American extremism X

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite all the hype, white supremacists and anti-government extremists are the main homegrown terror threat in the United States.

Police_at_Sandy_Hook

Thursday 21 January 2016

Armed men stormed a federal complex in the United States. A bearded spokesman announced publicly their intention “to kill or be killed”.

Despite the mounting fear of homegrown terrorism, rightwing politicians, the media and the general public exhibited remarkable restraint. Even the firebrand Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump has been curiously silent on the matter, agreeing, when pushed, that the gunmen had to “stand down” in order to “maintain law and order”.

This is a far cry from Trump’s shrill demands for a ban on Muslims entering America following the deadly shooting in late 2015 in San Bernardino, California, which left 14 dead and 22 wounded.

But unlike in San Bernadino, the armed men holed up at a wildlife reserve in Oregon are not suspected jihadist terrorists. Instead, these men are a self-declared militia which claims to be fighting for the rights of local ranchers.

This may explain the reluctance of Trump and other Republicans to use the “terrorist” label, though one wonders whether they would have shown such restraint had the Oregon gunmen been native Americans, blacks or Muslims.

However, others are not so coy. After years of fixating on Islamist terrorism, American security experts and officials are waking up to the threat posed by domestic far-right and anti-government extremists.

“The men, heavily armed…are – by any definition – domestic terrorists,” insisted Juliette Kayyem, CNN’s national security analyst and a former official at the Department of Homeland Security, in a column.

The group’s broader aim of using this armed standoff to help “overthrow the county and federal government”, according to the local sheriff, adds credence to the “terrorism” label.

Many Americans, especially Republicans, will find this classification objectionable, taking at face value the militia’s claim of being “peaceful” and “armed with the Constitution”. Although the extremists in Oregon have not (yet) hurt anyone, plenty of other have.

A troubling new report by the Anti-Defamation League, the sometimes-controversial civil rights group, paints a grim picture, identifying 2015 as the deadliest year for domestic extremists for two decades.

The ADL report tallies a minimum of 52 people killed by extremists in 2015. Contrary to popular perceptions that Islamists are the main perpetrators of terrorism on US soil, the majority of the death toll, a whopping 63%, was caused by white supremacists, anti-government militants and anti-abortion extremists.

Given that the US population is nearly 319 million, this remains a minute fraction. However, this is an extremely conservative estimate. “This number is bound to grow further still, as extremist connections to some murders often take years to be revealed,” the ADL admitted in a statement, “and there are likely still other murders whose extremist connections may never see the light of day.”

Who knows how many of the mass shootings in the United States – which have averaged more than one a day for the past three years or more – were motivated by as-yet undetermined extremist ideology or committed by unidentified extremists?

For example, the ADL report does not include, according to the Washington Post, the murder of three Muslims near the University of Carolina because it was not entirely clear whether the perpetrator’s anti-Muslim views played a direct role in the killings.

This points to another factor which may understate the threat from non-Islamist domestic extremists: the reluctance by society, the media and authorities to attach the “terrorism” label to mass shootings carried out by white Americans – preferring, instead, to focus on possible mental health issues.

For instance, take Adam Lanza, who, at the end of 2012, mowed down 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, as well as six adult staff members and his mother. Lanza expressed anarchist views so extreme that he believed human civilisation was beyond redemption and the “only way that it’s ever sustained is by indoctrinating each new child for years on end”.

Should we chalk up his murderous actions to his ideology and hatred of society, or to mental health issues, even though the Asperger syndrome he had been diagnosed with does not make sufferers prone to violence and specialists who had assessed him while he was alive did not identify a tendency to violent acts?

Regardless of whether we count this and other incidents as “extremist” or “terrorist” acts, the death toll is only the “tip of a pyramid” of extremist violence and crime, in the words of the ADL, because it does not include the wounded, the intimidated and the foiled plots.

And this is what makes far-right and anti-government extremism more dangerous than Islamism, which is dangerous in Muslim societies, in the American context – the indigenous networks via which these brands of hate and demonisation can be spread and amplified.

For instance, though few far-right politicians and activists openly call for violence, their discourse legitimises it, at least to some extent. They may not pull the triggers, but they offer violent extremists a loaded rhetorical gun.

This does not mean that Americans should demonise domestic extremists the way Islamists are but they should strive to understand what drives some of them to violent action, and why this is on the rise.

Social and economic marginalisation seem to be major factors. In today’s America, economic insecurity, job flight, diminishing prospects, especially for the young, has moved from the working class to squeeze the middle class in its cold embrace – while the 1% thrive, the 99% struggle to survive, leading to alienation.

Though Obama’s commendable efforts to tighten gun control will help ensure that fewer angry people can express their rage in a rain of bullets, he also needs to tackle the underlying causes of that anger.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 11 January 2015.

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Yassin al-Haj Saleh: “Syria is a unique symbol of injustice, apathy and amnesia”

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

In an exclusive interview, prominent Syrian writer and dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh talks about Syria’s past, tragic present and uncertain future.

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Wednesday 20 January 2016

Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a leading Syrian writer, a former political prisoner and one of Syria’s foremost intellectuals. Ever since his student days, Saleh has been a vocal critic of the Assad regimes. He was arrested in 1980 during the presidency of Hafez al-Assad and spent the next 16 years as a prisoner of conscience.

During the early days of the Syrian uprising, his voice became louder than ever. In 2012, he was given the Prince Claus Award (supported by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs) but was unable to collect it, as he was living in hiding in Damascus. In 2013, he fled to Turkey. His wife and brother were abducted the same year. He is the author of several books,  including Deliverance or Destruction? Syria at a Crossroads (2014).

Here, he speaks to Boštjan Videmšek about Syria’s past, tragic present and uncertain future.

How and where are you right now?

I am fine, thank you. When I was in Syria, I used to say: I have no personal reasons to complain of, and no public reasons to be contented. After the revolution, with the abduction of my wife Samira and my brother Firas and my living in exile in Istanbul, the personal has become public and political much more than before. The public and political has become personal. It is a life of a struggle.

How do you feel when you see so many of your fellow citizens on the run from the most horrible conflict of our time? Did you expect an exodus like that?

Weeks ago, I helped smuggle my sister-in-law and my nephew from Turkey to Greece. As a beginner, I consulted friends, met smugglers, and chose one.

I was anxious about their safety, and was relieved when they arrived in a European country, even if it was not the one they wanted to go to. The other half of my brother’s family, he and his two younger sons, are to join the first half someday. With the help of friends, we are trying to arrange things for another brother and his family to take refuge in another European country, after a mutual friend of ours, the journalist and film maker Naji Jerf, was assassinated in Turkey on 27 December 2015.

We are helping ourselves to a world that did not help to liberate us at home. Never had I contemplated the possibility of such an exodus. I did not expect that the regime would kill hundreds of thousands of people and that its chances of staying in power would grow bigger as the numbers of its victims soared. I did not expect the emergence of a monstrous creature like Da’esh [ISIS]. I did not expect that around 70 countries would be partners in bombing my country: not against the ruling criminal, but against an offshoot of his monstrosity.

How do you see the European handling of the refugee crisis?

I am impressed by many people from many European countries, mostly individual volunteers. Their generosity, courage and humanity dignify the human race. I was touched by a message from a Norwegian woman who was in Lesbos helping refugees. As for governments, while it is not fair to include all of them in one category – Germany is not like Hungary, Sweden is not Denmark – I think they are unified in building higher walls in the face of the influx of refugees, specifically the poorest and most vulnerable ones.

For months now, European governments have been pressuring Ankara not to allow refugees to depart from Turkey. In November, they promised to pay €3 billion to the Turkish governments to guard European borders.

With all this blood that has been spilt over the past five years right under the world’s nose, humanity has led itself down the path to full ethical numbness. I suppose the indifference the world showed towards the Syrian ordeal will lead to even less sensitivity to human suffering in political institutions everywhere.

Where do you – in this chaotic situation – see the solution(s)?

One could think of a historical compromise that ends the war, guarantees full withdrawal of foreign forces, and is the basis of a wholly different political landscape in the country. A sustainable solution can only be built on a new political majority. This cannot be achieved through facing Da’esh alone or the regime alone. A new Syrian majority requires a substantial political change that is impossible to envisage without putting a full-stop to the rule of the Assad dynasty that has been in power for 45 years, a dynasty responsible for two big wars in the country: 1979-1982 and 2011-…

This change is the political and ethical precondition for a war against Da’esh with the broad participation of Syrians. The global powers have so far been putting the cart before the horse by targeting Da’esh only, ignoring the root cause of the militarisation, radicalisation, and sectarianisation that has occurred over the past five years, namely the Assad regime. This is a short-sighted and failing policy, not to mention unethical. It is a prescription for an endless war.

The new Syria could be built on a number of essential principles: decentralisation; thinking of different ethnic, religious and confessional communities as equal constituent communities; full equality among individual citizens (Arabs, Kurds and others; Muslims, Christians and others; Sunnis, Alawites and others; religious, secular and others). It is not acceptable to talk about Syria as a secular state, as the Vienna document of 30 October 2015 states, when the same document says nothing about justice and accountability, and avoids the word democracy. Lecturing about secularism reminds one of the worst traits of the colonial discourse.

What should the so-called international community do? What about the UN?

The past five years were a great chance to follow the international institutions and the world powers. For me, it is no longer Syria, it is the world, which is in a deep crisis. It is not that I do not follow what is happening in my country, but the world is in Syria (around 70 states are at war there).

I tend to think that the world lacks the potential for freedom and justice more than at any time over the past a century. In December, Vladimir Putin raised the possibility of using nuclear weapons against “terrorists”, an extraordinarily irresponsible statement that was met with utter silence form the international community. A few days later, the same man said that the Russian offensive in Syria “is not a serious burden for the budget … It’s hard to imagine a better exercise [for the Russian forces]. So we can train there [in Syria] for a long time without any serious harm to our budget.” Full of colonial arrogance, this statement stirred no reaction at all from the UN or Western leaders, not even a word from human rights groups, or any leftist organisations in the world.

The situation in Syria has developed from a revolution against tyranny to a global question, the Syrian question. Creating questions is, in my opinion, the political method of the powerful in shaping history. They create complicated, despair-inducing situations that last decades or generations (or forever, as an Assadist slogan says), during which the poor and weak are entangled in ineffectual struggles. By contrast, the method of the vulnerable is to create clarity and hope through revolutions. Crushing the revolutions in Syria and in the region has been the common job of the powerful local, regional and global powers. The Gordian knots they create will be with us for a long time.

In history, questions and big wars walked hand in hand. The Eastern Question ended in the First World War, and the Jewish Question found two “Final Solutions” in the Second World War and its aftermath (the second at the expense of the Palestinian people). One might add the Kurdish question: denying the Kurds statehood, which is also a source of hatred, despair, and war. Syria is an active field for this question now.

That is why Syria is a microcosm and a global metaphor.  Needless to say – the UN and the international community are creators of questions, or are, indeed, counterrevolutionary powers. I do not expect them to be revolutionary, but their role was criminal indeed.

Is the Sunni-Shia divide now too deep to overcome it politically?

It is. But there are no political solutions to confessional divisions. However, division in itself is not a problem; the problem is the violent struggle between the confessional groups. Contrary to the common wisdom in the West, this struggle is not something primordial that emanates from the very fact that there are Sunnis and Shia. Actually, it is the opposite: social and political struggles mobilise these idle belongings of ours and electrify them, or charge them politically. They transform into political, indeed military, parties. This is also the method of the powerful in order to weaken rebellious people and transfer the struggle from the socio-political field (the underprivileged v the elite) to the socio-cultural field (our underprivileged against theirs). What I want to say is that we need to know better the dynamics and processes of the social and political struggle in countries like Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the regional struggles to understand the ‘Sunni- Shia divide’. This is deepening indeed. It is being used as a tool to rule the masses and to exercise regional influence. Sectarianism, in general, is a strategy for political control. So it is politics, not religion or “culture”.

Can we say that Syria still exists as a country, as a state?

Again, Syria is the world. More than 70 countries are formally at war in the country, and jihadists from more than 70 countries are also there. Syria is a global question, a unique symbol of injustice, apathy, and amnesia. We have this Syria, at least – the symbol.

I am sorry to say that I am less sure about Syria as a viable country. The only chance, however, for Syria to survive is substantial political change. Unchanged, Syria is a dying land, sooner or later. Only changed will Syria become viable.

The reasons for the war and the brutality of the regime have been more or less forgotten in the Western narrative of the war. Why?

Primarily due to the identification between the regime and the major powers on the structural and symbolic levels. The modernist ideology is a common issue between the fascist with a necktie, Bashar al-Assad, and those neck-tied leaders in the world who lack vision and global responsibility. This issue is, in a way, related to the formation of the political elite in the West: high-income people who are fully isolated from politically inflicted human suffering. One source of the crisis is democracy in the West. If separated from the struggle and human aspiration for justice, democracy dies. In front of our eyes, we are witnessing democracy being reduced to political technology for dealing with crises. Crisis management, with its innate divorce from values and issues of justice, is the dominant method of politics over the past 25 years, even in the West. This method is good for nothing but creating questions, and the Middle East is the incarnation of these extremely unethical policies.

Some additional roots of this amnesia are related to the constitution of the powerful mass media in the West: the exciting is always more preferable to feed the masses on than what is humanly and politically important. For instance, beheading a man is more exciting than killing 100 with a barrel bomb. We identify with these who kill the way we do (their crimes, like ours, are not news), but we are enchanted with those who kill in a different way to the degree that we have offered Da’esh free propaganda for two years.

By the way, I think this enchantment with Da’esh that began in the summer of 2013 has deep connections with the sordid chemical deal between the US and Russia, which practically informed the Assad regime that it was okay to kill people with other tools, not with the one we had forbidden. The mainstream media was obedient in highlighting whatever Da’esh did and sidelining the crimes of the regime in order to legitimise that despicable deal between the two big global keepers of the peace (read: war). Da’eshmania is a way of suppressing the shame of that deal. Media and power elites want the masses to remain mesmerised, with their minds fixated on those exotic decapitators, who are absolutely different from us and our dear masses.

I want to add one additional thing concerning this fascination with Da’esh. I suspect that the mad extent of killing and control that Da’esh is practising in the regions it occupies is the level the power elites in the “civilized world” aspire to imitate. That violence has an essential virtue: it pushes past the limits of what can be done to the population at home, giving the power elites everywhere a sense of mastery and freedom. If this can be done there, it will be possible here someday. Da’esh is the laboratory test the elites like to peep at and hope to imitate someday. It is their utopia and our dystopia. That is why the population in the West should be anxious of what has been happening in Syria for the past five years. Do not defend us, defend yourselves!

Is there any player at all who has  a positive role?

External players? Maybe not. However, it would be a big mistake to conclude from that that all the players are equally bad. Turkey’s record is mixed: it welcomed around 2.5 million refugees. Our situation here is acceptable and, so far, Tukey has had a consistent position towards the Shabeeha regime in Syria, but it caused a lot of trouble because of it is irrational and unjust concerns about the Kurds on both sides of the border. France’s position was mostly a consistent one, too. Both countries were clear all the time that the culprit is the regime and it should be overthrown and they tried to act accordingly, but were kept back by the United States. Washington has been the worst enemy of the Syrian revolution, worse even than Russia, which was a clear enemy from the first moment, along with Iran and the latter’s satellites in Lebanon and Iraq. I am not an essentialist anti-imperialist who thinks that imperialism is an essence hidden somewhere in the US, maybe at the White House, the Pentagon, or the CIA, but I tried hard to locate any positive elements in the Syrian policy of Obama’s administration in Syria. The world at large has become a worse place, especially after the chemical deal which was a big gift to Da’esh and al-Nusra Front (and, of course, to Assad), than it was before.

As for internal players: I think one can identify obscurantism as the position of saying that there are no “good guys” in the Syrian conflict; they are all bad. I see this as an essentialist, Da’esh-like way of approaching our cause. I do not imply that there are no bad guys, there are many; neither do I want to say that there are many good guys, which is of course true, unless one is Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn, or Vladimir Putin. Rather, I want to make a paradigm shift from that reactionary distribution of labels of good and bad, to the actual dynamics of the struggle. I alluded before to the chemical massacre in which 1,466 Syrians were killed at the hand of the Assad regime, and to the chemical deal between the Americans, Russians and the regime. What was that deal? There were four actors, not three, at the time: the regime, the Americans, the Russians and millions of Syrians who had been resisting the thuggish regime for more than two years and four months, peacefully at the beginning then with arms. The regime gained not only its survival from that sordid deal but also impunity; the Russians managed to save a client regime and won a greater recognised role in the region and the world, while America (and from behind the scenes, Israel) succeeded in disarming the regime of the dangerous weapons that were thought of being deterrent to Israel. The party that was completely sacrificed is the one who had just lost 1,466 people in one hour: the rebellious Syrians. That is why that deal was despicable and its “heroes”, especially the one named Barak Obama, were extremely villainous.

Due the regime’s brutality and the baseness of the big egos of the globe, a dynamic of radicalisation, Islamisation and militarisation, was triggered and changed everybody in the country, myself included. In September 2015, I was in Oslo for a few days, where I appeared on a TV programme. Before this show, the presenter asked me, if I was “moderate”. No, I am not, I replied. She was alarmed, but she wanted to be sure: “But you are secular, aren’t you?” For the discursive habits in the West, ‘moderate’ implies that siding with us (“We are the centre of the world.”) and “good” are synonyms. You are “extremist” and “bad” whenever you side with your own people.

Of course, I am bad.

How do you see Turkey’s involvement and the future of the Kurdish question?

This is the main cause of the Turkish government’s biggest mistakes in Syria. Turkey has not been able to deal with its own Kurdish problem on a basis of equality, freedom and fraternity. Just now, there is a real war in the Kurdish regions in Turkey, with poor people being humiliated, displaced and killed. To Syria, the Turkish government exported its bad experience in dealing with the Kurds. And to make things worse, the Syrian PYD imported from Turkey its experience there, people to apply this experience, and with spades of the modernist ideological rubbish, designed specifically to enchant middle class left-wing spinsters (mostly males) in the West. This has already caused a lot of suffering, and I am afraid it will only cause more. What we are witnessing is, in my view, the building of an ultranationalist, one-party system, with hidden connections to the Assad regime and Iran, and less hidden ones with the US and Russia.

How can we effectively fight Da’esh? Personally, I don’t see any substantial political will to fight them with full force.

You do not see political will to fight Da’esh because there is none. There is political will for the war to go on. Da’esh is good for the war to continue. Its demise is the bad thing from this perspective. That is why the world seems unified against this ill-equipped (in military terms) fascist organisation, without making progress toward defeating it.

I think the American reasoning goes this way: Da’esh is strongest in its men. We have to besiege them in a certain area, so they will not spread everywhere the way they did after we (hysterically) invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Bashar should stay according to the lesson we learnt from our (unjustifiable) invasion of Iraq and dismantling the state there. As for those who are against Da’esh and fighting Bashar, well, er… they are mostly bad. The Russian monologue maybe goes like this: we want Bashar to stay in power. To achieve this we have to destroy those who are really fighting him. Of course, we will talk only about a war against terror and fighting Dae’sh, is it not that what the Americans have been droning on about the whole time? When we crush all those who are against Bashar and Da’esh, the clandestine understanding between us and the Americans will become public, and we will decide the fate of Syria and the Middle East together. Israel will side with us. We can give it more than the Americans are able to do.

Imaginary strategising aside, I think it is not at all difficult to fight Dae’sh, but you cannot do so while systematically ignoring the local forces that did face this entity in the past, and relying on another fascist organisation, namely the Assad regime.

There are three levels of a fruitful struggle against Da’esh. First, to honestly build a just cause for this war, and this cannot be but justice and freedom for those oppressed by it, which in turn cannot be achieved while ignoring the main source of oppression and injustices, the Assad regime. How do you want me to fight Da’esh while you are dealing from behind my back with a cliquish regime that killed 300,000 of my fellow citizens? Second, there should be a clear political vision of supporting a democratic transition in Syria and Iraq. Things will be messy in the two countries for years to come or even more, but this is still far better than a war that goes on for generations as both Jolly Bishop, the Australian foreign affairs minister, and Martin Dempsey, the former American head of staff, said in similar words few months ago.

Third, you need a clear military strategy that can be achieved in months or a year or two. What I see now is that we have a war without a clearly expressed aim, with no timeframe, with no local allies (The PYD is not that ally: they have relation with the fascist regime, and they are not democratic, let alone that relying solely on them will creating a very big ethnic problem in Syria). The international mobilisation against Da’esh is annihilation-oriented (not geared towards justice). But this is also the essential feature of Da’esh’s mobilisation against the world. Is it that far-fetched to say that Da’esh is a mirror reflection of the present world? How else can we explain this morbid attraction to talking and writing about Da’esh in the media of the West? This dis-disenchantment of the world?

Maybe this is the reason for this reluctance to fight this supposed global enemy.

What will be their role in the future of Syria and Iraq?

Absolutely nothing.

Da’esh is a mixture of settler colonialism, a fascist regime, and a nihilist terrorist organisation. As such, it is a pump of evil and death that should be completely dismantled.

But there should be a big shift in the current dehumanising mobilisation that affects all Muslims and promises us only a huge massacre. For effecting such a shift, the best starting point is to understand Dae’sh as a worldly power and explain it through secular tools of analysis. It is not a religious thing, not a flourishing of a primordial seed within Islam.

It is a sorry fact that one does not see any prospect for such a shift, when even people like Slavoj Žižek volunteer in this hysterical campaign, providing it with a warring classificatory logic of us and them, and stupid generalisations about the Syrian struggle (a pseudo struggle according to him) and Syria that he knows absolutely nothing about – its society, history, political system, political economy, regional environment. That postmodernist superstar wrote recently an even more combative article about the relationship between Turkey and Da’esh – one based on false information and a passion for hatred. With this in mind, I am afraid hopes for a change of course become considerably slimmer. One may even think that Da’esh, as bad as it is for Syrians and Iraqis, is something good for the West and Russia. So the question of Da’esh’s future is: will they ever do anything real to dismantle this entity? Are they really antagonistic to this combination of settler colonialism, fascist regime, and terrorist organization? Maybe they are identifying in it things that they know very well in themselves.

Are the old borders in the region being redrawn?

It is possible that we are in the process. Drawing borders in the Middle East was an outcome of two world wars and historical shifts in two questions (the Eastern and the Jewish one), under the supervision of the colonial powers as they shaped the present world system. The precedents of Iraq’s and Lebanon’s wars denoted that creating new states and redrawing borders is not as easy as we may think. For such a thing to happen, one of the following two is a pre-requirement: a new world system and/or a massive ethnic cleansing; one that surpasses Rwanda.

I do not see how redrawing new maps in the region will solve any older problems. Our present states are already a century old at least, and they are reformable far more than new states that will be either pure, and consequently less capable of ethical and political promotion, or mixed, with no guarantees of not spiraling into a new circle of ethnic or sectarian wars. And in both cases these new smaller states will seek protection from each other by resorting to the same old colonial powers that drew the old maps, and that patronised their very present struggle.

I am for (1) reforming our states (decentralisation, autonomous regions, etc.); (2) a sovereign Palestinian state; (3) a sovereign Kurdish state. I look forward to a Middle Eastern commonwealth, where Arabs, Israeli Jews, Turks, Kurds, and Iranians live together on a basis of equality, respect, and shared prosperity.

Syria has been destroyed, with 4.5 million refugees and more than 11 million people displaced inside their own country. The state has collapsed, at least two generations have been deeply traumatised, their lives irreversibly shattered. What can be done to help? How do we start from “ground zero”? How do we rebuild society?

First of all, you have to remove the knife from the loin.The  Assad regime is a knife, a poisoned one, that Syria will never recover from without it first being removed. Second, Syria will need a long time to convalesce. It is regrettable that one cannot expect help from “the international community” that helped plunge the knife in the first place. National recovery has become a formidable task, but what Syria needs most is to launch an opposite dynamic to that of militarisation, radicalisation, and sectarianisation – one of reconciliation, moderation and inclusivity. People are vengeful now just because they are still being killed. A different dynamic will encourage a predisposition towards co-operation and mutual understanding.

I believe that an increasing number of people will work for a new, more inclusive Syria, the moment the Assadic knife will be plucked out of the Syrian body. They are now scattered all over the world, but real change in the country and building a new Syria will be a collective cause for the majority of them.

Most of the educated people fled. How do you see the future of your country?

Your questions are painful. If Syria does not die, many of those who fled would come back. I will be one, definitely. I just want a minimal chance to go back home. I have to track down a loving wife and a brother, both abducted in 2013.

I believe that the creativity of people can do a lot. The alliance of the vulnerable, the underprivileged, is possible, and they will save Syria. I only want to live in a changing/changed Syria, among the people who are struggling for life. I lived there all my life.

How does the tragedy of your people affect the way you write?

I am essentially an essayist. I enjoy doing this and I am living off it.

Having survived after my wife, my brother and many of my friends were abducted with no information about them, I am trying to tell their stories, to prevent them from lapsing into oblivion. This is one of the main topics of my work.
As a writer, I think our specific participation as writers in the let-down revolution is to achieve revolution in our own sphere: writing and culture in general. A cultural revolution is extremely vital in Syria and the Arab World, and it is the only project that radically dignifies those abducted, tortured and killed. I know that my work is now imbued with a tragic sense, derived from what befell Syria, my beloved and me personally. In Arabic, there is a telling etymological relation between suffering and meaning, and I think that our culture should be rebuilt around our horrible experiences of suffering.

Besides, I feel that culture is a strategic field of our struggle in this exceptional situation. I said something before about enemies and fields of struggle: war could be a tool of struggle when you have one enemy (Assad dynasty tyranny), politics is the method when you have two enemies (say tyranny and religious extremism), but culture is the right field when you have three enemies, as we have: the Assad dynasty, the nihilistic Islamic groups and global imperialist powers, principally the US and Russia. Of course, culture should be formed in a way that responds best to the challenge of these three inhumane powers. What unifies these three fields of struggle is autonomy and creativity.

It is a matter of emancipation.

 

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The Brussels connection: Turning the tide on radicalisation

 
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By Christian Nielsen

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

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

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

Tuesday 17 November 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The ghost of conflicts past, present and future

 
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By Khaled Diab

With all the wars and conflicts raging in the Middle East, collective trauma carries very serious consequences for the region.

Thursday 3 September 2015

It is well-known that traumatic experiences leave lifelong emotional and psychological scars in their wake. Some scientists even suggest that trauma causes genetic changes in the victim. A contentious new study goes so far as to imply that these genetic mutations can be passed down from one generation to the next, making trauma hereditary.

The researchers focused on 32 Holocaust survivors and their offspring, finding evidence of the “epigenetic inheritance” of stress. “The gene changes in the children could only be attributed to Holocaust exposure in the parents,” said Rachel Yehuda, who led the study.

While some scientists have applauded the research, others have greeted it with scepticism. “The very idea of transmitting trauma makes little sense,” writes Frank Fureidi, a sociologist and author. “People either directly experience trauma or they don’t.”

Even if genetic change is hereditary, this is largely irrelevant, Fureidi argues, because people are far more than their genes. “Identity formation is a cultural accomplishment,” he observes.

Whether or not severe trauma is genetically transmitted is a fascinating scientific question, but an issue which affects the individuals in question. However, what seems clear is that collective trauma is transmitted culturally and profoundly affects a society’s cultural and social DNA.

Nearly seven decades on, the Holocaust still casts a long shadow over the Jewish and Israeli collective psyche and its trauma is scorched deep into Israel’s national identity – even if its memory is abused by one side for political gain and downplayed by the other due to political pain.

In the early years, the Holocaust was a cause of direct and profound trauma and grief for the survivors of the death camps and those who came into contact with them, but it was also a taboo subject enveloped in silence. As the survivors gradually die out, their place is being taken by the ghost of traumas past, i.e. memory.

This historical trauma is behind what you might call Israel’s power dysmorphia: despite possessing the most powerful army in the region, many Israelis do genuinely believe that they are the weaker party and the victims.

Meanwhile, Israel’s victims, the Palestinians, have their own historical trauma to contend with, that of the Nakba (“Catastrophe”), the Arab defeat in 1948 and the creation of the new state of Israel, not to mention the British and Ottoman imperialism which preceded it. As most Palestinians at the time were farmers, the land assumed romantic proportions. “As the women walked back with the oranges, the sound of their sobs reached us,” wrote the celebrated Palestinian writer and activist Ghassan Kanafani in his classic 1958 collection of short stories, Land of the Sad Oranges. “Only then did oranges seem to me something dear.”

And as that land has shrunk, and defeat has pursued defeat, and exile begot further exile, the collective trauma has only been magnified with the years, especially in Gaza, where constant and repeated war and isolation have left most of the population shell-shocked and teetering on the edge of psychological collapse.

And like a phantom in the dark recesses, these historical and contemporary traumas are a significant psychological factor in the failure of efforts to resolve the conflict – as they are and have been elsewhere. For instance, a century after the systematic Ottoman mass killings of up to 1.5 million civilians brought the Armenian people close to extinction, the collective trauma is a defining feature of the modern Armenian identity. Moreover, Turko-Armenian relations are still poisoned by Turkey’s refusal to acknowledge, let alone apologise for, what the majority of non-Turkish historians regard as a genocide.

Sadly, in the Middle East, collective trauma is not just historical. The upheavals, wars and conflicts that have spread like wildfire over the past few years do not bode well for the future.

In Syria, like Iraq before it, the civil war has distressed the entire population and created a lost generation of children whose trauma is likely to shape their entire lives. Long-term effects include the potential of violent behaviour, hooliganism, drug abuse, depression and health problems. Severe trauma is also fertile ground for extremism because it answers the basic human need to “make sense of a very nonsensical situation”.

This nonsensical situation has even awakened dormant traumas and grievances and let the genie of Syria’s “hidden sectarianism” out of the bottle. Islamists have the trauma of Hafez al-Assad’s purge of the Muslim Brotherhood and the 1982 Hama massacre to fuel their rage.

Alawites, though the bulk of them are poor and are no great fans of the regime, have been manipulated by Bashar al-Assad, who exploits their memories of persecution in Ottoman times and the fact that Islamists consider them “infidels”, to lay down the lives of up to a third of their young men.

Trauma is also haunting Arab countries that are not experiencing civil war, but have gone through revolutions and counterrevolutions and anti-revolutions. This is the case in Egypt. “The shock and awareness of the pervasiveness of death and the cheapness of life… raises massive existential questions that not only throws the personal, but also the previously existing social order, upside down,” explains the University of Amsterdam’s Vivienne Matthies-Boon, who is studying the effects of trauma on 18-35-year-old Egyptian activists of all political stripes.

“Revenge was a big issue for all sides,” she adds ominously. “But trauma-induced revenge also leads to more trauma.”

Matthies-Boon has found that those who were best able to avoid (self-)destructive behaviour where the ones with an artistic outlet or a strong faith system. But, worryingly, Egyptians who have been through such traumatic experiences receive little support and many are, Matthies-Boon discovered, reluctant to talk about their trauma, which is an essential part of coming to terms with it.

What the long-term consequences of millions of traumatised people will be for the region is impossible to gauge. But handled inadequately, it could take generations to overcome and could also create untold intractable situations and conflicts.

We need desperately to find ways not only to treat the millions of individual cases but also to formulate effective approaches to tackle collective trauma, with its memory- and emotion-distorting outcomes.

The future Middle East should remember. But it must build a memory based on fact and reality, to ensure this sorry state doesn’t occur again, not on national, sectarian and factional myths. While forgetting is not a wise game, forgiving past pain for future gain is essential if fruitful coexistence and a modicum of trust between the region’s diverse peoples is ever to be restored.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 27 August 2015.

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Defusing the social media timebomb

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Countering the “weaponisation of the internet” with top-down initiatives is unlikely to succeed. What we need are true grassroots efforts.

Tuesday 7 July 2015

Governments are playing catch-up as they grapple to deal with the growth in online propaganda and extremism.

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

The timing, though tragic in light of the latest extremist attacks in Tunisia, France and the United States, has never been better to band together in the global struggle against extremism, he suggested.

Founded in the United States just nine months ago, CEP is rallying public support for programmes to counter the narrative of extremists, expose the sources of funding and inspiration for such discourse, and advocate for effective laws and policies that promote “freedom, security and tolerance”.

The US branch of CEP has the backing of some big names in diplomacy, law enforcement and community-based support aimed at identifying and changing the narrative of hatred that feeds radicalism, violence and terrorism.

What has gone so wrong that a youth from a comfortable suburban home in, say, Birmingham feels compelled to take up with murderers? This is the key question that an organisation like CEP seeks to tackle.

US Senator Joseph Lieberman, who lent his support to the European launch of CEP, said the world is awash in blood spilt in brutal acts of violence. And it is not state versus state, he said, but the acts of lone wolves, disenfranchised individuals and extremist organisations so often inspired by the internet.

The intensity of this crisis cannot be solved by governments alone, he continued, it needs counter-narratives from a range of voices – non-government actors, educators, local and religious leaders – to “break down the stereotypes that inculcate violence”, to stop and help people before they “go bad”.

CEP revealed two of its own weapons in this battle: what it calls its counter-narrative programme and digital disruption campaign. The former identifies vulnerable “at-risk populations” and employs influencers – people with an “out-sized” ability to reach and influence such as social workers, community leaders – to engage especially young people, listen to their concerns and address them with better narratives. The digital disruption, though sinister-sounding, is largely aimed at urging social media like Twitter to be more vigilant of the content on their platforms, and to urge the removal of extremist, threatening language.

This has been likened, the experts conceded, to “whack-a-mole” – the game where you hit a mole on the head when it emerges as more keep popping up around it – but it has already proved successful, CEP’s team confirmed.

The power of social media is in the network of connections; every time you take out nodes (sources), the spread of extremist diatribe is weakened and takes time to reconnect or find its critical mass again.

As it seeks to deepen and widen the programme, CEP is under no illusions that countering extremism and terrorist acts everywhere will be easy, especially as modern information flow tends to flout borders. There is no single answer and the challenge most definitely cannot be tackled by states alone.

The lone wolf threat, an extremist who remains off the radar, still “keeps everyone awake at night”, stressed Senator Lieberman. “People reach into your neighbourhood from the other side of the planet.”

So the idea is to work from the ground up and provide the mechanisms and messages to raise awareness and negate the extreme voices that have won the early ground in this battle of our time.

At some point, like an AK 47 or any other weapon supplied to a terrorist, social media that don’t help in the campaign being waged against the weaponised words can be deemed to be providing material support. “We have to degrade [the extremists’] ability to spread cyber-jihad,” the senator stressed.

Somehow, you wonder

Though well-intended, most probably well-funded – CEP prefers not to reveal information about its backers – and definitely able to recruit big political names to the cause, I can’t help but doubt that even a trans-Atlantic organisation like CEP can really build a grassroots counter-movement, an Occupy Wall Street or Tiananmen Square moment. Pressure on social media outlets to crack down on the content is still a top-down measure. Yet it’s the bubble-up action at local level that stands the best chance.

At some point, probably at the lowest ebb, enough people (digital natives presumably) will have had enough of their youthful innocence being stolen from them by radicals and extremists… murderers hiding behind a perverted cause.

But have we reached the lowest ebb? It certainly seems like it, as more and more copycat killers pop up to grandstand in full view of the world’s internet denizens by killing innocent people, and claiming some spurious connection to one or another vying cult of death and destruction.

Yes, the time, tragically, is right but do the masses realise this? Will they raise their voices in protest and in their own way – with their own words and stories – counter extremism when and where it pops up? And do we need a project or programme to run such a movement? That’s to be seen.

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The real battle against ISIS

 
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By Khaled Diab

If ISIS is a virus, then fighting it with the antibiotic of ill-conceived deadly force and repression could create ever-more deadly strains. 

Prompted by social media, pro

Monday 9 February 2015

The Abbasid caliphate was the stage for magical tales to fill a thousand and one nights. The Islamic State (ISIL/ISIS) “caliphate” gives us enough horrors to fill a thousand and one frights.

The latest graphic atrocity committed by the Islamist death cult was the apparent burning alive of felled Jordanian fighter pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh, whose execution reportedly took place in early January.

The brutal murder has triggered horror and condemnation around the world. The news has hit home hard in Jordan, with disbelieving Jordanians stunned by the cruelty of the murder. Spurred on by an angry public mood, Jordan has promised swift retaliation.

“Our punishment and revenge will be as huge as the loss of the Jordanians,”  vowed Jordanian armed forces spokesman Mamdouh al-Ameri. And within hours, Jordan began executing jailed ISIS militants, including death row inmate Sajida al-Rishawi.

For his part, Jordan’s King Abdullah declared “relentless war” against ISIS. “We are waging this war to protect our faith, our values and human principles,” he said, vowing to “hit them in their own ground”. Towards that end, Jordan claims it has already carried out dozens of airstrikes against ISIS targets

Although the impulse for revenge is overpowering and it may even appear sweet at first sight, it leaves a bitter aftertaste and carries serious consequences.

Fighting fire with fire could very well backfire. Instead of neutralising the threat, the ill-conceived use of force could ignite a wave of violence in Jordan, which is high on ISIS’s hit list.

In addition, with the strain caused by 1.3 million Syrian refugees, Jordan is already teetering on the edge of instability. Despite the fact that this latest atrocity is bound to chip away at the limited popular support ISIS enjoyed in Salafist Jordanian circles, all it requires is a small band of dedicated sympathisers to wreak havoc.

If ISIS is a virus, as many contend, then fighting it with the antibiotic of violent repression might well only succeed in creating ever-more deadly strains. In fact, ISIS thrives on brutality. “[ISIS] believes not only in maximum but creative retaliatory and deterrent violence,” Hassan Hassan, a Syrian journalist and analyst who has co-authored an in-depth book about the Islamic State, told me.

One item of required reading among many ISIS militants, Hassan explains, is Idarat Al-tawahush (The Management of Savagery)  by Abu Bake Naji which makes the case that “Jihad is not about mercy but about excessive violence, and that the rest of religion is about mercy”.

Where did ISIS pick up such a nihilistic interpretation of Islam? A part of the answer is the cauldron of brutality in which it was conceived. “One cannot understand the violent mindset of ISIS members without recognising that Baathism is one of the ingredients that formed that mindset,” notes Hassan.

This was on full display during the 1982 Hama Massacre ordered by Hafez al-Assad and the past four years of carnage masterminded by his son, Bashar.

In neighbouring Iraq, Saddam Hussein – who bucked no dissent and believed in summary “justice” – used chemical weapons, with US acquiescence, against both Iranians and his own citizens. Add to that the vacuum left by the “shock and awe” of the US invasion which wrought devastation on a scale unseen since the Mongols in the 13th century, and your left with a perfect storm.

In fact, times of such calamitous ruin are often incubators for virulent extremism. Some eight centuries ago, while the Mongols were laying waste to much of the Middle East, Ibn Taymiyyah formulated a highly influential concept of Salafism and Jihad. These were to have a profound influence on the region, corroding the rationalism and free thought upon which Islamic civilisation’s golden age had been built.

What all this highlights is that, though ISIS needs to be fought on the battlefield too, the main battlegrounds are ideological, political, social and economic.

In order to dry up recruits, effective ways need to be devised to show how ISIS’s ideology and its self-styled “caliphate” are ahistorical and run contrary to the spirit that once made Islam robust and enlightened.

The socio-economic inequalities, the impunity of elites, their serving of foreign powers more than their own citizenry, and widespread corruption – all major recruiting platforms for radical groups – must be combated decisively.

In addition, it is high time that Arab societies properly defend freedom of belief and thought, in order to inoculate themselves against religious radicalisation by self-appointed defenders of the faith, whether they be individuals, groups or the state.

Those Arab countries which theoretically recognise such freedom need to implement it properly and consistently. Those which do not, such as the Gulf states, must start respecting pluralism and diversity. “So long as [Arab governments] shy away from a clear commitment to freedom of belief, their stance helps to legitimise the actions of groups such as [ISIS],” argues Brian Whitaker, the Guardian’s former Middle East editor.

More importantly, the region needs to address its democratic deficit. Despotism from above can and does breed tyranny from below, drawing in the disillusioned and disenchanted.

In short, to prove that violent Islamism is the illusion, we must make freedom, justice, equality and dignity the solution.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 4 February 2015.

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Islam’s freedom of expression… and insult

 
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Muhammad’s self-appointed defenders take offence on his behalf, but the prophet would’ve tolerated Charlie Hebdo and condemned the savage murders.

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Tuesday 20 January 2015

After the brutal assassination of eight of its staff members and two visitors, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has vowed to continue its trademark irreverence and secular iconoclasm, which critics have accused, in turn, of being Islamophobic, anti-Semitic and anti-Christian.

Its first issue since the tragic massacre, which came out on Wednesday 14 January, features a cartoon of a tearful Prophet Muhammad holding a sign which reads “Je suis Charlie”, the famous twitter hashtag. The turbaned figure stands under the slogan “All is forgiven”. If the murderers had hoped to repress representations of their beloved prophet, their actions backfired spectacularly: 5 million copies were circulated of the latest edition, and its cover went viral.

As a staunch advocate of freedom of expression, I believe they have every right to run such a cartoon, even if it has upset the religious sensibilities of some Muslims. Egypt’s grand mufti, Shawqi Allam, who blasted the cartoon as racist, while a number of protests took place in various Muslim-majority lands, with the largest occurring in Chechnya.

In France, many Muslims attended the anti-extremism marches held across the country to mourn the deaths at Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish kosher supermarket where four were killed. Further afield, Arabs and Muslims have also held vigils in support of the victims at Charlie Hebdo, and numerous Arab cartoonists have paid tribute to their slain peers with hard-hitting and moving cartoons.

These contrasting reactions got me wondering about a hypothetical question: what would Muhammad make of this? Would the prophet forgive Charlie Hebdo’s lampooning of him and his religion, and would he, if he were alive today, tweet his solidarity with the slain cartoonists?

My own reading of history and of Muhammad’s life leads me to the conclusion that, were he around in the 21st century, the prophet may not have tweeted “#JeSuisCharlie”, but he would have condemned these savage murders and forgiven whatever insult was directed his way by French satirists.

Some will find my assertion hard to believe, but Muhammad’s own actions and convictions back me up on this. Although the prophet’s self-appointed contemporary defenders take offence on his behalf and believe they are doing his will when they protest perceived insults or punish those who commit them, this could not be further from the truth.

During the vulnerable early years of Islam, the Islamic prophet endured and tolerated mockery and disdain. Even in victory, Muhammad choose wisely to exercise tolerance. Upon his triumphant return to Mecca, he forgave the inhabitants of the city which had been home to his fiercest enemies, even pardoning Abdullah Ibn Saad who had been a member of his inner circle but later denounced the prophet as a charlatan.

More importantly, the Islam Muhammad preached recognised the pluralistic nature of society and guaranteed freedom of belief. Surat al-Baqara of the Quran reminds Muslims that “there shall be no compulsion in religion”.

Significantly, the constitution Muhammad drew up in Yathrib (Medina) included in its definition of the “Umma” all the oasis’s inhabitants, not just Muslims. These included both the “People of the Book”, i.e. Christians and Jews, but also, perhaps surprisingly, pagans, all of whom were granted equal political, cultural and religious rights as Muslims.

And in the early centuries of Islam there was so much freedom of thought and expression that it would put much of the current Muslim world to shame. Although many contemporary Muslims are convinced that ridiculing Islam and rejecting religion are Western innovations, this is more wishful thinking than historical fact.

In Christendom, Muhammad and Islam was derided from a rival religious vantage point: that the prophet of Islam was believed to be the false prophet of a fake religion. He was even condemned  to the ninth circle of Dante’s inferno where he supposedly stands “rent from the chin to where one breaketh wind”.

In contrast, within the Islamic world itself, Muhammad and Islam were criticised and mocked from a secular, rationalist, anti-religious perspective. One example is the religious sceptic and scholar Ibn al-Rawandi (827-911) who, despite his rejection of religion and Islam, lived a long life in the 8th-9th centuries.

Ibn al-Rawandi, who spent a significant part of his life in Baghdad, believed that the intellect and science supersede all else, that prophets were unnecessary, that religion was irrational, that Islamic tradition was illogical and that miracles were a hoax.

In neighbouring Syria, a few decades later, the Richard Dawkins of the Abbasid era was born. Abu al-Ala’ al-Ma’arri (973-1058) was so contemptuous of religion that he divided the world into two types of people: “those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains”.

Al-Ma’ari also lived to a ripe age. And rather than being visited by assassins, he attracted many students and engaged with scholars of various persuasions, even when he decided to return to his hometown of Ma’arra to life ascetically in seclusion.

Although this tradition of free thought and scepticism has shrunk over the centuries, it still exists, and even witnessed a resurgence in the 20th century – and included the “dean of Arab literature” Taha Hussein – until the conservative Islamist current started to block it starting from the late 1970s/1980s.

The years since the revolutionary wave erupted in 2011 have seen secularists, sceptics and atheists mounting a comeback. But with some countries equating non-belief to terrorism and arresting atheists, theirs is a risky venture.

But these efforts are essential. Freedom of thought and expression were vital components of Islam’s golden age and lifting Arab and Muslim countries out of their current plight will require a return to that era of free inquiry.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 14 January 2015.

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Europe’s invisible “Islamisation”

 
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By Khaled Diab

The murderous Paris attacks have reignited fears of “Islamisation”. But Islamic civilisation is encoded in Europe’s cultural and intellectual DNA. 

Ziryab is the most unsung cultural, style and musical icon in European history.

Ziryab is the most unsung cultural, style and musical icon in European history.

Monday 12 January 2015

The brutal and tragic murders of 10 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, two police officers and four customers at a kosher supermarket by masked gunmen has triggered an outpouring of shock and grief, not only in France but around the world.

Large, spontaneous vigils filled the streets of many French cities, while social media was awash with solidarity and condemnation, including the hashtags #JeSuisCharlie and #NotInMyName, which was used by Muslims condemning the attacks.

On Sunday 11 January, this culminated in rallies across France which drew nearly 4 million people from all walks of life who walked shoulder to shoulder in solidarity against extremism.

Eyewitness accounts reveal that the attackers shouted “Allahu Akbar”, and the designer who was forced to let the assailants in says they told her they were with al-Qaeda. According to AFP, the police claim that one of the killers remarked: “We have avenged the prophet.”

Why Muhammad would need anyone to “avenge” him is beyond me. The prophet endured far more mockery, humiliation, insult and rejection during his lifetime without needing or ordering hitmen to defend his honour than that meted out by a group of equal-opportunities French cartoonists who despise and satirise all forms of organised religion.

Despite the massive show of solidarity, the collateral damage to French and European Muslims has already been done, even though one of the fallen police officers was a Muslim and the “hero” who saved a number of customers at the kosher supermarket was also of Muslim background.

Le Pen is mightier than the sword... of Islam.

Le Pen is mightier than the sword… of Islam.

The far-right Front National has already cynically and undignifiedly taken advantage of the tragedy. Declaring that Islamists have “declared war on France”, FN leader Marine Le Pen called for the reintroduction of the death penalty. Claiming that the atrocities were predictable, FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, no friend of Charlie himself, engaged in classic fear-mongering: “This attack is probably the beginning of the beginning. It’s an episode in the war that is being waged against us by Islamism.”

Exhibiting shameless self-promotion, Jean-Marie has already launched his daughter’s presidential campaign by tweeting a poster in which he suggests that Le Pen is mightier than the sword… of Islam. The poster features a photo of Marine with the English caption: “Keep calm and vote Le Pen.” Ironically, this slogan is lifted from a anti-fascist British poster published at the outset of World War II.

The ethno-regionalist and xenophobic Bloc Identitaire which advocates “remigration” believes that “no-one can claim to fight against jihadism [and] not question the mass immigration and Islamisation of our country.”

But like Muslims who fantasise about an a-historical caliphate, conservative Europeans who dream of a bygone utopia of a Europe uncontaminated by Islam or immigration, miss the reality that the “Islamisation of the West” occurred centuries ago.

Islamic civilisation is so hardwired into Europe’s cultural, social and intellectual DNA that it would be impossible to expunge its influence. The same applies in the other direction, in light of Christendom’s and the West’s powerful influence on Arab and Islamic society.

In addition to the philosophy, science, literature and art of the Muslim world which profoundly shape the European Renaissance, Islamic culture had some far more unexpected and surprising influences on Western civilisation.

One man in particular, for whom no statues or memorials stand anywhere in Europe and very few Westerners have heard of, is possibly the most unsung cultural, style and musical icon in European history.

In the ninth century, Ziryab, Cordoba’s most sought-after hipster, brought into vogue the idea of seasonal fashions, steering history’s catwalk towards the fashion slavery of the 21st century.

This Sultan of Style also added a fifth pair of strings to the Arab oud, paving the way to the European lute, which would become the modern guitar. He also introduced Europe to the idea of dining etiquette, from table cloths and crystal decanters to the three-course meal.

Fashion, fine food and rhythm are not what Europeans tend to associate with Muslims or Islam today. Instead, they are haunted by images of fundamentalists, not fun-loving eccentrics, and fanatics, not fans of refined culture.

As someone who is well aware of the destructive influence of violent Islamism in the Middle East, I can, at a certain level, sympathise with fears in the West over radicalisation. But Islamic extremism is mostly a threat to Muslim societies, not to Europe, as a minority has never, in history, imposed its will on a majority, except in the form of a military conqueror.

This exaggerated sense of threat can be seen in the enormous hysteria in segments of the media and among some politicians regarding the small trickle of European jihadists who have gone to fight in Syria. Although one gets the impression that Europe has sent forth a veritable Islamic army to the Levant, the real number is around 3,000 from across the continent, including the dead and returned, according to an estimate by Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s anti-terrorism chief.

While it is important to be vigilant and to find effective ways to deal with the threat posed by returning fighters, society must steer clear of stigmatising Europe’s already marginalised and distrusted Muslim communities.

This is because it is unfair to blame an entire group for the behaviour of a tiny minority and it is also counterproductive, as marginalisation is a significant, but not the only, factor in radicalisation.

In addition, the demonisation of minorities is what nurtures the truly threatening radicals in Europe’s midst: the far-right and neo-Nazis. Since the end of World War II, Western Europe has worked consciously to build and celebrate diversity. Despite its weaknesses and failings, Europe needs to cherish, build and strengthen its multicultural experiment.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 8 January 2015.

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The death throes of Arab thuggery

 
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By Khaled Diab

Arab civilisation has not collapsed but the thuggish political, economic and religious mafias dominating the region are dying violently.

Prompted by social media, pro

Prompted by social media, pro

Friday 17 October 2014

In an influential essay in Politico, the veteran Lebanese journalist Hisham Melhem who is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya, sounded the death knell for Arab civilisation.

“Arab civilisation, such as we knew it, is all but gone,” was his bleak prognosis. “The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism… than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago.”

Melhem then goes on to detail a long list of ills plaguing the Arab world: from the apparent defeat of the Arab Spring revolutions in most countries to the failure of Arab secular and monarchist regimes, not to mention the proliferation of fundamentalist violence.

“Is it any surprise that, like the vermin that take over a ruined city, the heirs to this self-destroyed civilisation should be the nihilistic thugs of the Islamic State?” he asks.

But to my mind, the domino-collapse of one state after another is not a sign of the death of Arab civilisation, but is rather the result of the implosion of three bankrupt forms of despotism: that of the tyrannical Arab state, Islamist demagoguery and foreign hegemony.

Despite the massive differences in the forms of government and the nature of the governed, most post-independence Arab states shared one thing in common: they all served a narrow elite to the detriment of society as a whole. Wherever you turn your gaze, you will find, almost without exception, seated in the place of the previous imperial overlords are local masters.

In addition, the foreign rule of yesteryear did not go away, it just changed its face and modus operandi. The loose-knit Ottoman empire in which local leaders and elites paid lip service and tribute to the Sultan but sometimes behaved like independent leaders, such as in Egypt, was replaced by the British and French who spoke the language of independence but often engaged in direct rule.

When the United States muscled out the old-world European powers, it spoke the language of self-determination and anti-imperialism but created its Pax Americana empire which exercised control through vassal leaders in client states and a ruthlessly punitive approach, including crippling sanctions and invasions, towards those who rejected its hegemony. The upshot of this is that Arab populations have lived under a double oppression: that of their native rulers and that imposed on them from distant capitals.

Just like Washington tolerates little regional dissent, domestically, Arab regimes have shared, to varying degrees, a ruthless attitude to opposition. This had the dual effect of robbing their societies of a clear cadre of effective alternative leaders and empowering ever-more extreme forms of opposition by side-lining or eliminating moderates.

Although a lot of attention has been directed at regime crackdowns against the Islamist opposition, especially the various chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood, less well-known is that secular dissidents suffered repression easily as harsh or more so, especially leftists.

This is to be expected of the Gulf monarchies whose claim to legitimacy is founded on dubious religious pretexts. However, the revolutionary republican regimes of Egypt, Syria and Iraq, despite their reputation in America for having been closet communists and pro-Soviet, not only dealt ruthlessly with the liberal opposition but were also bitterly anti-communist. For example, Nasserist Egypt not only banned the liberal nationalist al-Wafd party in 1953 but also carried out a harsh crackdown against leftists and communist critics. This was partly out of distrust of Moscow and partly to maintain their claim as the sole representatives of progressive values.

In Iraq, the communist party was, for decades, one of the most influential opposition currents, yet was not tolerated neither by the “liberal” royalists nor the “progressive” Free Officers and Ba’athists which came later. The most brutal anti-communist crackdowns were probably those carried out by pro-British Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said in the late 1940s and in the 1960s following a failed anti-Ba’ath coup attempt. Saddam Hussein also dealt ruthlessly with the party, both as head of security and intelligence in the late 1960s and on the eve of becoming president in the late 1970s.

Though the reasons varied, the decades-long oppression of secular opposition forces in the Arab world had far-reaching consequences. One was the decimation of the ranks of viable alternative leaders, which was acutely felt when the leaderless Arab uprisings did not manage to assemble a credible leadership quickly enough to consolidate their gains.

This, along with the weak, corrupt, incompetent and dysfunctional nature of Arab secular regimes – not to mention the “democratic” fig leaf the West used to disguise its interests – led to the discrediting of secularism in the minds of many, and, after decades of being in vogue, Westernisation became a dirty word rather than something to aspire to.

This left an ideological and political void which radical, anti-authoritarian Islamism managed to occupy, for a time.

To counter both the secularist and Islamist threat to their legitimacy and rule, a number of Gulf states went on the offensive and actively exported, lubricated by petro-dollars, their own brand of Islam, such as the ultra-conservative Wahhabi ideology from Saudi Arabia or Salafism from Qatar.

For a while, political Islamism’s simple “Islam is the solution” formula apparently won a lot of supporters as a counter to the failure both of secular pan-Arabism and conservative monarchism, but this is waning.

Though the secular opposition forces may have been down, they were definitely not out. This was reflected in the progressive, leftist, pro-democracy nature of the 2011 Arab uprisings, especially in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.

This set alarm bells ringing in what had become the trinity dominating Arab politics: the Arab autocracies (whether republican or monarchist), the Islamist opposition and the US-led West. And each of these set in motion their own anti- or counterrevolutionary forces.

The one country where these forces did not manage to cause major mischief is the only place where the Arab Spring has been a relative success: Tunisia. For a time, Egypt looked like it might also escape this fate but, instead, turned into a battleground for regional and international forces.

But the worst proxy battleground has been Syria. Caught between the intransigent and murderous Assad regime and its allies in Russia, China and Iran, on the one hand, and the unholy alliance between the United States and the conservative Gulf monarchies, on the other hand, the peaceful, secular uprising didn’t stand a chance.

What the above reveals is that it is not Arab civilisation which has died, but the political order put in place almost a century ago following the collapse of the Ottoman empire is going through its death throes. And like dying wild animals, these beasts are at their most dangerous when fatally wounded.

Despite the surface decay in Arab society, submerged underneath are the fresh shoots of a robust, youthful, dynamic civilisation kept from blossoming by the stranglehold of the suffocating weed on the putrid top soil of the established order.

This is visible in the courageous youth who led the revolutionary charge against despotism, neo-liberalism and socioeconomic inequality. It can be seen in how tens of millions of Arabs have lost their deference to their leaders and their awe of authority. It can be traced in the innovative reinvention of religion and in the growing assertiveness of the a-religious, not to mention in the pent-up creative social, economic and even scientific energies eager to be unleashed and harnessed.

Once the crushing weight of the oppressive weed has been removed, future generations will have the space and opportunity to enable a true Arab Spring to bloom. But the road to recovery and then progress is long, hard and gruelling.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 2 October 2014.

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The dangers of a political crusade against Western jihadists

 
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By Khaled Diab

Inflammatory rhetoric and a solely punitive approach to Western jihadists is only likely to make matters worst, and could threaten multiculturalism.

British aid worker Peter Haine is the latest Westerner to be executed by ISIS.

British aid worker Peter Haine is the latest Westerner to be executed by ISIS.

Monday 15 September 2014

David Cameron, the UK prime minister, has unveiled a controversial raft of measures which he claims will help counter the threat posed by British jihadists fighting in Syria and northern Iraq. These include barring these citizens from re-entering the UK, seizing the passports of suspects before they depart and internally exiling radicals. Other European countries are also considering similar measures. Norway, for example, has announced that it is studying mechanisms for revoking the citizenship of Norwegians who take part in terror operations abroad or join foreign militaries, which would potentially also include Jews volunteering for the Israeli army.

“Adhering to British values is not an option or a choice,” Cameron told the House of Commons. “It is a duty for all those who live in these islands so we will stand up for our values.”

A “duty”, it would seem, if you are a member of a minority, but not if you are a posh Tory. Then, you can ride roughshod over these values and the principles underlying the British legal system, and grant the government even more arbitrary powers to encroach on civil liberties. Fair trials and the presumption of innocence are surely sacred British values, or is Cameron proposing a return to the medieval Germanic practice of  “guilty until proven innocent”? His home secretary certainly is, having stripped at least 37 dual nationality Britons of their citizenship with the stroke of a pen, without any kind of due process.

Fortunately, the British establishment has balked at Cameron’s demagoguery, forcing him to backpedal somewhat from the strident statement of intent he gave on Friday 29 August.

Moreover, “it absolutely sticks in the craw”, to borrow one of the prime minister’s own expressions, and beggars belief that Cameron himself posed a far greater threat to British values and the safety of British citizens than a handful of jihadistst. After all, Cameron supported the illegal and bloody invasion of Iraq, against the will of millions of Britons. And this disastrous enterprise,  which triggered serious blowback, created the vacuum from which ISIS emerged and helped radicalise some Muslims towards Britain, could not have gone ahead without his party’s support.

Should Cameron voluntarily hand over his passport for so recklessly having undermined British values and the security of his fellow citizens? Should he refuse the jet-setting Tony Blair re-entry into the UK and exile him to the Hague?

The rank hypocrisy of politicians and bigots aside, I understand and sympathise with European anxieties, especially following the murder of a third Western hostage held by ISIS, British aid worker David Haines. I witnessed, in the 1990s, the disruptive influence of returning Egyptian jihadists – then from Western-sanctioned Afghanistan. As an agnostic-atheist who believes in secularism and multiculturalism, I observe with alarm the rise, in Syria and Iraq, of violent Islamists who make al-Qaeda look like boy scouts. Their murderous brutality, historical ignorance and cluelessness about religion is worthy of the highest contempt and mockery. But they are a catastrophe for the Middle East, not the West.

That said, Europeans fighting in Syria and Iraq do pose a potential threat to their home countries. However, the British legal system is already equipped with all the legislation necessary and the security services possess the power – too much power – to protect citizens against this threat and to punish perpetrators of atrocities, but this must only occur as a result of free and fair trials.

Moreover, a solely punitive approach is far from useful. In fact, radicalisation experts say it is counterproductive and dangerous. “Treating all foreign fighters as terrorists… risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy,” wrote Shiraz Maher and Peter Neumann of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London. “It may sound tough, but it isn’t likely to be effective.”

Why? Because “their motivations for travelling to Syria are diverse, and it is wrong to think of them as a homogenous group,” explain Maher and Neumann.

In the fog of war, it is not only unclear just how many foreign fighters there are in Syria but also who they are fighting alongside and to what end. An ICSR report from the end of last year emphasised that the group affiliations for foreign fighters were known in only a fifth of cases. Of the remaining four-fifths, it is impossible to know how many are of the headline-grabbing ISIS variety of grizzly mass murderers, and how many are young idealists drawn to fight against a murderous dictator with moderate rebel groups, like generations of Europeans before them.

Even among those who go to wage jihad, many experience a change of heart once their abstract dreams are replaced by the gruesome reality. “We’re forced to stay and fight, what choice do we have? It’s sad,” one disillusioned jihadist who was afraid to return home admitted to ICSR.

This is the situation many disenchanted Arab jihadists found themselves in when their home countries stripped them of their nationality following the war in Afghanistan, forcing them further down the road to extremism and providing the nascent Al Qaeda with a core of fighters it would otherwise have been deprived of.

Egypt and some other Arab countries have since drawn lessons from this. Rather than banishing jihadists, they have put in place de-radicalisation programmes. Effective de-radicalisation initiatives can reap a threefold benefit in Europe: regaining productive citizens, mitigating a terrorist threat and providing the best advertisement against the lure of jihad for would-be hotheads.

Moreover, radicalisation is not something that only afflicts minorities. Segments of the European majorities are also being radicalised by economic and social insecurity, demagoguery and false narratives, just like Muslims, as reflected by the extremely troubling rise of the far-right and neo-Nazism.

In addition, radicalisation is partly generational. After an implicit post-war social pact in which youth expected to lead better lives than their parents, we have reached an impasse where young people are both worse off than baby-boomers and have dwindling prospects, with rampant unemployment, especially in the 18-25 age group, unaffordable housing, few pension prospects, etc.

And rather than sympathy, the plight of youth has brought them contempt. Contrary to popular belief, it is not older Europeans who are the worst victims of ageism but those under the age of 25 –  a problem that’s particularly acute in the UK and Scandinavia. This has led to huge disillusionment among youngsters, some of whom turn to various forms of radicalism. Minority youth have the additional burden of racial and cultural discrimination.

This reflects how vital it is that the problem of foreign jihadists, troubling as it is, is not blown out of all proportions by vested interest groups and bigots. No more than 500 Brits, by Cameron’s own estimate, have taken up arms in Syria (and mostly for unknown reasons). Yet the prime minister claimed outlandishly that this disparate group, which would barely make up a battalion in a regular army, was the single greatest threat facing the UK, bizarrely overlooking Ukraine and other major crises affecting Europe.

This kind of rhetoric, which panders to the far right and Islamophobic elements in European society, is reckless and potentially perilous. Stigmatising and vilifying minorities or certain ethnic groups can lead to ugly repression and persecution, as Europe’s own history shows and many parts of the contemporary Middle East are currently illustrating. In fact, what history seems to tell us is that when there’s a “problem” with a minority, one should look to the majority first because that’s where the real problem usually lies.

Although some critics are well-meaning and well-intentioned, many of the loudest voices declaring the failure of multiculturalism and demanding that minorities assimilate are those who never bought into diversity in the first place and harken back to an idealised, mythological past in which society was purer and nobler.

But multiculturalism hasn’t failed. Despite its many enemies and its learn-as-you-go approach, it has been generally a roaring success. Only two or three generations ago, western European countries were largely homogenous. Today, they are a cultural kaleidoscope of diversity in which disparate groups manage to live together in peace and relative harmony.

As the once-diverse Middle East increasingly sheds its cultural variety and persecution on the basis of ethnicity and religion grows, Britain and western Europe should cherish and safeguard the beauty of their newfound multicultural reality.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 4 September 2014.

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