Tag Archives: religion

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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Let He with the Best Solicitor Speak Freely

This week has seen legal attacks not only on the LGBT community in Ireland but on the freedom of speech in Irish journalism as a whole.

The controversy began when Rory O’Neill, alter-ego of Dublin gay icon and pub-owner Panti Bliss, was interviewed on RTE’s Saturday Night Show on the  11th January.

The interview was going well until O’Neill attempted to discuss some of the prejudices still facing members of the LGBT community. O’Neill said that of course things has changed over time but that it there were still difficult to deal with the kind unpleasantness found “the internet in the comments and people who make a living writing opinion pieces for newspapers”. When pressed for examples O’Neill named John Waters, Breda O’Brien and the Iona Institute.

Not long after it was posted the interview was taken for “legal issues” following complaints made. When the interview was re-posted on line, all discussion of homophobia was edited out. A transcript of the missing section can be found here.

Now this obvious and upsetting piece of censorship was discussed eloquently by Trinity News writer Matthew in ‘Ignorance Isn’t Panti Bliss’ which was widely shared on social media in the outrage that followed.

O’Neill himself has received soliciter’s letters personally from Breda O’Brien, David Quinn, Patricia Casey, and John Murray (all of the Iona Institute the highly-conservative lobby group) and from John Waters.

John Waters, being the Irish Times columnist who wrote that the “gay lobby” want “to destroy the institution of marriage because they’re envious of it” and who is absolutely no way homophobic of course.

This is not the first time the head and founder of the Iona Institute, David Quinn, has silenced his critics or those of Iona with the threat of legal action.

Just last year David Quinn forced the University Times to retracted two articles it had published criticising the Iona Institute’s controversial YouTube video ‘The Case for Man/Woman Marriage‘ with threats of legal action. When Trinity News published an article describing these events, they themselves were contacted by his solicitor, as was published by the College Tribune.

It’s worth noting at this point that mostly the news outlets brave enough to risk Quinn’s legal wrath have been student publications with far less legal support than mainstream media.

‘Defamation,’ the common thread to these claims, is a slightly complicated piece of Irish law though it’s outlined brilliantly in relation to this case here. But ultimately nothing that is true can be legally considered defamation. Is the claim that the Iona Institute, Breda O’Brien and John Waters homophobic, not one of a opinion that O’Neill as a gay man is entitled to have?

Even outside of the range of opinion and in analysis of statements made against Same Sex Marriage by all three that they work against the mainstream of the LGBT civil rights movement is not a matter for debate, as is outlined in an analysis of statement here.

But I believe the real problem is that frequently it is not a question of whether those getting served with Quinn’s legal complaints are legally in the wrong but whether than can afford to run the risk that a judge might side with a wealthy, prominent public figure over them. Deeper pockets wins the debate; which is a scary thought for the future of journalism in Ireland.

Where does the argument for “defamation of character” end? How do we hold people accountable for defaming their own characters? Because the journalists and others Quinn has targeted are not in a position to stop his organisation publishing or operating, they are simply stating that they disagree. But Quinn’s actions serve to silence the opposition entirely. This incident certainly begs the question whether a wealthy, public figure can be held accountable for the offense his organisation causes so many people. 

And much more importantly when will we stop letting those with the most cash on hand, and the best solicitors dictate what is and is not fair debate?

World News 23/9/2013

 

15:15 GMT

KENYAAl-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda-linked, Somali Islamist militants, attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi on Saturday, leaving at least 62 and a further 63 people are missing and may either be dead or being held hostage by the militants. Kenyan Interior Minister Joseph Lenku told journalists that two of the attackers have been killed and others wounded as Kenyan troops continue to engage with them. As many as 15 attackers remain inside.

ISRAEL: Members of Israel’s cabinet have urged to call off peace negotiations with Palestine following the deaths of two Israeli soldiers.

PAKISTAN: A suicide bombing of a church in the Peshawar region of Pakistan which killed 80 people has sparked protests as the victims are buried. It is thought to have been the deadliest attack ever on Pakistan’s Christian community and the attackers are thought to have had links to the Taliban. 

EGYPT: An Egyptian court has banned the Muslim Brotherhood and all its activities today.

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.

The Veil and the Complexity of Freedom

There are discrepancies between how we define freedom and how we perceive it.

Freedom is defined by most as the ability to make your own choices but freedom is often perceived as choosing to be like you.

Not specifically you obviously but ourselves in general. If you consider yourself to be free then you are more likely to recognise freedom in others if their lives resemble yours.

This problem presents itself particularly strongly when ‘western’ ideologies of ‘freedom’ attempt to reconcile with choices they do not understand. Head-scarves and veiling of Muslim women has become the symbolic battleground of cultural ideology in the west. But behind the rhetoric are the realities of personal freedoms in our societies.

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When discussing legislating against veiling in Europe, discussion usually returns to France and ‘The Scarf Affair’ when three scarf-wearing Muslim girls were expelled from their school in November 1996. Then in March of 2004 a law was passed in the French National Assembly banning the bearing of all “ostentatious signs of religious belonging in the public sphere”.

It is interesting to note that quickly the word scarf (foulard) was replaced by veil (la voile). The choice of words is significant as a scarf is a fairly ordinary piece of clothing in France but a veil is more ceremonial and conjures up orientalised images.

More recently, in 2011 a ban on face-veiling in any public space came into effect in France which threatened monetary fines or “citizenship” courses to anyone in breach of this law. Of the 5 million Muslims living in France fewer than 2,000 women wear a veil that covers their face (burqa or niqab). This begs the question of why this became the focus of the debate. A similar ban was discussed in the Netherlands in 2012 where of 1 million Muslims only a few hundred women cover their faces.

These questions are more explicable if the debate on veiling has more to do with European, and by extension “western”, identity than it does about the realistic impact of veiling.

There are many reasons used to justify the banning of headscarves and face veils, the most common of which being security and fighting the oppression of women.

There is an academic feminist argument against veiling that acknowledges its long, traditional roots far outside any one religion but rather as part of patriarchal history of humans as a whole. Ancient Greece, early Christianity, Judaism and the Assyrian Empire all had veiling as a marker of a respectable woman which, like their chastity, added to the commercial value of women as the property of their male relatives. I am a historian and a feminist so I acknowledge this argument.

However, patriarchy is a fact of the majority of history and if we were to ban everything that had once had a hand in the oppression or objectification of women we would have to ban all sorts of things, including but not limited to; wedding rings, corsets, high heeled shoes, wigs and men.

Also my feminism is that which says that women should be allowed make their own decisions (radical I know!) and so ultimately as interesting as the history of veiling I don’t believe it should play a role in decision making regarding modern legislation. Not only that but I believe that the objectification of women is best typified by the fact that our bodies remain political battlegrounds for the ideology of political systems.

The idea of freedom is opposed to any law that regulates the clothes of women and treats them as ideological tools. So regimes like Saudi Arabia are a different discussion. But I would also like to point out that veiling is the least of women’s problems when living under regimes like this. But if we agree that a law enforcing veiling is wrong then how can we support a law banning them when that is the same control from another perspective?

I also think there is a patronising element to the assumption that veiled, Muslim women are simply incapable of making their own decisions.

And then there is the security argument. That covering your face in public should not be allowed regardless of religion.

A recent high-profile decision by Judge Peter Murphy that a Muslim woman who wears a niqab (a veil that covers the face but not the eyes) must unveil while giving evidence. At previous hearings the woman, who cannot be identified to the public, verified her identity with a female police official before giving evidence. Judge Murphy has said she can remain veiled while sitting in the dock and have a screen to block public view but that he, the jury and the lawyers must be able to see her while giving evidence.

There is no set procedure for situation such as this and Judge Murphy called on parliament to “provide a definite answer” saying:

“If judges in different cases in different places took differing approaches [to the niqab] the result would be judicial anarchy.”

Reuters/Mohsin Raza

But the decision that she only had to unveil to give evidence was not enough for some observers. Keith Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said he “regretted” the judge’s decision.

“We will be complaining to the Office of Judicial Complaints and also be asking senior legal officers to make visibility throughout court hearings mandatory, and not subject to judges’ discretion.”

This is part of a culture that removes the right to privacy and the right to anonymity in public. Am I cynical in thinking these bans coming just as facial recognition software becomes more efficient as a tool of surveillance and law enforcement is not a coincidence? Perhaps, but that doesn’t make me wrong.

— Orla-Jo

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. 

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