Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

 Patrick Cockburn                               Independent/UK                                 26 April 2015        

The main outcome of the Saudi air campaign will be terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants

Yemen is short of many things, but weapons is not one of them. Yemenis own between 40 and 60 million guns, according to a report by UN experts published earlier this year. This should be enough for Yemen’s 26 million people, although the experts note that demand for grenades that used to cost $5, handguns ($150) and AK-47s ($150) has increased eightfold. Yemeni politics is notoriously complicated and exotic, with shifting alliances in which former enemies embrace and old friends make strenuous efforts to kill each other. Already in the turmoil there is a breeding ground for al-Qaeda type attacks such as that on Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

The collapse of the country into a permanent state of warfare will send waves of boat-people towards Western Europe or anywhere else they can find refuge. It is absurd for European leaders to pretend that they are doing something about “terrorism” or the refugees drowning in the Mediterranean when they ignore the wars that are the root causes of these events.

So far the Yemen war has been left to the Saudis and the Gulf monarchies, with the US ineffectually trying to end it. The reality of what is happening is very different from the way it is presented. The Saudis allege that they are crushing a takeover of Yemen by the Houthi Shia militia backed by Iran and intend to return the legitimate president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, to power. In fact, the Houthis’ seizure of so much of Yemen over the past year has little to do with Iran. It has much more to do with their alliance with their old enemy, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who still controls much of the Yemeni army. This enabled the Houthis, whose strongholds are in the north of the country, to capture Sanaa easily last September, though UN experts note that the capital “was guarded by no less than 100,000 Republican Guards and Reserve Forces, most of them loyal to the former president”.

The Saudi air campaign is geared more to inflicting severe damage on the units of the Yemeni army loyal to Saleh than it is to weakening the Houthis. The Houthi militiamen are experienced fighters, their military skills and ability to withstand air attack honed between 2004 and 2010, when they fought off six offensives launched by Saleh, who was then in power and closely allied to Saudi Arabia. It was only after he was ousted from office in 2012 that he reconciled with the Houthis.

The Saudi war aim is to break this alliance between the Houthis and the Saleh-controlled military units by destroying the army’s bases and heavy weapons. The more lightly armed Houthis are less likely to be hard-hit by air strikes, but without the support or neutrality of the regular army they will be over-stretched in the provinces south of Sanaa. In Aden, they are fighting not so much Hadi-supporters, but southern separatists who want to reverse the unification agreed in 1990.

The danger for Saudi Arabia is that wars build up an uncontrollable momentum that transforms the political landscape in which they are conceived. Yemenis insist that their society has not traditionally been divided along sectarian lines between the Zaidi Shia, a third of the population, and the two-thirds of Yemenis who are Sunni. But this could change very quickly as the Yemen conflict gets plugged into the wider and increasingly warlike regional confrontation between a Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia and a Shia counterpart led by Iran.

The Saudis and the Gulf monarchies worry so much about Yemen because it is very much their backyard. But there is every reason for the rest of the world to worry too, because Yemen is joining Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia as places where warlords rule in conditions of anarchy. They are places where life has become unlivable for much of the population, who will take any risk to escape. This is the calamity that is filling the boats and rafts crowded with desperate emigrants that are heading across the Mediterranean for Europe.

And this calamity is particularly bad in Yemen, because the country was in crisis even before the present conflict. According to UN agencies, malnutrition in Yemen is about the same as in much of sub-Saharan Africa and only half the population has access to clean water. It is difficult to move food supplies because of a chronic shortage of fuel. Lack of electricity means that essential medicines in hospitals cannot be stored.

Excerpts from a long article:

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Idiots of the World, Unite!

Robert C. Koehler               Common Dreams                April 23, 2015

“Sir, you are an idiot.” Wow, an insult wrapped in such old-fashioned politeness. I let the words hover and reach, as I always do, for peace: for clarity, connection, common humanity.

Last week I raised the idea of unarmed policing, as practiced in half a dozen countries around the world. I wasn’t calling for immediate gun surrender but, rather, the diversion of human energy away from short-sighted, violent responses to conflict situations — at pretty much every level of society, from interpersonal to geopolitical — and to the complex, courageous, creative task of building a culture of peace.

Being called an idiot for making such a plea is to be expected, of course — it happens all the time, and I relish it because it means my words have reached people on the other side of the great political divide. That’s what building peace is all about.

How will human society let go of violence — “good violence,” which is the most seductive and most destructive of all — when its utterly crucial necessity permeates the media, permeates collective thought? Good violence is so simple, so “surgical.” You take out only the problem situation and innocent people everywhere are instantly safer. Then you close your eyes and refuse to see what happens next.

As violent conflict runs wild in the Middle East, the result, the New York Times glibly and mindlessly informs us, “is a boom for American defense contractors looking for foreign business in an era of shrinking Pentagon budgets.” The article also explains: “Saudi Arabia spent more than $80 billion on weaponry last year — the most ever, and more than either France or Britain — and has become the world’s fourth-largest defense market.”

And: “Qatar, another gulf country with bulging coffers and a desire to assert its influence around the Middle East, is on a shopping spree. Last year, Qatar signed an $11 billion deal with the Pentagon to purchase Apache attack helicopters and Patriot and Javelin air-defense systems. Now the tiny nation is hoping to make a large purchase of Boeing F-15 fighters to replace its aging fleet of French Mirage jets. “American defense firms are following the money. . . .”

Wow, gosh, a “shopping spree” — so reminiscent of George Bush’s injunction to the American public to go shopping as the War on Terror was being launched. What the Times article fails to mention, however, as Qatar and Saudi Arabia and other anti-Iran U.S. allies go shopping for state-of-the-art weaponry, is that hellish conflict zones all over the planet — aflame with violence catered by U.S. and other Western defense contractors — are not merely killing innocent people directly but wrecking life-sustaining social structures and causing the displacement of millions of people, who are left without the means to live.

These conflict zones include Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Ukraine, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, according to Thalif Deen, writing for Inter Press Service. And the United Nations, charged with the task of assisting the displaced, is overwhelmed.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist.           [Abridged]


Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Lapwings take sanctuary in a Northern Ireland prison

Michael McHugh                   Independent/UK                20 April 2015

 One of the world’s most threatened birds has found a sanctuary within a prison that houses Northern Ireland’s most dangerous inmates. Prisoners serving life sentences helped create the habitat for breeding lapwings. The birds have made their home on a marshy no-man’s-land at HMP Maghaberry, dominated by razor wire and lookouts behind reinforced glass.

The six-acre patch of waste ground lies between the perimeter fence and the wall of the jail, near Lisburn in County Antrim, known for holding dissident republicans, sex offenders and murderers.

Swampy, short grass and the lack of predators such as foxes have created the ideal conditions for breeding chicks, said retired prison guard and gardener Denis Smyth. “We have to work together as a team, the prisoners and myself. We have a very good relationship with them; there is never a problem,” he said.

Lapwings, which are about the size of pigeons, have suffered a population decline of 50 per cent during the last 25 years as changes in farmland have impacted on habitats.

COMMENT: This brief news item reminds me of an almost forgotten book, “Birdman of Alcatraz”, which was later made into a film with Burt Lancaster in the title role. It was the moving story of Robert Stroud, a man with a fearsome reputation, now in solitary confinement in prison, who finds a sick bird has flown into his cell. Looking after this bird, analyzing its illnesses and bringing it back to full health, gives him a new reason for living. He becomes a different man, and in the process he finds his advice sought after by owners of birds throughout the US.

This change, which came about by accident, is echoed by the calming influence of some reforms in our NZ prisons. At Paremoremo Maximum Security Prison can now be seen, in some prisoners’ cells, tanks containing colourful fish. It seems that spending time observing how the instinct to enjoy life expresses itself with different forms of animal life, and encouraging this by providing the needed environment – this has a valuable spin-off effect that humans need. We are not meant to live in a sterile artificially created state of being. When this is imposed on us we suffer.

Not only so. We are meant to respond to life with what we may call an affectionate welcome. Life is more than getting and spending. Growing up in a family teaches us to love, parents first of all, but this soon extends to others. And it is almost inevitable that this instinct leads us to an attachment to some activity that exercises a compelling attraction for us. If this is a healthy activity we blossom. But what if this is not a healthy interest, perhaps even socially and legally disapproved of because it damages society?

When this is regarded as serious the answer prescribed can be punishment, perhaps even confinement. But we could consider other ways. A phrase that has been around for over 200 years attracts me: “The expulsive power of a new affection.” Offering a fuller life to a species under threat, finding satisfaction in some aspect of healing, developing a skill that gives pleasure to the hearer or beholder – one of these or some other form of life-enhancing activity has been the healing factor that has helped to bring renewal in many lives.

Fortunately there are some in our Corrections Department who are looking for such alternatives, even for long-time offenders. Sadly there are also some who see punishment and imprisonment as the preferred way to go. In the 1930s and ‘40s lads of 16 to 18 years of age were routinely sentenced to two or three year terms of Borstal “training” which, for most young offenders, was disastrous in its effects. Researchers analysed the records of these lads in later life, and found that about 75 % had gone on to become adult criminals. Borstals were discontinued when the Justice Department had digested these statistics.

We honour men like John Robson, and later, Judge Andrew Becroft and others, who introduced more human and subtle ways of dealing with young offenders. But there is still some way to go. 

-Arthur Palmer

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

One man's appeasement is another's diplomacy

Paul Thomas                       NZ Herald                    Apr 10, 2015

Twenty-six years before Fifty Shades of Grey, the late Chrissy Amphlett, frontwoman of Aussie rock band Divinyls, pointed out that in affairs of the heart (and other body parts) "it's a fine line between pleasure and pain". Likewise sport. Martin Guptill played the innings of the Cricket World Cup and made many commentators' team of the tournament, but if the West Indies hadn't spilled a relatively straightforward catch he wouldn't have done either.

Likewise war. The Battle of Waterloo ended the first French Empire, consigned Napoleon to exile on a volcanic rock in the South Atlantic and ushered in 50 years of peace in Europe, but according to the victorious commander, the Duke of Wellington, it was "the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life". When it comes to things that could go either way, the just-announced embryonic deal over Iran's nuclear programme takes the cake.

Led by the Presidents of the US and Iran, some are hailing it as a historic breakthrough that defuses an explosive situation and has the potential to jolt the Middle East out of its death cycle of terror, civil strife and proxy war. Others, however, are denouncing it as a monumental folly likely to end in a mushroom cloud.

From Tel Aviv to Texas the Iran deal is being compared to the 1938 Munich Agreement. In this scenario, Iran is Nazi Germany, Barack Obama is Neville Chamberlain, the hapless dupe of a British Prime Minister who swallowed Hitler's lies hook, line and sinker, and Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu is Winston Churchill, the voice in the wilderness speaking the inconvenient truth that no one wants to hear.

Munich is synonymous with the policy of appeasement " making concessions to a tyrannical regime with imperial ambitions in the hope it will be placated and modify its behaviour accordingly.

Chamberlain conceded the German-speaking Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia in return for Hitler's assurances that there'd be no more land grabs. He returned home to a hero's welcome, waving a piece of paper and proclaiming that he'd secured "peace in our time". But Hitler was far from satisfied. A year later he seized two more Czech provinces before invading Poland, thereby triggering World War II.

With the benefit of hindsight, the whole appeasement narrative seems somewhat overblown. It suggests Chamberlain set such store by his piece of paper that he sat back twiddling his thumbs while Germany prepared for war. In fact, he stepped up rearmament, pressed France to do the same, doubled the size of the Territorial Army, created a Ministry of Supply to expedite provision of the armed forces and introduced conscription.

Eight months into the war Chamberlain gave way to Churchill, although he continued to play an important role in the War Cabinet. After his death in late 1940, his enemies had a field day, notably in the form of a pamphlet Guilty Men. The demolition of Chamberlain's reputation was completed by Churchill in his six-volume The Second World War. As the man himself purportedly said, "history is written by the victors".

A footnote: an arguably more foolish and catastrophic example of appeasement occurred at the Yalta summit in 1945 when Churchill and US President Franklin Roosevelt swallowed Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's promises to allow free elections in Eastern Europe. Churchill is probably the most quotable and quoted statesman in history, but you don't come across this gem very often: "Poor Neville believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don't think I'm wrong about Stalin."

Churchill's criticism of appeasement wasn't that it promised peace while delivering war but that war was inevitable so it was humiliating and counter-productive to cut worthless deals at the expense of third parties. "England has been offered a choice between war and shame," he said in the post-Munich Commons debate. "She has chosen shame and will get war."

The current situation echoes Munich in one respect. Critics of the deal argue the US shouldn't settle for anything less than a capitulation that would render the Iranian regime's position untenable. Given the regime will never agree to such a deal, the critics are following Hitler's example of pretending they want to give peace a chance while being hell-bent on war.


Easter and Resurrection

Ian Harris                               Otago Daily Times                    April 10, 2015

Another Easter has come and gone – for retailers another chocolate egg and bunny bonanza, for the workaday world a welcome holiday break. And for churchgoers a moment to again mull over the powerful human story of Jesus’ suffering and death, and puzzle what to make of resurrection.

A vast gap yawns between those who insist that the various New Testament accounts of Jesus being raised from the dead are accurate historical records of what happened that first Easter, contradictions and all, and others who interpret the story as myth, written to convey profound religious insight according to the understanding of that distant time.

Literalists would argue that if the events of Easter took place today, the stories would be told in exactly the same way. The other camp would say such a view not only misses their point, but today’s secular reality makes it untenable: for them, resurrection is best understood not as a physical phenomenon, but as one of Christianity’s core religious symbols.

Symbol of what? To answer that, it is necessary to distinguish between two ways of referring to the figure around whom Easter revolves. There was Jesus the man, born and bred like any man, who became a teacher, healer and sage and was executed when he challenged the religious and political status quo. And there was the messiah or Christ, a title bestowed on Jesus by his followers as they came increasingly to identify him as the one anointed by God (that’s what the word means) to initiate a new way of being in the world.

Around the title “Christ” has accumulated a mass of supernatural barnacles originating in ancient concepts of the universe, God, Jesus’ relationship with God, and humanity’s place in the midst of all these.

Over the past 80 years many leading theologians have found the old metaphysical framework, which still permeates traditional Christian doctrine, to be well past its use-by date. So they have chipped away at the barnacles in a bid to give the core Judaeo-Christian heritage a natural home within the world as we know it today. Chief casualty of that has been the supernatural Christ. Some people dispense with any concept of Christ at all, and insist the human Jesus as role model is quite enough.

There is, however, another approach which avoids both immersion in supernatural speculation and the wholesale rejection of the transforming experience of the earliest Christians. It also opens the way to a positive modern understanding of resurrection. Yes, this approach would say, Jesus was crucified, died and was buried. And yes, resurrection followed – but it was not the human Jesus who was raised. It was the Christ, the Jewish messiah figure as newly experienced and imaginatively refashioned by those on whom Jesus had left the deepest impression.

Today this Christ can still be seen as risen – not as Jesus’ dead body miraculously restored to life, but in the minds of his followers as an archetype of love, grace and transformation. (An archetype is an original model, type, or symbol that resonates with human experience. For psychologist Carl Jung it is a pattern of thought or symbolic image rooted in the collective experience of humankind.) Christ as archetype is rich in such associations. The figure is expressive of the lover, the caregiver, and the visionary. And since in Jung’s view the potential for realising these is already latent within us, Christ as archetype of love, grace and transformation is available as a living dynamic within our human consciousness.

I suggest that’s what those early followers of Jesus experienced. And as men and women of their time, inevitably they interpreted their experience within the religious categories open to them, including the supernatural and a God beyond.

In recent times, some have upbraided the apostle Paul for dressing Christ in supernatural garb as a divine rescuer, though for centuries that image met a felt religious need. But Paul also uses a key phrase that can be read as foreshadowing the notion of Christ as an archetype in human consciousness. He writes repeatedly of life “in Christ”. The in-dwelling Christ was central to his thinking.

This is obviously not the human Jesus – that would be impossible – but the Christ archetype, carrying all that Jesus had come to mean for love, grace and transformation into the lives of everyone who gives it room to grow. Christ, shorn of supernaturalism, then stands as the mythic core of Christian faith.

On this understanding, Jesus died. The Christ arose. And 2000 years on, Easter computes.


The Real Nuclear Threat

By Robert C. Koehler                         Common Dreams                      09 April , 2015

If war were only “itself” — the violence and horror, the conflagration and death — it would be bad enough, but it’s also an abstraction, a specific language of self-justifying righteousness that allows proponents to contemplate unleashing it not merely in physical but in moral safety.

War, the abstraction, is an instrument of policy, an “option” that can be waged or threatened to get one’s way. It is always contained and sure of itself, limited in its goals and, of course, necessary. Its unintended consequences are minimal and quickly neutralized with an official apology, then forgotten. If we didn’t forget, the next war wouldn’t seem like such a viable, enticing option.

The next war that has been gestating for so long now is the one with Iran, and its proponents, I’m sure, will do what they can to dismantle the framework of the agreement recently negotiated between Iran and the P5+1 nations. The incompleteness of the agreement — the fact that only Iran has accountability in the realm of nuclear weapons — raises profound questions about the future of the planet, but this flaw is obscured, certainly in most mainstream coverage, by the “controversy” that the agreement has been reached at all, supplanting the possibility of a military response to Iran’s nuclear energy program.

The interests opposed to the agreement, which wouldn’t be possible without mutual trust, maintain a belief in nothing but one-sided force to achieve their ends: either ongoing sanctions against Iran or military action. Regarding a military takeout,
Robert Parry recently wrote at Consortium News: “Bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities could cause a massive human and environmental catastrophe, unleashing radiation on civilian populations and possibly making large swaths of Iran uninhabitable.”

Here we begin to get at the extreme recklessness and foolishness that is the context of so much geopolitical pontification. War is evoked with such brainless ease. A dozen years ago, Team Bush and its legion of political and media crusaders were screaming for the invasion of Iraq. One pseudo-argument for the invasion invoked World War II: We don’t want another Munich (where Hitler and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain reached an agreement to allow Nazi Germany’s annexation of Czechoslovakia).

War and its justifications spring eternal. Scholar
Peter Conolly-Smith, for instance, has pointed out that Munich has been invoked to justify virtually every American military action or threatened action since World War II: Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Grenada, Nicaragua, Iraq. I suggest that hearing this justification for a potential new military action should alert one to the shallowness of the thinking behind it.

The deeper problem with the P5+1 agreement with Iran is not the controversy it has generated among the bomb-Iran contingent but the unacknowledged hypocrisy of the P5 nations — the U.S., Russia, China, Great Britain and France — which, of course, are all nuclear powers themselves. They have made no real effort to pursue global nuclear disarmament by getting rid of their own arsenals, as they agreed to do when they signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which went into effect in 1970.

Four and a half decades later, and despite the end of the Cold War, many thousands of nuclear weapons, in nine nations (also including Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea, none of which have signed the non-proliferation treaty), remain poised to destroy Planet Earth. The focus on the possibility that Iran might someday develop a nuclear weapon too, while perhaps not irrelevant to the goal of global disarmament, is a minute part of the enormous danger we’re in. Indeed, the United States is in the process of investing billions of dollars to rebuild its whole nuclear arsenal, “including the warheads, and the missiles, planes and submarines that carry them,” according to
Stephen Young of Union of Concerned Scientists, writing at Defense One.

And as
Greg Mallo of the Los Alamos Study Group has noted, three privatized nuclear laboratories — Los Alamos, Sandia and Livermore — are behind the immense investment in upgraded, more destructive nuclear warheads. This aggressive pressure from the American business sector is a lot more frightening than any aggression emanating from Iran, and may indicate where the real push for war comes from. War is profitable to too many people. We need a peace treaty with the military-industrial complex. [Abridged]
Robert C. Koehler http://www.commondreams.org/views/2015/04/09/real-nuclear-threat

The US isn’t winding down its wars – it’s just running them at arm’s length

 Seumas Milne                         Guardian/UK                            9 April 2015

So relentless has the violence convulsing the Middle East become that an attack on yet another Arab country and its descent into full-scale war barely registers in the rest of the world. That’s how it has been with the
onslaught on impoverished Yemen by western-backed Saudi Arabia and a string of other Gulf dictatorships.

Barely two weeks into their bombardment from air and sea, more than 500 have been killed and the
Red Cross is warning of a “catastrophe” in the port of Aden. Where half a century ago Yemenis were tortured and killed by British colonial troops, Houthi rebels from the north are now fighting Saudi-backed forces loyal to the ousted President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Up to 40 civilians sheltering at a UN refugee camp in the poorest country in the Arab world were killed in a single Saudi air attack last week.

But of course the US and Britain are standing shoulder to shoulder with the Saudi intervention. Britain’s foreign secretary, Phillip Hammond, has promised
to “support the Saudi operation in every way we can”. The pretext for the Saudi war is that Yemen’s Houthi fighters are supported by Iran and loyal to a Shia branch of Islam. Hadi, who was installed after a popular uprising as part of a Saudi-orchestrated deal and one-man election in 2012, is said to be the legitimate president with every right to call on international support.

The Houthi uprising, supported by parts of the Army has its roots in poverty and discrimination, and dates back to the time of the US-British invasion of Iraq more than a decade ago. But
Yemen, which has a strong al-Qaida presence, has also been the target of hundreds of murderous US drone attacks in recent years. And the combination of civil war and external intervention is giving al-Qaida a new lease of life. For the Saudis, Yemen is about enforcing their control of the Arabian peninsula and their leadership of the Sunni world

The idea that the corrupt tyranny of Saudi Arabia, the sectarian heart of reaction in the Middle East since colonial times, and its fellow Gulf autocracies are going to bring stability, let alone freedom, to the people of Yemen is beyond fantasy. This is the state that crushed the popular uprising in Bahrain in 2011, that funded the overthrow of Egypt’s first elected president in 2013, and has sponsored
takfiri jihadi movements for years with disastrous consequences.

For the Saudis, the war in Yemen is about enforcing their control of the Arabian peninsula and their leadership of the Sunni world in the face of Shia and Iranian resurgence. For the western powers that arm them to the hilt, it’s about money, and the pivotal role that Saudi Arabia plays in protecting their interests in the oil and gas El Dorado that is the Middle East.

Since the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan, the US and its allies are reluctant to risk boots on the ground. But their military interventions are multiplying. Barack Obama has
bombed seven mainly Muslim countries since he became US president. There are now four full-scale wars raging in the Arab world (Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen), and every one of them has involved US and wider western military intervention. Saudi Arabia is by far the largest British arms market; US weapons sales to the Gulf have exceeded those racked up by George Bush, and last week Obama resumed US military aid to Egypt.

What has changed is that, in true imperial fashion, the west’s alliances have become more contradictory, playing off one side against the other. In Yemen, it is supporting the Sunni powers against Iran’s Shia allies. In Iraq, it is the opposite: the US and its friends are giving air support to Iranian-backed Shia militias fighting the Sunni takfiri group Isis. In Syria, they are bombing one part of the armed opposition while arming and training another. The nuclear deal with Iran needs to be seen in that context. The US isn’t leaving the Middle East, as some imagine, but looking for a
more effective way of controlling it at arm’s length.

So a tilt towards Iran can be offset with war in Yemen or Syria. Something similar can be seen in US policy in Latin America. Only a couple of months after Obama’s
historic opening towards Cuba last December, he signed an order declaring Cuba’s closest ally, Venezuela, “an unusual and extraordinary threat to US national security” and imposed sanctions over alleged human rights abuses.

What’s needed is a UN-backed negotiation to end the Yemeni conflict, not another big power-fuelled sectarian proxy war. These calamitous interventions have to be brought to an end. [Abridged]

Monday, 6 April 2015

I never fully believed that British Muslims were being victimised, but then I was stopped at Heathrow

 Hanna Yusuf                            Independent/UK                         3 April 2015

I've always been aware of the injustices British Muslims face, but I've sometimes doubted the narrative of the "Muslim victim".

Why is it such a big deal if you're singled-out every now and then because of your appearance? If you have nothing to hide, there should be no problem – just cooperate, surely? Security officers would never apply a blanket stop and search; they only stop potential criminals with good reason, right?

Wrong. Just over a month ago, I was about to arrive at border control at London Heathrow, having flown in from Dubai. Suddenly, I was pulled aside and told to hand over my passport. I smiled at the officer as she scrutinised what I was wearing from my headscarf to my sandals. She didn't smile back.

I gave her my passport, naïvely expecting a normal conversation about what I had been up to during my travels. Instead I was greeted with a look that I can only describe as being full of contempt.

She began by asking general questions such as “why are you alone?”. I happily answered as fully as I could. She then began to unpick anything that I said with suspicion. She found it difficult to believe that I had paid for my own ticket and I had to explain how a mere Muslim girl could afford a trip to the Middle East.

She made me feel intimidated by directing me closer to the wall – perhaps to stop the possibility of me getting away – by which time I began to cry. Ignoring my tears, she continued to make me feel like a criminal, without knowing anything about me. It took a long time before she seemed to accept that it's possible for an unmarried young Muslim woman to travel alone without the lure of a male jihadist.

I was so wounded by this incident. I had no problem with being questioned by airport security, but what troubled me was the way the situation was handled. To label someone as guilty until innocent is problematic, but what made the situation worse is that even once she established that I wasn't an extremist, I was still treated with doubt.

This may seem minor, especially if you compare it to other instances of discrimination in the UK. But these small, everyday moments have a cumulative effect, and increasingly undermine the relationship between British Muslims and their home country.

I'm completely aware that our authorities have to take certain measures to protect us. But it's crucial that we draw a line between national security and what can be considered to be the marginalisation of an already marginalised group.

After the incident with the security officer, I made my way to border control. I was referred to a manager, mainly because I could not stop crying. He was kind and very apologetic, but he justified it as a necessary part of the airport's security measures. He assumed that the reason I was stopped was because I am a “young Muslim girl”, and therefore a potential "jihadi bride".

Indeed, I am young and I was wearing a headscarf. However, if we were to substitute the word "Muslim" for another minority group, would that be ok? Would anyone ever say: “You were stopped because you're a young Jewish girl, so we couldn't take any risks”?

It's so disheartening when the people who are supposed to be protecting you treat you like a criminal. To tackle everyday Islamophobia, we must firstly acknowledge its existence. And once we've done this, we can finally start to repair the values of tolerance and diversity that Britain is supposed to be built on.


The Christian tragedy in the Middle East did not begin with Isis

 Robert Fisk                     Independent/UK                    05  April 2015

One summer's day in 1990, I walked into a beautiful Crusader chapel in Keserwan, a gentle mountainside north of Beirut, where an old Catholic Maronite priest pointed to a Byzantine mosaic of – I think – Saint John. What he wanted to show me was the holy man's eyes. They had been stabbed out of the mosaic by a sword or lance at some point in antiquity. 'The Muslims did this,' the priest said.

His words had added clarity because at that time the Lebanese Christian army General Michel Aoun – who thought he was the president and still, today, dreams of this unlikely investiture – was fighting a hopeless war against Hafez Assad's Syrian army. Daily, I was visiting the homes of dead Christians, killed by Syrian shellfire. The Syrians, in the priest's narrative, were the same ‘Muslims’ who had stabbed out the eyes in the ancient picture.

I remember at the time – and often since – I would say to myself that this was nonsense, that you cannot graft ancient history onto the present. (The Maronites, by the way, had supported the earlier Crusaders. The Orthodox of the time stood with the Muslims.) Christian-Muslim enmity on this scale was a tale to frighten schoolchildren.

And yet only last year, as shells burst above the Syrian town of Yabroud, I walked into the country’s oldest church and found paintings of the saints. All had had their eyes gouged out and been torn into strips. I took one of those strips home to Beirut, the painted eyes of the saints staring at me even as I write this article. This was not the sacrilege of antiquity. It was done by ghoulish men, probably from Iraq, only months ago.

Like 9/11 – long after Hollywood had regularly demonised Muslims as barbarian killers who wish to destroy America – it seems that our worst fears turn into reality. The priest in 1990 cannot have lived long enough to know how the new barbarians would strike at the saints in Yabroud.

Note how I have not mentioned the enslavement of Christian women in Iraq, the Islamic State’s massacre of Christians and Yazidis, the burning of Mosul's ancient churches or the destruction of the great Armenian church of Deir el-Zour that commemorated the genocide of its people in 1915. Nor the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls. Not even the very latest massacre in Kenya where the numbers of Christian dead and the cruelty of their sectarian killers is, indeed, of epic, Hollywood proportions. Nor have I mentioned the ferocious Sunni-Shia wars that now dwarf the tragedy of the Christians.

But the Christian tragedy in the Middle East today needs to be re-thought – as it will be, of course, when Armenians around the world commemorate the 100th anniversary of the genocide of their people by Ottoman Turkey. Perhaps it is time that we acknowledge not only this act of genocide but come to regard it not as just the murder of a minority within the Ottoman Empire, but specifically a Christian minority, killed because they were Armenian but also because they were Christian (many of whom, unfortunately, rather liked the Orthodox, anti-Ottoman Tsar).

And their fate bears some uncommon parallels with the Islamic State murderers of today. The Armenian men were massacred. The women were gang-raped or forced to convert or left to die of hunger. Babies were burned alive – after being stacked in piles. Islamic State cruelty is not new, even if the cult’s technology defeats anything its opponents can achieve.

In Kuwait last week, a good and thoughtful Muslim, an American university graduate – within the al-Sabah family and prominent in the government – shook his head with disbelief when he spoke of Islamic State. ‘I watched the video of them burning the Jordanian pilot alive,’ he told me. ‘I watched it several times. I had to, because I had to understand their technology. Do you know they used seven camera angles to film this atrocity? We could not compete with this media technology. We have to learn.’

And this is true. The West – that amorphous, dangerous expression – has still not understood the use of this technology – especially the use which the cult makes of the internet – nor have the Muslim Arab imams who should be speaking about the fearful acts of Islamic State.

But most are not, any more than they denounced the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, when around a million Muslims killed each other. Because they were on Saddam’s side in that war. And because the Islamic State’s ideology is too obviously of Wahabi inspiration, and thus too close to some of the Gulf Arab states. 

The crimes of Islamic State are as brutal as any committed by the German army in the Second World War, but Jews who converted were not spared Hitler’s plan for their extermination. What the Islamic State and the 1915 Ottoman Turks have in common is a cruelty based on ideology – even theology – rather than race hatred, although that is not far away. After the burning of churches and of synagogues, the rubble looks much the same.

The tragedy of the Arab world is now on such a literally Biblical scale that we are all demeaned by it. Yet I also think of Lebanon where the old priest showed me his mosaic with the missing eyes and where the Lebanese Christians and Muslims fought each other – with the help of many foreign nations, including Israel, Syria and America – and killed 150,000 of their own people. 

Yet today, Lebanese Muslims and Christians, though still politically deeply divided, are protecting each other amid the gale-force winds around them. Why? Because they are today a much more educated population. It’s because they value education, reading and books and knowledge. And from education comes justice. Which is why, when compared to Lebanon, the Islamic State is a nation of lost souls. 


Korean activists brave landmines in bid to spread peace message

A group of prominent women will march across the demilitarised zone as a symbolic act of peace

Emily Hodgkin                       Independent/UK                       3 April 2015

For more than 60 years, it has been among the most fearsome stretches of ground on earth: a little over two miles between two heavily fortified fences, littered with more than a million landmines. But now a group of 30 activists, led by Gloria Steinem, intend to walk across the demilitarised zone separating North and South Korea in pursuit of peace. They are calling for a final resolution to the Korean War of 1950 to 1953 and for the peace treaty promised within three years of the ceasefire, which never came.

Officials from South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles the country’s affairs with Pyongyang, said they have yet to decide if they will approve the action. Christine Ahn, co-founder of the WomenCrossDMZ group, has now received support to hold a symposium in North Korea on women and peace building. This came after attending meetings in Pyongyang in the past week with officials from the country’s Overseas Korean Committee and Democratic Women’s Union.

She told The Associated Press yesterday: “I wish I knew how the ultimate decision was made, but at this point I’m just relieved that at least we have Pyongyang’s cooperation and support.”

Ms Ahn, who also co-founded the National Campaign to End the Korean War, told The New York Times: “We are walking to imagine a new chapter in Korean history, marked by dialogue, understanding, and – ultimately – forgiveness.”

 This year marks the 70th anniversary of the division of the Korean Peninsula, an act that tore many families apart. The ensuing Korean War claimed an estimated four million lives and is, technically, still not over. The long-standing tension between the two countries has been exacerbated by entrenched suspicion and occasional outbreaks of violence along the DMZ since it was established in 1953 have added to the hostility.

The last recorded death in the area took place in September 2013, when South Korean soldiers shot a 47-year-old man who was attempting to swim across the Tanpocheon stream to reach North Korea. Since then, North Korean drones have been found crashed in the DMZ and warning shots have been fired on North Korean soldiers, although no one was injured.

She told The Associated Press yesterday: “I wish I knew how the ultimate decision was made, but at this point I’m just relieved that at least we have Pyongyang’s cooperation and support.”

Ms Ahn, who also co-founded the National Campaign to End the Korean War, told The New York Times: “We are walking to imagine a new chapter in Korean history, marked by dialogue, understanding, and – ultimately – forgiveness.”

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the division of the Korean Peninsula, an act that tore many families apart. The ensuing Korean War claimed an estimated four million lives and is, technically, still not over.

The long-standing tension between the two countries has been exacerbated by entrenched suspicion and occasional outbreaks of violence along the DMZ since it was established in 1953 have added to the hostility.

The last recorded death in the area took place in September 2013, when South Korean soldiers shot a 47-year-old man who was attempting to swim across the Tanpocheon stream to reach North Korea.

Since then, North Korean drones have been found crashed in the DMZ and warning shots have been fired on North Korean soldiers, although no one was injured.


Jesus the great debt-eliminator

 Ross Gittins                             Sydney Morning Herald                         6 April , 2015
At this time of our greatest Christian holy-days, what does the Bible have to say about economics? A lot more than you may think. That's according to the Czech economist Tomas Sedlacek, whose book, Economics of Good and Evil, I'll be heavily relying on in this column.

When God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden after they had disobeyed him, part of their punishment was that "by the sweat of your brow you will eat your food" – they'd have to work for their living.

But Jesus said, "Man does not live on bread alone". So we have to be concerned about making our living, but we also have to be concerned about more than that. "We were endowed with both body and soul, and we are both spiritual and material beings . . . Without the material, we die; without the spiritual, we stop being people," Sedlacek says. Christianity doesn't condemn the material, but it does condemn materialism. It's not money that's the problem, it's the love of money. Keep too much of it for yourself and you've probably crossed the line.

It's true Jesus chased from the temple "men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money", but he didn't chase them any further. His problem was not with their commerce but with their mixture of the sacred with the profane.

Jesus's teaching is often based on paradox, we're told. Jesus considers more valuable two mites that a poor widow drops on to the collection plate than the golden gifts of the rich. Implicitly, this legitimises the role of money. But, to economists, it also shows Jesus understood the concept of marginal disutility. The widow's mite involved much greater sacrifice than the rich person's gold.

Sedlacek notes the New Testament's extensive use of economic metaphors. Of Jesus's 30 parables, 19 are set in an economic or social context: the parable of the lost coin; of talents (money), where Jesus rebukes a servant who didn't "put my money on deposit with the bankers"; of the unjust steward; of the workers in the vineyard; of the two debtors; of the rich fool, and so forth. But get this: the most central concept in the Easter story of Christ's death and resurrection – redemption – originally had a purely economic meaning. You need to know that, in New Testament Greek, sin and debt were the same word.

People who were unable to pay their debts became debt slaves. Once you fell into slavery, the only escape was for someone to ransom you, to pay your bail. Jesus's role was to redeem us, purchase us at a price, buying us out of our debt of sins. The price was the shedding of his blood on the cross, just as the sacrificial lamb's blood was shed at Passover. "In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace," St Paul said.

Western civilisation has been shaped by Christianity and Christian values, which means Christianity has also shaped economics. Sedlacek says the prayer "forgive us our sins", meaning "cancel our debts", could be heard from the West's leading banks in the global financial crisis. Our modern economy cannot function without institutions that deliver the unfair forgiveness of debt. Bankrupts, for instance, are discharged even though they've paid back only a fraction of what they owe. When a company goes bust owing millions, the liability of its shareholders is limited to the face-value of their shares, paid long before by the original purchaser of the shares. As for the GFC, Sedlacek says, "It would be hard to imagine the financial Armageddon that would follow if the government actually did not pay the ransom and redeem banks and some large companies".

"This, of course, goes against all principles of sound reason and of basic fairness. We also breached many rules of competition on which capitalism is built. Why did the most indebted banks and companies, which did not compete very well, receive the largest forgiveness?" Why? It had to be done, in order to redeem not only these particular troubled and highly indebted companies, but also others that would fail if these few were not saved.

You've heard of "positive discrimination", but Sedlacek says Christian thought emphasises the concept of "positive unfairness": the more you've sinned, the bigger dollop of forgiveness you get. "It doesn't matter how hard you try – everyone gets the same reward" (something the prodigal son's brother had trouble accepting). "Christianity thus largely abolishes the accounting of good and evil. God forgives, which is positively unfair," he concludes. 

Twitter: @1RossGittins