Sunday, 29 September 2013

Islamist terror and the civilized world

              The BBC, dominated as ever by the “politically correct” attitudes of the liberal-left, continues to shy away from calling a spade a spade.  Take its reporting of the recent Kenyan shopping mall siege. In spineless deference to people sympathetic to the jihadists’ cause, BBC news reports consistently refrained from referring to those responsible for the gunning down of over 60 people as “terrorists”.  The furthest they would go was to use the term “militants.”
   A row immediately blew up in the British press, parliament and beyond. It was summed up effectively by Douglas Murray, associate director of the Henry Jackson Society think-tank: ‘By not calling these jihadists what they actually are, the BBC is effectively covering for them. No-one wants to say they are jihadis, which they are. No-one wants to say they are Islamic extremists, which they are. Most people know what these people are, and it’s only certain sections of government and the media which refuses to point the finger.’
Or as one Member of Parliament said:  ‘Most members of the British public would see the planned and systematic murder of dozens of innocent people in Kenya as terrorism.’
BBC guidelines, which govern journalistic practice within the corporation, suggest avoiding the use of the word 'terrorism” because it is a “difficult and emotive subject with significant political overtones.” So in a misconceived pursuit of maintaining their reputation for objectivity and accuracy, the BBC avoids using “terrorist” except when they are quoting someone else. In other words, they prefer sheltering behind some other source bold enough to condemn people who commit monstrous outrages in pursuit of their distasteful agendas.  For the BBC to do so itself is too strong meat for its delicate appetite nowadays.
Objectivity and accuracy.  BBC executives might reflect that the corporation’s enviable reputation for accuracy was established during the second world war, when BBC news broadcasts were renowned for telling the truth, however unpalatable at times, and people across Europe literally risked their lives to listen to London.  “Objectivity” did not feature as a suitable aspiration when the nation was fighting a war to the death against a ruthless enemy. The BBC did not bend over backwards in those days to present Hitler’s point of view.  Everyone knew what he and his Nazi régime were up to, and the BBC, along with everyone else, condemned it outright.
What the BBC, in common with other sections of the western media, a range of non-governmental organizations worldwide, some United Nations agencies, and even some governments, will not acknowledge is that the civilized world is today fighting for its continued existence against enemies just as ruthless as the Nazis – namely, Islamist terrorists, intent on undermining the West and all it stands for.
Many refrain from outright condemnation of Islamist extremism for fear of being dubbed “Islamophobic” – a fear that may well be justified.  However, understanding the reasons for faint-heartedness does not justify it, nor does burying one’s head in the sand remove the danger.
Seth Frantzman, writing in the Jerusalem Post recently, suggested that “terrorism” was not adequate to describe the atrocities being committed continually by Islamist extremists. Citing recent incidents like the killing of 81 people in Pakistan during the bombing of a church. and the slaughter of 159 people in Nigeria, he suggests they should be dubbed “crimes against humanity”, and treated as such by the civilized world.  What inhibits robust condemnation of incidents such as these, Frantzman suggests, is that it is often non-Muslims who are targeted by the terrorists.  This was certainly the case in the Kenya shopping mall siege, where those held hostage who could prove they were Muslims were allowed to go free, while non-Muslims were gunned down.
In an entirely understandable effort to avoid suggesting that there is a battle of ideologies in progress between the Muslim and the non-Muslim worlds for this is certainly not the case left-wing opinion is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The baby, in this case, is Islamist extremism, which is indeed at war with the West, with our democratic values, our standards of justice, tolerance and free speech, and the importance we assign to individual liberty and human life.  In short, by obfuscating or deliberately ignoring the nature and objectives of Islamist terrorism, the civilized world is allowing it to flourish, and is in effect sleep-walking towards its own destruction.
A main protagonist of Islamist extremism of the Sunni persuasion by far the major part of Islam is the Muslim Brotherhood and its al-Qaeda-backed adherents like Somalia’s al-Shabaab. Wherever it manifests itself, the Muslim Brotherhood and its associates are dedicated to the tenets set out originally by its founder, Hassan al-Banna, in 1928. He declared, quite simply: “It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its law on all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet.”
That is the agenda of these Islamist extremists. That is why their expansion of influence and activity should concern the Western world far more than it has done up till now. For the Brotherhood not only spans the Middle East but, as political author Lorenzo Vidino has demonstrated, since the early 1960s its members and sympathisers have “moved to Europe and slowly but steadily established a wide and well-organised network of mosques, charities and Islamic organisations”. Islamism has active branches in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and a variety of other European countries. Its goal, stated quite openly by its leaders, is to create situations in which Sharia law can be imposed on states, with the aim eventually of uniting them and thus continuing the expansion of Islamism. The Brotherhood’s motto includes the chilling words: “Jihad is our way. And death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our ambitions.”
The civilized world, which includes the vast bulk of Muslim believers, has yet to declare a clear distinction between Islam and Islamist extremists, to characterize the jihadists for what they are – dedicated enemies of everything the West holds dear and to oppose them tooth and nail, using every means at its disposal. 
        This should include – and why not? charging in an appropriate judicial setting any who are apprehended, with crimes against humanity.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 29 September 2013: 

 Published in the Eurasia Review, 29 September 2013:

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Palestine's democratic deficit

Back in New York, accompanied by his prime minister, is the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) – or the State of Palestine, as the PA decided to rename itself last April, presuming on its upgrade to “non-member observer state” at the UN General Assembly.  
         President Mahmoud Abbas and prime minister Rami Hamdallah will be attending sessions of the UN General Assembly, and also a meeting of the ad hoc Liaison Committee comprised of donor countries that finance the PA.  A meeting with President Obama is also scheduled, for discussions about the Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations.
What the two presidents are most unlikely to include on their agenda is the decidedly shaky ground on which Abbas is standing, democratically speaking. 
The “State of Palestine” that Abbas is intent on establishing in reality, as well as in wishful thinking, comprises the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza strip. The convenient fiction, adopted on all sides, is that Abbas as president of the PA can negotiate on behalf of all Palestinians because the PA is the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”. 
But the 1.4 million Palestinians who occupy the Gaza strip are not ruled by Abbas and his government but by Hamas, which does not recognise Mahmoud Abbas as president of the PA, rejects the peace process out of hand, and would not under any circumstances conform to any agreement that Abbas might reach with Israel.  Abbas may propose that Gaza be included as part of a putative sovereign Palestine in a two-state solution, but Hamas would have to be dislodged from Gaza before that could be realised. How is this to be accomplished? That is the elephant in the negotiating room.
Hamas is indubitably an extreme Islamist and terrorist organisation which, although winning a majority in the last democratic Palestinian elections held in 2006,   refused to participate with Fatah in a national unity government, and seized power in Gaza in a bloody coup d’état. Nevertheless it has a certain point in challenging the legitimacy of Mahmoud Abbas’s presidency of the PA.
After Yasser Arafat's death in 2004,  Mahmoud Abbas was endorsed by Fatah's Revolutionary Council as its preferred candidate for the presidential election scheduled for 9 January 2005. Although Hamas boycotted the ballot, Abbas was elected with a convincing majority as President of the PA for a four-year term. His term of office therefore ended on 9 January 2009.
Hamas maintained that from the moment Abbas’s mandate expired, Aziz al-Dewik, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, should have become interim president until new elections could be held.
At the time, Fatah argued that the Palestinian election law calls for presidential and parliamentary elections to be held simultaneously, four years after the date of the later of those. Since parliamentary elections were held in 2006, a year after the presidential ones, new elections for both should have been held in January 2010. And indeed, in one of a wearisome succession of abortive reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah held in Egypt in March 2009, the two sides agreed to hold joint elections by 25 January 2010.  
They never happened. The PA government decided to postpone them, arguing that it wanted to safeguard national unity. As a matter of interest, in December 2010 the Palestinian High Court ruled that once the cabinet calls for elections, it does not have authority to cancel them. So the cancellation of the elections was itself illegal.
Subsequent intra-Palestinian political disputes between Fatah and Hamas meant that presidential and parliamentary elections were postponed time after time. Finally, in November 2011 an election date of  May 4, 2012 was agreed between Fatah and Hamas. Once again, however, a squabble erupted, and a further delay was announced. The election would now be held some time after June 2012.
In February 2011, following the resignation of Saeb Erekat as chief negotiator for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the PA executive committee announced that elections would be held before October that year. The reaction? Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for Hamas, said that Abbas did not have the legal right to announce elections.
"Hamas will not take part in this election. We will not give it legitimacy. And we will not recognize the results."
It did not take place.
In October 2011, Abbas sent a further proposal to Hamas for a general election, preferably to be held in early 2012. The proposal was rejected.
Following last year’s upgrade of Palestine to non-member observer state status in the UN, the PA proposed that general elections should follow in 2013, in line with the latest unity talks between Fatah and Hamas. But no date has yet been set, and an election this year now seems impossible.
Meanwhile, Abbas sails serenely on, acknowledged on all sides as President of the PA, or President of the State of Palestine, depending on preference.  It is as if George W Bush, who became president of the United States in 2005 – the same year that Mahmoud Abbas became PA president was somehow able to by-pass the elections of 2007 and 2011 and cling to office, and was still US President. The analogy may be fanciful, it could never happen – within the United States.  But it virtually has happened within the Palestinian body politic, and it illustrates how far along the democratic road Palestinians have yet to travel.
In the meantime, as president de facto, if not in all eyes de jure, Abbas continues to formulate a new PA government from time  to time. After weeks of waiting and speculating, an incoming administration the 16th since the formation of the PA was sworn in on September 19. It turned out to be a carbon copy of the outgoing one. Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and his 24 cabinet ministers, who together had formed the previous government, were sworn in anew in front of the president in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
If the president’s own legitimacy is questionable, how stands the government that he swears in?  Or any agreements that he reaches on thorny political issues?  Or his authority in respect of that great section of territory in which his writ does not run?
Palestine’s democratic deficiencies may yet prove to be a hurdle too high for the peace process to surmount.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 22 September 2013: 

Published in the Eurasia Review, 22 September 2013:

Sunday, 15 September 2013

The chemical-nuclear tie-up

Popular myth, assiduously fostered by the media, is that a throw-away remark by a tired US Secretary of State undermined President Obama’s response to the poison gas attack by the Assad regime on 21 August. 

During a press conference in London, one journalist asked John Kerry: “Is there anything Assad could do to avert a US attack?” 

"Sure,” replied Kerry, “he could turn over every bit of his weapons to the international community within the next week, without delay. But he isn’t about to."

The media were jubilant at what seemed an obvious gaffe,

“American plans for military strikes on Syria were in disarray last night,” trumpeted the London Daily Mail, “after Russia seized on a blunder from US Secretary of State John Kerry.”  The Kerry remarks were “policymaking off-the-top-of-the-head,” said a scathing Washington Examiner.

But was John Kerry’s reply to the journalist merely a throw-away comment with nothing substantial behind it – just an odd thought that happened to come to him after a long, tiring day? Consider this no sooner were the words out of Kerry’s mouth, than Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov was saying: “We also call on the Syrian leadership not only to put chemical weapons storage facilities under international control, but also to destroy them afterwards.”  Is there any significance in the rapidity with which Russia supported Kerry’s suggestion?

The usually trustworthy Israel-based Debkafile, which specialises in political analysis, is convinced that Russia’s backing for the initiative is part of a behind-the-scenes deal linking Syria’s chemical weapons débacle with Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions.  Debkafile asserts that secret trilateral talks between the US, Russia, and Iran had been in progress for three weeks prior to Secretary Kerry’s “off-the-cuff” remarks, and that when he made them, a formula had already been agreed for defusing the Syrian chemical weapons issue without the use of military force, as a part of an agreement to facilitate direct nuclear talks between the US and Iran.

There are other indicators of a secret agreement linking Iran’s latest strategy on protecting its nuclear program with the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.  The new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, announced on September 10 that the meeting of the UN General Assembly later this month “may prove the perfect setting to reignite talks about the nation’s nuclear program.”  Shortly afterwards as a counter-gesture of good will one presumes the US Treasury Department lifted a string of long-standing sanctions restricting humanitarian and related exchanges between the US and Iranian non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

It is suggested that in exchanges between the US and Russian presidents, Putin assured Obama that an agreed formula for defusing the Syrian chemical weapons issue without military force would provide the key to progress in nuclear talks with Iran. Debkafile asserts that high-ranking Iranian officials were present in Damascus and Moscow throughout the Obama-Putin discussions on Syria, and that points of agreement were brought to Tehran for approval.

As a result, as soon as the Russians had pledged to bring Assad’s chemical arsenal under international control and destroyed, Tehran announced it would engage in direct dialogue with Washington when the next UN General Assembly session opens in New York on September 23 – a step it had consistently refused to take. The state-run Iranian news agency reported Rouhani, who is due to attend this month’s United Nations gathering with his foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, as saying he would use that UN occasion to get talks with the international community up and running again.

Meanwhile, it is suggested that in another part of his deal with the Russian president, Obama did not object to Moscow providing the Syrian army with a fresh supply of advanced weapons in substantial quantities to compensate Assad for giving up his chemical arsenal.  And indeed, on September 6, the Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported that a large amphibious ship, the Nikolai Filchenkov, which belongs to the Black Sea fleet, would make a passage from the Crimea to the Russian seaport of Novorossiysk, “where the cargos due to be delivered to the Syrian port of Tartous will be loaded into it.”

All this high-powered diplomacy seems to have resulted in a win-win situation all round. 

The Russia-Iranian-Syrian axis has averted a much-feared military strike by the United States, which could not only have degraded Assad’s fighting capability, but decisively altered the balance of power in Syria itself and the region generally.  Neither Russia nor Iran wished to see the loss of influence that US involvement in the conflict might have brought about.  Additionally Russia, as broker of the non-military resolution of the Syria débacle, has achieved a significant propaganda coup on the world stage, while Iran’s so-called “moderate” president has provided Iran’s nuclear program with even more time to proceed towards its goal of achieving nuclear weapon capability. Even Assad will gain by a substantial additional supply from Russia of conventional weapons to assist him in clinging on to power.

As for the Obama administration, it is already claiming – with some justification that without the clearly stated wish of the President to use military means to punish Assad for slaughtering 1500 of his own people with poison gas, the non-military resolution of Syria’s chemical weapon usage would never have taken place.  Obama clearly regarded the military approach as a last resort, and the fact that he is now able to provide the American public with an outcome which did not involve its use is a feather in his cap.

There is clearly more than meets the eye to the resolution of the Syrian chemical weapons issue.  It seems to be a classic case of wheels within wheels.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 15 September 2013

Published in the Eurasia Review, 15 September 2013: 

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Islam's political schism

“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” is an old English saying.  In other words, when offered a present, it’s bad manners to examine it for defects.  Accept it graciously, however flawed it may be, and whatever the motives of the giver.

Old English sayings do not travel well to the Middle East.  For example, recent New Year (Rosh Hashana) messages of goodwill to the Jewish people emanating from Iran a gift horse indeed have been received with more than a little scepticism.  The first arrived on the eve of Rosh Hashana, Wednesday September 4, as a tweet from the newly–elected President of Iran, Hassan Rohani: “As the sun is about to set here in Tehran, I wish all Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a blessed Rosh Hashana.”  It was accompanied by a picture of an Iranian Jew bowing his head in prayer.

The gilt was somewhat taken off the gingerbread – to quote yet another old English saying – when the authenticity of the message was openly questioned by Fars News, an Iranian news agency close to the Revolutionary Guards.  An official was quoted as saying the president did not have a Twitter account.

Not true, say observers of the Iranian scene.  The account has semi-official status and is kept active by Rohani's supporters with his consent.  In fact, it is not surprising that the president maintains a Twitter account he is only following in the footsteps of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Kahmenei, who tweeted the whole nation just prior to the recent presidential elections.

Rohani’s message was further validated when Iran’s new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, tweeted his own New Year message to Jews in Iran and worldwide and, to remove all doubt of his intentions, confirmed in an interview given to Iran’s Tasnim news agency and published on Zarif's Facebook page, that he had indeed sent the "Happy Rosh Hashana" message.

   As a matter of record, he followed his message up with a unequivocal affirmation of the Holocaust and repudiation of the often stated position of ex-president Ahmadinejad on the matter: "Iran never denied it. The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone. Happy New Year."

The motives of Iran’s newly-elected president and foreign minister in making these gestures are indeed open to question.  The political reality within Iran is that the Supreme Leader has supreme power.  Any apparent change of direction regarding the state’s attitude to Judaism, Jews and Israel, its nuclear objectives or its regional ambitions, must be considered a tactical move designed to achieve Iran’s aims by more subtle means.  The suspicion must be that the new administration has the approval of the Supreme Leader in trying a new approach, designed to soften up the West by encouraging left/liberal opinion which disapproves of sanctions, favours dialogue, and appears to believe that Iran has no ambitions to become a nuclear power.

   However the majority of the Islamic world will not be taken in by Rohani’s soft soap approach.  This is made crystal clear by the revelations that emerged from the 250,000 confidential US documents that were published in November 2010 by WikiLeaks, the website dedicated to disseminating covertly acquired information. For they show that, contrary to their public positions, Arab leaders strongly support, and indeed campaigned for, a US attack on Iran’s growing nuclear programme.  According to the leaked documents Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah “frequently exhorted” the US to bomb Iran and “cut the head off the snake.”  He warned Washington that if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, “everyone in the region would do the same, including Saudi Arabia.”

Abu Dhabi’s crown prince is reported to have said that Iran was seeking regional domination, and urged Americans to “take out” its nuclear capacity, or even send ground troops.  Iran “is going to take us to war … it’s a matter of time.” 

The king of Bahrain said the US “must terminate” Iran’s nuclear programme, “by whatever means necessary”.   Zeid Rifai, then president of Jordan’s senate, said: “Bomb Iran, or live with an Iranian bomb.”  President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt expressed a “visceral hatred” for the Islamic Republic.  Even Syria, Shia Muslim as Iran is, according to conversations with Turkish officials, was sounding “alarm bells.”

         In short no Arab government accepted Iran’s claim that its nuclear programme is merely peaceful.  More to the point, perhaps, the WikiLeaks documents revealed that, far from the Israel-Palestine conflict being of prime importance in the minds of the majority of Arab League nations, it is Iran that looms largest as a source of concern.  This explains – and explanations have been sparse why the Arab League has repeatedly endorsed its 2002 Peace Plan, recently softened its terms of reference, and virtually pushed PA President Mahmoud Abbas to the negotiating table.

   Two vital factors need to be borne in mind in considering power politics in the world of Islam: first, that the Sunni brand of Islam represents up to 90 per cent of the Muslim world, and second that Iran is not an Arab nation, but is the champion of  Shia Islam, supporting the Assad regime in Syria by way of the Hezbollah fighters it controls, funds and equips.

The Arab world today feels threatened by Iran’s efforts to create a Shi’ite axis from Iran, Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, allied to its endeavours to acquire nuclear weapons that will make it the leading power in the region.  As Israel’s Intelligence Minister, Yuval Steinitz, pointed out recently, the Arab world feels no less threatened than Israel, for they can see a hundred thousand Sunni Muslims killed in Syria, more than two million expelled from their homes, and an attempt to turn Syria into a Shi’ite Iranian state – an enterprise halfway to achievement already in Lebanon, and with a similar struggle in Iraq. If all that succeeds, then the Persian Gulf and Jordan will be half encircled by an Iranian Shi’ite axis. Faced with that prospect, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute pales into comparative insignificance. So, says Steinitz, they banged on the table and said to Abbas: “Stop your games about preconditions, and talk to the Israelis.” 

It seems clear that within the political world of Sunni Islam a strong streak of realpolitik has emerged. 

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 8 September 2013: