Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, June 26, 2017

Pakistan Is a Hard Country for Religious Minorities

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

It’s hard being anything but a particular kind of Sunni Muslim in Pakistan these days.
Christians, Hindus, Shia Muslims, and members of the Ahmadiyya sect -- considered heretical by many other Muslims-- are wise to remain circumspect. 

Even adherents of Sufi orders, most of them Sunnis, are considered idolaters by Salafist fundamentalists. All these groups are the victims of periodic outbursts of violence and even murder.

The country, which since 1971 includes only what used to be West Pakistan, is overwhelmingly Muslim – only about five per cent of its 190 million people are Christians or Hindus.

Shia Muslims, often also considered heretics by extreme Sunni groups, comprise upwards of 20 per cent of the country’s Muslim population. The Ahmadiyya are at most some two per cent.

When Pakistan was created during the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, relations between the two major branches of Islam were fairly amicable, and many of the country’s initial leaders were Shia. 

The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was an Ismaili who converted to Twelver Shiism.

But this began to change in the late 1970s, especially after the April 1979 execution of deposed former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a Shia, by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, a devout Sunni.

Zia’s Sunni Islamization campaign emboldened sectarian radicals, but his laws and regulations were resisted by Shia who saw it as “Sunnification” of the political system. 

Also, a new generation of Shia activists found inspiration in the assertive Shiism of Ayatollah Khomeini’s post-1979 Iran, Pakistan’s western neighbour. In July 1980, 25,000 Shia protested in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. 

Sectarian radical Sunnis began to preach against the Shia, and terrorist groups sprang up. Sectarian riots broke out in 1983 in Karachi, Pakistan’s major city, and spread to other centres, including Lahore.

Since 2008, Pakistan’s Shia Muslim community has been the target of an unprecedented escalation in violence as Sunni militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, Sipah-e-Sahaba, and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan have killed thousands of Shia across the country – more than 2,000 just since 2015. 

Yet many of the leaders of these networks, though charged with mass murder, continue to avoid prosecution or otherwise evade accountability. After all, many were initially aided, even created, by the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s national security directorate.

Sufis overlap the sectarian divide, though most are Sunnis. They practice a more mystical form of Islam and venerate holy men who, they believe, serve as conduits to God, and pray at the shrines where these devout men are buried. 

For extremists, this amounts to idolatry and “grave-worship.” Since March 2005, 209 people have been killed and 560 injured in 29 different terrorist attacks targeting shrines and tombs devoted to Sufi “saints.” 

On Feb. 17, an Islamic State supporter struck a crowd of Sufi dancers celebrating in the Pakistani shrine of Sehwan Sharif. The attack killed almost 90 worshippers.

The militants have undermined what Shahab Ahmed, in his book What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic, calls the “philosophical-Sufi amalgam,” the loss of which has harmed Pakistan.

Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims through a constitutional amendment passed in 1974, the same year that hundreds were slaughtered in riots. A few years later, a new law was brought in barring Ahmadis from calling their places of worship mosques or from propagating their faith.

Many more have perished since then, including 94 people killed by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan in attacks in Lahore in 2010. In April, an Ahmadi professor was found stabbed to death in her house in Lahore, one of three killed that month. 

Pakistani support and encouragement of Ahmadi persecution is visible in the passport application form that every Pakistani citizen needs to fill in. The application requires all Muslim citizens to sign a declaration affirming that they consider Ahmadis as infidels.

In December of last year, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif renamed the National Centre for Physics at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad for physicist Abdus Salam, the country’s first Nobel laureate. He had been ignored for more than 30 years because he had belonged to the Ahmadi sect. 

But many groups have opposed the decision and demanded the prime minister retract it. Sharif was also denounced two months earlier for his warm remarks to Pakistani Hindus during the festival of Diwali.

A "Sixth Republic" in France?

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charottetown, PEI] Guardian
The triumph of many previously untested candidates who were personally selected by Emmanuel Macron, the newly elected president of France, in the two-round parliamentary election of June 11 and 18, demonstrates clearly that the French political order has collapsed.

The candidates of his newly formed party, La République en Marche (The Republic on the Move) finished first in 308 of 577 districts. With his allies the Mouvement Démocrate, he will control 350 seats.

The Republicans, one of the two parties that controlled France until 2017, came in second, winning 113 seats, while the Socialists, once a bedrock of French political life, were crushed, with just 29 seats.

Far leftists and Communists took 27 seats, and Marine Le Pen’s National Front a mere nine.
As in 1958, when the decaying Fourth Republic, beset by defeats in foreign colonial wars, particularly in Algeria, gave way to Charles de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic, Macron’s improbable victory in May has in effect created a “sixth” republic. 

Of course de Gaulle was a military hero who had led the Free French forces against Nazi Germany, so Macron’s victory was far more amazing. He is after all, a 39 year old technocrat who was virtually unknown a year ago.

As president, the haughty de Gaulle claimed to be above party politics and to some extent patterned himself after Napoleon, but in order to get legislation passed in the National Assembly, various so-called Gaullist parties were created to do his bidding.

They, along with the old Socialists, have virtually disintegrated, and Macron, who claims he transcends traditional political boundaries and represents no particular ideology, now has his own “Macroniste” caucus in parliament.

Most have little political experience or allegiance to the traditional parties. More than half have never held political office and their average age is under 50.  

They will serve, as de Gaulle’s groups did, as a “king’s” party, beholden to the president – the same way the United Russia Party champions Vladimir Putin’s policies in the Russian Duma.

As a globalist, Macron is of course the darling of the European Union bureaucrats in Brussels and the so-called “Davos” neoliberals who run transnational corporations and loath nationalism. France is now in their hands.

Their goal was to create a large, single, center-left, technocratic political party that would crush the old political parties. It was created little more than a year ago and its name tells the tale.

As soon as Macron defeated Marine Le Pen of the far right National Front in the presidential contest, the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, spoke about “hope for Europe.” 

A week later, Macron went to Berlin, met German Chancellor Angela Merkel and told her that he sought a rapid “strengthening of the Union.”

Now that Macron has formed a “Republican Front,” it has left little space on the political spectrum beyond the far left and the NF. 

Such an unstable situation doesn’t bode well for French democracy. Some caveats regarding this outcome:

The overall turnout of 49 per cent in the first round was extraordinarily low. Of those who voted, the results saw Macron’s party win 28.2 per cent of the vote, the centre right Republicans 15.7 per cent, while the National Front scored 13.2 per cent, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far left 11 per cent, and the Socialists 7.4 per cent.

Since only the top two candidates in each district entered the second round, which had an even lower turnout, at under 43 per cent, Macron, with his allies, will control more than half of the seats though he commands the support of little more than a quarter of the electorate.

Should Macron lose popularity and eventually suffer defeat in a future presidential race, what will become of his deputies? 

As an advocate of liberal austerity policies and rule by EU banker-bureaucrats, his policies are bound to cause major resentment all too soon.

And does this make Marine Le Pen a de facto leader of the opposition and the only realistic alternative? Or will some other anti-establishment figure arise? Stormy waters may lie ahead.

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.

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.

Friday, June 09, 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 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.