Tag Archives: conflict

Political Sectarianism in the Middle East

Sectarian violence in middle east has been on the rise in the past 12 months. This has been particularly obvious  in Iraq has been escalating in the past 12 months, with over 21 people killed in bombings around the capital Baghdad in the last week and in the neighbours of Syria.

The Sunni/Shia divide is often pitched as conflict of religion, leaving out the deep political history that governs the tensions. The creation of these two streams of Islam were themselves created over a disagreement over the choice of political leader.

The divide is used to political advantage by those who benefit from creating animosity between communities. . For instance in Syria were the majority of rebels are Sunni Muslim, and Saudi Arabia the most powerful Sunni country is a major source of support. But in Bahrain, where the majority of the population in Shia, and the political elite is Sunni, Saudi in that case protects the political establishment.

On Tuesday (21st Jan) a Shia delegate, Ahmad Sharafeddin in Yemen was shot dead on his way to reconciliation talks. According to Reuters, Sharafeddin who was dean of law at Saana University was a member of the Houthi Shia separatist group that opposing the current pro-American Yemeni government. Another Houthi leader accused Sunni militants.

On the same day, a bomb exploded in a Shia dominated neighbourhood in Beiruit in Lebanon, killing at least 4 people and injuring many others. Sectarian tensions have been heightened because of Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian crisis.

Hezbollah, a Shia militant group, has been supporting Syrian president Assad. Iran, the largest Shia majority country, also supports Assad. Assad’s government is dominated by a small Islamic minority sect, Alawi, but the majority of the country are Sunni and supported by Saudi Arabia. The regional involvement in Syria is inflaming sectarian tensions in the already dividing Lebanon.

The cold war played a huge role in exacerbating the conflict as the Americans and Soviets manipulated tensions in order to gain support in the region. Shia majority countries such as Iran have Russia (post-revolution 1979), while Saudi Arabia and other Sunni majority countries allied with America.

Sunni Islam is hugely in the majority and is now very divided in its relationship with the US. Sunni Muslims make up it’s closest allies (Saudi, Egypt, Yemen) and those it believes to be its greatest threats, Al-Qaeda and similar groups. How America’s foreign policy has created enemies from allies is a topic for a different article but there long political history in play is often ignored not only in journalism but in academia as well. The post-colonial aspect also receives insufficient attention.

By portraying conflict between Sunni and Shia communities in the Middle East as a purely religious one presents a flawed picture without context. It is a sectarian issue, but also a nationalistic one, a class-based one and one of old political loyalties. Conflict is meaningless without context.

But much of mainstream media wishes to do just that, to portray Muslims as inherently, religiously fundamentalist and bigoted and ignore the blame that lies without outside actors’ political manipulation.

Mandela and Ireland, complexity and sacrifice

There is a tendency, when great and inspirational people die, to reduce them to just that: an inspiration.

But before Mandela was inspiration he was an angry young man, a lawyer, a freedom fighter, a prisoner and it is important to resist the urge to simplify him to an abstract idea of how he effected others. Many world leaders, and journalists have praised this man he held views and behaved in ways that they routinely condemn. Now an idealist might say that people are able to put aside their personal feelings in order to acknowledge the great work done by Mandela but more cynical people might call it disingenuous.

In a sea of journalistic obituaries by people who never met him I am not sure what I have to offer, hence my delay in writing, except maybe the Irish perspective.

As a freedom fighter against a left-over colonial regime in the 70s and 80s, Mandela captured a lot of good-will from the Irish public. A boycott of South African goods as a protest against apartheid was put in place by a number of groups and trade unions.

Catherine Bulbulia (Fine Gael), Niall Andrews (Fianna Fáil), Donal Nevin (Irish Congress of Trade Unions), Reg September (African National Congress), John Hume (SDLP), Ruairi Quinn (Labour Party), Tomás MacGiolla (Workers’ Party) and Kader Asmal (Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement) share a platform to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the African National Congress. (An Phoblacht)

In 1985, 12 retail workers from Dunne Stores in Dublin went on strike for 2 and half years (July 1985 to April 1987) for the right not to sell South African products while Apartheid was in effect.

Dunnes Stores strikers on an Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement national march through Dublin, November 1986. (An Phoblacht)

“We had made the decision as a company that we couldn’t allow people in the organisation to decide what goods to sell and what not to sell.”

– Ben Dunne, Former Director, Dunnes Stores

“Ben Dunne was saying he had the right to sell what he wanted to in his store. If Ben Dunne decided to sell stolen property it wouldn’t mean I had to handle it.”

– Cathryn O’Reilly, former striker

The Irish government would go on to ban the sale of all South African good in Ireland until the end of the Apartheid regime. They officially called for his unconditional release in 1988. Mandela met with some of the strikers when he visited Ireland in 1990 after his release.

When Mandela spoke in Dublin on that visit he thanked the strikers as a source of comfort and inspiration to him during his imprisonment. “For more than a quarter of a century your country has had one of the most energetic and effective anti-apartheid movements in the world. Irishmen and women have given wholehearted and often sacrificial support for our struggle in the fields of economic, cultural and sports relations.”

Because it was a sacrifice to get involved. In the 1980s Ireland was in the grip of an economic depression with unemployment higher than even in the more recent financial crisis. But two of Ireland’s most significant trade partner the UK and America were not in favour of political support for Mandela’s ANC. Margaret Thatcher called them terrorists and the CIA sent money and arms to the apartheid regime. The government ran a risk of retaliation for their strong stance of support.

Not only that but the strikers themselves ran a personal risk and sacrifice of stable employment at a time when emigration from Ireland was very high due to the unemployment epidemic.

“The outstanding Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, has written that too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart…We understood that to emulate the barbarity of the tyrant would also transform us into savages. We knew that we would sully and degrade our cause if we allowed that it should, at any stage, borrow anything from the practices of the oppressor. We had to refuse that our long sacrifice should make a stone of our hearts.”

– Nelsom Mandela (Dublin 1990)

The willingness to sacrifice your own livelihood for what is right is a sentiment that is lost in politics today. Individualistic philosophy, a lazy apathetic amoralism has been a trend that even a new financial crisis could not shake.

Injustice in other countries does not inspire reactions like this again. Despite what I’ve said, I must admit that I feel like waxing lyrically on Mandela as a near spiritual figure. I feel like quoting Yeats’ ‘September 1913’ where he bemoans his own generation and longs for the heroes gone. I’ll try not to give in to the defeatist romanticism just yet.

My earliest memories of my parents and political activism involve my mother suddenly laughing in a supermarket that she could buy South African products again, my father’s copy of Mandela’s autobiography on the shelf, learning to spell boycott with the correct number of Ts. When angry teenage activist me sulked that all politicians were liars and con-men, there was an unspoken “except Mandela” at the back of my brain. So in a strange way I am mourning a man a never met.

But what worries me most is that I look around the world and cannot see anyone on the stature or  with drive and clarity Mandela had. I do believe that the world is not change by leaders but by communities but all the same, leaders with vision and influence can rally people to action in ways a group cannot. The world could use its next Mandela.

28 Killed in Baghdad as Part of Rise in Sectarian Violence

Today two bombs detonated outside a mosque after Friday prayers just north of Baghdad. 28 people died and between 30-45 were injured at the Sunni mosque of Al-Salam in the village of Umm al-Adham outside Baqouba where both Sunni and Shia muslims had been praying.

4,000 people have been killed this year in “insurgent attacks”. This are the highest levels of violence since 2008 and some fear that the country is returning to the state of near-civil war it was in following the US led invasion in 2003.

Sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia communities in Baghdad are not uncommon. Iraq has a majority Shia population (60%) but a sizeable Sunni minority (20%), with Kurds (who are also Sunni), Christians, Jews and others making up the remaining 20%. Saddam Hussein’s government was Sunni and he was known for the brutal oppression of Shia muslims. 

800 people have been killed this August alone and according to the BBC most of the attacks appear to be by Sunni militants with links of al-Qaeda.

Today’s attack is significant because Sunni and Shia muslims were praying together before they were attacked. It calls to mind the lynching of biracial couples in the pre-civil rights US south. 

Silenced Voices in Israel

“Is this going to get me into trouble?” was my first thought as I began research and writing about Israel’s anti-war movement and less extreme, less vocal members of the populous. That’s quite telling in itself. As a writer I rarely if ever shy any from issues purely because their emotive or controversial. Those tend to be the stories worth talking about.

But a lot of baggage comes with discussing Israel and its relationship with it’s neighbours, its history, or even its domestic policy. Controversy can be caused by simply trying to look at Israel on a map. And while I do not shy away from emotive issues, I also understand that news is always someone else’s life on the other end of the story and there’s no harm in using tact.

But one of the problems with discussing Israel is not the baggage that is applied to any discussion but the manner is which the conversation escalates to the most extreme polarities so quickly. Any criticism of an Israeli practise is instantly “anti-Israeli” as though you could hold a whole nation responsible for the actions of its government. However raising even that mild point can bring the cries of those who highlight the many problematic practises of the Israeli government and especially their military.

Then trapped in the centre of the fray are the many Israelis who also disagree with many of their governments policies and the same labels of ‘anti-Israeli’ or ‘anti-Semitic’ are less easily applied to them and so, for the most part, they are ignored by the media altogether.

The first real signs of moderate, government dissenting, opinions breaking through the media came last year with the minor coverage of the Israeli Anti-War protests received when 1,000s of people marched through Tel Aviv in March 2012 chanting slogans like “Talk, Don’t Bomb”. Some of the organisers were also those who set up anti-war Facebook sites like ‘Israel loves Iran‘ which now has over 100,000 likes.

Anti-war demonstration in Tel Aviv (2006) Photo credit: Jill Granberg
Anti-war demonstration in Tel Aviv (2006) Photo credit: Jill Granberg

The Financial Times reported that earlier that month Dahaf, an Israeli pollster, found that more than a third of Israelis were against a strike on Iran under any circumstances.

This was not the first protest of its kind. They have been going on for years. The Communist Party of Israel marched against the occupation more than once. The Peace Index polled in October 2011 and found that 75.5% of Israelis supported social protest.  But these are not the voices that the media chooses to carry to the rest of the world.

It is not only the media who silences Israeli opposition but the police force as well. But in 2009 police tried to stamp out any dissenting voice against Operation Cast Lead (the three week attack on Gaza in January 2009) by attempting to have a Tel Aviv District Court ban any anti-war protesting. Many protesters were detained for long period of time while awaiting legal proceedings, including minors. These detentions were extended to:

“Anyone who enables remarks denouncing the state and backing its enemies, even as they rain missiles upon its citizens, must obey its laws” — Judge Moshe Gilad

Despite the fact that this kind of rhetoric of constant danger is common by Israel’s politicians and civic officers, according to a poll conducted by Israel’s Internal Security Minister and Geocartography Institute in January 2012, 74% of Israelis feel a high level of personal safety day-to-day.

In fact it is in these polls that the alternative voice of Israel are seen for the most part, even if they are ignored elsewhere, polling data is polling data. Such as the Haaretz in July of this year which said that 59% of people did not believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu was really committed to a two state solution.  Or another poll in May 2013 in which 42% of Israelis believed that continued Jewish settlements would hurt Israel’s security.  

64.5% of those polled were concerned religious radicalism inside Israel (Peace Index Dec 2011) and 45.2% would support dismantling most of the settlements in the occupied territories in the case of a peace agreement (Truman/PCPSR Oct 2010).

These people may not get to speak for Israel very often but it’s important to remember that they exist and that there is growing discontent with the political status quo inside the country.

In a surprising and interesting article in an Israeli newspaper Haaretz by Yitzhak Laor, he laid out the reasons that Israel should not support America’s military actions in Syria and that the US has never had Israel’s best interests as a factor in their policy in the region but rather saw it as a tool to further their own agendas.

“The United States did not really lose in prolonged wars. The destruction of Iraq, which started in 1991, brought enormous profit to large sectors of the American economy. Even Syria under jihadist control — if that should be the result of American intervention — will not cause losses for its war industry, though it will drain our blood. A quagmire in Iran will be no loss for them either.”

There is more of a platform for alternative or dissenting voice in Israel now that at other times in recent history and it will very interesting to see how this elements of public opinion change the country over the next few years.

All the polling data I used and more can be found at the virtual Jewish library. 

— Orla-Jo

Iran’s Foreign Minister wishes a Happy Rosh Hashanah

Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, surprised many people by tweeting ‘Happy Rosh Hashanah’ late last week for Iran’s Jewish minority. 

A tweet, apparently from Christine Pelosi daughter of US House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi read: “The New Year would be even sweeter if you would end Iran’s Holocaust denial, sir.”

This was, assumedly, in reference to the former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s denials that the Holocaust took place.

Zarif then replied: “Iran never denied it. The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone. Happy New Year.”

In an interview, Zarif said Iran would not let Israel use the Holocaust “to cover up their crimes…We never were against Jews. We oppose Zionists who are a minority…We have condemned killing of Jews by Nazis as we condemn killing and crackdown on Palestinians by Zionists.”

This message was surprising given the tense relationship between Iran and Israel. Iran does not official recognise Israel as a legitimate state and supports many militant organisations who have staged attacks instead Israel.

While it is unlikely to change the realities of the political situation, this sentiment is an interesting marker of the influence of President Hasan Rouhani, a relative moderate. Given the increasing tensions of Iran’s alleged military nuclear programme and vested interests by Iran, Israel and the US in the Syrian conflict, Rouhani’s attempts at a more reconciliatory tone are perhaps optimistic, though levels of international skepticism on the subject remain high.

To any of our Jewish readers celebrating Rosh Hashanah themselves: shana tovah u’metukah from everyone at Global Echo.

Orla-Jo

Why are chemical weapons the “red line” of intervention?

Just over a year ago at a White House press conference, American President Barrack Obama stated that:

a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” the president said a year ago last week. “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

Now that the use of chemical weapons has come up many feel that the president has trapped himself into responding. But the original comment does not promise military intervention and a question some journalists are asking is why were chemical weapons the ‘red line’ to begin with?

UN Photo/Marco Castro

Over 100,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began over two years ago with bullets and bombs. Conventional weapons are just as capable of mass death as chemical ones so why this line in the sand?

Obama defended this distinction to CNN last week:

“When you start seeing chemical weapons used on a large scale… that starts getting to some core national interests that the United States has, both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region.”

Phrases such as “National interests”, “protect our allies” and  especially “weapons of mass destruction” cannot help but call some of Bush’s rhetoric to mind.

But Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official argues that chemical attacks if proven, must be taken more seriously than conventional attacks because chemical agents disperse to affect large numbers of people and “can produce horror for a lifetime.” He goes on to say that “it’s a slippery slope”, if a chemical weapons attack goes unchecked, what about some other form of weapon of mass destruction – a biological or nuclear attack?

But it can hardly be said that cluster munition or drone strikes are somehow less devastating or that they could not just as easily lead to weapons escalation.

Arguments could equally be made that intervention increases the likelihood of retaliation. Al Jazeera’s White House correspondent, Patty Culhane, questions the Obama administration’s assumptions. She writes:

“The administration says the US National Security is threatened by the possibility that the Assad regime will use chemical weapons on allies or US bases – do you have any evidence that they plan to take that step? You’ve warned chemical weapons could be given to “terrorist groups that would harm the US” – how does a military intervention make that less likely and not more?”

The US are not the only country saber rattling in the direction of Syria. British PM David Cameron however lost his parliamentary vote on military intervention. France is also threatening a military role. French PM Jean-Marc Ayrault said “France is determined to punish use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.”

The Arab League however issued a statement that they believed that no intervention should take place that is not UN led.

A question that should also be asked at this point is whether a military intervention by US or France or any nation’s army would reduce the suffering of the people of Syria or even reduce the risk of chemical weapons being used again.

Also another question that is not being ask is what would the US government do if it was discovered that the rebels were responsible? Will the US military still intervene in the country? Will they intervene on behalf of the government?

That seems unlikely.

“There are few things more bizarre than watching people advocate that another country be bombed even while acknowledging that it will achieve no good outcomes other than safeguarding the “credibility” of those doing the bombing. Relatedly, it’s hard to imagine a more potent sign of a weak, declining empire than having one’s national “credibility” depend upon periodically bombing other countries.”
   —  Glenn Greenwald

What We’re Talking About When We’re Talking About Feminism

Feminism is word that simply by existing can cause controversy. It is often implied that feminist issues are frivolous issues, that feminists are petty and mean-spirited or that feminists just care about abortion or sexual harassment. The mainstream media fosters this idea of feminism is narrow, reactionary and unnecessary.

But feminism is more than a narrowly interpreted idea of “women’s issues”.

Education is a feminist issue. Two thirds of the children in the world without access to education are girls.

Trans rights are a feminist issue. When someone is told that their gender identity lessens them as humans or limits their human rights, that is a feminist issue.

Poverty is a feminist issue. Women make up 70% of the world’s poor. Women work two thirds of the world’s working hours but receive only 10% of the world’s income and own less than 1% of the world’s property. Of the 150 major conflicts fought since War War Two, 130 of them were fought in the developing world.

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UN Photo/Martine Perret

Racism is a feminist issue. Stereotypes and discrimination of women of colour is a feminist issue. Native American women are nearly twice as likely to be sexually assaulted. Indigenous women in Canada are five times more likely to die as a result of violence.

The rights of the disabled are feminist issues. In Europe, Australia and North America, over half of disabled women will experience physical abuse.

War and conflict are feminist issues. Of the 27.4 million people displaced due to conflict in 1996; 80% of them were women and children. Wartime rape affects women of all ages. In the Democratic Republic of Congo 36 women are raped every day. During the Bosnian War between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped.

Clinic Somalia UN
UN Photo/Stuart Price

Rape is held over the heads of women all over the world as a punishment for those who step out of line and is most definitely a feminist issue, even when the victims are men. In the United States someone is sexual assaulted every 2 minutes, 54% of rapes go unreported and 97% of rapists will receive no jail sentence.

Women between the ages of 15 and 44 years of age are globally more at risk from rape and domestic violence than they are from cancer, war, car accidents or malaria according to World Bank data.

There is a sentiment that feminism is unnecessary or that the term is outdated, that there is no need to actively promote the ‘feminine’ but rather support equality as a whole. But the idea that what is traditionally ‘feminine’ is lesser is still so pervasive in today’s culture that while it is socially acceptable for a women to behave and dress in ways considered traditionally masculine, the same cannot be said for men who wish to behave or dress in ways considered to be feminine. These bias are damaging to men as well. But more significantly they demonstrate that many advances that appear to have occurred in gender equality are based on the idea that women should behave or value things that are more traditionally masculine.

That is why feminism remains relevant.

Pibor South Suden UN
UN Photo

Orla-Jo