The Vilification of Muslims

CounterPunch

The recent attacks at the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine’s office and a Jewish store near Paris have sparked another round of explosive debate about Islam and Muslims. The actions of Cherif and Said Kouachi were condemned. How the two brothers born and raised in France became radicalised was discussed in newspapers and on airwaves. Their existence on the fringes of French society and previous encounters with the law, already on record, were highlighted. Belgian police subsequently carried out operations in Verviers and other parts of the country.

Competition among Western leaders to rush to Paris to mark the tragic events was intense. The British Prime Minister David Cameron and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu appeared particularly exercised. Stakes are high for Cameron and Netanyahu in coming elections in Britain and Israel respectively. The French presidency was not keen on Netanyahu visiting the country, but he turned up anyway.

Reminding the world of his Christian faith, David Cameron condemned the “fanatical death cult of Islamist extremism” and insisted: “You cannot appease them; they hate our democracy, our freedom, our freedom of expression, our way of life.” Netanyahu was not going to be left behind. Describing the attacks as brutal acts of savagery, he insisted that radical Islam knew “no boundaries” and the response had to be international.

Reminding his audience yet again that Israel had experienced similar attacks and that he knew the pain, Netanyahu said: “The terrorists want to destroy our freedoms and our civilization … we can defeat this tyranny that seeks to extinguish all our freedoms.”

Some commentators have pointed out the inherent bigotry and duplicity of this rhetoric. Chris Hedges, in a piece on Truthdig.com, said that the Charlie Hebdo shootings were neither about free speech nor radical Islam. Rather, the killings represented the fury of those hopeless, brutally controlled and mocked by the privileged.

The latest vilification of Muslims and their faith is the result of an old alliance of fundamentalist Christians and Jews for at least a century, certainly since the beginning of the Anglo-French project to create what became Israel in 1948. In the post-9/11 era, the trend to caricature Muslims has become more sweeping and venomous. Muslims all over the world are facing a sustained attack.

Had the Palestinian scholar Edward Said, author of the acclaimed book Orientalism been alive, he would have described it as a new form of Orientalism which imagines, emphasises, exaggerates and distorts, and is solely directed against Muslims everywhere. The rise of the Hindu nationalist BJP to power in India, a secular country of more than a billion people and nearly 150 million Muslims, represents the entry of a new player in this alarming reality. Not even a year in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has already started to fiddle with the Indian constitution.

The terms “secular” and “socialist” are being removed from the preamble in government publications, without the required legislative approval for which the BJP government does not have sufficient strength. Leading government ministers and party allies have begun to openly suggest that the plan is to do away with the term “secular” from the constitution altogether, some claiming that India was never a secular country. Paranoia and religious zealotry are on the ascendancy.

The leader of the self-styled World Hindu Organisation, Pravin Togadia, absurdly laments that the population of Hindus in India is only 82 per cent. Togadia says he would not let this number decline to 42 in a few years, because “then their property and women will not remain safe”. He is determined to push the Hindu population up to 100 per cent.

Hindu women married to Prominent Muslims are accused of committing “love jihad” and demands are being made that their husbands convert to Hinduism. Walking in the corridors of power, if not occupying seats, are people who would make India a monolithic Hindu theocracy, a distorted mirror image of Saudi Arabia.

India’s vice president Hamid Ansari, a career diplomat before taking up his current post in 2007, was recently hounded by right-wing supporters and sympathisers of Modi’s government. As President Pranab Mukherjee took the salute during India’s Republic Day parade on 26 January, Ansari and several ministers in Modi’s government stood at attention, as the protocol requires.

Only the vice president was singled out for “insulting the national flag” and attacked by chauvinist Hindus in vehemently abusive terms. This against someone who had served as India’s ambassador in countries including Australia, Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and at the United Nations and, from 1980 to 1985, was Chief of Protocol in the Indian foreign ministry.

As part of the concerted drive against Muslims, a number of myths are being perpetuated by chauvinists and should be critically examined. Two myths stand out in particular. One that only Muslims (the world over) are violent – all others are doves of peace. Second that India’s 82 per cent Hindus face a demographic threat from Muslims.

Now, let us look at some of the facts. Traders from what is Damascus today started visiting India in the eight century. Sufi pacifism came to India much before. Muslim invasions began in the early eleventh century. Muslims and Christians of modern India have descended from those who adopted other religions for a variety of reasons – love, allurements, coercion or oppression, no less under the brutal Hindu caste system for centuries.

First Christians were believed to have landed on the coast of southern India in the year 52 AD when St Thomas is said to arrived in Kerala. It has taken almost fifteen centuries for the Muslim population of India to reach 14 per cent. Any talk of Hindus declining by 20 per cent, and Muslims rising, is therefore disingenuous and anti-intellectual.

Let us also examine the claim that only Islam and its followers are violent; others are fountains of peace. The history of wars between Christians and Muslims from the late eleventh to the thirteenth century took numerous lives. Legend has it that Pope Urban II told his followers it was right to kill non-Christians in defence of Christianity and those who die for their faith would occupy a chosen place in heaven.

Christian crusades were extraordinarily brutal and led to Muslim wars. In his war against the United States, Osama bin Laden’s rhetoric was strikingly similar, as is the rhetoric on the extremes of other religions in modern times. Conflicts in the Balkans and the Greater Middle East are as much local as led by Western military powers. One only has to look at those extremes with sincerity.

Let us see examples of some more fallacies, perpetuated by the appeal to popular opinion, ignorance or blind religious chauvinism. One is that Hinduism is a religion of peace. Not always. Those who killed thousands of Sikhs in India after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination by two Sikh bodyguards in 1984 were not Muslims, but Hindus. And at the time of partition of British India in 1947, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs committed unspeakable atrocities on each other, killing more than a million and displacing many more.

Wars in Indo-China and elsewhere in southeast Asia involved Buddhists and Christian colonial powers – French, British and Dutch. Let us ask ourselves who continues to persecute Rohingya Muslims in Burma (Myanmar) which is 80 per cent Buddhist? And where does the responsibility lie for the civil war in Sri Lanka following decades of discrimination of Hindu and Muslim Tamils by the Buddhist Sinhala majority that led to the Tamil rebellion and the rise of Tamil militant groups after the 1983 anti-Tamil riots?

When the fog of hatred is thick and the lust to have it all becomes uncontrollable, it is difficult to recognize that humans throughout history have shown extraordinary capacity to harm fellow humans. No one comes out better in this.

[END]

Advertisements

Sarkozy’s France: The Boomerang Effect

CounterPunch

Toulouse, Europe’s aerospace hub in the southwest of France, has hit the headlines for the wrong reasons. A twenty-three-year-old French citizen of Algerian origin, Mohamed Merah, went on a shooting spree last month, killing seven people and terrorizing a million residents for ten days before a police sniper’s bullet ended his life. Among his victims were three unarmed soldiers, a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school. According to prosecutors privy to negotiations with Merah during the thirty-hour siege where he met his end, his only regret was “not having claimed more victims.” He reportedly said that he was proud of having “brought France to its knees.”

Mohamed Merah had many more years to live had it not been for his final act. Life was, however, not important to him. He claimed to have been motivated by the Palestinians’ plight, the presence of French troops in Afghanistan and the law banning the full veil in France.  These issues challenge the conscience of many people. But a young man depriving fellow citizens of life, and throwing away his own, cannot constitute a solution.

What is known about Merah’s short life does not suggest that he was particularly religious. He frequented bars and nightclubs in his home town. He had displayed other imperfections of a disturbed youth––petty crime, driving without license and fistfights. In this light, Merah’s assertion of belonging to al Qaeda is more likely to have been an exaggeration or empty boast than a serious claim to infamy. It has prompted some sections of the media to run with speculation, without much evidence, that Merah was affiliated to al Qaeda and the Taliban. French police are investigating whether he visited Afghanistan, but indications of any ideological twist are thin. For Mohamed Merah was not a devout Muslim.

We must mourn Merah’s victims and express sympathy for their relatives and friends whose lives have been shattered. It was a needless act of revenge on people whose only fault was to belong to the French armed forces, or to the Jewish community. Worse, his victims included children. Thus if it is right to condemn the recent massacre of innocent Afghans in Kandahar, then it is also right to condemn the killings in Toulouse. That children were among the victims in both places is particularly distressing and requires reflection on our part.

Like the context of Kandahar, there is a context of Toulouse. Kandahar is one of Afghanistan’s Pashtun-dominated provinces, the stronghold of Taliban-led resistance to foreign military forces, who regularly launch night raids in local residents’ homes to hunt for men described as Taliban, their militant supporters and sympathizers. The American soldier, St. Sgt. Robert Bales, charged with seventeen murders after the Kandahar massacre, was flown out to the United States for possible military trial that could take years. Mohamed Merah, born and raised in deprived immigrant neighborhoods in France, was condemned as the guilty killer, his life ended by a sniper’s bullet.

A country of just under sixty-five million people, France has a twenty percent immigrant population. Many came from French-speaking Africa, or were born and raised in France. Unemployment among them is high. Living conditions in immigrant neighborhoods are harsh. There are areas where petty crime is rampant, reinforced by economic failure. Merah’s crime cannot be condoned by these factors. But he was one of the many to have become disconnected from French society, where the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments are virulent. With one in seven French voters projected to support the far-right Front National in the first round of the coming presidential election, politicians have not hesitated to make an issue of the race.

Even President Nicholas Sarkozy, son of a Hungarian immigrant family, says there are too many foreigners in the country, and that he would reduce their numbers if he wins a second term. The September 11, 2001 attacks were compared to the Japanese air assault on Pearl Harbor during the Second World War. For Western politicians dressed up with ambition and agenda,  9/11 has become the benchmark for discussion on any militant act by a non-state group or individual.  Sarkozy is the latest to jump on the 9/11 bandwagon.

In the midst of deep economic and social problems, Sarkozy faces an uphill election battle against the Socialist candidate Francois Hollande. With support for the far-right running around fifteen percent, the real battle is for that vote in the second round after the Front National candidate, Marine Le Pen, has been eliminated in the first. In a frantic bid for that vote, Sarkozy’s campaign has been moving to the right, steadily and dangerously.

The immigrant population of France feels targeted by a series of new laws. A combination of coercive measures to force people of non-European origins to conform to the “French way of life,” socio-economic problems, lack of opportunities and perceived loss of identity is causing a boomerang effect in French society. And it is forcing young individuals from vulnerable communities to go on a luckless search for identity and causes which they do not fully comprehend. Mohamed Merah, too, was a victim of this phenomenon.

[END]

Book Review: Breeding Ground

David Hillstrom (Foreign Policy Journal, March 4, 2011)

The conflict in Afghanistan is now into its fourth decade, with no end in sight.  In spite of the fact that Afghanistan is a poor and landlocked country in Central Asia, the violence there has echoed across the world.  Camps in Afghanistan that trained Islamic fighters during the initial phase of the conflict later produced Islamist radicals who organized terrorist attacks on the US, Madrid and London. These same groups have radicalized public opinion and brought increasing violence to Muslim countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and Indonesia.  And the wave of violence has most assuredly impacted Pakistan, one of the front line players in the initial conflict, and India, its neighbour and adversary.

The broad outline of the conflict is familiar to anyone who keeps abreast of politics and world affairs. The Soviet Union engineered a coup in Afghanistan to install a friendly government there and later invaded and occupied the country in order to prop up a failing regime. The Mujahidin then began a guerrilla war against the occupation with support from the US, Pakistan, and numerous Arab countries.  Subsequently, when the Cold War ended, the world lost interest in Afghanistan, and it was abandoned in a state of civil war until the Taliban took control. The Taliban offered safe haven to Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, who planned terrorist attacks on the West.  While this is the broad outline of recent history, we appreciate that a more comprehensive understanding requires a much deeper analysis of events.  Deepak Tripathi, the author of The Bush Legacy, has produced a new book, Breeding Ground: Afghanistan and the Origins of Islamist Terrorism, which provides exactly such an analysis. In his concise yet powerful book he details the interlocking decisions and strategies that inflamed the conflict and produced a new and dangerous historical context.

Tripathi has relied on a broad array of sources, many of them unavailable until recently, including archives of both the US and Soviet governments.  Hence there is ample material in the book to supply a source for further historical study.  As he promises in the acknowledgments, Tripathi’s “analysis goes where the archives take it”, and he pulls no punches. As the story unfolds, Tripathi examines the thinking behind the fateful decisions of the players involved, which resulted in the spiral of violence. But this story unveils a still deeper tragedy.  The US government, in its effort to contain the expansion of communism, was drawn into the ‘Great Game’ that Tsarist Russia and the British empires participated in during the 19th century.  More tragic still, the evidence demonstrates that all the players developed their simplistic strategic goals with only a shallow understanding of Afghanistan’s history and with little regard for the human cost to the Afghan population.

In addition to relating the history of the conflict, Tripathi presents a thesis on the causes underlying the growth of Islamic terrorism. In brief, he says that the phenomenon arose as a consequence of a prolonged period during which a culture of violence prevailed in Afghanistan.  The US, through Pakistan, provided a vast amount of weaponry to the Mujahidin.  Foreign fighters were attracted from the Middle East to participate in the jihad against the communist occupation. And the violence antagonized long silent religious, ethnic, and tribal differences within Afghanistan itself.  These antagonisms created a virtual vortex of descending violence that has nurtured the growth of global Islamic radicalism.  One could argue, of course, as Zbeigniew Brzezinski did in 1998 (p. 64) that the collapse of the Soviet empire was far more important to world history than the rise of the Taliban. But such a view is not only cynical, but now quite obviously short sighted.  And Pakistan, in its attempt to ensure a pacified northern neighbour, has inflamed Pashtun nationalism and Islamic radicalism within its own borders in the so called Federally Administered Tribal Area.

One wonders after reading Tripathi’s rich and insightful book whether the damage can ever be undone, whether Afghanistan might become a peaceful country and Islamic radicalism be tamed.  For his part, Tripathi proposes a shift in US policy toward the use of soft as opposed to hard power.  That is a sensible approach, if one analyzes events from a realpolitik perspective.  As the sole remaining superpower, the US will inevitably exercise its influence in world affairs.  But the line between the use of soft and hard power is fuzzy.  The Soviets initially supported a nearly bloodless coup in Afghanistan, only later to become drawn into a full scale invasion and bloody occupation in order to preserve their gains.  Given the multi-ethnic and tribal structure of Afghan society and the culture of violence that Tripathi has so vividly described, what are the chances that the US will be able to succeed in nation building there?  Whether through the use of soft power or counterinsurgency, the effort would appear doomed.  It seems to me that the real tragedy of history lies precisely in the meddling of world powers in foreign lands, be it through clandestine activities or direct military intervention.  Tripathi sums this up beautifully in his closing quote from Tolstoy, “In all history there is no war which was not hatched by the governments, the governments alone, independent of the interests of the people, to whom war is always pernicious, even when successful.”

[END]

A new cold war

On Stephen Kotkin, ‘Myth of the new Cold War’, Prospect First Drafts, March 28, 2008

I am sorry to inject a bit of confusion, but, actually, both Kotkin and Edward Lucas (an ex-colleague many years ago in the BBC World Service) could be right in whether there is a new cold war. It depends on perceptions. And the central players in the new cold war may not be America and Russia. More