tag: Middle East



19
Apr 2011

On This Deity: 18th April 1955

Yesterday’s article at On This Deity was by yours truly…

18th April 1955: The Death of Albert Einstein.

On the 18th of April 1955 Albert Einstein died in Princeton Hospital, New Jersey. He was 76 years old. One of the chief architects of the modern era, there are few other individuals whose impact on human culture has been so significant. Fifty years earlier, in 1905, during what would later be referred to as his “miracle year”, Einstein published a series of papers that sparked a revolution in physics, laying the groundwork for twenty years of remarkable work. Papers that not only revolutionised the field in which he specialised, they revolutionised the world around him. In an era when established orthodoxies were under fire from all sides… from Marx and Darwin… from Nietzsche, Freud and Joyce… from technological advance and an emerging mass media, Einstein overturned the most fundamental orthodoxy of them all – Newtonian Physics.

Our well-ordered clockwork universe dissolved into a seething ocean of quantum uncertainty, and nothing was ever quite the same again.

read the rest…

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22
Feb 2011

Israel, Iran and what’s not reported

The first thing to point out is that I’m no fan of either Israeli or Iranian government policy. Both nations appear (to me at least) to be suffering their own collective psychoses. Israel’s is a type of post-traumatic stress exacerbated by decades surrounded by hostile neighbours, so that it’s developed into a paranoid psychosis. Iran, on the other hand, spent decades trapped within a classic double-bind and has now found itself in the grip of religious fundamentalism. I have a great deal of sympathy for the ordinary people of both nations, terrorised as they are by enemies internal and external; real and imagined.

That said, I have very little sympathy for the actions of either government, who appear hell-bent on bringing the region as close to the brink of war as possible. The current civil uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, while to be lauded for ending tyrannical regimes, are likely to make Israel (in particular) more jittery than usual and serve, in that sense, to ratchet tensions up even further.

Let me be clear; this is not an attempted justification or a call for the continuation of these regimes. Tyrants need to be overthrown, and while we all hope this happens with a minimal increase in regional instability, we do not expect a people to remain in oppressive conditions merely to ensure that their twitchy neighbours don’t get spooked. At the same time, we should collectively face up to the likelihood of an increase in regional instability and explore ways to mitigate it.

Because it seems we can’t expect nations in the region to do so. While dictators topple and political vacuums beckon — or else “the army” takes over, which is rarely a good sign no matter what assurances of a future transition to civilian rule are offered — Israel and Iran appear intent on sabre-rattling at what must surely be the least appropriate time to do so.

Warships through The Suez Canal

Middle East map

Today the BBC carries a news story about two Iranian warships passing through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea. As someone who objects to the routine projection of military power beyond national borders (I’m even dubious about the projection of military power within national borders, but that’s an issue of national sovereignty and, within reason, should be left to each nation to decide), I unconditionally condemn this action by Iran. Just as I condemn the US, British (and any other) fleets patrolling the oceans of the world as though someone appointed them custodians of us all. I understand the current need to keep warships in certain areas to help deal with piracy (though this itself is part of a wider issue, and those ships should be flying a UN flag). But I don’t believe the world should accept national navies adopting threatening positions just outside the territorial waters of nations they don’t like.

And Iran’s claim to be conducting exercises with the Syrian navy is farcical. Despite not being a physical threat to Israel, a fact that’s acknowledged in the BBC article, these ships are clearly entering the Mediterranean to piss off the Israelis. No other reason. And a nation like Israel, in the grip of paranoid psychosis, rarely deals with provocation in a rational or proportional manner. Look at their response to the Gaza aid flotilla. Witness their policy of collective punishment whenever Palestinian militants attack — or just threaten to attack — Israel. Provoking Israel is a dumb thing to do, because it can quickly create a situation that spirals out of control.

This is hinted at by the Israeli Foreign Minister himself in that BBC story, when he says:

To my regret, the international community is not showing readiness to deal with the recurring Iranian provocations. The international community must understand that Israel cannot forever ignore these provocations.

Avigdor Lieberman (Israeli Foreign Minister)

It’s familiar rhetoric all right, but no less ominous because of that. And it neglects a crucial element in this “Iranian warships in the Mediterranean” narrative that is currently ongoing. An element that is simply ignored in the four different news stories I’ve read about this issue today. Despite describing this act by Iran as “unprecedented”, why has much of the western media chosen to gloss over the fact that it’s nothing of the kind? Isn’t the fact that Iran’s action is clearly and unambiguously a response to Israel’s 2009 decision to send two warships the other direction through The Suez Canal worthy of reporting?

I’m not saying that “they did it first” is an adequate response to criticism of Iran’s action. It’s certainly a pathetic justification for something that clearly increases the likelihood of a military engagement between two heavily-armed nations. But without that crucial piece of information, Iran’s naval manoeuvre looks like a unilateral act of provocation, when in fact it’s actually another chapter in an ongoing tit-for-tat escalation between two psychotic nations. It must be viewed in that context, and whatever the western response to Iran may be, it must be made in that context.

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28
Jan 2011

Revolution in North Africa

First Tunisia. Then Egypt. Where next?

Tonight the Egyptian regime is teetering on the edge of collapse. A lot of commentators are suggesting that the fall of Hosni Mubarak is inevitable, though I’d be wary of underestimating the man’s tenacity. The domino-effect is somewhat overrated and to simply assume that the pattern we saw in Tunisia will automatically repeat itself in Egypt is to be guilty of questionable generalisation. Certainly opposition movements across the Middle East have been inspired by the Jasmine Revolution, but the complex and unique internal dynamics of each nation cannot be ignored. These aren’t all “the same place” though they may face many of the same problems.

A police van burns on 6th October Bridge

My family lived in Cairo for a couple of years during my mid-teens so I know the city fairly well. Or rather, I knew 80s Cairo fairly well. Much has changed in the intervening years, though the images being broadcast today were of roads, bridges and buildings with which I am very familiar. Watching an honest-to-goodness revolution unfold on streets I once thought of as “home” has been a peculiar experience to say the least. It’s made me think about where else such events might happen.

One thing that hasn’t changed about Egypt since my time there in the mid-80s is the guy in charge. Hosni Mubarak, 25 years older and with saggier jowls, is still running the country. Which is what you’d expect in a “democracy” where the president tends to stand unopposed in elections. And as today’s events demonstrate, that isn’t because he’s universally loved. Mubarak is shrewd as hell and has a much larger and better equipped security apparatus than ex-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia. It still wouldn’t surprise me to see him emerge from this chaos with a firm grip on the reins of power in Egypt. Though I suspect his dream of installing his son as successor is now over.

That said, I’m not suggesting things are looking good for Hosni Mubarak. There are rumours that he has already fled the country but while the odds are certainly stacked against him, they aren’t quite as heavily stacked as they were for the guy twelve hundred miles to his west.

The Devil You Know

Here’s where I get controversial. And please do me the favour of accepting my words at face value rather than trying to read some kind of veiled pro-Mubarak sentiment into them, or suggesting I’m putting forward a pro-western neoliberal neocolonial agenda. Those who know me will understand that’s not where my concerns are coming from. Those who don’t will just have to take that on faith.

Firstly let me state, unequivocally, that the Egyptian regime is corrupt, despotic and guilty of more human rights abuses than any of us will ever know. If the world was a truly just place, Hosni Mubarak would face trial for (and be convicted of) crimes against humanity. The people of Egypt deserve much better. And I fully support their attempts to achieve it.

However, the unintended consequences of those attempts could have ramifications far beyond the borders of Egypt. As I listened to reports of today’s protests on Al Jazeera, something was said… just once and not repeated… that made me feel a little uneasy. “Several members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been arrested in the past 24 hours” said the reporter. I have no idea whether the Muslim Brotherhood is playing any part in the current situation. In reality, even if they have nothing whatsoever to do with it, Hosni Mubarak’s “round up the usual suspects” approach will have made them targets. What I do know is that some members of the Egyptian opposition have called upon the Brotherhood to form militia units to maintain order in the absence of the police. Mubarak’s efficient suppression of opposition groups will ensure a power vacuum if he is ousted in the next few days, and it seems very possible that the Muslim Brotherhood will be best-placed to take advantage of that vacuum.

Now, before you accuse me of anti-Muslim sentiment let me point out that my problem is with hardliners of any religion having too much political influence. Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish State gives me the creeps. The subordination of Iranian politics to the clerics appals me. And they both pale into insignificance compared with how appalled I am by the thought of the Christian Right gaining any more power in the United States than they already possess. The grip that Catholicism had on my country, Ireland, was nightmarish and I don’t wish to see a similar fate visited upon any other nation.

I do not see The Islamic Republic of Egypt to be a better option than what the Egyptians had last week. And there’s a real danger that could emerge from this situation. Neither are desirable of course, but the former — and this is the crucial point — seriously increases the possibility of another Arab-Israeli conflict. And that would be a disaster for the entire region, if not the world.

The Fall of The House of Saud

Meanwhile, during my time spent online today, I’ve encountered numerous tweets and blog posts and facebook comments excitedly anticipating the spread of this revolutionary fervor to Saudi Arabia… a regime far more brutal and oppressive than Egypt. I’ve also spent time there, and if ever there was a nation in need of regime change it’s Saudi Arabia.

However, while the dangers of the relatively secular Egyptian society falling under the spell of theocrats are real but not massive; the fall of the Saudi Royal Family would almost certainly result in the rise of a hardline Islamist government. See, people have this idea of Saudi Arabia being run by Islamists, but in fact the reality is more complex. Yes, it’s a society run along fundamentalist islamic principles, but the people right at the very top are cynical realists rather than True Believers. They pander to the religious tendencies within their culture, but they work hard to keep things on an even keel with regards to foreign policy. Purely for their own purposes, you understand, but it nonetheless maintains a certain level of peace in the region.

I want you to consider two crucial facts about Saudi Arabia… One: They are by far the largest oil exporter on the planet. Two: By percentage of GDP, they have the largest defence budget of any major country on the planet (and in real terms are the 8th biggest spender on weapons… spending almost 3 times more per annum than Israel on guns, bombs and planes).

I suspect that a Saudi revolution could lead to a radical Islamist government, and I suspect that in turn could lead to war with Israel. Nobody is more convinced than me that the world needs to wean itself off its addiction to oil. And I’m also convinced that Israel’s policy towards the Palestinian people needs to change. I’m just not sure that a Saudi-Israeli war is the optimum way of achieving those ends.

In summary

I don’t for a moment want to give the impression that these are “predictions”. They are very much worst-case scenarios and I will be overjoyed if a wave of revolutions sweep the Middle East and North Africa leaving stable secular governments in their wake. Republics that fully maintain their Islamic cultural heritage while remaining pluralist, tolerant and non-confrontational. That would be my ideal and if Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution turns out to be the spark that set off such a beautiful flame, then it will be long remembered as one of the most positive developments in the history of a region for too long dominated by ruthless despots, unaccountable royal families and corrupt bureaucracies.

But history teaches us that revolutions rarely end up at the glorious destination envisioned by those who participate in them. Let us all hope that this time round, history won’t repeat itself.

UPDATE: As if on cue, a spokesman for the hardline Iranian government has come out in support of the uprisings in the secular Arab states and expresses his “optimism” about the situation in Egypt.

UPDATE 30-01-2011: Meanwhile Tunisia’s Islamist leader returns home after 22 years in exile.

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9
Dec 2010

On This Deity: 9th December 1987

I’ve got another piece up on Dorian’s excellent On This Deity

9th December 1987: The First Intifada.

Today we mark the beginning of the first Palestinian Intifada in 1987. Various end dates are cited, usually falling between the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991 and the Mehola Junction bombing of 1993, but arguably the conditions and enmities created during those first years have characterised Israeli-Palestinian relationships ever since, however one chooses to draw the timeline.

read the rest…

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2
Apr 2007

No! Not the comfy chair!

Just over a week ago, fifteen British service personnel were captured by the Iranian navy. Iran claims the British soldiers were half a kilometre inside Iranian territory and — according to the recording function on their GPS navigation — had regularly entered Iranian waters as part of their patrols. The captured soldiers confirm this version of events. Of course, the British response is “you’re fooling nobody, Mahmoud”. The troops were in Iraqi waters, goes the British argument, and are now being fed scripted lines to speak on-camera by the dastardly Iranians!

Clearly there’s only a handful of people who know the truth, and neither you nor I, dear reader, will ever be among them. Long after these troops are released (as certainly they will be) the UK will claim they did nothing wrong and Iran will claim they illegally entered their territory. So that particular fact is unlikely to ever be resolved. Mind you, it’s worth pointing out that as far as Iran is concerned, US/UK troops in Iraqi territory constitute an illegal army of occupation. Nonetheless, the incident has highlighted some intriguing differences in the manner in which Iran has treated these soldiers and how the US/UK coalition treats captured “enemy combatants”.

There are those who will dismiss the comparison. We’re not at war with Iran, they’ll point out, so British troops aren’t “enemy combatants” as far as Iran should be concerned. Which would be a good point if it wasn’t such bullshit. Under Tony Blair, the British military has been transformed into an extension of U.S. foreign policy. And it’s not just any U.S. administration we’re talking about. It’s the regime of George W. Bush; a man who announced that Iran was part of an axis of evil and then bombed the hell out of its neighbours to the east (Afghanistan) and to the west (Iraq). According to one estimate, between 2 and 3 percent of the Iraqi population has died violently since the US/UK launched their invasion.

If China openly announced that it considered the UK to be “evil” and then launched massive bombing campaigns and invasions of France and Ireland, followed up by routine patrols right along the edge of British waters while all the time urging the rest of the world to impose crippling sanctions against Britain as response to their nuclear programme; then I submit to you that any captured Chinese military personnel would be treated as ‘the enemy’.

I also submit to you, based upon the recent track-record of Britain and the United States, that the captured Chinese would receive far worse treatment than the British soldiers have so far received in Iran.

We do not, of course, know how the British personnel have been treated while the cameras have been turned off. We don’t know whether they’ve been stripped naked except for the bags over their heads and then forced to simulate sex with one another. We don’t know whether they’ve had to huddle naked in the corner of a tiny cell while Iranian soldiers held massive snarling dogs just inches away. We don’t know whether they’ve had electric wires held to their genitals or were piled high so that Iranian guards could laugh at them and take souvenir snaps.

Conversely, I suppose you could argue that we only saw the worst of Abu Ghraib. We didn’t see the detainees sitting around in comfy chairs, sharing a cigarette and a joke, before being fed good meals and asked nicely to apologise for whatever wrongs they were accused of. I wonder why.

Iran has thus far resisted the temptation to make the captured soldiers “disappear” into a shadowy system of unofficial prisons and rendition flights. They haven’t dumped them into an illegal and immoral prison camp in Cuba to rot without representation. They haven’t decided to hold them for years without charge.

Incidentally, did anyone else notice this report from a couple of weeks ago… Escape from UK-run prison in Iraq…? There’s a line in the report, about halfway in, that completely overshadows the relatively mundane story in the headline… A security source told the agency that the prisoners had been held without charge for the past two years. It seems that Britain’s reluctance to criticise Guantanamo Bay too loudly is now explained… the British government is running one or more similar institutions itself. And why is it that we only hear about Britain locking people up for years without charge when the prisoners stage an escape?

If Iran treated these prisoners the way Britain and America treat enemy prisoners, we wouldn’t have heard about them once they’d been captured. They’d have disappeared into some anonymous camp to be degraded, terrorised and tortured. Within a couple of years, some of them may have been driven to suicide. An act that the Iranians would describe as “a good PR move“.

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1
Aug 2006

Tribal mindset

The television news reporter was on the streets of Tel Aviv tonight. He was gathering vox pops from “ordinary Israelis” about the conflict currently raging on their northern border. A woman with an Israeli-American accent expressed concern and regret about the civilian deaths in southern Lebanon. But, she pointed out, those people had been warned. The Israeli government had told them to leave their villages, so it wasn’t Israel’s fault that they were getting killed.

I was struck by the odd way that people – even educated Israeli-American students with tie-dyed t-shirts who probably have all manner of liberal social views – will develop a fundamentalist tribal mindset that allows them to judge Them and Us by radically different standards.

If the Syrian army announced that it was soon to begin carrying out airstrikes against Northern Israel, would the people living there voluntarily leave? Because the Syrians told them to? The memory of what happened when their own government asked Israeli settlers to leave illegally occupied territory is still fairly fresh.

You see, by and large, people try to avoid being driven from their land by foreign armies. By anyone in fact. So me? I blame Hezbollah for the deaths in Northern Israel. I blame the people who launched the missiles and those who told them to… aware that they may well be condemning decent, peaceful human beings to violent deaths. I certainly don’t blame the victims of terrorism because they refused to obey orders from the very people launching bombs at them. Indeed, to blame a dead child in Haifa for its own death at the hands of Hezbollah attackers is a peculiarly twisted thing to do.

Similarly, when a dead body is pulled from the rubble of southern Lebanon, it takes a twisted fundamentalist mindset to blame the person whose life has been stolen. All bombing is terrorism.

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29
Jul 2006

Couldn't make it up

Under the new law, which takes effect on Saturday, anyone offering food or drink to a homeless person will risk a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.

I was watching the TV news this evening. It was dominated by news from the Middle East. But most of it just passed through me like a deadening mist. I’ve been hearing and reading about conflict in that region for my entire life… tonight’s news reports could have been archive footage from a decade ago. Or two. Only the flashy graphics and the haircuts of the reporters gave an indication that this was today and not yesteryear.

I still find it remarkable that the Israeli military can murder four unarmed UN observers and receive naught but a statement of regret from the international community. Can you imagine if Saddam Hussein had killed four weapons inspectors back in the day? That would probably have justified a full US invasion on its own. Apparently though, the west is happy enough to allow its friends murder unarmed civilians and UN observers.

Woe betide anyone not singing from America’s hymn sheet though. They just have to be accused of thinking about building WMD and they get bombed to hell, invaded and plunged into a civil war. Or did we bomb Iraq to hell, invade it and plunge the nation into civil war because Saddam Hussein was a bad man? I honestly don’t know what absurd justification is currently being used to explain the disaster occurring over there.

As the news continued, I listened with a resigned bitterness as aid agencies called for a temporary ceasefire to evacuate the remaining civilians from Southern Lebanon (mostly the elderly and infirm who have been unable to leave under their own steam) and an Israeli minister calmly refused.

I watched with muted outrage as the bloodied corpse of a seven year old girl was pulled from a pile of rubble while her injured father wailed and beat his chest. “Muted” because the images were so similar to the images on the news almost every night now. Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon… US-made weapons of mass murder destroying Arab lives, homes and nations.

And we wonder why a bunch of them are so pissed off?

But it was only when I heard keyboard-player Condi Rice insist that the USA would only call for a ceasefire if it was “sustainable” that I was shaken out of my nostalgia (my Dad worked in Beirut for a while in the 80s, so I got some first-hand accounts and current events are one big déja vu… there’s a funny story involving my Dad and Yasser Arafat as it happens, but this probably isn’t the post for that). That “sustainable peace” line is the same one I heard from “Yo” Blair. A sustainable ceasefire.

I recall the words of Jesus Christ as he delivered his sermon on the mount… “Blessed are the Peacemakers”, He said, “but only if it’s a sustainable peace. Otherwise they can fuck right off”.

It seems to me that getting people to stop murdering each other is pretty much objectively A Good Thing. Even if they only stop for a few days. That’s a few days when nobody gets murdered… where no 7-year old corpses are dragged from charred rubble as their fathers watch in horror. If the USA and the UK could ensure a few days respite from this awful conflict just by asking, then they are complicit in murder by remaining silent. I guess Dubya and Yo now have so much blood on their hands that a few 7-year-olds per day simply doesn’t register anymore.

And then, as I watched the news, a non-Middle East story came on. It was in the “and finally…” slot, but was hardly much relief. It turns out that Las Vegas is the first city in the United States to make it actively illegal to feed the poor. Yup, giving food to a hungry homeless Vietnam veteran (or even a hungry homeless conscientious objector) could now land you in prison.

It calls to mind another biblical quote. This one from St. Paul… “Now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. Unless it involves feeding homeless people of course. God hates that shit.

Indeed, it’s a little known fact (the Lost Gospel of St. Bastid is the only place you’ll find it) that Jesus ordered his apostles – sometimes known as the 12 Bouncers – to make sure no homeless people got into the fishes and loaves shindig. “All are welcome at My Father’s table”, He insisted, “except the homeless obviously. They smell of pee sometimes and creep me out. Also, property values in heaven would plunge. We can’t be having that.”

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10
Jun 2006

Thoughts on the report of a massacre

I was watching the TV news last night. From the Middle East came yet another horror story to chill the blood of anyone with an ounce of empathy or compassion. On the BBC website the story is headlined, Hamas militants vow to end truce. The wording of the headline angers me, although the events reported anger me far more.

There’s a trend among right wing mouthbreathers to insist that the BBC has a significant bias against Israel when discussing the Israeli / Palestinian situation. This trend is perhaps exemplified by Biased BBC but by no means confined to them (anyone citing Melanie Phillips as an authority rather than a cautionary example clearly isn’t receiving the medication they require).

I doubt, for instance, that the next deplorable act of Palestinian terrorism will be reported beneath the headline “Israeli army vows new airstrikes”. I suspect, rather, that the headline will quite rightly call attention to the innocent children murdered. So why is a report – the primary content of which is the murder of a Palestinian family by the Israeli military – headlined by a threat of violence from Palestinians?

Hamas news clipping

Perhaps there’s another story somewhere on the BBC site beneath the headline “Israeli military shells Palestinian children”, but if so it’s well hidden. Unlike the one on the site front page.

I’m also somewhat irate about the use of the phrase “apparent Israeli shelling”. I understand of course, that so soon after a chaotic event such as this, there can be no official confirmation of the causes. No investigations have been carried out, no forensic teams have reported their findings from the scene. But within minutes of a suicide bombing, the word “apparent” is dropped from reports. Certainly long before the Israeli government gives its official reaction.

This is because it is obviously a suicide bombing. Eye witnesses confirm it, and the aftermath tells its own story. Is there a tacit assumption that Palestinian eye witnesses just aren’t as reliable as their Israeli counterparts? Is there any reason at all to believe that the Palestinians killed had set up a makeshift bomb-factory on the beach (I’ll bet the sand plays merry hell with the microswitches) and they were a victim of their own murderous intentions? Any evidence that the eye-witnesses who talk about an incoming shell are deliberately covering up the truth?

Certainly the television news made it clear that there was some confusion as to whether the shell came from a naval gunship a few miles offshore, or whether it was army artillery to blame, but there seems no doubt that it was a shell from the Israeli military. It appears that…

For many months, the Israelis have regularly shelled open areas such as fields and orchards in an effort to prevent Palestinian militants using them to fire their home-made missile into crudely made missiles into nearby Israeli territory.

I wonder what the life-expectancy of Palestinian fruit farmers is? (And yes, I know that BBC quote is awful copywriting / editing)

Statistically speaking that’s a policy guaranteed – over a long enough timescale – to result in events like yesterday’s massacre. Whether it’s faulty mechanical equipment or human error, if you spend several months shelling areas, some of your explosives are going to stray off course. It’s what the perpetrators euphemistically refer to as “collateral damage”. What Condi described as “tactical errors”. What many moral philosophers and legal experts would describe as “murder”.

How’s this for a defence in court… “well yes, your honour, I did regularly fire my machinegun into the loft of my neighbour’s house. You see, he sometimes uses that loft to shoot at me. Unfortunately I wasn’t paying enough attention yesterday and sprayed the floor below it with bullets instead. I’m sorry to say that his lodger and her 3 year old daughter were killed. But really, what else am I supposed to do? Killing some of my innocent neighbours is the only way to ensure that my family remains safe.”

For me, blowing up someone else’s child in order to reduce the risk to your own is not an acceptable way to act.

The attitude we adopt toward the Arab minority will provide the real test of our moral standards as a people.
- Albert Einstein

There can be little question that the Israeli people are failing that test.

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