Belgium’s endless identity crisis

 
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As it stumbles from one political crisis to the next, Belgium faces a profound existential threat. But can the slow disintegration of the Belgian state be reversed and, if so, how?

 

The caretaker government of Sophie Wilmès remains in place.
Image: Facebook page of Sophie Wilmès

Friday 25 September 2020

Back in 2011, Belgium made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for the dubious achievement of going through the longest peacetime period without a government. Clocking in at 589 days, this was more than 200 days ahead of its nearest contenders, Cambodia (354 days) and Iraq (289 days).

This record appeared unbeatable… until now.

Last month, Belgium broke its own record. The country is still being run by a caretaker government because its squabbling parties have not managed to agree on a governing coalition. This is despite marathon negotiating sessions and a continuous stream of brave knightly politicians tasked by King Philippe to slay the dragon of political polarisation but who get their fingers burned instead.

Coalition negotiations have moved beyond the more common colour-coding conventions (purple-green,rainbow, etc.) to be dubbed the “Vivaldi coalition” in a nod to the Italian composer’s violin concerti Four Seasons.

Like Antonio Vivaldi, Flemish liberal Egbert Lachaert (who is the 12th politician to lead the consultations to form a coalition since the elections way back in May 2019), has had the unenviable task of composing an agreement that, while not music to the ears of any party, can at least get socialists, liberals, greens and Christian democrats on both sides of the country’s widening language divide singing from the same hymn sheet.

Just when it appeared that Lachaert may have hit the right notes and a full agreement, including the thorny question of who is to become prime minister, was expected to be sealed, COVID-19 struck, delaying the negotiations and throwing the situation back into disarray. This week, the king extended Lachaert’s mandate in the hope that differences between the would-be coalition partners could be ironed out.

Even if a coalition is successfully formed and takes over the reins of government, it is open to question whether such a broad alliance will be stable and survive till the next election, especially given the destablising effect of the deep socioeconomic crisis gripping Europe and the world.

If the government falls again, it will be the unfortunate culmination of Belgium’s second major crisis in less than a decade. This raises the question of what is behind this systemic failure.

One factor is the attempt to keep the far-right out of government. However, with the extremist Vlaams Belang performing strongly at the ballot box in 2019, maintaining this so-called Cordon Sanitaire (i.e. an exclusion zone around the far-right party) is proving harder than ever. The Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA), which is one of the two largest right-wing parties in Belgium and part of the negotiations, has been openly questioning the Cordon Sanitaire.

Another major issue is the growing political gulf separating Belgium’s two main regions. Francophone Wallonia tends to vote for more leftist and progressive parties, while Dutch-speaking Flanders generally prefers more conservative and right-wing parties.

This ideological divide, combined with growing animosity between Flemish nationalists and Francophone socialists, means that a coalition between the other largest party, the Parti Socialiste (PS) and the N-VA, is almost unthinkable.

Such a constellation would also likely be unworkable. This is partly ideological. The PS is social democratic, supports the EU and believes in climate action, while the N-VA is free-market neo-liberal, Eurosceptical and downplays climate change. They also disagree fundamentally about the future of Belgium, with the PS believing in a united Belgium and the N-VA seeking to decentralise the country out of existence.

This growing polarisation has placed almost unbearable strain on the model of consensual politics, known colloquially as the “Belgian compromise“, that has so effectively defused tension and stopped conflicts from spinning out of control since the country’s founding in 1830.

In fact, the Belgian federal government has become so hollowed out, with decades of devolution effectively making regional governments more powerful, that many view the gradual death of Belgium as almost an inevitability.

As a naturalised Belgian citizen, I find this simmering disintegration of Belgium a shame – partly because I appreciate the eccentric appeal of this small multilingual, multicultural country.

Besides, although many believe that a country bringing together three official language communities (Dutch, French and German) is bound to fail the test of time and fall apart, I am convinced there is nothing inevitable about Belgium’s slow-burning implosion.

In my view, the country is falling apart not because of irreconcilable differences between its communities but as a result of a devolution process that has gone too far.

Belgium has had neither national parties nor national media for decades. Education, too, has been regionalised, as has, bizarrely, foreign policy. Even its prized healthcare system, one of the best in the world, has not been unaffected by this regionalisation, with nine ministers holding health-related portfolios.

This, rather than fundamental differences between Flemings and Walloons, has led to the drifting apart of the country’s constituent parts and a rise in distrust.

In reality, the difference between Belgium’s two regions are far smaller than the divergence between states and regions in larger countries, such as China, India, Russia or the United States.

In some ways, Walloon and Flemish Belgians – who are, as much as one can generalise about national characters, understated, reserved and do not take themselves too seriously – have more in common with each other than with the people with whom they share a language across the border.

This explains why, if Belgium were to split apart, Walloons would not support becoming part of France and Flemings are opposed to joining the Netherlands, judging by the anecdotal evidence I have seen over the years. Moreover, the two communities do not have pleasant historical memories of life under French or Dutch rule. In fact, Belgium was founded following a revolution by its predominantly Catholic population against the Protestant King William I of the Netherlands.

Instead, what is vastly more likely is that Flanders would become an even tinier independent state and Wallonia would keep the name Belgium and hope for future reunification.

The best way to halt the disintegration of Belgium and stop it from devolving into two irrelevant countries is to pursue a process of gradual reintegration that moves beyond the fossilised issue of language and looks towards the common interest of all Belgians.

A first step in that direction would be to reintegrate Belgium’s political system by reintroducing national parties. This would stabilise the volatile political system by making it easier to create coalitions, thereby reigniting the spirit of Belgian compromise.

Other steps would be to reintegrate the media, to help create greater awareness and understanding between the communities, and reform education so that every Belgian child receives full immersion in Dutch and French.

Belgium often strikes the outsider as quirky and surreal. But it makes no less sense as a country than any other and has, to its credit, avoided the kind of costly and destructive conflict that has brought other polarised societies to their knees. Let us hope that this sense of pragmatism and the country’s legendary capacity for “Belgian compromise” regain the upper hand.

___

This is the updated version of an article which was published by Al Jazeera on 9 September 2020.

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Defining tyranny: Hitler, a dictionary and the death of a Jewish Arabist

 
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By Khaled Diab

The world’s best-known Arabic dictionary started off as a Nazi propaganda project and cost a young Jewish scholar her life. It’s time Hedwig Klein received the posthumous recognition she deserves.

Hedwig Klein at work.

Thursday 30 July 2020

Dictionaries are like the librarians of books. They have a reputation for being mild, polite and impartial. Unlike, say, novels or political tomes, nobody would expect a dictionary to be political, much less controversial.

But there is a dictionary that is both.

Hans Wehr, the world’s most renowned dictionary of modern Arabic usage, is the constant companion of foreign students of Arabic and Arabists.

However, this learning aid that has helped generations of Arabists has a dark and disturbing history that few are aware of and shocked me and other users of this reference work when they learned about it. The venerable dictionary started out as a Nazi project and it gave a young Jewish scholar a stay of execution but only for the time she worked on it.

Although the dictionary only saw the light of day in the early 1950s, work on it began in the 1930s, under the auspices of the Nazi regime, which entertained the vain hope of producing a high-quality Arabic translation of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (My Struggle).

Frustrated by the quality of the available translations of Hitler’s opus, the German foreign office learned about the project of the Arabist Hans Wehr (after whom the dictionary is named) to painstakingly and meticulously compile a dictionary based on actual modern usage of Arabic rather than the more conventional classical sources.

Such a resource would be useful, the Nazi propaganda machine reasoned, in the so-far futile efforts to produce an official translation of Hitler’s autobiography and manifesto.

Part of the problem lay in the fact that the Arabs who had attempted to translate Mein Kampf had been hobbyists who did not know German and relied on the French or English translation.

Another challenge, but one unlikely to have been recognised or admitted by the Nazi authorities, was the poor quality of the original text. Reflecting the mediocrity of Hitler’s evil, Mein Kampf was so spectacularly bad that even fellow fascists derided the memoir. It was mocked as “a boring tome that I have never been able to read… [full of] little more than commonplace clichés,” by  Benito Mussolini, according to the biography of the Italian fascist dictator written by Denis Mack Smith.

Ironically, Wehr received invaluable assistance in this propaganda project from an unlikely source, a young and talented Jewish Arabist by the name of Hedwig Klein, an Islamic studies scholar who did not receive the PhD she had worked so hard towards due to Nazi race laws (a fascinating biography of Klein is available here).

At the time, surprising as it may seem today, interest in Islam and the Arabs was in vogue amongst Jewish intellectuals in Europe, who peered eastward in the hope of finding salvation from anti-Semitism, with many believing that there was a natural affinity between Judaism and Islam.

After having unsuccessfully attempted to flee Nazi Germany for British-occupied India, Klein’s last, desperate hope to escape Hitler’s Final Solution was to work on Wehr’s dictionary.

The knowledgeable young scholar, whose modest ambition had once been to become an academic librarian, set to work voraciously reading modern Arabic literature and noting down the words used and their meanings.

The quality of her entries received high praise from Wehr’s team but one member noted that “it will be completely impossible for her to be credited as a contributor later”.

One can only begin to imagine the conflicted emotions, not to mention fear, which Klein experienced. It must have felt like a cruel blow of fate for a young Jew who had been stripped of her rights and her academic credentials to work on an academic project whose ultimate aim was to glorify her tormentor, the “Führer” of Aryan supremacy, in order to avoid being deported to a death camp.

Ultimately, her efforts were in vain, buying her no more than a year. On 11 July 1942, Hedwig Klein was deported to Auschwitz where she perished.

After the war, Klein was posthumously recognised as a Doctor of Philosophy.

Fortunately for humanity, no authorised Arabic translation of Mein Kampf appeared – though unofficial translations are available in numerous bookshops in the Arab world.

As for Hans Wehr, he finished his dictionary as the war was ending, in 1945. He managed to get past the post-war denazification process by claiming to have “managed to save a Jewish academic colleague… by requesting that the Gestapo release her for work supposedly important to the war effort”.

By doing so, Wehr exploited Hedwig Klein twice over: once to profit from her labours before she was exterminated and a second time to abuse her memory to evade punishment for his Nazi past.

Although Wehr thanks Klein amongst other contributors in the foreword to his dictionary, which was finally published in 1952, he makes no mention of what her contribution to his work was nor of her murder at Auschwitz.

This whitewashing of history must end. Future editions of the dictionary must include the full story of Hedwig Klein and of the Nazi propaganda machine’s backing of this dictionary project.

And just as Klein was posthumously awarded her PhD, she should receive belated credit for the dictionary that failed to save her and for which she ultimately gave her life.

From now on, the world’s foremost dictionary of modern Arabic should be renamed Klein-Wehr.

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The mediocrity of evil

 
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Many of the leaders held up as representing the epitome of evil were extraordinarily and spectacularly untalented, incapable and incompetent. With this mediocrity of evil, it is almost a wonder that they managed to rise to the top at all.

 

Friday 10 July 2020

After observing the trial of one of the key organisers of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt coined the memorable phrase, “the banality of evil”.

This term captures how otherwise ordinary people can be motivated or driven to commit acts of extreme inhumanity and cruelty; how ordinary people are capable of extraordinary feats of uncritical thought in the service of an ideology or authority figure; and how some people are so able and willing to compartmentalise and rationalise the heinous crimes they have committed.

It strike me that this banal nature of evil lurks mostly among the rank and file. Among the upper echelons, however, it transforms and transcends this mere banality to become the mediocrity of evil. Many of the leaders held up as representing the epitome of evil, especially those who built up massive personality cults, were extraordinarily and spectacularly mediocre and incompetent.

Naturally, I do not mean to suggest by the above that all totalitarian tyrants and demagogic dictators were or are stupid and incompetent. Just as the ‘banality of evil’ does not preclude the existence of evildoers who are entirely committed and believe in the crimes they commit, the mediocrity of evil does not mean that no evildoers exist who are not highly competent and extremely intelligent. Examples of murderous tyrants who were also smart include, according to some historians, Joseph Stalin, though Leon Trotsky would beg to differ, and Mao Zedong.

It just means that a surprisingly large proportion of them are so spectacularly untalented and incapable that it is almost a wonder that they managed to rise to the top at all.

This stands in stark contrast with the popular image of evil, immortalised mythically in the firebrand intelligence of the devil, the cruel and fiery master of the blazing underworld. What he lacks in omnipotence, he makes up for in resourcefulness, drive and brains. In the popular imagination, Satan is a genius of persuasion, a criminal mastermind who can outsmart saints and turn them into sinners, who possesses such a command of the art of the deal that he can forge dastardly pacts with humans.

But real-life people who aspire or make it to the position of “dark lord” often lack Darth Vader’s debased brilliance. They are far less Sauron and far more Gollum, mediocre individuals lured by the ring of power, addicted to it and corrupted by it. They are the real-world personification of the inadequate man pulling the levers controlling the Wizard of Oz.

This mediocrity of evil can be clearly viewed in Donald Trump who, despite his repeated protestations, is anything but a “stable genius”. Before his unlikely rise to power, Trump was dismissed as a clown, an entertaining freak sideshow on the election trail – though it turned out that some segments of the media underestimated him. They were his useful idiots rather than the other way around.

Trump’s mediocrity is not just intellectual, political and cultural, it even stretches into the sphere he most prides himself on, business, where what success he has had was largely built on his father’s money and his first wife’s acumen. The man seems incapable of seeing the world beyond himself or being interested in anyone but himself – hence, his natural affinity to the notion of a personality cult.

Some have attempted to dismiss Trump as an aberration, an unfortunate aligning of the political stars. But this mediocrity of evil is nothing new and, sadly, rather common.

Überidiot

‘Adolf, the Superman: Swallows gold and spouts junk’
Photo montage by John Heartfield, 1932.
Source: https://www.johnheartfield.com/John-Heartfield-Exhibition/john-heartfield-art/famous-anti-fascist-art/heartfield-posters-aiz/adolf-the-superman-hitler-portrait

Although Hitler has assumed the mythical proportions of an evil genius, a super-villain, partly thanks to the power of Nazi propaganda and Germany’s lethal, nihilistic performance during World War II, the pre-Führer Adolf was once a young aspiring artist of little talent and even less education, having dropped out of school before even acquiring his secondary certificate.

Nazism was anti-intellectual and its founding father was the antithesis of the intellectual. At the time of its publication, Hitler’s main opus, Mein Kampf, was derided not only by his opponents but was panned even by many fellow fascists. It was mocked as “a boring tome that I have never been able to read… [full of] little more than commonplace clichés,” by  Benito Mussolini, hardly a noted original thinker himself, according to the biography of the Italian fascist dictator written by Denis Mack Smith. This must have really stung, as “Il Duce” was a role model and inspiration for Hitler.

In the early 1930s, before he’d managed to fully construct his totalitarian personality cult that did away with anyone who publicly derided him, Hitler was mocked as a buffoon by German cabaret artists.

That said, Hitler’s lightweight intellect and intelligence does not mean that he lacked personality or charisma. “Hitler could not have succeeded against his many rivals if it had not been for the attraction of his own personality,” acknowledged George Orwell, no doubt unconsciously influenced by the mythmaking might of the Nazi propaganda machine, in a 1940 essay about Hitler’s Orwellian machinations.

“In a rather more manly way it reproduces the expression of innumerable pictures of Christ crucified, and there is little doubt that that is how Hitler sees himself,” the not-yet author of 1984 wrote of a photo of the Führer. “If he were killing a mouse he would know how to make it seem like a dragon.”

“Hitler’s strength consists solely in the clever use of already existing trends, ideas and situations,” wrote Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn. “The mass leader is necessarily a virtuoso of commonplaces which he may or may not repeat in the guise of a ‘new discovery’. The modern dictator is not out to contradict but to confirm already existing views (and prejudices).”

Moreover, contrary to popular perceptions, Hitler was lazy, by the account of those closest to him. “He stayed up all hours during the night talking and playing music and watching films. He got up very, very late. It was unusual for him to have stirred before 12 o’clock midday,” noted Andrew Wilson, the author of a brief biography of Hitler.

Beyond the person of Hitler, the whole Nazi apparatus, far from being a well-oiled and efficient machine, was riddled with incompetence and inefficiency, centred as it was around the ego, whims and foibles of its unreliable and temperamental leaders. “Hitler produced the biggest confusion in government that has ever existed in a civilised state,” the German tyrant’s own press secretary Otto Dietrich once opined.

In short, rather than make Germany great again, Hitler took the most intellectually and technologically advanced society of the time and threw it off a very high cliff.

However, the image of Hitler and the Nazis as larger-than-life monoliths suited their supporters and opponents alike. For supporters, it helped validate their trust in such a monstrosity of cruelty and inhumanity. For opponents, it helped make Hitler and the Nazis appear to be completely alien to civilisation, masking just how common and popular his racial ideas were in the Europe of the time, even amongst those engaged in toppling his tyranny.

Royally untalented

Beyond Europe, the modern Arab world has been cursed with a depressingly high share of mediocre despots, with the most spectacularly incompetent probably being Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.

In the case of Gaddafi, who seized power when he was a young lieutenant in the army, his mediocrity when combined with his extraordinary vanity led him to aspire to and claim greatness for himself in the most ludicrous ways, from financing intrigues abroad to remaking Libya in his own image, despite the fact that he officially held no position of authority and was simply the Orwellian-sounding “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution“.

Not only did the Libyan dictator seek and fail to be anointed Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s successor as populist leader of the Arab world, when he turned his unrequited attentions to Africa only to be cold-shouldered as an eccentricity by his fellow African leaders, he had himself unofficially crowned the “king of kings” by 200 traditional leaders. Gaddafi was infamous for backroom slagging matches with fellow Arab leaders which sometimes erupted front of stage, such as occurred during a 2009 spat at the Arab League with Saudi Arabia’s then king, Abdullah. “I am the leader of the Arab leaders, the king of kings of Africa and the imam of the Muslims,” the Libyan despot said before departing the conference.

Then there was Gaddafi’s little Green Book. Published in a colour more commonly associated with the Quran but weighing in at only around 21,000 words, or about 100 pages, the Libyan dictator’s slim volume became the second most sacred book in Libya and compulsory reading for pupils and students across the country.

Despite its muddled logic, poor argumentation and intellectual shallowness, the Green Book was promoted outside Libya too. The World Centre for the Study and Research of the Green Book, which translated the book into 30 languages, had branches around the world. When I lived in Brussels, I recall, there was a branch just down the road from my flat which only stocked the Green Book and commentaries on it. It was always empty.

Although the Green Book was Gaddafi’s best-known work, his oeuvre extended to fiction. One non-Libyan reviewer memorably described the dictator’s short story collection, which contained “no characters, no twists, no subtle illuminations”, as “a truly unhinged free-form eruption of useless words” that reflected “a mind that cannot follow a coherent thought for very long”.

 

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Robust health systems are society’s first line of defence against pandemics

 
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Belgium has long been written off as a dysfunctional and failing state, yet its response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been surprisingly functional and successful. This highlights how effective healthcare acts as society’s immune system.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 6 May 2020

With its chronic, record-breaking inability to form governing coalitions and its crumbling federal government, Belgium has long been written off as a dysfunctional failure. Although the country is regularly described as a “surreal state” or the world’s most prosperousfailed state” in the foreign media, citizens have become increasingly resigned to the deadlock and the Byzantine machinations of the political elite, often joking that the country works better without a government.

When a COVID-19 epidemic broke out in Italy and threatened to spread across Europe, there were serious concerns that Belgium’s polarised parliament, fragmented government (the country has nine federal and regional health ministers) and minority caretaker government would prove ill-equipped to deal with the acute public health crisis hurtling towards the country.

Despite the political crisis paralysing the country, most of the squabbling parties decided to put public health above partisanship, exhibiting the pragmatism that Belgium used to be famed for. The parliament awarded acting Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès, along with the National Security Council, enough emergency powers to tackle the looming crisis.

Wilmès, who was appointed to head the caretaker government in October 2019, has been thrust centre stage of the greatest crisis for generations. Her cool-headed, understated, calming and inclusive performance, which contrasts starkly with the erratic and bombastic style of her British counterpart Boris Johnson, has won plaudits, including from the normally sober and reserved Financial Times, though she has faced some domestic criticism for allegedly being too absent from the public eye.

The Belgian response has been so decisive and, to date, effective that it has taken many by surprise, not least the Belgians themselves.

So, what is behind Belgium’s relative success in handling the epidemic?

One important factor was the speed and timeliness of the response. Despite some early dithering, Belgium went into lockdown just in the nick of time. The unfolding calamity in Italy at the time focused minds and helped decide the undecided.

Another, and possibly the most crucial factor, was Belgium’s highly developed healthcare infrastructure, which, like a collective immune system, has bolstered society’s ability to fight off the virus.

Not only does Belgium’s health sector rank among the best in Europe, vitally, it already possessed a very high concentration of hospital beds and critical care units, enabling it to handle the huge growth in patients requiring intensive care with relatively few adjustments.

In fact, unlike quite a few other countries whose health systems are overwhelmed by the pandemic, Belgium has had plenty of spare critical care capacity throughout the crisis, even when the epidemic was at its peak.

The major weak point and failure has been nursing and residential homes for the elderly, where an initial shortage of testing kits meant too many cases went undetected. Of the nearly 8,000 deaths so far attributed to COVID-19 over half have been in care homes for the aged.

The way in which coronavirus casualties are recorded has placed Belgium near the top (for now) of the global league for COVID-19 deaths per million. However, as experts have explained, Belgium is the only country which currently records suspected deaths outside hospitals, which represent 82% of the recorded deaths in care homes. This inflates the death rate in Belgium compared with other hard-hit countries.

Other factors at play include the country’s high population density, its relatively old population and comparatively low levels of testing compared with the most successful countries like Germany and South Korea.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

Around the world, lockdowns and social distancing are proving the most challenging measures to implement. Although Belgium has implemented what has been referred to as a “lockdown light”, crucially, it involved the closing down of all but the most crucial economic activities, which was not the case in Italy until late into the crisis.

It also allowed people some time outdoors, which appears to have been more successful than in some countries which imposed a full lockdown. This could be partly because allowing people to go out and exercise or walk responsibly is not only good for their health, but also gives them the chance to let off some steam, enabling them to stick to the other restrictions with greater ease.

And this has largely been the case. Despite some early reports of occasional “lockdown parties ” and some people escaping restrictions by crossing into neighbouring Holland, the public has generally and spontaneously abided by the social distancing rules with minimal need for policing, although the Easter weekend saw a spike in violations, raising fears at the time that this could lead to a new peak. That said, the public was sometimes ahead of the government, with many businesses and shops shuttering before the government officially ordered it.

Even though Belgium was already a society in which personal space was respected, seeing how quickly people have integrated social distancing into their daily routines is impressive. In the few shops that remain open, people were already standing and queuing well apart from each other before markers were put down on the floors. In open-air public spaces, people were also generally distancing themselves from other pedestrians.

Employing good democratic governance, persuasion and consensus-building, rather than coercion, has helped this widespread compliance, even if the far-right and Flemish nationalists have been making unhelpful noises. This has also been accompanied by a cross-partisan commitment to following scientific advice.

While certain politicians in other countries, such as US President Donald Trump, have tried to upstage or contradict scientists, effectively politicising the crisis, the Belgian government’s measured response has not only been led by science, but also relevant experts have often been given greater prominence in the media than political figures.

The daily press briefings delivered by virologist Steven Van Gucht of the National Crisis Centre have become essential viewing for ordinary Belgians. Fellow virologist and epidemiologist Marc Van Ranst has become an almost daily fixture in evening current affairs programmes, where he has explained the reasoning behind each new measure and discussed possible future developments.

Another essential ingredient in the success of these restrictions was the fact that Belgium is an affluent society with a decent, albeit worsening, social security and solidarity system.

The Belgian state, along with many businesses and organisations, decided pretty early on that preserving human life and preventing the uncontrolled spread of the virus was worth taking a major economic hit. Although this is causing hardship for many vulnerable people and smaller businesses, the shock is being softened by an emergency aid package that includes the deferment of tax, mortgage and bank payments, as well as giving workers in vulnerable sectors temporary unemployment benefits.

These efforts appear to be paying off gradually, with epidemiologists confirming that a downward trend is now in motion, leading to a gradual loosening of restrictions, which has proven a challenging undertaking that appears to be favouring restarting the economy over reviving social contacts, especially for children.

However, success still hinges on how well the population continues to stick to the rules, experts emphasise.

The situation in Belgium highlights the critical importance of investing heavily in healthcare and social safety nets in good times, not just during emergencies. One only hopes that once the pandemic is over, politicians, including in Belgium, will recall this lesson and boost investment in these increasingly neglected areas, despite the inevitable economic crisis which will follow.

What the case of Belgium and other wealthy European countries also underlines is that such a robust response to the pandemic is a luxury which poorer countries cannot afford if and when they are hit by this coronavirus.

This raises the urgent need for global solidarity. It is imperative that a global COVID-19 fund is established to help poorer countries deal with the medical and economic challenges posed by the pandemic, as well as a mobile rapid response “army” of medical professionals that can be sent to coronavirus hotspots as and when they appear.

____

This is the updated version of an article which was published by Al Jazeera on 13 April 2020.

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The demographic dimension: The role of population growth in the Arab uprisings

 
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By Khaled Diab

Decades of unprecedented population growth have played a significant role in Arab regime repression, the two main waves of revolutions that swept the region, and the fierce counterrevolutions that followed.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

Friday 24 January 2020

Over the past century, the Arab region has experienced dramatic population growth, not only caused by high birth rates but also by drastically increased survival rates and life expectancy. This has resulted in the largest (and most educated) population the region has ever had.

The region, too often dominated by an ageing leadership and elite, has failed – due to a combination of internal and external factors – to take advantage of this population boom, resulting in millions of marginalised and disaffected citizens. With jobs and prospects in short supply and repression in overabundance, people are discontented, restive and angry. This essay explores the direct and indirect roles the region’s demographic dynamics have played in regime repression and neglect, and how this repression of the burgeoning population influenced the two main waves of Arab revolutions that swept the region, and the fierce counterrevolutions that followed.

Even though the rate of population growth has slowed, the region’s population is still expanding, which will  continue to affect Arab political, social, economic and environmental landscapes.

Population power

The Arab region has experienced unprecedented demographic growth in recent decades. This has had profound social, economic, environmental and political consequences. It played not only a significant factor in the revolutionary wave and uprisings that have rocked the region, but also in the repression that preceded and followed it.

This is not to suggest that demographic change is the only or the primary factor at play, nor is it to argue for the simplistic and deterministic theory that revolutions occur when there is a “youth bulge” or that the poor are the authors of their own destitution.

Revolutions are, after all, complicated events that occur during periods of enormous confusion. The motivating factors for which are poorly understood and disputed even by those involved in them or by those watching them closely. Revolutions occur at different places and times for an intricate web of overlapping and oft-contradictory reasons, and can be triggered by very different groups and involve a mindbogglingly diverse array of different players.

Having acknowledged the innate complexity of revolutionary movements and mass uprisings, it is my conviction – based on the evidence at hand – that the region’s demographic evolution was a major factor in sparking the mass revolts which began at the end of 2010, and in fuelling the current second wave of uprisings, though the exact role it has played differed markedly from one country to the other.

Fodder for frustration

As a starting point, we can examine the revolutionary slogans used during protests for evidence of the role of population growth in fuelling popular discontent. “Bread”, or some similar variant, was a common rallying cry across the region, from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond, with the ongoing popular uprising in Sudan initially dubbed the ‘Bread Revolution.’

At one level, this constituted an almost literal call for bread. Food security for poor Arabs has worsened significantly in recent years. Already in 2007 and 2008, and again in 2010-2012, demonstrations and riots broke out in the Middle East and other parts of the world to protest rising food prices, which threatened to turn basic nourishment into a luxury for the poorest.

This was to a large extent due to factors external to the region, such as droughts in grain-exporting countries, rising fuel prices, growing global demand for richer diets, speculation in food commodity markets, and growing demand for biofuels.

However, one factor is firmly domestic: the region’s growing inability to feed itself. Rapid population growth, coupled with water and land scarcity, not to mention the massive loss of arable land due to the dual catastrophes of global warming and urbanisation, have combined to make Arab countries among the most dependent in the world on food imports. One exception is Sudan, which possesses enough arable land to feed itself. However, this land is underutilised while being increasingly seized by foreign investors, especially in the Gulf states, for their own food security.

For example, the region imports nearly three-fifths of the wheat it consumes, with some countries importing as much as 100%. Although malnutrition levels are low by the standards of developing countries, hunger levels are growing, mostly due to conflicts but also due to expanding poverty levels.

Take Egypt as an example. In ancient times, its consistently large food surpluses enabled it to flourish like almost no other civilisation of the time. A century ago, the country was still able to feed itself and produce an agricultural surplus. However, since the mid-20th century, when Egypt’s population began to explode, it became increasingly dependent on food imports, especially wheat.

Today, Egypt imports a large percentage of its population’s calorific needs. This makes the country, like the wider region, extremely vulnerable to weather events, climatic conditions and geopolitical dynamics outside its own borders, in a world where the food surpluses of recent decades are shrinking while the global population continues to grow.

This leaves millions of citizens barely able to subsist in the face of rising prices and tightening supplies, especially as the welfare state continues to be dismantled with the removal of most subsidies. It is no accident that two food price shocks occurring in quick succession in an import-dependent region should play a significant role in sparking mass unrest.

Demographic despair

The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the symbolic act of desperation that set Tunisia on fire in 2010 and resonated with people across the region, touches on another way in which population growth set the stage for revolution.

It is true that Tunisia’s population is growing more slowly (1.1% per year) than the rest of the Arab region, largely thanks to rapidly rising levels of education, especially amongst women, and the enormous empowerment Tunisian women have experienced in recent decades, not to mention successful family planning and reproductive rights programmes. Nevertheless, the population has grown considerably in recent decades. This is not just owing to birth rates but also to survival rates and life expectancy, which have risen dramatically over the past century in Tunisia and the rest of the region. A Tunisian born at the close of World War II could expect to live, on average, to only 37. A Tunisian baby born today can expect to live twice as long, with life expectancy at birth standing at 74 for men and 78 for women, according to the World Health Organisation.

This has resulted in a spectacular population boom, despite Tunisia’s decades-old status as an emigrant country. Between 1921 and 1966, the population doubled to around 4.5 million. Since then, it has more than doubled again, to reach the current 11 million.

Although the early years of independence were marked by fast-paced development that absorbed this rapid enlargement of the population, this eventually began to falter until, gradually, the ranks of the unemployed, underemployed and underpaid swelled to breaking point.

Naturally, rapid population growth was not the only reason why Tunisia was unable, like most of the region, to create sufficient opportunities for its citizens. Other factors included mismanagement, corruption, an ill-conceived industrialisation process, the neglect of the agricultural sector, neo-liberal reforms, as well as the rapid automation of the local and global economy. This was compounded by the pincer movement of competition from the old giants of the West, who dominate high value-added sectors, and the new giants of Asia, who dominate the more labour-intensive sectors on which the region traditionally relies.

The stagnation and even reduction in the fortunes of large swathes of the population coincided with a period in human history when material aspirations have never been higher or more visible to the average citizen, leading to a sense of relative deprivation even in cases where welfare has improved in absolute terms. Not only were the material basics of life expanding rapidly, people were being exposed to aspirational consumerism as never before, from their TVs, in films, on the internet and on the streets, as the gap between the haves and have-nots widened to become a chasm.

This made for a radioactive mix. The unemployed, who were stuck at home or sat at cafes watching their future vanish behind a pall of tobacco smoke, and the working poor who ran flat out on a treadmill that was dragging them downhill towards oblivion, had to put their aspirations on the shelves and their lives in the deep freezer, delaying – sometimes indefinitely – the greatest milestones of their lives, such as marriage, children or even their own place to live.

The Labours of revolution

On the dawn of revolution in 2010, the proportion of the labour force out of work hovered at around 13%, according to the International Labour Organisation. The unemployment situation was considerably worse for youth (30%), the highly educated (23%) and women (19%). This large idle capacity, along with the increasingly neo-liberal direction in which Tunisia was heading, led to the depression of wages for the average worker, which was reflected in the depressingly low official minimum salary of just 235 TND per month (The situation in the build up to the revolution in Sudan at the end of last year was even more acute. The ranks of the jobless swelled almost threefold, from 3 million to 8 million, over a period of just seven years, with the overwhelming majority of young people out of work, according to a recent report).

With the Tunisian political and business elites unable to create enough jobs for the continuously expanding labour force and unwilling to share more equitably the fruits of economic development, the path open to the regime to deal with popular discontentment was the bitter pill of repression with the added sweetener of occasional enticements and incentives.

During the Habib Bourguiba years, repression was high but the enticements were also significant: many subsidised goods, free quality education and a bloated public sector to absorb some of the surplus workforce. Under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the repression remained but the enticements were gradually stripped away, except for the incentive of playing the lottery of aligning oneself to the regime in the hope of getting a bite of its crony capitalist cake.

Fewer sweeteners from the state combined with bubbling resentment and discontentment from a well-educated and aspiring population led to what, in retrospect, turned out to be peak police state. The sense of fear, indignity and humiliation this caused produced the third pillar of the revolution, the quest for freedom and dignity.

Shrinking space for the individual

A similar dynamic prevailed in Egypt, at times more intensely. Since the end of the 19th century, the number of people living in Egypt has increased a staggering tenfold. Most of that exponential growth has been since the mid-20th century, with today’s population, which is approaching 100 million, more than five times that of Egypt’s population in 1947. In the decade between 2006 and 2016, the country’s population grew by 20 million people. Egypt’s rapidly growing population has caused it to climb up the global league table, from 20th largest population in 1950 to 15th in 2014. Egypt’s rapidly rising population is not only attributable to high birth rates but, like Tunisia, also to the dramatic decline in death rates due to the doubling of life expectancy since 1937. This population growth is reflected in Egypt’s intensifying population density, which stands at 1,137 people per square kilometre (2016), if Egypt’s vast areas of unpopulated deserts are excluded, making Egypt the 14th most densely populated country in the world.

The social and environmental effects of this overcrowding are immense. There is growing awareness of the desertification caused by human-induced global warming, albeit mostly elsewhere in the world. However, there is another form of desertification that has swallowed up vast tracts of Egypt’s most fertile arable land: rapid urbanisation. By the mid-1990s already, Egypt had lost 912,000 feddans of agricultural land (over 383,000 hectares) to urbanisation. Another study found that, in the quarter of a century between 1992 and 2015, 74,600 hectares of extremely fertile land in the Nile Delta alone had been destroyed by urbanisation.

Overcrowding also places extreme strain on Egypt’s severely stretched water resources. In the past, Egypt, one of the driest lands on the planet which has been described as the largest oasis in the world, was the gift of the Nile because the river’s abundant waters were more than enough to keep the country fertile and fed. Today the Nile, which experts warn is dying, has become Egypt’s curse. Although the Aswan Dam has been a blessing by storing and regulating water flow, enabling the growing population to quench its thirst even during droughts, it has come with an enormous environmental price tag. The extremely fertile alluvial silt from Ethiopia, which once renewed and regenerated Egypt’s Nile valley, is trapped behind the dam. Compensating for this has required vast amounts of chemical fertilisers, which pollute the land and the river. In addition, the decades-long absence of rejuvenating silt, combined with rising sea levels caused by global warming, has caused many coastal areas to become too salinated for agriculture and is threatening the very integrity of the Nile Delta, which is slowly crumbling into the Mediterranean Sea.

With Egypt’s inhabited area smaller than Switzerland, everywhere – from its smallest towns and villages to its largest metropolises – is teeming with people. Lacking sufficient infrastructure, capacity and willpower to deal with the waste produced by so many tens of millions of humans, the quality of the air Egyptians breathe has become toxic, rubbish overflows to pollute public and natural spaces, from empty plots of land to farmland, while many agricultural canals and streams have become open sewers.

Beyond public health and environmental damage, this extreme overcrowding has serious social and psychological consequences, especially in urban areas. In Cairo, people quite literally live on top of each other. Although this has some undoubted cultural and social advantages, the streets are a constant choking confluence of smog, dust, noise and people. Egyptians cope with this overcrowding differently than, say, the Japanese. The coping mechanisms of choice in Japan are orderliness and elaborate rules for personal space and interpersonal interactions. In contrast, Egyptians tend to embrace the involuntary intimacy imposed by overcrowding by being more intimate. People are casual and sociable in public and often attempt to dissipate the tensions caused by heightened physical proximity with humour.

Nevertheless, living in overcrowded housing in an overcrowded city with constant and intense sensory stimulation is stressful, limits the individual’s personal space and makes privacy a coveted but unattainable prize, especially for the poor. There is often no reprieve or escape from the cacophony. Whereas a couple of generations ago, Cairo abounded with pleasant gardens and parks, today, there are barely any green spaces in the city and almost nowhere to escape the madding and maddening crowds. With housing beyond the means of a large proportion of young people, it has become routine for Egyptians to live with their parents until their late 20s or early 30s, with all that involves in terms of frustration and infantilisation.

Containing and neutralising the seething frustration and popular dissatisfaction required, like in Tunisia, harsh repression combined with sweeteners. However, the abandonment of this unspoken social contract in Egypt was greater than in Tunisia, as almost every area of life was privatised, including healthcare and education, while public services, especially schools and hospitals, were neglected to near death. This, combined with a rapidly growing population, meant that the middle class was withering on the vine, while the ranks of the poor and destitute were continuously reinforced.

Although Egypt’s official unemployment rate in the final quarter of 2010 was 9%, the true unemployment rate was significantly higher, not to mention the working destitute, partly because the Egyptian government counts people who do occasional casual work as being fully employed. Nevertheless, the official figures cannot distort the fact that 40% of the unemployed were university graduates and half of jobless Egyptians were between the age of 20 and 24.

In the build up to the attempted revolution in 2011, Egypt had greater space for opposition, criticism and dissent than Tunisia. Despite this, Tunisia has, in a very short space of time, managed to construct a vibrant democracy. In contrast, Egypt, despite the consistently large mobilisation of protesters for an extended period of time, has slipped back into an even-more repressive form of military dictatorship, which tolerates no dissent and operates predominantly through coercion and oft extreme violence.

How did this transpire?

Two factors loom large here: the role of the military and that of Islamists. Tunisia is among the minority of Arab countries that does not possess a large and politicised army. This served it well in the wake of Ben Ali’s departure. The Tunisian army lacked the interest, culture, means and appetite to exploit the chaos and seize the reins of power. In Egypt, the politicised army, which has enjoyed massive political influence since the Free Officers military coup in 1952, had too much to lose and perceived the popular calls for freedom as an existential threat to its parallel economy and society.

Another factor was the nature of the Islamist movement in both countries. Egypt has a large and largely uncompromising Islamist movement. In Tunisia, mainstream Islamists are more pragmatic and secularised, and less influential, than their Egyptian counterparts. This led to Tunisia’s Ennahda party engaging in the politics of compromise and consensus, which helped facilitate the country’s relatively smooth transition to democracy.

Beyond these immediate factors, demography also played a role. Not only is Tunisia less crowded than Egypt, its birth rates declined sooner and are far lower than Egypt’s. Despite Egypt’s rapid population growth, the fertility rate of individual women has declined significantly in recent decades, more than halving since 1960 to reach 3.4 in 2017. Nevertheless, Egypt’s per-capita birth rate is nearly double that of Tunisia’s.

The relative stabilising of Tunisia’s population, as well as its higher level of average education and lower average levels of destitution, made the country fertile for positive change. In fact, political demographers were forecasting already in 2011, contrary to the gloomy predictions of many political pundits, that Tunisia stood a “good chance” of becoming a democracy within five years. Decent leadership in civil society, trade unions and politics, as well as a symbiotic culture of consensus and compromise, managed to capitalise on these favourable conditions and delivered democracy faster than even this short estimate predicted. Of course, Tunisia is not yet out of the woods; if it fails to deliver economic welfare and social justice, the progress of recent years can be rapidly undone.

The demography of things to come

The above illustrates how the dramatic demographic changes of recent decades have exercised profound direct and indirect influence on the socioeconomic and political reality of the Arab region.

Demographic change is likely to continue to play a strong role in the region’s future. Population change optimists point to the global trend of declining population growth rates and past human ingenuity to predict that we will be able to cope with the challenges of demographic expansion until we reach peak population around mid-century.

However, this is not a foregone conclusion for everywhere in the world, including the Middle East. Many Arab-majority countries continue to have a population growth rate above the global average. This is partly because, in my analysis, although a growing number of people have woken up to the advantages of smaller families, the pressure from tradition, parents and religious conservatives to have larger families remains difficult to resist for many.

Moreover, the aridity of the region makes it extremely vulnerable to food supply shocks in other parts of the world, which could potentially become more frequent and prolonged due to the combined effects of global warming and the continued enlargement of the world’s population in terms of absolute numbers. Moreover, global and local economic inequalities are likely to intensify any crisis that occurs. This is compounded by cross-border competition for scarce water, such as the brewing conflict between the Nile Basin states over the river’s water resources, especially between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, whose population today has overtaken that of Egypt.

Just as the potato famine in 19th-century Europe, particularly in Ireland, became a famine rather than a crisis due to the massive social and economic inequalities of the time, combined with the Malthusian propensity to blame the poor for the avarice of the rich, future food shortages could be intensified by unfair local and global distribution and consumption patterns.

Demographic and environmental change could potentially lead to a perfect storm, triggering humanitarian, political and social catastrophe in large parts of the Arab region. Alternatively, the region may continue to struggle and muddle through until its population peaks, after which welfare will improve. At present, Tunisia offers the greatest hope and model for the future of the region, as does Lebanon, which has a similar demographic dynamic to Tunisia, if the current protests trigger the right kind of momentum for change and the destabilising war in neighbouring Syria does not push this fragile and diverse country over the edge.

The most promising and hopeful possibility for the region’s demography is that increasingly empowered and aware citizens will engage in voluntary birth control, which would enable the population to even out sooner than current projections, while corrupt and repressive elites will be replaced by more enlightened political, economic and social leaders who will revive the region’s development potential by utilising its relatively young and talented populations for the greater collective and individual good of all concerned.

_____

This article was first published by Rowaq Arabi on 23 December 2019.

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Racists exploit BDS and Israel to advance their agendas of hatred

 
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By Khaled Diab

As recent motions in the German Bundestag and US Congress reveal, both the BDS and pro-Israel movements are exploited by racists as fig leafs to further their agendas. These racists must be exposed and challenged.

Friday 24 May 2019

Taking a leaf out of the US Congress‘s playbook, Germany’s Bundestag has labelled the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as “anti-Semitic” in a non-binding resolution which enjoyed cross-party support.

Given that Germany has, in recent years, instated or participated in numerous sanctions programmes, one would think that its parliament could tell the difference between targeting a repressive regime and hating an entire people.

After all, I do not regard Germany’s earlier decision to sanction the Syrian regime for bombing its own people, or its embargo on arms sales to Saudi Arabia for its warmongering in Yemen, as expressions of anti-Arabism or Islamophobia. Instead, they are efforts to deploy ‘soft weapons’ to curb or stop these conflicts – or at the very least not to profit from them or be a party to them.

Likewise, the entire EU, including Germany, as well as Israel and many Jewish groups, boycotted Austria briefly after Jörg Haider’s Austrian Freedom Party became part of the governing coalition in 2000.

“The pattern of argument and methods of the BDS movement are anti-Semitic… [and] recall the most terrible phase of German history,” the motion issued by the German federal parliament stated.

Although I admire Germany’s efforts to come to terms with the crimes against humanity committed by the Hitler regime, and the country’s determination to avoid a repeat of that tragedy amid a massing current of anti-Semitism, this effort to equate the present BDS movement with Germany’s dark Nazi past is way off the mark.

There is no equivalence between a totalitarian, genocidal state which stripped Jews of their rights and very nearly succeeded in exterminating European Jewry, and a civil society campaign which defends the human rights of Palestinians and opposes the decades-old Israeli occupation. Suggesting that the two are the same is tantamount to blaming the victims for their demise.

What adds insult to injury is the German far-right’s efforts to jump cynically on the anti-BDS bandwagon.

It is beyond ironic that the extremist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which claims to be Israel’s “one true friend” in the Bundestag while simultaneously stoking anti-Semitism and nurturing nostalgia for the Third Reich, has put forward the harshest alternative resolution, calling for an outright ban of BDS in Germany.

This must appear to be a can’t-lose proposition to the far-right party, which can now deflect criticism of its anti-Jewish agenda while disguising its anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry in a cloak of virtuosity. Moreover, European anti-Semites supporting Israel is not as odd as it sounds because they have long regarded it as channel for removing Jews from the West.

This variety of stealthy anti-Semitism needs to be challenged as actively as open racism against Jews.

Those, like the Green party, who voted for the resolution on the progressive end of the spectrum are inflicting unforeseeable damage on German democracy, by curtailing citizens’ freedom of expression and action. It also sends the implicit message that even peaceful forms of Palestinian resistance are not acceptable in some western eyes.

That is not to say the German authorities should stop challenging and combating the poison of anti-Semitism, but they should focus on actual incidents of Judeophobia, rather than stigmatising an entire anti-occupation movement.

Although the principles of BDS are not anti-Semitic, in and of themselves, the movement can and does attract anti-Semites.

Some racists instrumentalise the movement to cover up their irrational hatred of Jews and to conceal their hateful bigotry behind a sheen of respectability. Others allow their sympathy for the suffering of the Palestinian people to plunge them down the rabbit hole of rabid racism.

This leads to the sorry and troubling situation in which some pro-Palestinians perpetuate the vilest and filthiest of anti-Semitic tropes, such as the myth that wealthy Jews covertly run the world through their alleged control of the global banking system, not to mention the seemingly supernatural powers they ascribe to Israel and the Mossad.

Some truly ludicrous variations of this which I have heard or encountered include the myths that the Israeli Mossad was behind everything from the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks to the creation of the Islamic State (ISIS) jihadist group and the master puppeteer behind the Syrian civil war.

Most sickening is when a BDS supporter or pro-Palestinian sympathiser downplays or downright denies the Holocaust, either by claiming the Holocaust never took place or by insultingly insinuating that the Zionist movement played a role in the persecution of Jews in order to win sympathy for their cause, thereby simultaneously blaming the victims and absolving the perpetrators.

A recent example of this was a short video downplaying the extent of Nazi extermination drive and purporting to reveal “the truth behind the Holocaust and how Zionism benefited from it”, which was posted by AJ+ Arabic last week. Al Jazeera quickly deleted the offensive tweet and suspended the two journalists whom it said made and published it.

It is imperative that efforts to combat and weed out this insidious racism are scaled up, both in the Arab world and the West, for the integrity of the pro-Palestinian movement and for the safety and security of Jews.

While the BDS movement is clearly not racist, it is not necessarily as effective as some think, nor as ethically straightforward as its advocates believe, and a convincing moral case can be made for supporting, opposing or modifying it.

One thorny question relates to the issue of fairness. Although it is completely understandable that Palestinians would focus on their own cause and engage in a boycott of their oppressor, it is less clear why outsiders would choose this cause over others.

For many pro-Palestinian activists, their support is part of a broader humanist worldview that opposes injustice and oppression wherever it occurs and regardless of whomever commits it, such as is the case with Jewish supporters of the Palestinian cause. Moreover, Palestine and Israel are of enormous symbolic, political and historical importance, both in the Middle East and the West.

However, some are guilty of selective outrage and the hypocrisy that accompanies it. For instance, there are those who rail against the crimes and injustices of the Israeli occupation while defending the crimes and injustices of, for instance, the Assad regime.

Then, there is the conundrum of collective punishment, especially when it comes to the cultural and academic boycott of Israel and the blanket “anti-normalisation” movement in the Arab world, which impacts even Israeli progressives, such as celebrated author and academic Shlomo Sand, and sometimes even Israeli journalists sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, such as Amira Hass.

And, as the anti-normalisation camp becomes more vocal in Palestine, on the back of a quarter of a century of disappointment and decades of dispossession, this also inhibits joint action between Palestinian and Israeli civil society and citizens, as several peace activists confessed to me during a recent visit to Ramallah.

But the reality is that Palestinians will not be freed by BDS alone. In addition to a targeted boycott of the institutions that facilitate the occupation, there needs to be targeted engagement between Palestinians and Israelis, Arabs and Jews. The goal of the conflict needs to shift from vanquishing a determined enemy who refuses to bow down to gaining a steadfast ally to bow to in mutual respect.

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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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Of crusaders and jihadis

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite their conviction that they are polar opposites, white supremacists and Islamist extremists share much in common, including a hatred of minorities and the enemies within, a persecution complex, and nostalgia for past glories.

Brenton Tarrent, the man being tried for the Christchurch massacre.

Monday 25 March 2019

If a terrorist were to claim that their attack was intended to “add momentum to the pendulum swings of history, further destabilising and polarising Western society,” you might be excused in thinking the perpetrator was an Islamic extremist. But these are the words of a white supremacist and crusader.

In the confused and contradictory manifesto reportedly penned by Brenton Tarrant, the 28-year-old Australian white supremacist who stands accused of perpetrating the deadly mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, the self-described terrorist asserts grandiosely that his killing spree sought to “incite violence, retaliation and further divide between the European people and the invaders currently occupying European soil,” even though the attack was carried out about as far away from European soil as it is possible to get in the inhabited corners of the world.

Tarrant also wrote that he hoped that his actions would “Balkanise” the United States “along political, cultural and, most importantly, racial lines”. This would, in his twisted vision, hasten the destruction of the current order and enable the creation of a white, Christian utopia on the smouldering ruins of multiculturalism.

The Australian extremist’s nihilistic fantasy of revolutionary change from within echoes that of many jihadis and Islamist extremists. For example, combating the “near enemy,” i.e., the enemy within, is a central pillar of the ideology and political programme of the Islamic State (ISIS) and partly explains why fellow Muslims were the largest target, in numerical terms, as well as indigenous minorities, of the self-proclaimed caliphate’s murderous rage.

These two hateful ideologies — white supremacy and radical Islamism — may regard themselves as polar opposites, but their worldviews resemble one another more than they differ. Both are paranoid, exhibit a toxic blend of superiority and inferiority towards the other, are scornful of less extreme members of their own communities and are nostalgic for an imagined past of cultural dominance.

Islamists are often in the habit of vilifying their secular, liberal and progressive compatriots and co-religionists as culturally inauthentic mimics and fakes, at best, and as sellouts and traitors, at worst. “The enemies of Islam can deceive Muslim intellectuals and draw a thick veil over the eyes of the zealous by depicting Islam as defective in various aspects of doctrine, ritual observance, and morality,” railed Hassan al-Banna, the founding father of the Muslim Brotherhood, in 1936.

This conviction that local liberal elites are aiding and abetting the enemy by betraying their own culture and people is also a common refrain amongst white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the Alt-Right. Such a belief is the root of Tarrant’s absurd assertion that “NGOs are directly involved in the genocide of the European people.”

It also highlights why the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik — whom Tarrant wrote that he admired — chose to attack the “near enemy” by murdering participants at a Workers’ Youth League Summer Camp, people he vilified as “cultural Marxists,” instead of the more obvious target of Muslims or other minority groups whom he also hated. (A watered-down version of this discourse is becoming popular in more mainstream right-wing and conservative circles, as epitomised in the growing demonisation of leftists, intellectuals, academics and journalists, whom President Trump regularly and dangerously brands as the “enemies of the people.”)

A contempt for “Western” modernity is another trait shared by Islamists and the Christian far right. “The Europeans worked assiduously in trying to immerse (the world) in materialism, with their corrupting traits and murderous germs, to overwhelm those Muslim lands that their hands stretched out to,” believed al-Banna. Unintentionally echoing the founding father of political Islam, Tarrant is convinced that the West has become a “society of rampant nihilism, consumerism and individualism.”

This disdain for many aspects of modernity translates into an overwhelming yearning for a supposedly more glorious and pure past and a nostalgia for bygone imperial greatness when the world was at their command — for the days of European empires or Islamic caliphates.

In his manifesto, Tarrant oozes victimhood, equating the perceived erosion of privilege with oppression, rather like Islamists in some Muslim-majority countries who regard any concessions to minorities or women as a sign of their own supposed repression. He appropriates the language of occupation, anti-colonialism and the oppressed, despite living in a society founded by European settlers.

Although Tarrant claims to be undecided about whether he is a Christian, he couches his manifesto in Christian imagery and justifies his crimes in religious terms, like his jihadi equivalents. Not only does he quote Pope Urban II, who initiated the First Crusade, but the attacker warns that: “We are coming for Constantinople and we will destroy every mosque and minaret in the city.”

Tarrant claimed that his actions were motivated by the urgent need to avert a supposed “white genocide,” a popular myth in far-right circles which maintains, absurdly, that there is a conspiracy in motion to kill off the white race. Outlandish conspiracy theories are common fodder in both far-right and Islamist circles, including anti-Semitic tropes about the world being controlled by a cabal of secretive, wealthy Jews.

The appropriation of the anti-colonial language of the oppressed shows how white supremacy has developed an inferiority complex since its peak in the 19th century, when the West pretty much ruled the rest. In place of the white man’s burden of yore, many on the far right now feel they are regarded as the burden.

This claim of resisting foreign occupation and oppression is a common refrain in contemporary white nationalist circles. Despite claiming that whites were the “the pioneers of the world,” Richard Spencer, the poster boy of the Alt-Right movement, lamented — in the notorious Washington speech during which he made a Nazi salute — that “no one mourns the great crimes committed against us. For us, it is conquer or die.”

“We are experiencing an invasion on a level never seen before in history,” Tarrant asserted dubiously in his manifesto, even though his victims were worshippers at a mosque, not an army massing at the border. “This crisis of mass immigration and sub-replacement fertility is an assault on the European people that, if not combated, will ultimately result in the complete racial and cultural replacement of the European people.”

“[There] are no innocents in an invasion, all those who colonise other people’s lands share guilt,” the Australian terrorist claimed. In this, he echoed Osama bin Laden, who described 9/11 as an act of “self-defense,” declaring that “if killing those who kill our sons is terrorism, then let history be witness that we are terrorists.”

Extremists may believe in a monumental battle between the Christian West and Islam, but the reality is the cross-border conflicts in this world are predominantly clashes of interests, not of ideologies.

There are, however, ideological clashes within our individual countries and “civilisations” — between pluralists and progressives, on the one side, and puritans and fanatics, on the other.

If the extremists prevail, they will rent apart their own societies supposedly to protect them against the perceived enemies from within and without. We must use all the social, economic, political and intellectual tools at our disposal to avert such a catastrophe.

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This article was first published by The Washington Post on 16 March 2019.

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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.

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

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The curious case of the Islamophobe who became a Muslim

 
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By Khaled Diab

Rather than being like a vegetarian who suddenly becomes a carnivore, a former Islamophobic politician’s conversion to Islam is more akin to a committed soda beverage drinker switching from Coca Cola to Pepsi.

Monday 18 February 2019

Irony is a cruel prankster. It turned a far-right politician from the Netherlands, Joram Van Klaveren, from virulent Islamophobe, who had made it his political mission to rid his country of Islam, into an unlikely convert to Islam. Van Klaveren’s epiphany occurred while he was working on a book which started off as an anti-Islam polemic but morphed into a defence of the faith.

Worse or better still (depending on your perspective), Van Klaveren had not so long ago been the right-hand man of the godfather of Dutch far-right extremism, Geert Wilders. For those unfamiliar with him, Geert Wilders is the Dutch Donald Trump.

More accurately, Trump is actually the American Wilders, as the Dutch anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim politician with the eccentric peroxide blond hair, helped pioneer the brand of outrageous, publicity-seeking, substance-free ‘populist’ far-right politics which Trump perfected. Wilders has gone from demanding the banning of the Quran, supposedly in the defence of free speech, to calling for a “head rag tax”, the complete banning of mosques, hijabs and Islamic schools, as well as a halt to Muslim immigration.

Given this track record, as well as the fact that Wilders lives under permanent police protection following death threats from Islamic extremists, he was bound to view the conversion of his former “crown prince” as a betrayal. Admitting that he “had no words” to describe his dismay, Wilders colourfully likened Van Klaveren’s decision to a “vegetarian working in an abattoir”.

Similarly confounded, Jan Roos, who co-founded the far-right party Voor Nederland (For the Netherlands) likened Van Klaveren’s leap of faith to a “black man joining the Ku Klux Klan”, dismissing it as a “PR stunt to promote his book”. This strikes me as nonsensical. In the current political atmosphere in Europe and America, Van Klaveren is far more likely to sell a book bashing Islam and Muslims than defending them.

In addition, Van Klaveren runs real risks. Some commentators fear that his conversion could make him the target of violence and hate crimes from neo-Nazis and the increasingly radicalised violent extremes of the far-right. Moreover, his harsh criticism, now from within Islam, of how jihadis and Islamist extremists twist and exploit their faith could lead to him becoming a target of their violent ire. And if this is an opportunistic publicity stunt and Van Klaveren were later to renounce his newfound faith, he could be the victim of death threats from fanatical Muslims who reject so-called apostasy.

Although Van Klaveren’s conversion appears to be inexplicable and to represent a 180-degree turn in his position, it is not as bizarre or surreal as it appears at first sight, representing what you could describe as a 360-degree change in his position, i.e. returning to the point where he started.

Rather than being like a vegetarian who suddenly becomes a carnivore, Van Klaveren’s change of heart is more akin to a committed soda beverage drinker switching from Coca Cola to Pepsi.

Although Geert Wilders describes himself as “agnostic”, he is culturally very Christian and exploits Christianity and racial identity politics to whip up fear against Muslims and immigrants. Despite Wilders regularly referencing a supposedly tolerant set of “Christian values” that contrast with allegedly savage Islamic ideals,

Not only do Islam and Christianity, like Judaism, derive from the same Abrahamic roots and draw on similar Greek philosophical traditions, the Reformed Protestantism in which Van Kleveren was raised in the Dutch ‘Bible Belt’ bears even greater resemblance to mainstream Islam – in their shared iconoclasm, attitudes towards drinking and intoxication, even the so-called Protestant work ethic bears a striking resemblance to the traditional Islamic concept of work as a form of worship.

Ironically, Muhammad is, in some ways, more compatible with contemporary Dutch (and American) Protestantism than Jesus. Whereas Christ was a radical and outspoken anti-materialist who believed the rich were condemned to eternal damnation, the Muslim prophet was a successful merchant who traded far and wide. Now which of the two sounds more like a Republican or the famously entrepreneurial Dutch?

[Van Klaveren] comes from an orthodox reformed [Protestant] background which is a lot like Islam,” posits Joke van Saane, a professor of religious psychology at the Free University of Amsterdam. “They swap one system for another, which makes it easier than for people without a religious background.”

Van Klaveren has hinted as much. “It felt a bit like a homecoming, in religious terms,” the convert explained in an interview, in which he confessed that he still loved Christianity. This sense of familiarity was probably intensified by the warped picture of Islam Van Klaveren had been exposed to in the Islamophobic circles he frequented – although this earlier demonisation probably made it much harder for him to come out with his new convictions.

In fact, the impassioned rivalry between Christianity and Islam is not down to their irreconcilable differences, as fanatics on both sides believe, but due to their uncanny and unsettling similarities – rather like the narcissism of minor difference identified by Sigmund Freud.

This makes the conservative Christian idea that Van Klaveren has gone over to the dark side just as ridiculous as the conviction among conservative Muslims that the Dutch convert has discovered the one and only true light.

The triumphalism and smugness among Islamists on social media has been palpable, with many seeing this as a sign of the self-evidently superior truth of Islam. “Truly anyone can be guided to Islam once you look at it with an open and sincere heart to find the truth,” said one influential Twitter user. “Some of the biggest enemies of Islam can become the greatest of the believers.”

This echoes an existing narrative that Islam is the world’s fastest-growing religion by virtue of its undeniable veracity and its irresistible ideas. However, not only are their minor religions that are growing faster, the reason Islam appears to be growing so rapidly is due to population growth in Muslim-majority countries, where people are counted as Muslims regardless of what their beliefs may or may not be, while conversion accounts for a pityingly small 0.3% of this growth.

In short, Van Klaveren’s conversion tells us almost nothing about the reality of Islam. All it tells us is that one man discovered that the negative hype around the religion was exaggerated and exchanged one very similar faith for another.

What I take home from this curious case is the demystifying and humanising power and potential of knowledge and familiarity – the importance of compassion, not of conversion. As surveys and anecdotal evidence have revealed, people who actually know Muslims are far less likely to fear or hate them. With the polarised reality in which we live, it is vital that we learn to understand and empathise with our fellow citizens, especially the marginalised, even if we disagree with them.

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This article was first published by The Washington Post on 11 February 2019.

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