Monday, October 28, 2013

Wilfred Owen, pacifism, and Syria

[Originally posted at NOW]

To mark the one-hundredth year to have passed since the outbreak of World War 1, British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy has rounded up ten other poets to highlight some of the finer literary produce from the front lines. It was of course inevitable that Wilfred Owen would crop up, and Duffy’s selection of his The Send-Off is certainly among the most arresting of the possibilities.

Coinciding, however, as the year 2013 does with the first use of chemical weapons in the 21st century, one can’t help thinking the more pertinent choice would have been Owen’s Dulce et Decorum est, his unforgettable recollection of the war’s infamous gassings that led to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, intended to prevent humanity from ever again resorting to that low. The whole thing must be read in its entirety, but it’s the final lines that twist the gut tightest:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Of course, anyone with access to YouTube today can hear “the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,” and it is this more than anything that will condemn this generation of world leaders for decades to come. Which begs the question: As much as Owen has deservedly become a symbol of anti-war movements, what would he make of “Hands Off Syria” and the rest of today’s pseudo-pacifists whose idea of moral courage is to wave portraits of the man responsible for East Ghouta?

What is a pro-Palestine activist doing promoting an Assadist nun?

[Originally posted at NOW]

Mother Agnes-Mariam, accused of complicity in a French journalist’s death in Homs, is now on a coast-to-coast speaking tour of the US.

The figure of Mother Agnes-Mariam will be recognizable to anyone familiar with the record of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the early 1990s. Never happier than when hysterically decrying the unbounded barbarism of Bashar al-Assad’s opponents, the Carmelite nun has made her name by both fabricating rebel atrocities and imputing real ones carried out by the regime, such as the 2012 Houla massacre, to the opposition. Among her more memorable recent stunts has been her claim that the videos of the aftermath of the regime’s chemical weapons attacks in East Ghouta two months ago were faked. Much more seriously, she has been accused by the widow of the late French journalist Gilles Jacquier, killed in Homs last year, of personal complicity in a regime-orchestrated plot to murder him. Not since Mother Teresa herself has anyone better exemplified Orwell’s injunction that the saintly are to be judged guilty until proven innocent.

Not that any of this stopped Agnes from being invited last week on a coast-to-coast speaking tour of the United States by, of all people, a pro-Palestine activist. Paul Larudee is a founder of the Free Gaza Movement, whose aid boats famously challenged Israel’s naval blockade of the Strip’s waters, and is also involved with the International Solidarity Movement, which carries out non-violent activism in the West Bank. One might have thought a man with such a background would take a dim view of a regime that now air-strikes Palestinian refugee camps. But Larudee has found a new calling, and recently started a nonprofit called the Syria Solidarity Movement (which, like the “Hands Off Syria” slogans, would be more accurately worded if ‘Syria’ were replaced with ‘Assad’), whose website appears to double as a clearinghouse for the latest Press TV and Russia Today reports. It is this organization that brought Agnes, whom Larudee describes as “charismatic,” to America’s shores on Thursday.

How did this happen? The answer lies in Larudee’s first meeting with Agnes, during a trip to Lebanon and Syria in May sponsored by an outfit called Musalaha (“reconciliation”), of which the nun is a leading organizer. Along with eighteen other Western personalities, including Irish Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire (who describes Agnes as “a modern hero of peace”), Larudee spent a week meeting refugees, religious leaders, and officials from both the Syrian and Lebanese governments – including, according to one report, Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun. (One wonders if the General floated his party’s longstanding proposal to expel Palestinian refugees from Lebanon.) Indeed, Musalaha’s president is none other than Dr Hassan Yaacoub, a card-carrying member of the Hezbollah-aligned FPM bloc.

Accordingly, while in more unguarded moments Larudee asserts that Musalaha “has the trust of most Syrians,” he elsewhere admits that it “is ostensibly non-political, but there is no such thing in Syria today […] it exists with the approval of the Assad regime, which means that there are inherent limits to its range of activity.” The reader is free to believe this affiliation had nothing to do with the universally pro-regime opinions espoused by the refugees from Qusayr and elsewhere Larudee met, which he summarizes as follows:

“Whatever the faults of the Assad regime […] it is the only thing preventing the utter destruction of Syria.”

I’ve met Qusayr refugees without Aounist politicians by my side who told a rather different story, but perhaps that’s just how the cookie crumbles. In any event, the refugees evidently made an impression on Larudee, who in a Counterpunch essay developed what they told him into a general defense of dictatorship:

“Sometimes the only choice is between an autocratic regime that is pro-Western and one that pursues an independent course. The U.S. will attempt to coerce or overthrow any independent-minded government, but an autocratic regime has a better chance of resisting because its repressive apparatus will crush dissidence before it has a chance to breathe.”

In other words, any tyranny, no matter how absolute, is better than being allies with America (never mind here that Assad was in fact a willing, if duplicitous, partner in Bush’s War on Terror). Rarely does one see enthusiasm for totalitarianism articulated so candidly. By now it comes as no surprise that Larudee’s frequent calls to end “foreign intervention” make reference neither to the undisguised invasion of Syria by Hezbollah, nor the massive and vital assistance given the regime by the Party of God’s backers in Iran (his country of birth, incidentally). Larudee prefers to blame Syria’s carnage on the West, which we learned last month has trained a grand total of 50 opposition fighters to date. That such a man presents himself as a courageous speaker of truth to power is bad enough. That he does so in partnership with a propagandist and accomplice of a mass murderer is an insult, not only to Syrians, but also to Palestinians, whose noblest of causes deserves far more honorable an advocate.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

10 Questions for Brown Moses

[Originally posted at NOW]

NOW talks to the pioneering blogger of Syria’s armed conflict.

Eliot Higgins, better known as Brown Moses, is a British blogger who attained international recognition in early 2013 when his analysis of publicly-available YouTube videos led to the unearthing of a classified Saudi operation to arm Syrian rebels through Jordan with weapons purchased from Croatia. His blogging subsequently assisted Human Rights Watch in compiling evidence of cluster bomb use by the Syrian regime, and is now often cited in leading international newspapers. In April, Higgins helped NOW identify the brigade that launched the first lethal Syrian rebel rocket attack on Lebanese soil. After raising funds from private donors including the Avaaz activism platform, Higgins launched Arabic versions of his blog and Twitter account in June.

NOW: How would you summarize the Syrian conflict at present?

Eliot Higgins: Pretty much a meat-grinder for both sides, with no end in sight.

NOW: What in particular are you researching at the moment?

Higgins: Aside from working on a new website, I'm currently on the lookout for evidence of a new, larger fuel-air explosive bomb that might have been used in the conflict recently.

NOW: Earlier this month, there were reports of preparations for an imminent battle between rebels and the regime and/or Hezbollah along the Lebanese-Syrian border near Arsal. Have you seen any video evidence to this effect?

Higgins: Not so much video evidence, but there's plenty of reports of both sides preparing for fighting commencing at any moment.

NOW: Have you learnt any Arabic since you began covering Syria? You must have picked up some words here and there.

Higgins: Mostly I've learnt to recognize place names, and the names of various groups in Syria. As with anyone following Syria, the first word you learn is takbeer, followed by Allahu and akbar.

NOW: Some journalists, e.g. Patrick Cockburn, have criticized the practice of treating YouTube videos as evidence in reporting on Syria. How easy would it be to produce a fake atrocity video that would fool you?

Higgins: I think it's important to stop thinking about videos from Syria as individual and separate pieces of evidence, but in many cases a video is just part of a body of evidence, and a lot of my work is about exploring the evidence that might surround a video.

NOW: What aspects of the Syrian conflict do you feel are most overlooked or poorly covered in the mainstream media?

Higgins: I think there's a huge amount of things really. It's a very complex conflict, and only a small amount of it gets any sort of in-depth reporting. This is in part because of the difficulties faced by reporters on the ground in Syria.

NOW: What are the most shocking, moving, and/or amazing videos you’ve seen from Syria?

Higgins: Apart from the many horrific injuries and deaths, I'd say videos where people are handling UXO [unexploded ordnance], for example, one where a small group of children start kicking an unexploded 240mm mortar, or the various videos showing them handling unexploded cluster bombs. Some of the DIY weapons I've seen have been quite impressive, such as the Hell Cannon, or the Molotov cocktail launcher (that didn't seem to catch on).

NOW: What is the most frustrating part of your work?

Higgins: Videos and channels constantly being deleted from YouTube. Fortunately there are some organizations systematically archiving all the videos for future reference.

NOW: If the Syrian conflict ended tomorrow, what would you do instead?

Higgins: Well I started the blog writing about the UK phone hacking scandal, and it looks like that's going to be big news again, so that would keep me busy.

NOW: Have you ever been/would you ever come to Lebanon?

Higgins: I've never been, and I certainly have nothing against going to Lebanon.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Taken by storm

[Originally posted at NOW]

Released Saturday after 17 months’ captivity in Syria, Hajj Ali Tirmus tells NOW about the experience and the factors that led to his release

Hajj Tirmus was one of 9 remaining Lebanese captives in Azaz released on Saturday (NOW/Alex Rowell) 
There was fatigue in his eyes and his voice was as hoarse as a sick man’s, but Hajj Ali Muhammad Tirmus was in jovial spirits when NOW met him in his modest Haret Hreik apartment Monday afternoon. Sitting comfortably in a black shirt, jeans, and leather sandals, he cracked jokes with the constant stream of well-wishing visitors and beamed at his wife Mona as she handed out festive sweets and coffee.

“It’s so precious a feeling, it’s undescribable,” he told NOW of his return to Lebanon after seventeen months of captivity in the northern Syrian town of Azaz at the hands of the Islamist "Northern Storm" rebel brigade. As relatives wiped tears of relief from their cheeks, Tirmus recounted his experience as one of the nine Lebanese men kidnapped in May 2012 while returning from pilgrimage to Iran and held in Azaz until a deal was reached over the weekend to exchange them with two Turkish pilots kidnapped in Beirut two months ago.

The group of pilgrims, which numbered over 60 men and women, had been traveling in two buses, and for the first couple of days, the men that were kept by the kidnappers were separated in two corresponding groups. “This scared us. We wondered, ‘Are they going to kill us? Or kill the others?’” said Tirmus.

After a few days, the men were united, but their hopes of release began to decline as the weeks turned into months. “We were continuously promised that our release was imminent. [Northern Storm leader] Abu Ibrahim shook our hands and told us it was coming in a manner that genuinely convinced us. This was the worst part for me. It was like promising a child you’ll give him a toy every day, and never doing it. After two months, we started to think we’d never be freed.”

A typical day, said Tirmus, would consist of telling stories and recalling memories over cups of tea, in addition to praying and reading the Quran. “We complained to them that we had no Qurans to read. So, after some debate among themselves, they went to the local mosque and brought some for us.”

At no point, he said, were they beaten. They did, however, have two major fears at all times. The first was being killed in the crossfire between Northern Storm and Syrian regime forces (of the approximately 60 militants who kidnapped them, Tirmus estimates more than 40 were subsequently killed in combat). The second was falling victim to internal disputes within Northern Storm itself. “They argued frequently, especially over money.” One guard in particular, who was notorious for stealing cash and jewelry from captives – including Syrians – so irked his comrades that a quarrel eventually led to his being killed, said Tirmus.

Indeed, while a multitude of factors were evidently at work, it appears to have ultimately been inter-rebel dynamics in Azaz that made the pilgrims’ release possible. Last month, al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) militants overran Northern Storm’s positions in Azaz, killing a number of their fighters as well as their media spokesman, as a part of a wider campaign to eliminate nominally Western-backed rebel brigades. A statement issued by Northern Storm Monday admitted that ISIS’ “occupation of our bases” compelled the group to “hasten the exchange.” So weakened had the brigade become, according to Syria analyst and Middle East Forum fellow, Aymenn al-Tamimi, that holding on to the captive pilgrims may have simply no longer been feasible.

“Northern Storm has more or less been crushed by ISIS,” al-Tamimi told NOW. “Apparently,” over the past few days, “a number of their fighters have gone over the border to seek Turkish protection.”

Adding to this consideration, Tirmus believed the Azaz clashes led to substantial pressure on Northern Storm from the Turkish government, mindful of the fate of its own citizens held captive in Lebanon.

“Our kidnappers had met with [US Senator] John McCain. In fact, they met him in a room we were once held in for a period. Because of this, [ISIS] considered Northern Storm to be kuffar [infidels]. When they began fighting each other, Turkey started working to release us, because they knew if we were killed, the two Turkish pilots would be killed too.”

“As much as we are against kidnapping and all injustice, we have to say the kidnapping of the Turkish pilots was the reason we were freed. We wish Turkey had worked so proactively for our release from the start,” added Tirmus.

Whatever the reason, Tirmus told NOW he just looked forward to putting the whole ordeal behind him.

“Now I’m going to spend time catching up with my family, friends and neighbors. Then, after a break, I’ll go back to work and my normal life.”

Luna Safwan contributed reporting.

24 years after Rushdie, Islamists put Brits once again under police protection

[Originally posted at NOW]

Heresy hunters have a tendency to reserve their most concentrated and toxic venom for precisely those deviants whose doctrinal improprieties are the slightest. When Salman Rushdie, in a moment of delirious desperation after nearly two years of fatwa-induced fear for his life, allowed himself to be persuaded by an Egyptian fraudster into converting to Islam, the effect on his would-be murderers in Tehran was worse than had he done nothing at all. Supreme Leader Khamenei, who alone had the power to revoke the assassination order issued by his predecessor, responded that the fatwa would forever remain valid even “if Rushdie became the most pious man of all time,” while the Iranian state press howled that the novelist’s death was now imminent. So far from earning him leniency, his membership in the club only placed him in redoubled peril.

And so it has proven – on a far broader scale – with Islam’s 21st century holy warriors, who may well despise the Jews and the rest of the kuffar, but with nothing like as much conviction as they loathe their Muslim rivals. Just last week it was reported that yet another Salafist in Gaza had shunned battle with the Zionists, preferring to make his way to Syria via Turkey to fight the true jihad against the “nusayri” regime. And then we learn that Somalia’s al-Shabaab has chosen to mark the festival of Eid al-Adha by threatening several prominent British Muslims, including an imam, whom it said had “mutilated the teachings of Islam” by failing to endorse things like the wanton slaughter of shoppers in Kenya last month. In an eerie symmetry – and a sign of how much progress has been made in 24 years – it transpires that at least three of these men will be placed under Rushdiesque police protection.

I happen to be an atheist, and one of the school that says we’d be better off without faith of any kind, no matter how secularized or ‘moderate’. All the same, to abandon fellow foes of extremism in their hour of need would be no less shameful than the silence of many Muslims (and indeed non-Muslims, for that matter) after 1989 who couldn’t stomach Rushdie’s godlessness. The British government must be urged to put every necessary resource at the assistance of Mohammed Ansar, Usama Hasan and Ajmal Masroor, no less than it must do everything in its power to confront and defeat the abominable thugs who would kill the rest of us the moment after they were done with them.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Persian conversion?

[Originally posted at NOW]

With Lebanese schools increasingly teaching the Persian language, NOW investigates the cultural and political implications.

The Imam al-Khomeini school, in the southeastern Beirut suburb of Hadath, is in several respects an atypical one. Two young men carrying walkie-talkies, with yellow bands bearing the Hezbollah logo strapped around their upper left arms, guard the gates, politely asking to search visitors’ bags before allowing entry. Once inside, ornately framed portraits of the school’s namesake, the late founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, adorn the walls, as does a message board smothered with photos of young “martyrs.” A chador-clad woman approaches with a length of black cloth to inform NOW that all women are required to be similarly veiled inside the premises.

NOW had come because, as of last month, the school – which is run by al-Imdad Islamic Charitable Association – is the latest of a number of private schools in Lebanon to start teaching the Persian language, al-Imdad having signed an agreement with the Cultural Chancellery of the Islamic Republic of Iran to jointly manage the program across the Association's four schools. In so doing, al-Imdad followed a path already taken by the thirteen Hezbollah-administrated al-Mahdi Schools, which have been teaching Persian throughout Lebanon since 2008.

While defenders of these initiatives point to the cultural and vocational benefits of studying a rich language of both historical and contemporary significance to the Middle East, critics argue the move is a political endeavor to expand the Islamic Republic's influence in Lebanon, particularly within the Shiite community.

In this regard, on Friday NOW met the principal of the Khomeini School, Abbas al-Dhayne, to clarify the exact nature of the new Persian program. A good-humored man with a short, greying beard, he chuckled as he gestured to the many photos of the Iranian ayatollah as well as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah hanging on his office walls. “You might think I really like Sayyid Khomeini. The truth is I just have more pictures than I know what to do with.”

The new Persian classes, he explained, are taught twice a week to the approximately 720 students from the sixth to the ninth grades (nationwide, al-Imdad has over 3,000 students in four schools spanning Beirut, Keserwan and Batroun). Though he said the classes are optional, he added that “we encourage [students] to take them.” Asked whether any students are not taking them, he replied that “no one so far has asked not to.”

As for why the school decided to introduce Persian, al-Dhayne cited the educational and professional advantages afforded the students. “Our graduates are increasingly going to Iran to pursue higher studies and find employment, so of course Persian is essential for that. In the past, they would go to Europe or America, but now Iran can compete with the West in science, in engineering, in technical fields. It is replacing the West for our students,” he told NOW.

Though this does not, said al-Dhayne, constitute a political agenda, he said he wouldn't necessarily object if there were one.

“For us, it's not political, it's just to prepare our students for higher studies. Maybe Iran has a political objective, we don't know. But honestly, when we hear about the 'Iranian agenda' in the Western press, we laugh. If the Iranians are expanding, I don't mind. They're giving me a hand, while not taking anything from me in return.”

Nor does al-Dhayne deny al-Imdad's affiliation with Hezbollah.

“We feel we are tied to Hezbollah. We, as a charity, are tied to Iran. And Hezbollah has relations with Iran too. So you can say we and Hezbollah are in parallel.”

To further understand Hezbollah's role in Persian language instruction, NOW contacted the public relations officer of the party-run al-Mahdi Schools. Though he confirmed Persian was taught at the schools, the officer declined to divulge further details without formal permission from the Hezbollah Media Relations Office. On 26 September, NOW visited the office in Beirut's southern Bir al-Abed suburb and submitted a written application to this end, which was turned down the following week. The request had been deemed “invasive,” explained a party official via telephone.

NOW was, therefore, unable to establish much about al-Mahdi's Persian program, beyond what has been published in the Arabic press. At a ceremony in May 2013 at the group's Hadath school attended by dignitaries including the Iranian ambassador, al-Mahdi's supervisor for Persian studies, Amal Nasr al-Din, said over 3,700 students were being taught Persian across the group's thirteen schools. Significantly, while several speeches at the ceremony emphasized the cultural and literary merits of Persian, the ambassador's speech also touched on politics, saying the study of the language would “form a bridge” between Iran's “Islamic revolution” and Lebanon's “resistance.” Elsewhere, a 2008 news article declared the initiation of al-Mahdi's Persian program in coordination with the Iranian Cultural Chancellery – the same organization that is now assisting al-Imdad's schools in Persian instruction.

At the Cultural Chancellery's office in the south Beirut suburb of Bir Hassan, NOW met with Hajj Abu Qassem, director of Persian instruction at the Chancellery, which itself offers Persian language courses to the general public. Like al-Dhayne, Abu Qassem kept a number of framed photos of Nasrallah and Khomeini on his walls, including a large one of the latter forming the centerpiece of the wall behind his chair – a reminder that the Chancellery is, after all, an arm of the Iranian state.

“We offer classes here just as any other embassy, such as the Russian one, does,” explained Abu Qassem in effortless classical Arabic (though he later said he was Lebanese, one wouldn't know it from his accent – nor from the ease with which he answered several phone calls in Persian). Every two months, he continued, students take a 300-hour course, by the end of which they should be able to speak well, if they know Arabic. “Arabic and Persian are 60% the same. The Persian script is basically the Arabic one, plus four new letters.”

The classes attract a wide range of students, he said, from journalists to doctors, engineers, and film-makers. The Chancellery also teaches Persian teachers, who go on to give courses at several Lebanese universities including Université Saint-Joseph, Lebanese University (LU), and the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik.

Like al-Dhayne, Abu Qassem highlighted the desire of some Lebanese to study and work in Iran as the key reason for teaching Persian. “Mostly, it's the strong reputation of Iranian universities, especially in medicine and engineering, that makes Lebanese students want to continue their studies in Iran. It's also closer and less expensive than the West.”

Unlike al-Dhayne, however, Abu Qassem rejects any suggestion of the involvement of political interests.

“There have been ties between Lebanese and Iranians since the days of the Phoenicians,” he told NOW. “And in the wider Arab world, you hear many words, for example in Egyptian films, that are of Persian origin. This isn't political, it's civic.”

That is a claim disputed by critics of the way Persian instruction is being carried out in Lebanon.

“This is political, for sure,” said Dr. Mona Fayyad, professor of psychology at LU and vice-president of the Democratic Renewal (Tajaddod) Movement. “In principle, there is nothing wrong with learning foreign languages, it's a very good thing. But it should be an optional choice for mature students, not forced on little children. There is no urgent reason to learn Persian. This is a kind of ideological steering. It's not innocent.”

Similarly, for Dr. Imad Salamey, professor of political science at the Lebanese American University, the move represents a further consolidation of Iran's grip on the Lebanese Shiite community, taking after previous historical examples of dominant foreign powers exploiting Lebanon's sectarian fragmentation to secure and advance their interests.

“Our different sects were always tied to colonial powers who had political, economic, and social influence over the country. Why do we learn French at schools? Because at one time France was the colonial power, and the Maronites were strongly linked to them and their schools were teaching French. Now the Shiites are establishing strong economic, political, and strategic relations with Iran, so it's natural that social and cultural aspects should follow.”

Indeed, said Salamey, the bond of language is an especially potent one to cultivate between hegemon and subordinate.

“Language is the ultimate kind of cultural association. This is when you start to 'Algerize' the sect; to do what the French did in Algeria. It worked with the Maronites; why shouldn't it also work for Iran and the Shiites? I think a part of the Shiite sect is going there.”

Maya Gebeily and Luna Safwan contributed reporting.

Little relief for Tripoli's grief

[Originally posted at NOW]

Reconstruction efforts are hampered by systematic corruption in relief distribution, say local citizens and politicians.

For residents of Tripoli’s Maarad and Zahrieh neighborhoods, where twin mosque blasts killed 47 civilians and damaged hundreds of homes moments after Friday prayers on 23 August, the task of reconstruction is being compromised by systematic corruption in government relief distribution, according to local citizens and politicians.

On 29 September, former MP Mosbah al-Ahdab of the Democratic Renewal (Tajaddod) Movement held a press conference in which he condemned what he called a “scandal” within the Higher Relief Commission (HRC), the government body tasked with providing emergency humanitarian aid, in which substantially higher cash amounts were being paid to those with well-placed connections.

In his spacious but crowded apartment opposite Tripoli’s Rashid Karami International Fair on Saturday, just a few hundred meters from the al-Salam Mosque explosion site, Ahdab spoke to NOW in between quick meetings with a constant rotation of visitors – clerics, youths from the troubled Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood, and a poet, among others. “My place is like a train station,” he grinned as he excused himself for what might have been the tenth phone call in as many minutes.

“It’s been the same story for over two years, during which we’ve had at least fifteen rounds of destruction” between the feuding Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighborhoods, Ahdab told NOW. “Certain people get compensation without even opening a file with the HRC. Others are registered in Tripoli but they actually live elsewhere. On the other hand, people who really live here, and had their homes destroyed, get cheques for a few hundred dollars.”

As evidence, Ahdab handed NOW photocopies of three cheques, clearly marked as paid by the HRC, issued to three individuals in July 2013 (see above images). One received 805,000LL ($537); another 380,000LL ($253); and the last 235,000LL ($157). “What’s the point? It costs more just to paint the house,” he said.

Another phone call later, and Ahdab arranged for the son of one of the cheque recipients, Mustafa*, to join us at the apartment, along with some friends, all of them in their mid-twenties. Dragging deeply on back-to-back cigarettes, Mustafa’s bony arms trembled as he told NOW how his family’s Bab al-Tabbaneh home was devastated twice during clashes with Jabal Mohsen.

“We lived without electricity or water, and the state did nothing to help us. The first time, we rebuilt the place by ourselves,” he said.

The second time, the HRC offered them $537. “It would cost 100,000LL [$67] just to open a bank account. I’d rather rip the damn thing in half,” he told NOW bitterly.

“You’re one of the lucky ones,” snorted a friend. “Others got just 50,000LL [$33].”

The difference between those who receive hundreds of dollars and those who receive several thousands, they allege, is connections – with security forces, with army intelligence officers, or simply with “the state” (they use the word contemptuously, as though describing an enemy). Ahdab, moreover, says Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Miqati, who lives just a few buildings away, is the most valuable contact of all, since the HRC legally falls under the control of the prime minister’s office. Indeed, under previous administrations, the HRC has faced similar accusations of favoring partisans of the incumbent prime minister.

NOW was unable to obtain comment from the HRC, though its Secretary General Gen. Ibrahim Bashir previously denied to NOW in December 2012 that bribery took place within the organization, dismissing such allegations as having “a political dimension” intended to “tarnish the reputation of the Lebanese army.”

As far as Mustafa and his friends are concerned, however, the institution’s corruption goes far beyond inflating cheque payments.

“The state sides with Jabal Mohsen. Their agents in Tabbaneh call up militants in the Jabal and tell them to fire shots at Tabbaneh, and they collect more money from the state that way. Others block the roads, fire machine guns into the air, and then call up army intelligence and get money to open the roads again,” said Mustafa.

“I don’t want to do things like that. I don’t want anything but my rights.”

*At the interviewee’s request, a pseudonym has been used due to the sensitivity of the subject.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

There was nothing "spiritual" about Ovadia Yosef's bigotry

[Originally posted at NOW]

Of the innumerable euphemisms adopted in polite journalism to make the nasty business of theocracy sound respectable, few are as irritating as the “spiritual leader” designation. What the writer plainly means (and what the reader ought to see from a mile away), when he debases himself with that sickly platitude, is “authoritarian religious extremist.” Try it out; it works in every instance. The Dalai Lama? A Buddhist fundamentalist who suppresses rival sects and tolerates no democracy within his Indian fiefdom. The Pope? An absolute monarch who professes divine “infallibility” and uses the privilege to sustain a multi-billion dollar enterprise of reactionary propaganda (the very word derives from Catholic doctrine). Gandhi may have led an unimpeachably courageous national liberation struggle, but that doesn’t undo his notorious outbursts of crackpottery, such as his suggestion that the best course of action for Jews in Nazi concentration camps would be to commit mass suicide.

And so it is too with the now-deceased Ovadia Yosef, the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel who was universally described in yesterday’s obituaries as the “spiritual leader” of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party. Just in case anyone out there is picturing a meek and humble champion of humanity and peace, here (in no particular order) are five of Yosef’s most memorable insights:
  • “Goyim [non-Jews] were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world; only to serve the People of Israel.” (Source)
  • “It is forbidden to be merciful to [Arabs]. You must send missiles to them and annihilate them. They are evil and damnable.” (Source)
  • “It is no wonder that [Israeli] soldiers are killed in war; they don’t observe Shabbat, don’t observe the Torah, don’t pray every day, don’t lay phylacteries on a daily basis – so is it any wonder that they are killed? No, it’s not.” (Source)
  • “Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] and all these evil people should perish from this world. God should strike them with a plague, them and these Palestinians.” (Source)
  • “[Holocaust victims] were reincarnations of the souls of sinners, people who transgressed and did all sorts of things which should not be done. They had been reincarnated in order to atone.” (Source)

Friday, October 4, 2013

Arab leaders courageously tackle region's biggest problem: blasphemy

[Originally posted at NOW]

It’s no secret that the Middle East is a troubled region. What with the first use of chemical weapons since the 1980s adding to the apocalyptic carnage of Syria; full-throttle sectarian slaughter underway in Iraq; a murderous military coup in Egypt; and the unceasing Israeli colonization of the remains of Palestine, the Arab world certainly has no shortage of things to be worrying about.

But while the naïve observer might deem the expression of unorthodox hypotheses about the nature of the Universe to be a matter of rather less urgency than the above examples, a number of Arab governments have astutely identified that the reverse is the case, and are working as we speak on a draft law to tackle that most menacing of all Middle Eastern ills: blasphemy.

Encouragingly, the officials preparing the law will improve on prior efforts to tackle this fons et origo of Arab woes by expanding it to all of their nations’ blasphemers, wherever they are in the world.

“All penal laws in Arab countries criminalize defamation of religions but there are no specific sanctions when an abuser is outside the country,” explained Qatari Justice Ministry official Ebrahim Mousa Al Hitmi. The ingenious twist of this latest initiative – expected to generate incalculable improvements in security, education, and economic performance region-wide – is that “it gives every state the right to put on trial those who abuse and hold in contempt religions even if they are outside the country.” [Emphasis added.]

The forward-looking move has already inspired change beyond the GCC peninsula. Authorities here in Lebanon, which has now been without a government for over six months and has witnessed a spate of horrific car bombs in recent weeks, have taken it upon themselves to exclude from an upcoming film festival two works that might very easily have slipped through the net of less vigilant censors. Had the films – one dealing with homosexual love, the other with temporary marriage in Islam – been screened, God only knows what the consequences for infrastructure development, legal reform, and meeting the challenges of the Syrian refugee influx might have been.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A belated repudiation of fascism in Greece

[Originally posted at NOW]

After getting away for more than a year with intimidating journalists, slapping women on live television, inciting both anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim bigotry, and carrying out hundreds of armed assaults on immigrants, the fun may finally be coming to an end for Golden Dawn, the hitherto ascendant Greek party-cum-gang whose logo, as Michael Weiss put it, “doesn’t even try not to be a swastika,” and whose modus operandi has more often been paramilitary than parliamentary.

What moved the Greek authorities – who have been conspicuously soft on the baldly fascist movement, even reportedly colluding in their toxic violence to some extent – to belatedly shut them down was the fatal stabbing on 17 September of Pavlos Fyssas, a leftist rapper, by a self-professed member of the party. Perhaps because Fyssas was Greek, unlike most of Dawn’s previous victims, this set in motion a crackdown that culminated last weekend with the arrest and indictment of the group’s leader, Nikos Michaloliakos, along with his inner circle on charges including murder, heading a criminal gang, extortion, and money laundering. Thus have the 21st-century’s most accomplished neo-Nazis – with 18 elected MPs and a reported 15% of voters behind them until this month – seemingly been incapacitated (and not a moment too soon).

Of course, this is hardly the end of Greece’s problems. The incumbent prime minister himself is known to be fond of attributing a wide variety of ills to “illegal immigrants”; the sort of diagnosis that meets with approval in his right-of-centre ‘New Democracy’ party, which over the past year had tended to view Golden Dawn as a perhaps unruly but ultimately useful check on the common leftist enemy. And the economic immiseration that was arguably the seedbed of the fascist revival in the first place is only deepening, with no amelioration in sight.

Nonetheless, encouragement can be drawn all the same from the public repudiation, in the land that first produced the democratic alternative to tyranny, of those who would undo the inestimable achievements of their forefathers, and send Europe once more down that darkest of roads.