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Showing posts with label Iran. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Iran. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

The New World (Dis)order (five part series)

(Image: dotcom)

NOTE: This is the final part in a five part series.
PART I: American Adventurism, Non-Interventionism, Trumpism and Afghan Chaos
PART II: The Misunderstanding of Vladimir Putin
PART III: China Awakens Under Xi Jinping
PART IV: Crony Capitalism and the West’s Achilles Heel

The New World (Dis)order

Part V: The New World Dis(order)

“Experience has shown how deeply the seeds of war are planted by economic rivalry and social injustice.” -Harry Truman

In May, China released a film designed to showcase their military prowess, called Born to Fly. The film begins with American-accented, English-speaking fighter pilots causing havoc in the South China Sea while boldly declaring “We will go whenever we want,” after being asked by the Chinese pilots to leave their territory.

While the film was critically panned, the message it carried shows China being bullied by developed nations and made it clear that the only way for China to defend herself, from enemies on all sides, was through technological innovation and personal sacrifice.

A month later Chinese state media broadcast a documentary series called Chasing Dreams. The eight-part docuseries was released to commemorate the 96th anniversary of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). This one featured the PLA’s readiness to attack Taiwan, featuring drills that simulated precision strikes against the island, and testimonials from serving soldiers pledging to die in their effort to retake Taiwan.

These propaganda pieces are part of stepped up efforts by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to fan nationalism while showcasing China’s military prowess. Today, China's shows of force are not restricted to celluloid. This year we have witnessed a never before seen flurry of spying and aggressive tactics by China, against the United Sates.  

In February, we learned of a Chinese spy balloon flying over U.S. military bases and restricted airspace. In April, the FBI uncovered a secret police outpost in lower Manhattan, and an electronic eavesdropping facility in Cuba. PLA pilots and sailors have been increasingly engaging in dangerous skirmishes with U.S. military aircraft and naval vessels in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.

The Pentagon recently declassified a report that showed 180 such incidents of “coercive and risky” maneuvers against the US military by China - more in the past two years than in the entire decade before. In August, the U.S. had to dispatch four warships and a reconnaissance plane after China and Russia carried out a joint naval patrol near Alaska. Eleven Russian and Chinese ships sailed close to the Aleutian Islands, in what one expert described as a “historical first.”

Adm. John Aquilino, head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said he has seen Chinese-Russian joint operations increase over the past year and expects their cooperation to grow. He added that in the context of China’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it makes their joint action not only concerning but also creates a more “dangerous world.

A day after the Alaskan intrusion the U.S. Navy had to deploy more than 3,000 troops to the Red Sea in a bid to deter Iran from harassing and seizing commercial vessels around the Strait of Hormuz. Since 2021, Iran has “harassed, attacked or seized” 20 internationally flagged merchant vessels. A few weeks later Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels dangerously shone lasers multiple times at the cockpit of a U.S. attack helicopter that was operating in international airspace.

These intrusions by Iran and China are not limited to military actions.

China has been stepping up its espionage game to levels never before seen by a nation state actor. The heads of the intelligence services for the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, known as the Five Eyes, appeared together on a news program for the first time ever, to publicize the threat posed by China’s hacking activities. They admitted that all countries spy, but China is taking espionage to another level by stealing corporate intellectual property, academic research and much more. So grave is their concern that the FBI Director warned that China’s espionage was a “threat to our way of life”.


China is not alone in the sophistication of their espionage and influence operations. Semafor broke news of a massive Iranian influence operation that was launched in 2014 by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, called the Iran Experts Initiative (IEI). They learned that the IEI managed to infiltrate the highest levels of U.S. and EU policy circles. At least three of the people on the IEI’s list were, or became, top aides to Robert Malley, Mr. Biden’s special envoy to Iran. Mr. Malley, was recently placed on leave and had his security clearance revoked.

Meanwhile, Tehran has been strengthening ties with Moscow. The WSJ reviewed foreign intelligence documents, shared with the U.S., which stated that over the last six months Iran has ferried large quantities of artillery shells and other ammunition across the Caspian Sea to help resupply Russian troops in Ukraine. The Journal reported that based on documents they reviewed Iran had shipped more than 300,000 artillery shells and over a million rounds of ammunition to Russia so far. 

In October, a top Iranian general met with his Russian counterpart in Moscow. After the meeting both countries released statements pledging increased co-operation, amid reports that Iran is increasing its support to Russia in advanced drone and missile development technology. While there is no concrete evidence that Iran helped plan or execute Hamas’s cowardly murder of  innocent, unarmed Israeli civilians, we know that Iran is the main financial backer and supplier of weapons and training to both Hamas and Hezbollah.

Iran's foreign minister has publicly warned Israel that if their strikes on Gaza continue, then “the region will go out of control.” At the same time on Israel’s northern border Hezbollah has been stepping up attacks. In the midst of all this chaos, China dispatched six warships to the Gulf region, in what Beijing’s state media called a “goodwill visit”.

China too has deep ties with Iran. They recently caught the world by surprise when they announced that they had brokered a deal for Iran to restore diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis cut ties in 2016, after Iranian protesters stormed its embassy in Tehran. While this was a major diplomatic victory for China, it was seen as another sign of the US’s waning influence in the Middle East. 

According to an Axios Middle East reporter, for China brokering the deal between Iran and Saudi was less about bringing peace and more about ensuring that two of its most important partners in the Middle East are able to get along so that Beijing can achieve its economic and political goals. Days after this rapprochement, China, Russia and Iran held joint military drills in the Gulf of Oman.

China’s ties with Saudi Arabia have been deepening at the same time that we have seen US-Saudi ties fray. Saudi and UAE leaders refused to take President Biden’s call to discuss the Ukraine crisis when the war began, and despite strong U.S. protestations the Saudis have continued to partner with Russia to coordinate cuts in oil production. 

When Mr. Biden visited Saudi Arabia this year, he was received by the governor of Jeddah without any ceremony. When Mr. Xi arrived he was welcomed with fighter jets, honorary cannon fire and the Saudi foreign minister was waiting on the tarmac. At the recent G20 climate minister’s meeting, the Saudis teamed up with China and refused to discuss a 2025 global emissions target, wrecking the entire summit, according to the FT

China also flexed its muscles at the BRICS. At their summit in South Africa, China pushed for the expansion of the bloc, despite strong opposition from India and Brazil, who voiced uneasiness at allowing openly anti-western countries to join. In the end China got its way and Argentina, Egypt, Iran, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were welcomed as the bloc's newest members. At the summit it was announced that the BRICS’ development bank would start lending in South African and Brazilian currencies in order to start to cut their reliance on the US dollar.

It is clear that China is actively working to build an alternate world order to counter U.S. dominance. One that is based on authoritarian ideals and runs counter to Western liberal ones. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Africa, where China has built and runs a training school on authoritarianism. 

The Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Leadership School in Tanzania was funded by a $40 million donation from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and built by a Chinese construction company. The Central Party School which runs the the institution is the same body responsible for training China’s top party officials.

According to a joint investigation by Axios and Danish paper Politiken, China is using the school to teach African leaders about authoritarianism as an alternate governing style to democracy. Teaching them how to fuse a political party with the state. China’s goal seems to be to cultivate a global authoritarian-friendly political bloc, with access to markets, as the West increases sanctions against certain technologies and industries. It is no coincidence that the African continent happens to be rich in raw materials and energy. 

While China claims the school is a way to promote Africa’s social and economic development, the investigation found that behind closed doors “economics takes a back seat to political training”. Through interviews with African officials who have attended the training, the media outlets learned that the real story contradicts the one asserted by CCP officials. Chinese teachers sent from Beijing are telling African leaders that the party should sit above the government and court systems.

The school is a partnership between the CCP and the ruling parties of Tanzania, Mozambique, Namibia, Angola, South Africa and Zimbabwe. While all six of the countries are multiparty democracies - one thing they share in common is that each has a ruling party that has been in power for decades. Perhaps the most telling sign is that while the school’s offerings are available to young members from these ruling parties, politicians from opposition parties are not permitted access to the school.

If there is any doubt about China’s desire to build an alternate world order, then the evidence was on display in October this year when Mr. Xi hosted 130 countries to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The forum was meant to demonstrate the convening power Mr. Xi has built in the decade since launching his signature foreign policy initiative, and to showcase the challenge China now poses as a global rival to the U.S.

Mr. Putin made the trip to China, only his second foreign trip since an international arrest warrant was issued for him. Trade between Russia and China has grown dramatically over the past year and is expected to reach $200 billion by the end of the year. Recent data shows that Beijing is propping up Moscow’s economy, accounting for around half of Russia’s imports. This includes exporting goods like microchips and trench-digging excavators that may have military applications.

While it can be argued that the BRI enables China to encroach on Russia’s sphere of influence with Central Asian countries, their goals overlap in wanting to keep the secular authoritarian rulers of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia in power, to guarantee stability in the region and keep Western influence at bay.

Meanwhile, another longtime ally of China, North Korea, has been launching more missiles this year than any year prior, including 25 in a single day. The reclusive country is now preparing to sell weapons to Russia. A month after the Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Pyongyang, Mr. Kim Jong Un traveled to Russia’s main spaceport to meet with Mr. Putin. 

The two dictators agreed to greater economic and security cooperation and lashed out against the U.S.-led global order. After the meeting, according to the Russian news agency TASS, Mr. Kim Jong Un described Russia’s war in Ukraine as a “sacred struggle to punish the gathering of evil that claims hegemony and nourishes expansionist illusions.” This marks a major shift; prior to the meeting the North Korean dictator had been reticent to publicly support Russia’s invasion. 

Historically, Russia too kept North Korea at arms length, supporting sanctions against the country. Through the 2000’s and again in 2016-17 when the UN Security council limited oil supplies and cracked down on North Korea’s labour exports, Russia supported sanctions. With this newfound friendship, experts believe North Korea will supply artillery shells and in exchange will receive energy supplies and technology transfers to build nuclear submarines and spy satellites - two things Mr. Un has long wanted but lacked the technological know-how to build.

Then there is Africa’s Sahel region, which has been dubbed the ‘coup belt’ because since 2020 there have been coups in Mali, Guinea, Chad and Burkina Faso. In July, there was a military coup in Niger. Until this year Niger had been the only stable democracy in this volatile region. 

The instability being caused by these coups is being exploited by Al-Qaeda affiliated groups and the Islamic State, both of which have gained ground at an alarming pace across the region. To counter these terrorist groups, the U.S. and France had established military bases in Niger and the country was considered a key security partner and nerve center for disrupting terrorist activities across the North African region. 

The U.S. spent $500 million training and arming the Niger military and has 1,100 troops soldiers stationed there, whose future is now in doubt. The French had 1,500 troops that have been withdrawn as a result of the coup. The French troops had relocated to Niger after a coup in Mali, which forced them the leave that country. After pushing the French out, Mali’s military junta ejected UN peacekeepers and then invited Russia’s Wagner Group to deploy in their place.

China is not the only authoritarian regime asserting itself on the global stage. Russia too has been acting with increasing aggression, even before the Ukraine invasion and the revelations about its support for Iran's transfer of weapons to the conflict in Ukraine.

The latest concern is that Russia’s Wagner group, while not responsible for the coup in Niger, will take advantage of the vacuum. A fear that was heightened after supporters of the coup were seen on the streets waving Russian flags, and one of the coup leaders travelled to Mali to meet with the Wagner-allied military junta there.

Russia’s Wagner Group, now without its leader, started to spread its tentacles in Africa around 2017. Wagner established operations in several African countries with much of their activity happening in countries plagued by civil war like the Central African Region (CAR), Libya, Mali and Sudan. Wagner’s services include combat operations, security, training and disinformation campaigns. They are compensated through direct cash payments or given rights to precious mineral and resources.

In CAR, Wagner defended the regime of the current President against rebel groups after he changed the constitution to remove term limits. In return, they got unrestricted logging rights and control of the lucrative gold and diamond mines in this impoverished African nation. Now, after the death of Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the Russian government is taking control over Wagner’s contracts as it realises that it is a way for Mr. Putin to procure minerals and resources while evading sanctions.

Africa is not the only part of the world where Wagner has spread it tentacles. In 2015, Mr. Putin came to the aid of his friend Bashar al-Assad, in Syria and it was confirmed that Wagner mercenaries fought alongside the Russian military, and were responsible for turning the tide back in favour of the Syrian dictator.

In 2019, when Nicholas Maduro’s regime was under threat from popular protests supported by the U.S., Wagner mercenaries flew into Venezuela to beef up President Maduro’s security. That same year they helped quash a revolt led by senior military officers against Maduro’s regime. It is fair to say that the only reason President Maduro’s regime has survived, despite being an international pariah and one of the most sanctioned countries in the world is because it receives financial and military support from Russia, China, Iran, Cuba and Turkey.

The fact is that long before the Israel-Hamas war broke out the world was on the road on to disorder with growing instability in Africa’s Sahel region, coups in Myanmar and Kazakhstan, and US and China’s growing rivalry and deepening animosity.

President Xi Jinping has set 2027 as the deadline for China's military to be ready to "fight and win" and 2049 for the country to lead the world in "composite national strength and international influence.” While the US-China clashes echo the US-Soviet rivalry of the Cold War, the differences may be more instructive than the similarities according to scholars

China presents a far greater military, economic and technological threat to America than the Soviet Union ever did. China is far more integrated in the world economy than the Soviet Union ever was, and the American and Chinese economies, which together account for 40% of global output, are interconnected and reliant on each other; which was not true with the Soviet Union.

Many experts had opined after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the former Soviet Union soon after, that the world would enter a virtuous cycle of growth, prosperity, tolerance and freedom. They believed America would remain a unipolar power with no rivals on the world stage, and that America’s brand of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism would win. Far from becoming a unipolar power, America is no longer the only game in town.

One yardstick for gauging the success of U.S. soft power is through the spread of liberal democratic values in the thirty years since the Cold War the Cold War ended. If we look at the number of countries where citizens enjoy similar rights to free speech, free press, free and fair elections, and other liberties, a 2022 study found that of the 195 nations on earth, just 34 are liberal democracies with these freedoms.

Over the last seventeen years we have seen a steady rise of authoritarianism and an erosion of democracy, along with curtailed press freedoms and growing human rights abuses all over the world. Perhaps the most important lesson of the failure of U.S. policy, especially with respect to China, is that embracing capitalism is not a magical ingredient to ushering in democratic freedoms. China has never been and will never be interested in joining a US-led global club, relating to economics, politics or security.

Another reality is that while most Western nations remain staunch U.S. allies, they are heavily reliant on China for their supply chains and economic well-being. French President Emmanuel Macron said this year, on a plane ride back from his meeting with Mr. Xi, that Europe must not become “America’s followers” and should not blindly follow the U.S.’s lead in supporting Taiwan against China's aggression. He is not alone. 

European citizens in 11 countries, who are steadfast in their support for Ukraine and stand against Russia, when surveyed recently by the European Council on Foreign Relations said unanimously that they would want their country to remain neutral in a conflict over Taiwan between the U.S. and China. 

Then there are a number of powerful countries with whom the U.S. has a complicated relationship, like India, Saudi Arabia and even smaller ones like Qatar, on whom the U.S. is reliant. All of them wield far greater influence than they did during the Cold War. It would be fair to say that during the Cold War it was easier to determine friend from foe, but in the new world disorder there will mainly be shades of gray. 

Take the kingdom of Qatar. This tiny oil-rich Gulf nation on the face of it could be considered a staunch U.S. ally. It is home to the Al Udeid Air Base, the largest U.S. base in the Middle East. The base has served as a critical center of operations for the war in Afghanistan and continues to be for strikes on Syria. In fact, the relationship with Qatar is so important that last year the White House designated it a “Major Non-NATO Ally”.

Qatar too has made major investments in America. According to a 2022 study by the National Association of Scholars, it is the largest foreign donor to American universities. It has donated a whopping $4.7 billion, between 2001 and 2020, to top tier colleges. The Qataris’ own stakes in major NHL, NFL and NBA teams and iconic properties, like the Empire State Building. They controversially hosted the 2022 Football World Cup, after spending years buying their way into European football, acquiring a controlling stake in one of France’s best league teams, Paris St. Germain, in 2011.

However, Qatar owns the Al-Jazeera network, the most powerful media voice in the Arab world. Though the network claims it has editorial independence, it has given airtime to a Muslim Brotherhood related cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who was denounced by the Anti-Defamation League as a ‘Theologian of Terror’. In 2017 Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and cut off air, sea and land routes, after accusing it of supporting extremist groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood.

Then there is the uncomfortable truth that a few minutes drive from the Al Udeid air base you can find the home of Hamas’s de facto leader. The Qatari government not only openly hosts a group designated a foreign terrorist organisation by the U.S., UK, European Union and Canada but is one of its biggest benefactors. The country is also home to the Taliban leadership, who established an official office here in the early 2010s.

Similarly, even as Saudi Arabia has grown closer to China, and we have seen bumps in their U.S. relationship, they are not about to turn their back on the U.S. and align with China anytime soon. While China was brokering the deal with Iran, the Saudis were negotiating with the Biden administration to normalize relations with Israel, in return for a NATO-like defense pact with the U.S. and help to develop a civilian nuclear program. Then there is the fact that even though ties with Iran were restored, the Saudis and Iranians continue to have an uneasy relationship and are still engaged in a proxy war in Yemen.

India, the fourth largest economy in the world, also sits in this gray zone. Much to Mr. Biden’s chagrin Mr. Modi has refused to condemn Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and in direct violations of sanctions, dramatically increased India's purchase of Russian crude.

The reason India can operate in this gray area is that the U.S. sees it as the biggest bulwark against China. Though India and China share a common ally in Russia, they remain sworn enemies, which explains why India got a free pass on buying Russian oil and why Mr. Biden has been careful not criticize Mr. Modi on India's backsliding of democratic norms.

There is no love lost between Mr. Xi and Mr. Modi. The former chose to skip the recent G20 summit in India. It was the first time Mr. Xi missed a G20 meeting since he came to power in 2012, and Mr. Modi was conspicuously absent during China’s display of global influence at the BRI anniversary.

The Indian Prime Minister not only has remained steadfast in his refusal to join Mr. Xi’s infrastructure building program but has instead promoted alternatives. At the G20 summit Mr. Modi announced, with Mr. Biden, plans to build a rail and shipping corridor connecting India with the Middle East and Europe.

Compared to the Cold War, today’s geopolitical landscape is far more complex, more fragmented and has far fewer alliances that can be taken for granted.

Further, many Western countries are themselves rife with domestic political turmoil. China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and others sense the weakness in the West’s power, as witnessed by the UK’s disastrous exit from the European Union, the U.S.’s refusal to ratify a major trade pact with Asia, the failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the chaos of the Trump years.

Even within democracies, leaders like Brazil’s former President Jair Bolsonaro and President Trump in America have been sowing distrust among the electorate around election results, in a bid to stay in power. India, under Mr. Modi, has seen its rating fall for the fourth consecutive year and is now ranked as “partly free” by Freedom House.

As a result many authoritarian leaders no longer feel the need to maintain a “veneer” of democracy. In the last few years, we have witnessed farcical elections in RussiaNicaraguaCuba and Guatemala and seen a surge in coups as far afield as SudanMyanmar and Kazakhstan.

The report states that China, Russia and other dictatorships have succeeded in shifting global incentives “jeopardizing the consensus that democracy is the only viable path to prosperity and security” while actively encouraging and supporting authoritarian approaches to governance.

In the new world disorder, authoritarian regimes are no longer isolated but instead able to thrive and actively collaborate with one another and can count on China and Russia to help prop them up, like in Belarus, Myanmar, Venezuela and  Syria.

Additionally, while misinformation and disinformation have always been weapons used by governments, the difference today is that they can be supercharged with artificial intelligence and disseminated via social media platforms that enable it to spread across the globe at light speed. Intelligence officials say that fake videos are being used aggressively by all anti-American actors, and some experts estimate that more than 90% of the content on the internet will be fake or doctored in the near future.

Much like with the Ukraine war, China and the U.S. once again stand on opposite sides of the Israel-Hamas conflict. On the world stage China has been offering itself up as a neutral peace broker in the Middle East. The Chinese foreign minister traveled to Egypt to meet with the leaders of the Arab League and held a flurry of calls with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia to coordinate their Middle East strategy. 

Yet the truth is that China's professed neutrality hides deeper ambitions according to experts, who say that China sees this crisis as a way to diminish U.S. influence, rather than to seek regional stability. As a result, they have refused to condemn Hamas, in a bid to curry favour with Arab countries, whom they see as natural allies to promote their agenda to “legitimize authoritarian practices and erode human rights protections”. Yet there is a danger that by overplaying their hand and alienating Israel to appeal to Arab nations, China's efforts could backfire and spark wider turmoil.

This danger is evidenced by the fact that even as China claims to be playing a neutral role, their state media has been blaming America for the conflict and has been perpetuating tropes of Jewish control of American politics. There has been a surge in antisemitism on Chinese internet and state media has often been selective with the information it shares. Chinese media reported on the hospital explosion in Gaza, stating Palestinian claims that Israel was behind the attack, but did not share subsequent intelligence analysis and video footage that suggests it was likely a failed Palestinian rocket destined for Israel.

However, despite all this, while the danger of a regional conflagration is high, it is not inevitable. Even as China takes advantage of the situation and seems to be stoking the fires, like the U.S. it wants a stable Middle East because it has a lot to lose if the conflict widens into a regional one.

As the world's largest oil importer, China needs a stable Middle East to fuel its economy. Around half of China’s oil imports come from the Persian Gulf. The Saudis are China’s no. 2 source of crude oil, Qatar is one of their top suppliers of liquefied natural gas, and they have been increasing oil imports from Iran which they get cheaper due to sanctions. 

The good news is that while it might be for different reasons, neither America nor China want the Israel-Hamas conflict to spill into a regional war. Working together each can use its respective influence to bring down the temperature. The U.S. has leverage with Israel and China has influence with Iran, who are Hamas and Hezbollah’s principal backers.

Another reason for pause is that the American and Chinese economies are deeply intertwined and while there has been political rhetoric about decoupling, the truth is that it would be near impossible to do, at least not without severe economic pain for both nations. This is why we have started to see a softening in tone from both sides. The U.S. is now talking about de-risking from China and Mr. Xi announced a few days ago that China is willing to cooperate with the U.S. and wants a more stable relationship, based on “mutual respect”.

Instead of trying to decouple and divide the world between them, the U.S. and China need to learn how to live and work alongside each other in a way that allows for intense competitiveness but also fosters collaboration to deal with global issues like climate change, energy, space and cybersecurity. 

As the Economist notes, the world has become more fluid and transactional. Just as China offers dictators infrastructure, technology and arms with few strings attached, the U.S. will need to compete on transactional terms with its own basket of incentives that include free market access, technology transfers and security agreements, but it will have to do so without trying to force Western liberal values down the throats of these countries.

This does not mean the U.S. should acquiesce to China’s aims of authoritarian expansion or turn a blind eye to human rights abuses, oppression and unfair trade practices; it does mean that the US will need to recalibrate how it engages with a growing majority of nations who are taking neutral positions and seek a more pragmatic approach that will allow them to cut the best deals with both China and America.

The US-led world order still has a profound interest in seeing the spread of liberal democracy and that goal should not be abandoned. The US must be transactional but principled and assert its leadership more responsibly, using carrot and stick, rather than trying to do it forcibly.

The last time I checked the majority of the people in the world still were still clamoring to emigrate to America, and not to China. Most people in the world prefer freedom to oppression, but that does not mean they necessarily want America’s style of democracy. 

America must remember this and never use military force or attempt to install democracy like they tried and failed in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Instead, America needs to inspire and lead by example, not instruction.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Terrorism, Islam, Our Biases and The Solution

"You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”
Mahatma Gandhi 

Like most people I felt a strong solidarity with Parisians in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Charlie Hedbo. I was angered that a group of cowardly savages could walk in during broad daylight and murder unarmed people. Witnesses say that the masked men shouted “Allahu akbar!” or “God is great!” as they shot cartoonists and the editor of Hedbo. We have all seen eyewitness video of the killers running down the street shouting “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad. We have killed Charlie Hedbo!” as they executed a Muslim policeman on the street (Source: NYTimes). The attack was carried out in the name of Islam by men who it turns out were radicalised in France, after the US invasion of Iraq. 

JeSuisCharlie became a top trending global hashtag for a week; in many cases people felt they needed to support free speech, even if they did not agree with Hedbo’s satire. At the same time, vilified by global outrage, driven by fear and ignorance, the uglier side of humanity also began to surface on social media. In extreme cases, there were tweets about ridding the world of all Muslims. A number of people said they felt this was a fight between the ‘civilised’ world and Islam. Even powerful and supposedly educated men like Rupert Murdoch tweeted irresponsibly: 

In Germany, an anti-Islam rally that had been scheduled prior to the Paris attack was held the day after the unity march. It was organised by a group called Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West, or PEGIDA. Just a few months ago the same rally was attended by some 350 protestors; this one had an estimated 25,000 people (Source CNN). German leaders across the political spectrum requested that the group postpone the rally in light of the events in Paris, but they refused. These groups are not new, but they existed only on the fringes of society, unable to command crowds that require mainstream support. Across Europe we are seeing an alarming rise in extremist right-wing groups: UKIP in England, Marine Le Pen’s party in France, the Neo-Nazi National Democratic Party in Germany, Danish People's Party and Jobbik in Hungary. There is no question that these parties have grown in popularity in a post Iraq, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay world (Source: HuffingtonPost UK). Their entire political plank is based on anti-immigration and anti-globalisation. They manipulate our irrational fear of death to further their hate agendas. How quickly we forget that the parties now targeting Muslims were not long ago ostracised for being violently anti-Semitic. 

I can categorically say that at no time have I felt any anger or animosity toward Muslims. But after Paris I did for the first time, just for a minute, find myself wondering if within the teachings of Islam there lay a problem. Was it truly a religion of peace? Perhaps Islam was more open to interpretation and abuse than other religions. Frankly, if you live in the West post 9/11, it is hard not to start thinking this way. For more than a decade, talking heads on every cable station, news channel, website, newspaper and magazine have been debating the problem of Islamic fundamentalism. Most are careful not to indict the entire religion or all Muslims, but in the end, they all contribute to planting dangerous seeds of misguided doubt and fear in all our minds.

They talk about freedoms we take for granted being rare in the Muslim world, citing Iran and Saudi Arabia as examples of the ‘Muslim’ world. The central premise of their argument often boils down to a claim that no other religion drives its followers to massacre innocent people. Yet, most of these opinion makers base their claims on selective statistics and self-serving interpretations. They point to the number of terrorist acts perpetrated in the name of Islam versus other religions. Or point out that in Saudi Arabia people are lashed for insulting Allah, and women are not allowed to drive; thereby concluding that the problem must be Islam. They are careful not to point out rogue regimes like Iran while making this argument, instead choosing to showcase so-called legitimate Muslim nations like Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The insinuation being that if ‘good’ Muslim nations, those who ally with the West, can restrict freedoms and persecute people in the name of religion, then it is not hard to understand how terrorists can take the same tenets of Sharia and offer a more twisted, extreme and violent justification for their actions. It is a persuasive and convincing argument, if we shut down our rational brains, ignore facts and forget history; something we all tend to do when fear takes over. 

If we take the same arguments that are used to point to Islam being a radical religion, and apply them elsewhere, then can we start to see the fundamental flaws, biases and selective logic being used here. To start with, if there is a problem with Islam, then there was once the same problem with Christianity and it remains today. The Crusades were a holy war carried out in the name of religion, and sanctioned by the Pope himself. Pope Urban II issued the call to arms, asking Christian men to reclaim the Holy Land by killing non-believers. During six Crusades that spanned close to two centuries, there were murderous rampages carried out in the name of religion like “a series of massacres of Jews in various towns in the Rhineland in 1096.” And anyone who “joined the ranks of the crusaders gained spiritual immunity, Pope Urban II promised forgiveness of all sins to whosoever took up the cross and joined in the war.” (Source: Crusades). What about the Roman Catholic Church's use of tribunals to discover and punish heresy? It was started in medieval times but continued through the end of the 19thcentury. During the Spanish Inquisition the tribunals started to target Jews, Blacks and Muslims, torturing and killing all non-believers. Yet, we did not write-off Christianity for all this barbarism, nor did we question the teachings of Christ. Instead, rational and moderate voices within the religion were given room to challenge long-held beliefs and begin an important debate that started during the Reformation in the late 16th century.

Eventually, after centuries of debate and more war, rebellion and bloodshed, there came a separation of Church and State, which wrested powers away from the Papacy (Source: History.comReformation). It is worth noting that the same Bible, which was used to justify all the murder and terror, was never changed or re-written. People realised that the issue is not the teachings of Christ or Christianity, but the way men chose to interpret and abuse them; using religion to control the masses for furthering their own greedy and power-driven goals. Ask yourself how this is different from modern day terrorists hijacking Islam to further their twisted political agendas. I realise that the Crusades ended in the late 13th century and we are now in the 21st century, but in the lifespan of a religion, and the earth’s existence, this is not a long time. Think about the fact that in America women got the right to vote less than one hundred years ago. The Voting Rights Act was passed after some of my best friends were born, and we are still fighting for gay rights, female bishops and equal pay for women. 

In 2013 the world was shocked by images of marauding Buddhist monks roaming the countryside wielding blood soaked machetes, hacking to death Muslims in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Did we question that Buddhism is a religion of peace? Last year in Pune, a Hindu mob beat to death an IT professional for posting a morphed picture of a dead right-wing political leader on Facebook. Turns out the man was not connected to the Facebook cartoon and simply happened to be at the wrong place, wearing a skull cap and sporting a beard (Source: Firstpost). More recently, Hindu mobs wielding batons and iron rods destroyed theatres showing a Bollywood film they say hurt Hindu sentiments (Source: Indian  Express). One of India’s greatest painters, M.F. Hussain, died in exile because peace-loving Hindus threatened to kill him after he painted some Hindu goddesses nude. Even today, women have virtually no rights in Indian law and marital rape is not considered a crime. Your conclusion must be that Hinduism is a backward religion that does not recognise the rights of women, promotes intolerance, hate and violence. Few people are aware that India has the second largest Muslim population in the world and yet there has been virtually no radicalisation of Indian Muslims, despite years of sustained efforts by Pakistani terror groups and Al-Qaeda to recruit them (Source: Economist). 

Using Rupert Murdoch’s logic (something many people agree with), we must also hold all Christians responsible for the race-terrorism carried out in their names by the Ku Klux Klan or by those who continue to bomb abortion clinics and kill doctors; in the name of defending the right to live. More recently we must surmise that Christianity propagates child abuse. In fact, it can be argued that paedophilia was officially sanctioned by the Vatican because it’s now clear that the church not only turned a blind eye to decades of child abuse but covered up reports, misled victims and transferred priests rather than take legal action or remove them (Source: Wikipedia). So why are we not holding ALL Christians responsible? Better yet, why are we not questioning if there is something in the teachings of Christ that allows men of God to prey upon children? Show me where we can find the sustained global outrage, from the non-paedophilic, two billion Christians for terrorising young impressionable minds and bodies for decades? 

As of 2012 there are 1.6 billion Muslims, totalling around 23% of the world population, making Islam the second largest religion (Source: Pew Research Center). Depending on whom you ask, you will get many an unscientific answer on how many Muslims are radicalised. However, what we do know, based on scientific research via a Pew Research poll conducted in eleven majority Muslim countries, is that the majority of the 1.6 billion Muslims reject religious and other kinds of extremism (Source: Think Progress). Another 2013 global survey, also conducted by Pew, found huge differences in views and interpretations of Sharia law with regards to social and religious issues across Muslim nations. The same survey found that “most Muslims around the world express support for democracy, and most say it is a good thing when others are very free to practice their religion.” And “given a choice between a leader with a strong hand or a democratic system of government, most Muslims choose democracy.” (Source: The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society, Pew Research).

Muslims and Islam are not going away; nor should they as some extreme right-wing groups propose. Nor am I suggesting that we turn a blind eye or adopt politically correct terminology, so as not to offend Muslims, and simply expect the problem of terrorism to go away. We also need to remember that an ideology cannot be defeated on the battlefield. So what can we do?  

We can begin by changing our own lazy perceptions and comfortable biases. Put aside blind fear that can drive irrationality, and start to consciously discern between Muslim nations like Jordan, Indonesia and Turkey versus brutal dictatorships like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt. We must stop painting all Muslims with a single brush and recognise that Islam and Sharia are not the underlying problem; it is the dictatorial nature of all totalitarian regimes that use religion and fear as tools to maintain an iron grip on power. Countries like Saudi Arabia also suppress free speech, violate human rights and have no rights for women. This is no different from North Korea, which the last time I checked had not accepted Allah or adopted Sharia. 

Remind yourself that terrorists, in the name of Islam, have killed many more Muslims than non-Muslims. A 2009 report, by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, found that between 2004-2008 only 12% of Al-Qaida’s victims were Westerners; 88% were Muslim (Source: CNN). Start researching facts for yourself and stop relying on the mainstream media as your only source of information. Most news outlets offer nothing more than ratings-driven sensationalised hype and unverified or severely biased opinion. They are thin on reportage and unbiased journalism. We must never let our fears fool us into believing that right-wing parties offer a solution. If you support these groups, remember that the moment they are in power and have dealt with Muslims, they will come for the Jews, Blacks, Indians, Chinese and every non-Aryan group until there is no one left. 

Most importantly, we need to stop vilifying and attacking all Muslims and blaming their religion every time there is a terrorist attack because this is not going to help solve anything; only serve to push the majority liberal and moderate Muslim voices further into a dark and lonely corner. It will force them to stay silent because of the hostile environment we create, an environment that neither encourages debate nor facilitates dialogue. If we continue to alienate all Muslims like this, then we will be allowing the terrorists to win because their ultimate goal is to divide us through fear, and make it a clash between Islam and the West.

This is not about being a Muslim apologist or trying to be politically correct; it is about finding overt ways to support the majority, who are peace loving, believe in the right for all religions to co-exist, and who want more democracy in their nations. If we can do this, then we will begin to offer Islam’s many free thinkers and liberal-minded scholars the security and support to come forward and start a very important debate and dialogue within the Muslim world; one that will help Islam find its separation between Mosque and State for the twenty-first century.