Inter Press Service » Religion http://www.ipsnews.net Turning the World Downside Up Thu, 18 Dec 2014 16:51:53 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.3 OPINION: Non-Violence and the Lost Message of Jesushttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/opinion-non-violence-and-the-lost-message-of-jesus/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-non-violence-and-the-lost-message-of-jesus http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/opinion-non-violence-and-the-lost-message-of-jesus/#comments Thu, 18 Dec 2014 08:22:12 +0000 mairead-maguire http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138311

In this column, Mairead Maguire, peace activist from Northern Ireland and Nobel Peace Laureate 1976, argues that in a world that has moved far from the Christic life of non-violence, a clear message and unambiguous proclamation is needed from spiritual or religious leaders that armaments, nuclear weapons, militarism and war must be abolished.

By Mairead Maguire
BELFAST, Dec 18 2014 (IPS)

I recently visited Assisi, the home of St. Francis and St. Clare, two great spirits whose lives have inspired us and millions of people around the world.

St. Francis, a man of peace, and St. Clare, a woman of prayer, whose message of love, compassion, care  for humans, animals and  the environment comes down through history to speak to us in a very relevant and inspirational way.

Mairead Maguire

Mairead Maguire

Today, in the 2lst century, as we the human family face increasing violence, we are challenged to admit that we are on the wrong path, and that we need to find new ways of thinking and doing things from a global perspective.

Peace is a beautiful gift to have in life, and it is particularly treasured by those who have known violent conflict, war, famine, disease and poverty.  I believe that Peace is a basic human right for every individual and all people.

Love for others and respect for their rights and their human dignity, irrespective of who or what they are, no matter what religion – or none – that they choose to follow, will bring about real change and set in motion proper relationships.  With such relationships built on equality and trust, we can work together on so many of the threats to our common humanity.“For the first three hundred years after Christ, the early Christian communities lived in total commitment to Jesus’s non-violence. Sadly, for the next 1700 years, Christian mainline churches have not believed, taught or lived Jesus’s simple message: love your enemies, do not kill”

Poverty is one such threat and Pope Francis challenges us to take care of the poor, and has declared his desire that the Catholic Church be a church of the poor and for the poor. To meet this challenge, we can each ask ourselves ‘how will what I do today help the poor’?.

Pope Francis also has spoken about the need to build fraternity amongst the nations. This is important because building trust amongst people and countries will help bring peace to our interdependent, inter-connected world.

Violence begets violence as we witness every day on our television screens, so the choice between violence and non-violence, is up to each one of us.  However, if we do not teach non-violence in our education systems and in our religious institutions, how can we make that choice?

I believe that all faith traditions and secular societies need to work together and teach the way of non-violence as a way of living, also as a political science and means for bringing about social and political change wherever we live.

A grave responsibility lies with the different religious traditions to give spiritual guidance and a clear message, particularly on the questions of economic injustice, ‘armed resistance‘, arms, militarism and war.

As a Christian living in a violent ethnic political conflict in Northern Ireland, and caught between the violence of the British army and the Irish Republican Army, I was forced to confront myself with the questions, ‘do you ever kill?’ and ‘is there such a thing as a just war?’.

During my spiritual journey I reached the absolute conviction that killing is wrong and that the just war theory is, in the words of the late Fr. John L. McKenzie, “a phony piece of morality”.

I became a pacifist because I believe every human life is sacred and we have no right to kill each other. When we deepen our love and compassion for all our brothers and sisters, it is not possible to torture or kill anyone, no matter who they are or what they do. 

I also believe that Jesus was a pacifist and I agree with McKenzie when he writes: “if we cannot know from the New Testament that Jesus rejected violence absolutely, then we can know nothing of Jesus’ person or message. It is the clearest of themes.”

For the first three hundred years after Christ, the early Christian communities lived in total commitment to Jesus’s non-violence. Sadly, for the next 1700 years, Christian mainline churches have not believed, taught or lived Jesus’s simple message: love your enemies, do not kill.

During the last 1700 years, Christians have moved so far away from the Christic life of non-violence that we find ourselves in the terrible dilemma of condemning one kind of homicide and violence while paying for, actively participating in or supporting homicidal violence and war on a magnitude far greater than that which we condemn in others.

There is indeed a longstanding defeat in our theology. To help us out of this dilemma, we need to hear the full gospel message from our Christian leaders.

We need to reject the ‘just war’ theology and develop a theology in keeping with Jesus’ non-violence.

Some Christians believe that the ‘just war’ theory can be applied and that they can use violence – that is, ‘armed struggle/armed resistance’ – or can be adopted by governments to justify ongoing war.

It is precisely because of this ‘bad’ theology that we need, from our spiritual or religious leaders, a clear message and an unambiguous proclamation that violence is not the way of Jesus, violence is not the way of Christianity, and that armaments, nuclear weapons, militarism and war must be abolished and replaced with a more human and moral way of solving our problems without killing each other. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

(Edited by Phil Harris)

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service. 

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Faiths United Against Nuclear Weaponshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/faiths-united-against-nuclear-weapons/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=faiths-united-against-nuclear-weapons http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/faiths-united-against-nuclear-weapons/#comments Wed, 10 Dec 2014 20:05:05 +0000 Julia Rainer http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138197 By Julia Rainer
VIENNA, Dec 10 2014 (IPS)

“Never was there a greater need than now for all the religions to combine, to pull their wisdom and to give the benefit of that combined, huge repository of wisdom to international law and to the world.”

The words are those of Christopher Weeramantry, former judge at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and its vice-president from 1997 to 2000, who was addressing a session on faiths united against nuclear weapons at the civil society forum organised by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) on Dec. 6 and 7 in the Austrian capital.

Former ICJ judge Christopher Weeramantry. Credit: Henning Blatt, Wikimedia

Former ICJ judge Christopher Weeramantry. Credit: Henning Blatt, Wikimedia

Weeramantry strongly criticised the argument of those who claim that nuclear weapons have saved the world from another world war in the last 50 years.

He pointed to the ever-present danger represented by these weapons and said that on many occasions it had been luck that had prevented catastrophic nuclear accidents or the breaking out of a devastating nuclear war.

Noting that nuclear weapons “offend every single principle of religion,” Weeramantry was joined on the panel by a number of different religious leaders, including Mustafa Ceric, Grand Mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ela Gandhi, granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi and peace activist, as well as Akemi Bailey-Haynie, national women’s leader of the Buddhist organisation Soka Gakkai International-USA.

Although there often seems to be a gap between the positions of different faith communities concerning different issues, all panellists were very clear in pushing the moral imperative and declaring the similar values that are inherent to all religions.“The atom bomb mentality is immoral, unethical, addictive and only evil can come from it” – Mahatma Gandhi

According to Mustafa Ceric, it “is not the question of whether you believe, it is the question of whether we are going to wait and see the destruction of our planet.”

Ceric also stressed that the goals and values of humanity are defined by common moral and ethical standards and that the role of religious communities today is greater than ever. Faced with fear and mistrust in society, he said, they also have the responsibility to care for peace and security in the world.

Akemi Bailey-Haynie continued with an emotional statement from first-hand experience – her own mother was a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing in 1945.

“When nuclear weapons are considered a deterrent or viable option in warfare, it seems from a mind-set that fundamentally denies that all people possess infinite potential. No one has the right to take away a precious life of another human being.”

Akemi Bailey-Haynie, national women’s leader of the Buddhist organisation Soka Gakkai International-USA. Credit: SGI

Akemi Bailey-Haynie, national women’s leader of the Buddhist organisation Soka Gakkai International-USA. Credit: SGI

For Bailey-Haynie, nuclear weapons serve no purpose other than mass destruction. They have devastating effects on human beings and the environment, and the possibility of nuclear accidents or potential terrorism cannot be ruled out, she said, adding that dialogue between people of different or opposing opinions is the beginning to achieve change regarding this issue.

“As a second generation survivor, I deeply feel the sorrow, as well as the outrage, born of not being able to yet live in a time when the most inhumane of weapons, nuclear weapons, have been banned,“ she concluded.

Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Laureate and former Anglican Bishop, sent a video message to participants to express his deep solidarity and support for ICAN’s civil society forum initiative.

He argued that the best way to honour the victims of the incidents in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was to negotiate a total ban on nuclear weapons to ensure that nothing comparable could ever happen again.

Two of the session’s speakers, Ela Gandhi and Mustafa Ceric, also attended the Dec. 8-9 Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons.

There, Ela Gandhi delivered a speech in the spirit of her grandfather who, she said, would have joined the movement to abolish nuclear weapons if still alive.

As Gandhi had dedicated his life to teaching humanity that there is a non-violent way of dealing with conflict, he even condemned nuclear weapons himself in 1946 when he said: “The atom bomb mentality is immoral, unethical, addictive and only evil can come from it.”

Pointing out that the mere existence of nuclear weapons leads to similar armament of rival countries, Ela Gandhi warned that these nuclear arsenals could destroy a chance for future generations to survive and have a prosperous life.

The Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons was the scene of intense and often emotional discussions among official representatives from over 160 countries, victims and civil society participants. Notably, both the United States and the United Kingdom were officially represented for the first time at a conference where their nuclear arsenals were subject to debate and criticism.

Religion played an important role at the conference, where many lobbying groups had religious backgrounds, and the opening ceremony was addressed by Pope Francis.

“I am convinced that the desire for peace and fraternity, planted deep in the human heart, will bear fruit in concrete ways to ensure that nuclear weapons are banned once and for all, to the benefit of our common home,” aid Pope Francis, expressing his hope that “a world without nuclear weapons is truly possibly.”

In a statement on behalf of faith communities to the final session, Kimiaki Kawai, Program Director for Peace Affairs at Soka Gakkai International (SGI), said: “The elimination of nuclear weapons is not only a moral imperative; it is the ultimate measure of our worth as a species, as human beings.”

He said that “acceptance of the continued existence of nuclear weapons stifles our capacity to think more broadly and more compassionately about who we are as human beings, and what our potential is. Humanity must find alternative ways of dealing with conflict.”

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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Mubarak Acquitted as Egypt’s Counterrevolution Thriveshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/mubarak-acquitted-as-egypts-counterrevolution-thrives/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=mubarak-acquitted-as-egypts-counterrevolution-thrives http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/mubarak-acquitted-as-egypts-counterrevolution-thrives/#comments Wed, 03 Dec 2014 17:27:45 +0000 Emile Nakhleh http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138073 Egyptian army units block a road in Cairo, Feb. 6, 2011. Credit: IPS/Mohammed Omer

Egyptian army units block a road in Cairo, Feb. 6, 2011. Credit: IPS/Mohammed Omer

By Emile Nakhleh
WASHINGTON, Dec 3 2014 (IPS)

The acquittal of former Egyptian President Muhammad Hosni Mubarak is not a legal or political surprise. Yet it carries serious ramifications for Arab autocrats who are leading the counterrevolutionary charge, as well as the United States.

The court’s decision, announced Nov. 29 in Cairo, was the last nail in the coffin of the so-called Arab Spring and the Arab upheavals for justice, dignity, and freedom that rocked Egypt and other Arab countries in 2011.If the United States is interested in containing the growth of terrorism in the region, it must ultimately focus on the economic, political, and social root causes that push young Muslim Arabs towards violent extremism.

Chief Judge Mahmud Kamel al-Rashidi, who read the acquittal decision, and his fellow judges on the panel are holdover from the Mubarak era.

The Egyptian judiciary, the Sisi military junta, and the pliant Egyptian media provided the backdrop to the court’s ruling, which indicates how a popular revolution can topple a dictator but not the regime’s entrenched levers of power.

Indeed, no serious observer of Egypt would have been surprised by the decision to acquit Mubarak and his cronies of the charges of killing dozens of peaceful demonstrators at Tahrir Square in January 2011.

Arab autocrats in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere have worked feverishly to stamp out all vestiges of the 2011 revolutions. They have used bloody sectarianism and the threat of terrorism to delegitimise popular protests and discredit demands for genuine political reform.

The acquittal put a legal imprimatur on the dictator of Egypt’s campaign to re-write history.

Following the 2013 coupe that toppled President Mohamed Morsi, who is still in jail facing various trumped up charges, Arab dictators cheered on former Field Marshall and current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, lavishing him with billions of dollars. They parodied his narrative against the voices—secularists and Islamists alike—who cried out for good governance.

Regardless of how weak or solid the prosecution’s case against Mubarak was, the court’s ruling was not about law or legal arguments—from day one it was about politics and counter-revolution.

The unsurprising decision does, however, offer several critical lessons for the region and for the United States.

Removing a dictator is easier than dismantling his regime

Arab authoritarian regimes, whether dynasties or presidential republics, have perfected the art of survival, cronyism, systemic corruption, and control of potential opponents. They have used Islam for their cynical ends, urged the security service to silence the opposition, and encouraged the pliant media to articulate the regime’s narrative.

In order to control the “deep state” regime, Arab dictators in Egypt and elsewhere have created a pro-regime judiciary, dependable and well-financed military and security services, a compliant parliament, a responsive council of ministers, and supple and controlled media.

Autocrats have also ensured crucial loyalty through patronage and threats of retribution; influential elements within the regime see their power and influence as directly linked to the dictator.

The survival of both the dictator and the regime is predicated on the deeply held assumption that power-sharing with the public is detrimental to the regime and anathema to the country’s stability. This assumption has driven politics in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and several other countries since the beginning of the Arab Spring.

In anticipating popular anger about the acquittal decision, Judge Rashidi had the temerity to publicly claim that the decision “had nothing to do with politics.” In reality, however, the decision had everything to do with a pre-ordained decision on the part of the Sisi regime to turn the page on the January 25 revolution.

Dictatorship is a risky form of governance

Authoritarian regimes across the Arab world are expected to welcome Mubarak’s acquittal and the Sisi regime’s decision to move away from the pro-democracy demands that rocked Egypt in January 2011.

Bahrain’s King Hamad, for example, called Mubarak the day the decision was announced to congratulate him, according to the official news agency of the Gulf Arab island nation.

The New York Times has also reported that the Sisi regime is confident that because of the growing disinterest in demonstrations and instability, absolving Mubarak would not rile up the Egyptian public.

If the Sisi regime’s reading of the public mood proves accurate, Arab autocrats would indeed welcome the Egyptian ruling with open arms, believing that popular protests on behalf of democracy and human rights would be, in the words of the Arabic proverb, like a “summer cloud that will soon dissipate.”

However, most students of the region believe Arab dictators’ support of the Sisi regime is shortsighted and devoid of any strategic assessment of the region.

Many regional experts also believe that popular frustration with regime intransigence and repression would lead to radicalisation and increased terrorism.

The rise of Islamic State (ISIS or IS) is the latest example of how popular frustration, especially among Sunni Muslims, could drive a terrorist organization.

This phenomenon sadly has become all too apparent in Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, and elsewhere. In response to popular resistance, however, the regimes in these countries have simply applied more repression and destruction.

Indeed, Sisi and other Arab autocrats have yet to learn the crucial lesson of the Arab Spring: People cannot be forced to kneel forever.

Blowback from decades of misguided U.S. regional policies

Focused on Sisi’s policies toward his people, Arab autocrats seem less attentive to Washington’s policies in the region than they have been at any time in recent decades.

They judge American regional policies as rudderless and preoccupied with tactical developments.

Arab regimes and publics have heard lofty American speeches in support of democratic values and human rights, and then seen US politicians coddle dictators.

Time after time, autocrats in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Syria have also seen Washington’s tactical policies in the region trump American national values, resulting in less respect for the United States.

Yet while Mubarak’s acquittal might soon fade from the front pages of the Egyptian media, the Arab peoples’ struggle for human rights, bread, dignity, and democracy will continue.

Sisi believes the US still views his country as a critical ally in the region, especially because of its peace treaty with Israel, and therefore would not cut its military aid to Egypt despite its egregious human rights record. Based on this belief, Egypt continues to ignore the consequences of its own destructive policies.

Now might be the right time, however, for Washington to reexamine its own position toward Egypt and reassert its support for human rights and democratic transitions in the Arab world.

If the United States is interested in containing the growth of terrorism in the region, it must ultimately focus on the economic, political, and social root causes that push young Muslim Arabs towards violent extremism.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS-Inter Press Service.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Civil Society Freedoms Merit Role in Post-2015 Development Agendahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/civil-society-freedoms-merit-role-in-post-2015-development-agenda/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=civil-society-freedoms-merit-role-in-post-2015-development-agenda http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/civil-society-freedoms-merit-role-in-post-2015-development-agenda/#comments Tue, 25 Nov 2014 17:45:58 +0000 Mandeep S.Tiwana http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137944

In this column, Mandeep Tiwana, a lawyer specialising in human rights and civil society issues and Head of Policy and Research at CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, reports that civil society groups are facing increasing challenges as they seek to assume their rightful role as partners in development. He calls on civil society around the world to remain vigilant and act collectively to ensure that the fundamental rights of freedom of expression, association and assembly are protected.

By Mandeep S.Tiwana
JOHANNESBURG, Nov 25 2014 (IPS)

Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, an advocacy NGO, is facing criminal charges for sending a tweet that said: “many Bahrain men who joined terrorism and ISIS have come from the security institutions and those institutions were the first ideological incubator”.

Yara Sallam, a young Egyptian woman activist, is in prison for protesting against a public assembly law declared by United Nations experts to be in breach of international law.

In Nigeria, it is illegal to support the formation of `gay clubs and institutions’.

Mandeep S. Tiwana

Mandeep S. Tiwana

In Bangladesh, civil society groups are subjected to rigorous scrutiny of their project objectives with a view to discourage documentation of serious human rights abuses.

In Honduras, activists exposing the nexus between big business owners and local officials to circumvent rules operate under serious threat to their lives.

In South Sudan, a draft law is in the making that requires civil society groups to align their work with the government-dictated national development plan.

With barely a year to go before finalisation of the next generation of global development goals, civil society groups are facing increasing challenges as they seek to assume their rightful role as partners in development.

Back in 2010, when the United Nations organised a major summit to take stock of progress on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a number of civil society groups lamented that“too little partnership and too little space” was marring the achievement of MDG targets.“With barely a year to go before finalisation of the next generation of global development goals, civil society groups are facing increasing challenges as they seek to assume their rightful role as partners in development”

They pointed out that, in a large number of countries, legal and practical limitations were preventing civil society groups from being set up, engaging in legitimate undertakings and accessing resources, impeding both the service delivery and watchdog functions of the sector, thereby negatively affecting development activities.

Since then, there has been greater recognition at multilateral levels about the challenges faced by civil society. In 2011, at a high-level forum on aid and development effectiveness, 159 national governments and the European Union resolved to create an “enabling environment” for civil society organisations to maximise their contributions to development.

In 2013, the U.N. Secretary General’s expert High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda recommended that a separate goal on good governance and effective institutions should be created. The experts suggested that this goal should include targets to measure freedoms of speech, association, peaceful protest and access to independent media and information, which are integral to a flourishing civil society.

The Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has also emphasised the importance of ‘partnership with civil society’ in the post-2015 agenda. Even as restrictions on civil society activities have multiplied around the world, the U.N. Human Rights Council has passed resolutions calling for the protection of civic space.

Senior U.N. officials and experts, including the new High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, have spoken out against state-sanctioned reprisals against activists highlighting human rights abuses at home and abroad.

Yet, despite the progress, civic space appears to be shrinking. The State of Civil Society Report 2014 issued by CIVICUS points out that following the upheavals of the Arab Spring, many governments have felt threatened and targeted activists advocating for civil and political freedoms.

In Ethiopia, bloggers and journalists speaking out against restrictions on speech and assembly have been targeted under counter-terrorism legislation for “inciting” disaffection.

Additionally, the near total dominance of free market economic policies has created a tight overlap between the economic and political elite, putting at risk environmental and land rights activists challenging the rise of politically well-connected mining, construction and agricultural firms.

Global Witness has pointed out that there has been a surge in the killing of environmental activists over the last decade.

Notably, abundant political conflicts and cultural clashes are spurring religious fundamentalism and intolerant attitudes towards women’s equality and the rights of sexual minorities, putting progressive civil society groups at serious risk from both physical attacks as well as politically motivated prosecutions.

In Uganda, concerns have been expressed about the promotion of homophobia by right-wing religious groups.

In Pakistan, indiscriminate attacks on women’s rights activists are seriously impairing their work.

Countering these regressive developments will require greater efforts from the international community to entrench notions of civic space in both developmental as well as human rights forums.

A critical mass of leading civil society organisations has written to U.N. Secretary General Ban ki-Moon urging him to ensure that the post-2015 agenda focuses on the full spectrum of human rights, with clear targets on civil and political rights that sit alongside economic, social and cultural rights.

It is being argued that explicit inclusion of the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly which underpin a vibrant and able civil society should be goals in themselves in the new global development agenda.

It is equally vital to make parallel progress on the human rights front. Many governments that restrict civic freedoms are taking cover under the overbroad provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

They argue that the provisions of the ICCPR on freedom of association and assembly, which are short on detail, are open to multiple interpretations on issues such as the right to operate an organisation without formal registration or to spontaneously organise a public demonstration.

The global discourse on civil society rights would be greatly strengthened if the U.N. Human Rights Committee, the expert body of jurists responsible for interpreting the ICCPR, could comprehensively articulate the scope of these freedoms.

This would complement progress made at the U.N. Human Rights Council and support implementation of comprehensive best practice guidelines issued by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

For now, the odds seem to be heavily stacked against civil society groups fighting for economic, social and political justice. Many powerful governments do not subscribe to democratic values and are fundamentally opposed to the notion of an independent sector. And many democracies have themselves encroached on civic space in the face of perceived security and strategic interests.

Civil society around the world must remain vigilant and act collectively to ensure that the fundamental rights of freedom of expression, association and assembly are protected. We have come too far to let those with vested interests encroach on the space for citizens and civil society to thrive. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

(Edited by Phil Harris)

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service. 

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Pakistani Sikhs Back in the ‘Dark Ages’ of Religious Persecutionhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/pakistani-sikhs-back-in-the-dark-ages-of-religious-persecution/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=pakistani-sikhs-back-in-the-dark-ages-of-religious-persecution http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/pakistani-sikhs-back-in-the-dark-ages-of-religious-persecution/#comments Thu, 20 Nov 2014 13:03:47 +0000 Ashfaq Yusufzai http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137841 Sikhs in northern Pakistan are fleeing the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where threats, intimidation and attacks are making life impossible for the religious minority. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Sikhs in northern Pakistan are fleeing the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where threats, intimidation and attacks are making life impossible for the religious minority. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan , Nov 20 2014 (IPS)

Balwan Singh, an 84-year-old shopkeeper living in Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, is well past retirement age, but any illusions he may have had about living out his golden years in peace and security have long since been dashed.

The elderly man is a member of Pakistan’s 40,000-member Sikh community, which has a long history in this South Asian nation of 182 million people.

“The constitution limits the political rights of Pakistan’s non-Muslims." -- Javid Shah, a Lahore-based lawyer
Though constituting only a tiny minority, Sikhs feel a strong pull towards the country, believed to be the birthplace of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism.

Sikhs have lived on the Afghan-Pakistan border among Pashto-speaking tribes since the 17th century, but in the last decade the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) – once a cradle of safety for Sikhs fleeing religious persecution – have become a hostile, violent, and sometimes deadly place for the religious community.

For many, the situation now is a veritable return to the dark ages of religious persecution.

Today, Balwan is just one of many Sikhs who have abandoned their homes and businesses in FATA and taken refuge in the neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province.

“We are extremely concerned over the safety of our belongings, including properties back home,” Balwan, who now runs a grocery store in KP’s capital, Peshawar, tells IPS.

Balwan is registered here as an Internally Displaced Person (IDP), along with 200,000 others who have left FATA in waves since militant groups began exerting their control over the region in 2001.

Calling Sikhs ‘infidels’, the Taliban and other armed groups set off a wave of hostility towards the community. Shops have been destroyed and several people have been kidnapped. Others have been threatened and forced to pay a tax levied on “non-Muslims” by Islamic groups in the area.

According to police records, eight Sikhs have been killed in the past year and a half alone. When Balwan arrived here in Peshawar, he was one of just 5,000 people seeking safety.

“We want to go back,” he explains, “but the threats from militants hamper our plans.”

Karan Singh, another Sikh originally hailing from Khyber Agency, one of seven agencies that comprise FATA, says that requests to the government to assist with their safe return have fallen on deaf ears.

“Maybe the government doesn’t grant us permission to go back because it doesn’t want to enrage the Taliban,” speculates Karan, also an IDP now living in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The 51-year-old, who now runs a medical store in Peshawar, is worried about the slow pace of business. “We earned a good amount from the sale of medicines in Khyber Agency, but we have exhausted all our cash since being displaced.”

Indeed, many Sikhs were business owners, contributing greatly to the economy of northern Pakistan.

Now, hundreds of shops lie abandoned, slowly accumulating a layer of dust and grime from neglect, and scores of Sikhs are reliant on government aid. The average family needs about 500 dollars a month to survive, a far greater sum than the 200-dollar assistance package that currently comes their way.

The situation took a turn for the worse in June of this year, when a government-sponsored offensive in North Waziristan Agency, aimed at rooting out militants once and for all from their stronghold, forced scores of people to flee their homes amidst bombs and shelling.

Some 500 Sikh families were among those escaping to Peshawar. Now, they are living in makeshift camps, unable to earn a living, access medical supplies and facilities or send their children to school.

Male children in particular are vulnerable, easily identifiable by their traditional headdress.

While some families are being moved out and resettled, Sikhs say they are consistently overlooked.

“We have been visiting registration points established by the government to facilitate our repatriation, to no avail,” Karan laments.

Dr. Nazir S Bhatti, president of the Pakistan Christian Congress, says, “About 65 Christian families, 15 Hindu families and 20 Sikh families are yet to be registered at the checkpoint after leaving North Waziristan Agency, which has deprived them of [the chance to access] relief assistance.”

Such discrimination, experts say, is not conducive to a pluralistic society.

According to Muhammad Rafiq, a professor with the history department at the University of Peshawar, Sikhs are the largest religious minority in Pakistan after Hindus and Christians.

Thus the current situation bodes badly for “religious harmony and peaceful coexistence in the country”, he tells IPS.

He says that minorities have to contend not only with the Taliban but also Islamic fundamentalists who regard any non-Muslim as a threat to their religion. By this same logic, Hindus and Christians have faced similar problems: threats, evictions and, sometimes, violent intimidation.

Kidnapping for ransom has also emerged as a major issue, with some 10 Sikhs being kidnapped in the past year alone, prompting many to pack up their belongings and head for cities like Peshawar, says Lahore-based Sardar Bishon Singh, former president of the Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (PSGPC).

Bishon’s shop in Lahore, capital of the Punjab province, was looted in September 2013, but he says the police didn’t even register his report.

“Thieves broke into my shop and took away 80,000 dollars [about eight million rupees] but the Lahore police were reluctant to register a case,” Bishon recalls.

He says the police are afraid, “because the Taliban are involved and the police cannot take action against them [Taliban].”

Some experts say the problem runs deeper than religious persecution in Pakistan’s troubled tribal areas, extending into the very roots of Pakistan’s political system.

“The constitution limits the political rights of Pakistan’s non-Muslims,” says Javid Shah, a Lahore-based lawyer.

“Only Muslims are allowed to become the president or the prime minister. Only Muslims are allowed to serve as judges in the Federal Shariat Court, which has the power to strike down any law deemed un-Islamic.”

He believes these clauses in the constitution have “emboldened” the people of Pakistan to treat minorities as second-class citizens.

This mindset was visible on Aug. 6 when a Sikh trader, Jagmohan Singh, was killed and two others injured in an attack on a marketplace in Peshawar.

“We have no enmity with anyone,” says Pram Singh, who sustained injuries in the attack. “This is all just part of the Taliban’s campaign to eliminate us.”

He alleges that the gunmen, who arrived on a motorbike, did not face any resistance when they rode in to the marketplace. “Police arrived after the gunmen had left the scene,” he adds.

On Mar. 14 this year, two Sikhs were killed in the Charsadda district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but their killers are yet to be identified, Pram says.

While eyewitness accounts point to negligence on the part of the authorities, some believe that the government is doing its best to address the situation.

Sardar Sooran Singh, a lawmaker in KP, insists that the government is providing security to members of the Sikh community, who he says enjoy equal rights as Muslims citizens.

Peshawar Police Chief Najibullah Khan tells IPS that they have been patrolling markets in the city where Sikh-owned shops might be vulnerable to attack.

“We have also suggested that they avoid venturing out at night, and inform the police about any threat [to their safety],” he says.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Ebola and ISIS: A Learning Exchange Between U.N. and Faith-based Organisationshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/ebola-and-isis-a-learning-exchange-between-u-n-and-faith-based-organisations/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=ebola-and-isis-a-learning-exchange-between-u-n-and-faith-based-organisations http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/ebola-and-isis-a-learning-exchange-between-u-n-and-faith-based-organisations/#comments Thu, 13 Nov 2014 14:31:05 +0000 Azza Karam http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137746 Scene from an Ebola treatment facility run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Guéckédou, Guinea. Credit: UN Photo/Ari Gaitanis

Scene from an Ebola treatment facility run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Guéckédou, Guinea. Credit: UN Photo/Ari Gaitanis

By Azza Karam
NEW YORK, Nov 13 2014 (IPS)

The simultaneity presented by the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus on one hand and militant barbarism ostensibly in the name of Islam on the other present the international development community – particularly the United Nations and international NGOs – with challenges, as well as opportunities.

At first sight, the two are unrelated phenomena. One appears to be largely focused on the collapse of health services in three countries, and to a lesser extent, on economic and political ramifications thereof.ISIS claims religion in its very name, ethos and gruesome actions. Can the international humanitarian and development worlds afford to continue to ignore religious dynamics – precisely because of the extent to which their actions challenge human rights-based actions?

The other, i.e., ISIS/ISIL/IS, appears to be a complex basket of geopolitical conflagrations involving a violently militant political Islam, weak governance dynamics, botched uprisings, transnational youth disaffection, arms proliferation — all to name but a few.

So what is the connection and why is this relevant to international development and humanitarian engagement?

In a Strategic Learning Exchange organised by several United Nations bodies, and attended by U.N. development and humanitarian staff, and their counterparts from a number of international faith-based development NGOs, which took place in Turin, Italy last week, the confluence of these challenges was tackled head-on.

The U.N. and faith-based NGO staff present work both in their headquarter organisations as well as on the ground in countries in Africa, Asia, and the Arab region.

In both sets of cases, there are realties of overstretched service providers seeking to respond, in real time, to rising death tolls, collapsing state-run services, and the actual inability to deliver basic necessities to communities struggling to stay alive because of diverse, but nevertheless man-made, barriers.

Some of these are run by those carrying arms and demarcating territories as off limits while those within them are imprisoned, tortured, killed, terrorized, and starved. Other barriers are made of communities hiding their ill and their dead, distrusting and fearing those seeking to help, and anguished over the loss not just of loved ones, but also of care-takers, sources of income, and means of protection.

But there are other barriers which the last few weeks and months have revealed as well, some of which present long-term challenges to institutional and organisational cultures, as well as to the entire ethos of international humanitarianism and development as we know it today.

The response to the Ebola virus, first and foremost, focused on the medical aspects – which was/is urgent and unquestionable.

But it took months before international aid workers realised one of many tipping points in the equation of death and disease transmission: that burial methods were key, and that even though there are manuals which seek to regulate those methods so as to ensure medical safety, there was relatively less attention paid to the combined matter of values, dignity and local cultural practices in such crisis contexts.

Burying the dead in a community touches the very belief systems which give value and meaning to life. How those infected with Ebola were buried had to be tackled in a way that bridged the very legitimate medical health concerns, but also enabled the family and community members to go on living – with some shred of meaningfulness to their already traumatised selves – while not getting infected.

When this particular dilemma was noted, faith leaders have been hastily assembled to advise on burial methods which bridge dignity with safety in these particular circumstances. But the broader and more long-term roles of ‘sensitising’ and bridging the medical-cultural gap between international aid workers, local medical personnel and over-wrought communities have yet to be worked out.

And the opportunity to address this medical-cultural gap (which is not new to development or humanitarian work) extends beyond burials of the dead and medical care for the living, to providing psycho-social support, and ensuring economic livelihoods. In these areas, too, faith-based NGOs have roles to play.

The militancy of ISIS and the repercussions of the war currently being waged both with and against them presents a similar set of cultural challenges to national and international actors.

This cultural feature was reiterated with cases from the same Arab region involving Hizbullah, Hamas, and now ISIS. How to navigate practical roadblocks controlled by parties you are not supposed to be talking to as a matter of principle, and who question the very legitimacy of your mandate, as a matter of practice – precisely because it does not ‘do religion’ and is part of a ‘Western secular agenda’?

Yes, there are manuals and protocols and procedures governing the provision of services and rules of engagement – in compliance with international human rights obligations. Yet, some hard questions are now glaring: should any form of ‘dialogue’ or outreach be possible between those who speak human rights law, and those who wish to speak only of “God’s laws”?

Are there lessons to be learned from prior engagement with (now relatively more mainstream) Hizbullah and Hamas, which may have resulted in a different trajectory for the engagement with ISIS today, perhaps?

Boko Haram’s actions in Nigeria and al-Qaeda’s presence (and elimination of Bin Laden) in Afghanistan have highlighted a link between religious dogma and critical health implications. Unlike with Ebola however, a possible role for faith leaders – and other faith-based humanitarian and development actors – has not been solicited. At least, not openly so.

And yet, could these roles shed some light on the particular ability of some religious actors to maneuver within humanitarian emergencies in these specific circumstances?

Could a clearer appreciation of the potential value-added of faith-based interventions – which have to be distinguished from those of ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, etc. – increase understanding of and dealing with a world view that is costing lives, now and in the future?

ISIS claims religion in its very name, ethos and gruesome actions. Can the international humanitarian and development worlds afford to continue to ignore religious dynamics – precisely because of the extent to which their actions challenge human rights-based actions?

And if the international community makes a choice to deal with any religious overtones – and is not capacitated in its current frameworks to do so – whose assistance will be needed to call upon, in which fora and with what means?

There are answers to some of these questions already percolating in several policy-making corridors, inherent in the experience of many cadres working with faith-based/ faith-inspired development NGOs, and academics who have devoted decades of research.

What was clear from the discussions in Turin, and other roundtables on religion and development, is that these questions have to be posed, because the answers belie multiple opportunities.

All opinions expressed belong to the author, and are not representative or descriptive of the positions of any organisation, Member State, Board, staff member or territorial entity.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Disciples of John the Baptist also flee ISIShttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/disciples-of-john-the-baptist-also-flee-isis/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=disciples-of-john-the-baptist-also-flee-isis http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/disciples-of-john-the-baptist-also-flee-isis/#comments Sat, 08 Nov 2014 09:20:50 +0000 Karlos Zurutuza http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137659 One of the ancient yet vanishing Mandaean rituals in Baghdad, at the banks of the Tigris river. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

One of the ancient yet vanishing Mandaean rituals in Baghdad, at the banks of the Tigris river. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

By Karlos Zurutuza
KIRKUK, Iraq, Nov 8 2014 (IPS)

“Going  back home? That would be suicide. The Islamists would cut our throats straight away,” says Khalil Hafif Ismam. The fear of this Mandaean refugee sums up that of one of the oldest yet most decimated communities in Mesopotamia.

“We had our house and two jewellery shops back in Baiji – 230 km north of Baghdad – but when ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] took over the area in June we had to leave for sheer survival,” recalls Khalil Ismam from the Mandaean Council compound in Kirkuk, 100 km east of Baiji. That is where he shares a roof with the family of his brother Sami, and the mother of both.

The Ismams are Mandaeans, followers of a religion that experts have tracked back 400 years before Christ, and which consider John the Baptist as their prophet. Accordingly, their main ritual, baptism, has taken place in the same spots on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates for almost two millennia.

In the sixteenth century, Portuguese Jesuit missionaries attempted to convert them to Christianity in Basra (southern Iraq). Young Mandaeans were sent, often abducted, to evangelise far-flung Portuguese colonies such as today´s Sri Lanka. They were called the “Christians of St. John”, although Mandaeans solidly dissociate themselves from Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The Ismams, a Mandaean displaced family, pose at the entrance of the Mandaean Council in Kikruk. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

The Ismams, a Mandaean displaced family, pose at the entrance of the Mandaean Council in Kikruk. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

Khalil Ismam and his brother, both jewellers in their late thirties, also come from Iraq´s far south. Talking to IPS, they explain how they moved to Baghdad in the 1980s, “looking for a better life”. After the first Gulf War in 1991, they were forced to relocate again, this time to Baiji. Today they are in Kirkuk but they have no idea what tomorrow will bring.

“The council has told us that we cannot stay over a month, but we still don´t know where to go next because ISIS is already at the gates of the city,” says Sami.

Among the little they could take with them, the silversmiths did not forget their sekondola – a medallion engraved with a bee, a lion and a scorpion, all of them surrounded by a snake. According to Mandaean tradition, it should protect them from evil."The most striking thing about the killings of Mandaeans in Iraq is that it ranges from monetary gain by the extremists to the more sinister reason of ethnically cleansing the population of Iraq to get rid of the entire population of Mandaeans” – Suhaib Nashi, General Secretary of the Mandaean Association Union in Exile

Talismans are likely among the few things they can stick to while Mandaean ancient rituals begin to disappear as their priests are driven into exile in the best case scenario. In Kirkuk, the dry bed of the Khasa River – a tributary of the Tigris – is not an option so the increasingly rare ceremonies are held in a makeshift water well inside the complex.

“Every two or three weeks a genzibra – Mandaean priest – comes from Baghdad to conduct the ritual but the road is getting more dangerous with each passing day,” laments Khalil Ismam, standing by the pond.

According to a report released by Human Rights Watch in February 2011, 90 percent of Mandaeans have either died or left the country since the invasion by the U.S.-led forces in 2003.

From his residence in Baghdad, Sattar Hillo, spiritual leader of the Mandaeans worldwide, told IPS that his community is facing their “most critical moment” in history, adding that there are around 10,000 of them left in Iraq.

But that was his assessment a few months before the ISIS threat in the region. Today, the situation has worsened considerably, as Suhaib Nashi, General Secretary of the Mandaean Association Union in Exile, sums up:

“In the past two months, our community in Iraq is suffering a real genocide at the hands of radical Islamists, and not just by ISIS”. Nashi told IPS that the situation is equally worrying in southern areas, where the followers of this religion are easy victims of either Shiite militias or common criminals.

“The most striking thing about the killings of Mandaeans in Iraq is that it ranges from monetary gain by the extremists to the more sinister reason of ethnically cleansing the population of Iraq to get rid of the entire population of Mandaeans,” denounces Nashi.

Seeking asylum

Khalima Mashmul, aged 39, is among the Mandaean refugees staying today at the local council. She tells IPS that she is originally from the south, but that she came to Kirkuk at the early age of 15, dragged by a forced population displacement campaign through which Saddam Hussein sought to alter the demographic balance of Kirkuk, where the Kurds are the majority.

Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen dispute this city which lies on top of one of the world’s largest oil reserves. What Mashmul has called “home” for nearly 25 years is still considered as one of the most dangerous spots in Iraq. And she knows it well.

“My husband is a police officer. He lost his right leg and four fingers of one hand after a bomb attack last June. Despite his injuries, they still force him to keep working,” this mother of four tells IPS. Like the Ismams, they cannot stay indefinitely.

“We cannot go back home because my husband is threatened but we don´t have enough money to pay a rent,” laments Mashmul. Their only option, she adds, is that “Australia or any European country” grants them political asylum.

That is likely the dream of the majority in Iraq. In a report on the Iraq crisis released last month, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says that 1.8 million Iraqis have been internally displaced since January this year. The report also adds that 600,000 of them need urgent help due to the imminent arrival of winter.

While many wait impatiently to move to a Western country, some others have opted for an easier relocation in neighbouring countries.

Chabar Imad Abid, one of the policemen – all of them Mandaean – managing security at the compound, tells IPS that he does not regret being left alone by his family, saying: “My wife and my five children are in Jordan and I will join them as soon as I can.”

“We have just been told that ISIS is gathering forces in Hawija – 50 km west of Kirkuk,” says the policeman, meaning that the offensive over Kirkuk is “imminent”.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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Choosing Between Death and Death in Pakistanhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/choosing-between-death-and-death-in-pakistan/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=choosing-between-death-and-death-in-pakistan http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/choosing-between-death-and-death-in-pakistan/#comments Thu, 06 Nov 2014 18:31:50 +0000 Ashfaq Yusufzai http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137628 More and more tents are coming up to house displaced people in northern Pakistan. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

More and more tents are coming up to house displaced people in northern Pakistan. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan , Nov 6 2014 (IPS)

Residents of the Khyber Agency, one of seven administrative districts that comprise northern Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), are in the worst possible predicament: either course of action they choose now, they say, could result in death.

As Pakistan’s military offensive against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) expands slowly from North Waziristan Agency to the restive Khyber Province, civilians must decide whether or not to defy a Taliban ban on travel.

If they stay, they risk becoming victims of army shelling and gunfire, aimed at rooting out terrorists from the Afghan-Pakistan border regions where they have operated with impunity since 2001. If residents attempt to flee, they will face the wrath of militants who rely on the civilian population to provide cover against a wholesale military bombardment of the region.

“The people fear the Taliban because they destroyed the houses of 50 tribesmen who left the area last year. We are stuck between them and the army. The only way is to migrate to safer places.” -- Zahir Afridi, a former resident of the Tirah locality in Khyber Agency
At the end of October, members of the TTP issued a warning to local residents that their houses would be blown up if they followed the army’s evacuation orders, which came in the form of pamphlets dropped from helicopters ahead of a three-day deadline to militants to lay down their arms or face a major offensive.

Literally caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, some residents have chosen to heed the Taliban’s threat, while others are risking life and limb to escape the embattled zone and find refuge in safer areas.

Zahir Afridi, a resident of the Tirah locality in Khyber Agency, recently escaped to the Jallozai refugee camp located 35 km southeast of FATA’s capital, Peshawar, by pretending that his two-year-old daughter had fallen ill and was in urgent need of medical treatment.

“The Taliban allowed us [to leave] on the condition that we would return after Begum [his daughter]’s recovery, but actually we cannot return for fear of our lives,” he tells IPS.

“The people fear the Taliban because they destroyed the houses of 50 tribesmen who left the area last year,” he says. “We are stuck between them and the army. The only way is to migrate to safer places.”

Experts say that civilians act as a kind of “human shield” for the militants, who would otherwise be isolated and vulnerable to attack. Dr. Khadim Hussain, chairman of the Bacha Khan Trust Education Foundation (BKTEF), an organisation that promotes peace, democracy and human rights, tells IPS that keeping civilians trapped in a war zone is a “well established and successful strategy employed by militants” to escape the full force of military campaigns.

An authority on terrorism in Pakistan, Hussain is unsurprised by the Taliban’s migration ban in the Jamrud and Bara localities. He says militants employ “various tactics” to maintain their position of power, including “kidnapping for ransom, extortions, and killings.”

The use of human shields is nothing new either.

Shams Rehman, a political analyst at the Government College, Peshawar, tells IPS that militants successfully used local residents as human shields in the Swat district of the northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, which they ruled from 2007 to 2009.

“Though the army started operations in Swat in 2009 [they] couldn’t get the desired results because the Taliban was using residents” to protect them from an all-out offensive, he says.

It was not until early 2010 that the government decided to issue a mass evacuation alert to the population – warning them to take shelter in camps in the nearby Mardan district – before launching a major military operation.

In this way, “the government isolated the militants and defeated them,” Rehman explains.

It is this same model that the government is now following in North Waziristan, where, over the last 10 years, members of the TPP and Al Qaeda have established a robust base from which to plan and execute their activities.

For many years the government could do nothing about the presence of this unofficial ‘headquarters’ due to the large civilian population living amongst the terrorists.

Mushtaq Khan of the Jamaat-e-Islami party says that now, with nearly 18.9 percent of land in North Waziristan cleared of all residents, the government is doing what it could not for the past decade: inundate the area with firepower in a bid to completely flush out all the militants.

The campaign, which began on Jun. 15, has so far resulted in the displacement of over 500,000 residents, who are now living in camps in the neighbouring KP province.

The journey to the sprawling ‘tent cities’ erected for IDPs in towns like Bannu was not easy. Some died along the way, after trudging for hours in a summer heat wave that at times touched 45 degrees Celsius.

Many were separated from their families en route. Those who made it safely to Bannu might have been considered the lucky ones – that is, until it became evident that the living conditions in the camps were abysmal, with food shortages, a near-total absence of clean water sources and sanitation facilities, and limited medical personnel and supplies.

Now, residents of the Khyber Agency are facing a similar plight.

Muhammad Shad, who recently reached Peshawar along with his 12-member family, claims he and his clan walked for five hours before finding a vehicle that would carry them safely to the capital.

“The situation was extremely bad; all of us felt threatened,” the 55-year-old daily wage labourer tells IPS from the Jallozai camp, where he now lives, adding that scores of his friends and neighbours are still being “held hostage” by the Taliban.

He explains that threats from militants are not empty words. To prove this, the TTP set 20 houses in Khyber Agency ablaze on Aug. 14; they belonged to former militants who had handed their weapons over to the army.

Despite these terror tactics, residents continue to flee en masse – with some 95,000 making it out of Khyber Agency – willing to risk retribution for a chance to live free of the militants’ control.

“Life under the Taliban was not easy,” says Shahabuddin Khan, a resident of South Waziristan Agency, who migrated to Peshawar two months ago along with his family, after having faced violence, threats and intimidation by militants.

He considers himself lucky to have escaped, explaining, “Those who can afford to rent houses outside their native areas [do so], while the poor ones are destined to stay back and face a life of perpetual uncertainty.”

In total, over a million people have been uprooted from their homes in northern Pakistan, forced to flee from one province to another in search of a normal life.

Military spokesman Asim Bajwa tells IPS that “decisive action” on the part of the government has enabled them to clear certain areas of militants, thus allowing people to live peacefully.

“The people should cooperate with the army so they [the militants] are defeated forever,” he asserts.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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OPINION: For Azerbaijan, Time to Address the Potential Salafi Dangerhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/opinion-for-azerbaijan-time-to-address-the-potential-salafi-danger/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-for-azerbaijan-time-to-address-the-potential-salafi-danger http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/opinion-for-azerbaijan-time-to-address-the-potential-salafi-danger/#comments Wed, 05 Nov 2014 21:28:24 +0000 Eldar Mamedov http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137609 By Eldar Mamedov
BAKU, Nov 5 2014 (EurasiaNet)

Earlier in October, Azerbaijani news media reported the death of a professional Azerbaijani wrestler, Rashad Bakhshaliyev, who was killed in Syria while fighting for the Islamic State. The news, which came as a surprise to many in Azerbaijan, underscores an emerging security threat for Azerbaijan.

Hundreds of Azerbaijanis are known to have joined Islamic State (IS) forces in Syria. Concern is starting to build that these battle-hardened jihadists could one day set their sights on challenging President Ilham Aliyev’s administration in Azerbaijan.Salafis have a solid foothold in Azerbaijan, and at least some of them are prone to radicalisation, as the steady stream of Azeris who have left their homeland to go fight in Syria and Iraq demonstrates.

Some prominent militants now fighting in Syria, most notably field commander Hattab al-Azeri, have already started verbally attacking the Aliyev government for its secularism and corruption.

Azerbaijan would seem to make an attractive target for IS jihadists. It is one of the few countries in the world with the Shia Muslim majority population, and the IS is virulently anti-Shia. On a geopolitical level, going after Azerbaijan would also seem attractive for the IS, given Baku’s links to Russia, the United States and Iran, three countries that are among the IS’ chief antagonists.

Azerbaijan itself would seem to present a vulnerable target. While it has a strong security apparatus, widespread corruption has weakened many state institutions in the eyes of the population.

In addition, Azerbaijan is home to a substantial, indigenous community of Salafis, followers of a particularly puritanical interpretation of Sunni Islam. While not all Salafis are apt to become jihadists, jihadists have come from Salafi ranks. There is a danger that at least some non-violent Salafis may sympathize with the goals, if not tactics, of the jihadists and become radicalised.

Virtually unheard of in Azerbaijan until the early 1990s, Salafism has spread rapidly since. No credible data exist on the number of Salafis in Azerbaijan today, but their presence is relatively strong in the Sunni-majority northern parts of the country, the capital city of Baku and the town of Sumgait.

Several factors explain the rise of Salafism in Azerbaijan. First, the long legacy of official Soviet atheism warped the popular understanding of traditional Shia tenets, which for centuries had formed the moral and ethical bedrock of Azerbaijani society.

The Bolsheviks created a spiritual void and inadvertently paved the way for more extreme religious beliefs to fill it once the communist system collapsed in 1991. It is noteworthy that in their efforts to denigrate the Shias, Salafis have made prolific use of derogatory depictions of religious figures, almost entirely Shia, in early Soviet films.

Soviet atheists and post-Soviet Salafis may be strange bedfellows, but, working in tandem, they have succeeded in destroying the traditional religious underpinning of Azeri society.

Anti-Iranian policies carried out by various Azerbaijani governments since the 1990s have contributed to the spread of Salafism. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, isolating Iran was one of the explicit policy goals of successive American administrations.

Officials in Baku at the time believed an alliance with the United States was essential for achieving their own strategic goals, namely regaining control of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. So Azerbaijan readily aligned its policies with a US-promoted regional framework that excluded Iran. This enabled Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, through the establishment of charities and banks, to foster the spread of Salafi beliefs in Azerbaijan.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Azerbaijani authorities saw no reason to take action to check the spread of Salafism. If anything, they saw its proliferation as a healthy counterbalance to Iran’s efforts to export its influence to Azerbaijan. While pro-Iranian Shia elements have been openly critical of the Aliyev administration, Salafis in Azerbaijan have tended to emphasise loyalty to the government and have shied away from political activism.

In recent years, authorities have awakened to the potential Salafi threat. But addressing it now is infinitely more challenging than it would have been a decade ago. Salafis have a solid foothold in Azerbaijan, and at least some of them are prone to radicalisation, as the steady stream of Azeris who have left their homeland to go fight in Syria and Iraq demonstrates.

It is clear that jihadists, especially those now engaged in Syria, do not recognise state borders and consider the entire Muslim world as fertile ground for the expansion of their self-proclaimed “caliphate.” Thus, no Muslim-majority state should feel secure enough to ignore this threat.

The Aliyev administration in recent years has ruthlessly persecuted independent journalists and civil society activists, and the pace and scope of its crackdown has intensified in 2014. Over the same period, Baku has occasionally clashed with the United States and European Union, in particular Germany, over what Azerbaijani officials contend are the West’s “double standards” on human rights.

These policies merely weaken Baku’s ability to address its most serious security threat – the metamorphosis of Salafism into militant Islam. Stability in Azerbaijan would be much better served if Baku focused on taking action that would diminish the potential for international and homegrown jihadism.

Editor’s note:  Eldar Mamedov is a political adviser to the Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament. He writes in his personal capacity. This story originally appeared on EurasiaNet.org.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS-Inter Press Service.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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OPINION: Rivalry Between Sunnis and Shiites Has Deep Rootshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/opinion-rivalry-between-sunnis-and-shiites-has-deep-roots/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-rivalry-between-sunnis-and-shiites-has-deep-roots http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/opinion-rivalry-between-sunnis-and-shiites-has-deep-roots/#comments Sun, 02 Nov 2014 08:59:04 +0000 Farhang Jahanpour http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137529

In this column, Farhang Jahanpour – former professor and Dean of the Faculty of Languages at the University of Isfahan, who has taught for 28 years in the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Oxford – traces the current rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites back to the Safavid dynasty which started at the beginning of the 16th century and ruled large parts of today’s Middle East and western Asia.

By Farhang Jahanpour
OXFORD, Nov 2 2014 (IPS)

When  the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) suddenly emerged in Iraq, it declared as one of its first targets the Shiites and what it called the Safavids. The Safavid dynasty (1501-1736) was one of the most powerful Iranian dynasties after the Islamic conquest. 

Farhang Jahanpour

Farhang Jahanpour

At its height, the Safavid dynasty ruled an area nearly twice the size of modern Iran, including large parts of modern Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, eastern parts of Turkey and Syria, and large areas of western Afghanistan and Baluchestan, North Caucasus, as well as parts of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

However, what most irks Sunni jihadists is the fact that the Safavids made the Twelver school of Shi’ism the official religion of Iran, something that has continued to the present day.

The interesting point is that the Safavid dynasty had its origin in a Sunni Sufi order, but at some point they converted to Shi’ism and then used their new zeal as a way of subduing most of Iran.

The zeal of the Safavids was partly due to the fact that they were fighting against the Sunni Ottoman Empire, and therefore their adherence to Shi’ism was mainly political in order to set them apart from the Ottomans who also carried the title of Sunni Caliphs. The Safavids made their capital Isfahan into one of the most beautiful cities in Iran and the Middle East as a whole.

The Iranian Constitutional Revolution (1905-11) laid the foundations of modern Iran, with a constitutional monarchy. The two Pahlavi kings (1925-1979), while ruling as absolute monarchs, were militantly secular and tried to modernise Iran and turn it into a Western-style country.“One of the most important concepts set forth by the Sixth Shi’a Imam, Ja'far al Sadiq, was the separation of religion and politics. He conceded that the Caliphs possessed temporal power, but he argued that the Imams were spiritual teachers of society, and their inability to seize power should not be regarded as a sign of failure”

However, not only did the 1979 Islamic revolution end that period of secular reforms, but it also put an end to a 2,600 year-old Iranian monarchy, and replaced it with a clerical regime. What makes the Islamic revolution unique is that for the first time in the history of Iran, and indeed in the history of Islam, it brought clerics to power.

Although Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called his revolution of 1979 an Islamic revolution, in reality it was a Shi’a revolution and it derived its legitimacy from the Shi’a concept of the Imamate.

According to the Shiites, the true succession to Prophet Muhammad belonged not to the Orthodox Caliphs, but to the Shi’a Imams, starting from the first Imam, Ali Ibn Abi Talib, and ending with the 12th Imam who allegedly went into hiding and who would reappear in the End Times to establish the reign of justice in the world.

After Imam Ali, who was assassinated by a member of the fanatical breakaway group, the Khawarij, his oldest son Imam Hasan decided not to challenge Mu’awiyya I who had established the Umayyad Caliphate. However, after Hassan’s death in 669, his younger brother Hussein rebelled against Mu’awiyya’s son Yazid.

In a battle against Yazid’s forces in Karbala, Imam Hussein was martyred on Oct, 10, 680, an event that is still marked with great sadness and self-flagellation by Shiites throughout the world.

After Imam Hussein’s martyrdom, the rest of the Shi’a Imams led quietist lives, mainly acting as spiritual leaders of their followers, rather than challenging the Sunni rulers.

One of the most important concepts set forth by the Sixth Shi’a Imam, Ja’far al Sadiq, was the separation of religion and politics. He conceded that the Caliphs possessed temporal power, but he argued that the Imams were spiritual teachers of society, and their inability to seize power should not be regarded as a sign of failure.

This has been the interpretation of the role of the Imams – as opposed to the role of the Caliphs – by the vast majority of Shi’a scholars throughout the ages. However, not only did Ayatollah Khomeini reject monarchical rule, but he even replaced it with the rule of clerics.

Both Ayatollah Khomeini and the present Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei base their legitimacy on being the rightful representatives of the Hidden Imam until he returns. This is why the views of former President Mahmud Ahmadinezhad and his close friend Esfandiar Rahim Masha’i about the imminent return of the Hidden Imam caused such consternation among the leading clerics, because if the Hidden Imam were to return soon it would undercut the authority of the ruling clerics.

Thus started the birth of the Islamic Republic of Iran in February 1979, which continues to the present day. Initially, Ayatollah Khomeini declared that he wanted to export his revolution to the entire Muslim world, but being strongly Shi’a in nature and ideology the Iranian revolution was not very popular to the majority of Muslims who are Sunnis.

The devastating eight-year Iran-Iraq war waged by Saddam Hussein, which was massively supported by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to the tune of tens of billions of dollars, killed and wounded nearly a million Iranians and Iraqis. The bitter memories of that war still linger in the minds of the people in both countries.

Since 2003, when the U.S.-led coalition deposed Saddam Hussein and replaced him with a government led by the Shiites who form a majority of the Iraqi population, Saddam’s supporters in Iraq and the Persian Gulf littoral states have not forgiven the loss of power by the Sunnis. Saudi Arabia has refused to recognise the new Iraqi governments or to send an ambassador to Baghdad.

The glory of Iranian Islam was reflected in the Sufi literature written in Persian by great mystics such as Attar, Rumi, Hafiz and Sa’di who produced the most tolerant, the most profound and the most humane form of mysticism.

However, the Islamic Republic has been known for its narrow interpretation of Islam, a large number of executions, stoning women to death, lashings and other inhumane practices. Its dogmatic adherence to Shi’a Islam has not helped either Iran or the cause of Islam in the world.

The present ISIS uprising, with the assistance of tens of thousands of former Ba’thist officers and soldiers in Saddam’s army that Paul Bremer, the U.S. Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, fired because they were Baathists, is a kind of violent revenge against the Iraqi Shiites and ultimately against Iran for what is regarded as the loss of Sunni rule and Iran’s growing influence in Iraq. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

(Edited by Phil Harris)

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service. 

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OPINION: The Islamic State’s Ideology Is Grounded in Saudi Educationhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/opinion-the-islamic-states-ideology-is-grounded-in-saudi-education/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-the-islamic-states-ideology-is-grounded-in-saudi-education http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/opinion-the-islamic-states-ideology-is-grounded-in-saudi-education/#comments Fri, 31 Oct 2014 13:20:49 +0000 Emile Nakhleh http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137510 Credit: MPH’s blog, Saudi-Season

Credit: MPH’s blog, Saudi-Season

By Emile Nakhleh
WASHINGTON, Oct 31 2014 (IPS)

According to an article published Oct. 21 on Al-Monitor, the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) has issued new regulations for the school systems under its control in Iraq and Syria. The announced purpose of the so-called guidelines, which carried the imprimatur of the group’s “Amir al-Mu’minin,” presumably leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is to “eradicate ignorance and disseminate Sharia sciences.”

Although the “guidelines” are extreme, controlling and regressive, some of the key elements in the IS educational programme are similar to what one finds in Saudi textbooks, especially those that are taught in Saudi public middle and high schools. The ideological foundations of Saudi public school education are based on Wahhabi-Salafi-Hanbali theology.Science experiments are allowed with the understanding that the doctrine of “Tawheed” or “Oneness” of God permeates the universe. God created everything and every creature. There is no “Big Bang” theory and no evolution of the human, animal, or plant species.

One key difference focuses on the nation-state. Whereas Saudi education accepts the Saudi and other Arab and Muslim states, with recognised boundaries and national ethos, IS rejects national boundaries within Dar al-Islam, or the Abode of Islam, and individual states. Instead, it calls for one Islamic State or a “Caliphate.”

The new guidelines call on teachers to emphasise creationism, reject Darwinism, eliminate music and the arts, teach history from a Sunni-Islamic perspective, discard modernity, and of course segregate the sexes.

Saudi textbooks

Much of IS’s educational “curriculum” finds its roots in Saudi textbooks, especially at the middle school and high school levels. Arabic, literature, history, civic education, cultural values, and norms of behaviour—whether in a home or societal setting—are all taught according to a particular interpretation of Sunni Islam.

The Wahhabi-Salafi-Hanbali interpretation also permeates religion or theology classes, especially those that focus on elements of Sharia, fiqh (jurisprudence), or the Hadith. The biological and physical sciences are taught from a pre-ordained creationist perspective, which rejects modernity in favour of traditionalism.

Science experiments are allowed with the understanding that the doctrine of “Tawheed” or “Oneness” of God permeates the universe. God created everything and every creature. There is no “Big Bang” theory and no evolution of the human, animal, or plant species.

Even the geography curriculum discusses the region from an Islamic perspective. For example, kids are taught that the “Zionists” have occupied Palestine illegally, and the Islamic umma one day must re-establish Muslim control over Jerusalem, the “Third Qibla” of Islam, to which Muslims turn to pray after Mecca and Medina. “Israel,” for example, does not appear on maps of the Arab world in Saudi geography textbooks.

The Saudi curriculum, much like what IS is urging Syrians and Iraqis under its control to teach and preach, imparts to the youth a narrow-minded, conservative, traditional worldview. It is intolerant of other religions and even of other sects in Islam.

Oftentimes, Shia Muslims are considered “apostates,” or “rejectionists,” and could be subject to discrimination and even death. The Shia in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are excluded from key government, defence, and national security positions.

The Saudi youth are socialised in public schools on the importance of Islam in the personal, familial, social, and national levels. Whenever Islam, as a faith and a territory, is threatened or invaded, Muslims have a duty to do jihad against the perceived “enemies” of Islam.

Saudi education espouses this ideology, so do al-Qaeda and IS. In the past three decades, Muslim youth have participated in large numbers in jihad across the Muslim world, from Afghanistan to Chechnya, and from the Balkans to Iraq and Syria.

The Saudi government participates in the anti-IS coalition, yet IS’s jihadist ideology resonates with Saudi educated youth. Their government talks about a possible peace with Israel should it withdraw to the 1967 borders, yet Saudi youth do not see Israel on the maps in their textbooks.

If the Saudi youth are taught about the duty of jihad in the face of a “war on Islam,” as Bin Ladin had preached for years, and view IS rightly or wrongly as the “defender” of Islam, they can’t understand why their government is fighting on the side of Islam’s “enemies.”

This is particularly poignant, especially since some Saudi clerics have strongly endorsed the type of educational curriculum that is currently being pushed by IS in Iraq and Syria.

Textbooks play a central role in educating and socialising Saudi youth and many of their teachers. Many Saudi grade school teachers do not have a college degree and rely on the textbook to guide them through the course. Those who are college graduates usually receive their degrees from teachers’ colleges, which teach a curriculum heavily imbued with Islamic studies and Arabic language, grammar, and literature.

The ministries of education and religious affairs, which are heavily staffed by Salafi Islamists, approve the curriculums and have the final say on what’s taught in schools.

Teachers are not allowed to stray away from the textbook or offer analytic judgments or opinions either on the material in the text or current issues that might relate to the subject under discussion. Both teaching and learning are done almost by rote memory. No critical thinking is allowed and no logical extrapolation is encouraged.

Teachers and students accept whatever interpretations are offered in the textbooks, especially if such an interpretation is attributed to the Koran, the Hadith, or Sharia. Such attributions and religious quotations permeate the textbooks regardless of the subject matter.

Policy implications

So what if the educational curriculum of IS tracks with Saudi education? Should the U.S. and other countries do anything about it, and can they?

Several years back, I briefed senior policymakers in the United States and other countries on the Saudi curriculum, the jihadist message it transmits to youth, and the radicalisation that was sure to follow. It was “actionable” intelligence in that Western diplomats could speak to Saudi leaders about a very specific problem, which they could address.

According to media reports, Saudi officials were amenable to review their textbooks with an eye toward softening the Islamist message. Unfortunately, not much was done.

Saudi clerics objected to any revisions of the textbooks on the grounds that non-Muslim outsiders were interfering with religious teachings in the kingdom. Some of them went even further to depict suggestions along these lines as a “conspiracy” against Islam. Western diplomats, who had pushed the issue, backed off.

Other interests in recent years—including Iran, Iraq, the aftermath of the Arab Spring, counterterrorism, commerce, oil, arming anti-Assad jihadists, and more recently, building a coalition against IS—have in all candor trumped Western interests in “reforming” Saudi textbooks.

I argued in previous articles that although IS is defeatable and containable, the ideological root causes must be dealt with. Otherwise, other Islamist terrorist organisations would rise on the ashes of IS.

The latest educational “guidelines” issued by the Islamic State are a stark example of what’s wrong with our strategic policy planning on the root causes of terrorism. Discussing Saudi textbooks is the first step toward “degrading and defeating” IS.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS-Inter Press Service.

Editing by Kitty Stapp

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Iraqi Christians Seek Shelter in Jordan after IS Threatshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/iraqi-christians-seek-shelter-in-jordan-after-is-threats/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=iraqi-christians-seek-shelter-in-jordan-after-is-threats http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/iraqi-christians-seek-shelter-in-jordan-after-is-threats/#comments Fri, 31 Oct 2014 11:59:01 +0000 Abuqudairi http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137502 Marvin Nafee, an Iraqi Christian who fled to Jordan to escape the Islamic State, prays for “the safe Mosul from ten years ago where everyone co-existed peacefully”. Credit: Areej Abuqudairi/IPS

Marvin Nafee, an Iraqi Christian who fled to Jordan to escape the Islamic State, prays for “the safe Mosul from ten years ago where everyone co-existed peacefully”. Credit: Areej Abuqudairi/IPS

By Areej Abuqudairi
AMMAN, Oct 31 2014 (IPS)

Watching videos and pictures on social media of the advance of the Islamic State (IS) inside Syria made it all seem far from reality to Iraqi Marvin Nafee.

“We did not believe it,” said the 27-year-old, “it seemed so imaginary.”

Only months later, his home city Mosul fell to the IS in two hours and he and thousands of Christians had to flee. Marvin made his way to Jordan, along with his father, mother and two brothers. “The Middle East is no longer safe for us. As Christians we have been suffering since 2003 and always feared persecution” – a 60-year-old Iraqi refugee

“There is nothing like peace and safety,” he told IPS from the Latin Church in Marka neighbourhood in Amman, which he has been calling home for the past two months.

In July, the IS  issued an order telling Christians living in Mosul to either convert to Islam, pay tax, or give up their belongings and leave the city. Failure to do so would result in a death penalty, “as a last resort”.

“Mosul is empty of Christians now. Everyone we know has left, except for a group of elderly in a care centre who were forced to convert to Islam,” Marvin said.

Since August, thousands of Iraqis have been streaming to Jordan through Erbil.

Caritas spokesperson Dana Shahin told IPS that 4,000 Iraqi Christians have approached the Caritas office in Jordan since August, and 2000 of them have been placed in churches.

Churches in the capital and the northern cities of Zarqa and Salt have been turned into temporary refugee camps, with families living in the yards and hallways.

In Maraka’s Latin Church, around 85 people share a 7×3 metre room. Children, elderly, men and women sleep on the floor with extra mattresses dividing the room to give them privacy. They use the cafeteria facilities to prepare meals using food items donated by Caritas.

“It was generous of Jordan to offer what it can, but this is not an ideal living situation for anyone,” says a 53-year-old woman, who gave her name as Um George.

Having been stripped of all of their possessions by the IS, most of them arrived in Jordan penniless and carrying little more than what they were wearing. “They [IS] searched everyone, including children, for money,” said Marvin’s 25-year-old brother Ihab. “We gave it all to them for the sake of safety,” he added.

The Islamic Charity Centre Society has provided pre-fabricated caravans to be used by families in the yards of churches, and a few families have been relocated to rental apartments shared by more than one family. Caritas provides basic shelter, food, medical treatment, and clothes. But a durable solution for these families is yet to be found.

“We are still evaluating their needs. Most of these families have fled with almost nothing,” said Andrew Harper, representative of the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Jordan. His organisation registered an average of 120 new Iraqis every day in August and September, with more than 60 percent citing fear of IS as their reason for fleeing Iraq.

Around 11,000 Iraqis have registered with UNHCR this year, bringing the total number of Iraqis in Jordan to 37,067.

Jordan has been home to thousands of Iraqi refugees since 2003, and many of these live in dire conditions, struggling to make ends meet as aid funds dry up.  

“Iraqi refugees remain on the margin of donors and institutions,” says Eman Ismaeel, manager of the Iraqi refugee programme at CARE International in Amman.

Unable to work legally, Iraqi families live in the poorest neighbourhoods of East Amman and Zarqa city. They struggle to pay rent and send their children to school.

The new influx of Iraqi refugees has introduced a new challenge for aid agencies operating in resource-poor Jordan, which is already home to more than 618,500 Syrian refugees.

“We have more refugees than we have ever had since the Second World War, but resources are dire,” said Harper. “We are challenged every day, but we hope to get through with international support,” he added.

Most of the newly-arrived Iraqi refugees interviewed by IPS said that they want to be resettled in Western countries. “The Middle East is no longer safe for us,” said 60-year-old Hanna (who declined to give her last name). “As Christians we have been suffering since 2003 and always feared persecution,” she added, noting that she and her daughters had been covering their hair to “avoid harassment”.

But resettlement “in reality is a long process and is based on vulnerability criteria,” said Harper, and thousands of Iraqis in Jordan have been waiting to be resettled in Jordan for years.

Back in Marka, Marvin points to a picture of his house back in Mosul stamped in red with “Property of the Islamic State” and the Arabic letter Nfor Nasara (Christians). A Muslim friend who is still in Mosul sent him the picture. More bad news followed from his friend, who emailed to say that Marvin’s house had been taken over by IS members.

Although he has lost hope that one day he and his family will be able see a glimpse of Iraq again, Marvin still has faith that prayers can bring peace back. “We always pray for the safe Mosul from ten years ago where everyone co-existed peacefully.”

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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OPINION: The West Prefers Military Order Against Historyhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/opinion-the-west-prefers-military-order-against-history/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-the-west-prefers-military-order-against-history http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/opinion-the-west-prefers-military-order-against-history/#comments Tue, 28 Oct 2014 15:04:58 +0000 Johan Galtung http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137420

In this column, Johan Galtung, Professor of Peace Studies and Rector of the TRANSCEND Peace University, looks at West-Islam polarisation and some of the possible solutions, although he wonders whether the West has the willingness or ability to reconcile.

By Johan Galtung
KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 28 2014 (IPS)

More senseless bombing of Muslims, more defeats for the United States-West, more ISIS-type movements, more West-Islam polarisation. Any way out?

“ISIS [Islamic State in Iraq-Syria] Appeals to a Longing for the Caliphate”, writes Farhang Jahanpour in an IPS column. For the Ottoman Caliphate with the Sultan as Caliph – the Shadow of God on Earth – after the 1516-17 victories all over until the collapse of both Empire and Caliphate in 1922, at the hands of the allies England-France-Russia.

Johan Galtung

Johan Galtung

Imagine the collapse of the Vatican, not Catholic Christianity, at the hands of somebody, Protestant or Orthodox Christians, meaning Anglo-Americans or Russians, or Muslims. A centre in this world for the transition to the next, headed by a Pope, an emanation of God in Heaven. Imagine it gone.

And imagine that they who had brought about the collapse had a tendency to bomb, invade,  conquer, dominate Catholic countries, one after the other, like after the two [George] Bush wars in Afghanistan-Iraq, five Obama wars in Pakistan-Yemen-Somalia-Libya-Syria and “special operations”.

Would we not predict a longing for the Vatican, and an extreme hatred of the perpetrators? Fortunately, it did not happen.

But it happened in the Middle East, leaving a trauma fuelled by killing hundreds of thousands. The Sykes-Picot_Agreement between Britain and France of 16 May 1916 led to the collapse, with their four well-known colonies, the less known promise of Istanbul to Russia, and the 1917 Balfour Declaration offering parts of Arab lands as “national home for the Jewish people”. Jahanpour cites Winston Churchill as “selling one piece of real estate, not theirs, to two peoples at the same time”.“Imagine the collapse of the Vatican, not Catholic Christianity, at the hands of somebody, Protestant or Orthodox Christians, meaning Anglo-Americans or Russians, or Muslims. A centre in this world for the transition to the next, headed by a Pope, an emanation of God in Heaven. Imagine it gone”

The Middle East colonies fought the West through military coups for independence; Turkish leader Kemal Atatürk was a model. The second liberation is militant Islam-Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Salvation Front in Algiers and so on against secular military dictatorships.

The West prefers military order against history.

The longing cannot be stopped. ISIS is only one expression, and exceedingly brutal. But, damage and destruction by U.S. President Barack Obama and allies will be followed by a dozen ISIS from 1.6 billion Muslims in 57 countries.

A little military politicking today, some “training” here, fighting there, bombing all over, are only ripples on a groundswell. This will end with a Sunni caliphate sooner or later. And, the lost caliphate they are longing for had no Israel, only a “national home”. This is behind some of the U.S.-West despair. Any solution?

The way out is cease-fire and negotiation, under United Nations auspices, with full Security Council backing. To gain time, switch to a defensive military strategy, defending Baghdad, the Kurds, the Shia and others in Syria and Iraq.

The historical-cultural-political position of ISIS and its successors is strong.

The West cannot offer withdrawal in return for anything because it has already officially withdrawn. The West, however, can offer reconciliation, both in the sense of clearing the past and opening the future.

Known in the United States as “apologism”, a difficult policy to pursue. But for once the onus of Sykes-Picot is not on the United States, but on Britain and France.

Russia dropped out after the 1917 revolution, but revealed the plot.

Bombing, an atrocity, will lead to more ISIS atrocities. A conciliatory West might change that. An international commission could work on Sykes-Picot and its aftermath, and open the book with compensation on it.

Above all, future cooperation. The West, and here the United States enters, could make Israel return the West Bank, except for small cantons, the Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital – or else! – sparing the horrible long-lasting Arab-Israeli warfare.

This would be decency, sanity, rationality; the question is whether the West possesses these qualities. The prognosis is dim.

There is the Anglo-American self-image as infallible, a gift to humanity, a little rough at times civilising the die-hards, but not weak.

If not an apology, at least they could wish to undo their own policies in the region since, say, 1967. No sign of that.

So much for the willingness. Does the West have the ability? Does it know how to reconcile?

After Portugal and England conquering the East China-East Africa sea lane around 1500, ultimately establishing themselves in Macao and Hong Kong, after the First and Second Opium wars of 1839-1860 in China, ending with Anglo-French forces burning the Imperial Palace in Beijing, did Britain use the “hand over” of Hong Kong to reflect on the past?

Not a word from Prince Charles.

China could have flattened those two colonies – but did not. Given that Islam has retaliation among its values, the West may be in for a lot.

Le Nouvel Observateur lists “groupes terroristes islamistes” in the world: Iraq-Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Libya, Algeria, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Indonesia, Philippines, Uzbekistan, Chechenya.

The groups, named, grew out of similar local circumstances. Imagine that they increasingly share that longing for a caliphate; the Ottoman Empire covered much more than the Middle East, way into Africa and Asia. And more groups are coming. Invincible.

Imagine that Turkey itself shares that dream, maybe hoping to play a major role (in the past, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu a superb academic, a specialist on the Empire.)

Could that be the reason for Turkey not really joining, as it seems, this anti-ISIS crusade?

The West should be realistic, not “realist”. Switch to rationality. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

(Edited by Phil Harris)

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service. 

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A Jungle Shrine Awaits its Blessed Momenthttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/a-jungle-shrine-awaits-its-blessed-moment/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=a-jungle-shrine-awaits-its-blessed-moment http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/a-jungle-shrine-awaits-its-blessed-moment/#comments Mon, 27 Oct 2014 16:13:36 +0000 Amantha Perera http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137399 Devotees pray to the 500-year-old statue of the Virgin Mary as it is paraded around the Madhu Church during the annual festival. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Devotees pray to the 500-year-old statue of the Virgin Mary as it is paraded around the Madhu Church during the annual festival. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
MADHU, Sri Lanka, Oct 27 2014 (IPS)

Rising out of a thick forest about 17 km from the nearest main road, the Madhu Church is a symbol of spiritual harmony and tranquility. When the wind blows you hear the leaves rustle. Other times a solemn silence hangs in the air. Old-timers say that once, almost an entire generation ago, the grass grew six feet high in the church compound, and elephants wandered through it.

Located some 300 km by road from Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo, this place is the most venerated Catholic shrine in the country, home to a 500-year-old statue of the Virgin Mary that millions of faithful people believe to be miraculous.

But the peaceful hush that surrounds this holy place is likely to be broken in the months to come.

“[Our Lady of Madhu] has survived so much for so long and is still with us, protecting us, keeping us safe." -- Benedict Fernando, a pilgrim from the coastal town of Negombo
Heavy construction work takes place round-the-clock here, as efforts to rebuild the side chapel of the Sacred Heart slowly bear fruit. It was severely damaged during a shelling incident in 2008 that, according to some priests, killed over three-dozen people who were seeking shelter, and left 60 injured.

New residential quarters are also underway and about four km from the church a new helipad is being planned. All this for the scheduled visit by Pope Francis set to take place during the second week of January 2015.

“It is a blessing from God, people not only here but all over the island are waiting to see him and hear him at this Church,” said Rev. S. Emilianuspillai, the administrator of the shrine.

The papal visit will be the crowning moment for the church and the relic enshrined within that survived some of the most turbulent and violent years of Sri Lanka’s modern history.

The administrator told IPS that despite some reports that the visit could be cancelled due to impending presidential elections, preparations were going ahead.

Located in the northwestern Mannar District, the church was within the war zone for much of Sri Lanka’s three-decade-long conflict. When heavy fighting engulfed the church compound in April 2008, it had been under the control of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for over a decade. The war ended a year later with the defeat of the Tigers by government forces.

Emilianuspillai still recalls those harrowing days six-and-a-half years ago when he and 16 others were trapped within the church as shells exploded all around. By 6.30 pm on Apr. 3, 2008, a decision was made to move the statue to a safer place. It was a journey fraught with danger, Emilianuspillai, said. Just a mile into the trip a shell fell right in front of the vehicle containing the relic, which the priest had cradled to his own body for safekeeping. “Absolutely nothing happened to it, or us,” he said.

Worshippers gather near the damaged chapel of the Sacred Heart in August 2009, just three months after the war's end. Credit: Courtesy Amantha Perera

Worshippers gather near the damaged chapel of the Sacred Heart in August 2009, just three months after the war’s end. Credit: Courtesy Amantha Perera

Little less than a year-and-a-half later, in August 2009, the same church compound was filled with over half a million worshippers for the first annual post-conflict feast, all seeking the blessings of their beloved Mother of Madhu.

Devotees revere the statue as a symbol of unity and peace, bringing together Tamils and Sinhalese, as well as Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, all of whom would mingle during the massive annual feasts.

In the early days of Sri Lanka’s conflict, Madhu was also one of the largest refuges for those fleeing the fighting.

“[Our Lady of Madhu] has survived so much for so long and is still with us, protecting us, keeping us safe,” Benedict Fernando, a pilgrim from the coastal town of Negombo, about 250 km south of Madhu, told IPS.

Praying for reconciliation

Tamils living in the Northern Province also hope that the papal visit will shed light on burning post-war issues that have remained unresolved. The region is one of the poorest in the country with poverty levels sometimes thrice the national average of 6.7 percent. It has also been hit hard by an 11-month drought and losses to the vital agriculture sector. This despite the injection of over six billion dollars worth of government funds since 2009.

“There is a lot more work to be done,” Sellamuththu Sirinivasan, the additional government agent for the northern Kilinochchi District, told IPS.

Other lingering issues include the over 40,000 female-headed families in the Northern Province, struggling to make ends meet in a traditionally male-dominated society.

With assistance from the U.N. and other agencies slowing to a trickle, such vulnerable groups have been left to fend for themselves.

“The economic situation has stagnated despite the large investments in infrastructure. In such an environment, even able-bodied and qualified men and women find it hard to gain employment. These single women with families are really vulnerable [to] exploitation,” Saroja Sivachandran, who heads the Centre for Women and Development in northern Jaffna, told IPS.

Then there are those who went missing during the war.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has just begun the first countrywide survey of the families of the war missing. The survey and its recommendations are to be handed over to the government sometime in mid-2015. But there is still confusion over the number of missing, which some have put as high as 40,000. The ICRC says that it has recorded over 16,000 cases of missing persons since the 1990s.

“The war has ended, but the battles continue for us,” said Dominic Stanislaus, a young man from the town of Mankulam, about 60 km north.

On first glance, the Vanni, the popular name for the northern provinces, seems generations removed from the war years. Glistening new highways have replaced barely navigable roads marked by crater-sized potholes left by shells. A new rail line linking northern Jaffna to the rest of the country after a lapse of a quarter of a century was inaugurated earlier this month.

But burning questions about when the missing will return home, or where the next meal will come from, remain unanswered.

Many, like Stanislaus and Fernando, pray that the papal visit will hasten the healing process. In the meantime, the Madhu Church will continue to bring hope to thousands who still live with the wounds of war.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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India’s Crusader Against Impunityhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/indias-crusader-against-impunity/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=indias-crusader-against-impunity http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/indias-crusader-against-impunity/#comments Sat, 25 Oct 2014 12:01:25 +0000 Beena Sarwar http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137372 Manoj Mitta speaks at MIT. Credit: Beena Sarwar

Manoj Mitta speaks at MIT. Credit: Beena Sarwar

By Beena Sarwar
BOSTON, Oct 25 2014 (IPS)

As senior Indian journalist Manoj Mitta was testifying before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the U.S. Congress last month about mass violence and impunity in India, President Barack Obama escorted India’s newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the Martin Luther King Memorial.

“They were just three miles away,” Mitta told IPS, commenting on the irony of this coincidence, remembering that the United States had banned Modi’s entry on the mass violence on his watch in 2002 leading to the killing of about 1,000 Muslims in Gujarat state.“We can no longer pass off the shielding of mass murderers as the ‘internal affairs’ of any country. " -- Manoj Mitta

“Why should the U.S. Congress hold a hearing on human rights violations in India?” asked one Boston-based Indian expatriate on hearing about this. “By that token, we can have hearings in India about racial killings in the USA.”

“Why not indeed?” responds Mitta, a senior editor with The Times of India in New Delh, speaking to IPS in Boston when he was here for a talk at MIT, one of several book talks at universities around the country.

Focusing on legal and public policy issues, transparency and judicial accountability, both his books dissect judicial inquiries into the deadliest instances of communal violence in India: “When a Tree Shook Delhi: The 1984 carnage and its Aftermath”, co-authored with the eminent lawyer H. S. Phoolka (2007), and “The Fiction of Fact-Finding: Modi and Godhra” (2014).

The Lantos Commission event titled “Thirty Years of Impunity“, in collaboration with the Sikh Coalition, commemorated the 1984 carnage of Sikhs in the aftermath of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards. Over 2,500 Sikhs were massacred in Delhi alone in just three days.

There is also a class-based element to such mass-violence, notes Boston-based writer and poet Sarbpreet Singh, whose long poem “Kultar’s Mime” about the 1984 carnage is currently being performed in the U.S., Canada and India. “Most people who suffered and died were very poor.”

After Boston, New York, Ottawa and Toronto, the compelling show will be performed in India — Delhi (Oct. 30-Nov. 1), Chandigarh (Nov. 2), and Amritsar (Nov. 4), before heading to the U.S. west coast: Los Angeles (Nov. 20-23) and San Francisco Bay Area (Dec. 6-7).

A scene from Kultar's Mime. Credit: Sikh Research Institute - sikhri.org

A scene from Kultar’s Mime. Credit: Sikh Research Institute – sikhri.org

“The ongoing struggles for justice in India gain strength from expressions of solidarity from abroad,” said Mitta. “We can no longer pass off the shielding of mass murderers as the ‘internal affairs’ of any country. As Martin Luther King famously put it, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’.”

Mitta quotes an old Sanskrit saying, “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” (the world is one family) – which Modi also invoked in his speech before the United Nations General Assembly.

But Modi was speaking “in terms of commerce and business,” says Mitta. “With the world being increasingly globalised on the economic front, more than globalisation of the economy, we need a universalisation of human rights standards and practices.”

Mitta, who also addressed the British Parliament commemorating the 25th anniversary of the 1984 carnage five years ago, says he would like countries to talk about each other’s human rights violations.

“Those violations affect not just the country they take place in. There are also spin-off effects that impact other countries,” he says. “Like, an unstable Pakistan is bad for India, and violations in India are bad for America.”

“Human rights should remain on the agenda,” adds Mitta, who has written extensively on the undermining of the rule of law in India – patterns that are visible in other South Asian nations too.

“Could such a mass crime, in which rampaging mobs fatally attacked hundreds of people, have ever occurred in Washington DC?” he asks. “And could the perpetrators of mass murder have got away with it? Could the security forces in the USA have colluded with the mobs as blatantly as they did in Delhi.”

“Could your president have dared to justify the mass crimes, as Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi did, by declaring that when a big tree had fallen, the earth was bound to shake?” he asked in his presentation to the Lantos Commission.

Such questions would seem equally inconceivable about other leading capital cities too. Whatever the provocation, could there ever have been such massacres, at any rate post-World War II, in London, Paris, Berlin or Tokyo?”

Looking beyond liberal democracies, the scale of the bloodshed in Delhi 1984 is “perhaps comparable to what happened in Beijing five years later, during the Tiananmen Square massacre” – committed by security forces operating in a single-party political system.

In fact, the death toll of Delhi 1984 was similar to that of 9/11 – the big difference being that “9/11 was the result of sudden and unforeseen terror attacks, not mob violence that deliberately remained unchecked for three days. By any standards of the civilised world, Delhi 1984 is one of a kind, a monstrosity without a parallel.”

And yet, it took 23 years for the first book on this subject to be published – Mitta and Phoolka’s, in 2007. It was made possible by a new inquiry commission established in 2000 seeking to undo the damage caused by the earlier one that had held all its findings in secrecy and not given due hearing to survivors.

The new commission, headed by former Supreme Court judge G.T. Nanavati, conducted its proceedings in public and released many old records related to the 1984 carnage.

“India’s appalling lack of documentation culture, especially on human rights issues is clearly a deficiency that is another reason for the impunity,” believes Mitta.

In the case of 1984, there have been about 30 convictions for murder in 30 years. The Gujarat carnage of 2002 has seen some 200 convictions, due to the Supreme Court’s intervention. The SC transferred some high-profile cases out of Gujarat and appointed a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to look into some of the worst cases from 2002.

However, the SIT “balked at asking questions” or challenging Modi on any of his evasive or contradictory replies while examining him. Because of this “fact-fudging rather than fact-finding,” says Mitta, Modi ended up not facing trial, as recommended by the Supreme Court appointed amicus curiae.

It was only after the SIT exonerated him that Modi became the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. “The Supreme Court has yet to pronounce on Modi’s innocence or guilt.”

The Indian prime minister has called for a 10-year moratorium on caste and communal violence, urging Indians to stay focused on the challenges of economic development.

But Modi has taken no action or even condemn those who have since violated this moratorium by stepping up their hate speech. His “strategic silence” and “denial mode, pretending that there’s no escalation of religious tensions under his rule, effectively adds another layer of impunity,” says Mitta.

The bottom line, he adds: If it is allowed to continue, impunity for hate speech and violence in India will eventually impact U.S. corporations seeking to do business with India. Impunity affects all, whether it is for corporate corruption or human rights abuses.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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OPINION: Al Baghdadi and the Doctrine Behind the Namehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/opinion-al-baghdadi-and-the-doctrine-behind-the-name/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-al-baghdadi-and-the-doctrine-behind-the-name http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/opinion-al-baghdadi-and-the-doctrine-behind-the-name/#comments Tue, 21 Oct 2014 08:14:18 +0000 Farhang Jahanpour http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137294

In this column, Farhang Jahanpour – former professor and Dean of the Faculty of Languages at the University of Isfahan, who has taught for 28 years in the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Oxford – looks at the symbolism of the name adopted by Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, and argues that the views and actions of al-Baghdadi and his followers are almost an exact copy of the Wahhabi revivalist movement instigated by 18th century theologian Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab.

By Farhang Jahanpour
OXFORD, Oct 21 2014 (IPS)

When Ibrahim al-Badri al-Samarrai adopted the name of Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Husseini al-Quraishi and revealed himself to the world as the Amir al-Mu’minin (the Commander of the Faithful) Caliph Ibrahim of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the whole world had to sit up and take notice of him. 

The choice of the long title that he has chosen for himself is most interesting and symbolic. The title Abu-Bakr clearly refers to the first caliph after Prophet Muhammad’s death, the first of the four “Orthodox Caliphs”.

Farhang Jahanpour

Farhang Jahanpour

The term Husseini presumably refers to Imam Hussein, the Prophet’s grandson and Imam Ali’s son, who was martyred in Karbala on 13 October 680. His martyrdom is seen as a turning point in the history of Islam and is mourned in elaborate ceremonies by the Shi’ites.

Both Sunnis and Shi’ites regard Imam Hussein as a great martyr, and as someone who gave up his life in order to defend Islam and to stand up against tyranny.

Finally, al-Quraishi refers to Quraish, the tribe to which the Prophet of Islam belonged.

Therefore, his chosen title is full of Islamic symbolism.

According to an alleged biography posted on jihadi Internet forums, al-Baghdadi is a direct descendant of the Prophet, but curiously enough his ancestors come from the Shi’a line of the Imams who descended from the Prophet’s daughter Fatimah.

Despite his great hostility towards the Shi’ites, is this genealogy a way of portraying himself as the true son of the descendants of the Prophet, thus appealing to both Shi’ites and Sunnis?“The decision of some Western governments, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to topple the regime of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad by training and funding Syrian insurgents provided al-Baghdadi with an opportunity to engage in jihad and to widen the circle of his followers, until he suddenly emerged at the head of thousands of jihadi fighters, again attacking Iraq from Syria”

According to the same biography, al-Baghdadi was born near Samarra, in Iraq, in 1971. It is alleged that he received BA, MA and PhD degrees in Islamic studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad. It is also suggested that he was a cleric at the Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal Mosque in Samarra at around the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

According to a senior Afghan security official, al-Baghdadi went to Afghanistan in the late 1990s, where he received his early jihadi training. He lived with the Jordanian militant fighter Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Kabul from 1996-2000.

It is likely that al-Baghdadi fled Afghanistan with leading Taliban fighters after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan following the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Zarqawi and other militants, perhaps including al-Baghdadi, formed al-Qaeda in Iraq.

In September 2005, Zarqawi declared an all-out war on the Shi’ites in Iraq, after the Iraqi and U.S. offensive on insurgents in the Sunni town of Tal Afar. Zarqawi was killed in a targeted killing by U.S. forces on Jun. 7, 2006.

According to U.S. Department of Defense records, al-Baghdadi was held at Camp Bucca from February until December 2004, but some sources claim that he was interned from 2005 to 2009.

In any case, his history of militancy in both Afghanistan and Iraq and fighting against U.S. forces goes back a long way. He was battle-hardened in the jihad against U.S. forces, and being detained by U.S. forces further strengthened his ambitions and credentials as a militant jihadi fighter.

In the wake of the Arab Spring and anti-government protests in Syria, some Western governments, Saudi Arabia and Turkey decided to topple the regime of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by training and funding Syrian insurgents.

The upheaval in Syria provided al-Baghdadi with an opportunity to engage in jihad and to widen the circle of his followers, until he suddenly emerged at the head of thousands of jihadi fighters, again attacking Iraq from Syria.

His forces conquered vast swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq, and he set up his so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (or greater Syria), ISIS.

On the first Friday in the Muslim month of fasting or Ramadan on Jul, 4, 2014 (American Independence Day), al-Baghdadi suddenly emerged out of the shadows and delivered the sermon at the Great Mosque in Mosul, which had been recently conquered by ISIS.

His sermon showed not only his command of Koranic verses, but also his ability to speak clearly and eloquently. He is certainly more steeped in radical Sunni theology than any of the al-Qaeda leaders, past and present, ever were.

His biographer says that Al-Baghdadi “purged vast areas in Iraq and Syria from the filth of the Safavids [a term referring to the 16th century Iranian Shi’ite dynasty of the Safavids], the Nusayris [a derogatory term referring to the Syrian Alawite Shi’ites], and the apostate [Sunni] Awakening Councils. He established the rule of Islam.”

In his short sermon, al-Baghdadi denounced those who did not follow his strict interpretation of Islam as being guilty of bid’a or heresy. He quoted many verses from the Koran about the need to mobilise and to fight against non-believers, and to remain steadfast in God’s path.

He also stressed some key concepts, such as piety and performing religious rituals, obeying God’s commandments, and God’s promise to bring victory to the downtrodden and the oppressed. Finally, he talked about the need for establishing a caliphate.

In the Koranic context, these terms have broad meanings. However, in the hands of al-Baghdadi and other militant jihadis, these terms are given completely different and menacing meanings, calling for jihad and the subjugation of the non-believers.

The views and actions of al-Baghdadi and his followers are almost an exact copy of the Wahhabi revivalist movement instigated by an 18th century theologian from Najd in the Arabian Peninsula, Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792).

Indeed, what we are seeing in Iraq now is almost the exact repetition of the violent Sunni uprising in Arabian deserts that led to the establishment of the Wahhabi state founded by the Al Saud clan almost exactly 200 years ago.

In 1802, after having seized control of most of Arabian Peninsula, the Saudi warlord Abdulaziz attacked Karbala in Iraq, killed the majority of its inhabitants, destroyed the shrine of Imam Hussein, where Prophet Muhammad’s grandson is buried, and his followers plundered everything that they could lay their hands on.

The establishment of that dynasty has resulted in the propagation of the most fundamentalist form of Islam in its long history, which eventually gave rise to Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, and now to ISIS and al-Baghdadi.

The jihadis reduce the entire rich and varied scope of Islamic civilisation, Islamic philosophy, Islamic literature, Islamic mysticism, jurisprudence, Kalam and tafsir (hermeneutics) to the Shari’a, and even at that, they present a very narrow and dogmatic view of the Shari’a that is rejected by the greatest minds in Islam, putting it above everything else, including their rationality.

Indeed, it is a travesty that such barbaric terrorist acts are attributed to Islam. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

(Edited by Phil Harris)

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service. 

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U.S. Airdrops to Kobani Kurds Mark New Stage in ISIL Conflicthttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/u-s-airdrops-to-kobani-kurds-mark-new-stage-in-isil-conflict/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-airdrops-to-kobani-kurds-mark-new-stage-in-isil-conflict http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/u-s-airdrops-to-kobani-kurds-mark-new-stage-in-isil-conflict/#comments Tue, 21 Oct 2014 00:00:13 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137285 By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Oct 21 2014 (IPS)

The U.S. air drop Sunday of new weapons and supplies to Kurdish fighters in the besieged border town of Kobani marks an important escalation in Washington’s efforts to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The operation, which included the provision of 27 bundles of small arms, including anti-tank weapons, ammunition, and other supplies, also helped trigger a major change in Turkish policy, according to experts here.

School turned into refugee camp in Erbil, September 2014. Credit: Annabell Van den Berghe/IPS

School turned into refugee camp in Erbil, September 2014. Credit: Annabell Van den Berghe/IPS

Until then, Ankara had strongly opposed providing help to Kobani’s Kurdish defenders, who are dominated by members of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) which Ankara considers a terrorist organisation linked to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu confirmed Monday that Kurdish peshmerga forces from Iraq will be permitted to transit the Turkish border to bolster Kobani’s fighters against ISIS, which has reportedly lost much of its hold on the city amidst heavy fighting and U.S. air strikes over the last few days.

“I think the Turks are doing damage control,” Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert based at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, told IPS Monday. “Everybody wanted to save Kobani, and the Turks were essentially making it impossible. They’re doing this now to say ‘we’re doing something, too’.”

Despite recent and increasingly worrisome ISIL advances in neighbouring Iraq, particularly in Al-Anbar province, the battle over Kobani has dominated coverage of the two-month-old U.S. air campaign against the group, largely because the fighting can be closely followed by journalists from the safety of the hills on the Turkish side of the border.

Although senior Obama administration and military officers have repeatedly declared that Kobani’s fate is not critical to their overall strategy against ISIL, the town’s prominence in U.S. media coverage – as well as reports that the group has itself sent significant re-inforcements to the battle — has made it a politically potent symbol of Washington’s prospects for success.

Washington had largely ignored the battle until several weeks ago. As ISIL forces moved into the town’s outskirts from three different directions in the media spotlight, however, it began conducting air strikes which have steadily intensified over the last two weeks, even as Ankara, its NATO ally, made clear that it opposed any outside intervention on the PYD’s behalf.

“The government of Turkey doesn’t see [ISIL] as the worst problem they face,” former U.S. Amb. to Ankara Eric Edelman said during a forum at the Bipartisan Policy Center here last week.Erdogan is likely to bargain hard over U.S. requests to use Incirlik air base for offensive operations against ISIS in both Syria and Iraq.

He noted that senior Turkish officials have recently described the PKK, with which the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is engaged in critical peace negotiations, as worse — an observation which, he added “gives you a sense of the hierarchy” of threats as seen by Ankara. The PYD is widely considered the PKK’s Syrian branch.

“They see Kobani through the lens of negotiations with the PKK and [want] to cut the PKK down to size,” he said.

That strategy, however, may have backfired amidst increasingly urgent and angry appeals by the PYD and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq to come to Kobani’s aid, or, at the very least, permit Kurdish fighters to re-inforce the town’s defenders.

Even more important, Kurds, who make up about 20 percent of the Turkish population, mounted anti-government protests throughout the country. More than 30 people were killed in street violence before strict curfews were enforced earlier this month.

Moreover, the PKK threatened to break off peace negotiations, one of Erdogan’s signal achievements.

In addition to the domestic pressure, Washington and some of its NATO allies leaned increasingly heavily on Ankara to revise its policy.

Erdogan, however, insisted that it would help out in Kobani – and, more important strategically, permit the U.S. to use its giant Incirlik air base to launch air strikes — only if Washington met certain conditions regarding its overall Syria policy.

In particular, he demanded that Washington and its allies establish no-fly zones along the Turkish border that could be used as safe havens for anti-Syrian government rebels and target President Bashar al-Assad’s military infrastructure, as well as ISIL’s. While Secretary of State John Kerry indicated the administration was willing to consider such steps, the White House has remained steadfastly opposed.

Given the mounting symbolic importance of Kobani, Obama himself telephoned Erdogan Saturday to inform him that he had decided to authorise the resupply of Kobani’s defenders and urge him to open the border to Kurdish re-inforcements.

The initial resupply operation was carried out Sunday night local time by three C-130 cargo planes, marking a new level in Washington’s intervention in Syria.

Even as a few Democrats expressed concern about the latest escalation, the operation was hailed by Republican hawks who have called for much stronger action, including no-fly zones, as well as attacks on Syrian military targets.

“We support the administration’s decision to resupply Kurdish forces in Kobani with arms, ammunition and other supplies,” said Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, the Senate’s most prominent hawks, in a joint statement.

At the same time, they complained that “this tactical adjustment should not be confused for an effective strategy, which is still lacking.” They urged the administration to deploy U.S. special forces and military advisers on the ground in Syria to assist “moderate” opposition forces against both ISIL and the Assad regime.

What remains unclear is whether Obama merely informed Erdogan that the air supply operation would go forward whether he approved or not or if the Turkish president extracted some further commitments in return.

“I think they got nothing in exchange; I think the Turks are doing damage control,” Barkey told IPS. “I would say that the Turks are shell-shocked now by the American decision.”

At the same time, he added, Erdogan is likely to bargain hard over U.S. requests to use Incirlik air base, which is located close to the Syrian border and much closer to both Syria and Iraq than U.S. aircraft carriers and bases in the Gulf, for offensive operations against ISIS in both Syria and Iraq.

Turkey has permitted Washington to use the base to carry out humanitarian flights and launch surveillance drones – which are also used to track PKK movements in eastern Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.comHe can be contacted at ipsnoram@ips.org

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Pakistan’s Ahmadis Faced with Death or Exilehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/pakistans-ahmadis-faced-with-death-or-exile/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=pakistans-ahmadis-faced-with-death-or-exile http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/pakistans-ahmadis-faced-with-death-or-exile/#comments Mon, 20 Oct 2014 14:21:32 +0000 Beena Sarwar http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137258 Mujeeb-ur-Rahman (right) speaks at Harvard University. Amjad Mahmood Khan is seated to the left. Credit: Cara Solomon, Harvard Law School

Mujeeb-ur-Rahman (right) speaks at Harvard University. Amjad Mahmood Khan is seated to the left. Credit: Cara Solomon, Harvard Law School

By Beena Sarwar
BOSTON, Oct 20 2014 (IPS)

Two years ago, gunmen shot dead Farooq Kahloun’s newly married son Saad Farooq, 26, in an attack that severely injured Kahloun, his younger son Ummad, and Saad’s father-in-law, Choudhry Nusrat.

Saad died on the spot. In Pakistan after travelling from his home in New York for the wedding, Nusrat died in hospital later. Four bullets remain in Kahloun’s chest and arm. A bullet lodged behind the right eye of Ummad, a student in the UK, was surgically removed months later.“In Karachi, people are being killed every day. Doctors, professors, not just Ahmadis but also Shias and others.” -- Farooq Kahloun

As an Ahmadi leader in his locality, Kahloun knew he was a target for hired assassins in the bustling but lawless metropolis of Karachi. General insecurity in Pakistan is multiplied manifold if you are, like Kahloun, an Ahmadi – a sect of Islam that many orthodox Muslims abhor as heretic.

“I never thought they would target my family,” says Kahloun, 57, a successful businessman who left everything behind, obtained political asylum and moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and daughter.

In 1974, under pressure from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan’s parliament declared Ahmadis as non-Muslim (similarly pressured, the newly independent Bangladesh refused). A decade later, a military dictator made it a criminal offence for them to “pretend” to be Muslims.

These changes, say lawyers and human rights advocates, violate Pakistan’s own Constitutional provisions, specifically Articles 8-27 that are comparable to the U.S. Bill of Rights.

Saad Farooq-IPS-Ahmadi 300

Saad Farooq

“These are shameful laws,” says Kahloun. “If we have no other Prophet or Quran, what can we do?”

‘Takfiri’ ideology (declaring someone a non-Muslim) led to Pakistan’s first Nobel Prize winner Dr. Abdus Salam (Physics, 1979), an Ahmadi, being hounded out of the country, and to the attack on Swat schoolgirl Malala Yousufzai, now Pakistan’s second Nobel Laureate, also forced into exile.

Assailants behind such attacks are rarely caught, tried and punished, creating a culture of impunity that only encourages more attacks, say analysts.

Assailants whom Ahmadi survivors captured and handed over to the police in May 2010 following one of Pakistan’s deadliest terrorist attacks are yet to be punished. The attack targeted an Ahmadi mosque in Lahore, killing over 90 worshippers and injuring many more.

“We could not live in Pakistan anymore. No one would leave if he had a choice, but now, any Ahmadi will go out if given the opportunity,” Kahloun told IPS by telephone. “In Karachi, people are being killed every day. Doctors, professors, not just Ahmadis but also Shias and others.”

Takfiri militants also term Shias as ‘Kafir’ or infidel and have been targeting them in huge numbers.

The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says that 687 people were killed in over 200 sectarian attacks in 2013, 22 per cent more than in 2012, while 1,319 people were injured, 46 per cent more in 2012.

“The number of Ahmadis and religious communities seeking asylum abroad is steadily increasing,” says Qasim Rashid, a Pakistani-born, Virginia-based Ahmadi lawyer and author of ‘The Wrong Kind of Muslim’ (2013) that documents the Ahmadi persecution in Pakistan.

“This goes to show the importance of maintaining freedom of religion and conscience worldwide. It is the failure to uphold these rights that empowers and emboldens groups like Taliban and ISIS,” Rashid told IPS.

Some Pakistani Ahmadis are protected by their prominence, like Mujeeb-ur-Rahman, 83, a senior Supreme Court advocate who lives in Rawalpindi near the capital Islamabad, and has no intention of leaving the country.

“The Thurgood Marshall of Pakistan”, he is currently in the U.S., invited by the newly organised 52-member Ahmadi Muslim Lawyers Association (AMLA) to address their inaugural conference in Silver Spring, Maryland, last month and “pass on the torch”.

“All participants came at their own expense because they have a deep love and admiration for Mr. Rahman’s extraordinary career and advocacy,” says AMLA President Amjad Mahmood Khan, a Pakistani-origin American born in California.

AMLA has organised talks by Rahman at various universities, starting with Khan’s alma mater Harvard Law School. He spoke at Princeton University Oct. 17, and will appear at Columbia University, Oct. 23; New York University Law School, Oct. 27; University of California, Irvine, Oct. 30; and Stanford University, Nov. 4.

A lively and humorous speaker despite his age, Rahman peppers his talks with references to U.S. case law and pioneers like Martin Luther King — “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere” — besides Pakistan’s Constitution and legal cases.

He began his Harvard talk with the Muslim greeting “As-Salam-Alaikum” (peace be with you) — “almost a reflex greeting for any Pakistani, whether Christian or Muslim or from any religion”.

In Pakistan, the greeting could send him to jail for three years, he reminded the audience. So could saying the ‘Kalima’, the first prayer of Islam, “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet.”

“The first departure from the secular concept of Pakistan,” says Rahman, was Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly’s passage of the 1949 Objectives Resolution. Overriding the strong objections by some members, it declared Islam to be the state religion. “The clerics gained an inch”.

The Second Constitutional Amendment of 1974 that termed Ahmadis as non-Muslim is a “usurpation of constitutional authority, not a valid piece of law,” said Rahman. “The state cannot call into question anyone’s faith.”

In 1993, he argued a landmark case against restrictions on the Ahmadis’ right to freely practice their faith, consolidating eight appeals by Ahmadis, imprisoned for saying the ‘kalima’.

Zaheeruddin v. State is also known as the “trademark” or the “Coca Cola judgement” because the Supreme Court dismissed it on the grounds that Ahmadis by professing to be Muslims were violating the “trademarks” of Islam.

“As if religion is a merchandise, saleable commodity with financial interests attached,” scoffs Rahman, who carries with him two books that he adheres to: the Quran and Pakistan’s Constitution.

Lawyers in Pakistani courts cite hundreds of U.S. cases, but in the Zaheeruddin case, “American laws were wrongly cited and misapplied to give the colour of fairness to the case,” asserts Rahman.

Legal experts elsewhere have taken apart the Zaheeruddin judgement, like Martin Lau in a report for the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, and Karen Parker, J.D. in a study for the Humanitarian Law Project of the International Educational Development, USA.

Rahman pins his hopes on “intelligence of a future day” along the lines of what the U.S. witnessed when a U.S. Supreme Court bench overturned a case that earlier restricted the right of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to propagate their faith.

“The ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] was active in overturning the case,” says Rahman, noting that one of the judges who had been on the earlier bench admitted to having been wrong the first time.

Pakistan is the only country where it is a criminal offense for Ahmadis to profess and practice their faith as Muslims, but state-sanctioned discrimination and persecution of Ahmadis elsewhere are increasing.

“Pakistani laws are the most aggressive,” notes the advocate Qasim Rashid. “But other countries have started following Pakistan’s example. The onslaught is led not by locals but by Pakistani mullahs.”

Bangladesh has banned Ahmadi books on religion, Ahmadis are under attack in Malaysia, and Indonesia has started sealing Ahmadi mosques.

Khalida Jamilah, 21, lived in West Java in Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population. She says Ahmadi families like hers were free to practice their faith as Muslims until 2005 when hard-line Muslims attacked an Ahmadi convention in West Java that her family was attending.

In 2008, they sought political asylum in the U.S., and moved to Los Angeles, where Jamilah’s father drives a cab.

“Here [in America] we can express our faith freely,” says Jamilah, now a journalism student at the University of California, Berkeley. “The U.S. government values freedom of religion and there is separation of church and state. I hope the Indonesian government does that too.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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OPINION: Iraq’s Minorities Battling for Survivalhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/opinion-iraqs-minorities-battling-for-survival/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-iraqs-minorities-battling-for-survival http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/opinion-iraqs-minorities-battling-for-survival/#comments Sat, 18 Oct 2014 13:56:31 +0000 Mark Lattimer and Mahmoud Swed http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137255 Demonstrators in front of the White House call for greater U.S. intervention against ISIS to save Iraqi minorities, including Yazidi and Christians, from genocide. Credit: Robert Lyle Bolton/cc by 2.0

Demonstrators in front of the White House call for greater U.S. intervention against ISIS to save Iraqi minorities, including Yazidi and Christians, from genocide. Credit: Robert Lyle Bolton/cc by 2.0

By Mark Lattimer and Mahmoud Swed
LONDON, Oct 18 2014 (IPS)

Through all of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s campaigns of ‘Arabization’, they survived. The diverse Iraqi communities inhabiting the Nineveh plains – Yezidis, Turkmen, Assyrians and Shabak, as well as Kurds – held on to their unique identities and most of their historic lands.

So too they survived the decade of threats, bombings and killings that followed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, remaining on lands that in some cases they have settled for over 4,000 years.Responsibility for many of these attacks falls to ISIS or its predecessors, but regular killings have also been carried out by other militia groups, and by members of the Iraqi Security Forces.

But in less than three months this summer, much of the Nineveh plain was emptied of its minority communities.

The advance by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was marked by a series of atrocities, some of them recorded and posted on the internet by ISIS itself, which have outraged the international community.

Now the first comprehensive report on the situation of Iraq’s minorities, released Thursday by Minority Rights Group (MRG) International and the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights, documents the full extent of violations committed against all of Iraq’s minority communities and reveals ISIS as an organisation motivated by the logic of extermination.

Minorities have been principal targets in a systematic campaign of torture, killings, sexual violence, and enslavement carried out by ISIS.

It should be stressed that nearly all of Iraq’s communities have suffered at the hands of ISIS, including Shi’a and Sunni Arabs, but the varying religious and social status attributed by ISIS ideologues to different peoples – as well as the value of the lands they inhabit – have made some communities much more vulnerable, with the nature of abuse often being determined by the particular ethno-religious background of the victims.

Under the pretence of a religious edict, for example, ISIS confiscated Christian-owned property in Mosul and enforced an ultimatum on the community to pay jizya tax.

Yezidis have repeatedly been denied even a right of existence by ISIS, and some other extremist groups, on the erroneous grounds that they are ‘devil-worshippers’.

The report delineates a pattern of targeting of Yezidis and their property, now overshadowed by the latest wave of violence that has cost the lives of at least hundreds and the kidnapping of up to 2500 men, women and children since August.

Captured Yezidi men have been forced to choose between conversion or death, whilst Yezidi women and children have been sold to slavery and subjected to sexual abuse.

But it would be a mistake to imagine that the violations suffered by Iraqi minorities date from a few months ago – or to believe that ISIS was the only perpetrator.

Since 2003, Christians have been the target of bombings, assassinations and kidnappings, with groups often targeting property and places of worship. Most of Iraq’s Christian population, up to one million people, had already fled the country by the start of the year.

Yezidis suffered the single deadliest attack of the conflict, when a multiple truck bombing in Sinjar in 2007 killed as many as 796 people, according to the Iraqi Red Crescent.

And one of the most sobering pictures to emerge from the report is the series of mass killings of Turkmen and Shabak carried out in recent years, the violence intensifying in the latter half of 2013.

Responsibility for many of these attacks falls to ISIS or its predecessors, but regular killings have also been carried out by other militia groups, and by members of the Iraqi Security Forces.

Throughout these years of violence the Iraqi government has proved either unable or unwilling to protect its minority communities. Few incidents are properly investigated and the perpetrators nearly always go unpunished, in some cases with indications of official complicity.

Aside from the immediate threats of violence, communities including Yezidis, Roma and Black Iraqis continue to face chronic and institutionalised discrimination that hinders their cultural and religious rights as well as imposing restrictions on access to health care, education and employment.

The choice now confronting many of Iraq’s diverse communities is be forced to flee en masse or to endure a life of continuous fear and suffering. Some peoples, such as the Sabean-Mandaeans, have already seen their numbers reduced by emigration to the point where their very survival in Iraq as a distinct community is under threat.

Some community leaders interviewed expressed the hope and determination that they could return to their lands; others saw emigration as their only possibility.

A comprehensive plan for the restitution to minority communities of their former lands and properties in the Nineveh plains and elsewhere is thus an essential component of any positive vision for Iraq’s future.

The need to ensure that those responsible for attacks are held to account also requires Iraq to accede to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

More immediately, there is nothing to stop the ICC prosecutor from opening a preliminary investigation into alleged crimes committed by the growing number of nationals of existing ICC state parties fighting in Iraq.

But Iraq’s own response to the ISIS threat holds serious dangers, including in particular the wholesale re-mobilisation of the Shi’a militias.

With the international coalition beginning to ratchet up its air campaign against ISIS, it is imperative that the international community does not appear to condone or even encourage the growing sectarianism now gripping Iraq’s security forces.

From a new sectarian war every community stands to lose.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS-Inter Press Service.

Editing by Kitty Stapp

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Cash-Strapped Human Rights Office at Breaking Point, Says New Chiefhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/cash-strapped-human-rights-office-at-breaking-point-says-new-chief/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=cash-strapped-human-rights-office-at-breaking-point-says-new-chief http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/cash-strapped-human-rights-office-at-breaking-point-says-new-chief/#comments Thu, 16 Oct 2014 21:47:50 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137225 Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the new United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaks at the opening of the 27th session of the Human Rights Council on Sep. 8, 2014 in Geneva, Switzerland. Credit: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the new United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaks at the opening of the 27th session of the Human Rights Council on Sep. 8, 2014 in Geneva, Switzerland. Credit: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Oct 16 2014 (IPS)

After six weeks in office, the new U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein of Jordan launched a blistering attack on member states for insufficient funding, thereby forcing operations in his office to the breaking point “in a world that seems to be lurching from crisis to ever-more dangerous crisis.”

“I am already having to look at making cuts because of our current financial situation,” he told reporters Thursday, pointing out while some U.N. agencies have budgets of over a billion dollars, the office of the UNHCHR has a relatively measly budget of 87 million dollars per year for 2014 and 2015."I have been asked to use a boat and a bucket to cope with a flood." -- U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein

“I have been asked to use a boat and a bucket to cope with a flood,” he said, even as the Human Rights Council and the Security Council saddles the cash-strapped office with new fact-finding missions and commissions of inquiry – with six currently underway and a seventh “possibly round the corner.”

Jens Martens, director of the Global Policy Forum (GPF) in Bonn, told IPS that governments treat the United Nations like firefighters.

“They call them to a fire but don’t give them the water to extinguish the fire and then blame the firefighters for their failure,” he said.

Martens welcomed the “the powerful statement” by the UNHCHR, describing it as a wake-up call for governments to take responsibility and finally provide the necessary funding for the United Nations.

Martens said for many years, Western governments, led by the United States, have insisted on a zero-growth doctrine for U.N. core budget.

“They bear major responsibility for the chronic weakness of the U.N. to respond to global challenges and crises,” he added.

The Office of the UNHCHR depends on voluntary contributions from member states to cover almost all of its field activities worldwide, as well as essential support work at its headquarters in Geneva.

“Despite strong backing from many donors, the level of contributions is not keeping pace with the constantly expanding demands of my Office,” Zeid said.

Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, told IPS the dramatic gap between the demands on the U.N. human rights office and the resources it has available is unsustainable.

“It’s time for states to match their commitment to human rights by providing the resources needed for the High Commissioner and his team to do their jobs,” she said.

Renzo Pomi, Amnesty International’s representative at the United Nations, told IPS it is wrong that the office of the UNHCHR’s core and mandated activities are not fully funded from the U.N.’s regular budget.

This, despite the fact, – as the High Commissioner himself points out – human rights are regularly described as one of the three pillars of the United Nations (along with development and peace and security).

Pomi said the office receives just over three percent of the U.N.’s regular budget.

“That makes for a short pillar and a badly aligned roof. U.N. member states should make sure that its core and mandated activities are properly funded,” he added.

Singling out the cash-crisis in the World Health Organisation (WHO), Martens told IPS a recent example is the weakness of WHO in responding to the Ebola pandemic.

Due to budget constraints WHO had to cut the funding for its outbreak and crisis response programme by more than 50 percent in the last two years.

It’s a scandal that the fraction of the regular budget allocation for human rights is less than 100 million dollars per year, and that the Office of the High Commissioner is mainly dependent on voluntary contributions.

Human Rights cannot be promoted and protected on a mere voluntary basis.

He said voluntary, and particularly earmarked, contributions are often not the solution but part of the problem.

Earmarking tends to turn U.N. agencies, funds and programmes into contractors for bilateral or public-private projects, eroding the multilateral character of the system and undermining democratic governance, said Martens.

“In order to provide global public goods, we need sufficient global public funds,” he said.

Therefore, member states must overcome their austerity policy towards the United Nations.

For many years Global Policy Forum has been calling for sufficient and predictable U.N. funding from governments, said Martens. In light of current global challenges and crises this call is more urgent than ever before, he added.

Zeid told reporters human rights are currently under greater pressure than they have been in a long while. “Our front pages and TV and computer screens are filled with a constant stream of presidents and ministers talking of conflict and human rights violations, and the global unease about the proliferating crises is palpable.”

He said the U.N. human rights system is asked to intervene in those crises, to investigate allegations of abuses, to press for accountability and to teach and encourage, so as to prevent further violations.

But time and time again “we have been instructed to do these and other major extra activities within existing resources,” said Zeid, a former Permanent Representative of Jordan to the United Nations.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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