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: http://aje.io/n6gc

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.

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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.

Genocide

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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Racists exploit BDS and Israel to advance their agendas of hatred

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Friday 24 May 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Of crusaders and jihadis

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

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

Monday 25 March 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_____

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

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Citizenship is a universal right, even for ISIS members

 
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By Khaled Diab

The death of Shamima Begum’s infant son underscores the injustice of depriving alleged terrorists and jihadis of their citizenship. It also sets a dangerous precedent that can come back to haunt and hurt everyone in society.

A shooting range in the UK has been using an image of Shamima Begum for target practice.

Sunday 10 March 2019

Two recent cases powerfully reflect the rank hypocrisy of the moment.

Shamima Begum, a teenage girl who ran off, as a minor, to join the Islamic State (ISIS) has had her British citizenship revoked at the stroke of a pen, following which her innocent, blameless three-week-old son reportedly died of pneumonia in a Syrian refugee camp.

Meanwhile, across the Channel, in Belgium, which has also been stripping some extremist Islamists and jihadis of their citizenship, Belgians who voluntarily joined Hitler’s Waffen SS not only have retained their citizenship but still receive a state pension from Germany of up to €1,275 per month, according to Belgian parliamentarians. Worse still, Belgians who were subjected to forced labour by the Nazis allegedly receive a measly €50 a month.

An unknown number of British former SS members, who are living in peaceful retirement in the UK, are also still receiving German pensions, according to the Belgian MPs. Needless to say, they have not had their British citizenship revoked.

Despite extensive searching, I cannot find any records of British Nazis losing their citizenship, yet Britain managed to survive the existential threat of World War II without resorting to depriving people of their nationality. Even those Brits who fought for Hitler’s army, with a few exceptions who were executed for treason, were allowed to reintegrate into society after serving a prison sentence.

Moreover, many British Nazi collaborators faced absolutely no consequences for aiding the enemy, even when it involved war crimes. For example, official papers declassified in the 1990s show the extensive level of collaboration officials and some citizens in the German-occupied Channel Islands offered the Nazis, including in the deportation of 2,000 residents of the islands to concentration camps. Rather than try and prosecute the collaborators and set in motion a reconciliation process, the British government decided to sweep the sordid affair under the carpet.

While there is no excuse for not bringing war criminals and abusers to justice, there are sound historical reasons for why postwar governments resisted the lure of purging unwanted citizens from the record and, for the same reasons, we should not tolerate governments seizing the power to revoke citizenship, no matter the justification.

At the end of the war, memories were still fresh of the path from the notorious 1935 Nuremberg laws – including the Reich Citizenship Law, which stripped Jews of their German citizenship and demoted to the status of inferior “subjects” – to the genocide of the Jews and other minorities, and the persecution of groups deemed undesirable by the Nazis.

Invoking Nazi Germany may strike many as unnecessarily alarmist, but the road from discrimination to persecution can be a surprisingly short and rapid one. Although I am hopeful that we have enough checks and balances in place and have learnt enough from the past as not to return to its darkest episodes, it is worth considering that the Holocaust appeared to be a remote possibility when Hitler rose to power, which was at a time when German Jews enjoyed unprecedented rights and prominence under the Weimar Republic.

It is also worth recalling that the Nazis, faced with stiff opposition from leftists and liberals, started off gradually by, first, in 1933, stripping the citizenship of naturalised Jewish citizens who had immigrated from eastern Europe.

Beyond the possibility of future persecution, the blatantly discriminatory nature of instating a de facto two-tiered citizenship system is unfair and an extremely risky endeavour that could backfire.

Modern legal systems are supposedly based on the equality of citizens in the eyes of the law – hence the depiction of Lady Justice as blindfolded. If the potential danger posed to other citizens is good reason to deprive someone of their citizenship, why has a fanatical teenage mum lost hers, while neo-Nazi and other violent far-right extremists get to keep theirs? How does this selective system defend against the immense threat from fascists and neo-Nazis, like the mass-murdering Norwegian Anders Breivik, or the American disciple his work inspired, who has been arrested for allegedly plotting a major killing spree?

Applying the principle of revocation of citizenship only to naturalised citizens, dual nationals and citizens who are (theoretically) entitled to citizenship elsewhere, who have been almost exclusively Muslims, is an expression of blind bigotry, not blind justice.

Stripping jihadis and extremist Islamists of their citizenship stigmatises the Muslim minority by implying that Muslims must “earn” their citizenship and prove their loyalty, while citizenship is an unshakable birthright for their compatriots that cannot be taken away, no matter what.

Moreover, if citizenship must be earned, and not granted, why do European governments expect other countries to take in their refuse? Take Shamima Begum. She has no connection to her ancestral Bangladesh, which has refused to take her. This means not only that Begum faces the illegal prospect of becoming stateless, with her baby raised in a form of inhumane limbo, the British government has effectively left the burden of hosting her on ISIS’s victims.

The political rhetoric used to justify this kind of (mis)carriage of justice is extremely worrying and has far-reaching implications. For instance, British Prime Minister Theresa May issued a statement when she was home secreatry which claimed: “Citizenship is a privilege, not a right, and the Home Secretary will remove British citizenship from individuals where she feels it is conducive to the public good to do so.”

The absurdity of this logic becomes immediately apparent if we take it to its logical conclusion. If citizenship is a privilege, what have other citizens done to earn it, aside from being born with the right background? If citizenship can be revoked for “the public good”, who can and who should we trust to decide and define this general interest? If the justice system is founded on equality, why should other citizens not be judged by the same yardstick, and what kind of hell would we have created if every person who does not live by or support a certain set of “values” is liable to be erased from the record?

And there are already early signs of this kind of serious and troubling mission creep. At the end of last year, in a landmark ruling, a British-Indian paedophile was stripped of his citizenship and was set to be deported to India. This is an extremely dangerous precedent not only for migrants but also for sex offenders as a whole. And if one group of social pariahs and undesirables can be deprived of their nationality and deported, why would a future unscrupulous government stop there?

This could reach other groups. If Muslims can be treated like this, why not other stigmatised minorities? The extraordinary powers seized by numerous governments following the 11 September 2001 al-Qaeda attacks helped pave the way, in the UK, to the Windrush scandal, where Afro-Caribbeans who have been in the UK for (almost) all their lives, and now have British children of their own, have been deported or face deportation. Some were reportedly holders of British passports, while others were eligible but had never applied. Echoing, on a smaller scale, the 19th-century practice of sending unwanted citizens off to penal colonies, the deportations are being justified by the fact that the deportees allegedly committed criminal offences, some very minor.

If minority groups are targeted for the threat they allegedly pose to public safety and security, either as terrorists or criminals, what is to stop violent political fringe or opposition movements from being so targeted in the future? And if the political fringe is one day targeted, why not all perceived “enemies of the state”?

If we are not careful, our fear of violent extremists could hand increasingly authoritarian leaders in the West the power to appoint themselves gatekeepers and defenders of the nation and the national interest. If you want a taster of what this could be like you need only look to the Gulf states who have weaponised citizenship and have been stripping dissidents (and their families) of their nationality.

Citizenship is an inalienable right for everyone and no matter how terrifying and reprehensible we find terrorists, they also have human rights. Society can make these violent extremists pay for their crimes without abandoning the values of human rights, judicial impartiality, democracy and decency.

____

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

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The unlikely demonisation of Salman Rushdie

 
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By Khaled Diab

Salman Rushdie made a very unlikely target for the fury of conservative Muslims, which is why the opportunistic fatwa issued by a Khomeini in serious decline took the novelist and the world by surprise.

A burning ‘Satanic Verses’ in Bradford, UK. Photo: Asadour Guzelian

Thursday 21 February 2019

On 14 February 1989, Salman Rushdie may or may not have received a Valentine’s card from a secret admirer. If he did, I imagine he quickly forgot about it when Ruhollah Khomeini, the self-appointed Supreme Leader of the self-described Islamic Republic of Iran, issued a fatwa calling on Muslims to execute the British-Kashmiri novelist for alleged offences to Islam in his 1988 book, The Satanic Verses (for in-depth insight into the Rushdie controversy, listen to the informative new BBC Radio 4 series ‘Fatwa’).

Although fatwas are technically non-binding theological opinions, Khomeini’s edict had the force of law in the eyes of fanatical conservative Muslims – at the time, even Sunni fundamentalists who dreamed of creating a modern ‘Islamic state’ or reviving the ‘caliphate’ admired this revolutionary Shi’a cleric.

By turning what had been isolated local protests into global fury, the licence to kill issued by Khomeini had the immediate and terrifying effect of turning Salman Rushdie’s life upside down, forcing the writer to vanish into the thin air of police protection, only to suddenly reappear, like a genie from a police van, for snatched visits to family and friends, like that of fellow writer and friend Hanif Kureishi, or rocking up on the stage of U2 concerts, as though Rushdie had become a character in one of his own books of magical realism.

Despite the self-righteous outrage of Muslim conservatives, Salman Rushdie actually made a very unlikely target for their ire, especially the allegations that he was a Western stooge and an agent of imperialism. He had been, after all, not only a harsh critic of the Shah in Iran and but had also recently published a book condemning US involvement in Nicaragua. A Persian translation of Rushdie’s book Shame was available in Persian translation as was, initially, The Satanic Verses.

Salman Rushdie’s previous works, such as the sublime Midnight’s Children, were a sympathetic but critical reading of post-colonial reality, exploring issues of migration, identity and the tensions between and within ‘East’ and ‘West’.

Even the Satanic Verses, despite its allegorical irreverence, was not actually disrespectful of Muhammad, whom it portrayed quite sympathetically, I found, just sceptical about religion. The novel was not even about Islam, Rushdie insisted but about “migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death, London and Bombay,” not to mention “a castigation of western materialism”.

The credibility and admiration Rushdie had previously enjoyed in British Asian circles did not shield him from the indignation of Muslim conservatives and the impressionable, marginalised youth they managed to brainwash on the back of this manufactured controversy, which took Rushdie, his publishers and friends by complete surprise. Some young British Muslims at the time had no idea even what a fatwa was, with one mistakenly thinking that Khomeini had called Rushdie a “fat twit”.

“I found it odd that people were reading aubergines and burning books,” confessed Hanif Kureishi, referring to the absurdity of fundamentalists intimating Quranic verses in the humble vegetable, which is delicious when roasted, while setting light to Rushdie’s novel, which is not. But as has been the case throughout history, book burnings rarely have anything to do with the book being burnt, which the burners had not read, and is often a deflection of other grievances and/or a proxy for other conflicts.

Although the Satanic Verses controversy seems almost inevitable in hindsight, it only came to pass due to political expediency and opportunism. Author, lecturer and broadcaster Kenan Malik outlines how it took months of incitement by Muslim religious radicals, first in India, then in Britain, before any semblance of an outraged reaction emerged. At the time, my teenage self had just moved back from the UK to Egypt, and I do not recall much interest in or anger towards Rushdie.

It even reportedly took two fanatical British Muslims to sway the Iranian regime to issue this fatwa, which appears to have been motivated far more by political expediency than religious fervour. It not only fed into the long-standing proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also helped Khomeini to shore up support and silence dissent following the disastrous, devastating and costly war with neighbouring Iraq, and the Supreme Leader’s unstable mental state. This was reflected in another, less famous 1988 Khomeini fatwa which led to the execution by “Death Committees” of 30,000 political prisoners in Iran.

The Rushdie affair also enabled a false narrative to emerge among Western and Islamic bigots that there is a cultural war of values between ‘Islam’ and the ‘West’ or ‘Christendom’. In reality, the true conflict is between the forces of secularism versus religion, the forces of intolerance versus tolerance, the forces of pluralism versus mono-culturalism, the forces of rationality versus irrationality, the forces of supremacy versus egalitarianism, and the forces of modernity versus perceived tradition.

In fact, as I have endeavoured to show in my journalism and in my latest book, Islam for the Politically Incorrect, Islamic societies have a centuries-old tradition of scepticism and outright unbelief, something which I discovered during my own journey towards atheism.

In fact, more irreverent and sacrilegious works of literature have been published in Arabic than The Satanic Verses. For example, The Iraqi poet, reformer and atheist Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi (1863-1936) published, in 1931, Revolution in Hell, more than half a century before Rushdie’s novel. In this epic poem, which was inspired by a significant medieval work of scepticism, The Epistle of Forgiveness, humanity’s most daring and original thinkers have been condemned to eternal damnation as punishment for their courage, while the obedient and pro-establishment are rewarded with everlasting paradise, in a clear allegory of how Arab patriarchal dictatorships operate. The subversive inhabitants of hell storm heaven and claim it as their rightful abode.

Despite the rise in Islamic fundamentalism and fanaticism in recent decades, the non-believers and atheists of the Muslim world have been regrouping and have found a new level of assertiveness, often at great personal risk to their freedom and even lives. In secular Muslim countries, such as Albania and Tunisia, this is legal and tolerated. Even in Muslim countries where “apostasy” and “blasphemy” are outlawed, such as in the Gulf region, there are vibrant, albeit clandestine, groups of non-believers and sceptics.

Regardless of this relative progress, we still live in dangerous times for atheists and sceptics in many Muslim societies and even for those who have a different interpretation of Islam, both from conservative governments and from vigilantes and terrorists.

It is high time for conservative Muslim societies and fanatical Muslims to respect the freedom of belief, conscience and expression of others, both legally and socially, and to abandon their delusional self-appointed role as “defenders of the faith”. Not only is the insinuation that their religion needs their protection an insult to the almighty God they believe in, faith is an immensely personal and private matter that cannot and must not be imposed by force and fear.

_____

This article was first published by The New Arab on 14 February 2019.

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Egypt’s 21st-century plagues

 
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By Khaled Diab

While the Egyptian regime battles for its survival, Egypt itself may not survive as a viable state, as it faces a ‘plague’ of potentially crippling environmental, economic and social challenges.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

Monday 12 February 2018

For those of us who dared to hope that democracy would lay down roots in Egypt, the farcical run-up to the presidential election – one measure black comedy, one measure theatre of the absurd – is agonising to watch.

It is agonising to watch not because anybody (aside from incumbent president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s most diehard supporters and loyal propagandists) believed the election would be anything more than a one-horse race. It is agonising because any pretence that the other horses even stood an outside chance has been abandoned, with the other serious contenders either crippled or disqualified or both.

This blatant match fixing led human rights lawyer Khaled Ali to announce his withdrawal from the 26-28 March vote, following the arrest of Sami Anan, who, like Sisi, is a former general who was a member of the military junta that governed Egypt immediately following the downfall of Hosni Mubarak.

Sisi’s apparent fear of every challenger that would run, in the end, left him with none. Eventually, one did emerge, a candidate of such heavyweight stature that he went from endorsing Sisi to competing against him: Mousa Mostafa Mousa, leader of the pro-regime Ghad party.

As if having a fan and ‘yes man’ as his opponent, rather than as his running mate, was not enough, Sisi threatened anyone challenging him (I mean, challenged Egypt’s ‘security’ – which are the same thing in his book), in an impromptu performance in which he sounded like a stern school teacher chiding errant schoolkids. Sisi even threatened the entire Egyptian population, whom he cautioned against even thinking about a repeat of 2011, warning that he would not allow it.

But this is not up to Sisi to decide. It is up to the Egyptian people, whom currently appear tired of revolting against a regime that will cling on to power, no matter the price or the cost.

That said, I am convinced that the Egyptian revolution, like its French equivalent, is far from over. However, it is in a race against the environmental, economic and social clock. If the ‘plagues’ threatening the country combine into a perfect storm, Egypt could become a devastated state before it becomes a democratic one; it could become Somalia before it becomes Scandinavia.

Civil strife

The sparsely populated Sinai peninsula has been in the grips of a large-scale insurgency against the central state ever since the Egyptian revolution erupted, with no clear end in sight. Armed groups there, namely the ISIS-affiliated Sinai Province, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014, still remain strong, capitalising on the peninsula’s geography, relative lawlessness and disgruntled Bedouin tribespeople. While the murderous, bloody rampages of the jihadis, exemplified by the recent deadly attack on a mosque frequented by Sufis have alienated locals, the state’s brutal counterinsurgency tactics, including airstrikes, have done little to endear it to the peninsula’s population. This include mass displacements caused by the razing of the border region between Gaza and Sinai in Rafah. In addition, rather than tackling the socio-economic grievances at the heart of the unrest, the state has allowed the situation in Sinai to deteriorate by failing to implement effective development initiatives there, combined with the collapse of the economic mainstay of tourism. This has fuelled disillusionment, frustration and anger, according to the state-funded National Council for Human Rights. As a sign of the regime’s fixation on a solely military solution to the insurgency, a major military campaign was launched last Friday aimed at crushing, once and for all, the insurgents. Whether more of the same can succeed, especially without a comprehensive development strategy, has been greeted with scepticism by some experts.

Despite suffering a regular string of terrorist attacks, especially those targeting churches and Christians, the Egyptian mainland has so far been spared the same levels of sustained and vicious violence and lawlessness. However, the potential is, sadly, there for mass civil strife, or worse, to break out at any moment. The violence, brutality and excess with which the state has responded to every form of challenge and opposition, even against peaceful protesters and demonstrators, has the potential to fuel a cycle of ever-escalating violence, as formerly peaceful individuals reach the dangerous conclusion that the only way to combat a violent state is through violence. In addition, the precarious grip the state has over many provincial areas and the hinterland of the country could also facilitate a descent into violence.

Mutiny in the ranks

Another potential flashpoint for destructive conflict are power struggles within the military or between the country’s various security apparatuses. Although the army projects an image to outsiders of unity and depicts itself as the glue holding together the nation, there are signs of division within the ranks, including the senior ones.

This was highlighted by the curious case of Sami Anan. On paper, Anan made an ideal regime candidate who could have provided a sheen of legitimacy for the election while doing nothing to challenge the military’s grip on the reins of power. An ex-army general who was Mubarak’s chief of staff, Anan was the second most senior member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which governed Egypt directly following Mubarak’s downfall. Moreover, he was forced to retire by ousted president Mohamed Morsi, who is universally reviled by supporters of the military and anti-Brotherhood Egyptians. This meant that whether Sisi retained power or Anan defeated him, the army would still emerge as the winner.

The arrest and disappearance of Anan for simply daring to announce his candidacy may have simply been driven by Sisi’s overwhelming desire to stay in power at any cost. However, it also reveals a possible split within the army, and could also be, it has been suggested, a manifestation of the rivalry between different factions within the army and other powerful security organisations, such as the police, the homeland security agency, military intelligence and the general intelligence service.

This is not the first sign of unrest within the military. An earlier example of this was the 2015 conviction, in a secret military trial, of a group of 26 officers who had allegedly attempted to mount a coup to overthrow the Sisi regime.

If clock and dagger gives way to open conflict within the military and/or between it and other security agencies, the army, the country’s main functioning institution after it eliminated its rival power bases, could push Egypt over the edge of the abyss.

Economic faultlines

While the regime’s power centres jockey for ascendancy and power, and cash in on their influences, including the aggressive expansion of the army’s economic pie, the economy has been struggling and is heading towards a painful crash if something drastic and dramatic does not happen soon.

Although the Egyptian government aims for an economic growth rate of up to 5.5% for the current fiscal year (2017/18), which would make Egypt the fastest-growing African economy, this masks a number of bitter and troubling realities. Not only is this growth mostly debt-driven, financed by conditional loans from the international financial institutions or the influence-peddling of the regime’s Gulf benefactors, it has failed to create a sufficient supply of jobs. In addition to unemployment remaining high, the cost of this recovery has mainly been borne by the poor and dwindling middle classes. The floating of the Egyptian pound and austerity measures, including the removal of subsidies and higher indirect taxes, and the high inflation they create, have hit the average Egyptian family extremely hard – as they have been doing for years.

The government’s penchant for expensive white elephant mega-projects of questionable economic benefit and feasibility, as well as high environmental risk, could spell future economic disaster by indebting the country further and emptying state coffers. These include the much-vaunted $8-billion expansion of the Suez Canal, a new administrative capital, with an initial estimated cost of $45 billion, whose business district is being built by China, not to mention Egypt’s first nuclear power plant, to be constructed with a $21 billion Russian loan.

Needless to say, these tens of billions of dollars could be more usefully and productively invested in a country in desperate need of every penny. Instead of a new capital city, Egypt should decenteralise the state and invest in its neglected provinces and periphery regions. Instead of outdated, unclean, dangerous and expensive nuclear energy, Egypt could invest the money in setting up small-scale renewable energy projects across the country, which will not only generate more energy but create more jobs to boot, as I have argued before, helping it to significantly exceed its aim of extracting 20% of its electricity needs from renewable sources. Other examples abound of how Egypt could use its limited resources resourcefully to stimulate development and promote sustainability.

Heat tidal wave

Egypt is a hot land and one of the driest in the world. And human-induced global warming means that Egypt’s climate is getting hotter and drier, with experts warning that climate change could make much of the Middle East, including Egypt, effectively uninhabitable in future decades. Extreme weather, including more frequent and longer heatwaves, is becoming more common. A sweltering example of this was the weeks-long heatwave which hit the country, and much of the region, in the summer of 2015. By 2050, average temperatures are expected to rise a whopping 2-3°C, while the country’s already low rainfall is expected to taper off by another 7-9% – inflating the country’s water poverty beyond the current alarming levels.

Global warming is also causing sea levels to rise, already damaging and threatening Egypt’s northern coastal region, especially Alexandria, the country’s second-largest urban area.

Strike force Delta

Rising sea levels have not only already started to claw away at Egypt’s coastline, it is rendering growing areas of coastal farmland too saline as seawater seeps into soil and aquifers. In addition, inadequate irrigation, drainage and fertilisation practices have affected up to 43% of Nile valley agricultural lands. One report found that soil in the Nile Delta, Egypt’s most fertile area and perhaps the best farmland in the world, is being submerged at a rate of 1cm per year by rising sea levels. By 2100, as much as a third of the Delta’s 25,000 square kilometres of arable land could be lost to agriculture, experts warn. This problem is severely exacerbated by the subsiding of sediment, which means while the sea is rising, the Delta itself is sinking. This is largely due to the fact that the fertile sediment that used to shore up the Delta has not reached it since the Aswan High Dam’s reservoir began filling in the 1960s, causing erosion and a troubling rise in the water table, and with it greater soil salinity.

As I argued in an article I wrote at the time of the Suez Canal expansion, the price tag for protecting the Delta is, according to my calculation, lower than Suez Canal II – and defending Egypt’s breadbasket would have been a far more useful and productive use of scarce resources than this white elephant.

With Egypt already dependent on imports for an estimated 60% of the food needs of its burgeoning population, this failure to protect the Delta will have dire economic and security consequences in the future by making Egypt more dependent on expensive food imports at a time when global food supplies are likely to become more stretched and unreliable.

Population time bomb

A closely related plague is the unrelenting explosion in Egypt’s population, which not only corrodes the benefits from economic growth but is also placing unprecedented strain on Egypt’s ability to feed itself, its land resources, its environment and its ecological carrying capacity. It is almost unfathomable today that when Napoleon landed in Egypt in 1798, the country’s population was estimated at just 3 million, compared to France’s population of around 30 million at the time.

More recently, the 1947 census counted 19 million Egyptians, which is less than the current population of Cairo. Today, Egypt’s population is just shy of the 100 million mark, according to one estimate. Egypt’s population is growing by a whopping 2 million or more each year, partly due to the chaos that has engulfed the country in recent years. In panic, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail has described population growth as the biggest challenge facing Egypt and the government has revived its birth control programme, but it may be too little too late.

Concrete jungle and just deserts

Although Egypt is a huge country, the vast majority of Egyptians are squeezed into the Nile valley, which constitutes around 4% of the country’s territory. This has meant that, for decades, agricultural land has been swallowed up by the growing concrete jungle, as anyone flying over the country can clearly see, in a process of desertification that has been intensified by global warming and encroaching sands.

Even though Egypt managed to reclaim around a million acres of desert land in the three or four decades to the 1990s, a similar area was lost to urbanisation. Another study found that in the 1990s the net stock of agricultural land actually rose by some 14%. However, this reclaimed land was of far inferior quality to the extremely fertile vanishing agricultural lands of the Nile valley. The choice of crops, such as water-intensive banana and corn, and the use of inappropriate fertilisers have damaged reclaimed land. In addition, already by the mid-1980s, sand encroachment and active dunes affected 800,000 hectares.

Despite a long-standing ban on building on agricultural land, the trend has actually accelerated due to the relative breakdown in law and order, growing population and worsening economy since the 2011 revolution. An estimated 30,000 acres are lost annually today, compared with 10,000 acres before 2011. Then, there is the huge industry to bake red bricks, using the precious and fertile top soil which is essential to farming. The government has been working on stiffening fines for illegal construction on agricultural land, but it is unlikely to make a dent as Egypt’s population continues to creep upwards and the desert settlements are too expensive or unattractive for average Egyptians to make the move.

One promising avenue for combating desertification and the encroachment of the desert sands is to plant specially modulated forest areas using sewage effluent, which provide the bonus of being a sustainable source of wood in a country which currently imports almost all its wood requirements. An innovative pilot project just outside Ismailia has been so successful at doing this that it has elicited interest from German investors.

Curse of the Nile

Egypt has long been described as the gift of the Nile. In a way, the river is also its modern curse. If it weren’t for this legendary waterway, which courses through the country like a life-supporting vein pumping billions of gallons of vitality into a narrow strip of lush green, Egypt would be a barren desert dotted by occasional oases. Not only is the ‘eternal river’ dying a slow death, under strain from booming populations along its length, pollution and climate change, the water Egypt receives from the Nile is barely enough to meet its current needs, let alone its future requirements.

Two colonial-era treaties, one from 1929 and the other from 1959, allocate the lion’s share of the Nile’s water resources to Egypt and Sudan. Nevertheless, although Egypt gets almost two-thirds of the Nile’s 88 billion cubic metres, the country is struggling with water shortages. And with a growing population and global warming, Egypt’s needs are likely to grow.

Meanwhile, the needs of Ethiopia and other upstream countries are also growing exponentially. To meet the requirements of its rapidly growing population, which now exceeds Egypt’s, and its development plans, Ethiopia has constructed its Grand Renaissance Dam and is seeking to fill its giant reservoir, which could potentially cause significant disruption to the downstream flow reaching Egypt. This has caused years of brewing tensions between Cairo and Addis Ababa, which abated somewhat in 2015, following the sealing of a Declaration of principles, but have reignited in recent months, as negotiations have stalled.

These frictions could potentially trigger a ‘water war’ between Egypt and Ethiopia. Moreover, even if Egypt wishes to act in good faith with Ethiopia, any reductions in the water flow reaching Egypt could have catastrophic consequences, especially in years when rainfall in Ethiopia is lower than expected.

That said, with the right investment and innovation, redistribution does not need to hurt Egypt excessively, as it can actually get by on considerably less water. For example, though vital, the intricate system of irrigation canals dotting the country shed 3 billion cubic metres in evaporation alone, and more in wasteful usage, such as the practice of flooding fields instead of drip irrigating them. In fact, the Irrigation and Improvement Project believes it can save up to 8 billion cubic metres through greater efficiency.

Likewise, Egypt’s crumbling domestic water supply network is bleeding water. In Cairo, for instance, 40% of the water supply is wasted, according to government figures. Then, there are the water-intensive cash crops, such as cotton. Egypt must reduce its cultivation of these in favour of crops which are more suited to dry climates.

_____

The ‘plagues’ facing Egypt are formidable and would be challenging even for a rich and highly developed society. However, the Egyptian state can and must do more to secure the country’s survival against all these odds, rather than its fixation solely on the regime’s survival.

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Post-ISIS Mosul, pt 2: Home is where the hurt is

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

Despite the destruction, pain, trauma and dread for the future, Mosul’s tough and long-suffering are returning to the ruins of their devastated city.

Image: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Read part 1

Thursday 21 October 2017

Before the offensive to seize back Mosul  from the control of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), almost 2.5 million people had been living in Iraq’s second-largest city. Since then, over a million have been evacuated, especially from the western Sunni districts. A joint effort by the Iraqi security forces and local humanitarian organisations, this was  one of the greatest humanitarian evacuations in human history. The evacuation may have saved a huge number of lives, but hundreds of thousands still lost their homes.

Some 5.8 million Iraqis were driven from their homes after the Islamic State, in 2014, conquered huge and mostly undefended swathes of territory. As things stand, 3.2 million remain displaced, and 600,000 of them are from Mosul.

These people literally have no place to go back to, or they are rightly fearful of returning to the crater that used to be their city, dreading the next wave of violent vengeance – this time of the sectarian variety. During my travels across the refugee camps in northern Iraq, I met numerous people who were actively prevented from returning by the security forces and the Shia militias. In all this chaos, everyone agrees on one thing: Mosul is never going to be itself again.

The western parts of the city remain monstrously empty. Life may be flowing back into the eastern part of town, but west Mosul has been sacrificed. It was clear in advance it was going to be erased. It would be impossible to describe the sheer kinetic force employed to tear down this old and once proudly independent city. The immensity of the destruction can only be grasped first-hand.

Two boys are staring off into space amid the rubble. Not much beside the great absence of things that used to be is on display. It feels like even time itself has died here. The past has been erased, the present is a flat line going nowhere, and no one can imagine anything resembling a tolerable future.

Yet in spite of all this, some of the residents have decided to return. And like the trees that have sprouted up through the cracks in the concrete, these people are now subsisting on crumbs amid the wreckage of their homes. There are no stray dogs to be glimpsed around here. Even the smartest and toughest of alley cats seem to have been eliminated.

During the final weeks of the campaign, a great hunger had descended over west Mosul. People ate whatever they could get their hands on to survive. The Islamic State had confiscated most of the food. What was available was savagely expensive – a kilogram of sugar could set one back as much as $50. In many places, there was no electricity or drinking water. West Mosul, especially its old city centre, had been turned into a constantly bombarded, open-air concentration camp. Caught in the crossfire, the city’s inhabitants were slowly turned into yet another tool of war.

“We were very lucky. All of us survived. But we lost everything we had. My son used to have a shop in the old part of town. The entire family was dependent on that shop. Now it is gone. Everything is gone,” described Ahmed Haji Jasim, 70, who had spent the entire offensive here in Mosul. We were talking to him in the spacious and relatively undamaged guest room in his flat in the al-Rifai quarter. Jasim and his family managed to survive thanks to the bunker they had built in the building’s basement. During the worst of the bombardment, they didn’t leave their hideout for five days. They had to stay put even as they heard most of their belongings above them burning away.

“The worst of it was that we knew we could die at any moment,” the old and tired-looking gentleman told us, sitting under a giant busted clock. “It took such a long time for things to calm down. We were terrified all the time. The food was extremely expensive.”

Before the offensive, Jasim used to be a reasonably well-off man. Now he and his family are facing destitution. “But we’re set to remain here. Where else can we go? After 35 years of bloody conflict, I can no longer trust anyone. No, this was not a liberation. It is clear that the future for both Iraq and Mosul is going to be grim.”

Besieged by death

As if everything else they had done was not bad enough, ISIS fanatics, in a crime against the future, had purposefully worked to dismantle the local medical infrastructure. “What you see here is not rebuilding; it is reanimation,” said Hasan Ibrahim, the new managing director of the West Mosul General Hospital, the main hospital in west Mosul, flashing us a rueful smile. Our meeting took place in Ibrahim’s improvised office somewhere in the maze of charred walls and gutted recovery rooms, the consequence of the Islamic State’s decision to burn the hospital to the ground.

This badly damaged wonder of resilience is currently the only functioning major healthcare institution in the ransacked urban desert. As soon as the Iraqi forces took control of the district on 15 May 2017, the remaining hospital staff took to resurrecting the facilities. With the assistance of the UN’s Population Fund (UNFPA) and ECHO, the EU’s humanitarian agency, this stupendous project has managed to get off the ground.

“We’ve seen almost total destruction of the premises,” Ibrahim continued. “ISIS took out all our equipment. The demand for our services is staggering. As we re-entered the hospital, the fighting was still going on. Right here, very, very close to us. It was terrifying.”

The hospital’s managing director still serves as an active surgeon. In the past, he had been arrested four times by ISIS thugs. He had been put on trial twice. The first time because his trousers were too long, the second time, because they were deemed too short after he had dutifully shortened them. This is not a joke. But Dr Ibrahim still managed to laugh as he recounted the story. He was also quick to add he had been exceptionally lucky to escape unharmed.

“For the last two months, we functioned as an ER unit. It was horrible, just horrible… Even before all this madness, our staff hadn’t been receiving their paychecks for three years. I can tell you, they’re not receiving them now, but they’re still performing their duties with exemplary dedication.”

As things stood, 25 people were ’employed’ at the hospital. After our interview, the managing director led us up a flight of soot-streaked stairs for a tour of the hospital’s burnt-out upper floors. We ended up on the roof, from where one could survey the totality of west Mosul’s devastation.

The main and only hospital in west Mosul is doing what it can to help some life persevere amid the rubble. The hospital’s underground facilities may be in dire need of complete renovation, but that has not stopped the staff from using it as an improvised maternity ward. Opened at the beginning of June 2017, it was allocated a team of one doctor and two midwives.

During our visit, the modest premises, which were reminiscent of the field hospitals of yore, were a hive of lively activity. It wasn’t yet noon, and the world was already two infant souls richer. That morning, Suria Shaab Ahmad, 42, had given birth to the little girl she was now clutching to her breast on her bed.

It was her fifth child. “Five is enough,” Suria laughed merrily in spite of her apparent exhaustion, a mere two hours after the delivery. Then she told me she had been escorted to the hospital by her 62-year-old mother. Suria’s husband had simply disappeared – or, much more probably, been disappeared… Like hundreds of other Sunni men who had vanished without a trace.

“We come from the Bousefa quarter in west Mosul,” Suria’s mother informed, as she sat patiently next to her daughter and her tiny granddaughter. “Thirteen months ago when the offensive started, we were forced to run. Our house had been burned down. Everything we owned had gone up in flames. We moved to the old city centre.”

Grandma had, herself, brought six children into the world. Five of them are still alive – only her son Mohammed, a member of the Iraqi army, had been gunned down by the extremists. His family searched for him for a long time. He had been hiding in a hole under the house that Suria’s family had fled to. “It was horrible… They had killed my son and burned down that house as well. Following the liberation, we returned to Bousefa to live in a house where Daesh supporters used to live. Where else were we supposed to go?”

Suria’s mother spoke in a forceful, seemingly unruffled manner. But then she could hardly afford to seem ruffled. This robust matronly lady knew very well, as I was also aware, that the survival of an entire family hinged on her fortitude.

“Today is a nice day. We are happy. Life is starting over again. I’m trying to find a name for my little girl. Perhaps you’ve got a suggestion?” Suria Shaab Ahmad asked me.

Nur? Light?

“Ha ha, that’s going to be tough – we already have four girls named Nur in the family,” Suria smiled and kept stroking her precious newborn daughter.

Still and in spite of everything, let there be Light.

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Post-ISIS Mosul, pt 1: The final death of a city?

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

Its building turned to dust, its citizens traumatised and impoverished, Mosul may have been ‘liberated’ from ISIS but it has become a graveyard. Can this razed and devastated city ever be free again?

Based on photo by ©Boštjan Videmšek

Monday 11 December 2017

The orange sun was slowly setting over the sooty ruins of west Mosul. Nine months of clashes between the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) and a coalition of the Iraqi army, Shia militias and US-led international forces had pummeled the town with some of the most savage urban warfare the world has seen since World War II. Today, west Mosul barely exists: 80% of all buildings have been razed or damaged, while the old city centre is no more. The devastation in Iraq’s second largest city is worse than that in Stalingrad and covers a larger geographical area than Hiroshima during World War II.

Rubble, rubble everywhere. Entire blocks have been returned to dust. There are bomb craters everywhere, enormous piles of refuse, hundreds if not thousands of burned-out hunks of cars and trucks. The city is a labyrinth of destruction, an exitless maze expressing the demise of the very concept of humanity.

This is hardly an exaggeration. Collapsed high-rises lying in imploded heaps like contaminated mountains of blancmange. The all-pervasive smell of organic rot. A lone mosque braving it out in the middle of a flattened plain where a residential district used to be. An entire health-care complex – ‘Medical City’ – razed to the ground. Someone seems to have done a passable job of clearing the main thoroughfares, but all they lead to is further images of unspeakable horror.

Let us not shy away from these scenes. A house, somehow unharmed, shimmering like a mirage amid a desert of nothingness. The skeletal remains of a factory and the bared foundations of municipal facilities. Spent large-calibre shells scattered across piles of sand. Tremendous heaps of impossibly twisted scrap metal which, in a European city, might have been taken for an art installation. Caved-in side streets. A graveyard with smashed headstones, regarded as an act of blasphemy by the masterminds of ISIS. Something that might have been a football field. A small curly palm tree that had somehow survived nine months of incessant bombs, rockets, mortar shells, mines and grenades. A lone emaciated cow dementedly grazing on a chunk of plastic. Splayed animal carcasses. The long line in front of the only functioning petrol station, symbolising of the cankerous economic underbelly of Iraq’s plight.

In a word, west Mosul looks like a tomb. What used to be a town is now a huge evil crater that has sucked in thousands of innocent souls.

The fire sale

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Hundreds of trucks from Erbil and the northern Kurdish region bring in a stream of building materials. But little in west Mosul gives the impression that any sort of reconstruction is even possible. At the same time, hundreds of trucks are taking scrap metal from Mosul to Erbil and the Kurdish regions. Groups of men are transporting old bricks in wheelbarrows, all of them headed for the gigantic fire sale west Mosul has now become.

Even after immersing yourself in Mosul’s wasteland, it is still hard to believe one’s eyes. Following a knee-jerk impulse, they remain quick to turn from the scenes of utter desolation.

How is anything expected to live here ever again?

Yet for some this is merely business as usual. A patrol of the Iraqi Federal Police, backed up by a high-flying chopper treated to a bird’s eye view of all this nothingness. The freshly sown flags and the childishly colourful religious iconography of the Hashd al-Shaabi militiamen, who helped ‘liberate’ the Sunni western part of town. Flashes of a monstrous marauding force that had long been laying waste to everything in its path.

Lest we forget: in June 2014, the self-proclaimed Islamic State convoy took Mosul virtually without a fight. The Iraqi army simply scattered to the winds, leaving behind a treasure trove of mostly American weapons. The same Iraqi army that had been disbanded in the fall of 2003, turning over the entire state to the whims of religious militias, is now helping to liberate the city it had terrorised between 2005 and 2014.

No. This razed, thoroughly defeated city is not and is never meant to be free again.

A game of Russian roulette

The oily Tigris still occasionally washes up a corpse. Four out of five bridges across the river have been destroyed. Over the remaining one, traffic is sputtering along in a grand slalom between the Iraqi army and Shia militia checkpoints.

The Tigris’ entire west bank, where the ISIS fighters had dug themselves in until the bitter end, has been bombed clean. The tunnels the fighters used to move across the city have been filled in. Those brave enough to have remained in west Mosul fear that the underground still hides a number of ‘sleeper cells’. And that whatever’s down there can easily be spewed forth again.

Here amid the rubble which still entombs hundreds of corpses, any semblance of a sense of security is but a cruel joke. Large parts of the area are riddled with mines, and there is no map. Life – or whatever is still left of it – has been turned into a game of Russian roulette.

***

A 10-year-old girl named Nada refused to let the doctors at a rehabilitation centre operated by the NGO Handicap International in the eastern and significantly less afflicted part of Mosul anywhere near her, at least at first. She was very much afraid of them. After all, it was doctors who had stolen her left foot.

On 4 April 2017, she was hanging around in the courtyard of her home in Mosul’s Janjili quarter, which had been completely devastated during the months of the offensive. The house was suddenly struck by a rocket – to this day, no one knows whose. The shrapnel hit Nada in her left foot and her jaw. Her father Adel took a nasty hit to his leg. A couple of Nada’s relatives were killed in the assault. The neighbours took them to the only functioning hospital, which happened to be controlled by ISIS.

The two doctors on hand first ignored Nada and her father. Priority went to the wounded Sunni militia extremists. According to numerous reports, the doctors only helped those civilians who had openly supported the ISIS ‘caliphate’. Adel was left bleeding in his chair for 10 hours. After that, they simply sawed off his right leg.

Nada herself was left to her excruciating pain for two days. The ‘doctors’ could have saved her foot, but it simply wasn’t a priority. After a while, her wounds became infected and started overflowing with pus. At the end of the two days, a doctor finally came along and amputated the leg under the knee. Then he sent her and her father home, even though they no longer had one.

The fighting was still far from over. The entire family moved in with the grandfather, where three other war-devastated families already lived.

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

“I want to go to school,” Nada told me. Wearing a pretty red dress, Nada also shared that before her town got destroyed she used to be in third grade at the local school.

As her mother held her hand, the physical therapist was working to exercise the stump of the little girl’s left foot – the one that was later fitted with a prosthetic device. From the way she surrendered herself completely to the therapist’s gentle care, it was clear Nada had been released from much of her fear of doctors. On two different occasions, she even flashed a bashful smile.

On the whole, her bright and curious eyes seemed filled with a renewed confidence, perhaps because she had regained the ability to walk. And she was doing so well. She had been promised she would soon depart for Jordan, where Médecins sans Frontiéres agreed to operate on her damaged jaw. This means she might one day be able to eat normally again.

Yet the bureaucrats, naturally enough, seem bent on jeopardising her trip to Aman. An all but irrelevant fact is that her family had gone bankrupt.

As for her grey-haired and bearded father Adel, the war had not merely cost him his right leg but also stripped him of the taxi he used to drive to support his family. His vehicle had been his one means of making a living. As I spoke to him, he was supposed to be on medication, but he simply could not afford it. With the help of his extended family he was able somehow to make ends meet and make his regular rehabilitation sessions. However, the second his luck runs out, the whole family will be facing a new level of dire straits.

An engineer, not a soldier

In mid-March, 19-year-old Dawood was tending a flock of sheep as they grazed. After stepping on a mine, his right hand and left foot were blown off. Some relatives heard the sharp detonation and ran over to where he lay mangled on the ground. He was bleeding profusely and he had lost consciousness, yet they managed to save his life… or at least an approximation of it.

After the conclusion of the grand military operation, Dawood and his parents visited the newly opened rehabilitation clinic. That was in the middle of June. The day we came to visit was the day Dawood could officially walk again, an occasion for celebration.

“I wanted to be a soldier,” he nodded proudly, his body language exuding pride at the stupendous feat he had accomplished. “But since I have lost an arm and a leg, the army won’t take me. Now I want to be an engineer.”

Dawood carefully raised himself up to his feet and took a few tentative steps, his eyes flashing determination and defiance. He employed his prosthetic right hand to grab a plastic cup and eased it up toward his mouth. “Now I can drink tea by myself,” he declared proudly and broke into a grin all the more impressive for its impishness.

***

“It is very hard to find a single person in Mosul who hasn’t lost a loved one or been wounded themselves. Round here, we mostly take care of the amputees: 70% of the 310 people in our care lost an arm or a leg in the raids. In total, some 18,000 people were wounded. There was a tremendous amount of amputations. In many cases, it had been done as a form of sanction – as punishment for disloyalty,” explained Fanny Mraz, head of Handicap International‘s mission in Iraq.

The two years she has spent here have afforded her a very close view of the entire socio-political climate. Her patients’ injuries were not merely of the physical variety. Around here, signs of post-traumatic stress syndrome were so rife they were virtually omnipresent. The trauma of nine months of savage bombardment, following the two years of ISIS’s reign of terror, which came after the root cause of it all, the western invasion and occupation, had cut deep into the marrow of all residents of the ransacked city.

“So much trauma has been piled up on these people,” Ibrahim Khalil, a doctor with the International Medical Corps, said while shaking his head. “Well, at least they’re now learning to speak openly about their pain – something rather unusual in these parts. Nonetheless, we are still at the beginning of our mission. So many people here need help. Some thousand people are now taking part in our psycho-social rehabilitation programme. For them, this war won’t be over for quite a while yet. All the public services having been dismantled, all of us here are facing a tremendous workload.”

 

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Watch this space for part 2

 

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Greek island teaches Europe how to welcome refugees

 
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Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

The Greek island of Tilos has hosted more than seven times its population in refugees… and has done so with dignity, respect and with its own limited resource.

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Tuesday 15 August 2017

A tired middle-aged man, dressed for autumn even though it was a sweltering July afternoon, was quietly staring out at the clear blue sea. His old soldier’s face had a frozen, immutable aspect to it, but you could still sense he was awash with emotion. With the sun mercilessly beating down on the nape of his neck, he was stoically yet carefully monitoring his five children chase one another on the almost deserted beach. Every now and then a thought escaped his lips – usually no more than a word or two. In these conditions, it was hard to remain of sound mind if one didn’t have an occasional chat with oneself.

“I haven’t slept for five years,” the man eventually told me. “Five years! Can you even imagine what that means?”

Mohsen is a former high-ranking officer in the Syrian government forces. He hails from the northern city of Hasaqa where the Kurds form the majority of the population… A city where, from the war’s outbreak in the spring of 2011, the members of the Kurdish militia have often coordinated their manoeuvres with the officials in Damascus. This marriage of convenience somehow held out to the present day.

Mohsen used to command 400 men. For a long time, he had managed to hold on to his hope that all-out war could be avoided. His hopes withstood even the fact that after the first few weeks of the mostly peaceful demonstrations against the Bashar al Assad regime, his superiors ordered him to start jailing the protesters en masse.

The demonstrations in the Kurdish-majority region were not as intensive as those in other parts of Syria. About a year into the riots, when the country had already plummeted into the abyss of war, his superiors ordered Mohsen to relinquish his command to the Kurdish units.

It was not the first direct order this proud Syrian patriot refused to carry out. The crux of his argument was that Syria was Syrian, not Sunni, Shi’a, Kurdish or Christian. Since he was very popular with his soldiers and revered by many of his superior officers, the authorities chose not to jail him. Instead, they transferred and demoted him. He knew what was coming next.

“I no longer have a future, but my children do”

Pressure was slowly put on Mohsen’s family. The mukhabarat, the country’s security and intelligence service, followed his every move and monitored his every word. Eventually, they imprisoned his brother. Then he was given another impossible order: his unit was to open fire on the protesters.

This was when the international fighters looking for a holy war had already started reaching Syria through the Turkish border. And with them, intelligence officers and arms dealers. Mohsen rounded up his soldiers and told them he was deserting. His men were free to either join him or comply with the orders from Damascus. Some of them decided to join him. At the end of 2012, he struck off for Iraqi Kurdistan, accompanied by his family and a number of his former troops.

He managed to get a job in Dohuk, but the Syrian intelligence was hot on his trail. He was considered a traitor, and the war soon splashed over the Syrian border to the north of Iraq.

In June 2014, after the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS or ISIS) took Mosul, the extremist Sunni militia began conquering the Kurdish territories. As ISIS neared Dohuk, the outlook became increasingly grim. Despite his dreams of the Syrian war ending, Mohsen finally resigned himself to a refugee’s fate.

He took his family to Turkey, where he knew he was not safe on account of his status as a ‘traitor’. Still, he spent more than two years in the vicinity of Izmir, after deciding not to register as a refugee. When the Balkan route opened up, it was generally seen as everyone’s golden chance to reach Europe. Yet Mohsen waited, hoping against hope the situation back home might still somehow improve.

When he learned that he had been stripped of all his assets in Hasaqa, he realised this was no longer an option.

After the EU and the Turkish government struck their bargain, things became much worse for the Syrian refugees in Turkey. Sadly, Mohsen was too late to strike off for Greece… Too late for his family to be granted permission to spend the rest of the war in Germany.

“I decided to try to reach Europe because of the children. I no longer have a future, but they do. It’s my duty to do everything I can to help them on their way. Forty days we waited for a boat, and then the smugglers boarded us onto a small ship. There were so many of us… And it was very very cold. The captain was taking the ship around in circles. I knew something was not right. Maybe he was drunk? We changed our course countless times, and then we hit a huge rock. Eventually, we were rescued and transported to Greece,” Mohsen says, describing the scenes from eight months earlier.

Mohsen was talking to me on the small Southern Aegean island of Tilos, which he now calls his home. “Here on Tilos all I wanted was to get some rest,” he smiles. “But now I would very much like to stay. These people have treated me like a human being. I had already forgotten what that even means. I feel welcome, safe and useful here – seeing how I can take care of the kids while my wife goes off to work… I can simply say that I’m living again. And I have begun to enjoy a good night’s sleep. After five years. I am so grateful for all that.”

Tilos Hospitality Centre

Along with his wife and five children Mohsen resides at the Tilos Hospitality Centre, a tidy refugee settlement in the seaside village of Livadia. This sleepy yet somehow still lively village is proof positive of what can be achieved when humanity triumphs over fear, prejudice, xenophobia, racism, and politics.

The centre, which is made up of 10 comfortable residential units housing 46 Syrian refugees, is decidedly not a refugee camp. It is an open, free and dignified residential area providing shelter for people whose lives have been completely wrecked by the war. It is a place of hope and – the importance of this cannot be overstated – of activity.

Many refugees, especially the women, had little trouble finding work on the island. At the time of our visit, coinciding with the height of the tourism season, not a soul on the island was unemployed. Quite the contrary: many of the locals are working 18-hour shifts.

Tourism is Tilos’ main source of income, so the summer months have to be milked for all their worth. The refugees are paid perfectly respectable wages in the hotels, restaurants, bistros and at the local bakery. Legal help has also been made available to them, while the Tilos Hospitality Centre is constantly visited by volunteers from all over Europe. The centre is both a study in the humane integration of war-torn souls and an antithesis to the sum of the EU’s (anti-)refugee and (anti-)immigrant policies.

This commendably complex approach is far from accidental; the islet of Tilos is a paragon of progressiveness in other respects as well. In a few months, Tilos is set to become the first Mediterranean island to boast energy self-sufficiency. One hundred percent of its power will be drawn from renewable sources like the sun and the wind. This warm green refuge has thus become the meeting place of two key issues affecting our present and future: migration and renewable energy. Most of the dominant Syrian-war narratives have proven all too oblivious to the fact that climate change has been a major factor contributing to the conflict’s escalation, especially by driving the impoverished rural masses to leave their drought-scarred land and move to the cities.

On Tilos, the local community is functioning like one giant cooperative: interdependent, highly responsible, free of ideology and propelled by humanism. Tilos was, in 2008, the location of the first gay marriage in Greece. From as far back as 1993, hunting has been completely outlawed on the island, which is in its entirety protected by the EU’s Natura 2000 programme.

Tilos is the future as it might have and could have been across Europe, had other places not succumbed to xenophobia and fear. Simplicity so complex it boggles the mind.

“Doing what is normal and what is right”

The island is located only 17km from the Turkish coast. Outside the tourist season, it is inhabited by only 823 people (and approximately 10,000 free-ranging goats). Between 2013 and 2016, more than 6,000 refugees landed here. Most of the incomers had been dumped by the smugglers on the smaller beaches – they had simply been left there to die, since the cliffs and the rocks made it impossible to leave.

The local activists, led by the mayor Maria Kamma-Alfieri, soon cracked the smugglers’ pattern. They started following the Tilos-bound boats to be able to gather the shocked, traumatised and often severely dehydrated refugees from the remote beaches. Nearly every resident of the island with a boat or a small ship had taken to the sea, saving hundreds and hundreds of lives.

At first, the rescued refugees were housed at the local orthodox church, only to be transferred to a deserted barracks. Almost no help was coming from outside, so the living conditions were rather poor, while the incomers only grew in number. Yet the people of Tilos refused to give up. They decided they would do everything in their power to help.

In the end, they managed to defeat both – the state and the EU bureaucrats. A year ago, the Tilos Hospitality Centre, housing exclusively Syrian families, opened its doors in Livadia. For the locals, this aim was self-explanatory, a product of their basic decency and genuine desire to help. For those of us who have spent the better part of a decade chronicling the refugees’ tragedy, it was a quite a shock. This alone tells a lot about how things stand.

“We’re simply doing what is normal and what is right,” shrugged Elena Pissa, a driving force behind the centre. “We are normal human beings. We know what to do, that’s all. But unfortunately, you’re also quite right: in this racist and selfish world, what we’ve done here on Tilos is unusual – exceptional even. And that’s a scary thought, isn’t it?”

I got talking to Elena over a cup of ice-cold cappuccino. I could sense she was a deeply tired woman. She had long forgotten what a holiday felt like.

From morning to late afternoon, she takes care of her wards. She helps refugees in every way possible: she takes care of the paperwork, calls up the relevant officials, arranges emergency medical appointments, forms legal strategies with lawyers, finds work, mediates in their family disputes, coaches her colleagues and keeps up everyone’s morale. When she is finished with her duties at the refugees’ settlement, she relocates to her tourist shop in the village, where she remains until 11 at night.

Her business is not exactly thriving. It has not been the best of seasons for Tilos, but Elena is holding on, having to provide for herself and her 11-year-old son. This activist with a degree in management from Athens hasn’t even been to the beach this year. By focusing so hard on the needs of others, she has been neglecting her own. Elena has little time for compromises. Now is simply not the time. Greece has found itself on the frontline of the battle for what remains of Europe’s basic human decency, and Elena is a crack commando of the grassroots’ special forces.

Wills and ways

So what’s so special about Tilos?” I asked the mayor; Maria Kamma-Aliferi, who had taken over the helm after the sudden death of her legendarily progressive predecessor Tasos Aliferi. Maria has been serving as the mayor for the last six years. She has never ran in an election. Around here, it is deemed enough that she has the people’s support and a college education.

The thing about Tilos it’s probably how the people here are keen to embrace innovation. Like renewable energy sources. On many other islands or even in the mainland cities, the reactions would have been mostly negative. But here we’re very serious about the environment. Its protection is our basic aim. If the community is an open one, free of prejudice and taboos, then everything is so much easier. I guess this is why we see our achievements as something completely normal. We are working towards our objectives step by step, carefully planning our moves in advance. The key is always focusing on the good of the community. You can’t just force on people something they do not want. Once they established the refugees were not a threat, they quickly opened up. In time, they realised the refugees’ presence could even prove beneficial to the future of our island. Much the same can be said of our renewable energy project.”

According to the mayor, Tilos has never suffered much from xenophobia. As recently as 15 years ago, the small island had been almost deserted, its young people moving away en masse. The local school used to be empty then, while it now takes care of the needs of 80 children… A number sure to experience a significant boost in the autumn, when the refugee youngsters are set to join in.

The island was close to being dead,” the mayor recalls. “But then our solidarity came to the fore. When the first refugees started coming in, our small community immediately accepted them in our midst. The first hospitality centre was built by the local volunteers. We made all of it ourselves.”

According to Maria Kamma-Aliferi, the most important thing was for the island’s residents to come face to face with the people, particularly the children, who had undergone unspeakable horrors. “When we looked into the little ones’ eyes, we could see naked fear. The smugglers simply dropped these poor boys and girls on a bunch of rocks. They were shaking like leaves. How can you remain neutral and unperturbed when you see a freezing crying baby no more than twenty days old? These people’s only crime is to have survived,” she notes.

The island may be facing numerous problems, mostly of the financial and infrastructural variety. But the locals are firmly set on pursuing their hospitable policies. They have long stopped counting on help from Athens – not only because of the state’s long stumble on  the brink of bankruptcy but also because of its traditional neglect of its more remote islands and regions.

The mayor seemed hopeful the Greek state might at least aid the islanders with respect to the refugees, since the island’s council is planning the opening of a dairy processing company as a joint venture between four local and four refugee families. The entire project is estimated at around €150,000, and any scrap of help from Athens would be welcome.

“Our problems need to be viewed as a challenge. We have made our choice, so there is no question of changing course. Regardless of how small the island is, we’ve already managed to take care of thousands of refugees. If only some of our larger [regions] could muster up the will – think of all that could be accomplished. I can only hope that some of them might yet be inspired by what’s happening here,” she urges.

Improvised fun

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

In the late morning heat, a huge and fairly slobbery mongrel dog was chasing a saggy punctured ball thrown by the refugee children. Little boys and girls were darting off all over the place, the dog was happily barking… But both sounds were drowned out by the sound of the cicadas.

Abu Kareem from Daraa, who was eight and bizarrely confident, picked up a guitar and started playing something remotely resembling a tune. His older sister Hiba gave him a pointed glance and quickly confiscated the instrument, taking it up herself to play a traditional Greek melody. An elderly Syrian refugee lady was hanging laundry. A delicious smell wafted over from a nearby kitchen. All over the clean and comfortable settlement, even those refugees who worked the night shift were slowly waking up.

As for the sleepyhead children, they were being roused from their slumber by a Belgian volunteer named Sofie De Bois. Summer school was about to kick off, providing Greek and English classes to the refugees and Arabic lessons to the activists. Sofie, a 24-year-old student, runs a series of fairly improvised psycho-therapeutic workshops. They consist of drawing classes, chess, guitar and electric piano lessons, some pretty wild looking yoga, something resembling a jazz ensemble – and a lot of happy noise-making needing no justification whatsoever. After finishing up, Sofie then spends her evenings and nights waiting tables in one of the cafeterias.

The local activists were seated around a huge wooden table in the shade. Most of them have been actively saving lives for the past few years. A number were currently employed by the Solidarity Now project financed by the UNHCR. Their contracts are good until the end of 2017. They are hoping they will get renewed, but lately they have started to worry.

Over the past two months, the Greek authorities – spurred on by the EU – have chased the NGOs from most of the islands. From 1 August 2017, the Greek government took over the control of the so-called refugee ‘hotspots‘, which are prisons in everything but name.

This, at least, is the official plan. For the migrants and refugees trapped in Greece, this is catastrophic news. The Greek authorities have neither the personnel nor the finances to take care of the country’s 50,000 refugees, most of whom got stuck here after the closing of the so-called Balkan refugee route, stranded between their destination somewhere in central or northern Europe and the increasingly unstable Turkey.

The ‘residential centres’ on the islands are currently holding more than 10,000 people. Most of them have been there for more than six months. An additional 2,200 can be found on the mainland. The state has turned this precarious situation into a business opportunity, as the funds Brussels used to allocate to the NGOs will now be rerouted straight to Athens. But for the Tilos Hospitality Centre, the pernicious new arrangement will not come into effect until the new year at least.

When the ground quakes

Maysoon al-Deri, 30, also comes from Daraa – a city in the southeast of Syria, where the insurgency against Bashar al-Assad was first sparked. It was a spark that soon triggered a civil war, which then exploded into a global conflict of sorts, given how many countries are currently involved in the conflict.

The war didn’t need long to claim the home of this mother of five young children, ranging from the ages of two to ten. In spite of her house being destroyed, Maysoon remained in the war-torn city until 20 February 2016, when she set off for the Turkish border. A large portion of her journey was through ISIS-controlled territory. For the first time in her life, Maysoon put on a burqa – purely for safety reasons. She didn’t take it off for almost two months. This is how long she, her husband and their children had to wait to cross the Syrian-Turkish border. When they finally reached Turkey, the pathway to Europe had already been welded shut. After the deal involving €6 billion had been struck, the Turkish authorities began to implement heightened security measures to restrict the refugees’ movements. They also cracked down on some of the smuggling ‘ networks.

The family managed to contact a smuggler who, on second attempt, got them to the Greek island of Lesbos. For the first time, actual shots were fired at them – not by ISIS but by the Turkish coast guard. They then spent four months in the infamous residential centre of Moria, in essence the modern version of a concentration camp. “It was a very warlike experience,” Maysoon recounts of her experience there. “We have horrible memories! The situation there was inhumane, simply inhumane!”

Last September, when the UNHCR authorised the family to relocate to Tilos, a glimmer of hope returned to their lives.

“When we got here, I was ill and absolutely exhausted. It took a long while before I regained some of my strength. The people here were helping me on every step of the way. I’ll always be grateful,” she told us at the Hospitality Centre on the morning after a forceful earthquake had shaken Greece, including Tilos. Maysoon’s head was covered with a headscarf, and it seemed she still hadn’t completely woken up. She had slept straight through the earthquake, being rather used to heavy turbulence. Yet some of the refugees had been given quite a jolt. Many of the children were terrified that the war had caught up with them again.

Maysoon has spent the last 10 months here on Tilos. The small Aegean island has become her temporary home. Until the war in Syria simmers down, she refuses to budge. She is especially proud of having found work waiting tables at one of the local restaurants. Come autumn, the older contingent of her kids is set to enter school here. Her husband has also managed to find a semblance of peace.

“I’ve stopped dreaming of Germany or other European countries,” she smiled. “I know it’s hard for refugees anywhere you go. Here, we have everything we need. We won’t have it better anywhere else. The people here are so helpful, they took us in… things are very nice and warm and peaceful.” Maysoon told me she still sometimes catches herself gazing at the sea, wondering how it was possible all her children had survived the journey. “So many – so many have drowned,” she remarked. Just last year, some 5,500 people perished in the Mediterranean sea trying to reach Europe. This year, the tally currently stands at 2,500, making the death toll more than 30,000 since the turn of the millennium.

“I didn’t think I could ever get rid of the fear… For a long time, I was so afraid someone might come after us. It’s such a relief to be able to take a walk at one in the morning, after I’ve finished up at the restaurant… I walk along the beach and think, ‘It is so peaceful and quiet there by the sea. People respect me here,'” reflects Maysoon.

Maysoon’s train of thought was broken by a burst of hysterical crying from her two-year-old son. A toy car made of steel got stuck to his lip. The problem was quickly solved, but the toddler’s tears kept flowing. “He tries to eat everything he can get his hands on, everything,” the boy’s mother smiles.

Before she came to Tilos, Maysoon al-Deri never had a job. “I’m so happy to be able to work here. This way I can feel free, strong and self-dependent. True, I get tired quite a lot, but it’s a good feeling. I hope it lasts.”

The fact that many of the women have found employment while the men stay at home to tend to the children is a revolution in its own right. At first, there were some problems, Elena Pissa recalls, since it was necessary to break down the cultural barriers. But a little tenacity went a long way. In just a few months, integration fell into step with emancipation.

“For the first time in my life, I have a job! I’m cleaning apartments and preparing breakfast. It’s not particularly hard work, and I’m having a good time doing it,” Waala al-Hariri smiled bashfully.

A whole new circle of hell

Waala, 28, is a mother of two. She reached Tilos last November after spending close to eight hard months on Lesbos. Along with her husband and two children she had fled the war, only to face a whole new circle of hell over here in Europe.

For a long time, she was simply unable to comprehend it. “There were 80 of us on the boat I arrived on. The smuggler was laughing, telling us we were taking a trip with the Death Tourist Agency. It was so horrible. Every time I think back on the journey, I start crying.”

As she was telling me this, Waala’s sharp green eyes were cutting through me like twin laser beams. In Syria, she had to quit school just before graduation on account of getting married. Her ambition is to continue with her education and one day open a beauty salon. But not on Tilos, not here in Greece. Like many of the local refugees she and her family wish to push on towards Germany. The relatively ideal living conditions on Tilos are not enough to keep them here, since many of them are desperate to reunite with family members located somewhere to the north.

“To be frank,” Waala says, “what I really want is to return home… But the war is not going to be over for a long time. Our house was badly damaged in a bombing raid. All Syrians should be on their way back to rebuild their country, but I know this won’t be possible for a long, long time.”

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