Friday, September 28, 2012

Freedom of suppression: Fears for press freedom if alleged Hezbollah attack blows over

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

The release on bail Wednesday of a jailed Lebanese-Palestinian journalist may herald the end of what a local watchdog described as one of the worst violations of press freedom of its kind in Lebanon for years.

Rami Aysha, who has freelanced for international publications including Time, was reportedly investigating an arms smuggling story in Beirut’s southern suburbs on August 30 when he was detained and then imprisoned for almost a month without charge. Though an initial report by Al-Manar television station said Aysha was arrested by army intelligence, a letter received by the Committee to Protect Journalists by concerned colleagues alleged the arrest was in fact carried out by members of Hezbollah, which has a strong presence in the southern suburbs. The letter further alleged that Aysha was “severely beaten” by Hezbollah members, who inflicted on him two black eyes – an account corroborated by Aysha’s brother Ramzi, who visited him in a Byblos prison and reported that he had a broken finger and had been beaten on the head with his own camera. Al-Manar is run by Hezbollah, the press office of which could not be reached for comment.

It took almost three weeks for an official charge to be made against Aysha. On September 19, his lawyer, Saliba al-Hajj, informed the Samir Kassir Eyes (SKEyes) Center for Media and Cultural Freedom that Aysha was accused of attempting to smuggle arms himself – a charge both Hajj and Ramzi Aysha denied when contacted by NOW Lebanon.

Ayman Mhanna, SKEyes’ executive director, told NOW Lebanon that a serious violation has occurred either way. “If Aysha was arrested because of his work as a journalist, then his arrest was totally unacceptable and totally illegal, because there is absolutely nothing in Lebanese law that justifies this. And even if he was arrested for other reasons, what his brother and lawyer said about his beating is also totally unacceptable, and we demand an official, public and transparent investigation and trial of those responsible.”

Lawyer and constitutional expert Marwan Sakr agrees, though he cautions that the legal question hinges on the charges raised against Aysha. “A journalist cannot be arrested for simply doing his job, though he can be sued, let’s say, for defamation. In Lebanese law we have something called ‘crimes by publication,’ but again, one cannot be arrested for these,” he told NOW.

“If, however, a journalist is caught committing a crime – carrying out intelligence work for Israel, for example – then of course he can be arrested,” he added.

Should the charges against Aysha prove false, Sakr says he would have several courses of legal action available to him. “If he has been arrested beyond the normal period of arrest according to the law, he could sue for illegal detention. And if he has been subject to false charges by a third party, then he can sue also for false claims. But this would have to wait until the end of the trial, if there is one.”

However, neither Aysha nor his lawyer appears willing to pursue such a course of action. “Even though we feel that no one has the right to arrest Rami but the Lebanese state, what happened, happened. Unless something new comes up, we will not do anything,” Ramzi Aysha said.

“What can we do against the army and Hezbollah?” asked Hajj rhetorically. “All that we can do in this country is pray.”

Accordingly, Mhanna believes Aysha’s case will have detrimental consequences for press freedom in Lebanon. “Though we at SKEyes have witnessed and reported dozens of violations of press freedom in recent years, there has been nothing as severe as this for at least two years,” he said. “We are shocked that we all had to wait for two weeks before this issue became slightly public, and it’s still not getting the public and media attention it deserves. The idea of arresting a journalist during the course of his work and resorting to physical aggression, regardless of any charge, is unacceptable. And the practice of holding someone for a long time without charges is another thing that needs to stop in Lebanon.”

The case also shines a spotlight on Hezbollah, a party with a history of obstructing press freedom in areas under its control. “Last year we reported at least five cases of journalists being detained by Hezbollah and having their photos deleted and so on, all of which we documented in our Annual Report on Press and Cultural Freedom,” said Mhanna. Indeed, NOW Lebanon has in the past had notes confiscated and been prevented from reporting by Hezbollah members in the southern suburbs.

That such behavior may now be escalating into physical attacks on journalists sets a worrying precedent for press freedom, says Mhanna. “Hezbollah members are in no position to conduct any arrests of any citizens, let alone journalists, and let alone beating them in the process. If we open this Pandora’s Box, then all parties will start conducting these arrests.

“We’ll be back to the law of the jungle.”

Luna Safwan contributed reporting.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The counter-Islamist: Talking to Maajid Nawaz

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

Maajid Nawaz is not your typical democracy activist. For more than 12 years, he was a member of the UK branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a hardline Islamist party that calls for a global Islamic state that would invade and conquer infidel nations, forcibly veil women, and stone apostates and adulterers to death. After serving the cause in Pakistan and Palestine, he was incarcerated for five years in Egypt, where he began to question the ideology.

Upon returning to London, he abandoned Islamism and started the Quilliam Foundation, a think tank countering extremism and promoting liberal democracy, named after the first Englishman to build a mosque in Great Britain. NOW Lebanon spoke to Nawaz, who has just released a memoir, Radical: My Journey From Islamist Extremism to a Democratic Awakening.

The first half of your book tells the story of your transition in the 1990s from an essentially secular, girl-chasing hip-hop fan to a Hizb ut-Tahrir zealot. How did that happen?

Nawaz: The journey involved me suffering from a severe level of violent racism in Essex [in England]; both on the street from groups like Combat 18 and at the institutional level. In those days before the murder of Stephen Lawrence [in 1993], the level of racism in the British establishment was quite entrenched. That led me to feel very disenfranchised from society.

On top of that there was Bosnia unfolding right before our eyes. A few countries away, on the European continent, there was a genocide committed against Muslims. These combined to produce an acute identity crisis within me, which is where these ideological groups step in and push solutions that are black-and-white, which to a teenage mind can seem to make a lot of sense.

You spent five years in prison in Egypt in the 2000s, during which you began to have serious doubts about Islamist ideology. What made you change your mind?

Nawaz: There were two main factors, although I must emphasize it was a process, it wasn’t a sudden light-bulb moment.

First, Amnesty International adopted me as a prisoner of conscience. I saw people fighting for justice on my behalf who weren’t Muslims, and that had a profound impact on me.

Second were the discussions I had in prison with the “Who’s Who” of political prisoners, from the assassins of Anwar Sadat through the entire Islamist spectrum to liberal political prisoners.

After leaving Hizb ut-Tahrir, you co-founded the Quilliam Foundation, which aims to counter extremist ideology and promote democratic pluralism. How, in practical terms, can that be done?

Nawaz: There’s a grass-roots approach and a policy approach, as I described in my TED talk. We work on both sides. Governments have a role—for instance in choosing their partners and interlocutors—who they engage with. They have to make sure they aren’t unwittingly encouraging extremism. Media, too, have a role to be sure [in making sure] they are not furthering the Islamist narrative through their reporting.

On the other end we try to build up a grass-roots allegiance for democratic values in countries such as Pakistan. To directly compete with groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami and Lashkar-e-Taiba who are working to recruit young Pakistanis. That is a long-term solution. The Muslim Brotherhood was established in 1928 and it took them until 2012 to win elections in Egypt. You have to start somewhere.

You’ve founded a similar organization, Khudi, in Pakistan. What sort of obstacles do you face there?

Nawaz: Security is a big one. We’re talking about an environment where “secularism” has become an insult and a swear word; where democracy is viewed with suspicion and a synonym for corruption. An environment where people are killed by mobs upon the mere accusation of blasphemy. So we have to be very careful what we say and how we say it. But there are large chunks of the country, especially the youth, who are increasingly disillusioned with the status quo and are turning to our organization.

Turning to the Arab Spring, as someone who was tortured by President Mubarak’s infamous state security, what did the Egyptian revolution mean to you?

Nawaz: It was a cathartic moment, because the ideas of non-violent uprising that led to Tahrir Square were the sort of ideas that were being debated by us in prison all those years before. And in fact some of those involved in starting the intellectual input were my cell-mates—people like Professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the famous Egyptian sociologist, and Ayman Nour. So it was a vindication, especially because Mubarak is now in the very same prison we were.

Have the recent electoral victories of Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia been a disappointment to you?

Nawaz: Not really; they were expected. What’s more important in these countries is to have what I call a democratic trinity in place: a firm entrenchment of democratic values, democratic institutions and the democratic process. If those three can be rooted in society it’s more important than any one party or who wins the election.

In “Radical” you write that “If the West […] had intervened earlier and harder” in Bosnia, it might have limited “the spread of Islamism and [Hizb ut-Tahrir].” Does this suggest a reason to intervene in Syria?

Nawaz: It suggested a reason for Libya, because Libya was a very uncontroversial and legal intervention. The problem with Syria is we have to try and be consistent. As Muslims, sometimes we like to have our cake and eat it too. So when we disagreed with the Iraq war, we were the first to shout that this was an illegal intervention and it was Western colonialism, and yet in Syria we are frustrated that intervention hasn’t been possible. I am frustrated about that. The problem without a coalition is that now if states do intervene, it gives other governments like Iran and Russia the perfect excuse to say, “Well this is illegal, we’re backing the Syrian regime.” And that leads to a potential regional war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

I’m sure a lot more can and must be done to help the rebels, but I’m saying it’s simply not analogous to Libya or Bosnia. It’s very complicated—Lebanon is there and suffering from sectarian fallout—so it’s one of these ones that’s genuinely stumped me, because I’m very keen to see the back of the Assads, but I’m not very keen to further entrench Iran, Hezbollah and Russia in the region. I don’t think anyone really has a solution to this.

Do you worry that just as Bosnia turned you to Islamism, today some young Muslims are doing the same because of Syria?

Nawaz: Of course, absolutely. In fact we know that a minority of the fighters in Syria are foreign jihadists. However, I think that those groups would capitalize on it with or without intervention.

Turning to Lebanon, your former Hizb ut-Tahrir leader, Omar Bakri Muhammad, currently resides here. Do you think the Lebanese government should ban him and other Salafist-Jihadists from the country, as the UK has done?

Nawaz: I have absolutely no doubt that he’s involved in ratcheting up sectarianism in the Syrian conflict right now. But he’s a Syrian national, so I don’t think it’s possible to extradite him at the moment.

In general we have to distinguish between extremist thought and calling for violence. Hizb ut-Tahrir is not banned in the UK, and I’ve argued for them to remain legal, while organizations like al-Muhajiroun, which was Omar Bakri’s in London, are banned and I’ve argued for them to be banned. The distinction I make is that groups that directly call for terrorism need to be outlawed, whereas groups that call for extremist thought need to be challenged by civil society.

Finally, might you ever consider extending your activism to Lebanon?

Nawaz: I would love to, but capacity is one of the issues. We are working very hard to build up and expand the Khudi model into other countries. We’ve already started training people in three other countries. It’s a matter of time.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Piety and politics in the Dahiyeh

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon, with Luna Safwan]

One didn’t need to be told where to find Monday night’s rally in Beirut’s southern suburbs. Long before we reached the arterial Hadi Hassan Nasrallah Street, we saw them: the men, women and children in their tens of thousands, swarming in a single mass through the alleys and sidestreets like a tidal wave washing ashore.

And we heard them. “Libayka ya rasool Allah!” roared a voice several blocks away (the phrase roughly translates as “We’re at your service, Messenger of God!”). Once on the ground in the midst of the marching crowd, we saw the source of the noise: dozens of men on platforms, spaced every few hundred meters apart, reading chants from a prepared sheet through a gigantic set of loudspeakers. “Death to America, death to Israel!” came next, followed by “America, America, you are the greatest Satan!”

So large was the procession – spanning several kilometers and snaking around right-angles – that when Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s voice first sounded, nobody around us realized he was speaking in person from a stage up ahead. They assumed they were listening to a video transmission. For those witnessing the moment of his appearance, of course, it was a different story entirely.

Demonstrators, who did not give their names, offered discrepant reasons for turning up when interviewed by NOW Lebanon, ranging from simple offence at the “Innocence of Muslims” film that has sparked outrage around the Muslim world, to a wish to show defiance against what they see (and what Nasrallah described on Sunday) as an American-Israeli plot against them.

“We are here because a movie insulting Prophet Muhammad is out,” said a man in his early twenties. “We want to send the message to the world that we are here to defend the prophet. We hope for the movie to be banned for the sake of respect for religion.”

“We came to this protest to defend Prophet Muhammad, and also to show Israel that we are here and that we won’t keep quiet,” said a woman of around eighteen. “The movie should be taken down.”

“I came because Sayyed Hassan requested us to come, also out of respect for Prophet Muhammad,” said a man in his fifties. “America should lay off our back. This movie has to be taken down, otherwise things might escalate.”

That refrain was echoed by a woman of around thirty, who told NOW that, “It is requested of every Muslim to participate for this is an insult to Islam. We hope that they take the movie down because if they don’t, something else might happen, something bigger.”

Indeed, in his speech Nasrallah warned that “America, which is objecting and deceiving [others] under [the pretext] of freedom, needs to understand that the complete broadcast of the film will yield very dangerous repercussions.”

Ali al-Amin, a prominent analyst of Lebanese Shiite politics, believes that this threat is essentially empty, being in reality a counter to the violent reaction of the Sunni community. It was “part of the general political rhetoric [in Lebanon],” he told NOW. “The Shiite street seemed as if it were not reacting to the film” as much as its Sunni counterpart, and thus Hezbollah sought to one-up their rivals by “taking stances embellished with threats.”

Amin argues that the demonstration in general was a means of deflecting attention from the ongoing killings in Syria – a view shared by veteran Lebanese blogger Mustapha Hamoui. For Hezbollah, the film arrived “on a silver platter,” said Amin. “Previously, Hezbollah used to take a defensive position, e.g. when justifying the Syria issue. This time, Hezbollah was not required to talk about Syria.” All the same, a number of demonstrators chose to assert a pro-Syrian government stance, waving the red, white and black national flag as well as posters of President Bashar al-Assad.

The calls for “death” notwithstanding, the rally was comparatively civil overall. Unlike other protests against the film in such countries as Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan, there was no burning of flags or effigies, and no violence (though two people were reportedly wounded by celebratory gunfire).

However, it remains to be seen what may unfold if the full film is made public. As NOW was leaving the rally, a bespectacled man in his forties approached, speaking a mixture of English and French. “I don’t care about the filmmaker,” he said. “God will give him his own punishment. Listen, Hassan Nasrallah is not a bad guy. Muslims are not bad. We’re not going to attack you first.”

“But if you attack us, we’re going to attack you back.”

Noam Raydan contributed reporting.

Monday, September 17, 2012

On attending the Pope's Mass

Pope Benedict XVI wields a stick (Alex Rowell)
I’ll say this much for Joseph Ratzinger: no one could accuse him of over-emotive speechmaking. With his barely-audible lethargic croak, rising infrequently and with great strain to a mumble, there is little danger of him whipping a crowd into a frenzy of bloodlust or vengeance. He would, indeed, be incapable of holding an audience of any kind were it not for his claim to be the quasi-divine “vicar” of Christ on earth, with the “infallibility”, “supreme authority” and other special powers that that heady title entails.

Having reached the waterfront venue in central Beirut a full hour before the Popemobile arrived, and having outlasted many a devout Catholic and hardened journalist in staying till the very end under the roasting sun, I think I can fairly claim to have given my first Mass my best shot. Much as when I visited Jerusalem, I went into the experience with an open mind; willing to be taken wherever my emotions moved me. Ignore, to the extent possible, the unspeakable crimes in which the man is complicit, I told myself. Perhaps seeing him live in the flesh, I speculated, would induce some stirring within me, however slight, of the awe, or contentment, or agape, or whatever exactly it is that the faithful get out of these things. Even Larkin admitted to an “awkward reverence”, after all.

And yet, here as in the Old City, precisely the opposite turned out to be the case. Once again it squarely struck me that personal exposure to “holiness” only confirms its essential banality. Just as the Western Wall is really just a wall, and the Stone of the Anointing is really just a stone, so a mediocre man in a hat and costume is really just a mediocre man. Non-Catholics already know this, of course, but as the minutes became hours and the postures succumbed to gravity, I wondered how many of “the flock” were privately beginning to suspect it too. Indeed, when the chairs began to empty by the hundreds while the Baba was still on the mic, I might have even felt a twinge of pity for the geriatric if I didn’t remember what infamous villainy he was capable of.

Not that I intend to go into any of that now, nauseating as it was to see a quarter of a million people cheering a paedophile-enabler (in case you’re interested, the authoritative account of Ratzinger’s widely-underestimated role in these crimes against humanity is human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC’s ‘The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuse’). My point, as I was saying – which is one I’ve known since childhood, just as every child in the crowd yesterday knew, as did most of the adults if they only had the honesty to admit it to themselves – is that religion is desperately, unrescuably dull.

It might seem like a frivolous criticism, but it’s enough by itself to discredit the whole enterprise. Take humour alone, or rather the lack thereof. As the philosopher Alfred Whitehead pointed out, “The total absence of humour from the Bible is one of the most singular things in all literature”. How can a book without laughter – that famously most efficacious of medicines; “the sunshine”, as Hugo put it, “that chases winter from the human face” – claim to give comfort to troubled souls, let alone pave the way to eternal bliss?  

Or, in the present case, how can God’s own incarnation fail to keep common mortals listening for a mere two hours? How could he be anything less than brilliantly, incomparably captivating? One might have expected the creator of the Universe to be a bit of a personality. (One might also have expected him to be a bit kinder with the weather – I counted no fewer than four limp bodies carried away on stretchers.)

In short, if yesterday were any indication of what the party’s like up in heaven, it underscored once again why most atheists are happy enough to be excluded. 

Making a film is not a crime. Period.

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

To say that surveying the media over the past few days has been a distressing task doesn’t quite cut it. Nor has it merely been irritating or fatiguing, though it certainly has been those in abundance. No, above all the experience has been comprehensively, piercingly dispiriting: “depriv[ing] of spirit, hope, enthusiasm, etc.; [to] depress; discourage; dishearten,” as so ably defines it.

I’m talking, of course, about the abject surrender of the so-called “civilized world” to hysterical, mediaeval barbarism. Eight years after the broad-daylight murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Islamic fascist, not one Western official has been able to condemn Tuesday’s killing of a US ambassador and three of his staff by Islamic fascists without hastily adding an accompanying condemnation of… a YouTube video. President Obama was eloquent in vowing that “no acts of terror will ever [...] eclipse the light of the values that we stand for,” but this was directly at odds with his earlier coded apology to the murderers, where he affirmed that “we reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.”

Nor were columnists any better. In a particularly appalling Guardian example, Andrew Brown said the “blasphemous” film “offends against the central values of liberal democracy” and ought to be “banned” and have its “distributors prosecuted” (a position that puts Mr. Brown in the company of Ayatollah Khamenei, who demanded that the US government “punish those who committed this heinous crime”). Elsewhere, the best that many were able to come up with was that the embassy attack was “un-Islamic,” chillingly suggesting things would be different it if it wereIslamic.

I don’t care who made the film, who paid for it, or what it contains. Unless we’re to simply give up on liberty and the Enlightenment, this prostration has to stop right now. Unless our culture is forever to be held hostage to the veto of injured feelings, then the following ground rules need to be plainly articulated: You can say whatever you want about the Prophet Muhammad. You can do the same about the Pope, Jesus, Moses, Mithras, Buddha, Brahma and Zeus. No ifs. No buts. No apologies.

Making a film is not a crime.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Safe and sound? What ending the Moqdad affair means for Lebanon and the region

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

The images of freed Turkish abductee Aydin Tufan Tekin reuniting with his family on Turkish soil Wednesday morning offered a happy ending to a month-long drama that pitted the Lebanese state against an obscure tribal militia.

Along with 20 Syrian nationals, Tekin was kidnapped in mid-August by the so-called “military wing” of the Moqdads, a Shiite clan based in Beirut’s southern suburbs, also known as “Dahiyeh”. His release was secured on Tuesday night following a series of raids on Moqdad locations by the Lebanese army on Tuesday and Friday. Despite claims by the Moqdads on Tuesday that Tekin was in critical condition after being shot in the chest and shoulder, he appeared unharmed on Wednesday and indeed said he had heard no gunfire during Tuesday’s raid. The Syrian captives were also freed.

The apparent assertion of state authority over turf ordinarily considered a stronghold of Hezbollah raises the question of whether a fundamental shift in the country’s balance of powers is underway. Some Lebanese seem to think so – “Weather is changing on our Republic,” tweeted the Tajaddod Youth party account on Saturday. Others were more cynical. “Am I supposed to believe we suddenly have a state? Give me a break,” wrote the author of the Lebanon Spring blog.

The latter sentiment was echoed by the activist and Dahiyeh resident Lokman Slim, who told NOW Lebanon that, “As an eyewitness from Haret Hreik, when the army arrived with their tanks and Humvees it was for me all a kind of show. They couldn’t have done this without a certain understanding with Hezbollah. In general, all this enthusiasm shown by the army, whether in the Dahiyeh or in Naame where they arrested some people for inciting sectarian tension, is part of a big staging that does not guarantee the security of the country.”

On the other hand, retired Lebanese Army General Elias Hanna commended the army’s action, arguing that it was in the interests of both the state and Hezbollah to see the Moqdad issue resolved. “There are three factions within the Shiites: Hezbollah, Amal and the tribes,” he told NOW. “These tribes are usually out of Hezbollah’s control, and we have witnessed a lot of skirmishes between these factions in the past. Now what happened with the Moqdads was hurting Lebanon, hurting Hezbollah and hurting Amal. Moreover, they are like competitors, so I think that the army took a prior ‘OK’ from Hezbollah as well as maybe practical intelligence about these people’s whereabouts.”

Asked about other ostensible assertions of state authority, such as the arrest of former minister and close Syria ally Michel Samaha, as well as three Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) members, Hanna again said that acute disorder was in no one’s interest. “All the factions in Lebanon are trying to impose a certain level of stability. You can allow a certain degree of instability but only to the point where it doesn’t threaten or endanger the situation. What happened with Samaha was irrefutable. Nobody can say that ‘We are with Samaha.’ Everybody is embarrassed, including pro-Syrian elements. After all, he confessed what he did! So this explains the aggressiveness of the president concerning the sovereignty of Lebanon and so on,” referring to President Sleiman’s unprecedented stances vis-à-vis the Moqdads and on other issues.

Slim, however, is again unconvinced. “These are all part of the same logic. The Moqdad situation, the Makdissi Street situation [with the SSNP members], and the robbing of Samaha by his allies all belong in the same category. Nobody is stupid enough to believe the army can storm the Dahiyeh but cannot do the same in other regions of Lebanon. For the army to prove its seriousness, it has to be able to do the same everywhere, otherwise it is just either a passive observer or an accomplice.”

Lebanese considerations aside, at the international level, Tekin’s ordeal may have consequences for Turkey’s policy on Syria. According to Oytun Orhan, Middle East expert at the Ankara-based ORSAM think tank, the kidnapping led to widespread domestic condemnation of the Turkish government’s support for the Syrian opposition. “There was a lot of criticism within Turkish society because if you deal with the Syrian issue in this way – if you interfere in Syrian affairs, and arm and give safe haven to the Free Syrian Army in Hatay – then you will have these kind of negative implications in the region. Many Turks saw Tekin’s kidnapping as a natural result of our Syria policy,” he told NOW.

Orhan added that Lebanese-Turkish relations were never threatened by the Moqdad affair. “Turkey knew that this was something outside the control of the Lebanese government. Nobody considered this a factor which could deteriorate Turkish-Lebanese relations.”

“But, of course, solving the issue was beneficial for those.”

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Class struggle: New school year leaves Syrian refugees stranded

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon, with Assem Bazzi]

As we sit in a dusty, spartan classroom at the eastern edge of the Beqaa Valley, waiting to speak to Muhammad, the man looking after the hundreds of Syrian refugees housed in the school, a young woman bursts through his door in floods of tears. She wants to go back to Syria, she tells him, and hand herself over to President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Her remaining brothers—the ones who haven’t already been killed—have been captured by the regime, and she’s come up with a plan to trade her freedom for their lives. Muhammad calmly refuses, reminding her that she has children here to look after.

It’s a sign of the despair taking over the refugees who have now been away from their homes in Damascus for over six weeks. Things have certainly changed since NOW Lebanon was last here in July. “Back then, there were between 200 and 300 families from Damascus in the area,” says Muhammad. “Now there are over 1,100, driven away by the ongoing killings and massacres. The numbers are increasing every five minutes.”

Though food and water are becoming scarce, the refugees have enough for now, says Muhammad. Sure enough, as we tour the hallways and classrooms, dodging the children running playfully around our knees, there do seem to be sufficient supplies of bread, water and ICRC cardboard boxes. No thanks to the Lebanese government, however: “We haven’t received any aid from the government, and are surviving solely on local donations and helpers,” says Muhammad.

Indeed, Fadi Yarak, director-general of the Ministry of Education, told NOW Lebanon that his department was no longer responsible for the refugees. “UNHCR takes care of them now,” he said.

In any case, the refugees’ most immediate concern is not aid but the impending start of the school year. This will force them to relocate once again—and they fear their next hosts may not be so benevolent.

“When school starts here on September 15, there will be no more room for the refugees,” says Muhammad. And it is here that sectarian considerations enter the picture. The refugees, being Sunni, have so far confined themselves to Sunni villages. “But there is no more room in Sunni schools anywhere. There are places in Shiite areas, such as Baalbek and Hermel, but the refugees don’t want to go. They’re afraid of being harmed or even kidnapped.”

Dana Sleiman, Public Information Associate for UNHCR in Lebanon, told NOW Lebanon that plans for supporting the refugees’ transition out of the schools were underway, but a request for further details was not answered at press time.

Accordingly, some refugees have already taken matters into their own hands. “I managed to find a home in Zahle,” says Omar, who has been in the school with his wife and children since July. A small dairy factory owner back in Damascus, he has also found part-time work as a blacksmith and mason in the Beqaa.

Others, however, are less fortunate. “I don’t have a clue what I’m going to do,” says Fatima, who breaks down in tears while telling us her story. “If I leave the school, I might lose contact with my relatives back in Syria.” She and her family are currently looking for a place to rent.

And accommodation isn’t the only worry for some. “My husband has a heart problem,” says Nour. “He’s currently being treated for free in a nearby hospital. I have to move out but I can’t leave him alone there.” Her children are still in Syria, apparently unable to cross the border.

Remarkably, despite their serious and mounting problems, the refugees constantly repeat how grateful they are to be in Lebanon. “We are so glad to be alive,” says Nour. “Every day we thank God for giving us another day of living.”

Some of the above names have been changed at the interviewees’ requests.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Let's be clear: They're not anti-imperialists

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

Lebanese demonstrators on March 8, 2005, holding signs "thanking" Syria's Assad for occupying their country for 29 years (AP)

Twitter is abuzz today with recommendations of an intellectual “demolition” of what the author dubs “Assad’s useful idiots.” In a deeply-researched 4,000 word juggernaut, the Global Mail Middle East correspondent Jess Hill comprehensively details the manner in which Assad apologists from The Guardian’s Seumas Milne to the journalist John Pilger to the author Tariq Ali to British MP George Galloway are “willfully twisting the narrative on Syria to score points against the ‘imperialist West’” and thereby “excusing and providing intellectual cover for the Assad regime.”

It’s an excellent job, and one I thoroughly endorse, save for one slight but significant objection. Throughout the piece, Hill unironically labels these stooges “anti-imperialists” and even “leftists.” In a particularly regrettable lapse, she describes Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar as “the leftist Hezbollah-friendly newspaper.” Such misnomers sully the good names of these political traditions, which can and must be rescued from the villains who masquerade under them. Put simply, Assad, Hezbollah and their cheerleaders are not anti-imperialists but rival imperialists, whose contempt for liberalism places them not on the left, but the very-far-right.

An extreme example is Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, who calls herself both an “anti-imperialist” and a “Greater Syria nationalist” (an ideology, incidentally, that drew heavily on the fascism of 1930s Europe). Her ravings can often be found on Al-Akhbar, where she infamously once wrote that supporting Assad’s “struggle” against the opposition was the “litmus [test] of [...] commitment to the Palestinian cause.”

And where these “leftists” aren’t openly advocating ethno-nationalist expansionism, they’re making excuses for violent and totalitarian theocracy. As Michael Weiss drily noted to me after Max Blumenthal’s resignation from Al-Akhbar, “He was fine with writing for [it] when it was just pro-Hezbollah…”

It’s high time we started calling spades spades. An Islamist cannot also be a leftist, nor can a supporter of (say) the Syrian occupation of Lebanon be an anti-imperialist. Genuine leftists and anti-imperialists deserve better than being lumped in with such sinister company.

Monday, September 10, 2012

What a former Islamist's memoir tells us about Syria today

It would be a grave injustice to suggest that Radical, the extraordinary new memoir of former Islamist Maajid Nawaz, yields nothing worthy of comment beyond so narrow a subject as military intervention in Syria, but then these days I’m in no position to give the book the full-length review it deserves for free (enterprising editors can mail the usual address). Suffice to say whatever flesh I succeed in carving off below is but a sliver of the overall fruit available.

In brief, Radical tells the story of Nawaz’ journey from secular Essex hip-hop ‘B-boy’ to zealous Hizb ut-Tahrir revolutionary – a path which took him to Pakistan, Palestine and, fatefully, Egypt, where he was incarcerated for five years in Mubarak’s dungeons – and then eventually to democratic counter-extremist think-tanker. The relevant question here is how? How did a partygoing, breakdancing, girl-chasing British teenager, bereft of neither money nor education, go on to become a stone-faced servant of the Caliphate? Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) is not just any Islamist outfit – its alumni include the Sadat assassins and a certain Ayman al-Zawahiri (the name, by the way, means ‘Party of Liberation’. Rightly has it been said that satire is dead). Here is Nawaz’ sketch of their manifesto:

[O]nce our version of ‘the Khilafah’ was formed, we advocated an aggressive policy of foreign invasion and expansion, the death penalty for apostates, ‘rebels’ and homosexuals, and a forced dress code for women. Thieves would be punished by having their hands cut off, and adulterous women would be stoned to death.

Which of the arguments in favour of this vision did Nawaz and his young comrades find most persuasive? It remains exceedingly rare to have first-hand testimony on this; a fact which obliges us to study his account with especial assiduity.

The basic recruitment pitch, as he describes it, was that the British government was party to a global conspiracy to keep the Muslims down. Accordingly, the only way to avert permanent subjugation was for the umma to rise under the aegis of a pan-Islamic super-state.

Evidence of this nefarious conspiracy was ubiquitous, once one learned how to look for it. From the West European architects of Sykes-Picot and the Balfour Declaration to the American invaders of Operation Desert Storm to the Soviet butchers of Afghanistan to the Indian annihilators of the Babri Mosque, Muslims were under assault from every conceivable angle, targeted simply for their deen.

What readers may be surprised to learn, however, and what is especially pertinent to Syria today, is that the conflict that produced the most outrage; the trump card that won more converts than even the Palestinian intifada; was the genocide then unfolding in Bosnia. “Bosnia was particularly crucial in bringing about a shift in identity among Britain’s Muslims”, Nawaz writes. “In some ways, you could argue that just as Pakistan’s troubles with violent Islamism – Jihadism – were born through Afghanistan, European Jihadism was born through Bosnia.”

Why does this matter for Syria? Because it was precisely the West’s non-intervention in Bosnia that scored the slam dunk for the HT narrative:

[T]he fact that Britain and other Western governments were doing nothing about it reinforced their ‘blind eye’ approach to world politics. When it was Muslims who were under attack, and there was no oil to defend, the West wasn’t interested in getting involved. And why should they? These were our people not theirs, which is why we needed ‘the Khilafah’. 
How much whiter could you get than the Muslims of Bosnia, and just look at what was going on there while the rest of Europe stood by and watched. [My italics]

The point could not be plainer. While it has become liberal dogma that it is Western intervention that swells the jihadists’ corps and coffers, it was in fact Western isolationism on Bosnia that most infuriated them. The argument that Islamists would have no quarrel with the West if only it would leave Muslim peoples to their fate hits a brick wall here. Indeed, Nawaz candidly puts the case the other way around:

If the West had been more proactive, if they had intervened earlier and harder as when Tony Blair and NATO did so over Kosovo, the situation would have been different, not just for Bosnia, but perhaps also for the spread of Islamism and for [HT]. [My italics]

The West may be punished, in other words, for what it doesn’t do no less severely than for what it does. The lessons here for Syria are as obvious as the parallels are ominous. Here is Nawaz, for instance, describing some of the more dedicated “brothers” he encountered in the ‘90s:

British Muslims went as civilians, trained in camps funded by the Saudis, fought in Bosnia and had come back again to recruit more soldiers.

Now take the following, published in an AFP report last month, quoting a British photojournalist captured and later freed by Islamists in Syria:

I ended up running for my life, barefoot and handcuffed, while British jihadists – young men with South London accents – shot to kill […] They were aiming their Kalashnikovs at a British journalist, Londoner against Londoner.

Perhaps even less encouraging is the common denominator of Omar Bakri Muhammad, the Syrian-born cleric who was HT’s leader in the UK when Nawaz joined. Bakri is sometimes dismissed today as a bit of a jester, a media bogeyman with no real following, but his stature in the British Islamist circles of the ‘90s was titanic. “Under Omar Bakri’s leadership HT swept across the UK”, Nawaz writes. He was eventually fired by HT’s global leadership for being too extreme (if you’re able to imagine such a thing) and moved on to the now-banned jihadist groups al-Muhajiroun and Islam4UK. By sheer chance, I ran into Bakri in June while covering a Salafist demonstration in Lebanon, where he has wound up after being banned from the UK. Though the ostensible purpose of the rally was to call for the disarmament of Hizbullah (because Shia jihadists obviously won’t do), Bakri was soon denouncing “the atrocities in Syria”. In a subsequent interview, Bakri described the Assad regime as “genocidal”, thus echoing the Srebrenica comparison that even Ban Ki-moon was able to make.

Of course, in one sense this is all irrelevant. The case for intervention in Syria does not stand or fall on the approval of sectarian bigots, and the moral obligation to defeat the regime’s death squads would certainly be no weaker if we knew it would upset al-Qaeda. Nawaz’ testimony doesn’t change any of that. But it’s very useful all the same to learn, in hard-nosed “realist” terms alone, that if averting jihad in Syria is the priority, the “earlier and harder” the intervention the better.

Postscript: After writing the above, I had the opportunity to put the hypothesis to Nawaz himself, while interviewing him for NOW Lebanon. Though he didn’t exactly endorse it, nor did he convincingly rebut it either, in my opinion.

He spoke for some time about the need for intervention to be “legal”, by which he means authorized by the UN Security Council, which seems to me more of a procedural (not to mention impossible) demand  than a strictly moral one. He correctly pointed out that an “illegal” intervention would give Iran and Russia the cover to back the Syrian regime, but then added that “Iran and Russia are already intervening”.

He said “I’m sure a lot more can be done and a lot more must be done to help the rebels, but it’s simply not analogous to Libya or Bosnia”, for reasons he never quite made clear. “It’s one of these ones that’s genuinely stumped me, because I’m very keen to see the back of the Assads, but at the same time I’m not very keen to further entrench Iran, Hizbullah and Russia in the region […] I don’t think anyone really has a solution to this”.

I then asked if he believes Syria today is turning young Muslims to Islamism in the way that Bosnia did for him. “Of course, absolutely, that’s a worry. [But] I think that those groups to be honest in Syria would capitalize on it whether there was intervention or not. If there was intervention, they would capitalize on it from one angle, and in the absence of intervention they’re capitalizing on it from another”. If this is true, which it may well be, then it’s as much as saying the West is damned either way, and so incurs no additional loss by intervening.  Perhaps it’s just me, but I’d prefer to be hated for fighting a fascist mass-murderer than for not fighting one. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Is Lebanon ready for a Pope protest?

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

While much of Lebanon looks forward to celebrating the Pope’s arrival next Friday, a small group of activists were until recently preparing to mark the occasion in a rather different way.

On August 24, a Facebook event was created calling for a peaceful protest against the Pope during his three-day stay, citing the Vatican’s “corruption and immorality.” Users posted photos and anti-Pope slogans and debated with others opposed to the idea. On Monday, after over a week of infighting and physical threats to the organizers, the event was cancelled. As of Tuesday, 61 people had pledged to attend, while 49 said they “maybe” would. The event page has since been taken down.

The protest was aimed at specific Vatican policies, rather than Catholicism in general, according to Firas Taher, the organizer. These included the “embargo of contraception,” the “cover ups for pastors in clear cases of child molestation,” the “unjustified hatred and discrimination towards homosexuals,” the Pope’s “unexplained wealth,” and his “stand on abortion,” said Taher in correspondence with NOW Lebanon.

The cancellation raises the question of whether such a protest is yet possible in Lebanon, a country often seen as the freest in the Middle East but one in which public criticism of religious institutions remains taboo. “Are you serious? The religious assholes will slaughter us,” said one Facebook commenter, echoing the concerns of many. Indeed, within days Taher announced on the social network that he had “received a threat” to “hurt” participants in the protest.

Taher insists, however, that it was not security concerns that drove him to call the protest off. “The event wasn’t cancelled because of the threats, the threats were there from the beginning,” he told NOW Lebanon. “I cancelled the event because I realized that the Lebanese public is not ready for a demonstration of this type.”

“Most Lebanese people do not understand what a real protest is; their perception of a protest is people starting fights and burning tires and cars. This protest will definitely be misinterpreted and will only cause more problems.” Indeed, some mistakenly believed the event to be organized by Muslim extremists, following a call by Salafist cleric Omar Bakri Muhammad in early August to prevent the Pope’s visit on the grounds that he had “insulted” Islam. “Many of those who actually read the event description thought this was a religiously affiliated and/or a violent demonstration. Imagine what people who haven’t even read the description would think of it,” said Taher.

From a purely legal perspective, too, it’s unclear if such a protest would be possible. Lawyer and constitutional expert Marwan Sakr believes it would be protected under free speech legislation, provided demonstrators did not personally insult the Pope. “It’s a free speech issue, so as long as it’s peaceful there should be no problem,” he told NOW. “However, it is a crime to insult the Pope, because he is a head of state and we have legal provisions against insulting heads of state. There are a couple of articles in the civil code that were used very frequently during the Syrian occupation years against those attacking the Syrian president. So if anti-Pope demonstrators get really aggressive with their statements, they could be prosecuted.”

For their part, the organizers of the Pope’s visit told NOW they would not prevent demonstrators from staging protests. “If somebody wants to voice their opinion we cannot stop them,” said Father Abdo Bou Kassm, media coordinator of the Pope Visit’s Campaign. “But I can tell you that every Lebanese from all sects and parties welcomes the arrival of the Pope.” All the same, Bou Kassm told NOW that a number of security measures were being taken, including electronic frisks at entrances to the Pope’s various destinations.

Civil society groups, too, defended the rights of the protesters. “In a country where we have so many religious communities as well as people who don’t believe in any religion, you cannot shut everybody up. We have to agree to disagree,” said Lea Baroudi, co-founder of the MARCH NGO promoting free expression. “As long as the demonstration is not threatening or violent, then they are free to express whatever feelings they have.”

Baroudi dismisses the idea that Lebanon isn’t ready for a Pope protest. “Our authorities always deal with these things by saying we’re not ready, everything is taboo, but this only creates more frustration. I think we underestimate the Lebanese population. People can handle it.”

Taher, however, is less hopeful. “I do not believe that I will live to see an anti-Pope protest in Lebanon.”

Omar El-Tani contributed reporting.

More "moderate" Islamists in Tunisia

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

“Even the Islamists are highly civilized!” Edward Said is said to have once told Christopher Hitchens in recommending Tunisia. It’s a refrain we’ve often heard since the Islamist “Ennahda” (“Awakening”) party won the parliamentary elections last October. Relax, we’re told. Islamists these days are just liberals with a twist of spirituality. Dreamers, who recite the Quran for the ecstasy of the poetry, and wisely steer clear of the “militant” and “blinkered” secularism of the West.

A fine example of this “high civilization” arrived this week in the form of a good old-fashioned puritanical mob rampage, in which “bearded men burst into” Sidi Bouzid’s Hotel Horchani, “smashing bottles” of alcohol “and chasing away customers, before raiding the reception and the upstairs rooms, shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ and ‘Al-Sharab haram’ [drinking is a sin],” in the words of the AFP report.

The report added that a group of self-described “Salafi jihadis” proudly claimed responsibility for the attack, boasting that “it was done in response to the demands of the people.”

A few bad apples, you may say. Nothing to do with the tree-huggers over at Ennahda. Except that Wael Amami, the spokesperson for the attackers, had his life sentence amnestied following the overthrow of ex-President Ben Ali, an act that wouldn’t have been possible without Ennahda’s blessing. What’s more, Amami further bragged that “police don’t interfere” when he and his friends take vigilante action against illegal alcohol vendors elsewhere. AFP’s report ends by saying “the Islamist-led coalition government” has been accused of “not doing enough to rein [Salafists] in.”

Well I’ll be damned.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Don't get your hopes up about Pakistan

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

Scanning The Guardian’s latest dispatch on the (latest) Pakistan blasphemy case, I was slowly but steadily driven to a stupor of incredulity. Hold on a moment, what’s all this? The chairman of a major Islamic council sides with the accused in a blasphemy case? Says “our heads are bowed in shame for what [the accuser] did”? Calls the defendant (a Christian, no less) a “daughter of the nation”? Is this Pakistan we’re talking about?

As the journalist talked up the “remarkable turn of events in a country where individuals accused of insulting Islam are almost never helped by powerful public figures,” I began to wonder if a new dawn really had broken on the society that, a year ago, was showering the murderer of a blasphemy reformist with rose petals.

Turn to the Pakistani press, however, and the scribblers take a somewhat different angle. Allama Tahir Ashrafi, the same cleric described in the Guardian’s piece, is found warning “of a conspiracy to do away with the blasphemy law which, he said, would never be allowed.” In his own words: “We support the […] judicious use of blasphemy law but will never allow repeal of the law on flimsy grounds or under international pressure.” A watered-down version of the same quote was pushed to the final paragraph of the Guardian’s story.

You have to love that “judicious”. No doubt there should also be “judicious” killings of apostates, adulterers and homosexuals, in addition to “judicious” second-class citizenship for members of the Ahmadi sect. An old joke among atheists is that blasphemy is a “victimless crime.” Sadly in Pakistan, as in other countries frenzied with religion, the victims are all too real.