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Human Rights

Why the Muslim Ban cannot be justified by national security concerns?

Why the Muslim Ban cannot be justified by national security concerns?

The White House justified its ban on Muslims coming from seven countries by citing potential threat of terrorism and national security. The facts do not support that argument. 

First, it is a fact that none of the terrorists who actually carried out attacks in the United States since 2001 has had any connections to countries listed by the White House.  

White House officials could argue that the wars in Iraq and Syria  attracted and trained new terrorists and therefore the list reflects that new development. That logic, too, can be refuted by facts and figures. The majority of the fighters who joined al-Qaeda and its derivatives in Syria and Iraq came from countries other than the ones sanctioned by this White House.  


By cross-referencing the two sets of data, it becomes clear that more terrorists had come from Saudi Arabia than from any other country. Yet, Saudi Arabia is not mentioned by the White House on its list of countries with potential threat of terrorism. Moreover, and considering the passage of legislation by Congress (JASTA), which candidate Trump supported, allowing families of 9/11 victims to seek justice from Saudi Arabian citizens and officials for any possible complicity in terrorist attacks on Americans, the exclusion of Saudi Arabia is odd. Clearly, there is some bizarre logic at play in determining which country to target by this Muslim ban that splits families, endangers lives already at risk, and violate terms of treaties and conventions ratified by the United States.

The Ban on Muslims is motivated by prejudice, politics, and xenophobia, not by legitimate security concerns. Muslims from rich nations, such as Saudi Arabia, were excluded from the ban while Muslims from poor countries like Yemen are banned. This practice is consistent with this White House’s position that equates being “rich” to being “smart,” and developing oppressive policies guided by this new form of racism, where being wealthy is equated to being innately virtuous. The ban targets the most vulnerable and if it is allowed to stand, more dis-empowered social groups, at home and abroad, will be victims of discriminatory executive orders and arbitrary measures from an administration that, based on its actions thus far,  has little concern for due process, the rule of law, constitutional limits, and human rights.

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Links to statements made by leaders of major US universities in response to the January 28, 2017 Executive order barring Muslims from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entry to the United States:

Boston University 
Brandeis University
Brown University
California Institute of Technology
Carnegie Mellon University
Case Western Reserve University
Columbia University
Cornell University
Duke University
Emory University
Harvard University
Indiana University
Iowa State University
The Johns Hopkins University
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Michigan State University
New York University
Northwestern University
The Ohio State University
The Pennsylvania State University
Princeton University
Purdue University
Rice University
Rutgers University – New Brunswick
Stanford University
Stony Brook University – The State University of New York
Texas A&M University
Tulane University
The University of Arizona
University at Buffalo – The State University of New York
University of California, Berkeley
University of California, Davis
University of California, Irvine
University of California, Los Angeles
University of California, San Diego
University of California President and Chancellors 
The University of Chicago
University of Colorado, Boulder
The University of Florida
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
University of Kansas
University of Michigan
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
University of Missouri
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
University of Oregon
University of Pennsylvania
University of Pittsburgh
University of Rochester
University of Southern California
The University of Texas at Austin
University of Virginia
University of Washington
The University of Wisconsin-Madison
Vanderbilt University
Washington University in St. Louis
Yale University

absent: Western journalists second hand reporting on the Syrian war and the propaganda against the Syrian government

absent: Western journalists second hand reporting on the Syrian war and the propaganda against the Syrian government

Eva Bartlett is an independent writer and rights activist with extensive experience in Syria and in the Gaza Strip, where she lived a cumulative three years (from late 2008 to early 2013). She documented the 2008/9 and 2012 Israeli war crimes and attacks on Gaza while riding in ambulances and reporting from hospitals. From June-August 2016, she visited Syria for her fifth time. On her sixth visit, in October and November, she returned independently again to Syria, for one month, during which time she visited Aleppo twice. 
She shares her findings and thoughts about Western media coverage of the war on Syria in this event.

A leading Saudi Salafist fighting in Syria admits to committing war crimes

A leading Saudi Salafist fighting in Syria admits to committing war crimes


The peaceful protest movement in Syria wanted political and constitutional reform so that all Syrians are included and that the Syrian people have the final say in who governs and on the source (constitution) of their authority to govern. Salafists do not believe in a constitution that is derived from the will of the people. They believe in imposing a particular and specific interpretation of Islamic traditions from the top down. 

For militant Salafists, the imposition of sharia, as they see it not as seen by the majority of Muslim scholar, was the end goal. The presence of many religious, sectarian, and ethnic groups in Syria made that vision incompatible with a Syrian society that is too diverse to reduce to a single monolith. These diverse communities knew that their struggle is existential, since Salafists framed the conflict as one between “Sunni Muslims” (Salafists), on one side, and apostates (murtadd), Alawites (nusayris), Shias (rawafid), and crusaders (salabiyin) on the other side. Salafists’ actions in Syria reflect this framing of the conflict. They accused residents of towns that are predominantly inhabited by these communities of supporting Assad and they forced them out or placed them under siege. Members of the security forces were summarily executed. In most cases, these acts were videotaped and posted on social media to frighten civilians and force them to submit to their rule. Recently, the chief religious mufti of one of the largest armed groups in Syria admitted to committing war crimes by killing prisoners based on their religious affiliation

In an interview with a Lebanese paper, Abdallah al-Muhaysini, a leader of Jaysh al-Islam, which is a cover for Jabhat Fath al-Sham (aka Jabhat al-Nusra), Istaqim kama Umirt, and Ahrar al-Sham confirmed what has been reported since the start of the war in Syria. He admitted that his fighters target civilians who are “rawafid” and that they killed captured “nusayris” immediately. Salafist groups usually use derogatory sectarian names for warring parties to frame their war in Syria as being aimed at purging that country from non-Salafists.
This admission would have serious legal implications for individuals and governments known to have supported these groups, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Al-Muhaysini has had elaborate connections to foreign intelligence services and he formed working relations with all Salafist fighting groups in Syria which he urged to unite in a single army. He threatened those who refuse the unification. The admissions to war crimes and his threats could lead to his assassination.

The Barrel Bomb Conundrum

The Barrel Bomb Conundrum

Barrel bombs don’t do this, U.S. and British bombs do.

by Craig Murray*

Virtually every mainstream media article or broadcast on the United States aerial massacre of Syrian government troops, manages to work in a reference to barrel bombs as though this in some way justifies or mitigates the US action.

It is a fascinating example of a propaganda meme. Barrel bombs are being used by Syrian government forces, though on a pretty small scale. They are an improvised weapon made by packing conventional explosive into a beer barrel. They are simply an amateur version of a conventional weapon, and they are far less “effective” – meaning devastating – than the professionally made munitions the UK and US are dropping on Syria, or supplying to the Saudis to kill tens of thousands of civilians in Yemen, or to Israel to drop on children in Gaza.

If a bomb were to drop near me, I would much prefer it to be a barrel bomb as it would be less likely to kill me than the UK and US manufactured professional variety. If however my guts were to be eviscerated by flying hunks of white hot metal, I would not particularly care what kind of bomb it was. The blanket media use of “barrel bomb” as though it represents something uniquely inhumane is a fascinating example of propaganda, especially set beside the repeated ludicrous claims that British bombs do not kill civilians.

It is of course only part of the media distortion around the Syria debacle. Western intervention is aimed at supporting various Saudi backed jihadist militias to take over the country, irrespective of the fact that they commit appalling atrocities. These the media label “democratic forces”. At the same time, we are attacking other Saudi controlled jihadists on the grounds that they are controlled by the wrong kind of Saudi. You see, chopping off the heads of dissidents and gays is OK if you are one of the Saudis who directly controls the Saudi oil resources. It is not OK if you do it freelance and are one of the Saudis who is merely acting at the covert behest of the other Saudis who control the Saudi oil resources.

I do hope that is clear.
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* Craig Murray, Vauntie Cybernat, Former Ambassador, Human Rights Activist

Standing with Syria, Where The Black Left Should Be

Standing with Syria, Where The Black Left Should Be

The destruction of Syria
by Margaret Kimberley*

American and NATO aggressions must be opposed wherever they surface in the world. That statement ought to be the starting point for anyone calling themselves left, progressive, or anti-war. Of course the aggressors always use a ruse to diminish resistance to their wars of terror. In Syria and elsewhere they claim to support freedom fighters, the moderate opposition and any other designation that helps hide imperialist intervention. They label their target as a tyrant, a butcher, or a modern day Hitler who commits unspeakable acts against his own populace. The need to silence opposition is obvious and creating the image of a monster is the most reliable means of securing that result.


The anti-war movement thus finds itself confused and rendered immobile by this predictable propaganda. It is all too easily manipulated into being at best ineffectual and at worst supporters of American state sponsored terror.

For five years the United States, NATO, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Qatar and Turkey have given arms and money to terrorist groups in an effort to topple Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Some of those bad actors felt flush with success after overthrowing and killing Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. They had high hopes of picking off another secular Arab government. Fortunately, Assad was hard to defeat and the barbarians cannot storm the gates. Most importantly, Russia stopped giving lip service to Assad and finally provided military support to the Syrian government in 2015.


American and NATO aggressions must be opposed wherever they surface in the world. That statement ought to be the starting point for anyone calling themselves left, progressive, or anti-war. Of course the aggressors always use a ruse to diminish resistance to their wars of terror. In Syria and elsewhere they claim to support freedom fighters, the moderate opposition and any other designation that helps hide imperialist intervention. They label their target as a tyrant, a butcher, or a modern day Hitler who commits unspeakable acts against his own populace. The need to silence opposition is obvious and creating the image of a monster is the most reliable means of securing that result.

The anti-war movement thus finds itself confused and rendered immobile by this predictable propaganda. It is all too easily manipulated into being at best ineffectual and at worst supporters of American state sponsored terror.

For five years the United States, NATO, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Qatar and Turkey have given arms and money to terrorist groups in an effort to topple Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Some of those bad actors felt flush with success after overthrowing and killing Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. They had high hopes of picking off another secular Arab government. Fortunately, Assad was hard to defeat and the barbarians cannot storm the gates. Most importantly, Russia stopped giving lip service to Assad and finally provided military support to the Syrian government in 2015.

Obama didn’t start a proxy war with an expectation of losing, and Hillary Clinton makes clear her allegiance to regime change. The United States will only leave if Syria and its allies gain enough ground to force a retreat. They will call defeat something else at a negotiating table but Assad must win in order for justice and reconciliation to begin.

Focusing on Assad’s government and treatment of his people may seem like a reasonable thing to do. Most people who call themselves anti-war are serious in their concern for humanity. But the most basic human right, the right to survive, was taken from 400,000 people because the American president decided to add one more notch on his gun. Whether intended or not, criticism of the victimized government makes the case for further aggression.

The al-Nusra Front may change its name in a public relations effort, but it is still al Qaeda and still an ally of the United States. The unpredictable Donald Trump may not be able to explain that he spoke the truth when he accused Obama and Clinton of being ISIS supporters, but the anti-war movement should be able to explain without any problem. Cessations of hostilities are a sham meant to protect American assets whenever Assad is winning. If concern for the wellbeing of Syrians is a paramount concern, then the American anti-war movement must be united in condemning their own government without reservation or hesitation. 

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* Margaret Kimberley’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR, and is widely reprinted elsewhere. She maintains a frequently updated blog as well as at http://freedomrider.blogspot.com. Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley(at)BlackAgendaReport.com.

Why does the U.S. administration want its agreement with Russia on Syria to remain secret?

Why does the U.S. administration want its agreement with Russia on Syria to remain secret?

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) scheduled a meeting this week to create a legal frame for the U.S.-Russian agreement on Syria. The meeting was eventually cancelled when France and several other permanent members of the UNSC asked for a copy of the actual agreement instead of being briefed about it by the two countries representatives. Russia agreed with France and expressed readiness to make public the agreement reasoning that they can’t expect their partners to endorse a deal they don’t know its details. After the cancellation of the meeting, Russia’s Ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, said:
 

“Most likely we are not going to have a resolution at the Security Council because the United States does not want to share those documents with the members of the Security Council. We believe we cannot ask them to support a document that they haven’t seen.”

The U.S. administration refused to make public all the documents contending that doing so could put some lives at risk and jeopardize the success of the plan since it contains sensitive “operational details.” 
 
In any case, the Obama administration finds itself in a very delicate situation. The main sticky point that delayed the agreement with the Russian government was related to Russia’s insistence that the U.S. and its allies identify and separate the so-called “moderate” rebels from terrorists so that a political solution can be negotiated. Ostensibly, the U.S. administration eventually agreed to do so and its military and intelligence officials have provided their Russian counterparts with a list of names, without indicating their locations. 
It is likely that the named groups are members of the loose collective called the Free Syrian Army—FSA—which, in reality, was mostly crushed by al-Nusra and ISIL about three years ago. What is left of the FSA is either isolated in and/or near Turkey (and Jordan) and the rest are mingling with al-Nusra and Jaysh al-Fath. Those still mingling with Jaysh al-Fath released a statement criticizing the agreement and rejecting the part of the agreement that calls for joint U.S.-Russian military action against Jabhat Fath al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra. They considered al-Nusra a legitimate rebel group. 
The FSA currently consists of these armed groups:
 

Faylaq al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, al-Firqa al-Shamaliyya, Jaysh al-Nasr, Harakat Nur al-Din al-Zanki, al-Ittihad al-Islami li-Ajnad al-sham, al-Jabha al-Shamiyya, Jaysh al-Tahrir, al-Fawj al-Awwal, Jabhat Ansar al-Islam, Kata’ib al-Safwa al-Islamiyya, Liwa’ Suqur Jabal al-Zawiya, al-Firqa 101, al-Firqa 13, al-Firqa al-Wusta, Liwa al-Hurriya al-Islami, Jabhat al-Asala wa-‘l-Tanmiya, Failaq Hims, Liwa’ al-Fath, Tajammu’ Fastaqim kama Umirt, and Jund Badr 313.

 
Nearly half of the above mentioned groups are also members of other coalitions, some of which include al-Qaeda affiliated Salafists, like Fath al-Sham and Jaysh al-Fath. These complex networks and affiliations underscore the administration’s real dilemma.

The U.S. administration is reluctant because, one the one hand, revealing actual names and locations of groups it supports would make it easy for terrorist groups to accuse them of collaboration with the “crusaders” and kill them, as they did with many individuals and groups in the past. On the other hand, revealing the actual names could expose the U.S. administration’s support for groups that might have committed war crimes, such as the case with al-Zanki, whose members self-documented themselves slaughtering a sick child near Aleppo not long ago (just this July).

 
Given the  atrocities committed by many of rebel groups, affiliated with the FSA, the U.S. administration prefers to leave its connections to groups that might be found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity secret to preserve deniability. However, the inking of the agreement with Russia made that task utterly difficult and the administration will be better served breaking any ties with groups suspected of committing crimes and working towards a solution that will stop the bloodshed and punish those responsible for some of the most gruesome crimes on both sides.
 

Will hubris bring the end of the Saudi regime?

Will hubris bring the end of the Saudi regime?

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*


Saudi Arabia’s bizarre behavior was on display, again, during the last two weeks. The recent actions reveal how Saudi Arabia’ rulers leverage the kingdom’s oil-generated wealth, Wahhabism, and religious sites and institutions to exert unmatched control in world politics–unmatched even by the superpowers of today.
Here is the chain of events.
On Thursday, June 2, the United Nations released its blacklist of states and armed groups that violate children’s rights during conflict. In it, Saudi Arabia–and its coalition partners but mainly Saudi Arabia–was found responsible for “killing and maiming children in Yemen.” The report concluded that the coalition led by Saudi Arabia “was responsible for 60 percent of child deaths and injuries last year, killing 510 and wounding 667… The coalition carried out half the attacks on schools and hospitals.”

Saudi Arabia’s PR and diplomatic missions’ machines shifted into overdrive. First, as reported by several news outlets, its top diplomats informed UN officials that unless Saudi Arabia is removed from the list, the kingdom will stop funding all UN agencies. Second, and to facilitate its break with the UN, the rulers summoned Wahhabi religious clerics to meet and issue a fatwa declaring the UN “anti-Muslim”, thereby justifying the cutting of aid and dues to the UN. Third, the rulers called on members of its coalitions–the Arab coalition supporting its war on Yemen and the Islamic coalition supporting its alleged anti-terrorism efforts–to pressure the UN to remove the kingdom from its blacklist. Within a week, the UN announced that it was removing Saudi Arabia and its war on Yemen coalition partners from the list pending a joint investigation.

Have the rulers of Saudi Arabia achieved anything from this show of power and influence? Yes, they have achieved this: a clear demonstration that money offers rich individuals and nations immense power to obfuscate the truth. At what cost? The Saudi rulers multiplied their losses rather than curtail them.

1. Once on the list, the image of the kingdom has been irreversibly tarnished. By forcing the UN, through reported threats and enticements, to remove it from the blacklist, it added new damage: it exposed the kingdom’s rulers as bullies, arrogant, and thugs who resort to blackmail to achieve political goals.

2. When they called on their religious figures to issue a fatwa against the UN, they solidified the perception and the reality of their use of Islamic institutions in service of political masters, not the other way around as suggested by the titles the rulers choose for themselves: Servants of the Two Noble Sanctuaries.

3. The pressure the Saudi rulers exerted on their already reluctant coalition partners will gradually alienate those countries who find other reliable partners who will not use them the way the Saudi rulers do. Once that happens, the government of Saudi Arabia will be on a path to being isolated.

4. The Saudi rulers’ reliance on religious institutions as a convenience kiosk of fatwas-on-demand exposes the rulers’ insidious campaign to define Sunni Islam through a Wahhabi filter.

The events unleashed by the so-called Arab Spring have transformed Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies in ways they hardly imagined. First, Qatari satellite TV channel, Aljazeera, which reserved the right to criticize all Arab governments except those ruling the CCG member states, was exposed as a sectarian political tool in the hands of the ruling elite. Second, Saudi Arabia’s aggressive interference in the affairs of Muslim countries through bribes and threats was exposed. Some of the recently revealed actions show the extent of their otherwise secret dealings:  giving millions to Malaysian politicians, supporting Sunni tribes in Iraq to remove the elected prime minister—Nouri al-Maliki, arming Salafi fighters in Syria to overthrow the Syrian government, bombing Yemen to extend the rule of an interim president, offering refuge to a Tunisian dictator wanted for murder and embezzlement, supporting Egyptian military rulers who removed a democratically elected president, blocking the selection of a president in Lebanon, reneging on a gift to Lebanese military, and supporting Morocco to punish Algeria for challenging its control over the Arab League.

This problem with the UN report is indeed all bad news for the Saudi rulers. But it ought to be good news for the Muslim peoples. It exposes the Saudi rulers’ use and abuse of religious institutions and their perversion of Islam to preserve their corrupt, clannish control over sites revered by billions of Muslims around the world. This exposure is a necessary step for dealing with one of Saudi Arabia’s most dangerous brainchild: al-Qaeda and its derivatives. By examining the Saudi use of wealth and religious institutions, Sunni Muslim thinkers will begin to address the origins of ISIL’s corrupted interpretation of Islam and act against its genocidal agenda that is rooted in Saudi Wahhabism.
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* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

U.S. – Saudi Arabia bizarre alliance is becoming a burden on the United States

U.S. – Saudi Arabia bizarre alliance is becoming a burden on the United States



Saudi war on Yemen: total destruction

On Friday May 8, President Obama announced that he was to meet with the Saudi King, Salman, ahead of the Camp David summit with the GCC rulers. On May 11, a day before the summit, the King cancelled his appearance altogether, a move widely characterized as a snub to the President. On Friday July 17, the White House said that King Salman requested that President Barack Obama meet with Adel al-Jubeir, the foreign minister, despite the fact that the President does not ordinarily meet with foreign officials who are not heads of state. Nevertheless, the President obliged. On August 28, the White House revealed that King Salman would be meeting with President Obama in Washington next Friday, September 4. The Saudi rulers are nervous, but they are blaming the uncertainty they face at home on other countries. The President should restate what he has already said in public: the threats to the Gulf States rulers are internal and of their own making.


Since the start of the uprisings that transformed many Arab countries, the rulers of Saudi Arabia have acted irrationally, arrogantly, and belligerently. As a country that continues to rely on an archaic system of governance, and given the significance of the changes taking place in the region, they ought to be nervous. However, when their paranoia pushes them to act in ways that risked stability and peace in the region, the world community ought to remind them of the limits established by international law and diplomatic protocols. Josh Earnest, White House press secretary, said that President Obama and Salman will discuss the conflicts in Syria and Yemen as well as “steps to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region.” Saudi Arabia has played a very destructive role in these and many other regional and international issues, and the President should tell the King that the behavior of the Saudi rulers is weighing heavily on the U.S.’s reputation and credibility. The Kingdom’s instances of malfeasance are numerous.

1. Saudi Arabia, along with Qatar and Turkey, has supplied genocidal fighters of ISIL, al-Nusra, and Ahrar al-Sham with material and political support, increasing the level of violence and sectarian tension in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.

2. Saudi Arabia launched an illegal war on Yemen, imposed a devastating blockade on that country, used illegal weapons, and destroyed roads, airports, ports, schools, markets, and hospitals, pushing the poorest Arab country to the far edge of catastrophic conditions. In the words of Amnesty International, the Saudi-led campaign has left a “bloody trail of civilian death.” Curiously, the Saudi air campaign spared al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen. In fact, the bombing campaign created the kind of environment where al-Qaeda and ISIL thrive, giving them now a stronger foothold in southern Yemen.

3. Saudi Arabia continues to frame the conflicts in Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen in sectarian terms, accusing Iran of interfering in Arab affairs when it is in fact Saudi Arabia that is bombing neighboring countries, arming genocidal fighters, and demanding the removal of presidents of other countries, all while harboring other dictators who have killed protesters and blocked real political and economic reforms.

4. The Saudi rulers continue to offer support and sanctuary for religious figures who preach hate, sectarianism, and supremacism. Hundreds of satellite televisions broadcast thousands of programs full of divisive content that has been used to justify the murder of civilians, the abuse of ethnic and religious minorities, and the subjugation of women.

5. While the Saudi rulers are actively pursuing destabilizing agendas in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon, all countries that have a tradition of some level of citizen participation in electing their leaders, Saudi Arabia has been governed without its citizens’ consent and the ruling clan has no plans to change that reality.

6. The rulers of Saudi Arabia have relied on Wahhabi religious preachers to legitimize their repressive control over the peoples of the region. Wahhabism, the extreme creed skillfully disguised as pure Sunnism, is espoused by all extremist religious groups who kill civilians on sectarian and religious grounds. The Saudi rulers have used the country’s wealth for the benefit of a single clan and a single religious denomination. While relying on public relations advisers, extensive media outlets, generous investments in prestigious American Ivy League universities, and diplomatic relations with key Western governments, they were able to project a moderate image of a sectarian creed and political philosophy that is actually an ideology of hate, exclusion, and supremacism.

The U.S.-Saudi alliance has outlived its utility. If U.S. foreign policy is built on democratic principles and human rights norms, we must ask: what democratic principles and human rights norms do the Saudi rulers espouse and practice? In the post-Arab Spring era, the U.S. administration must align its foreign policy with the nation’s proclaimed values and support peoples’ aspiration for dignity. There are no shared values between clan-based abusive rule and an established democracy. U.S.’s support of a belligerent, criminal regime in Saudi Arabia diminishes its standing in the eyes of Arab masses, validates the double standard charge against the U.S., and exposes U.S. policy as self-interested and unprincipled. The administration ought to change that narrative, and can do so by communicating the above facts to the Saudi ruler on Friday.
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* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

I know why I’m obsessed with Jews, but why are you?

I know why I’m obsessed with Jews, but why are you?

by David Palumbo-Liu*

Knowing how public I’ve been in support of the call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctionsagainst the state of Israel, a Jewish colleague came up to me on campus one day to talk. “I know why Im obsessed with Jews,” he said, “But why are you?”  I could hear both puzzlement and pain in his voice. 
It was clear at that moment that there were two kinds of “obsession” at work in his imagination.  For him, a Jew should properly – perhaps obsessively – care about their fellow Jews.  But my friend couldn’t help but wonder why I, as a non-Jew, would also “obsess so much” about his people, especially from a critical perspective. 
My reply was pretty automatic: “I’m not obsessed with Jews,” I said, “I’m concerned about the Palestinians.”
I know and like this person a lot. In essence I don’t think his political position is much different to mine, except in terms of tactics. I think he trusts me too.  But his statement revealed an important and discouraging assumption:  one is naturally drawn to care about one’s own people, and it is unexpected – even odd – that someone from outside one’s group should care as much. 

Taken in its most negative form, this attitude would conceive of an outsider’s interest as intrusive if it is not entirely positive. And that’s one of the main problems one faces when speaking of Israel and Palestine: not only does the line that’s drawn between groups seem hard and fast in terms of communication and ideology, but empathy and caring also seem to be contained within those lines as well.  
Under such conditions, what are the possibilities that the conflict could ever be transformed?
According to the philosopher Richard Rorty, the transformation of human thought and feeling is not only possible, but natural: “We have come to see that the only lesson of either history or anthropology is our extraordinary malleability.” All people can change, Rorty is saying, especially when they open themselves up to new stories about others: stories that lead them to “tolerate, and even to cherish, powerless people – people whose appearance or habits or beliefs at first seemed an insult to our own moral identity, our sense of the limits of permissible human variation.”
This is not a new idea.  Literature has long been considered the best vehicle for moral instruction exactly because it can take people out of their narrow sense of self and their self-centered habits of the mind.  But what kind of stories would be most effective in this way?
In one of the worst current violations of human rights and international law – Israel’s bombing and land invasion of Gaza – the news is full of stories in the form of photographs, reports, and news clips of the tragedy.  But it isn’t enough just to put them out there for the world to see.  Although there are clear signs of a shift in attitudes toward the conflict, we need to go further than simply registering immediate impressions of who is good and who is not.
I believe that one of the main reasons why many people remain unchanged in their sympathies is that they are still too deeply rooted in the belief that certain people are worthy of their care, while others that fall outside their group are not only notworthy of the same care, but they are not even worthy of full recognition as human beings like themselves. As a result, the stories of people most like oneself are listened to with more openness and empathy than others.  But in both cases, these stories are caricatures, simplifications. The actual, complex, stories of real people are ignored.
In the case of the Palestinians and Israelis, the dominant narratives describe the other entirely as ‘terrorists,’ or as the only aggressors in the conflict who deserve the rocket fire that’s raining down on them.  To simply flip sides and say that now it is Israel or Hamas that is in the wrong, or in the right, doesn’t help much in the long run.  We have to see a larger picture. We have to look more clearly at the actual political contexts of what is happening, and with that knowledge transform the ways in which we see people as blind agents whose identities are immutable.  We need to see the real workings of history, culture, and politics in shaping human action. In the process, all those involved can be humanized.
While to be ethically consistent one must urge that both sides accept this imperative to resist stereotyping and its attendant racism, there is no question that until very recently, one side of the conflict has had its story largely obscured or erased from the historical record, and that is the story of the Palestinians.  Ironically, it is precisely because of the Israeli invasion of Gaza that more and more people around the world are coming to know that history, and world opinion is shifting as a consequence. That is not only a political transformation, it is also a humanistic one.
The hope is that humanizing Palestine will allow others to see Palestinians as full human beings, and that, in turn, will transform the ways in which they are both perceived and treated. But again, such efforts at transformation must fight against entrenched habits of the heart and mind that confine people’s empathy to those who are most like themselves.
I admit that there’s a natural propensity to care for those with whom we have the most intimate relationships.  But it’s all too easy to let that inclination confine our sense of responsibility within narrow limits.  If we linger in that narrow circle, how is it that we would ever change?  And if others remain locked in their own limited loyalties and commitments, how can they ever change themselves?
Change – especially in times of crisis – requires that we re-examine not only the stories we hear, but also why we care about them, and crucially, how we act as a result.  This is not an abstract exercise. It’s critical in determining how we treat others.  Change requires openness, but it also means unlearning our habits of caring.  We must leave ourselves open to transformation even if that means going against our political biases.  Without the capacity to respond to the historical moment, we not only abrogate our freedom to think and to act, we also make democracy into a hollow concept, an empty routine.
It’s terrible to think that only a massive human catastrophe and moral failing like Gaza could break through the habits of the mind and heart.  But the ways in which the world has regarded the Palestinians – or rather has disdained and disregarded them – are finally, slowly, changing.
During the last mass bombing of Gaza in 2012, I argued the need for another narrative about the founding of the state of Israel. We have heard and deferred to the story of the Holocaust for so long that that the tragic story of the Jewish people has been allowed to blunt criticism of the means by which the Zionist state of Israel was created, and has been expanded illegally through the persistent growth of settlements in the Occupied Territories.
Today however, as the number of Palestinians killed in “Operation Protective Edge” rises above 1700, the vast majority of them innocent civilians (and mostly children), many people are responding to their plight in a different way. How was this allowed to happen, they are asking, and what roles have the United States and other powers played in bringing the catastrophe to pass? 
A recent Gallup poll, for example, shows a slow but distinct generational change, at least in the USA, where more and more Americans, mostly younger, are willing to hear that other story.  This is a point I make in a recent article in Salon: “there is now a widening band of light in between the heretofore seamless merger of the Holocaust and Founding narratives, resulting in a weakening of the former in its capacity to act as an alibi for the latter.  This is especially important with regard to the US, which has been the world’s most generous supporter of Israel.  Growing up well past the postwar era, increasing numbers of young people in the US find the Holocaust narrative to be less absolutely and unquestionably adequate as a rationale for  supporting the horrible killings in Gaza.  And as they learn more, their support will wane further.”
This is significant because only greater knowledge of our own responsibility for the catastrophe is likely to make us act in a different way – to end the killing and compel others to act with us.  In this shift, the first thing to set aside is the habit of caring only for those who look, speak, act and think like us.  Our “obsession” with those who are similar needs to be converted into a deep concern for those who are different, and who are easily ignored. 
To do this means listening to their stories, and respecting them as rightful narrators of their own historical situation.  While there are no guarantees, if we can expand our circle of care we can begin a process of transformation that will help us see a way out of the comfortable but narrow worlds in which we live.
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* David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford.  His most recent book is The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age.  His blogs for Truthout, Salon, Huffington Post, Al Jazeera, Boston Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books can be found at palumbo-liu.com. Follow him on Twitter @palumboliu.

The paradoxical nature of religious and ethnic states and the genocidal impulses

The paradoxical nature of religious and ethnic states and the genocidal impulses


by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*
 

The Arab Spring that freed some of the peoples of the Middle East from state imposed fear produced an existential challenge for increasingly heterogeneous communities, forcing people to define the nature of the state and the character of the country where they live. It is true that self-rule and self-determination require a sense of self. However, building stable countries in the new Middle East is tied to the peoples’ level of awareness of the genocidal impulse espoused by certain social groups amongst them. 

The old Middle East was built on an artificial foundation imposed by Western colonial and protective powers in the form of superficial liberal thought, imported Marxist ideas, petty ethnic identities, niggling tribal structures, and a variety of downwardly managed and imposed ideas. The regimes and political forces of the pre- and post-colonial periods exerted virtual monopoly on governing institutions in most Arab countries. During the second half of the twentieth century, Islamists, like the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates, began to challenge nationalist, monarchical, and clannish regimes arguing that Islamism provides a more inclusive political ideology for the peoples of the Middle East than alien ideas or narrow Arabism.

Consequently, Islamists clashed with secularists (consisting of Arab nationalists, liberals, Marxists, leftists, etc.) and monarchs and sheikhs. Secularists opposed Islamists on the basis that only a “neutral” secular state could guarantee equality among all citizens. Monarchs, on the other hand, either created their own versions of Islamism or co-opted existing ones to offset the rising popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Arab Spring amplified the tension between these competing trends. The future of the Middle East in particular and Islamic societies in general will depend on the outcome of these contestations. Specifically, political actors must address the place of religion and ethnicity, as defining identity markers, in the post-Arab Spring countries.

In Tunisia, for instance, all political debates were reduced to two competing propositions: the civil state versus the shari`ah-compliant state. It would seem that the consensus, as expressed in the new constitution, was in favor of a civil state where respect for religion, not any particular interpretation of Islam, is honored by all and imposed on none.

In Egypt, however, and immediately after the fall of Mubarak’s regime, the Muslim Brotherhood and their Salafi allies used their dominant organizational advantage to privilege a particular interpretation of Islam over all other interpretations and religions. That project failed and Egypt reverted to a Mubarak-like regime, for now. Importantly, the opportunity given to all Islamists to participate in representative governance and the subsequent failure of the Muslim Brotherhood to foster pluralism relativized the religious political discourse to the extent that even Salafis embraced realpolitik and sided with the military against the Muslim Brotherhood.

In Syria, all armed groups were united in their goal to overthrow the Ba`ath regime but they did not have a unifying vision for the future. Indeed, the Ba`ath government, as a post-colonial regime, is outdated. However, based on their own statements, the ideology of the most powerful opposition groups, the Islamic State (formerly, ISIL), al-Nusra Front, the Islamic Front, and many Islamist groups is beyond outdated. Their ideology is genocidal. These groups call for an Islamic state that is deviants-free, where non-Muslim citizens are reduced to a subordinate class, where non-Arabs are perpetually treated as inferior, and where secular Muslims are designated blasphemous enemies of God. A state built on these ideas is irresoluble, impracticable, and paradoxical for it violates the very basic understanding of the universal prohibition on genocide let alone the universal commitment to honor human dignity everywhere and under all circumstances.

The implicit support and tolerance of groups like the Islamic State are utterly disturbing. The lack of outrage towards ISIL’s actions against vulnerable sectarian and ethnic minorities is shocking. Not only did ISIL express its intend to kill all those who do not submit to its will, but it broke new grounds by committing retroactive genocide when it destroyed mosques, graveyards, churches, and iconic religious and cultural structures that echo the presence of diverse communities from thousands of years past. In a sense, ISIL and its supporters are committing two-way genocide when they kill or displace minorities and destroy their ancient historical sites. Considering the atrocities ISIL and al-Nusra inflict even on each other when they disagree, it becomes clear that these groups embody unmatched brutality and stunning lack of respect to human dignity enshrined in universal declarations and treaties prohibiting cruelty and genocide.

The commonly agreed upon definition of genocide is clear. It is “the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group.” International law provides specific examples of acts that are genocidal like killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. Moreover, international law punishes those who commit genocide, conspire to commit genocide, directly and publicly incite committing genocide, attempt to commit genocide, and being complicit in genocide.

With these definitions and examples in mind, the perpetrators of genocide in places like Iraq, Syria, and Libya become numerous. Responsibility falls on the shoulders of the actual actors who commit these crimes as well as on the shoulders of those who are complicit—those who are supporting ideologies that promote and sustain genocidal thought and inspire genocidal acts.

Post-Arab Spring countries could overcome the genocidal impulse and combat state imposed fear at the same time when they reject ideological purity in favor of absolute respect to human dignity. The Arab Spring, after all, may have signaled the beginning of the end of the precursors to ideological purity namely exclusionary models of nationalism such as Arabism, Turkism, Kurdism, Zionism, Berberism, Persianism, Islamism, and all other forms of ethnicity- and religion-inspired isms. A stable and peaceful future can be achieved through national identities that are more inclusive and more egalitarian in terms of respect to rights and dignity.

It is difficult to predict the specific future of the new Middle East. But it is not difficult to predict that the new Middle East will be better than the old one. Too much blood and agony have been spent to revert to the old Middle East or build a mediocre one. In this interconnected global community, no country can exist in isolation from its neighbors. With that being the case, the religious and ethnic state models become ethically, legally, and politically unsustainable. The peoples of the Middle East, therefore, must reject the proposition that only an Arab state can protect Arabs, only a Kurdish state can protect Kurds, only a Persian state can protect Persians, only a Shi`ite state can protect Shi`as, only a Sunni state can protect Sunnis, only a Christian state can protect Christians, only a Jewish state can protect Jews, and so-on. Because these ideas eventually lead to genocidal attitudes and acts. Peoples in that region must learn to confront their fear of each other and work together to build alliances on the basis of mutual respect and mutual commitment to dignity. They must commit to the principle that surviving or fearing a genocide does not give any community a legal or moral license to preemptively commit one.

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* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

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