The mediocrity of evil

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


Friday 10 July 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


‘Adolf, the Superman: Swallows gold and spouts junk’
Photo montage by John Heartfield, 1932.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Royally untalented

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Beyond belief: Arab atheists and their quest for acceptance amid intolerance

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By Khaled Diab

Atheists are amongst the most marginalised and persecuted minorities in the Arab world. Despite the risks atheists face from the state and vigilantes, atheism has become more visible and vocal in recent years, leading to greater public understanding and tolerance.

Tony Khalife recruits two clergymen to counter the arguments of atheists.

Wednesday 10 June 2020

Lebanese television host Tony Khalife recently took aim at atheists. “If you want to be an atheist, you’re free to be so, God will reckon with you,” the TV presenter said on the al-Jadid channel. “But if, over and above your atheism, you make fun of our prophets, the things we hold sacred and our saints and you use terms as despicable as you are, we will not allow you to.”

It is unclear what exactly had offended Khalife. However, clues may present themselves from a few years ago, when the Lebanese presenter moderated a debate between two non-believers and two clerics, in which he and the men of religion took deep offence from the rationalistic criticisms of religion presented by the sceptics.

In October 2014, Tony Khalife hosted the televised roundtable debate on the Egyptian private channel al-Qahira wel Nas, which has been viewed by more than 2 million times on YouTube alone.

On one side of the table sat Ahmed (whose full name was not mentioned during the debate), a militant atheist who started off as a hardcore Salafi, and Karim (whose full name was also not mentioned), who grew up as a Christian but abandoned his religion, first for atheism and then for a vague belief in Christ, but not in the Bible, after claiming to have seen Jesus in a vision. On the other side of the table sat an Azharite sheikh and a Coptic priest.

The journey from Islamic fundamentalism to atheism may seem odd at first sight but it is not uncommon. One recent example which received considerable public attention was the case of Noha Mahmoud Salem. A doctor by training, Salem had been raised in a pious family and went on to marry a Salafist and to wear the niqab (full face veil). When her husband slapped her face and her father defended his right to do so, Salem started questioning her religion and delving deeper into its various tenets, and what she discovered shattered the foundations of her faith, even the comforting spiritual aspects, such as the notion of the soul. “A human being is a series of cells with DNA that generate, get old and then die,” she observed in an interview. “After death is like before being: simply nothing.”

The power of free thought

There is a conviction amongst the Islamic establishment that atheism is a reaction to the distorted picture of Islam perpetuated by extremism, fundamentalism and terrorism. And, in some cases, this is how it begins, but not in the way they think. For example, a young Iraqi who witnessed and lived the persecution meted out by the Islamic State ended up abandoning his faith. However, this young man was not a Muslim but a Christian. “There were a lot of questions in my mind about Christianity already. I started to question it before ISIS. After ISIS I went to research more. I discovered what religion was really about,” he said in an interview.

A vital factor is the freedom to question and the opportunity to investigate these questions, a rational process which was commonplace for the Mu’tazilites and others during the Abbasid era but has become rather dangerous in today’s Iraq, which leads either to a restoration of faith or its abandonment. The revolutionary wave which started nearly a decade ago, and whose precursors had been brewing for the decade before that, has provided just such an opportunity, even when Arab states try to crack down or limit access to knowledge, and has proven to be an eye-opener for many, secularists and conservatives alike. “It was an explosion of ideas for me and also for Egypt: YouTube channels and quarrels on TV shows. Everyone had an opinion and a party,” recalls an ex-Salafi who became an atheist, whose identity I am concealing because he now lives in Saudi Arabia where atheism is outlawed, defined as “terrorism” and potentially carries the death penalty. “As an Islamist, I learned more about secularism and liberalism (and I believe all of Egypt began to learn about all of Egypt). I am an avid reader and I began to read like crazy about religion and atheism… All this resulted in my ditching religion in 2013.”

This means that the narrative which has emerged that the distorted image of Islam presented by religious extremists, such as the Islamic State and other jihadist groups or even the Muslim Brotherhood, is the main cause of this drift away from Islam is inaccurate. Therefore, the logic informing al-Azhar’s controversial campaign to combat atheism by teaching what it regards as moderate Islam is unlikely to succeed in swaying the convictions of non-believers. This initiative has seen, among other things, scholars from al-Azhar, which has produced its fair share of atheists and sceptics over the years, set up kiosks in the metro and other public spaces to answer people’s questions and present an undistorted image of their religion. But even by the grand institution’s own admission, it is losing the war of ideas: a few years ago, it claimed that there were only 866 atheists in Egypt but has since revised this estimate upwards to a more believable 2 million.

Testing faith

In reality, some reach atheism from the other side of the spectrum. For a surprising number of atheists I know and have spoken to in the context of my research and journalism, their abandonment of faith was, paradoxically, actually the product of an attempt to deepen it and to understand religion better. “When I started university in the 1980s, I realised that I was very knowledgeable about lots of things, except my own religion. So I decided that I was going to delve deep into it and be as expert as possible,” Egyptian atheist Ayman Abdel-Fattah told me, admitting that what he learnt “gave me the shock of my life”.

Rather than a reaction against extremism, this quest and questioning is often triggered by mainstream religion. Atheists I have interviewed or spoken to often point to what they regard as the contradictions and inconsistencies in religion, not only in the extremist interpretation of it. “I began questioning and doubting everything around me, mostly because of the oppression of women in the Middle East,” confessed a young woman who asked to be referred to as Maya (not her real name) because she is currently living in Saudi Arabia.

After connecting with fellow doubters online, Maya decided to jettison her faith, but the change was only internal to begin with. “At first, I was still a hijabi while being a non-believer, but after a year I made the decision: I’m no longer allowing this whole society I live in to choose what I wear.” This is, of course, more easily said than done in restrictive Saudi Arabia, where Maya must wrap herself in a black abaya when she ventures outside.

The life-threatening consequences of being an open non-believer means that atheists in Saudi Arabia must live in cloistered secrecy, which can be a very lonely existence. “I’m as closeted as ever,” reflects Maya. “It makes me feel anxious and I struggle with myself. I sometimes ask myself: What if I’m wrong and everyone who is on the opposite side is right? That self-confidence I have when I’m surrounded by other non-believers or slightly open-minded people, like in Egypt, for example, makes me want to leave here asap.”

However, there does exist a vibrant atheistic underground in Saudi Arabia, which communicates mainly online but some do dare to gather in person. “We non-believers have meetings and groups in a lot of Saudi cities,” one Saudi atheist was quoted as saying. “If you go into them, then you will be shocked by the numbers and elements of society represented.”

Criminalising contempt

The sheikh hosted by Tony Khalife dismissed the guest atheist Ahmed’s opinions as “contempt”, “effrontery” and “insolence”, with the presenter ending the encounter with an apology to viewers who may have felt offence. Khalife and the sheikh’s choice of words were likely not accidental, as contempt of religion is effectively outlawed in Egypt.

In fact, Egypt’s legal framework is as polarised and confused as this TV debate. Egypt’s self-image is of a country where “freedom of belief is absolute”, as stated in Article 64 of the current constitution. However, Egypt also sees itself as a pious country of devout believers where perceived insults to the faith cause public outrage. What this means is that although Egypt does not outlaw atheism, its penal code does effectively make blasphemy a punishable offence. For example, Article 98(f), which was originally passed in 1981 to protect religious minorities, has been, in recent years, weaponised by Islamists and the state to target Christians, secular critics and atheists.

Taking this rationale to its illogical conclusion, the rubberstamp Egyptian parliament attempted to exploit the notion that atheism is, by its very existence, insulting to religion. When defending his proposal for a bill to outlaw atheism in December 2017, Amr Hamroush, the head of the parliament’s religious committee, said: “[Atheism] must be criminalised and categorised as contempt of religion because atheists have no doctrine and try to insult the Abrahamic religions.” Since then, the bill appears to have been shelved and left to quietly die.

This ambiguity has left non-believers in a precarious situation, at the mercy of the whims of individuals in Egypt’s labyrinthine and powerful security apparatuses, prosecutors’ offices and the judiciary. For some, this means that they successfully manage to navigate the country’s wobbly social and legal tightrope and enjoy the freedom to express their religious views without facing any serious consequences.

Others, however, are not so fortunate, with some even falling foul of the system repeatedly. This was the case with Sherif Gaber. The young freethinker first entered the public eye as a student at Suez Canal University following a smear campaign in 2013 by faculty members who did not approve of his views supporting homosexuality and criticising religion. Following his sentencing on blasphemy charges in 2015, Gaber was released on bail pending a retrial. He went underground but courageously refused to be silenced. Gaber ran a popular anti-religion YouTube channel where the videos he produced have been viewed millions of times.

When attempting to flee Egypt in 2018, Gaber was arrested at the airport. After his release, he went into hiding again until he could work out a way to flee the country. His Twitter posts from the time reflect the huge emotional and psychological toll his situation as an intellectual fugitive was having on him. “I feel so weak. so numb. I feel so empty that I can’t understand the feeling of anything,” he posted on Twitter in July 2019. “I feel this weight on my chest that I can’t breath[e]. I can’t think. I hear so many voices. And yet no one. I miss the feeling of no pain.”

It is unclear whether Gaber is still in Egypt or has managed to relocate. His Twitter account has gone silent on the subject. On his Instagram page, he posted a photo on 14 March 2020, without comment, of a plane taking off and other photos show him in locations that do not look like Egypt.

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Silencing and shaming

This kind of hostility and outrage in the Arabic-language media targeted at non-believers has become quite common place in recent years. This is partly driven by sensation-seeking broadcasters who wish, on the one hand, to appear tolerant and open-minded, while, on the other hand, projecting a faux image of piety and self-righteous moral superiority.

The TV debate chaired by Tony Khalife was mild and civilised compared with some of the other televised standoffs involving atheists in recent years. In February 2018, atheist Mohamed Nofal (referred to in the programme as Mohamed Hisham) appeared on the private Egyptian channel al-Hadath al-Youm. “Basically, I went on this talk show to help normalise leaving Islam. The main reasons that motivated me to go public were the injustice that I’ve experienced and witnessed my whole life,” Nofal explained to me. “Many minorities that live in a majority Islamic country suffer prejudice and discrimination from both the state and the public, in the name of Islam.”

Nofal’s hopes of receiving a fair hearing were quickly dashed. The soft-spoken atheist was constantly interrupted by the host and the cleric. Deputy Sheikh of al-Azhar Mahmoud Ashour, rather than debate the Origin of Species with the young freethinker insisted on asking about the origins of Nofal’s family, blithely dismissing atheism as a psychological disorder that requires treatment. Mahmoud Abdel-Haleem, the presenter, gave Nofal a long, insulting lecture before kicking him out of the studio and advising him to go straight to a psychiatric hospital.

The trope likening atheism to a mental disorder is a surprisingly common one, which possibly stems from the conviction that Islam is a rational religion and that faith is the natural order, so anyone who disbelieves must be disturbed and some kind of deviant. “An Arab atheist is usually a parasite – someone who claims to be knowledgeable but is not and will probably eventually commit suicide,” wrote Mohammad Al-Buraidi, a columnist at the Saudi Gazette. “An Arab atheist is usually a drunk, certainly a degenerate and has definitely nothing to offer.”

Another fairly common myth about atheists is that they are Satanists, and this dangerous fiction can sometimes be spread by people in positions of authority. For example, when an alleged ‘atheist cafe’ was shut down in Cairo, a senior official claimed that it had been the venue of “Satan worship, rituals and dances. There were also Satanic drawings at the entrance.”

Ejecting atheists from the studio has become something of a habit on Egypt’s private television channels. Four years before the incident involving Nofal, the sensationalist Riham Said, who hosted a show called Sabaya al-Kheir on al-Nahar TV, threw Noha Mahmoud Salem, the ex-Salafi doctor mentioned above.

Such sensationalism, incitement and demonisation in the mass media have real-life consequences. For example, Mohamed Nofal began to fear for his safety and security following his television appearance. “I got extremely negative responses, mostly violent in nature and controlling to the extent where I had to pretend to be a Muslim to avoid the death and prison threats,” he recalled. “From family, I got physically assaulted and I was threatened with prison by a relative police officer. I saw people on social media discussing who should kill me: a random citizen or the government. it was surreal and frightening.”

With the aid of a GoFundMe campaign set up by Western activists, Nofal fled to Europe, where he sought asylum in Germany. Although Nofal is grateful that he has found a safe refuge and is living in a society where he can express his views freely, some Arab atheists who flee their countries find the adjustment difficult and end up returning home, despite the potential risks involved.

This was the case with two atheists I know who returned to Egypt after living in Europe for several years. One even had a pending court case against him while the other had been persecuted by his own family for his beliefs and sexuality, yet both found the uncertainty and trauma of life back home preferable to the sense of isolation and alienation they felt abroad. This underscores the tension between philosophical and social belonging, where Arab atheists may find themselves torn between a society that is sympathetic to their intellectual stances but hostile towards their cultural roots and another society which is hostile towards their ideas but sympathetic towards their culture.

Battling the atheism tsunami

There is a popular conviction among establishment voices that Egypt is being swept by a ‘tsunami of atheism’, in the words Amr Adeeb, the loud-mouthed Egyptian TV host. In my analysis, rather than experiencing a tsunami of unbelief, Egyptian and Arab society have, in reality, kept atheists hidden behind a dam of wilful ignorance, and this dam is now fracturing and a trickle is now leaking out of the cracks.

Whether conscious or subconscious, one motive behind viewing atheism as a new phenomenon is to depict it as something alien and imported from the West and, hence, not authentic to Arab societies, despite research showing that the process is local, though it does borrow some ideas and concepts from Western thought and philosophy. Besides, even a cursory look at history would rapidly dispel any illusions that atheism and religious scepticism are anything new to Islam. In fact, they stretch back from the very dawn of Islam right down to the 20th and 21st centuries.

As if to underscore this point, the prominent Egyptian existentialist philosopher and poet, Abdel-Rahman Badawi, who clashed with Egypt’s Nasser and was imprisoned by Libya’s Gaddafi, published, in 1945, an encyclopaedic history of atheism in the Islamic context, which he described as “one of the most fascinating and fertile international currents of atheism in the spiritual history of humanity”.

Classical Islamic scholars tended to tolerate atheism and unbelief theologically and intellectually, as demonstrated by the proliferation of freethinkers in the early centuries of Islam. Moreover, “apostasy” was not outlawed in and of itself, but was to be combated if the “apostate” declared war on society, i.e. scholars viewed it as primarily a political rather than theological issue. “The reason to kill an apostate is only with the intent to eliminate the danger of war, and not for the reason of his disbelief,” opined Ibn al-Humam, a 15th century Egyptian jurist and theologian. “Therefore, only such an apostate shall be killed who is actively engaged in war.”

Commanders of the faithful

In Saudi Arabia, those found guilty of atheism or ‘apostasy’ are dealt with harshly. They can be flogged pitilessly or receive capital punishment. For example, in 2017, one man, named in the media as Ahmad Al-Shamri, who allegedly renounced Islam and Muhammad on social media was reportedly sentenced to death. This is because of the kingdom’s harsh religious laws and draconian security regulations, passed in 2014, which define, in Article 1, as “terrorism”, “Calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.”

In Saudi Arabia, you do not even need to be an atheist to be charged with or punished for being one – it is often enough simply to oppose the state or criticise the regime. One of the most iconic examples of this is Raif Badawi, a liberal reformer who never officially renounced his religion but was nonetheless tried for “apostasy”, imprisoned for “insulting Islam” and condemned to endure 1,000 lashes (mercifully, not all inflicted due to the international public outrage) because he had dared to establish an online forum for open political debate.

While it is clear to the outsider that atheism cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, constitute terrorism, it does appear to awaken a sense of panicked terror in the hearts of Saudi Arabia’s ruling elite. “Any calls that challenge Islamic rule or Islamic ideology is considered subversive in Saudi Arabia and would be subversive and could lead to chaos,” the Saudi ambassador to the United Nations Abdallah al-Mouallimi said during a TV interview. “We are a country that is homogeneous in accepting Islam by the entire population.”

Why is advocating atheism considered a terrorist offence in Sa…

"Why is advocating atheism in Saudi Arabia now considered to be a terrorist offence?"Mehdi Hasan asked Abdallah al-Mouallimi, the Saudi ambassador to the UN. Watch more:

Posted by UpFront on Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Since the establishment of the modern Saudi state in 1932 by Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman ibn Faisal ibn Turki ibn Abdullah ibn Muhammad Al Saud (also known simply as Ibn Saud), its royal family has claimed its legitimacy not from below, i.e. the support of its subjects, but from above, from Islam and God, as the protector of the religion’s holiest sites and the upholder of Wahhabi orthodoxy as represented by its clerics. “In Saudi terms, equating atheism with terrorism does have a certain logic since atheism presents a challenge to the most fundamental principles of the Saudi state,” writers Brian Whitaker, former Middle East editor at The Guardian, in his book on Arab atheists. “The Saudi state cannot accept non-belief without changing the basis on which it has been constructed.”

 Believe and let live

Given the paucity of reliable statistics and the risks of openly identifying as an atheist in some countries, it is impossible to tell for certain whether there are more atheists in the MENA region than before. However, what is clear is that the revolutionary waves that have swept the region have had a dual effect on people. On the one side, it has made the irreligious more open about their views and more assertive in demanding that society accepts them and protects their rights, as numerous atheists have demanded on Egyptian TV and in the media over the past few years.

In the most secular Arab state, Tunisia, atheists and the irreligious have emerged from the shadows to demand full equality. The small but vocal Tunisian Association of Freethinkers has been at the forefront of these efforts, speaking out on in favour of free thought and inquiry and even organising a protest demanding the right to eat and drink in public during Ramadan. Some of its members have been the victims of vigilante attacks from Islamic fanatics.

On the other, it has led to a greater understanding and acceptance of what non-belief is amongst ordinary people. For instance, at the progressive end of the Arab media, there have been efforts to portray atheists sympathetically. One example was the online al-Badil (Alternative), which describes itself as “the voice of the weak”, which produced a video documentary in which a number of atheists were given the space and freedom to elaborate on their beliefs, lives, concerns and worries.

This was demonstrated, for instance, in the case of Kareem Amer, an Egyptian blogger who was jailed in 2007 for his vocal atheism. A large number of believing Muslims campaigned for his release. “Despite what Kareem said about our religion. Free speech doesn’t mean speech that you approve of. It includes criticism,” the organisers of the campaign said, challenging the public with: “You may be disgusted at what he said, even angered. That’s okay, so are we! But we will defend with all our might his right to express such opinions, because it is his basic, inalienable human right.”

It is in the interest of both the individual and society as a whole that those Arab countries which still outlaw apostasy and punish it end these inhumane practices. It is also high time that the self-appointed vigilante defenders of the faith realise that Islam, Muhammad and God do not need human bodyguards and assassins.

Equally importantly is the formal, legal acceptance of freedom of belief and conscience for all citizens. A significant step in that direction would be to remove religious affiliation from birth certificates and identity documents where they exist, as is the case in Tunisia. Constitutions also need to be revised to remove references to Islam and Islamic law.


This essay was first published (in English and in Arabic) by Rowaq Arabi on 6 May 2020.




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After ISIS, former Yazidi sex slaves are caught between trauma and taboo

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By Boštjan Videmšek

Safia, a Yazidi teenager from Iraq, was captured by the Islamic State, sold into sexual slavery, raped, tortured and made pregnant, leaving deep psychological scars. Her ability to come to terms with the trauma are thwarted by taboo, shame and her forced separation from her daughter.

Safia at the Khanke refugee camp

Thursday 2 March 2020

On 3 August 2014, the fighters of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS or ISIS) took the town and the mountain range of Sinjar. Both had been undefended. After the Kurdish towns in northern Iraq were subjected to increasing pressure from the extremist Sunni militia, the Peshmerga fighters – members of the armed forces of the Kurdish regional government – withdrew from the strategically vital area which was mostly populated by the Yazidis, a monotheistic, gnostic people who have been targeted by numerous religious conquerors over the centuries.

Six weeks before the conquest of Sinjar, the Islamic State marched unopposed into Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. This occurred despite the fact that the ISIS convoy could have been thoroughly routed with a single well-aimed aerial raid. Emboldened by their recent exploits, the ISIS leaders decided to make the Yazidis one of their key priorities. The isolated, unarmed and politically marginalised people were to be rapidly converted to Islam.

Or killed.


Back then, Safia was not yet 14. She lived with her mother, father, older sister and two brothers in a hamlet seemingly cut off from the rest of the world. The tiny village’s isolation was really quite a blessing, sheltering the inhabitants from the worst of the permanent war raging across the land.

In spite of the Peshmerga withdrawal and rumours of the impending Sinjar raid, the Yazidis opted to stay put. The vast majority of them was simply too dependent on their farming for sustenance to leave.

“We heard that a few of the villages were surrounded, that they were killing men and kidnapping women,” Safia recalled. “We decided to run away. But we were too late. Daesh (ISIS) had already reached the gates of our village.”

That fateful day has left a savage scar across every moment that has followed. Even now, at the Khanke refugee camp near Duhok in northwestern Iraq, where, five and a half years after the genocide, some 16,000 Yazidis still reside, the now 19-year-old woman starts shivering at the very thought.

“We were hiding,” the bashful teenager picks up her tale – a tale shared by several thousand Yazidi girls and women snatched into a life of sexual slavery. “We were all gathered up in or near the centre of the village. We were surrounded. They kept killing people left and right. First, they separated the men from the women. They immediately took away my father and older brother. It was the last I ever saw of them. They are officially missing. As for my mother, my older sister, my younger brother and me… They threw us into the back of a truck and carted us off. Our village was burned to the ground.”

According to the official UN records, some 5,000 Yazidis were murdered in a matter of days. The UN, along with the EU, classifies the massacre as genocide.

Some 50,000 Yazidis managed to escape the worst of the butchery. Most of them fled to the Kurdish regions. About half a million of them remained trapped along the Sinjar range, the red-hot and dry summer taking an increasing toll on them, starting with hunger and dehydration.

Some much-needed help literally fell from the sky in the form of humanitarian packages. And the international coalition eventually deigned to drop a few bombs on the ISIS forces. Yet for thousands and thousands of Yazidis, it was a rather predictable case of much too little, much too late.

“The trucks transported us to the Basha Kidri prison where we were kept for two weeks”« Safia goes on in a disturbingly detached fashion. “My younger brother got separated from us. Our group consisted of only women and small children. And of course girls. The animals came round the prison every day to snatch the ones that caught their fancy. My older sister was among the first to be taken. I never saw her again, either.”

Sexual bondage

According to UN data, the Islamic State condemned between 5,000 and 7,000 Yazidi women to sexual slavery.

After two weeks, the ISIS soldiers took Safia and her mother to Tal Afar, a key Iraqi bastion for the self-proclaimed caliphate then stretching from a large chunk of northern and central Syria to a substantial part of northern and central Iraq.

Scores of women, some with small children, were housed in a large edifice on Tal Afar’s outskirts. They were heavily guarded and cut off from all contact with the outside world. The Islamic State members would constantly drop in to have their way with the unmarried women. Which mostly meant the girls.

“Even with the youngest ones among us, they’d always check if we’re married,” Safia recalls. Kochar Hassan, a social worker in charge of the Yazidi women’s recovery at the Khanke refugee camp, discreetly explained Safia was referring to actual virginity tests.

Safia’s existence was one of constant terror. She was well aware that, sooner or later, her turn would come. During the 15 days she and her mother stayed at Tal Afar, the ISIS members tried to convert them to Islam and made them learn verses from the Quran. All this while their captors merrily went about their main business, that of raping and killing.

Then Safia, her mother, and several hundred other women were transported to Raqqa, the self-proclaimed caliphate’s capital on the Syrian side of the border. Safia got separated from her mother and taken to the city centre. Raqqa had already been transformed into a hub for trading in sexual slaves, most of them of Yazidi origin.

The women, teenagers and little girls were being touted and sold on the city’s slave markets. Given the Islamic State’s passion for meticulous book-keeping, there was even an official price list. For many of the foreign fighters, it was the main motive for setting out to fight the holy fight in the first place.

And then finally, tragically, inevitably, it was the not-yet-14-year-old Safia’s turn.

“Along with four other girls, I was put in a house which was visited daily by the Daesh soldiers,” Safia relates, eyes meekly on the ground.

She herself was chosen and bought by a 25-year-old ISIS fighter from Saudi Arabia. For the next six months, she became his sex slave. As the experience remains much too traumatic for the wounded teenager to discuss openly, the social workers had suggested she write it down on paper. Safia promptly filled eight large pages of yellow paper relating numerous unspeakably vile and soul-destroying details which I shall not repeat here.

The rapes and the violence were commonplace. Safia was utterly helpless, isolated and lost. Her greatest fear was she might get pregnant. She pleaded with her captor – always setting off for the various battlefields and returning even more violent than before – to use contraception. Yet he turned her down.

When she was five months pregnant, her Saudi rapist passed her off to his friends. Soon after, he perished during a coalition bombardment. Safia was promptly collected by his wife and mother. She was told that, during the time of mourning, she would not be sold on.

Born into slavery

Four months later Safia gave birth to a girl and named her Renas. Just a few days after the delivery, the two of them were bought on one of Raqqa’s slave markets by a 27-year-old man from Maghreb.

His name was Abu Barak. Safia’s infant daughter was merely part of a package deal; Abu Barak seemed quite happy to take her as well. Torn by anxiety over her baby’s immediate future and a heart-rending longing for the loved ones left behind, Safia could only hope that her second owner might prove less violent than the first.

How wrong she was.

What she and her infant daughter endured over the next 15 months was the very tenth circle of Hell, the one even Dante refused to mention. Among countless other charges, her written testimony states her second captor, an ISIS fanatic from North Africa, repeatedly tortured and savaged her. Often several times a day.

In her own words, he was “completely unstable, constantly wild with fury”. The worst times were when he was freshly returned from battle. From day one, he conscripted the frail and thoroughly exhausted young mother into a life of physical drudgery, which ultimately literally broke her back… Saddling her with a severe injury still bothering her today.

Once more, her greatest fear was the ever looming spectre of pregnancy.

For a while, she took comfort in the fact that, after Renas’ birth, her period failed to return. But then, one horrid morning, she saw blood. Severely ill and all but broken, she underwent a spontaneous miscarriage.

It was around then that she realised she had to act. The only thing she had left to lose was the life of her little girl, which had become the fulcrum of all her hopes.

Safia decided to escape. Somehow she managed to reach one of the nearby houses, tiny Renas in tow, chancing everything on a stranger’s response to her desperate plea for help.

Fortunately, the Syrian family didn’t hesitate to take her in. Soon after, Safia managed to contact her relatives and learned that her mother was located in the Khanke refugee camp. Her family managed to raise the money to buy her freedom – all part and parcel of the Islamic State’s business model.

After three years and two months, Safia was finally free of her bondage. But on reaching the aforementioned refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, fate immediately dealt her yet another blow, an all too common one for the women and girls who had become pregnant while in captivity.

As soon as she laid eyes on her daughter, Safia’s mother snatched Renas from her hands. Safia was told the 18-month-old child would be taken by one of the uncles to the hospital in Duhok for some tests, and that everything would be all right.

Except that it would not.

It was the last time Safia saw her little girl.

In place of salvation

“Forget her,” Safia’s mother instructed her after a few days. But it was the one thing Safia was unable to do. For the teenager who had been stripped of all innocence, yet had nonetheless managed to claw her way through the worst darkness imaginable, this was the final straw. The future Safia had fought so bravely and persistently for lay in ruins.

As if that wasn’t enough, she was also pregnant. She was in her second month, and she wanted to keep the baby, yet her family forced her to terminate the pregnancy.

She promptly lost all will to live. All she wanted was to die.

Two and a half years on, Safia still hopes to find her little girl. Officially, no one knows Renas’ current whereabouts. Yet both Iraq and Syria are home to a number of unofficial orphanages, where – according to Nasrin Ismail from the People’s Development Organisation – the Yazidi elders had taken “scores of children”. The actual number is said to be much higher than that.

But it is impossible to check. The Khanke refugee camp and the nearby smaller camps house several dozen boys and young men, who were allowed to remain with their mothers after their return from captivity. Many of them had been coerced to take up arms in the ranks of the Islamic State. All across these camps, the trauma they suffered and the all-pervasive PTSD is being addressed by no one.

Little wonder violence is already giving birth to further violence.

“Returning from slavery, these women and girls are deeply traumatised. Yet instead of their families coming to their aid, the poor things are being stigmatised to boot. Not only has the Yazidi community refused to accept their babies, these girls themselves have been only conditionally readmitted. Their suffering is unbearable,” states Nasrin Ismail, one of the social workers trying to give back meaning to the stolen lives of countless Yazidi women.

“Around here, sexual abuse – like everything linked to human sexuality – is a huge taboo,” Ismail reflects. “Some of these poor women needed a couple of years just to be able to start talking about their experience in bondage. But I believe we are now finally breaking the ice. Fifteen women are coming to see us for therapy on a regular basis. They are also helping each other out. Our relationship with them is an honest, forthright one. I can say that for the most part, their rehabilitation is proceeding quite successfully,” Nasrin concluded.

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The clash between realpolitik and principled politics

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By Khaled Diab

The contrast between the red card from protesters and the red carpet from officials that greeted Mohammed bin Salman on his world tour highlights the growing global battle between a principled grassroots and a ‘pragmatic’ political leadership.

Image: Bassam Bounenni

Wednesday 26 December 2018

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recent world tour was widely viewed as a brazen diplomatic drive to put behind him the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the unwanted spotlight it has cast on the Saudi-led war in and blockade of Yemen, which has triggered what the UN describes as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Judging by the official red-carpet welcome which greeted the crown prince almost everywhere he landed, especially in allied Arab states, one would be excused in thinking that MbS, as he is affectionately known in English by his supporters, has weathered the storm.

“The UAE will always be a loving and supportive home for our brothers in Saudi Arabia,” asserted Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of neighbouring UAE, while Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi stressed the “joint desire to deepen co-operation between our two countries”.

After touring the region, MbS flew to Buenos Aires for the G20 summit, where, among other things, he met India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who praised the “fruitful interaction” on “ways to further boost economic, cultural and energy ties”.

Beyond the ‘realpolitik’ of the ingratiating leaders who greeted the fumbling pretender prince to the Machiavellian throne, Mohammed bin Salman’s tour triggered cross-border grassroots protest in some of the destinations the Crown Prince visited.

Some Egyptian opposition figures and activists braved the devastation inflicted on Egyptian civil society to protest bin Salman’s visit. However, the most vocal opposition to MbS was voiced in Tunisia, the only country to date where the Arab revolutionary wave has delivered real freedom and democracy.

While Tunisian politicians from the major parties fell over themselves to make Mohammed bin Salman feel at home, they had to do so from within the confines of the airport and presidential palace, because Tunisian civil society simply wanted the Crown Prince to go home.

Had bin Salman toured the capital, he would have been subjected to scenes unfamiliar to him in his homeland. He may have seen the giant banner on the wall of a feminist NGO featuring a man dressed like the Crown Prince brandishing a whip and the unambiguous statement that the “whipper” or “flogger” of women was not welcome. A similar poster featuring MbS holding a chainsaw, in an allusion to the bone saw allegedly used to dismember Khashoggi, insisted that the Saudi royal’s presence would “contaminate” Tunisia, the “land of revolution”.

Protesters also gathered before and during the visit of the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia to air their opposition. On a Tunisian radio channel, I heard a group of comics competing to come up with the funniest jokes mocking the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and their own president Beji Caid Essebsi. In Saudi Arabia (not to mention the Gulf, as a whole), this kind of casual irreverence would not only be unthinkable, it would almost certainly land the comics in jail, or far worse.

In short, Tunisians chose principles over petrodollars, dignity over despotism, and the message reached Mohammed bin Salman loud and clear, with the Crown Prince reportedly spending only four hours in Tunisia.

Largely symbolic legal action has also been attempted. The Tunisian journalists union filed a complaint demanding that the public prosecutor investigate the possibility of referring Mohammed bin Salman to the International Criminal Court, while an earlier complaint lodged by Human Rights Watch (HRW) under Argentina’s universal jurisdiction laws is being investigated by the state prosecutor.

But like earlier efforts by HRW to hold US officials accountable for war crimes in Iraq, this latest challenge has quietly been ignored and MbS arrived at the G20 summit unharassed and apparently untroubled, with the unedifying spectacle of Theresa May, her hollow rhetoric about “British values” defeating extremism notwithstanding, determined to meet the Crown Prince on the sidelines of the G20 summit with her Brexit begging bowl in hand.

This contrast between the reaction of civil society and governments highlights the gaping chasm between the politics of principles and political ‘pragmatism’. Some of this realpolitik is driven by perceived economic and geopolitical self-interest. Ever since oil was discovered in the Gulf region, Britain and America have been in (de facto) alliance with the region’s autocrats – not just in Saudi Arabia, but also in the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman – in a kind of decades-old ‘oil for political protection programme’.

Then, there are the more shadowy factors at play, such as the Trump administration’s murky business ties, not to mention Donald Trump’s own dictatorial tendencies and contempt for journalists and the media.

Beyond self-interest, there is the issue of self-preservation. MbS has the blood of Yemeni civilians on his hands, but he is not the only one. How about the countries which supply the coalition with arms? Even Qatar, which has recently became a harsh critic of the war, was part of the Saudi-led coalition before the GCC crisis saw the alliance turn on Qatar and unfairly blockade it.

That is not to mention the living leaders, past and present, who also have brutal wars to answer for, including but not limited to, George W Bush, Tony Blair and Vladimir Putin.

But hypocrisy does not stop at those governments who support or are silent in the face of MbS’s crimes, it also extends to some of Saudi Arabia’s opponents and critics. Despite its grandstanding on the Khashoggi murder, Turkey has gone from being a country with a free press and civil society to the biggest jailer of journalists in the world and a crusher of dissent, not to mention Turkey’s bloody interventions in neighbouring Syria.

Likewise, Iran’s official condemnation of the Khashoggi murder and the strong tone taken by its state-backed media rings hollow when considering what happens to critics and dissidents in Iran, while its criticism of Saudi war-mongering is tragically farcical when seen in light of Tehran’s direct and bloody role in the Syrian war and indirect role in Yemen.

Escaping the hypocrisy and destructiveness of pragmatic support and opportunistic opposition requires the escalation of grassroots action to hold to account all countries and leaders according to the same principles and values. In the longer term, it demands an enforceable system of international law that punishes the crimes and transgressions of the powerful, not just the weak.


This article was first published by The New Arab on 30 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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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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Egyptian atheists: Caught between Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

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By Khaled Diab

Atheists in Egypt have been enjoying greater public acceptance, but their increased visibility has also resulted in controversy, shrill panic and a growing tide of prosecutions.

Screen shot from one of Sherif Gaber’s YouTube videos.

Thursday 24 May 2018

For those who do not believe in divine judgement, a worldly reckoning can sometimes await them. This is the case for the controversial atheist and daring YouTuber Sherif Gaber who is caught in a sort of secular purgatory.

The prominent Egyptian human rights lawyer and activist Gamal Eid informed me that his organisation, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), had managed, on Monday 7 May, to help secure Gaber’s release from Cairo airport, where he had been unlawfully detained since the previous Wednesday because no official arrest warrant had been issued for him.

After his official release, Gaber vanished. He tweeted that, after four days “in hell”, he was “free”, but he failed to give details about his situation, leading to fears that he has been disappeared and that the security services had somehow taken over his Twitter account.

Even now that Gaber is presumed to be free, he is not actually free. In addition to being out on bail from an earlier trial, a new case has been brought against him. The young freethinker originally entered the public eye as a student at Suez Canal University following a smear campaign in 2013 by faculty members who did not approve of his views supporting homosexuality and criticising religion. As is often the case during such incidents, the case was as much, if not more, about questioning worldly authority than about doubting divine authority.

Following his sentencing on blasphemy charges in 2015, Gaber was released on bail pending a retrial. He went underground but courageously refused to be silenced. He dedicated himself to producing YouTube videos, some of which employ biting satire, the latest of which features two credulous missionaries trying to persuade a sceptic to convert to their imaginary religion, which bears a remarkable resemblance to Islam.

These videos have won him many fans amongst Egyptian and Arab non-believers and sceptics, but they have also provoked the ire of Islamists and conservatives. This came to a head late last month when a lawyer representing the ultra-conservative salafist Nour party brought a suit accusing Gaber of contempt of religion. This, along with threats he had been receiving, spooked Gaber and finally led him reluctantly to abandon his admirable commitment to stay in Egypt in spite of the risks, which was founded on the conviction that promoting freedom of thought “would have a more powerful effect to do it here, where we’re born and raised”.

“I suspect that he has been banned or will be banned from travelling abroad,” notes Gamal Eid, “but he will not know until he actually tries to travel.”

Gaber’s case underlines what I call Egypt’s Jekyll-and-Hyde attitude towards atheism. Since the revolution which engulfed the country in 2011, atheists, both young and old, have (re-)emerged from the shadows and taken on a more assertive public profile.

Atheists not only possess a strong presence on social media but have also appeared regularly on television to explain their thinking and to demand equal rights. There, they have often had to struggle against hostile interviewers, enormous prejudice and immense ignorance of what atheism actually is and means.

At its best, this greater openness and presence has led to a greater public acceptance of and tolerance towards the a-religious in society, even amongst some conservative Muslims. My personal experience has been a largely positive one – but this is liable to change at any moment. I have been writing about atheism and being an atheist for well over a decade now, I won a prestigious award for an essay I wrote on Arab atheists and the longest chapter in my new book, Islam for the Politically Incorrect, is dedicated to the topic.

In my book, I challenge the simplistic and ignorant views of both Muslim and Western bigots regarding the status of unbelievers and the rich history of atheism and scepticism in the Islamic context. Contrary to conservative myth, there is nothing new about atheists and sceptics in the Islamic tradition.

In fact, there have been plenty of them, especially during the so-called Golden Age of medieval Islam and in modern times. This ancient tradition reveals itself in how Muslim atheists draw inspiration from their own history, not just western tradition. An example of this is Sherif Gaber’s video, ‘Muslim Meets God‘. In the video, a young man stands at the gate to heaven but all his superstitions about the pious acts and pronouncements required to enter this rational version of paradise prove untrue and unfounded.

To my eyes, Gaber appears to have drawn inspiration from one of the ‘spiritual’ forefathers of Arab atheists, Abu al-Ala’ al-Ma’arri (973-1057), who penned The Epistle of Forgiveness, in which a bigoted sheikh is sent on a fantastical journey to paradise and hell. In this version of the aferlife, heaven is populated by pagan and irreverent poets and philosophers. Centuries later, al-Ma’ari’s Epistle influenced numerous secular Arab thinkers, including Iraqi poet, reformer and atheist Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi (1863-1936) who published, in 1931, Revolution in
Hell, in which freethinkers condemned to hell storm paradise and claim it as their rightful abode.

At its worst, the more visible public profile of atheists in Egypt has resulted in shrill panic towards the atheism “tsunami”, mob rule, moral denunciation of atheists as “Satan worshippers” or mentally deranged, a government-sanctioned national plan to combat atheism spearheaded by Al Azhar, the foremost institute of Sunni orthodoxy, Islamist law suits and a regular stream of prosecutions, even though Egypt does not technically ban atheism.

This societal polarisation is reflected in Egypt’s confused legal framework. For example, Article 64 of the current constitution states that “freedom of belief is absolute”. However, Egypt’s penal code contains a number of clauses which effectively outlaw ‘blasphemy’. The vaguest of these is Article 98(f), which was originally passed in 1981 to protect religious minorities, but has been, in recent years, weaponised by Islamists and the state to target Christians, secular critics and atheists.

This ambiguity has left non-believers in a precarious situation, at mercy to the whims of individuals in Egypt’s labyrinthine and powerful security apparatuses, prosecutors’ offices and judiciary. This explains how it is possible that the worst I have so far encountered, aside from occasional online vitriol, is once, during an interrogation, to have been questioned about my religious convictions. The intelligence officer interviewing me expressed fascination and curiosity about the difference between agnosticism and atheism, while seemingly far more concerned about my negative opinions of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. His insistence that he was “really enjoying our conversation” served more to unsettle than to reassure me.

Simultaneously, some other atheists, from Sherif Gaber to Alber Saber, have been prosecuted or persecuted, pursued by lawyers and prosecutors or pursued by vigilantes, tried in the courts or tried by the media, tortured in detention or tormented by the public, imprisoned in a jail cell or condemned to solitary societal confinement, not to mention exiled within or outside Egypt.

The future for atheists in Egypt is uncertain. The Sisi regime, which intensely dislikes all forms of dissent, may have won accolades in the West for its reformist claims but, in reality, it is juggling a dual image both as the guarantor of freedom of belief and the moral protector of Egypt’s Islamic identity.

When the Muslim Brotherhood was deemed Public Enemy Number One, it was useful for the regime to flaunt its secular credentials. But a key ally in this battle were the even more conservative salafists, and now they expect payback. This tension is playing itself out in Egypt’s largely fig-leaf parliament, where there have been motions both to repeal Egypt’s blasphemy laws and, more recently, to outlaw atheism.

As it heads into the unknown, I hope Egypt will follow the lead of Muslim-majority countries like Albania, where freedom of belief is truly absolute, rather than Iran or Saudi Arabia, where atheism and secularism are defined as forms of “terrorism” and atheists are routinely jailed and even executed.


This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in The New Arab on 17 May 2018.

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Alt-jihad – Part II: Delusions of grandeur and persecution

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By Khaled Diab

In the second in a series of articles exploring the disturbing parallels between radical Islamic and White/Christian extremism, Khaled Diab examines the far-right’s dual sense of superiority and inferiority, as well as its persecution complex.



Tuesday 17 April 2018

In the previous piece in this series on the disturbing parallels between radical Islamic and White/Christian extremism, I examined the emerging phenomenon of far-right suicide attackers and far-right political violence in general. In this, the second article in the series, I explore a number of other parallels, namely the bizarre blend of supremacist convictions combined with a sense of inferiority, an overpowering mentality of victimhood, a persecution complex centred around a rogues’ parade of imagined enemies, as well as a related belief in outlandish conspiracy theories.

Inferiority-superiority complex

Extremist Islamist and jihadist discourse is dominated simultaneously by a dual inferiority-supremacy narrative. On the one hand, they view Islam as innately superior to other religions and political philosophies, lament Islam’s loss of global dominance and dream of the restoration of its hegemony. On the other hand, they are convinced that Muslims everywhere are oppressed and victims. Even in situations where conservative Muslims are the dominant political force and wield enormous political clout, Islamists often believe they are oppressed, their beliefs are under attack and their way of life is threatened with extinction.

A similar narrative has emerged in white and Christian nationalist circles, though, given the continuing might of the West, superiority outweighs inferiority when compared with Islamist discourse. This sense of entitlement was best summed up by Richard Spencer, the spiritual leader of the alt-right movement in America. “To be white is to be a striver, a crusader, an explorer and a conqueror. We build; we produce; we go upward,” Spencer told the audience at an alt-right conference in Washington, DC. “America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.”

Nevertheless, unlike the cocky white supremacy of the 19th century, when the West directly ruled most of the planet and required an ideology to justify its global dominance, instead of the white man’s burden of yore, many whites, especially men, now feel they are regarded as the burden. In fact, these far-right movements, as well as some segments of more mainstream conservatism, to a lesser degree, have appropriated the language of oppression and subjugation more common among the formerly enslaved and segregated African-Americans, or subject populations who lived under colonial rule.

At one level, this shift in rhetoric is opportunistic and cynical, with the aim of turning the tables on the truly marginalised minorities living in the West and on those who have suffered under the boot of western hegemony by suggesting that the real victims of racism and imperialism are whites, and especially the Christian right, who supposedly suffer under the multiple tyrannies of political correctness, liberalism, immigration (which is regarded as a sort of invasion by stealth) and Islam.

However, it would be a mistake to view these attitudes as merely rhetorical devices. Many on the far-right absolutely believe, their sense of supremacy and privilege notwithstanding, that they belong to an oppressed, repressed and persecuted group. At times, this can be a reflection of their sense of personal isolation. “I didn’t have many friends at school, I wanted to be a member of a group of people that had an aim,” admitted Kevin Wilshaw, who was a well-known organiser for the UK’s National Front in the 1980s and later joined the British National Party, before renouncing his former life and coming out as gay and of Jewish heritage. “Even though you end up being a group of people that through their own extreme views are cut off from society, you do have a sense of comradeship in that you’re a member of a group that’s being attacked by other people.” This sense of camaraderie, as well as a desire to stand out and be noticed, appears to have been a spur for Andrew Anglin’s transformation from a vegan anti-racist into the American extreme right’s most outspoken and outrageous troll, through his creation of the rabidly racist website The Daily Stormer.

This sense of alienation and the desperate desire to bond this produces is also something that afflicts many who fall into the embrace of radical and jihadist Islamism. “For most jihadis, the first steps on their journeys to Syria were rarely taken for political or religious reasons,” observes Kenan Malik, the Indian-Britisher writer and intellectual. “The journeys were, rather, a search for something a lot less definable: for identity, for meaning, for belongingness, for respect.”

Paranoid confusions

This sense of living in a world which deprives them of their perceived God-given right to dominate society and to rule the world translates into an increasingly outspoken and irrational victimhood mentality. “No one mourns the great crimes committed against us. For us, it is conquer or die,” Spencer lamented in the speech mentioned above, echoing the jihadist extremists the Christian right so despises. “We are not meant to live in shame and weakness and disgrace.”

This sense of being embattled has led to the paranoid conviction that the modern-day white conservative is surrounded by foes, both near enemies and far ones, to borrow from the jihadist lexicon. The far horizon of Enemistan is dominated by Muslims, who are closing in so rapidly and decisively that the very survival of Western civilisation and Christendom is at stake. At home, the alt-right fears migrants and other minorities, including a resurgence of classic Judeophobia, leftists, liberals, journalists and media professionals, experts, academics, feminists and the LGBT community.

This paranoid sense of being surrounded and besieged by enemies on every front has led to the proliferation of outlandish conspiracy theories. In societies whose superior technologies have for centuries visited mass slaughter upon weaker populations across the planet, there is now talk of a “white genocide” – a paranoid theory that there is a conspiracy to wipe out the white race. What is most infuriating about the white genocide myth is that many who subscribe to it deny the historical reality of actual genocides, such as the Holocaust or extermination campaigns against native populations.

The purported white genocide is not just confined to Europe and America, it is also allegedly taking place in Africa. The alt-right blogger Laura Southern has even produced a ‘documentary’ entitled Farmland which claims to highlight the plight of supposedly persecuted whites in South Africa. Needless to say, no such extermination programme is occurring in the country where the legacy of Apartheid still lives on in stark racial inequalities, unless by ‘genocide’ she means the relative erosion of white privilege.

The army of Islam

In Europe, the end goal of mass immigration, according to far-right conspiracy theorists, is not only ‘white genocide’ but also a stealthy conquest of the West, its complete Islamisation and subjugation and its conversion into ‘Eurabia’, the mythical European Umma. And Eurabia is apparently making major inroads in America too. The far-right myth that there are “no-go zones” in Europe where the police do not dare enter and Islamic law prevails has made it across the Atlantic, and has been spread by both Fox News and the NRA, amongst others. A similar narrative of a crusade/war against Islam is a common refrain amongst Islamists. However, this notion amongst both conservative Muslims and Christians that we are in the throes of a monumental clash of civilisations does not hold up to scrutiny, as I reveal in my book Islam for the Politically Incorrect.

How far this dastardly Muslim conquest has advanced is a matter of some disagreement, however. The most pessimistic on the far-right believe the war is already over and the West has lost, others believe we are witnessing the beginning of the end, while some, like the founder of France’s Front National (FN), are convinced that it is the “the beginning of the beginning” of the Islamic subjugation of Europe. “It’s an episode in the war that is being waged against us by Islamism,” he claimed. “The blindness and deafness of our leaders, for years, is in part responsible for these kinds of attacks.”

The most recent variation on this is the conspiracy theory that the refugees who have been entering Europe are not desperate civilians fleeing war, but part of an invading army bent on the destruction of western civilisation. This supposed phenomenon has been called “jihad by emigration” – a term coined by the creator of the far-right website Jihad Watch, Robert Spencer, not to be confused with the Richard Spencer mentioned earlier.

In its self-righteous panic, the right has become more panicky and shrill, triggering the kind of terror usually expressed by the defenceless towards an army of ruthless conquerors. Bedraggled, desperate and unarmed, the stream of refugees flowing into Europe can only be referred to as an army in the loosest, most figurative sense of the word, yet, this army without soldiers or arms is somehow mounting an invasion.

They’re not refugees. This is an invasion,” said Laszlo Kiss-Rigo, a bishop in southern Hungary, a country which has become a far-right hotbed in recent years and found itself on a major transit route, until it built a wall to keep the refugees out. “It’s an invasion that threatens our prosperity, our security, our culture and identity,” echoed Dutch far-right firebrand Geert Wilders, who once infamously called for the banning of the Quran. A related myth is the notion that Muslim asylum seekers are obsessed with an uncontrollable urge to violate and rape western women – they are not refugees but “rapefugees”.

Away from the high-security fortress of far-right perception and in the real world of hard facts, the influx of refugees into the European Union from 2012 to the peak of 2015/16 represented under half a percent of the EU’s population. Since then, thanks to government reactions to knee-jerk xenophobia or to the xenophobia of politicians, the numbers have tailed off significantly, according to Eurostat, the EU’s statistical agency. Moreover, and contrary to the ‘sponger’ image of refugees, an analysis by the Brookings Institute revealed that the inflow of refugees actually has a net positive effect on host economies – and the OECD agrees – which raises the perplexing question, if migrants are out to destroy the West, why are they making it richer?

More confoundingly still, if the aim of Muslims in Europe and America is to destroy Christendom and wipe out the infidel, either with actual bombs or with demographic time-bombs, it appears inconceivable that any Muslim fanatic worth his salt would head the other way. Yet this is exactly what they are believed to be doing, with overstated and exaggerated hordes of European Muslims heading to Syria and Iraq to heed the call of jihad, so sensationally covered that you would be forgiven if you had the impression that Europe was being depopulated of its Muslim population.

Master puppeteers

Despite the fixation on Islam, it would be a mistake to think that Muslims have replaced the Jews in extreme right discourse – their presence appears to be a complementary one. A special place remains reserved for Jews in far-right narratives and conspiracy theories. For decades following the Holocaust, these narratives had become marginalised or had gone underground (such as the transnational Malm Movement), often only mentioned in hints and suggestions. But with the rise of the far-right, they have enjoyed a comeback in recent years in a number of countries, from Hungary to the United States.

Many Judeophobic conspiracy theories are recycled or adapted traditional anti-Semitic canards revolving around how Jews represent some kind of homogeneous cabal which runs the world clandestinely by controlling the financial sector and the media. This includes the renewed vogue the discredited hoax known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the fantasy that the Rothschild family controls the world’s central banks and causes war by financing both sides of every conflict enjoy in the growing far-right movement. More recent variations on this theme include the troubling mainstreaming in conservative circles of the narrative, which is especially popular in Hungary, that the tycoon and philanthropist George Soros is behind all kinds of sinister conspiracies to destroy Europe in order to be able better to rule it. Another is the conspiracy theory that a shadowy Zionist Occupation Government (‘Zionist’ here refers to Jew, not political Zionism) controls governments in the United States and Europe.

Some have even attempted to forge unified conspiracy theories of everything, in which various disparate and contradictory conspiracist ideas are forcibly mixed into a potently toxic cocktail. An example of this is how the mythical Zionist Occupation Government is responsible for mass migration in order to dilute or exterminate the white race so as to facilitate its satanic quest for global dominance. This blends anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, white genocidal and anti-leftist/liberal conspiracy theories into one incoherent whole.

Toxic far-right anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have drifted not only to segments of the far-left but have found their way into Arab, Islamic and Islamist narratives, which historically discriminated much less than Christianity against the Jews, with Muslim bigots traditionally regarding Jews with condescension rather than suspicion and fear. This changed dramatically with the advent of modern Zionism, the influence of fascism and the creation of Israel, and is often fuelled by a desperate need to scapegoat weakness and failure by depicting the ‘enemy’ as super-humanely powerful and evil.

The hatred, contempt and fear of Jews shared by Christian and Muslim extremists has occasionally resulted in some unlikely and troubling alliances between neo-Nazi groups and Islamists, such as has occurred in some parts of Germany, both of which “ascribe extraordinary political power to Israel and the Jews, and their goal is to fight this power,” in the words of Heinz Fromm, the then president of the German domestic intelligence agency.

Turkey’s Islamist president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has even suggested that the Kurdish referendum on independence was a devilish Jewish conspiracy, one unconvincingly masterminded by Bernard-Henri Lévy, once memorably described as the “Donald Trump of French philosophy”. Of course, this is not the first time that Erdoğan has ascribed superpowers to BHL, as he often referred to in France: he once hinted that the French ‘philosopher’ was behind the ouster of Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi. Islamists often portray Arab regimes with whom they disagree as being American and Jewish stooges. Some members of the outlawed and oppressed Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt subscribe to a conspiracy theory that dictator Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has a Jewish mother. Some conservative Muslims and Islamists are convinced that ISIS is a creation of western and Zionist imperialism, as are some secular Arabs. Interestingly, numerous white supremacists are also convinced of a similar conspiracy theory, even alleging that ISIS’s caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is actually a Mossad agent.

Mainstreaming falsehood

These far-right conspiracy theories do not exist in a vacuum. They are fed by more mainstream conservative falsehoods, which then feedback to the mainstream, pulling it ever further into the la-la zone. This is apparent in everything from the decades of eurosceptic myths that led the UK to leap off the Brexit cliff to the anti-immigrant, pseudo-fascistic rhetoric of large segments of Silvio Berlusconi’s media empire in Italy. Some mainstream conservatives find the twilight zone so alluring that they take the express train to the extreme because the mainstream’s gradual drift to the former fringe was not moving nearly fast enough. An example of this is Gavin McInnes who abandoned his creation, Vice, to embrace his inner white supremacist, misogynist and racist.

Even though the negative stereotyping of Muslims and Arabs has a very long pedigree, and has for generations been a staple of Hollywood myth-making, toxic mainstream conservative demonisation took off in earnest in the wake of the horrors of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. Since then, America and Europe’s Muslim minorities have been inextricably linked in conservative perceptions with terrorism and treason.

The same applies to other minorities and marginalised groups, from Jews to Eastern European migrants to asylum seekers. The rightwing tabloid media in a number of countries has been vilifying them for years while claiming that it the imagined bogeyman of political correctness that was enjoying the upper hand, rather than the reality, that rightwing bigotry has been the dominant voice for generations.

Read part I

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Alt-jihad – Part I: Dying to kill

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By Khaled Diab

In the first of a series of articles exploring the disturbing parallels between radical Islamic and White/Christian extremism, Khaled Diab examines whether far-right suicide attackers could become a phenomenon.

Friday 30 March 2018

The Austin serial bomber, Mark Conditt, a 23-year-old unemployed man, has taken the secret with him to the grave of what motivated him to carry out his deadly attacks, which sowed terror in the community. The two who were killed in the attacks were an African-American office worker and an African-American high school student, both of whom were from families connected to the civil rights movement. Among the first to be injured were an African-American and a Hispanic woman were injured.

Was Conditt motivated by racial hatred? If so, why were some of his targets apparently random, such as the tripwire bomb he placed near a road in a quiet area of Travis County, Austin, which injured two white men? Was this revenge against a prosperous community for his unemployed status? Did his conservative religious views play a role in his bombing spree and choice of targets? Was he seeking to punish what he likely regarded as a sinful and god-forsaken society?

Whatever his actual motives were, one incredibly disturbing aspect of Conditt’s attacks was his preference to blow himself up rather than be captured. This qualifies him as a ‘suicide bomber’. This will strike many Americans and Europeans as odd. In the mainstream western mind, suicide attacks are inextricably linked to Muslims, with many conservatives, from Christian pastors to populist right-wing politicians, declaring Islam to be a ‘death cult’. Just last month, Ukip’s Gerard Batten opined that: “[Islam] glorifies death. They believe in propagating their religion by killing other people and martyring themselves and going and getting their 72 virgins.”

Although it is true that nowadays the majority of suicide attacks are carried out by Muslims, usually in Muslim-majority countries, the world leaders in suicidal terrorism were once Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers, the Marxist guerrilla group, who transformed suicide attacks into a powerful weapon of asymmetric warfare. The Tamil Tigers constructed “the concept of martyrdom around a secular idea of individuals essentially altruistically sacrificing for the good of the local community,” according to Robert Pape, director of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism.

This is not a million miles away from Japan’s Kamikaze pilots of World War II. Whether or not people like to refer to them as suicide attackers, western soldiers also have a long history of being involved in suicidal missions. What after all is more suicidal than, say, leaving your trench to run through the no-man’s land of World War I? With the almost certain death involved in some of the deadlier battles of the Great War, involvement in them was akin to a suicide mission.

Such academic comparisons aside, could suicide attacks become a weapon of non-Islamic terrorists in America and Europe?

Well, though not (yet) widespread, this is already occurring, albeit it is a phenomenon that has gone largely unremarked. Take William Atchison, the 21-year-old petrol station attendant who, in December 2017, entered Aztec High School in New Mexico, killed two pupils, injured several others, and then turned the gun on himself. Atchinson was a white supremacist who fantasised, in online gaming forums, about killing Jews. The trouble for him is that there were none around him. “Had Atchison lived in a city with a significant Jewish population, it is even possible the tragedy he caused might have taken an anti-Semitic form instead of the shape that it did,” concluded the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

A far more spectacular suicide shooting occurred last year at the Route 91 Harvest music festival, when Stephen Paddock, 64, who murdered 58 concert goers and wounded a staggering 851, before turning one of his many guns on himself. Chillingly, months of investigation have uncovered no clear motive for Paddock’s rampage. He was a germaphobe, had a gambling addiction and, though once rich, had lost a lot of his wealth in the last year of his life. He also complained of anxiety and pain.

This phenomenon has been in the making, under the radar, for many long years. In 2015, Chris Harper-Mercer, 26, killed nine at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, where he was a student, later shooting himself in the head during a gunfight with police. Harper-Mercer was described as a hate-filled white supremacist, albeit an anti-religious one.

In 2012, Adam Lanza murdered his mother. Perhaps propelled by his paranoid belief that human civilisation was beyond redemption and that “the only way that it’s ever sustained is by indoctrinating each new child for years on end.” Lanza drove to one of these alleged indoctrination factories, Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he shot dead 20 young children, one for each of his young years in this world. As first responders arrived, Lanza shot himself in the head. Also in 2012, a white supremacist soldier-turned-rocker committed suicide after killing six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.

Considering how so many Americans are convinced that mass shootings are not motivated by ideology, it is remarkable how many of them are carried out by men who subscribe to white supremacist, conservative Christian or racist worldviews.

Other American mass shootings in which the assailant took their own life occurred in 2007 and two in 2006, including one involving a rare female shooter. That is not including all the possible suicide by police that may have occurred.

This grizzly phenomenon stretches back to the previous millennium. Two such attacks occurred in 1991: one in which the attacker killed four faculty members at the University of Iowa and another where the killer murdered 23 at a Texas cafe. Known as the Luby’s massacre, the Texas attack was, at the time, the deadliest mass shooting in US history. Apparently driven by misogyny, George Hennard, before opening fire, screamed, “All women of Killeen and Belton are vipers,” after crashing through the window of a Luby’s cafeteria with his car.

Mad or bad?

There is a psychological link between suicidal urges and committing mass murder, according to Scott Bonn, a professor of sociology and criminology, in which “alienating social forces” lead “fatalistic individuals increasingly [to] kill others, and in many instances themselves, in catastrophic acts of rage and violence”.

Despite the differential treatment of the mainstream media and politicians towards white and Muslim mass shooters, recent research has suggested they share a great deal in common, namely a suicidal urge to kill and be killed.

And there is strong evidence that suicidal tendencies are, at least partly, determined by social factors, as first posited by the pioneering French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who classified suicides into three basic groups: egoistic, altruistic and anomic. There are certain problems with Durkheim’s ideas, namely his insistence that “a given effect must always have a single cause, and that this cause must be of the same nature as the effect,” as Robert Alun Jones of the University of Illinois points out.

Even though Durkheim’s work is too reductionist, the framework he pioneered, as Bonn suggests, is useful not only in understanding suicide but in understanding suicide attacks. It also challenges the simplistic tendency in the West to classify Muslim suicide attackers as evil and ideologically driven, while white suicide attackers are deranged, psychologically disturbed ‘lone wolfs’. Of course, ideology plays a role (after all, the vast majority of such attacks are carried out by violent salafi jihadist groups), but it is, by far, not the only factor. Looking at the social-psychological background helps contextualise how and why such (self-)destructive ideas emerge and how they find some willing recruits. In short, the mad or bad dichotomy is a false one.

Enormous social upheavals can push a minority of people, who under other circumstances may have functioned peacefully in society, over the edge. The attendant despair can cause people to develop the desire to take their own lives and/or the lives of others. The absence or dismantling of social safety nets exacerbates this problem, by depriving these individuals of the kind of emotional, community and economic support to bring them back into the fold. Many even manage to remain undetected for years as they entertain ever bloodier fantasies of murder. The breakdown of law and order, or the disintegrating of the state, creates the kind of social vacuum that facilitates and enables such behaviour. In fact, such behaviour can sometimes be a desperate cry for belonging, especially amongst vulnerable individuals who join tight-knit radical groups, which function as their surrogate family.

This helps explain why different Muslim societies show different propensities for suicide attacks. In some, they are non-existent, while in others, they, along with more conventional forms of terror attacks, occur on a regular basis. In this light, it is hardly surprising that the largest number of suicide bombings occur in Iraq and Syria, two countries where war has completely destroyed the state, made life a misery and even crushed hope for a better tomorrow.

Deathwish or higher purpose?

This highlights how, while some suicide attackers may not be suicidal and carry out their deadly actions for mostly ideological reasons, a sense of altruism in which their individual existence matters not a jot when compared with their perception of the greater good, many, many others appear to be driven by the inverse: suicidal tendencies looking for an outlet. Since almost every society regards murder, both of the self and others, as a grave sin and a crime, the potential suicider with homicidal urges needs to find a way to legitimise and express these proscribed tendencies.

This occurs fairly often in the Palestinian context, where people have collectively to contend with the Israeli occupation, Palestinian oppression and a political and social situation that seems to be in constant, perpetual and ceaseless decline. When you add addition personal difficulties on top of the collective hardships, the explosive cocktail is there for the possibility of politicised suicide-homicides.

One stark manifestation of this was the wave of uncoordinated attempted stabbings by mostly young Palestinians, quite a proportion of whom appeared to be out to commit suicide by soldier. This was particularly the case for some young Palestinian women who, in addition to the occupation and socio-economic despair, had the additional burden of a suffocating patriarchy with which to deal.

This higher level of desperation can make the line between the political and the personal vaguer in the case of women than men. This can lead some troubled women to seek a more “honourable” path to taking their own lives, according to Nadia Dabbaghh, a child and adolescent psychologist and the author of the informative and taboo-breaking study Suicide in Palestine. “Rather than bring shame or dishonour to their entire family and even their community by running away or committing suicide, these women sought escape through an act that would by and large be viewed as patriotic,” observes Dabbagh.

This also sheds light on why it appears to be that America is the only wealthy industrialised country to be suffering not only from routine mass killings, but from ones that regularly feature the suicide of the attacker. This is due not only to America’s lax gun laws and the ease with which firearms can be acquired, but also to the destruction of the social safety net, the eradication of solidarity and support mechanisms, the gaping and growing inequalities, the extremely poor or non-existent healthcare millions of Americans receive, and the emergence of tribalism and identity politics as a substitute for meaningful socio-economic and political reform.

Does this mean we are likely to witness a trend of ultra-right suicide attacks in the coming years?

I hope not but it is entirely possible, especially if radical white supremacist and Christian groups, as well as anti-government militias, choose to exploit systematically these human weapons of mass murder by actually recruiting and actively brainwashing vulnerable individuals to carry out suicide attacks.

What is far more likely to continue apace is the sharp and alarming increase in far-right violence, including terror attacks, not just in America, but also on the other side of the Atlantic, including in the UK.

When, a decade ago, I warned that America was falling prey to a Christian jihad many laughed at me. When I cautioned that the greatest terror threat facing Europe and America was from white supremacists and neo-Nazis, readers did not take me seriously.

But the emerging reality could prove worse than I feared. But when dealing with this threat, we must learn from our mishandling of Islamic extremism. We must be vigilant, not vigilante. We must seek justice, not retribution. We need to excise the demons causing these toxic ideologies, not demonise the people who fall prey to them. We must fight ideas with better ideas.

Read part II – Delusions of grandeur and persecution

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