Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, June 19, 2017

Northern Ireland Will Loom Large After British Election

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
Most people in Great Britain wish that the Northern Irish question would simply fade away. 

The so-called “Troubles” that began in the late 1960s, with massive violence in the province itself as well as Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombings on the British mainland, saw more than 3,500 people killed.

The violence has tapered off in the last two decades. But Northern Ireland remains a bifurcated society with deep fractures and mutual animosities.

Its Protestant majority wishes to remain in the United Kingdom, while for the growing Roman Catholic minority, union with the Republic of Ireland to the south remains the ultimate goal.

Compared to most of Europe, it seems trapped in a political time warp. Despite the current armed truce the province is more polarized than ever.

The June 8 British general election starkly underscored this divide. The two Northern Irish parties most antagonistic to each other won all but one of the 18 seats allocated to the province at the Westminster parliament; more moderate ones were shut out.

On the Protestant side, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), founded by the late Presbyterian firebrand Ian Paisley in 1971, won 10 seats, a gain of two, while its less strident rival, the Ulster Unionist Party, once the major Protestant force, lost its only two seats.

In Catholic areas, Sinn Féin, the political wing of the Provisional IRA, captured seven seats, more than doubling its caucus. The Social Democratic and Labour Party, its more moderate and left-wing Catholic rival, lost all three of its seats. 

The SDLP was the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland from the time of its foundation in 1970 until the beginning of the 21st century.

As for the Alliance Party, which has come to represent wider liberal and non-sectarian concerns, it too was defeated everywhere.

The DUP and Sinn Féin are also the largest parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The DUP supporters are socially conservative, religiously Protestant, Ulster Loyalist and British nationalist, and, for good measure, climate change deniers. 

The party has historically strong links to the Protestant Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, also founded by Paisley. They have vetoed same-sex marriage proposals and opposed access to abortion services. Their critics say they are supported by paramilitary groups. 

But they have always been natural allies of the Tories in London. After all, the official name of the party of Prime Minister Theresa May is the Conservative and Unionist Party.

Anyhow, May has little choice: The election was a disaster for her. Not having won a majority, she had to cobble together enough votes in parliament to stay in office. The Liberal Democrats and the Welsh and Scottish parties were out of the question.

The day following the vote, DUP leader Arlene Foster indicated that she wanted to “bring stability to our nation” by backing the Conservatives. The party has been consistently critical of the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, particularly for his past links with Sinn Féin.

The main issue for the DUP is to keep Northern Ireland as tightly as possible within the United Kingdom. It needs a promise from May that there will be no separate post-Brexit status for Northern Ireland. Foster explained that “what we want to see is a workable plan to leave the European Union.”

Sinn Féin has argued that because the Northern Ireland electorate voted by 56  to 44 per cent to remain within Europe last year, and because the region will be the only one in the UK with a post-Brexit land border with the EU – that between Ulster and the Irish Republic -- the area should have special status.

But Loyalists see that as a ploy to draw the north closer to union with the Republic, which they absolutely oppose. Mainly Protestant areas did vote for Brexit -- although even they want the border to remain “seamless and “frictionless.”

Oddly, Sinn Fein, too, will prove, in a strange way, useful to May. That’s because the party’s seven MPs will, as always, refuse to take their seats in parliament. Although elected, they do not recognize British sovereignty over Northern Ireland, as a matter of principle.

Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin president, confirmed that his MPs would not be going to the House of Commons.

Hence, instead of needing 326 votes in the 650-member chamber to remain in power, May will only need 322. Although it’s not a formal coalition, together with the DUP she has 328 -- a working majority.

Spanish Enclaves on Front Lines of Refugee Crisis

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian
Most refugees trying to get to Europe from Africa make a perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to either Italy or the Greek islands. Few people realize that the European Union actually includes two tiny land borders with Africa.

They are the two Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, both at the northern tip of Morocco, on the Mediterranean itself. Ceuta, in fact, sits just 14 kilometres across the sea from Gibraltar, a British enclave on the Spanish side.

With 85,000 and 78,000 inhabitants, respectively, they are the last surviving relics of the once vast Spanish empire. The only two remaining European territories in mainland Africa as well, together they cover about 35 square kilometres. 

As an integral part of Spain, they have also been part of the territory of the European Union since 1986, when Spain was admitted to the EU. As such, they have become a magnet for sub-Saharan migrants willing to cross deserts and endure perilous conditions in search of a better life. 

The two cities are now perceived by many Europeans as part of the external threats the continent faces, and so they present a problem not just for Spain, but between the entire EU and Morocco. 

The borders of the enclaves have been increasingly reinforced by high fences, armed border guards, and sophisticated electronic detection systems.
The two enclaves have a very long and contested history. Melilla was occupied in 1497 as the first in a string of strongholds along the North African coast by Isabel and Ferdinand, the Spanish monarchs who unified Spain itself.

Ceuta, initially conquered by Portugal, passed to Spain in 1580.

Morocco signed a border treaty with Spain in the 19th century, when it was still an independent county, but never recognized Spanish sovereignty over the land.

Even during the period between 1912 and 1956, when Spain governed northern Morocco as a protectorate, the two enclaves kept their status apart from the rest of Spanish territory. 

When Morocco regained its independence in 1956, Ceuta and Melilla became part of a re-politicized border zone between two sovereign states. 

They remain claimed by Morocco, while successive Spanish governments have defended the “Spanishness” of the territories for historical, geopolitical and symbolic reasons. 

They argue that the enclaves belonged to Spain and formed an integral part of Spanish identity long before the emergence of the Moroccan state. 

In 1991, Spain acceded to the Schengen Agreement, which removes internal border controls within the EU. This led to intensified Spanish border control, including, after 1998, the construction of the fences. 

But Morocco complicated Spain’s decision by insisting that no Spanish construction machinery operate on Moroccan soil. As a result, even Spanish authorities concede that the fences stand within what Spain considers to be its territory.

The Spanish government has argued that reaching or even crossing the fences is not enough to claim asylum. Instead, Madrid has recently argued that the migrants must cross what it calls an “operational border”-- set wherever the last line of police security stands.
So migrants who manage to scale all three fences around Melilla, for example, struggle to understand why they are sent back to Morocco just as they thought they had reached safety in Spain. 

Human rights groups and the EU have strongly criticized Spain for what they consider violations of both Spanish and international law, including beatings of migrants and summary expulsions with no due process. 

But refugees remain undeterred. On Jan 1, New Year’s Day, about 1,100 migrants tried to storm the border with Ceuta. They knew that during the festivities, Spanish border surveillance would be low. 

Another 600 tried to breach it on Feb. 20, three days after hundreds of others used wire cutters and other implements to storm the barrier. The authorities are now considering using drones to further strengthen security.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Iran's Expansionism is a Threat

By Henry Srebrnik, [Calgary] Jewish Free Press

For centuries, Persian dreams of expansion were held in check on its western frontier. Until the end of the First World War, the Arab lands were governed by the Ottoman Turks. 

Following that conflict, a number of semi-sovereign Arab states were created, under British and French tutelage, but the dream of a unified Arab nation fueled ideological pan-Arabism.

After 1952 its main champion was Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, but others, including the leaders of the Iraqi and Syrian Ba’ath parties, were also firm advocates. In 1958 Egypt and Syria formed the United Arab Republic. Though it only lasted three years, the idea remained alive.

Even the mercurial Colonel Muammar Gadhafi at various times attempted to unite Libya with neighbouring states.

It was a period when mainly secular rulers, with left-wing policies, had the upper hand in the Arab world. The ultra-Islamic state of Saudi Arabia stood mainly on the sidelines of pan-Arabism.

All of this made Iran, then a monarchy ruled by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, largely irrelevant to Arab politics.

But the rise of a Shia theocratic state in Iran in 1979 changed everything. While pan-Arabism as a form of secular nationalism had not succeeded in unifying the Arab world to any degree, it did bind the Arabs in their belief of a common sense of destiny.

From now on, however, the main fault-line would become one older than any divisions between the Arab states formed in the 20th century: the historical Shia-Sunni split within Islam.

When Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was unable to forge a pan-Arab coalition to defeat Ayatollah Khomeini’s Shia state in the 1980s, it was clear the tide had turned.

Suddenly, the Persian state, using the banner of Shia religious unity, began to penetrate those parts of the Arab world with sizeable Shia Arab minorities. By the turn of the century, Hezbollah, representing the former downtrodden Shia Arabs in Lebanon, had taken effective control of that state. 

The American overthrow of Saddam Heussein’s Sunni-led dictatorship in Iraq in 2003 provided the Iranians with further gains; the Shia majority government in that fractured state has now become a vassal of Tehran.

Iran has taken advantage of the past six years of turmoil in the Arab world to steadily expand its reach and military capabilities. It commands the loyalties of tens of thousands in sectarian militias and proxy armies that are fighting in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. In the latter,Tehran has financed the Shia Houthis in a rebellion against a regime that has been a close ally of Saudi Arabia, the centre of Sunni Islam.

The final piece in the puzzle to create a Shia crescent is Syria, where Iran has been heavily involved in buttressing Bashar al-Assad’s Shia Alawite regime against various Sunni Islamist militant groups. 

So Iran is now in control of with swaths of territory running from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea; and from the borders of NATO to the borders of Israel, and along the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

Much of the west’s attention has been focused, understandably, on the various Sunni terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. They have wreaked devastation across the region, and have also committed unspeakable terrorist crimes throughout Europe and the United States.

But abhorrent as they are, they will eventually be defeated. Their political extremism makes them unable to act with any sense of pragmatism and, lacking any major state support, they will fade away.

Think of them as the equivalent of murderous thugs in motorcycle gangs – dangerous, but in the end unable to withstand a concerted effort to check their activities.

Iran, however, is a major state with tremendous resources, and willing to play the long game. It has proved itself militarily proficient and politically adept in achieving its aims, and it goes from strength to strength. 

Its leaders are wily shape-shifters who keep their foes, including the United States, off-balance. They play the “good cop, bad cop” game to perfection.

The analogy regarding Iran might be with the Mafia and organized crime, with tentacles deep in society, and far more difficult to eliminate.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The War That Keeps on Taking

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

Though it’s been called America’s longest war, that’s not exactly accurate. Actually it’s the longest of its colonial wars. That’s different.

The United States and some of its allies have been battling the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2001, following the al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington that Sept. 11.

It was intended to punish the mujahideen for harboring Osama bin Laden and the other leaders who had plotted and carried out the mass murders that killed more than 3,000 Americans.

But that part of the operation ended long ago. Al-Qaeda now operates from other bases around the Middle East and Africa, and bin Laden was himself killed in Pakistan in 2011.

Instead, the war morphed into an unrealistic attempt to change Afghanistan’s age-old political culture, by eliminating the Pashtun-led Taliban and engaging in “nation-building” a state which would have more respect for human rights.

It is understating the case to call this utopian.

First of all, Afghanistan itself only exists as a distinct entity because it was left as a buffer zone between the 19th century British and Russian empires in central and southeast Asia. It has never had any sort of genuine national identity. 

Apart from its largest group, the Pashtuns, Afghanistan is also populated by Uzbeks, Tajiks and Shi’a Harara, among other ethnicities. More often than not, they’ve tended to be at odds with each other.

As we know, neither the British in the 19th century, nor the Soviets between 1979 and 1989, were able to subjugate the country and bend it to their will. America will do no better.

This has really been a colonial war, similar to those fought by European powers in Africa and Asia before the Second World War. Those were undertaken in order to subjugate native peoples and to ensure imperial domination. 

Though casualties on the part of the western armies were typically not very large, the attempts to “pacify” these territories never proved successful in the long run. 

The indigenous forces rarely faced superior firepower head on, but instead resorted to guerrilla warfare and terrorism, in order to wear down the invaders.

That’s what the Taliban have been doing for the past decade and a half. Like the Algerian rebels in the 1950s fighting the French, or the Viet Cong battling the Americans, they are never permanently defeated, even when they lose territory.

Once the forces of the occupiers let up, they regain their strength – because, apart from sowing terror and brutalizing their opponents, they do have considerable support. 

Also, as is usually the case, the puppets running the pro-western governments installed by the foreign invaders are invariably corrupt kleptocrats and are hated even more than the insurgents.

All this holds true in Afghanistan. The current international force there today numbers about 13,000, of which 8,400 are American. They are now mostly engaged in the thankless task of training and advising the Afghan National Army.

U.S. President Donald Trump ran for office last year on an “isolationist” platform, but it seems the foreign policy and military establishment now have his ear. He is contemplating sending 5,000 more troops to Afghanistan, to try to slow or reverse losses to the Taliban this year. 

But this would simply be a continuation of George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s follies, which have already cost the United States more than 2,300 deaths and 18,600 wounded, and hundreds of billions of dollars. Afghanistan is militarily and politically a bottomless pit and trying to change it through force is futile.

On May 31, a truck bomb devastated the Green Zone, a central area of Kabul near the presidential palace and foreign embassies. It was one of the deadliest strikes in the long Afghan war, killing more than 150 people and injuring hundreds more. 

There were more deaths in the days that followed. And this was supposedly a fairly safe part of the capital.

All this happened as foreign missions were preparing for a conference in Kabul to discuss the war.

This never-ending conflict reminds me of the Greek myth of Sisyphus, the king forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it come back to hit him every time, and repeating this action for eternity.

President of Philippines Faces Major Problems

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

There has arguably never been a president like Rodrigo Duterte, even in a country used to sometimes outrageous political personalities. To call him undiplomatic is putting it mildly.

He is uncouth, goes into tirades, and breaks all the rules of statecraft, even using profanity to criticize other world leaders, as he did in 2016, when he told Barack Obama to “go to hell.” 

He also has no compunction in telling the world he intends to rid his country of criminals and drug dealers by murdering them. 

Elected president last year, he vowed that the fight against drugs would be “relentless.” He has ordered thousands of extrajudicial killings as part of his campaign.

Duterte had dealt with drug crime during his 22 years as mayor of Davao City. There too, he has boasted, he used death squads to kill people without bringing them to court.

Yet he remains very popular among many Filipinos, and even in the large Filipino diaspora in the United States, there are those who like him. In fact U.S. President Donald Trump, who has invited him to the White House, has praised Duterte. 

Duarte now also faces a growing insurgency on Mindanao, one of the country’s main islands.

Though the Philippine islands are located in southeast Asia and its people a mix of Asian backgrounds, especially Malay, some 86 per cent of Filipinos are Catholics, the legacy of Spain’s almost four centuries of rule over the archipelago. They were named for King Philip II of Spain.

As a result, its political culture resembles that of Latin America. Indeed, until 1821 the Philippines was administered not directly from Madrid but by the Viceroy of New Spain, in Mexico City. That only ended when Mexico became an independent country.

But there is also a Muslim minority concentrated on the southern islands of Mindanao, Sulu, and Palawan. They remained impervious to Catholic proselytization.
Mindanao, the country’s second-largest island and home to 22 million people, one-third of the country’s population, has been the scene of a longstanding separatist and Islamist insurgency, led by a number of groups, including the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Moro National Liberation Front.

The Filipino Muslim (Moro) minority has had to contend with the triple challenges of the Spanish inquisition, American colonisation, and coercive assimilation in modern times.
In the late 1960s the Moros rose up again against the government, after years of settlement by Christians from other parts of the Philippines had left Muslims a minority on Mindanao.

Devastated by civil strife, terrorism, and all-out armed conflict, Mindanao suffers from one of the highest rates of poverty, illiteracy and unemployment anywhere in the world, which has been exploited by extremist groups. Tens of thousands have been killed over five decades of armed conflict.

While the major Moro rebel groups have recently engaged in peace negotiations with the Philippine government, their breakaway factions have joined other violent groups.

These include the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, organized in 2010, Abu Sayyaf, founded in 1991, and the Maute group, also known as IS Ranao, formed in 2012. 

The latter two have links to the Islamic State, which in mid-2016 endorsed a jihad in Mindanao. The group released a video urging militants who could not reach Syria to go to the Philippines instead.

There are about 1,200 Islamic State group operatives in the Philippines, Indonesian Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu on June 4 told the 16th Shangri-La Dialogue, an international security forum, meeting in Singapore.

Ryacudu called the militants “killing machines” and urged full-scale regional cooperation against them.

The conference was attended by diplomats representing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as U.S. Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis. 

Recently, large-scale battles raged in Marawi City, which has a Muslim-majority population; some of the men killed have been from Chechnya, Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Duterte on May 23 imposed martial law on Mindanao for two months. The Islamic State is now also a Southeast Asian problem.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Is Indonesia Becoming Radicalized?

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

The southeast Asian archipelago of Indonesia, with a population of some 255 million, is the world’s largest Islamic nation. Almost 90 per cent of the population practises the Muslim faith.

A moderate, secular democracy since the turn of the century, the country has not until now faced the sectarian clashes and autocratic rule that have plagued many other Muslim nations. Is that changing?

“Democracy gives a greater space to everyone, including greater space for radical Islam,” observed Melissa Crouch, a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

Since the 1980s, Saudi Arabia has built dozens of schools, distributed scholarships and religious materials, and constructed mosques in the country, promoting its strict Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam. 

In ­mid-February, Muhammad al-Khaththath, leader of the Forum Umat Islam, explained the direction in which he hoped to push Indonesia.

Sharia would become the law of the land and non-Muslims would lose their leadership posts. He also criticized Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s pluralist president.

A bill before parliament would ban alcohol, while the Constitutional Court is hearing a petition by a group demanding that the adultery law be broadened to criminalize sex between any unmarried people.

On May 21, police in Jakarta arrested 141 men at a sauna in the capital on suspicion of having a gay sex party.

Tobias Basuki, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, said the police appeared to be formally taking on a role that had previously been held by hard-line Islamist groups. “The government is trying to co-opt the religious narrative.”

As well, radicals have assaulted Ahmaddiya Muslims, often considered heretics, so the Indonesian government issued a decree warning them against propagating their beliefs, invoking the blasphemy laws.

What the Islamists have in mind already exists in Aceh Province, on the northern tip of Sumatra. It began instituting Sharia law in 2001 after gaining autonomy in an attempt to end a long-running separatist war. 

Many see it as a model for the whole country. On May 17, a court in Aceh sentenced two gay men to 85 lashes in public.

The government has now disbanded Hizb ut-Tahrir, an ultraconservative Islamic political movement, which aims to create a Pan-Islamic state among predominantly Muslim countries, by force if necessary. 

Created in Jordan in 1952, it came to Indonesia three decades later, and the country has become an important base. At its 2007 conference in Jakarta, some 100,000 people came out to a sports stadium in support.

The group rejects the, multi-religious national ideology, known as Pancasila, Indonesia’s state ideology, which includes belief in god, the unity of the country, social justice and democracy, and which enshrines religious diversity in an officially secular system.

Hizb ut-Tahrir was accused of having ties with another regional militant group, Jemaah Islamiyah, founded in 1993, which is already illegal.

Jemaah Islamiyah became influential after conflict erupted between Christians and Muslims in Indonesia in 1999 and 2000 during the country’s difficult transition to electoral democracy, and its fighters attacked Christian churches and priests, in response to Christian attacks on Muslims.

In October of 2002, it perpetrated its most notorious attack when it bombed two Bali nightclubs popular with foreign tourists, especially Australians, killing 202.

It also mounted attacks in Jakarta, bombing the J.W. Marriott Hotel in August 2003 and the Australian Embassy in September 2004. In October 2005, another suicide bombing in Bali killed 26.

However, increased security efforts forced the group to rethink its strategy. Its energies became more focused on above-ground religious outreach efforts aimed at creating a mass base and its leaders gave greater priority to education. 

But arrests since 2014 have revealed Jemaah Islamiyah retains a highly structured operation, with branches extending throughout Indonesia. 

And it has also been trying to rebuild a clandestine military wing, despite arguing that violence on Indonesian soil is currently counterproductive. 

That’s because it maintains that all its members must be prepared for an eventual military showdown as the movement strives to build an Islamic state -- even if, at the moment, there is no rationale for armed struggle.

Meanwhile, on May 24 the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for suicide bombings in Jakarta that killed three police officers at a bus station and wounded 12 others.

President Widodo indicated that Indonesia needed to accelerate plans to strengthen anti-terrorism laws to prevent new attacks.

Did Libya's Chaos Reach Manchester?

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian
There were those who worried that deposing Libya’s strongman Moammar Gadhafi would have unforeseen consequences, including political anarchy in the country and a flood of refugees crossing the Mediterranean from there to Europe.

It seems they were right. Since his death in 2011, following a NATO-led campaign, in which Britain took part, this has indeed proved to be the case.

In fact, even the May 22 massacre of 22 people at a rock concert in Manchester by a British-born son of Libyan refugees, might be seen as a type of “blowback.” The perpetrator, Salman Abedi, was reportedly in Libya just days before the attack. 

His parents are Libyan-born refugees who fled Gadhafi’s Libya in 1991 and came to Britain after 1993. It is thought they returned in 2011 following Gadhafi’s overthrow.

Abedi’s father, Ramadan Abedi, and one brother, now in Tripoli, have been arrested there by a militia, the Special Deterrence Forces. Another brother was arrested in Manchester.

The elder Abedi had been a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) before escaping to England. The British government at the time described the group, which it banned, as part of the wider global Islamist extremist movement inspired by al Qaeda.

The LIFG’s main fundraising vehicle in Britain was the Sanabel Relief Agency, now disbanded, which had offices in Manchester, Middlesbrough, Birmingham and London.

According to the London-based Guardian, Salman Abedi travelled to Libya as a 16-year-old in 2011 to join the LIFG and fight alongside his father in the battle to oust Gadhafi. And less than a week before the Manchester attack, Abedi was at his parents’ home in Libya.

When in England, the family lived in Manchester, which is home to some 10,000 Libyans – the largest such community outside Libya itself. 

Many arrived to escape Gadhafi’s brutal regime and have lived there for decades, a quiet presence in the city, well woven into Manchester’s fabric. They reside throughout the city rather than being concentrated in one neighbourhood.

“People often call it Libya’s second capital,” Hashem Ben Ghalbon, a Libyan who has lived there since 1976 after escaping Libya, told the New York Times.

Meanwhile, Libya has been without a central government since the 2011 civil war and the ongoing chaos seems to have no end in sight. 

A constellation of tribal and regional militias has emerged, in a quest for power and wealth. They are fighting for control of major cities, including even the capital, Tripoli.

As well, there are two competing national governments. The UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli, is a fragile compromise which includes several rival factions. 

It was created under the umbrella of the Presidential Council of Libya. Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj, the chair of the Council, is prime minister of the GNA. But he has little power.

Hoever, the Tobruk-based National Salvation government, which is controlled by the renegade general Khalifa Haftar, does not recognize the Tripoli government, which it says is dominated by extremists.  

Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) is the largest of an estimated 1,700 armed factions operating in the country. 

These groups have carved up the country into fiefdoms, most aligned with one of the competing governments. They include the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna, an Islamist militia founded by a former LIFG fighter.

As for the Islamic State in Libya, it was forced out of strongholds in Derma and Sirte in 2016, and has held no significant territory since.

On May 26, fierce clashes erupted between rival militias in Tripoli during Ramadan. Last year, too, the capital was besieged by fighting at that time. 

“This has become normal for us,” Shukri Salim, a Libyan Airlines employee who was having coffee with friends in a café and watching a televised soccer match, told a Washington Post reporter.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Events, Horrific Events, Change the U.K. Election

By Henry Srebrnik, [Halifax, N.S.] Chronicle Herald

The election that British Prime Minister Theresa May called for June 8 was supposed to focus on the forthcoming negotiations for the country’s departure from the European Union, triggered by last year’s Brexit referendum.

But, as another British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, once replied to a journalist when asked what might happen that might change his government’s focus, he replied, “Events, dear boy, events.”

The “event” in this case was the horrific terrorist attack in Manchester on May 22 and, not surprisingly, it has now become an issue in the campaign.

On that evening, a suicide bomber struck a rock concert attended by thousands of fans in a stadium in Manchester, blowing up himself and 22 others. Many more were seriously injured.

Issues like terrorism, radicalization, and immigration benefit May’s Conservatives, especially as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has in the past said positive things about militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.

He already has had trouble convincing skeptics that he has the leadership qualities to lead a campaign against extremism.

A day after the attack, May announced that up to 5,000 soldiers would be deployed on the streets amid fears that the bomber might have had accomplices preparing further attacks.

May added that troops would replace police officers at large public events including sports venues and concerts.

The bomber was known to police. In fact, two of his friends had some time ago contacted the government’s anti-terrorism hotline to share concerns about him. 

So, as in so many similar cases, the bomber’s accomplices were quickly arrested after raids on homes by the security forces. In other words, the authorities had connected the dots long before – but couldn’t do anything about it.

It also became apparent that he was in league with a larger group, based in Libya but with an active cell in Manchester. As well, according to reports, nearly 900 Britons are thought to have travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State over the years and many are returning home.

It has become de rigueur for political leaders to repeat the refrain that terrorism is impossible to fully prevent, as if it were analogous to tornados, lightening strikes or traffic accidents. With resigned fatalism, they talk about the “new normal.” 

Yet at the same time, what follows each attack is an increased growth of an entire apparatus of counter-terrorism, with police checkpoints, security cameras, the interception of phone conversations and e-mails, and much more. Thousands of people now are part of this apparatus.

Imagine if 50 years ago – think the Beatles! Carnaby Street! Swinging London! Bobbies without guns! -- someone had told us that the British military would be out in the streets and that there would be CCTV cameras watching every street corner. (I lived in England while a PhD student between 1975 and 1980 and to me it still felt very much like the sixties.)

You’d be forgiven for assuming a coup d’état had overthrown the government, the Queen was in jail, and Britain had become a dictatorship run by a junta. 

At the rate things are going, Western democracies will either become virtual police states, or find themselves eventually governed by far right political forces -- call them fascist if you will. 

If the latter, they will use massive repression and violence to counter terrorism, using nets that will swoop up the innocent along with the few who are actually guilty.

Either way, civil liberties will become only a memory. Not a pleasing prospect, is it. For all the talk about how terrorists won’t change our way of life, they already have, of course.

Monday, May 29, 2017

What's Next for Iran?

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

In the lead-up to the May 19 Iranian presidential election, most observers maintained that the electorate would be focused on one main issue.

Did the lifting of economic sanctions on the part of the United States following the nuclear agreement signed by Tehran with the five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany in 2015 improve the economy sufficiently to have made the deal worth the cost?

Incumbent president Hassan Rouhani’s political fortunes would depend on the answer made by the millions of Iranians who had suffered under the restrictions.

He ran in 2013 on a platform promising to reinvigorate the economy by forging the nuclear deal, ending or easing sanctions, and opening the country to foreign investment and ideas.

His more “moderate” approach to relations with the West was in contrast to his often acrimonious and bizarre predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who delighted in being a provocateur.

Rouhani’s main opponent, Ebrahim Raisi, a powerful conservative cleric, is remembered for his role in the 1988 massacre of over 30,000 political prisoners, mainly members and supporters of the Marxist opposition People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran or Mojahedin-e-Khalq.

Raisi accused Rouhani of capitulation to the U.S. in the nuclear negotiations, allowing the entry of Western consumer goods under the cover of economic liberalization, and of allowing the spread of Western culture in Iran.

He appealed primarily to poor and deeply religious Iranians, many of whom felt left out of Rouhani’s post-sanctions vision for the future.

In the end, Rouhani prevailed, with 57 per cent of the ballots cast, soundly defeating his chief opponent, who received 38.5 percent. The turnout was more than 70 percent.

“You have put Iran back on the road to progress,” Rouhani stated to his voters after his victory. Clearly, Iranians have endorsed his economic and political plans, but are they working?

True, billions of dollars have poured into the country after reaching the nuclear agreement. All manner of international businesses have been flocking in, eager to make deals.

Yet many middle-class Iranians are still frustrated by the years of high unemployment, inflation (which was above 40 percent when Rouhani was elected), declining living standards, and widespread corruption.

Prices are still rising by over seven per cent a year and unemployment remains at 12.5 per cent overall, and close to 30 per cent for people under 25.

Ordinary Iranians also chafe over the fact that about 80 per cent of the economy remains under state ownership, dominated by the powerful military, especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the all-powerful Shia clergy. Both these groups have accumulated astronomical wealth.

As well, the Iranian clerical elite retain the final say, under Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, now in his 28th year as the country’s Supreme Leader, on Iran’s domestic politics and international relations.

The Islamic Republic’s hybrid democratic-theocratic constitution, with its checks and balances, on paper provides for a measure of popular sovereignty, yet the position of the Supreme Leader ensures that a theocrat is in ultimate control.

Candidates for all offices must prove their utter loyalty to the Supreme Leader. The unelected twelve-member Council of Guardians vets candidates for presidential and parliamentary elections. It also reviews all new laws to ensure they are properly “Islamic.”

“We are all merely facilitators of this regime,” Mohammad Khatami, the “moderate” president who served from 1997 to 2005, once remarked. The election will change none of this.

Misagh Parsa, a sociology professor at Dartmouth College, in her book Democracy In Iran: Why it Failed and How it Might Succeed, published last November, traces the country’s increasing inequalities in wealth and income, corruption and cronyism, and a “brain drain” of highly educated professionals.

But the hard-liners will not give up real power easily and have managed to quash pro-democracy activism at every turn since 1979, especially during the violence that erupted during the 2009 election that allowed Ahmadinejad to remain president.

Khamenei has veto power over all policies, while Rouhani has been unable to even secure the release of reformists from house arrest.

Will Rouhani manage to break the hard-line monopoly on the state-run radio and television, and increase freedom of press?

The Islamic Republic will in the next few years face a more important struggle, that of who will succeed the 77-year-old and ailing Khamenei. This will not be resolved at the ballot box and in fact Raisi, as a major religious figure, remains a potential successor to Khamenei.

Colombia's Violence May Not Be Over

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) fought the South American governments of that country for more than half a century before signing a peace deal last year.

By the time it ended, the conflict had left more than 230,000 dead and millions displaced from their homes.

It was one of the world’s longest-running and vicious guerrilla wars, with countless atrocities committed by the FARC, the Colombian armed forces, and brutal right-wing paramilitary groups and death squads.

The FARC had been formed as the armed wing of the Communist Party in 1964 and many FARC fighters had virtually grown up in the jungle, with little education other than FARC propaganda.

“There is one less war in the world,” President Juan Manuel Santos said upon winning the Nobel Peace Prize last Oct. 7 for his efforts at ending the 52-year-old conflict. “It is much more difficult to achieve peace than to wage war.”

He was indeed correct. On Oct. 3, Colombians had unexpectedly rejected an initial agreement in a national referendum by a narrow margin. It had been signed Sept. 26 by Santos and FARC Commander in Chief Rodrigo Londono, known as Timochenko. Guests were dressed in white at the ceremony in Cartagena, to symbolise peace.

Former president Alvaro Uribe, a hard-line opponent of the deal, had advocated voting against it. But when Santos, who had been Uribe’s defence minister, become president in 2010 he was determined to end the violence.

Following further negotiations, Santos and the FARC on Nov.12 announced a “new final deal,” which Santos, who controlled a majority in Congress, was able to push through without a new referendum.

FARC rebels agreed to give up their arms under UN supervision in 26 “transitory normalization zones” in rural areas scattered around the country. The FARC and the government established a deadline of May 31st for final disarmament.

The FARC will become a political party, and, before long, former guerrillas will be able to run for public office.

In exchange, the government promised billions of dollars in aid and land reform. Santos also committed to protecting the rebels from reprisals by right-wing groups.

But Colombia is not out of the woods yet. Because the end of the FARC insurgency has left a power vacuum, criminal groups are attempting to fill it.

They are occupying the regions left behind by the FARC, all hoping to wrest control of the cocaine trade, illegal gold mines and other criminal enterprises which once financed the rebels.

 “They want to control the illegal economies that have fueled Colombia’s war,” Colombia’s human rights ombudsman, Carlos Negret, indicated.

In response, Santos announced in March that 960 new police agents would be assigned to rural areas. Clearly, that’s far from enough.

In order to finance their activities, the FARC had become involved in the narcotics trade, exporting cocaine to the world.

Under the peace agreement, the government and the guerrillas agreed to promote crop substitution programs through voluntary eradication pacts: the farmers would pull out their coca bushes in exchange for subsidies, land titles and technical assistance to grow something else.

Since January, more than 55,000 families throughout the country have signed on.“We cannot allow drug trafficking to coexist with peace and reconciliation,” said Néstor Humberto Martinez, Colombia’s chief prosecutor.

The problem, of course, is that few other crops are as profitable as coca. In fact, cultivation of the plant rose 18 per cent last year from 2015.

In any case, can former FARC fighter be re-integrated into civil society? Bruce Bagley, international relations professor at the University of Miami, notes that many Colombians still don’t trust them and “consider them monsters who have committed atrocities.”

So did Santos deserve the Nobel Peace Prize? It’s way too soon to tell.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Polish Jew Who Created a Synthetic Language

By Henry Srebrnik, [Calgary, AB] Jewish Free Press
The 100th anniversary of the death of Ludwik Zamenhof, the creator of the Esperanto language, is being observed this year.

Zamenhof, a Jewish physician, was born in the northeastern Polish city of Bialystok in 1859 and died in Warsaw in 1917. Bialystok belonged to the Russian Empire at the time and, as a polyglot city of Belarusians, Germans, Jews, Lithuanians, Poles, and Russians, was the scene of ethnic tensions.

From his youth Zamenhof occupied himself with poetry and drama; he wrote, among other pieces, a five-act tragedy based, interestingly, on the myth of the Tower of Babel – the Biblical story recounting the origins of the world’s different languages.

As told in the Book of Genesis, people once spoke the same language. But, because they banded together to build a tower in Babylon that glorified their own achievements, rather than those of their deity, God punished them by creating a myriad of languages so that they could no longer communicate with each other.

Zamenhof was saddened and frustrated by the many quarrels among the different ethnic groups in his native city, caused, he thought, by the lack of one common language. Though a polymath fluent in a large number of languages, for Zamenhof the diversity of languages was a curse, not a blessing.

“I was brought up as an idealist; I was taught that all men were brothers, and, meanwhile, in the street, in the square, everything at every step made me feel that men did not exist, only Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews,” he later recalled. (Indeed, in June 1906 some 200 Jews were killed in a pogrom in the city.)

He hoped to rectify this by inventing a universal tongue. A world without linguistic barriers, he believed, might produce a world without war. Perhaps it was only appropriate that a Polish Jew would try to cut through this Gordian knot and create a universal tongue.

Zamenhof left Bialystok to study medicine in Moscow and Warsaw but continued on his project. In 1887, he published the book Lingvo Internacia (International Language), later known as the Unua Libro (First Book), under the pseudonym Doktoro Esperanto (Dr. One Who Hopes).

A year later he produced two more volumes, Dua Libro de Lingvo Internacia (The Second Book of the International Language) and Aldono al la Dua Libro (Supplement to the Second Book). He also produced Russian–Esperanto and German–Esperanto dictionaries.

From 1889 on, living in Warsaw, he edited the monthly La Esperantisto, which was published in Nuremberg; he also founded the Universala Esperanto-Asocio (World Society of Esperantists).

“Zamenhof created Esperanto as a counterweight to national languages, which he believed divided people and were a source of conflict,” asserted Przemyslaw Wierzbowski, head of the Bialystok Society of Esperanto Enthusiasts.

“Today, we know that it’s economic, ethnic or religious differences that divide people, but Esperanto still has the goal of uniting us, helping us communicate,” he added.

By 1905, there were more than 300 Esperanto associations around the world. That same year, nearly 700 people from about 20 countries attended the first Esperanto world congress, in the French city of Boulogne-Sur-Mer.

At its height, it was embraced by working-class Jews, French intellectuals, East Asian leftists, Baha’i believers, Shinto sectarians, and Brazilian spiritists. It was a time when French was in decline, English not yet completely ascendant, as world languages.

Zamenhof translated many works into Esperanto, including the Torah, which he finished shortly before his death. Known for his idealism, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 13 times without success. For a while, there was even a campaign to make Esperanto the official language of proceedings at the League of Nations.

As Princeton University Esther Schor writes in her 2016 study Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language, it was meant to be “neutral, nonethnic and nonimperial,” and would “commit its users to transcend nationalism.”

The outbreak of the First World War was a major disappointment to Zamenhof and took a toll on his health, leading to his early death at age 57.

Things would get even worse in Europe after his death. Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels called it “a language of Jews and communists”; all three of Zamenhof’s children would be killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust.

His artificial language is exceptionally easy to learn. It has 16 basic rules, no exceptions and only 1,000 root words. It derives most of its words and grammar from European languages. Some 75 percent of the vocabulary comes from Latin and Romance languages and around 20 percent from Germanic tongues.

The remainder is drawn from Slavic languages, while most of its scientific terms come from Greek.

Zamenhof hoped Esperanto would become a lingua franca, a global language, a position held at various times in the past by other tongues -- Latin in the Roman world, Aramaic in the Middle East, and, increasingly, English today.

It didn’t happen. Still, this year the 102nd Esperanto congress will take place in Seoul at a time when more than one million people speak the language and Esperanto is even an option on Google Translate.

Though countries around the world have commemorated Zamenhof on stamps, and city streets are named for him, the city officials in Bialystok refused to honor a UNESCO-sponsored “Zamenhof Year” in 2017.

On Dec. 12 of last year, Bialystok’s City Council rejected Mayor Tadeusz Truskolaski’s motion to commemorate Zamenhof’s 100th anniversary. Councillors for the conservative ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) voted against the proposal.

Wierzbowski reported that the councillors opposed to it saw Esperanto as a dead language that has no value for mankind.

But Zbigniew Nikiforowicz from the opposition liberal Civic Platform claimed that the decision was due to “an unfavorable stance inside PiS towards anything that is not ethnically Polish.”

Nationalists, for whom native languages are emotionally and spiritually sacred, would probably sneer that only a “rootless cosmopolitan” could have invented Esperanto. Zamenhof may have created a universal language, but for Polish nationalists, he was just a Jew.

Still, the city of Białystok has joined the UNESCO-sponsored ceremonies marking Zamenhof’s anniversary observed in 2017 under the patronage of UNESCO. “It is a good opportunity to recall this outstanding figure, the creator of the world’s most popular artificial language,” remarked Mayor Truskolaski.

In any case, a few Esperanto words have been incorporated into Polish. “In Warsaw, the municipal bike system is called Veturilo (vehicle in Esperanto), while the name of the soft drink Mirinda means ‘amazing,’” Wierzbowski said, adding that Esperanto continues to evolve.

“Recently, we were discussing what word to use for drone. ‘Drono’ won out in the end.”

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Ghana Celebrates Sixty Years of Sovereignty

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

It was the first sub-Saharan country to become independent after the Second World War, and would be succeeded by dozens of others in the decades to follow.

The British colony known as the Gold Coast adopted the name Ghana, for the ancient kingdom which flourished until the eleventh century, when it achieved independence in 1957.

It was a time of great hope for the future of a continent which until then had been almost entirely ruled as parts of European empires. Many of these hopes would be dashed over the next 60 years, and Ghana too would undergo periods of authoritarian rule.

As elsewhere in Africa, there were a multitude of different ethnicities and religions in the new state, many of them hostile to each other.

Some of this went back to the days of the slave trade, when some groups had been complicit in capturing and selling others to European slavers.

Ghana’s history is intricately tied to slavery, Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang, an English professor from the University of Cape Coast, has noted.

There were large slave forts along the Atlantic coastline, built for the purpose of processing human beings awaiting sale to slave ships which would drop anchor along the coast. Barack Obama visited one in 2009.

Still, following the end of the slave trade, the Gold Coast came to be regarded as the showpiece of Britain’s colonies: it was the richest, and its people the best educated.
Kwame Nkrumah, its first leader, had been educated in Britain and the United States. His Convention People’s Party formed the first post-independence government.

 But he became a tyrant in the years following independence, suspending the constitution in 1964 and creating a one-party state. The economy rapidly declined and he was finally deposed in a coup d’état while on a visit to China in 1966. Decades of military dictatorships, one following another, ensued.

Not until 1992, with the drafting of a new constitution, did multi-party democracy return to the country. Under President Jerry Rawlings’ National Democratic Congress (NDC) rule, from 1992 to 2000, Ghana once again became the most politically stable and prosperous nation in West Africa.

In a free and fair election held in 2000, John Kufuor of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) won the presidency, beating Rawlings’ vice-president, John Atta Mills of the NDC. Kufuor was re-elected in 2004 for a second four-year term, again beating Mills. He retired in 2008.

President Nana Akufo-Addo, Ghana’s current head of state, won the Dec. 7, 2016 presidential election on behalf of the NPP against the incumbent, John Mahama of the NDC.

Akufo-Addo had lost twice before to the NDC, first to Mills, who finally won the presidency in 2008, and then to Mahama, who succeeded Mills after the latter died, in 2012.

This time, the 73-year-old Akufo-Addo, a human rights lawyer who comes from an eminent political family, won 53.8 per cent of the votes after a hotly contested race.

Gold, cocoa and, more recently, oil, form the cornerstone of Ghana’s economy and had helped fuel an economic boom. Until recently Ghana was hailed as a model for African growth.

But since 2013, its economy has endured a growing public deficit, high inflation, and a weakening currency. Gold, oil and even cocoa bean prices all dropped, resulting in its seeking a $918 million bailout from the International Monetary Fund in 2016.

This left Ghana with a restive population that spelled doom for Mahama’s re-election chances.

Akufo-Addo had gone into exile during the years of military rule. But from Europe, he could be heard on the BBC World Service, calling for a return to democracy. With the end of dictatorship, he returned home and became the first national organiser of the NPP.

He recently appealed to Ghanaians living in and out of the country to rally behind his administration, as he seeks to return the country onto the path of prosperity.

 “What we need to understand and believe is that we can also make it in Ghana, and improve the standards of living of our people. We can do it,” he reiterated.

“Our mission is clear, to make Ghana the most successful and business friendly economy in Africa,” declared Vice-President Mahamadu Bawumia. “This government will control the debt and get Ghana working again.”

Trump, Comey and the Russians

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian
The furor over President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey on May 9 was unprecedented. CNN and MSNBC had their “breaking news” signage on-screen for the entire next few days. But even more hysteria was in the offing.

Since the United States has descended into some kind of alternate reality, the man whom Hillary Clinton herself had judged to be “responsible” for her loss, and hence abhorred by the Democrats, suddenly became, for the same people, a martyr.

The dismissal was now considered a blow to American democracy, the start of a dictatorship, something as bad as Watergate – a ridiculous comparison, as that had involved a criminal offense, unlike Comey’s sacking.

These cynical and hypocritical reactions served only to make those voicing them look silly to most Americans.

A few days later the Washington Post carried a story by Jennifer Rubin with a headline that could have come from the National Enquirer, as Trump’s opponents once again tried to tie him to Vladimir Putin.

“Bombshell: Trump Tells Secrets to Russia,” published May 15, asserted that the president revealed highly classified information to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in a White House meeting on May 10.

According to her, unnamed current and former U.S. officials said that Trump’s disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.

Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution, an establishment think tank, worried that Trump “will do what he wants, no matter how mad.” They clearly want to make this the “smoking gun” to get rid of him.

Of course the immediate calls for Trump’s impeachment even before this were only to be expected. They’ve been demanding that from virtually his first day in office.

Although not directly calling for Trump’s removal, but certainly, were it true, making it imperative to do so, was an incredible May 12 article in the New York Times asserting that Trump is a fascist, politically similar to Benito Mussolini.

“American Fascism, in 1944 and Today” was written by Henry Scott Wallace, the proud grandson of Henry A. Wallace, a well-known “fellow-traveller” and pro-Soviet sympathizer who ran for the presidency in 1948 for the Communist-backed Progressive Party.

“The main question today is how our democracy and our brash new generation of citizen activists deals with it,” Wallace concluded. Kafka couldn’t have made this up.

A political neophyte who has never held elective office, Trump may be in over his head. He certainly is out of tune with the political culture in government.

As well, the liberal Lilliputians, as in Gulliver’s Travels, have been tying him down with metaphorical legalistic pieces of thread.

Still, I doubt that Trump has yet done anything impeachable. But another solution comes to mind for the political elites, and is already being suggested in the mainstream press.

The 25th Amendment to the Constitution allows for the removal of the president if a majority of the cabinet informs the Congress that he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” and, should the president contest his own removal, a two-thirds vote by Congress to confirm the cabinet’s judgment.

The ideal solution, for Trump’s opponents, would be for Trump, knowing this is in the offing, to simply say “who needs this?” He’s not a professional politician and doesn’t need the grief. After he quits, the whole circus around his supposed ties to Russia will fade away, as things return to “normal” under Mike Pence.

This would still be tantamount to overturning a democratic election, regardless of the excuses used.

But the “deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton called Trump’s supporters, would take this lesson to heart, and America would devolve into such mutual animosity that it would become like many a Third World country where a coup removes a government the elites don’t like.

Can American democracy recover from this mess?

Monday, May 15, 2017

Election Exposes Divisions in Indonesia

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

The southeast Asian archipelago of Indonesia, with a population of some 255 million, is the world’s largest Islamic nation – almost 90 per cent of the population practises the Muslim faith.

The country has long been a beacon of religious tolerance, but this may be changing. Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, Jakarta’s ethnically Chinese and religiously Christian governor, recently lost an election after being accused of disrespecting Islam.

The governorship of the largest municipality in the country is widely seen as a steppingstone to the presidency. Purnama became the governor of Jakarta when as vice-governor, he took over from Joko Widodo, who left the post when he was elected president of Indonesia in 2014.

Purnama’s ethnicity and faith made him a double-minority in Indonesia. Still, he sought to be elected in his own right in this year’s gubernatorial election.

The first round of voting took place Feb. 15, with Purnama, at 42.9 per cent, holding a narrow lead over Anies Rasyid Baswedan, a former education minister and a Muslim, who ran second with 40.5 percent.

With neither gaining over 50 per cent, a run-off took place on April 19.

Purnama was already on trial for blasphemy after making remarks last September about the Qur’an which some Indonesians considered insulting. Worse was to come. He was sentenced to two years in jail on May 9 for blasphemy, a harsher-than-expected ruling.

The blasphemy law, rarely used before 2004, has now been deployed in more than 120 cases, helping build support for Islamists and silence dissent, remarked Andreas Harsono, the Indonesia representative for Human Rights Watch.

Efforts to stop Purnama led to rallies that were among the largest in recent years. Militant groups like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) organized massive demonstrations.

As the second round of voting neared, the leader of the FPI, Habib Rizieq, ramped up the attacks. Banners appeared in front of mosques threatening voters with denial of Islamic burial rites should they support him.

It worked. Baswedan crushed his rival by 57.96 to 42.04 per cent in the runoff.

“A half-minute destroyed his career,” said Komaruddin Hidayat, a former rector of Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University Jakarta. Indeed, Purnama’s trial could leave him vulnerable to being jailed.

 “Intolerance is already there and has been rising,” according to Endy Bayuni, editor in chief of the Jakarta Post newspaper.

Bonar Tigor Naipospos of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, a research institute in Jakarta, stated that “Islamization is deepening in society, especially in urban areas and cities.”

Under President Suharto’s authoritarian dictatorship, which lasted from 1965 to 1998, radical voices and organizations were pushed underground and activists were imprisoned. The transition to democracy, however, provided political space for their return.

Extremists have become more prominent since the turn of the century and have formed various militant groups, chief among them Jemaah Islamiyah, which staged attacks on targets perceived as un-Islamic, such as nightclubs. They were behind the 2002 Bali bombing, which killed more than 200 people.

Indonesia’s Constitutional Court recently struck down a law which would allow the government to annul discriminatory local religious-based laws regulating morality.

With the introduction of democracy and the decentralization of power to the local authorities, more than 440 such local ordinances have been adopted.

All of this may not bode well for the moderate Widodo and the political parties that support him, ahead of the 2019 presidential election.

Even so, Indonesia remains a largely moderate country known for a tolerance for other religions and ways of life, and support for radical groups is still limited to a fringe of Indonesian society. The major political parties remain committed to a democratic and pluralist society.

Are Trump's Opponents a "Resistance"?

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Hillary Clinton described herself as “part of the resistance” during an interview with the CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour on May 2.

She also continues to refuse to accept her defeat in last year’s presidential election, blaming her loss on interference by then FBI Director James Comey and Russian hackers. As far as she’s concerned, she didn’t lose; the election was in effect “stolen.”

“I was on the way to winning,” she contended, until the combination of Comey’s letter on October 28 to Congress informing it that he had reopened the bureau’s investigation into her use of a private e-mail server, and the Russian WikiLeaks, “raised doubts in the minds of people who were inclined to vote for me but got scared off.”

Comey addressed this at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on May 3. Clinton’s e-mails, containing classified information, were being forwarded to former Congressman Anthony Weiner by his wife Huma Abedin, a top aide to Clinton, he explained. Actually, most were simply backed up onto his computer.

Still, it does mean that Weiner, who was being investigated separately for possible inappropriate communications with a minor -- a felony-- had Clinton’s e-mails on his own computer. This, and not simply her use of a private e-mail server, was part of the reason it sank Clinton’s candidacy.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, fired Comey as FBI director on May 9, apparently because, as far as the president is concerned, the FBI director wasn’t tough enough on Clinton. Trump contended that the director had given Clinton “a free pass for many bad deeds’’ when he decided not to recommend criminal charges in the case.

While Clinton continues to blame everything and everyone but herself for the defeat, Shattered, the recently published account of her campaign by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, paints a very different picture.

It was, wrote New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani on April 17, an inept and dysfunctional campaign, an epic “Titanic-like disaster made up of a series of perverse and often avoidable missteps by an out-of-touch candidate and her strife-ridden staff.”

Can’t everyone who loses an election blame some unforeseen event? Had Iran not taken American embassy personnel hostage before the 1980 election, Jimmy Carter might have beaten Ronald Reagan.

Had Ross Perot not run in 1992, George H.W. Bush would probably have retained the White House, and it would have been the last we’d have heard of Bill Clinton.

But Hillary Clinton has a sense of entitlement second to none and won’t give up. “I’m back to being an activist citizen, and part of the resistance,” she announced.

I’ve never before seen the people out of power in the United States use a word, “resistance,” which conjures up the necessity of fighting against an illegitimate regime, one that was not democratically elected.

Such language wasn’t thrown around even in the disputed 2000 election, which was won far more controversially by George W. Bush against Al Gore.

As well, some political scientists have begun to use the negative term “Trump regime” rather than “Trump administration.” The implication is that it is no longer a liberal democratic government.

But Trump isn't Marshal Philippe Pétain and America isn’t a Vichy France governed by puppets controlled by Hitler (or in this case, Vladimir Putin) – though Clinton seems to think so. (She insists Trump remains tightly aligned with the Russian president.) Trump isn’t even Marine Le Pen and the National Front.

And whatever they may think, Clinton and Barack Obama aren’t Charles de Gaulle’s Free French trying to liberate their country from a foreign power.

Trump has not yet in any way overstepped his constitutional powers, and the judiciary and Congress are doing a more than adequate job of quashing much of his program. the country retains a critical free press and civil liberties.

If anyone is putting democracy in danger it isn’t Trump, but people who refuse to accept his election. The Democratic Party is no longer the opposition; it is “the resistance.”

Assume the Democrats win next time – we may see some real so-called resistance from all those Trump voters. They see that Democrats have utter contempt for them.

Why should they accept the results of an election, they’ll argue; the other side didn’t. Clinton is sowing deep divisions in the country.

If you think I'm being hyperbolic, just keep in mind the way people are tossing around that slogan “resistance.” That's “war talk,” not electoral politics, and sooner or later it might not be just a metaphor. Words have consequences.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

French Election: Discontent, Baggage and Re-alignment

By Henry Srebrnik, [Halifax, NS] Chronicle Herald

Emmanuel Macron beat Marine Le Pen in the run-off French presidential election May 7, by the wide margin of 66 to 34 per cent.

I see two lessons from this outcome.

First of all, one third of French voters either abstained or turned in blank ballots. The turnout of about 75 per cent was the worst since 1969.

These are by definition not happy campers; most are probably left-wing people, especially those who voted for Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round. They are unhappy with Macron’s globalist, big business vision, but would not cast a ballot for a perceived fascist.

Of those who did cast ballots, more than one third supported a far-right party linked by its opponents to anti-Semitism, xenophobia, the collaborationist Second World War Vichy regime, and so on.

This couldn't have happened without the post-2008 economic crisis in Europe that is making so many people desperate.

Macron won by a landslide in Paris and its affluent suburbs, but Le Pen’s anti-globalization platform was popular in places where deindustrialization has led to high poverty, low wages, and unemployment. It’s a warning the victors would be wise not to ignore as they celebrate.

Secondly, if an anti-globalist, anti-European Union party wants to win the next French presidential election five years from now -- assuming Macron doesn't do much to improve things -- the National Front needs to be dissolved.

It carries too much baggage, including Marine Le Pen’s own name. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the party in 1972, was virtually a Holocaust denier.

In Macron, the centrist political establishment came up with a new face, a supposed independent, in effect jettisoning both the Socialists and Gaullists; the right has to do likewise.

After all, unlike in Anglo-Saxon states, in France parties are less stable and their names mean far less. The Gaullists have had a number of different party names since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958.

Mélenchon also created a new movement, though it was just another political version of the old Communist Party, which backed him.

Donald Trump couldn’t have beaten Hillary Clinton if he could have been actually linked to, say, historically segregationist parties.

Without the names Le Pen and National Front, but with much of the same geist and political agenda, the result might have been much closer, perhaps no more than 55-45 per cent for Macron. The opposition couldn’t have as effectively attacked someone with no “past” the same way they did with Marine Le Pen.

Macron now faces a new hurdle: Under the French semi-presidential system, he must share power with the National Assembly. Elections for that body are scheduled for June 11 and 18; like the presidential election, it’s a two-round system.

At the moment, five parliamentary groupings hold seats, along with 25 independents. Macron’s new “En Marche!” movement must somehow gain enough seats in the 577-seat chamber to govern effectively. As of now, he has none.