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.

_____

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.

____

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.

_____

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

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Losing faith in education

 
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By Khaled Diab

While it is important for children to learn about religion, they should not be schooled in any particular faith.

Although organised religion is on the decline in Belgium, Catholicism is everywhere.
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Friday 8 February 2019

As every parents knows, finding the right school for your child is a challenge. This challenge is multiplied, or at the very least repeated, for families who move frequently.

After a couple of years in Tunisia, where our son went to an international French school, we recently moved back to Belgium. Although Iskander has been going to a local school for less than a month, he has already adjusted and is enjoying himself immensely, despite our worries that the switch in the language of instruction might cause him difficulty.

The speed with which Iskander has integrated is, no doubt, due to the fact that our polyglot son has already moved countries a number of times during his short life, and thanks to the warm welcome with which the school has greeted him.

The school our son is attending has much to recommend it. Not only is it about 150m from our front door, it is reputed to be one of the best schools in town, while its traditional reputation for strictness seems to be a thing of the past.

My main reservation, albeit a modest one, is that this school is Catholic, Jesuit to be precise. My objection is not religious, as I am an atheist, but intellectual. As a non-believer and dedicated secularist, I am troubled by the idea of my child attending a school that associates itself, no matter how loosely, with a particular faith.

Luckily, in contemporary Belgium, these establishments are a lot less Catholic than the pope – even if some conservatives do not regard the Jesuit Pope Francis to be terribly Catholic. In primary school, my son will learn some Biblical stories, which are complemented by instruction in general ethics and information about other religions.

Rebranded as ‘Dialogue Schools’, Belgian Catholic schools generally welcome pupils of all religions and none – and the diversity of the children running around the playground of my son’s school is testament to that.

This shift away from traditional Catholic instruction has provoked the ire of the dwindling ranks of conservative Christians. But rather than being a sign of multicultural political correctness designed to appease Muslims and minorities, it is actually sign of, unlike in America or many parts of Eastern Europe, Belgian society’s drift away from organised religion.

This is visible, for example, in all the empty churches. In the medieval centre of picturesque Ghent, where I live, the magnificent and majestic cathedrals and churches are mostly devoid of worshippers and have become more museums than temples. Quite a few churches have been closed down, decommissioned or repurposed.

This explains why secularism has finally got the upper hand, even at the heart of Catholic education, which, nonetheless, remains powerful due to this legacy. Since the establishment of the Belgian state, anti-clerical liberals and progressives have opposed the church’s involvement in secular education and the generous subsidies it has traditionally received from the state to do so.

Although the largest network of schools in the country remains affiliated to the church, it now does so without much in the way of Catholicism. Whereas my father-in-law’s generation were forced to go to church every day and were often taught by monks and nuns, the chapel at my son’s school has been converted into a social space for kids with a large bicycle shed.

That does not mean that religion is dead or on its way out. Although very few Belgians practise their religion, many are culturally Christian. This has involved not only the secularisation and commercialisation of religious feasts, especially Christmas and Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas, but also the apparently inexplicable spectacle of parents who never go to church and may even be unbelievers but still baptise their children and put them through the main Catholic rites, such as first communion and confirmation.

This cultural Christianity, also known as ‘tradition’ and ‘family values’ is especially prevalent in conservative circles. This hardwired nature of Christianity helps explain how it is that many of the people who vocally support the banning of religious symbols in schools see only hijabs and kippahs (yarmulkes) but are blind to the crosses and other Christian iconography in state-funded Catholic schools, including a bust of the Virgin Mary in my son’s class.

When a situation like this is well-intentioned, a sign of the messy evolutions and compromises that a changing society goes through, then one can sympathise. However, when the discourse of religious neutrality is used to stigmatise, marginalise and exclude minorities, it is an entirely other question. The far right, for example, is strident in its opposition to the headscarf and the teaching of Islam, even in private Islamic schools, yet has no problem with Christian symbols in schools or the fact that Catholic schools are the dominant form of schools in the country, receiving generous government subsidies.

That said, the situation of neutrality is generally worse in many Arab and Muslim countries, where, interestingly, the first modern schools were often established by churches and Christian missionaries.

In the most conservative countries, such as the Gulf region, religion makes up a substantial and significant component of the curriculum, and is taught rigidly, dogmatically and conservatively.

In my native Egypt, there are secular schools and religious schools connected to al-Azhar and the various churches. As a sign of the relative importance of religion, even secular schools in Egypt probably provide more explicit and less universalist religious instruction than Catholic schools in Belgium, although Muslim and Christian children receive instruction in their own religion.

In contrast, religious education in Tunisia is more universalist and philosophical and places emphasis on questions of tolerance and acceptance of other faiths and world-views. However, this does not go far enough for some Tunisian reformers.

For example, at a recent conference I attended on civic education in the Arab world, the prominent Tunisian philosopher Youssef Seddik argued, to much dispute and disagreement from delegates from other countries, that not only did religious instruction need to be radically reformed, there was no place for it until the latter stages of secondary education, when young people are old enough to analyse critically and understand what they are learning.

Given it social significance, I think schoolchildren should learn about religion (its history, culture and social role), and other alternative philosophical frameworks, but not be taught to adhere to a specific religion.

Schools should be places where children are taught how to use their minds freely and critically to seek out truth rather than forced to accept mindlessly an orthodox or dogmatic “truth”. We need less faith education and more faith in our children.

____

This article was first published by The New Arab on 24 January 2019.

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Merry Muslims at Christmas

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite fears of an anti-Christmas jihad, many ordinary Muslims enjoy getting into the spirit of the season.

Father Christmas arrives by camel.
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Friday 21 December 2018

Chérif Chekatt, the Strasbourg-born man named as the mass shooter at the city’s beautiful Christmas market killed two, left one victim brain dead and wounded a dozen others. He also reportedly yelled out ‘Allahu Akbar’, which is Arabic for ‘God is Greatest’, during the attack.

If the theory proves accurate that this former criminal, whom French police say was radicalised in prison, was motivated by Islamic extremism, then the target chosen by this ‘gangster jihadi’ has its own twisted logic. Not only is a festive market a soft and hard-to-protect location, it is also hugely symbolic because jihadis believe they are engaged in a religious war with ‘Christendom’ and Christmas is the most important, or at least the most joyous, holiday in the Christian calendar.

This helps explain why this is not the first time that a Christmas market has been targeted by Islamist terrorists. Previous attempts include a foiled plot to bomb the Strasbourg market in 2000 and the truck-ramming at the Christmas market in Berlin in 2016, carried out by criminal-turned-extremist Anis Amri.

Christmas is under siege because there are large numbers of Muslims in the West,” claimed Robert Spencer, the conservative Christian founder of Jihad Watch who is quite literally on a political crusade against Islam in the West, in the wake of the Berlin attack. “The responsibility lies with those who admitted them without regard for Islam’s doctrines of religious warfare and supremacism.”

Chérif Chekatt, it would appear, is part of the armed wing of the wider cultural ‘War on Christmas’, which Western conservatives believe is being waged by Muslims, in collusion with leftists and self-hating liberals.

But do Muslims really hate Christmas and wish to abolish or even to destroy it?

To be sure, ultra-conservative Scrooges and grouches are so set against Christians and Christmas that they refuse even to wish their Christian neighbours and acquaintances a merry Christmas. However, many other conservative Muslims who believe that they should not celebrate or take part in Christmas festivities because they disapprove of the Christian creed that Jesus is the Son of God still wish their colleagues, friends and neighbours ‘Merry Christmas’.

Beyond the rigid conservative edges, tonnes of Muslims do Christmas – and see no contradiction between it and their deep reverence for Jesus. In fact, if my experience is anything to go by, there were almost certainly Muslims wandering around the Strasbourg market – I have barely been to a Christmas market in Europe in which I have not come across Muslims enjoying the delights on display and the warm lighting illuminating the winter’s darkness.

Away from the markets and TV screens, most western Muslims do not mark or celebrate Christmas at home. However, some do. When I was a child growing up in London, my mother, not wishing us to feel left out and wanting to raise our awareness and tolerance of others, allowed us to put up decoration and write Christmas cards, gave our teachers gifts, and even experimented with baking an entire turkey on at least one occasion.

As an atheistic adult married to a non-Muslim, I am pleased to watch our son have fun over Christmas. In fact, with how much Christmas has been secularised and transformed into an entertainment spectacle, it is easily my son’s favourite ‘religious’ festival.

The same goes for some of our Tunisian friends who, despite not being Christian nor living in a Christian-majority country, like to get into the festive mood with a Christmas tree or visit one of the numerous Christmas markets taking place in December.

Xmas at my son’s school in Tunis.
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

In fact, a few hours before writing this piece, we attended the Christmas market at my son’s school, where more than 90% of those in attendance were Muslim. Even Father Christmas, with his long beard, was being played by a Muslim, or someone who looked remarkably like the father of one of my son’s friends. In keeping with the mood of the occasion, one mother had colour-coordinated her hijab to match the wobbly reindeer’s antlers on her head.

In Jerusalem, where I lived prior to moving to Tunisia, Christmas lasts a very long time, and Father Christmas sometimes arrives riding a camel. There, one is treated to a month of Christmases: Western (25 December), Eastern and Orthodox (7 January) and Jerusalem Armenian (19 January). Many of those coming to view the tree on Bethlehem’s Manger Square or to enter the Church of the Nativity, where Jesus is believed to have been born, are Muslims.

When I see what a big deal Christmas can be in some parts of the Arab and Muslim world, I find fears about the death of the festival in Europe or America rather bemusing and bewildering.

I understand that rapid change can be troubling and that the presence of significant numbers of Muslims in societies where there was barely any a few generations ago can cause anxiety. But Europeans should not allow the actions of a few violent extremists to blacken their view.

There are plenty of Muslims who exist beyond the headlines, out in the murky no-news zones of Greyville, who live in peace with their Christian neighbours and share their sense of Christmas cheer.

____

This article was first published by The New Arab on 13 December 2018.

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Steve Bannon is being amplified, not silenced

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Image: Oxford Union

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

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

This double whammy has prompted me to speak out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____

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

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Island of despair

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek

While the outrage of Europeans has been turned to Donald Trump’s wall and the handling of migrants at the border with Mexico, they ignore a humanitarian disaster closer to home. The EU has left Greece to handle the influx of refugees on its own and those stuck on Lesbos are living in abysmal conditions.

Friday 30 November 2018

The dark-grey sky is wide open. The rain keeps pouring out of it as if from an Asian monsoon. Every now and then a crack of lightning rips open the heavens. Torrents of mud are flowing across ‘the jungle’, the parallel refugee encampment which sprang up alongside the ‘reception and identification centre’ of Moria, on the Greek island of Lesvos (Lesbos, in English). The mud is coalescing with the ubiquitous faces, until the mixture forms a small river. No toilet facilities have been provided at the barbed-wire-ringed camp, let alone showers, save for those falling from the clouds.

Some 1,500 people living at the outer edges of Moria camp – currently home to some 7,000 refugees and migrants – are desperately trying to save their pitiful belongings. The filthy bilge is flooding their improvised dwellings. The cardboard-bolstered tents keep sagging under the weight of this Mediterranean monsoon.

Some of the children, who represent over 40% of the refugee and migrant population, nonetheless take to frolicking in the mud. A number of parents try to step in and protect them from the fury of the elements, but their efforts are to no avail. The scavenger dogs seek refuge under the trees. A group of defeated-looking men simply stand there in the rain, silently staring at nothing in particular. The women are struggling to save what little food they have stored in the tents. Since the mice and the rats are constantly on the prowl, the provisions are kept as high from the ground as possible. Despite these efforts, water, which is trickling down from the tents’ ceilings, is now threatening their precious stashes. A number of shrieks and wails can be heard from all over the perimeter.

The very colours are being washed away in the deluge. The one bright thing you can still discern amid the total and all-pervasive greyness is the garishly cheerful sign which, without a hint of irony, bids the inhabitants of the camp ‘Welcome’.

____

“We would have gone anywhere where it was safe. Where we could live like human beings. But the situation here is impossible to bear. We’re struggling to survive. Over here, it’s worse than war,” Alina, 27, tels me in her small tent.

Alina arrived here from the eastern part of Afghanistan, which the EU, for some reason, considers to be a safe country, despite the fact that conditions in the Hindu Kush are worse than at any time since 2001, with the Taliban now controlling two thirds of the Afghan provinces. Things are especially bad for the Hazara, the long-persecuted people whom the horrific experiments in ethnic cleansing sent fleeing to Europe in their tens of thousands.

Should their asylum application get rejected, Alina, her husband and her five children are facing deportation. It is a prospect that chills them to the bone. And for good reason: at least 10 of their compatriots have already been killed or gone missing after being sent back to Afghanistan from Germany or Sweden.

“We set out 13 months ago,” relates Alina, as she sits wedged between her children in the tent designed to accommodate only two people. “We simply had to leave. The fighting had reached our village. We borrowed the money. We first spent almost a year in Turkey. A lot of the time we were living on the street. My husband got work helping out at a cow farm, but the pay was disastrously low. So we decided to take our chances and head to Greece.”

The real irony is that the dire conditions on the other side of the fence, behind the tall barbed wire and surveillance cameras, are comparatively better, even though the ‘official’ camp only provides a single shower for every 84 inhabitants and one toilet for every 72, according to a recent report by the International Rescue Committee. Beyond every low lurks a lower low.

Europe’s migration frontline

In the wake of the European-Turkish refugee deal and the closing of the Balkan refugee route in the spring of 2016, crossing the strait between Turkey and the Aegean islands became much harder. Even the smugglers found themselves in a tough spot after the Turkish authorities started cracking down on the incomers, and after ‘protecting’ the EU’s external borders was entrusted to Frontex, the Union’s border and coastguard agency. The price of the risky voyage to the Greek islands has risen considerably, even though the prospect of reaching central or northern Europe have become slimmer than ever. The Greek islands have now completed their transformation into the frontline of the European migration policies.

At present, Afghans are the most numerous group on Lesvos, constituting more than 40% of the entire refugee population. The Greek authorities, assisted by UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, have transported most of the Syrians over to the mainland. According to official UNHCR data, the Syrians were the most numerous group arriving in Greece as a whole in 2018: 41% of all incomers were from Syria, while 20% hailed from Afghanistan, 15% from Iraq and 6% from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The numbers paint a clear picture of the changing flows brought about by EU policy. In the current year, 30% fewer arrivals reached the European Union via the Mediterranean than last year, while Greece has experienced a 40% increase.

At the moment, almost 70,000 refugees and migrants are based in Greece. The very number is a clear testimonial that many have become permanently trapped. The recent developments have put an increasing strain on the housing capacities all over the country. The official limits have long been surpassed. The local asylum system may be markedly more efficient than it was two years ago, but that doesn’t mean it is anything but slow.

At the time of writing, the accommodation centres on the mainland house around 20,000 people. Although the regional authorities in Lesvos issued, at the end of September, the Greek Ministry of Migration with an ultimatum to ‘clean up’ the Moria camp in the next thirty days, the desired changes did not take place at the required pace, with the organised departure of only around 2,000 people from the island to the mainland occurring over the past six weeks.

But fresh newcomers keep rolling in.

____

“We made two different attempts [to cross to Lesvos]. The first time we were caught by the Turkish police,” recounts Alina. “On the second occasion, we hid in the forest for three days and nights. There were seventy-five of us. We all had to fit on to a single rubber boat. The children were absolutely terrified. All I could do was keep pretending everything was just fine. After an hour at sea, the boat sprang a leak. Before long, we were sinking.”

The group was fortunate enough to be picked up by the Greek coast guard. As the Moria camp had long reached its capacity, they were left to fend for themselves. After applying for asylum, they pitched down in the middle of what used to be a grove, located right next to the camp.

“All of this came as a horrendous shock to me. I’ve never seen anything remotely like it. It’s so crowded, and there are no toilets or even running water,” says the petite Hazara woman. “We are so hungry. Every meal means waiting in a line for two or three hours – though there’s no guarantee you will get served. And there’s so much violence here … At night, the children are forbidden from leaving the tent. I myself don’t dare go anywhere without an escort from my husband.”

“The Greek policemen are merely observing the violence. They couldn’t possibly care less for our safety,” she adds.

Just like in her homeland, Alina is surrounded by violence, misery and the threat of sexual assault. The latter is so omnipresent a number of women and girls in the camp have taken to wearing diapers during the night. Healthcare is virtually non-existent. For the (at least) 7,000 people here, a single doctor is available at any given time. Alina’s doctor appointment has been postponed and postponed for over a month now.

No wonder she is terrified something truly horrible is bound to happen. “All of my children are sick. They keep coughing. All of them complain of aching lungs. They have lost a lot of weight. Everything here is so filthy. I am unable to help them,” Alina explains, powerless. “But what will happen when the winter comes? I know we will have to somehow survive it here. We badly need some winter clothes and blankets. We have nothing. Our asylum interview has already taken place, but it takes several months to get a response.”

Follow the money

With all this wretched misery, one can only ask: where did the EU money go, namely €1.6 billion euros allocated to Greece since 2015 to help the refugees? How is it possible that two years after the closing of the Balkan route, people are still living in such festering landfills, cut off from the world and stripped of all resources?

Some Greek journalists refuse to balk at such compelling but difficult questions. A few weeks ago, the Fileleftheros newspaper published a story on the misappropriation of European funds. The defence minister Panos Kamenos, the president of the far-right The Independent Greeks party, responded by sending the police after the two journalists and the editor. The paper had managed to link Kamenos to a local businessman grown rich by what passes as servicing the refugee camps. His company, funded using EU money, was in charge both of the distribution of food and the plumbing. The prices were dictated by the supplier, and the contracts were awarded overnight and without oversight.

At least the journalists were released the very same day they were arrested. Furthermore, the European Anti-Fraud Office immediately launched an investigation into the ‘suspected irregularities’.

____

Ahmad Ebrahimi, 31, is another one of those who, despite completing his interview with the Greek Asylum Service five months ago, has yet to receive his reply. The slight and surprisingly calm young man tells me he is trying to keep a cool head and take advantage of his infinitely bleak and frustrating days at Moria.

Back home in Afghanistan, he was working as a journalist. He was a TV producer, and also produced his own podcast. He enjoyed the work, and was making a decent living, at least by Afghan standards. From a reasonably well-off family – his father owns three stores in Kabul – he has never known penury. Ebrahimi’s desperate flight to Europe was not motivated by economics. The only reason Ahmad set off for Europe was that his status as a journalist – and a Hazara – had made him a target for the Taliban.

Despite being somewhat aware of what was taking place along the European refugee routes, the actual conditions at Lesvos came as a profound shock. “I fled Afghanistan because I wanted to reach the free and democratic world, where I could safely do my work. But here, the situation is unspeakably dreadful,” he reflected. “The camp is in chaos. It is simply not safe for anyone. I mostly keep to myself. I don’t need anything from anyone. All I want is to leave and continue on my journey.”

Ahmed is currently volunteering as an organiser of photo workshops for his fellow refugees and migrants. He is also making a documentary on conditions at the camp. His most fervent hope is to leave this island of the damned and head for the Canadian embassy in Athens. A collaborative stint with a Canadian journalist had opened up the prospect of a North American job. Yet the burned-out Greek – and European – asylum systems are functioning to the tune of a merciless algorithm. Certain inhuman rules are in place, and the fates of individual humans are far from being a priority.

A whole new spectrum of trauma

“I met a number of families in the camp telling me of their escapes from Syria, Afghanistan and the Congo… They managed to flee some of the most atrocious wars on the planet, yet they all feel what they encountered here is much worse. They would rather have bombs falling on them than keep living in such ruinous conditions,” says Idoia Moreno, the coordinator of the Médecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) clinic located next to the infamous camp.

MSF’s facilities are operating at peak capacity. During our visit, the medics performed a mass vaccination programme on the children across the island’s camps. Moreno informs me she has been stationed in the Congo, the Central African Republic and in Angola. She has served in camps ravaged by the Ebola virus, yet she has never seen anything remotely like Moria.

“In recent months, the camp’s demographics underwent a significant change,” reports Carola Buscemi, a paediatrician stationed at a small field clinic operating on Lesvos since February. “We’ve never had so many children as we do right now. They currently form almost half of the entire refugee population. We are operating in serious crisis conditions – and they should be recognised as such by the authorities in Athens and Brussels. Yet they refuse to do so. For the most part, people here are left to fend for themselves. The children’s medical condition is rapidly deteriorating. Even the ones who arrived healthy are getting sick. And the same goes for the adults. The situation grows more alarming every day. We keep notifying the authorities, but nothing changes.”

Every day, Buscemi treats 25 to 30 refugee and migrant children. According to her, the most pressing problem is respiratory disease, with skin conditions coming in a close second. In the Europe of the 21st century, malnutrition is a major source of suffering as well.

“The food is of very poor quality, hopelessly unsuitable for children. And there is not enough of it to go around. The children are losing weight in front of our eyes. A number of them have simply stopped growing,” she observes. “The stress is a major contributing factor. There is a lot of bed-wetting, anxiety, panic attacks and self-harm. I cannot emphasise enough how rife with psychiatric disorders the camp’s inmates have become. These people have fled savage war conditions, only to come here and face a whole new range of trauma. You can see the wages of post-traumatic stress disorders on every step.”

A few days ago, the Italian doctor treated a seven-year-old Iraqi boy who tried to commit suicide by jumping from a roof. It was his second attempt. The first time, he had already managed to fasten a rope to a tree branch and was only saved in the nick of time.

“It is horrendous,” Buscemi testifies. “I have never seen anything as awful as the situation here. And what makes it worse is that it’s taking place in Europe. Over here, at least, things should be very different.”

Over the past few weeks, the doctors at the clinic have tried to appeal to the international community for help through the media. “The parents at Moria fear their children have already sustained irreparable psychological damage. They come to the clinic telling us their sons and daughters have stopped talking, or that they have harmed themselves in a number of ways,” says Giovanna Bonvini, head of the mental health department at the Greek branch of Médecins Sans Frontieres.

Her colleague Caroline Willeren, the MSF’s coordinator of activities at the Moria camp, is even more direct: “It is a disgrace. Here we are seeing the high human cost paid by the refugees on account of the European-Turkish deal. The political arrangement gave rise to a human catastrophe.”

Fear is a dangerous thing

The local communities can be counted among those who have paid a heavy price for the European migration policies turning the Greek islands, the south of Italy and Malta into a human dumping ground.

It needs to be said that the local communities have displayed a commendable sense of solidarity and empathy. Lesvos, which over the past three years has seen the passage of some 650,000 refugees and migrants, deserves a special mention in this regard. The locals have done their utmost to help the incomers avoid the pitfalls created by the bureaucrats and the politicians. Yet understandably enough, both the patience and the compassion gradually ran out.

Throughout Samos, Chios, Kos, Leros and Lesvos – where the European and Greek authorities set up the infamous reception and identification centres (or ‘hot-spots’) – a great deal of anger and frustration is being voiced. One consequence is the strengthening of the far-right political movements, most notably the Nazi-tinged Golden Dawn.

“The refugees have been turned into a tool of the far right. In an age of populism, fake news, mental laziness and depleted attention spans, their work has never been easier. Serious reflection is a thing of the past,” comments Efi Latsoudi, a long time human rights activist who spoke to me at Nan, the activists’ restaurant in Mitilini, where the local waiters and the refugee chefs work side by side.

Latsoudi fears that both Europe and Greece are hurtling back to a dark place. The refugee crisis strikes her as “tailor-made” for the purposes of dismantling the very concepts of human rights and an open society. In spite of Europe’s slide towards the wrong end of history, she has somehow managed to hold on to her hopes. Lasudi has been helping out the new arrivals since 2008, when, all across the EU, the refugees were still considered as a rather quaint and exotic phenomenon. But even then, a decade ago, a quick scan of the Aegean islands would reveal the shape of the things to come on the horizon.

Latsoudi is, in her own words, devoting all her energies to fighting for what should be the simplest thing in the world: for all people being treated as people. Still, even this redoubtable humanitarian from Lesvos, whom I have been meeting up with for a number of years, can no longer hide her profound exhaustion.

“Fear is a dangerous thing,” Latsoudi picks up our conversation. “The hatred is spreading like brushfire. At the same time, humanitarian work is becoming criminalised. I am concerned this may be nothing short of an epidemic, further weakening the social fabric with each passing day.”

She goes on to relate how she is still haunted by the memories of last spring, when the local neo-Nazis launched a savage assault on the Kurdish refugees, who had fled the violence of the former members of extremist Sunni Arab militias at Moria and resorted to sleeping in the parks. Even two years ago, Latsoudi informs me, she would have never expected such a thing on Lesvos, one of the great historical entry points for migrants.

“After all this time, I still feel as if we are living in a warzone. So many unforgivable things have happened. We have fallen because we failed to protect the people. The whole of Europe has fallen with us. What we are witnessing is an utter dehumanisation of the refugee problem,” she says. “The systemic violation of asylum rights is affecting the entire continent. Before long, we are all bound to experience the effects of this basic erosion of common decency. Here on Lesvos, we are still struggling to hold on to our sense of community and solidarity. On the other islands, that fight seems all but lost.”

____

As far back as 2012, a group of Lesvos volunteers began utilising the premises of a former summer camp on the outskirts of Mytilini to set up the PIKPA refugee settlement. Back then, there was no such thing as official refugee camps, so the incomers had to seek shelter on the beaches, in the parks and in the forests.

In 2015, when Lesvos was turned into one of the focal points of the Balkan refugee route, a single day could easily bring in as many as 10,000 new refugees. By then, the local activists had already restored the former campsite and started putting up wooden shacks. While Moria was being turned into a suffocating prison, PIKPA was there to provide the most vulnerable among the refugees with a place where they could take at least an occasional unfettered breath.

Today, the open refugee shelter is funded by donations and managed entirely by volunteers, who keep arriving from all over the world. On several occasions, the local authorities, spurred on by the local business community (especially hotel-owners), tried to shut the place down. One of the cases against PIKPA is still to be decided on by the local courts. Yet as if to spite their persecutors, the volunteers refused to shut down the operation for even a single day.

At the moment, the volunteer-managed camp provides sanctuary to a hundred refugees, who are living in the best conditions I have seen over the last few years. The shelter’s personnel picked them out among the most vulnerable members of the Moria camp. PIKPA is now providing shelter to a number of pregnant women, single mothers, orphaned children and some of the most profoundly traumatised casualties of war. At PIKPA, they are housed in neat small wooden structures and provided with basic medical and psychological assistance. They are also treated to the wildest of luxuries like regular meals, their own kindergarten service, courses in English and Greek, plus the option to start preparing their children for joining the Greek schooling system. Work therapy is also provided for any who might benefit from it.

____

After the savage downpour is spent, a couple of tiny Syrian girls start dragging a plastic boat each over the humongous puddles covering the PIKPA basketball court. After a few moments, the girls let out a festive laugh. For a few moments at least, the trauma of war and of the subsequent desperate flight is overpowered by the sheer joy of being young and playing outside.

“If I hadn’t made it here, I would have lost my mind. They saved my life. They also managed to salvage my basic humanity,” says Muhammad Z, a 27-year-old man from the Syrian coastal town of Latakia.

Muhammad joins me for a long stroll around the PIKPA compound. He reached Lesvos in august 2016, a little less than six months after the Balkan refugee route was shut down. He left Latakia, one of Bashar al Assad’s main strongholds, because he decided he could not participate in the murdering of his friends, relatives and other compatriots, who had ended up on the other side of his country’s chaotic and unimaginably violent divide.

Muhammad managed to avoid being mobilised, but knew very well what lay in store for him following his decision. Even before that, he had been jailed by the regime for no apparent reason. They beat him up savagely and also tortured him in a number of other ways, only to release him after a month, which was nothing short of a miracle. A number of his friends were not so lucky.

Muhammad struck out for Europe accompanied by his mother, his sister, his brother-in-law, and their two children. Upon reaching Lesvos, the entire group applied for asylum. After months of waiting, the bureaucrats decided to split up the family, turning down Muhammad and his mother’s applications without an explanation. Twice in a row, their appeals got overruled as well. Under the provisions of the EU-Turkey deal, the pair of them should have long been returned to Turkey.

“In Moria, I was really starting to lose it,” the timid and friendly young man continues in fluent English. “Everything was wrong. The fights, the chaos, the awful food, the unbelievable crowdedness. The fires. The protests. I simply wanted to stop breathing. It was easier back home, even with the war. When the bomb hits, you die, and that’s it. Over here, the suffering just never ends. My mother was suffering terribly. She would cry all the time. Fortunately, the activists came to our aid. We have been living here at PIKPA for a year now. The volunteers helped me to remain a human being, one still capable of hoping and believing. They respect me here, and this has done wonders to restore my dignity.”

After a while, Muhammad opens up some more and tells me he lives and breathes for the weekly football matches between the refugees and the volunteers. This is hardly surprising, since back home in Latakia, he had just signed his first professional contract with a local premier division team, while also working as a trained optician.

“I used to have a great life,” Muhammad shakes his head. “I was hoping for a serious football career. I was doing quite well. But then the war broke out, and everything stopped in its tracks. My team fell apart. Very soon after, my father was killed by a bomb. After my first arrest, I realised I needed to leave. My mother insisted on going with me. The two of us, we’re very connected. Without her, I would have long reached Germany or Sweden … But it is my duty to remain by her side.”

It is quite impossible to convey the hope in this young man’s eyes when he relates how a team of volunteer lawyers promised to help reopen both his and his mother’s cases. “I only rarely dare to venture outside PIKPA,” he winces, “Because I’m too afraid they might arrest me and send me back to Turkey.”

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Nostalgia… when the past is a better country

 
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By Christian Nielsen

The majority of Europeans do not want to let bygones be bygones and pine for a past which they believe was better than their present. This is problematic for Europe’s future.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

Tuesday 13 November 2018

A new report charts European’s feelings of nostalgia and how this “sense of loss for times bygone” affects political views. The results of a survey just published by eupinions reveals that two-thirds of Europeans think that the world used to be a better place, with Italians leading the pack at 77%.

Our evidence suggests that those most likely to harbour feelings of nostalgia are men, the unemployed, those who feel most economically anxious, and … the working class,” notes the report, entitled ‘The power of the past: how nostalgia shapes European public opinion’.

This matters because nostalgia is commonly triggered by fear and anxiety fuelled by sometimes rapid personal or societal changes. Nostalgia makes a potent political tool which has been skillfully used by what the report calls “populist political entrepreneurs” on both the right and the left – though, on average, those identified as nostalgic favour the right of the spectrum.

Fears of a “populist” revolt in elections this year (Italy, Sweden), and the Netherlands and France before that, are tangible signs of a political system in flux, with political elites at national and European levels being put through the proverbial ringer by electorates fed a steady diet of diatribes that the past was “more pleasant, untarnished and predictable”.

Marginalised by digital technologies, anxious electorates are being pandered to by a new wave of politicians who have witnessed first-hand the power of simple tropes mostly aimed to advance what the report calls “in-group favouritism and ethnocentrism” in order to tackle trumped-up fear of other groups and the new.

Nostalgia closely coincides with increased concern about migration and terrorism, according to Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Isabell Hoffmann who led the study: “The fear factor is driving Europeans to the edges of the political system.” And external shocks, she points out, tend to result in increased support for the EU by both nostalgists and non-nostalgists.

Nostalgia is thus a powerful political tool, the report concludes, as references to a golden era are manipulated by populists to “fuel dissatisfaction with present-day politics and anxiety about the future”. These findings could well prove to be a predictor of political sways during European Parliamentary elections coming up in May next year.

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