Inter Press Service » Religion http://www.ipsnews.net Turning the World Downside Up Tue, 23 Sep 2014 11:25:23 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.2 OPINION: Fighting ISIS and the Morning Afterhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/opinion-fighting-isis-and-the-morning-after/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-fighting-isis-and-the-morning-after http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/opinion-fighting-isis-and-the-morning-after/#comments Thu, 18 Sep 2014 13:14:53 +0000 Emile Nakhleh http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136715 Protesters in Ahrar Square in the Iraqi city of Mosul, January 2013. Credit: Beriwan Welat/IPS

Protesters in Ahrar Square in the Iraqi city of Mosul, January 2013. Credit: Beriwan Welat/IPS

By Emile Nakhleh
WASHINGTON, Sep 18 2014 (IPS)

As the wobbly anti-ISIS coalition is being formed with American prodding, the Obama administration should take a strategic look at the future of the Arab world beyond the threat posed by the self-declared Islamic State. Otherwise, the United States would be unprepared to deal with the unintended chaos.

Driven by ideological hubris, the Bush administration on the eve of the Iraq war rejected any suggestions that the war could destabilise the whole region and rock the foundations of the Arab nation-state system.Invading Iraq was a “dumb” war. Chasing after ISIS in the Iraqi/Syrian desert without a clear vision of the endgame could result in something far worse.

That system, which was mostly created under the colonial Sykes-Picot treaty of 1916, is now being severely stressed. The Obama administration should avoid repeating the tragic mistake of its predecessor. While trying to halt the advance of ISIS by focused airstrikes, and regardless of the coalition’s effectiveness in “degrading” and “defeating” ISIS, President Obama should instruct his senior policymakers to explore possible architectures that could emerge from the ashes of Sykes-Picot.

The stresses and fault lines we are witnessing in the region today could easily lead to implosions tomorrow. Rightly or wrongly, Washington would be blamed for the ensuing mayhem.

As Secretary of State John Kerry shuttles between countries chasing the elusive coalition to fight ISIS, the administration seems to be unclear even about terminology. Is it a war or a multifaceted counter-terrorism strategy against ISIS? Whatever it’s called, if this strategy fails to eradicate the Islamic State and its Caliphate, is there a “Plan B” in the making?

Briefing senior policymakers on the eve of the Iraq war, I pointed out the possible unintended consequences of the invasion. George Tenet, former CIA director, alludes to several of these briefings in his book, “At the Center of the Storm.”

One of the briefings discussed the possibility that the Iraq invasion could fundamentally unsettle the 100-year old Arab nation-state system. National identity politics, which heretofore has been managed and manipulated by autocratic regimes—tribal, dynastic, monarchical, and presidential—could unravel if the Bush administration failed to anticipate what could happen following Saddam’s demise.

The artificiality of much of those states and their boundaries would come unhinged under the pressures of the invasion and the unleashing of internal forces that have been dormant. National loyalties would be replaced by religious and sectarian affiliations, and the Shia-Sunni disputes that go back to the 7th century would once again rise to the surface albeit with more violence and bloodshed.

The briefings also emphasised Iraq’s central Islamic dilemma. While for many Sunni Muslims Baghdad represents the golden age of Islam more than 1,200 years ago, Iraq is also the cradle of Shia Islam.

Najaf and Karbala in southern Iraq are sacred for the Shia world because it was there where the fourth Caliph Ali’s son Hussein was “martyred” and buried. Iran, as the self-proclaimed voice of Shia Islam all over the world, is deeply embedded in Iraq and will always demand a central role in the future of Iraq.

Bush administration senior policymakers ignored these warnings, arguing Iraqis and other Muslim Arabs would view American and coalition forces as “liberators” and, once the dictator fell, would work together in a spirit of tolerance, inclusion, and compromise. This view, unfortunately, was grounded in the neocons’ imagined ideological perception of the region. As we now know, it was utterly ignorant of ground truths and the social fabric of the different Arab Islamic societies.

Many Bush White House and Defense Department policymakers generally dismissed briefings that focused on the “morning after.” It’s safe to say they cared less about the post-Saddam Middle East than about toppling the dictator.

The region still suffers from those disastrous policies.

ISIS did not emerge in a vacuum, and its transnational ideology, warped as it may be, seems to appeal to Arabs and Muslims who have become disenchanted with the existing political order in Arab lands.

Many citizens view their states as fiefdoms of the ruling elites with no genuine respect for individual rights, personal freedoms, and human dignity. The “securitisation” of politics has alienated many young Arabs and is driving them toward extremism.

If the borders between Syria and Iraq are erased by the transnational “Caliphate,” what will become of the borders of Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq? Is the Obama administration ready to pick up the pieces when these nation-states disintegrate?

These are the critical questions the Bush administration should have pondered and answered before they invaded Iraq. They are the same questions the Obama administration should ponder and answer before unleashing American air power over the skies of the Levant.

Invading Iraq was a “dumb” war. Chasing after ISIS in the Iraqi/Syrian desert without a clear vision of the endgame could result in something far worse.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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. Ground Troops Possible in Anti-ISIS Battlehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/u-s-ground-troops-possible-in-anti-isis-battle/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-ground-troops-possible-in-anti-isis-battle http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/u-s-ground-troops-possible-in-anti-isis-battle/#comments Wed, 17 Sep 2014 12:28:21 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136671 General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Credit: DoD/public domain

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Credit: DoD/public domain

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Sep 17 2014 (IPS)

U.S. combat troops may be deployed against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) if the strategy announced by President Barack Obama last week fails to make substantial progress against the radical Sunni group, Washington’s top military officer warned here Tuesday.

The statement by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, delivered during testimony before a key Congressional committee, suggested for the first time that the administration may substantially broaden military operations in Iraq beyond air strikes and advising Iraqi and Kurdish forces far from the front lines.As long as Saudi Arabia and Iran do not make common cause, any coalition to combat Islamist fanatics will be half-hearted at best and unrooted in the region at worst." -- Amb. Chas Freeman (ret.)

“If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific targets, I will recommend that to the president,” Dempsey told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“At this point, his [Obama’s] stated policy is we will not have U.S. ground forces in direct combat,” he said. “But he has told me as well to come back to him on a case-by-case basis.”

Dempsey’s remarks, which came as Congress appeared poised to approve a pending 500-million-dollar request to train and equip Syrian rebels committed to fighting ISIS, as well as the government of President Bashar al-Assad, appeared certain to fuel doubts about Obama’s plans, particularly given his promise last week that U.S. forces “will not have a combat mission.”

“We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq,” he declared in last week’s nationally televised speech in which he also pledged to build an international coalition, including NATO and key regional and Sunni-led Arab states, to fight ISIS forces in both Iraq and Syria.

While Secretary of State John Kerry has since gathered public endorsements for the administration’s strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, notably at a meeting of Arab states in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, last week and from a larger group of nations in Paris Sunday, scepticism over the strength and effectiveness of such a coalition appears to have deepened.

Although Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and France appear committed to provide some air support to anti-ISIS operations, several key allies, including Britain, have remained non-committal about their willingness to help with military operations.

Turkey, whose army is the largest and most potent in the region and whose porous borders with ISIS-controlled regions in eastern Syria have been fully exploited by the group, has been particularly disappointing to officials here.

Despite repeated appeals, for example, Ankara has reportedly refused to permit U.S. military aircraft to use its strategically located Incirlik air base for carrying out anything but humanitarian missions in or over Iraq, insisting that any direct involvement in the campaign against ISIS would jeopardise the lives of dozens of Turkish diplomats seized by the group at Ankara’s consulate in Aleppo earlier this year.

Critics of Washington’s strategy are also concerned that Kerry may have reduced the chances for co-operation with another potentially key anti-ISIS ally – Iran – which he explicitly excluded from participation in any international coalition due to its support for Assad and its alleged status as a “state sponsor of terror”.

While Kerry Monday said Washington remained open to “communicating” with Tehran — which, along among the regional powers, has provided arms and advisers to both Kurdish and Iraqi forces — about its efforts against ISIS, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who earlier this month reportedly authorised limited co-operation over ISIS, ridiculed the notion, insisting that it was Iran who had rebuffed Washington.

But Kerry’s exclusion of Iran from the anti-ISIS coalition, according to experts here, was motivated primarily by threats by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to drop out if Tehran were included – a reflection not only of the ongoing Sunni-Shi’a conflict in the region, especially in the Syrian civil war, but also of the difficulty Washington faces in persuading governments with widely differing interests to unite behind a common cause.

“Leaving Iran out of the collective effort to contain and eventually destroy ISIS, especially after what happened in Amerli [a town whose siege by ISIS was eventually broken by a combination of U.S. airpower and Iranian-backed militias and Iraqi troops], defies logic and sanity and cannot be explained away by anyone in Iran,” noted Farideh Farhi, an Iran specialist at the University of Hawaii.

“It suggests to many [in Iran] that the fear of legitimising Iran’s role in regional security continues to be a driving force in U.S. foreign policy,” she told IPS in an email exchange.

Indeed, the success of Obama’s strategy may well depend less on U.S. military power than on his ability to reconcile and reassure key regional actors, including Iran.

“To have any hope of success, America’s do-it-yourself approach needs to be replaced with an effort to facilitate co-operation between the region’s great Muslim powers,” according to Amb. Chas Freeman (ret.), who served as Washington’s chief envoy to Riyadh during the first Gulf War.

“… As long as Saudi Arabia and Iran do not make common cause, any coalition to combat Islamist fanatics will be half-hearted at best and unrooted in the region at worst,” he told IPS.

Despite these difficult diplomatic challenges faced by Obama, most of the scepticism here revolves around his military strategy, particularly its reliance on air power and the absence of effective ground forces that can take and hold territory, especially in predominantly Sunni areas of both western and north-central Iraq and eastern Syria.

While U.S. officials believe that Kurdish peshmerga forces and the Iraqi army – with Iranian-backed Shi’a militias – can, with U.S. and allied air support, roll back most of ISIS’s more-recent gains in Iraq, it will take far more time to wrest control of areas, including cities like Fallujah and Ramadi, which the group has effectively governed for months.

Obama announced last week that he was sending nearly 500 more military personnel to Iraq, bringing the total U.S. presence there to around 1,600 troops, most of whom are to serve as trainers and advisers both for the peshmerga and the Iraqi army.

According to Dempsey, however, these troops have not yet been authorised to accompany local forces into combat or even to act as spotters for U.S. aircraft.

As for Syria, Washington plans to train and equip some 5,000 members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a fractious coalition of “moderate” fighters who have been increasingly squeezed and marginalised by both pro-government forces and ISIS and who have often allied themselves with other Islamist groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate.

It will take at least eight months, however, before that force can take the field, according to Dempsey and Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel. Even then, they said, such a force will be unable “to turn the tide” of battle. Dempsey’s said he hoped that Sunni-led Arab countries would provide special operations forces to support the FSA, although none has yet indicated a willingness to do so.

Hawks, such as Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have argued that these plans are insufficient to destroy ISIS in either country.

Some neo-conservative defence analysts, such as Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations and Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, have called for as many as 25,000 U.S. ground troops, including thousands of Special Forces units to work with “moderate” Sunni forces, to be deployed to both countries in order to prevail. They have also warned against any co-operation with either Iran or Assad in the fight against ISIS.

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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FILM: From Hamas Royalty to Israel’s Spyhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/film-from-hamas-royalty-to-israels-spy/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=film-from-hamas-royalty-to-israels-spy http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/film-from-hamas-royalty-to-israels-spy/#comments Mon, 15 Sep 2014 14:31:36 +0000 Mitchell Plitnick http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136630 In the past few years, Mosab has become something of a minor celebrity on right-wing and fundamentalist Christian talk shows. His message varies, but his target is often Islam in general.

In the past few years, Mosab has become something of a minor celebrity on right-wing and fundamentalist Christian talk shows. His message varies, but his target is often Islam in general.

By Mitchell Plitnick
WASHINGTON, Sep 15 2014 (IPS)

The son of one of the founders of the biggest Palestinian militant group decides to work with Israel. He spends a decade working undercover with the Israeli security service, the Shin Bet, thwarting dozens of Palestinian attacks and contributing significantly to the arrest or elimination of dozens of leading Palestinian militants.

This sounds like the makings of a Hollywood big budget spy thriller. In fact, it is the plot of a documentary, “The Green Prince,” based on the autobiography of Mosab Hassan Yousef."As long as Hamas is digging tunnels and promoting extremism, I don’t see how anyone can co-exist with this type of danger.” -- Mosab Hassan Yousef

Yousef and his handler in the Shin Bet, Gonen Ben Yitzhak, narrate the film, which somewhat frenetically throws together surveillance footage and live interviews. Although the film tries to focus on the growing bond between Ben Yitzhak, “The Handler”, and Yousef, “The Asset,” there is an underlying tension in the film that is only partially due to the sense of overwhelming danger that Yousef faced on a daily basis.

The most obvious question that is raised by the film is “how does the son of Hassan Yousef, who helped found Hamas and is one of its most prominent leaders to this day, become a spy for Israel?”

The film itself offers only a very succinct answer to this question. As a youth, Mosab was arrested by Israel and was tortured in his interrogation, which was also when he was identified as a potential mole.

He was then sent to prison, where he witnessed far worse torture by Hamas activists, including murder, against fellow Palestinians they suspected might be Israeli agents. This, he said, convinced him to take up the Shin Bet’s offer to work for them.

Indeed, it seems that Mosab’s disillusionment with the Palestinian leadership runs much deeper than just antipathy toward Hamas. In the film, Hamas is the focus, but in the wake of Israel’s recent devastation of the Gaza Strip, the absence of the difficulties of occupation in the film is even more keenly felt. Yet Mosab very much holds to the Israeli view of recent events.

“Palestinians can continue to export their internal problems and blame Israel, but at the end of the day, they have bigger problems than occupation,” he told IPS. “There is corruption, greed, and mismanagement; those are actual enemies of Palestinian people.

“If they can come to a higher conscience where they can see violence is not the way, but negotiations and co-existence is the higher path to achieve their freedom, then the international community will trust them and build bridges. But as long as Hamas is digging tunnels and promoting extremism, I don’t see how anyone can co-exist with this type of danger.”

In fact, in the past few years, Mosab has become something of a minor celebrity on right-wing and fundamentalist Christian talk shows. His message varies, but his target is often Islam in general.

In 2010, on the Canadian news show, Power and Politics, Mosab told a shocked host that “The problem is much bigger than Hamas, the problem is in the God of Islam…he is a god of torture, he is the deceit god, this is what he talks (sic) about himself.”

More recently, on Sep. 6, in the aftermath of the massive destruction by Israel in Gaza, Mosab told Fox News that “I recommend that we stop saying ISIS, this is the Islamic State, this is the Islamic dream, and this is the manifestation of the Qur’anic verses on the ground.”

This echoes the views he has espoused several times as a guest on the far-right wing Sean Hannity show.

When talking with Pat Robertson on his Christian Broadcasting Network in 2010, which caters to the most extreme of Christians in the United States, Mosab continually spoke of his love of Jesus and how Jesus was the only true path to peace.

This would displease many Jews who have come to adore him, not only for his story but for stances like the one the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported him telling an orthodox Jewish crowd in 2011.

“There is no room for another state in that small country [of Israel],” he said. “The Jewish nation has the historic right to that land [in] the West Bank…The Israeli historic right to this land is obvious and clear to any person who can read.”

All of this raises some real questions about Mosab’s motivations, and indeed how sincere the story we saw in the film was. “The Green Prince shows a man who made a difficult choice but believed he was doing it to save lives. The film does note that Mosab converted to Christianity, but gives no hint of his deep antipathy toward Islam.

What we do see in the film, quite clearly, is the growing bond between Mosab and his Shin Bet handler, Gonen Ben-Yitzhak.

Ben-Yitzhak, now a lawyer in Israel after losing his job with the Shin Bet, echoes Yousef’s view that the Palestinians are to blame for the perpetuation of the conflict, although Ben-Yitzhak has a somewhat less idealized view of Israel.

“Look, I’m not pleased with all Israeli policies,” Ben-Yitzhak told IPS. “But now, Palestinians need to find a way to develop. But for many years, they are stuck with bombing and terrorism and violence. Many (people around the world) criticize Israel, but can you compare occupation to blowing up people on a bus? What is the comparison, what are the values that make him blow himself up?

“I’m sure he doesn’t share any values with you… My grandparents, although they suffered and left family in Europe, took responsibility to build a new future, rather than wait for an outside power, a miracle to change their lives. The biggest problem the Palestinians have is that they don’t take responsibility for their own lives, waiting [instead] for the outside world to do something.”

Clearly, Mosab and Gonen built a strong and devoted bond. They both believe that their friendship can be a model for co-existence between Israelis and Palestinians.

“I don’t see a big difference between Israelis and Palestinians,” Gonen told IPS. “When I worked with Shin Bet, I was working with people. I didn’t see a Palestinian as anything but a human being. If we all look at each other as human beings, not as Israelis, Palestinians, occupier and occupied, we can solve these problems.” Mosab put forth a similar sentiment.

Yet it seems that this coming together only happened because Mosab fully came over to the Israeli worldview, and a somewhat extreme one at that. This accounts for some of the discomfort in the film, where one has the feeling that there is a lot that is being omitted. Mosab’s and Gonen’s relationship seems more like a blueprint for surrender than for co-existence.

Editing by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at plitnickm@gmail.com

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OPINION: Bishop Appeals to U.N. to Rescue Minorities in Northwestern Iraqhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/opinion-bishop-appeals-to-u-n-to-rescue-minorities-in-northwestern-iraq/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-bishop-appeals-to-u-n-to-rescue-minorities-in-northwestern-iraq http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/opinion-bishop-appeals-to-u-n-to-rescue-minorities-in-northwestern-iraq/#comments Fri, 12 Sep 2014 15:07:03 +0000 Bishop Bawai Soro http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136599 Iraqi Christians attend an Easter mass at Chaldean Catholic church in Amman Apr. 24, 2011. Thousands of Iraqi Christians fled to neighbouring Jordan following a spate of bombings that targeted churches in Iraqi cities in the past few years. Credit: http://catholicdefender2000.blogspot.com/

Iraqi Christians attend an Easter mass at Chaldean Catholic church in Amman Apr. 24, 2011. Thousands of Iraqi Christians fled to neighbouring Jordan following a spate of bombings that targeted churches in Iraqi cities in the past few years. Credit: http://catholicdefender2000.blogspot.com/

By Bishop Bawai Soro
SAN DIEGO, Sep 12 2014 (IPS)

For decades, the minority Christian population of Iraq has been suffering hardships. But in the summer months of 2014 – and since the beginning of the military campaign by ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, also known as ISIL or Islamic State) – the situation has gone from bad to intolerably worse.

The Chaldean Catholic Church is one of the Eastern Catholic Churches, which is an autonomous, self-governing church in full communion with the Pope (Bishop of Rome) and the wider Roman Catholic Church.What is needed is not short-term panacea or lip-service or promises but long-term institutional solutions overseen by the United Nations and aimed at protecting the human right to life of the minority Chaldea and Assyrian Christians, and their Yazidi neighbours.

Chaldean Christians number over half a million people who are ethnic Assyrians and indigenous to predominantly northwestern Iraq and parts of northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and northwestern Iran.

The core villages of the Chaldean people, located in the Nineveh plain in northwestern Iraq, were attacked and decimated by ISIS in a matter of days, leaving the fleeing Christian inhabitants not only homeless but also internally displaced refugees (IDRs) in their own ancient land.

After having their lives threatened and facing the stark choice of either converting to the warped and extremist interpretation of Islam proselytised by ISIS, paying a heavy tax, or dying in large numbers (many by beheading), tens of thousands of men, women, children, the elderly and infirm fled.

And many of them fled on foot in the searing heat with little or no food, water or shelter – into Iraqi Kurdistan, mostly to Erbil and Duhok, seeking safety, security and asylum.

It is incumbent on all democratic peoples to aid the scattered Chaldean people who find themselves in such a desperate, stark life or death situation. Some are encouraging the displaced to return to their villages, and indeed they are always free to do so.

However, we must understand that people have chosen to leave their beloved homeland to reach safety and protect their families, even at the cost of their dignity.

Upon their return, the displaced would more often than not find their homes damaged, looted or destroyed by ISIS and their local allies.

The million-dollar question therefore is: What kind of future awaits the minority Chaldean and Assyrian Christian population of Iraq?

The people fleeing and begging for international asylum have spoken for themselves. It is now up to those in the democratic West led by the United States and Europe, together with the United Nations, to respond to this acute humanitarian crisis and crimes against humanity.

They need swift justice and human generosity.

What is needed is not short-term panacea or lip-service or promises but long-term institutional solutions overseen by the United Nations and aimed at protecting the human right to life of the minority Chaldea and Assyrian Christians, and their Yazidi neighbours.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s White House address to the nation on Wednesday night was very encouraging, to say the least.

As President Obama stated, the launching of “a steady, relentless effort” to root out the extremists from ISIS “wherever they exist” shall create the necessary security environment to bring about peace and stability.

It will undoubtedly create conducive conditions for the return of displaced minority Chaldean and Assyrian Christians and the Yazidi to their homes in Nineveh province they have inhabited for over two thousand years.

The future of a united Iraq depends on maintaining peace, stability and economic prosperity for all the peoples inhabiting this ancient land.

Ensuring that the spirit of tolerance and cohabitation deepens and thrives is part and parcel of any such long-term structural solution.

It is imperative that policymakers in Washington, DC, New York and at the United Nations and in western European capitals take this long-term vision on board and act accordingly with adequate resources made available.

It is then, and only then, that the plight of the minority Chaldean and Assyrian Christians and other minorities can be addressed in a truly meaningful fashion in a future peaceful, multi-religious, multi-ethnic and economically prosperous Iraq.

Failure to do so will only see a recurrence of the tragic events unfolding in Iraq and Syria, further compounding the destitution, misery and desperation of millions of human beings caught up in the mayhem being unleashed by armed terrorists.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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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Obama’s Anti-ISIS Strategy Met with Scepticismhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/obamas-anti-isis-strategy-met-with-scepticism/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=obamas-anti-isis-strategy-met-with-scepticism http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/obamas-anti-isis-strategy-met-with-scepticism/#comments Fri, 12 Sep 2014 00:14:35 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136594 President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden meet with members of the National Security Council in the Situation Room of the White House, Sept. 10, 2014. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden meet with members of the National Security Council in the Situation Room of the White House, Sept. 10, 2014. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Sep 12 2014 (IPS)

U.S. President Barack Obama’s new strategy to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is being met with widespread scepticism among both hawks and doves, as well as regional specialists.

While Congress is expected to acquiesce, if not formally authorise, the plans he outlined in his nationally televised prime-time speech Wednesday night, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have not been shy about expressing reservations.“The proverbial 64,000-dollar question is whether the seemingly mediocre Abadi government can peel enough of [the Sunni Arab tribes and veteran Awakening cadres] away from active and passive support for ISIS or from the sidelines.” -- Wayne White

“While the president presented a compelling case for action, many questions remain about the way in which [he] intends to act,” said Republican House Speaker John Boehner.

Indeed, while he adopted a determined and confident tone that won plaudits even from Republicans like Boehner, it is no secret here that Obama, who has made Washington’s extraction from Middle East wars a legacy issue for his presidency, has consistently resisted pressure to escalate U.S. military involvement in the region.

Speaking on the eve of the 13th anniversary of al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, Obama announced that he will increase U.S. support for Iraq’s army and the Kurdish Peshmerga with more training, intelligence, and equipment and will dispatch 475 U.S. military personnel to join the 1,000-plus who have deployed there since ISIS swept across much of the northern and central part of Iraq in June.

At the same time, he pledged that the campaign “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.”

In addition, he said the U.S. will carry out airstrikes against ISIS targets “wherever they exist,” not only in Iraq, but, most significantly, in Syria, as well.

Washington, he said, is also assembling “a broad coalition of partners”, including NATO, and, more importantly, the Sunni-led Gulf states, Jordan, and Lebanon whose governments pledged support for the anti-ISIS campaign and the new government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, during a meeting Thursday with Secretary of State John Kerry in Jiddah.

And Obama asked Congress to swiftly approve a pending request for 500 million dollars to train and equip anti-government and anti-ISIS Syrian rebels.

Saudi Arabia, a major backer of various factions in the three-year insurgency against President Bashar Al-Assad, has agreed to host training camps for these “moderate” rebels, according to administration officials.

This “comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy” – which he compared to Washington’s long-standing operations in Yemen and Somalia — will “take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIL (Islamic State of Syria and the Levant),” Obama said, using the administration’s preferred acronym.

While the plan gained guarded approval from most lawmakers – who, facing mid-term elections in November, are particularly sensitive to a sudden hawkish shift in public opinion – many said it raised as many questions as it answered, including whether Obama has the legal authority to order strikes against ISIS, especially in Syria, without getting explicit Congressional authorisation.

At the same time, hawks questioned whether the strategy – notably Obama’s pledge not to introduce combat troops – was sufficient to achieve its goals.

“Obama’s ‘strategy’ has no chance of success,” wrote Frederick and Kimberly Kagan of the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Institute for the Study of War, respectively, on the Weekly Standard’s website.

The two Kagans, who helped devise the Bush administration’s “Surge” to curb Iraq’s Sunni-Shi’a conflict in 2007, argued that a counter-terrorism (CT) strategy would not work against a full-fledged insurgency, which they said ISIS has become. “It’s awfully hard to develop a sound strategy when you start by misdiagnosing the problem so profoundly,” they wrote. Frederick Kagan has argued that 10-15,000 U.S. troops are necessary for Iraq alone.

Others disagreed. “Getting more U.S. troops on the ground is precisely what … [ISIS chief Abu Bakr] Al-Baghdadi wants,” Col. Lawrence Wilkerson (ret.), former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, told IPS. “A target-rich environment is what they want, and in their area.

“If the Iraqis and others are not up to defeating [ISIS] forces, then U.S. and allied airpower, some advice on the ground, and intelligence assistance should be sufficient to do so. …[ISIS] is not 10 feet tall, not even four – despite all the media hype to the contrary,” he said.

In Iraq, defeating ISIS will depend largely on whether Abadi follows through on his pledge to share power with Sunni Arabs and fully integrate them into a new security structure, according to regional experts.

“One hundred years of war …has demonstrated that air power can only succeed if a robust ground force is ready to take advantage of air strikes to physically take and occupy territory,” according to Wayne White, a former top State Department Middle East intelligence officer now with the Middle East Institute (MEI).

“The president is not ignorant of this dictum: hence, his part in ousting the loathsome [former Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki and the need for a credibly inclusive new government in Baghdad that can revive the Iraqi Army,” he wrote in an email exchange.

“…The proverbial 64,000-dollar question is whether the seemingly mediocre Abadi government can peel enough of [the Sunni Arab tribes and veteran Awakening cadres] away from active and passive support for ISIS or from the sidelines,” White added. “Only a sizeable Sunni Arab force from within could make considerable headway along with airstrikes in unhinging ISIS from key holdings like cities and large towns.”

Even if the strategy in Iraq succeeds, however, attacking ISIS in Syria will be far more difficult, in major part because Western-backed rebel factions are “much weaker than two years ago,” according to former acting CIA chief Michael Morrell whose assessment echoed that of most regional experts, some of whom, such as former the former U.S. Amb. to Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, have argued for working with Assad as the lesser evil – a step that the administration appears so far to reject.

“The speech left major questions about Syria unanswered,” said Paul Pillar, a former top CIA Middle East analyst. “If ISIS is to be set back, who fills that vacuum? If it is the Assad regime, how does that square with the continued U.S. opposition to that regime? If it is supposed to be someone else, how does that square with the persistent lack of unity, strength, and credibility of the so-called moderate opposition?”

Along with Wilkerson, regional experts worried that Obama’s strategy is susceptible to “mission creep”.

“If the air strikes do not ‘defeat’ ISIS, what policy will the president pursue considering that he ruled out putting boots on the ground?” asked Emile Nakhleh, a former director of the CIA’s political Islam strategic analysis programme.

He also questioned the commitment of the Sunni Arab states that signed on to the strategy in Jiddah “considering that domestic radical Islamists are already posing a serious challenge to such countries as Saudi Arabia and Jordan.”

Thomas Lippman, a Gulf specialist at MEI, agreed that the coalition that Obama was putting together could prove problematic, noting that its members “…are united about what they DON’T want — namely more ISIS — but are not united about what they DO want. And many of them are suspicious about some of the others,” he said in an email exchange.

He noted that Turkey, with the most potent military force in the region and whose Incirlik air base has been used in the past for U.S. operations over Iraq, had participated in the Jiddah meeting Thursday but failed to sign the summit statement.

Like Wilkerson, Nakhleh also suggested that Obama’s hand been forced as a result of the “media frenzy about the hyped-up ISIS threat” which some commentators have blamed on the sensational coverage of the recent beheadings by ISIS of two U.S. journalists and overheated rhetoric by some of Obama’s top officials, including Kerry and Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel.

A poll conducted last week by ABC News and the Washington Post found 71 percent support for air strikes against “Sunni insurgents in Iraq” – up from 54 percent in mid-August and 45 percent in mid-June as ISIS swept across Iraq.

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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OPINION: ISIS Primarily a Threat to Arab Countrieshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/opinion-isis-primarily-a-threat-to-arab-countries/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-isis-primarily-a-threat-to-arab-countries http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/opinion-isis-primarily-a-threat-to-arab-countries/#comments Fri, 05 Sep 2014 18:44:59 +0000 Emile Nakhleh http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136514

Emile Nakhleh is a research professor at the University of New Mexico, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of “A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World.”

By Emile Nakhleh
WASHINGTON, Sep 5 2014 (IPS)

Millions of words have been written about the rise, conquests, and savagery of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, and Boko Haram in Nigeria. Both have declared an “Islamic State” in their areas although Boko Haram has not claimed the mantle of a successor to the Prophet Muhammad as ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has done in Greater Syria. The two groups are the latest in a string of terrorist organisations in the past two decades.

American and other Western media have raised the ISIS terror threat to unprecedented levels, and the press have extolled the group’s military prowess, financial acumen, and command of social media propaganda.

The beheadings of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff are the latest horrible manifestations of the group’s brutality. ISIS is now seen as a serious threat to the U.S. and British homelands and new measures are being taken in both countries to combat the dangers it poses.

The Sunni regimes’ benign neglect of the rapidly spreading Sunni violent ideology and its divisive sectarian policies has allowed ISIS to spread. This does not augur well for its survival. The Saudi brand of intolerant, narrow-minded Wahhabi-Salafi Sunni Islam is not much different from al-Baghdadi’s modern day caliphate.
Although surprised at the rapid growth of ISIS, Western policymakers should not be bewildered by the rise of yet another terrorist group. In the past 20 years, the world has witnessed the emergence of al-Qaeda as a global jihadist group, Jama’a Islamiyya in Southeast Asia, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in North Africa, al-Qaeda in Iraq, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Islamic Fighting Group in Libya, al-Shabab in Somalia, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a few more localised bands of terrorists across the greater Middle East.

In every case, Western countries described the groups as a “gathering threat” and mobilised friendly countries, including autocratic rulers, against the perceived dangers.

Policy and intelligence analysts spent untold hours and travelled thousands of miles tracking the movements of these groups and their leaders, and writing briefs and reports about the nature of the threat.

Most of these analytic reports have focused on “current” issues. Only a meagre effort has been expended on long-term strategic analysis of the context of radical and terrorist groups and their root causes. It’s as if we are doomed to fight yesterday’s wars with no time to look into the context that gives rise to these groups. President Barack Obama’s recent statement that his administration had no strategy to fight the ISIS menace in Syria epitomises this analytical paralysis.

Regional problem

ISIS is primarily a threat to Arab countries, not to the United States and other Western countries. The more Sunni Arab states remain silent in the face of this pseudo-religious vulgarity, the sooner terrorism would be at their door. Arab society under the yoke of extremist Islamism must be addressed from within the region, not by American airstrikes or Western military intervention.

If the Islamic State expands beyond the Levant, it will plunge Arab societies into militancy, bloody conflicts, and depravity devoid of free thought, creativity, and economic prosperity.

The threat that Western societies could potentially face would come not from ISIS but from the hundreds of their young citizens who joined ISIS. These young jihadists, who hail from the U.S., Canada, Britain, France, Italy, Australia, and other countries, have joined ISIS either as “walk-in” volunteers or as a result of ISIS’ sophisticated social media recruiting campaign. They left their seemingly comfortable lives for all kinds of political, psychological, religious, or ideological reasons to fight for a “cause” they are not terribly clear about.

If they survive the fighting, they would return home having been brainwashed against the perceived decadence of Western Christian societies and the imagined “purity” of their faith. Their imported emotional contradictions would drive some of them to relive their jihadist experience in the Levant by committing acts of violence and terrorism against their fellow citizens.

The so-called caliphate, whether in the Levant or West Africa, is a backward perversion of Sunni Islam that opposes modernity in all of its manifestation – interfaith dialogue, women’s education, minority rights, tolerance, and reason. A self-proclaimed successor to the Prophet Muhammad, al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State in the Syrian Desert is violating every principle of Muhammad’s Islamic State in Medina in the 7th century.

Some Bush-era neo-cons and Republican hawks in the Senate who are clamouring for U.S. military intervention in Syria seem to have forgotten the lessons they should have learned from their disastrous invasion of Iraq over a decade ago. Military action cannot save a society when it’s regressing on a warped trajectory of the Divine – ISIS’ proclaimed goal.

As long as Arab governments are repressive, illegitimate, sectarian, and incompetent, they will be unable to halt the ISIS offensive. In fact, many of these regimes have themselves to blame for the appeal of ISIS. They have cynically exploited religious sectarianism to stay in power.

If it is true that a young man is not radicalised and does not become a terrorist overnight and if it is true that a terrorist group does not develop in a vacuum, then it’s time to stand back and take a strategic look at the factors that drive ISIS and similar Sunni terrorist groups in the Arab world.

1. Intolerant Doctrine. Some Arab Sunni regimes, including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, continue to preach an intolerant religious Sunni ideology that denigrates not only other faiths but also Shia Islam. Christian religious places and educational institutions cannot operate freely in places like Saudi Arabia.

Much of the anger that has characterised the Islamisation of Muslim societies in recent years has been directed against these institutions. This type of harassment is felt across the region, from Palestine to Saudi Arabia. What makes this reality especially sad is the fact that Christian institutions have been at the forefront of Arab educational renaissance since the 19th century.

The Sunni regimes’ benign neglect of the rapidly spreading Sunni violent ideology and its divisive sectarian policies has allowed ISIS to spread. This does not augur well for its survival. The Saudi brand of intolerant, narrow-minded Wahhabi-Salafi Sunni Islam is not much different from al-Baghdadi’s modern day caliphate.

The Saudis oppose ISIS because of its perceived threat to the regime, but they cannot disavow their theological worldview, which rejects Shia Islam, Christianity, and Judaism and denies women their rightful place as equal citizens. The rapidly spreading ISIS doctrine is making it a bit late for the Saudis and other Sunni regimes to act. Nor will the West be able to bail them out.

2. Arab Autocracy. Sunni Arab dictators have refused their peoples freedoms of speech, organisation, political activism, innovation, and creativity. The three “deficits” of freedom, education, and women’s rights that Arab intellectuals identified in the Arab Human Development Report in 2002 are yet to be meaningfully addressed.

Politics is controlled by the powerful with no room for reason or compromise among the different stakeholders and centres of power in society. Those on top commit all kinds of dastardly deeds to stay in power, and those at the bottom are doomed to remain stuck in the proverbial “bottom one billion.” Regimes do not allow the meaningful separation of powers, checks and balances, and independent judiciaries to properly function. Control, fear, and co-optation remain the preferred tools of Arab dictators.

3. Hypocrisy of “Values.” President Obama has often invoked American values of liberty, human rights, equality, justice, and fairness as the underpinnings of U.S. democracy and of “what makes us who we are.” Yet when Arab publics see Washington steadfastly supporting Arab dictators, who are the antithesis of American “values,” the United States comes across as hypocritical and untrustworthy.

The debates within Islam over whether the faith should return to its 7th century roots, as ISIS’s ruthlessness has shown, or leap into the 21st century modern world, as Turkey has demonstrated, should primarily concern Muslims. They and they alone are the ones to resolve this quandary. ISIS is a violent symptom of this tug of war between intolerant traditionalists and forward-looking reformists. The West should stay out of the debate.

Western security and law enforcement agencies should focus on their own citizens and track their would-be jihadists, but Western military aircraft should stay out of the skies of the Levant.

Edited by Ronald Joshua

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: Iraq On the Precipicehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/opinion-iraq-on-the-precipice/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-iraq-on-the-precipice http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/opinion-iraq-on-the-precipice/#comments Thu, 04 Sep 2014 04:23:16 +0000 Bill Miller http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136478 Since Aug. 3, there has been a massive dislocation of some 200,000 people from Iraq, resulting in more than 1.2 million displaced. Credit: Mustafa Khayat/CC-BY-ND-2.0

Since Aug. 3, there has been a massive dislocation of some 200,000 people from Iraq, resulting in more than 1.2 million displaced. Credit: Mustafa Khayat/CC-BY-ND-2.0

By Bill Miller
NEW YORK, Sep 4 2014 (IPS)

The catastrophic events in Iraq that are unfolding daily are more significant than at any point in recent memory.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is now calling itself the Islamic State (IS), steamrolled out of Syria into Iraq and appeared to be unstoppable in its march to Baghdad. The Iraqi military, which was far larger and better armed, was either unable or unwilling to confront this ragtag, but determined, force of about 1,000 fighters.

Simultaneously, the world was riveted on the minority Yazidi community that had to escape to Mount Sinjar to avoid certain annihilation.

What made the situation even more dangerous was that Mount Sinjar is a rocky, barren hilltop about 67 miles long and six miles wide, protruding like a camel’s back with a daytime high temperature of 110 degrees, as Kieran Dwyer, communications chief for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, recently reported from Erbil.

Dwyer also shared other staggering statistics:

– Since Aug. 3, there has been a massive dislocation of 200,000 people, as armed groups have ramped up their violence, and there are more than 1.2 million displaced people.

– The U.N. High Commission for Refugees is providing protection and assisting local authorities with shelter, including mattresses and blankets.

– The U.N. World Food Programme set up four communal kitchens in that Governorate and has provided two million meals in the past two weeks.

– The U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has provided drinking water and rehydration salts to help prevent or treat diarrhea, as well as provisions of high-energy biscuits for 34,000 children under the age of five in the past week.

– The U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) is supporting over 1,300 pregnant women with hygiene supplies and helping local authorities with medical supplies to support 150,000 people.

While returning from South Korea, Pope Francis sanctioned intervening in Iraq to stop Islamist militants from persecuting not only Christian, but also all religious minority groups.

This is a dramatic turnaround, given that the Vatican normally eschews the use of force. His caveat was that the international community must discuss a strategy, possibly at the U.N., so that this would not be perceived as ‘a true war of conquest.’

Shortly thereafter, French President Francois Hollande called for an international conference to discuss ways of confronting the Islamic State insurgents who have seized control of territory in Iraq and Syria.

Both suggestions tie directly into U.S. President Barack Obama’s intention to preside over a meeting of the United Nations Security Council during his attendance at the world body’s annual General Assembly meeting in mid-September.

Specifically, Obama’s agenda will focus upon counterterrorism and the threat of foreign fighters traveling to conflict zones and joining terrorist organisations.

Additionally, all major players in the region, even ones that have had a traditional animosity to one another such as Iran vs. Saudi Arabia and the U.S., must be at the table.

It is critical to remember that a major reason for the disasters occurring in many areas of the Middle East can be traced directly back to the misguided and widely-viewed illegal invasion of Iraq by former President George W. Bush in March of 2003.

Allegedly, the U.S. went to Iraq to disarm Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which did not exist.

When the bogus WMD argument collapsed, the rationale quickly moved to regime change and then to establishing democracy in the Arab world.

The real reasons were to control the oil fields and re-do that area so it could be manipulated by Western interests.

In reality, the legacy of the biggest U.S. foreign blunder in history left Iran as the powerhouse in the region, converted Iraq into a powder keg for conflict among the Sunnis and Shias, got 200,000 Iraqis and over 4,000 U.S. military personnel killed, and gave the American taxpayer a bill for two trillion dollars, which is a figure that will continue to rise because of the thousands of troops that will need medical and psychological assistance, as well as Iraq requesting financial, military and technical assistance in the future.

Tragically, some media outlets, such as Fox News and many right-wing talk radio stations, are putting the same purveyors of misinformation and disinformation – such as former Vice-President Dick Cheney, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, U.S. Administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer, Senator John McCain and Bill Kristol – back on the air to re-write history on how the Iraq War was really a glowing success.

In a democracy it is critical to have a cross-section of ideas and stimulating debate on Iraq and other issues, but it is questionable and foolish to heed the advice of such a devious and counterproductive group that adheres to the nonsensical tenets that if only the U.S. had stayed longer, left more troops or invested more blood and treasure in that region, there would have been a positive outcome.

They refuse to recognise that neither the Iraqis nor the Iranians wanted the U.S. to stay, and the American public was turning against a failed war.

Couple that with the fact that former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki tried to isolate the Sunnis from any power-sharing or involvement in the political, financial and cultural facets of Iraq.

From the despicable beheadings of freelance photographer James Foley and freelance journalist Steven Sotloff, to the imposition of draconian Sharia Law that violates human and civil rights, the challenges in Iraq are multiplying daily.

Probably no one in the world knows this better than U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who said recently, “… I can bring world leaders to the river, but I cannot force them to drink.”

When the leaders of the world meet later this month at the U.N., it will be time for them to ‘drink the water’ for everyone’s benefit.

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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Churches at the Frontline of Climate Actionhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/churches-at-the-frontline-of-climate-action/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=churches-at-the-frontline-of-climate-action http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/churches-at-the-frontline-of-climate-action/#comments Wed, 20 Aug 2014 22:29:56 +0000 Melanie Mattauch http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136245 Jänschwalde open cast lignite mine, close to Atterwasch, Germany. Credit: Christian Huschga

Jänschwalde open cast lignite mine, close to Atterwasch, Germany. Credit: Christian Huschga

By Melanie Mattauch
LUSATIA, Germany, Aug 20 2014 (IPS)

Johannes Kapelle has been playing the organ in the Protestant church of Proschim since he was 14. The 78-year-old is actively involved in his community, produces his own solar power and has raised three children with his wife on their farm in Proschim, a small village of 360 inhabitants in Lusatia, Germany.

Now the church, his farm, the forest he loves dearly and his entire village is threatened with demolition to leave space for expansion of Swedish energy giant Vattenfall’s lignite (also known as brown coal) operations to feed its power plants. Nearly all of the fuel carbon (99 percent) in lignite is converted to CO2 – a major greenhouse gas – during the combustion process.“What we’re seeing today is the result of putting economic thinking at the forefront. Our mantra is to just continue doing things as long as they generate profit. We need to counteract this trend with ethical thinking. We need to do what’s right!” – Protestant pastor Mathias Berndt

For Kapelle, this is inconceivable: “In Proschim, we’ve managed effortlessly to supply our community with clean energy by setting up a wind park and a biogas plant. Nowadays, it is just irresponsible to expand lignite mining.”

The desolate landscape the giant diggers leave behind stretches as far as the eye can see from just a few hundred metres outside Proschim.

“It’s only going to take about a quarter of a year to burn the entire coal underneath Proschim. But the land is going to be destroyed forever. You won’t even be able to enter vast areas of land anymore because it will be prone to erosion. You won’t be able to grow anything on that soil anymore either. No potatoes, no tomatoes, nothing,” says Kappelle.

Some 70 km northeast of Proschim, Protestant pastor Mathias Berndt also sees his community under threat. His church in Atterwasch has been around for 700 years and even survived the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century. Now it is supposed to make way for Vattenfall’s Jänschwalde Nord open cast lignite mine.

The 64-year-old has been Atterwasch’s pastor since 1977 and refuses to accept that his community will be destroyed: “As Christians, we have a responsibility to cultivate and protect God’s creation. That’s what it says in the Bible. We’re pretty good at cultivating but protection is lacking. That’s why I’ve been trying to stop the destruction of nature since the days of the German Democratic Republic.”

“Vattenfall’s plans to expand its mines have given this fight a new dimension,” Berndt adds. “This is now also about preventing our forced displacement.”

Berndt is currently involved in organising a huge protest on August 23 – a human chain connecting a German and Polish village threatened by coal mining in the region. He has also been pushing his church to step up its efforts to curb climate change.

As a result, his regional synod has positioned itself against new coal mines, lignite power plants and the demolition of further villages. It is also offering churches advice on energy savings and deploying renewable energy. The parsonage in Atterwasch, for example, has been equipped with solar panels.

Parsonage in Atterwasch with solar panels. Credit: Christian Huschga

Parsonage in Atterwasch with solar panels. Credit: Christian Huschga

Despite Germany’s ambitions for an energy transition, its so-called Energiewende, the country’s CO2 emissions have been rising again for the past two years, for the first time since the country’s reunification. This is primarily due to Germany’s coal-fired power plants, and brown coal power stations in particular.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has recently confirmed that it is still possible to limit global warming below 2° C. But there is only a limited CO2 budget left to meet this goal and avert runaway climate change.

The IPCC estimates that investments in fossil fuels would need to fall by 30 billion dollars a year, while investments in low-carbon electricity supply would have to increase by 147 billion dollars a year.

As a result, more and more faith leaders are calling for divestment from fossil fuels. One of the most powerful advocates has been Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former South African Anglican Archbishop, Desmond Tutu, who recently called for an “anti-apartheid style boycott of the fossil fuel industry”.

Tutu’s call to action has been echoed by U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres, who has urged religious leaders to pull their investments out of fossil fuel companies.

Protestant pastor Mathias Berndt. Credit: Christian Huschga

Protestant pastor Mathias Berndt. Credit: Christian Huschga

Many churches have taken this step already. Last month, the World Council of Churches, a fellowship of over 300 churches representing some 590 million people in 150 countries, decided to phase out its holdings in fossil fuels and encouraged its members to do the same.

The Quakers in the United Kingdom, the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, the United Church of Christ in the United States, and many more regional and local churches have also joined the divestment movement.

The Church of Sweden was among the first to rid itself of oil and coal investments. It increased investments in energy-efficient and low-carbon projects instead, which also improved its portfolio’s financial performance.

Gunnela Hahn, head of ethical investments at the Church of Sweden’s central office explains: “We realised that many of our largest holdings were within the fossil industry. That catalysed the idea of more closely aligning investments with the ambitious work going on in the rest of the church on climate change. ”

Meanwhile, from the frontline, pastor Berndt calls for putting ethics first: “What we’re seeing today is the result of putting economic thinking at the forefront. Our mantra is to just continue doing things as long as they generate profit. We need to counteract this trend with ethical thinking. We need to do what’s right!”

Melanie Mattauch is 350.org Europe Communications Coordinator

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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Tajikistan Struggles to Stem Rise of Jihadi Recruitshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/tajikistan-struggles-to-stem-rise-of-jihadi-recruits/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=tajikistan-struggles-to-stem-rise-of-jihadi-recruits http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/tajikistan-struggles-to-stem-rise-of-jihadi-recruits/#comments Wed, 13 Aug 2014 19:48:14 +0000 EurasiaNet Correspondents http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136111 Tajik men board a flight from Dushanbe to Russia in June 2013. Many of the Tajik militant jihadis fighting in Syria either fly through Russia on their way to the conflict or are recruited while they are migrant workers in Moscow, from where they eventually travel to Turkey before crossing the border into Syria. Credit: David Trilling/EurasiaNet

Tajik men board a flight from Dushanbe to Russia in June 2013. Many of the Tajik militant jihadis fighting in Syria either fly through Russia on their way to the conflict or are recruited while they are migrant workers in Moscow, from where they eventually travel to Turkey before crossing the border into Syria. Credit: David Trilling/EurasiaNet

By EurasiaNet Correspondents
DUSHANBE, Aug 13 2014 (EurasiaNet)

Before he became a jihadist, Odiljon Pulatov would travel each year from Tajikistan to Moscow to earn money as a construction worker.

“The money I made was enough to sustain my family. But the last time I went there, I met different people, Tajiks and other [Central Asians]. They persuaded me that jihad is a must for every Muslim,” Pulatov told EurasiaNet.org.“We both have a dream to go to Syria and participate in the war." -- Abubakr

Pulatov, a father of four, traveled from Russia to Syria, via Turkey. Once there, over the course of two weeks, Uzbek speakers like himself indoctrinated him, emphasising the importance of jihad.

“Jihad is conducted for an idea, so that you can be closer to Allah,” explained Pulatov, 29.

Pulatov found conditions in Syria harsh, though, and in July he accepted a Tajik government amnesty, returned home and confessed. Now he is back in Spitamen District in northern Tajikistan, building a home for his family. Authorities made Pulatov accessible to various media outlets, including EurasiaNet.org, in an apparent effort to highlight the amnesty.

Madjid Aliev, a police investigator in Spitamen, says Pulatov remains under investigation. “But we are sure he won’t have any issues. That’s why he has not been detained,” Aliev said.

According to the Interior Ministry, almost 200 Tajiks are fighting in Syria. Aliev, the investigator, said officials were negotiating with others who are in Syria, offering a safety guarantee as an enticement for them to return home.

Along with the amnesty, parliament this summer toughened penalties for Tajik citizens who participate in armed conflicts abroad. But, critics say, such punishment is not a deterrent and the government’s response to the rising threat of homegrown jihadis is ineffective.

“I don’t think that this law on punishing participants will resolve the problem and stop Tajiks from participating. There’s a need to take preventive measures, so that we’re not fighting the consequences, but the reasons [men travel to Syria to fight],” said Dushanbe-based religious affairs expert Faridun Hodizoda.

A lack of work is one of those reasons, contends Hodizoda. Unemployment in Tajikistan is so high that over a million Tajiks work abroad: most, like Pulatov, find work in Russia. That number constitutes approximately half of Tajikistan’s working-age males.

In Russia, labour migrants are widely distrusted and subjected to various forms of harassment, including frequent police shakedowns. The difficulties prompt some to turn to Islam for solace.

At home, Tajikistan’s notoriously corrupt government does little to create jobs. And when it comes to religious affairs, officials tend to crack down on moderate expressions of Islam, harassing members of the Islamic opposition and banning children from attending mosques.

Tajiks in Russia – who are often young men with rudimentary educations and few prospects – are an important source of recruits for Jihadist causes.

“Being a gastarbeiter [migrant labourer] is not an easy thing, there’s a lot of humiliation. But recruiters speak to the gastarbeiters kindly. They provide moral support,” Hodizoda explained, adding that money is also a temptation. “When our citizens are told what they will be doing there [in Syria] and that they will be paid 3,000 dollars and treated well, of course they agree. In Russia, they earn 500-600 dollars a month.”

Tajik officials frequently assert that young Tajik men who go to Syria are, in effect, mercenaries, driven to fight by the allure of a substantial payday. But Pulatov says he was not promised a cent. “When we were recruited, no one said we would be paid,” he said.

Another potential fighter, who introduced himself as Abubakr, 23, communicated with EurasiaNet.org from Russia through a social network. Abubakr, who is from Kulyab, said he is working in Moscow with his father and brother, but he is also in touch with a Chechen friend he met online. “We both have a dream to go to Syria and participate in the war,” he said.

“We weren’t promised any money. How can one talk about money when our [Muslim] sisters and children are being killed there. I [communicated] with Tajiks who are there now, and they tell me sometimes they starve, sometimes there’s no place to sleep, but they are fighting infidels,” Abubakr said via Odnoklassniki – which has been blocked in Tajikistan since mid-July, by some accounts because radicals use it as a recruiting tool.

Abubakr believes that Muslims who criticise jihad do not understand their faith. “My mother is also trying to persuade me [not to fight], but there’s a lot she doesn’t understand about [jihad],” he said.

Officials try to use reason to appeal to vulnerable young men, according to the head of the Fatwa Department at the state-run Muftiate, Jamoliddin Homushev.

“It is said that paradise is beneath your mother’s feet and that by insulting her no one gets to paradise. In Syria, an inter-ethnic fight is going on, like it was in the 1990s in Tajikistan. They [the Syrians] should solve their own problems without external interference,” Homushev told EurasiaNet.org.

Such explanations do not seem to convince many young Tajik Muslims, who do not feel their government listens to their concerns. Others feel the authorities exaggerate the extent of radicalism in the country in order to target the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT).

Embattled IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri told EurasiaNet.org that authoritarianism, the government campaign against Islam and poverty drive young men into the arms of radicals. “They do not have an opportunity to improve their lives at home,” Kabiri said, referring to young Tajiks.

“We still have time to fix the situation, reform the law so young people feel their rights, including religious, are respected. […] So they realise there is no need to take up arms,” he said. “But the government is failing to address their concerns.”

This story originally appeared on EurasiaNet.org.

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

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OPINION: Islamic State in Iraq: Confronting the Threathttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/opinion-islamic-state-in-iraq-confronting-the-threat/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-islamic-state-in-iraq-confronting-the-threat http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/opinion-islamic-state-in-iraq-confronting-the-threat/#comments Tue, 12 Aug 2014 17:23:15 +0000 Emile Nakhleh http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136075 By Emile Nakhleh
WASHINGTON, Aug 12 2014 (IPS)

The Islamic State’s territorial expansion and barbaric executions in Iraq and Syria are a gathering threat and must be confronted. American air bombardment, however, is the wrong course of action, and will not necessarily weaken ISIS or DA’ISH, as it’s known in Arabic.

As a senator, President Barack Obama called George W. Bush’s intervention in Iraq a “dumb war” and promised to end it if he won the presidency. It would be tragic if Obama, in the name of fighting the Islamic State, waged a “dumber” war.In Iraq, the political vacuum, which Maliki inadvertently engineered, contributed to the recent rise and success of the Islamic State.

The Obama administration maintains that its humanitarian intervention and air campaign are aimed at protecting U.S. personnel and preventing human suffering and possible “genocide.” According to some media reports, the U.S. has ordered the evacuation of some of its personnel in Erbil. Yet the administration’s argument that the airstrikes against Islamic State positions near Irbil were requested by the Maliki government, and are hence justified, is unconvincing.

Much of the Islamic State’s anti-Shia and anti-Iran rhetoric may be traced to the conservative, intolerant Hanbali School of Jurisprudence, which underpins Salafi Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia. The Islamic State’s ideology justifies the use of violence in the fight against Shia Islam, Iran, the Shia-Maliki government in Iraq and the Alawite Assad regime in Syria.

While the al-Saud regime publicly loathes the Islamic State and correctly views it as a terrorist organisation, Saudi leaders do not necessarily abhor its message against Iran and the Shia. A similar situation prevails among the Sunni al-Khalifa regime in Bahrain.

In Iraq, the political vacuum, which Maliki inadvertently engineered, contributed to the recent rise and success of the Islamic State. Many Sunnis with a privileged past under Saddam Hussein support the group because of its opposition to Maliki’s Shia-centric authoritarian policy of refusing to form a more pluralistic and inclusive government.

Many Shia, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, have criticised Maliki’s clinging to power. Sistani has called on the Iraqi people to “choose wisely,” urged Maliki to leave office, and blamed the prime minister for the deteriorating conditions in the country and, by implication, the territorial successes of the Islamic State.

In Syria, the ongoing bloody civil war has given the Islamic State a golden opportunity to fight a non-Sunni regime, especially one that is closely aligned with “Safavi” Iran and its perceived surrogate, Hezbollah. A combination of financial and monetary war loot, contributions from other Sunnis (especially in the Gulf), and initial arming by certain Gulf states, has helped the Islamic State fight effectively against the Syrian regime, the Maliki government, and more recently against the Kurdish Peshmerga in northern Iraq.

Many of these Sunni Muslims view the call for a new caliphate as a return to the Middle Ages. It certainly does not address the endemic economic, social, and political deficits that threaten the future of the region. According to media reports, many Sunnis this past week refused to declare allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a mosque in Mosul despite his call for their loyalty.

Mainstream Sunnis also view the public executions of soldiers and other Islamic State opponents as barbaric and thus repulsive. The Islamic State’s harsh treatment of women and non-Muslim minorities is equally appalling. The application of harsh Sharia punishments or hudud in Syrian and Iraqi areas under Islamic State control has also been condemned by the international community.

The Islamic State and the West

Western countries view the Islamic State as posing three principal threats: a possible collapse of the Iraqi state; increasingly bloody sectarian violence across state boundaries; and continued recruitment and training of potential jihadists coming from the West.

Of the three threats, recruiting Western jihadists should be the key concern for Western security services. Once these young jihadists return to their countries of origin, they would bring with them battle-hardened experience and a radical ideology that rejects Western democratic pluralism.

Jihadist groups have exploited violent sectarianism to spread their message. Regimes in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere have also cynically promoted sectarianism in order to divide their peoples and stay in power.

The Islamic State’s rejection of existing boundaries between Iraq and Syria indicates that the artificial borders set up by the colonial powers under the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916 are no longer functional. Colonial demarcation of state borders in the Levant (especially Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine), North Africa, and the Persian Gulf was implemented without meaningful consultations with the populations of those territories.

After WWI, colonial powers either ruled some of these territories directly or by proxy through pliant autocrats and potentates. In an interview with the New York Times this past Saturday, Obama acknowledged this reality and added, “what we’re seeing in the Middle East and parts of North Africa is an order that dates back to World War I [which is] starting to crumble.”

The “crumbling” of state boundaries has started in Iraq and Syria under the Islamic State’s religious veneer of the caliphate, but it will not stop there.

Call for Action

Many Sunnis who support the Islamic State do not agree with its terrorist ideology, religious fervor, intolerant theology, or vision of a caliphate. Their opposition to specific regime policies in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere drives their support of the Islamic State. Combating this gathering threat, therefore, should come from within the region, not through airstrikes or drone targeting, which Obama also acknowledged in the NYT interview.

If the Islamic State’s threat is destined to damage Western interests and personnel in the region, Western countries should take several comprehensive steps to thwart the threat.

First, Western law enforcement agencies should pay closer attention to their own nationals who show interest in joining the jihadists in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the region. They should partner with their Muslim communities at home to address this phenomenon.

These agencies, however, should not target these communities surreptitiously or spy on them. Community leaders should take the lead in reaching out to their youth and dissuade them from volunteering to do jihad regardless of the cause.

Second, the United States and other Western countries should impress on Maliki the necessity of forming a more inclusive government, which would include Sunni Arabs, Kurds, and other minorities. Maliki should heed Sistani’s call and step aside.

Once the Sunni community is provided with a legitimate, honourable, and fair avenue to pursue their economic and political aspirations, they would abandon the Islamic State and similar jihadist groups.

Had Washington reacted more effectively to the recent successes of the Islamic State and urged Maliki to form an inclusive government, there would have been no need for the current air strikes.

Third, following Mailki’s departure, the West should provide sustained military training with commensurate appropriate weapons for units of the Iraqi military, Sunni tribes in al-Anbar Province, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and the Syrian opposition. A weakening of the Islamic State requires the end of Nouri al-Maliki’s rule and the demise of Bashar al-Assad.

Fourth, as radicalism and terrorism have also spread south toward Jordan, Palestine, and Gaza, it is imperative that the ceasefire between Israel and Gaza be extended and the Gaza blockade lifted.

The war in Gaza is not about Hamas, Israeli protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. Palestinians in Gaza cannot possibly live freely in dignity, peace, and economic prosperity while languishing in an open-air prison with no end in sight.

Fifth, it’s imperative for the Sisi regime in Egypt to halt the political arrests and summary trials and executions of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and supporters. It should provide the MB the necessary political space to participate in the country’s political life. The regime’s recent banning of the Islamist Freedom and Justice political party is a step in the wrong direction and should be reversed.

Emile Nakhleh is a Research Professor at the University of New Mexico, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of “A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World.”

Editing by: Kitty Stapp

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Qualified Backing for Obama’s Iraq Interventionhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/qualified-backing-for-obamas-iraq-intervention/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=qualified-backing-for-obamas-iraq-intervention http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/qualified-backing-for-obamas-iraq-intervention/#comments Sat, 09 Aug 2014 00:37:12 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136022 President Barack Obama meets with his national security advisors in the Situation Room of the White House, Aug. 7, 2014. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

President Barack Obama meets with his national security advisors in the Situation Room of the White House, Aug. 7, 2014. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Aug 9 2014 (IPS)

U.S. President Barack Obama’s authorisation of limited military action in northern Iraq, announced in a national television address late Thursday night, has so far received support – albeit highly qualified in some cases — from across the mainstream political spectrum.

While Republican hawks have welcomed the move in hopes it may presage a much broader regional intervention in Syria, as well as in Iraq, many Democrats expressed worries that the decision, unless strictly confined to its “humanitarian” objectives, could become a “slippery slope” into a new quagmire just three years after Obama extracted the last U.S. combat troops from Baghdad.“Airdrops of relief aid will save Yezedi lives, but airpower cannot determine Iraq's political future.” -- Harvard Prof. Stephen Walt

“We know that our military intervention will not alone solve the long sectarian and religious conflicts in Iraq,” said California Rep. Loretta Sanchez in reacting to the announcement. “It is essential we avoid mission creep because our men and women in uniform cannot endure another war in Iraq and nor can the American people.”

Obama’s announcement capped a week in which forces of the radical Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) made sweeping gains in northern Iraq, coming within as little as 45 kms of Kurdistan’s capital, Erbil, and triggering a new flood of refugees from predominantly Christian and other minority communities that had been protected by the Kurdish peshmerga militias which withdrew in the face of ISIL’s onslaught.

Particularly dramatic was the plight of tens of thousands of Yezidis, followers of an ancient religion tied to Zoroastrianism, who fled to Mt. Sinjar to escape ISIL’s forces and have been besieged there for days without adequate supplies of food and water.

In his remarks Thursday, Obama cited their plight as one of two main justifications – the other being the protection of the several hundred U.S. diplomatic and military personnel who are based in the Kurdish capital — for his decision to authorise the deployment of U.S. warplanes both to carry out “targeted strikes” against ISIL positions “should they move toward [Erbil],” provide relief to the besieged Yezidis “to prevent a potential act of genocide,” and increase military aid to both the peshmerga forces and Iraq’s army.

He announced that U.S. aircraft had already begun providing “humanitarian airdrops of food and water” on Mt. Sinjar and was consulting with other countries and the U.N. on how best to alleviate the situation, presumably by working with Turkey to open a land corridor for the Yazidis to reach a safe haven across the border.

The Pentagon subsequently announced that it carried out two rounds of air strikes against ISIL targets Friday.

Obama’s actions were offered qualified praise by Republican hawks who have harshly criticised the president for months for not doing more, including using air power, to bolster Iraqi government and Kurdish forces in the face of ISIL’s initial takeover of most of Anbar Province and its subsequent sweep into much of northern Iraq, including Mosul, the country’s second largest city.

“The President is right to provide humanitarian relief to the Iraqi civilians stranded on Mount Sinjar and to authorise military strikes against forces that are threatening them, our Kurdish allies, and our own personnel in northern Iraq,” said Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham in a joint statement. “However, these actions are far from sufficient to meet the growing threat that ISIS [another name for ISIL] poses.”

Calling for a “comprehensive strategy to degrade ISIS,” the Senate’s two leading hawks added that it “should include the provision of mitiary and other assistance to our Kurdish, Iraqi, and Syrian partners who are fighting ISIS, …U.S. air strikes against ISIS leaders, forces and positions both in Iraq and Syria; (and) support to Sunni Iraqis to resist ISIS.”

“And none of this should be contingent on the formation of a new government in Baghdad,” they added in a slap at the administration’s insistence that U.S. military aid to the Shi’a-dominated government currently headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki be calibrated according to the degree that any new government – whose composition is currently the subject of intense negotiations in Baghdad — demonstrates its commitment to sharing power with the Sunni minority from which ISIL derives its popular support, as well with the Kurds.

But in his remarks Thursday night, Obama insisted that he would stick to his conditions for providing more assistance to Baghdad.

“Iraqi leaders need to come together and forge a new government that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis, and that can fight back against the threats like ISIL,” he said. “Once Iraq has a new government,” he added, “the United States will work with it and other countries in the region to provide increased support to deal with this humanitarian crisis and counter-terrorism challenge.”

He also tried to reassure Democrats, as well as a war-weary public, that his latest decisions would not result in a major new military commitment. “As Commander-in-Chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq,” he stressed. “The only lasting solution is reconciliation among Iraqi communities and stronger Iraqi security forces.”

That declaration did not reassure some, however. While virtually no one criticised the mission to aid the besieged Yezidis, the decision to carry out air strikes was greeted with considerably less enthusiasm among many Democrats and critics of the 2003 Iraq war.

“When we bomb ISIS, which is a horrible group, we have to realise that we are heading down the path of choosing sides in an ancient religious and sectarian war inside Iraq,” warned Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, key sponsor of a resolution that was approved last month by a 370-40 margin in the House of Representatives that requires Congress to authorise any sustained deployment of U.S. combat troops to Iraq.

“The impulse to aid the Yezidis is understandable, but the commitment to help them could easily become open-ended and drag the United States back into the Iraqi quagmire,” Harvard Prof. Stephen Walt, a leading foreign policy “realist”, told IPS. “Airdrops of relief aid will save Yezedi lives, but airpower cannot determine Iraq’s political future.”

While conceding that he, too, was “nervous about what could be the next step that could lead us to get more deeply involved,” another prominent realist and a former top Middle East analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency, Paul Pillar, the administration’s decision to use airpower against ISIL to defend the Kurds – even if it was billed as protecting U.S. personnel in Erbil – was sound.

“I think the administration is on defensible ground by using lethal force to prevent further inroads against the de facto Kurdish state …while not getting any more deeply immersed in the intra-Arab conflicts in the rest of Iraq that have sectarian dimensions and that can only be a lose-lose situation for the United States,” Pillar told IPS.

“There clearly is a slippery-slope hazard that we have to be mindful of, and all indications are that the administration is very mindful of it.”

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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Iran, One Year Under Rouhanihttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/iran-one-year-under-rouhani/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=iran-one-year-under-rouhani http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/iran-one-year-under-rouhani/#comments Mon, 04 Aug 2014 13:36:18 +0000 Jasmin Ramsey http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135916 Rouhani greets a crowd in Lorestan Province on Jun. 18, 2014. Credit: Iranian President's Office

Rouhani greets a crowd in Lorestan Province on Jun. 18, 2014. Credit: Iranian President's Office

By Jasmin Ramsey
WASHINGTON, Aug 4 2014 (IPS)

When Hassan Rouhani was declared Iran’s president last year, large crowds gathered in the streets of Tehran to celebrate his surprise victory. But while hope for a better life persists, Iranians continue to face harsh realities.

“I think Rouhani has done a very good job,” Hassan Niroomand, the 62-year-old director of a steel company in Tehran, told IPS.“There are certain factions within the regime that are not comfortable with the way things are moving forward and are trying to make it as hard possible for Rouhani to achieve his goals.” -- Ali Reza Eshraghi

“He does not have all the power, but he has taken advantage of what he can control and I am hopeful,” said Niroomand, citing Rouhani’s handling of the nuclear negotiations, his universal health insurance initiative, and his leadership style.

“He knows how to deal with extremists who are trying to make Iran another Afghanistan,” he added.

Not all Iranians share Niroomand’s positive assessment.

“Everyone says he is better than [former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad], but I don’t see a difference,” said Fariba Hosseini, a 39-year-old part-time student who is currently unemployed.

“Prices are still high and girls are being bothered again about their veils,” she said, referring to Iran’s morality police who have taken to the streets in the sweltering summer heat to ensure women comply with clothing regulations.

“I don’t think life will get better,” she said.

Rouhani, a centrist cleric and former advisor to the Supreme Leader who was inaugurated one year ago today, promised to improve the economy, solve the conflict over Iran’s nuclear programme, and de-securitise the political environment.

Had his Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif failed to achieve the historic interim nuclear accord with world powers in November 2013, and had negotiations toward a final deal broken down, many more Iranians might share Hosseini’s pessimistic view.

But while Iran’s economy continues to limp due to previous governmental policies and sanctions, slight improvements have kept people looking forward to the future.

“Rouhani and his team’s efforts to reduce sanctions on Iran through the nuclear talks has so far prevented the further cutting of Iranian crude oil production and exports,” said Sara Vakhshouri, an energy expert and former advisor to the National Iranian Oil Company.

“The [sanctions relief] has not had an immediate significant effect on the economy, but it has certainly had a positive psychological impact on the people,” she said.

Iran’s oil exports, which fund nearly half of government expenditures, were slashed by more than half in 2012 following the imposition of stringent U.S. and EU sanctions targeting Iran’s oil and banking sector.

Iran’s currency, the rial, went into freefall, dropping by more than 50 percent in October 2012.

But since November’s interim deal, which halts Iran’s nuclear programme from further expansion in exchange for moderate sanctions relief, the rial has strengthened and inflation is down by more than half from over 40 percent a year ago, due in part to improved governmental policies.

The temporary sanctions relief on Iran’s petrochemical exports and the unfreezing of some of Iran’s assets abroad have also positively impacted the economy, according to Vakshouri, who noted that Rouhani has changed investment regulations to attract more international investors.

But potential investors will maintain their distance until the energy-rich country’s release from the strangulating sanctions becomes certain.

Meanwhile, international human rights organisations have decried the rise in executions since Rouhani took office, while the sentencing of journalists and activists who were apprehended during the Ahmadinejad era for political reasons continue under Rouhani’s watch.

Domestic news media has become more openly critical of the government, but a number of reformist-minded journalists have been detained in recent months.

Iran’s Culture Minister Ali Jannati made headlines last year when he said Iran’s ban on social networks including Facebook and Twitter should be lifted, but while he and Rouhani have publicly criticised the Islamic Republic’s control over people’s personal lives, leading conservative factions retain their hold on Iranian society.

The shocking Jul. 21 arrest of a Washington Post reporter, Jason Rezaian, with his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, also a reporter, has led many to speculate that domestic political infighting has resulted in the 38-year-old Iranian-American being used as a pawn.

The location of Rezaian, an Iranian resident, remains unknown despite outcry in the U.S. from the State Department and multiple rights-focused organisations.

Iran does not recognise dual citizenship and no charges have been announced.

Analysts have argued that Rezaian could have been detained to embarrass Rouhani ahead of the resumption of talks in September.

“There are certain factions within the regime that are not comfortable with the way things are moving forward and are trying to make it as hard possible for Rouhani to achieve his goals,” said Ali Reza Eshraghi, a former editor of several Iranian reformist dailies.

“Jannati summed the situation up well when he said that the only thing that has changed in Iran is the executive branch,” Eshraghi, the Iran project manager at the U.S.-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, told IPS.

Yet Eshraghi points out that while Rouhani may have no control over the judicial and legislative branches, he has proven adept at closed-door negotiations.

“Rouhani and his team have a modernising agenda, but they are not pursing it through radical statements or intense pressure on their political opponents. He is quietly negotiating and making pacts,” he said.

While Eshraghi sees the election as having energised activists to pressure Rouhani to force change despite his inability to do so, he also believes average Iranians remain patient.

“People have modest expectations, they are realistic about Rouhani’s ability to achieve his goals,” he said.

It remains to be seen how long Iranian patience will last, especially if the Rouhani government fails to secure a nuclear deal resulting in substantial sanctions relief.

Thus far Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has maintained his distaste and lack of trust of the U.S., has voiced support for Iran’s negotiating team. But while Iran seeks a final deal on the international stage, the domestic negotiating front appears to be getting tougher.

“Jason was trying to colorise the very black and white frame that Western mainstream news media has used for Iran,” said Eshraghi.

“His arrest ironically indicates that there are certain factions inside the country who are very happy with that framing.”

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

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In Pakistan, Militants Wear Aid Workers’ Clothinghttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/in-pakistan-militants-wear-aid-workers-clothing/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=in-pakistan-militants-wear-aid-workers-clothing http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/in-pakistan-militants-wear-aid-workers-clothing/#comments Fri, 01 Aug 2014 18:40:42 +0000 Ashfaq Yusufzai http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135878 Fearing the presence of militants, personnel from law enforcement agencies keep a strict watch on camps set up by relief groups in the Bannu district of Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IP

Fearing the presence of militants, personnel from law enforcement agencies keep a strict watch on camps set up by relief groups in the Bannu district of Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IP

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Aug 1 2014 (IPS)

Muhammad Tufail, a 22-year-old resident of Mardan, one of 26 districts that comprise Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, has recently become a volunteer aid worker.

Moved by the plight of nearly a million refugees fleeing a military offensive in the North Waziristan Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which began on Jun. 15, Tufail now spends his days distributing food rations and medical supplies to beleaguered residents of huge camps for the displaced.

Tufail tells IPS that he and other volunteers see to the needs of some 10,000 families on a daily basis. “We cannot leave our people in distress,” the young man says with conviction.

“We have been keeping a strict eye on the relief camps organised by some jihadist outfits. We want to make sure they are not used for the recruitment of civilians for terrorist activities.” -- Akram Khan, a police inspector in Bannu
His passion is admirable, but the organisation he works for is dubious at best. Known simply as the Al-Rehmat Trust (ART), this charity group is widely considered a front for the outlawed Kashmir-based Jaish-e Mohammed (‘the army of Mohammed’ or JeM).

Banned in Pakistan since 2002, JeM is today a designated terrorist organisation, and stands accused of orchestrating the 2001 Indian Parliament attack.

Though the group itself has been lying low since 2003, its huge membership reveals itself during times of national crisis as efficient and well-endowed providers of relief.

“We were the first to start rescue efforts when a massive earthquake hit northern Pakistan in 2005,” Tufail tells IPS proudly. “Our volunteers rescued people from the debris and saved their lives.”

“I have devoted my own life to serve the people from this platform because ART serves people selflessly,” he says confidently.

It is this very gumption – expressed by scores of impressionable young people who serve these front groups – that have officials and law enforcement personnel extremely concerned about the influence of terrorist organisations during times of trouble.

“We have been keeping a strict eye on the relief camps organised by some jihadist outfits,” Akram Khan, a police inspector in Bannu, home to the majority of the IDPs, tells IPS. “We want to make sure they are not used for the recruitment of civilians for terrorist activities.”

Still, he is concerned that the sprawling camps, filled to beyond their capacity with desperate, vulnerable and traumatised civilians, provides a perfect recruiting ground for terrorists dressed as aid workers.

“The displaced are in need of monetary and social assistance”, which jihadist elements are more than willing to provide, he says.

“The nation is already experiencing hard times due to soaring terrorism – we can’t afford to allow militant groups to grow at the cost of displaced people,” he adds.

Yet this is exactly what appears to be happening, political analyst Dr. Khadim Hussain, chairman of the Baacha Khan Trust Education Foundation, tells IPS.

Besides JeM’s charity wing ART, the Jamat ud-Dawa (JuD), a missionary-style front group for the feared Lashkar-e-Taiba (‘army of the good’ or LeT) has also been active in relief efforts, rushing to the aid of those displaced by natural or man-made disasters, and winning the hearts of many who see the government’s emergency response as inadequate, he says.

The Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF), also believed to be a front group for the LeT, has been providing medicines and foodstuffs to thousands of families who don’t know where their next meal will come from.

“We were the first to reach Bannu and start relief work because we couldn’t bear to see our Muslim bretherin in crisis,” Muhammad Shafiq, a volunteer with ART, tells IPS.

Shaukat Ali Mahsud, a displaced man with a family of seven to care for, says he is “thankful to both the organisations for their sincerity and devotion”.

“These people are helping us. They are not terrorists, they are just very good Muslims,” he tells IPS, adding that he personally knows dozens of families who have received life-saving support from volunteers with one of the many groups believed to be charity wings for terrorist outfits.

“We will never forget their help in these trying times,” he asserts.

Government turns a blind eye

Several major players in the world of geopolitics – including India, the United States and the United Kingdom – have designated groups like JeM and LeT as “deadly terrorist organisations” and accused them of waging proxy wars in Indian-occupied Kashmir.

Due to heavy international pressure, both groups have been keeping a relatively low profile, but the massive humanitarian crisis caused by the government’s efforts to wipe out the Taliban from their mountainous stronghold on the Afghan border has brought JeM and LeT back into the limelight, Muhammad Shoaib, an analyst at the University of Peshawar, tells IPS.

“These outfits, with the help of the state, have carefully maintained their welfare wings to prove that they are more than just militant formations,” he states.

The allegation that major terrorist groups enjoy government support is not new, and takes on added weight during times of national crisis.

For instance, numerous secular NGOs eager to commence relief operations among the displaced have been unable to secure the required ‘No Objection Certificate’ (NOC), a document issued by the government as proof that a particular programme or activity is authorised by the state.

Jawadullah Shah, who heads the Rural Health Foundation, hasn’t been able to secure an NOC despite submitting an application to the government on Jun. 18. He says the delay is preventing his organisation from carrying out aid work.

On the other hand, he tells IPS, ART has been actively working with the affected populations without any hindrance.

“The government, as well as army officers, are extremely cooperative; it has been smooth sailing,” according to ART volunteer Shafiq.

Meanwhile, the JuD, which stands accused of orchestrating the 2013 attack on the Indian consulate in Jalalabad, western Afghanistan, is also extremely active in the aftermath of disasters, despite being branded a terrorist operation by the United Nations Security Council in 2008.

The Pakistan government says there is no evidence linking the group with terrorist activity.

“We are running hospitals, schools and colleges for the poor people in Pakistan,” Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, founder of the JuD who has been accused by the Indian government of plotting the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, tells IPS.

“Helping displaced people is our foremost duty. We sent relief goods worth over five million dollars to flood-hit areas of Pakistan 2010 and we have so far sent supplies worth two million dollars to Bannu,” he adds.

The FIF, believed to be closely aligned with the LeT and the JuD, is also playing a major role.

“We have deployed 500 volunteers to Bannu. We dispatch 10 trucks with relief goods almost every day,” FIF’s chairman Hafiz Abdur Rauf tells IPS.

Though the displaced are grateful for the assistance, experts and officials are determined to stamp out what they see as militant groups infiltrating vulnerable populations and recruiting foot soldiers from their midst.

Hussain, of the Baacha Khan Trust Education Foundation, does not mince his words when describing the systematic recruitment operation: “As we have witnessed during disasters like the earthquake in 2005, the military operation in Swat in 2009 and the floods in 2010, these groups use charity work to win the hearts and minds of Pakistani people by creating ‘soft corners’ of moral and economic assistance.”

Instead of allowing the radicalisation of displaced people, the government should be de-radicalising the militants to achieve lasting peace, he tells IPS.

The very simple and effective strategy pursued by militant groups must not be allowed to continue unchecked, he adds.

“The war against militants currently being waged in the northern province will be meaningless if other militant entities are allowed to grow with impunity at the same time,” Hussain concludes.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Cameroon’s Muslim Clerics Turn to Education to Shun Boko Haramhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/cameroons-muslim-clerics-turn-to-education-to-shun-boko-haram/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=cameroons-muslim-clerics-turn-to-education-to-shun-boko-haram http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/cameroons-muslim-clerics-turn-to-education-to-shun-boko-haram/#comments Thu, 31 Jul 2014 08:34:44 +0000 Ngala Killian Chimtom http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135844 Sheik Oumarou Malam Djibring, a member of Cameroon’s Council of Imams, called on the country’s Muslims to be vigilant against the extremist group Boko Haram and to report any strange and suspicious-looking individuals. Credit: Ngala Killian Chimtom/IPS

Sheik Oumarou Malam Djibring, a member of Cameroon’s Council of Imams, called on the country’s Muslims to be vigilant against the extremist group Boko Haram and to report any strange and suspicious-looking individuals. Credit: Ngala Killian Chimtom/IPS

By Ngala Killian Chimtom
YAOUNDE, Jul 31 2014 (IPS)

Motari Hamissou used to get along well with his pupils at the government primary school in Sabga, an area in Bamenda, the capital of Cameroon’s North West Region.

In the past, Hamissou also lived in peace with his neighbours. No one was bothered by his long, thick beard or the veil his wife, Aisha Hamissou, wore, or the religion they followed.

According to the 2010 general population census, Muslims constitute 24 percent of this Central African nation’s 21 million people, most of whom live in Cameroon’s Far North, North and Adamawa Regions; all on the border with Nigeria. Cameroon’s north western boarder runs along the length of Nigeria’s eastern boarder, stretching all the way to Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim north — a stronghold of the Nigerian extremist group, Boko Haram.

But the intermittent attacks and abductions perpetrated by Boko Haram in Cameroon’s North West Region has destroyed the peace and accord that Hamissou enjoyed with his pupils and neighbours.

The most recent attack by the group was on Jul. 27 when the wife of Cameroon’s Vice Prime Minister Amadou Ali was kidnapped in the northern town of Kolofata. The group is said to have increased its attacks from Nigeria into neighbouring Cameroon. Since the group first took up arms five years ago for a Muslim state in Nigeria, more than, some 12,000 people in that West African nation have died in the crisis, according to figures from Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.

Now Hamissou’s own pupils call him “Boko Haram” in reference to the group. The name, Boko Haram, means “Western education is a sin” in the local Nigerian dialect, Hausa.

“They see our beards or the veils our wives [wear] and immediately link us to the sect,” Hamissou tells IPS.

“I am a teacher. I teach Western education. How can I teach Western education and at the same time say that it is forbidden? That’s incomprehensible,” he adds.

Arlette Dainadi, a 12-year-old schoolgirl who attends the same primary school that Hamissou teaches at, tells IPS some of her peers have gone as far as taking off her veil and shouting: “Boko Haram! Boko Haram!”

Aisha Hamissou tells IPS that even adults have taken to name-calling.

“I can’t move and interact freely with other people without being called names. People call me Boko Haram,” she explains, almost bursting into tears.

In a concerted effort to distance themselves from the extremist group, Muslim groups and leaders in Cameroon, including the Association of Muslim Students and the Cameroon Council of Imams, have been organising workshops, seminars and public demonstrations to sensitise the general public about their stance against the extremist sect.

Sheik Oumarou Malam Djibring, a member of Cameroon’s Council of Imams, tells IPS that Boko Haram’s campaign against Western education, as well as the atrocities it exacts on innocent people, has nothing to do with Islam.

“Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance. Departing from these precepts is actually against Islam,” he says.

Members of the Cameroon Council of Imams and Muslim leaders have embraced “Boko Halal”,”an Hausa idiomatic expression which means education is allowed or permitted as contained in the Quran.

Islamic teacher and religious leader Sheik Abu Oumar Bin Ali tells IPS that Muslim scholars have been major drivers of education.

“Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi was a leading Muslim scholar who founded the branch of mathematics known as algebra… So it’s stupid for anyone to link Muslim with a hatred for Western education,” he says.

But Ahmadou Moustapha, a traditional Muslim ruler in Cameroon’s Far North Region, tells IPS that Boko Haram has definitely been recruiting young Muslims in the region.

“They come here and forcefully whisk away our young people,” Moustapha explains.

“I believe they go and intoxicate them with their hate beliefs.”

According to Professor Souaibou Issa, from the University of Ngaoundere in Cameroon’s Adamawa Region, the group is even more dangerous because “you never know what their linkages are, you don’t know what exactly their focus is, and you don’t know who the actors are. There is widespread suspicion, and the states are fighting invisible enemies.”

Mallam Djibring called on the country’s Muslims to be vigilant and report any strange and suspicious-looking individuals.

Editing by: Nalisha Adams

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Somali Refugees Find an Unlikely Home … In Istanbulhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/somali-refugees-find-an-unlikely-home-in-istanbul/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=somali-refugees-find-an-unlikely-home-in-istanbul http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/somali-refugees-find-an-unlikely-home-in-istanbul/#comments Tue, 29 Jul 2014 09:16:27 +0000 Hannah Tayson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135808 By Hannah Tayson
ISTANBUL, Jul 29 2014 (IPS)

Among the labyrinth of winding narrow streets just outside a major shopping centre in the Kumkapi neighbourhood of Istanbul is a rundown road, congested with shops and apartments stacked atop one another.

Istanbul's "Somalia Street" - so called because immigrants from Somalia (and elsewhere in Africa) have adopted it as a staging post during long, rigorous journeys to find permanent homes. Credit: Hannah Tayson

Istanbul’s “Somalia Street” – so called because immigrants from Somalia (and elsewhere in Africa) have adopted it as a staging post during long, rigorous journeys to find permanent homes. Credit: Hannah Tayson

Cars somehow manage to come barrelling down the street as people slowly move to the narrow pavement already full of food carts and clothes strewn out on blankets for sale. Trash lazily rolls past groups of men engaged in conversation while sitting on buckets or leaning against shop windows. The area feels oddly serene.

This street is host to a community of African refugees, with the majority comprising Somali natives, and aptly named “Somalia Street”. Through word of mouth and family ties, Somali refugees seek a temporary home in this nook of Istanbul, in order to find some respite from the political and natural disasters that have devastated Somalia for decades.

Istanbul has become a staging post for Somalis hoping to eventually travel on to Australia, Canada or the United States, migration trend watchers say.  Because of the constant population flux, it is difficult to estimate the number of refugees actually living on the street at any given moment, but street residents say that there are a few hundred Somalis living there.

Dalmar, 30, a Somali refugee, has only been in Istanbul for a month with his brother Amet, 20, and lives in a small apartment with 12 other refugees. This arrangement is very common here. Often, refugees will live in small apartments with 20 or 30 other people.

“Istanbul is very temporary,” said Dalmar. “The living conditions are poor. Istanbul is expensive, and it is very hard to find work here.”

Turkish labour laws require a passport and residence card for employment, neither of which refugees can easily obtain. This has led to much illegal work, usually consisting of manual labour and odd jobs.Through word of mouth and family ties, Somali refugees seek a temporary home in this nook of Istanbul [Somalia Street], in order to find some respite from the political and natural disasters that have devastated Somalia for decades

A refugee who has lived in Turkey for many years, Liban, 31, said he worked in various manual labour jobs when he first arrived in Istanbul. He pointed out that that the language barrier between Arabic and Turkish makes it “difficult to get jobs in the first place.”

Yet inhabitants appear to have established a unique community along the littered, cobblestone street. Most Somalis interviewed said they enjoy life in Istanbul. The community takes care of them as they arrive in droves. Often, refugees will find work with Kurdish shop owners, who seem rather protective of them.

During one interview with a group of refugees, a Kurdish man popped his head of his shop out to make sure they were not being harassed.

The Katip Kasim mosque stands on Somali Street, its low brick wall recently painted white and orange. The mosque is rather unassuming compared to the grandiose and elegant mosques around Istanbul.

Muammer Aksoy has worked as Katip Kasim’s imam for 19 years, and has seen the community change significantly. This area of Istanbul has always been a refuge for minority groups in Istanbul, beginning with Kurdish migrants from Turkey’s east. Romanian refugees arrived in the 1980s and 1990s. There has since been an increase in African refugees to the area, the majority arriving within the last five years.

During the holy month of Ramadan, Somalia Street unites. Somalis are very devout Muslims. Once the sun begins to set, the Katip Kasim mosque courtyard fills with people waiting in line to receive their dinner to break the fast, or iftar.

Imam Aksoy began the community iftar dinners eight years ago, after seeing a Somali refugee attempt to break his fast with a small piece of bread, and by drinking soiled water from the fountains used to wash feet before entering the mosque.

“It is my responsibility as the imam to take care of my community,” said Aksoy. “I don’t discriminate between people here. Everyone is welcome.”

The imam has enlisted a different shop owner on the street each evening to provide the iftar dinner for 300 people.

A long-time resident and family friend of the imam, Arzu, has also seen the change in the community. “Refugees come because they heard people take care of them here,” she said proudly.

Turkey and Somalia have an unlikely partnership. According to a 2013 report by the Norwegian Peace Building Centre, Turkey has established networks in Africa, Somalia in particular, to enable peace-building efforts and humanitarian initiatives. In turn, says the report, this “strengthens Turkey’s international image as a global peace actor.”

“The relationship between Somalia and Turkey is very recent. It was just in 2011 that this relationship began,” said Dalmar. “Now there are scholarships and programmes for students.”

Somalia receives more aid from Turkey than any other African nation, with 93 million dollars in 2011, and 1,500 Somali students received scholarships to study at the public Istanbul University in 2013.

Abdifitah, 25, who has been living in the community for one year, was a scholarship recipient. To take advantage of the opportunity, Abdifitah and his family moved together from Somalia. His family cannot find work, but has moved with him in order to support him.

“Istanbul gave me a chance to learn,” said Abdifitah.

Recently, Somali refugees have been moving to Turkey’s capital, Ankara, because work is easier to find, and housing is cheaper than in overcrowded Istanbul.

Liban lives with his family in Ankara, but makes a living as a translator for the local African football league in Istanbul. When asked if he would like to go somewhere else, he shook his head.

“When I was younger, I really wanted to go to America. Now, if someone handed me an American passport, I wouldn’t take it,” said Liban. “I have everything I want here.”

 

Freelance writer Hannah Tayson was a foreign correspondent intern with the Institute for Education in International Media (ieiMedia) in Istanbul during the summer of 2014. She can be contacted at htayson@scu.edu

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OPINION: The Affinity Between Iraqi Sunni Extremists and the Rulers of Saudi Arabiahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/opinion-the-affinity-between-iraqi-sunni-extremists-and-the-rulers-of-saudi-arabia/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-the-affinity-between-iraqi-sunni-extremists-and-the-rulers-of-saudi-arabia http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/opinion-the-affinity-between-iraqi-sunni-extremists-and-the-rulers-of-saudi-arabia/#comments Sun, 27 Jul 2014 11:58:06 +0000 Peter Custers http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135767 By Peter Custers
LEIDEN, Netherlands, Jul 27 2014 (IPS)

Which story line sounds the more credible – that linking the rebel movement ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) to policies pursued by Iran or that linking the Sunni extremist force to Iran’s adversary Saudi Arabia?

In June this year, fighters belonging to ISIS – a rebel movement that had previously established its foothold in the oil-rich areas of north-eastern Syria – succeeded in capturing Mosul, a city surrounded by oil fields in northern Iraq. Ever since, commentators in the world’s media have been speculating on the origins of the dreaded organisation’s military success.

It is admitted that the occupation of Mosul and vast tracts of the Sunni-dominated portion of Iraq would not have been possible except for the fact that ISIS forged a broad grassroots’ alliance expressing deep discontent by Iraq’s minority Sunnis with the policies of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s government. Nor would Mosul have fallen but for the dramatic desertion by top-officers of Iraq’s state army.

Peter Custers

Peter Custers

Yet various observers have meanwhile focused on the political economy behind the advance of ISIS. Some experts from U.S. think tanks have discussed the likely sources of ISIS’ finance, pinpointing private donors in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Other writers instead have connected ISIS’ reliance on black market sales of oil in Kurdish territory with Iranian exports of crude, described as “illegal”.

I propose putting the spotlight on the methods of war financing used by ISIS, but first it is necessary to highlight the movement’s complete sectarianism.

Soon after the occupation of Mosul, rebels blew up and bulldozed shrines and mosques in the city belonging to Shia Muslims. Pictures on the demolition of these buildings were circulated widely by the world’s mainstream media. Unfortunately, few Western journalists cared to draw attention to the role which destruction of shrines has played in the history of Islam.

Contrary to Catholicism, the veneration of saints at Sufi and Shia tombs and shrines basically reflects heterodox tendencies within the Islamic faith. On the other hand, Sunni orthodoxy and especially its Saudi variety, Wahhabism, either condemns intercession or, at the least, considers the worshipping of saints at tombs to be unacceptable. Islam’s minority of Shias, and its mystical current of Sufism, freely engage in such worship – and this throughout the Muslim world.“ISIS is … a ‘religiously inspired’ Sunni extremist organisation with an utterly secular objective: to control the bulk of oil resources in two Middle Eastern states in order to re-establish acaliphat, an all-Islamic state-entity guided by a central religious authority”

ISIS’ work of demolition in Iraq can in no way be equated with practices of Iran’s Shia rulers. Instead, they express the extremist movement’s affinity with policies long championed by Saudi Arabia. Ever since the founding of the Saudi state, numerous Shia and Sufi shrines have been rased to the ground at the behest of this country’s Wahhabi dynasty.

What does the political economy behind ISIS’ military advance in Syria and Iraq tell us about the organisation’s affinities? First, in one sense, the ISIS strategy might be interpreted as rather novel.

Whereas the extraction of raw materials is a war strategy pursued by numerous rebel movements in the global South – see, for example, UNITA’s extraction of diamonds in the context of Angola’s civil war, and the trade in coltan by rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo – rarely has a Southern rebel movement succeeded in turning crude oil into its chief source of revenue.

Indeed, whereas ISIS originally relied on private funders in Saudi Arabia to build up a force of trained fighters, the organisation has consciously targeted regions in Syria and Iraq harbouring major oil fields and (in the case of Iraq) oil refineries. By laying siege to the oil refinery at Baiji, responsible for processing one-third of oil consumed in Iraq, ISIS hoped to undermine the state’s control of oil resources.

Further, some 450 million dollars was stolen by ISIS fighters from a subsidiary of Iraq’s central bank after the occupation of Mosul. This reportedly was all income from oil extraction. Some observers put the cash income which ISIS derives from smuggled oil at one million dollars a day!

ISIS is thus a ‘religiously inspired’ Sunni extremist organisation with an utterly secular objective: to control the bulk of oil resources in two Middle Eastern states in order to re-establish acaliphat, an all-Islamic state-entity guided by a central religious authority.

Yet though ISIS’ methodology of reliance on oil for financing of its war campaigns is novel for a rebel movement, such use of oil is not unique in the context of the Middle East. Ever since the 1970s, most oil-rich countries of the region have squandered a major part of their income from the exports of crude by (indirectly) exchanging their main natural resource against means of destruction – weapon systems bought on the international market.

And while Iran under the Shah was equally enticed into opting for this form of trade in the 1970s, – it is the Wahhabi kingdom of Saudi Arabia which all the way through from the oil crisis of 1973 onwards and up to today has functioned as the central axe of such a trade mechanism.

Witness, for instance, the 1980s oil-for-arms (!) ‘barter deal’ between the Saudi kingdom and the United Kingdom, the so-called ‘Al Yamamah’ deal, and the 60 billion dollar, largest-ever international arms’ agreement between Saudi Arabia and the United States clinched in 2010.

Forward to 2014, and an Iraq desperately struggling to survive. A section of the world’s media has already announced its impending demise, predicting a split of the country into three portions – Sunni, Kurdish and Shia. On the other hand, some commentators have advised that the United States should now change gear and line up with Iran, in order to help the Iraqi government overcome its domestic political crisis.

Yet the United States and its European allies for long, too long, have bent over to service the Wahhabi state. Even as Western politicians loudly proclaimed their allegiance to democracy and secularism, they failed to oppose or counter Saudi Arabia’s oppression of, and utter discrimination against, Shia citizens.

For over 40 years they opted to close their eyes and supply Saudi Arabia with massive quantities of fighter planes, missiles and other weaponry, in exchange for the country’s crude. Playing the role of a wise elderly senior brother, the United States has recently advised Iraq’s prime minister al-Maliki, known for his sectarian approach, that he should be more ‘inclusive’, meaning sensitive towards Iraq’s minority Sunni population.

But has the United States’ prime Middle Eastern ally Saudi Arabia ever been chastised over its systematic discrimination of Shias? Has it ever been put to task for its cruel oppression of heterodox Muslims? And has the United States ever pondered the implications of the trading mechanism of disparate exchange it sponsored – for the future of democracy, food sovereignty and people’s welfare in the Middle East?

 

*  Peter Custers, an academic researcher on Islam and religious tolerance  with field work in South Asia, is also a theoretician on the arms’ trade and extraction of raw materials in the context of conflicts in the global South. He is the author of ‘Questioning Globalized Militarism’. 

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AIDS Conference Mourns the Dead, Debates Setbackshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/aids-conference-mourns-the-dead-debates-setbacks/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=aids-conference-mourns-the-dead-debates-setbacks http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/aids-conference-mourns-the-dead-debates-setbacks/#comments Fri, 25 Jul 2014 15:22:41 +0000 Diana Mendoza http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135746 Messages of sympathy adorn a street in Melbourne. Credit: Diana G Mendoza/IPS

Messages of sympathy adorn a street in Melbourne. Credit: Diana G Mendoza/IPS

By Diana Mendoza
MELBOURNE, Jul 25 2014 (IPS)

The 20th International AIDS Conference concluded today as the first in its history that remembered not just the 39 million people worldwide who have died of AIDS but also those who lost their lives in the crashed MH17 flight carrying six of its delegates, one of whom was the past president of the International AIDS Society (IAS).

The double memorial, however, did not hamper 12,000 scientists, researchers, advocates, lobbyists, and activists from 200 countries, including 800 journalists, from scrutinising a few advances and disturbing setbacks in HIV and AIDS awareness and prevention, treatment to prolong and improve the quality of life of people living with HIV, and compassion and care to those infected and people close to them.

The IAS and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) said that globally, there are about 35 million people living with HIV in 2013, but 19 million of them do not know that they have the virus. Also in 2013, around 2.1 million became newly infected, and 1.5 million died of an AIDS-related illness.

"We will not stand idly by when governments, in violation of all human rights principles, are enforcing monstrous laws that only marginalise populations that are already the most vulnerable in society.” -- Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, president of the International AIDS Society (IAS)
But the good news is that HIV transmission has slowed down worldwide, according to Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS, and that millions of lives are being saved by antiretroviral drugs that suppress and slow down the replication of the virus, but do not eradicate it.

An estimated 13 million people are taking antiretroviral therapy that has resulted in a 20 percent drop in HIV-related deaths between 2009 and 2012. In 2005, there were only 1.3 million who were accessing ART.

Sidibé said at least 28 million people are medically eligible for the drugs. Currently, according to UNAIDS, spending on HIV treatment and prevention is around 19 billion dollars annually, but this needs to be scaled up to at least 22 billion dollars next year.

“We have done more in the last three years than we have done in the previous 25,” said Sidibé, who warned that these advances are disturbed by a few setbacks that are difficult to battle, such as laws against gay people in Africa and the crackdown on intravenous drug users in Russia.

In other countries, new policies have also emerged, criminalising homosexual behaviour and the use of intravenous drugs, and penalising those who engage in sex work.

Activists and experts say these policies help HIV to thrive by driving homosexuals, injecting drug users and male and female sex workers underground, where they have no access to preventative services.

Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, IAS president and chair of the conference who co-won the Nobel Prize for helping discover the virus that causes AIDS, said, “We will not stand idly by when governments, in violation of all human rights principles, are enforcing monstrous laws that only marginalise populations that are already the most vulnerable in society.”

The upsurge of anger was also obvious in the Melbourne Declaration that delegates were urged to sign early on, which demanded tolerance and acceptance of populations under homophobic and prejudiced attack.

The Melbourne Declaration called on governments to repeal repressive laws and end policies that reinforce discriminatory and stigmatising practices that increase the vulnerability to HIV, while also passing laws that actively promote equality.

Organisers believe that over 80 countries enforce unacceptable laws that criminalise people on the basis of sexual orientation and HIV status and recognise that all people are equal members of the human family.

The conference also called on health providers to stop discriminating against people living with HIV or groups at risk of HIV infection or other health threats by violating their ethical obligations to care for and treat people impartially.

Bad news for Asia-Pacific

Another setback is that while HIV infections lessened in number globally, some countries are going the other way. Sharon Lewin, an Australian infectious disease and biomedical research expert who co-chaired the conference with Barre-Sinoussi, said Pakistan, Indonesia and the Philippines are experiencing epidemics in their vulnerable populations with “worryingly high” proportions in 2013.

“While new infections continue to decrease globally, we are unfortunately seeing a very different pattern in Indonesia, Pakistan and the Philippines with increasing numbers of new infections in 2013,” Lewin said during the conference opening.

She cited men who have sex with men (MSM), sex workers, people who inject drugs and transgender persons as the most at-risk populations in the three countries.

Remembering the Dead

In all the speeches, activities, and cultural events that happened inside and outside the Melbourne Convention Centre, reflections were dedicated to the six delegates who died in the plane crash and did not make it to the conference: former IAS president and professor of medicine, Joep Lange; his partner and Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development public health official, Jacqueline van Tongeren; AIDS lobbyists, Pim de Kuijer and Martine de Schutter; director of support at the Female Health Company, Lucie van Mens; and World Health Organisation media coordinator, Glenn Thomas.

Red ribbons that have been globally worn to symbolise AIDS advocacy were tied to panels of remembrance around the conference site.

Flags in several buildings around Melbourne and the state of Victoria were flown at half-mast at the start of the conference. A candlelight vigil was held at the city’s Federation Square a day before the conference concluded.
Lewin said that while sub-Saharan Africa remains accountable for 24.7 million adults and children infected with HIV, Asia-Pacific has the next largest population of people living with HIV, with 4.8 million in 2013, and new infections estimated at 350,000 in 2013.

This brought the rate of daily new infections in the region to 6,000; 700 are children under 15 while 5,700 were adults. But 33 percent of them were young people aged 15-24.

Aside from Pakistan, Indonesia and the Philippines, she said Thailand and Cambodia are also causes for concern because of their concentrated epidemics in certain populations, while India remains a country with alarmingly high infections, accounting for 51 percent of all AIDS-related deaths in Asia. Indonesia’s new HIV infections, meanwhile, have risen 48 percent since 2005.

Meanwhile, the U.N. predicts that AIDS will no longer exist by 2030. UNAIDS’ Sidibé introduced the “90-90-90 initiative” that aims at reducing new infections by 90 percent, reducing stigma and discrimination by 90 percent, and reducing AIDS-related deaths by 90 percent.

“We aim to bring the epidemic under control so that it no longer poses a public health threat to any population or country. No one must be left behind,” Sidibé stressed.

The conference also saw a few hopeful solutions such as the portable HIV and viral load testing devices presented by pharmaceutical and laboratory companies that joined the exhibitors, and radical approaches to counselling and testing that involve better educated peer counsellors.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) issued consolidated guidelines on HIV prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care designed to assist health providers and policymakers develop HIV programmes that will increase access to HIV testing, treatment and reduce HIV infection in five key populations vulnerable to infection – men who have sex with men (MSM), people who inject drugs, sex workers, transgender people and people in prison and other closed settings – who make up 50 percent of all new infections yearly.

Part of the guidelines recommend that MSM – one of the most at-risk groups for new infections – consider pre-exposure prophylaxis or taking anti-retroviral medication even if they are HIV negative to augment HIV prevention, but they are asked to still used the prescribed prevention measures like condoms and lubricants. The prophylaxis that prevents infection can reduce HIV among MSM by 20 to 25 percent.

(END)

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Pakistani Rights Advocates Fight Losing Battle to End Child Marriageshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/pakistani-rights-advocates-fight-losing-battle-to-end-child-marriages/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=pakistani-rights-advocates-fight-losing-battle-to-end-child-marriages http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/pakistani-rights-advocates-fight-losing-battle-to-end-child-marriages/#comments Wed, 16 Jul 2014 15:53:22 +0000 Irfan Ahmed http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135594 Seven percent of all young boys are married before the legal age in Pakistan. Credit: Irfan Ahmed/IPS

Seven percent of all young boys are married before the legal age in Pakistan. Credit: Irfan Ahmed/IPS

By Irfan Ahmed
LAHORE, Jul 16 2014 (IPS)

At first glance, there is nothing very unusual about Muhammad Asif Umrani. A resident of Rojhan city located in Pakistan’s eastern Punjab province, he is expectantly awaiting the birth of his first child, barely a year after his wedding day.

A few minutes of conversation, however, reveal a far more complex story: Umrani is just 14 years old, preparing for fatherhood while still a child himself. His ‘wife’, now visibly pregnant, is even younger than he, though she declined to disclose her name and real age.

The young couple sees nothing out of the ordinary about their circumstances; here in the Rajanpur district of Punjab, early marriages are the norm.

Girls in rural areas are often given in marriage in order to settle disputes, or debts. Some are even ‘promised’ to a rival before they are born, making them destined to a life of servitude for their husband’s family. -- Sher Ali, a social activist in Rojhan city
Umrani’s father, a small-scale farmer, tells IPS he is “proud” to have married his son off and “brought home a daughter-in-law to serve the family.”

Similar sentiments echo all around this country of 180 million people where, according to the latest figures released by the Pakistan Demographic Health Survey (2012-2013), 35.2 percent of currently married women between 25 and 49 years of age were wed before they were 18.

According to the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, seven percent of all boys are married before the legal age in Pakistan.

Families like Umrani’s are either blissfully unaware of, or completely indifferent towards, domestic laws governing childhood unions.

Intazar Medhi, a lawyer based in Lahore, tells IPS that the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 – which prohibits girls under the age of 16 and boys under the age of 18 from being legally wed – is one of the least invoked laws in the country.

While the Act is in force in every province, and was recently amended by the government of Sindh to increase the legal marriage age of both boys and girls to 18, it is hardly a deterrent to the deeply embedded cultural practice.

For one thing, violators are fined a maximum of 1,000 rupees (about 10 dollars), what many experts have called a “trifling sum”; and for another, the law doesn’t extend to the many thousands of ‘unofficial’ marriage ceremonies that take place around the country every day.

In a country where 97 percent of the population identifies as Muslim, few nikahs (marriage agreements under Islamic law) are registered with an official state authority.

Scores of married couples live together for years without any documentary evidence of their union, with many families preferring to avoid legal formalities.

It is thus nearly impossible for government officials to estimate just how many such ‘illegal’ unions are taking place, or to dissolve contracts that entail nothing more than the presence of a religious person and witnesses for the bride and groom.

Some advocates like Intezar believe the problem can be rectified by following the example of the Sindh province, whose amendment of the 1929 Act upped its punitive power to include a three-year non-bailable prison term and a 450-d0llar fine for offenders.

He thinks setting 16 as the official marriage age – the same age at which Pakistanis receive their Computerised National Identity Cards (CNICs) – will make it easier for law enforcement officials to take action against those responsible for marrying off young children.

The government, he says, must also take steps to ensure timely birth registrations as millions spend lifetimes without any documentary proof of their existence.

Tradition trumps law enforcement

But for Sher Ali, a social activist based in the same city as Umrani’s family, a single law will not suffice to clamp down on a centuries-old practice that serves multiple purposes within traditional Pakistani society.

For instance, he tells IPS, girls in rural areas are often given in marriage in order to settle disputes, or debts. Some are even ‘promised’ to a rival before they are born, making them destined to a life of servitude for their husband’s family.

Various tribes also have different standards for determining an appropriate marriage age. For example, Sher explained, in some regions like the Southern Punjab, a girl is deemed ready for marriage and motherhood the day she can lift a full pitcher of water and carry it on her head.

In a country where the annual per capita income hovers at close to 1,415 dollars and 63 percent of the population lives in rural areas, girls are considered a burden and cash-strapped families try to get rid of them as early as possible.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to ending child marriages is the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), an unofficial parliamentary advisor, which also wields tremendous power to influence public opinion.

When the Sindh government announced its plans to extend the marriage age, CII Chairman Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani denounced the move as an effort to “please the international community [by going] against Islamic teachings and practices.”

Comprised of prominent religious scholars, the Council has repeatedly urged the parliament to refrain from setting a “minimum marriage age”. Though parliament is not legally bound to any suggestions made by the body, many allege that the extent of its political power renders any ‘advice’ a de facto order.

Indeed, repeated assertions by religious groups that puberty sanctions marriage has led to a situation in which girls between eight and 12 years, and boys in the 12-15 age bracket, find themselves husbands and wives, while their peers are still in middle-school.

Speaking to IPS over the phone from Malaysia, Dr. Javed Ahmed Ghamidi – who is known as a moderate and had to leave the country after receiving several death threats from extremists – said that since Islam does not specify an exact marriage age, it is up to the government to draft necessary laws to protect the rights of its citizens.

He fully supports the implementation of a law that only allows legal unions between people who are old enough to run a household and bring up children.

“Such laws are not at all in conflict with the teachings of the religion,” he insisted.

Qamar Naseem, programme coordinator of Blue Veins, an organisation working to eliminate child marriages, pointed out that such a law is not only a domestic duty but also an international obligation, since the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted a resolution against child, early and forced marriages in 2013.

Supported by over 100 of the world body’s 193 members, the resolution recognises child marriage as a human rights violation and vows to eliminate the practice, in line with the organisation’s post-2015 global development agenda.

Various studies have documented the impact of child marriage on Pakistani society, including young girls’ increased vulnerability to medical conditions like fistula, and a massive exodus from formal education.

Experts say Pakistan has the highest school dropout rate in the world, with 35,000 pupils leaving primary education every single year, largely as a result of early marriages.

Slowly, thanks in large part to the tireless work of activists, the tide is turning, with more people becoming aware of the dangers of early marriages.

But according to Arshad Mahmood, director of advocacy and child rights governance at Save the Children-Pakistan, much more needs to be done.

He told IPS there is an urgent need for training and education of nikah registrars, police officers, members of the judiciary and media personnel at the district level in order to discourage child marriages.

Effective laws must be coupled with the necessary budgetary allocation to allow for implementation and enforcement, he added.

“People will have to be informed that child marriages are the main reason behind high maternal and newborn mortality ratios in Pakistan,” he concluded.

(END)

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Time to “Drop the Knife” for FMG in The Gambiahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/time-to-drop-the-knife-for-fmg-in-the-gambia/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=time-to-drop-the-knife-for-fmg-in-the-gambia http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/time-to-drop-the-knife-for-fmg-in-the-gambia/#comments Sun, 13 Jul 2014 11:23:18 +0000 Saikou Jammeh http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135524 Circumcisers in the Gambia publicly declaring that they have abandoned the practice of FGM. Credit: Saikou Jammeh/IPS

Circumcisers in the Gambia publicly declaring that they have abandoned the practice of FGM. Credit: Saikou Jammeh/IPS

By Saikou Jammeh
BANJUL, Jul 13 2014 (IPS)

Women’s rights activists in the Gambia are insisting that more than 30 years of campaigning to raise awareness should be sufficient to move the government to outlaw female genital mutilation (FMG).

The practice remains widespread in this tiny West African country of 1.8 million people, but rights activists believe that their campaign has now reached the tipping point.

Two years ago, GAMCOTRAP, an apolitical non-governmental organisation (NGO) committed to the promotion and protection of women and girl children’s political, social, sexual, reproductive health and educational rights in The Gambia, and one of the groups behind the anti-FGM campaign, sponsored a draft bill which has been subjected to wide stakeholder consultations.

Several previous attempts to legislate against FGM have failed, with no fewer than three pro-women laws having had clauses on FGM removed from draft bills. But activists now appear determined to make the final push and hope that when introduced this time round, the bill will go through.“We’ve caused lots of suffering to our women ... if my grandparents had known what I know today, they would not have circumcised anyone. Ignorance was the problem” – former circumciser Babung Sidibeh

The time has now come for final action, says Amie Bensouda, legal consultant for the draft bill. “There can be no half measures. The law has to be clear. It’s proposed by the law that FGM in all its forms is prohibited. This discussion cannot go on forever. The government should do what is right.”

“The campaign has reached its climax,” Dr Isatou Touray, executive director of GAMCOTRAP, told IPS. “A lot of work has been done. I am hopeful of having a law because women are calling for it, men are calling for it. I know there are pockets of resistance but that’s always the case when it comes to women’s issues.”

“In 2010, we organised a workshop for the National Assembly,” she continued. “They made a declaration, pledging to support any bill that criminalises FGM. I am happy to report that, since 2007, more than 128 circumcisers and 900 communities have abandoned the practice. This trend will continue to grow.”

Seventy-eight percent of Gambian women undergo FGM as a ‘rite of passage’. However, after more than three decades of the anti-FGM campaign in Gambia, a wind of change is blowing, sweeping even conservative rural communities.

Sustained awareness-raising programmes have resulted in public declarations of abandonment of FGM by hundreds of circumcisers. Babung Sidibeh, custodian of the tradition in her native Janjanbureh, the provincial capital of Central River Region, 196 kilometres from Banjul, was one of them. The old woman assumed the role after the death of her parents, but she has since “dropped the knife”, as no longer practising FGM is known here.

Sidibeh did so after receiving training in reproductive health and women’s rights. “Soon after we circumcised our children in 2011,” she told IPS, “Gamcotrap invited me for training. I was exposed to the harm we’ve been doing to our fellow women. If I had known that before what I know today, I would never have circumcised anyone.”

With a tinge of remorse, she added: “We’ve caused lots of suffering to our women. That’s why I told you that if my grandparents had known what I know today, they would not have circumcised anyone. Ignorance was the problem.”

Mrs Camara-Touray, a senior public health worker at the country’s heath ministry confirmed to IPS that her ministry has since taken a more proactive role on FGM.

She explained: “The ministry has created an FGM complication register. We’ve also trained nurses on FGM. Until recently, when you asked most health workers about the complications that can arise with FMG, they would say it has no complications. That’s because they were not trained. Since 2011, we’ve changed our curriculum to include these complications. After we put the register in place, within three months, we’d go to a region and see that hundreds of complications due to FGM had been recorded.”

In March, Gamcotrap organised a regional religious dialogue that sought to de-link FGM from Islam. Touray said that the workshop was a prelude to the introduction of the proposed law in parliament.

“Islamic scholars were brought together from Mali, Guinea, Mauritania and Gambia,” she told IPS. “We had a constructive debate and it was overwhelmingly accepted that FGM is not an Islamic injunction, it’s a cultural practice. It was recommended that a specific law should be passed and a declaration was made to that effect.”

However, there is resistance in some quarters. An influential group of Islamic scholars, backed by the leadership of the Supreme Islamic Council, continue to maintain that FGM is a religious injunction.

With a large following and having the ears of the politicians, these clerics have in recent times also intensified their pro-FGM campaign.

“It will be a big mistake if they legislate against FGM,” Ebrima Jarjue, an executive member of the Supreme Islamic Council, told IPS.

“Our religion says we cut just small. We should be allowed to practise our religion. If some people are doing it and doing it bad, let them stop it. Let them go and learn how to do it. If circumcising the girl child when she’s young is causing problems, then let’s wait until she grows up. That’s what used to happen.”

Meanwhile, the Women’s Bureau, the implementing arm of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, is hesitant about legislating against FGM.

“As far FGM is concerned, the position of the Women’s Bureau is that there’s need for more sensitisation and dialogue to push the course forward,” Neneh Touray, information and communication officer of the Women’s Bureau, told IPS. She declined to comment on whether the bureau thought that the bill was premature.

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U.S. Groups Reject Anti-Gay Discrimination Bill over Religious Exemptionhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/u-s-groups-reject-anti-gay-discrimination-bill-over-religious-exemption/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-groups-reject-anti-gay-discrimination-bill-over-religious-exemption http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/u-s-groups-reject-anti-gay-discrimination-bill-over-religious-exemption/#comments Wed, 09 Jul 2014 23:43:51 +0000 Julia Hotz http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135463 President Barack Obama is expected to issue an executive order on employment discrimination in coming weeks. Credit: Bigstock

President Barack Obama is expected to issue an executive order on employment discrimination in coming weeks. Credit: Bigstock

By Julia Hotz
WASHINGTON, Jul 9 2014 (IPS)

Civil rights groups across the United States have withdrawn their support from a major legislative proposal that would outlaw workplace discrimination against sexual minorities, warning that recent legal developments could exempt companies on religious grounds.

Five major legal advocacy groups are arguing that the legislation, known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), does not allow for total workplace protection. Rather, it “provides religiously affiliated organizations – including hospitals, nursing homes and universities – with a blank check to engage in workplace discrimination against LGBT people,” the groups note in a joint statement released Tuesday.“[LGBT people] want to be judged in the same way any other employee is judged: Can we do the work? If we can, we should be free from discriminatory treatment that targets us because of who we are.” -- Kate Kendell

Previously, the groups, which include the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and prominent gay rights organisations, had supported ENDA. But their turnaround comes a week after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a contentious decision, known as Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which allows private companies to withhold contraceptive coverage from their employees based on religious preferences.

“What we’ve seen in last week’s Supreme Court decision is a really concerted effort on the part of LGBT opponents to broadly endorse rights to discriminate,” Ian Thompson, a Washington representative of the ACLU, told IPS.

It is “unacceptable”, he noted, to “allow taxpayer-funded discrimination under the clause of religious exemption.”

It is significant to note that this religious exemption clause has always been included within ENDA. However, while the clause has long been a controversial component of the legislation, it is the provocative nature of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling that has encouraged legal advocacy groups to reject ENDA entirely.

Lucas Rivers, a prominent LGBT activist working in the U.S government, told IPS that “strong withdrawal [from ENDA] in the wake of the Hobby Lobby decision is the right move, as the Supreme Court’s decision has opened up doors to employment discrimination, whether it be women and their rights or gays and their rights.”

Yet other organisations have been voicing opposition to ENDA for much longer.

“We have been disturbed by the exemption in ENDA for years, and that concern has been very public,” Kate Kendell of the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), an advocacy group, told IPS.

Kendell also notes that “[the NCLR] has received unanimous expressions of support from [the LGBT community]. Our community is bright – they get that the provision in ENDA would provide those who oppose our equality a license to discriminate.”

Kendell is careful to note that her organisation’s dispute is not with the legitimacy of religious belief.

“Our nation respects and accommodates a wide variety of religious faiths, a quality we fully embrace. But it is not acceptable for some to use religion as a bludgeon to do harm to others,” she says.

“[LGBT people] want to be judged in the same way any other employee is judged: Can we do the work? If we can, we should be free from discriminatory treatment that targets us because of who we are.”

Kendall says she’s uncertain about the future of ENDA, but expresses confidence that a stronger bill can eventually be drawn up.

“We don’t know what we can get unless we fight for it,” she says. “If we combine forces and lobby for better language, I have no doubt we can get a better bill.”

Urgent need

Still, some prominent groups do remain committed to ENDA.

The Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBT rights group, stated on Wednesday that it will continue to support ENDA for a “very simple reason … it will guarantee millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in all 50 states explicit, reliable protections from discrimination in the workplace.”

In regards to the bill’s religious exemption clause, the group says it is urging its allies in Congress to recognise that LGBT people “do not have the luxury of waiting for these protections,” while an “urgent need” for equality persists.

Meanwhile, some U.S. legislators have been looking for ways to directly counter the recent Supreme Court ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. New legislation, announced Wednesday, would seek to expressly forbid private companies from using religious exemption to deny employee contraception “or any other vital health service required by federal law”.

Although the new bill would have no direct impact on workplace discrimination for LGBT individuals, the proposal’s sponsors see it as a significant step towards separating religious preferences from employees’ fundamental rights.

“Particularly in light of the recent Hobby Lobby decision, we must be more careful than ever to ensure that religious liberty, a cherished American value intended to shield individuals from government interference, is not wielded as a sword against employees who may not share their employers’ religious beliefs,” Jerrold Nadler, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and one of the new bill’s co-sponsors, said Wednesday.

President Barack Obama is expected to issue an executive order on employment discrimination in coming weeks. As such, a similar fight is now brewing of that mandate’s details.

On Tuesday, a group of 100 progressive religious leaders urged the president to exclude any religious exemption from the order. Instead, the groups called on the president to remain committed to the principle of equality under the Constitution.

“If contractors were allowed to selectively follow employment or other laws according to their religious beliefs, we would quickly create an untenable morass of legal disputes,” the letter states.

“Furthermore, if selective exemptions to the executive order were permitted, the people who would suffer most would be the people who always suffer most when discrimination is allowed: the individuals and communities that are already marginalized.”

Some civil rights groups have applauded the letter. The ACLU’s Thompson told IPS that the move was “incredibly important” in the context of the broader equality debate.

“It shows is that religious leaders and faith organisations do not speak with simply one voice on these issues,” he says. “Rather, it shows that there are two sides to the faith community, and it is very helpful for the community’s pro-equality voices to come forward.”

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