Thursday, 20 December 2012

Vatican II, 50 Years Later

The following is an article by Sister Joan Chittister which was posted on The Huffington Post's 'The Blog' on 9 Sept. 2012. Read the original article here:

As Vatican II ended, I was just about to begin doctoral studies in communication theory and social psychology. I didn't know a lot about either subject at the time, but, with one foot in religious life spawned by the Council of Trent and the other in a religious life awash in Vatican II, I knew that anthropologists and social psychologists were missing the academic news of the century. Right in front of their eyes, a subculture was about to unleash its own cultural transformation -- by design, with impunity and in toto. It was a human undertaking of massive proportions. It added a great deal to religious life, but it exacted a cost as well. Or, as Robert Hooker put it over two centuries ago, "Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better." 
Of all the church, the people most mobilized for change were women religious. Mandated to hold renewal chapters and write renewal constitutions, groups retrained their entire memberships in the theology of Vatican II in anticipation of what would of necessity be a community project. Change was impossible without the support of the entire group. Groups suspended their Vatican I constitutions and instituted experimentation in every area of religious life. 
It was an exciting time. It was also a dangerous time, a time of great personal tension and deep spiritual struggle. 
The truth is that religious life had been formed in the spirituality of the virgins and martyrs, of sacrifice and perseverance -- virtues men had traditionally required of women -- when what Vatican II called for was the spirituality of priests and prophets, of community-building and witness. It was, then, on the deepening, the broadening, of both personal development and spirituality that the transition to Vatican II religious life really depended. To bring the church into the modern world, it would take women committed to risk and with courage for the unknown. But prophecy and risk are not the hallmarks of large groups. It was not the large groups who started religious life, and it is not large groups that will renew it now. Religious life must travel light into the future, burdened by nothing of its successes of the past, held down by none of its past goals but fresh in direction, vital in its meanings for the people of today. 
A movement that loses its creative edge loses its vision and its reason for existence. A movement that is only radical can lose both its popular base and its stabilizing foundation. The continuing task of Vatican II is to sharpen the edge of religious life again. What religious did for past generations, they must now do for the forgotten peoples of our own generation. A whole new global population must be carried beyond the limitations of their lives, become visible to those who see them not, be heard by those who are deaf to their tears. 
Conformity is no longer the major religious virtue, togetherness masking as community, and the fear of change is no longer the agenda of religious life. Renewal of spirit, openness to new needs and depth, if not necessarily length, of personal commitment has become the new norm. "Why did you come here?" I asked a new applicant. "Because this is the only group of women I have been able to find that cares about exactly what I do -- community, the gospel of Jesus, and a commitment to peace and justice," she said simply. Interestingly enough, I couldn't help but think that her answer sounded to me exactly like what Vatican II wanted from religious, too: that they would examine their life from the perspective of the "charism of the founder, the needs of society, and the gifts of their members." But if that's the case, religious life is not only new again, it is also a long way from being over. 
Excerpted from 'The Struggle between Confusion and Expectation: The Legacy of Vatican II' by Joan Chittister in 'Vatican II: 50 Personal Stories,' ed. William Madges and Michael J. Daley (Orbis). In this new book, 50 distinguished authors, including theologians, journalists, spiritual writers and pastoral leaders, offer their own assessment of the meaning of the Second Vatican Council and its historic documents.

Earthing Christmas

,         Ian Harris           Otago Daily Times       Dec. 14, 2012

There’s a view of God which holds that if something happens, it must be because God wills it. Another, that God knows what will happen, but it’s over to us to make our own decisions – we’re not robots. Another, that this sort of God-talk is redundant in the 21st century, because it hinges on supernatural speculation which for many westerners has outlived its usefulness.

This withering away of a sense of the supernatural brings loss as well as gain: loss of certainty beyond this life, loss of a strand of a religious heritage that has been central to western identity and culture, and along with that, loss of an unassailable moral authority through which the churches, at their best, saved society from some of its worst excesses.

But for those Christians who embrace the new world shaped by advances in knowledge and modern biblical exploration, there is also great gain. An example is the way new perspectives are opening up on mystery and transcendence. These have always been central to religious experience – and still are, but in a quite different way.
Some would argue that a supernatural reality is essential to both. That is understandable, given the pre-modern world-view within which the Christian tradition was fashioned. The secular world-view that now prevails in the western world, however, demands a radically new approach.

For dispensing with the supernatural does not rule out mystery. Now, though, it is not so much the mystery of the ultimately unknowable, but of human life itself. Awe and wonder may be a better way of expressing that, if only because those who focus on mystery sometimes brandish it as if it were a supernatural trump card. “Ah yes,” they say when logical argument runs out, “but beyond all that is
elusive/ineffable/ungraspable/indescribable/inexpressible/intangible (take your pick) mystery.”

Mystery then becomes the unchallengeable hidey-hole in which the God of the gaps can repose for ever (the God of the gaps being the explanation for everything that cannot yet be explained by science or other knowledge).
So where does religion sit in relation to mystery today? Here Christianity re-thought from a secular perspective has much to offer, stemming from the dual vantage point that it is both the most secular of the world’s great faiths, and it is within the Christian West that secular culture has taken root.

There are good reasons for that, beginning with the church’s most innovative doctrine: the other-worldly God of old became human flesh and blood in Jesus of Nazareth. God was earthed. The human (and not just the human Jesus) became the locus of the divine. This insight is so astounding that it is only slowly being rediscovered, after lying dormant for 2000 years.

Sir Lloyd Geering points out that this revolutionary perspective proved too much for the early church, which took the opposite tack: instead of teasing out the implications of making God human, it poured its creativity into making Jesus divine. Drawing on the cosmology of the times, it imagined Jesus as having been sent by God from a heaven that was as real as Earth, to be born in Palestine; and after his death and resurrection it returned him bodily there. In heaven, say the church’s 4th-century creeds, he reigns over creation as a full and equal partner with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, three aspects of the one Godhead.

It was inevitable that mystery gathered around Jesus in that heavenly world, and for hundreds of years theologians wove their interpretations around that understanding of God in his heaven with Christ at his right hand, and humans sweating it out on Earth.  A secular Christian faith, by contrast, grows naturally out of that doctrine of the Incarnation or enfleshment of God in human form. It does not locate a supernatural God in a faraway heaven, nor insist that Jesus is “divine” in the traditional sense. Instead, it interprets Jesus as a man whose life makes total sense within this world of space and time.

That affirmation of humanity as the locus of the divine does not mean abandoning any notion of mystery and transcendence. It simply reinterprets them so that they belong naturally within our secular experience of the amazing miracle of life. Transcendence climbs across (that is what “transcendent” means) the confines of our everyday existence to give a glimpse – and an experience – of a quality of life that excites, transforms, enlarges, satisfies and renews. The divine becomes incarnate.
That is mystery. And that mystery is what Christmas is all about

Sunday, 16 December 2012

US Stupidity in Syria: This Is No Fight Between Goodies and Baddies

Syria's descent into Holy War
by Patrick Cockburn                      Independent/UK                          December 16, 2012

It is one of the most horrifying videos of the war in Syria. It shows two men being beheaded by Syrian rebels, one of them by a child. He hacks with a machete at the neck of a middle-aged man who has been forced to lie in the street with his head on a concrete block. At the end of the film, a soldier, apparently from the Free Syrian Army, holds up the severed heads by their hair in triumph.AC
The film is being widely watched on YouTube by Syrians, reinforcing their fears that Syria is imitating Iraq's descent into murderous warfare in the years after the US invasion in 2003. It fosters a belief among Syria's non-Sunni Muslim minorities, and Sunnis associated with the government as soldiers or civil servants, that there will be no safe future for them in Syria if the rebels win.
In the past week,130 countries have recognised the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people. But, at the same time, the US has denounced the al-Nusra Front, the most effective fighting force of the rebels, as being terrorists and an al-Qa'ida affiliate. Paradoxically, the US makes almost exactly same allegations of terrorism against al-Nusra as does the Syrian government. Even more bizarrely, though so many states now recognise the National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, it is unclear if the rebels inside Syria do so. Angry crowds in rebel-held areas of northern Syria on Friday chanted "we are all al-Nusra" as they demonstrated against the US decision.
The execution video is very similar to those once made by al-Qa'ida in Iraq to demonstrate their mercilessness towards their enemies. This is scarcely surprising since many of the most experienced al-Nusra fighters boast that they have until recently been fighting the predominantly Shia government of Iraq. Their agenda is wholly sectarian, and they have shown greater enthusiasm for slaughtering Shias, often with bombs detonated in the middle of crowds in markets or outside mosques, than for fighting Americans.
The Syrian uprising, which began in March 2011, was not always so bloodthirsty or so dominated by the Sunnis who make up 70 per cent of the 23 million-strong Syrian population. At first, demonstrations were peaceful and the central demands of the protesters were for democratic rule and human rights as opposed to a violent, arbitrary and autocratic government. There is compelling evidence that the movement has slid towards sectarian Islamic fundamentalism intent on waging holy war.
The analogy with Iraq is troubling for the US and British governments. They and their allies are eager for Syria to avoid repeating the disastrous mistakes they made during the Iraqi occupation. Ideally, they would like to remove the regime, getting rid of Bashar al-Assad, but not dissolving the government machinery or introducing revolutionary change as they did in Baghdad by transferring power from the Sunnis to the Shia and the Kurds. This provoked a furious counter-reaction from Baathists and Sunnis who found themselves marginalised. Washington wants Assad out, but is having difficulty riding the Sunni revolutionary tiger.
Syria today resembles Iraq nine years ago in another disturbing respect. I have now been in Damascus for 10 days, and every day I am struck by the fact that the situation in areas of Syria I have visited is wholly different from the picture given to the world both by foreign leaders and by the foreign media. The last time I felt like this was in Baghdad in late 2003, when every Iraqi knew the US-led occupation was proving a disaster just as George W Bush, Tony Blair and much of the foreign media were painting a picture of progress towards stability and democracy under the wise tutelage of Washington and its carefully chosen Iraqi acolytes.
Patrick Cockburn Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent  [Extracts only]

A decade of western folly has erased hope from Afghanistan

With the exit of US troops the Taliban are poised to fill the gap. The Afghans' mood is gloomy 

Jonathan Steele in Kabul              Guardian/UK                               10 December 012

Eleven years after the west's military intervention, the withdrawal of US, British and other international forces has started, but no one knows whether their departure will lead to more or less instability for a country that has been mired in civil war for almost 40 years.  Most Afghans say they are happy to see foreign troops depart, yet many are also concerned at the vacuum they will leave, in spite of international pledges of billions of dollars for the next decade. In seven visits to the country since the Taliban were toppled I have never found the Afghan mood so febrile and gloomy.

Disappointment and bitterness are widespread. Long gone are the high hopes sparked by regime change in 2001. The foreigners delivered far less than they promised. Kabul was transformed into a canyon of concrete blast walls and watchtowers shielding enclaves from which foreign diplomats only emerge in armoured vehicles for official contacts. Journalists, NGO staff and independent westerners who have lived here for years sense a rising mood of anger, and most have stopped going around Kabul on foot for fear of hostile looks, insults hissed in  Dari  or Pashto, or stones being thrown.
While Afghans blame government officials for creaming off much of the aid money, they blame western donors for doing too little to reduce corruption. US military commanders who handed out cash for "quick impact" projects are accused of encouraging it.
Most diplomats still peddle cautious optimism about "progress, albeit fragile", as the US and UK hand military responsibility to hastily trained Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Few Afghans share it. The new rich are getting their money or their families out to Dubai and other Gulf states. Many are putting their houses on the market so as to acquire the cash to leave.
In many instances US commanders no longer provide close air support or medevac facilities to embattled Afghan units – a dramatic sign that Afghans are on their own. Afghans direct experience of the difference in facilities and "culture". They resent the brutality of raids on family compounds in which they are asked to take part.

A massive surge in unemployment is approaching. The vast army of translators, drivers, cooks and bottle-washers who serve the occupation forces will shrink throughout next year. The provincial reconstruction teams – the bases where foreign advisers and consultants sit and monitor aid delivery – will close. The result will be a dramatic curtailment of projects, since foreigners will no longer be able to supervise them.
Optimists in the Afghan elite believe there is still a chance to win popular support for the government in the two years remaining before foreign troops leave. They want to ensure that the elections, due in 2014, are clean this time. This would weaken the Taliban claim to provide justice more effectively than the predators and brigands who now dominate local and central government.
Outside Afghanistan, public interest has collapsed. In Europe and the US, people want out, and care little whether the whole adventure is seen as a defeat. It was remarkable how minor a role the war played in the US election. There will be less demand for a grand reckoning of policymakers' blunders than there was for Iraq.
The American and British people were largely complicit, since the revenge attack on Afghanistan after 9/11 had widespread approval, and certainly more than the invasion of Iraq. In Kabul there was a greater welcome for the foreign occupiers than in Baghdad or Basra. The Taliban had less of a support base than Saddam Hussein. But western armies cannot remain popular for long when they invade Muslim countries, Bush and Blair are guilty of as great a folly as they were in Iraq.          [Abridged]

Thursday, 13 December 2012

The Threat of Drones Ushering in ‘Invisible Wars’

by Rahiel Tesfamariam                  Washington Post                           December 10, 2012

The increased use of drone strikes during his presidency raises the question among critics that Obama has sidestepped congressional approval for declaration of war.: “There’s a remoteness to it that makes it tempting to think that somehow we can, without any mess on our hands, solve vexing security problems,” Obama has stated.

The NY Times recently reported that over 300 drone strikes have taken place since he first took office, leading to 2,500 deaths, the creation of “kill lists” and mass displacement of civilians in targeted regions. But the administration is not backing off. Its goal is to “institutionalize” the drone program to ensure that there is protocol in place for future successors. As we set rules that govern our use of drones, we must also consider other factors.
Is this administration’s increased use of drones unique to Obama’s outlook on how to best fight “the War on Terror”? Do these unmanned strikes reflect growing ethical dilemmas posed by technological advancement? Is it time that we reevaluate the price that is being paid globally for keeping Americans safe? What happens when the technology is adopted by other nations? And is it ethical to use overwhelming force without engaging in combat?
Vijay Prashad, a professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., argues that this type of technology is likely to produce outrage. “You can’t bomb a country into giving up certain ideas,” he said in an interview. “Internal struggles have to take place to marginalize certain ideas. You harden ideas this way. Why does the U.S. feel the need to enter other people’s conflicts versus allowing them to sort through it on their own?”
We must be cautious about being enthusiastic about the establishment of protocol, Prashad argues. He believes that who gets to set the rules is as important as what the rules are — challenging the idea that internal regulations by agencies such as the C.I.A. will offer the level of accountability and due process that the American public needs.
Prashad rightfully believes that we can’t ignore who is using the technology and who is being victimized by it. According to the NY Times article, “In Yemen, some strikes apparently launched by the United States killed militants who were preparing to attack Yemeni military forces.”   What’s the implication if these strikes are being used to serve the U.S. government’s special interests in foreign conflicts rather than responding to an imminent threat to this country?

“The history of industrial advantage is that the West will always use this advantage against the rest,” Prashad said. “They will use the fruits of industry in military fashion. The history of colonialism coincides with the history of modern industrial warfare.”
A leading argument in support of drone strikes is that they diminish the weight that American families have to personally carry for warfare. The unmanned strikes eliminate the fear of a loved one returning home in a flag-draped casket. They remove the element of psychological trauma experienced by soldiers on the ground. In the words of our president, drone strikes allow us to be engaged in never-ending wars “without any mess on our hands.” But war is always messy.
No matter how good-intentioned a Commander-in-Chief may be, the onus is still on Americans to know the trail of death, displacement and hopelessness that our government is leaving behind in other parts of the world.
© 2012 The Washington Post               [Abridged]   
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a writer, social activist, public theologian and cultural critic.

Friday, 7 December 2012

An Invented Crisis Threatens the Forgotten Millions

by Paul Krugman                   New York Times                         December 7, 2012

Let’s get one thing straight: America is not facing a fiscal crisis. It is, however, still very much experiencing a job crisis. It’s easy to get confused, since everyone’s talking about the “fiscal cliff.” Indeed, one recent poll suggests that a large plurality of the public believes that the budget deficit will go up if we go off that cliff. In fact, of course, it’s just the opposite: The danger is that the deficit will come down too much, too fast. And the reasons that might happen are purely political; we may be about to slash spending and raise taxes not because markets demand it, but because Republicans have been using blackmail, and the president seems ready to call their bluff.
Moreover, despite years of warnings from the usual suspects about the dangers of deficits and debt, our government can borrow at incredibly low interest rates.  And don’t tell me that markets may suddenly turn on us. Remember, the U.S. government can’t run out of cash (it prints the stuff), so the worst that could happen would be a fall in the dollar, which wouldn’t be a terrible thing and might actually help the economy.
Let’s get one thing straight: America is not facing a fiscal crisis. Yet lavishly funded corporate groups keep hyping the danger of government debt and the urgency of deficit reduction now— except that these same groups are suddenly warning against too much deficit reduction. No wonder the public is confused.
Meanwhile, there is almost no organized pressure to deal with the terrible thing that is actually happening right now — namely, mass unemployment. Yes, we’ve made progress over the past year. But long-term unemployment remains at levels not seen since the Great Depression: as of October, 4.9 million Americans had been unemployed for more than six months, and 3.6 million had been out of work for more than a year. Worse yet, there are good reasons to believe that high unemployment is undermining our future growth as well, as the long-term unemployed come to be considered unemployable, as investment falters in the face of inadequate sales.
So what can be done? The panic over the fiscal cliff has been revelatory. It shows that even the deficit scolds are closet Keynesians. That is, they believe that right now spending cuts and tax hikes would destroy jobs; it’s impossible to make that claim while denying that temporary spending increases and tax cuts would create jobs. Yes, our still-depressed economy needs more fiscal stimulus.
And, to his credit, President Obama did include a modest amount of stimulus in his initial budget offer; the White House, at least, hasn’t completely forgotten about the unemployed. Unfortunately, almost nobody expects those stimulus plans to be included in whatever deal is eventually reached.
So why aren’t we helping the unemployed? It’s not because we can’t afford it. Given those ultralow borrowing costs, plus the damage unemployment is doing to our economy and hence to the tax base, you can make a pretty good case that spending more to create jobs now would actually improve our long-run fiscal position.
Nor, I think, is it really ideology. Even Republicans, when opposing cuts in defense spending, immediately start talking about how such cuts would destroy jobs — and I’m sorry, but weaponized Keynesianism, the assertion that government spending creates jobs, but only if it goes to the military, doesn’t make sense.
No, in the end it’s hard to avoid concluding that it’s about class. Influential people in Washington aren’t worried about losing their jobs; by and large they don’t even know anyone who’s unemployed. The plight of the unemployed simply doesn’t loom large in their minds — and, of course, the unemployed don’t hire lobbyists or make big campaign contributions. So the unemployment crisis goes on and on, even though we have both the knowledge and the means to solve it. It’s a vast tragedy — and it’s also an outrage.                [Abridged]
Paul Krugman was the 2008 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics.           © 2012 The New York Times

Syria: last chance for diplomacy

There is still time for Obama to take the diplomatic lead

Paul Rogers for Open Democracy         Guardian Comment Network      6 Dec. 2012

The situation in Syria is dire. After 20 months of conflict, the war has created a human and economic disaster. Around 40,000 people have been killed, many more injured and hundreds of thousands displaced. All this, now reinforced by concern over Syria's chemical weapons, is creating an upsurge in support for western military intervention, on the grounds that the moment could become the "tipping-point" for Bashar al-Assad's regime.

There is a clear need to assess the risks and probable consequences of such a course, and to examine the prospects for a diplomatic solution. The context for both is the way the Syrian conflict has evolved. Syria's power-elite drew from Tunisia and Egypt the lesson that it had to be ruthless in its repression and offer little in the way of concession. But ever more force only hardened the opposition, and by mid-2012 a rebellion was developing.

The conflict was evolving rapidly into a form of "double-proxy" war that, by involving regional and global actors, hugely complicated the search for a peaceful resolution. In the Middle East, the rebels were increasingly encouraged by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Assad regime was strongly backed by Iran; weapons and training resources flowed in, greatly aided by an "air bridge" that transited Iraq (thanks to Nouri al-Maliki's government in Baghdad, in an act dismaying to the United States.)
Washington and its allies were on the side of the rebels, while the Russians and to an extent the Chinese stood by Damascus. A further complication was the growing presence of Islamist paramilitaries, many of them travelling from elsewhere in the region. They proved particularly effective thanks to their intense commitment and motivation, but also because some had gained combat experience in urban warfare in Iraq.

A new momentum     So far, western powers have confined themselves to channelling aid to "acceptable" rebels while trying to prevent Islamist groups from acquiring weaponry. An extension of this stance might initially take the form of supplying the rebels with more effective arms and erecting a "no-fly zone". Both are feasible short-term actions, although the latter could be made more difficult by the presence of 2,000 Russian advisers in Syria.

The supporters of intervention have two cogent arguments: that an even worse humanitarian disaster must be prevented, and that a quick end to Assad's regime will diminish the risk of Islamist influence in a post-Assad Syria. They point to the evident increase in the number of Islamist-linked paramilitaries active in the conflict, with the Jabhat al-Nusra group alone claiming 10,000 fighters. In parallel, the tactics of many rebels have become far harsher now that they have deprived the regime of the near-monopoly of terror it enjoyed in the conflict's early months; this has lost them support among some Syrians with no love for the regime.

These leave three other issues out of consideration. First, any western military action will provoke Tehran into increasing its support of Damascus (which Baghdad may facilitate). Second, the fall of Assad's regime may turn out to be a prolonged process involving even greater loss of innocent life. Third, the wider impact of yet another western intervention in the Middle East may be disastrous.

A different endgame   The predicament over Syria remains appalling.. There is, though, one possibility that could avert the worst outcomes: a decision by President Obama's administration to make a very strong effort to achieve negotiated regime change. The west, to put it bluntly, is not in a position to dictate what form Syria's evolving governance might take. It has to recognise that this must principally be decided within Syria – but that the acquiescence of other states in the process will be essential: Russia and Iran, but also Turkey and Egypt.

The lone hopeful element in this scenario is that Obama's re-election gives him room for action. Over Syria – as over Iran and Israel-Palestine– he could in principle follow a more considered approach, avoid the risks of escalating conflict, and seek the best possible solution available in difficult circumstances. Where Damascus is concerned, there is still a chance of some kind of arranged regime change – very tough though it would be to reach. Will that chance be taken? The answer lies mainly in Washington, but not a little too in Moscow and Tehran, and in Ankara and Cairo. The fate of Syria, and more than Syria, is in the balance.       [Abridged]

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Paul Rogers: Peace studies in our time

Paul Rogers tells his story

Analysing war does little to make one optimistic, the professor and commentator tells Huw Richards

Huw Richards                    The Guardian,                3 January 2006

For a native east Londoner, Paul Rogers does an excellent impersonation of a country boy. The Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University is known chiefly as a commentator on strategic issues who has enjoyed a particularly high profile since the 9/11 attack on the US, but has little doubt about one of his proudest achievements. "Building a house-sized barn on our smallholding," he says proudly, flourishing a photograph of a solid four-square construction to be found at Kirkburton, on the edge of Huddersfield.  The family home contains a facility less often associated with Yorkshire smallholdings - a broadcasting studio installed in reaction to the frequency with which he has been called by radio stations at home and abroad.

The juxtaposition of the two reflects the differing influences on his life. Rogers started as a biologist, taking his degree at Imperial College, then winning an appointment to a lecturership in plant pathology at the age of 24, before joining an overseas development ministry project in Uganda.        "The idea was to improve crops, specifically a new variety of sugar cane. I ran my own unit - training a very good Ugandan plant pathologist to take over from me. It was a great learning experience."

He was already interested in trade and development issues, working in the 1960s with the Haslemere Group, an early pressure group concentrating on this field, and began the transition that would take him in disciplinary terms from biological science to international relations on his return to Britain, taking up a lecturership at Huddersfield Polytechnic in 1971.

"I was appointed as a biology lecturer, but rapidly developed an interest in international relations and conflict. The polytechnics were very lively and interesting places at the time. Staff- student ratios were very good and there was a lot of freedom to develop ideas. Huddersfield offered a degree in human ecology, and in 1973 we ran a conference on human ecology and world development, asking a lot of questions about social and economic development and the environmental constraints and consequences that look pretty prescient 30 years on."

The oil shock following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war was the direct stimulus for his shift of focus. "I had to learn about the issues around this for a course I was teaching. If you want to learn a subject, one of the best ways is to have to give a lecture course on it."

Then in 1979 came the move to Bradford and what was still a relatively new department of peace studies. "It is a marvellous department, extremely strong and it has grown hugely. There's a remarkable range of experience and knowledge here and I wouldn't want to work anywhere else. I hope to be contributing for another 15 to 20 years, since there is an excellent tradition of asking retired members of staff to come back and teach," he says. He has always resisted offers to join higher-profile universities. He adds that in one highly specific respect the department lives up to its name. "There's plenty of vigorous debate, as there should be, but in 15 years we've never had members of staff not on speaking terms with each other."

His own work sits firmly within the cross-disciplinary and often collaborative traditions of peace studies - in the 1980s he worked with Malcolm Dando, also a biologist by academic origin, on arms control - and he admits to some embarrassment that he gets so much of the department's media attention. He has, however, accomplished a fair bit by himself to justify this. In particular, his book Losing Control: Global Security in the Twenty-first Century (2000), gives him a legitimate claim to be regarded as one of the prophets of 9/11.  He explains the thesis: "The real long-term conflict in the world is between an elite and the marginalised majority."  In it he describes the spectacle of a World Bank conference on poverty cocooned in a five-star hotel amid the squalor of Dhaka, in Bangladesh, and the grotesqueness of a gated community in South Africa surrounded by a 33,000-volt fence.

Rogers says: "The one certainty is that every so often the marginalised will revolt. Much of modern politics is concerned with what I call 'lidism', measures aimed not to address the underlying issues but to keep the lid on. But what you can't predict is exactly where or how radical social movements will erupt and that is what makes control impossible - nobody except perhaps a couple of real experts foresaw the Maoist rising in Nepal or the Zapatistas in Mexico."  Similarly, pre-9/11 he and Dando expected some sort of attack on America. "But we didn't know where and we thought that a chemical attack was the likeliest means."  He remembers their conversation two days after the attack: "We were very clear that the hawks would be able to do what they wanted for the next few years."

When Iraq was invaded he made three predictions: "One was wrong, which was that I thought Saddam had a small cache of biological weapons for use as a last resort. The others were that there would be a high level of civilian casualties and a high risk of insurgency."  That analysis has been developed and consistently updated through monthly reports for the Oxford Research Group and weekly commentary on the Open Democracy website. The Oxford reports have been re-published by Pluto Press as A War on Terror: Afghanistan and After (2004) and his latest book, Iraq and the War on Terror: 12 Months of Insurgency (IB Tauris, 2005). His next book, A War Too Far, is due out in February.

To see those reports consolidated in book form is to see a pattern of consistent official over-optimism endlessly dashed. Rogers says: "I remember an interview with a British soldier who said his sector had its first insurgent attacks on the very day that Bush declared 'Mission accomplished'."  Rogers's Losing Control analysis argues that any "war on terrorism" is likely to fail. But even he is surprised by quite how spectacularly counterproductive the invasion of Iraq has been.
"It has given al-Qaida and other radical groups an extraordinary recruitment opportunity - it can now say that the site of the Abbasid Caliphate, a hugely important centre of Arab culture, is under the control of Christians and Zionists. The events in Falluja have echoed across the entire Muslim world. And it has provided a new training ground for jihadists - Afghans are now learning from what is going on in Iraq."

He finds it extremely hard to be optimistic for Iraq. "It is an unholy mess, causing great disquiet in the British armed forces. The Americans will find it almost impossible to disengage and I can't see British forces leaving while Blair is prime minister."  Iraqi misery may, though, bring benefits for the wider world. "It is such a disaster that it may force a serious rethink on the discredited control paradigm. I lecture to people in the military who are smarter and more aware on this than politicians or business people."

So what should take the place of 'lidism'? "We need more effective, sustainable development underpinned by proper debt relief, trade reform and effective development assistance. At an environmental level, we need to get serious about climate change, which dwarfs every other issue."
Half a lifetime of smallholding has made him peculiarly attentive to the way winters, in particular, have changed. "I like being able to grow sweetcorn in the open air and having a small vineyard. But the changes that make that possible have frightening implications."

Friday, 30 November 2012

The suffering of Sderot

Robert Fisk                  Independent/UK                  26 November 2012

I think I found the village of Huj this weekend – but the road sign said “Sederot”. The world knows it as Sderot, the Israeli city where the Hamas rockets fall. Even Obama has been there. But Huj has a lot to do with this little story.

By my map calculations, it lies, long destroyed, across the fields from a scruffy recreation centre near the entrance to Sderot, a series of shabby villas on a little ring road where Israeli children were playing on the Shabat afternoon.

The inhabitants of Huj were all Palestinian Arab Muslims and they got on well with the Jews of Palestine. We have to thank the Israeli historian Benny Morris for uncovering their story, which is as grim as it is filled with sorrow.

Huj’s day of destiny came on 31 May 1948, when the Israeli Negev Brigade’s 7th Battalion, facing an advancing Egyptian army, arrived in the village. In Morris’s words, “the brigade expelled the villagers of Huj … to the Gaza Strip”. Morris elaborates: “Huj had traditionally been friendly; in 1946, its inhabitants had hidden Haganah men from a British dragnet. In mid-December 1947, while on a visit to Gaza, the mukhtar (mayor) and his brother were shot dead by a mob that accused them of ‘collaboration’. But in May, given the proximity of the advancing Egyptian column, the Negev Brigade decided to expel the inhabitants – and then looted and blew up their houses.”

So the people of Huj had helped the Jewish Haganah army escape the British – and the thanks they got was to be sent into Gaza as refugees. The following month, they pleaded to go back. The Department of Minority Affairs noted that they deserved special treatment since they had been “loyal”, but the Israeli army decided they should not go back. So the Palestinians of Huj festered on in the Gaza strip where their descendants still live as refugees.

But the present day Sderot, writes the Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi, was built on farmland belonging to another Palestinian Arab village called Najd, its 422 Muslim inhabitants living in 82 homes, growing citrus, bananas and cereals. They shared the same fate as the people of Huj. On 12 and 13 May 1948, the Negev Brigade of the Israeli army – again, according to Morris – drove them out. They, too, were sent into exile in Gaza. Thus did the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, as another Israeli historian, Illan PappĂ©, calls it bluntly, wipe from history the people who farmed the land on which Sderot would be built.

Irony. You can see Huj and Najd on Munther Khaled Abu Khader’s reproduced map of Mandate Palestine. Sderot was founded in 1951 but Asraf Simi, who arrived there in 1962 and later worked in the local library, knows nothing of this. She shrugged her shoulders when I asked about them. “We didn’t hear anything about Arabs around here. My uncle came near the beginning, around 1955, and was living in a tent here – and we all thought this would be one of the most modern cities in Israel! I’m not frightened – but I’m not happy about the ceasefire. I think we should have gone in to finish it all forever.”

Another irony. Asraf Simi was born in Morocco and learned Moroccan-accented Arabic before she left for Israel at the age of 17. And she does not know that today, in the squalor of Gaza, live well over 6,000 descendants of the people of Huj. Thus does the tragedy of the Palestinian Nakba – the “catastrophe” – connect directly with the Israelis of Sderot. That is why they cannot “finish it all forever”. Because the thousands of rockets that have fallen around them over the past 12 years come from the very place where now live the families that lived on this land. Thus does Sderot have an intimate connection with a date that President Obama may have forgotten about when he came visiting: 1948, the year that will never go away. [Abbrev.]

Fate and Destiny

by Ian Harris                   Otago Daily Times               Nov.  23, 2012

How come that you are here, living in this time and place? Previously I suggested that the answer lies in chance upon chance over scores of millennia, producing the mystery that is you. Others, however, would put their existence down to fate or its grander cousin, destiny.

Such a view once belonged naturally within a religious view of life, flowing from the conviction in ancient times that the gods, later supplanted by an all-wise and all-seeing God, must have a purpose for each of his creatures and tribes. Our human role was to accept whatever life served up as the gods’ (or God’s) will.  Success or failure in an enterprise, health or disability, death or survival after an accident, your life partner – there are still people who assume that fate or destiny lie behind each of these.

Our language reflects that. We may say of a marriage that it was “meant to be”. Faced with an incurable disease, most people will “accept their fate”, usually because they have no option. They can then either live as positively as they know how for as long as they are able, or grow bitter at the unfairness of their fate.

Before a sick or an old person dies we may say their life is “hanging by a thread”. That taps into a fate-laden image in Greek mythology of three crones, or “Fates”, who controlled everyone’s destiny from birth to death. Clotho spun the thread of each person’s life on to her spindle, Lachesis allotted length of life by measuring the thread, and Atropos chose the manner of death, cutting the thread when life had run its course.

Soldiers in battle face the prospect of “their number being up”, or a bullet “having their name on it”. Behind those phrases lies the notion, here tipping over into fatalism, that events are beyond our control and nothing we can do will change the outcome – which sometimes will be true. Literature is laden with fate. Romeo and Juliet are “a pair of star-cross’d lovers”. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Hardy’s “President of the Immortals” sports cruelly with Tess.
Fatalism gains religious force when people believe God has both a plan for each person’s life and the means to ensure it happens. Every event, good or bad, is then seen as God’s will, and the role of his creatures is to submit in obedience and humility. The more a life or event is thought to be pre-destined, however, the more helpless each of us will feel, and the less responsible for the way events turn out.

On a larger scale, does anyone think that wars and their outcomes are pre-determined by God? Or that the position of the stars influenced the wheelers and dealers whose machinations triggered the global financial crisis in 2008?
Hardly. Men in high places took the decisions that culminated in war and meltdown, and it was totally within their power to choose otherwise. In this secular age nothing, but nothing, is bound to happen because the stars or a divine puppeteer ordain it.

Humans now realise they control their own destiny to an extent unknown before. We cannot plead diminished responsibility by reason of fate, destiny or divine will. Responsibility for human affairs, and even for the future of the planet, lies squarely in human hands.

All these modulations of fate and destiny are evidence of the basic human impulse to find meaning in our experience, and all flow from a pre-secular way of seeing the world. They point to a hidden power and purpose, positive or sinister, behind every event. Fate and fatalism have a negative bias, while destiny is usually more positive: you suffer fate passively, but you participate actively in your destiny. We may say it was Abraham Lincoln’s destiny to save the union of American states, but it was his fate to be assassinated after the civil war was won.

Since ideas of fate and destiny depend on belief in supernatural forces and beings, it is difficult for anyone fully at home in our secular world to take them seriously – though zodiac charts, horoscopes, tarot cards and crystal balls show that some people still do.

Embracing any of these implies a belief or practice for which there is no longer any rational basis, however credible they must have seemed according to the lore of former times. Today they have shriveled into superstition. People grounded in this secular century will happily let them go, and accept the responsibility which is properly their own.

The Key Role of the US Government in Israel

by Glenn Greenwald                          Guardian/UK                                   November 21, 2012

Everything about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict follows the same pattern over and over, including the reaction of Americans. In the first couple of days after a new round of violence breaks out.  Intense interest is quickly replaced by weariness, irritation, and even anger that one has to be bothered by this never-ending and seemingly irresolvable conflict. The crux: "I would like to have an opinion on this continual bloodletting that didn't sound banal but I am thoroughly sick of both sides here."

This temptation is genuinely understandable. The carnage and mutual hatred seem infinite. The arguments are so repetitive. As is true in all wars, including those depicted in pleasing good-vs-evil terms, atrocities end up being committed by all sides, leading one to want to disassociate oneself from all parties involved. It is just as untenable to defend the indiscriminate launching by Hamas of projectiles into Israeli neighborhoods as it is to defend the massive air bombing by Israel of what they have turned into an open-air prison that is designed to collectively punish hundreds of thousands of human beings.

But for two independent reasons, this reasoning is invalid. The first reason, which I will mention only briefly, is that there is not equality between the two sides. The overarching fact of this conflict is that the Palestinians, for decades now, have been brutally occupied, blockaded, humiliated, deprived of the most basic human rights of statehood and autonomy though the continuous application of brute, lawless force.
But the second reason, to me, is even clearer. The government which Americans fund and elect is anything but neutral in this conflict. That government - certainly including the Democratic Party - is categorically, uncritically, and unfailingly on the side of Israel in every respect when it comes to violence and oppression against the Palestinians. For years now, US financial, military and diplomatic support of Israel has been the central enabling force driving this endless conflict. The bombs Israel drops on Gazans, and the planes they use to drop them, and the weapons they use to occupy the West Bank and protect settlements are paid for, in substantial part, by the US taxpayer.: So this "both-sides-are-hideous" mentality is not what drives the actions of the US government. Quite the contrary: the US government is as partisan and loyal a supporter of one side of this conflict as one can possibly be
Pierce does say that "I wish American arms and American dollars weren't being used to demolish entire neighborhoods," but in the next breath asks: "People are waiting for the president to do something, but what is to be done?" But he answered his own question: the US need not be, and should not be, such an active, one-sided participant in this aggression. The US government is fueling and feeding the Israeli war machine, and, with its own militaristic conduct, is legitimizing the premises of Israeli aggression.

This is exactly what I was referencing when I wrote on Saturday that one must stop pretending that the US is some sort of helpless, uninvolved party in this war between two distant, foreign entities. That is complete fiction. If an American citizen really wants to advocate for neutrality on the ground that both sides are equally horrible and they're sick of the whole conflict and wish it would all just go away, then the place to begin with that advocacy is US government policy which, as unpleasant as it might be to face, has long been, and remains more than ever, a key force that drives the bloodshed.  [Abridged]

Glenn Greenwald is a columnist on civil liberties and US national security issues for the Guardian.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

What was it all for?

The murder of Palestinians and Israelis is just a prelude to the next Gaza war

Robert Fisk                            Independent/UK                            22 November 2012

Netanyahu’s campaign for the January elections began the moment he ordered the assassination of Ahmed al-Jabari. He's improved Hamas's election chances too. So what was it all for? The  11-month old Palestinian baby killed with its entire family by an Israeli pilot, the 150-odd Palestinian dead – two thirds of them civilians – the six Israeli dead, 1,500 air raids on Gaza, 1,500 rockets on Israel. What fearful symmetry! But was all this done – and let us forget the billions of dollars of weapons spent by Israel – for a ceasefire? Not a peace treaty, not even a treaty, just a truce. Before the next Gaza war.

Cynics abound in Israel, and not without reason. “End of a military operation, beginning of an election campaign,” ran a headline in The Jerusalem Post yesterday – albeit in a newspaper that has given its usual support to war in Gaza.
But surely Netanyahu’s campaign for the January elections began the moment he ordered the assassin-ation of Ahmed al-Jabari, the Hamas leader, just over a week ago. Indeed, the bombing of Gaza moved seamlessly into the Netanyahu election project: if Israelis want security, they know who to vote for. Or do they? It was evident after the ceasefire began on Wednesday night that Mr Netanyahu was worried.
“I know that there are citizens who expect an even harsher military action…” he began, but “Israel’s challenges” had become more complicated down the years. “Under these conditions, we need to steer the ship of state responsibly and with wisdom.” An interesting choice of words, but Churchillian it was not.
For years now, Mr Netanyahu has been pressing ahead with Jewish colonies on West Bank land stolen from Arabs, effectively denying any future Palestinian statehood – and steering his own “ship of state” into a future tempest. If the Palestinians can have no state, Israel will have no peace, and Hamas rockets will in time look like an inconvenience in comparison to what is to come.
Netanyahu has certainly improved Hamas’s election chances, and more or less doomed the political future of Mahmoud Abbas – Israel’s and America’s chosen Palestinian “interlocuteur valable” – who has frittered his time away in his Ramallah palace, growing ever more irrelevant with each Israeli air raid.
Scrabbling for non-state recognition at the UN – if he still intends to go ahead with this plan – doesn’t equal Hamas’s new popularity, nor the importance which we now have to attach to Mohamed Morsi of Egypt. The statesmen of Egypt, Turkey and the Gulf – if statesmen they can ever be called – travelled to Gaza to give their moral support to Palestinians, not to Ramallah.
Oddly, the self-delusional policies which Israel has often fed upon – in its second Lebanon war in 1982, for example – returned this month. In Washington, the Israeli ambassador, Michael Oren, has been arguing that the Gaza war began in 1948, “the day Arab forces moved to destroy the newly declared state of Israel.” But this is untrue.
The Gaza war began when Israel drove 750,000 Palestinians from their homes in that same year, many tens of thousands of them herded into the refugee camps of – yes, Gaza. It is their children and grandchildren who have been firing rockets into Israel – in some cases on to the very lands which their families once owned.
But Michael Oren follows up with some strange “history”. He seems to believe that the Arabs of 1948 were “inflamed by religious extremism”, and that the 1956 Suez crisis – plotted in advance by Israel, Britain and France after Nasser nationalised the canal – was an Arab attempt to destroy Israel.
Yesterday, Ophir Falk of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at Herzliya managed to write that the Israeli military had “constrained itself to targeting combatants and their facilities, whereas Hamas primarily and premeditatedly targets civilians and their homes”. But if Israeli pilots only targeted combatants, how come two-thirds of the 140 Palestinian dead were non-combatant men, women and children? Are Israeli pilots that ill-trained?      

But now, I suppose, for the election.                         

Friday, 23 November 2012

It's Palestinians who have the right to defend themselves

Justice requires a change in the balance of forces on the ground 

Seumas Milne                      Guardian/UK                           20 November 2012

The way western politicians and media have pontificated about Israel's onslaught on Gaza, you'd think it was facing an unprovoked attack from a well-armed foreign power. Israel had every "right to defend itself",Obama declared. "No country on earth would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders."
He was echoed by Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague, who declared that the Palestinian Islamists of Hamas bore "principal responsibility" for Israel's bombardment of the open-air prison that is the Gaza Strip.
In fact, an examination of the events over the last month shows that Israel played the decisive role in the military escalation: from its attack on a Khartoum arms factory reportedly supplying arms to Hamas and the killing of 15 Palestinian fighters in late October, to the killing of a 13 year-old in an Israeli incursion and, crucially,the assassination of the Hamas commander Ahmed Jabari last Wednesday during negotiations over a temporary truce.

Israel's PM Netanyahu, had plenty of motivation to unleash a new round of bloodletting. There was the imminence of Israeli elections (military attacks are par for the course before Israeli polls); the need to test Egypt's new president, Mohamed Morsi, and pressure Hamas to bring other Palestinian guerrilla groups to heel. So after six days of sustained assault by the world's fourth largest military power on one of its most wretched and overcrowded territories, at least 130 Palestinians had been killed, an estimated half of them civilians, along with five Israelis.
Despite Israel's withdrawal of settlements and bases in 2005, the Gaza Strip remains occupied, both effectively and legally – and is recognised as such by the UN. Israel is in control of Gaza's land and sea borders, territorial waters and natural resources, airspace, power supply and telecommunications. It has blockaded the strip since Hamas took over in 2006-7, preventing the movement of people, materials, and food supplies in and out of the territory. So Gazans are an occupied people and have the right to resist, including by armed force (though not to target civilians), while Israel is an occupying power that has an obligation to withdraw – not a right to defend territories it controls or is colonising by dint of military power.

Even if Israel had genuinely ended its occupation in 2005, Gaza's people are Palestinians, and their territory part of the 22% of historic Palestine earmarked for a Palestinian state that depends on Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem. Across their land, Palestinians have the right to defend and arm themselves, whether they choose to exercise it or not. But instead the US, Britain and other European powers finance, arm and back to the hilt Israel's occupation, including the siege of Gaza – precisely to prevent Palestinians obtaining the arms that would allow them to protect themselves against Israeli military might.
It's hardly surprising of course that powers which have themselves invaded, occupied and intervened across the Arab and Muslim world over the last decade should throw their weight behind Israel doing the same thing on its own doorstep. But it isn't Palestinian rockets that stop Israel lifting the blockade, dismantling its illegal settlements or withdrawing from the West Bank and Gaza – it's US and western support that gives Israel impunity.
Emboldened by the wave of change and growing support across the region, Hamas has also regained credibility as a resistance force, and strengthened its hand against an increasingly discredited Palestinian Authority leadership in Ramallah. The deployment of longer-range rockets that have now been shown to reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem is also beginning to shift what has been an overwhelmingly one-sided balance of deterrence.
The truce being negotiated on Tuesday would reportedly enforce Hamas responsibility for policing the strip and crucially break the blockade, opening the Rafah crossing with Egypt for goods as well as people. It doesn't, however, look like the long-term security deal with Hamas Israel was looking for, which would risk deepening the disastrous Palestinian split between Gaza and the West Bank.
Any relief from the bombardment, death and suffering of the past week has got to be welcome. But no ceasefire is going to prevent another eruption of violence. Whatever is finally agreed won't end Israel's occupation and colonisation of Palestinian land or halt its war of dispossession against the Palestinian people. That demands unrelenting pressure on the western powers that underwrite it to change course. But most of all, it needs a change in the balance of forces on the ground.             [Abridged]