Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, September 28, 2015

Moscow's New Mosque Highlights Growth of Islam in Russia

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

If someone asked you which city in Europe has the largest Muslim population, you might answer Paris, or Berlin, or London. But you would be wrong. The correct answer is Moscow.

Estimates of Russia’s Muslim population now range from 16 million to 20 million, including more than two million in Moscow, a city of 12.5 million. Yet the city has just four mosques. 

Many Russians think that Muslims might challenge the Russian Orthodox Christian national identity that President Vladimir Putin has used to unite the country in place of Soviet Communism.

Russia’s identity was forged during centuries-long confrontation, coexistence and cooperation with Muslim neighbours. The principality of Moscow defeated the Golden Horde, a powerful Mongol-Tatar khanate, and then waged countless wars in and against Ottoman Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and the Caucasus.

Most recently, Russians have fought two brutal wars to suppress Muslim separatists in Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia.

Moscow itself was victim to a series of terrorist bombings by Chechen Islamists between 1999 and 2002, killing hundreds of people.

Orthodox believers consider Moscow a “holy city” and want only their traditional Russian churches, said Vyacheslav Ali Polosin, a former priest who converted to Islam in 1999. 

In the Crimea, Muslim Tatars, angered by Russia’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula in March 2014, have blocked food deliveries to Crimea from Ukraine.

Russia’s often brutal approach has led many Muslims to leave the country to fight in Syria. Sergei Smirnov, the deputy director of Russia’s Federal Security Service, has estimated that some 2,400 Russian citizens were fighting for the Islamic State. 

But Putin uses carrots as well as sticks. Flanked by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, Putin on Sept. 23 spoke at the inauguration of the Moscow Cathedral Mosque, a grand structure that can accommodate 10,000 people on three stories.

“Terrorists from the so-called Islamic State are compromising a great world religion, compromising Islam; sowing hatred; killing people, including clergy; and barbarically destroying monuments of world culture,” Putin declared. 

“They are trying to recruit followers here in Russia, too. Russia’s Muslim leaders are bravely and fearlessly using their own influence to resist this extremist propaganda.”

Russia opposes any Islamic activity not affiliated with the Kremlin-sanctioned Council of Muftis.

The biggest chunk of the construction costs for the mosque, about $170 million, came from a wealthy oil tycoon, Suleiman Kerimov of Dagestan, but foreign governments, including Turkey, Kazakhstan and the Palestinian Authority, also donated. 

Given the lack of official mosques in the city, at least 40 “underground” mosques are based in apartments all over Moscow.

Ravil Gainutdin, the chairman of the Council of Muftis in Russia, has suggested that every Moscow neighborhood should have one mosque -- which would mean about 20 to 30 new ones. He argues that more official mosques would help curb other extremist groups.

But the Cathedral Mosque was built despite opposition from many quarters, and plans to construct just a few more in recent years were canceled in the face of vehement public protests. The mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, himself opposes any new mosques.

Were Sudan's Revolutions an Early Arab Spring?

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Pioneer Journal

If those people who were at first so excited, and then disappointed, by the Arab Spring had known more about the history of Sudan, they might have tempered their enthusiasm. 

That’s because the two revolutions of 1964 and 1985 in that semi-Arabized country provide a sense of déjà vu.

Sudan was the largest country in Africa until 2011, when the sub-Saharan non-Arabized third of the country became the new state of South Sudan. Its mainly Christian and Animist people had for decades been struggling against rule by the Arab Muslim north.

The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan had been under joint British-Egyptian rule since 1899, when the British defeated an Islamist state that had been established in 1885 by a charismatic mystic and religious zealot, Muhammad Ahmad, who considered himself the prophesied redeemer and purifier of Islam.

He had declared himself “the Mahdi (the guided one) of God and the representative of His Prophet.” With the defeat of the Mahdist state, the country came under joint British and Egyptian rule.  

Prior to independence, London and Cairo administered the northern and southern Sudan as separate entities of the condominium. But when the country became a sovereign state in 1956, it was united under the rule of an Arabized Muslim political order based in Khartoum. 

This would lead to constant warfare as the African south continually sought to throw off northern rule. This was finally accomplished, after 55 years, in 2011. 

Parliamentary rule in a sovereign Sudan lasted only two years. A coup in 1958 brought General Ibrahim Abboud to power in order, he declared, to end “the state of degeneration, chaos, and instability of the country.” The constitution was suspended and all political parties dissolved.

By 1964, there was popular discontent, and an open revolt followed. It was precipitated by student demonstrations at the University of Khartoum. 

The situation rapidly deteriorated, and within two days the civil service and the transport workers were on strike. Demonstrations followed in the provinces. Rather than suppress the opposition by armed force and bloodshed, Abboud resigned.

The so-called October Revolution of 1964 led to the return of civilian rule. The euphoria did not last.

Between 1966 and 1969, Sudan had a series of civilian governments that proved unable to cope with problems of factionalism, economic stagnation, and ethnic conflict. No single party controlled a parliamentary majority and there was constant friction.

All of this led to a second coup d’état in 1969. The new leader, Colonel Gaafar Nimeiry, abolished parliament and outlawed all political parties. He would remain in power until 1985, despite numerous attempts to unseat him.

Nimeiri moved closer to Islamism, and in 1983, the civil war in the south intensified following the government's Islamization policy. Anti-government discontent led to student demonstrations and resulted in a general strike in Khartoum which paralysed the country, and Nimeiri was deposed in 1985.

Once again, party factionalism, corruption, personal rivalries, scandals, and political instability characterized the ineffective coalition regimes that followed.  They proved unable to mobilize government resources to bring food relief to famine areas, reduce the government’s international debt, and build a national political consensus.

So, as in 1969, yet another coup returned Sudan to military rule in 1989. Colonel Omar al-Bashir took over and has remained the country’s president ever since, even though the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him in 2009, accusing him of war crimes in Darfur.

Both the 1964 and 1985 uprisings had been led by leftist political parties, sections of the armed forces, and what were known as the “modern forces” – students, professionals and union members. Even the Communists were strong – they had launched an abortive takeover in 1971.

Yet in each case these reform movements, products of civil society, were unable to prevent the return of authoritarian rule.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Press Under Attack

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian
It’s no secret that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has an authoritarian bent of mind. And that includes his hatred of any criticism -- which makes for a hostile environment for the country’s journalists.

One of the country’s pre-eminent newspapers, Hurriyet, which has a liberal secularist outlook, suffered two attacks on its offices in Istanbul earlier this month. 

Supporters of Erdogan’s more Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) broke office doors with stones and sticks, while the police took their time arriving on the scene.

AKP deputy Abdurrahim Boynukalin, who orchestrated the first attack on Sept. 6, remarked that the paper’s editor-in-chief, Sedat Ergin, should have been given a beating. 

Asked whether his party plans to take disciplinary action against Boynukalın over his remarks, Interim Prime Minister and AKP Chairman Ahmet Davutoglu said that, while it was impossible for him to approve of such comments, he believes Boynukalin did not have bad intentions.

Erdogan himself criticized the daily on Sept. 8, claiming it had distorted some of his remarks in an interview, adding, “What kind of media outlet are you?” The second attack came that same day.

Turkish prosecutors also said they were investigating Hurriyet for spreading “terrorist propaganda,” the semiofficial Anadolu News Agency reported.

“Hurriyet is Turkey’s most influential newspaper and a symbol of free journalism,” Ergin told broadcaster CNN Turk. “Attacks on any newspaper should be condemned, but the attack on a paper with this kind of identity will particularly be put as a black page in Turkey’s democratic history.”

On Sept. 3, a Turkish prosecutor launched an investigation into Hurriyet columnist Ertugrul Ozkok to probe whether he insulted President Erdogan in an article.

Scores of people have been charged and even arrested, with at least ten being convicted, for insulting Erdogan, since he was elected president in August 2014.

On Sept. 14, Turkish police raided the offices of Nokta news magazine after it featured a photo portraying Erdogan taking a selfie at a soldier’s funeral. The magazine’s lawyers argued that impounding the magazine without a proper court order was unlawful and stated that the country had taken yet another step back in terms of press freedom.

All this comes against the backdrop of renewed fighting between the Turkish Army and the outlawed separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). On Sept. 6, the PKK killed 16 soldiers and 12 police officers. Since July, more than 110 Turkish security forces have been killed by PKK militants.

“While our nation is standing tall and our security forces have been conducting their struggle with sacrifices, each word and each manner aimed at demoralizing and confusing minds and depressing souls would solely serve terror’s goal,” Erdogan remarked on Sept. 8.

Erdogan has asked the Turkish electorate for a strong mandate in the forthcoming Nov. 1 parliamentary election in order to combat the militants. 

He hopes to increase his party’s majority from 341 seats to at least 400 out of 550, to enable him to amend the country’s constitution and give himself more power.

Hong Kong and Macau Retain Privileges

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
Though China was far too huge to become a colony during the age of imperialism, various European countries nibbled away at its coastline and islands.

Two of these outposts would remain colonial possessions until the end of the twentieth century.

Hong Kong was a British possession from 1842, after China was defeated in the First Opium War, to 1997. Britain later added parts of the Kowloon peninsula and the many smaller islands surrounding Hong Kong to its holdings. It leased the mainland New Territories in 1898.

Macau, acquired by the Portuguese in 1557, reverted to Chinese rule in 1999. The Portuguese had arrived in the Zhujiang (Pearl) River delta in 1513, but were for a long time met with hostility. 

However, when the Portuguese aided China in eliminating coastal pirates, the Chinese Ming court gave consent for a permanent and official Portuguese trade base at Macau. 
A near neighbour of Hong Kong, Macau occupies a small peninsula and two islands off China’s southern coast.

In the 19th and 20th centuries Hong Kong’s population was boosted by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants from China, many of whom were fleeing domestic upheavals.

Industrialisation gathered pace, and by the 1970s Hong Kong had become one of the region's economic powerhouses. 

Hong Kong’s economy has moved away from manufacturing and is now services-based.  It is a major corporate and banking centre as well as a conduit for China’s exports. Companies based in Hong Kong employ millions of workers in the neighbouring Chinese province of Guangdong.

Initially, Macau prospered on the lucrative returns from regional trade, and European-style mansions and churches mushroomed. Trade dwindled from the 1600s, but the introduction of licensed gambling in the mid 1800s revived Macau's fortunes. 

Macau has seen its low-key colonial character give way to massive commercial and tourist development. Macau has capitalised on its long history as a gambling centre, drawing many thousands of visitors from China and Hong Kong. 

Foreign casino companies have invested heavily and “mega-casinos,” which include major hotel developments, are now the norm. Gambling-related taxes account for 85 per cent of government revenue, but they have been in decline. 

Worried that the economy depends too much on gambling, Chief Executive Dr. Fernando Chui has pledged to diversify the local economy.

Both Hong Kong and Macau are “special administrative regions” governed under the principle of “one country, two systems,” under which China agreed to give them a high degree of autonomy and to preserve their economic and social systems for 50 years from the date of the handover. 

China controls their foreign and defence policies, but they have their own currencies and customs status. 

But Beijing can veto changes to the political system, and in Hong Kong pro-democracy forces have been frustrated by what they see as the slow pace of political reform.

Currently, of the Legislative Council’s 70 members, only 40 are directly elected, with the rest chosen by professional and corporate groups that favour Beijing loyalists. The chief executive is indirectly elected by an electoral college effectively controlled by Beijing.

China has pledged to allow the chief executive to be elected by direct universal adult suffrage by 2017, but still wants all candidates to be chosen by a nominating committee.

Occupy Central, a group pushing for more expansive democracy in Hong Kong, in June 2014 held an unofficial poll that garnered almost 800,000 votes in favour of more democracy than China is willing to allow. 

Tensions spilled over into mass protests in September 2014, with calls for full democracy and the resignation of Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, elected two years earlier. 

For two months demonstrators occupied major parts of the city and caused political upheaval. Critics argue that Leung’s true loyalties lie with Beijing.

Pro-reform forces are less vocal in Macau than in Hong Kong. A new state security law came into effect in 2009 with very little opposition, whereas attempts by the Chinese government to introduce a similar law in Hong Kong in 2003 triggered mass protests. 

Macau re-elected its chief executive Fernando Chui in August 2014, a widely expected result after the pro-China government stifled an unofficial referendum on democracy. He was the sole candidate and was selected by an electoral college. The 33-seat Legislative Assembly has only 14 directly elected members.

Activists had organised an unofficial poll calling for more democracy, but the vote was disrupted by the security forces and only 9,000 people took part, with 89 per cent voting for universal suffrage by 2019, when the next election will be held.

Monday, September 14, 2015

African Impact

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

While western politicians chide African leaders for tolerating corruption and staying in power far too long, China continues to expand its economic reach on the continent.

Its influence is being exerted in countries formerly within European and American economic and political spheres of influence. It is prepared to enter into relations with states ostracized by western countries.

In 2000 the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation was established, and at its 2006 summit in Beijing attended by more than 50 African countries, China declared a “Year of Africa” for China, and released a document, “China’s African Policy,” aimed at presenting its policies towards Africa. A range of trade, investment and aid proposals were announced.

By 2009 China had become Africa’s biggest trading partner, buying raw materials for its industries and selling finished goods to African consumers, exchanging about $160 billion worth of products a year. Two thirds of African nations now list China as a top-five trading partner. 

More than one million Chinese, most of them labourers and traders, have moved to the continent in the past decade. Chinese companies now routinely make multi-billion dollar business deals in Africa.

Chinese businesses also keep increasing their foreign investment. China’s share of foreign investment in Zimbabwe stands at 82 per cent, in Sierra Leone 70 per cent, Guinea 69 per cent, Niger 53 per cent, Cameroon 35 per cent, Congo-Kinshasa 31 per cent, Uganda 28 per cent, and Mozambique 22 per cent. 

These are mostly poor and unstable countries, so China is willing to take risks for potential future profits. In any case, they are abundant in natural resources, needed for China’s burgeoning economy. Iron ore, copper, platinum, timber, cotton, are among the commodities imported.

China’s oil consumption is now second worldwide, behind the United States, so Beijing has helped African countries develop their oil sectors in exchange for advantageous trade deals. 

Beijing provides low-interest loans to countries with low credit ratings, and in turn receives favorable rights to develop oil and mining projects. Its African suppliers of oil include Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, and the Republic of Congo.

China’s state-owned oil company has a large stake in South Sudan’s oil fields, and China has deployed an infantry battalion to the United Nations peacekeeping mission there.

The government and private enterprise work hand in hand. China has established banks such as the China Export Import Bank and the China Development Bank to provide finance in order to meet government objectives; the latter set up the China-Africa Development Fund in 2007 to promote Chinese investment. 

China is also a major arms supplier in Africa, third behind France and Russia; state-run arms companies have sold weaponry to unsavoury regimes in Libya, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.

But social and environmental complaints about Chinese companies are common. Many of them use Chinese nationals for management and technical positions in their African projects, leaving the more menial work to locals, who are often exploited. Chinese companies have been accused of underbidding local firms and not hiring Africans.

Ironically, this opens China to the charge of replicating the earlier colonialism of European nations in Africa.
Chinese workers have been murdered in a number of countries and there have been anti-Chinese riots as well.

In Senegal residents’ organisations last year blocked a deal that would have handed a prime section of property in the centre of the capital, Dakar, to Chinese developers, while in Tanzania labour unions criticised the government for letting in Chinese petty traders. 

In September 2011, Michael Sata won Zambia’s presidency largely by tapping into anti-Chinese resentments after Chinese managers shot protesters at a coal mine a year earlier. Gabon withdrew an oil field permit from a subsidiary of the Beijing-based oil and gas company Sinopec in 2013 due to environmental concerns.

Aware of this rising criticism, in May 2014 China’s prime minister, Li Keqiang, acknowledged “growing pains” in the relationship. In a speech at the World Economic Forum on Africa held in Abuja, Nigeria, Li discussed his dream of one day connecting Africa’s major cities by Chinese built high-speed railways “with no strings attached.”

And the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, said last January, while on a five-nation African tour, that “we absolutely will not take the old path of Western colonists, and we absolutely will not sacrifice Africa’s ecological and long-term interests.” 

Is China’s relationship with Africa one of “North-South” imperialism or “South-South” solidarity?

Hindutva and the Idea of India

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian
The partition of India in 1947 was a traumatic experience for everyone in the Indian subcontinent – today’s states of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Two major Indian provinces, Punjab in the west and Bengal in the east, were sliced in two, amidst wide bloodshed. Bengalis, in particular, had a vibrant culture that transcended religion.

The secularists in the Congress Party, the independence movement which became the ruling party of India, had wanted a country that would incorporate its various faith communities. 

For Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister, the partition was considered a victory for religiously-based communalism: a new state, based on Islam, would now flank the rest of India in both its west and east. (Pakistan included Muslim-majority east Bengal, after 1971 the sovereign Bangladesh.)

That’s why the new rulers of India were so adamant in retaining control over the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, despite its Muslim-majority population. It would be “proof” that India was not merely “Hindustan.” 

For Pakistan, of course, Kashmir was seen as territory that should have been included in its Islamic republic.

In recent decades, though, a new concept of Indian nationhood has gained currency, one which sees India as a “Hindu” nation, and Muslims as interlopers and imperialists who have historically oppressed the people of India ever since their arrival more than a millennium ago – and who, unlike the British, settled in the land permanently.

This ideology, known as “Hindutva,” was initially propagated by ideologues such as V.D. Savarkar, who in 1923 wrote that all people on the subcontinent who regarded Bharat, the Sanskrit name for India, as their “sacred space” and “holy land” were true Indians – a definition that included non-Hindu Sikhs and Jains, but not Muslims.

Savarkar’s geographical definition encompassed the entire Indian subcontinent, including today’s Pakistan, Bangladesh, and even the Himalayan states of Bhutan and Nepal.

Two years later, a nationalist organization known as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was founded to spread these ideas. It was led by M.S. Golwalkar from 1940 to 1973. 

While the organization remained on the extremist fringes of Indian politics, and was in fact temporarily banned in 1948 after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, its doctrines would eventually come to the fore with the formation of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1980, under its first leader and future prime minister (in 1996 and from 1998 to 2004), A.B. Vajpayee.

Vajpayee attacked Congress Party secularism as “appeasement” of those Muslims who remained within India, at the expense of the majority Hindus. This hindered the Indian nation from discovering its true Hindu identity and freeing itself from the shackles of imperialism, he asserted. 

The BJP would employ the discourse of majoritarian “Hindu democracy” in its construction of Indian identity, with less regard for minorities. Its program even included the full incorporation of Jammu and Kashmir into the Indian Union (it has special status in the country’s constitution). 

The BJP won India’s general election last year, making Narendra Modi prime minister. (He wrote a biography of Golwalkar in 2008.)

It is too soon to tell how this will affect relations with Pakistan, and with India’s own very large Muslim community.