Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Saudi Arabia is being attacked by both Sunni and Shia leaders

Robert Fisk                    Independent/UK                   22 September 2016 

The Saudis step deeper into trouble almost by the week. They are now reeling from an extraordinary statement issued by around two hundred Sunni Muslim clerics who effectively referred to the Wahhabi belief – practiced in
Saudi Arabia – as “a dangerous deformation” of Sunni Islam. The prelates included Egypt’s Grand Imam, Ahmed el-Tayeb of al-Azhar, the most important centre of theological study in the Islamic world, who only a year ago attacked “corrupt interpretations” of religious texts and who has now signed up to “a return to the schools of great knowledge” outside Saudi Arabia.

This remarkable meeting took place in Grozny and was unaccountably ignored by almost every media in the world, but it may prove to be even more dramatic than the terror of Syria’s civil war. For the statement, is as close as Sunni clerics have got to excommunicating the Saudis. Although they did not mention the Kingdom by name, the declaration was a stunning affront to a country which spends millions of dollars every year on thousands of Wahhabi mosques, schools and clerics around the world.

Wahhabism’s most dangerous deviation, in the eyes of the Sunnis who met in Chechenya, is that it sanctions violence against non-believers, including Muslims who reject Wahhabi interpretation.
Isis, al-Qaeda and the Taliban are the principal foreign adherents to this creed outside Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The bad news kept on coming. At the start of the five-day Hajj pilgrimage, the Lebanese daily al-Akhbar published online a database which it said came from the Saudi ministry of health, claiming that up 90,000 pilgrims from around the world have died visiting the Hajj capital of Mecca over a 14-year period. Although this figure is officially denied, it is believed in Shia Muslim Iran, which has lost hundreds of its citizens on the Hajj. Among them was Ghazanfar Roknabadi, a former ambassador and intelligence officer in Lebanon. Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has just launched an unprecedented attack on the Saudis, accusing them of murder. “The heartless and murderous Saudis locked up the injured with the dead in containers...” he said in his own Hajj message.

Yet the Iranians have boycotted the Hajj this year claiming that they have not received Saudi assurances of basic security for pilgrims. According to Khamenei, Saudi rulers “have plunged the world of Islam into civil wars”. However exaggerated his words, one thing is clear: for the first time, ever, the Saudis have been assaulted by both Sunni and Shia leaders at almost the same time.

The presence in Grozny of Grand Imam al-Tayeb of Egypt was particularly infuriating for the Saudis who have poured millions of dollars into the Egyptian economy since Brigadier-General-President al-Sissi staged his doleful military coup more than three years ago. What, the Saudis must be asking themselves, has happened to the fawning leaders who would normally grovel to the Kingdom?

“In 2010, Saudi Arabia was crossing borders peacefully as a power-broker, working with Iran, Syria, Turkey, Qatar and others to troubleshoot in regional hotspots,” Narwani writes. “By 2016, it had buried two kings, shrugged off a measured approach to foreign policy, embraced ‘takfiri’ madness and emptied its coffers.” A “takfiri” is a Sunni who accuses another Muslim (or Christian or Jew) of apostasy.

Kuwait, Libya, Jordan and Sudan were present in Grozny, along with – you guessed it – Ahmed Hassoun, the grand mufti of Syria and a loyal Assad man. Intriguingly, Abu Dhabi played no official role, although its policy of “deradicalisation” is well known throughout the Arab world.

The conference itself was opened by Putin, which shows what he thinks of the Saudis – although, typically, none of the Sunni delegates asked him to stop bombing Syria. But since the very meeting occurred against the backcloth of Isis and its possible defeat, they wouldn’t, would they? That Chechenya, a country of monstrous bloodletting by Russia and its own Wahhabi rebels, should have been chosen as a venue for such a remarkable conclave was an irony which could not have been lost on the delegates. But the real questions they were discussing must have been equally apparent.

Who are the real representatives of Sunni Muslims if the Saudis are to be shoved aside? And what is the future of Saudi Arabia? Of such questions are revolutions made. [Abridged]


Donald Trump on terror is just McCarthyism for a new age

imon Jenkins                          Guardian/UK                       21 September 2016

The Republican candidate for the presidency, Donald Trump, now reacts to any terrorist incident with crude cynicism. While the incessant killings of Americans by Americans prove only that America needs more guns,
a failed killing by an American Muslim is “a terrible thing that is going on in our country … an attack on America”. The hamfisted New York bombing suspect, Ahmad Khan Rahami, was to Trump not just guilty before trial but a “foreign enemy combatant”, to be detained indefinitely until the end of hostilities.  

Trump complained that the United States “will now give [Rahami]
amazing hospitalisation, the best doctors in the world, and probably room service”. Worst of all his “punishment will not be what it once would have been”. As for Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, he accused her immigration policy of being directly responsible. He said: “We now know why terrorists want her so badly to be president.”

In the potential leader of a great democracy, this is alarmist drivel. We should also be careful, since the exploitation of existential fear has long been a feature of America’s isolated political culture. In 1950, a little-known American senator, Estes Kefauver, achieved national fame by holding televised hearings into America’s “organised crime”, drawing on blood-curdling fantasies of a Sicilian-American “mafia”. 

The televised hearings were at times ludicrous. The search for “a mafia” was subcontracted to Hollywood.  

Two years later another senator, Joe McCarthy, decided to exploit a different “existential” scare. His committee investigated what he claimed was the “massive” penetration of the government and military by communists and homosexuals. Fear of a spurious threat to the state was turned into a witch-hunt by McCarthy and his aide, a certain Richard Nixon. There was a red under every bed – and a blackmailer in it. McCarthy, until his mental collapse, became a national celebrity.  

Likewise with Trump. The New York bomber was no more attacking America than, in Britain,
Lee Rigby’s killers were “attacking Britain”. Why lend them such glory? These are pathetic groups, sometimes just individuals, committing nasty crimes. For better or worse, it happens every day. That the criminals occasionally yell, “Allahu Akbar” should be neither here nor there. That they may have travelled to the Middle East or downloaded jihadi tracts is a legitimate concern to the police. It is not a threat to the stability, let alone the existence, of the state.  

The west’s response to jihadi terrorism since 9/11 has been wholly counter-productive. Under the pretext of “public reassurance”, it has sown the seeds of fear in the hope of harvesting votes of gratitude. If one harvest has come in votes – George Bush and Tony Blair did very well from 9/11 – the gourmand at the feast has been terrorism itself. Osama bin Laden’s tiny cabal has been turned into a global movement, drenched in blood, retribution and violent glamour.

Clinton’s reaction to the
New York explosions may have seemed pedestrian, but it was correct. It was to counsel responsibility, “smart law-enforcement and good intelligence in concert with our values”. This was the opposite of Blair’s response, which was to declare that 9/11 “changed the world” and “rewrote the rules of the game”. I could hear Bin Laden cheering.

Violence in a political cause is as old as history. Civil terror is a classic tool of the weak against the strong. In the case of modern jihadism, brutal mayhem has yet to deliver it a stable caliphate. But it has laid its groundwork in ethnic and religious polarisation between Muslim and non-Muslim. It has undermined the tolerance of western democracies. From America’s detention without trial to Theresa May’s snooper’s charter, it has slit open the soft underbelly of liberalism.

Such a gain for terrorism is the result of foolish politicians looking for cheap votes – and the media looking for cheap headlines. Scaremongering, the search for a foe against whom to pretend to defend the state, may be as old as terror itself. But given the absolute security of modern America and Britain, it is a dangerous self-indulgence. It should be excoriated. It is not the bomb that is the terrorist’s accomplice but the response to the bomb. It is not Rahami but Trump’s response to Rahami that we should fear. [Abridged]


Monday, 19 September 2016

Sport – A New Religion

By Ian Harris                Otago Daily Times                 September 9, 2016

Is sport morphing into a new religion? It shows traits, says Ian Harris, but it can never be the real deal.

I wondered if it occurred to many of us that sport is developing traits that overlap with religion.

Not the sport of backyard cricket, a swim at the beach or school athletics, but sport on the international scale. In a world becoming more globally conscious and, in many countries, more secular, is sport moving into the vacuum left by a diminishing religious awareness?

And as commentators breathlessly tot up their country’s tally of gold, silver and bronze – 18 for New Zealand this time – the further question arises whether nations promote and fund global sport for the benefits it confers on the athletes, or for nationalistic pride and prestige? In the end, who gains from the millions poured into top-level sport? Who loses out as a consequence?

The sporting multifest which are the modern Olympics certainly captures the imaginations and emotions of people in every country. Athletes exerting themselves, and spectators watching from their far-away couches, live the pulsating moments of extreme effort, the hair’s-breadth separating a winner from an also-ran/swam/rowed/sailed/jumped/threw/shot/rode/played. And burst with pride or shared the Watching the Rio Olympics – or rather, the snippets doled out on free-to-air television – desolation of yet another oh-so-close triumph or loss.

I see strains of religion in this. Many athletes obviously draw strength from faith that their God is blessing their effort, willing them forward, inspiring them to excel. Prayers back home focus on a competitor and his or her event – presumably offset by prayers on behalf of their rivals. That puts God, when conceived as intervening to determine outcomes from beyond, in an impossible bind: not even a God of miracles can make everyone a winner in the same event.

The focus then switches to how everyone trained and prepared, avoided the temptation to cheat with drugs (or didn’t), competed, “left nothing in the tank”, and carried their elation or disappointment.

Sport exalts the striving body, and there is everything to admire in those who attain the heights of Olympic and Paralympic competition. The basic challenge is to master a discipline and continually push beyond what they have achieved so far. That requires dedication to a goal of excellence, commitment to fitness programmes and training schedules, discipline in persisting through the bleaker patches. There’s a transcendence in this – not in any supernatural sense, but in “climbing across or beyond” (that’s what the word means) an athlete’s current limits to be better than before.

Challenge, dedication, commitment, discipline, transcendence – these are qualities equally at play in religion. The big difference is the context. In the Olympics it is human physicality, put to the test in front of a global audience. The honours go to the individual or team, purely on performance on the day. Other personal qualities are irrelevant, as we saw with the American swimming medallists in Rio who fabricated a tale of being robbed.

That points up another reason why sport will never amount to a religion, best defined as “a total mode of the interpreting and living of life”. While the demands of sport may determine how an athlete lives his or her life, and may even give it transitory worth and meaning, sport of itself has nothing deeper to offer on how to interpret life as a whole. In the heat of competition, nobody cares about that anyway.

Community is another major point of difference. A sense of being in life together with others for the long haul is central to religious experience. Ideally, religion offers communities where everyone participates, and which provide mutual support and opportunities for sharing and growth in the interpreting and living of life.

Contrast the Olympics, where the community of interest swells and dissipates as events and personalities come and go. By far the greatest numbers in sporting communities of interest are not participants, but spectators taking a vicarious pleasure in the achievements of others. Moreover, the glory of sport is fleeting. Heroes and heroines shine and bow out. Adulation waxes and wanes. The fresh and the new rub the gloss off the stars of yesteryear.

So while there are traits that overlap with religion, they hardly add up to a total mode of the interpreting and living of life. For that, there needs to be, at the very least, a sense of what people consider ultimate in the values that determine their behaviour, and in the concern they have for the world and for others. Such concern may or may not include a concept of God (or Godness). But for billions, it helps.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

40 years since Saigon's fall, napalm attack haunts woman in iconic image

Soo Youn in Ho Chi Minh City                   Guardian/UK                  30 April 2015

Nick Ut’s image of a screaming girl fleeing naked is credited with turning public opinion against the Vietnam war, but for one person in the picture, the nightmares go on. Nick Ut’s ‘Napalm Girl’ photograph, which altered the course of the Vietnam war. Ho Thi Hien was the girl on the right.

On 8 June 1972, Ho Thi Hien was at her cousin Kim Phuc’s house in the village of Trang Bang in South
Vietnam. The adults were out when the children heard the plane overhead and fled, trying to outrun their terror. A South Vietnamese Skyraider had just dropped a napalm bomb, propelling civilians down Vietnam’s Highway 1.

One of them was nine-year-old Phuc who, in a moment captured by photographer Nick Ut, was shown screaming as she ran naked down the road, having stripped off her clothes to rid herself of the poison on her skin. From that moment on she was known as the “napalm girl”. Ho, then 10 years old, ran alongside her cousin. Clothed but barefoot, she was captured on the right-hand side of Ut’s photograph. The image, for which Ut won a Pulitzer prize, was widely credited with turning the tide of public opinion against the war. Decades later, it lives on as one of the most iconic images of the century. Although her face displays no sign of trauma, so do Ho’s nightmares. “Every time I hear a plane I get scared,” she says.

As she has for thousands of days before, Ho sits patiently in the relentless Trang Bang heat on Thursday, occupying one of the weathered plastic chairs in her dusty roadside cafe, footsteps away from where her pain was immortalised. A framed print of the photograph hangs from a post. But the day is not completely unremarkable: it is the eve of the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, and Ut, as he does every time he returns to Vietnam, has come to visit. “They’re like family,” he says.

Forty years ago, on 30 April 1975, North Vietnamese tanks rolled into the former Saigon, seizing the South Vietnamese capital and capping a humiliating defeat for the US after a misguided decade of war. In chaos, Americans scrambled, abandoning the city. The conflict killed over 3 million North Vietnamese, 250,000 South Vietnamese and over 58,000 Americans.

Early on Thursday morning, in a move aimed at beating the tropical midday heat, Vietnam held a massive Liberation Day parade. It celebrated with thousands of goose-stepping soldiers, costumed performers, and card-flipping mosaics for its own dignitaries and representatives of other communist nations. The streets of downtown Ho Chi Minh City around the Reunification Palace have been blocked for days. Civilians watched from home.

After centuries of war, the Vietnamese psyche looks forward. Half of the country’s population of 90 million was born after the “American war” and an estimated 16,000 Vietnamese currently study in the US. The US is one of the biggest investors in Vietnam. South Korea, enlisted by the Americans to fight for the South Vietnamese, is also a major investor, and Korean culture in the form of K-pop music and soap operas is as welcome as its cash.

While Vietnam has changed hands and governments, Ho, now 56, continues to live and work steps away from the napalm attack that altered the course of her life and of her country. Her cousin Phuc lives in Toronto, has written a book and raised a family. Phuc’s brother – Phan Thanh Tam, the boy on the left side of the photo – lost an eye in the attack. He died of cancer a few years ago and his widow operates a cafe next door to Ho’s on the first floor of the Phuc family house. Phuc’s home is modernised, funded by donations from around the world. Money from Swedish benefactors provided refrigerators, furniture and a television.

On Thursday, Ut photographed the military splendour of a liberated Vietnam for the Associated Press, the news agency for which he continues to work. The pictures are good, he says, but none will ever compare to the napalm photograph. It lives on for Phuc, for Ho, and his own family. [Abridged]


Sunday, 4 September 2016

Past and Present Refugees

Robert Fisk                     Independent UK                     2 Sept. 2016      

The Trojans and the peoples of the Middle East today were and are fleeing for their lives. What both also have in common is the war which drove them from Anatolian shores. For burning Troy, read burning Aleppo. For the destruction of the ancient city of King Priam, think of the pulverisation of the Great Mosque and the soukhs of Syria’s largest city, and the slaughter of its peoples. Fire and the sword, shell and the barrel bombs.

And so we come to the flip side of this tragedy. Not the history of the past, but the history of the future. In the age of the internet, we have stopped thinking about this. The question is rarely ‘how did this come to pass?’ but ‘what should we do NOW?’ Don’t ask why 19 men who claimed they were Muslims committed the international crimes against humanity of 9/11. Invade Afghanistan! Don’t question how Saddam achieved power in Iraq. Invade Iraq!

Whether or not the Trojan wars were a Greek (and later Roman) myth or the husk of a real 12th century BC conflict, the story – whether it be of Homer’s Odysseus or Virgil’s Aenias – is as contemporary as the present Arab tragedy in the Middle East. Muslims and Christians leave their mosques and churches behind. Along with his father and friends, Aeneas could take with him only his household gods, his ‘penates’. All were fleeing the folly of kings and warlords, militia leaders and dictators.

Which brings us to the next, even vaster fleets of refugees who will trek from their homelands in the decades to come, victims of the ferocious Saddam-like autocrats and satraps whom we currently support in a different part of the Muslim world. I’m talking here of the little emperors – complete with praetorian guards, statues and president-for-life status – in the ‘Stans’ that lie between Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia and Iran.

Daniel McLaughlin, among the best correspondents in central and eastern Europe, has drawn attention to the dangers inherent in the Muslim Asian states which emerged from the ruins of the Soviet Union a quarter of a century ago. In a region of oil and gas wealth and strategic importance, their leaders, courted by both Moscow and Washington, are guilty of appalling human rights crimes, massacres and torture of their own people in their war – you guessed it – against Isis and the Taliban.

In Tajikistan, where a civil war in the 1990s claimed – with statistics as wild as Syria’s – up to 100,000 dead, a thousand of Rakhmon’s citizens have joined Isis, along with Gulmurud Khalimov, the former Tajik police commander. Khalimov, I should add, was trained in the US. The Americans maintained post-9/11 air bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The ghastly Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, a creature whose torture chambers and abuse of civil rights are close to Karimov’s standards, pays millions to his hard-working adviser and would be scourge of dictators, Tony Blair. You get the point.

And when these vicious Ruritanias explode, the refugees will come again, the ‘exiles by fate’ and the ‘fugitives of destiny’; Uzbekistan’s 30 million population is almost a third larger than Syria’s. And they will drift across their frontiers and many will come to us, mixed up with more Afghans, Syrians and Arabs. And then we will ask not ‘why?’, not ‘how did we come to this?’, but ‘what do we do NOW?’. And it will be too late again. What was the name of that little chap on the beach, we’ll ask ourselves then? Aylan, wasn’t it? Or Alan? And behind those refugees will be the burning cities of the ancient Silk Road, as surely as Aleppo burns today, and Troy long ago. [This is the concluding section of a long article by Robt Fisk]


“Destroying the environment is a sin”

Pontiff says humans are turning planet into ‘wasteland full of debris, desolation and filth’ in call for urgent action on climate change

Josephine McKenna in Rome                          Guardian/UK                 1 September 2016

Pope Francis has called for urgent action to stop climate change and proposed that caring for the environment be added to traditional Christian works of mercy such as feeding the hungry and visiting the sick. In a message to mark the Catholic Church’s World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation that he launched last year, Francis said the worst impact of global warming was being felt by those who were least responsible for it – refugees and the poor.

The pontiff used the occasion to revive many of the powerful issues he highlighted a year ago in his provocative encyclical on the environment, Laudato si’, and his latest message seems certain to rankle conservatives. Francis described man’s destruction of the environment as a sin and accused mankind of turning the planet into a “polluted wasteland full of debris, desolation and filth”.

“Global warming continues,” the pope said. “2015 was the warmest year on record, and 2016 will likely be warmer still. This is leading to ever more severe droughts, floods, fires and extreme weather events. Climate change is also contributing to the heart-rending refugee crisis. The world’s poor, though least responsible for climate change, are most vulnerable and already suffering its impact. ”

The pope said the faithful should use the Holy Year of Mercy throughout 2016 to ask forgiveness for sins committed against the environment and our “selfish” system motivated by “profit at any price”. He called for care for the environment to be added to the seven spiritual works of mercy outlined in the Gospel that the faithful are asked to perform throughout the pope’s year of mercy in 2016.

“We must not be indifferent or resigned to the loss of biodiversity and the destruction of ecosystems, often caused by our irresponsible and selfish behaviour,” he said. “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence … We have no such right.”

The pope asked people to reflect on a society that lacked concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature. He called for consumers to modify their modern lifestyle by reducing waste, planting trees, separating rubbish and making more use of car pooling.

“The resolve to live differently should affect our various contributions to shaping the culture and society in which we live,” he said. Francis urged political and business leaders to stop thinking of short-term gains and work for the common good while taking steps to resolve the “ecological debt” between the global north and south. “Repaying it would require treating the environments of poorer nations with care and providing the financial resources and technical assistance needed to help them deal with climate change and promote sustainable development,” he said.

Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Vatican’s council for peace and justice, said: “The first step is to humbly acknowledge the harm we are doing to the Earth through pollution, the scandalous destruction of ecosystems and loss of biodiversity, and the spectre of climate change. And to realise that when we hurt the Earth, we also hurt the poor.”

The Ghanaian cardinal, who helped draft the original encyclical, has just been appointed to head a new Vatican dicastery that will be responsible for the environment, migration, justice and healthcare. He told a Vatican media conference it was possible to create change and arrest environmental destruction. “We should not think that our efforts – even our small gestures – don’t matter,” he said. “Virtue, including ecological virtue, can be infectious.” 


The real cause of obesity: inequality

Polly Toynbee                          Guardian/UK                     18 August 2016 

Why is anyone surprised that a Conservative government has yet again caved in cravenly to industry and produced a
shaming non-policy on childhood obesity? That’s what Conservatives do in any clash between business and the environment or general wellbeing, a bias towards profit neatly disguised with a pretended objection to “the nanny state” taking over from personal responsibility.Labour agonised for far too long over banning smoking in public places. Even Dublin and Glasgow had proved it could be done: that changed cultural attitudes towards smoking overnight. The obesity crisis is galloping ahead, exactly as predicted a decade ago, with a third of children leaving primary school overweight. This is far harder to tackle than smoking.

Forcing food manufacturers to cut sugar, fat and salt should be the very least the state should do – but it would still be only one step in the right direction. Banning the advertising of junk food during breaks in children’s programming would help, alongside simple labelling, instead of the deliberately baffling small print.

Attitudes towards food run deep emotionally, psychologically and socially. Obesity is no one’s choice, as everyone wants to be thin: young children now worry about body image, and
rates of anorexia – obesity’s evil twin – say explicitly enough is that fat is a social class issue. Most of the seriously obese are poor. This is tiptoed around, but those with a body-mass index in the red zone, those whose children risk swelling up at a young age, in danger of losing limbs and eyesight to diabetes as they grow up, are the poorest. The hyper-rich are called “fat cats”, but privilege is usually thin and sleek, its body well-exercised by gyms and personal trainers on diets of kale and goji berries.

Poverty is a marker for most obesity. Reports suggest the poor find it harder to afford fresh fruit and vegetables, home cooking, swimming pool and gym fees, ballet and judo lessons for their children. All true, but that’s only part of the story. To be obese signifies being poor and out of control, because people who feel they have no control over their own lives give up. What is there to struggle for if there is no chance ever of a job that will pay beyond bare subsistence? With no prospects, drinking, smoking and eating the wrong things become small compensations in lives with very little else.

Most people have social incentives not to give in to temptation – and even then we often fail – but those who have nothing are likely to give up more easily. From every social signal, poor children know from their first day at school that they are low in the pecking order and that gap between them and the rest widens with every school year, as their self-esteem falls away.

Those on the margins eat themselves into an early grave. It is inequality and disrespect that make people fat. Look at the historical figures: obesity took off in the 1980s, up more than 400% in the years since inequality exploded. The link between inequality and obesity is stark around the world: among developed nations, America is the most unequal society and the fattest, with Britain and Australia next on both scores. Europe is better and the Scandinavian countries best of all.

Where the status and income gap in a society is smallest, so are the waistbands. Turn to that great classic of inequality research, The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, and chapter seven documents how
wider income gaps mean wider waists

There is a tendency to fat-shame the poor, a vicious cycle in which people are blamed individually for both their obesity and their poverty. But the social facts suggest Britain would get thinner if everyone had enough of life’s opportunities to be worth staying thin for. Offer self-esteem, respect, good jobs, decent homes and some social status and the pounds would start to fall away. [Abridged]