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Fifteen Years Is A Long Time To Cling On To The Aspiration Of A Pluralist Bangladesh: New Age Islam’s Selection From World Press, 13 January 2016

New Age Islam Edit Bureau

January 13, 2016

 Fifteen Years Is A Long Time To Cling On To The Aspiration Of A Pluralist Bangladesh

Sushmita S. Preetha

 You are either with us, or against us

Jamal Khashoggi

 In Iran, old habits die hard

Mohammed Alyahya

 Violence In Malda: What Muslims Should Not Do

By Parvin Sultana

 Germany, Britain and Religion: German Politicians Are Both More And Less Religious Than British Ones

The Economist

 Bagehot: Battlefields of the Mind

The Economist

 Obama's Iran opening is his 'Nixon moment'

Howard LaFranchi



Fifteen years is a long time to cling on to the aspiration of a pluralist Bangladesh

Sushmita S. Preetha

January 13, 2016

Fifteen years is a long time to wait for justice, to hope for it. Fifteen years is a long time for a country to deny its people reparation, peace of mind, a feeling of belonging. It is a long time for one political party to get away with orchestrated violence, and for another, to reap the spoils of it, using it as “bait” to win elections.

Fifteen years and we seem to have all but forgotten that, in 2001, right after the BNP-Jamaat alliance came to power, there was a systematic backlash against the Hindu community, who are generally thought to be the “vote bank” of the Awami League. In the worst incidents of communal violence in independent Bangladesh, tens of thousands of Hindu households were rampaged and their property looted, temples were desecrated and set on fire, Hindus were mentally and physically assaulted, even murdered, and Hindu women were raped all around the country. The worst affected areas were in Barisal, Bhola, parts of Pirojpur, Khulna, Satkhira, Gopalganj, Bagerhat, Jessore, Commilla and Narsingdi. Hundreds of Hindu families, fearing further attacks, fled across the border into India. Not surprisingly, many of them have not returned, too afraid to come back to the country that never quite thought of them as its own.

According to eye-witness accounts, media reports at the time and field investigations of different rights-groups and concerned individuals, the attackers were mostly supporters of the BNP-Jamaat alliance. The complicity of the law enforcement agencies and local administration were, in many cases, explicit, and in others, implicit.

Predictably enough, the then government not only denied its own involvement in the violence, but also that such incidents had taken place. The Home Minister at the time, Altaf Hossain Chowdhury, even claimed that the attacks were “baseless, exaggerated and politically motivated”. In the face of widespread national and international outcries, the government was forced to admit that some incidents of violence had taken place, but made no comments about its scale or name the perpetrators.

On November 8, Khaleda Zia formed a secretarial committee to investigate the attacks on members of the minority community across the country and report within a week. It was, however, not an independent committee, for it was headed by Kamaluddin Siddiqui, the principal secretary to the Prime Minister, and supervised by the Home Minister himself – a man who, interestingly enough, was named as a perpetrator of violence in the judicial commission probe in 2011.

With the government itself disavowing the extent of the violence, it is hardly a surprise that not much progress was made in ensuring justice for the victims during the BNP regime. In many cases, the perpetrators were protected by their privilege, access to and power over local administration, which meant that even if and when cases were filed, investigations took place in a thoroughly biased manner (if they took place at all, that is). Many rights organisations, too, backed off from filing cases on behalf of the victims for fear of backlash against them; they were also afraid that if they filed cases under the ruling government, the verdicts would go against the victims.

What is surprising, however, is the lack of any real attention the issue has garnered since the BNP regime. Sure, the AL has been all too apt to point fingers at the BNP-Jamaat for perpetrating the post-election violence when it suits their agenda – and to highlight themselves as a pro-minority party to garner votes – but seven years on, how close are we to bringing the criminals to justice in a systematic manner?

In 2009, the High Court ordered the government to form a commission and launch an inquiry into the violence after the 2001 general elections. The victims of the crimes, their family members and witnesses gave depositions to the commission, which found the involvement of 26,352 people, including 25 ministers and lawmakers of the previous BNP-Jamaat alliance government, in the 2001 post-polls violence. The report, however, was never made public, despite repeated appeals from vested quarters.

According to media reports, the commission recommended bringing the people involved in post-polls violence in 2001 under trial, filing cases against the accused and restoring the cases withdrawn in political consideration. The judicial commission also recommended the formation of short-term investigation committees or investigation commissions at district level involving additional district magistrate, additional police and an executive magistrate to investigate the incidents of political violence and attacks on minority communities, and setting up a monitoring cell at the Home Ministry to coordinate the tasks of the probe bodies. Unfortunately, none of these recommendations have thus far been implemented.

Seven months after the commission filed its report in April 2011, the then Home Minister Sahara Khatun briefed reporters about the findings. She stated that the government would help victims file lawsuits against people alleged to have been involved in the crimes. If the victims were afraid to file the cases, the government would do so on their behalf. She also promised to help the victims financially according to government capacity, as the report had stated that many victims had sought financial help from it.

These were laudable promises, no doubt, and if fulfilled, could go a long way towards ensuring some form of reparation to the aggrieved community. Better late than never, after all. Unfortunately, however, these promises got buried under that never-ending list of pledges made by the government to its people… buried deep and deeper still under lofty promises of bringing peace and order, restoring democracy, ensuring social justice, protecting human rights…  

Then came another [threat of an] election, and with it, another series of attacks on the Hindu community. The AL lost no time in capitalising on the violence against minorities; it helped sell their image as the secular party, after all. Even if we hold BNP-Jamaat to blame (for there were allegations to the contrary), why, we wonder, did the government fail to give due protection to the minority communities this time, given that they had ample notice that Hindus might come under attack, and when the Chief Election Commissioner himself had assured, shortly after the election schedule was published in November 2013, that there would be no repetition of the 2001 atrocities? And beyond the inevitable political blame-game, how many cases were filed and investigations conducted in a free and fair manner? What efforts were given to rebuild the confidence of the affected communities? 

With the AL in power, it was hoped that violence against minority communities would go down significantly. It is distressing to see perpetrators of communal violence being given free reign during its regime, and land grabbing of Hindus and associated violence going on unabated in many parts of the country, allegedly under the patronage of AL-backed cadres and local elites. It is easy enough to blame the BNP-Jamaat for all atrocities against the Hindus, and easier still, for “secular” and “pro-minority” party men to hide under the AL's cloak of so-called pluralism.  

Fifteen years of disavowal and delayed promises later, we must confront the uncomfortable truth that beyond paying lip-service to the “ideals of secularism and tolerance” (if that!), we have done precious little to show we care about the Hindu population of this country, be it through our everyday practices or institutional structures. The statistics speak for themselves: from 25 percent of the total population in 1971, Hindus are now down to just 9.2 percent. If we cannot end the culture of guaranteed impunity to land grabbers, rapists and instigators of violence, and challenge the normalisation of violence and discrimination against Hindus, we may as well admit that the idea of a pluralist Bangladesh is a fantasy at best and a farce at worst.

Sushmita S. Preetha is a journalist and activist.


You are either with us, or against us

Jamal Khashoggi

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Saudis should adopt this phrase while currently facing a major existential crisis. The problem with the slogan is that it became associated with U.S. President George W Bush, who used it after the Sept. 11 attacks, though he was not the first to say it. In his historical address before Congress, Bush aimed to gain public support to retaliate against Osama bin Laden, political Islam, or even Islam itself. I think Bush did not really know the difference between them. “Either you’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists,” he said.

The world found it difficult to accept his ultimatum. Consequently, French-American relations became strained, and developments proved France right. Bush made catastrophic mistakes, and can be held responsible for many disasters, from the global economic crisis that began in his country, to the current situation in the Middle East after leaving Iraq in the hands of Iran and bolstering Al-Qaeda, which led to the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

However, his mistakes do not negate the logic behind the slogan “you are either with us or against us.” Such logic is essential in times of confrontation, and there is a major confrontation between sectarian Iran and free peoples. This struggle is not between Saudi Arabia and Iran, nor between Sunnis and Shiites. Some allies stand by Saudi Arabia against Tehran but not against the “Iranian project,” because they do not yet see it as such.

The conflict is not over borders, oil or gas. Had it been the case, we would have resorted to maps and brought in an army of lawyers and arbitration experts. It is not a conflict for power. After all, what do Saudi influence in Yemen or Iranian influence in Syria mean?

There is no power worth dying for in politics, but Iranians are ready to die and kill in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Had they received the green light, Yemen would have been their fourth battlefield, though the Houthis represent them there in the most hideous way. Why then are Iranians killing our people and getting killed in our world? Because they have an expansionist project, and the time has come to convince our allies of this.

The attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran cannot be fixed by a mere apology or by cutting diplomatic ties. It was the last straw for an eroding relation, and it revealed the extent of Saudi anger toward Iran’s aggression. Riyadh should use the expression “you are either with us or against us” to identify where various parties stand. Each country has its own calculations, interests and internal affairs, but in major battles one cannot sit on the fence.

Riyadh does not mind countries having standard friendly relations with Iran, but will never allow it to have a foothold in Arab countries, and will strongly reject any government loyal to Tehran. I am certain that all Arab and Muslim countries agree with this stance, and so should support Riyadh, which is fighting today for the sake of the entire region. After all, a Syria dominated by Iran is equally harmful to Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Iranian Sectarianism

Our neighboring friends say they do not want a sectarian conflict. It is too late; we have all been pushed against our will into this conflict by Iran, which might not be speaking in a sectarian way but is acting as such. Look at a map and examine where and with whom Iran is fighting.

In Syria, it has been fighting against the people from the first day of the revolution, opposing freedom and supporting dictatorship. In Yemen, it decided to finance and train the Houthis only, not any other party. In Lebanon and Iraq, Iran only lines up with parties, movements and militias that share its sectarian beliefs.

Freedom, democracy, and all values and rights are dashed for the sake of the Iranian project. Tehran is willing to accept ethnic cleansing in the Syrian town of Zabadani, the siege of 40,000 human beings until they die of starvation in Madaya, and the bombing of a hospital in Taiz, whose inhabitants are also starving. Iranian politics is driven solely by sectarianism.

It is in Iran’s interest to have good relations with its neighbors, but Tehran’s thinking is fundamentalist, not patriotic. Like all fundamentalism, it is narrow-minded and capable only of seeing things in black and white. Therefore, today’s confrontation is not between Sunnis and Shiites, but between Shiite fundamentalism and Sunni fundamentalism represented by ISIS.

In Saudi Arabia we are suffering from both, and they were equally stricken by the Saudi judicial sword on Jan. 2, when 47 prisoners convicted of terrorism were executed. We are not standing in the face of Iran because we are fundamentalists, but due to its aggressive expansionism. We hope for the return of a nationalist Iran that could even become the kingdom’s partner.

We are witnessing the same conditions as Europe in 1939. When Hitler invaded Poland, Europe - which wanted to stay free - ran out of patience. Those who decided to wage war would have preferred otherwise, but they did not want to become victims of Hitler’s growing, fascist appetite.

Not all European countries agreed with the British and French decision to confront him, but eventually the whole world lined up, joining either the ranks of freedom or of fascism. Today, the Muslim world faces a similar choice.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Jan. 9, 2016.

Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels. Twitter: @JKhashoggi


In Iran, old habits die hard

Mohammed Alyahya

12 January 2016

In 1987, hundreds of thousands of Muslims of different nationalities, skin colours and sects gathered in Makkah for worship during the hajj season. Suddenly, a group of men chanting political slogans and brandishing knives, broken glass and bludgeons began rioting - 400 lives were lost as a result.

The instigators were believed to be members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who allegedly sought to hijack the pilgrimage to score political points against Saudi Arabia. In response, Riyadh banned Iranians from entering the kingdom. Rioters in Tehran then ransacked the Saudi embassy to protest the ban.

Saudi Arabia consequently severed all diplomatic ties with Iran. Ties resumed four years later, in 1991. Last week, Riyadh again severed diplomatic ties with Iran for the same reason. Contrary to widespread postulations, the move was simply a similar response to a similar scenario.

Three decades later, Iran’s behavior has not changed much. The Saudi consulate in Mashhad and embassy in Tehran were ransacked and looted by angry mobs believed to be affiliated with the Basij forces of the IRGC. This happened with the government ostensibly looking the other way, if not giving its tacit blessing.

The pretext for the attacks was the execution of Nimr al-Nimr, a Saudi preacher convicted of terrorism charges. Nimr was apprehended by security forces following a shootout with the police in 2012. During the judicial process leading to his conviction, his case was scrutinized by 13 judges in three courts.

In 1987, the spat between Saudi Arabia and Iran came as the Iran-Iraq war was entering its last phase. During the war, Iran in its desperation engaged in risky brinkmanship by attacking oil tankers navigating the Hormuz Straits. Luckily, its attempt to destabilize the world economy came to naught. In a show of leadership and decisiveness, the United States stepped in and provided protection to the oil tankers, thus quashing Iran’s irresponsible behaviour.

The 2016 incident has sparked a regional outcry, with Bahrain, Sudan and Djibouti joining Saudi Arabia in severing all diplomatic ties. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) downgraded its diplomatic representation in Iran to the level of charge d’affairs, and reduced the number of Iranian diplomats in Abu Dhabi. Kuwait, Qatar and Jordan recalled their ambassadors.

Turkey summoned the Iranian ambassador to Ankara and submitted a memorandum of protest, while almost all Arab countries issued harsh condemnations of the attacks. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Arab League, U.N. Security Council and many governments worldwide also registered their protest.

In 1987, the Arab states were powerful and functional despite regional conflicts. In 2016 the reality is far different, with state failure and non-state actors on the rise simultaneously. Regional players realize that containing Iranian interference is more important than ever, and have turned to Saudi Arabia as the bulwark against Iranian expansionism because it has proved itself a steadfast investor in Middle East stability via its partnership with responsible state actors.

Regional interference

Iran has sponsored proxy militias and non-state actors for so long that it no longer seems capable of maintaining healthy state-level relations with its neighbors. Virtually every country in the Middle East has been affected by Iran’s expansionism and meddling in their internal affairs, either through proxy militias or the deployment of IRGC and Basij forces.

In Iraq, Shiite militias have terrorized Sunnis for years since the U.S. invasion. Hezbollah and Iranian forces have propped up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and aided him in slaughtering more than 250,000 of his own people. In Yemen and Bahrain, Iran has gone to great lengths to undermine legitimate governments. It is sowing chaos to alter the natural regional order to its advantage, and seems ready to use any tool at its disposal to do so.

The region’s current security architecture, ridden with instability and state failure, requires a unified position from rational players. Saudi Arabia has stepped up to take the lead by establishing a Muslim coalition to counter terrorism in all its forms, with the two main threats to the region today being the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the IRGC and its clients.

Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently said the kingdom would not allow war to break out with Iran because that would be “the beginning of a major catastrophe in the region, and it will reflect very strongly on the rest of the world.” Integral to this vision of peace and stability in the Middle East is regional unity against all forms of terrorism.

Meanwhile, Iran does not seem willing to renounce support for terrorism, honor its obligations under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, or respect the national sovereignty of its neighbors. It appears stuck in its old habits.

Mohammed Alyahya is a London-based political analyst focusing on Gulf politics and policy. His writing and analysis has appeared on Al-Monitor, the Huffington Post, and U.S. News, the BBC, Al Jazeera, CCTV America and other outlets. Among other affiliations, he is an Associate Fellow at the King Faisal Center for research and Islamic Studies 2014-2015 and a member of the advisory board at the Future Trends in the Gulf Region project at Chatham House.


Violence In Malda: What Muslims Should Not Do

By Parvin Sultana

13 January, 2016

In an age of trivial politics and name calling, it has become a norm that somebody will make a shallow comment about a religious icon just to grab attention. It will be immediately followed by members of the targeted community taking to streets baying for blood. While it is true in case of most communities, lets talk about this problem inflicting the Muslim community, in the context of the recent violence in West Bengal’s Malda.

The recent episode goes back to an incident that happened almost a month ago in Uttar Pradesh. Kamlesh Tiwari, a lesser known Hindu Mahasabha leader calling the Prophet Muhammad a homosexual. This comment was deemed by many as insulting to the prophet and was followed by protests by Muslims all across the country. In the aftermath of the incident Tiwari has been arrested by the UP police and a case has been registered in his name. Even the Hindu Mahasabha has distanced itself from the statement.

Despite this the protests continued and the protesters disagreed to be placated. On 3rd January, 2016 the Anjuman Ahle Sunnatul Jamaat organized a rally in Malda protesting against the comments made by Kamlesh Tiwari. The rally turned violent and the mob went on rampage. It torched police vehicles including a vehicle of BSF. They then proceeded to attack and ransack the Kaliachak police station before setting it alight. The crowd is also reported to have torched several homes in the area. The reaction to such protests is that Kamlesh Tiwari gained some misplaced fame and some notorious hindutva groups are demanding to put him up for a by election to cash on this media coverage. The outbursts of Muslims have portrayed Tiwari as a victim rather than an offender of inciting communal violence.

Many cite Islamophobia as the cause of such derogatory comments. Islamophobia is a reality and the phenomenon has worsened post 9/11 attacks. Many innocent Muslims are persecuted all over the world because of this prejudice. A few months ago what happened to Ahmed who was arrested on the suspicion of having created an explosive device is an example of such blind prejudice. He bore the brunt of racism as well as Islamophobia.

Islamophobes often heap abuse on Prophet and others revered by Muslims. And the response from Muslims is often too predictable and irrational. The incidents in Paris where Charlie Hebdo employees were murdered, the Danish cartoonist who was attacked proves this.

Islamophobia must be condemned as it puts a cloud of suspicion on people merely on the basis of their religion. However, the violent outbursts often go ahead to reiterate such wrong and hateful assumptions about Muslims. Islamophobia must be countered at the discourse level through well worked out arguments, not only on the streets.

In case of the comments of Kamlesh Tiwari, no doubt it must be condemned and he must be booked under the law of the land for his devious plans of disrupting communal harmony. But protests need not necessarily mean vandalism. It is a sad fact that the community that lags behind on a number of socio-economic parameters often come on streets condemning statements, films, books which they find offensive but are quite apathetic to asserting demands for development of the community.

We have never seen such strong assertion against gender inequality which is often justified in the name of personal laws. The Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan which has been demanding an end to triple talaq, criminalizing polygamy, maintenance of divorced women, scrapping medieval and inhuman practices like halala is yet to see much support from the Muslim clergy. When a journalist talked about sexual harassment in madrasas, rather than looking into the matter seriously there was blatant indulgence in victim shaming. This was done despite the fact that Madrasas continue to be the sole source of education for a large number of poor Muslim children.

Riots in India does not happen in a vacuum, we cannot completely overlook the fact that West Bengal is poll bound for 2016 and in our country riots and religious polarization continue to deliver political dividends. In such a scenario, the responsibility of the leaders of all community becomes building stronger bridges of dialogue and not burning them down on silly pretexts and playing into the hands of politicians who translates communal violence to votes.

Muslims don’t have to look far for examples of communal harmony. The very life of Prophet Muhammad and his followers is exemplary of such utmost sacrifice at the face of rigorous opposition. As kids we used to hear such stories from our grandmother.

Prophet Muhammad was boycotted by his own tribe Qureysh when he started propagating Islam. He faced obstacles at every step. Abuses and physical assault was common. A very popular story that speaks of his ordeals goes like this. There was an old woman who used to throw rubbish on the Prophet from her home everyday he passed her house on his way to mosque. The prophet never responded and went on his way. But one day the woman was not at her usual place. The prophet asked her neighbor and got to know that she was sick and bedridden. Hearing this Prophet Muhammad went to her house to check on her. Seeing the prophet the old woman thought he was there to take revenge of her act. But the prophet assured her that he was there to nurse her and take care of her. Such an act touched the old woman deeply.

There are many such stories and incidents from the life of prophet which shows his respect for other religions and his assertion of peaceful coexistence. However violent outbursts in the name of restoring the honour of the Prophet reflect very poorly on this much respected persona.

Responsibility for such misplaced priorities must also be put squarely on the so called leaders of the community who have failed to channelize the community’s energy in a proper productive fashion. Rather than ensuring that Muslim youth are more empowered to participate in mainstream society, such leaders often create a panic situation by talking about conspiracy theories putting Islam in danger. This ensures their continued presence in privileged positions.

Despite such crisis, there is a beacon of hope in a moderate voice emerging from Muslims which condemn Islamophobia and its manifestations at the same time disowning violence in the name of Islam. This becomes evident when Muslims come out in large number condemning the activities of ISIS and other terrorist groups against humanity.

As two wrongs does not make a right, Kamlesh Tiwari’s hatred of Muslims cannot be countered by hatred of Hindus. What is required is a respect for the law of the land and not giving centre-stage to the rabble rousers. Muslims should not indulge in such violence in the name of avenging the honour of the Prophet. All those who believe in the idea of a secular nation based on mutual respect should condemn both Kamlesh Tiwari’s comments and violent protests at one go.

Parvin Sultana is an Assistant Professor in P B College of Assam. Her research interest includes Muslims in Assam, development and northeast, gender etc.


Germany, Britain and Religion: German Politicians Are Both More And Less Religious Than British Ones

The Economist

Jan 7th 2016

ANGELA MERKEL, who grew up in communist East Germany as the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, is a "serious Christian" whose faith is mostly kept "thoroughly private", although every so often she can surprise people with public statements about her personal creed. (For example, she said in an interview in 2012 that "we Christians should not be afraid of standing up for our beliefs.") That, broadly, is the thrust of an essay about the German chancellor's religious life which has just been published by the British think-tank Theos as part of a series on political leaders and faith.

Nothing too surprising about that conclusion, but the essay opens teasingly by asking whether Mrs Merkel's religious life can usefully be compared to two British prime ministers who said they were strongly guided by Christian belief, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher. Her political profile, at least, has points in common with both Britons. Like Lady Thatcher, Mrs Merkel is a woman with scientific training who rose to the top of a centre-right party despite a background that was neither privileged nor well-connected. Like Mr Blair, she guided her party towards the political centre, studying the public mood closely and borrowing policies from her opponents.

But the leaders' religious styles have certainly been different. Lady Thatcher, raised in an ethos of industrious Methodism, saw religion as as inspiration to work and self-improvement; the Biblical Good Samaritan, she pointed out, was only able to help his stricken neighbour because he had a bit of money. Mr Blair (who converted to his wife's Catholic allegiance after leaving office, while remaining liberal on touchstone ethical issues) had to be kept in check by his prime ministerial minders whenever his zealous but idiosyncratic faith came to the surface. Religion seemed to make him more sure of himself, not more humble. Their successor, David Cameron, was meeting Mrs Merkel today: he has played to the patriotic gallery by stressing Britain's cultural inheritance as a Christian country, while acknowledging that his own faith comes and goes, like the reception of an erratic radio signal. So the chances are that they didn't pray together.

Mrs Merkel's periodic professions of faith, as the essay notes, have been trenchant enough and yet carefully non-confrontational. Although she heads a Christian Democratic party, she has generally avoided suggesting that Christianity has specific political consequences, and hence avoided implying that people with different political views are less good in the sight of God, or less good in any sense. In that 2012 interview, she called herself "a member of the evangelical church" who "believe[d] in God" and for whom faith was a "constant companion". But her most frequently quoted religious pronouncement was a statement to her party faithful that "we don't have too much Islam, we have too little Christianity, we have too few discussions about the Christian view of mankind."

In handling the past year's vast influx of mostly-Muslim migrants, she has taken a political risk by stressing the Christian duty of generosity rather than Christian nativism. In open contradiction with some of her centre-right colleagues, Mrs Merkel has insisted that Islam can find a place in Germany, but only on the basis of respect for the country's laws and constitution. 

And within the Christian family, her message is also carefully emollient. She urged her fellow Protestants not to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's revolt against Catholic authority in a way that sharpened sectarian differences. "We should always stress what is common in the Christian religion," she declared.

As for Anglo-German comparisons, the more interesting question is not how various devout politicians line up but about the changing political/religious culture of the two countries. As a colleague writes in this week's print edition, Britain has become much more secular since the eras of Lady Thatcher or Mr Blair, while still containing pockets of religious zeal, some of which are expanding. Even careful religious statements like those of Mrs Merkel would go down badly with most British voters, and Thatcher-style lectures on the Good Samaritan would be even more discordant; but Mr Cameron still found it worthwhile, during his election campaign, to address a meeting of Nigerian Pentecostalists and swap Bible stories.

Mrs Merkel grew up in an environment where religion was repressed, and words had to be measured carefully. Her country's broader political ethos is still shaped by a post-war aversion to any fanatically professed ideology, combined with a sense that religion of the right sort can be an antidote to secular creeds like Nazism or communism. But to play that role, religion has to avoid picking fights, while also standing its ground. That is the equilibrium that Mrs Merkel is trying to maintain. There is only British figure of whom the same could be said, and that is the head of the Church of England, Queen Elizabeth.


Bagehot: Battlefields of the Mind

The Economist

Jan 9th 2016

“THIS is a message to David Cameron,” begins the unmistakably British-accented rant, “oh slave of the White House, oh mule of the Jews”. Waggling a gun, his features obscured by a balaclava, the man calls the prime minister an “imbecile” for deploying armed forces against Islamic State (IS). His melodramatic, almost adolescent conniptions would be laughable were it not for what follows: the execution of five kneeling men in orange jumpsuits, accused of being British spies. The video, released on January 3rd, ends with a cherubic boy aged perhaps four proclaiming, in a southern English accent: “We will kill kuffar.”

Amid speculation about the man’s identity—newspapers named Siddhartha Dhar, a British-Indian—the tape elicited comparisons to earlier execution videos fronted by Mohammed Emwazi, a Briton known as “Jihadi John” who was apparently killed by a drone strike in November. Theresa May, the home secretary, told MPs this week that 800 Britons have now travelled to Syria and Iraq and about half have returned.

Britain’s anti-terrorism strategy is evolving. Despite new powers to monitor suspects and seize their passports, exit checks at borders and dollops of money, the spooks are having to set priorities. The state’s capacity to restrain every individual minded to kill for an idea has natural limits. So the government is turning its attention to the sort of non-violent extremism that creates conditions for the violent kind. In the process it is tacitly conceding an awkward point: most British Muslims abhor extremism, but a distinct minority is ambivalent. One poll in November suggested that one in five had at least some sympathy with young Muslims fighting in Syria (although, as many reports omitted to add, the question did not specify for whom).

Such thinking has been circulating in Whitehall for a decade, but the radicalising effect of IS and the exit of civil libertarian Liberal Democrats from the government in May have given Mr Cameron the impetus and political freedom to pursue it more forcefully (in Downing Street this is seen as one of the four main issues that will define his second term). So last July the anti-extremism “Prevent” programme was expanded to give public bodies like schools, universities and prisons a statutory duty to shield their charges and monitor them for signs of radicalisation. In a speech a month later Mr Cameron pledged more, adding: “Let’s not forget our strongest weapon: our own liberal values.”

This sleeves-up, ideological onslaught on Islamism is so sensible that other European countries want to emulate it. Yet it faces problems. Grandstanding by the government (blimpishly labelling as “British values” principles like tolerance that are in no sense autochthonous), as well as by some Islamic bodies (the Muslim Council has railed unhelpfully against Prevent) and the press (prone to lazy talk of “the Muslim community” as an indivisible monolith) steers British Muslims away from anti-extremism initiatives. Figures from the National Police Chiefs Council suggest that less than 10% of Prevent tip-offs in the first half of 2015 came from Muslims. Jahan Mahmood, a former government adviser, knows this mistrust: “People think: ‘Shit, who is this guy?’”

Suspicion among Muslims is matched by bewilderment among public servants. London teachers whom Bagehot asked about their new role said they felt overwhelmed; the complexity of modern British Islam is such that non-Muslim staff must resort to crude methods such as listening out for deaths in pupils’ families that might betoken youngsters on a foray to the Middle East. But often radicalisation happens online or outside the home (“If it is him, bloody hell am I shocked? I am going to kill him myself,” Mr Dhar’s sister said of reports that he might be the new Jihadi John). The authorities told one head that some pupils were at risk—but gave no names. Very little apart from ideology unites the jihadists, notes Innes Bowen, an analyst of British Islam.

The answer is for schools and councils to work with Muslim leaders. But which? Sifting out those energetically committed to fighting radicalism can be beyond well-meaning but strained local branches of the British state. Consider the Prevent grants that end up in the hands of ideologically contentious groups. Or the revelation in November that a community centre in north London was inadvertently hosting proselytising sessions for IS. Or the blind eye turned by local authorities to the recent infiltration of some Birmingham schools by Islamists.

Many of the more exciting anti-radicalisation initiatives are led by Muslims themselves and take place outside the Prevent framework. Mr Mahmood, wary of its brand, independently mentors young men. Alyas Karmani, a Bradford imam who has aptly compared the psychological function of IS guns to penis extensions, is similarly sceptical of Prevent. Abu Khadeejah, a Birmingham-based Salafist, posts theologically justified critiques of IS on his blog. Yet such types face intimidation and even physical danger. One anti-jihadist Muslim activist tells how a critic threatened him by drawing a finger across his throat.

Of pens and swords

What to do? In the short term the government should consider renaming and relaunching Prevent, a good programme with a bad reputation. But a generational struggle over ideas and minds requires a generational answer: a dramatic improvement in mutual understanding between different parts of an increasingly diverse society. That means more briefing on the nuances of British Islam for local authority figures (Ms Bowen’s book, “Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent”, is a good start), arm’s-length liaison bodies for Muslim moderates uncomfortable about engaging with the state, efforts to reverse the decline of religious studies and better policing of fashionable but often unaccountable “faith schools”. One Prevent officer in London jokes that more students should be encouraged to study theology. Why not? In a battle of ideas, knowledge is the most powerful of weapons.


Obama's Iran opening is his 'Nixon moment'

Howard LaFranchi

January 12, 2016

But no one expects to see the US president stepping off Air Force One in Tehran.

As President Barack Obama fills his 2016 calendar with overseas trips to Asia and perhaps even to Cuba, he is clearly aiming to secure his foreign policy legacy.

In other words, he is looking for his "Nixon to China" moment.

Although Nixon's trip to Beijing - with its handshake with Mao Zedong and photogenic stroll on the Great Wall - was hugely controversial, it helped set in stone his détente with Communist China. Afterward, no president suggested retreating from that foreign policy.

Today, Obama is faced with defending a similarly controversial foreign policy legacy - reaching out to adversaries such as Cuba and Iran and trying to pivot America's attention away from the Middle East and toward Asia. Future presidents could yet retreat from those policies.

That makes this year important for the president's vision of America's place in the world. Ultimately, policies themselves are more significant than photo ops, experts say. But trips are a valuable part of the president's toolkit.

With Cuba, for example, steps to normalise relations in Americans' eyes are Obama's top priority, says Bruce Jentleson, a foreign policy specialist at Duke University in Durham, N.C. But a presidential trip, with its massive media coverage, would have the effect of making relations with Cuba seem like an accomplished fact.

This year, Obama will travel twice to Asia - to Japan in May and China in September. And before those trips, he will host the leaders of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations at a summit in Rancho Mirage, California, in February. He will also visit Peru in November for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

But the closest thing to a Nixon-to-China moment for Obama would most likely come from a trip to Cuba. Currently, there is no trip to Havana on the presidential calendar, but White House aides have strongly hinted that it is likely to occur, and perhaps as soon as March. Obama himself has said he hopes to be the first American president to visit Havana since Calvin Coolidge in 1928, on the condition he be assured access to the Communist island's political dissidents.

Obama-to-Cuba would not have the historical weight or geopolitical significance of Nixon's trip to China, given China's much greater strategic importance, but it would be a similar attempt to lock in a new and controversial presidential policy.

"A trip by Obama to Cuba, if that comes about, would very much be about consolidating the changes he's made in US-Cuba relations," says Professor Jentleson.

Two-term presidents since Eisenhower have generally programmed an uptick in foreign travel in their eighth year in office. Many trips are command performances at international events, like Nato summits.

Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, an expert in presidential travel at the Brookings Institution, says that president Clinton "really focused on peace efforts in his final year" - reflected in his travel in 2000 to India, Pakistan, Egypt, and Ireland, and his Camp David summit with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak.

In that vein, Obama is expected to travel to Colombia in March to mark the scheduled signing of a peace deal ending Latin America's longest-running guerrilla war.

An Obama trip to Cuba would also fall in the "discretionary" category. And with two Republican presidential candidates of Cuban heritage - Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio - pledging to reverse Obama's opening to Cuba if elected, there would seem to be a need for Obama to bolster his policy.

But a presidential stroll on Havana's seaside Malecon might be just the exclamation point on a policy that already has irresistible momentum.

"I'd venture to guess that this [policy] will not be reversed no matter who wins the presidency," Duke's Jentleson says.

Nixon dubbed his trip to China "the week that changed the world." While a trip to Cuba might not live up to that billing, a breakthrough on Iran might.

No one expects to see Obama stepping off Air Force One in Tehran, but Jentleson doesn't rule out an Iran opening eventually being seen as Obama's Nixon-to-China moment.

"A broader transformation of the US-Iran relationship could conceivably compare in scope and strategic importance to the US-China shift" under Nixon, Jentleson adds.

The difference is that, while Nixon engineered the transformation with a diplomatic overture and a trip, Obama's extended hand to Tehran can only go so far.

"The potential might be there," he says, "but how far it goes will depend a lot on Iran" - from its implementation of the nuclear deal to the legitimacy and outcome of upcoming national elections. "Those aren't things Obama can make happen."

The Christian Science Monitor


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