Europe’s collective refugee shame: How can it be?

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

How can it be that we Europeans greet the biggest refugee crisis in living memory with indifference, xenophobia and hostility?

Bostjan refugees

Wednesday 19 August 2015

How can it be that the doom of Syrian refugees is followed, like some sort of spectacle, without shame and without a deep sense of guilt?

How can it be that someone can feel more valuable and more deserving than anyone else?

How can it be that one life is worth more than another?

How can it be that there’s us and them, always and everywhere?

How can it be that the privilege of being born in peace and prosperity can be taken for granted by so many people?

How can there be such a lack of empathy and compassion?

How can it be that rights, freedom and a better life can be denied from an absolute zone of comfort to millions who will never get to know what a zone of comfort is?

How can it be that we face ourselves – as an individual, a community, a nation, a state, a union of states – and not care about the crimes of humanity, our own crimes?

How can it be that the banality of evil so rarely crashes on the rocks of goodness and righteousness, which are so evident in the rhetorical and digital flourishes of the ethical and moral?

How can it be that, on the other side of the moon and in self-appeasement mode, the battle cry of “something urgently needs to be done” rises high – over and over again – but quickly deflates into the net illusion of couch activism, the endemic and incurable disease of the contemporary left?

How can it be that reflexes mostly win out and (self-)reflection is an exception to the rule?

How can it be that after so many years of tyranny and of political correctness, the public discourse is dominated by xenophobia, racism and nationalistic chauvinism?

How can it be that the country which 20 years ago hosted 70,000 refugees (Slovenia) is today finding it problematic to accept more that 250 refugees who fled the bloodiest conflict of our time?

How can it be that this country’s government, like many of our neighbours in Europe, is weeding out the last remnants of our humanity (as was also the case in the Greek crisis)?

How can it be that a lady who has walked a few thousand kilometres, with a three-year old daughter in her arms, hoping for salvation and safety, is instead proclaimed a terrorist?

How can it be that an educated urban young man and an exhausted, dispossessed old man are a threat to “our” Europe?

How can we judge of who is eligible or not to live on our chosen continent?

How can it be that Syrian refugees, who have endured an indescribable human tragedy, are being portrayed, without shame or guilt, as some kind of invading horde or army?

How can it be?

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The long march from Syria to Europe

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

Joining Syrian refugees on their long trek to the EU, Boštjan Videmšek discovers how easy it is to lose faith in humanity and how hard to restore it.

Photo: Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: Jure Erzen/DELO

Thursday 6 August 2015

By the side of the road leading from the small town of Kanjiža in northern Serbia to the Hungarian border, a large band of 40 or so Syrian refugees – women, children, young men, an elder – had just sat down to rest. It was early on a Tuesday evening, and the group was finally getting some respite from the sun. They were plucking not quite ripe plums from a nearby tree and checking their mobile phones on which they had stored the directions for the fastest and safest route to the border.

This was, of course, only one of the numerous groups making their final bid to penetrate the fortress of the European Union. On the flatlands by the oily and quiet Tisa river where we joined the marchers, life was unfolding according to its ancient, decidedly slow rhythms. Most of the residents have long become accustomed to the endless procession of human suffering. In the last few months, Serbia has been turned into yet another waystation for a human tragedy mere language can hardly describe. It is no exaggeration to say this tragedy is sure to become one of the definitive humanitarian stories of the 21st century.

Horrible, just horrible

A few kilometres away from the border, a man in the group started to speak: “If all goes well, we’ll be there in two and a half hours… We’ve been travelling for weeks, some of us for months.”

His name, he told us, was Rami. He was 27 and hailed from the northwestern Syrian city of Raqa, the capital of the self-proclaimed caliphate and the Islamic State (ISIS). He fled the city soon after it was captured by the members of the radical Sunni militia. He claims he had no choice. He had received word his name had been put on their death list. During the initial months of the Syrian conflict, he had been working as a journalist and had decided to help out one of his American colleagues. He had even been issued a press card by a prominent international newspapers.

This was not something ISIS was likely to forgive.

“It made no difference that I come from one of Raqa’s strongest families. If I were to stay, they would have certainly killed me, no questions asked. The worst of it was that my own cousins were out to get me too,” Rami reflected, as we trudged on along the dusty local thoroughfare. “Almost all of them had joined ISIS. Almost everyone in Raqa had gone over to them, that is why they’re so strong… Raqa will always be their territory. And so there was no one who could protect me.”

Rami’s first destination was Turkey, where he had to stay longer than he originally planned since he got robbed in Istanbul. It took him a long time to earn enough money to continue on his journey. As soon as he was able to, he set off for the Turkish coast. In the meantime, he learned that his father had been killed, while his brother, who also refused to join the Islamic State, had been severely wounded while fighting the Syrian government forces.

In the Turkish port of Bodrum, one of the region’s hubs for human trafficking, Rami met the other members of the group he was currently travelling with. That was two months ago. Since then, they have not once parted company.

As we walked on, Ali, 28, joined our conversation. He was a civil engineer from Azaz, a town near the Syrian-Turkish border which has seen heavy fighting between various insurgent groups, after being almost completely razed by government bombers. “In Turkey,the traffickers robbed us on two different occasions, and we also got a lot of trouble from the police,” he told us. “We sailed to the Greek island of Kos in a rubber dinghy. The boat was really small, but somehow everyone you see here managed to fit. It seems incredible that we survived. At least half of these people don’t know how to swim. If the boat had capsized, we would all have died. It was horrible, just horrible!”

 A modern-day odyssey

After arriving at Kos, where the recent heavy influx of refugees has plunged the island into chaos, the band of Syrians took a ferry to Athens. Every day, hundreds of refugees and immigrants enter the Greek capital. The Greek authorities, bogged down on countless other domestic and foreign fronts, had virtually stopped dealing with the problem. Their solution was simply to leave the door wide open. It was little wonder that the flood of refugees immediately headed for the Macedonian and Bulgarian borders. A new route to the European Union soon gained prominence, starting in Macedonia and leading through Serbia all the way up to Hungary.

Three weeks ago, Hungary started building a wall measuring 175km in length. Its basic objective is to put a stop to the influx of refugees and immigrants. Yet so far the Hungarians haven’t been very successful at it. In the days we spent on both sides of the border, the situation was quite the contrary. The commencement of the immense construction project has only speeded up the current rate of migration, especially through Macedonia and Serbia, where the authorities understand very well what the erection of such a wall could mean.

In reality, the wall is not so much an actual obstacle for the incoming refugees as it is a clear political statement by the far-right government of Viktor Orbán.

“We made quite a large part of our journey through Greece and Macedonia on foot. It was horrible – it was hot, and we were all so hungry and thirsty… The people there refused to have anything to do with us,” Ali recalled in an effable tone, as if he were describing, say, a lovely view of the sea. “Somewhere in Macedonia, where we were generally treated very badly by the police, they herded us on to some buses which took us to the Serbian border. The entire region was full of refugees.”

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

After a few more days trek, they reached Belgrade. “We all slept in the park. Belgrade, too, is flooded with refugees. But for us, that was actually a good thing, since we managed to get all the information we needed on how to safely cross the Hungarian border,” Ali continued.

In Belgrade, our band of refugees learned there were several viable options for reaching Hungary. The first option was a so-called ‘unaided’ journey, meaning travelling by themselves. The route itself was clearly defined and there was plenty of useful information on how to maximize one’s chances. But since the situation at the border was so unpredictable, this was considered to be the riskiest choice. The alternative was to entrust one’s fate to the professionals, the human traffickers organizing the trip from the cities of northern Vojvodina (like Subotica, Kanjiža, Horgoš) to Hungary and then onward to Austria and Germany. One could even take a taxi from the Hungarian border directly to Vienna, which, according to our sources, would set one back €400. The entire package deal for getting from Serbia to Austria costs somewhere in the neighborhood of €1,500. For the Syrian refugees, the cost of all available options is about three times higher than for the rest. Traffickers consider them to be much wealthier than, for example, Afghans.

To really grasp their predicament, one needs to keep in mind that they are always facing a very real possibility of getting arrested, and that many of them have already spent most of their savings in order to reach Serbia. A large number of them got mugged, either by local criminals, their fellow refugees or even by the police. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of solidarity between different groups of refugees – say between the Syrian and Afghan ones. Sadly, it is quite the contrary.

In Serbia and the wider region, the trafficking sector of the local economy has undergone a considerable boom. The basic set-up is simple, the profits are huge, and the risk is almost non-existent. This is especially so if the traffickers have done their homework and made proper arrangements with the police and the authorities, who are openly aiding refugees in crossing and leaving Serbia as swiftly as possible.

Once you get out in the field and see how things work, it could hardly be more obvious which way the wind blows.

“In Germany, they’re sure to help us” 

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Right after the war started, Ali lost his job in a privately owned company, yet he decided to stick it out in Azaz. In the summer of 2012, the Free Syrian Army gained control of the city for a while, then the Islamic extremists took over. In a flash, the dream of the Syrian revolution became but a tragic memory. What started out as an insurgency against the ruling regime degenerated into a brutal civil war. Countless people started fleeing the devastated country.

“I’m glad that I’m not married and that I don’t have any children. It is so much easier for me this way,” he explained, reflected a common sentiment among young refugees, as we proceeded towards the small Vojvodinian village of Mortanoš, the last notable settlement before the Hungarian border. “Most members of my family had fled to Turkey and decided to stay there. I, on the other hand, am young and I’ve had a good education. I’m going to do everything I can to get a job so I can take care of my parents.”

Where? “I want to go to Germany… In Germany, they’re sure to take us in and help us – after all, we’re refugees, we come from Syria,” he said, with perhaps unfounded optimism.

Like most members of this tattered little group, Ali was growing increasingly cheerful with every step closer to the border. As we entered Mortanoš, the entire group decided to rest. The women sat down on the grass, the children were visibly tired. The men took to discussing the optimal route for this final phase of the Serbian crossing. The local plum trees were quickly being relieved of fruit; it was getting darker by the minute. The refugees knew very well they were approaching the critical part of the journey. Only a little more than 4km were now separating them from the European Union. A gentle breeze picked up over the Pannonian plains.

“What can we do? Like everyone everywhere, we only have one wish. To live in peace. To be safe. Look how lovely this place is. It is so peaceful and quiet. There are fruit trees everywhere,” described Rami enthusiastically. “The people leave us alone, and there is plenty of water. I could certainly live here. You know, right now this seems like a paradise from my dreams.” It was obvious that Rami was getting a little carried away, but how could anyone blame him? With every kilometer, he was becoming less of an attention-starved showman and more of an excited little boy.

Basic human decency

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

At the village’s outer edge, the refugees were approached by a merry-looking elderly fellow, who offered them water from the hose in his garage. The Syrians were visibly confused. As the village dogs’ barking approached a crescendo, they kept exchanging glances. The last few years have made them forget what basic human decency felt like. For them, it had become the exception that proved the rule.

After a few moments, one of the refugees handed out an empty plastic bottle to the old Serbian. Then the others slowly followed suit. Bashful yet profoundly grateful smiles were spreading over their faces as the older man used one hand to pour the water and the other to shoo away the mosquitoes.

“You need to follow the river,” the hospitable local told them in place of a goodbye. “But not up on the banks, you need to go as low down as possible, otherwise the police can spot you. But I haven’t seen them here today…. Here, take some more plums.”

“But you need to be very careful, okay? Good luck to you,” the old man added in parting.

It is very easy to lose one’s faith in humanity. It is infinitely harder to regain it.

As we pushed on, a hush fell over the group. The closer we got to the border, the more the refugees were instinctively huddling together. One of the marching men took hold of his three-year-old daughter and put her on his shoulders. The group’s one elderly man was getting noticeably short of breath but – with the help of a sturdy wooden stick – he somehow still managed to keep pace with the rest. One of the refugees took out a tattered copy of the Quran and started to pray. The sun was slowly setting far away on the horizon. To our right, we could see a stretch of dense boggy forest and the Tisa river. To our left, there was haystack-strewn grassland, a few distant hamlets and the road leading to the official border crossings and further on toward Subotica. The evening light was growing softer as we trekked on to the soundtrack of dogs barking in the distance. Every now and then, we could see a stork touch down in a nearby field. For this particular band of migrants, these were all scenes of Xanadu-like tranquility. A perfect illusion.

“To be honest, I have no idea where we are. I hope we’re on the right track. We really need to hurry. We have to reach Hungary tonight. Once we get across the border we need to avoid being caught by the police. If that happens, we could lose a few weeks,” Rami pointed, his voice growing ever more quiet. “Our group would get broken up, and we also need to avoid getting fingerprinted. That would mean that, even when we reach Germany, they could simply send us back to Hungary at any time. No one here wants to stay in Hungary. Personally, I would much rather stay in Serbia because the people were nicest to us there. Everywhere else we were treated like criminals.”

In Europe, he told me, he is eager to get work – any sort of work at all, as long as it would help him live in peace and safety. Ali, the blue-eyed engineer, felt exactly the same way. Both of them had had their share of the savagery of war. All they wanted was for the people of their new homeland to show a little understanding.

The members of the group weren’t entirely clear on where they needed to veer off into the forest to avoid getting caught by the police. The border itself was rather poorly marked – in some places, there were no noticeable markings at all. And so the group decided to simply follow the tracks left by their predecessors. A trail of discarded objects led them onward. And at the precise moment when their doubts about having chosen the right path were turning critical, two local cyclists drove by down the nearby embankment. Opening their backpacks, the two men distributed a number of plastic water bottles “for the children” and relayed the vital information that the border was now only a 10-minute walk away.

“Simply follow the river all the way. We haven’t seen a single policeman,” one of the cyclists said to encourage them before their imminent ordeal.

Hungarian border patrol

We moved on. In the distance, we could already see the ramp marking the border area where movement is strictly prohibited. Heavy dusk was falling over us, bringing anxiety to the faces of the advancing refugees. The mosquitoes were now out in full force. The women conferred among themselves and decided to make the children put on an additional layer of clothing. The men – many of them had fled their country to another continent with only a small sporty knapsack on their shoulder – were putting the final touches to the group’s strategy. Many of their phones were starting to malfunction.

We crossed the dark Serbian-Hungarian border in complete silence. Only a few steps past the first Hungarian boundary stone the group came to a halt.

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Rami put down his backpack and carefully set out on a reconnaissance mission – some hundred meters ahead, he detected a border patrol. He could identify one car and four policemen interrogating a small group of refugees. Two portable toilets were standing next to the police vehicle like some sort of mirage. Business as usual? It was clear that the mere four Hungarian policemen would be unable to stop our group of refugees. We had heard that the border guards often turn a blind eye. Despite the fact that the government had undertaken the huge anti-humanitarian project of putting up the wall, the Hungarian policemen are mostly treating the refugees with fairness and even respect.

But this was, of course, not something the group could definitively rely on. The moment of truth was fast approaching. Anxiety and even plain fear were returning to the refugees’ faces. They had long learned that the combination of borders and uniforms can mean the difference between life and death for them. The anxiety and terror on their faces was thus a matter of pure reflexes, and in such situations, reason is always trailing far behind. The night had fallen, but the moon was mercilessly illuminating the exhausted faces. The refugees quickly slipped into the nearby forest, from which one could hear clear signs of life. As you would expect, our group of refugees wasn’t the only one preparing for the final push into the heart of Europe. We were now on Hungarian soil. All the refugees needed to do to complete this crucial stage on their long journey was to evade the patrol. The children ate a few cookies and plums from their mothers’ backpacks. The rest drank some water. They were all waiting for Rami’s sign.

We bade them farewell.

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Omar Sharif: Actor without borders

 
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By Khaled Diab

The late Omar Sharif was living, breathing, walking proof that there is nothing inherently irreconcilable between the Middle East and the West.

Sharif-Zhivago

Friday 24 July 2015

In a world where the most famous Arabs in the West tend to be infamous, Omar Sharif was like a breath of fresh air. For a young Egyptian growing up in London, he was a welcome and flamboyant distraction from the popular stereotypes of the Arab: oil sheikh, fanatic or terrorist.

Although he was more famous for playing bridge than for acting when I was growing up, the aura of his legendary silver screen persona from the 1960s still mesmerised people. Buoyed by his off-screen playboy lifestyle, easy charm, dashing good looks and disarming honesty, Sharif remained a household name, no matter how many mediocre films he made for a quick buck to pay off his gambling debts.

Sharif-LawrenceSharif’s big international break was in the universally acclaimed epic Lawrence of Arabia. Casting him as a traditional Arab tribal leader was a bizarre choice. Omar Sharif grew up among the upper crust of cosmopolitan Alexandria and Cairo, where his modern upbringing was probably more “western” than that of many Westerners.

He attended Victoria College, a British school, where he rose to become the head boy and a prefect. The late Palestinian-American scholar and activist Edward Said also went to the same school, where he lived in terror of the older boy’s “entrenched authoritarianism” and in admiration of his acting talent on the school stage.

Meanwhile, Sharif Ali, the character Omar Sharif portrayed, was a fictional and generic amalgamation of the Arab sheikhs TE Lawrence aided during the Arab revolt, who made what is widely regarded as the most spectacular cinematic entrance in history.

Despite the romantic and exotic orientalism of Lawrence of Arabia, Omar Sharif’s great strength was that he did not allow himself to get typecast as a celluloid Arab – whether the “noble” desert Bedouin or the more common Hollywood staple, the “reel bad” Arab villain.

In his 1960s heyday, Sharif played a Spanish priest, a Yugoslav patriot fighting the Nazis and even Genghis Khan, which was panned by one critic as being “no closer to history than Omar Sharif is to being a Mongolian”. Sharif has even played a German. “Can you believe an Egyptian playing a German? Hitler turns in his grave at this,” Sharif once joked in an interview.

But the most famous non-Arab he portrayed has to be the dreamy and exceedingly romantic Russian Doctor Zhivago.

A polyglot who spoke five languages but didn’t have a mother tongue, Omar Sharif was not just a cinematic icon. With his ability to glide between cultures, he was also a symbol of an easy-going multiculturalism. He was living, breathing, walking proof that there is nothing inherently irreconcilable between the Middle East and the West, that the cultural divergence within them is greater than that between them.

Sharif, the first Egyptian and Arab to conquer Hollywood, not only challenged western clichés, he also undermined stereotypes in Egypt and the Arab world, and stood as a symbol of a vanishing cosmopolitan era of greater mobility and tolerance.

Born Michel Chalhoub, he was not just the son of Egypt but also of the Levant. His Lebanon-born father was a well-to-do Greek Catholic merchant who settled in Alexandria, while his mother was of Syrian-Lebanese extraction.

Sharif-HamamaUpon embarking on his film career, Chalhoub changed his name to Omar Sharif, partly because his father was ashamed of his career choice and partly to give himself an easier name for Egyptian audiences to recall. He soon ostensibly adopted the religion to match his new name when he fell in love with Egyptian silver screen legend Faten Hamama on the set of his first film, the classic Sira’ Fil Wadi (Struggle in the Valley), and converted to marry her.

And like Lawrence of Arabia, Sharif’s first film in Egypt – the Arab Hollywood – was a mega-hit, though his casting in it also diverged from his real-life circumstances. In Struggle in the Valley, Sharif plays the son of a farmer caught in a passionate love affair symbolising the class struggle. In reality, Sharif grew up in a bourgeois household frequented by King Farouq, who played cards with his mother.

But Omar Sharif never became involved in overtly political art nor activism. Perhaps as a function of his complex and varied background, upbringing and career, he never sought to be a symbol for or representative of anyone.

He was a lover of the good life who was prone to overindulgence, especially when it came to his many affairs and to gambling. The side effect of this was that he lost many of the dearest things in his life, including his marriage to Hamama, and  led a rootless existence for long years living out of hotel rooms around the world. “I’ve been forced to live like a Bedouin,” he once said.

Sharif was also unapologetic about his multiple cultural influences and lifestyle choices, and never tried to fit into a particular cultural template. He didn’t seek assimilation in the West nor did he strive for a return to Arab authenticity when he came back to Egypt. “I am very western in culture and very eastern in temperament,” he once described.

This uncompromising individualism sometimes landed him in hot water, such as when he became romantically involved with Jewish-American superstar Barbra Streisand, known for her staunch support of Israel. Sharif’s response to allegations of treachery levelled against him in the Arab press was disarmingly simple and straightforward: “Neither in my professional nor in my private life do I ask a girl her nationality or her religion before I kiss her.”

Cinematically, Sharif’s silver years were better than the dry middle decades of his career, though, in his self-effacing honesty, he did not believe that age brought with it wisdom. He produced a number of Western and Arab films of worth, including The 13th Warrior, Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran, al-Aragouz (The Puppet Show), and al-Muwatin Masri (The Citizen is Egyptian).

It is a shame that he will no longer produce films of such calibre. But given his hit-and-miss career and his uneven acting abilities, it will not be Omar Sharif the artist that the world will miss the most.

It will be Omar Sharif, the person. In these times of growing polarisation, hardening cultural identities, the mindless quest for “authenticity” and fake civilisational clashes, we desperately need an Omar Sharif to glide effortlessly and elegantly through the allegedly impassable cultural barriers which supposedly separate us.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 11 July 2015.

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Greek islands: No holiday in the sun for Syrian refugees

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

Kos is straining under the influx of Syrian refugees.  Though locals are hospitable, the refugees are desperate to move on but where or how eludes them.

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Tuesday 23 June 2015

Over the past couple of months, the Eastern Aegean islands have become the main gateway for the refugees and the immigrants seeking entrance into the European Union. The mere few kilometres separating the Greek islands from the Turkish coast have long been one of the Turkish traffickers’ favourite approaches, while the sheer volume of people making their escape to a hoped-for better life has never been greater.

“You know the most devastating irony of all? That we have to pay one thousand euros to get from Bodrum to Kos, while the return trip costs the tourists only €10,” said Amir Obada, a thirty-year-old Syrian standing with me in the shade cast by the abandoned hotel Captain Elias on the outskirts of the Greek island of Kos.

Amir comes from the famous Christian town of Malula in Syria, where a bitter struggle between government forces, the Islamic State, various insurgent militias and armed groups of local Christians has been taking place for the past few years.

When the war broke out, Amir was just finishing his studies in chemistry. His father was one of the professors at the Malula university, which got shut down on account of the fighting. As a devout pacifist, Amir refused to pick up a rifle. Staying home, he assured me, was not an option. His family home got shredded in the crossfire. And so he set off for Turkey and then to one of the Eastern Aegean islands, where a serious humanitarian crises has been developing over the past few months.

The Greek authorities found themselves unprepared for such a massive inflow of people. So far this year, the island of Kos alone has seen the arrival of some 7,500 migrants and refugees – six times more than was the case over the same period in 2014. Most of them had come in from Syria and Afghanistan. During the second half of May and the first days of June, Kos – still much favoured by tourists from all over the world – was in a state of turmoil. Anywhere between 100 and 500 people were arriving daily by rubber dinghies and small sailboats from the Turkish coast.

One of them was Amir Obada, who set off on his journey accompanied by five of his friends and relatives from Syria. At the time of our interview, he was sharing a small room with them in the squalid, abandoned hotel with no electricity and no functioning toilet facilities.

Walk west

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

“I’m so glad I’m safe. I don’t know what else to say. These last two years I’ve seen some things that, well… I still can’t believe I managed to escape the war,” Amir confesses. “But I can’t help thinking about my parents and relatives who are still in Syria – I think about them all the time. Unlike most of my travelling companions, I’m not married and I don’t have any children. In a time of war, that is a huge advantage.”

Amir proudly produced his ticket for the evening ferry to Athens. The Greek authorities – at least partly because of the approaching peak of the tourist season – had recently introduced the so-called fast-track for Syrian refugees. This means that the people arriving daily aren’t given too much hassle. After they reach Athens, they are issued with a permit for a six-month stay, which can later mostly be renewed without great difficulty.

None of the many refugees I talked to wished to remain in Greece. They understood all too well that the country is in a state of profound crisis, and that things can only get worse. “I had to leave behind my wife and four children – they’re waiting for me in the countryside near Damascus. I promised them that, once I reached Europe, I would do everything in my power to help them join me,” Muhammad Issa, 45, told me, as he sat in a cramped room filled with old mattresses, tattered blankets and empty plastic water bottles. “Yes, I know it’s going to be very hard. But I simply couldn’t have brought them along on such a dangerous journey. It was too risky. And the children were too small.”

Some two and a half years ago, a similar task – getting his loved ones safely out of Syria – was undertaken by Yassin Sinno, 26. He somehow managed to escape Malula and reach London through Turkey. The British authorities approved his request for asylum. Earning his living as a waiter in a coffee shop in Yorkshire, he is now free to travel all over the European Union. He came to the island of Kos to pick up his brothers Mahmmoud and Hussein, who had sailed here in the same boat as Amir Obada.

“I can’t describe my joy at seeing them again… It was God’s will that we met again, and we all cried,” Yassin grinned, going on to describe how he had arranged his two brothers’ entire trip from Syria to Greece. The goal now is to get to Athens and seek out one of the more competent ‘contacts’ who can get his siblings further on their way. The official routes toward Great Britain are out of the question. At this time, the only remotely tenable way out of Greece and on to Western Europe is the extremely dangerous and arduous walk through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary.

Muhammad Issa managed to reach Greece on his second attempt. The first time around he was caught by the Turkish police. He was thrown in jail for two days and was then released. In Bodrum and all over the nearby coastal cities in Turkey, where the trafficking trade is booming, this is more or less a matter of routine. “There were 44 of us on the rubber boat. It was very dangerous. We went out around midnight. The trip only took two and a half hours,” Muhammed recalled in the ruined hotel. “I was very scared, because I can’t swim. When we got to Kos, they took us in with decency and kindness. It’s just that here, where we are now stationed, things are quite unbearable. But tonight we’re moving on.”

Amir Obada didn’t have a clear (geographical) destination in front of him. He was more than willing to go anywhere where he could continue his studies in chemistry. His country of choice would be Sweden, yet he knew all too well that this choice, for him, might prove to be an unattainable luxury. He was prepared, he said, to start from scratch. In order to reach Greece he had had to invest a great deal of his savings. This is the reason why on arriving to Kos, like most of his friends and companions, he took up lodgings in the filthy and dilapidated ruin on the outskirts of Hippocrates’ town.

In front of the main building, a few Afghan teenagers were kicking around a somewhat deflated football. On a meadow nearby, a pair of cows were grazing in the sun, while a number of Pakistani men were lying in the shade.

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

On a platform in front of what remains of the hotel, the local authorities have set up a system of pipes providing the residents with drinkable water. This was where the refugees could also wash and shave. As I strolled by, some of them were washing their clothes and mending the decrepit shoes that still needed to get them over the long trek to Central Europe.

“I’m not used to living like this,” Amir frowned at me.  “Until the war, we lived very well back home in Syria. I have to admit that the people here greeted us kindly, but there are no resources to be spared for us refugees.” Amir chose his rundown lodgings in order to save money. “I’ll need every coin I got to get me further off into Europe. I have decided to walk,” he informs me. “I intend to cross Macedonia and Serbia to get to Hungary. Once there, I will probably take a train through Austria all the way to Germany. To be honest, I don’t have much choice.”

Good Samaritans

As he told me of his plans, Amir’s comrades were nodding their silent agreement. No one among them was able to produce anything resembling a clear-cut plan. They were hoping for one of the target European countries to grant them asylum. As of yet, no one had informed them how to apply or even what basic rights had been accorded to them. In general, the presence of the international humanitarian outfits on the island of Kos was much too scarce for comfort. The necessary infrastructure for helping the migrants and refugees was virtually non-existent. For the most part, these tormented souls were depending on the help of local good Samaritans. For the most basic medical support, a small itinerant band of Doctors without Borders (MSF) was on hand to provide assistance.

“The island was completely unprepared for such a crisis. The sheer number of incoming people is staggering. And it is only likely to get bigger. The smugglers’ routes have been changed. Right now, the Eastern Aegean islands are the most popular location. Kos, Lesbos, Leros, Samos… The Greek authorities are trying to help, but they themselves are struggling under some pretty heavy loads. There’s no infrastructure here to help us help these poor people. So we had to improvise,” explains Aggelos Kallinis, the local UNHCR representative, who was speaking to me in front of the local police station, where hundreds of people were waiting every day to obtain the permits enabling them to proceed to Athens. “We’ve managed to enlist the help of the local community, some NGOs and a number of local volunteers. Surprisingly, many of them have risen to the occasion, but the situation is still rough, very rough.”

All-inclusive solidarity

©Boštjan Videmšek

©Boštjan Videmšek

On a daily basis, the Kos Solidarity volunteer group comes to the Captain Elias ‘hotel’ to distribute food, clothes, shoes and items of basic hygiene. When these local Samaritans – Sofia (a primary school teacher), Elena (a doctor), Alexander (a primary school teacher) and Jorgos (a businessman) – arrive to bring the refugees their one daily meal, a huge cheer can be heard from far away. The children, some of them not even ten years old, cling hard to the visiting humanitarian workers who can barely control the surges of the starving crowd. Under the vicious sun, the locals keep handing out the food prepared especially for the migrants in the kitchens of some of the nearby hotels.

There is plenty of food, enough to last the whole day. A tremendous gratitude can be felt emanating from the crowd, but also a great sense of shame. At home, these people weren’t used to living off their fellow humans’ pity. Quite the contrary. The Syrians and the Afghans come from arguably two of the most hospitable countries in the world. My long years of war reporting have taught me that a country’s hospitality usually bears a direct correlation to the scope of the tragedies experienced by the country’s population.

 

A tired man in his mid-forties, flanked by four of his six children, was observing the distribution of food from a distance. Visibly anxious, he obviously wanted to reach out and get his fair share, yet his pride wouldn’t let him. “I come from the Golan Heights, right near the Israeli border. Sometime before the war I moved to a suburb of Damascus, where I started a small business. I was doing very well. I built myself a big house and got married. Everything was fine. I had a good life,” Bilal informed me rather angrily.

During the first two years of war, not much trouble came to his neighbourhood, but his business slowly ground to a halt. About a year ago, his house got razed in the fighting. “The Free Syrian Army and the government forces were fighting for control of our mahala. A bomb was thrown directly on my house,” he recalled. “I don’t know who dropped that bomb, and frankly I don’t care. Me, my wife and six children – we got out of there as fast as we could.”

By now, there was a distinct tremble to Bilal’s voice. He landed on Kos last Friday. Huddled at the hotel with his family, he was waiting to proceed towards Athens, and then… And then? “I don’t know. I don’t have a plan. My only goal is to for us to be free and to be safe. To get where we are now, we had to spend quite a lot of money. The trip took twenty-two days,” he described.

“From Syria, we went to Lebanon, then we flew to Turkey. We had to pay off a huge number of people. You know that merely to go from Turkey to Greece by boat you have to pay one thousand euros per person,” Bilal continued. “I mean, of course we would like to move on! Maybe to Germany or even Scandinavia. But I know it’s going to be very hard. I want to find work. I have a lot of skills and experience.”

As I talked to Bilal, his wife and two youngest children lingered in the cold room of the abandoned hotel. The lady didn’t feel very well. Some time ago, she underwent a complicated and dangerous operation. Breast cancer had taken a visible toll, yet she still managed to endure the risky and exhausting journey to freedom. “I can’t wait for my [wife] to get well, so we can all relax and start living again,” Bilal said quietly: “Inshallah, God willing!” He was still making a strong effort not to join the line formed by his fellow refugees waiting for food.

Absolute uncertainty

In the hot Aegean mid-afternoon, a pair of young Syrian girls were simultaneously leaning against a wall and against each other. They had been doing their best not to fall asleep, but their exhaustion had finally prevailed. Sleeping, they were breathing in unison, with their mouths open, joined at the hip as if they were Siamese twins.

But the trauma of everything these two little girls had been through was etched deeply onto their young, sleeping faces.

Only a few hours before, they had arrived in Kos at the break of dawn in a rubber dinghy, along with their parents and a number of other Syrian refugees. “Hey, do you need a room? A hotel? Cheap – very cheap!” an older local woman accosted the family as they stood waiting in line in front of the police station. The two sleeping girls’ parents hesitated for a moment. As to their immediate future, they had very little relevant information to go on, even though they had been waiting in the crowd since early morning.

“Only for one night? Just to get some rest? We want to move on as soon as we can, madam,” the father replied and gently woke his daughters. Once they stopped propping each other, they nearly collapsed from exhaustion. Their mother gave them a warm hug.

They then scooped up their pitiful possessions and followed the Greek woman’s lead.

This “lucky” family may have managed to escape the bloodiest conflict of our time, and they may have just passed the major mark of having successfully landed in the EU. But their future was still heartbreakingly uncertain.

____

Follow  Boštjan Videmšek on Twitter

His website is: bostjanvidemsek.com

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The empire must not strike back

 
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By Khaled Diab

Nostalgia for empire in the Middle East misses two points: we’re not witnessing the “final end of imperialism” and imperialism did not bring order.

Deposed Sultan Mehmed VI leaves for exile as the Ottoman Sultanate is abolished in 1922.

Deposed Sultan Mehmed VI leaves for exile as the Ottoman Sultanate is abolished in 1922.

Thursday 11 June 2015

When it comes to the Middle East, nostalgia politics is in vogue. While ISIS is busy “restoring” an a-historical caliphate, others are pining for the apparently lost innocence of empire.

Robert Kaplan expressed profound admiration for the supposed benefits that empire brought to the Middle East and some other parts of the world. “Imperialism bestowed order, however retrograde it may have been,” the intellectual who was named by Foreign Policy as one of the world’s top 100 global thinker in 2011 declared in the same magazine.

This supposed world-beating thinker seems convinced that “the age-old clusters of civilisations” has immunised Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt to the worst excesses of the current upheavals. Kaplan fails to answer why it is that, if this were so, the region’s most ancient cluster of civilisations, namely Syria and Iraq, are currently experiencing the most devastating tumult, while civilisation’s traditional backwaters of the Gulf are, at least superficially, relatively stable, for now.

At a certain level, I can understand Kaplan’s nostalgia for the Ottoman, and before it Roman, empire. After all, despite their ancestors’ painful divorce from the Ottomans, some Arabs shared in Turkey’s new sense of “Ottomania” – at least when Erdogan was still considered an Arab hero.

And at its best, the Ottoman empire was a de-centralised empire of relative local autonomy, marked by tolerance, prosperity, multiculturalism and, hard as it is to imagine today, a borderless space not unlike the modern European Union. The Tanzimat of the mid-19th century, among other things, created a common citizenship, erased ethnic and religious inequality and even decriminalised homosexuality, though they marked the beginning of more direct rule.

The Ottoman empire’s status as the “sick man of Europe” infected all its provinces and its strident and toxic form of Turkic nationalism – epitomised by the Young Turks, who introduced democracy to the Ottoman empire but then briskly withdrew it – did not lead to stability but catastrophe.

The “Three Pashas” in charge not only disastrously decided to join World War I, precipitating the collapse of the empire, they also engaged in a fit of bloodlust against the Armenians that makes ISIS look like amateurs.

The region’s new imperial management did not fare much better. Though the British and the French accelerated the region’s modernising impulse, they only paid lip service to the vaunted values of modernity, and hardly brought the stability Kaplan so values.

The great distance from and the lack of shared history with their subjects resulted in a callous disregard for their needs. This was reflected in everything from the Sykes-Picot arbitrary drawing of borders and the brutal suppression of regular uprisings to the imperial assumption that the region’s resources were the sole property of London and Paris.

Likewise, independence and post-colonial leaders promises of freedom were dashed when the foreign elites that had previously ruled were largely replaced by, in many ways, an equally “foreign” domestic elite, who looked and spoke like the “liberated” populations but behaved like their former masters.

Arabs originally saw America as an ally and kindred spirit for its apparent support for national self-determination and opposition to Anglo-French hegemony in the region. But instead the US largely replaced the direct rule of its predecessors, with the client-state model in which those who behaved could literally get away with murder, while local leaders seen to step out of line were “contained” or eliminated.

“The meltdown we see in the Arab world today… is really about the final end of imperialism,” Kaplan claims.

I expect this declaration to go the same way as Francis Fukuyama’s the “end of history” or George W Bush’s “mission accomplished”, i.e. into the dustbin of history. Moreover, this nostalgia for past empire, like the clash of civilisations theory, not only misdiagnoses the disease but also prescribes the wrong medicine.

“The demonstrably hands-off approach to these developments by President Barack Obama manifests the end of America’s great power role in organising and stabilising the region,” Kaplan writes wistfully… and wishfully.

Any level-headed analysis of the US’s decades-long involvement in the Middle East will conclude that Washington has done little to organise and stabilise the region. From its traditional role of propping up “friendly” dictators and autocrats and its subversion of numerous independence movements, to its disastrous decision to return to the era of military invasion and direct rule in Iraq, Washington has been a major contributor to regional chaos and instability.

Far from marking the “end of imperialism”, what we are witnessing today, a century after the implosion of the Ottoman empire, is its resurgence. In this new scramble for the Middle East, we are witnessing the petty sultans of the region’s crumbling states trying to hold on to their micro-empires; non-state armed groups trying to usurp them; Iran and the emerging powers of the Gulf seeking to expand their spheres of influence; and America’s longstanding hegemony being challenged by the new-old kid on the block, Russia, and newcomer China.

As the old order collapses, perhaps the Middle East does needs a new “imperial” age, but along the lines of a people’s empire. Just like the member states of the European Union decided voluntarily and democratically to unite territory that had only ever been integrated through conquest, the peoples of the Middle East could benefit greatly if the current conflicts and crises push them towards a voluntary union of equals.

However, at every geopolitical strata, there are currently too many enemies stacked against such an endeavour. But just as the EU would have appeared to be a delusional fantasy during World War II, perhaps this indicates that there is hope for our troubled region yet.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 29 May 2015.

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A ‘War on Error’ against radical anti-Islam

 
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By Khaled Diab

Given how many New Atheists, Christian fundamentalists and neo-cons share a distorted view of Islam and Muslims, it’s high time for a War on Error 

Tuesday 19 May 2015

What do the high priests of “New Atheism”, Christian fundamentalists and neo-conservatives have in common?

Though this may sound like the opening line to a joke, the punchline is actually not terribly funny, especially given its dire consequences. Even though New Atheists feel contempt for Christian fundamentalists, both parties share a deep distrust and a profound misunderstanding of Islam and the Muslim world.

This was amply illustrated in a recent e-mail exchange in which the well-known neuroscientist and New Atheist Sam Harris decided, uninvited, to pick an intellectual fight with America’s leading political dissident, the scholar Noam Chomsky. After reading the debate, I was left with the impression that Harris has a knack for speaking truth to the powerless, while Chomsky follows the true path of the dissident, of speaking truth to power.

Given how broad and, hence dangerous, these misperceptions are, I believe it is high time that we launch a “War on Rrror” to spread the values of sensibility and common sense.

Moral equivalence and moral relativism

One of the most popular methods used by some New Atheists – and which they paradoxically share with neo-cons and Christian fundamentalists – is to slam what they regard as the “moral (or ethical) relativism” of the presumably self-hating left and multiculturalists.

As someone with powerful humanist convictions, I would love nothing more than to live in a world in which the universal values of individual human rights, equality and tolerance of others are the norms.

However, my experience is that those who inveigh the loudest against “moral relativism” are the first to invoke it in the form of “moral equivalence”. When people like me try to use the same ethical yardstick for all, they explicitly or implicitly invoke American or Western exceptionalism.

Take Sam Harris, who employs both concepts in his exchange with Chomsky. He defends torture, which contravenes the universal values he claims to uphold, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as something that “may be an ethical necessity in our war on terror,” yet issues wholesale condemnations of the “cruelty,” “barbarity” and “approach to criminal justice” of Muslim society.

“Any honest witness to current events will realise that there is no moral equivalence between the kind of force civilised democracies project in the world, warts and all, and the internecine violence that is perpetrated by Muslim militants, or indeed by Muslim governments.,” Harris writes in his 2004 The End of Faith,” an excerpt he includes as part of the email debate with Chomsky .

In this, he sounds like prominent neo-cons and Cold War warriors. During the Reagan era, for instance, US ambassador to the UN Jeane Kirkpatrick penned a scathing article in which she attacked what she claimed was the “myth of moral equivalence” between America and the Soviet Union.

Though Harris, a supporter of the Iraq war, repeatedly ignored Chomsky’s question about what he made of George W Bush’s belief that God guided him to invade Iraq and his description of the war there as a “Crusade”, forutnately, not all the intellectual leaders of New Atheism are so disingenuous. To his credit, Richard Dawkins was an outspoken and staunch opponent of perhaps the largest and deadliest military folly of this young century. “George Bush is a catastrophe for the world. And a dream for Bin Laden,” he concluded in no uncertain terms, at the time.

Shackled minds and the liberation of thought

“The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: those with brains but no religion, and those with religion but no brains.”

The citation above may sound like it was uttered by Richard Dawkins but it is actually a quotation taken from Abu al-Ala’ al-Ma’arri (973-1057), the blind Syrian poet, philosopher, rationalist and hermit who was both a vegetarian and an early advocate of extreme birth control, i.e. not having children.

Despite his strident and uncompromising atheism, the Syrian was a highly respected scholar of his day, who is still admired in Syria, and lived to the ripe old age of 84. His life and ideas, as well as that of numerous other Arab and Muslim intellectuals throughout the ages, eloquently expresses how Islam and free thought are not necessarily incompatible, as many modern critics claim, and how this tradition continues into the modern day, despite the conservative backlash.

Equally eloquently, the posthumous beheading of statues and busts of al-Maari by the Nusra Front show how far modern-day jihadists and Islamists have strayed from this spirit of tolerance and acceptance, and how al-Maari was better off in the Syria of the 10th century than that of the 21st.

Islam, the root of all evil

Though he lived a millennium earlier, al-Ma’arri differed from New Atheism’s high priests in one significant respect – he regarded all religions, prophets and scriptures as being equally “fabrications” and “idle tales”. In contrast, some of his contemporary counterparts possess an inexplicable soft spot for their own religious heritage.

“I regard Islam as one of the great evils in the world,” self-described “secular Christian” Dawkins contends because “there is a belief that every word of the Quran is literally true.”

While I agree that this is highly problematic, Dawkins conveniently glosses over the fact that a quarter of the citizens of the world’s most powerful nation believes the Bible should be taken literally and another half believes it to be the word of God.

Sadly, Dawkins’ view of Islam as the greatest evil echoes that of the lunatic Christian right in America, and has an ancient pedigree in Christian thought. For instance, prominent evangelist Franklin Graham shortly after 9/11, who repeatedly described Islam as “wicked and evil”. “I don’t believe this is a wonderful, peaceful religion” and “It wasn’t Methodists flying into those buildings, it wasn’t Lutherans.” Among evangelical Christians, 52% believe that “Islam is essentially a violent religion,” according to a 2013 poll.

Both Dawkins and Franklin, despite their undoubted mutual contempt, seem to draw from the same ancient roots of mutual distrust and rivalry between Christianity and Islam, eloquently illustrated by Dante’s Divine Comedy, where Muhammad is so evil that he must occupy the lowest circle of hell, where he suffers unspeakable torture. Likewise, far too many Muslims are convinced that there is a Christian crusade against Islam, which is clearly untrue.

Though it would be wonderful if all Christians were like a good-natured and eccentric Vicar of Dibley, the truth is that away from the West, wide-scale death and destruction have been wrought in the name of Christianity, from the ISIS of Christendom, the Lord’s Resistance Army, to the carnage of the anti-condom movement in Africa.

Fortunately, the New Atheists’ distorted views of Islam do not accurately reflect the views of the people for whom they are presumed to speak, given that just 20% of people who claim no faith or are agnostic believe that Islam is violent, according to the same Barna Group poll cited above. Similarly, the poll found that 62% of evangelical Christians have an unfavourable perception of Islam, compared with just 7 percent of agnostics or people with no faith.

Dreams of Nirvana

As a further sign of Dawkins’s religious naivety and that of  many others, great geographical distance seems to have warped people’s view of “Eastern religions”. “Hinduism and Buddhism offer much more sophisticated worldviews (or philosophies) and I see nothing wrong with these religions,” Dawkins claims, apparently oblivious to the deadly effects of Hindu and Buddhist violent nationalist and fundamentalist movements.

If even Buddhism, widely perceived as the true “religion of peace”, can be exploited for the purposes of hate, intolerance and persecution, this reveals an important truth: religions are faulty and imperfect, but so is the human condition.

What this suggests is that if Islam (and religion as a whole) died out tomorrow, we would not necessarily reach a state of enlightened secular Nirvana. The godless utopia could easily turn into a dystopia as well, as the Soviet experiment taught us.

Any ideology, even rationalism and atheism, can be twisted for the political gain of the few and to inflict unbelievable pain and suffering on the many.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 14 May 2015.

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War and peace in the Middle East and Europe

 
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Europe’s history of total war and mass displacement can help create more sympathy for today’s refugees and keep hope alive in the Middle East.

Like today's refugees, Belgians fleeing World War I often took to the sea in overcrowded boats.

Like today’s refugees, Belgians fleeing World War I often took to the sea in overcrowded boats.

Tuesday 28 April 2015

Some 800 refugees lost their lives in the Mediterranean sea last week. While this has prompted calls for the European Union to do more to deal with the refugee crisis created by the current turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, voices on the far-right have demanded that Europe do less.

Among them was Katie Hopkins, a popular columnist with UK tabloid The Sun, who has over half-a-million followers on Twitter. Shortly before the latest tragedy, she wrote a column in which she described these migrants as “cockroaches” and “feral humans,” suggesting outrageously: “What we need are gunships sending these boats back to their own country.”

On social media, the reactions were even more shocking and disgraceful. Supporters of the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom), or PVV, founded by the anti-immigrant firebrand Geert Wilders, expressed stomach-churning euphoria and ecstasy at the tragedy.

“600 fewer benefits,” one rejoiced.

“Good so. The more who drown, the fewer the problems,” another volunteered.

“Now the seabed is even more polluted,” joked yet another.

Judging by this small sample of comments, what has actually hit rock bottom are the moral compasses of many Dutch people and Europeans

Despite the clear racism of these comments, the European anti-immigrant right wing in general also taps into deep-seated public anxiety towards the violent upheavals and conflicts taking place in the Middle East, which many fear refugees might bring with them.

For some on the far-right, “refugees” and “asylum seekers” have become dirty words, terms of abuse and subjects of hate. While right-wing nationalists may claim to be defending their heritage and tradition, in their attitudes to refugees they are actually betraying it.

Europeans weren’t always so hostile towards those fleeing war and conflict. During World War I, the Netherlands welcomed so many refugees that the Germans saw it necessary to construct a 200-kilometre-long fence along the Belgian-Dutch border in an effort to curb the influx of Belgians pouring from the German occupation into neutral Holland.

The Wire of Death's deadly innovation claimed hundreds of Belgian victims. Source: http://www.dodendraad.org/index.php/wire-of-death

The Wire of Death’s deadly innovation claimed hundreds of Belgian victims.
Source: http://www.dodendraad.org/index.php/wire-of-death

Known as the Wire of Death, it was the world’s first-ever high-voltage electric barrier. Built at a time when Europeans were largely unaware of electricity and its attendant dangers, the fence claimed hundreds of victims who were unaware of how deadly it was or were desperate enough to risk death to cross the border.

In order to shorten the barrier’s distance, German engineers took shortcuts that left large swathes of Belgian territory stuck in the no-man’s land behind the fence. Like in the contemporary West Bank, this meant that a large number of farmers could not reach their land and many families and friends were forced to live in enforced separation. Using a system that would be familiar to modern-day Palestinians, the Germans only allowed those with hard-to-obtain passes, which excluded men aged 16 to 45, to cross the barrier.

This is a far cry from the current situation, where the Benelux countries (Belgium, Netherland and Luxembourg) are tightly integrated and even acted as a precursor and “experimental garden” for the EU. The Middle East, especially the former Ottoman Empire, has gone in the other direction. While the Levant was once largely a borderless economic and cultural area, with many mixed marriages and friendships, today many of its borders are tightly sealed, especially Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon.

Many generations on, the vast majority of Belgians, including my wife and myself, are unaware that such a deadly barrier ever existed and almost no physical signs remain. In fact, I still remember clearly the first time I “crossed” between Belgium and Holland and my wife (girlfriend, at the time) challenged me to identify the border. As the two countries flow so seamlessly into each other, I failed.

It was not just the Dutch who gave refuge to their unfortunate Belgian neighbours. Even though Britain is famed for its oft-isolationist island mentality, it was, during World War I, home to a quarter of a million Belgian refugees, many of whom were housed in purpose-built villages.

Unlike today’s image of asylum seekers as being spongers and cheats, these refugees were regarded as heroic and people wanted to help the “plucky Belgians.” It would be welcome if, instead of shirking its responsibilities, Europe rediscovered this spirit and took in more refugees today.

To understand the fundamental shift in attitudes over the ensuing decades, one needs to delve into the nature of contemporary (Western) Europe. It’s not just a matter of selfishness and ill-will but also a question of profound misunderstanding.

It is said that the past is a foreign country, and the Europe of war and near-annihilation has become just that – a distant memory which only the oldest of Europeans has partly experienced first-hand. When viewed from the peaceful, still-largely prosperous and borderless European Union, the madness and mayhem in the Middle East and Africa seems inexplicable and barbaric, and this makes it far easier to blame the victims for the situation they find themselves in.

But the Europe of the First and Second World Wars resembled the contemporary Middle East to a frightening degree – except Europe was deadlier still.

While an estimated 3 million Syrians have fled the war that’s ravaging their country, the situation is not unprecedented. A century ago, there were over 10 million refugees in Europe, while World War II resulted in tens of millions of displaced people.

A century ago, Belgium, like Syria today, was a devastated nation of refugees and internally displaced people. Some 1.5 million Belgians fled to neighboring countries, and possibly as many again sought refuge from the fighting in other parts of the country. And this was in a country of just over 7.5 million inhabitants.

To Europeans, another inexplicable aspect of the contemporary Middle East is the horrendous levels of mindless killing and blood-letting, which leaves the impression that our region has a unique bloodlust.

Though comparative carnage is a rather macabre undertaking, it is nonetheless a useful exercise to highlight, both to Europeans and Middle Easterners, that the current situation is not unique and, hence, can eventually be overcome.

The first day of the Battle of the Somme, one of the deadliest clashes in human history.

The first day of the Battle of the Somme, one of the deadliest clashes in human history.

While the carnage and destruction in Syria and the wider region today is horrendous and troubling, it pales in comparison with the butchery that took place on the Western Front, where the average trench soldier held onto life for just six weeks. The Battle of the Somme alone claimed over a million dead and wounded.

Despite the tens of millions of Europeans who perished in the two world wars, Europe was able to turn over a new leaf in its history and herald in an extraordinary era of peace and coexistence.

It is inevitable that the fire engulfing our region will eventually die down. I only hope that it happens sooner than it did in Europe, and that, out of the rubble of conflict, we draw similar lessons to those of the architects of the European Union, and construct a frontierless Middle Eastern Union.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 23 April 2015.

 

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The self-fulfilling prophecy of the Sunni v Shia myth

 
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By Khaled Diab

Like in Syria and Iraq, the conflict in Yemen is not sectarian. But political profiteers and jihadists  are turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the 1960s, Sunni Saudi Arabia backed royalist forces seeking to restore the Zaidi Imam Muhammad Badr to the throne.

In the 1960s, Sunni Saudi Arabia backed royalist forces seeking to restore the Zaidi Imam Muhammad Badr to the throne.

Tuesday 31 March 2015

A Saudi-led coalition of 10 countries – including Gulf states, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan – has invaded Yemen ostensibly to push back Houthi rebels besieging Aden in the south of the country.

This latest troubling development has inevitably led to speculation about a monumental clash between Sunni and Shia Islam. “The bitter rivalry between the more fanatical adherents of Sunni and Shia Islam has now emerged as the region’s defining conflict,” asserted Con Coughlin, defence editor at UK daily The Telegraph.

It is true that the regimes mounting the offensive in Yemen are Sunni and the Houthis are Shia, as are their suspected backer, Iran. However, describing the brewing war in Yemen – or the conflicts in Syria or Iraq – as being primarily sectarian in nature is, at best, totally misleading, at worst, dangerous.

This is not least because the Zaidiyyah branch of Islam in Yemen – to which the Houthis belong – is neither Shia nor Sunni, but straddle the theological space between them. In Yemen, Zaidis are often referred to as “the Sunnis of the Shia, and the Shia of the Sunnis”, and Sunnis and Zaidis often pray together in the same mosques.

To see how simplistic, and often untrue, this characterisation is, we need only consider the constantly shifting sands of allegiance in Yemen. If we rewind back to the 1960s, we will find the apparent paradox, at least from a sectarian perspective, of Saudi Arabia backing a Shia dynasty.

During the North Yemen civil war (1962-1970), Saudi allied itself to the royalist forces fighting to reinstate the newly crowned Mutawakkilite Imam Muhammad al-Badr, a Zaidi, while Egypt backed the republican revolutionaries who had mounted a  military coup known as the 26 September Revolution.

Though this may seem to be counterintuitive when viewed through the sectarian prism, considering the geopolitics of the time, it made its own sense.

At the time, North Yemen was ruled by a traditional monarchy, like neighbouring Saudi Arabia. When officers in the military, inspired by the Egyptian experiment, mounted a republican coup against the monarchy, they appointed as their president Abdullah Sallal, who was, interestingly, also a Zaidi.

Driven by self-interest and spurred by the fear that the secular, republican contagion would spread from neighbouring Yemen, Saudi weighed in behind the Mutawakkilite Yemenis. Egypt, for its part, got involved out of a motivation to arrest the spread of “reactionary” forces and to champion the “progressive” pan-Arab cause.

In Riyadh, the demon most feared was Gamal Abdel-Nasser in Cairo, whose revolutionary message worried the royal house, and fed on longstanding bitterness and animosity towards Egypt which, in the 19th-century had brutally and bloodily crushed and repulsed the dramatic advances into Hijaz and Islam’s holiest sites by the ISIS of the time, the al-Saud clan. A time-traveller from the 1960s would find the current Saudi-Egypt alliance in Yemen quite unfathomable.

Though much is made today of the supposed Sunni-Shia cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, in the days of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the two were uncomfortable allies. They decided to co-operate together to use religion (presumably the divine right to rule) as a foil against the appeal of secular nationalism.

Likewise, the 1955 Baghdad pact saw the then Sunni monarchy in Iraq join forces with the Shia Shah in neighbouring Iran, also as a safeguard against the rising tide of post-colonial nationalism ­– which failed in the case of Iraq.

While socialism, communism and pan-Arabism were regarded as the mob at the palace gates by the established order and its Western backers in the 1950s and 1960s, the popular uprisings for democracy, socio-economic justice and dignity which swept the region in 2011 were seen as the new, ungrateful and unruly plebs.

When crowds took to the streets in Yemen, which had one of the earliest and most protracted of these revolts, panic alarms were set off in Saudi. Like in the 1960s and the 1990s, Riyadh was terrified that the revolutionary virus in Yemen, which Saudi had long regarded as being its “backyard”, would spread across the border.

The deal brokered by the Gulf Co-operation Council to transfer power from long-time incumbent Ali Abdullah Saleh to his deputy Abed Rabbu Hadi (ironically, on opposing sides of the current conflict), was largely an exercise in damage control, aimed at presenting the illusion of change while maintaining the status quo.

In fact, defending the status quo has been the overriding concern of all the established regimes in the Middle East, in order to maintain their domestic grip on power against both democratic movements and radical Islamist forces, and of the United States and its Western allies, who are struggling to maintain their traditional hegemony over their region. That is a  major factor behind the unreal alliances we have seen emerge in recent times.

But with upheaval and mayhem also comes opportunity. The chaos in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya has been seized upon by a dizzying array of regional and global players jockeying for influence in the emerging Middle East, as the century-old post-Ottoman order crumbles around us.

In this light, the proxy war between Tehran and Riyadh, like the Cold War between Washington and Moscow, is one measure ideology but nine measures geopolitics and self-interest. And like with the US and the Soviet Union, Saudi and Iran are hiding the ugly face of their expansionism behind a thin ideological façade.

That is not to say that rivalry between Sunnis and Shia do not exist at certain levels, but these usually manifest themselves in domestic discrimination by the dominant group in certain countries, rather than a grand, age-old ideological struggle.

Likewise, in Iraq, painting the situation there as the latest episode in an ancient sectarian battle, can help the Anglo-American architects behind the disastrous destruction of the country and the power vacuum which led to the civil war, sleep more easily at night.

“Easily the most likely scenario is that Iraq would have been engulfed by precisely the same convulsion,” Tony Blair, who believed God wanted him to invade Iraq, wrote in his own defence, suggesting that Sunnis and Shia would have been at each other’s throats anyway. “We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that ‘we’ have caused this. We haven’t.”

In Syria, though memories have grown murky, the conflict there began as a democratisation movement for social and economic equality. The idea that it was sectarian was promoted by Bashar al-Assad (whose regime is largely Sunni outside the military), mainly for reasons of pure survival, and private Gulf backers who wished it to become so.

And herein lies the rub. Because it is convenient for certain vested interests – from political profiteers to millennialist jihadists – to describe the upheavals in the Middle East as sectarian clashes, it is now becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 26 March 2015.

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Netanyahu and the Middle East: The risky business of “business as usual”

 
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By Khaled Diab

Netanyahu’s re-election promises “business as usual”. But this is an extremely risky venture on the Iranian-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian fronts.

'Business as usual' following Netanyahu's re-election is a risky venture.  Image: https://twitter.com/netanyahu/status/572859186972766209

‘Business as usual’ following Netanyahu’s re-election is a risky venture.
Image: https://twitter.com/netanyahu/status/572859186972766209

Monday 30 March 2015

Despite the hope of change entertained by the Israeli left, the recent elections in Israel have confirmed Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud as the largest party.

As Netanyahu strives to cobble together a hard-right coalition – against the earlier wishes of President Reuven Rivlin who wanted a “national unity” government – he is driving yet another nail into the coffin of the two-state solution, as the settlement juggernaut continues its unstoppable momentum, further derailing the prospects for peace.

The future looks bleak for the Palestinians, both within Israel and in the occupied territories. Palestinians in the West Bank are likely to see more of their land disappear under the foundations of new settlements and more of their civil rights trampled under the boots of the occupation.

In Israel and Jerusalem, the rising tide of anti-Arab sentiment is likely to surge in light of the clear race-baiting that occurred during the elections. One notorious incident involved Netanyahu, who tried to get right-wingers to flock to voting stations by tapping into their deepest anxieties and prejudices with his warning that “Arab voters are going in droves to the polls.” Earlier, outgoing foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman sounded like a wannabe recruit to the Islamic State (ISIS) when he suggested that “disloyal” Arab citizens “deserve to have their heads chopped off with an axe.”

But the massing dark clouds have contained some slivers of silver lining. Despite the grim mood in progressive circles, some Israeli leftists are consoling themselves that, collectively, the left has become a little stronger in this election and the right has weakened.

Some Palestinian commentators and observers believe that Netanyahu, with his explicit dismissal of the two-state solution and his vitriolic anti-Arab rhetoric, will force the West to rethink its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and take more robust action to bring about a resolution.

While there are plenty of signs of disappointment, anger and soul-searching in Washington and other Western capitals – which are bound to grow in light of the latest Israeli spying scandal – it is not a foregone conclusion that anything fundamental will change. The USA and Europe may find a novel way to fudge the issues, while paying lip service to the long-deceased peace process. Another possibility is that Washington and the EU may simply disengage from the process, as they fight fires elsewhere.

Galvanised by their increasingly embattled position and right-wing efforts to sideline them politically, the long-divided Arab parties in Israel joined forces, with spectacular results. Under the charismatic and conciliatory leadership of Ayman Odeh, who also tried to reach out to Jewish voters, the Joint List managed the unprecedented feat of becoming the third largest party in the Knesset.

With the ongoing Israelisation of the occupied territories and international inaction, on the one hand, and growing Palestinian rights-based activism, on the other, the next Knesset could mark a turning point for the conflict in which the two-state option is abandoned in favour of a civil rights struggle for the foreseeable future.

In the wider region, Netanyahu’s re-election is likely to spell “business as usual”, short of some radical, unexpected upheaval. The Middle East is caught up in other crises, such as the civil war in Syria, the continued unravelling of Iraq, Arab-Iranian rivalry, the growing threat from the Islamic State (ISIS), and now the war in Yemen, as well as simple survival for most of the region’s regimes.

In such a climate, Netanyahu offers Middle Eastern leaders a form of perceived stability, in the shape of the “devil you know”. Arab leaders will occasionally condemn Israeli excesses and urge Netanyahu to respond to the Arab Peace Initiative, but inaction will be the norm.

However, the status quo is extremely volatile, and so “business as usual” could easily lead to more Israeli-Palestinian violence and war, as witnessed last summer, which could quite easily spiral out of control next time.

Israel’s war against Hamas plays well in places like Egypt, where the once-allied Muslim Brotherhood has been demonised, persecuted, banned and declared a “terrorist organisation”. When it comes to Iran, Israeli, Saudi and Iranian hardliners, though for different reasons, find themselves bizarre and coincidental allies of convenience in their opposition to a possible nuclear deal.

Regionally, it is the Iran-Israel axis that is potentially the most volatile and unpredictable. Though both sides have thus far limited their animosity to the rhetorical sphere and proxy clashes, this contained confrontation carries the risk of spinning out of control.

It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that a new far-right government in Israel will seek to deflect internal opposition and dissent, as well as divert Western attention, by ratcheting up the public fear quotient of the “existential threat” posed by the Ayatollahs.

Likewise, in Iran, hardliners may try to derail the cautious and conciliatory path being pursued by Hassan Rouhani, and undermine his more moderate presidency, possibly by painting him as an appeaser of America and Israel.

This is likely to happen as elections to select a new Assembly of Experts and a new parliament in 2016 loom ever closer. With the ailing Ayotollah Ali Khamenei and his latest powerful conservative ally, the new leader of the Assembly of Experts Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, determined to block moderates, Rouhani’s job is likely to get much tougher.

A deal on Iran’s nuclear programme would help to reduce this pressure by giving Rouhani a visible victory and enabling Iran’s staggering economy to recover. However, this is opposed by Netanyahu and influential Republican hardliners in Washington.

It is my view that Iran can gain the upper hand and the moral high ground by abandoning its nuclear ambitions in favour of solar and other renewable energies. If the only reason Iran is carrying out nuclear research is truly to ensure its energy security and prepare for its post-oil future, then renewables are much more promising.

Nuclear power is not only dirty, dangerous and extremely expensive, investing in it will make Iran forever dependent on others, both for the supply of raw materials and for technology. With an abundant supply of sunshine, Iran can be self-sufficient in solar power. In addition, if it diverts the billions it is investing in nuclear energy to renewables, it can quickly become a regional leader in this extremely important and profitable emerging sector, and perhaps eventually even a global one.

But pride at backing down to Western pressure, paranoia, nuclear envy, and hardline pressure make this path improbable, at best.

For its part, to avoid the dangers of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, whether with Iran or an Arab country spurred to catch up, Israel should enter its own nuclear arsenal into earnest negotiations for a WMD-free region – an offer that the rest of the region has had on the table for decades.

But pride, paranoia, existential angst and the fear of being seen to back down make this scenario too extremely unlikely.

Though “business as usual” is the path of least resistance on the Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Iranian axes, they are also risky enterprises as the old equilibriums shift.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 25 March 2015.

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ISIS’s war on women in Mosul

 
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By Thurayya Ibrahim*

Before ISIS began targeting Iraq’s minorities and cultural heritage, it set to work veiling women in a new dark age, reversing decades of hard-won gains.

Despite ISIS' attitudes to women, the group has reportedly attracted some female foreign jihadists.

Despite ISIS’ attitudes to women, the group has reportedly attracted some female foreign jihadists.

Tuesday 24 February 2015

When I was growing up, the women of Mosul had the freedom to pursue whatever path they chose to follow. They had the right to work, study and dress as they desire. Women were empowered participants in the community. Growing up during the early 1980s in Mosul, I witnessed the freedom women had. Perhaps it was less than in the 1960s and 1970s, but certainly more than the current sorry situation. I was surrounded by female relatives who all worked after completing their university degrees. They drove cars, went out and travelled abroad alone and refused to get married, preferring the single independent lifestyle. Even at home, when I opened my eyes to the world, I saw my mother going to work everyday as a teacher. The stay-at-home woman was an alien concept to me as a child, and I assumed everyone had to go to work.

Mosul, unlike other Iraqi cities, was a blend of conservatism, tradition and modernity, a balance between the fairly modern and free Baghdad and Basra, and the strict and conservative Najaf and Karbala. Nevertheless, in all the years I spent in Mosul, I came across only one woman who wore a headscarf, one of my primary school teachers. I’m not sure whether the absence of the veil was down to Iraq’s secular rule or whether it reflected a more confident society not yet torn apart by economic sanctions, wars, occupation and sectarianism – all of which are contributing factors to the social change that began to take place in Mosul even before the ISIS invasion.

During the 1960s and 1970s, women were free to wear trousers, mini-skirts and sleeveless dresses. By the 1980s, this was beginning to change, and Mouslawi society started to be critical of such styles. Not everyone complied with the new conservative mores and some carried on wearing what they wanted but most decided not to become the talk of the town.

Just as the Islamic State (ISIS) has striven to destroy Mosul’s heritage and cultural diversity, the group has been working to devastate the position of women. Before the jihadist group began demolishing places of worship and archaeological landmarks, and before they started their campaign of ethnic cleansing, it issued new rules for women to follow, including a repressive dress code. ISIS recently imposed further restrictions on what women are allowed to wear – the new “Law” demands that women wear an almost tent-like cape which covers them from their eyes to their feet. There have even been reports of women falling and fracturing their legs as they struggle to walk in such attire.

Such codified restrictions were alien to a society where the long struggle for female emancipation scored many notable victories.  Iraq has always been at the forefront of female emancipation in the Arab world, with a wealth of famous women who have left a mark not only on Iraq’s history but on the world stage too. Figures like the writer and traveller Maria Theresa Asmar, who wrote a book in the early 19th century describing her travels through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. Armenian-Iraqi Beatrice Ohanessian was Iraq’s first concert pianist and one of the few women to become a director of the Piano Department at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad. Other prominent Iraqi women include Nazik Al-Malaika, considered by many to be one of the most influential contemporary Iraqi poets who was the first poet to use free verse in Arabic, Zaha Hadid, the renowned international architect, who is in fact originally from Mosul, and many more.

It seems ironic today that Iraq in the 1950s had the first female cabinet minister in the Arab region.  This remarkable woman, Naziha al-Dulaimi, was probably one of the most respected and recognised Iraqi women. An early pioneer of the Iraqi feminist movement and co-founder and first president of the Iraqi Women’s League, she studied medicine at the Royal College of Medicine in Baghdad and, at the age of 19, she was one of few female students at the Medical College. During her government career, al-Dulaimi was instrumental in turning the vast slums of eastern Baghdad into a massive social housing project and helped author the secular 1959 Civil Affairs Law, which was way ahead of its time in liberalising marriage and inheritance laws to the advantage of Iraqi women. She was also a prominent member of the international feminist movement and an active participant in the Iraqi and world peace movements.

It is hard to imagine how a country that has made such progress can be expected to to return the dark ages where women who do not meet ISIS’s requirements are often sold into slavery or forced to marry one of its fighters. The rest of the women who are not targeted for sexual/slave trade are segregated from men in all aspects of daily life.

Anyone who contravenes ISIS’s draconian rules faces heavy repercussions, but some locals are defiant, despite the risks. One friend witnessed a so-called “hisbah” patrol stop a woman who was with her husband because she was not wearing the “right” clothes. Within minutes, an ISIS member raised his baton to strike the woman when, in a fit of rage, the husband shouted: “In ten years of marriage, I have never lifted a finger against my wife. Do you think I will allow a fanatical foreigner to degrade and hit her?” The man my friend witnessed wrestled the baton out of the patrolman’s hand and started beating him with it.

To avoid such situations, many women have opted to stay at home and not venture outside or go to work. But not everyone can afford this luxury, especially with the soaring cost of living. Even girls as young as 11 cannot escape these draconian rules. Fearing for their daughters’ safety, many families have kept girls home from their schools and universities. One mother had no choice but to stop her 14-year-old daughter from attending school after an ISIS patrol stopped the chauffer-driven car that was taking the girl and her younger brother to their school demanding to know why the girl’s eyes were not covered. Apparently, the fact that her entire face was veiled was not enough. When the ISIS militant started to question the girl as to why she was out with “strange men”, the driver explained that the young boy was her brother, which provoked the patrol to ask who the chauffer was. By this point, the girl was so scared that she lied and said he was her uncle. The girl was so frightened that she told her mother she never wanted to leave the house again, even though she had been defying her parents to pursue her education despite the ISIS presence.

ISIS members have also prohibited female students from attending classes because their attire was considered “un-Islamic”. The only accepted attire for female students is the one-piece black burqa. And it is not just girls who are dropping out in large numbers. Boys reportedly are too.

It should be pointed out that there is significant local divergence within Mosul, in terms of rules, and how strictly or leniently they are applied, which often depends on the ISIS militants in the area. “I witnessed several women in the market areas without niqabs,” one local said. “[This] appears to be a change in strategy following a number of attacks perpetrated by disguised men in niqab.”

Iraqis, particularly women, are resilient and adaptable. Iraqi womenhad to endure years of wars without a man in the house, as often they were on the battlefield and many never came back. Women also had to improvise throughout the long years of sanctions to ensure their children and loved ones got fed. With the arrival of the US invasion, women faced a new challenge of protecting their family from foreign invaders. Similarly, despite all the atrocities and savage acts ISIS commits, people try to get on with life in Mosul. Women still go out – provided they are covered from head to toe – they drive to work (though at work they are segregated from men) visit each other and go to the shops. Beauty parlours and hair salons have been banned, and various cosmetic and hair products are no longer sold in shops, driving women to find alternatives when caring for their appearance. Despite the restrictions, three weddings took place last month, two of which were hosted by my old neighbours in Mosul. And that is the contradictory nature of the city, while some women are fleeing, others are being defiantly normal.

There have been reports of public executions of women, notably ones who were politically active. For example, two former candidates for the Iraqi parliament – Ibtisam Ali Jarjis on the Watanya list and Miran Ghazi, who was a candidate for Arab List – were sentenced to death by ISIS’s Sharia court.

According to officials from Mosul, the two candidates had repented in one of the ISIS mosques in Mosul to spare their lives, but the Islamic judge overruled their repentance and the two women were re-arrested. Isis militants also publicly executed Samira Salih al-Nuaimi, a leading lawyer and human rights activist, after she was seized from her home for allegedly “abandoning Islam”, whereas in actual fact her kidnapping took place after she had posted messages on Facebook that were critical of the militants’ destruction of religious sites in Mosul. The militants then tortured al-Nuaimi for five days before killing her. Al-Nuaimi left behind a husband and three children. There are many more tales of women being publicly executed, such as the three female doctors who refused to treat ISIS militants. ISIS militants recently paraded two sisters and a man who were accused of adultery before stoning them to death.

Life under ISIS for the women of Mosul is unprecedented in Iraq’s modern history. But tough, patient and resilient as they are, these women will continue to resist.

 

Part I: The ISIS disease in Mosul

Part II: Mosul’s lost diversity

Part III: The destruction of Mosul’s past, present and future

____

* The author’s name is a pseudonym.

 

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