Monday, 27 October 2014

Islamic State

 by Ian Harris                    Otago Daily Times                        October 24, 2014

A globalising world draws its peoples closer together. It also complicates things. So when a far-off band of Muslim insurgents scythes to itself a swathe of Syria and Iraq, western governments tighten laws to neutralise any threat of terrorism from their own Muslim immigrants, and unleash warplanes against the extremists abroad. With new responsibilities looming on the UN Security Council, New Zealand will soon be caught up more directly in the vortex.

I have wondered why those best placed to respond to the religious ideology of the Islamic State have been so silent. Surely Muslims elsewhere have a view on the horrors being inflicted on innocent people in the name of their religion?

They do. In a 16-page letter to IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and his followers, 126 leading Muslim scholars from 41 countries last month issued a scathing denunciation of IS, accusing it of violating fundamental principles of Islam and committing heinous war crimes. Signatories come from countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Sudan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Indonesia and the United States.

The letter condemns the establishment of a caliphate in Syria: “Who gave you authority over the ummah (the total Muslim community)? Was it your group? If so, then a group of no more than several thousand has appointed itself the ruler of over a billion-and-a-half Muslims.

“This attitude is based upon a corrupt circular logic that says: ‘Only we are Muslims, and we decide who the caliph is, we have chosen one and so whoever does not accept our caliph is not a Muslim . . . In truth, the caliphate must emerge from a consensus of Muslim countries, organizations of Islamic scholars and Muslims across the globe.” The scholars reject the right of IS to call the faithful to jihad (holy war). “There is no such thing as offensive, aggressive jihad just because people have different religions or opinions,” they say.

And they condemn the war’s conduct: “You have killed many innocents who were neither combatants not armed, just because they do not agree with your opinion . . . You have killed many prisoners,” citing thousands dead in mass executions. “Your fighters are not satisfied with mere killing, they add humiliation, debasement and mockery to it.” Their barbaric acts had given the world a stick with which to beat Islam, whereas Islam was completely innocent of these acts and prohibited them.

IS had not even spared children: “You have made children engage in war and killing. Some are taking up arms and others are playing with the severed heads of your victims. Some children have been thrown into the fray of combat and are killing and being killed. In your schools some children are tortured and coerced into doing your bidding and others are being executed.”

Though Al-Baghdadi cites Muslim scriptures to justify his cause, the scholars dismiss his reasoning as illegitimate and perverse. “It is not permissible to quote a verse, or part of a verse, without thoroughly considering and comprehending everything that the Quran and Hadith (the sayings and traditions of Mohammed) relate about that point,” nor to cherry-pick Quranic verses for legal arguments without considering the entire Quran and Hadith.

The letter lists a raft of IS practices which Islam explicitly forbids. Among them are forced conversions, torture, denying women and children their rights, disfiguring the dead, and killing emissaries – “hence it is forbidden to kill journalists and aid workers.” Journalists are emissaries of truth, they say, and aid workers are emissaries of mercy and kindness. It was also forbidden to harm or mistreat Christians and any “people of the scripture” in any way, and obligatory to consider Yazidis (a Kurdish community overrun in August) as people of the scripture.

Slavery gets special condemnation. “After a century of Muslim consensus on the prohibition of slavery, you have violated this: you have taken women as concubines and thus revived strife and sedition, and corruption and lewdness, on the earth.”

In a blistering conclusion the scholars declare: “You have misinterpreted Islam into a religion of harshness, brutality, torture and murder. As elucidated, this is a great wrong and an offence to Islam, to Muslims and to the entire world. “Reconsider all your actions; desist from them; repent from them; cease harming others and return to the religion of mercy.”

Al-Baghdadi will no doubt ignore this plea, but non-Muslims will join Muslims of good will in applauding it. Especially welcome is the scholars’ rejection of the misuse of scripture for evil purposes. Where there is no humanity, it is rotten religion.


My brother wanted to be a jihadi – and society is creating many more like him

Extremism of any kind is a symptom of an unhealthy society and, in order to eradicate it, we should look to treat its cause
Robb Leech                              Guardian/UK                         22 October 2014

As Isis continues to dominate our collective consciousness, most recently with the crucifixion of a 17-year-old boy, the government appears to be fumbling in the dark for new ways of stemming the blood from an old wound which refuses to heal; only they seem to be thinking about bigger plasters, which probably won’t do the trick. Meanwhile, somewhere in the UK, another jihadist is born.

I documented the birth of one particular jihadist in my BBC3 film My Brother the Islamist. The film charted my attempts to reconnect with Rich, who happened to be my stepbrother, to try to understand the new world he had become a part of. Ultimately the shared journey drew us closer together, but a year later he would be arrested for attempting to join the Taliban in Pakistan.

Only two weeks before he vanished from the streets of Ealing we talked about our family, football, and albeit fleetingly, the future. I left the meeting with a smile on my face. Six months later he would plead guilty to terrorism charges, and I began making a second film, My Brother the Terrorist.

From the moment he converted, Rich was talking about fighting western oppression and dying a martyr. In a sense, the writing was on the wall. Violent jihad was something he and his “brothers” constantly talked about. When Rich pleaded guilty to preparing to commit acts of terror in 2012, he had been planning to travel to Afghanistan to cross the border and join the Pakistani Taliban.

But I never saw Rich as a terrorist, and didn’t see any of the people he surrounded himself with as terrorists either. What I saw were, and I hate to say it – vulnerable young men – with great chips on their shoulders. With their radical new status they felt empowered, superior and perhaps most annoyingly for me, righteous.

In a former life, the world they had been brought up in had wronged them. Perhaps they had family troubles, or maybe society shunned them, whatever it was, they resented it – they were lost, empty and had no stake in the western world. Becoming a radical Muslim reversed the polarity.

It’s a cliquey club from which everything beyond is viewed as imperfect at best, or evil at worst. And it’s the evils that these guys saturate their perceptions of the world with. Horrific, graphic and brutal images of the suffering, pain and death of Muslims at the hands of the west, played out alongside a powerful narrative of oppression and injustice – a narrative that is difficult to dismantle. The powerful human response to violence becomes nullified, and they become blind to the evil they themselves help to perpetrate.

People like my stepbrother justify fighting violent jihad out of a sense of responsibility and powerlessness at the plight of fellow Muslims. Yes, fighting on a foreign battlefield and owning your own AK-47 is pretty exciting too (and let’s not forget that dying a martyr is like hitting the afterlife jackpot), but crucially their motivation isn’t to kill innocent people, or to do bad. They’re not thinking about blowing themselves up at a tube station, the story they’re telling themselves is, as confounding as it sounds – one of saving humanity.

In hindsight, Rich’s arrest and subsequent conviction shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me: he set out to do what he had always talked of. As I stood in the public gallery and heard the evidence put forward by the prosecution, I looked into the dock to see Rich’s stony face and felt let down and sad, but also unexpectedly stupid. The inherent problem in attempting to tackle radicalisation is that often it is too late. By the time its signs begin to show, the scene is already set. Extremism of any kind is a symptom of an unhealthy society and, like any illness, in order to eradicate it, we should look to treat its cause.

Yes, charismatic ideologues play a part in the radicalisation process. But deep down, for those who are vulnerable, it’s not really about religious conviction or saving the world from oppression or defeating the evil west – these are just emotional vents; justifications for appeasing the deep lonely spaces of the human condition. It’s about feeling important, valued and ultimately, having a stake in the world surrounding them. [Abbrev.]

The poison’s still in the fridge, but perhaps I don’t want it after all

In July, sick with cancer, Jo Beecham talked in this newspaper about stashing life-ending drugs in her fridge, in case she wanted to hasten her end. But as the disease wore on, she had second thoughts

Paula Cocozza                                Guardian/UK                      26 October 2014

When Jo Beecham was diagnosed with cancer three years ago, her first instinct was to control the moment of her death, to bypass the worst of the pain. In fear, she bought some life-ending drugs, and in July this year, she gave an account in these pages of the challenges of living with poison hidden behind the bags of salad in the fridge.

Jo’s health has deteriorated quickly since then. But though the time to use it must be close, the poison has never felt more out of reach. Is it fear that is stopping Jo from choosing to use the drugs, which once offered reassurance but now seem to ask for too much strength? Or has she found a different kind of succour – in the form of Annie Lister, an independent cancer and palliative care expert with 30 years’ experience?

When Annie first met Jo in late spring, Jo had a detailed plan for her death, and Annie had “a long in the tooth” palliative carer’s belief that legalised assisted dying might be “the start of a slippery slope”. After all, Annie’s life’s work has been to soothe difficult endings. But the intensity and intimacy of Jo and Annie’s conversations have lifted the debate out of a moral maze and made it a matter of personal friendship. Over the past five months, Jo and Annie have travelled so far towards each other emotionally and intellectually that both have changed their minds about what makes a good death. While Annie has become more sympathetic to the idea of legalised assisted dying, Jo has chosen to confront the approach of death with palliative care.

These days, Jo says, the drugs “are not in my thinking”. What has made the difference, Jo says, is “Annie’s experience, her calmness. I’m being accompanied. I’m not alone. When I’m in pain and I don’t recognise it, and it’s really strong, it panics me. I want Annie more and more to be here. I know she’ll calm me quickly.

Has it felt challenging for Annie to care for someone who wants to anticipate the end, when her work is to manage symptoms until the end comes? “The truth is, I don’t think the palliative care world really had to think of assisted dying seriously,” she says. “Palliative care professionals have hidden behind the fact that it’s illegal.”

Annie has travelled to a point of great sympathy with, and affection for, Jo. Does she feel she could be there, at her side, if Jo wishes to end her life? “There is nothing professional to stop me being here, although I’m clear that I wouldn’t facilitate it,” says Annie. The drugs remain in the fridge, in the kitchen where the washing machine is whirring. The moment may have passed to take them. “I have felt from the beginning,” she says, “that if it was something Jo chose to do, that would be her choice, and I wouldn’t be able to control it.”

Would she feel that she had failed her patient? “I cannot honestly give an answer as to how it would feel in the event. I have a little worry that it may feel like a failure. I would need time, but I would know that I had given it my best shot to help her in this gentler, easier way for her, her friends and her family.”

It is difficult to know whether Jo’s feelings towards the drugs have changed because she has care now that works for her in the way that the poison once worked, offering control over the unknown she fears. Or how far her physical weakness – yesterday, she had to crawl up the stairs and she avoids moving “because I don’t want to see how much weaker I’ve got” – has rendered unfeasible the exertion required to self-administer an illegal drug.

Perhaps it is only the illegality, considered in her severely weakened state, that makes the choice so hard to contemplate. Jo remains a firm advocate of the legalisation of assisted dying, alongside excellent palliative care, her experience of which has mellowed her position. The drugs no longer appear to be what she wants.

“They may not be,” she says quickly, moving to sit up. “But maybe they are. Their presence, if not their use, makes the future feel navigable… Sometimes feeling drowsy and nodding off is a relief, because that’s where I see I’m going,” Jo says. “My body is driving my thoughts now. I’m going to sleep more, drift off and die. And not really be aware. That’s OK. The beauty of what’s in the fridge is that it is there if you change your mind.”

• Jo Beecham died peacefully at home, in the company of friends, on 15 October 2014, a week after this interview took place. The drugs stayed in the fridge until her friends disposed of them safely.    


How Denmark deals with returned Islamist fighters

Anthony Faiola and Souad Mekhennet                 Sydney Morning Herald               Oct. 22, 2014 

AARHUS, Denmark: The rush of morning shoppers parted to make way for Talha, a lanky 21-year-old in desert camouflage and a long, religious beard. He strode through the local mall with a fighter's gait picked up on the battlefields of Syria. Streams of young Muslim men greeted him like a returning king. al-salam alaykum. (peace be upon you). 

In other countries, Talha - one of hundreds of young jihadists from the West who has fought in Syria and Iraq - might be barred from return or thrown in jail. But in Denmark, a country that has spawned more foreign fighters per capita than almost anywhere else, not one returned fighter has been locked up. Instead, officials here are providing free psychological counselling while finding returnees jobs and spots in schools and universities. Officials credit a new effort to reach out to a radical mosque with staunching the flow of recruits.

Aarhus' answer has left the likes of Talha wandering freely on the streets. The son of Muslim immigrants from the Middle East, he fought with an Islamist brigade in Syria for nine months before returning home last October. He still dreams of one day living in a Middle Eastern caliphate. He rejects the Islamic State's beheading of foreign hostages but defends their summary executions of Iraqi and Syrian soldiers. "I know how some people think. They are afraid of us, the ones coming back," says Talha, a name he adopted to protect his identity because he never told his father he went to fight. "Look, we are really not dangerous."

Yet critics call this city's soft-handed approach just that - dangerous. And the effort here is fast becoming a pawn in the much larger debate raging across Europe over Islam and the nature of extremism. More and louder voices here are clamouring for new laws that could not only charge returnees with treason but also set curbs on immigration from Muslim countries.

Aarhus is treating its returning religious fighters like wayward youths rather than terrorism suspects because that's the way most of them started out. The majority were young men like Talha, between 16 and 28, including several former criminals and gang members who had recently found what they began to call "true Islam". Most of them came from law-abiding Muslim homes and, quite often, were the children of divorced parents.

On the day he left for Syria, in October 2012, he told his divorced parents that he and a friend were going to Turkey on vacation. Instead, his friend's cousin had arranged their passage across the border to Syria. He worked in a refugee camp for a few weeks before getting attached to an independent battalion associated with the Islamist militia Ahrar al-Sham, a group with alleged ties to al-Qaeda. During the months when he manned heavy artillery batteries near Aleppo, he said, his outfit also maintained harmonious ties with the Islamic State. 

Danish authorities say the vast majority of the 30 or so Aarhus residents who went to Syria were somehow linked to one of the most polarising houses of worship in Europe - the Grimhojvej mosque. Talha began to worship there four years ago, two years before he left for Syria. But Talha wants to make one thing clear. He, like the mosque leadership, denies that Grimhojvej recruited him and other fighters.

Nevertheless, in January, Aarhus officials gave the mosque an ultimatum. It could either open itself up to a new dialogue with the community or face a public condemnation and, quite likely, stepped-up legal pressure. The mosque chose to cooperate. Since January, police and city officials have engaged in a number of unprecedented sessions hosted by the mosque. In the presence of mosque leaders, police and city officials met with returned fighters like Talha to assess their risk levels. They also met with members of the mosque's youth group to dissuade other young Muslims from traveling to the Middle East. The mosque still openly backs a caliphate in the Middle East, refuses to offer a blanket denunciation of the Islamic State and warns that Denmark's recent decision to join the US-led coalition in air strikes against the militant group may only fan the fires of terrorism.

Police officials say the statistics prove their approach is working. "In 2013, we had 30 young people go to Syria," said Jorgen Ilum, Aarhus's police commissioner. "This year, to my knowledge, we have had only one. We believe that the main reason is our contact and dialogue with the Muslim community." [Abridged]

Bombs Fall in Syria as Weapons-Makers Profits Soar in the West

 By Jon Queally, staff writer                      Common Dreams                      October 20, 2014

According to The Independent's Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk, there is only one clear winner in the new war that has now engulfed Syria and Iraq: the world's top weapons manufacturers. On Sunday Fisk wrote, "Share prices are soaring in America for those who produce the coalition bombs and missiles and drones and aircraft participating in this latest war … The war against Isis is breeding Isis. For every dead Isis member, we are creating three of four more. And if Isis really is the “apocalyptic”, “evil”, “end-of-the-world” institution we have been told it is... then every increase in profits for Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics is creating yet more Isis fighters."

In addition to new bombings by U.S. warplanes, the U.S. military over the last twenty-four hours has air-dropped machine guns, anti-tank weapons, ammunition, food, and medical supplies to Kurdish fighters inside the Syrian city of Kobani as they continue to fight off an assault by Islamic State (or ISIS) militants. Though Kurds in both Turkey and Iraq have been pleading for Turkey to assist those in Kobani, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been consistently opposed, repeating that it views the mostly autonomous Kurdish population in that region of Syria as members or allies of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which—despite a cease-fire agreement and ongoing peace process—it views as an enemy.

That may have changed, however, in the aftermath of the U.S. airdrops. As the New York Times reports Monday morning: “Hours after American military aircraft dropped ammunition and small arms to resupply Kurdish fighters in the embattled Syrian town of Kobani, Turkey’s foreign minister said Monday that the country would facilitate the movement of Iraqi Kurdish forces, known as pesh merga, to the city to join the fighting.” The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, speaking at a news conference in Ankara, said that his government was “helping the pesh merga cross over to Kobani,” an apparent shift from Turkey’s previous refusal to allow any military assistance to Kurdish fighters in the town.

The developments reflected escalating international pressure to help Kurdish forces push back Islamic State militants who have been attacking the Kurdish town for more than a month. The battle has become a closely watched test for the Obama administration as it embarks on a war reliant on air power against the militant group in Iraq and Syria. It has also raised tensions across the border in Turkey, where Kurds have accused the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of abandoning the city to the militants.

Critics of the overall U.S. strategy in the region have pointed out how the fight in Kobani highlights the inherent complexities of the new war in Syria and Iraq that is setting the stage for a much wider, longer and unpredictable conflict. But according to Fisk, what is really sinister about the current campaign by the U.S. and their allies is the manner in which the profits of the weapon-makers soar, as the region and its people continue to suffer.

Quoted at length, Fisk writes: “When the Americans decided to extend their bombing into Syria in September – to attack President Assad’s enemies scarcely a year after they first proposed to bomb President Assad himself – Raytheon was awarded a $251m (£156m) contract to supply the US navy with more Tomahawk cruise missiles. Agence France-Presse, which does the job that Reuters used to do when it was a real news agency, informed us that on 23 September, American warships fired 47 Tomahawk missiles. Each one costs about $1.4m. And if we spent as promiscuously on Ebola cures, believe me, there would be no more Ebola.”

Let me give you a quotation from reporter Dan De Luce’s dispatch on arms sales for the French news agency. “The war promises to generate more business not just from US government contracts but other countries in a growing coalition, including European and Arab states… Apart from fighter jets, the air campaign [sic] is expected to boost the appetite for aerial refuelling tankers, surveillance aircraft such as the U-2 and P-8 spy planes, and robotic [sic] drones… Private security contractors, which profited from the US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, also are optimistic the conflict will produce new contracts to advise Iraqi troops.”

This is obviously outrageous. The same murderous bunch of gunmen we sent to Iraq are going to be let loose to teach our “allies” in Syria – “moderate” secular militias, of course – the same vicious tactics they used against civilians in Iraq. And the same missiles are going to be used – at huge profit– on the peoples of the Middle East, Isis or not. Which is why De Luce’s report is perhaps the most important of the whole war in the region.


Monday, 20 October 2014

This Pope is full of questions.

For the first time in its history, the Church is starting to slightly relax its attitude to homosexuality

Andreas Whittam Smith                      Independent/UK                           15 October 2014

 Anybody interested in leadership should watch Pope Francis carefully. The first lesson he teaches is not to postpone confronting the toughest questions. He has been in office for only a year and a half, yet he has already called a synod of bishops (182-strong) to study the “family” – in other words, sexual relationships. For the Roman Catholic Church, as indeed for the Church of England, nothing could be more difficult.

Then in designing the synod, Pope Francis rejected the usual top-down method of decision-making. The synods convened by his predecessors – Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI – were stage-managed affairs in which the opinions of the bishops in attendance were never really sought. But the new Pope told the cardinals and bishops attending the synod that they were to say what was on their minds. This is important because the bishops have come to the synod in Rome from very different situations. In some places, polygamy is the norm; in others the practice of “arranged marriages” persists. In yet others, Christianity is a minority religion so that “mixed” marriages are common.

In his planning of the synod, the Pope also paid attention to the classical adage festina lente, “make haste slowly” – or, as we might say, more haste, less speed. Don’t rush to a decision. Let time play its role. Allow for what is called “God’s patience”. So the meeting that finished this week is described as preliminary. It only starts a process that is meant to continue until another synod of bishops scheduled for 2015.

More dramatic though has been the Pope’s decision to open the windows of the Vatican and let in fresh air by facilitating the participation of ordinary members of the Church. Thus before the synod had begun, Church members were asked to respond to a survey. The Pope wanted his bishops to have a clearer idea of why Rome’s teachings are increasingly being rejected or ignored. One question was, “How does your parish community welcome same-sex couples and gay persons? How are they included in the life of the parish? Are they given sufficient space to be full and active members of the Church?"

But that was not all. Every day during the synod, at the beginning of each session, lay people were asked to testify. As one observer remarked, hundreds of celibate men from the Roman Catholic Church have spent the last week hearing people who actually have sex actually talk about it.

As far as gay people are concerned, the preliminary report observes that they have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community. It asks: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? “Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?” And it adds: “Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions, it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners.” In other words, love.

In the same way, adds the document, the situation of the divorced who have remarried demands discernment and an “accompaniment” full of respect, avoiding any language or behaviour that might make them feel discriminated against. The point about choice of language is important. Even this report, when referring to the separated and divorced, refers to them all as “damaged families”. “Damaged” is an unfortunate description.

Taking the preliminary report as a whole, the fundamentalist tendency was unhappy, as one would expect. These people are in permanent opposition to the modern world. So the head of the Polish bishops’ conference, Cardinal Stanislaw Gadecki, was not alone in calling the preliminary report “unacceptable” and a deviation from church teaching. However, by indicating that the preliminary report is not the final word, the Pope has given himself plenty of room for manoeuvre.

The head of the Roman Catholic Church in England, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, was more diplomatic. “It is not a doctrinal or decisive document,” he said. “It is, as stated in its conclusion, ‘intended to raise questions and indicate perspectives that will have to be matured and made clearer on reflection’.” The Pope will be happy with that. He has achieved movement and brought new voices into the debate. That is a good start. [Abridged]

Sanders: Real Fear Not ISIS, But 'Perpetual Warfare Year After Year After Year'

Jon Queally                            Common Dreams                     October 12, 2014

US strategy against militant group in Syria and Iraq described as "in tatters," but US officials say American public should prepare for "long-term effort.
Sen. Bernie Sanders on Sunday was among those calling out the Obama administration for pursuing a failed and misguided policy towards the group and the region overall. "The question we have got to ask," said Sanders on CNN's State of the Union with Candy Crowley, "Is why are the countries in the region not more actively involved? Why don't they see this as a crisis situation? Here's the danger [...] if the Middle East people see this as the United States vs. ISIS, the West vs. East, Christianity vs. Islam—we're going to lose that war."

On Saturday, the New York Times reported that even the so-called "moderate rebels" in Syria have become disillusioned with U.S. military intervention. On CNN, Sanders said “We have been at war for 12 years. We have spent trillions of dollars," he said. “What I do not want, and I fear very much, is the United States getting sucked into a quagmire and being involved in perpetual warfare year after year after year. That is my fear.”

analysis for The Independent on Sunday, journalist Patrick Cockburn said the U.S. strategy against ISIS was "in tatters," as he mentioned how over the weekend ISIS forces had continued their assault on the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani, which sits on the border of Turkey, while also gaining new ground in Iraq, both in Anbar Province and on the outskirts of Bagdad.

Unfortunately for the US, Kobani isn't the only place air strikes are failing to stop Isis. In an offensive in Iraq launched on 2 October but little reported in the outside world, Isis has captured almost all the cities and towns it did not already hold in Anbar province, a vast area in western Iraq that makes up a quarter of the country. It has captured Hit, Kubaisa and Ramadi, the provincial capital, which it had long fought for. Other cities, towns and bases on or close to the Euphrates River west of Baghdad fell in a few days, often after little resistance by the Iraqi Army which showed itself to be as dysfunctional as in the past, even when backed by US air strikes.

The US's failure to save Kobani, if it falls, will be a political as well as military disaster. Indeed, the circumstances surrounding the loss of the beleaguered town are even more significant than the inability so far of air strikes to stop Isis taking 40 per cent of it. At the start of the bombing in Syria, President Obama boasted of putting together a coalition of Sunni powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to oppose Isis, but these all have different agendas to the US in which destroying ISIS is not the first priority. The Sunni Arab monarchies may not like Isis, which threatens the political status quo, but, as one Iraqi observer put it, "they like the fact that Isis creates more problems for the Shia than it does for them".

On Saturday, the United Nations warned of a massacre of Kurdish civilians if Kobani was to fall to ISIS, but reports on Sunday made it hard to determine how likely that scenario continues to be. Though many discussed an ISIS victory as a foregone conclusion after Turkey refused to intervene on behalf of the mostly Kurdish population there, the
Washington Post on Sunday reported that the Kurdish fighters who remain in the city have been able to push back the attack. According to the Post:

Kurds have appealed for international pressure on Turkey to permit arms and reinforcements across the border to the fighters defending the town. But Turkey has a long history of enmity with Turkish Kurds and has thrown up a wall of steel along the border. Tanks, armored vehicles and troops are fanned out across the hills overlooking Kobane, and soldiers at checkpoints refuse to permit either people or goods to cross into the Syrian town.

Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdogan expressed his frustration Saturday with the mounting international pressure on Turkey to do more to help the Kurds.

“What does Kobane have to do with Turkey? With İstanbul, with Ankara?” he asked at a ceremony inaugurating a school in the town of Rize, according to Turkish media.


Monday, 13 October 2014

Election Aftermath

Ian Harris                              Otago Daily Times                           October 10, 2014 

As a shambolic election campaign fades mercifully into history, voters are left mulling over what might have been, whether for better or for worse. In the major league National’s victory was stunning, Labour’s loss gutting. And nearly one in four of us didn’t bother to vote.

A democracy waxes and wanes according to how society as a whole engages with it, so something is obviously lacking. Was this campaign so drab and dirty that many people didn’t want a bar of it? Or was there something missing in all the public debate: namely, a clear vision of what kind of people, in what kind of society, New Zealanders might aspire to be? For as the proverb warns, “Where there is no vision, the people perish”.

Sure, there was plenty of pragmatic detail around what should or shouldn’t be done to broaden the tax system, clean up our rivers, help or deter developers, tweak education, ensure children’s futures are not stunted by poverty. Most politicians presumably want to do good rather than bad, within the parameters of whatever political, economic or social ideology drives them. But parameters can turn out to be blinkers, and ideology is not vision.

At their best, politics and religion do share a common impulse. Each in its own way envisions a re-ordering of the world – not usually the whole world, but certainly the world of a particular place and time. Sometimes, though, it is the whole world. Communism had such a vision. Capitalism still does, especially multinational mega-capitalism. Europe’s imperial powers re-ordered the world by carving it up and imposing their rule.

In World War 2, Germany and Japan set out to re-order vast portions of the globe for their own aggrandisement.

Hence every grand cause needs to be tested: What are its guiding values? How will the vision be pursued? Who stands to benefit? 

At the heart of both Christianity and Islam lie visions of re-ordering the world – and the long history of both religions illustrate the perils of imposing their vision top-down through becoming politically dominant, rather than growing it from the ground up in freedom of choice.

In Muslim thought, the religious and political orders are two sides of the same coin. In the great age of Islam 1000 years ago the religion of a compassionate God and caring community produced in some regions a flowering of learning, tolerance, respect and humanity.

In marked contrast is the fanatical savagery of today’s Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, or Boko Haram in Nigeria, whose followers slaughter, kidnap and oppress at the point of the sword. They envision a very different society, misusing Islam to fuel a political messianism of domination and intolerance.

Medieval Christendom went through a similar phase in its murderous crusades to restore the Holy Land to Christian rule, and in the political power exercised by popes, bishops and priests to control thought and curb freedom. Just as the barbarism of an Islamist fringe is a perversion of the teaching of Mohammed, so was Christian brutality a negation of the spirit of Jesus.

Jesus certainly envisioned a re-ordering of the world. His central image was of earth as God’s kingdom – not a kingdom to be imposed by coercive political power, but one where people who caught his vision, and then lived it into reality, could transform whole communities.

The kingdoms of Jesus’ image are not the norm any more, and for many the theistic God it assumes has faded out of consciousness, taking with it any notion of God’s kingdom on earth. Nature abhors a vacuum, so in its place have arisen the modern gods of individualism, neo-liberal economics, and the multinational corporates. Some insist these promote and expand human freedom, but they are actually the gods of the “haves” – who are past-masters at enlisting politicians to put their interests first.

Serving those gods has ensured that far from trickling down, wealth gushes upwards, widening the gap between the richest quintile of society and the rest. Faith in those gods lay behind the recent global financial crisis, and will trigger another. Central to the Christian vision of the kingdom of God, by contrast, is a sense of worth, belonging and justice as all contribute according to their strengths to the common good. It is not a political manifesto, though politicians can either build on its values or actively undermine them.

Voters need not wait on them, however, to make the vision real in their own lives and communities. It will always trump any party platform.

Propaganda war of Islamic extremists is being waged on Facebook and internet message boards, not mosques

Robert Fisk                           Independent UK                           12 October 2014

Ever since the Pentagon started talking about Isis as apocalyptic, I’ve suspected that websites and blogs and YouTube are taking over from reality. I’m even wondering whether “Isis” – or Islamic State or Isil, here we go again – isn’t more real on the internet than it is on the ground. Not, of course, for the Kurds of Kobani or the Yazidis or the beheaded victims of this weird caliphate. But isn’t it time we woke up to the fact that internet addiction in politics and war is even more dangerous than hard drugs?

Over and over, we have the evidence that it is not Isis that “radicalises” Muslims before they head off to Syria – and how I wish David Cameron would stop using that word – but the internet. The belief, the absolute conviction that the screen contains truth – that the “message” really is the ultimate verity – has still not been fully recognised for what it is; an extraordinary lapse in our critical consciousness that exposes us to the rawest of emotions without the means to correct this imbalance. The “virtual” has dropped out of “virtual reality”.

At its most basic, you have only to read the viciousness of internet chatrooms. Major newspapers – hopelessly late – have only now started to realise that chatrooms are not a new technical version of “Letters to the Editor” but a dangerous forum for people to let loose their most-disturbing characteristics. Thus a major political shift in the Middle East, transferred to the internet, takes on cataclysmic proportions. Our leaders not only can be transfixed themselves – the chairman of the US House Committee on Homeland Security, for example, last week brandishing a printed version of Dabiq, the Isis online magazine – but can use the same means to terrify us.

We have grown so used to the narrative whereby a Muslim is “radicalised” by a preacher at a mosque, and then sets off on jihad, that we do not realise that the laptop is playing this role. In Lebanon, for example, there is some evidence that pictures on YouTube have just as much influence upon Muslims who suddenly decide to travel to Syria and Iraq as do Sunni preachers. Photographs of Sunni Muslim victims – or of the “execution” of their supposedly apostate enemies – have a powerful impact out of all proportion to words on their own.

Martin Pradel, a French lawyer for returning and now-imprisoned jihadists, last week described how his clients spent hours on the internet with a preference for YouTube and other social networks, looking at images and messages marketed by Isis. They did not – please note – go to mosques, and they drew apart from family and friends. A remarkable AFP report tells of a 15-year-old girl from Avignon who left for the Syrian war last January without telling her parents. Her brother discovered she led parallel lives, with two Facebook accounts, one where she talked about her normal teenage life, another where she wrote about her desire to go “to Aleppo to help our Syrian brothers and sisters”. Mr Pradel said the “radicalisation” was very quick, in one case within a month. It reminds me horribly of the accounts of American teenagers who lock themselves on to the internet for hours before storming off to shoot their school colleagues and teachers.

Online, Dabiq – named after a Syrian town captured by the jihadis which will supposedly be the site of a future and apocalyptic (yes, that word again) battle against the Western crusaders – is a slick venture. But print it up and bind it – I have such a copy beside me as I write – and it appears very crude. There are photographs of mass executions which look more like pictures of atrocities on the Eastern Front in the Second World War than publicity for a new Muslim caliphate. There is the full text of poor James Foley’s last message before his beheading which – on paper – is deeply saddening.
“The Dabiq team [sic] would like to hear back from its readers,” the editors say at the end, providing email addresses and advice to be “brief” because – they add, with perhaps unintentional humour – “your brothers are busy with many responsibilities and therefore will not have the time to read long messages.” But that’s the point, isn’t it? Be brief. Keep the length down. No aimless arguments or the letter may be “modified” (that’s the word the editors actually use in English).

I will not dwell here on the failure of the West’s “mainstream” press – another word I loathe – in defining Isis; Dabiq’s publishers have cleverly mimicked many of its faults. But those who are gripped by the messages of the internet – pictures of the chemical gas victims in Damascus last year have clearly had a tremendous influence – are not going to be swayed by us journos any more. In this new world, we can lose our heads, literally. But remember the internet. Clearly, Isis has.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Islamic State? A better name might be unIslamic State

Richard Glover                      Sydney Morning Herald                     September 30, 2014

There's a grisly prescience about the opening line of If, Rudyard Kipling's most famous poem: "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs ..."

Kipling, of course, wasn't thinking about beheading as a tool of terror, nor of the rampaging horror of Islamic State, but he did understand the way we could all metaphorically lose our heads in times like these. His poem is a warning about the dangers of being swept along by the noise of the crowd. He wanted us to understand how difficult it is to stand steady against such pressure, and how doing so requires character, values and fortitude. Let's hope we all measure up, for the time is now.

This is the real battleground of terrorism: a million tiny interactions on the streets of our cities. Will that glance be a hostile one or a kindly one? Will the angry Facebook post be shared or criticised? Do we together push the vulnerable towards the extremists, or do we tempt them back to the middle?

And how do we collectively cope when things go wrong? Will the Muslim community, seeing a mosque daubed with graffiti, understand the crime is the act of a deranged, hate-filled minority? Will non-Muslims, aghast when a preacher refuses to criticise a terrorist, understand that he speaks for the few and not the many?

Right now, anger and fear is being directed from both sides towards a shared target: those of us in the middle. It is the noise of the fanatical street preacher trying to brainwash a disaffected young man; equally, it's the shrill voice of the "go-back-to-where-you-came-from" bigot seeking to demonise Islam. “All this violence is right there in the Koran," rant a thousand voices on Facebook, before going on to quote certain lines, as if the Christian Bible doesn't offer the odd smiting.

What's interesting is that these anti-Islamic crusaders are doing identical work to the terrorists: they seek to make Islamic State an expression of Islam. They are trying to recast the world so that a rag-tag group of violent criminals is suddenly the true representation of a religion.

This of course is the exact project of the terrorists. That's why they call it Islamic State, when a better name maybe unIslamic State. It's why they use terms such as "jihadists" for their recruits, when "disaffected loser" would be more accurate. It's why they talk about people becoming "holy warriors", when "brainwashed dupes" would be more precise.

In truth, Islamic State is just a flag of convenience for the lost and enraged. It's Islamic in the same way as Nazism was Christian. Look at the backgrounds of those who've left to fight overseas and it's the same limping, sad-sack backstory: drug use, minor crime, and often a fumbling, failed attempt at fame. Throw in a relationship break-up and some financial problems, and they are now ready for a "solution" to their discontent.

How much is any of this about Islam? The most eloquent answer to that question emerged in court proceedings against two of the British jihadists, Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed. Before heading to Syria, they ordered books from Amazon: Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies. Like most jihadists, they were not observant Muslims; they were the opposite. Islam wasn't their motivation; Islam was their cover.

Amid all this, there's a hunger for hope. Last week, a 10-year-old called Mohammed called my radio show and spoke about the lack of racism in his Sydney school. Everyone gets on, he said, we all play together and really the adults could take a leaf out of our book. Whacked up on social media, his advice has since been shared more than 50,000 times. From the names I see on Twitter and Facebook, the sharing has been done by Sydneysiders from both Muslim and non-Muslim backgrounds.

Those 50,000 know the truth: we keep ourselves safe by placing our arms around each other. We keep ourselves safe by staring down those on both sides who seek to make this about religion instead of about criminal violence and madness. On both sides, we must divide the normals from the nutters. We must keep our heads when all about us are losing theirs. [Abbrev.]  

Australia and Islamic State: put it in perspective

Hugh Mackay                             Sydney Morning Herald               October 4, 2014

Given the unfolding events in Iraq and Syria and the acts of barbarism being committed by Islamic State militants, it's tempting to throw up our hands and see this as the greatest threat to civilisation since … which threat shall we choose? Oliver Cromwell in Ireland? Pol Pot in Cambodia? Adolf Hitler?

A mere 75 years ago, Nazi Germany had even grander territorial goals than ISIL: control of Europe, not just Iraq and Syria. Like ISIL, the Nazis were determined to suppress dissent and exterminate "others". Many Nazis were Christians who believed God was on their side: Hitler himself was a Catholic. On the other hand, many Christians inside and outside Germany were bitterly opposed to Nazism, just like the many Muslims who abhor the extremism and violence of both ISIL and al-Qaeda (who are, of course, at war with each other).

At a time like this, it's important to keep things in perspective. We are not being "over-run" by Muslims in Australia. The vast majority of asylum-seekers are not Muslims. The fastest-growing religion in Australia is not Islam (it's Hinduism, though off a low base). Muslims represent just 2.2 per cent of the Australian population, compared with 61 per cent identifying themselves as Christian.

Anxiety about security should remind us that governments tend not to discourage rumours of war because they know any talk of military action fuels our insecurity and that, in turn, strengthens their grip on power (think Thatcher and Falklands; think Howard and Iraq). Our heightened fears are bad for us, but good for them. Advertisement

So we would do well to resist the excesses of simplistic tribalism and remind ourselves that our common humanity is more powerful than our individual differences. We are social creatures who are defined more by our interdependence than our independence, though the popular cult of "Me-ism" would deny that.

All this points to the classic human quandary: we are individuals with a strong sense of our independent personal identity and we are members of families, groups and communities with an equally strong sense of social identity, fed by our intense desire to belong. This tension between the two sides of our nature explains why we sometimes act against the interests of the very communities we depend on.

There are plenty of signs of "attacks" on our way of life, but they are not coming from forces beyond our control, or from some external threat to our values. We ourselves are making the changes that are reshaping our way of life, and many of them do indeed work against the stable and cohesive communities we aspire to belong to.

For example, the disruptions and upheavals caused by our changing patterns of marriage and divorce demand difficult adjustments for many families, and for the social networks they belong to. Roughly one million dependent children live with only one of their natural parents, and half of them are caught in a pattern of weekly or fortnightly migration between the homes of custodial and non-custodial parents. Almost one-quarter of homes with dependent children are single-parent households. None of that is plain sailing for anyone.

Here's another radical shift: relative to total population, we are producing the smallest number of children Australia has ever seen. Our low birthrate diminishes the role children have traditionally played as a social lubricant in local neighbourhoods. But no one did that to us; we are doing it to ourselves.

In Australia, like the United States, we move house, on average, once every six years, and such mobility inevitably destabilises neighbourhoods. Universal car ownership reduces local footpath traffic and decreases the chance of those encounters and everyday courtesies that strengthen the bonds of community. Meanwhile, the IT revolution makes it easier for us not to see each other, while creating the illusion of connectedness.

The cumulative effect of such changes takes its toll on us and our communities, and the sense of an external threat only exacerbates it. We need to connect, to associate, to engage. Joining a service club, giving a neighbour your undivided attention, responding to the needs of strangers … all such actions help build the social capital that makes us strong. Communities can be magical places, but the magic comes from us, not to us. Social cohesion is simply about treating each other with kindness and respect. [Abridged]

The focus on first US Ebola case shows how cheaply we value African lives

The sad reality is that African victims continue to suffer an excruciating death, while westerners are flown out, treated and become near-celebrities

Owen Jones                                        Guardian/UK                                    1 October 2014

The life of a westerner is judged to be of greater worth than that of a black African – and by a number of factors, too. That it’s such a statement of the obvious, rendered glib, met with an instinctive “Well, duh”, simply underlines the point. And so it is unsurprising that the case of Ebola in the US should attract headlines. We do not know yet whether the patient is a US citizen - but the widespread media attention is due to the threat being transported to US soil and therefore putting westerners at risk.

That is not to belittle the suffering of the victim, and I hope the treatment that has been successful with the westerners who contracted the virus returns them to good health. But in due course, we will undoubtedly learn more personal details about this victim treated in a Dallas hospital than we know about the 3,000-plus Africans who have so far perished.

When aid workers have succumbed to Ebola, they have been invariably flown out and given ZMapp, an experimental drug that seems to have saved their lives. British nurse William Pooley is one and – having been flown out and saved – he wants to return. But this treatment is denied to Africans dying from an agonising hemorrhagic fever, which leaves victims bleeding on both the outside and the inside.

One defence of this practice is straightforward. The safety and effectiveness of ZMapp has not been proven through clinical trials. For westerners to start using such a drug on African victims – with consequences we cannot be entirely confident about – would risk claims that pharmaceutical companies are using Liberians and Sierra Leoneans as experimental fodder. But it has, after all, already been judged to be worth using on westerners. No wonder human rights activists in Africa are saying that it proves that “the life of an African is less valuable”.

My colleague Joseph Harker wrote two weeks ago about his brother-in-law’s sister, Olivet Buck, a Sierra Leonean doctor risking her life to help the dying. When she contracted the disease, a campaign was mounted to evacuate her to Germany where a hospital in Hamburg was ready to take her. But the World Health Organisation refused to fund such a lifesaving move, and Dr Buck died.

According to Médecins Sans Frontières, the western response has been “lethally inadequate”. But you can be sure that if such an epidemic had broken out in, say, Chicago, Paris or Rome, every possible resource available to the western medical world would be thrown at the problem.

But instead the western response too often has been “what about us?”. The Bloomberg Businessweek carries an alarmist Ebola Is Coming front cover. This is a nonsense. Ebola is a disease of poverty. It is very difficult to spread, and depends on direct contact with the bodily fluids of the infected, rather than being an airborne (and thus catastrophic) illness. If Liberia had a functioning public health system, the epidemic would be shut down. It needs trained health workers, isolation wards and protective gear to combat it – infrastructure that, in our grossly unequal world, simply is not there in a countries like Liberia or Sierra Leone. In Nigeria and Senegal, where there is a far more effective public health system, the countries appear to have put a stop to the onward march of Ebola. The disease has no real chance of spreading in western countries, because any victims would be quickly isolated and treated.

The sad reality is that African victims will continue to suffer an excruciating death, denied of basic dignity, drowning in their own fluids. As they do so, they will remain nameless and forgotten, except to their forever mourning relatives. Westerners, on the other hand, will be flown out, treated and become near-celebrities. Perhaps some are resigned to such a disparity, believing that this is the inevitable way of the world. I tend to differ: it is perverse, and it is unjust.