Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Are the Jews of Israel an Aboriginal People?

I have recently read two articles, A Native and a Zionist, and Native, Jewish Bond Thicker Than Water, by Ryan Bellerose, published last March in the Métropolitain, a Montreal newspaper, and reprinted in the Jewish Tribune, and last June in the Toronto Sun, respectively.

The author is a Métis from Alberta. He founded Canadians for Accountability, a native rights advocacy group, and is an organizer and participant in the Idle No More movement in Calgary. And he calls himself a Zionist.

Citing the work of anthropologist José R. Martínez-Cobo, Bellerose concludes that Jews fit the definition of an aboriginal people. Their lands were occupied, first by the Romans, then by the Arabs in the seventh century. While different Jewish communities have slightly different traditions, they all share the same root culture and it has remained unchanged. And they have resurrected their traditional language, Hebrew.

“Alone among other nations, Jews’ language, history, culture and folklore were born and forged in the Holy Land. There is no statute of limitations on being indigenous. In stark contrast, Arabs arrived to the Holy Land only in the seventh century, when Arabian armies colonized the Middle East. Longstanding presence may generate rights, but it is not synonymous with being indigenous,” he wrote.

Liberal MP and former justice minister Irwin Cotler agrees. The Jewish people, he has stated, is the only people in the Middle East that still inhabits the same land, embraces the same religion, studies the same Torah, harkens to the same prophets, speaks the same aboriginal language – Hebrew – and bears the same aboriginal name, Israel, as it did 3,500 years ago.

No other people in the region, including today’s Palestinian Arabs, can make that claim, since their cultures all derive from Christianity or Islam, neither of which existed back then.

Israel, then, is the aboriginal homeland of the Jewish people across space and time and is, Cotler asserts, a successor state to the biblical, or aboriginal, Jewish kingdoms.

So why do few people (other than Jews) see us as the indigenous people in Israel? Is it simply that we were outside the land of Israel for too long? But some North American and Australian natives lost their lands and sovereignty at least 300 years ago, yet they are still referred to, in Canada, as ‘first nations.’

Nor did Jews vanish: they continued to live in the region, albeit as “dhimmis,” second-class people who did not enjoy certain political rights reserved to Muslims, and who were subject to payment of special taxes. In 1945 there were between 758,000 and 866,000 Jews living in communities throughout the Arab world; Jerusalem had a Jewish majority in the 19th century.

No, the reason for the denial of Jewish nationhood is the religious theory known as ‘supersessionism.’ From its inception, the founders of Christianity taught that G-d’s ‘Old Covenant’ with the Jewish people was fulfilled and was now replaced (superseded) by the ‘New Covenant in Christ,’ and so Judaism (and the Jews) were supposed to disappear. The Church was the ‘new Israel.’

Centuries later, theologians of Islam adopted similar views, which helps explain the hatred by many in the Arab and larger Muslim world toward Israel. Jews were not just ‘settlers’ taking Palestinian land (the way European colonists did in Africa, Australia and the Americas) but were an inferior people for whom Muslims had been taught to show contempt.

More recent, secular versions of supersessionism can be found in the various Marxist screeds against Zionism. Karl Marx himself denied Jews were a nation but rather a “caste,” surviving only because of their economic usefulness to the larger society, and Communists usually opposed the idea of a Jewish state. The animus against Jewish nationhood can also be found in works such as those of the British historian Arnold Toynbee, in which he spoke of the Jewish people in terms of a “fossilized civilization.”

When it comes to the denial of the right of Jews to exercise sovereignty in the land of Israel, what we sometimes find is an underlying theological condition.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Evolution of South Asia's Nuclear Powers

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

While much of the world’s attention these days is focused on Iran’s nuclear program, it should not be forgotten that its eastern neighbours Pakistan and India, South Asia’s two largest countries and long-time enemies, both are nuclear-armed states.

India is not a party to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and tested what it called a “peaceful nuclear explosive” in 1974. The test was the first after the creation of the NPT, and India’s secret development of nuclear weaponry, using civilian nuclear technology, caused great concern and anger from nations such as Canada, that had supplied its nuclear reactors for peaceful and power generating needs.

Indian officials had rejected the NPT in the 1960s on the grounds that it created a world of nuclear “haves” and “have-nots.” The Indian position asserted that the NPT was in many ways a neo-colonial regime designed to deny security to post-colonial powers.

Even after its 1974 test, India maintained that its nuclear capability was primarily “peaceful,” but in 1998 India tested weaponized nuclear warheads, including a thermonuclear device. Today India is estimated to have up to 100 nuclear warheads.

In 2008 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) approved an agreement with India under which the agency gained access to India’s civilian nuclear reactors. As a result, India was granted a waiver allowing it to access civilian nuclear technology and fuel from other countries, including the United States. Both President George W. Bush and his successor Barack Obama have agreed that the world’s largest democracy is a responsible nuclear power.

The IAEA’s Director General, Yukiya Amano visited India last March to hear from Indian policy makers, scientists, researchers and engineers on developments in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

But India is also expanding its ability to produce highly enriched uranium for military purposes, including more powerful nuclear weapons, according to a U.S.-based think tank which cited satellite imagery taken last April of a gas centrifuge facility under construction at the Rare Materials Plant near Mysore in Karnataka.

The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) published a report in 2013 stating that this new facility “could significantly increase India’s ability to produce highly enriched uranium for military purposes, including more powerful nuclear weapons.”

Pakistan, too, is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and built its first nuclear power plant near Karachi with equipment and materials supplied mainly by western nations in the early 1970s. Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had promised in 1965 that if India built nuclear weapons then Pakistan would too, “even if we have to eat grass.”

In July 1982, General Vernon Walters was sent by President Ronald Reagan to see Pakistani dictator Muhammad Zia ul-Haq. The United States had “incontrovertible proof,” Walters told him, that Pakistan had accelerated its nuclear bomb program, despite assurances to the contrary.

Zia, former diplomat Husain Haqqani writes in a new book, Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding, claimed he had “no knowledge” of such a program. Needless to say, this was an “untruth.”

In 1998, Pakistan conducted its first six nuclear tests at the Chagai Hills, in response to the five tests conducted by India a few weeks before. In 2004, the Pakistani metallurgist A.Q. Khan, a key figure in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, confessed to having sold gas centrifuge technology to North Korea, Iran, and Libya, though he denied complicity by the Pakistani government or army.

“Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal probably consists of approximately 90-110 nuclear warheads, although it could be larger,” according to a report released last year by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), an independent research wing of the U.S. Congress.

“Islamabad is producing fissile material, adding to related production facilities, and deploying additional delivery vehicles. These steps could enable Pakistan to undertake both quantitative and qualitative improvements to its nuclear arsenal,” the report said.

Given Pakistan’s chronic instability there is always the danger that such weapons could conceivably fall into the hands of Islamist extremist groups should the country implode.

As Robert Kagan noted in his book The Revenge of Geography, published in 2012, “A state like Pakistan can have weapons of mass destruction, even as it can barely provide municipal services and protect its population from suicide bombers.”

As well, any conflict with India over disputed Kashmir could easily touch off a major conflagration.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Turning Mammals Into People

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

A few months ago I was talking to a friend who teaches history at St. Mary’s University in Halifax. She bemoaned the lack of historical and geographical knowledge of many people in her courses and described one particularly egregious case. 

She had asked a student to describe some of the aggressive behaviour among European countries that had led to the Second World War. He began talking about Jacques Cartier – in other words, confusing the events of the 1930s with those of European expansion into the Americas in the 16th century! Such is, sometimes, the astounding lack of knowledge about the most basic of facts.

At campuses everywhere, the humanities are hurting, as students gravitate to majors more closely linked to their career ambitions, and so we will hear more and more such stories. But the mission of a university goes far beyond creating a competent work force through training students for this or that functional task.

To get back to my conversation with my colleague, I told her I’ve come to the conclusion that my job as a teacher, first and foremost, is turning mammals into human beings. What do I mean by that?

Most mammals are highly developed creatures, and are intimately aware of their immediate environs and how to survive in them. But what is it that differentiates one particular species, homo sapiens, from the rest?

Cats, dogs, monkeys, and even the great apes, live in a spatial and chronological “present.” They are aware of their physical surroundings, and their territory may extend to even a dozen square miles in some cases. But beyond that, they know about virtually nothing. 

If they live on Prince Edward Island, unless they’ve been transported somewhere else by people, they have no idea about the rest of the world, from neighbouring New Brunswick to far-off China or Russia. They can’t communicate with fellow creatures beyond their immediate habitat.

They also have no sense of their history. They don’t even know about the lives of their immediate ancestors, much less something that happened a century or two earlier.

Unfortunately, I have run across students in my classes who cannot find the Pacific Ocean on a blank map, nor have any idea why 1939 is an important year in modern history. (To give you a sense of what it’s like not to have an historical time frame in your head, try to answer the following: what happened in the years 1423 and 5763? Actually, they are the Muslim and Jewish calendar equivalents to 2003 – the year the United States invaded Iraq.)

Such students may have some knowledge of a recent event that took place within their lifetime – say, the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States – but little beyond that. They probably know who Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin were, but not Benito Mussolini or Nikita Khrushchev. As for geography, while they have seen pictures of various places on television or in films, and so might recognize downtown New York or Toronto, the larger geographic context is often missing. And knowing where Australia or India are located on the planet is too much to expect from some. 

Theirs is a world almost as circumscribed, and their horizons almost as limited, as those of their fellow mammals. I couldn’t imagine living in a world without being able to visualize, so to speak, the geographic and historical setting within which it exists. Can someone understand today’s France or the United States without some knowledge of their histories and their specific locations? I know I wouldn’t be able to. But of course other mammals live out their lives that way, and do just fine.

For a person, though, that is a terribly limited way to go through life. (And in any case even remote places may have a powerful impact on our lives.) It’s our job to make our students part of what used to be called the great chain of being and have them realize that there is more to the world than the here and now. 

If you have no comprehension of time and space beyond your immediate surroundings, you can’t make sense of the world. We were all mammals when we were born, but education is what turns us into humans.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Pakistan: A Turbulent, Nuclear-Armed Country

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Throughout its turbulent history, Pakistan, a country of 180 million people – the second largest Muslim state in the world -- has been subject to periodic military coups, often the result of mismanagement by corrupt civilian politicians.

It also suffers from a homegrown Taliban-led insurgency in the Pashtun-inhabited Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the border with Afghanistan, and mounting anger over CIA drone strikes, especially in North Waziristan.

Six police officers were killed on Jan. 12 in back-to-back bombings targeting an adviser to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the Martoong area of the Swat valley, which the Taliban controlled from 2007-2009.

Other parts of the country also experience terrorism. In the large port city of Karachi, with its 17 million people, ethnic and political divisions fan the violence. There is considerable animosity between the native Sindis, Pashtuns from the war-torn region along the Afghan border, and Muhajirs, the term for Muslims from elsewhere in India who moved into what became Pakistan after the 1947 partition from India. From 2010 through 2013, some 3,900 people were killed in terror and crime related activities.

There has also been deadly violence against Shi’ite Muslims, who comprise about 15-20 per cent of the population, by Sunni extremists. Last year there were 687 sectarian killings, a 22 percent increase over 2012, according to the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies; most of the victims were Shi’ites.

Sectarian unrest is spreading throughout the country and becoming routine in heavily populated areas, the group concluded. Last November, Sunnis and Shi’ites clashed in Rawalpindi, a military garrison city adjacent to Islamabad.

On Jan. 6, a suicide bomber tried to enter a school filled with several hundred students in a Shi’ite-dominated village in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, but was stopped by a ninth-grader, who is being hailed as a national hero after he died when the bomb went off in the ensuing scuffle.

Extremists are apparently trying to intimidate educated Shi’ites into leaving the country, asserted Salman Zaidi, a deputy director of the Jinnah Institute, an Islamabad-based think tank. All told, the toll of violence and terrorism in Pakistan caused 4,725 fatalities last year.

What makes this all the worse is that Pakistan is a nuclear-armed state, and there is always the danger that such weapons could conceivably fall into the hands of extremist groups should the country implode.

“Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal probably consists of approximately 90-110 nuclear warheads, although it could be larger,” according to a report released last year by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), an independent research wing of the U.S. Congress.

“Islamabad is producing fissile material, adding to related production facilities, and deploying additional delivery vehicles. These steps could enable Pakistan to undertake both quantitative and qualitative improvements to its nuclear arsenal,” the report said.

Though Pakistan has in recent years taken a number of steps to increase international confidence in the security of its nuclear arsenal, the CRS report cautioned that increased instability in Pakistan has called the extent and durability of these precautions into question.

Pakistan’s President Mamnoon Hussain and Prime Minister Sharif, both elected last summer, clearly have their hands full.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Two of the World's Great Canals

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

Two of the world’s great maritime powers, Great Britain and the United States, whose commerce and security depended on ocean-going vessels, were responsible for the planet’s two most famous canals, located in Panama and Egypt.

The 77-kilometre long international waterway known as the Panama Canal, completed in 1914, allows ships to pass between the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean, saving 12,875 kilometres from a journey around the southern tip of South America, Cape Horn.

Panama was a part of Colombia but when that country rejected U.S. plans to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, Washington engineered a revolution that led to the independence of Panama in 1903. Following the Spanish-American War of 1898, the U.S. had become a world power with far-flung possessions in the Caribbean and Pacific and a canal would facilitate trade and defence.

The new Panamanian government authorized the U.S. to build the Panama Canal and allowed American control of a zone eight kilometres wide on either side of it.

The division of the country into two parts by the Panama Canal Zone caused tension throughout the twentieth century, including anti-American riots. In 1977, U.S. President Jimmy Carter signed a treaty which would return 60 per cent of the Canal Zone to Panama in 1979. The treaty also established the canal as a neutral international waterway; even in times of war any vessel is guaranteed safe passage. The canal and remaining territory was returned to Panama on December 31, 1999.

In recent years the amount of cargo shipped worldwide annually has continued to increase, a growth driven in part by rapidly expanding economies in Asia. About five per cent of worldwide shipping traffic passes through the Panama Canal, including nearly 70 per cent of all cargo to and from the U.S.

In 2007, the Panamanian government launched a $5.25 billion, seven-year project to expand and improve the canal. The project is scheduled for completion in time for the canal’s centennial anniversary this coming August.

In November U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden went to Panama to highlight the expansion of the canal and the need to modernize American ports to accommodate the huge cargo ships that by 2015 will pass through the isthmus.

The 193-kilometre long Suez Canal, located in Egypt, provides the shortest sea route between Asia and Europe. It connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Gulf of Suez, a northern branch of the Red Sea, from where ships then proceed onward to the Indian Ocean. The distance between Mumbai and London is roughly 11,450 kilometres using the Suez Canal but 20,000 kilometres taking the longer route around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa.

In 1858, the Universal Suez Ship Canal Company, owned by French and Egyptian interests, was formed and construction began in 1859. After its opening ten years later, the Suez Canal had a significant impact on world trade as it dramatically reduced transit time worldwide and the Convention of Constantinople in 1888 made the canal available for all ships from any nation.

In 1875, debt forced Egypt to sell its shares in ownership of the Suez Canal to the United Kingdom. For the British, the canal vastly increased trade with their south Asian possessions.

In the 20th century, conflicts began to arise over control of the Suez Canal. In 1936 Britain was given the right to maintain military forces in the Suez Canal Zone and control its entry points. In 1954, Cairo and London signed a seven year contract that allowed Egypt to take control of the former British installations.

In July 1956, however, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, angry that Britain and the U.S. withdrew support for his plan to build the Aswan High Dam on the Nile River, nationalized the canal.
On October 29 of that year, Israel invaded Egypt and two days later Britain and France followed suit.

The aims of the attack were primarily to regain Western control of the canal and to remove Nasser from power. In retaliation, Egypt blocked the canal by intentionally sinking 40 ships. The Suez Canal did not reopen until March 1957 when the sunken ships were removed.

In June 1967, another war between Egypt and Israel again shut the canal. At the end of the war, Egyptian and Israeli forces were stationed on either side of the canal and it remained closed until the end of a second conflict – the Yom Kippur War – and subsequent negotiations. It finally reopened in 1975.

Today, the Suez Canal is operated by the Suez Canal Authority, and the canal handles about eight per cent of the world’s shipping traffic. So far, despite some minor incidents, such as a bomb detonated at a police camp in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia last month, Egypt’s political turmoil has not affected it.

Future plans for the Suez Canal include a project to widen and deepen the canal to accommodate the passage of larger and more ships at one time. Nearly 150 years after its completion, it remains a vital link between Europe and Asia.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Harper, Israel, and Canada's Jewish Community

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

On January 20, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will begin a four-day visit to Israel, as well as to Jordan and the Palestinian Territory on the West Bank. When he addresses the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, he will be greeted like a rock star.

Calling Israel “the light of freedom and democracy in what is otherwise a region of darkness” at a dinner in his honour hosted by the Jewish National Fund in Toronto in early December, Harper vowed that Canada would always be a friend. “We understand that the future of our country and of our shared civilization depends on the survival and thriving of that free and democratic homeland of the Jewish people in the Middle East.”

Harper is unabashedly pro-Israel and makes no secret of it. In the United Nations and other international bodies, where Israel routinely comes under attack, Canada is arguably its most consistent defender. No country, not even the United States, has been as steadfast a supporter of the Jewish state as Canada has been since 2006, when Harper’s Conservative Party replaced the Liberals in office.

That same year, he supported Israel in its war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. And Canada boycotted the UN’s 2009 Durban II anti-racism conference in South Africa because of its history of Israel-bashing.

In 2012, Ottawa cut off diplomatic ties with Iran, and it remains “deeply skeptical” of the recently-signed nuclear deal between Iran and the five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.

“Simply put, Iran has not earned the right to have the benefit of the doubt,” stated Foreign Minister John Baird. Canada will continue to implement tough economic sanctions on the country.

In turn, Harper has earned the gratitude of a large sector of the Canadian Jewish community, in terms of electoral, financial and ideological support. He now has the almost unquestioning backing of most of the Orthodox Jewish community, the fraternal organization B’nai B’rith, and other groups.

This is a remarkable achievement, for a number of reasons.

For most of the 20th century Canada’s Jewish community was solidly Liberal – indeed, at various times even the New Democrats and their predecessor, the CCF, had more support among Jews than did the old Progressive Conservative Party. A Jewish Tory was an oddity.

As well, Harper’s political career began in the early 1990s within the Reform Party, the grassroots populist right-wing movement founded in Alberta – a province geographically and politically alien to most Canadian Jews, the vast majority of whom live in Montreal and Toronto.

Most Jews considered Reform as being, at the very least, antipathetic to Jewish concerns and values, if not (in the views of some) actually anti-Jewish.

But the Reform Party eventually morphed into the Canadian Alliance and then the Conservative Party of Canada, with Harper at the helm. And a most remarkable thing happened: he gained the confidence of Canada’s Jewish community, thanks mainly to his loyalty to Israel during difficult times.

In the May 2011 federal election, an Ipsos Reid exit poll found that among Jewish voters, 52 per cent voted Conservative, compared to 24 per cent who voted Liberal and 16 per cent who voted NDP. This is an astounding turnaround, given the deep historic ties between the Jewish community and the Liberal Party.

In the greater Toronto area riding of Thornhill, where 36.6 per cent of the population is Jewish, the highest in Canada, Conservative Peter Kent beat the Liberal candidate, Karen Mock, by 61.3 per cent to 23.6 per cent. This had been a very safe Liberal seat between 1997 and 2008.

The Montreal riding of Mount Royal, with an electorate that is 36.3 per cent Jewish, has arguably for decades been the most solid Liberal seat in the country; the Liberals have held the riding continuously since 1940. This was former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s own seat between 1965 and 1984; he was a man Montreal’s Jews adored.

Yet former Liberal attorney-general and justice minister Irwin Cotler barely hung on to Mount Royal in the last election, beating Conservative challenger Saulie Zajdel with 41.4 per cent of the vote to Zajdel’s 35.6 per cent. Polling there demonstrated that a majority of Jews in the constituency voted Conservative; Cotler himself acknowledged that he didn’t get the support of most Jewish electors and only kept his seat thanks to the non-Jewish vote.

When Cotler had first won the riding in a by-election in 1999 he received 91.9 per cent of the votes cast; the Progressive Conservative candidate obtained less than four per cent.

Of course the Liberal “brand” is not dead yet. The new Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau, recently acquired the support of Stephen Bronfman as the party’s chief fundraiser. Bronfman is a scion of the “first family” of Canadian Jewry – he is a grandson of Sam Bronfman, who built the Seagram liquor empire.

Montreal’s Jews, with their fear of Quebec separatism, remain more loyal to the party of Pierre Trudeau than do their counterparts elsewhere.

But now it will be the Liberals, not the Conservatives, who will have to fight all the harder if they wish to regain the Jewish vote.

Monday, January 06, 2014

The Traditional Systems of Justice of Pashtuns and Somalis

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer 

Two peoples living thousands of miles apart, one in the horn of Africa, the other in south-central Asia, employ similar systems of justice and conflict resolution.

The Pashtuns (also known as Pathans) live in eastern and southern Afghanistan; and in Pakistan, mostly in the old North West Frontier Province, now Khyber-Pakhtunkwa, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and northern Balochistan.

The Somalis are found in Somalia, a country which has been without a national government since 1991; the de facto state of Somaliland; Djibouti; and parts of Ethiopia and Kenya.

Until the colonial era, both peoples lived in stateless societies without courts of law. They both have very complex clan and tribal loyalties, and these sub-units have historically engaged in feuds among themselves, which were settled, if at all, by traditional methods of adjudication. 

The 43 million Pashtuns are divided into four confederacies: the Batani, Gharghasht, Karlani,  and Sarabans, which in turn consist of hundreds of tribes and sub-tribes. The 16 million Somalis comprise six major clans: the Darood, Dir, Digil, Hawiye, Isaaq, and Rahanwayne. These are also subdivided into a host of sub-clans and lineage groups.
Perhaps this is the reason neither people, despite a very strong consciousness of common ethnic, cultural and religious identity (virtually all are Sunni Muslims), has ever generated a modern state-building form of nationalism.

Pashtunwali is the non-written ethical code of the Pashtuns. It dates back to pre-Islamic times and is widely practiced among Pashtuns. They have relied on it to conduct themselves as individuals and as a society in their dealings between themselves and with others. The pashtunwali serves as a set of guidelines for regulating the otherwise anarchic Pashtun society.

One of its principles is badal, a concept which requires a Pashtun to seek justice or take revenge against the wrongdoer. There is no time limit to when the injustice can be avenged. If badal is not exercised, the offended man or his family will be considered stripped of honour. The exercise of this principle can lead to generations of bloodshed, feuds, and hundreds of lives lost for one insult. 

However, once the desire for an honorable peace is clear, the tribal elders gather in a jirga, which is obeyed without question by the Pashtuns. It is an assembly of tribal elders, who take decisions on issues based on consensus. In tribal regions, the jirga is still used as a court for criminal offences.

Somali clans are bound to each other by a social contract known as xeer. Under xeer, there is no authority that dictates what the law should be. It is instead formulated by elders as they determine the best way to resolve a dispute. Disputing parties bring their concerns to them, and the proceedings continue until a resolution is achieved.

Law, and consequently crime, is defined in terms of property rights. Because such rights, if violated, require compensation, rather than punishment, there is no imprisonment, and fines are rare. Such fines as might be imposed seldom exceed the amount of compensation and are paid directly to the victim.

Through xeer, Somalis are committed to paying restitution in the event that physical harm or death is inflicted by a member of one group against a member of another. If a member of one group murders someone, it is the responsibility of the murderer’s group to collectively pay restitution to the group of the victim. If payments are not made or accepted, then vengeance will be taken against any member of the offender’s group.

Xeer can give relationships regularity and reduce violence by creating structures of deterrence. Though enforced by custom and not written law, it is widely followed among Somalis.

The unrecognized state of Somaliland is founded on clan-based power sharing and balanced political representation and it headed off incipient violence soon after its declaration of independence through a shir beeleed (clan conference). The country has incorporated traditional institutions into its government by appointing clan leaders to the 82-member Guurtiida (House of Elders), the upper chamber of parliament. If a clan elder dies or retires, the seat is passed down to one of his descendants. Over the past two decades, clan elders have negotiated inter-clan disputes and kept the peace.

As Muslims, Pashtuns and Somalis may also avail themselves of the Islamic code of justice, the Sharia; however, in most cases not involving religion, pashtunwali and xeer take precedence in the traditions of these two ethnic groups.

But this also helps explain the attraction of Islamists – al-Shabaab among the Somalis and the Taliban in the Pashtun areas. For brutal as they are, their religious fervour enables the Islamists to bring feuding clans together through their harsh and rigid implementation of the Sharia, which supersedes pashtunwali and xeer, and thus, in a way, brings a modicum of peace and safety to these fractious societies. It accustoms them to a form of government that transcends tribe and clan.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Terrorist Bombings in Volgograd Lead to Worries About Winter Olympics

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Late in December, suicide bombers were responsible for the deaths of at least 34 people in the southern Russian city of Volgograd, in attacks on a railway station and a trolleybus. In October, a woman from Dagestan killed seven people in a suicide bus blast in the city.

The bombings raised fears of further attacks before Russia hosts the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February. Volgograd, the former Stalingrad, the city made famous in World War II, lies about 650 kilometres northeast of Sochi and is the main gateway to the Black Sea resort.

Evidence in the two recent blasts points to Islamist terrorists, most probably Chechens. In July, Chechen jihadist leader Doku Umarov pledged that his militants would disrupt the Sochi games. Sochi itself lies not far from the restive republics of Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia, in the northern Caucasus, the sites of ongoing Islamist terrorism.

 “We know that on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many Muslims who died and are buried on our territory along the Black Sea, today they plan to stage the Olympic Games. We, as the Mujahedeen, must not allow this to happen by any means possible,” Umarov declared.

The most restive of the numerous peoples living in the Caucasus, the Chechens have chafed under Russian domination for 150 years. In the recent past, they have fought two bloody wars, in 1994-1996 and 1999-2000, for independence; the conflict left at least one hundred thousand dead and the capital, Grozny, a wasteland. Most ethnic Russians living in Chechnya at the time fled. Umarov fought in both these wars.

Although they lost the two wars, a new constitution granted Chechnya in 2003 did give the republic more autonomy within the Russian Federation. This did not satisfy extremists, though, and in recent years, the resistance to Moscow has been infused by religious nationalism and calls for the establishment of an Islamic Caucasian Emirate became louder.

Though Russian forces have tried to keep a tight grip on the Caucasus, this dream has not died. In 2007, Umarov proclaimed himself emir of a Islamic Caucasian state ruled by Sharia law.

“Today in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Palestine, our brothers are fighting,” he said at the time. “Everyone who attacked Muslims, wherever they are, are our enemies, common enemies. Our enemy is not Russia only, but everyone who wages war against Islam and Muslims.”

Vladimir Putin’s Russia will have its hands full protecting not only Sochi, but much of the country, over the next few months.