who you're going to save and who is going to be left to drown… no matter what you do, no matter how hard you swim, you can never save all of them.” Photo: ©Elio Germani

“The worst part is when you have to decide who you’re going to save and who is going to be left to drown… no matter what you do, no matter how hard you swim, you can never save all of them.”
Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

On Lesbos, countless NGOs and volunteers are toiling without pause to contain the tidal wave of human tragedy. But no matter how hard they try, it is never enough. The migrants and refugees keep dying on a massive scale.

“We’re all trying to the best of our abilities,” a thickly bearded man named Joaquim Acedo told me as we stood out in the cold winter sun. “Most mornings, we are already at sea by six when the first boats start coming in. Our first and only objective is to save lives. As for politics, it is not something I care to think about. I’ve got no time for that.”

But Acedo added an important afterthought. “Reaching Lesbos from Turkey by regular ferry costs €10 and is absolutely safe. Getting here by rubber boat costs €1,200 and can easily cost you your life.”

Acedo is the co-ordinator of the hi-tech Spanish rescue team. Proactiva Open Arms has certainly risen to the occasion.  “There’s quite a lot of us: Sea-Watch, Greenpeace, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the Portuguese coast guard, the Greek coast guard, Frontex, the American,” the tired young man explained. “We’re co-ordinating our efforts as best we can and pushing our limits every day. But we really can use all the help we can get. Especially now, with the weather improving and more and more people pouring in every day.”

This was Joaquim Acedo’s second tour on Lesbos since Proactiva joined the action in September. Each team normally serves for 15 days, then its members go home utterly exhausted. All of them are participating on a purely voluntary basis, which means that the ones with regular jobs have to use up their vacation in order to be allowed to save lives.

“The worst part is when you have to decide who you’re going to save and who is going to be left to drown,” Acedo added somberly. »Sometimes there are 40 people in the water, all of them screaming for their lives. And no matter what you do, no matter how hard you swim, you can never save all of them.”

No compassion without direct action

Last year alone, almost 450,000 people entered the EU through Lesbos – almost half of everyone who reached the Greek Islands through Turkey. Lesbos, one needs to keep in mind, is an island with some 90,000 residents and an exceptionally weak humanitarian infrastructure. Despite all that, it is now the EU’s key entry point for migrants and refugees.

As things stand, there is almost no EU presence on the island, if we discount Frontex, the EU agency for securing the union’s external borders. In the months to come, the Frontex personnel’s jurisdiction is sure to widen considerably. The EU’s main “strategic” answer to the humanitarian tragedy is to strengthen its outer border, especially the border with Turkey. A part of this “solution” was the recent deal with the Turkish authorities to take on most of the responsibility for the incoming migrants and refugees. The sum handed over to Ankara by the European Union was €3 billion.

Last year, around 350 people drowned on the perilous trip from Turkey to Greece – enough of them so that a new location for a graveyard had to be found in Mytilini since there was no more room in the old one. This year, 70 souls have already been lost to the journey. This particular crime against humanity is only getting worse.

On the day I visited their venerable operation, the Spanish lifeguards saved more than 50 lives – lives that the European political elites and European public opinion increasingly perceive as a threat to their Christian way of life.

“But how can this be? Such a view is absolutely unacceptable to a Christian,” exclaimed Father Christophoris, an Orthodox priest who I sat down with in a smoke-filled café in the nearby mountain village of Sikaminia. Almost 14 years ago, Kristoforis himself had made the long journey here all the way from California. This is why he now considers helping the migrants and the refugees to be the focus of his life’s mission as a priest.

“The refugees have been coming here to Lesbos for 15 years now,” he explained to me over a steaming cup of coffee. “First from Afghanistan, then from Iraq, and now from Syria. Our duty is to help them as much as we can. All of us could be in their place but for the grace of God. This is our chance to choose between being good and being evil – it is as simple and straightforward as that. There is nothing more Christian than helping out a fellow human being. It is a sacred duty of each and every one of us. And it is also at the core of this great humanistic culture the EU is founded on, at least in principle.”

This remarkable blond-haired holy man is now at the heart of refugee relief co-ordination on the northern part of the island. The last time there was such an influx of desperate souls in these parts was in 1921 and 1922, when many Greeks were on the run from Turkey. They, too, had been very much a burden to the locals.

“There is no compassion without direct action,” father Christophoris informed me with a wistful smile. “And that is why the contribution of all the volunteers and the locals here has been priceless. They have come here from Greece and from all around the world, and they replaced the state. They clearly demonstrated precisely what needs to be done. They have done what was humanly possible to preserve the face of civilisation.”

The warmth of a cold reception

Cold in Moria. Photo: ©Elio Germani

Cold in Moria.
Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Most of the people at the Moria refugee camp were shivering, some of them uncontrollably. On this day, the entire heart of the Mediterranean was wretchedly cold. The nearby mountain peaks had recently been whitened with snow, making the refugees’ journey even more ardous.

Wrapped in swathes of golden foil and blueish blankets, the refugees were very grateful for each cup of hot tea handed out by the volunteers. The children kept clinging to each other as the women wrapped themselves tight in their shawls and headscarfs. The men were seeking out what information they could get on how to continue with their journey. Most of them were disheartened to find out that, owing to a shipworkers strike, all the ferries to Piraeus had been cancelled. For a while, all they could do was stare at their cellphones while trying to come up with a plan B.

I was approached by a man named Said, hailing from the greater Aleppo region. “We’re so cold,” he told me. “How much longer will we have to stay here? Is it true that Germany has already closed its borders to the refugees?”

Said had reached Lesbos early that morning, accompanied by his wife, six sons and three daughters. The eleven of them formed a close huddle. Freezing half to death, most of them did not much feel like talking. They’d had to wait nine days to cross from Turkey to Greece. They borrowed most of the money they needed to reach Europe from their relatives. They have no idea how they will be able to repay them.

“We are running for our lives. We were hoping to remain in Syria, but it was not possible. Things get worse there every day. I had to protect my children,” Said explained his predicament. Unlike many of his fellow refugees aiming for Germany or Sweden, this hollow-cheeked man with an understandably distracted look in his eyes didn’t really care where his flight would deliver him. “All we want is to be safe. We simply want to find a place where we will not be bombed every day.”

Closing the borders

“I spent a great deal of this summer connected to the internet and watching footage of our people being warmly greeted in Germany,” Farouk confided. “And so I eventually decided to set out myself. I knew that if I remained in Syria, I would almost certainly be murdered. I don’t have any powerful friends on either side. I’ve also been against the war from the beginning. But I couldn’t leave my parents, could I? They were the ones who suggested I should join one of the refugee groups headed for Turkey.”

I was talking to Farouk under a metal awning in Mytilini, where he and some comrades had sought shelter from the icy rain. The men were sifting through their options. They had no money to sleep in a hotel, and the combination of the rain, the cold and their utter exhaustion was preventing them from walking back the 15km to the refugee camp.

After a while, a few stray dogs entered our grimy resting place. The Syrian youths twitched in something quite akin to panic, so the freezing animals took flight and retreated under a nearby staircase.

The distance between the comfort zone and the bottom of the food chain is so often a matter of geographical and temporal coincidence.

Farouk proved exceptionally well-informed about every aspect of the so-called Balkan refugee route. On leaving home, he knew that his chances of securing a new life in Europe were much slimmer than they would have been a few months ago. But staying put would have meant a much graver risk. The fact that Farouk hailed from Syria certainly increases his chances of breaking through to where he wants to go. But the chances of him actually being granted asylum are slim to none.

The European (anti-)refugee and (anti-)migrant policies are degenerating by the hour. Within EU territory, several hundred thousand refugees have been waiting for months to enter the job market. Even Germany, having set an example by opening its doors wide open, eventually decided to reach for the handbrake.

In many ways, it is little wonder. The Merkel administration is facing ever-more bitter opposition from within the ranks of its own party. The German open-door policy is irrevocably over. As a consequence, the Balkan refugee route is closing down.

Last Tuesday, the Austrian authorities decided only 37,500 people would be allowed to apply for asylum this year. The regime at the Austrian-Slovenian border, where for the past three months the Schengen arrangements have become but a wistful memory, is sure to get even stricter than it is today.

In the weeks and months to come, the Germans will start returning thousands of people to Austria, while the Austrians are bound to start funneling them off to the small barricaded country of Slovenia. At the same time, the Macedonian authorities have temporarily closed their Greek border at Gevgelija. As early as last autumn, the Macedonians at the border with Greece had begun to turn back the refugees who were not from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan.

According to our information, there is a rather substantial chance of them soon sealing the border entirely. The way things stand, the most likely scenario is that the brunt of the burden will once again fall on the economically ransacked Greece. Brussels, which recently sold its share of responsibility for the refugees to increasingly unstable Turkey, is about to re-sacrifice Greece at the altair of its own short-sighted interests.

From here to the final rise of the neo-Nazi movements like the Golden Dawn is but a short step. The anti-refugee sentiment has become the European state of mind. This is true both at the level of the increasingly xenophobic public opinion and at the level of the political elites, which have finally been freed from wearing the masks of political correctness. This not only pertains to the former communist parts of Europe, but also to countries like Switzerland and Denmark, where on arrival the refugees are now stripped of a part of their assets.

“We will never go back”

Contrary to popular rightwing myth, the majority of people waiting to board the boat were women and children. Photo: ©Elio Germani

Contrary to popular rightwing myth, the majority of people waiting to board the boat were women and children.
Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Last Friday night, several thousand people were waiting in the icy wind at the Mytilini port to get a ferry to Pireaus and Kavala. Due to a long shipworker strike, some 3,800 refugees were stranded on the island. Around 65% of them were women and children.

All over the port, the refugees were seeking relief from the savage cold. Very few of them were appropriately dressed for such arctic conditions. Some of them were forced to wait out in the cold for five hours or more. Almost none of them felt like talking. The only thing they were interested in was the hour when the two ferries were scheduled to leave.

Three Afghan youths had managed to set fire to a garbage heap and were now standing beside it to keep warm. They had been on the road for 30 days. “We will never go back. All three of us have borrowed money to get here. We first have to work hard to pay it back – only then can we start taking care of ourselves and our families. I want to work in the computing industry,” said 19-year-old Reza from Kabul.

The half a dozen Greek policemen in charge ordered the great mass of freezing refugees to form three long columns. The two enormous ships were not set to leave for another two hours.

By the time the refugees were finally allowed to board, most of them were so tired and cold they were unable to feel any joy. It was as if they were all too aware of what awaited them on the remainder of their Balkan journey.

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ISIS and the mash of civilisations

 
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By Khaled Diab

Counterintuitive as it may sound, ISIS is proof that the clash of civilisations is a myth. The reality is that interests clash, while cultures mix.

Thursday 26 November 2015

When the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the atrocities which took place in Paris, its message was sprinkled with references to “a faithful group of the soldiers of the Caliphate” who attacked “Crusaders” in Paris, a city described as the “the carrier of the banner of the Cross”.

This has added fuel to the notion that a monumental battle between Islamism, or even Islam, and the West is underway. “Islamist fundamentalism must be annihilated,” said the far-right Front National’s leader Marine Le Pen who is previously alleged to have compared Muslims praying on the street to the Nazi occupation of France.

Almost inevitably, with the precision of a Swiss timepiece, some evoked the late Samuel P Huntington. “This is not a grievance-based conflict,” opined Republican presidential hopeful, Senator Marco Rubio. “This is a clash of civilisations, for they do not hate us because we have military assets in the Middle East.”

Although ISIS undoubtedly hates Christians and other non-Muslims with a passion and believes in just such a clash, buried amid its jihadist rhetoric of fighting the “infidel” is a clear indication that the choice of Paris as a target was largely motivated by France’s “military assets” in Syria.

“The smell of death will never leave their noses as long as they lead the convoy of the Crusader campaign.. and are proud of fighting Islam in France and striking the Muslims in the land of the Caliphate with their planes,” ISIL’s statement mentioned above expressed explicitly.

This highlights how clashes of interests, far more than ideology, inform “foreign policy”, even of a fanatical, ideologically driven group like ISIS.

Since its inception, ISIS’s “jihad” has been about territory politically and resources, economically. Ideologically, its main enemy has been what it regards as errant Muslims who are worse than the “infidel”, in ISIS’s reckoning, because they claim to belong to Islam but walk the path of “kufr” or “unbelief”.

Despite ISIS’s horrendous and merciless persecution and ethnic cleansing of minorities, such as Yazidis and Christians, in numerical terms, its main victims, like those of most jihadist and violent Islamist groups, have been fellow Muslims.

In fact, a kind of global war is in motion, both in Syria and elsewhere, between ISIS, al-Qaeda and other jihadist outfits, each of which considers the others to be Godless and not true to Islam, whereas their real motivation is greed for power and influence, and envy of one another’s “successes”.

This was illustrated in the assassination by al-Qaeda-allied al-Nusra Front of Abu Ali al-Baridi, the commander of the ISIS-affiliated al-Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade. In a statement about the killing, al-Nusra placed al-Baridi firmly outside the community of believers.

In a similar vein, the latest attack in Paris may have partly been spurred by the rivalry between the world’s two leading jihadist groups. With al-Qaeda claiming the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, ISIS may have been seeking to one-up its bitter rival’s grim record.

To my mind, this highlights the oft-overlooked clash within civilisations, which I believe far outweighs, in terms of ferocity, intensity, passion, and sheer carnage the clash between Islam and Christendom. This can be witnessed in the conflicts in the contemporary Middle East, as well as the traditional Sunni-Shia schism.

In Europe, this is visible in how, despite the fears of this or that society or culture bringing down the West (or Christendom before it), the two occasions in which European civilisation came close to annihilation – World War I and II – was due to internal ruptures and rivalries.

Ideologically, it is apparent in the numerous schisms within Christianity – between the Western and Eastern churches, or between Catholics and Protestants. These schisms enabled the early Islamic conquerors to easily overcome the Byzantines who were hated in, for example, Egypt, because Copts were regarded as “heretics”. During the Dutch Revolt, Protestants used the slogan “Liever Turksch dan Paus” (“Rather Turkish than Pope”).

In fact, despite the headline ideological conflict between Islam and Christendom, pragmatic and even friendly alliances have, for centuries, been forged across this divide. This can be seen in the long-lasting alliances the Ottomans forged with France and later Germany. This was also visible everywhere from Andalusia to the Crusader kingdoms to the Arab alliance with the British against the Turks or today’s longstanding US-Saudi axis.

Perhaps most significantly of all, and what gets left bleeding by the wayside in these polarised times, is what I like to call the “mash of civilisations”. Judaism, Christianity and Islam have so influenced each other, over the centuries, and been influenced by the same traditions, including Greco-Roman and Mesopotamian, that it is impossible to speak of them as separate civilisations.

They are sub-groups of a single civilisation, and the diversity within each is greater than the differences between them. And it is by recognising and highlighting this mash of cultures that we can combat the divisive ideologies propagated by the fanatics in our midst.

The Middle East and the West belong to the same Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, which is merely a subset of human civilisation.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 16 November 2015.

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The Brussels connection: Turning the tide on radicalisation

 
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By Christian Nielsen

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

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

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

Tuesday 17 November 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The UN’s Insecurity Council

 
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By Khaled Diab

The UN Security Council has a long track record of failing to resolve conflicts. Now it is also in danger of bringing the major powers to blows.

UN SC

Wednesday 4 November 2015

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s recent surprise visit to Israel and Palestine followed fast on the heels of France’s efforts in the UN Security Council to issue a presidential statement in support of the deployment of international observers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and other holy sites in Jerusalem.

Such a flurry of activity by and within the UN is clearly intended to calm the violence that has been escalating for the past month. But even with the best intentions, does the UN in its current form have any capability or credibility in this conflict?

The French draft on international observers, by focusing on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, above all gives credibility to the myth that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about religion – but it also confuses a symptom with the disease.

The Temple Mount is only a microcosm of the wider conflict and it is not where the greatest abuses occur. It would be far better and more useful if international observers were deployed across the occupied territories and in East Jerusalem to monitor the daily transgressions there.

Better still would be an international peacekeeping force, which would be good for both sides. For Palestinians, it would offer protection from Israel’s arbitrary and repressive military rule. For Israelis, it would provide security without the corrupting domestic influence of draconian militarism. For both sides, it could offer the breathing space required to rebuild bridges burnt over the past couple of decades.

However, it is near impossible that such an ambitious proposal would fly, if even the idea of proposing international guardian angels at Jerusalem’s holy sites is meeting with such stiff resistance.

Israel is adamantly opposed to the French proposal. “Israel is not the problem on the Temple Mount; it’s the solution. We maintain the status quo,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu claimed defiantly.

And Israel, through its patron and ally, the United States, holds an effective veto over the UN. Washington has exercised its veto right, as one of the five permanent member of the Security Council, to shield Israel dozens of times, not to mention the threat, or fear, of a veto on numerous other occasions to stifle resolutions at their inception.

But it is not just the US that has exploited its veto power irresponsibly to undermine global and local security. Other permanent members have been similarly reckless.

Take Syria as an example. Moscow, along with Beijing, has vetoed four resolutions on Syria. Displaying a multilateralism of sorts, all five of the Security Council’s permanent members, either directly or indirectly, have been involved in the Syrian civil war.

Rather than working for the common global interest of, first, preventing, and now, ending the Syrian conflict, they have selfishly been pursuing their own perceived narrow national interests. Moreover, the Security Council’s failures do not just stop at the here and now. The council’s inability to defang conflict is legendary, with one of the most alarming examples being the Rwandan genocide.

This is partly because the Security Council’s architecture is not fit for purpose. Intended primarily to prevent global conflicts involving the major powers, it is ineffective in regional or proxy warfare.

The Security Council has arguably succeeded in this mission and, even during the Cold War, it helped prevent direct confrontation between the major powers of the capitalist and communist camps. However, they did, and continue to, engage in proxy conflicts, with Syria being the most notable current example.

Additionally, most conflicts today are local or regional ones, and so are difficult to defuse with this architecture, especially the incredibly problematic veto right, which blocks the ability for collective action if just one permanent member objects.

Moreover, we have reached a dangerous fork in the road. Nowadays the Security Council is in danger of magnifying, rather than dissipating, conflict, as its paralysis over Syria and the involvement of its permanent members in Syria demonstrates.

There is an urgent need to reform the UN’s architecture to make it a more effective force for global peace and stability.

A growing chorus of voices argue that the number of permanent members of the Security Council should be enlarged to reflect the contemporary reality of the world and to better include unrepresented regions. Candidates put forward include India, Brazil and the European Union.

However, an enlarged Security Council in which its new permanent members also exercised a veto would likely paralyze this body even more than it already is. It is my view that, with or without enlargement, the veto has to go.

Given the gravity and importance of the issues it deals with, a supermajority voting system could be established in which  a resolution would pass if, say, at least two-thirds of the 15 members of the Security Council (including the 10 temporary one).

However, this does little to address the fundamentally undemocratic and paternalistic nature of the Security Council, which effectively subordinates the will of the international community of nations to that of just five countries.

This can be addressed by making the Security Council subordinate to the General Assembly, and the executor of its will. Of course, for the current permanent members, who would have to agree unanimously to such a step, it would be tantamount to turkeys voting for Christmas.

In addition, if that kind of power is transferred to the General Assembly, larger countries would justifiably say that this unfairly discriminated against them. The UN’s current system of one country, one vote means that tiny Tuvalu, with a population of just under 11,000, carries as much weight as China’s 1.35 billion. This means that if the General Assembly were to start handling issues of international security directly, it would also need to be reformed, with a weighted voting system reflecting individual country’s populations – or the division of larger countries into voting regions, each of which would receive a seat at the UN.

Some small or pariah countries, such as Jewish Israel and Shia Iran, feel that the General Assembly has an intrinsic bias against them. Many Israelis are convinced Israel is held to a different standard.

Whether or not this view is accurate, such situations are possible. Just like a national democracy can turn into a dictatorship of the majority, the same can occur within an international democracy. Avoiding such eventualities would require a powerful constitution to govern the UN’s reformed security mandate and a “do no harm” philosophy.

But even if the Security Council were reformed to overcome its inertia, could it resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Many peace activists on both sides are convinced it could, while the Palestinian Authority and PLO have premised their global diplomatic strategy on the idea that the international community, represented by the UN, holds the keys to peace.

At a certain level, this is a valid point of view. Centralising the international response and rooting it in international law would, at the very least, remove the foreign meddling that created and fuels the conflict. At best, it would empower the international community to address the root causes fuelling the conflict. However, this would require a shift away from the long-deceased Oslo paradigm and towards a civil rights platform, identifying and empowering local partners who can build the popular support necessary to lead their peoples towards peaceful coexistence.

But even if the international community were able to act as a single voice and find creative ways to tackle and address the root issues, this would not necessarily resolve the conflict. After all, the UN played a major role in helping create the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the first place.

When it voted for the partition of Palestine in 1947, the newly conceived UN failed to ensure local buy-in, and this foreign hubris had dire consequences. Back then, failing to gain Palestinian and Arab acceptance led to war. Today, failure to gain Israeli support also risks leading to war or, at the very least, Israel openly embracing its pariah status, entering into self-imposed global isolation, and taking the gloves off completely.

The UN and the wider international community can only help lead Israelis and Palestinians to water. But they cannot force them to drink from the font of peace against their will.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 20 October 2015.

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RIP, Oslo

 
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By Khaled Diab

The “peace of the brave” has given way to the peace of the grave. It’s time to abandon Oslo in favour of a civil rights struggle for equality.

The hoped-for "peace of the brave" has morphed into the peace of the grave. Image: White House

The hoped-for “peace of the brave” has morphed into the peace of the grave.
Image: White House

Tuesday 13 October 2015

It was meant to be the handshake to end all hostilities. When Yasser Arafat shook hands with Yitzhak Rabin on the back lawn of the White House, on 13 September 1993, it seemed that the world had finally taken heed of Arafat’s call, two decades earlier at the United Nations, not to let the “olive branch fall from my hand”.

“The peace of the brave is within our reach,” then US President Bill Clinton said on the momentous occasion of the signing of the so-called Oslo Accords, reflecting the relatively more optimistic mood of the time. “We know a difficult road lies ahead. Every peace has its enemies.”

Yet two decades later, this hoped-for “peace of the brave” has morphed into the peace of the grave. Even the life-support system to which the United States had hooked up the Oslo process also gave up the ghost when Secretary of State John Kerry’s 13th-hour shuttle diplomacy came to nothing.

“As long as Israel refuses to commit to the agreements signed with us, which render us an authority without real powers,” a crestfallen and defeated Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said at the United Nations last week. “We, therefore, declare that we cannot continue to be bound by these agreements.”

So what went wrong over the past 22 years?

One major problem was the flawed nature of the Oslo Accords themselves, which set out clear and present demands of the Palestinians but left Israel with vague future commitments. And as the adage informs us, tomorrow has a tendency never to come.

However, these flaws were possibly surmountable with the right leadership – and this shaky framework agreement could have been shored up and redesigned, with sufficient supplies of goodwill and vision.

But just as the two former warriors and adversaries, Rabin and Arafat, were warming to their themes, tragedy struck. Rabin, who had started the first intifada with a “break their bones” attitude, became more committed to peace when he realised it was in Israel’s own economic and social interest.

Sadly, Rabin’s life was cut tragically short, 20 years ago next month, by an Israeli extremist before he could fulfil his newfound potential as a peacemaker. Poignantly, this occurred at one of the largest peace rallies in Israeli history.

Palestinian extremists, including Islamic Jihad and Hamas, also played their part in derailing the tentative process through a concerted, high-profile wave of suicide bombings. This pincer movement helped propel Binyamin Netanyahu to the premier’s office in 1996.

It was around this time that Hamas and the Israeli right began their longstanding anti-peace “partnership”, for want of a better word. Though they rejected compromise and had a maximalist view of the conflict, which was the main aim of their violence, both Netanyahu and Hamas’s Sheikh Ahmed Yassin couched their bloody and vengeful sabotage in terms of retaliation for past grievances.

This led to a situation in which, rather than shoring up the many failings of the Oslo process and sticking to its five-year deadline, extremists were able to exploit the faults to bury any prospects of a resolution.

The supposedly temporary Oslo Accords became an enduring reality which enabled Israel to wash its hands of responsibility for the Palestinians living under its occupation. The status quo also facilitated the unprecedented expansion of Israeli settlements, which housed about a quarter of a million settlers in the early 1990s to some three-quarters of a million today.

For the Palestinians, the Oslo charade entrenched the temporary Palestinian Authority (PA) as the de facto government that was unable to govern. Just as Arafat had wanted the trappings of statehood even without a state, many in the PA elite had vested interests in maintaining the status quo, while Hamas preferred the status quo of perpetual conflict over compromise, as well as to undermine its Palestinian enemies.

Whether unwittingly or not, the billions the international community has sunk into upholding the myth of the peace process has helped let Israel off the hook. One European diplomat I know described the situation as: “It’s a frozen conflict and we pay for the freezer,” reflecting the widespread disillusionment in aid and diplomatic circles.

Mandy Turner, the director of the Kenyon Institute in Jerusalem, has been researching how aid to the Palestinians functions as a “counterinsurgency” tool, seeking to prevent “the emergence of a Palestinian political movement with widespread support that is opposed to the Oslo process, and/or extreme poverty and political instability”.

This might explain why Mahmoud Abbas demanded at the UN that “Israel must assume all of its responsibilities as an occupying power”, bowing rhetorically to widespread Palestinian perceptions that Israel has outsourced chunks of the occupation to the PA, while Western donors pick up the tab.

“What is required is to mobilise international efforts to oversee an end to the occupation,” Abbas urged, clinging helplessly on to the old paradigm.

Instead, what is required is for Abbas to abandon Oslo and to persuade the public and the other factions to unleash the most powerful weapon in the Palestinian arsenal – its people.

The true “bombshell” would be to abandon the two-state illusion and replace it with a non-violent, popular civil rights struggle for equality and equal rights.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 4 October 2015.

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Invading Europe without invaders

 
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By Khaled Diab

Any objective observer can see  that the refugees of today are not the invaders of history. So why are so many Europeans afraid of refugees?

Bedraggled, desperate and unarmed, the stream of refugees flowing into Europe can only be referred to as an army in the loosest, most figurative sense of the word.  Photo: © Jure Eržen

Bedraggled, desperate and unarmed, the stream of refugees flowing into Europe can only be referred to as an army in the loosest, most figurative sense of the word.
Photo: © Jure Eržen

Friday 9 October 2015

It has been wondrous to behold the massive outpouring of sympathy towards refugees in Europe. Every “refugees welcome” placard and act of solidarity has restored my faith a little in our human ability to do collective good. Those poignant acts of solidarity – from donations of meals and clothes to people offering their homes to those who have taken flight – which have shamed our leaders into action have been kindling to warm my heart during this winter of human misery.

But it strikes me that, as the mainstream has warmed to the refugees and their plight, the right has become more panicky and shrill, triggering the kind of fear and anxiety usually expressed by the defenceless towards ruthless conquerors.

Bedraggled, desperate and unarmed, the stream of refugees flowing into Europe can only be referred to as an army in the loosest, most figurative sense of the word. Yet, across Europe, conservatives have been singing, in chorus, the refrain “Islamic invasion”.

“They’re not refugees. This is an invasion,” said Laszlo Kiss-Rigo, a bishop in southern Hungary, a country which has become a far-right hotbed in recent years and, stuck on a major transit route, has been building a wall to  keep the refugees out.

What is most remarkable is that Bishop Kiss-Rigo’s comments were a rebuke of his spiritual boss, Pope Francis I’s commendable appeal to European churches to take in refugees.

Much further west, similar calls to man the barricades could also be heard. “It’s an invasion that threatens our prosperity, our security, our culture and identity,” said Dutch far-right firebrand Geert Wilders, who once infamously called for the banning of the Quran.

When it comes to prosperity, the influx of refugees (equivalent to just 0.37% of the EU’s population since 2012) poses little to no threat, economists and other experts agree. An analysis by the Brookings Institute  reveals that the inflow of refugees actually has a net positive effect on host economies – and the OECD agrees.

If the European economy stands to benefit from the influx of refugees, why all the panic?

One reason is economic anxiety. Across Europe job insecurity has risen dramatically while youth unemployment in many countries is perilously high. In addition, the corrosion of the welfare state and severe austerity measures have left millions reeling in shock.

Rather than attribute Europe’s economic ills on the continent’s growing welfare state for the wealthy, the corporations exporting (or “outsourcing”) jobs for greater profit and financial sector mismanagement, far-right demagogues find it easier to blame the weak, and kick those who are already down. In addition, the periphery countries dealing with the brunt of the crisis are the poorest and least-equipped to do so.

Beyond economics, many Europeans are genuinely concerned about the potential danger to their security posed by refugees. While it seems far-fetched and even preposterous to people like me that those fleeing the combined terror of the Assad regime and ISIS will themselves turn to terrorism, many ordinary Europeans do not possess the luxury of that insight.

In addition, there is the slim chance that ISIS will play on these fears and send a handful of terrorists amid the flow of genuine refugees. In such an instance, all it need take is a single act of calculated terror to cause Fortress Europe to pull up the drawbridges it has recently slightly let down.

However, fears about security are subordinate to anxieties about culture and identity. Since World War II, Western Europe has witnessed a remarkable demographic transformation in which citizens from former colonies – and from Turkey, in the case of Germany – and their offspring now constitute a significant minority of the population.

Though many have related to this new multicultural reality as enriching and empowering, others have found it troublesome and threatening, particularly those who feel their culture is superior to those of the immigrants. When coupled with the corrosive effects of globalisation and rapid technological development, as well as the rapid demise of religion in many parts of Europe in recent decades, many feel adrift in an uncharted ocean.

Although fanatics capture the headlines and people’s imaginations, this death of religion has also been occurring among what Europe identifies as its Muslim minority, which was never defined so monolithically in the past. For example more than a fifth of “Muslims” in France don’t believe in Islam nor practise it.

One reason why anxiety towards Muslims carries an extra punch compared to other groups, such as Indians and Chinese, is the centuries-old mutual rivalry between neighbouring Islam and Christendom (nowadays referred to as the West).

Just as the crusades continue to cast a shadow over the Middle East, Islamic expansionism in the early centuries of Islam have left their mark on European identity, both negatively and positively.

This partly explains why an older Spanish gentleman told a friend of mine: “There is more than one way to re-conquer Spain.” This is despite the fact that it has been half a millennium since Spain completed its Reconquista and expelled the last Muslim king in Andalusia, Muhammad XII of Granada.

This Muslim menace is shrouded in the mists of time and subsequent might for the powerful former empires of western Europe, which partly explains why they have been able to absorb large Muslim populations. However, this is less the case in some parts of central and southeastern Europe, where the Ottomans dominated until relatively recently, and whose independence was won at a huge cost. But this should be something that unites them with the Syrians who, like many eastern and southern Europeans, were victims of the Ottoman empire too, especially once it shed its multicultural tolerance.

Remembered history, along with the resurgence of religiosity and its negligible Muslim minority, might help explain why Slovakia wished only to take in Christian Syrian refugees. After all, what is today Slovakia was a frontline in the constant wars between the Ottoman and the Habsburg empires, though Slovakia, except for a small sliver in the south, was never actually ruled by the Turks.

Populists and demagogues have been riding, and fanning, the wave of re-Christianisation and growing Islamophobia by playing the history card relentlessly. “When it comes to living together with Muslim communities, we are the only ones who have experience because we had the possibility to go through that experience for 150 years,” said Viktor Orban, Hungary’s far-right “Viktator”, evoking memories of the Ottoman carve-up of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary which empowered the peasantry but destroyed the ruling class.

This is a far cry from the earlier pronouncements by Orban, who is an atheist who now regularly talks about “Christian values”, that “Turkey is not a state at the edge of Europe anymore.” What Orban’s swinging rhetorical pendulum underlines is that there is no “clash of civilisations”, just clashes of interests and convenience.

Moreover, any sensible observer should be able to see clearly that the refugees of today are not the invaders of history. In our interconnected world, people need to conquer their fears and let sensibility and humanity reign.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 1 October 2015.

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Refugees who just want to dance

 
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By Ray O’Reilly

An Iranian engineer who is seeking asylum in Europe because he wants to pursue his passion, dancing, would probably be rejected. Should he be?

A scene from Desert Dancer, a fictionalised account of an underground dance company in Iran.

A scene from Desert Dancer, a fictionalised account of Afshin Ghaffarian’s efforts to set up an underground dance company in Iran.

Wednesday  7 October 2015

Watching Reporters on the BBC on Sunday night, the ‘migrant crisis’ took its rightful share of the episode. Scenes of trains, buses, fences and streams of humanity filing purposefully towards their next destination… often unknown even to them.

As usual, the reporter speaks to the would-be migrants, most of whom hope to reach Germany, and then she comes across a young Iranian man described as an engineering student on his way to England. He tells the reporter that he wants to be an entertainer and that he likes dancing, which he says is not possible where he comes from. A group of young Iranians was given suspended sentences for making their own version of Pharrel Williams’s Happy, while others have attempted to flout the ban by forming underground dance troupes.

I’m both amused and saddened by this outlier on the well-trodden path to a better life, to a place that will respect and nurture his dream, his daring to be different. Or will it? The Britain of Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s new Eurosceptical leader, and Nigel Farage, UKIP’s professional naysayer, is not the beacon of openness that it once was.

Corbyn has been careful on migration but he will no doubt have to show his colours eventually, especially if Brexit becomes a reality. And even if the exit campaign fails, the issue won’t go away as “hordes” of migrants “compete for British jobs”, as the diatribe goes.

The Conversation offers some interesting insights into where the new Labour leader might stand: “Corbyn’s support for trade unionism means he is naturally concerned about wages for low-skilled work being undercut by immigration. […] Nonetheless Corbyn has said that the debate on immigration has been ‘poisoned’, and has criticised his party’s weak defence on the issue. He has campaigned on behalf of asylum seekers, and emphasises the important role that mosques have played in supporting refugees. But this all means he sits awkwardly between being suspicious of internationalism while championing migration and multiculturalism.”

As Reporters carries on with stories about the rise of Dengue Fever in India and its spread around the world, my wife and I are clearly both still thinking about the dancing engineer. What comes into my head – maybe I even voice it – is “Good luck with that dream”.  I don’t mean to be facetious about it. I would genuinely love for our societies to be less than purely pragmatic about the way we assess who can and can’t pursue their dream of a better life in Europe.

But the forces playing out seem to be bent on dashing such hopes. The populist “Fortress Europe” leaders pandering to xenophobia. The nimbyism and “I’m-alright-Jack” attitudes in some EU countries – I don’t need to name them – who either can’t or won’t take their share of the responsibility for these unfortunates whose lives have become just the latest stage for EU leaders to prevaricate.

Front and centre

And the latest news from the EU’s border management agency Frontex is that more resources are being put into identification and registration of migrants trying to enter the Union. Is this a good thing?

On the whole … yes it is, as part of a wider reform of the system in line with statements by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker: “It is time we prepare a more fundamental change in the way we deal with asylum applications – and notably the Dublin system that requires that asylum applications be dealt with by the first country of entry.” (The Guardian provides a good summary of the other proposals thrashed out in Brussels last week.)

But it’s probably not such good news for “low-priority” cases that would struggle to meet the convoluted criteria (‘The truth about the migrant’ crisis on Foreign Affairs makes for interesting reading).

The machinery to implement the EU’s new plans – to resettle 22,000 people from outside Europe over the next year and proposal to create emergency measures to relocate a further 120,000 from Italy, Greece and Hungary on top of the 40,000 agreed in May – is now being put in place.

Frontex is calling for an additional 775 agents: 670 screeners, de-briefers and interpreters to be deployed in Italy and Greece, and 105 guards to be stationed at various external land borders.

“Since the beginning of this year over 470,000 migrants arrived in Greece and Italy alone. No country can possibly handle such high migratory pressure at its borders by itself,” commented Fabrice Leggeri, Frontex’s Executive Director. “It is crucial that all those arriving in the EU are properly registered and identified.”

Apparently, the screening officers will help authorities to determine the nationality of the incoming migrants and register them in the system. The more ambiguous title of “de-briefers” is described as someone who gathers information about the activities of smuggling networks.

I wonder how it will all pan out for an engineer who wants to be a celebrity, or the many thousands of hopefuls still lining up at the newly reinforced gates to a new life.

 

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The Islamic (re)conquista of the West

 
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By Khaled Diab

As a member of the advance guard sent out to plot the Islamisation of Europe, my mission is to pave the way for my migrant jihadi brothers and sisters.

This undercover jihadist practising taqiya to blend in with the infidel natives.

Despite this undercover jihadists best efforts to blend in with the infidel natives, he’s really out to destroy Western civilisation from within.

Tuesday 29 September 2015

We’ve all been fooled. We’ve been duped into believing that the millions of refugees streaming out of Syria were the result of the country’s civil war and the state’s collapse into anarchy.

In reality, they are foot soldiers cunningly disguised as distressed civilians, ordinary men, women and children. Their mission? Armed with the deadliest weapon known to man, the demographic time-bomb, they are mounting the (re)conquest of Europe and the Western world for Islam.

“The entire continent of Europe is being inundated with refugees at a rate unprecedented in world history,” wrote ultra-conservative pundit Robert Spencer, whose history reference material must be very different to those available to me. “This is no longer just a ‘refugee crisis.’ This is a hijrah.”

Now, if you’re an Arabic speaker, like myself, this thunderous warning may have you rubbing your chin in confusion.

Hijrah? Migration? “Well, yes, of course, it is migration,” you may think. “But I prefer not to call them ‘migrants’. It’s more accurate to say, ‘refugees’.”

But, no, no, no, Arabic speaker, learn your language properly. Hijrah means “jihad by emigration”.

Now forget it if your dictionary does not include this definition, Robert Spencer knows better than any stuffy reference work.

In Spencer’s esteemed view, “jihad by emigration” dates back to the very dawn of Islam, when Muhammad fled with his tiny band of followers from Mecca to Yathrib (later renamed Medina).

I was confused by how a religious minority fleeing persecution and threats to their lives (i.e. refugees) constitutes a form of “jihad”. My understanding of jihad is that it involves charging towards your enemy, not away from them.

But, of course, I would say that. I am, after all, a “Muslim” – even if I profess to be an atheist – and we Muslims are experts in the dark art of “taqiyya”. And what is that, you may wonder?

Spencer’s highly authoritative Jihad Watch website, one of the last dams struggling to hold back the Islamic tsunami, describes the concept of “taqiyya” in its succinct guide, Islam 101. “Systematic lying to the infidel, must be considered part and parcel of Islamic tactics,” it explains. “The natural attitude of a Muslim to the infidel world must be one of deception and omission.”

Now I have to confess that I (and my Muslim friends) had never heard of taqiyya until I started seeing it mentioned by rightwing pundits. Curious, I started to dig for more information.

According to the Islamic sources I could find, taqiyya, it turns out, is a Shia concept which dates back to the eighth century when the Shia (i.e. Party of Ali) were a small and vulnerable minority and the newly minted Abbasid caliphate persecuted them when they revolted in rejection of the dynasty’s legitimacy.

At that time of grave danger, the Sixth Shia Imam, Ja’far al-Sadiq, ruled that it was permissible to conceal one’s beliefs in order to avoid persecution or death – though not if it endangers the life of another person – as long as the believer remained true to the faith in their hearts.

It sounds rather like how many early Christians eluded persecution by hiding their faith and living as “crypto-Christians”, practising their religion in secret while sometimes even observing the rituals of another faith.

But what’s with this “what-aboutery”? Everyone knows that Christianity is completely different to Islam.

In fact, unintentionally and with a naturalness that sends a chill down my spine, I have just caught myself red-handed in the act of practising “taqiyya about taqiyya”, i.e. dissimulating about dissimulation.

Perhaps it is because I have been under deep cover for so long that my mind has grown soft and confused under the plush duvet of Western living, where I have slumbered for so many years in my centrally located, highly sought-after sleeper cell.

And it’s been a long slumber. As a member of the advance guard sent out to plot the Islamisation of Europe and to build a Eurabian utopia, my mission is to pave the way for my migrant jihadi brothers and sisters (“refugee” is the taqiyya term) – and finally they’re arriving.

In the process, I have built up a highly convincing profile to pull the wool over the eyes of an unsuspecting, naïve and trusting Europe. The cover I have chosen is that of a progressive, enlightened, feminist and secularist. I even indulge in all those sinful Western ways, am married to a blue-eyed European and have produced a blonde child, who I plan to train in the dark art of dissimulation in the hope that he surpasses his father while looking like the enemy.

Though we usually prefer the sword, we also recognise the value of the word – you know, to win hearts and minds. And that is why I pose as a journalist and writer. Despite my secular writings, some sharp and astute observers have seen through my deception and penetrated my façade, cleverly identifying me as a closeted “Islamofascist”.

Despite my pride in what I have achieved, fairness compels me to admit that I am small fry. The crowning achievement of our Secret Society for Islamisation (SecSI) has to be our man in the White House, Barack Hussein Obama.

You have to admire the masterfulness with which he has managed to manoeuvre himself to become the most powerful man in the infidel world, while pretending to be a devout Christian. But even this grand master sometimes lets his mask slip, such as when he invited to the White House that radical Muslim teen with the ignoble plan to kill time itself.

A Christian called Hussein? You fell for that? I hate to admit it but the birthers and the Tea Party were right. Fortunately for Western civilisation, they saw right through him and have been tirelessly and selflessly working to expose the truth.

Sadly, our man’s time in Washington is nearly up. With so much suspicion floating around us, we must now up our game. But we still have our trump card up our sleeves. Our next plot is to get a candidate with very un-Islamic hair, who is posing as an incurable Islamophobe, elected president. Then, the rest of the west will be ours.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 23 September 2015.

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Al-Aqsa: Spiritual battleground

 
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By Khaled Diab

For Muslims and Jews to share peacefully and justly the Holy Sanctuary/Temple Mount requires the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Friday 25 September 2015

The growing familiarity of clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian protesters inside the al-Aqsa Mosque has not weakened their impact on my Palestinian neighbours and friends in Jerusalem.

The picturesque, stone-lined alleyways of an already tense Old City are seething with anger and frustration, punctuated by Israeli surveillance helicopters that hang in the air. Even unreligious Palestinians who have never set foot inside churches or mosques are furious. They partly envisage their wider demise encapsulated by the struggle over the Noble Sanctuary, as they call it, or the Temple Mount, as it is known to Jews.

“We call on the international community, including Arab countries and Muslim states, to intervene immediately before Israel succeeds in launching a global holy war,” urged Hanan Ashrawi, the veteran Palestinian politician, activist and academic.

Though this largely secular conflict is far from being a “holy war”, as I have argued before, if Israel continues down its unilateral path on this issue, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The religious symbolism of the tensions around the holy site have sent tremors and shockwaves across the region and internationally. The clashes in the Noble Sanctuary, as it is known to Muslims, and the Temple Mount, as Jews refer to it, provoked a stern warning from neighbouring Jordan, with which Israel has a peace accord. “Anymore provocations in Jerusalem will affect the relationship between Jordan and Israel,” warned King Abdullah. “Jordan will have no choice but to take action, unfortunately.”

The European Union and the United States also expressed their concerns about the escalating situation. “It is crucial that all parties demonstrate calm and restraint and full respect for the status quo of the holy sites,” European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic told reporters.

The “status quo” in question is one that has governed the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount since Israel conquered Jerusalem in 1967, whereby the Islamic Waqf and Jordan manage the site and control access to it, with limited non-Muslim visits permitted but worship banned.

But it is apprehension that the Israeli right intends to tear up this status quo that has fuelled the latest clashes – just as they did last year. Back then, Jordan recalled its ambassador to Israel and threatened to review its peace treaty with Israel following a Knesset debate, sponsored by the far-right parliamentarian Moshe Feiglin, on whether or not Israel should seize sovereignty of the holy site and allow Jewish worship there.

“Israelis are trying to establish a precedent by dividing [the Holy Sanctuary] into sections and time segments, so they can give Israeli settlers access to our mosque,” said Abdel-Aziz Abasi, who is a member of Mourabitoun, a group of Palestinian activists, which Israel recently banned, who see their role as guarding the compound against Jewish encroachment. “We will never agree to such a plan.”

Although relatively few Israelis actually visit the Temple Mount and have traditionally been content with the status quo, Religious Zionists and Jewish extremists have managed to make headway in recent years by framing the issue as one of religious freedom at Judaism’s holiest site.

Even the lunatic fringe, such as Yehuda Glick, who fantasises about constructing the Third Temple, is pursuing the civil liberties path. Appropriating language from the South African civil rights movement, Glick said at a demonstration during Ramadan: “We’re here to protest against the apartheid on the Temple Mount.”

But what the religious freedom argument airbrushes out is that this issue is about far more than the right to worship, especially in a situation where Israel regularly restricts Palestinian entry to al-Aqsa.

You could also say that the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount is simply a spiritual microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at large.

This jewel in the crown of Jerusalem’s old city, with its gold-plated Dome of the Rock dominating the skyline, contains many of the elements perpetuating the conflict, writ spiritual: control of and sovereignty over the land, asymmetric power, national identity, the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, movement restrictions, draconian laws, not to mention the status of Jerusalem.

Personally, I’m in favour of Jews, one day, worshipping on their religion’s most sacred, hallowed ground. And my view, though controversial today, is not unprecedented in the history of Islam. Following the surrender of Jerusalem to the Arab armies, Omar Ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph, allowed Jews, who had been expelled by the Byzantines, back into Jerusalem.

Omar ordered the cleaning of the Temple Mount, which had been used as a rubbish tip by the Byzantines, and, some historians posit, permitted Jews to worship there, a practice which continued for a century, into the Umayyad era.

One Jewish convert to Islam, Rabbi Kaab al-Ahbar, even located the foundation stone for the Muslim conquerors. It is even possible that Omar allowed the Jews to construct a synagogue on the mount and appointed a Jew as the first governor of Jerusalem, according to the 7th century Armenian historian Sebeos.

In the presumably enlightened 21st century, it should be possible for Muslims and Jews to share this holy site, which has no shortage of space, and rediscover the many long centuries of relatively peaceful coexistence they enjoyed. Perhaps, one day, in a possible future, Jews and Muslims will be able to share the Noble Sanctuary’s tranquil and soothing esplanade, which takes up about a sixth of the old city’s surface area, and where families picnic and children play football.

However, for that to happen requires the resolution of the underlying conflict. Without peace, it is impossible to think that Palestinians and Israelis will find the necessary good will and trust to compromise over this holiest of locations.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 16 September 2015.

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The West’s hidden tribalism

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

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

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

Thursday 17 September 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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