New Age Islam Edit Bureau
11 September 2015
A New Tahrir Moment?
By Vijay Prashad
Europe’s Immigration Debacle; Who Is To Blame?
By Mrutyuanjai Mishra
Mumbai Meat Ban: ‘Get Off the Ban-Wagon’
By Pratap Bhanu Mehta
A New Tahrir Moment?
By Vijay Prashad
September 12, 2015
Protests for civic services in Baghdad and Beirut bring hope, even as sectarianism rages in West Asia.
Just as the wild furies of sectarianism threaten to tear apart West Asia, massive protests on a civic basis took place in Baghdad and Beirut. In both cities, the populations rose up out of frustration over a lack of basic services and corruption. During the hot summer, power cuts plagued Baghdad, even as garbage piled up on the streets of Beirut. In both Iraq and Lebanon, leaders of various sectarian groups lived comfortable lives in their gated zones. The gap between their lavish existence and the privations suffered by ordinary people sent millions of Iraqis and Lebanese onto the streets. In Baghdad, a banner celebrated the street’s ethics, “From Baghdad to Beirut — Not Sunni, Not Shia. Ours is a Civil State.” This was wishful thinking, but it was nonetheless brought to life in the demonstrations.
In both Iraq and Lebanon, the political elite acknowledged the frustrations of their public. They could not merely send in their security forces. Few leaders sneered at the demands, even if they snubbed the activists. The lack of civic services is a serious problem across West Asia. Extremist organisations know this well. When Islamic State took Raqqa in 2013, one of the first things it did was to secure garbage removal. Ideology is central, but it is meaningless if basic municipal services are absent. Lebanon’s 1989 ceasefire after its civil war was built on the principle of mutual co-existence of the various sects, whose leaders then divided the spoils of the country. Much the same kind of sectarian constitution was created in Iraq during the U.S. occupation. Contracts for power generation, garbage removal, and telecommunications delivery are parcelled out amongst the warlords. Sectarian corruption is rooted in the system. It will not be easy to dislodge.
Embers of a post-sectarian world are not hard to find across West Asia. They are also found in the Syrian refugee camps. Given the nature of the war in Syria, one would expect that the rancid wires of sectarianism would tear apart the fragile sense of Syrian nationality. But this is not the case, as survival is the main objective.
Nonetheless, sectarianism — the cord that divides Sunni from Shia and from other minorities — remains. Arab nationalism of the 1950s and 1960s worked to overcome social divides and unite people around the idea of the Arab. It was a powerful device that held sway for at least a generation. But Arab nationalism threatened Saudi ideas of Islamic royalty, which was itself endangered by the Islamic republicanism of Iran. These geopolitical tangles gave vitality to sectarian anxieties, which had been otherwise dented by Arab nationalism. Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia are mirrored in the rise of IS, whose hatred is much sharper against the Shia than against the West. No wonder then that Saudi Arabia’s current war against Yemen — which began in late March — continues undaunted, fully loaded with sectarian venom and U.S.-supplied weaponry. There is no talk of a ceasefire there, despite the UN’s plea that the country is already a humanitarian catastrophe. Sectarian geopolitics fuels the Saudi jets in Yemen, as it also fires Riyadh’s antipathy to a peace agreement for Syria. Better, for the Saudis, to drag the Arab world bleeding through the ashes of its capitals than to find a way to dial down the sectarianism.
The Ashes of Sectarianism
Last week, an ill-fated meeting in Doha hoped to find a way out of the volatility in Iraq. The U.S. occupation had banned the Ba’ath Party and prevented its people from entry into the state bureaucracy. This was a gift to Iran’s proxy in Iraq, the largely Shia Islamic Dawa Party. Honed in their Iranian and Syrian exile, the leadership of the Dawa Party saw the world through the lens of sect and revenge. The banned Ba’ath allowed Dawa and its allies to dominate Iraqi politics, now marked by sectarianism thanks to the U.S.-foisted constitution of 2005. Remnants of the Ba’ath, which had helped IS come to power in Mosul last year, have now broken with their improbable allies. The Qatari government invited the Muslim Brotherhood member of the Iraqi Parliament, Salim al-Jabbouri, to sit down with the illegal Ba’ath leadership and discuss the formation of a new anti-IS Sunni bloc.
Initially backed by the Iraqi government, the meeting was then shunned by Baghdad. Old histories of animosity between the Dawa and the Ba’ath are not easy to overcome. They are saturated with memories of torture. The best outcome of the Doha meeting would nonetheless be far from the civic protests in Baghdad. It would merely be along the lines of sectarianism — a new Sunni bloc to ally with the Dawa Party against IS. The protestors in Baghdad are too suspicious of their government to allow Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to throw the Dawa behind them. If he is to reclaim a kind of Iraqi nationalism, he will have to do it through the logic of sectarianism. But that road is blocked by the animosity against the Ba’ath from both the Dawa and Iran. Neither is keen to allow the return of their historic enemy.
The failure of the Doha conference says a great deal about the decline of authority of Qatar in the region. Its foreign policy has floundered as that of Saudi Arabia has come to ascendency once more. Saudi King Salman went to Washington during this Doha conference and during the intensification of the Saudi-UAE bombing in Yemen. The main item of discussion was the Iran nuclear deal. Washington is loath to criticise Saudi Arabia for its war in Yemen, which is seen by many as a gift to Riyadh for its tacit support of the nuclear deal. King Salman has suggested to his confidants that once his campaign in Yemen comes to a close, he will put more resources into Syria. But what would those resources seek to do in Syria? Saudi Arabia’s proxy in Syria — Jaish al-Islam — is not as audacious as IS but it is as ruthlessly sectarian. More Saudi involvement would not necessarily mean a drawdown of violence. It could mean precisely the opposite. Saudi Arabia is hell-bent on the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad, even if this means the annihilation of Syria.
The Militarists’ Alternative
If the mass demonstrations provide an alternative (and utopian) path out of sectarianism, older forms of authority provide another roadmap. Saudi Arabia finances Egypt’s government led by Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, who nonetheless met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, an Assad ally, to consider an anti-IS coalition. Sisi, a man of Egypt’s military, has sympathetic ties to Syria’s military — both are children of the era of Arab nationalism. Fear of the rise of extremism unites them. It confounds the Saudi attempt to keep its allies subservient. Neither Assad nor Sisi carries the promise of Arab nationalism; they are tainted by the ghosts of Daraa and Rabaa. But what draws them together is their antipathy to al-Qaeda and IS. This is the soldiers’ alternative to sectarianism. It is at quite a distance from the mass demonstrations of Baghdad and Beirut, themselves a replica of Cairo’s emblematic uprisings of 2011. In Cairo’s Manshiet Nasser or Beirut’s Ouzai, slumlands of the Global South, hopes vest not so much in “the people want to bring down the regime” as in the people want to survive the wrath of the present. That more radical slogan of Tahrir Square came back to life in Baghdad and Beirut, but it meant less. It registered hope against sectarianism and war. Today, in West Asia, this is a radical idea.
Vijay Prashad Director of International Studies at Trinity College, is the Chief Editor at LeftWord Books.
Europe’s Immigration Debacle; Who Is To Blame?
By Mrutyuanjai Mishra
September 12, 2015
“Blame Everyone Else” is the name of the new game in Europe. The Hungarians who are facing a huge migration crisis are now blaming the Germans for their dilemma. They say it is the liberal German rules that are attracting so many refugees. Jean-Claude Junker, president of the European Commission, is blaming it, indirectly, on the eastern European countries, for not welcoming the 160,000 refugees that are at their doorstep and is threatening that equal and fair distribution of refugees is going to be compulsory. Eastern European leaders are reacting by saying that it gives them historical recollections of past situations of being under the control of those with a higher level of authority. They want to voluntarily decide how many refugees they are willing to allow into their own countries.
Now, the Swedes are blaming the Danes, because refugees do not want to stay in Denmark and are only using it as a country of passage towards their ultimate destination, which is Sweden. The Finnish people are now, in turn, blaming the Swedes for not stopping the refugees and for allowing them to enter Finland. The Norwegians are upset that the whole problem is also at their door. It is a “merry go round” and it seems as though everyone is blaming it on everyone else. The Syrian humanitarian crisis is no longer a distant tragedy; it is in Europe’s backyard.
Four million Syrian refugees, who, at the moment, are outside of Syria, have lost their patience. They have waited all these years, hoping they would soon return to their own country. Now, they can see that there is no Syria to which they can return. Syria is a country, totally devastated by civil war and with the Islamic State making inroads and Bashar-al-Assad forces dug in for a long haul, there is no peace in sight. Every sensible person who wants to give their child a future will make the long march that the Syrians are now taking. Barack Obama did the right thing by announcing that the US is voluntarily going to accept 10,000 more refugees from Syria.
But the interesting thing is, that, while all European politicians keep fighting and blaming each other, none of them have bothered to make the collective effort to find a lasting political solution to the Syrian crisis. This would, of course, entail asking the rich arab countries like Saudi-Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and United Arab Emirates, that they too have an obligation to take in a large number of refugees. These rich arab states have hardly taken any refugees, even though, geographically speaking, they are located in the same region.
The Iraq war showed the world what the consequences of unnecessary intervention can be. Syria is becoming an example of what can happen if the world does not intervene in good time. Americans are experiencing a war fatigue. Quite understandable after the longest war fought in Afghanistan and then an Iraq war, that did not go well either. Displacing Moummar Gaddafi produced conditions congenial for Islamic fundamentalists to reign in the region. This has frustrated people in the West, who believe that they need the money and want that money to be available for subsidizing welfare benefits for their own children and grandchildren. Neither Europe nor America is in any mood for war.
Here is the dilemma: not taking any action in Syria, has brought the problems closer to home. If it were only genuine Syrian refugees and if it were only the question of integrating 160,000 new migrants into Europe, the problem would still have been manageable. The crux of the matter is that Eastern European countries are blaming the liberal asylum laws of Sweden and Germany and for their acting as magnates. They believe that this chaos has been created by them and once the migrants achieve German or Swedish nationality, they will be allowed to move freely, anywhere throughout the European Union. Eventually, any citizen of the EU will enjoy the same freedom of movement as any Indian has irrespective of whichever regional state he/she may have been born. This removal of border security has primarily saved billions of dollars in costs and boosted the economy. The breaking down of borders has been good for the economy.
But this humanitarian crisis might put an end to the open borders of Europe. The United Kingdom, Ireland, Denmark and Eastern European countries do not want to be forced to accept a German/Swedish dictate on how they should solve this issue. Likewise, the German and Austrian population is quite appropriately feeling that it is unfair if they alone have to shoulder the burden of the major exodus from the middle-east.
Not all arriving immigrants are from Syria. This situation has unfortunately been exploited by many other people who are not from Syria but want to immigrate to Europe. Nobody had expected just a few years ago, that the problems of the middle-east would spill over into Europe. European countries’ inaction and America´s war fatigue has allowed a beautiful and well functioning country, Syria, to end up as a malfunctioning state. Just a few years back, Syria had accepted thousands of refugees from other neighbouring countries. Who would have expected that they would also have to seek refuge one day?
This crisis does not end here. The Arab spring has turned into a bitter Arab winter. Yemen is experiencing the same environmental crisis that triggered the civil war in Syria. Lack of clean and drinkable water has caused mass-movements and social unrest. While the world leaders resort to the short term “blame it on others” game, nobody is paying attention to the ever increasing environmental threat, that being the shortage of potable water. The mass movement with the help of cheaper technological equipment has just begun.
Lastly, yesterday was September 11th, the sad day when, 14 years ago, we witnessed that 19 hijackers killed nearly three thousand innocent people in New York´s world trade centre and other planned attacks in the US. It was discovered that 15 out of the 19 hijackers of the planes were Saudi citizens. Hardly any European leader is daring to blame the Saudi regime, which has systematically poured billions of dollars into the funding of Sunni terrorist groups throughout the world. These Sunni groups include Al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba. These Saudi sponsored groups have done their part in destabilising Syria, like they have done and succeeded in wiping out the pluralistic Islam.
Syria is an example of, yet another country being destabilized by Islamists who want only one single version of Islam to prevail in this world. Columnist Thomas Friedman wrote, succinctly, in his New York Times article, Sept 2nd, “This Islam, which is now being imposed with the help of Saudi funding is puritanical, anti-modern, anti-women, anti-western, and anti-pluralistic Wahhabi Salafistic Islam.” India was lucky that the Saudi funding of Lashkar-e-Taiba did not create a civil war. Syria was not.
Fourteen years have come and gone since a small group of terrorists, under the leadership of Osama Bin Laden with his declaration of holy war against the USA, and with a budget of only $500,000, succeeded in changing the world order in which we had become so comfortable. The world has paid an enormous price, hundreds of billions of dollars, in creating surveillance and security systems, checkpoints with long lines and inconvenience at airports, and invested hundreds of billions in fighting wars in Afghanistan. Syria is just one of the last states to fall under the pressure of Islamists who want to homogenize Islam and wipe out its plurality.
Europeans and Americans should take their share of refugees. But they should, also, take the bull by the horns and stop those who are causing the problems.
Mumbai Meat Ban: ‘Get Off the Ban-Wagon’
By Pratap Bhanu Mehta
Sep 12, 2015
The contagion of meat bans gripping state after state is producing a fog of mendacious arguments. It has to be stated clearly and in plain terms: These bans violate fundamental liberties, erode the secular character of the state, harm the causes of vegetarianism and non-violence they are ostensibly designed to encourage, and display deep disrespect for religion. No historical jugglery and rhetoric can get around this.
Take the historical jugglery first. It is true that even Congress governments often banned meat. But that only shows that the Congress was opportunistic and deeply muddled about individual liberty. It also freely connived with an invisible but insidious communalism. It is time we moved past the Congress’s mistakes and re-imagined India as a zone of individual freedom, not a prison house of communal piety. The “Congress did it” argument is a necessary historical diagnosis. It is not a remotely plausible normative claim.
The second mendacious historical argument is the practices of pre-modern states. We cite examples of Akbar or princely states observing various kinds of meat bans around festivals, or even prohibitions on beef. These were often treated as gestures to promote communal harmony. But it is a mark of just how confused we are about modern constitutional politics that we see pre-modern states as defining our constitutional and legal horizons. Many of these states could be benevolent, but they were embedded in structures that did not recognise individual liberty and rights in the modern sense.
Toleration or respect was dependent upon the benevolence of the ruler, not claimed as a matter of individual right. The state needed toleration because it did not grant rights; it needed gestures of inclusion because rulers freely professed the hegemony of their religion. In a modern state, it cannot be the state’s business to tell people what to eat, unless on public health or such grounds. The strength of a modern state is that it does not make rights dependent on a politics of gesture or benevolence. My liberty cannot be held hostage to someone else’s beliefs.
The third strange argument is that meat bans are a sign of respect. The more you ban in the name of religion, the more derision you will evoke for it. In the case of Maharashtra, respect is ostensibly being extended to Jains. This is a typical BJP move: Invoke minorities for what is essentially a play of brute majoritarian power. First, a real culture of respect in a diverse society would involve genuine reciprocity.
I wonder what the votaries of meat bans would think of compulsory fasting for non-Muslims on a number of days during Ramzan, since fasting itself would not violate any ethical principles. The respect argument is bunkum. It is asymmetric in getting others to give up their liberty for one religion. This is not respect; it’s an exercise of power. Respect is not something that’s imposed. Coercion is the antithesis of respect.
The other response to this asymmetry will often be to compensate by finding gestures of respect for other religions. But Indian secularism has been marred by this competitive politics of respect, which breeds group insecurity and competition. The state will always look partisan here. There are so many sensitive issues on which we have to delicately move towards a more modern regime based on citizenship — a common civil code or at least a framework for equal gender rights, the bizarre discrimination we have instituted where “majority”-run education institutions cannot have the autonomy that “minority” ones do — but these can only be tackled when the state does not exude a whiff of partisan and cultural hegemony.
The fourth self-defeating argument is that somehow these meat bans will actually promote less cruelty, or more vegetarianism. I happen to be a vegetarian. I believe there is too much unnecessary violence in the slaughter of animals for consumption and so on. I would prefer a world in which these beliefs were more widely shared and became default common sense. I hope these values can one day be defended not as beliefs of a particular religion, but as products of public reason. They should be objects of genuine ethical conversion. But we have not yet arrived at that point. State bans make the possibility of a healthy debate over these things less likely. They tie issues like vegetarianism or non-violence to sectarian identities, not to ethical values; they relocate them from the realm of rational and moral argument to the domain of cultural politics. The minute these values become an act of cultural power, they invite more resistance. It is hard to locate vegetarianism on a plane other than Brahmanism, Jainism or Sanskritisation, so just raising these issues becomes a matter of competing identities, not moral arguments.
In an era of individual liberty, the mere fact that something is imposed does and should make it an object of suspicion. Paradoxically, it is easier to discuss, even proselytise, these values when there is no threat of a ban. Similarly, there are issues with bans on liquor. There are genuine social issues with drinking in India, and the violence and devastation it brings. But the minute the spectre of massive state intrusion is raised by the prospect of a ban, it becomes harder to sensitively confront these issues. The more you use state power to ban things, the more they will be contested. Like our demands for bans on books, the intent is to assert community power and draw attention, not solve a real problem.
A genuine secularism in India requires that the forces of individual liberty be given priority over social orthodoxy, that our rights as citizens become progressively detached from our particular identities, that there is genuine distrust of the state’s intrusive power over individual lives. By pushing us back into the competitive politics of respect, the BJP is stoking the very fires it wanted to avoid. By making state power regulate intimate aspects of our lives, like what we eat and drink and wear, it is displaying its commitment to maximum government. And by constantly changing the narrative back to identity politics, it is displaying just how fragile and faltering its grip on new India is. No wonder the government seems distracted and confused.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta is president, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, and contributing editor, ‘The Indian Express’