The mediocrity of evil

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

 

Friday 10 July 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Überidiot

‘Adolf, the Superman: Swallows gold and spouts junk’
Photo montage by John Heartfield, 1932.
Source: https://www.johnheartfield.com/John-Heartfield-Exhibition/john-heartfield-art/famous-anti-fascist-art/heartfield-posters-aiz/adolf-the-superman-hitler-portrait

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Royally untalented

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The demographic dimension: The role of population growth in the Arab uprisings

 
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By Khaled Diab

Decades of unprecedented population growth have played a significant role in Arab regime repression, the two main waves of revolutions that swept the region, and the fierce counterrevolutions that followed.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

Friday 24 January 2020

Over the past century, the Arab region has experienced dramatic population growth, not only caused by high birth rates but also by drastically increased survival rates and life expectancy. This has resulted in the largest (and most educated) population the region has ever had.

The region, too often dominated by an ageing leadership and elite, has failed – due to a combination of internal and external factors – to take advantage of this population boom, resulting in millions of marginalised and disaffected citizens. With jobs and prospects in short supply and repression in overabundance, people are discontented, restive and angry. This essay explores the direct and indirect roles the region’s demographic dynamics have played in regime repression and neglect, and how this repression of the burgeoning population influenced the two main waves of Arab revolutions that swept the region, and the fierce counterrevolutions that followed.

Even though the rate of population growth has slowed, the region’s population is still expanding, which will  continue to affect Arab political, social, economic and environmental landscapes.

Population power

The Arab region has experienced unprecedented demographic growth in recent decades. This has had profound social, economic, environmental and political consequences. It played not only a significant factor in the revolutionary wave and uprisings that have rocked the region, but also in the repression that preceded and followed it.

This is not to suggest that demographic change is the only or the primary factor at play, nor is it to argue for the simplistic and deterministic theory that revolutions occur when there is a “youth bulge” or that the poor are the authors of their own destitution.

Revolutions are, after all, complicated events that occur during periods of enormous confusion. The motivating factors for which are poorly understood and disputed even by those involved in them or by those watching them closely. Revolutions occur at different places and times for an intricate web of overlapping and oft-contradictory reasons, and can be triggered by very different groups and involve a mindbogglingly diverse array of different players.

Having acknowledged the innate complexity of revolutionary movements and mass uprisings, it is my conviction – based on the evidence at hand – that the region’s demographic evolution was a major factor in sparking the mass revolts which began at the end of 2010, and in fuelling the current second wave of uprisings, though the exact role it has played differed markedly from one country to the other.

Fodder for frustration

As a starting point, we can examine the revolutionary slogans used during protests for evidence of the role of population growth in fuelling popular discontent. “Bread”, or some similar variant, was a common rallying cry across the region, from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond, with the ongoing popular uprising in Sudan initially dubbed the ‘Bread Revolution.’

At one level, this constituted an almost literal call for bread. Food security for poor Arabs has worsened significantly in recent years. Already in 2007 and 2008, and again in 2010-2012, demonstrations and riots broke out in the Middle East and other parts of the world to protest rising food prices, which threatened to turn basic nourishment into a luxury for the poorest.

This was to a large extent due to factors external to the region, such as droughts in grain-exporting countries, rising fuel prices, growing global demand for richer diets, speculation in food commodity markets, and growing demand for biofuels.

However, one factor is firmly domestic: the region’s growing inability to feed itself. Rapid population growth, coupled with water and land scarcity, not to mention the massive loss of arable land due to the dual catastrophes of global warming and urbanisation, have combined to make Arab countries among the most dependent in the world on food imports. One exception is Sudan, which possesses enough arable land to feed itself. However, this land is underutilised while being increasingly seized by foreign investors, especially in the Gulf states, for their own food security.

For example, the region imports nearly three-fifths of the wheat it consumes, with some countries importing as much as 100%. Although malnutrition levels are low by the standards of developing countries, hunger levels are growing, mostly due to conflicts but also due to expanding poverty levels.

Take Egypt as an example. In ancient times, its consistently large food surpluses enabled it to flourish like almost no other civilisation of the time. A century ago, the country was still able to feed itself and produce an agricultural surplus. However, since the mid-20th century, when Egypt’s population began to explode, it became increasingly dependent on food imports, especially wheat.

Today, Egypt imports a large percentage of its population’s calorific needs. This makes the country, like the wider region, extremely vulnerable to weather events, climatic conditions and geopolitical dynamics outside its own borders, in a world where the food surpluses of recent decades are shrinking while the global population continues to grow.

This leaves millions of citizens barely able to subsist in the face of rising prices and tightening supplies, especially as the welfare state continues to be dismantled with the removal of most subsidies. It is no accident that two food price shocks occurring in quick succession in an import-dependent region should play a significant role in sparking mass unrest.

Demographic despair

The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the symbolic act of desperation that set Tunisia on fire in 2010 and resonated with people across the region, touches on another way in which population growth set the stage for revolution.

It is true that Tunisia’s population is growing more slowly (1.1% per year) than the rest of the Arab region, largely thanks to rapidly rising levels of education, especially amongst women, and the enormous empowerment Tunisian women have experienced in recent decades, not to mention successful family planning and reproductive rights programmes. Nevertheless, the population has grown considerably in recent decades. This is not just owing to birth rates but also to survival rates and life expectancy, which have risen dramatically over the past century in Tunisia and the rest of the region. A Tunisian born at the close of World War II could expect to live, on average, to only 37. A Tunisian baby born today can expect to live twice as long, with life expectancy at birth standing at 74 for men and 78 for women, according to the World Health Organisation.

This has resulted in a spectacular population boom, despite Tunisia’s decades-old status as an emigrant country. Between 1921 and 1966, the population doubled to around 4.5 million. Since then, it has more than doubled again, to reach the current 11 million.

Although the early years of independence were marked by fast-paced development that absorbed this rapid enlargement of the population, this eventually began to falter until, gradually, the ranks of the unemployed, underemployed and underpaid swelled to breaking point.

Naturally, rapid population growth was not the only reason why Tunisia was unable, like most of the region, to create sufficient opportunities for its citizens. Other factors included mismanagement, corruption, an ill-conceived industrialisation process, the neglect of the agricultural sector, neo-liberal reforms, as well as the rapid automation of the local and global economy. This was compounded by the pincer movement of competition from the old giants of the West, who dominate high value-added sectors, and the new giants of Asia, who dominate the more labour-intensive sectors on which the region traditionally relies.

The stagnation and even reduction in the fortunes of large swathes of the population coincided with a period in human history when material aspirations have never been higher or more visible to the average citizen, leading to a sense of relative deprivation even in cases where welfare has improved in absolute terms. Not only were the material basics of life expanding rapidly, people were being exposed to aspirational consumerism as never before, from their TVs, in films, on the internet and on the streets, as the gap between the haves and have-nots widened to become a chasm.

This made for a radioactive mix. The unemployed, who were stuck at home or sat at cafes watching their future vanish behind a pall of tobacco smoke, and the working poor who ran flat out on a treadmill that was dragging them downhill towards oblivion, had to put their aspirations on the shelves and their lives in the deep freezer, delaying – sometimes indefinitely – the greatest milestones of their lives, such as marriage, children or even their own place to live.

The Labours of revolution

On the dawn of revolution in 2010, the proportion of the labour force out of work hovered at around 13%, according to the International Labour Organisation. The unemployment situation was considerably worse for youth (30%), the highly educated (23%) and women (19%). This large idle capacity, along with the increasingly neo-liberal direction in which Tunisia was heading, led to the depression of wages for the average worker, which was reflected in the depressingly low official minimum salary of just 235 TND per month (The situation in the build up to the revolution in Sudan at the end of last year was even more acute. The ranks of the jobless swelled almost threefold, from 3 million to 8 million, over a period of just seven years, with the overwhelming majority of young people out of work, according to a recent report).

With the Tunisian political and business elites unable to create enough jobs for the continuously expanding labour force and unwilling to share more equitably the fruits of economic development, the path open to the regime to deal with popular discontentment was the bitter pill of repression with the added sweetener of occasional enticements and incentives.

During the Habib Bourguiba years, repression was high but the enticements were also significant: many subsidised goods, free quality education and a bloated public sector to absorb some of the surplus workforce. Under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the repression remained but the enticements were gradually stripped away, except for the incentive of playing the lottery of aligning oneself to the regime in the hope of getting a bite of its crony capitalist cake.

Fewer sweeteners from the state combined with bubbling resentment and discontentment from a well-educated and aspiring population led to what, in retrospect, turned out to be peak police state. The sense of fear, indignity and humiliation this caused produced the third pillar of the revolution, the quest for freedom and dignity.

Shrinking space for the individual

A similar dynamic prevailed in Egypt, at times more intensely. Since the end of the 19th century, the number of people living in Egypt has increased a staggering tenfold. Most of that exponential growth has been since the mid-20th century, with today’s population, which is approaching 100 million, more than five times that of Egypt’s population in 1947. In the decade between 2006 and 2016, the country’s population grew by 20 million people. Egypt’s rapidly growing population has caused it to climb up the global league table, from 20th largest population in 1950 to 15th in 2014. Egypt’s rapidly rising population is not only attributable to high birth rates but, like Tunisia, also to the dramatic decline in death rates due to the doubling of life expectancy since 1937. This population growth is reflected in Egypt’s intensifying population density, which stands at 1,137 people per square kilometre (2016), if Egypt’s vast areas of unpopulated deserts are excluded, making Egypt the 14th most densely populated country in the world.

The social and environmental effects of this overcrowding are immense. There is growing awareness of the desertification caused by human-induced global warming, albeit mostly elsewhere in the world. However, there is another form of desertification that has swallowed up vast tracts of Egypt’s most fertile arable land: rapid urbanisation. By the mid-1990s already, Egypt had lost 912,000 feddans of agricultural land (over 383,000 hectares) to urbanisation. Another study found that, in the quarter of a century between 1992 and 2015, 74,600 hectares of extremely fertile land in the Nile Delta alone had been destroyed by urbanisation.

Overcrowding also places extreme strain on Egypt’s severely stretched water resources. In the past, Egypt, one of the driest lands on the planet which has been described as the largest oasis in the world, was the gift of the Nile because the river’s abundant waters were more than enough to keep the country fertile and fed. Today the Nile, which experts warn is dying, has become Egypt’s curse. Although the Aswan Dam has been a blessing by storing and regulating water flow, enabling the growing population to quench its thirst even during droughts, it has come with an enormous environmental price tag. The extremely fertile alluvial silt from Ethiopia, which once renewed and regenerated Egypt’s Nile valley, is trapped behind the dam. Compensating for this has required vast amounts of chemical fertilisers, which pollute the land and the river. In addition, the decades-long absence of rejuvenating silt, combined with rising sea levels caused by global warming, has caused many coastal areas to become too salinated for agriculture and is threatening the very integrity of the Nile Delta, which is slowly crumbling into the Mediterranean Sea.

With Egypt’s inhabited area smaller than Switzerland, everywhere – from its smallest towns and villages to its largest metropolises – is teeming with people. Lacking sufficient infrastructure, capacity and willpower to deal with the waste produced by so many tens of millions of humans, the quality of the air Egyptians breathe has become toxic, rubbish overflows to pollute public and natural spaces, from empty plots of land to farmland, while many agricultural canals and streams have become open sewers.

Beyond public health and environmental damage, this extreme overcrowding has serious social and psychological consequences, especially in urban areas. In Cairo, people quite literally live on top of each other. Although this has some undoubted cultural and social advantages, the streets are a constant choking confluence of smog, dust, noise and people. Egyptians cope with this overcrowding differently than, say, the Japanese. The coping mechanisms of choice in Japan are orderliness and elaborate rules for personal space and interpersonal interactions. In contrast, Egyptians tend to embrace the involuntary intimacy imposed by overcrowding by being more intimate. People are casual and sociable in public and often attempt to dissipate the tensions caused by heightened physical proximity with humour.

Nevertheless, living in overcrowded housing in an overcrowded city with constant and intense sensory stimulation is stressful, limits the individual’s personal space and makes privacy a coveted but unattainable prize, especially for the poor. There is often no reprieve or escape from the cacophony. Whereas a couple of generations ago, Cairo abounded with pleasant gardens and parks, today, there are barely any green spaces in the city and almost nowhere to escape the madding and maddening crowds. With housing beyond the means of a large proportion of young people, it has become routine for Egyptians to live with their parents until their late 20s or early 30s, with all that involves in terms of frustration and infantilisation.

Containing and neutralising the seething frustration and popular dissatisfaction required, like in Tunisia, harsh repression combined with sweeteners. However, the abandonment of this unspoken social contract in Egypt was greater than in Tunisia, as almost every area of life was privatised, including healthcare and education, while public services, especially schools and hospitals, were neglected to near death. This, combined with a rapidly growing population, meant that the middle class was withering on the vine, while the ranks of the poor and destitute were continuously reinforced.

Although Egypt’s official unemployment rate in the final quarter of 2010 was 9%, the true unemployment rate was significantly higher, not to mention the working destitute, partly because the Egyptian government counts people who do occasional casual work as being fully employed. Nevertheless, the official figures cannot distort the fact that 40% of the unemployed were university graduates and half of jobless Egyptians were between the age of 20 and 24.

In the build up to the attempted revolution in 2011, Egypt had greater space for opposition, criticism and dissent than Tunisia. Despite this, Tunisia has, in a very short space of time, managed to construct a vibrant democracy. In contrast, Egypt, despite the consistently large mobilisation of protesters for an extended period of time, has slipped back into an even-more repressive form of military dictatorship, which tolerates no dissent and operates predominantly through coercion and oft extreme violence.

How did this transpire?

Two factors loom large here: the role of the military and that of Islamists. Tunisia is among the minority of Arab countries that does not possess a large and politicised army. This served it well in the wake of Ben Ali’s departure. The Tunisian army lacked the interest, culture, means and appetite to exploit the chaos and seize the reins of power. In Egypt, the politicised army, which has enjoyed massive political influence since the Free Officers military coup in 1952, had too much to lose and perceived the popular calls for freedom as an existential threat to its parallel economy and society.

Another factor was the nature of the Islamist movement in both countries. Egypt has a large and largely uncompromising Islamist movement. In Tunisia, mainstream Islamists are more pragmatic and secularised, and less influential, than their Egyptian counterparts. This led to Tunisia’s Ennahda party engaging in the politics of compromise and consensus, which helped facilitate the country’s relatively smooth transition to democracy.

Beyond these immediate factors, demography also played a role. Not only is Tunisia less crowded than Egypt, its birth rates declined sooner and are far lower than Egypt’s. Despite Egypt’s rapid population growth, the fertility rate of individual women has declined significantly in recent decades, more than halving since 1960 to reach 3.4 in 2017. Nevertheless, Egypt’s per-capita birth rate is nearly double that of Tunisia’s.

The relative stabilising of Tunisia’s population, as well as its higher level of average education and lower average levels of destitution, made the country fertile for positive change. In fact, political demographers were forecasting already in 2011, contrary to the gloomy predictions of many political pundits, that Tunisia stood a “good chance” of becoming a democracy within five years. Decent leadership in civil society, trade unions and politics, as well as a symbiotic culture of consensus and compromise, managed to capitalise on these favourable conditions and delivered democracy faster than even this short estimate predicted. Of course, Tunisia is not yet out of the woods; if it fails to deliver economic welfare and social justice, the progress of recent years can be rapidly undone.

The demography of things to come

The above illustrates how the dramatic demographic changes of recent decades have exercised profound direct and indirect influence on the socioeconomic and political reality of the Arab region.

Demographic change is likely to continue to play a strong role in the region’s future. Population change optimists point to the global trend of declining population growth rates and past human ingenuity to predict that we will be able to cope with the challenges of demographic expansion until we reach peak population around mid-century.

However, this is not a foregone conclusion for everywhere in the world, including the Middle East. Many Arab-majority countries continue to have a population growth rate above the global average. This is partly because, in my analysis, although a growing number of people have woken up to the advantages of smaller families, the pressure from tradition, parents and religious conservatives to have larger families remains difficult to resist for many.

Moreover, the aridity of the region makes it extremely vulnerable to food supply shocks in other parts of the world, which could potentially become more frequent and prolonged due to the combined effects of global warming and the continued enlargement of the world’s population in terms of absolute numbers. Moreover, global and local economic inequalities are likely to intensify any crisis that occurs. This is compounded by cross-border competition for scarce water, such as the brewing conflict between the Nile Basin states over the river’s water resources, especially between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, whose population today has overtaken that of Egypt.

Just as the potato famine in 19th-century Europe, particularly in Ireland, became a famine rather than a crisis due to the massive social and economic inequalities of the time, combined with the Malthusian propensity to blame the poor for the avarice of the rich, future food shortages could be intensified by unfair local and global distribution and consumption patterns.

Demographic and environmental change could potentially lead to a perfect storm, triggering humanitarian, political and social catastrophe in large parts of the Arab region. Alternatively, the region may continue to struggle and muddle through until its population peaks, after which welfare will improve. At present, Tunisia offers the greatest hope and model for the future of the region, as does Lebanon, which has a similar demographic dynamic to Tunisia, if the current protests trigger the right kind of momentum for change and the destabilising war in neighbouring Syria does not push this fragile and diverse country over the edge.

The most promising and hopeful possibility for the region’s demography is that increasingly empowered and aware citizens will engage in voluntary birth control, which would enable the population to even out sooner than current projections, while corrupt and repressive elites will be replaced by more enlightened political, economic and social leaders who will revive the region’s development potential by utilising its relatively young and talented populations for the greater collective and individual good of all concerned.

_____

This article was first published by Rowaq Arabi on 23 December 2019.

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Anzac Day: Digging beneath the myth of the unruly Australian digger

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Despite their reputation for being undisciplined and insubordinate, Australian soldiers who fought in World War I, known as ‘diggers’, were fiercely courageous and disciplined where it mattered – on the battlefield. These rebels with a cause would play a pivotal role in defining modern Australian identity.

Image: ©Christian Nielsen

Thursday 25 April 2019

One doctrine has dominated military thinking for centuries: only well-trained and disciplined soldiers win wars. That explains why when word reached the top brass in London of unruly and, God forbid, unshaven Australian soldiers (‘diggers’) on the battlefields of Gallipoli, an investigation was launched.

Sir Maurice Hankey, the War Cabinet’s Secretary, visited the front line in Turkey and reported to then Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith: “I do hope that we shall hear no more of the indiscipline of these extraordinary Corps, for I dont believe that for military qualities of every kind their equal exists. Their physique is wonderful and their intelligence of a high order.

Field Marshal Douglas Haig once wrote in his diary that the Australians were “very hard and determined-looking … and mad keen to kill Germans, and to start doing it at once!”

But despite reports of the incredible bravery exhibited by Australians dispatched to key battles of the war including Pozières, Fromelles, Péronne, Ypres and, of course, Villers-Bretonneaux, the Diggers never shook off their reputation as mischief-makers.

Hard-earned reputation

When it came down to it, the War Cabinet put up with a lot of this ‘indiscipline’, provided the Australians got the job done. Recapturing Villers-Bretonneux was just one example of this unpredictable brand of what war historian Rob Roggenberg calls “collective discipline ‘and’ individualism” to achieve their objective.

This idea of collective individualism is echoed in a Bartleby essay on the importance of military discipline and values: “Discipline is created within a unit by instilling a sense of confidence and responsibility in each individual.”

The ‘troublemaker’ moniker was not confined to rank and file soldiers either. According to records, Australian Brigadier-General Thomas William Glasgow demonstrated his own version of irreverence towards British command when his battalion was ordered to attack Villers-Bretonneux from a vulnerable position. Fearing too many lives would be lost, Glasgow famously replied: ”Tell us what you want us to do … but you must let us do it our own way.”

While the Diggers on-field antics seemed to be tacitly tolerated, a much shorter leash existed behind the lines, and for good reason. Right up until February 1918, according to Roggenberg, Haig noted that the Diggers were still proving to be a handful: “We have had to separate [them] into Convalescent Camps of their own, because they were giving so much trouble when along with our men and put such revolutionary ideas into their heads.”

Nine in every 1,000 Australian soldiers in the European theatre languished in military prison in 1918. That was nearly six times more than the average for Canadians, New Zealanders and South Africans – so generally wild colonial exuberance was no excuse for the Australian misbehaviour. Haig was prepared to admit that the off-field trouble probably flowed from the low standard of discipline throughout the Australian divisions. 

Bravery under fire

What British command had long failed to understand was that individual fighting spirit combined with bravery could coalesce into a collective sense of purpose – driven by mateship not military protocol.

But by the closing chapters of World War I, it could be argued that traditional rank and file doctrines of decorum were blurring. The two Battles of Villers-Bretonneux in northern France cemented the reputation of Australian soldiers as not only as individually brave under fire but also collectively disciplined when it counted most – in the heat of battle.

On 23 April 1918, Australian forces played an instrumental role in repelling the German Spring Offensive which was using Villers-Bretonneux (and its strategic location just south of the River Somme) as a springboard to the nearby cathedral town of Amiens.

Image: ©Christian Nielsen

During the night of 24 April, a systematic counter-attack by Australian and British brigades had Villers-Bretonneux partly surrounded to the north and south. By the morning of 25 April, exactly three years after the Anzac landings at Gallipoli, French and Australian flags were raised over the town, and remain there to this day.

In just a few days of the fiercest fighting, the Australian, British and French (including Moroccan) troops had almost completely restored the original front line after the First Battle of the Somme and, arguably, turned the tide on the First World War. The now famous battle is also the first on record in which tanks fought against each other.

Australian soldiers certainly distinguished themselves at Villers-Bretonneux on Anzac Day, says Lydie Vandepitte of Somme Tourism in Amiens, but their involvement in the Great War was much more than a single battle. It was a founding element in the story of this young nation exerting its independence from Britain, she adds.

But the Diggers extreme bravery came at a huge cost, according to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Some 2,400 Australians died in the effort to recapture Villers-Bretonneux in April 2018, half of them in that one fateful night.

Their sacrifice is commemorated in the Australian National Memorial outside town where the heaviest fighting took place, and in the continuing gratitude of the townspeople who pay tribute alongside Australian officials and pilgrims at the annual Anzac Day memorial celebrations on 25 April.

“Do not forget Australia”

The Australian National Memorial stands on the grounds of a vast military cemetery honouring Australian soldiers who fought bravely in France and Belgium during the First World War. Nestled into the rear of the site is the imposing central tower offering panoramic views of the surrounding countryside, where the Allies battled to retake control of the Somme from the Germans. A memorial wall commemorates the 10,732 Australian casualties who died in France and who have no known grave. Also on the site is the Sir John Monash Centre, which uses multimedia wizardry to present the Diggers’ side of the story on the Western Front as part of a dedicated Remembrance Trail 1914-2018. In just nine months since opening in April 2018, nearly 48,700 have visited the Centre alone.

Image: ©Christian Nielsen

The relationship between Australia and the Somme will forever be strong and eternal,” says Vandepitte, which together with the Amiens Tourist Board host upwards of 25,000 Australians during Anzac Week, and scores more across WWI memorial sites (second only to British visitors in terms of total numbers each year).

In fact, cities and small towns across Australia, such as Amiens and Pozières in Queensland, Hamel in Western Australia, Pèronne in Victoria, bear the name of places in the Somme region,” she noted.

Back in Villers-Bretonneux, the local Franco-Australian museum on the grounds of the Victoria School, which was rebuilt and named thanks to donations from schools in the state of Victoria, has a rich collection of original WWI artefacts shipped back to France (free of charge by QANTAS) after a nationwide call. On classroom walls in the functioning school, inscriptions remind pupils of the enduring goodwill between the two countries: “Do not forget Australia.”

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Citizenship is a universal right, even for ISIS members

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

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

Sunday 10 March 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____

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

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

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

A bar in Haifa.
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 5 September 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The road less travelled – part II: Overwhelmed at Overloon

 
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By Christian Nielsen

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

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

Read part I: Navigating without algorithms

Monday 23 July 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read part I: Navigating without algorithms

Read part III: The cycle of life in Groningen

Read part IV: The rich texture of the original Hamburger

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When Mariette met Mary

 
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By Christian Nielsen

The Virgin Mary appeared eight times to a child in Belgium and the rest is ‘alternative history’

Image: ©Christian Nielsen

Thursday 10 May 2018

On the eve of a quiet Sunday in January 1933, the young Mariette Beco saw the faint glow of a woman outside her kitchen window. Smiling, the woman beckoned the child to come out, but Beco’s mother held her back. Beco noted what the woman was wearing a white veil, long white robes with a blue sash, a golden rose on her right foot, and a rosary with a golden chain and cross hanging on her right arm. Three days later, the woman in white reappeared and told Beco that she was ‘Our Lady of the Poor’. Altogether, the woman appeared eight times to the girl. Word quickly spread of the visions and an episcopal commission from Rome was called in to investigate the claims. It was not until May 1942 that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Liege acknowledged the veneration of Mary under the title of Our Lady of the Poor. Approval by the Holy See had to wait until after the war, coming in 1947 with a final declaration in 1949.

“I was no more than a postman who delivers the mail,” remarked Mariette Beco dryly after decades of silence about the apparition of the Virgin Mary which she saw more than 70 years earlier. “Once this has been done, the postman is of no importance any more.”

The child’s sightings put the small village of Banneux (Sprimont, Belgium) on the religious map. But it came at a price for the newly dubbed Our Lady of Banneux, who suffered taunts and derision, even reportedly from members of her own family.

Today, Banneux is a recognised pilgrimage site for Catholics in Belgium, joining the village of Beauraing, where apparitions of the Blessed Virgin were recorded the year before Beco’s own. These sites are sometimes overshadowed by better-known Marian holy sites elsewhere in Europe including Our Lady of Lourdes and La Salette in France, Our Lady of Fátima and Sameiro in Portugal, and many sites in Spain like Our Lady of Sorrows in La Codosero and Umbe, Our Lady of Graces in La Puebla del Río, and many more dotted around the continent.

With international tourist arrivals on the rise, the World Tourism Organisation — a UN body — estimates that 35% of European travellers are interested in religious tourism. Out of every four short breaks, religion and spirituality are the main reasons for at least one trip.

Pilgrims to Banneux day trip in from Belgium and nearby France, Germany and the Netherlands, or stay for longer in one of the hotels which sit alongside facilities that sprang up to cater for visitors to the holy site, which has grown to include a seminary, hospital, mission, information centre, and several indoor and outdoor chapels.

In one of the eight reported apparitions, Mary guided Beco to a nearby spring now on the site and urged her to plunge her hands into the healing waters which were “reserved for all nations … to relieve the sick”.

Fresh memories of the war

For those inclined to analyse past events for meaning or ‘alternative’ historical explanations, the timing and location of the sightings is not without interest. First is the location of Banneux just across the border from what was becoming an increasingly impoverished and restless Germany, while memories of World War I were probably still fresh. Then the timing; the girl’s sightings in 1933 were the same year the Nazi government came to power.

“While it cannot be claimed that eleven-year-old Mariette was aware of the ramifications of the political situation, she grew up in a culture where there would have been intense concern about the international situation,” notes Chris Maunder in his book Our Lady of the Nations: Apparitions of Mary in 20th-Century Catholic Europe.

“The Virgin Mary was believed by devotees to have created a shrine ‘for all nations’ that would outlast the war and mark her healing properties for decades to come,” he explains.

Today, the site is dotted with mini-shrines or chapels erected by Christian communities from all over the world. One shrine immortalises ‘Our Lady of the Poor’ or ‘Queen of Nations’, as Mary came to be known in Banneux, complete with a life-like statue of her bent over in prayer or contemplation before a cross and the simple words, “I thirst”.

The connection to the healing waters of Banneux is not lost. The small spring yields about 7-8,000 litres of water a day with many reports of miraculous healings throughout its existence. Religious souvenir shops lining the out-sized car and coach park sell the water by the gallon. Day-trippers head straight to the line of taps, some content with a sip and a dip, others to fill drums of it for later use.

“Believe in me and I will believe in you”
But for the young Beco, the strain of her apparitions took something of a toll. Reportedly not a regular church-goer, the events of 1933 changed her life and that of her family. As Maunder explains, “There is a long-held Catholic belief that Mary appears to people who have no particular predisposition to visions nor merit them.”

Beco maintained that Mary called her to believe but this faith must have been put to the test throughout the woman’s adult life. She suffered the loss of two children and divorce, according to Maunder: “Beco’s traumatic adult life is popularly regarded as another good example of the way in which quite ordinary people appear to be chosen by the Virgin Mary.”

To the plain-speaking Beco — who died at the age of 90 after having spent most of her life in the Banneux area, and even ran a pilgrim hotel for many years — all these theories would probably struggle to conjure up much interest in a time of rising religious scepticism.

 

 

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Alt-jihad – Part I: Dying to kill

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Friday 30 March 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mad or bad?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deathwish or higher purpose?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read part II – Delusions of grandeur and persecution

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The generous of the earth in the most wretched of places

 
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By Khaled Diab

If you’re feeling dejected by the troubled times we live in, remember that human generosity lives on, even in the most wretched of places.

Najih Shaker al-Baldawi intercepted the attacker and hugged the suicide bomber tight, not out of affection for him but out of love for the strangers flocking to a local shrine.

Iraqi Najih Shaker al-Baldawi intercepted an ISIS attacker and hugged the suicide bomber tight, not out of affection for him but out of love for the strangers flocking to a local shrine.

Friday 2 September 2016

War. Mass murder. Fanaticism. Bigotry. Racism. Hatred. Environmental devastation. These are depressing times we are living through.

However, scratch beneath the surface of the headlines and beyond the escalating news cycle of violence and you can find human beauty, even in the most wretched of places, at the most wretched of times.

This was driven home to me by what seems to be a startling statistical finding. Iraqis are the most likely people in the world to help a stranger, according to the World Giving Index (WGI).

Let that sink in for a moment. This is a country that was “shocked and awed” by the US and Britain into almost total state collapse, endured years of civil war, is supposedly prey to sectarian and ethnic hatred and is at the mercy of rival militias and warlords, including the infamous and bloodthirsty Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS).

Against such a backdrop and in a world where the relative trickle of refugees into Europe is causing continent-wide panic, you would expect Iraqis to fear strangers, to suspect that a passerby in apparent need is actually part of an ambush or a ploy, to keep what little they have for themselves and their nearest and dearest.

Despite this, a full four-fifths of Iraqis report having helped a stranger in the past month. How is this possible?

Part of the reason may be cultural. Arab societies possess elaborate and nuanced social codes demanding oft-excessive generosity and hospitality to visitors and strangers. This is encapsulated in the ancient Arab proverb: “A guest is greeted like a prince, held like a captive [to your generosity] and departs like a poet [to sing your praises].”

And many is the time that I have been made to feel  like the proverbial prince by Arabs I’d never met before. In fact, the most memorable shows of spontaneous generosity from strangers I have encountered in my life were in Egypt.

But culture is only part of the story. Necessity is the mother of generosity. There is a universal human tendency to respond to need and the needy – and a sense of guilt when we do not. In places like Iraq, where the ranks of those in need are enormous, the ranks of those willing to help them also grow, though they can never keep up with the runaway demand.

Conflict- and warzones bring out both the worst in humans and the best. This, to my mind, was symbolically embodied in a single recent incident in Iraq. An ISIS suicide bomber was on his way to take the lives of many innocent worshippers in Balad.

Najih Shaker al-Baldawi intercepted the attacker and hugged the suicide bomber tight, not out of affection for him but out of love for the strangers flocking to a local shrine. By preventing the mass murderer from entering the shrine and by taking much of the initial impact of the blast, al-Baldawi committed perhaps the supreme act of generosity: he gave his life to save dozens of others.

And despite Europe’s current (partly unjustified) reputation for selfish individualism, wartime Europe was replete with stories of such heroic, self-sacrificing generosity and solidarity, from the suicidal heroics of World War I trenches to the death-defying resistance to Nazi occupation in World War II and the sheltering of fugitive Jews destined for German death-camps.

Religion also seems to play a role in generosity. When it comes to giving money, Myanmar and Thailand top the WGI. Experts attribute this to the Buddhist practice of Sangha Dana, which encourages people to make donations.

But one must not overestimate the role of religion or assume that secular societies are less giving than pious ones. In the example above, Myanmar was assumed to be the most generous country because a higher percentage of its citizens had given money over the preceding month. But we know nothing of the amounts given and how they relate to income.

So it is entirely possible that in another country where people give away large sums to charity but do so only once or twice a year, citizens would donate a large proportion of their incomes yet appear less generous on the World Giving Index. For example, research has repeatedly found Americans to be the most generous charitable donors in the world as a percentage of income, giving away around 2% of GDP.

However, this does not necessarily make America the most generous country in the world. Like in developing countries with low taxes and huge income disparities, the visible poverty all around forces wealthy people of conscience to give.

In more egalitarian societies, that need is less because of the disguised or invisible forms of collective generosity that do not appear in WGI or statistics on charitable donations. In high-taxation societies with a generous social safety net, “giving” is a legal duty, not an individual choice.

For instance, in the European Union, where such a social model is prevalent, at least nine countries spend over 30% of their gross domestic product on social protection, led by Denmark (34.6%), France (34.2%) and the Netherlands (33.3%).

In addition, although foreign aid is woefully inadequate and wealthier countries are generally reneging on their obligations, a number of countries donate significantly above the benchmark 0.7% of GDP target. These include Sweden (1.4%), the UAE (1.09%), Norway (1.05%), Luxembourg (0.93%) and the Netherlands (0.76%).

This shows how generosity comes in many shapes and sizes, from the individual to the collective. Then there are the intangible, unmeasurable aspects of generosity. A dollar given by someone poor is worth far more than a dollar given by someone wealthy. Help given at great personal risk is worth more than risk-free assistance. Assistance received when you most need it is worth far more than that which is received too late. And a fish given to feed you once is worth far less than giving you the rod or net with which you can feed yourself.

Next time you feel despondent at the selfish taking and destructiveness of the world, look around for the everyday examples of giving which may not capture headlines but do capture a spirit of generosity that may just save humanity from itself.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 25 August 2016.

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ISIS and the mash of civilisations

 
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By Khaled Diab

Counterintuitive as it may sound, ISIS is proof that the clash of civilisations is a myth. The reality is that interests clash, while cultures mix.

Thursday 26 November 2015

When the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the atrocities which took place in Paris, its message was sprinkled with references to “a faithful group of the soldiers of the Caliphate” who attacked “Crusaders” in Paris, a city described as the “the carrier of the banner of the Cross”.

This has added fuel to the notion that a monumental battle between Islamism, or even Islam, and the West is underway. “Islamist fundamentalism must be annihilated,” said the far-right Front National’s leader Marine Le Pen who is previously alleged to have compared Muslims praying on the street to the Nazi occupation of France.

Almost inevitably, with the precision of a Swiss timepiece, some evoked the late Samuel P Huntington. “This is not a grievance-based conflict,” opined Republican presidential hopeful, Senator Marco Rubio. “This is a clash of civilisations, for they do not hate us because we have military assets in the Middle East.”

Although ISIS undoubtedly hates Christians and other non-Muslims with a passion and believes in just such a clash, buried amid its jihadist rhetoric of fighting the “infidel” is a clear indication that the choice of Paris as a target was largely motivated by France’s “military assets” in Syria.

“The smell of death will never leave their noses as long as they lead the convoy of the Crusader campaign.. and are proud of fighting Islam in France and striking the Muslims in the land of the Caliphate with their planes,” ISIL’s statement mentioned above expressed explicitly.

This highlights how clashes of interests, far more than ideology, inform “foreign policy”, even of a fanatical, ideologically driven group like ISIS.

Since its inception, ISIS’s “jihad” has been about territory politically and resources, economically. Ideologically, its main enemy has been what it regards as errant Muslims who are worse than the “infidel”, in ISIS’s reckoning, because they claim to belong to Islam but walk the path of “kufr” or “unbelief”.

Despite ISIS’s horrendous and merciless persecution and ethnic cleansing of minorities, such as Yazidis and Christians, in numerical terms, its main victims, like those of most jihadist and violent Islamist groups, have been fellow Muslims.

In fact, a kind of global war is in motion, both in Syria and elsewhere, between ISIS, al-Qaeda and other jihadist outfits, each of which considers the others to be Godless and not true to Islam, whereas their real motivation is greed for power and influence, and envy of one another’s “successes”.

This was illustrated in the assassination by al-Qaeda-allied al-Nusra Front of Abu Ali al-Baridi, the commander of the ISIS-affiliated al-Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade. In a statement about the killing, al-Nusra placed al-Baridi firmly outside the community of believers.

In a similar vein, the latest attack in Paris may have partly been spurred by the rivalry between the world’s two leading jihadist groups. With al-Qaeda claiming the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, ISIS may have been seeking to one-up its bitter rival’s grim record.

To my mind, this highlights the oft-overlooked clash within civilisations, which I believe far outweighs, in terms of ferocity, intensity, passion, and sheer carnage the clash between Islam and Christendom. This can be witnessed in the conflicts in the contemporary Middle East, as well as the traditional Sunni-Shia schism.

In Europe, this is visible in how, despite the fears of this or that society or culture bringing down the West (or Christendom before it), the two occasions in which European civilisation came close to annihilation – World War I and II – was due to internal ruptures and rivalries.

Ideologically, it is apparent in the numerous schisms within Christianity – between the Western and Eastern churches, or between Catholics and Protestants. These schisms enabled the early Islamic conquerors to easily overcome the Byzantines who were hated in, for example, Egypt, because Copts were regarded as “heretics”. During the Dutch Revolt, Protestants used the slogan “Liever Turksch dan Paus” (“Rather Turkish than Pope”).

In fact, despite the headline ideological conflict between Islam and Christendom, pragmatic and even friendly alliances have, for centuries, been forged across this divide. This can be seen in the long-lasting alliances the Ottomans forged with France and later Germany. This was also visible everywhere from Andalusia to the Crusader kingdoms to the Arab alliance with the British against the Turks or today’s longstanding US-Saudi axis.

Perhaps most significantly of all, and what gets left bleeding by the wayside in these polarised times, is what I like to call the “mash of civilisations”. Judaism, Christianity and Islam have so influenced each other, over the centuries, and been influenced by the same traditions, including Greco-Roman and Mesopotamian, that it is impossible to speak of them as separate civilisations.

They are sub-groups of a single civilisation, and the diversity within each is greater than the differences between them. And it is by recognising and highlighting this mash of cultures that we can combat the divisive ideologies propagated by the fanatics in our midst.

The Middle East and the West belong to the same Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, which is merely a subset of human civilisation.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 16 November 2015.

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