27 October 2012

Contrarian Images from the Middle East II: Hamas Aligned with Israel?

Hamas is an interesting organization. It is involved in charity, governance and terrorism. Not necessarily in that order.

Perhaps, most surprisingly, it owes its existence and predominant position largely to Israel.
"Hamas, to my great regret, is Israel's creation," says Mr. Cohen, a Tunisian-born Jew who worked in Gaza for more than two decades. Responsible for religious affairs in the region until 1994, Mr. Cohen watched the Islamist movement take shape, muscle aside secular Palestinian rivals and then morph into what is today Hamas, a militant group that is sworn to Israel's destruction.

Instead of trying to curb Gaza's Islamists from the outset, says Mr. Cohen, Israel for years tolerated and, in some cases, encouraged them as a counterweight to the secular nationalists of the Palestine Liberation Organization and its dominant faction, Yasser Arafat's Fatah. Israel cooperated with a crippled, half-blind cleric named Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, even as he was laying the foundations for what would become Hamas.
It was a serious miscalculation on Israel's part.

Eventually, Hamas came to power in Gaza and purged all Fatah elements from the new administration. It is now being supported by Syria and Iran, two implacable foes of Israel. It has links to Hezbollah. And it has been firing home-made rockets to Israel. In short, it is a major thorn on Israel's side.

But ever since the Khaled Meshaal and Ismail Haniyeh rivalry surfaced, Hamas has been doing unexpected things. Last year, after some obscure Jihadist group kidnapped and beheaded an Italian peace activist Hamas began a serious crackdown on Salafists. It kept raiding their headquarters, arresting them, confiscating their arms and even convicted them of murder.

26 October 2012

Contrarian Images from the Middle East I: Selling Gold to Iran

When you think that you finally have a good idea about the state of affairs in the Middle East, something comes along to show you that things are really not what they seem and the simplistic images we get from corporate media hide a very complicated reality.

This is my first example.

Every Middle East expert claims that Turkey and Iran are at each other's throat over their respective regional power status.

You already know the story.

Last year, Turkey allowed the US install a missile shield and everyone knows that it was directed towards Iran.

Turkey is supporting Northern Iraq in its effort to remain autonomous and is actively undermining the authority of al-Maliki government (who is a protege of Iran). They even provided safe haven to Tariq Hashemi the former Iraqi VP who was sentenced to death in absentia.

For its part, Iran has been assisting Assad in Syria to prevent Turkey to start a regime change operation. Also, it has been rumored that Tehran has finally gave the green light to PKK to operate from within its territory.

Moreover, almost weekly a religious leader in Iran chastises Turkey for being the tool of Western interests.

Yet, surprising, behind this fa├žade of animosity, an interesting trade relationship has been flourishing.

Selling Gold to the Ayatollahs

Turkey continues to buy oil and gas from Iran. They have an agreement that Iran will supply 10 million cubic meters of gas on a daily basis for the next 25 years. There is even a pipeline project that will carry Iranian gas to Europe via Turkey.

25 October 2012

Dehumanizing Otherness

Of all the contrarian things I wrote in this humble soapbox, the most controversial item turned out to be my moralistic post about that infamous anti-Muhammad movie trailer.

I got a lot of private feedback. Many were positive. Some, not so much.

A French friend of mine told me that he was surprised by my approach. He felt that I defended a bunch of people who routinely do horrible things, like perpetrating acts of terrorism, denigrating women and displaying a general hatred for everything "we" stood for. He said that "they" were not like "us" and can never be. That was because their beliefs, traditions and behavior patterns were just simply too different.

He also added that given the fairly strident anti-religious views I regularly express in my daily life, he was surprised that I would defend a bunch of fundamentalists and their dubious religion.

It got me thinking.

My first thought was, I should not be friends with this guy.

But then I realized that a majority of my European friends probably thinks like him, he was the one with enough guts to express these views.

So I thought I should explain to him (publicly) a couple of things, starting with the minor point that my views are correctly called anti-clerical and not anti-religion.

And there is a reason for that.

Being Anti-clerical vs anti-religion

As we know, all religious texts are believed to be messages from a Deity. All three big religions make this claim. (Muslims more so than the others because they believe that the Koran's text is identical to the version received by the Prophet and remains unmodified. In fact, this is the trump card of fundamentalists, as they can claim that the text should be applied down to its last detail because it is the clearest and purest voice of God)

When I have to debate religion -and believe me I try to avoid it whenever I can- I never express doubts about the existence of God or the fact that these messages belong to a Deity. I am not Richard Dawkins. I take these notions as a given since my interlocutors consider them as axioms. What I believe is immaterial in that conversation.

I simply explain to them that even messages from God are received and transmitted with human languages. Human languages are by definition social and historical constructs and their meaning structure is entirely dependent on the priorities, perceptions and prejudices of that historical period and society. The recipient of that message cannot help but hear what he heard through the filters of that language.

In short, there can be no fixed supra-historical meaning.

What is expressed in 5th century Europe or 7th century Middle East has to make sense in that period and in that society. For instance, God could not have mentioned in either context that the world is round. If he did, no one could have understood, verbalize and communicate that idea.

Consequently, all texts, including the ones sent by God, are already interpreted and therefore open to further interpretation.

It is somewhat lame to point out that if there was a single interpretation we would not have Catholics, Protestants, Episcopalians, Southern Baptists or Mormon's or Jehovah's Witnesses.

Or Sunni Islam and within it, Hanafi, Sahfi'i, Maliki, Hanbali, Zahiri schools of thought. Or Shia Islam and within it Ismaili, Alawite, Alevi, Zaidiyyah sects. Or Sufism and within it, Bektashi, Naqshbandi, Uwaiysi, Qadiri, Nimatullahi, Mouride orders.

Single text, many, many interpretations.

The question is who makes and enforces these interpretations. As we know from the history of all religions, it is always a group of men who takes it upon themselves to establish their version of the meaning of any Holy Text.

This is why you can discuss any holy text without accepting the false premise that you are discussing the words of God. You are discussing the meaning attributed to the words of God by flesh and blood human beings. God's meaning remains inaccessible. We only have access to what people heard through their social and historical linguistic constructs.

That is why I am radically anti-clerical and deeply suspicious of these men and their interpretations. Their interpretation and their effort to enforce them is a social issue. And their views are no more sacred to me than, say, the theory of evolution.

Consequently, you cannot tell me that the precepts of your faith are superior to my views and I need to accept and obey them because they were dictated by God.

They were received, understood, expressed and communicated by men. What we have is what they heard not what God said.

But I would never question your personal beliefs and personal interpretation of the words of a Deity. That is a private matter.

Using religion for dehumanizing otherness

The second thing I wanted to explain to my friend was that what I was doing was not to defend a religion or its followers. I am not a believer. I am the worst kind of person for a believer because I refuse to consider the question whether there is a God. I am not an agnostic and I am not an atheist.

I have no idea and I am really not interested in finding out one way or the other.

What I was doing was to highlight the rapidly escalating trend towards creating a "dehumanized other" within a general "clash of civilization" context.

What I wrote was an effort to point to the dangers of that process. Because he have seen it before. And it is not pretty.

Do you know what dehumanizing otherness is?

Let me explain with the most extreme example in human history.

In his book, A Social History of the Third Reich, Richard Grunberger tells the story of a four year old Jewish girl who wanted to have cherries but was refused by a Berlin shopkeeper because the Jewish food ration did not include fruits. The girl cried her eyes out. Did I mention she was four years old?

Picture yourself in the grocer's place. Would you not have given her a couple of cherries, especially since (during the anecdote) there was no one else in the store? But he simply didn't (p.579-80). And proudly and factually related the story. Because in his eyes, this was not a kid. She was a lesser being, an alien. She was part of a less than human group of others (untermensch).

You might think that this was a German thing, you know, something Goebbels' propaganda machine created.

Not true.

This July, we had the 70th anniversary of the infamous Vel' d'Hiv round up in France. Vel' d'Hiv is an abbreviation of Velodrome d'Hiver in Drancy, France. On 16 and 17 July 1942, the French police gathered 13,152 Jews to be deported to Auschwitz. Of these 8,160 were locked away in that bicycle arena.  1,129 men, 2,916 women and 4,115 children. The youngest 3,000 kids were brutally separated from their parents and sent first to the camps.

Credit: Archive CDJC-Memorial de la Shoah
But they spent a few nights in the Vel' d'Hiv crying and screaming, unable to comprehend what happened to them and where their parents were. Some as young as two. And no one around them felt anything. No one was moved enough to help or to alleviate their suffering.

This summer, there was an exhibition about them entitled C'etaient des enfants and I meant to go. But I knew I wouldn't be able to see more than a couple of pictures before I felt suicidal for being part of the same species as those people who stood emotionless around these helpless kids.

That's dehumanizing otherness.

Let me add that, under normal circumstances, I would not have used these examples, as I consider the Holocaust the biggest crime of all times and I don't like it when people use it as an analogy for anything. Moreover, I consider the Jews to be the most persecuted group in human history.

There are two reasons why I did it.

One is an anecdote. The year was 1980. For a series of reasons too long to explain here, I found myself in Berlin, inside the Berlin Olympic Stadium, the one in which Jesse Owens flip the bird to Hitler in 1936. My companion was a German journalist. I asked him about the Holocaust and I simply asked why.

I never forgot his answer. He said that he cannot answer that question because any answer would be a partial justification. He said that even statements along the lines of "people felt Jews were like this or that" would give a modicum of acceptability to what had taken place and he was adamant to never allow that.

I learned from him that trying to explain a hatred of difference is justifying the reactions to otherness. Every time I hear a friend tell me that Muslims are like this or that, I think of that German journalist.

The second reason is the fact that the analogy came to me through Adam Gopnik, a writer I admire immensely. I used to give his books to friends as a random act of kindness. He happens to be Jewish and he apparently lives in Paris as well. This summer he wrote a short essay for the BBC in which he said:
Hatred of difference - notice I carefully did not say racial hatred, or religious hatred. Hitler hated Jews because of their religion, and because of their race, but he hated them above all because of their otherness.

When I read well-intentioned people talking about the impossibility of assimilating Muslims in my adopted country of France, for instance, I become frightened when I see that they are usually entirely unaware that they are repeating - often idea for idea and sometimes word for word - the themes of the anti-Semitic polemics that set off the Dreyfus affair a century ago. For those writers, too, believed not that Jews were eternally evil, but that Judaism was just too different, too foreign to France, and tied to violence against the nation and its heritage.
Like Adam Gopnik, I see the hatred and fear in people's eyes when they glance at Muslims. You know, a Muslim couple with the woman covered up and subservient. I see how they remain unmoved when they notice their children. I heard more than once the term coach-roaches.

I detest the idea of a burqa and I am happy to have a discussion with any Muslim person about it. I can easily show how flimsy the religious justification is for that garment and how much of it comes from the patriarchal prejudices of those men who are in charge of interpretation.

But I detest even more the idea of a woman becoming an object of fear and hatred, or worse, becoming invisible. When a Brooklyn woman went undercover to prove her son's innocence, she wore a burqa to spy on people. She said that with a burqa people acted like she did not exist. She was completely invisible.

Once again, I am not suggesting that Muslims are as thoroughly dehumanized as the Jews in the 19th and 20th century Europe. No one can be.

But the process seems to be underway and with the help of social media and Internet, right wing fear groups are getting more effective and successful with each passing day.

So what I said to my French friend that he should heed my warning. Unless Europeans find a way to communicate with Muslims without relegating them to a dehumanized other status, they could end up repeating past mistakes.

And insisting on freedom of expression to defend a silly movie trailer designed to offend them was not the way to transcend otherness.

That was my point and I stand by it.

23 October 2012

Interesting Survey on Syria

The Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, a Turkish think tank, has just published the results of an opinion poll on Syria (in pdf format and in English). They surveyed a sample of 1500 people in 17 Turkish cities.

It appears that 51% of Turks are opposed to a military intervention.


People supporting the opposition parties favored the impartiality option in even higher numbers: 60% of the sympathizers of the social democratic CHP and the ultra-nationalistic MHP ticked that box. With the supporters of the pro-Kurdish BDP impartiality option went even higher to 83%.

14 October 2012

Do You Know Why Your iPhone 5 Is Not Here Yet?

A year ago this week, I linked to a report that said that the labor cost to Apple of each iPhone was roughly $6.  Mind you, that's manufacturing cost, not what workers get paid. It seems that sum moved up to $8 with the new iPhone 5.

Overall, when you add everything, each iPhone costs Apple a little over $200. Since they sell the cheapest unsubsidized model for $649 (or €680 in Europe), you can guess their margin.

Recently, a Chinese journalist went undercover to work at Foxconn, the company that manufactures iPhones to check out how the living and working conditions were. You might have heard of Foxconn through a series of suicides that took place in the last three years.

The journalist worked for ten days at Foxconn. Getting hired was easy. All he needed was his citizenship card and he had to answer a series of health questions. Most of these were centered around his mental stability (for obvious reasons). After a short bus trip he was shown to the dorm. This is how he described it:
The first night sleeping at Foxconn dormitory is a nightmare. The whole dormitory smells like garbage when I walked in. It’s a mixed of overnight garbage smell plus dirty sweat and foam smell. Outside every room was fully piled up with uncleared trash. When I opened my wardrobe, lots of cockroaches crawl out from inside and the bedsheets that are being distributed to every new workers are full of dirts and ashes. 

07 October 2012

Syria and Turkey: Prelude to an Intervention?

It is always tricky to comment about evolving events in the Middle East. Murky doesn't even begin to qualify the current state of affairs.

What We Know So Far

A few days ago, a stray mortar landed in a border town in Turkey and killed five people, including a mother and her three children. Turkish troops retaliated almost immediately and fired at military positions inside Syria. There are some unconfirmed reports that up to 48 people died as a result and most of them were Syrian soldiers.

Turkey also called an emergency meeting of NATO and sent a letter to UN Security Council demanding unspecified actions against Damascus. As a final touch, the Turkish government convened an emergency session of Parliament and passed a bill that authorizes military action within Syria.

If you add to this picture, the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, who has been going around and jovially advocating safe zones inside Syria, you might assume that this is the beginning of a Turkish military intervention.

Turkish media outlets are convinced that this is the beginning of the end and that Turkey is getting ready to move in.

A Military Intervention in Syria?

As the resident contrarian, I continue to doubt this eventuality.

It is not that I have access to inside information. I just go by Occam's Razor.

To predict a military intervention requires a very convoluted logic, and its proponents typically refer to shadowy influences (usually an Israeli -read Jewish- conspiracy pushed by the US) without explaining what this would achieve.

Military action, even a limited one, would almost certainly escalate rapidly and lead to a protracted civil war. It would give jihadists and Sunni fundamentalists a very prominent role in post-Assad Syria. That civil war could engulf Lebanon and possibly even Jordan. It would certainly put Israel's security in jeopardy. And above all, there is absolutely nothing in it for Turkey.

Until someone can show me how such a move would be beneficial to some regional or international actors, I will maintain my contrarian position.

However, I can see that something significant is taking place and it looks like it will affect the endgame in Syria. I am not exactly sure what this is but there are a few interesting indications that encourage educated guesses.

03 October 2012

A Monument in Ottawa

A good friend of mine and a loyal reader of this humble soap box, alerted me to the unveiling of a monument in Ottawa in honor of a slain Turkish diplomat.

I found this odd, to say the least. Turkey has always been a remote and distant entity for Canada. The only historic ties between them would be the sympathy felt in Canada for the Commonwealth Anzac Day casualties suffered at the hands of the Ottoman battalions defending Gallipoli.

That and a membership they share in NATO.

Their bilateral trade was tiny for a long time and only in recent years it nudged up (it sounds like a lot but the volume in question represents less than 1% of their foreign trade).

In 2006, Harper government recognized the Armenian genocide and relations have been frosty ever since.

Credit Fred Chartrand-The Canadian press
Suddenly, the same conservative government decided to befriend the Islamist government of Turkey by honoring a slain Turkish diplomat.

I was aghast.

The monument was designed and produced in Turkey and Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu came for its unveiling.

According to the Globe and Mail the reason for that radical change was this:
An internal foreign policy review carried out last year for Mr. Baird identified Turkey has a key player in the world, and a country that Canada should be focused on.
I have to say that I feel somewhat conflicted that my hypothesis about the significance of Turkey as a regional power and a model for Islamist governments might be shared by the illustrious Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird of the Harper government.

The sad part is that I would feel equally conflicted if I found out that the Erdogan government (and its illustrious Minister of Foreign Affairs Davutoglu) shared my views.

There are times it is hard to be a contrarian.

The Anti-Muhammad Movie: Why and Who Benefits From It?

When I heard about the riots following the anti-Muhammad movie trailer, my first reaction was curiosity.

Unlike most people who comments about such issues, I first watched the movie trailer. It was not what I expected. The best word to describe it is comical. The camera was shaky, the set was non existent, the sandy deserts were provided by an incredibly amateurish After Effect background plug-in and the acting was terrible. Moreover, all the anti-Muhammad lines were dubbed in either as a voice over or by someone whose voice was very different from the lead actor. They were unmistakably added on. Clearly, this was not a professional production. In fact, most high school students with a Mac laptop could produce a better clip that this.

My initial curiosity was then replaced with a series of questions: why would someone produce such a clearly silly movie? Since the movie was obviously not an end onto itself what were the goals of its producers?

I also wondered how people who never touched a computer in their lives, let alone watch that trailer on You Tube, were informed of its existence? And why they felt so much rage and outrage?

My final question was: who benefited the most from the reaction to the movie?

The Anti-Muhammad Movie: The Debate

If you are aware of the existence this humble soapbox you know that I am not in the morality business. My usual focus is to try to explain something, not to pass judgement.

Today, I will make a rare exception and discuss both sides of an issue, namely the anti-Muhammad movie and the ensuing riots. First, let me focus on the debate and the morality argument behind it. In a separate post I will discuss who benefited from these incidents.

Sanctity of Freedom of Expression vs Sanctity of Religious Beliefs?

I have been following the debate around the 14-minute trailer of that silly movie with growing incredulity. More than anything else, I have been puzzled by the central argument that was proposed to frame the debate, namely the sanctity of the freedom of expression vs the sanctity of religious beliefs.

I am not a believer and I am a strong supporter of the freedom of expression. In fact, I am an extremist in that regard: I believe that all speech, no matter how odious, should be protected. And I have a profound dislike for any fundamentalist belief systems, religious or not.

So this line of argumentation should speak to me. But it didn't. Because I realized quickly that it was a disingenuous framework designed to predetermine the outcome of the debate and in the process, to solicit the support of people like me.