Wednesday, January 28, 2015

How Should We Treat Autocrats?

The king is dead! Long live the king! The death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was followed immediately by the accession to the throne of his half-brother Prince Salman. Any struggles within the royal family had been resolved behind closed doors. King Abdullah was buried the next day in an unmarked grave, but he was honored by many world leaders in succeeding days. These leaders also came to meet the new king.

Even President Obama honored King Abdullah and the new king by stopping off in Saudi Arabia after a visit to India. In Britain the flag above Westminster flew at half mast in honor of the late king.

Many of the eulogies bordered on the absurd. UK Prime Minister David Cameron said the monarch that he "strengthened understanding between faiths."  Christine Lagarde, chief of the IMF, called him "a strong advocate of women," albeit a “discreet" one. And Tony Blair described him as "a skillful modernizer" who "led his country into the future." Were these remarks appropriate?

The White House issued a statement that bore an uncanny resemblance to that issued by the Islamic State, to the embarrassment of both.  They hailed the late monarch as a man who, "In a turbulent region, demonstrated his commitment to law, order and the principle of the pretty barbaric public execution."

In both statements, King Abdullah was also praised for his "vision and leadership," as someone who "had the courage of his convictions" and "constantly strived for unity across borders in the Middle East." How these two statements came to be so similar has not yet been explained.

Saudi King Abdullah (1924-2015)

I immediately asked myself: Is that how we should treat autocrats, especially if the autocrat and his country are responsible for many serious violations of human rights? And when he dies, does he deserve such honors?

It is said, "Of the dead say nothing but good," but is this true also of autocrats who ruled their countries with an iron fist and are responsible for terrorism in other parts of the world?

King Abdullah had a reputation as being a reformer. But reformer in the Saudi context is a relative term. The human rights record of Saudi Arabia is dismal.

For decades already, Saudi Arabia received the lowest possible marks for civil and political freedoms in the annual Freedom House rankings, and again in 2014. The countries placed alongside it were North Korea, Turkmenistan, and a smattering of the most brutal African dictatorships.

The regime’s disregard for any accountability to its people is brazen. There are no national elections, no parties, and no parliament, but only a symbolic advisory chamber, known as Majlis al-Shura.

Criticism is strictly forbidden. Just days before King Abdullah’s death, blogger Raif Badawi was given the first 50 of his 1,000 lashes for calling for free speech on his blog. Ahead of his arrival, Obama suggested that he would not be raising US concerns about the flogging of Badawi,

Eighty-seven people are thought to have been beheaded in 2014, which is in line with the national average over the past five years, despite ever-growing external pressure on Saudi Arabia.  It is clear, that this was not a priority for Abdullah.

Another issue is women drivers in Saudi Arabia. The Gulf monarchy is the last country in the world, where women are still not allowed to drive. But for the majority of Saudi women, driving is the least of their problems.

Many would prefer to be able to leave the house, make a purchase, sign any legal document, in fact perform almost any official action, from agreeing to surgery, to signing up to a class, without the consent of a guardian, either the husband or the father.

King Abdullah encouraged more women to go into education, and allocated them a fifth of the seats in his advisory chamber. He also allowed them to vote and run in municipal elections. As with other reform areas, these are top-down symbolic gestures that have done little to affect most Saudi women, who remain some of the most disadvantaged anywhere in the world.

Perhaps more ominously, according to the diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks in 2010, the US regards Saudi Arabia as the biggest source of Sunni terrorism funding in the world, and a "crucial" piggy-bank for Al-Qaeda and other radical groups. While much of its funding comes from private individuals, their identity is unlikely to have been a secret to King Abdullah, who did nothing to rein in his family members.

Although Riyadh did donate a $100 million to the UN’s counter-terrorism center last year, the House of Saud support terrorism all over the world. In fact, Saudi Arabia is the biggest financier of terrorism in the world. The 7,000 or so members of the House of Saud not only support terrorists groups with funds, but see them as a legitimate tool for spreading influence of Wahhabi ideology.

Obama defends the US government's willingness to cooperate closely with Saudi Arabia on national security despite deep concerns over human rights abuses. Saudi Arabia's status as one of the US's most important Arab allies has at times appeared to trump American concerns about the terrorist funding that flows from the kingdom and about human rights abuses. 

Obama said, in a CNN interview that aired in advance of  his arrival in Riyadh, he found it most effective to apply steady pressure over human rights "even as we are getting business done that needs to get done. Sometimes we need to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns we have in terms of counter-terrorism or dealing with regional stability."

In a future posting I want to write about Wahhabism and its pernicious influence not only in the Middle East but also in Africa and many other parts of the world. That is a separate but important story.

King Salman: the new Saudi monarch

My chief concern now is to raise the issue how we should treat autocrats such as the late King Abdullah as well as his successor, King Salman. The eulogies that were offered by some world leaders were not only over-the-top but were also examples of the realpolitik that is practiced by many countries. Obama's comment about combining pressure on human rights with business is yet another example of this.

Realpolitik derives from the German word for real, practical, or actual politics, and refers to politics or diplomacy that is based primarily on power and on practical and material factors and considerations, rather than ideological notions or moralistic or ethical premises.

Although in German it is not perceived as a negative term, it has acquired strong negative connotations. Nevertheless, it is widely practiced today. I use it here to describe the attitude by many western leaders to the disregard for human rights that prevails in Saudi Arabia.

I find it difficult to accept realpolitik. Perhaps I am too idealistic. The over-the-top eulogies are inappropriate and unnecessary. One can and should be able to issue a statement that is sincere and not dripping with false praise. Otherwise, it is not merely a lie but it perpetuates the illusion that the autocrat is a respected member of the world community, and encourages him in his self deception.

There are many more examples of realpolitik as it is practiced today. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is reputed to have said about the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza: "He is a SOB, but he is our SOB." FDR probably never made this comment, yet it is an appropriate expression to describe any foreign dictator that the US has supported over the years: Saddam Hussein, for example.

Should the US or any other democracy support such tyrants? My heart says, no!, even if my head has to admit that there is logic to Obama's argument for having done business with King Abdullah, and now wanting to do it again with King Salman. 

Therefore, I do not agree, but I understand. This is the "real" world in which we live. It is a harsh world, where idealism is soon shattered. Thus I am glad that I am not the President of the USA. If I were, would I be able to treat autocrats differently? For that matter, how would you treat them?

Monday, January 26, 2015

Fear Mongering: the Battle Between Terrorists and Governments

There is a huge battle being waged today for the hearts and minds of ordinary people. On one side are terrorists, while on the other are governments. Both sides use fear mongering in order to win over public opinion and advance their cause.

Terrorists exaggerate their abilities to inflict damage. They use violence and intimidation in the pursuit of their political aims. By exaggerating their destructive abilities, they increase the fear and intimidation. The more damage people believe that a terrorist group has inflicted, the more funding they will receive from extremists and the more people they are able to attract to their cause.

Governments also exaggerate how much damage terrorists have inflicted or are capable of inflicting. Sources within the FBI and CIA, as well as news sources such as Time and the Washington Post, have all said that US government officials were trying to create an atmosphere of fear in which the American people would give them more power.

Tom Ridge, the former Secretary of Homeland Security, has admitted that he was pressured to raise terror alerts to help Bush win reelection. The threat from Islamic terrorists -- while real -- has been greatly exaggerated.  Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former US National Security Adviser, has described the war on terror is a "a mythical historical narrative."

The US government and many other governments justify many of their policies on the need for greater security by hyping the terror menace. Government wants you to be scared out of your pants by the risk of terrorism. But is this fear legitimate?  What are the real facts about terrorism?

The actual figures are astounding. Here is a small sample:

Daniel Benjamin, the Coordinator for Counter-terrorism at the US Department of State from 2009 to 2012, has studied these figures: "The total number of deaths from terrorism in recent years has been extremely small in the West. And the threat itself has been considerably reduced. Given all the headlines people don’t have that perception; but if you look at the statistics that is the case."

According to The Economist, despite the horror, there have actually been very few terror attacks in Europe. The recent attacks in Canada and Australia were can caused by organized terrorists. Other newspapers have noted that non-Muslims have carried out the vast majority of terrorist attacks on both.US soil and in Europe, while the overwhelming majority of victims of Muslim terror attacks are Muslims.

The “War on Terror” has been counter-productive, and only increased the terrorism problem
Governments have admitted that many terror attacks around the world have actually been carried out by government forces and blamed on their enemies, as a way to justify war or other objectives.

While terrorists and governments are trying to scare the pants off you, the truth is that, if we refuse to be terrorized, we win and the terrorists lose.

Are greater security measures warranted? And if they are, are they effective? What about the mass surveillance that is has been proposed in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack?

Bill Binney, the former head of the NSA’s global intelligence gathering operations, notes that the mass surveillance interferes with the government’s ability to catch bad guys, and that the government failed to stop the Boston bombing because it was overwhelmed with data from mass surveillance on Americans.

Binney explains that this also applies to the Paris attack as well:
A good deal of the failure is, in my opinion, due to bulk data. So, I am calling all these attacks a result of “Data bulk failure.” Too much data and too many people for the 10-20 thousand analysts to follow. Simple as that. Especially when they make word match pulls (like Google) and get dumps of data selected from close to 4 billion people.
This is the same problem NSA had before 9/11. They had data that could have prevented 9/11 but did not know they had it in their data bases. This back then when the bulk collection was not going on. Now the problem is orders of magnitude greater. Result, it’s harder to succeed.
Expect more of the same from our deluded government that thinks more data improves possibilities of success. All this bulk data collection and storage does give law enforcement a great capability to retroactively analyze anyone they want. But, of course,that data cannot be used in court since it was not acquired with a warrant.
NBC News reports in a similar vein on the problems created by mass surveillance:
A member of the White House review panel on NSA surveillance said he was “absolutely” surprised when he discovered the agency’s lack of evidence that the bulk collection of telephone call records had thwarted any terrorist attacks.“It was, ‘Huh, hello? What are we doing here?’” said Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago law professor….
“That was stunning. That was the ballgame,” said one congressional intelligence official, who asked not to be publicly identified. “It flies in the face of everything that they have tossed at us.”
The conclusions of the panel’s reports were at direct odds with public statements by President Barack Obama and U.S. intelligence officials.

In an interview, Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, the NSA’s director, has said that the sheer volume and variety of today’s communications means "there’s simply too much out there, and it’s too hard to understand."

"What we got was a blast of digital bits, like a fire hydrant spraying you in the face," adds one former NSA technician with knowledge of the project. "It was the classic needle-in-the-haystack pursuit, except here the haystack starts out huge and grows by the second," the technician explained. NSA’s computers simply were not equipped to sort through so much data flying at them so fast.

Ray Corrigan, a senior lecturer in mathematics, computing and technology at the Open University in the UK, has noted that mass surveillance is not the answer in an article in the New Scientist. Some of his comments:
Brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly, who murdered 17 people, were known to the French security services and considered a serious threat. France has blanket electronic surveillance. It didn’t avert what happened.

The French authorities lost track of these extremists long enough for them to carry out their murderous acts.

Surveillance of the entire population, the vast majority of whom are innocent, leads to the diversion of limited intelligence resources in pursuit of huge numbers of false leads. Terrorists are comparatively rare, so finding one is a needle in a haystack problem. You don’t make it easier by throwing more needleless hay on the stack.
It is statistically impossible for total population surveillance to be an effective tool for catching terrorists.

Mass surveillance makes the job of the security services more difficult and the rest of us less secure.
A terrorism expert has described the massive message interception by the US government this way: "In counterterrorist terms, it is a farce. Basically the NSA . . . is the digital equivalent of the TSA strip-searching an 80 year-old Minnesota grandmothers rather than profiling and focusing on the likely terrorists."

Such spying on ordinary citizens is not only against the American system it also reduces liberty. It is a misapplication of resources; money is being spent and liberty sacrificed for no real gain. The end result is that, since government decision making and policy about international terrorism is very bad, the threat is increasing.

What is worst of all, this fear mongering may result in a major war in the Middle East. Mission creep may lead to further ground troops being deployed in the battle against the Islamic State, in spite of protests to the contrary by Secretary of State John Kerry. Some ground troops are already operating as "advisers" to the Kurds.

A similar mission creep has been noted in Canada; some Canadian special forces have already engaged in fire fights with ISIS, and the Conservative government wants to demonstrate its power and its ability to protect Canadian citizens at home in the face of the federal later this year. New legislation is being introduced shortly by the government granting them these powers.

Thanks to this wall-to-wall fear mongering, a once war-weary public in the US is now terrified. More than 60% of the public in a recent CNN poll now supports the airstrikes against ISIS. Two more polls, one from the Washington Post and the other from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, have arrived at the same conclusion.

Most shocking, 71% think that ISIS has terrorist sleeper cells in the US, against all evidence to the contrary. It will only too easy for those who want to destroy ISIS militarily to further escalate the war.

Stand in endless lines at the airport accomplish nothing, at enormous cost. That’s the conclusion of Charles C. Mann, who put the T.S.A. to the test with the help of one of America’s top security experts. Since 9/11, the US has spent more than $1.1 trillion on homeland security.

To a large number of security analysts, this expenditure makes no sense. The vast cost is not worth the infinitesimal benefit. Not only has the actual threat from terror been exaggerated, they say, but the great bulk of the post-9/11 measures to contain it are little more than what some mock as “security theater” -- actions that accomplish nothing but are designed to make the government look like it is on the job. In fact, the continuing expenditure on security may actually have made the US less safe.

Fear-mongering is deadly for all concerned. For us as citizens, it obviously makes us susceptible to the manipulations of governments that want justify war. Unfortunately, in the nuclear age, there can no longer be any justification for war. The just war theory is dead, although I do not want to argue its demise in this post. I have done so most recently in

The war on terror is a specious war, since the war is undeclared. The enemy is hard to find; they are invisible until an act of terrorism elevates them onto the world stage, if only for a brief period of time. But it is a convenient war, since it justifies the massive surveillance that has already been shown to be useless, but does permit governments to demonstrate their efforts to protect their citizenry.

Unfortunately, civil rights are often the first victims of such massive surveillance. The legislation that would permit even more surveillance would come at the price of privacy and other freedoms. Are ypu willing to pay that price?

For governments, fear mongering contributes to the pitifully low evaluation of politicians on the trustworthiness scale. Politicians worldwide are perceived as interested only in gaining power. Once they do, they do not want to cede it. Yet by fear-mongering they are able to win power and form governments that hopefully will continue in power for a long time.

Even for the terrorists themselves, fear mongering ultimately destroys their cause. Fear may motivate people for a while, but eventually people no longer trust anyone. Then they lash out at everyone, especially those who have engineered that fear.

Fear mongering involves a battle between terrorists and governments for the hearts and minds of ordinary people like you and me. We must not allow ourselves to be misled by either side. Instead, we must renounce fear and proclaim the truth about surveillance and the false security measures that our governments are perpetrating.

Remember this: the truth shall set us free from fear!


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Curse of Islamophobia

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings there has been a noticeable increase in Islamophobia in Europe as well as elsewhere in the world. In fact, one can speak about a tsunami of Islamophobia, just as at one time there was a tsunami of antisemitism that, unfortunately, has still not abated entirely. In the Middle East and indeed much of the Muslim world it continues to raise its ugly head.

Yet in parts of Europe today, it has become increasingly unacceptable to be an antisemite, although there is still a lot of antisemitism among some younger people. In contrast, Islamophobia has grown phenomenally in all age groups. Some political leaders in Europe and elsewhere have used it for their own political advantage through fostering the fear that lies at the roots of Islamophobia.

I want to restrict my discussion largely to Europe in the post 9/11 period. To do otherwise would be to make it too long. Even so, not everyone will agree with my observations.

The 1991 Runnymede Trust Report defined Islamophobia as an "unfounded hostility towards Muslims, and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims." The report points out that it is based on a number of beliefs about Islam:it is monolithic and cannot adapt to new realities; it does not share common values with other major faiths; it is an inferior, archaic, barbaric, and irrational religion that practices violence and supports terrorism; and it is a violent political ideology.

In some respects, Islamophobia shares much with antisemitism in which there are strong religious,
economic, social, racist, ideological, and cultural factors that are widely adduced to justify the fear and prejudicial behavior that characterize both.

Although the term is much disputed in the academic world, it overlaps with other terms such as xenophobia and racism, since so many Muslims in Europe compose the largest groups of immigrants. Many Muslims have not integrated well into European cultures and constitute a significant and highly visible community in many European countries. 

Muslims gather to condemn the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Chateauroux, France [AFP]

In France, Muslims are estimated to total more than 6 million or about 10% of the population, while in Germany there are more than 4 million or 5%. In Russia, Muslims total about 27 million or 20% of the population, with many other European countries coming in at somewhere between 1% to 6%.

Despite recent attempts by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to paint Islamophobic protesters in her country as intolerant bigots, the protests are getting louder and growing in size.

The rallies, which were organized by a new grassroots movement known as PEGIDA, or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, have become an almost weekly event in the east German city of Dresden. Some 18,000 people, the biggest number so far, turned out recently in that city.

Similar rallies in Berlin and Cologne, however, were heavily outnumbered by counter-protesters who accuse PEGIDA of fanning racism and intolerance. The Cathedral in Cologne dimmed its lights to protest Islamophobia,

The PEGIDA protesters waved Germany’s black, red and gold flag and brandished posters bearing slogans such as "Against religious fanaticism and every kind of radicalism." It is ironic that PEGIDA is opposed as well to Nazism and Communism as well as radical Islam. 

In France, twenty-six mosques have been attacked by firebombs, gunfire, pig heads, and grenades as Muslims are targeted with violence in the wake of the Paris attacks. According to the most recent tally, a total of 60 Islamophobic incidents have been recorded, with countless minor encounters believed to have gone unreported. Islamophobic incidents are nothing new in France.

Armed guards have been placed outside some mosques across the country, including the Grande Mosquée de Paris, which was built in 1926 as a token of gratitude to Muslim soldiers in France's army during the First World War.

Senior French politicians have warned against linking the gunmen with peaceful Muslims, of which France has the biggest population in Europe. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius has said that the word “Islamist” should not be used to described the murderers, but rather “terrorist." He added,"The terrorists' religion is not Islam, which they are betraying. It's barbarity."

It is doubly ironic that the first victim of the Charlie Hebdo killers was Ahmed Merabet, a French Muslim policeman. Yet two of the killers were reportedly of Algerian descent, while the third hailed from Senegal. Thus they were all Frenchmen, not jihadists from the Middle East.

Ahmed Merabet

In addition, it should be noted that Merabet has largely dropped off the media radar. His Muslim identity was newsworthy only very briefly. Muslims typically make headlines only when they are carrying guns. The two Kouachi brothers are judged to represent all of France's 6 million Muslims, but not Merabet, the Muslim policeman. All Muslims are considered potential terrorists and should blamed for the Charlie Hebdo shootings. This is clearly Islamophobia.

Malek Merabet,  the brother of the police officer, said, "My brother was Muslim and he was killed by people who pretend to be Muslims. They are terrorists, that's it, Islam is a religion of peace and love. As far as my brother’s death is concerned it was a waste. He was very proud of the name Ahmed Merabet, proud to represent the police and of defending the values of the Republic – liberty, equality, fraternity.”

The number and growth of Muslims in France has spurred some of the most draconian policies against them in modern times. The headscarf ban in 2004, followed by that of the niqab or face covering, in 2010, has codified core Islamophobic ideas. This legislation also functioned as a firm and fervent declaration by the state that Muslim and French identities were at odds and irreconcilable.

But is it? Ahmed Merabet and countless other French Muslims prove otherwise. Which is not to say that they have no problems. The French laïcité model provided the structural underpinnings to carry forward this Islamophobic legislation. 

The state aim of compelling secularisation upon its Muslim citizenry was based upon a binary concept of civilizations. French Muslims were given an ultimatum:  choose between "Islam or the West," "Islamic countries or France." The same choice is not demanded of people from other nations.

Motto of the French republic on the tympanum of a church, in Aups (Var département), which was installed after the 1905 law on the Separation of the State and the Church. Such inscriptions on a church are very rare; this one was restored during the 1989 bicentenary of the French Revolution.

This enforced secularization is one of the reasons why some French have become radicalized. But there is more. There is also the often-stated factor of religion, although this has been overestimated.

Some scholars have shown there is no empirical evidence to support the claim that religion and ideology are the primary motivators of violent extremism. The revelation that the foreign fighters who joined ISIS had read copies of Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies, underscores this. They know practically nothing about their new-found faith. Some of the world’s most renowned scholars of terrorism agree that other factors play a much larger role.

They cite factors such as anger at injustice, moral superiority, a sense of identity and purpose, the promise of adventure, and becoming a hero have all been implicated in case studies of radicalization. Religion and ideology serve as vehicles for an "us versus them" mentality and as the justification for violence against those who represent "the enemy", but they are not the drivers of radicalization.

In the European context, there is yet one more factor that is often neglected: colonialism. France's 1830 invasion of Algeria, which is where the Kouchi brothers stem from, began a 130-year odyssey of murder, expropriation, racism, exploitation and misrule that only ended after a vicious anti-colonial struggle costing well over one million Algerian lives.

In Algeria, the petroleum-rich FLN state launched a brutal internal war, with the direct support of the West, in order to preserve its absolute grip on power. This story has been repeated countless times in the Muslim world, where -- with the exception of Turkey, Iran, and part of the Arabian peninsula -- most countires, from Morocco to Indonesia, came under European rule in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Colonialism had had a similar devastating effect in Africa. For example, Nigeria also received Western support for its ruinous war against Biafra in the late 1960s. The havoc that it caused, including at least one million dead, is one of the rarely discussed causes of the Boko Haram phenomenon.

Globalization is essentially colonialism in a new guise, The World Bank and the IMF force conditions on countries in the Two-Thirds World that are every bit as onerous as those the colonial masters at one time foisted on their colonies. Globalization will breed more terrorism in the future.

Islamophobia has been a curse both for the victims and the perpetrators. Muslims everywhere have been unfairly stigmatized for the misdeeds of a handful of extremists who claim to be Muslim but behave in un-Islamic ways. To contend that only Muslims are guilty of such behavior is yet another example of Islamophobia. All religions have extremists that do not properly represent their faith.

The perpetrators are cursed their fear of Muslims. They fear what they do not understand very well, and thus they are open to those who manipulate them by playing on these fears. PEGIDA is only one example of this. The French state has dome the same in the name of secularism. Politicians in many countries, including Canada, are playing the fear card as well in the name of fighting terrorism.

The fear of terrorism soon morphs into Islamophobia, which as the term indicates clearly, means a fear of Islam, which is seen as the most common purveyor of terrorism. A vicious circle quickly results, with Islamophobia breeding more terrorists, and so on and so on. 

The way to stop this is through education. Islamophobia can be cured, but it requires a willingness on the part of both the victims and the perpetrators to grasp what is happening and deal with it. Among those best able to so are politicians who must first end their manipulation of the electorate and realize that electoral victory can be achieved better through fostering unity, rather than their current divide-and-conquer policies. 

Then and only then will the curse finally end. Then Muslims will be able to live side-by-side with everyone else in their chosen country without fear of discrimination. That may take a while. As we all know only too well, antisemitism has not yet disappeared in Europe. 

France and Germany both have a bad track record when it comes to antisemitism, but Dreyfus and the Holocaust are both now history. May all forms of racism, including antisemitism and Islamophobia eventually become history as well. 

Europe can no longer afford a war that pits one religion against another, or religion itself against secularism. My dream is of a pluralistic world in which people of every faith live together in unity.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Why Has the Press Largely Ignored Boko Haram?

"I am Charlie, let us not forget the victims of Boko Haram"

In the same week that 20 people in Paris (including the three killers) died, there were reports that 2,000 men, women, and children had been killed by Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria. Amnesty International had initially used that figure, which it had received from the BBC, but it later revised the total to "hundreds."

I immediately asked myself why the press largely ignored the atrocities of  Boko Haram and concentrated on the Charlie Hebdo killings. That seemed unfair. I asked myself: Are European lives worth more than African ones?

When I heard reports about the killings in Nigeria, I became angry, since I know some of the people who lived and worked in the area, They are former student of my wife and I. Fortunately, their lives were spared,

But many others in the region did lose their lives in a four-day orgy of killing that left more than 3,700 homes destroyed and forced thousands of people to flee for safety in Jos and other communities. There are now a total of 1.5 million internally displaced people in Nigeria. Many church buildings of the EYN (Church of the Brethren in Nigeria) denomination were destroyed leaving about 1,400 pastors without work.

My anger was directed against the Western press which published story after story on the Charlie Hebdo killings, but largely ignored the killings in Nigeria, which were relegated to the back pages of most newspapers.

I voiced my anger on Facebook, as did many other people. Apparently there was a tsunami of anger about what happened in Nigeria. Many writers wondered how the press could have ignored the many Nigerian deaths while focusing almost exclusively on the French ones.

 (Warning: graphic photo) Some of the victims of Boko Haram

Only now are more reports coming out about what had happened in that isolated part of Nigeria, although the precise number of dead may never be known. In the last few days I have assembled some of the reasons that Nigerians and others have offered in response to the question of why the press ignored the Nigerian tragedy.

I want to report briefly on some of the reasons that were mentioned. I lived in Nigeria for six years and thus have had some firsthand experience with the unrest there, although I admit I have never knowingly met any of the jihadists of Boko Haram.

Nigerians readily acknowledge that the Nigerian press failed in reporting what happened. Reporting in northeastern Nigeria is notoriously difficult; journalists have been targeted by Boko Haram and, unlike in Paris, people on the ground are isolated and struggle with access to the internet and other means of communications. Attacks by Boko Haram have disrupted connections further, meaning that there is an absence of an online community able to share news, photos and video reports of news as it unfolds.

The geographic remoteness of the region compounds the problems faced by journalists who prefer to be safely ensconced in their offices in Lagos, which is the largest city in Africa and the commercial capital of Nigeria, or in Abuja, the political capital of the country.

The dangerous situation is intensified by the fact that there is too much corruption in the Nigerian government, while the army is poorly equipped and morale is low. So the government does not want any reporting, since that would expose all the corruption and  the inadequacies of the military, which seemingly refuses to fight Boko Haram.

Anyone reporting such shameful facts about Nigeria's system would soon become a target, so no one wants to report on them, except from a safe distance like Lagos and Abuja where the majority of Nigerian and foreign journalists are located.

Then there is the unsavory factor of racism, which I have already touched on. In contrast to the reports flooding out of Paris, the western media largely ignored what Boko Haram did in Baga. There was also very little African coverage, not even by Nigerians.

No African leaders condemned the attacks, nor did any leaders talk of a solidarity with the victims in Baga. One African wrote that "outrage and solidarity over the Paris massacre is also a symbol of how we as Africans neglect Africa’s own tragedies, and prioritize western lives over our own."

In addition, Nigerians feel let down by their political leaders: the world ignored Boko Haram’s attacks because Nigerian leaders themselves have never shown any concern. In the days following the attack on Baga, there has not been a word from Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, except for a statement condemning the Paris attacks, although I just heard that he recently made a secret visit the area. But this was weeks after the first attack on Baga, where Boko Haram acquired a stash of weapons from a military base.

The Nigerian finance minister also appeared keener to comment on events far away that have killed far less people, when he expressed his deepest sympathies to the French journalists and their families, but did not mention the killings in his own country.

This is hardly surprising, since local TV stations now follow every twist and turn of the presidential campaign for the election scheduled on February 14. People claim that the president's visit was not motivated by genuine concern for those who lost their homes, but was purely for political reasons.

Muhammadu Buhari

Muhammadu Buhari, the former military ruler of Nigeria, and now the consensus opponent of Jonathan in the presidential election, has said more soldiers need to be deployed against Boko Haram. "The number of soldiers, policemen and officers of the State Security Services they deploy during elections, if they had deployed them to Borno and Yobe states to fight Boko Haram, by now, Boko Haram would have been history," he explained.

The issue of inaction in tackling the Islamic militant group has other explanations as well. The insurgency, which began in 2009 is believed to have claimed more than 13,000 lives already. But for many Nigerians who are living in the south, what is happening in the North appears to be happening in another country. While people are sympathetic to the victims, they do not feel directly affected. Many people were outraged by the atrocious massacres instigated by Boko Haram, yet they feel powerless to act.

There are also people who attribute the massive coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attacks to most of the victims being journalists. It was also helped by the fact that mainstream media reporting is tied into a wider geo-political system of global power through which a range of ideas about places such as Nigeria are implanted into the minds of millions.

These ideas, in turn, have shaped the attitudes of millions of Africans to themselves, cultivating strong feelings of inferiority that occasionally manifests itself in irrational rage. A good example of this is found in Chinua Achebe's brilliant novel of traditional life in Nigeria and its breakdown in the colonial era, Things Fall Apart.

It can also be seen in what is happening in Nigeria, where Boko Haram displays both strong feelings of inferiority and irrational rage. At the gut level, Nigerians understand this, but they are powerless to respond appropriately. Hence, Nigerians ignore it and hope it will go away.

Nigerians are certainly not going to plan marches to commemorate the victims of these atrocities, as happened in Paris. Nor will they invite world leaders to witness their powerlessness. Even journalists are not welcome in the area.

Aside from the geographic remoteness and the dangers involved, the government does it best to hide what is happening there because the army is also complicit in human rights violations. Both the army and Boko Haram have failed in winning the hearts of the local populace, who have in some cases set up vigilante groups to protect themselves.

Boko Haram was founded in 2002 and its aim is to establish an Islamic state, just as IS is doing in Syria and Iraq. The name means "Western education is forbidden." The only education permitted is of the Qur'an. This is symptomatic of their inferiority, while their irrational rage is evident in their capture of schoolgirls, who are sold to Boko Haram fighters or used a suicide bombers, and the deadly massacre in Baga.

None of these actions are permitted by the Qur'an, even though the jihadists claim such support. They have violated Islamic law by taking it into their own hands. All the four Sunni schools of law, including the conservative Hanbali school, declare that women, children, the elderly, the disabled, priests, traders, farmers, and all noncombatant civilians should not be targeted and killed in a jihad. These schools also do not permit the killing of the fellow Muslims. Therefore the behavior of Boko Haram is clearly not rational.

Many western journalists do not realize this. For too many, Africa is still the "dark continent" and Islam is a religion that breeds terrorists. No wonder so many people in Europe and North America are equally unenlightened. Not only is it dangerous to go to northeastern Nigeria but there is also a fear of the unknown. An African Muslim can therefore best be described as terra incognita (the unknown world). As the old mapmakers used to write on the edges of their maps: "Here be dragons."

The foreign news media should contact the Nigerian Union of Journalists, as well as Nigerian researchers on Boko Haram and the Fulani Jihad to get the background information they need to be able to accurately report what is happening in the three states that Boko Haram currently dominates.

As you probably realize by now, there are many reasons why the press ignored so many Nigerian deaths while focusing almost exclusively on the French ones. Some of the reasons are very easy to understand, while others are more complex. Some I have adapted slightly, while others I have developed myself.

Together, they help to explain why the incident in Paris was reported voluminously and with so much emotional appeal -- so much that people all over the world identified themselves as "Je suis Charlie." The one in Nigeria, in contrast, has hardly merited more than a few lines of print until now. This belated shift to Nigeria perhaps can be accounted for by the fickleness of the press, which moves quickly from one story to the next.

I hope that the world will soon start paying more attention to what is happening in Nigeria. But they should look beyond the Nigerian election to the civil war that is taking place in those three Nigerian states. That war has spread intermittently to other parts of Nigeria, but may soon become a permanent fixture there as well. That will not happen, however, if the world takes sufficient notice of what is happening right now in Nigeria with Boko Haram. Let the press take note!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Love, not hate, should be the response to the Paris killings

Is freedom of speech really the issue?

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings people everywhere are jumping on the "free speech!" bandwagon. Everyone, it seems, is using the Twitter hashtag #JeSuisCharlie" (I am Charlie).

While I am very much in favor of freedom of expression (which includes more than just speech), what is now happening in France is not really about freedom of expression on one side of the debate nor about "blasphemy" on the other.

The main issue is really love and respect. I see very little love and too much hatred. I sense a hatred directed against Muslims. In Europe and elsewhere, there is now a strong backlash against Islam. Islam/Muslims are represented are being the "problem." This is in spite of the fact that Muslims face intense discrimination and lack of opportunity from the broader, predominantly white, European society.

There have already been too many deaths. In addition to the twelve who were killed at Charlie Hebdo, there have been eight more deaths that may somehow be connected to this incident. But there is no excuse for any of these deaths. None of these people should ever have died in this tragic fashion. One of the twelve killed at Charlie Hebdon was a Muslim policeman.

Since the killers are all dead, we may never know precisely what motivated them. What people have surmised is that by killing the journalists they wanted not only to punish them for the cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad that Charlie Hebdo had published but also to drive a wedge between the majority of Muslims and the rest of French society, thereby radicalizing these Muslims,

France has about five million Muslims, of whom only a handful can be considered a threat. The majority want little or nothing to do with politics, but they were the real targets of the killers at Charlie Hebdo. Most of them were upset by the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo, but they would not threaten to kill those who drew them, unlike the killers, who stated that they had avenged the Prophet.

As is well-known, those who work at this magazine have for many years gone beyond the mere lampooning of figures, especially of their depictions of religious figures. Charlie Hebdo has a long record of mocking, baiting and needling French Muslims, but it is an equal opportunity publication, since it does the same to Catholics and everyone else. 

In spite of the biting satire, killing in response to the perceived insult to Muhammad, no matter how gross, must be unequivocally condemned. That is why what happened in Paris cannot be tolerated. But neither should we tolerate the kind of intolerance that provoked this violent reaction.

Before I continue, I want to ask this question: What do the teachings of Islam actually say about creating images of the prophet?

Nowhere in the Qur'an does it say that images of Muhammad are forbidden. But it is mentioned in the hadith, a secondary text that many Muslims consult for instruction on how to live a good life. Many Muslims are not aware of this.

The theological underpinnings of the ban can be traced back to the very beginnings of Islam in Arabia. Early followers of Muhammad held themselves apart from their Christian neighbors, whom they believed to be too deeply attached to icons and images. The ban is also informed by one of the central tenets of Islam -- the idea that the Prophet Muhammad was a man, and not God/Allah.

“It comes from the notion that God is transcendent and that nothing should be put in God’s place,” according to John Esposito, a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University. “Anything like that is idolatry. You don’t want to have a statue or a picture of God, because people may wind up praying to it.”

The issue is not unique to Islam -- it has also come up in the other Abrahamic traditions. In Judaism, the Bible depicts God as becoming deeply troubled after the ancient Israelites created and worshipped a golden calf. One of the Ten Commandments forbids the making od idols, The Byzantine Empire saw the rise of the Iconoclasm movement, a name that literally means “image breaking.” The Iconoclastic controversy lasted from the eighth through the ninth century.

These cartoons are not simply drawings of Muhammad. There is a distinct political message behind them, and they border on being outright racist. They have added flames to an already very volatile fire. They are being willfully and purposefully offensive to an already marginalized and disenfranchised group of people.

Should the cartoons have been published at all? In Canada a debate is ongoing about the wisdom of the media republishing the cartoons of Muhammad. French-language media decide in the affirmative and published the, while English-language ones did not out of concern for the sensitivities of Muslims. For the same reason, I have not included any cartoons of Muhammad in my posting on this blog

The killers at Charlie Hebdo were filled with hate for the journalists at this magazine. Yet the proper response is not more hatred, but rather love -- love for Muslims. Love for those who cannot be held responsible, because they were not directly involved. Don't blame an entire group for what a few individuals do. 

Such a backlash is unfair, yet it growing, both in France and elsewhere. In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has already associated the Charlie Hebdo killings with jihadists and used this association to justify Canada's involvement in fighting the Islamic State in Iraq. 

Love is also required when it comes to cartoons that some group might not only regard as offensive but may also be contrary to their religion. Charlie Hebdo seems to have had a special dislike of Muslims. In 2005, it republished the Danish cartoon of Muhammad that inflamed many in the Muslim world. 

After the killings, the media have almost universally defended the magazine in the name of freedom of expression, Many other voices have echoed this claim. That is indeed a legitimate defense, but I question the wisdom of using it when depictions of Muhammad are concerned.

It is not that Muslims deserve special treatment as compared to other religious groups. They can be satirized like any other group, but when it comes to depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, greater sensitivity is required, since Muslims widely regard such depictions as blasphemy.

Imam Dr. Omar Shahin, the president of the North American Imam’s Federation, does not believe the prophet should ever be represented in an image, but he has emphasized the importance of showing respect for other people's deeply held religious beliefs. 

But he insists that the only proper ways for Muslims to speak out against depictions of Muhammad are by taking legal action or by educating the public -- not by committing acts of violence.

Love is stronger than hatred
Is this really what Charlie Hebdo meant?

Such sensitivity is an expression of love and respect for others. If love seems a strange term to use in this context, remember the biblical commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. Our neighbor, as Jesus explains, is not merely the people we like but even those we despise. He amplified this when he gave the injunction about loving one's enemies. 

Love is required of all of us. We must be sensitive to the way these satirical cartoons of Muhammad offend Muslims: they regard it as blasphemy. Even if Christians are not offended the same way when Jesus is portrayed in an offensive way, that does not mean that they should just stand by when Muhammad is treated the same way.

Freedom of expression is not an absolute right. No human right is absolute: there is always a corresponding duty that balances that right. Love in this case means that we do not side automatically with those who only want to talk about freedom of expression and that we avoid provocative actions such as publishing cartoons that will offend our Muslim neighbors. We must love them sufficiently that we do not add fuel to the fire, but instead, at the risk of mixing metaphors, build bridges to them.

In the past, French officials from former President Jacques Chirac to Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius have accused Charlie Hebdo of pouring oil on the fire of religious tensions. After the Charlie Hebdo killings, the French-- Muslims and non-Muslims alike -- were united in defense of freedom of expression, but deep-seated tensions over the issue continued to simmer under the surface.

"This barbaric act is also an attack against democracy and freedom of the press," read a statement from Dalil Boubakeur of the Great Mosque of Paris, which unsuccessfully sued Charlie Hebdo in 2006 for printing cartoons that it deemed racist. "In an international political context of tensions fueled by the delusions of terrorist groups unjustly claiming to represent Islam, we call on those attached to the values of the French Republic and of democracy to avoid all provocations that serve only to feed the fire."

If hatred of Muslims persists in France and elsewhere in the world, and if French Muslims are turned against the rest of French society, then the Charlie Hebdo killers will have posthumously won the victory. The only way to deny them that is by demonstrating love.

The choice is clear: love, not hate, should be our response to Charlie Hebdon. Nous ne sommes pas Charlie  (We are not Charlie). We must distance distance ourselves from that magazine sufficiently so that we do not support hatred of any religious group, but instead demonstrate our love for our neighbors no matter what their faith is. 

I want to conclude with the words that the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians (13:1-13):
1 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,a but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly,b but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Five things I expect to happen in 2015

There are at least five things I expect to happen in 2015, but not all of these things are of interest to everyone. Some are personal, but others, I hope, will have a wider appeal. I will restrict myself to the latter. These are not merely things I am hoping for, but I actually expect them to happen. This is not prophecy, but it is merely an educated guess.

I have numbered them, although they are not listed in order of importance. All of them are more or less political but they also have a religious dimension, as is most readily apparent in the first one:

1. Pope Francis will continue to make waves in the Roman Catholic Church.

How this 78 year-old pontiff with only one lung manages to make the waves he does amazes me. Conservatives are outraged by what he says, while liberals cheer him on. The world should sit up and take notice, because the pope is not merely the head of the world's 1,2 billion Catholics but he is also a temporal ruler, even if it is only of the small statelet, the Vatican.

Late last year Pope Francis proposed modifying the church's attitude to LBGT and divorced people. The Synod of Bishops did not approve these changes, but I expect him to reintroduce them this year.

He also scolded the Curia, the heads of the bureaucracy of the Vatican. They deserve his rebuke, but no one likes a scolding. Expect more of the same this year. He will probably try to reform the Curia extensively, in order to deal with some of the scandals that have plagued the Vatican.

He is expected to issue an encyclical on climate change around the time of the the Climate Change Conference in Paris in December. In it he will urge humanity to have a greater respect for creation and invite Catholics to do more in the fight against climate change. Last year he condemned industries that harm the environment. Expect more of the same in 2015.

As his name indicates, Francis is very concerned for the poor. That is why he has spoken out loudly about the inequality of wealth in the world and the threat that poses. Inequality is the next topic on my list.

Wealth inequality in America

2, The growing wealth inequality in the world.

There is an increasing awareness of the growing wealth inequality in the world. Every country is experiencing that, thus it is hardly surprising the the US and Canada are noticing it as well, The problem is not new. Moreover, it is, growing. And I expect it get worse this year, in part, because of the economic crisis that still grips much of the world.

What is new is the number of reports that focus on this problem. The issue of wealth inequality has been raised by the International Monetary Fund, the Davos forum,  the Conference Board of Canada, and the Broadbent Institute. According to a recent Oxfam report, the wealthiest 85 people in the world hold as much wealth as the poorest half of the planet's population, or about 3.5 billion people.

Canada is second only to the US in growing inequality. In the US about 47 per cent of total growth went to the wealthiest one per cent between 1975 and 2007, compared to 37 per cent in Canada, while in Australia and the U.K., about 20 per cent of growth went to the wealthiest.

The growing gap between rich and poor was a focus of the Occupy Movement, which resulted in mass protests and sit-ins in New York, Toronto and many other cities in 2011 and 2012.

As I mention is an earlier posting, Thomas Picketty, in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014), presents data spanning several centuries that supports his central thesis that the owners of capital accumulate wealth more quickly than those who provide the labor, a phenomenon that has been widely described with the term "the rich-get-richer."

Increasing inequity is a threat to democracy. That is already apparent in many countries. It is widely recognized that elections today are largely decided by the wealthy and that governments everywhere are controlled by the rich. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, we now have government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich. Unless we do something about it, I expect that as a result of the growing inequity democracy may soon disappear. 

3, More racism in the U.S. and some other countries.

Racism is rampant in America. When a black president is vilified, it is not simply because of his policies. He is vilified because of his race. President Obama is only one half black, but that is more than enough by American standards (one eighth will qualify someone as black). Add up all the Republicans who hate Obama's policies and you have a large segment of the population.

Then add to this all those who cheered the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and NYC. Then add those who harbor racist feelings, but are good at hiding them in every day life. One might have to conclude that just about every person in the U.S. is tinged with racism. Racism is possible without being racist.

Other countries are not much better. Canada has been classified as one of the most tolerant countries in the world, but the way Canadians have treated their native people is shameful. The scandal of the residential schools in Canada rivals the scandal in the Catholic Church with the abuse of children by clergy. In both there was abuse, although only the former was motivated by racism.

In Europe the fear that is displayed toward Muslims is caused by racism, not just religion. A fear of "Eurabia" is mentioned repeatedly in many parts of Europe about people from the Middle East and other parts of the world who do not conform to European standards in dress or language.

No nation is completely innocent of racism. I have witnessed it in all the countries where I have ever lived. It exists everywhere. Unfortunately, I do not see it disappearing soon. On the contrary, I expect it get worse in this and succeeding years. Most people do not recognize that they harbor racist feelings.

4. More conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

As if the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians were not bad enough, it will intensify even more in 2015. After the latest intifada last year, it seemed as if the problem could not get much worse, but it has already this year, and I expect it to get even worse as the year progresses.

In December, after the UN Security Council rejected the request of Palestine to be accorded statehood, the Palestinians immediately submitted the final documents which would allow them to join the International Criminal Court.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, announced that the state of Palestine will join the Court on April 1, a high-stakes move that will enable the Palestinians to pursue war-crimes charges against Israel, but also open up Palestine to similar charges. 

The US denounced the Palestinian move while Israel froze the transfer of more than $100 million in tax funds collected for the Palestinians. In addition, any Palestinian case against Israel at the court would trigger an immediate cutoff of US financial support under American law.

The Israeli election on March 17 will either exacerbate or lessen the conflict. If Prime Minister Netanyahu is reelected, I expect the situation to worsen even more than if the opposition parties come to power. Either way, a quick resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not possible, as long as the US continues to give unqualified support to Israel.

The charge of "Zionism is racism" has often been hurled at Israel. Even though the UN retracted an earlier resolution that made this charge, it will not entirely disappear until Israel allows Palestine to become a full-fledged state or Palestinians are accorded the same rights as Israelis in a unitary state. I don't expect either to happen very soon. That is why I expect, very sadly, the conflict to increase this year.

5. Greater progress on climate change.

I sense a greater willingness on the part of many nations to come to grips with the problem of climate change. The agreement made at the Climate Change Conference in Lima is one indication.

A new agreement on climate change is expected in Paris in December, that will harness action by all nations, took a further important step forward following two weeks of negotiations by over 190 countries in Lima.

Nations concluded that conference by elaborating the elements of the new agreement in Paris while also agreeing the ground rules on how all countries can submit contributions to the new agreement during the first quarter of next year.

But there are other indications as well. Canada, which has dragged its feet while the Conservatives under Prime Minister Stephen Harper have been in control, may yet change its attitude. Because there is an election scheduled for some time this year, Harper wants to soften his image, also on climate change, and may make some proposals soon to that effect. Even if somewhat belatedly, such a change would be widely applauded by many Canadians.

Climate change, or global warming, as I have referred to it in earlier posts, is real. It is the most serious environmental problem that the world faces. Slowly -- perhaps too slowly -- the nations of the world are waking up to it and are resolving to do something about it. This is why I expect further progress on climate change this year.

My list of things that I expect to happen this year includes some good things and some bad. Many of them are political in nature, but they have a religious dimension as well. In future posts I hope to examine many of them in greater detail and outline that dimension.

There are, of course, many more things that I expect to happen in 2015, but I have run out of space.