Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, February 26, 2018

How Political Leaders Make Use of Nationalism

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
Though there are many contending theories about nationalism, they all fall into two very broad theoretical schools of thought.

Those that come under the rubric of perennialism or priemordialisms, assert that ethnicity is the bedrock of nationalism. These scholars contend that nations are ancient, natural phenomena, and since these go far back into history, nationalism is something innate to human collectivities.

The other camp, comprising academics variously known as constructivists, instrumentalists or modernists, believe nationalism is socially constructed, usually by self-serving elites, who rally the masses around nationalism for their own political purposes. 

These “imagined communities” only arose in the recent historical past, argue the modernists, as rulers built modern states. The growth of literacy and various technology- enhanced communications enabled them to weld the populations under their control into patriotic citizens.

Of course these categories are not watertight, and in reality every form of nationalism combines elements of both.

Take the case of Serbia’s long-time leader Slobodan Milosevic. In the 1980s, as Yugoslavia began to disintegrate, he, like many Communist apparatchiks, reinvented himself as a nationalist.

He rallied the Serbian Orthodox population to confront those that, in his mind, threatened it, particularly the Roman Catholic Croatians and the Muslim Bosniaks and Kosovar Albanians.

Yugoslavia, an artificial construct, was, as a saying went, “one country with two alphabets, three religions, four languages, five nationalities, and six republics.”  

It soon descended into a series of civil wars. Conflict started in the former republic of Slovenia in 1991, spreading to Croatia later that year and then Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992; in that deeply divided republic, Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs all battled for control. 

By 1998 the province of Kosovo, too, decided to throw off Serbian rule. Although by then Orthodox Christian ethnic Serbs were a minority in the province, with Muslim ethnic Albanians comprising the vast majority of the population, most Serbs considered Kosovo the birthplace of their nation and were determined to keep it.

In order to hold on to Kosovo, Milosevic would now stir up nationalist passions by invoking the memory of one of the Serbian people’s great tragedies: the Battle of the Field of Blackbirds, which had taken place 600 years earlier, in 1389.

Some 12,000 to 30,000 troops of the Serbian Principality under Prince Lazar Hrebeljanovic faced an estimated 27,000 to 40,000 troops of the invading Ottoman Turkish army under the personal command of Murad I, the reigning sultan.

It resulted in the defeat of the Serbian army; the Ottomans continued their conquest of the entire Balkan region, while it cost the Serbs their political freedom. 

Serbs would now chafe under Ottoman rule and would not re-emerge as a sovereign nation until the mid-19th century. 

Memories of the heroic last stand by Prince Lazar and his knights sustained the Serbian popular imagination during those five centuries.

In 1988, a coffin purporting to contain Lazar’s mummified remains was taken on a triumphal tour around Serbia by Milosevic and displayed in front of large gatherings of wailing mourners.

A year later, Milosevic marked the anniversary of the battle at Gazimestan, the monument located near the battle site. This “sacred ground” served Milosevic with a “usable past.”

Galvanized by his rhetoric, some in the crowd, estimated at between half a million and two million people, called Milosevic “Little Lazar,” while others chanted “Europe, don’t you remember that we defended you!” 

This referred to a key element of the Kosovo myth, that Serbia sacrificed itself in defending Christian Europe against the encroaching Muslim Turks.

But in 1999, following the NATO-backed Kosovo Liberation Army’s campaign against the Serbs, Milosevic lost the province, which is now an independent state, though Serbia refuses to acknowledge its sovereign status. 

Milosevic was himself indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia for his role in ethnically cleansing Kosovo during the 1999 war; he died in 2006 while the trial was in progress.

So was Milosevic a primordialist or an instrumentalist? Clearly a combination of both.

Meanwhile, Kosovo remains a troubled land. In the northern part of the country, where ethnic Serbs predominate, they want to be a part of Serbia.

“First we were forced to live under the Turks,” remarked a Serbian Orthodox monk. “Now it is under the Albanians and the Americans.”

He was hopeful that the Serbs would restore their medieval dominion over Kosovo. The Balkans remain a ground of contention where the past is never dead.

Peace and Conflict Around the World

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian
The Global Peace Index (GPI) is an annual report produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace, a think tank headquartered in Sydney, Australia. The Index was first launched in 2007, and claims to be the first study to rank countries around the world according to their levels of peacefulness.

The GPI gauges global peace using three broad themes: the level of societal safety and security, the extent of ongoing domestic and international conflict, and the degree of militarization. 

It takes into account both internal factors such as levels of violence and crime within the country and external ones such as military expenditures and wars. In 2017, 23 indicators were used to establish each country’s peacefulness score.

The GPI has, however, been criticised for not including indicators specifically relating to violence against women and children. 

The 2017 Index found that while the world became more peaceful in the last year, over the last decade it has become significantly less peaceful. 

Due to gains in six of the nine geographical regions represented, more countries improved their levels of peacefulness than those where they deteriorated: 93 states compared to 68.

Iceland remained the most peaceful country in the world, a spot it has occupied since 2008. The other four most peaceful countries were New Zealand, Portugal, Austria, and Denmark, followed by the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Canada, Switzerland, and Ireland and Japan tied for tenth.

Eight of these nations are fairly homogenous in terms of ethnicity and religion.

The scores for North America deteriorated as a result of issues in the United States, while there was a mild improvement in Canada. 

The already very low American number fell further due to several indicators: the homicide rate, level of perceived criminality in society, and the intensity of organised internal conflict. 

The last measure worsened because of the increased levels of political polarisation within the American political system. 

Europe remained the most peaceful region in the world. However, the report took note of the impact of terrorist attacks, and deteriorating relations between Russia and its neighbours.

The number of countries seeing a record number of deaths from terrorism rose to 23. Among those were Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, and France. Researchers found that they now have a higher rate of terrorism than they did 10 years ago.

There was also an increase in levels of corruption within the political elites, rising inequality in wealth, and diminishing acceptance of immigration, something which populist parties have successfully capitalised on. 

At the other end, Syria was the least peaceful country in the world for the fifth year running. Before the outbreak of civil war there, it was the 65th least peaceful. Its fall has been the starkest of the past decade.

The other four most violent countries were Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, and Yemen followed by Somalia, Libya, Sudan, Central African Republic and Ukraine. 

Somalia and Libya have descended into anarchy and have become failed states, while Ukraine faces a low-level conflict involving Russia. 

The other six were engulfed in protracted and deadly civil wars and terrorist attacks, fueled by severe ethnic and religious animosities which showed little sign of abating.

The Middle East and North Africa were the least peaceful regions on the globe, and there appears to be growing inequality  between the most and least peaceful countries.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

PM's India Visit Goes Awry

By Henry Srebrnik, [Saint John, NB] Telegraph-Journal
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's eight-day trip to India has gone from bad to worse.

It got off to a bad start as soon as his family’s plane landed in Delhi. The Trudeau entourage was met, not by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but by a low-level politician.  Modi was also absent when Trudeau visited the Indian PM’s home state of Gujarat.

It then emerged that Jaspal Atwal, a man who had been a member of a Sikh terrorist group and convicted of attempting to murder an Indian cabinet minister, Malkiat Singh Sidhu, on Vancouver Island back in 1986, had been invited to a dinner reception at Canada’s High Commission. 

Randeep Sarai, a Liberal MP from the Vancouver-area riding of Surrey Centre, had submitted Atwal’s name. 

Soon enough, photos surfaced of Sophie Trudeau standing next to Atwal at an earlier event in Mumbai. These are not the type of photo-ops with which Trudeau wants to woo Canada’s large South Asian community in the 2019 election.

Sikh separatists remain determined to create an independent state of Khalistan in the Indian state of Punjab and Indian officials suspect that several members of Trudeau’s government are allied with the Sikh independence movement.

Years of violence in the Punjab had culminated in an attack in June 1984 by the Indian army on militants occupying the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar. Indira Gandhi, India’s prime minister, who had ordered the assault, was assassinated that October by her two Sikh bodyguards. 

Several days of mass violence followed, and at least 3,000 people were killed. Does Trudeau even know this history?

Ujjal Dosanjh, a former Liberal health minister, also accused the party of being too close to Sikh separatists. Atwal had also been charged, but not convicted, in connection with a violent 1985 attack on Dosanjh in Vancouver.

Trudeau and his family have been wearing traditional Indian outfits, including kurtas and saris, at various events.  Remarked one Indian politician, “We Indians don’t dress like that every day, sir, not even in Bollywood.” Another called it “too Indian even for an Indian.”

Apart from making the Trudeaus look silly – would Justin Trudeau wear a Chasidic outfit to Israel, or Sophie Trudeau a kimono in Japan?-- I would have thought our ever politically correct PM would know that, for many on the left, this amounts to “cultural appropriation.” It was jumping-the-shark territory.

Much of the international media began mocking Trudeau, one outlet calling the visit a “slow-motion train wreck.” Canadians may not realize what a laughingstock he is making of Canada.

Apart from all these snafus, Modi in any case makes a bad partner for Trudeau’s brand of liberal multiculturalist politics. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) espouses Hindutva, a term popularised by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, in 1923.

A religious form of Indian nationalism tinged with anti-Muslim rhetoric, it subscribes to the idea that Hinduism and Hindu traditions constitute the cultural and political identity of India.

So Modi’s party opposes the secularism of the Congress Party, for long the country’s rulers – and the party whose ideology is far more to Trudeau’s liking. 

One final bit of irony: Donald Trump Jr., the son of the U.S. president, has been visiting India at the same time as Trudeau, and, since Modi admires Donald Trump, the son has been getting a much warmer reception.

As Indian journalist Barkha Dutt wrote in a Feb. 23 article in the Washington Post, “Trudeau’s eight-day India expedition has been an absolute fiasco.”

Friday, February 23, 2018

Why is France Trying to Honour Fascists?

By Henry Srebrnik, [Calgary] Jewish Free Press 

When I was a graduate student, one of the books I read, called, in English, The Three Faces of Fascism, had a profound influence on me.

Published by the German historian Ernest Nolte in 1963, it was a study of three movements, Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist (Nazi) Party, Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist one, and Charles Maurras’ Action Français.

I was reminded of Nolte’s book when reading reports about attempts by some in France to seemingly wish to rehabilitate Maurass’ reputation, as well as that of other interwar fascists and anti-Semites.

From Charles Maurras through the collaborationist wartime Vichy and the Algérie Française eras, reactionary thought has a long history in 20th-century France. It was one of the mainstays of a current which vigorously opposed the revolutionary and Republican traditions. 

Since the disaster of the Second World War, in which the country collapsed under the Nazi offensive, though, this reactionary strand has been on the defensive, confined to the fringes of the extreme Right.

But is France forgetting this sordid past?

Charles Maurras was the organizer and principal philosopher of Action Français, a political movement that was anti-Semitic, monarchist, and counter-revolutionary.

Vilifying the French Third Republic as run by Jews, he espoused a “state anti-Semitism.” For Maurras, a Jew could not have French nationality, and Jews could not become civil servants, serve in the military, or become justices. He even voiced death threats in 1936 against French Premier Leon Blum, who was Jewish. 

In 1940, he lauded the creation of the wartime Nazi-allied Vichy government as a “divine surprise.” After the war, Maurras was sentenced to life imprisonment and died in 1952.

Despite this legacy, the French government at first included his name in the 2018 edition of the National Commemorations, an annual project to mark the anniversaries of notable figures and events; Maurras was born in 1868. In the text, he was described as an “emblematic and controversial figure.”

There was swift, sharp fallout. Frédéric Potier, head of the French government’s inter-ministerial delegation against racism and anti-Semitism, berated the Ministry of Culture for including Maurras in the commemoration project.

“To commemorate is to pay homage,” he wrote. “Maurras, an anti-Semitic author of the extreme right, has no place in the national commemorations of 2018.” 

Maurras was until the end of the Second World War “the most prominent anti-Semite in France” and an enemy of liberal democracy,” remarked Zeev Sternhell, an emeritus professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who is an expert on the history of French fascism.

Maurras was the intellectual leader of French “hard nationalism” until the end of the Vichy government, added Sternhell. “It was no accident that he had been sentenced to life in prison.”

Françoise Nyssen, France’s Minister of Culture, finally announced on Jan. 28 that the entire press run of the 2018 commemorative books would be recalled and reprinted without mention of Maurras. 

Another recent scandal concerned the author Louis-Ferdinand Céline. On Dec. 12, Antoine Gallimard, head of the French publishing house founded in 1919, received a letter from Potier, asking the company to justify its decision to publish an edition of three ferociously anti-Semitic pamphlets by him.

Bagatelles Pour un Massacre, L’école des Cadavers, and Les Beaux Draps, were written and released between 1937 and 1941; they called for the murder of the country’s Jews, even before France fell to the Nazis. They have never since been reissued in France.

After the 1940 defeat, Céline became so extreme that he attacked Vichy for its lack of rigor in its pursuit of the Jews. He advocated killing every man, woman and child with machine guns. Vichy did eventually deport more than 75,000 Jews to the Auschwitz death camp.

He fled France for Germany after the Allied liberation and joined the remnants of the collaborationist government in its last redoubt, Sigmaringen Castle in Germany. He returned to France in 1951 when he was amnestied and died ten years later.

Criticism of the decision was swift and loud. When far-right writers, politicians, and comedians are convicted in French courts for incitement to hatred and anti-Semitism, they asked, why should Gallimard be permitted to reissue anti-Semitic diatribes?

On Jan. 11, bowing to public pressure, the publisher reversed its position and suspended publication of the pamphlets.

The country is struggling to maintain and protect its large Jewish population, the third largest in the world, which has been dwindling precipitously thanks to the wave of anti-Semitism that has gripped the country over the past decade.

This is certainly no way to reassure them.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Will 2020 be a Re-alignment Presidential Election?

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
The 2020 American presidential contest may prove to be a re-alignment election. Should Donald Trump decide to run for a second term – something not entirely certain – the Republican establishment might deny him the nomination. They might once again turn to Mitt Romney or Jeb Bush.

If that happens, Trump might do what Theodore Roosevelt did in1912: run as a third-party candidate against his own party.

This would guarantee a Democratic victory, though Trump might run second and the regular Republican third.

It might prove the end of the Republican Party as presently constituted. A new “Trump”-style party, very nationalist-populist, would emerge, while many anti-Trump Republicans would drift over to the Democrats.

The same thing happened in reverse in the 1960s -70s, when southern racists and segregationists left the Democratic Party for the Republicans.

The 1860 election, won by Abraham Lincoln in a four-way race, resulted in the demise of the Whigs. It also precipitated the American Civil War.

As for the Democrats, given their electoral base, they will try to nominate a woman of colour, preferably someone relatively young. 

They have some excellent choices at the moment. Their prime pick might be the current junior U.S. senator from California, Kamala Harris. 

Elected in 2016, she is the first woman of Jamaican and South Asian descent in that body. 

Her mother, a Tamil woman from India, was a prominent breast cancer researcher, who emigrated from Chennai, in 1960. Her father, a Stanford University economics professor, emigrated from Jamaica in 1961.

The family lived in Berkeley, where both of Harris' parents attended graduate school at the University of California, and they took Harris to many civil rights protests. Later she lived in a predominantly African-American neighbourhood in Oakland.

Harris is a graduate of Howard University, America’s oldest historically Black university. She then earned her law degree from the University of California’s Hastings College of Law.

She was also the first African-American woman to serve as California’s Attorney General. In that position, she defended the rights of consumers, winning major settlements holding big corporations accountable and forging innovative agreements with the technology industry to protect the privacy of Californians and fight online crime.

She prosecuted transnational gangs that exploited women and children, and trafficked in guns and drugs. She led comprehensive studies and investigations into the impacts of transnational criminal organizations and human trafficking in California.

In the U.S. Senate, she currently serves on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Select Committee On Intelligence, Environment and Public Works Committee, and the Committee On Budget.

Harris has come out in support of single-payer health care and free college tuition for families earning less than $140,000 a year. She has cosponsored bills to raise the federal minimum wage, and to stop new oil and gas leases as well as the renewal of old ones in the Arctic Ocean.

Another possible nominee might be Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. Elected in 2012, she represents Hawaii’s Second Congressional District in the House of Representatives and is the first Samoan American and first Hindu member of Congress.

A Pacific Islander, Gabbard was born in Leloaloa, American Samoa, the fourth of five children born to a Hindu mother and a Catholic father. At the age of two, the family moved to Hawaii.

As a member of the Hawaii Army National Guard, she volunteered on two tours of duty to the Middle East. She served in a combat zone in Iraq from 2004 to 2005 and was deployed to Kuwait from 2008 to 2009.

She has denounced regime change wars like those in Iraq, Libya and Syria, and has opposed the U.S.-led removal of Bashar al-Assad from power, arguing thatSyria’s civil war is a source of the Syrian refugee crisis.

During the 2016 Democratic Party primary race she emerged as a strong backer of Bernie Sanders and at the Convention in Philadelphia she gave the nominating speech putting his name forward. This will endear her to the party’s left-wing.

Rising Democratic stars, Harris and Gabbard embody the future the party would like to imagine for itself.

Even Ireland Becoming Less Religious

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

There were few countries as Catholic as Ireland, right into the late 20th century.    

The island was conquered by England in the 12th century and ruled from London for the next 800 years. 

As well, following the Reformation, the native Catholic peasantry was dominated by Anglo-Irish landlords. 

Local political power also rested entirely in the hands of the Protestant Ascendancy, while the Catholic majority suffered severe economic privations. 

Even after the partition in 1922, the Ulster Scots-Irish Protestants continued to rule Northern Ireland, and still do.

In reaction, the Irish became ever more devout and steadfast in their Roman Catholic faith. The independent Irish state was virtually controlled by its Catholic hierarchy for many decades.

Eamon de Valera, whose political career spanned over half a century, from 1917 to 1973, ruled the country for long periods of time. 

His Fianna Fail Party believed that the Catholic Church and the family were central to Irish identity. He added clauses to the 1937 Irish constitution that recognized the “special position” of the Catholic Church. It also prohibited divorce.

For decades, legislation opposed by the church was doomed to fail. An ardent Catholic, Eamon de Valera enjoyed a close relationship with the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, who helped steer Ireland’s religious life for three decades.

But things seem to be changing. Article 40.3.3, known as the Eighth Amendment, was voted into the Irish constitution by referendum in 1983. 

The amendment states that Ireland “acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”

But this May Irish voters will vote on whether to remove or alter that amendment in a new referendum that could give Ireland’s parliament the freedom to legislate on the issue and write more flexible abortion laws. 

The Irish Times recently published an opinion poll that suggested 56 per cent favor repealing the ban and permitting abortion for up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy.

Ireland has become transformed from a country where 67 percent of voters had approved the abortion ban to one where, in 2015, 62 per cent voted to legalize same-sex marriage.

It had already decriminalized homosexuality in 1992, removed restrictions on the sale of contraceptives in 1993, and legalized divorce in 1996.

Ireland now has its first openly gay and half-Indian prime minister, Leo Varadkar, a physician who is the youngest child of a Hindu Indian doctor and a Catholic Irish nurse. He heads the Fine Gael centre-right party.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, in an interview with Varadkar last September, asked him if the pedophile scandal in the Catholic Church allowed a more liberal attitude to develop about gay marriage.

“I think the demise of the church and the various scandals that they became involved in, particularly around child abuse, did change mind-sets in Ireland,” he responded.

Diarmuid Martin, the current Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland, agrees that the Church enjoys less influence now.

He praised the Eighth Amendment and thought that the coming abortion debate might provide an opportunity for the Church to reconnect with people, even if the amendment were repealed.

“The one way the Church could lose on the abortion debate is to compromise its position,” he stated.

Friday, February 16, 2018

South Africa After Zuma

By Henry Srebrnik, [Saint John, NB] Telegraph-Journal

On Feb. 11, Cyril Ramaphosa, deputy president of South Africa and head of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), took advantage of the 28th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison by the country’s apartheid government.

He called on the scandal-ridden president, Jacob Zuma, in office since 2009, to step down as head of state. Four days later, Zuma did so.

His own party had turned against him, asking him to step down a full year and a half before the end of his second term. Ramaphosa is now acting president, and likely to be elected to that office in the next South African election, which takes place next year.

Zuma had what we might call “street cred”: the son of a widowed maid and a former member of the ANC’s military wing in the days of apartheid, he had joined the party in 1958 and was later imprisoned for a decade on Robben Island along with Mandela.

Perhaps that’s why the ANC stood behind him until the end of December, when Ramaphosa was chosen as party leader in his place. Once that had happened, his days as president were numbered.
He leaves office with South Africa’s economy in dire straits. Unemployment in the country topped 25 per cent, and the nation has remained one of the world’s most unequal societies.

Corruption under Zuma had become so blatant that it was impossible to ignore. He has been linked to various scandals, including his construction of a lavish mansion in his rural home town. 

He is already facing further charges related to a 1999 arms deal and  has been accused of 783 counts of corruption.

Zuma allowed state enterprises to be run by family, friends and business associates, including the Guptas, an Indian family with widespread business interests. They have been implicated in the alleged looting of state resources.

It was reported that the family wielded such influence over Zuma that they were able to decide who got appointed to the cabinet. Zuma’s downfall has been followed by police raids on their family residence. 

Also, the police massacre of 34 miners involved in a wildcat strike in Marikana in 2012, the worst act of official violence since the end of apartheid, intensified the widespread belief that the ANC no longer cared about the people it claimed to be representing.

The ANC felt that it might lose so much support in next year’s presidential election among the country’s Black majority that the unthinkable might happen: the loss of power it has held since the dismantling of apartheid in 1994.

The call for Zuma to step down reached a crescendo when the Nelson Mandela Foundation released a statement calling for him to go immediately. 

Ramaphosa, a onetime labor leader and protégé of Mandela’s, is himself a former anti-apartheid leader, who went on to made a fortune in business.

Clearly, South Africa’s increasingly fragile economy was a major factor in ousting Zuma.
In January, Ramphosa had led a South African delegation to the World Economic Forum in Davos. Those attending were told that with him now in control of the party apparatus, South Africa would provide a renewed sense of political stability and economic prospects.

Implicit in his pitch was the importance of deposing Zuma. “For the first time in many years, I see a great deal of optimism” among investors and business leaders in Davos, remarked Jeff Radebe, a senior government minister and ANC veteran. 

This “positive sentiment,” he claimed, could be attributed to “the political situation now unfolding in South Africa.”

Monday, February 12, 2018

Iran is a Religiously Nationalistic Country

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

Many of the most potent and emotional forms of nationalism are sustained by religion. Faith reinforces the feeling that the country and its people have a special destiny, one that encompasses its past, present, and future.

In his book Chosen Peoples: Sacred Sources of National Identity, the late Anthony D. Smith, professor of nationalism and ethnicity at the London School of Economics, argued that sacred belief remains central to national identity. 

Their homelands are more than just geographic territories, they are part of their very being.

Think of the connection to nationhood of Roman Catholicism in Poland, Buddhism in Burma, Judaism in Israel, Sunni Islam in Turkey, Orthodox Christianity in Russia, and various evangelical Protestant denominations in the United States – even though America is a more diverse nation.

One of the most powerful creeds, Shi’a Islam, has buttressed the strong national identity of the Persians of Iran for centuries and continues to do so. It is fundamental to the country’s sense of itself. Past history is never forgotten, slights from foes rarely forgiven.

Beginning in the 16th century, the new Safavid dynasty converted most Persians to Shi’a Islam, establishing it as the official religion of their empire. 

In the 20th century, the emperors of Iran concocted a more “secular” form of Iranian nationalism, one centred around the Persian people and their ancient empires dating back millennia, rather than one emphasizing Islam. It didn’t work. 

The last Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, saw his regime fall apart like a house of cards, overtaken by the fervour that an aging Shi’a cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was able to inculcate, long-distance, in 1978-79. 

This virtually bloodless regime change only proved possible thanks to the underlying Shi’a cultural hegemony that had remained suppressed, but could never be extinguished through either brute force or political “modernization.”

As a minority used to centuries of persecution, many Shias had adopted the tactic of taqiyya, religious dissimulation, to conceal their true allegiance.

Shi’a Islam has preserved Iranian culture and nationalism and the two are inseparable. The Islamic Republic is devoted to both Shiite religious figures and war martyrs. 

This has provided the country with a powerful defence against the largely Sunni Turkish and Arab Middle East and provided it with a world-historical sense of religious destiny.

The origins of Shi‘ism lie in the dispute that followed the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. While the people who came to be known as Sunnis accepted the succession of three caliphs or deputies who were members of the Prophet’s tribe, the Quraish, those who became Shia or partisans of Ali, the Prophet’s first cousin, believe that Ali was his rightful successor to the caliphate. 

Ali’s younger son Hussein, who tried to claim the succession in 680, became the archetypal martyr after the battle of Karbala, when he and his companions were massacred by troops of the Ummayad Sunni caliph Mu‘awiya.

The tragedy of Karbala, celebrated in the annual ta‘ziya passion plays in the month of Ashura, dwells on the nobility of Hussein’s conduct, and the cruelty of his enemies, hence keeping his memory alive. 

In his book Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution, anthropologist Michael M. J. Fischer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has described “the emotionally potent theme of corrupt and oppressive tyranny” that, in Shi’a Islam, must eventually be overcome. 

As Matthew Pierce, an assistant Professor of Religion at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, argues in Twelve Infallible Men, the majority Sunni theological outlook springs historically from the victories of the early caliphs on the field of battle.

Yet, even though by the 10th century, the Muslim community had expanded exponentially, Shi’a Muslims felt that it had gone astray because Muslims had not followed the right leaders – their imams. 

So they challenged the dominant narrative of Islamic success with stories of loss and stressed the themes of oppression, martyrdom, and the hope of a better world with the eventual arrival the Twelfth Imam, the Mahdi.

Recently, large anti-government protests spread throughout the country. Many wondered if this was the beginning of the end of Iran’s Islamic Republic. 

It’s unlikely. Shi’a Islam has provided Iran with a bulwark against foes foreign and domestic.

China's Economic Expansion Reaches Kazakhstan

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Chinese President Xi Jinping calls it the project of the century: the $1 trillion infrastructure program known as “One Belt, One Road,” which aims to revive the ancient Silk Road and build up other trading routes between Asia and Europe to carry Chinese products to foreign markets.

Hence China’s economic entry into the landlocked central Asian nation of Kazakhstan.

Last year the China Ocean Shipping Company and the Jiangsu Lianyungang Port Company, together became the 49 percent owners of a piece of land in that country consisting of railway tracks and lined with warehouses. 

Close to the border with China, it is near the Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility, meaning that nowhere on the landmass of Europe and Asia is more distant from the sea.

Yet China is taking a gamble that this will pay off by reshuffling global transport routes, by creating a transport hub known as the Khorgos Gateway, a “dry port,” which will handle cargo for trains rather than ships.

It takes 45 to 50 days to transport a shipping container with goods from Chinese factories to Europe by sea, but less than half that time by train through Central Asia. It may be more expensive but a lot faster.

The Chinese have built a new town, Nurkent, with apartments, schools, and shops to serve the railway workers, crane operators, and customs officials who will work at the dry port. Free housing is provided and there are plans to eventually house 200,000 people.

“Kazakhstan, through One Belt, One Road, is playing a key role in products coming from Western China, all the way to the Riga port and other places,” according to David Merkel of the U.S.-based think tank Atlantic Council. “They've been working on it for a while and they're starting to see real results from it being opened.”

There are currently more than 300 Kazakhstan transport companies providing freight services from China to Kazakhstan and to third countries. 

Kazakhstan’s new Caspian Sea ferry port, known as Kuryk, was also launched last year, funded in part by Chinese capital, and further strengthens the Kazakh section of the China-Europe transport corridor.

Kazakhstan was once one of the five central Asian republics of the Soviet Union. All gained their independence when the Communist giant collapsed.

As a counterweight, it has expanded ties with China. In fact it was Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s president, who initiated the idea of reviving old the Silk Road trade route through his country. Xi then visited Astana, the Kazakh capital, in 2013, and welcomed the idea.

Completion of an oil pipeline between Kazakhstan and China nine years ago broke an export pipeline monopoly previously held by Transneft, Russia’s state-owned pipeline company.

China now accounts for 12 percent of total Kazakhstan exports and 17 per cent of imports. Their enterprises and financial institutions signed deals worth more than $8 billion during Xi’s visit to Kazakhstan last June. 

Both countries also agreed to make progress in cooperation in energy, mining, chemical industry, mechanical manufacturing, agriculture and infrastructure.

The Kazakh government announced on July 11 an agreement to cooperate on trade in grain and oilseeds with the Aiju Grain and Oil Industry Group based in Xi’an, in Shaanxi province of central China.

 Part of the agreement allows for Kazakhstan to supply 100,000 tons of oilseeds to China and create a storage facility for the crops along the national border.

Kazakhs are a Muslim people conquered by tsarist Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some nationalists now worry that their country, having gained independence from Moscow, risks becoming a satellite of Beijing.

“Nationalist sentiments and enthusiasm for Chinese investment are living an uneasy coexistence but the ice is getting thinner and thinner,” remarked Daniyar Kosnazarov, of Narxoz University in Almaty.

Friday, February 09, 2018

The Israeli Kibbutz, Yesterday and Today

By Henry Srebrnik, [Calgary] Jewish Free Press
I have spent extended periods of time on two Israeli kibbutzim, the Hebrew word for collective settlements. 
The first was Kibbutz Ma’agan, on the southern shore of Sea of Galilee, in 1967, right after the Six-Day War. The second time was a decade later, on Bror Chayil, a settlement near the town of Sderot, and not far from Gaza (then still under Israeli occupation).
Ma’agan was founded in 1949 by immigrants from Hungary and Romania, while Bror Chayil was formed a year earlier and was populated mainly by Brazilian Jews.
The kibbutz movement is one of the most fascinating phenomena of modern history and one of Zionism’s greatest stories. And for decades, the kibbutz took pride of place among Israel’s most innovative accomplishments. 
Several hundred communities attempted to live the ideas of equality, freedom, and social justice by giving up private property, individualism, and the “bourgeois” family unit to create a utopia attempting to live in total equality.
Many kibbutzim had collective child rearing practices. Infants were taken away from their parents at an early age to a communal nursery in which they spent their first few years.
The first kibbutzim were founded some 40 years before the establishment of the state of Israel. Degania, on the banks of the Jordan River in Galilee, was established in 1909. 
Their founders were young Jewish pioneers, mainly from Eastern Europe, who came to forge a new way of life.
It became the inspiration for similar socialist communities, which would succeed in developing thriving collectives; they played a dominant role in the building of the country. 
Today some 275 kibbutzim, with memberships ranging from 40 to more than 1,000, are scattered throughout Israel. The number of people living in kibbutzim totals approximately 130,000, about 2.5 per cent of the country's population. 
The kibbutzim were initially entirely agricultural, but a great wave of industrialization came in the 1960s, and today only a small minority of kibbutz members work in agriculture.
Though they still provide 40 per cent of the country’s agricultural output, many specialize in high-tech manufacturing. Their factories account for 11 per cent of the country’s industrial output.
The kibbutz movement went through a considerable period of turmoil in the 1980s and 1990s. Until 1977 Israel was governed by the Labour Party. In matters such as agricultural development, its policies were very favorable to the kibbutzim. 
The election of 1977 which brought the Likud to power changed everything. The government’s policies of economic deregulation led to a financial crisis that hit Israel in the early 1980s and proved detrimental. Many kibbutzim took part in financial speculation caused by inflation. 
The banks had lent billions to the kibbutzim for industrial expansion in non-indexed loans. Kibbutzim also utilized such loans for infrastructure such as enlarging members’ houses. 
Many of them continued to act the same as they did in the era of Labour rule, being confident that the government would provide them with a safety net if necessary, as it did in the past. This time, it didn’t happen.
Complex debt arrangements were accompanied by monitoring and supervising of the conduct of the kibbutzim by the banks, 
Most kibbutzim were eventually forced to implement reforms to become commercially viable and stem decline. Now, only 74 of Israel’s kibbutzim still operate on a completely collective model, in which all members are paid the same regardless of their allotted job. 
The rest have “privatized” and pay salaries to their members, allowing for differential incomes and home ownership. 
Also, by the 1970s and 1980s, parents demanded that their children sleep at home; the last kibbutz ended communal daycare in 1991.
Other measures have included charging for meals and services, and recruiting agricultural labourers. Since the 1990s foreign workers were brought in, many from Thailand and China. These changes, necessary for survival, have sometimes been painful.
Some kibbutzim also began opening up to non-members. Empty homes, of members who had departed, were rented out to people looking for a quiet, rural lifestyle. Entire kibbutz neighborhoods were filled with people who worked in outside jobs and brought with them many of the accouterments of outside life, starting with cars.
When I was in Israel a few months ago, I saw one of them, Sdot Yam, near Caesarea. As a colleague noted wryly, it looked more like a gated community in California!

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Oppressing Egypt's Copts

By Henry Srebrnik, [Saint John, NB] Telegraph-Journal

Six members of the United States Congress introduced a nonbinding resolution in the House of Representatives last Dec. 21 titled “Expressing Concern over Attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt.” 

The resolution says Christians in Egypt are second-class citizens who face discrimination in the public and private sectors, including by the government of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.

In addition, it asserts, they are being targeted by the Islamic State (IS), particularly in rural Upper Egypt. The resolution called on Cairo “to enact serious and legitimate reforms to ensure Coptic Christians are given the same rights and opportunities as all other Egyptian citizens.”

A memorandum that led to the Congressional document was drafted by a U.S.-based organization called Coptic Solidarity. 

Egyptians officials consider the move as American interference in Egyptian affairs. The Egyptian parliament’s foreign affairs committee also responded, stating that it was the Muslim Brotherhood that sought to provoke sectarian conflict in Egypt. 

Tarek Radwan, its head, stated on Jan. 22 that the committee’s answer would be presented to Congress, refuting the claims made in the Coptic Solidarity memorandum.

In a rebuke presumably aimed at that organization, Rashwan noted that it was necessary to identify the bodies representing Copts to the international community, and that “the U.S. must differentiate between those who actually represent Copts and those who claim to do so.”

The response went on to identify the Muslim Brotherhood as a primary cause of sectarian strife in Egypt in recent times.

It claimed that the events that brought current President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi to office were a response to religious rule that would have turned Egypt into a sectarian state.

After Mohamed Morsi was ousted as president on July 3, 2013, the Brotherhood targeted Coptic gatherings as punishment for participating in the June 30 Revolution, attacking Coptic places of worship and Christian properties, the response added.
The Egyptian army has since embarked upon rebuilding and renovating as many as 83 churches across Egypt.

On the legislative front, the document notes that Egypt’s 2014 Constitution was passed to prevent the foundation of religious parties and affirm the principle of “citizenship.”

“The law on the Higher Council of the Anti-Discrimination Commission will be discussed soon to ensure that no religious minorities in Egypt face any kind of persecution or discrimination,” the response says, asserting that many Coptic and Christian public figures “now occupy leading positions in state ministries, councils and bodies.”

It concluded by quoting Coptic Pope Tawadros II, who said: “It is better to have a homeland without churches than to have churches without a homeland.” 

Hafez Abu Seada, a member of the National Council for Human Rights in Egypt, agreed with the committee’s response regarding Sisi’s support of Copts. At the same time, he believes putting the blame only on the Brotherhood weakened the response, as terrorists ideologically linked to IS and al-Qaeda are involved.

The Copts represent an indigenous tradition. Their self-identity remains nationalistic, but it focuses on Egypt as a nation which transcends differences in religion. This allows Copts to take their place in society next to their fellow-Egyptians, who are Muslims.

So they have usually been careful not to challenge this particular narrative of national unity, which formally included Copts in the Egyptian nation, but which in practice imposed a sort of public invisibility on them

However, a growing number of activists are seeking a public identity for Copts, a form of the “politics of recognition” outside the cross-and-crescent national unity discourse. Much of this emanates from the Coptic diaspora now living in many western countries.

Monday, February 05, 2018

India Worries About China's Expansion in South Asia

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer 

India’s top foreign policy priority is its neighbourhood of South Asia and the Indian Ocean. This has led to worries, as Delhi watches China make inroads in its front yard.

On the one hand, an unprecedented growth in Sino-Indian bilateral trade has taken place, with China becoming India’s largest trade partner. But Chinese policies have also made India concerned it might lose its traditional regional dominance. 

New Chinese economic initiatives in South Asia, and an expansion of Chinese influence and presence in the Indian Ocean, have greatly increased in recent years.

China has embarked on history’s most expensive foreign infrastructure plan. It has invested billions of dollars to build port facilities and plan maritime trade routes as part of its “One Belt, One Road” initiative that will span at least 68 countries to help increase its global market reach.

Announced in 2013, the plan consists of ports, railways, roads, and airfields linking China to the wider world -- a “New Silk Road” that will greatly expand China’s economic and diplomatic influence.

It will connect 65 per cent of the world’s population and 30 per cent of global GDP.

Chinese President President Xi Jinping has allocated more than $1 trillion in infrastructure investments in order to project China’s “great power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics.”

As well, it has loaned so much money to its neighbours that critics liken the debt to a form of imperialism. 

Sri Lanka, off India’s southern coast, owes more than $8 billion to state-controlled Chinese firms. So it handed over the strategic port of Hambantota on its southeastern coast to China on a 99-year lease. It will now be operated by China Merchants Port Holdings.

 “The price being paid for reducing the China debt could prove more costly than the debt burden Sri Lanka seeks to reduce,” declared N. Sathiya Moorthy, a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation.

India has watched with suspicion as cranes operated by Chinese firms also began to dot the skyline in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. In reaction, it has partnered with Japan to develop a port on Sri Lanka’s eastern coastline, and has entered into talks to invest in an airport near Hambantota.

Pakistan, India’s main adversary, is home to one of China's central infrastructure schemes: a near $60 billion collection of land and sea projects known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. 

China has committed $1.15 billion to finance construction projects and development of the new Gwadar port complex in Pakistan. To be developed by the China Overseas Port Holding Company under a 43-year contract, it will provide China’s navy future access to the Indian Ocean.

Chinese money is building power plants in Pakistan. These, as well as upgrades to three major highways, are also seen as a potential threat to India.

China is courting Myanmar, which has been sharply criticised for the brutal treatment of its Rohingya minority. 

Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the architect of Myanmar’s military campaign to eject the Rohingya, visited Xi in November. Xi described Chinese-Myanmar military relations as the “best” ever.

Myanmar, too, is a state with a long coastline that offers a strategic outlet to the Indian Ocean. A consortium led by China’s Citic Group Corporation is scheduled to start building a $7.3 billion deep-sea port next year at Kyauk Pyu, a port town on the Indian Ocean. Pipelines from the port will carry gas and oil to southern China.

Bangladesh, India’s eastern neighbour, in December 2016 signed agreements worth $510 million with China Harbour Engineering Company and China State Construction Engineering Corporation to further develop the Payra deep-sea port on the Bay of Bengal.

The two companies will construct the main port infrastructure and will build housing, healthcare and education facilities in the port.

Some analysts have suggested all these ports are part of a so-called “string of pearls” strategy which would help China’s naval expansion in the region and check India’s strategic depth.

Another Indian Ocean country, Malaysia, in 2016 agreed to the first purchase of Chinese vessels for its navy, after a meeting between Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing. It was the first big purchase of Chinese arms by Kuala Lumpur.

With economic power comes military strength. China’s military budget has risen from $17 billion in 1990 to $152 billion in 2017.

Hillary Clinton's Grammys Performance was Unbecoming of Her

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

I’ve never been a fan of Hillary Clinton’s, yet I was still shocked that she would stoop so low as to mock Donald Trump at the Jan. 28 Grammy Awards, no matter what we all think of him.

She read a chapter from Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, Michael Wolff’s recently-published savage account of the president. It was the most classless thing I’ve ever seen her do.

First of all, she’s not an entertainer, but a supposedly serious political figure. This wasn’t “Saturday Night Live,” where such people routinely make fun of the president.       
How would Clinton like it if Trump read part of Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, a 2015 book by Peter Schweizer.

Even Al Gore, who had every right to be far more angry than Clinton – in 2000 he most probably won the presidential election, and not just by the popular vote but also the electoral vote – never did this to George W. Bush, and there were plenty of opportunities.

None of previous defeated candidates even came close to acting this way – certainly not in a public forum televised to millions of people.

Had a student written something as demeaning as the excerpt Clinton read out, they would likely have been suspended from their school. Had I done something similar to a colleague in front of a class, I’d be fired, and rightly so. It would be considered bullying.   

Clinton clearly can’t get over losing to Trump. After all, her sense of entitlement was such, and her devoted fans were so enamoured of her, that she considered winning the presidency a foregone conclusion – especially against a man who would only be getting the votes of the “deplorables ” in “flyover” country.

Trump voters probably don’t buy most of the recordings showcased at the Grammys, nor do they go to many of the movies Hollywood liberals produce. So it won't hurt those bottom lines.

But it does demonstrate to these people that the whole entertainment industry has become a machine designed to mock and belittle them. Even those who think Trump is a buffoon, and they are many, won’t forget this slight.

And here’s irony: The woman who ran as a transformational feminist in 2016 is being increasingly shunned by her party, according to numerous sources. 

Some reports have asserted that the current news of harassment reminds many of Hillary Clinton’s past as an enabler of a serial abuser, her husband.  It now has also become known that in 2008, she shielded one of her campaign advisers from accusations of sexual harassment.

And of course, Bill Clinton’s own past behaviour embodies what is considered absolutely unacceptable by current standards; he would have been chased out of office by his own Democratic Party today.

So tone-deaf is Clinton that, as an opinion piece in the Jan 30 New York Times – a paper not exactly a fan of Trump! – pointed out, she read from a book that, without any evidence, insinuates that Nikki Haley, the UN ambassador, is sleeping with the president.

So it’s not difficult to imagine how Haley might have felt when she watched the Grammys.

“A prominent Republican woman is smeared,” writes the author, Barry Weiss. “The author who does the smearing is celebrated by all the A-listers, including the most prominent Democratic woman in the country, who herself has a history of giving a pass (or worse) to men accused of sexual assault and harassment.”

Pray for the fate of the American republic!