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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In search of the lost city of Londonistan

 
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By Khaled Diab

Our intrepid and fearless reporter visited the fabled capital of  the European Caliphate, Londonistan. What he discovered was shockingly, surprisingly, confoundingly, almost frighteningly… ordinary.

Headless or headscarfed, Londoners like to do their own thing.
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Sunday 9 September 2018

“Other tourists may remember London for its spectacular sights and history, but I remember it for Islam,” wrote columnist Andy Ngo in the Wall Street Journal after a recent trip to the British capital, which seems to have coincided with my own visit during which I experienced a very different city.

“I wanted to cut past the polemics and experience London’s Muslim communities for myself,” he claimed. Despite this commendable sentiment, Ngo immediately proceeded to launch a polemical diatribe about the capital’s “failed multiculturalism”, in which he does not quote a single London Muslim nor does he appear to have had any actual conversations with these terrifying individuals, as if they have not yet evolved the capacity to speak or he has not discovered the capability to listen.

Instead, he depends on the mood music of imagery, spending most of the column describing the dress code of conservative Muslims on their way to Friday prayers, as if their choice of clothes defines who they are, what they think of others, how they treat their fellow citizens or how they relate to their country.

But as I know from experience, judging a Muslim (or anyone) solely by how (s)he dresses can be highly deceptive. Although extremists undoubtedly exist, if Ngo and others so fearful of the other took the time to spend time with ordinary Muslims, they may be surprised by what they learn.

Take the Iraqi woman whom I happened to chat to on a London bus after I almost landed on her lap when the driver braked too hard. Dressed in a baggy black dress, cloak and headscarf, she was the fabric far-right horror is fashioned from but, in reality, she was cut from a different cloth to their nightmares.

Despite her conservative attire, she was a harsh critic of the sectarianism and religious identity politics that had overrun her native land, despised ISIS and looked back with nostalgia to Iraq’s secular past – though her admiration for the Arab dictators of yesteryear and her poo-pooing of today’s young Arabs as ignorant and apathetic riled me. Moreover, she was a proud Londoner of 30 years and her enthusiasm for the city had not been dimmed by the UK’s role in the disastrous and illegal invasion of her homeland.

At a certain level, I understand how the unknown other can be frightening, especially if there are some extremists in their midst. For instance, as a child in London in the 1980s, I feared skinheads, initially unaware that in addition to the violent and racist fringe who sometimes hurled racial abuse at us or who picked fights with me as a teen, there were leftist or apolitical skinheads – some are trying to reclaim the movement – who loved reggae and ska and hung out with fellow black working class Londoners, many of whom were also skinheads. In the London of today, there are many men with shaved heads (often because they are balding) and sporting elaborate tattoos who have absolutely nothing to do with what used to be known as skinhead culture when I was a kid.

Either through ignorance or malice, Ngo notes that near the mosque in Tower Hamlets he saw a sign which read “Alcohol restricted zone”. This leaves any reader unaware of British law and customs with the impression that, through ‘creeping Sharia’, the local Muslim community had managed to ban alcohol. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, as reflected by the enormous number of pubs and off-licences in the area.

In its battle against what it defines as ‘anti-social behaviour’, the UK government has reserved the right to restrict the consumption of alcohol in certain public spaces, such as parks, including in Tower Hamlets and over 600 other places across England and Wales, while the ban on consuming alcohol on the London underground was introduced by that well-known firebrand Islamist Boris Johnson.

This view of alcohol as a social ill or evil has nothing to do with Islam or multiculturalism and stems from Protestant Puritanism. This is reflected in the 19th-century temperance movement. In the United States, where this form of zealotry was far more successful, temperance eventually led to prohibition. Today, alcohol is still banned in hundreds of local counties, representing an area that constitutes an estimated 10% of the land mass of the United States.

In today’s America drinking on the streets or in public spaces is prohibited almost everywhere, as I was surprised to discover on my first visit to the country, which makes Ngo’s surprise at the sign he encountered in London, which is relatively rare, appear faux and contrived.

Moreover, the Muslim attitudes to alcohol and drinking are not as straightforward as many believe, as I point out in a chapter dedicated to the theme in my book, Islam for the Politically Incorrect. Many, many Muslims openly drink, both in the diaspora and in Muslim-majority countries where it is legal, and many Muslims who do not drink tolerate and accept the right of others to consume alcohol.

This diversity of attitudes is reflected in Arab- and Muslim-run establishments. Take the famous Little Arabia on and around Edgware Road, which is home to numerous off-licences and pubs. There, many Middle Eastern eateries, especially the cheaper, faster ones, serve nothing stronger than fruit juice, but some, especially the more upmarket ones, serve wine, beer and spirits from their countries of origin. In fact, for certain types of liberal Arabs, eating mezzas without washing them down with arak would be considered sacrilegious.

While a disproportionate amount of Western media attention is directed at the relatively small number of radical Islamists, missing from the picture is the fact that London is probably the main capital of Middle Eastern secular, progressive and leftist culture outside the Middle East. The city has been drawing a rich and diverse tapestry of Arab and Persian writers, artists, opposition figures, dissidents, exiles and refugees for generations – a few of whom I met during my latest visit.

One ageing Arab intellectual who has lived in London for decades pointed out to me, for instance, a stretch of territory in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea which had been a mini Iran in the 1970s and whose inhabitants found themselves stranded after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Most Iranians in the area moved to the United States or other parts of the UK.

One of the most unintentionally hilarious moments in Andy Ngo’s column is his observation of how, outside the mosque in Tower Hamlets, Muslims and non-Muslims “avoided eye contact with the other”.

As anyone who has lived in or spent time in London will tell you, making eye contact is considered one of the gravest social sins (I exaggerate only slightly), and those who engage in it could elicit silent contempt, a hostile, “Oi, what are you staring at?”, or occasionally even stronger reactions.

This is partly because Londoners guard their private and personal space jealously. The upside of this oft-unfriendly attitude is that Londoners are also generally meticulous respecters of other people’s private and personal space, and their right to do what they wish within its actual or imagined confines.

That is why the streets of London often appear to the outsider like an archipelago of random subcultures, each existing in parallel and each studiously ignoring the other, whether that is the colourful circuses of colour on the buses, tubes, along the embankment of the Thames, or at the city’s huge array of pop-up festivals and carnivals. Nobody even bats an eyelid when, say, a woman dressed in a black coat and hijab shakes hands with a headless street performer dressed in a dark suit.

Despite the growing anti-Muslim sentiment and general xenophobia in the UK, the London of today appears, to my eyes as a relative outsider now, to still be a more open and tolerant place than the city in which I grew up. That is not to say that there is no tension or hatred in the city, especially as inequality sores and socio-economic welfare tumbles. Nevertheless, many of the city’s inhabitants take London’s multicultural kaleidoscope in their stride and seem to thrive on it, especially those who grew up since large-scale immigration began.

I hope London remains London, maintains its unique spirit, and ignores rightwing fear-mongers.

—-

This article was first published by The New Arab on 31 August 2018.

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

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

A bar in Haifa.
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 5 September 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The road less travelled, part IV: The rich texture of the original Hamburger

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Hamburg has been minded by many nations but owned by none. This is visible in the city’s openness, resourcefulness and rebelliousness. 

Thursday 2 August 2018

Resilient, tolerant, refreshing, defiant. These four words sum up my brief but captivating day in Hamburg. I know it is impossible to truly get a feeling for a place in such a short time, but the whole idea of my ‘road less travelled’ tour is to stop and fuel the senses a bit in some random and some not so random places on my way from Brussels to Stockholm.

These by-ways and my-ways saw me drift across Belgium, taking in Hasselt with its fancy car-free city centre which is famed for its jenever (gin) and a quaint Japanese garden, which I admit not to have visited, and up through Holland. A stop in Overloon with its gargantuan World War II museum, and overnight in Groningen saw me through the Day One. A leisurely start to Day Two including possibly the freshest, healthiest, tastiest breakfast I’ve had in a very long time set the pace for a saunter across to Hamburg in northern Germany, after a coffee and wander in Oldenburg (charming and worth a return visit).

Hamburg was a milestone destination along the myways route for several reasons – none of which necessarily involved the city’s notorious St Pauli district.

First drawcard for Hamburg is that I have driven past the city many times in an apparent rush to be somewhere else … catching ferries, meeting deadlines that I probably had full control over but never realised at the time. I even recall skirting it at probably 200 km an hour in a lime-green Porche 911 (long story but it was the best and worst lift I got while hitch-hiking across Europe in my 20s – best because it was my first experience of German autobahns as they were intended to function; worst because it was my first frightening experience of German autobahns, seated, as I was, beside a crazed Dutch drug-lord, or so my imagination ran).

Second, it is one of a very few European cities, Brussels being another, that can claim to have been ‘minded’ by many nations (for example, Denmark and, by default, Sweden, I presume, France for a time under Napoleon, and the Allied countries post-WWII) but ‘owned’ by none. Its resilience and flair for flourishing even against the odds throughout history are well heralded. Less known, perhaps, is Hamburg’s pioneering and democratic spirit, its embrace of modern urban imperatives (livable cities with green corridors, smart transport and an eye on the future) without casting aside its industrial heritage steeped in maritime tradition.

Third, it is where the Beatles famously honed their craft playing show after show in the bars of the port area, which by no coincidence is also the St Pauli red light district with its outsized reputation for sleaze. Hamburgers like to claim that their love of jazz and later swing played in the dance halls, despite crackdowns against such blatantly American ‘decadence’ by the social nationalists and later Nazis, was their own little battle for democracy during a time where there was little on offer in Europe.

Hamburg remains unrepentant when it comes to its racy reputation, preferring to see it as a product of its openness and adaptability, which is rarely a bad thing. It’s sniffy defiance is part of its historical tolerance of others (the minders, visitors and mariners of the past). You walk a few hundred metres away from the seedy Reeperbahn back to the centre and the business of propriety instantly takes over. Swank eateries lap the waters of the canal. Tour boats ply the Binnenalster and Aussenalster lakes, which give the city endless breathing space.

There are two sides to the Hamburg story. And I look forward to discovering more next time I’m in the neighbourhood.

____

Read part I: Navigating without algorithms

Read part II: Overwhelmed at Overloon

Read part III: The cycle of life in Groningen

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The road less travelled, part III: The cycle of life in Groningen

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Christian Nielsen’s road trip along the scenic route this summer takes him to Groningen where life cycles mellowly by in its car-free zones.

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

Wednesday 25 July 2018

Summer smiles on Wednesday worshippers …

Cosy cottages share space with snug shops on Church Lane

Students sing the tunes of youth

Po-going to the beat on Market Square

Ice-creams melt, bells break the waves

Dogs dive into cooling canals

Bobbing barges, picnics, party cruisers

Bikes abound, bikes just everywhere …

I jotted down these impressions at the Lutje Kerklaan B&B. Groningen is Europe’s “two-wheeled capital“, according to Monocle. Today, nearly two-thirds of all journeys in the city are made by bicycle, partly thanks to an €85-million cycling strategy.

____

Read part I: Navigating without algorithms

Read part II: Overwhelmed at Overloon

Read part IV: The rich texture of the original Hamburger

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The road less travelled – part II: Overwhelmed at Overloon

 
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By Christian Nielsen

As Christian Nielsen takes the road less travelled this summer, he uncovers the volatile, violent past hidden under the tranquil, peaceful present of the Dutch village of Overloon.

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

Read part I: Navigating without algorithms

Monday 23 July 2018

Set in the verdant woods of Overloon, in the Dutch province of North Brabant, is one of the first and finest museums to recount and remember World War II’s European chapter.

Started in 1946, just one year after hostilities ended, the cavernous Oorlogsmuseum Overloon takes visitors on a journey from the ominous failure to reset the world order after WWI ended in 1918, to the seeds of national socialism and resulting polarisation leading to a sense of German exceptionalism and eventual invasions of Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium and so on.

The sombre exhibits capture the utter despair of life in occupied Netherlands, the deprivation, humiliation, torture, fear … what it was like as a child, parent, student, worker, etc. It dutifully recounts the systematic rounding up by the Germans of the Jewish population during the war years until liberation by the Allied forces in 1945.

In one segment, visitors meet a 10-year-old Jewish girl and her family as they struggle to survive. The loneliness and heartache she faces as her mother dies of a brain tumour, her brothers are taken to a labour camp, followed by her father, cousins, aunts … They all disappear from her life in the space of five years.

She goes into hiding with her grandparents, moving from one place to the other, and eventually to a secluded farm. After liberation, she is reunited with her grandparents, and they soon learn the fate of her parents and brothers – all lost in the camps.

Multimedia displays including clips from the period projected on to walls, floors and windows surround the visitor. The overwhelming collection of original mementos, artefacts and machinery would be hard to beat anywhere.

The military hardware in the adjoining hall is thoughtfully displayed to capture what it might have been like in the dying days of the war as the Allies pushed through to the German border in late 1944.

Operation Market Garden was an Allied push through Belgium and Holland to cross the Rhine at Arnhem and get round the German’s heavily fortified Siegfried Line in preparation for a final drive to Berlin.

It was a make-or-break moment and the Germans knew it. They pushed back and met the Allies across a looping front that also took in Belgium (best known for the Battle of the Bulge) and German territory (fierce fighting in Hurtgen Forrest). These clashes were an all-in effort by a German army that literally had everything to lose. And it was in Overloon that Market Garden reached a crescendo between 30 September and 18 October 1944.

The story of the Overloon Battle is told with great care and detail in a panorama room with a replica shelter below, which tells the trials and tribulations of thousands of frightened civilians who waited out the nearly three-week-long ordeal.

A number of sculptures line the pathway to the entrance of the museum, symbolising the twin evils of war: shattered lives and destroyed livelihoods. One installation (see photo) sits incongruously beside a WWII-era tank with its turret poised in the air.

The €15 price to enter the museum seems steep at first but as the sheer magnitude of the place begins to open up, and the attention to detail (the personal stories juxtaposed against the carefully arranged machinery of war) is appreciated, the money feels well spent. Curators are everywhere, dusting Howitzers and arranging life-like mannequins into new scenes like the battlefield mess tent and mobile tool shop. Combined with several military memorials and cemeteries in and around Overloon, as well as a new playground and nature activities, this is a day well spent … and not only for history buffs.

Read part I: Navigating without algorithms

Read part III: The cycle of life in Groningen

Read part IV: The rich texture of the original Hamburger

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The ghettoisation of Danish politics

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Danish government plans to force minorities out of what it classes as “ghettos”, but its Denmark’s mainstream that needs to escape its ghetto mentality.

Friday 13 July 2018

While America separates migrant children from their parents at the border, including toddlers who have to appear in court alone, Denmark has passed legislation that will require children from the age of one living in areas defined as “ghettos” by the state to be separated from their families for at least 25 hours a week, not including nap times.

This new policy carries echoes of, and is a small but significant step towards, the discredited and inhumane practices of tearing indigenous children away from their families, such as occurred with Australia’s “lost generations” of Aboriginals or Canada’s so-called Scoop generations.

Although the children involved are not indigenous, Denmark’s new “ghetto” policies follow similar assimilationist logic. The toddlers and children attending obligatory daycare will receive mandatory instruction in “Danish values,” which reportedly includes not only democracy but also the traditions of Christmas and Easter, and the Danish language – though how on Earth they plan to combine that with pot training, or how they expect Danish minority toddlers to grasp the democratic norms which have eluded many American adults, has not yet been made clear.

This is part of a package of measures passed by Danish legislators at the end of May, which itself is part of a broader strategy to eradicate “parallel societies” by 2030. “We must introduce a new target to end ghettos completely. In some places, by breaking up concrete and pulling down buildings,” centre-right prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen said in his New Year’s speech unveiling the government’s intentions.

Although Rasmussen insisted that his government’s aim was to “recreate mixed neighbourhoods” and to “break the chain in which generation after generation lives in a parallel society”, many of Denmark’s minorities, especially Muslims, see this as a manifestation of the longstanding racism and discrimination that has plagued Danish society, which some had allowed themselves to hope that society was in the process of gradually shedding.

This impression is bolstered by how quite a few politicians insist the ghetto laws are not racist or racially motivated, while employing dog-whistles so piercingly high-pitched that they have deafened Denmark’s canine population. This massive internalising of bigotry may explain why nobody in the government appears to have even blinked at officially calling poor, minority-heavy neighbourhoods “ghettoes”, as though ignorant of or indifferent to the painful history of centuries of Jewish exclusion and persecution, which culminated in the Holocaust.

“I grew up in Denmark as a refugee facing racism on almost a daily basis… Danes [would] go out of their way to make sure you feel like you don’t belong,” recalls Maryam AlKhawaja, the prominent Bahraini-Danish dissident and activist, who spent her childhood and early teens in Denmark and returned again as a young adult, following a crackdown in Bahrain which saw her father imprisoned for life. “Things got better after I moved back in 2012, but it seems now that all that underlying xenophobia, racism and hate is surfacing because it’s suddenly become okay to voice such opinions.”

For AlKhawaja, the greatest disappointment has been how the Social Democrats “have become more and more right-wing on migration and refugee issues, and in some cases one can no longer tell the difference between them and the right-wing Islamophobes”. Whether out of expediency or conviction, the Social Democrats, despite being in opposition, voted for the “ghetto package”.

It is possible that the Social Democrats are not (just) being electorally cynical but actually believe, in the tradition of Nordic “social engineering”, that tackling the ghettoes offers poor migrants and minorities an exit permit out of exclusion.

If so, this is misguided. Marginalised minority neighbourhoods are not the problem. They are a manifestation of myriad other problems. The reasons migrants concentrate in certain areas is not generally because they want to live in these neighbourhoods, but because they have little to no other choice, and cannot afford to live elsewhere.

Even if minorities voluntarily lived in proximity with one another. That, in principle, should not be a problem. In fact, Europeans and Westerners have just such a tendency to live in “ghettos” when abroad, so as to be able to support one another and lead a lifestyle according to their own values, not that of the local society.

In Denmark and other parts of Europe, many immigrants do not need an invitation, let alone an ultimatum from the state to move out of the “ghettoes”. Those who become more prosperous and successful tend to move out of their own volition. But this has the downside of leaving behind society’s rejects and providing youth in these neighbourhoods with few recognisable role models for success.

Same goes for crime, which is generally very low in Denmark. In fact, crime has reached record lows in recent years, which you might not realise with all the populist scaremongering going on. If I were to employ the logic of bigots, I would attribute this fall in crime to immigration, as many migrants who move to Denmark come from low-crime societies, and growing diversity, which breeds a culture of acceptance and tolerance. But I would never dream of making such a spurious, agenda-driven, fact-free assertion. Crime is a complex and attributable to numerous factors.

In reality, the reasons why there there are higher levels of certain types of crime in minority neighbourhoods – such as petty theft – have little to do with the concentration of migrants or Muslims and almost everything to do with the concentration of poverty, the intensity of socio-economic exclusion, and the paucity of prospects, and how what constitutes “crime” is defined. This is visible in, for instance, how the traditionally poverty-stricken East End of London has been associated with crime for centuries, regardless of whether it was inhabited by Anglicans, Catholics, black Africans, Chinese, Eastern Europeans, or Bengalis. In fact, the kind of moralising and condescension expressed about the allegedly unwashed, lazy and criminal poor in the 19th century has been repurposed for poor migrants.

Forcing minorities out of deprived neighbourhoods will not, in and of itself, lead to less crime, if their deprivation and exclusion moves with them, and if mainstream Danes do not overcome their own self-imposed ghetto mentality of building cultural walls between them and the supposed strangers in their midsts.

The Danish government’s plan tacitly recognises this economic dimension with the bonuses it offers municipalities which offer employment to non-Western minorities. But this is far, far too little to make a realistic dent.

Far easier is to play the identity card, to suggest that it is because immigrants have failed to embrace “Danish values” that is the problem, not because society has undervalued them and they are excess to requirements in the contemporary model of predatory capitalism which causes the prosperity worked for by the many to trickle up to the very, very few.

And what exactly are Danish values, or European values, or Western values? If we assume them to mean a commitment to and belief in democracy, freedom of belief and expression, gender and other forms of equality, as well as respect for human rights, including sexual orientation, what do we do about the native Danes who are of an authoritarian or fascistic persuasion, or who are misogynistic and/or homophobic? Should they also be sent to re-education classes? Of course not, that is not what a free society is about. A free society is about giving citizens full freedom to decide for themselves, as long as their decisions do not directly hurt other citizens.

Besides, the suppression of liberal and progressive values occurred in Denmark and Europe long before the advent of mass non-European migration. For instance, many locals fear Muslim attitudes towards alcohol, yet conveniently forget that, long before the spectre of illusionary “creeping Sharia” arrived on Denmark’s shores, the autonomous Faroe Islands had an alcohol prohibition for most of the 20th century, and nearby Iceland banned beer.

Then, there is the problem with the slippery slope. What may seem a small or lesser evil today often spirals out of control to become a consuming evil. If you think this is just progressive or liberal alarmism, consider the fact that a proposal is in the pipeline to double the punishment for certain crimes (chillingly, to be left to the discretion of the police) in “ghetto” areas, effectively eliminating one of the founding and fundamental principles of the modern justice system, equality before the law. “I always argued that, despite all the things that I disliked about Denmark, at least the system is, to a large extent, just. I fear that is no longer the case,” confesses Maryam AlKhawaja.

And if Denmark sets a precedent of de facto legal segregation in Europe, who is to say where it will stop. If equality before the law is undermined through unequal punishment, what’s to stop legislation being passed formalising unequal rewards, legislating that minorities should be paid less for equal work?

Moreover, the slippery slope can often consume those who were cheerleading the descend to fascism because a system built on fear and identity politics cannot survive without creating new enemies of the state and of the people, because the beast of exclusion possesses a voracious appetite.

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This article was first published by The New Arab on 4 July 2018.

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