Tag Archives: middle east

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.

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Ideas Imprisoned No Longer

Imprisoned Ideas is an online campaign for the purpose of highlighting the cases of academics imprisoned for their work, frequently for human rights advocacy. The group uses Tumblr and Twitter to achieve greater awareness of these cases. But the campaign brought to mind several things I’d been considering about online activism in general.

Social media campaigns comes in various levels of competency and effectiveness but the significance of this campaign is that it directs support towards already existing campaigns on the ground. This incorporates the idea that social change cannot, and does not need to be imported or dropped in on people’s heads but rather emerges from the local context.

Each of the academics highlighted by the campaign has a petition and interest surrounding their arrest already but little support outside the local sphere. Imprisoned Ideas attempts to give a wider audience for these petitions, documentaries and campaigns.

Social media, while frequently used ineffectively or for lip-service activism spawning the phrase slacktivism, has great potential for assisting political and social movements.

For example this campaign could theoretically become a platform to be continuously updated, providing a excellent resource to journalists, activists and interested individuals.

Situations of political prisoners, such as Iranian physics postgraduate student Omid Kokabee or Professor Hadif Rashid al-Owais in the United Arab Emirates, are difficult to get accurate and up to date information, even for their own legal defense, never mind journalists or campaigners outside the country. This is a strategic decision by the governments in question to limit the capacity for international response or discussion. If journalists can’t access information how can they spread it? Twitter has already changed the nature of news reporting. Maybe it could change political behaviour as well.

Ventures like Imprisoned Ideas have the potential to be a platform that brings together grassroots campaigns for around the world and offer them support without taking over or claiming to have better solutions than campaigners on the ground.

It also raises the an idea I’d call “crowd-sourced activism” where the majority of the practical work is done on a local level but those local activists can receive publicity and put out calls for specific action, such as petitions or boycotts, through platforms such as the Imprisoned Ideas Twitter.

Fundraising through crowd sourcing on sites like IndieGogo and Kickstarter have proved the potential for fundraising in this way. That’s how the Veronica Mars movie has been made. If crowdfunding can change the music and film industries than why not political activism?

World News 26/9/2013

Updated 11:30 GMT

IRAQ: A number of bombs have detonated in a town outside Baghdad today killing at least 20 people today. Reports are varying between news agencies but at least 3 bombs  were detonated near markets in the town of Sabaa al-Bour 30km north of the capital. 

Al Jazeera claims that “Four bombs in the Saba al-Bur area north of Baghdad killed at least 15 people, while another bomb blast in a market in the Dura area of south Baghdad”. 

AP and Reuters say there were only three bombs but disagree on whether the neighbourhoods were majority Shia or Sunni.

 

US Drone Strikes Not as “Limited” as Obama’s UN Speech Claims

In his address to the UN last night in the 68th Session of the General Assembly, President Barrack Obama claimed much in support of his country’s human rights efforts.

However much of what he claimed was either disingenuous or simply untrue. Putting aside the fact he claims that his administration is “working” to close Guantanamo Bay (05:00) which after 5 years of promises seems quite a stretch, or the bizarre statement that the international coalition had “achieved its mission” in Afghanistan (04:25), though I am not certain what war President Obama has been watching or even how he brought up reviewing how the US gathers intelligence, ie mass surveillance by the NSA, (05:20) as though this was their idea not something they were forced into by the Snowden revelations.

I could even overlook the insane and baseless claim that the world is “more stable” now than it was 5 years ago (05:32) and lump it and all those other claims in with the usual American political rhetoric that we have grown to disdain quietly if he had not attempted to downplay and justify the American use of drone strikes in the middle east.

Screen grab of Live Address 24/9/2013
Screen grab of Live Address 24/9/2013

“We have limited the use of drones so they target only those who pose a continuing imminent threat to the Unite States, where capture is not feasible and there is a near certainty of no civilian casualties.” – Barrack Obama (04:40 )

This statement concerns me because this is apparently the limited stance. Does that mean that they were used in situations outside of these perimeters before? Even aside from that, how do you define a “threat”? What gives the US the right to kill indiscriminately those they consider a “threat” without any trial in a court of law.

And those legal and ethical concerns are only under the assumption that it is true that the US work not to injure civilians in their drone strikes which is not supported by the evidence, particularly in Yemen and Pakistan which have born the brunt of US drones.

August 1st on the very day that President Obama sat down in talks with Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi in Washington, four Yemeni citizens were killed in Hadhramout providence who appear to have been civilians. One of the victims was 21-year-old Saleh Saed bin Ishaq, who was survived by his wife and a young daughter, on his way home from buying his family new clothes for Eid.

These attacks occur within weeks of the anniversaries of two high profile civilian deaths by US drone strike from August 2012. One of them, Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, was a prominent anti-al-Qaeda preacher. Just two days before his death he denounced the group publicly. The other was his nephew, a young policemen Waleed Abdullah bin Ali Jaber. They were also killed in Hadhramout province.

Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber

Many commentators, including Baraa Shiban, a writer for al Jazeera from whom I got the dates and names above, argue that these strikes rather than curbing al-Qaeda’s activities simply grow their support base by giving them legitimate grievances to cite against the US.

Abdul-Ghani Al Iryani who founded Tawq, Yemen’s Democratic Awakening Movement two years ago is also a political analyst. He said in a statement to Alternet journalists:

“In the fight against al-Qaeda and the extremism it represents, we can do it the easy way, by killing, and thus have to do it again and again, or the hard way and really solve the problem. To truly fight al-Qaeda and similar groups, we must deal with the root causes of its growth – poverty, injustice, lack of rule of law…and drone strikes.”

Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference, a group of diverse political opinions brought together to work on a new Yemeni constitution voted 90% in favour of banning drone strikes. Delegates said that the US were violating Yemeni sovereignty and undermining the rule of law which was completely counter-productive in combating militant groups such as al-Qaeda.

Yemen protest Feb 2011 Washington DC (Colin David Anderson/ Flickr)
Yemen protest Feb 2011 Washington DC (Colin David Anderson/ Flickr)

Pakistan has seen 110 people killed by US drone strikes in this year alone despite the Pakistani government’s numerous protests to Washington that this was a violation of Pakistani sovereignty.

It is difficult to really know how many civilians are killed in drone attacks as the US government has proven in the last year that they feel no obligation to disclosed such information. The cover up of the deaths of the Reuters journalists in Iraq uncovered through WikiLeaks begs the question how we can trust the US military to disclose accurate information.

During the election campaign in 2012 PolicyMic reported that the CIA wanted to increase the use of drones despite independent reports stating that: “estimates as high as 98% of drone strike casualties being civilians (50 for every one “suspected terrorist”). The Bureau of Investigative Journalism issued a report detailing how the CIA is deliberately targeting those who show up after the sight of an attack, rescuers, and mourners at funerals as a part of a “double-tap” strategy eerily reminiscent of methods used by terrorist groups like Hamas.” This tactic of killing those who arrive after the initial attack was also seen in the WikiLeaks video.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism then released a leaked CIA document which estimated that civilians killed in Pakistan since drone strikes began there were much higher than previously realised. The document details 75 drone attacks carried out in Pakistan between 2006 and 2009 by the CIA and a further 5 attacks by Nato or other unspecified forces.

Of 746 people listed as killed in the drone strikes outlined in the document, at least 147 of the dead are clearly stated to be civilian victims, 94 of those are said to be children.

Which begs the question how and why we should trust the assurance of an administration that has continuously disregarding international law, executes foreign citizens without trial or cooperation from the nation in question and yet use the rhetoric of human right while aping a grotesque pantomime of diplomacy.

Iran Ending Isolationism: What would be the Consequences?

The new President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, has been outspoken recently on the need for social reform in his country and with promises not to build nuclear weapons.

In the four months since Rouhani was elected as the 7th president of Iran he was released 11 political prisoners, sworn off nuclear weapons, temporarily lifted bans on Facebook and Twitter and expressed an interest in improving Iran’s relationship with the international community.

Photo: NBC/AP

It is the Ayatollah Khamenei, the religious leader of Iran, who has the final say on issues of the nuclear program and defense but Khamenei seems interested in supporting Rouhani’s move. Saying:

“We don’t want nuclear weapons, not because of pressure from the US or others but because of our belief that no one should have nuclear weapons. When we say no one should have nuclear weapons that means not for them and not for us either.” – Ayatollah Khamenei

All this comes ahead of Rouhani’s attendance at the UN General Assembly in New York today. In another interesting move by the new president he is bringing the only Jewish MP in the Iranian parliament, Siamak Moreh Sedgh, with him to New York. Not only this but there may be some kind of informal “accidental” meeting between President Rouhani and President Obama which would be the first time American and Iranian presidents had been face-to-face since the revolution of 1979.

The temporary lifting of the ban on social media sites on 16 September is more significant than it might appear at first. Firstly as it suggests that the Iranian government might be considering lifting its bans altogether but also because of what that would do to change the sense of isolationism within Iran, particularly for its younger generations.

Among the optimism there are many skeptics. Israel’s government is chief among them. PM Netanyahu and those close to him in parliament have been quick and vocal in dismissing Rouhani’s efforts as a “diplomatic deception” to distract international attention while they complete their work on nuclear weapons.

Netanyahu’s office released a statement on Thursday saying:  “One must not be fooled by the Iranian president’s fraudulent words. The Iranians are spinning in the media so that the centrifuges can keep on spinning.”

Iran’s parade of long range missiles capable of reaching Israel and the Gulf most likely did little to dampen these concerns. President Rouhani states that the weapons on show are for defensive purposes only claiming: “In the past 200 years, Iran has never attacked another country”.

This is unlikely to satisfy Israel. Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, a political ally to the prime minister, claimed: “If the Iranians continue to run, in another half a year they will have bomb capability”. But did not offer evidence to back this up.

Some commentators were reminded of Netanyahu’s memorable address to the UN last year with a cartoon bomb that was apparently meant to serve as evidence of Iran’s increasing nuclear research.

PM Netanyahu addressing the UN General Assembly AP Photo/Richard Drew

Israel might yet be right but, if they are not, what would a more open Iran mean for the dynamics of the region?

Well for one, if they cooperated with UN officials and demonstrated they were not pursuing nuclear weapons then at least some of the heavy sanctions against Iran could be lifted.  These sanctions have crippled the Iranian economy and have increased anti-Western/anti-American feeling among a portion of the population. The RT reported on the situation saying that:

“Doctors are also sounding the alarm: the trade embargo has caused shortages of food and medical supplies. The director of a cancer center in Iran says he has faced lots of problems getting modern equipment to treat cancer patients.”

Also if Iran was really willing to remain nuclear free and allow UN inspectors into its research facilities then it would go a long way to disarming much of the region.

Israel’s recent statements about Iran have only drawn further attention to their own nuclear activities, particularly in the wake of a summer of worsen relations between Europe and Israel. Israel is known to possess nuclear though its security forces refuse to confirm or deny this.

Last week Israel faced an attempt to censure Israel’s refusal to acknowledge  having nuclear arms and put them under international oversight at the annual conference of the U.N.’s nuclear agency, led by other countries in the region. 

“Israel says an Israeli-Palestinian peace must be reached before creation of a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction.” – AP

A more trusted Iran could also assist in negotiations with radical groups throughout the Muslim world, especially Hezbollah.

But a stable and cosmopolitan Iran would pose a problem for at least three countries, Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia. Israel would no longer be able to use Iran as an excuse for increased militarism and neither would the US. Not only that but Iran would no longer distract for the US ally in the region, Saudi Arabia.

While the human rights situation in the monarchy of Saudi Arabia is even worse than that in Iran, Iran has taken much of the international and media attention away from the Saudis. If this distraction was removed the media would have a greater capacity to criticise the close relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia in light of its many injustices.

But at this point it is a waiting game and we here and Global Echo will keep up to date as Iran-US-Israeli relations continue to evolve.

Orla-Jo

World News Roundup: 20/9/2013

There have been clashes in Nigeria’s capital city Abuja today between the Nigerian army and Boko Haram militants who allegedly opened fire on security forces when they followed a tip about a suspect Boko Haram weapons cache. “The State Security Service did not give any details about casualties. A witness told the BBC that he saw dead bodies.”

The Boko Haram are an extremist, separatist group seeking to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria. Nigeria is evenly divide between Muslim and Christians.  At least 87 people were killed Boko Haram fighters attacked a town in Borno, a northeastern state in Nigeria whose governor Kashim Shettima described the attack as “barbaric and un-Islamic.” Approximately 3,600 people have been killed by the Boko Haram since 2009. Earlier today the bodies of 143 civilians were recovered by environmental agency workers according to the AP. 

Two bombs went off in a Sunni Mosque in the city of Samarra in Iraq today killing up to 18 people during Friday midday prayers. An official of the municipal council, Mizhar Fleih, said the explosion also wounded at least 21 people. Samarra is 95 km north of Baghdad and while largely Sunni it is home to a sacred Shia shrine. There has been a rise in attacks on Sunni mosques in Iraq in the last few months. Sunni extremist are widely blamed, however it is also possible that Shia militias, that had been mostly active in recent years could also have been to blame.  Fleih also added:

“We are worried that the attacks on Sunni and Shiite mosques aim at reigniting the sectarian strife in this country”.

Last week, a similar attack on a Sunni mosque in northeast of Baghdad killed 33 worshippers.

There was a fresh wave of anti-India protesting in the contested region of Kashmir today. At least seven people have been killed in main city of Srinagar. Officials say that two photojournalists and two police officers were injured. Police officer Abdul Gani Mir said the clashes began after troops stops hundreds of people from marching south to the town of Shopian.

At least 30 killed in bombs attacks in Yemen that local official believe were the work of al-Qaida.

A man stands in front of where Pavlos Fyssas died, the graffiti on the door reads “Revenge” (AP Photo/Kostas Tsironis)

The Greek police’s anti-terrorism division has been given the investigation into the murder of rapper Killah P (Pavlos Fyssas) which has been blamed on a supporter of the far-right party the Golden Dawn. Golden Dawn, which grew in the face of the economic crisis, has condemned the rapper’s murder and denies any involvement in the attack. It has been noted that the Golden Dawn has many supporters within the Greek police force.

Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc is strongly favored for a majority win of the vote in Germany’s general election on Sunday though it will almost certainly result in a coalition.

Pakistan have freed the co-founder of the Afghan Taliban is an effort to improve relationship with Afghanistan.

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