The United States, Britain and the European Union

CounterPunch 

On his farewell tour, President Barack Obama has stirred the pot ahead of the June referendum in Britain on whether the United Kingdom should stay in the European Union or leave. His warning to leavers that Britain cannot expect a trade agreement with the United States any time soon if it withdraws from the EU has infuriated leaders of the Brexit campaign, and delighted those who want to remain, including Prime Minister David Cameron. Obama’s message to Britain was that it should remain in the EU, and that it was in America’s interest, too.

Some of the comments made by leading Brexit figures in the governing Conservative Party in retaliation to Obama’s intervention have been described as borderline racist.

In a particularly outspoken jibe, London mayor and a member of the British cabinet, Boris Johnson, accused the American president of interfering in British politics. Johnson went on to say that after entering the White House Obama had ordered the removal a bust of the British wartime leader, Winston Churchill, from the Oval Office. Furthermore, he suggested that this might be because of Obama’s “part Kenyan ancestral dislike of the British empire.”

Other leading Brexit campaigners expressed similar sentiments. Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, told the American president to “butt” out of intervening in Britain’s referendum on EU membership. Farage, too, asserted that Obama was influenced by his Kenyan family’s colonial view of Britain. The use of this type of language about an American president is unprecedented for the British political establishment – a country which claims a “special relationship” with the United States.

There are striking similarities between insinuations by American conservatives about Barack Obama’s Kenyan heritage and his Muslim father, and comments heard in Britain. Some members of the Brexit lobby have privately expressed fears that such direct attacks on him will backfire, and help the pro-EU campaign in a tight race. Jingoism and xenophobia live on both sides of the Atlantic. There are people ready and willing to whip up such sentiments.

Winston Churchill’s grandson, Nicholas Soames, a member of the British parliament and a supporter of remaining in the EU, has described Boris Johnson’s remarks as appalling, and said it was “inconceivable” that his grandfather would not have welcomed Obama’s views. It was, after all, Churchill who first suggested closer European unity in a famous speech in the Swiss city of Zurich in 1946.

From the ruins of the Second World War, Churchill spoke of his vision to recreate “the European family” with a structure under which it can “dwell in peace, in safety and freedom.” He described it as something like a United States of Europe. Today, his party is tearing itself apart over whether Britain should be part of that structure.

Why should President Obama have intervened so publicly in the EU debate during his visit to Britain? And why did opponents of the European Union react so furiously? These questions require understanding of how Britain’s relations with the United States and the rest of Europe, Germany in particular, have evolved in the last century.

The Second World War was a watershed which brought enormous global change. Hitler’s Nazi regime in Europe, and imperial Japan in Asia, were defeated. But Europe was quickly divided into rival blocs again – one dominated by America, the other by the Soviet Union.

At the same time, Europe’s colonial powers, Britain and France in particular, were so exhausted that they would have found it difficult to keep distant territories under their control. And the foremost superpower, the United States, was exerting pressure on the masters to let their colonies go. The Americans wanted to expand their markets worldwide, for which they were in competition with the Soviets.

Imperial Britain had to yield to imperial America – the coming inevitability which Churchill intensely disliked. There was, however, another option. Accept that the United States was paramount; stay close to Washington; and, whenever possible, use diplomacy to maneuver America in the direction in which Britain’s interests would be served.

The United States, too, was looking for close allies – in Europe, in the United Nations Security Council and other international organizations. Germany had been the main enemy in two world wars. France, at times, was too independent for Washington’s liking. Under President Charles de Gaulle’s leadership, France left NATO’s integrated military structure in 1966, asserting its independent nuclear deterrent and broader defense policy. Only in 2009 did President Sarkozy announce that France would rejoin the military structure of NATO once again.

In contrast, the United Kingdom has enjoyed the closest military and intelligence ties with the United States. “Special relationship” is a term often invoked in London. The dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the fall of the iron curtain, have paved the way for NATO and the European Union to expand. Today, both organizations perform similar functions, having incorporated countries that were once in the Soviet bloc. NATO and the EU both do the job of containing Russia, and of projecting American power beyond Europe. Brexit campaigners fail to get it.

[END]

Bush and Obama: Two Middle East Legacies

The Citizen

In January 2017, Barack Obama will be handing over the presidency to a successor after eight years in the White House. In the April 2016 issue of The Atlantic Magazine, President Obama speaks to Jeffrey Goldberg, and gives an overall view of his presidency. Goldberg’s article headlined “The Obama Doctrine” is based on a series of conversations in which the president explains, and to an extent justifies, the hardest decisions he took and why.

Alongside his own explanation, an independent and critical analysis of the Obama legacy, and comparison with that of his predecessor George W. Bush, is necessary.

Barack Obama’s victory in November 2008 was historic, not only because he was the first ever African-American to be elected president of the United States, but also because of its timing. After eight years of George W. Bush’s “war on terror” in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Barack Obama’s victory over his hawkish Republican opponent John McCain promised change. Many millions in America and abroad felt that an era of peace was near.

The “war on terror” was primarily directed against Muslims, seen by Bush’s vice president Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and most of America’s military-intelligence complex as a threat. It defined the George W. Bush presidency, and sharply polarised the world. Nonetheless, it was a happy irony that the United States elected a president, a Christian, whose father was Muslim. The manner in which Obama’s victory was greeted made it appear like a possible antidote to treat the afflictions created under the Bush presidency.

Those afflictions were everywhere. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq at the centre of war; the Greater Middle East, where abductions, hostage-taking, torture and extra-judicial killings were carried out in the name of “war on terror” without boundaries; sweeping depiction of Muslims and their religion as if they were the root cause of all evil. It shaped opinion in much of the non-Islamic world against Muslims. It also reinforced perceptions of the west in the Islamic world, widening the breach. George W. Bush’s presidency ended with the financial earthquake of 2008/2009.

In January 2009, Obama’s presidency began from a low point. Now that he approaches the conclusion of his eight years in office, the time is ripe for an appraisal of his journey through multiple crises in the Middle East. What kind of Middle East is it going to be when he leaves the White House in January 2017?

The high point of President Obama’s engagement with the region came soon after his inauguration. In his June 2009 address at al-Azhar University in Egypt, he struck the right tone. Praising a thousand-year-old al-Azhar as a beacon of Islamic learning, he said he carried with him the goodwill of the American people; he acknowledged that great tension existed between the United States and Muslims around the world; many Muslims were denied rights and opportunities by colonialism.

Muslim-majority countries, he said, were treated as proxies during the Cold war without regard to their own aspirations; sweeping changes by globalization and modernity led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam; remarkably for an American president, Obama cited the situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world as “a major source of tension”, albeit making clear America’s strong bond with Israel.

Obama’s comment about the sufferings of Palestinians – Muslims and Christians – in the pursuit of a homeland, their pain and dislocation could not have gone down well with Israel’s political establishment, and many in Israel’s majority Jewish community. But that America will not turn its backs on “the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own” was music to the ears of numerous people in the occupied Palestinian territories and the wider Arab world.

As President Obama prepares to complete his term, his record repeats the history of American presidency. It shows that even the world’s most powerful elected leader has his limits. The plight of Palestinians in the occupied territories that Obama so eloquently spoke of in 2009 continues, as changes to Israel’s citizenship laws narrow the space in which Arab citizens of Israel can exercise their rights. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel remains defiant of the Obama administration’s wishes, helped by the Israel lobby’s influence in the American Congress. Obama has given up on the Palestinian cause.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, his stance on the popular revolution against the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak was hesitant. The revolution did lead to Mubarak’s fall from power, and victories of the Muslim Brotherhood in the presidential and parliamentary elections. However, with the Mubarak era military and judiciary remaining opposed to the new order, and President Mohamed Morsi facing persistent rebellion at home, the short-lived elected order in Egypt was crushed by the military in July 2013, leading to the rise of the military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power.

The military overthrow of Egypt’s elected government that President Obama still does not recognise as a coup was carried out under his administration’s watch, with the National Security Adviser Susan Rice being close to events. Obama also gave in to the sustained pressure from the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, to intervene in the Libyan civil war to overthrow, after which Muammar Gaddafi was brutally assassinated. In his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg for the Atlantic Magazine, Obama lamented the intervention in Libya, and disastrous repercussions thereof in the Arab world and beyond – repercussions for which he pointed the finger at the British government.

It is true that the Obama administration has not used vitriolic language like the preceding administration against Muslims and Islam, though leading politicians continue to use such language in Congress and outside. However, those killed by drone attacks ordered by President Obama are overwhelmingly Muslim, and the total number of drone strikes is about ten times greater than those ordered by his predecessor. Among the killings ordered by Obama from the White House was that of Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani city, Abbottabad, in an American special forces’ operation in May 2011.

If George W. Bush left behind a vast amount of wreckage in Iraq and Afghanistan, Barack Obama is about to leave similar wreckage in Libya and Syria. Both legacies attest a historical record of the exercise of power with impunity. In one respect, though, Obama has forced a fundamental change in the Middle East. He has gone against Israel and Saudi Arabia, America’s closest allies, to enable US rapprochement with Iran after 35 years. In doing so, he has moved the balance away from Sunni Islam towards Shia Islam. Whether he has made this important shift too late to be permanent, and it could revert again under a successor administration, remains to be seen.

[END]

Britain’s EU Referendum: What Is At Stake?

History News Network

A continent away from the presidential primaries in the United States, Britain is in the midst of an acrimonious campaign ahead of a referendum to be held on June 23 this year. The purpose is to decide whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union, a political and economic association covering much of Europe, or leave.

The idea of such an association was first mooted by the British war-time leader Winston Churchill. In a famous address at the University of Zurich in 1946, just after World War II, Churchill spoke of there being “a remedy which would make all Europe free and happy.” It was to “recreate the European family” and provide it with “a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom.” He called it “a kind of United States of Europe.”

Churchill’s dream became a reality with the Treaty of Rome of 1957, and the creation of the European Economic Community. That association is known as the European Union today – the result of years of evolution. Ironically, when the European Economic Community was established, the French President, Charles de Gaulle, doubted “the UK’s political will” to be a member. France vetoed Britain’s application twice, in 1963 and 1967, and London had to wait until 1973 before it could join.

More than half a century on, Britain faces uncertainty again in its relationship with the rest of Europe. The issue of whether to stay in the European Union or exit divides the country, and the argument is getting louder and louder as the June referendum approaches.

The governing Conservative Party of Prime Minister David Cameron is deeply split. A number of senior members of his cabinet, more junior ministers, and as many as a hundred Conservative MPs, have declared their support for leaving the European Union. Their decision goes against their own government’s policy to remain, with some “opt-outs” from the EU Treaty that the prime minister has secured after lengthy negotiations. The governing party’s divisions have created an extraordinary situation in a parliamentary democracy which is supposed to have a cabinet with collective responsibility.

On the other hand, members of other political parties generally support the idea of Britain’s continued membership, with the exception of the United Kingdom Independence Party. With just one member in the British Parliament, UKIP’s demands center around leaving the EU, and imposing rigid controls on immigration into Britain. UKIP and Conservative opponents of EU membership assert that this is the only way for the United Kingdom to regain its sovereignty lost to the European Union.

The essence of their argument is that membership of the EU means having to accept laws made by the European Commission and Parliament. Although both have representatives of Britain and other member-states, it hardly matters for opponents. Their complaint – it means that the United Kingdom cannot govern itself.

Advocates of Brexit, as the idea of leaving the EU is called, insist that all laws governing the United Kingdom, in particular immigration, trade, justice, must be made in the British Parliament in London. They will accept nothing short of total sovereignty. Their solution is to negotiate separate trade deals with countries which Britain wants to do business with, and for the UK Parliament to pass all legislation to govern the country.

As in the United States, the resentment in certain sections of British society against foreign workers is strong. Those sections form the core of opposition to Britain’s membership of the European Union. They want cuts in the numbers of foreign workers, and the benefits of those who remain in the country. Little attention is paid to consequences for nearly two million UK citizens living in the rest of the European Union.

Will British citizens keep their right of free movement and freedom to work across the European Union under the system of reciprocity currently available? Will their status as permanent residents, and benefits like health and social security, be safe in other member-countries if Britain leaves? How will Britain’s exit influence the attitudes of other countries? These and other questions must be part of the current debate which could lead to a major realignment of British foreign policy. Supporters of Britain’s continued membership of the European Union have begun to raise these questions. And a lot of heat is being generated between the two sides.

Words of warning are being heard from across the borders. President Hollande of France has said that if British voters backed exit from the European Union, there would be “consequences” for Britain. His economy minister Emmanuel Macron was more direct. He said that France would end border controls agreed with the United Kingdom, opening the way for large numbers of migrants to move into Britain. The English Channel separating Britain and France is less than 20 miles wide. And with millions of people arriving from war-torn countries of the Middle East to the European continent, the prospect of large numbers of them heading for Britain’s shores is a nightmare.

Supporters of Brexit lament not just the loss of national sovereignty, but also the size of Britain’s financial contribution, €11.3 billion in 2014, to the EU budget. In comparison, Germany paid nearly €26 billion, France €20 billion and Spain €10 billion. The argument of Brexit advocates is that the United Kingdom could negotiate separate agreements with EU member-states, and pay even less, like Norway – without joining the association. Often ignored is the fact that Norway still pays into the European Union budget for privileges it receives, and the Norwegian economy is much smaller.

The referendum in June is not just about Britain’s membership of the European Union. It is about unhindered trade, movement of EU citizens, cooperation for mutual security; and about how British expatriates are treated by others, depending on how their citizens are treated by the United Kingdom. The stakes are high, and the opinion so evenly divided that the outcome hangs in the balance. In this climate of uncertainty, some will still find justification in General de Gaulle’s skepticism about Britain, expressed more than half a century ago. Others will hope that British voters will make a choice driven on the idea of a shared destiny, not past doubts.

[END]

How Does Today’s Middle East Threaten Obama’s Legacy?

History News Network

The season of festivities is over, and, once more, the year 2016 begins with warning signs. History is an unquestionable pattern of hope and disaster. Nowhere is it truer than in the Middle East.

In the midst of turmoil in the region, the nuclear deal, signed between Iran and six world powers in July 2015, was hailed as an historic success. In stages, it promised to end Iran’s long isolation since the 1979 Islamic revolution, which overthrew America’s close ally, Shah Reza Pahlavi, and brought to power a vehemently anti-US regime in Tehran. The 35-year freeze between Iran and the West, and sanctions against Iran, caused great hardship for Iranians.

For the United States and other powers (Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China), the likelihood of restoring normal ties with Iran brought prospects of relief. They too had paid a high price in lost opportunities for business, and difficulty in accessing Iranian oil. Sanctions on Iranian exports made oil supplies tight despite Saudi Arabia increasing its production from time to time. Sanctions on Iran’s Shia clerical regime were good for the House of Saud, and their oil-rich kingdom.

For President Barack Obama, the thaw in relations with Iran, despite strong opposition from Israel, the United States Congress, and the Saudi rulers, was one of two major foreign policy victories. The other was normalization with communist Cuba for the first time since Fidel Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship in 1959. These successes abroad, along with his healthcare plan at home, are supposed to form Obama’s legacy at the end of his presidency in January 2017.

Throughout his White House years, Obama has encountered fierce resistance from conservatives in the Republican and Democratic parties alike. For him, the first African American to be elected president, a durable legacy is particularly important. However, achievements which make headlines is one thing, reality on the ground is another.

Less than a year after the nuclear agreement aimed at ensuring that Iran did not make the bomb, Obama’s main rationale, things between Washington and Tehran do not look all that promising, and recent events in the Middle East do not augur well.

Two developments in particular have caused a sharp deterioration with threatening consequences in the coming year. On December 30, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama administration was preparing to impose new sanctions against firms and individuals in Iran. The report followed Iran’s test of a medium-range missile which, according to UN monitors, is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Iran insists that the missile is conventional, and purely for defensive purposes. Tehran has long insisted that the country does not seek nuclear weapons; its nuclear program is peaceful.

Initially, Iran’s foreign ministry rejected any connection between its missile program and the nuclear agreement. President Hassan Rouhani further accused the United States of “illegal meddling” and instructed Iran’s defense minister to accelerate the country’s ballistic missile program in the face of new sanctions.

One cause of escalation in tensions between Washington and Tehran was bad enough. Yet more serious events have since followed in the Middle East. On January 2, Saudi Arabia put to death 47 men in what Human Rights Watch described as the largest mass execution in the country since 1980. The number of those executed was shocking, among them a prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a non-violent critic of the Saudi ruling establishment.

The cleric was accused of breaking allegiance with the ruler, inciting sectarian strife, and supporting rioting and destruction of public property during protests in Shia-majority towns in Saudi Arabia in 2011-2012. According to Human Rights Watch, local residents and family members insisted that al-Nimr supported only peaceful protests, and eschewed all forms of violent opposition to the government.

The executions in Saudi Arabia, and the fallout thereof, have raised the power struggle with Iran to a new level, and there is a real sense of crisis in the Middle East now. Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has described al-Nimr as a “martyr” and warned Saudi Arabia of “divine revenge.” Demonstrations against Saudi Arabia have taken place in Iran and other countries. The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has expressed his “deep dismay” over the executions.

Angered by the international criticism, the Saudi authorities have broken off diplomatic relations with Iran. Sudan and Djibouti have followed Saudi Arabia by cutting off ties. Other Gulf states have either reduced the level of relations with Tehran, or recalled their ambassadors. For their part, the Iranian authorities have accused the Saudi air force of attacking Iran’s embassy in Yemen.

Motives behind these actions are worth considering. Questions must be asked: Is Iran being provoked into launching a direct attack on Saudi interests, and what may follow? If that happens, the anti-Iran sentiment in the American Congress and the Pentagon will be reinforced. There will be calls in Washington to act in support of Saudi Arabia. President Obama, in all likelihood, will resist such calls. Nevertheless, the Saudis and the Israel lobby will push him hard. There may well be pressure from the British, French, Turkish and other Sunni Arab states.

Will Obama be able to resist? Or will he succumb to the pressure?

The stakes are high. If Obama shows determination, and stands up to the pressure, criticisms of his foreign policy will increase. His detractors will accuse him of acting against America’s national interest. The final year of his presidency will be chaotic.

On the other hand, if he bows to the pressure, there is a risk of the United States being dragged into a new conflict with Iran. The consequences will be damaging on the ground and beyond. Obama’s carefully crafted strategy to chart a more equidistant course in the Middle East will be thwarted. And his presidential legacy, irreparably damaged, will pass on to his successor.

[END]

What’s Going on with Russia and Turkey?

History News Network

Two recent events amid the turmoil in the Middle East are of particular interest, for they illustrate the complexity of the region’s politics, and shed light on the players’ motives as they act. On November 24, Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft flying a bombing mission against ISIS targets in Syria. The Turkish government said that the plane was one of two Su-24 bombers which had violated the country’s airspace for 17 seconds, and had been warned ten times before being shot down. Was the Turkish action taken in the heat of the moment or was it part of a calculated move is difficult to know for certain. However, the incident certainly sparked furious reactions from Moscow and Ankara. President Putin called the Turkish action a “stab in the back.” President Erdogan warned Russia not to “play with fire.”

A few days later, Israel’s defense minister Moshe Yaalon told Israel Radio that a Russian jet recently breached Israeli airspace by “mistake,” but was not shot down. Yaalon said that Russian planes “don’t intend to attack us” and therefore there is “no need to shoot them down.” When the Russians were informed, the plane, which had entered about a mile into Israel, was said to have turned back.

These incidents raise intriguing questions about relations between all three countries, and why Israel and Turkey responded so differently to brief “violations” of their territory by Russian aircraft. They provide insights into the true situation in the Middle East. They explain competing, as well as common interests, of various players in the region. They also suggest that a degree of order exists even in a seemingly chaotic set of circumstances.

Deep suspicion, even hostility, afflicted Turkish-Syrian relations since the beginning of the Cold War until the 1990s, well after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The reasons were threefold: Turkey’s membership of NATO and Syria’s alliance with the Soviets; Syria’s Baathist ruler Hafez al-Assad’s support for the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) fighting for independence from Turkey; historical baggage of Ottoman rule between the early sixteenth century and World War I.

Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in WW1, and the creation of a new Turkey by its founder Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, successive Turkish governments had seen the country as more European than Middle Eastern. Turkey’s desire to become a full member of the European Union seemed logical. However, reluctance among some EU members caused long delays. Often cited obstacles were Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus, and creation of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized only by Ankara. The end of the cold war, meanwhile, opened the way for improvement in relations with Russia and Syria. Disenchantment over the EU membership issue, and the rise of the governing Justice and Development Party originating from the Islamist tradition, renewed Turkey’s interest in the Middle East.

More than 95 percent of Turkey’s population is Muslim, mostly Sunni. Demography is, therefore, an important determinant in the country’s domestic and foreign policies. When President Hafez al-Assad of Syria expelled the Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan after sheltering him for 20 years, the stage was set for a dramatic improvement in relations between Ankara and Damascus. Under the leadership of Erdogan and al-Assad, military cooperation and formal trading ties were established; Erdogan helped Assad’s visit to France in 2005, and talks between Syria and Israel were held under Turkish mediation in 2008. Syria was brought in from the cold.

Relations between Israel and Turkey had historically been good. Ankara recognized the State of Israel in 1949, but remained mindful of its ties with the Muslim world. Diplomatic relations with Israel were downgraded during the 1956 Suez Crisis – a conflict in which Israel, France and Britain launched an unsuccessful invasion of Egypt to regain control of the Suez Canal and remove President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had nationalized Suez. Half a century later, a major crisis developed in Israeli-Turkish relations following a series of events which began after the landslide victory of Erdogan’s party in 2002.

Turkey condemned the Israeli assassination of the blind Palestinian cleric Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in 2004; Erdogan denounced Israel’s 2008-9 bombing of Gaza as “state terror” and said Israel will reap what it sows; Israel, in turn, rejected Turkish mediation in talks with Syria; then in May 2010, Israeli defense forces attacked the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” carrying humanitarian supplies, killing nine activists, including eight Turkish nationals and one Turkish-American. The flotilla had been organized by Turkey’s Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH).

These events caused a sharp deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations. However, Ankara remained pragmatic. When asked why his government doesn’t break off relations with Israel, Prime Minister Erdogan replied: “We are running the Turkish Republic, not a grocery store.” Turkey is an overwhelmingly Muslim country. Its government is of an Islamic and conservative disposition. However, the country is also a member of the Western alliance. Ankara’s ambitions to become a full member of the European Union have been set back for now, but Turkey and the European Union remain important for each other. Turkey, a leading NATO member, and Israel, America’s most important ally, can hardly be enemies no matter how serious their differences about Middle East politics.

The outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011 made Ankara reassess its developing ties with the Assad regime. Erdogan’s decision to switch sides and back the Syrian opposition was a calculated move based on a number of considerations, none without risks. In the final analysis, however, Erdogan and his party decided that Turkey had more to lose by continuing its association with the Assad regime. In the light of how long the Syrian regime has lasted, the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and the Russian intervention in Syria, that calculation is open to question.

[END]

Saffronisation of India

CounterPunch

Eighteen months after the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party won a decisive victory over the Congress-led government, India confronts one of the most critical periods in its history since independence from Britain in 1947. The omens are not pleasant and remind us of a previous domestic crisis in the mid-1970s, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed emergency rule in the midst of a popular revolt against her government. Twenty months after, she decided to call a general election in the hope of an easy victory. She thought the people’s free spirit had been tamed. Had she won, sweeping changes made during the emergency period would have become permanent and India would have changed for ever.

When the election came in March 1977, Indira Gandhi’s Congress Party suffered a humiliating defeat and she lost her own parliamentary seat. Although she returned to power following a short-lived coalition government, a victim of infighting and contradictions, Congress had been taught a lesson. Draconian measures like forced mass sterilisation of the emergency era were abandoned, never to be repeated.

Recent events since the BJP’s victory in May 2014 indicate that India faces another critical period which could determine the future character of the country. Many fear that if the current trends continue, individual freedom will be in peril, and India will be an intolerant society – a Hindu theocracy. In an ominous development, veteran BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi openly advocated “saffronisation” of India’s education system, referring to a Hindu agenda based on mythology to counter scientific methods of education. His vision is the mirror image of Talibanisation and Islamic fundamentalism across India’s border in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

A number of developments have heightened fears that plurality and tolerance are under threat in India. Leaders of fringe groups close to the BJP have claimed that India’s 80 per cent Hindu population is threatened by the Muslim minority that constitutes a little more than 15 per cent of the country’s 1.2 billion people. Astonishing claims are made that the Muslims, as a group described by radical Hindus as “minorities” who have been “appeased” under previous governments make up one third of India’s population; that their numbers are growing rapidly; and that if the trend is not reversed soon Muslims will own both women and wealth of Hindus.

Radical groups like the World Hindu Council, its women’s wing and the World Hindu Defence Organisation have found that conditions are right for their brazen propaganda. Volunteers go round telling people who care to listen that before the advent of Islam and Christianity the entire world was Hindu; that it was time to re-establish the pre-eminence of Hindus worldwide; that a start had to be made in India now.

Preachers of hate have declared that they will not rest until India is a hundred per cent Hindu country – eighty per cent is not enough. Their drive has taken several forms. In ceremonies described as “home coming”, underprivileged Muslims are being converted to Hinduism, only to be forgotten. Conversion ceremonies are supposed to be voluntary, but in reality direct and indirect pressure and enticement play a significant role. Less publicised are instances in which Hindu converts have reverted to Islam again.

Events involving violence, even murder, are more menacing. One of the most shocking was the lynching of a 50-year-old Muslim man by a fanatical Hindu crowd in the north Indian town of Dadri. Rumours, outright lies and conspiracy theories abound. One version of events said that the killing took place after rumours that the victim named Akhlaq had eaten beef. Another version claimed that the man was killed because one of his sons had a secret affair with a Hindu girl. The loyalties of Muslims are openly questioned. For the record, Akhlaq’s other son serves in the Indian Air Force and, according to some newspapers, the son joined the armed forces because his father wanted him to.

Imposition of ban on the sale of meat and its availability in restaurants during Hindu religious festivals has triggered a nationwide controversy. Militant Hindu supporters of the BJP and vigilantes are engaged in a campaign of intimidation to ensure restrictions on eating meat. States such as Maharashtra and Jammu and Kashmir governed by coalitions including the BJP have tried the measure.

A panel of High Court judges in Kashmir went so far as to invoke a 1930s edict of the state’s Hindu ruler banning cow meat – edict first introduced before India’s independence from Britain. Indian Muslims are an obvious target of north India’s Hindu zealots, whose obsessions ignore the fact that fellow Hindus in southern and other parts of the country do eat cow and buffalo meat. The Supreme Court of India finally ruled the banning as unconstitutional, because it violates the freedom to choose what to eat. The country’s highest court may have said the last word, but religious fanatics will not desist from intimidation. Unfortunately, the enforcement of law depends on the government’s willingness to use its authority and leadership, both in short supply in the current climate.

Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, police in the capital, Delhi, raided an official building belonging to the southern state of Kerala after someone complained that beef was on the menu in the restaurant of Kerala House. It was, in fact buffalo meat, which is widely consumed in Kerala state. Cow slaughter is also legal there and state law applies in the state house in Delhi.

The Kerala state government was furious. India’s home minister Rajnath Singh issued an ambiguous statement telling Delhi police to be “more careful in the future”. Buffalo curry was back on the menu in Kerala House.

Splits in Indian society are deepening. Secular intellectuals are so alienated that dozens of renowned Indian writers, artists and film makers have returned their awards. The response from the governing BJP and its affiliates is to demonise them as pseudo secularists and unpatriotic Indians who are damaging the nation’s image abroad. Particularly disturbing is the drive to revise textbooks according to Hindu mythology. In the state of Rajasthan, for example, one of the many changes in textbooks of the secondary education board involves the removal of a chapter on Nelson Mandela, to be replaced with a long chapter entitled “Tribals in Rajasthan”.

A presentation at the Indian Science Congress in January this year claimed that the Wright brothers did not build the first plane, flown for the first time in 1903. According to the claim, that invention goes back 7000 years and recorded in the ancient Hindu text “Rigveda”, more than 3000 years ago. The ancient mythological aircraft was build by a sage, Maharishi Bharadwaj, had “40 small engines and a flexible exhaust system which a modern aviation cannot even approach”. India’s environment minister and BJP spokesman, Prakash Javadekar, put his official stamp of approval on the claim, asserting that ancient Indian science was based on “experience and logic”, and that “wisdom must be recognised”.

With such changes in the offing, what in the world is the future of scientists, engineers, doctors and historians from India?

[END]

What the Fall of Ramadi and Palmyra Means: ISIS On The Rampage

CounterPunch

The capture of Ramadi in central Iraq on 18 May by the Sunni-dominated fundamentalist group Islamic State, and only three days later the fall of the ancient city of Palmyra in the heart of Syria, have shocked Arab and Western governments alike. Taking control of Ramadi and Palmyra, cities more than 400 miles apart, and in different countries, so quickly is no mean feat.

Subsequent reports indicated that the Syrian government’s last border crossing between Iraq and Syria had also fallen to Islamic State forces, giving them control of the entire border between the two countries. This frightening new reality means that the frontier is now open to Islamic State, who can move from one country to the other at will.

The radical Islamic militia continues its murderous campaign elsewhere, too. It claimed that one of its suicide bombers blew up a Shia mosque in Saudi Arabia’s eastern town of Qadeeh, killing and wounding scores of people.

Events like these belie claims of success in recent military operations by the United States and allies against the Islamic State’s command structure and fighters on the ground. America’s strategy, often repeated, has been to “degrade and destroy” Islamic State, just as Washington’s aim was to deal with al-Qaida. That strategy continues to be in a state of failure, because Washington is unable to prevent the phenomenon of one extremist organisation morphing into several splinter groups which are far more dangerous.

The causes of Islamic State’s growth are multifaceted. So is the significance of its dramatic advances in the battlefield. Ramadi in Anbar province, barely 70 miles from the capital Baghdad, was where the American-sponsored “Sons of Iraq” (Sahwa) militia started in order to counter al-Qaida nearly a decade ago. Born out of expediency, that alliance was forged between the US occupation forces and members of the overthrown Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussain and Sunni tribes.

Now that Iraq is under Shia rule, the alienation among Sunnis is strong for two main reasons. The sense of loss of identity, depersonalisation and lack of opportunities, and the perception of abandonment by the United States, add fuel to the fires burning in the region. Both in Iraq and Syria, government authority is absent in vast areas, leaving a dangerous vacuum. The void is filled by fanatics who have sectarian zeal, appetite to settle matters by violence and weapons in abundance.

A strategy whose objectives are mixed up, and which is based on sheer opportunism, lacks consistency and is likely to fail. In Iraq, Saddam Hussain, leading a Sunni minority and secular dictatorship, was deposed. Saddam’s overthrow released soldiers of his Ba’athist army and alienated Iraq’s Sunni tribes. But then, many of the same were enticed by the United States with money and weapons to fight al-Qaida. With that phase over and a Shia-dominated regime in Baghdad, the Sunnis were out of favour again. They turned from allies to enemies.

The nature of war between government forces and Islamic State in Iraq is full of irony. The Iraqi military is heavily equipped with American weapons and is supposedly well trained, but clearly lacks the will to fight. IS forces, too, have plenty of weapons, originally supplied by Washington to the “Sons of Iraq” militia to fight al-Qaida, or captured from the Iraqi military.

The US strategy in Syria has been to overthrow the Assad regime and thus eliminate an old rejectionist challenge to American–Israeli supremacy in the Middle East. Again, expediency drove the United States and anti-Assad forces closer. Western arms supplied to anti-Assad groups that are described as “moderate” have often been seized by more fanatical and trigger-happy groups like Islamic State.

Events in recent years have demonstrated again and again that alliances with extremist groups to destabilise countries tend to produce a boomerang effect. From Libya to Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the effects have been devastating. The region is destabilised. Human misery is indescribable. External powers are eager to intervene when it is least helpful and display withdrawal symptoms when the going gets tough or it does not suit them.

Accounts of the fall of Palmyra, site of two-thousand-year-old Roman-era ruins and artefacts, speak of large-scale evacuation of nearby communities by Syrian troops as they withdrew. There was no intervention by US aircraft which have been deployed in recent months to target Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Residents left behind face atrocities from IS militants.

North of Palmyra lie oil and gas fields under Syrian government control. Does the US goal to depose President Assad in Syria explain why American air power did not intervene in the battle for Palmyra, and may not do so in the battle for the oil fields nearby? After all, the loss of those oil fields would be a big setback against the Syrian regime whereas a US intervention against Islamic State in that battle would help the Assad regime.

So, in Iraq as well as Syria, contradictions in American policy abound. Islamic State poses a serious threat to the Iraqi government which Washington does not want to collapse. In Syria, on the other end, the American agenda is the exact opposite – to engineer the end of the Assad regime. Just as the United States helped raise a Sunni tribal militia called “Sons of Iraq” to counter the threat of al-Qaida some years ago, opportunism now requires Washington to sustain a Shia regime in Baghdad. To protect that regime, the US is now supporting a predominantly Shia militia, described as the “Popular Mobilisation Units”. In Iraq, America and Iran are in tacit alliance with each other. In Syria they support opposite sides.

With such contradictory motives in Iraq and Syria, America’s strategy against Islamic State cannot succeed.

[END]