Sunday, November 30, 2014

What the Media Gets Wrong About Israel

The news tells us less about Israel than about the people writing the news, a former AP reporter says.

A Reuters truck drives through a bombed refugee camp in Gaza. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

During the Gaza war this summer, it became clear that one of the most important aspects of the media-saturated conflict between Jews and Arabs is also the least covered: the press itself. The Western press has become less an observer of this conflict than an actor in it, a role with consequences for the millions of people trying to comprehend current events, including policymakers who depend on journalistic accounts to understand a region where they consistently seek, and fail, to productively intervene.

An essay I wrote for Tablet on this topic in the aftermath of the war sparked intense interest. In the article, based on my experiences between 2006 and 2011 as a reporter and editor in the Jerusalem bureau of the Associated Press, one of the world’s largest news organizations, I pointed out the existence of a problem and discussed it in broad terms. Using staffing numbers, I illustrated the disproportionate media attention devoted to this conflict relative to other stories, and gave examples of editorial decisions that appeared to be driven by ideological considerations rather than journalistic ones. I suggested that the cumulative effect has been to create a grossly oversimplified story—a kind of modern morality play in which the Jews of Israel are displayed more than any other people on earth as examples of moral failure. This is a thought pattern with deep roots in Western civilization.
But how precisely does this thought pattern manifest itself in the day-to-day functioning, or malfunctioning, of the press corps? To answer this question, I want to explore the way Western press coverage is shaped by unique circumstances here in Israel and also by flaws affecting the media beyond the confines of this conflict. In doing so, I will draw on my own experiences and those of colleagues. These are obviously limited and yet, I believe, representative.
A rally in support of Islamic Jihad at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, in November 2013 (Courtesy of Matti Friedman)
I’ll begin with a simple illustration. The above photograph is of a student rally held last November at Al-Quds University, a mainstream Palestinian institution in East Jerusalem. The rally, in support of the armed fundamentalist group Islamic Jihad, featured actors playing dead Israeli soldiers and a row of masked men whose stiff-armed salute was returned by some of the hundreds of students in attendance. Similar rallies have been held periodically at the school.

I am not using this photograph to make the case that Palestinians are Nazis. Palestinians are not Nazis. They are, like Israelis, human beings dealing with a difficult present and past in ways that are occasionally ugly. I cite it now for a different reason.

Such an event at an institution like Al-Quds University, headed at the time by a well-known moderate professor, and with ties to sister institutions in America, indicates something about the winds now blowing in Palestinian society and across the Arab world. The rally is interesting for the visual connection it makes between radical Islam here and elsewhere in the region; a picture like this could help explain why many perfectly rational Israelis fear withdrawing their military from East Jerusalem or the West Bank, even if they loathe the occupation and wish to live in peace with their Palestinian neighbors. The images from the demonstration were, as photo editors like to say, “strong.” The rally had, in other words, all the necessary elements of a powerful news story.

The event took place a short drive from the homes and offices of the hundreds of international journalists who are based in Jerusalem. Journalists were aware of it: The sizable Jerusalem bureau of the Associated Press, for example, which can produce several stories on an average day, was in possession of photos of the event, including the one above, a day later. (The photographs were taken by someone I know who was on campus that day, and I sent them to the bureau myself.) Jerusalem editors decided that the images, and the rally, were not newsworthy, and the demonstration was only mentioned by the AP weeks later when the organization’s Boston bureau reported that Brandeis University had cut ties with Al-Quds over the incident. On the day that the AP decided to ignore the rally, November 6, 2013, the same bureau published a report about a pledge from the U.S. State Department to provide a minor funding increase for the Palestinian Authority; that was newsworthy. This is standard. To offer another illustration, the construction of 100 apartments in a Jewish settlement is always news; the smuggling of 100 rockets into Gaza by Hamas is, with rare exceptions, not news at all.

I mention these instances to demonstrate the kind of decisions made regularly in the bureaus of the foreign press covering Israel and the Palestinian territories, and to show the way in which the pipeline of information from this place is not just rusty and leaking, which is the usual state of affairs in the media, but intentionally plugged.

There are banal explanations for problems with coverage—reporters are in a hurry, editors are overloaded and distracted. These are realities, and can explain small errors and mishaps like ill-conceived headlines, which is why such details don’t typically strike me as important or worth much analysis. Some say inflations and omissions are the inevitable results of an honest attempt to cover events in a challenging and occasionally dangerous reporting environment, which is what I initially believed myself. A few years on the job changed my mind. Such excuses can’t explain why the same inflations and omissions recur again and again, why they are common to so many news outlets, and why the simple “Israel story” of the international media is so foreign to people aware of the historical and regional context of events in this place. The explanation lies elsewhere.
* * *
To make sense of most international journalism from Israel, it is important first to understand that the news tells us far less about Israel than about the people writing the news. Journalistic decisions are made by people who exist in a particular social milieu, one which, like most social groups, involves a certain uniformity of attitude, behavior, and even dress (the fashion these days, for those interested, is less vests with unnecessary pockets than shirts with unnecessary buttons). These people know each other, meet regularly, exchange information, and closely watch one another’s work. This helps explain why a reader looking at articles written by the half-dozen biggest news providers in the region on a particular day will find that though the pieces are composed and edited by completely different people and organizations, they tend to tell the same story.
The best insight into one of the key phenomena at play here comes not from a local reporter but from the journalist and author Philip Gourevitch. In Rwanda and elsewhere in Africa, Gourevitch wrote in 2010, he was struck by the ethical gray zone of ties between reporters and NGOs. “Too often the press represents humanitarians with unquestioning admiration,” he observed in The New Yorker. “Why not seek to keep them honest? Why should our coverage of them look so much like their own self-representation in fund-raising appeals? Why should we (as many photojournalists and print reporters do) work for humanitarian agencies between journalism jobs, helping them with their official reports and institutional appeals, in a way that we would never consider doing for corporations, political parties, or government agencies?”

This confusion is very much present in Israel and the Palestinian territories, where foreign activists are a notable feature of the landscape, and where international NGOs and numerous arms of the United Nations are among the most powerful players, wielding billions of dollars and employing many thousands of foreign and local employees. Their SUVs dominate sections of East Jerusalem and their expense accounts keep Ramallah afloat. They provide reporters with social circles, romantic partners, and alternative employment—a fact that is more important to reporters now than it has ever been, given the disintegration of many newspapers and the shoestring nature of their Internet successors.

In my time in the press corps, I learned that our relationship with these groups was not journalistic. My colleagues and I did not, that is, seek to analyze or criticize them. For many foreign journalists, these were not targets but sources and friends—fellow members, in a sense, of an informal alliance. This alliance consists of activists and international staffers from the UN and the NGOs; the Western diplomatic corps, particularly in East Jerusalem; and foreign reporters. (There is also a local component, consisting of a small number of Israeli human-rights activists who are themselves largely funded by European governments, and Palestinian staffers from the Palestinian Authority, the NGOs, and the UN.) Mingling occurs at places like the lovely Oriental courtyard of the American Colony hotel in East Jerusalem, or at parties held at the British Consulate’s rooftop pool. The dominant characteristic of nearly all of these people is their transience. They arrive from somewhere, spend a while living in a peculiar subculture of expatriates, and then move on.

In these circles, in my experience, a distaste for Israel has come to be something between an acceptable prejudice and a prerequisite for entry. I don’t mean a critical approach to Israeli policies or to the ham-fisted government currently in charge in this country, but a belief that to some extent the Jews of Israel are a symbol of the world’s ills, particularly those connected to nationalism, militarism, colonialism, and racism—an idea quickly becoming one of the central elements of the “progressive” Western zeitgeist, spreading from the European left to American college campuses and intellectuals, including journalists. In this social group, this sentiment is translated into editorial decisions made by individual reporters and editors covering Israel, and this, in turn, gives such thinking the means of mass self-replication. 
* * *
Anyone who has traveled abroad understands that arriving in a new country is daunting, and it is far more so when you are expected to show immediate expertise. I experienced this myself in 2008, when the AP sent me to cover the Russian invasion of Georgia and I found myself 24 hours later riding in a convoy of Russian military vehicles. I had to admit that not only did I not know Georgian, Russian, or any of the relevant history, but I did not know which way was north, and generally had no business being there. For a reporter in a situation like the one I just described, the solution is to stay close to more knowledgeable colleagues and hew to the common wisdom.

Many freshly arrived reporters in Israel, similarly adrift in a new country, undergo a rapid socialization in the circles I mentioned. This provides them not only with sources and friendships but with a ready-made framework for their reporting—the tools to distill and warp complex events into a simple narrative in which there is a bad guy who doesn’t want peace and a good guy who does. This is the “Israel story,” and it has the advantage of being an easy story to report. Everyone here answers their cell phone, and everyone knows what to say. You can put your kids in good schools and dine at good restaurants. It’s fine if you’re gay. Your chances of being beheaded on YouTube are slim. Nearly all of the information you need—that is, in most cases, information critical of Israel—is not only easily accessible but has already been reported for you by Israeli journalists or compiled by NGOs. You can claim to be speaking truth to power, having selected the only “power” in the area that poses no threat to your safety.

Many foreign journalists have come to see themselves as part of this world of international organizations, and specifically as the media arm of this world. They have decided not just to describe and explain, which is hard enough, and important enough, but to “help.” And that’s where reporters get into trouble, because “helping” is always a murky, subjective, and political enterprise, made more difficult if you are unfamiliar with the relevant languages and history.

Confusion over the role of the press explains one of the strangest aspects of coverage here—namely, that while international organizations are among the most powerful actors in the Israel story, they are almost never reported on. Are they bloated, ineffective, or corrupt? Are they helping, or hurting? We don’t know, because these groups are to be quoted, not covered. Journalists cross from places like the BBC to organizations like Oxfam and back. The current spokesman at the UN agency for Palestinian refugees in Gaza, for example, is a former BBC man. A Palestinian woman who participated in protests against Israel and tweeted furiously about Israel a few years ago served at the same time as a spokesperson for a UN office, and was close friends with a few reporters I know. And so forth.
A Palestinian protester escapes tear gas fired by Israeli security forces during a demonstration in a West Bank near Ramallah. (Darren Whiteside/Reuters)
International organizations in the Palestinian territories have largely assumed a role of advocacy on behalf of the Palestinians and against Israel, and much of the press has allowed this political role to supplant its journalistic function. This dynamic explains the thinking behind editorial choices that are otherwise difficult to grasp, like the example I gave in my first essay about the suppression by the AP’s Jerusalem bureau of a report about an Israeli peace offer to the Palestinians in 2008, or the decision to ignore the rally at Al-Quds University, or the idea that Hamas’s development of extensive armament works in Gaza in recent years was not worth serious coverage despite objectively being one of the most important storylines demanding reporters’ attention.

As usual, Orwell got there first. Here is his description from 1946 of writers of communist and “fellow-traveler” journalism: “The argument that to tell the truth would be ‘inopportune’ or would ‘play into the hands of’ somebody or other is felt to be unanswerable, and few people are bothered by the prospect that the lies which they condone will get out of the newspapers and into the history books.” The stories I mentioned would be “inopportune” for the Palestinians, and would “play into the hands” of the Israelis. And so, in the judgment of the press corps, they generally aren’t news.
In the aftermath of the three-week Gaza war of 2008-2009, not yet quite understanding the way things work, I spent a week or so writing a story about NGOs like Human Rights Watch, whose work on Israel had just been subject to an unusual public lashing in The New York Times by its own founder, Robert Bernstein. (The Middle East, he wrote, “is populated by authoritarian regimes with appalling human rights records. Yet in recent years Human Rights Watch has written far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law than of any other country in the region.”) My article was gentle, all things considered, beginning like this:
JERUSALEM (AP) _ The prickly relationship between Israel and its critics in human rights organizations has escalated into an unprecedented war of words as the fallout from Israel’s Gaza offensive persists ten months after the fighting ended.
Editors killed the story.
Around this time, a Jerusalem-based group called NGO Monitor was battling the international organizations condemning Israel after the Gaza conflict, and though the group was very much a pro-Israel outfit and by no means an objective observer, it could have offered some partisan counterpoint in our articles to charges by NGOs that Israel had committed “war crimes.” But the bureau’s explicit orders to reporters were to never quote the group or its director, an American-born professor named Gerald Steinberg. In my time as an AP writer moving through the local conflict, with its myriad lunatics, bigots, and killers, the only person I ever saw subjected to an interview ban was this professor.

When the UN released its controversial Goldstone report on the Gaza fighting, we at the bureau trumpeted its findings in dozens of articles, though there was discussion even at the time of the report’s failure to prove its central charge: that Israel had killed civilians on purpose. (The director of Israel’s premier human-rights group, B’Tselem, who was critical of the Israeli operation, told me at the time that this claim was “a reach given the facts,” an evaluation that was eventually seconded by the report’s author. “If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document,” Richard Goldstone wrote in The Washington Post in April 2011.) We understood that our job was not to look critically at the UN report, or any such document, but to publicize it.
Decisions like these are hard to fathom if you believe the foreign press corps’ role is to explain a complicated story to people far away. But they make sense if you understand that journalists covering Israel and the Palestinian territories often don’t see their role that way. The radio and print journalist Mark Lavie, who has reported from the region since 1972, was a colleague of mine at the AP, where he was an editor in the Jerusalem bureau and then in Cairo until his retirement last year. (It was Lavie who first learned of the Israeli peace offer of late 2008, and was ordered by his superiors to ignore the story.) An Indiana-born Israeli of moderate politics, he had a long run in journalism that included several wars and the first Palestinian intifada, and found little reason to complain about the functioning of the media.

But things changed in earnest in 2000, with the collapse of peace efforts and the outbreak of the Second Intifada. Israel accepted President Bill Clinton’s peace framework that fall and the Palestinians rejected it, as Clinton made clear. Nevertheless, Lavie recently told me, the bureau’s editorial line was still that the conflict was Israel’s fault, and the Palestinians and the Arab world were blameless. By the end of Lavie’s career, he was editing Israel copy on the AP’s Middle East regional desk in Cairo, trying to restore balance and context to stories he thought had little connection to reality. In his words, he had gone from seeing himself as a proud member of the international press corps to “the Jew-boy with his finger in the dike.” He wrote a book, Broken Spring, about his front-row view of the Middle East’s descent into chaos, and retired disillusioned and angry.
I have tended to see the specific failings that we both encountered at the AP as symptoms of a general thought pattern in the press, but Lavie takes a more forceful position, viewing the influential American news organization as one of the primary authors of this thought pattern. (In a statement, AP spokesman Paul Colford dismissed my criticism as “distortions, half-truths and inaccuracies,” and denied that AP coverage is biased against Israel.) This is not just because many thousands of media outlets use AP material directly, but also because when journalists arrive in their offices in the morning, the first thing many of them do is check the AP wire (or, these days, scroll through it in their Twitter feed). The AP is like Ringo Starr, thumping away at the back of the stage: there might be flashier performers in front, and you might not always notice him, but when Ringo’s off, everyone’s off.

Lavie believes that in the last years of his career, the AP’s Israel operation drifted from its traditional role of careful explanation toward a kind of political activism that both contributed to and fed off growing hostility to Israel worldwide. “The AP is extremely important, and when the AP turned, it turned a lot of the world with it,” Lavie said. “That’s when it became harder for any professional journalist to work here, Jewish or not. I reject the idea that my dissatisfaction had to do with being Jewish or Israeli. It had to do with being a journalist.”
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In describing the realities of combat in the Second World War, the American critic Paul Fussell wrote, the press was censored and censored itself to such an extent that “for almost six years a large slice of actuality—perhaps one-quarter to one-half of it—was declared off-limits, and the sanitized and euphemized remainder was presented as the whole.” During the same war, American journalists (chiefly from Henry Luce’s magazines) were engaged in what Fussell called the “Great China Hoax”—years of skewed reporting designed to portray the venal regime of Chiang Kai-shek as an admirable Western ally against Japan. Chiang was featured six times on the cover of Time, and his government’s corruption and dysfunction were carefully ignored. One Marine stationed in China was so disillusioned by the chasm between what he saw and what he read that upon his discharge, he said, “I switched to Newsweek.”

Journalistic hallucinations, in other words, have a precedent. They tend to occur, as in the case of the Great China Hoax, when reporters are not granted the freedom to write what they see but are rather expected to maintain a “story” that follows predictable lines. For the international press, the uglier characteristics of Palestinian politics and society are mostly untouchable because they would disrupt the Israel story, which is a story of Jewish moral failure.

Most consumers of the Israel story don’t understand how the story is manufactured. But Hamas does. Since assuming power in Gaza in 2007, the Islamic Resistance Movement has come to understand that many reporters are committed to a narrative wherein Israelis are oppressors and Palestinians passive victims with reasonable goals, and are uninterested in contradictory information. Recognizing this, certain Hamas spokesmen have taken to confiding to Western journalists, including some I know personally, that the group is in fact a secretly pragmatic outfit with bellicose rhetoric, and journalists—eager to believe the confession, and sometimes unwilling to credit locals with the smarts necessary to deceive them—have taken it as a scoop instead of as spin.

During my time at the AP, we helped Hamas get this point across with a school of reporting that might be classified as “Surprising Signs of Moderation” (a direct precursor to the “Muslim Brotherhood Is Actually Liberal” school that enjoyed a brief vogue in Egypt). In one of my favorite stories, “More Tolerant Hamas” (December 11, 2011), reporters quoted a Hamas spokesman informing readers that the movement’s policy was that “we are not going to dictate anything to anyone,” and another Hamas leader saying the movement had “learned it needs to be more tolerant of others.” Around the same time, I was informed by the bureau’s senior editors that our Palestinian reporter in Gaza couldn’t possibly provide critical coverage of Hamas because doing so would put him in danger.

Hamas is aided in its manipulation of the media by the old reportorial belief, a kind of reflex, according to which reporters shouldn’t mention the existence of reporters. In a conflict like ours, this ends up requiring considerable exertions: So many photographers cover protests in Israel and the Palestinian territories, for example, that one of the challenges for anyone taking pictures is keeping colleagues out of the frame. That the other photographers are as important to the story as Palestinian protesters or Israeli soldiers—this does not seem to be considered.
A Hamas fighter inside an underground tunnel in Gaza in August 2014, during a tour for Reuters journalists (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)
In Gaza, this goes from being a curious detail of press psychology to a major deficiency. Hamas’s strategy is to provoke a response from Israel by attacking from behind the cover of Palestinian civilians, thus drawing Israeli strikes that kill those civilians, and then to have the casualties filmed by one of the world’s largest press contingents, with the understanding that the resulting outrage abroad will blunt Israel’s response. This is a ruthless strategy, and an effective one. It is predicated on the cooperation of journalists. One of the reasons it works is because of the reflex I mentioned. If you report that Hamas has a strategy based on co-opting the media, this raises several difficult questions, like, What exactly is the relationship between the media and Hamas? And has this relationship corrupted the media? It is easier just to leave the other photographers out of the frame and let the picture tell the story: Here are dead people, and Israel killed them.

In previous rounds of Gaza fighting, Hamas learned that international coverage from the territory could be molded to its needs, a lesson it would implement in this summer’s war. Most of the press work in Gaza is done by local fixers, translators, and reporters, people who would understandably not dare cross Hamas, making it only rarely necessary for the group to threaten a Westerner. The organization’s armed forces could be made to disappear. The press could be trusted to play its role in the Hamas script, instead of reporting that there was such a script. Hamas strategy did not exist, according to Hamas—or, as reporters would say, was “not the story.” There was no Hamas charter blaming Jews for centuries of perfidy, or calling for their murder; this was not the story. The rockets falling on Israeli cities were quite harmless; they were not the story either.

Hamas understood that journalists would not only accept as fact the Hamas-reported civilian death toll—relayed through the UN or through something called the “Gaza Health Ministry,” an office controlled by Hamas—but would make those numbers the center of coverage. Hamas understood that reporters could be intimidated when necessary and that they would not report the intimidation; Western news organizations tend to see no ethical imperative to inform readers of the restrictions shaping their coverage in repressive states or other dangerous areas. In the war’s aftermath, the NGO-UN-media alliance could be depended upon to unleash the organs of the international community on Israel, and to leave the jihadist group alone.

When Hamas’s leaders surveyed their assets before this summer’s round of fighting, they knew that among those assets was the international press. The AP staff in Gaza City would witness a rocket launch right beside their office, endangering reporters and other civilians nearby—and the AP wouldn’t report it, not even in AP articles about Israeli claims that Hamas was launching rockets from residential areas. (This happened.) Hamas fighters would burst into the AP’s Gaza bureau and threaten the staff—and the AP wouldn’t report it. (This also happened.) Cameramen waiting outside Shifa Hospital in Gaza City would film the arrival of civilian casualties and then, at a signal from an official, turn off their cameras when wounded and dead fighters came in, helping Hamas maintain the illusion that only civilians were dying. (This too happened; the information comes from multiple sources with firsthand knowledge of these incidents.)

Colford, the AP spokesman, confirmed that armed militants entered the AP’s Gaza office in the early days of the war to complain about a photo showing the location of a rocket launch, though he said that Hamas claimed that the men “did not represent the group.” The AP “does not report many interactions with militias, armies, thugs or governments,” he wrote. “These incidents are part of the challenge of getting out the news—and not themselves news.”

This summer, with Yazidis, Christians, and Kurds falling back before the forces of radical Islam not far away from here, this ideology’s local franchise launched its latest war against the last thriving minority in the Middle East. The Western press corps showed up en masse to cover it. This conflict included rocket barrages across Israel and was deliberately fought from behind Palestinian civilians, many of whom died as a result. Dulled by years of the “Israel story” and inured to its routine omissions, confused about the role they are meant to play, and co-opted by Hamas, reporters described this war as an Israeli onslaught against innocent people. By doing so, this group of intelligent and generally well-meaning professionals ceased to be reliable observers and became instead an amplifier for the propaganda of one of the most intolerant and aggressive forces on earth.

And that, as they say, is the story.

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Saturday, November 29, 2014

Enabling Islamic State

ISIS began its Kobane offensive in mid-September. The town later became the focus of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition against the militants. (File Photo: AFP) 

There, it is official; Turkey has no truck with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Turkey has never supported them, never given them haven, and there are none within Turkey who support the work of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. And nor has Turkey ever been an effective welcome staging area for new recruits to assemble before joining Islamic State, enabling them to cross the border into Syria with ease and good wishes for success.

The latest accusations that Islamic State jihadists have launched an attack on the border town of Kobane from Turkish territory are likewise nothing but yet another slanderous attack on the honour of Turkey, confirmed by an official statement from the office of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, busily receiving Pope Francis, but not too busy to deny any complicity.

Of course, Turkey's key interest in the conflict is the defeat of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and ISIS is similarly invested in that very same interest. The coincidence, however, does not make them conspiratorial bedfellows.

And nor has Turkey's official refusal to deploy its considerable military strength in assisting the Syrian Kurdish YPG in their defence of Kobane against the Islamic State jihadists who have held it under siege for months. "It is known that the terrorist group ISIS has been attacking too many places simultaneously in Kobane and also to Mursitpinar border gate since this morning", the statement obligingly offered.

"One of these attacks was made in the Syrian side of the border by a bomb-laden vehicle. The allegation that the vehicle in the mentioned attack reached the border gate through Turkish land is definitely a lie." Turkish officials strenuously denying that the vehicle groaning under its load of bombs passed the border from Turkey. This, in response to claims by activists and Kurds identifying the attack by ISIS as having emanated from Turkish territories.
Nawaf Khalil, a spokesman for the Kurdish Democratic Union Party of Syria held otherwise, explaining that ISIS "used to attack the town from three sides ... today, they are attacking from four sides." A suicide bomb in an armored vehicle on the border crossing between Kobane and Turkey began the assault, according to a spokesman for the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, operating out of Britain.

Turkey remains embittered that the United States  -- while pressing the Turkish government to become involved with the U.S.-led strikes against ISIS in Syria, and at the very least permit the Incerlik air base just north of the Syrian border, in close distance to ISIL targets both in Syria and Iraq be opened for use by the U.S. and its allies -- has not agreed to target the Syrian regime for its crimes against its own people.

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Miracles and Barbarism

"It's a miracle that we are still alive. Bombs fall day after day."
Gabriel Daoud, Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, Saint George Church, Damascus

"[They have been] evicted from their homes and native lands, sold as slaves, killed, beheaded, crucified or burned alive, under the shameful and complicit silence of so many."
"There is another threat, that of state terrorism. Each state, for its own part, feels it has the right to massacre terrorists. But so many innocent people perish at the same time as the terrorists."
Pope Francis
Christians balk at leaving Syrian city under siegeThe arch at the entrance to the Dakhaniyeh neighbourhood of Damascus is damaged in fighting in Syria. Despite the destruction, ruin and constant danger, many in the city do not want to leave the place that is their home.   Photograph by: STR, Getty Images , London Daily Telegraph

The Old City of Damascus remains yet, despite the Syrian army bombardments, its ancient walls reverberating. Inhabited for over four thousand years, the residents wonder how much longer they will be able to live there, their lives in constant danger. Christians were largely neutral in the war, but they know they are targeted by the jihadists They have been kidnapped, churches desecrated. Pope Francis has spoken of the "barbaric acts of violence", to which he says force can be used to stop an "unjust aggressor".

The Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad may not have given permission to The U.S. to fly aerial assaults on ISIS over Syrian territory, holding out for an agreement between the U.S. and Syria which Assad may have thought would be forthcoming, but which the U.S. would certainly view with the horror it deserves, but that bombing of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham is certainly to the benefit of Damascus.

It's difficult to really discern which is the worst human-rights offender; the regime or ISIS. Nothing has been beyond Bashar al-Assad's arsenal of pay-back to his majority Sunni population for the rise of Sunni opposition to his Alawite Shiite rule disentitling Sunnis. The abduction and torture of children, the rape of women, the helicopter warships, the chemical weapons attacks, the barrel bombings, the deliberate starvation, and the routing of millions of Syrians from their homes.

There is no area of Syria in which Syrian Sunnis live or once lived that was immune from artillery fire, from bombing, leaving vast swathes of its capital along with other cities in absolute ruins. The city of Damascus, lived in for thousands of years, parts of which represented a living archaeological treasure, forever destroyed. Revenge attacks against the Sunni population for harbouring rebel Syrian Sunni insurgents continue unabated.

If the Syrian Free Army once thought they had a chance to defeat their murderous oppressor and in the absence of aid from the West to help arm them to match their defences against those of the regime, welcomed foreign jihadis, that hope was dashed with the steady incursion of Islamist jihadists with their own agendas, from all over the Sunni world of terrorism and vengeance against the minority Shiites. Who had their own militias from which to match the barbarism of the invading terrorists.

Hezbollah and the Republican Guard came to the regime's rescue to help it regain positions it had lost to the rebels. And the rebels began to suffer losses both at the hands of the regime and at those of the al-Qaeda-linked Islamists. And now, the United States and its allies have been persuaded to help the regime even further, even if by default, by attacking ISIS from the air.

A man walks amid smoke and fire following a reported air strike by Syrian government forces in the ISIS group controlled Syrian city of Raqa, on Nov. 25. 2014. (AFP)

The U.S. and its allies know that Raqqa is the stronghold in Syria of the extremists whose presence they are anxious to eradicate. They know as well that the city is one of civilian residence who have had no option but to live there with the Islamic State terrorists among them, now governing every aspect of their civilian life through fanatical religious edicts. Where Western morals restrain the U.S. from considering bombing the city, no such constraints concern Bashar al-Assad.

Over 63 Syrians died when Syria's war planes struck on Tuesday. At least half of those who died in the strikes were estimated to be of the civilian population. But a victory for the regime which hasn't bothered commenting, since half of those whom they killed were obviously ISIS jihadis.  According to Rami Abdulrahman of the Observatory for Human Rights in Britain, ten war planes struck ten targets in Raqqa.

"The majority of the strikes were in the eastern part of the city. At least 36 of those killed are civilians. As for the rest, we are not sure yet if they were fighters." The Local Coordination Committees, according to the Associated Press, commented that at least 70 people were killed in the strikes, while the collective naming itself Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered claim it had documented over 80 deaths.

Since the U.S.-led coalition began its attacks on Islamic State positions, the regime's air force has responded by an increase in its strikes right across Syria. There may be no cooperation between the Syrian regime and the West but by default the United States is working alongside the Islamic Republic of Iran in both Iraq and Syria to defeat the Islamic State. Of huge benefit to the Syrian regime.

However the situation turns eventually, should Turkey's demands on the United States prevail and a coalition begin to turn its attention to the Syrian regime once the situation with ISIS levels off, (though there is concern that could very well take years to effect), there is little doubt that the regime is concerned to weaken the rebel forces even more than their current parlous state of ineffectiveness before the U.S. can make good on its promise to train and arm them.

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Friday, November 28, 2014

The Jihadi Elephant In The Room

"It's kind of like the sounding bell went off for Canadians."
"There is a new consciousness out there right now where religious leaders are coming forward to say 'enough'."
"Enforcement is one tool, but because this problem has grown so fast we know we can't arrest ourselves out of this. It's something where we have to think of doing the business differently. We're going to be busy."
"I really believe in the strength of community. When they decide to come together with police, health, school teachers, people can really mobilize and bring change. They really can. Will we be able to ever stop this threat? What I want to focus on is stopping one threat, stopping two threats. I am going to take them incrementally and I believe we can."
Superintendent Shirley Cuillierrier, director general, partnerships and external relations, RCMP

"Do not ask for anyone's advice and do not seek anyone's verdict. Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military."
ISIL spokesman Abu Muhammad Al-Adnani
The Islamic State (IS) released an audio speech from its spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, rallying fighters against the U.S.-led coalition against them in Iraq and Syria, and threatening America, as well as calling upon individual Muslims to launch attacks on civilians in allied countries.
"Family members, peers, religious community leaders, even teachers, doctors, nurses and social workers are better placed to identify and respond to the changes in attitude and behaviour that are precursors to violent extremist action."
"And, with support, they are better placed to take meaningful and positive action to address those early warning signs before they become problems."
"As a society, the task facing us is to counter violent extremism at the community level. As a government, our task is to ensure that communities are equipped with an array of options in support of prevention and intervention."
Gary Robertson, Assistant Deputy Minister, National and Cyber Security Branch (Public Safety Canada)

"I do think more Muslims are waking up to the threat of radicalization in their communities."
We hope to eventually partner with the RCMP as well as education boards in order to help curb radicalization."
Tayyab Pirzada, Stop the crISIS spokeswoman
File image taken from a video on July 8, 2012, shows the spokesman for the ISIL terrorist group, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani.
File image taken from a video on July 8, 2012, shows the spokesman for the ISIL terrorist group, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani.

Political Ottawa must grapple, along with its security agencies, with how to manage the reality of homegrown jihadists threatening the peace and stability of the country. Terrorist groups have long had their infiltrating presence in Canada. Their operations in Canada were covert and geared mostly to fund-raising from among the expatriate communities of Arabs and Muslims to benefit the groups that Canada recognizes as terrorists: Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, along with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Their operations in fund-raising within the country didn't alert the government with concerned alarm that harm would come to Canada and Canadians through their silent fund-raising operations. Gradually those groups gained enough confidence through infiltration of various government agencies to present themselves as advisers. And on the side they incited for sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians, advocating for the isolation of Israel, through boycott and divestment initiatives.

That kind of destructive social disharmony did affect Canada and Canadians through indirectly harming another country and attacking at the same time Israel's connection to Canadian Jews, and the support that Israel received from the Jewish-Canadian community. It is also when Hamas and Hezbollah turned to alternate means of fund-raising for their very costly terrorist activities by investing time and effort in tobacco and arms smuggling, and then car-highjacking that authorities began to take notice.

But the real notice came courtesy of the growing Islamist movement toward jihad worldwide, when Canada began to recognize the threats of jihad arriving home with the return of those who had gone to train and fight abroad. And the newly recognized threats of homegrown radicalization where Canada itself became a target resulting from its participation in attempting to push back violent Islam in foreign countries. Earning it the reputation as another Islamophobic country ripe for revenge.

With the self-radicalized jihadist movement of lone wolves finding targets in the Canadian military within Canada, the Canadian security establishment began to pull up their trousers and plan new avenues of a more comprehensive playbook to defence and security. Recent events appear to have influenced broad-based members of the Canadian Muslim community to recognize that they have an obligation to involve themselves in Islamist threats to the country they call their own, from among their own.

A new effort to mobilize from Canada's Muslim community is beginning to evince itself with police services right across the country reporting people presenting themselves to engage police about radicalization they fear is taking place in their communities. Responding to the very issue that security and enforcement agencies at every level hoped to initiate in their effort to address the growing threat posed by violent radicals.

"These are deep problems in the Islamic community", said Sohail Raza, with the group Muslims for Tomorrow. He feels the issue of recognition of where and when radicalization takes place must be taken directly to the mosques where anti-Western thought can be prevalent. Radicalization, he emphasizes has been happening for years. He also mentions that sometimes the RCMP in their effort to find solutions has partnered with organizations with questionable ties or direct connections with extremist groups.

Senator Lynn Beyak seems to feel similar convictions: "I believe we have an elephant in the room that everyone is afraid to acknowledge. We are talking about extreme violence here in Canada, but the world is referring to it as extreme jihadist Islamic terrorism."

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Negotiating With Iran Over Nuclear

"This barbaric, wolflike & infanticidal regime of #Israel which spares no crime has no cure but to be annihilated."
"West Bank should be armed just like #Gaza. Friends of Palestine should do their best to arm People in West Bank."
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei @khamenei_ir 
This barbaric, wolflike & infanticidal regime of #Israel which spares no crime has no cure but to be annihilated. 7/23/14 #HandsOffAlAqsa
"On the nuclear issue, the United States and European colonialist countries gathered and applied their entire efforts to bring the Islamic Republic to its knees but they could not and they will not." Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

"[Iran] has achieved a significant victory. Negotiations will lead to a deal, sooner or later. [Many obstacles in the talks] have been eliminated."
Iranian President Hassan Rohani
R-40 Reactor. Heavy Water Production Plant near Arak

'Obstacles', needless to say, representing the obstinacy of the West in declaring their imposed ideas on what should be permitted the Islamic Republic of Iran in pursuing its nuclear goals. From heavy water production facilities to the number of centrifuges spinning enriched uranium, to the regular inspections at Fordow and Arak by IAEA inspectors, all representing the impudence of Iran's competitors in the global arena, jealous of the Republic's successes.

But the negotiations failed to conclude with a mutual agreement on the 24th of November, and agreement for an extension of seven months for further negotiations were agreed upon. An annoyance to Iran, but a bit of a success as well, since Iran so excels at persuading its interfering Western interlocutors that agreement can be reached, if they all try a little harder to match Iran's agreeableness to those negotiations. The process buying time for Iran.

So how well has the G5+1 succeeded in turning Iran toward its reassurance demands that it prove it has no intention of fashioning a nuclear arsenal, despite its sincere attestations that it interested only in civil nuclear production? Both sides reached agreement that Iran should possess an "enrichment program with practical limits and transparency measure", though Iran's perception on the matter does not quite match that of the G5+1.

Uranium can be enriched, the G5+1 holds, from a low, reactor-fuel level up to grades used to enable the core of a nuclear weapon. Iran balks from pulling away from expanding enrichment to that level that requires 190.000 centrifuges, claiming it is prepared to reduce its currently operating 20,000 to 7,000. Washington originally insisted on no more than 2,000, and now has moved closer to Iran's figure, accepting 4,000.

The U.S. and allies want the underground enrichment plant near Fordow closed or converted to another use, while Iran insists it must maintain the centrifuges in operation there even if they aren't actually enriching uranium (?). The Arak heavy-water unit under construction capable of producing amounts of plutonium useful as the fissile core of a missile is an issue the U.S. feels requires another reactor type entirely to produce minuscule plutonium.
Aerial view of a heavy-water production plant (2006)
Heavy water is used to moderate the nuclear fission chain reaction either in a certain type of reactor - albeit not the type that Iran is currently building - or produce plutonium for use in a nuclear bomb.

If Iran is proven to honour the final agreement it would have the right in 20 years' time to expand enrichment without strict monitoring. Iran would prefer less than ten years, rather than restrictions imposed over a two-decade period. And immediate and permanent relief from U.S., E.U., and U.N. sanctions should accompany Iran's agreeable cooperation. Cooperation that the IAEA states is non-existent, unfortunately.

As for relief from crippling economic sanctions, perhaps Iran should have been a tad more agreeable before the Republican-majority Congress begins their work in January, including their threat to ramp up sanctions should an agreement not dismantle the enrichment process. The latest effort by the UN atomic agency to investigate allegations of work on nuclear weapons has been foiled by an uncooperative Iran.

Information sought by the International Atomic Energy Agency was withheld by Tehran. The IAEA investigation is separate from the ongoing negotiations, but obviously linked to them if for no other very vital reason that what emanates from them represents what can be expected from Iran and the Ayatollah Khamenei's final decision-making.

A deal can be struck only at such time as the IAEA can be satisfied with the final results of its probe.

And then Israel can start fretting existentially again in serious over the good-natured musing of the Grand Ayatollah.

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Gatestone Institute

Many people are understandably asking: What is the true nature of Islam? Is it that although there are many peaceful Muslims, Islam itself is not peaceful?
Classical Islamic law, developed over the history of Islam, is definitely not peaceful or benign, and therefore not suitable for this age; neither are its violent and grotesque progeny, such as Islamism and jihadism.
If Islam is a religion that stands for justice and peaceful coexistence, then this policy of jihad cannot be justified as sanctioned by a just and merciful creator.
Religious traditions have changed and evolved over time, therefore it is the duty of us Muslims, using reason and common sense, to reinterpret the scriptures to bring about an Islam that affirms and promotes universally accepted human rights and values. It is our duty to cleanse the traditional, literalist, classical Islam and purify it to make it an Islam that is worthy to be called a beautiful religion.
Looking at a year of beheadings by ISIS, child grooming abuses in the UK, judicial misconduct by the hanging judges of Iran, slaughtering and enslaving of Christians in Egypt and Africa, and various murders justified in the name of Islam throughout the world, many people are understandably asking: What is the true nature of Islam? Is it that although there are many peaceful Muslims, Islam itself is not peaceful?

If, for us Muslims, Islam is a religion of peace, justice, and mercy, how come the militants, who claim to be staunch Muslims -- who are ready to die for Islam and who claim to have established a state in the name of Islam in Iraq and Syria by sacrificing blood and lives -- are beheading journalists and aid workers, and enslaving religious minorities, all by citing Islamic Sharia Law?

The Taliban (literally "students") in Afghanistan have persecuted religious minorities and inflicted human right abuses against women -- and men who disagreed with them or who have fallen afoul of their laws. Boko Haram has also carried out human rights abuses in the name of Islam and Islamic law. In Malaysia, where "moderate" Islam is practiced, Christians cannot call God "Allah." In Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, and supposedly an ally of the U.S., the policies and practices carried out by the state, and the Wahhabi religious scholars in the name of Islam, are woefully anti-humanitarian. Many Muslims from around the world perform the religiously required pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina; a number of them are on the dole of the petrodollars provided by the Saudis, but do not show much concern for the human rights abuses carried out in the name of Islam by the Saudi establishment.

Many devout Muslims, like monks in monasteries, are busily trapped in performing rites and rituals, and ceding ever more ground to extremists, without adequately reflecting on the history of Islam, the nature of God and the nature of revelation from God.
We Muslims commonly believe that God sent prophets and messengers to every corner of the world since the beginning of creation to guide humanity, but that most, if not all, of the messages got corrupted and adulterated, one way or another, except the message of Islam. But it seems natural that most people, Muslims or not, also see their own religion as the only true religion. But there are religious traditions, both in Islam, such as many Sufi sects, and in other religions, that affirm the transcendental unity at the core of almost all religious traditions, and that are inclusive and universalistic in nature.

Also, Muslims learn from the Qur'an that hubris, or arrogance, is the greatest sin committed by the Satan, and that it was arrogance led him to disobey God. God asked him to bow to Adam, the first human, but Satan refused out of arrogance.

The current question seems to be: Did Muslims go astray very early on, when they conquered many lands and developed a massive doctrine and theology of intolerance (it took about 300 years to solidify Sharia after the passing of the Prophet Muhammad), due to pride and quest for power -- the very arrogance that is prohibited? Although many conversions to Islam did not occur by the sword, the first four caliphs (the so-called "Rightly Guided") and their successors did in fact send out armies to conquer the world. If Islam is a religion that stands for justice and peaceful coexistence, then this policy of jihad -- and the idea that peace and justice can be achieved only under Islamic sovereignty -- with Muslim rulers subjugating non-Muslims, cannot be justified as sanctioned by a just and merciful Creator.

The Islamic tradition is not monolithic; there are countless variants. Many of the Islamic Sufi traditions, for instance, that are often relentlessly condemned by the extremists, who likely see them as a threat to their own power -- are notable for their pluralistic and humanistic nature, even though, historically, some orders may have been more martial than spiritual.
There have been many individual Muslims throughout history who are truly freedom-loving and who respect the rights of all human beings. Also, historically, a number of Muslim kings, sultans and emperors in Andalusia, Spain -- and in the Ottoman Empire in Turkey, as well as in Mughal India -- who treated their non-Muslim subjects kindly, albeit not with full equality. The Ottoman Sultans established a system of "millet" whereby people of other religious communities were allowed to live in the Empire in peace, although as second-class "protected" citizens, had to pay a head tax called jizya, but were otherwise freely allowed to follow their own personal laws and religions (Canon law for Christians and halakha for the Jews), without attempting to convert them by compulsion.

Maimonides, the early medieval Jewish scholar, for example, makes it clear that even in the "golden age" of Islamic rule in Spain, it could be a bit nightmarish for the non-Muslims; but if the rulers were reasonably kind and tolerant, and if the intolerant religious leaders were not in control, non-Muslims could live restrained but reasonably comfortable lives, as dhimmis (protected people), under Islamic suzerainty.

When Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, died in the year 632 CE, the Qur'an had not been compiled as a book. The messages said to have been revealed from God, or Allah, to the Muhammad during a period of 23 years, during his prophetic career, were either orally passed down or written on animal bones, leather and scraps of parchment, without systematic collection or any adequate background or context.

The Prophet Muhammad himself did not provide any authoritative narration or explanation for the Qur'anic verses while he was alive. He also did not provide a method for selecting his successor, nor did he authorize his companions to record the Hadith (his actions and sayings) while he was alive. Later, therefore, subsequent generations would have to sift through mountains of dubious material, in an age of primitive record keeping -- and during a period of discord, partisanship and violence, even among those who were close to the Prophet.
In the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE (48 years after Muhammad's death), depicted in Abbas Al-Musavi's painting, Husayn, the son of 'Ali and grandson of Muhammad, was killed along with his family and all his followers by the armies of the Umayyad Caliphate. It was the most crucial moment in the split between Shi'a and Sunni Islam. (Image source: Brooklyn Museum)

The Qur'an and the six canonical Hadith collections primarily formed the twin pillars of the sources from which the scholars of Islam developed the principles of Sharia and the commandments of the Islamic laws. These try to give prescriptions and proscriptions for all human conducts imaginable.

But is it not possible that God wanted humans to use their brains and rational faculties, and that He did not provide step-by-step instructions for all the questions in life simply to be obeyed by humans without reflection or questioning? Although in Islam, there exists an important concept called ijtihad -- independent reasoning in legal matters -- the literalist, textual fundamentalist scholars declared this principle to be inoperable whenever there are clear-cut, decisive textual statements in the sacred texts on the issue in question. There is also a debate as to whether the gates of ijtihad were closed after the 10th century CE. While most traditional Islamic scholars and jurists still consider ijtihad to be the exclusive domain and prerogative of the preeminent religious scholars (mujtahid), and not for the general public, other scholars do not.

In the early days of Islam, right after the passing away of the Prophet Muhammad, Muslims splintered into many sects and factions. There were endless debates on the issues of religious doctrine, theology, and religious law, due to divergent interpretations of the Qur'an and the Hadiths. During that period, a group of theologians called the Mutazila, who based their theology on reason and rational thinking in conjunction with the sacred texts, waged an intellectual battle with the traditionalists, who gave absolute primacy to strict literal interpretations of the revealed texts: the Quran and the Hadith. Unfortunately for the future of the Islamic tradition, the literal traditionalists won the struggle, and went on to establish among the Sunni Muslims the four legal schools of Sharia, which became the dominant form of Islam from then onwards.

This mainstream, legalistic, text-bound, literalist Islam -- now the dominant strain and controlled by the traditional Muslim scholars -- is a mixture of both humanistic ethical values, combined with supremacist ethos, as it developed throughout the centuries. Due to its literalist tradition, it does not have the flexibility or the ability to overcome interpretations of the scriptures that are inimical to pluralistic and humanistic values.

Many equate this literalist, legalistic, text-bound Islam to be the "true" Islam. But just because it is the dominant form of Islam does not mean that it is the "true" Islam. A careful study of the history of Islam indicates that this view is utterly unwarranted. Religious traditions have changed and evolved over time, based on the understandings, interpretations, and practices of their adherents. Therefore, it is the duty of us Muslims, using reason and common sense, to reinterpret the scriptures to bring about an Islam that affirms and promotes universally accepted human rights and values.

Classical Islamic law is a synthesis and deduction of rulings from the Quran and Hadith by the medieval scholars from when Muslims were powerful. Beheadings and enslavement at that time were widespread among many societies, not unique to the practice of Islam. Muslims believe that in the Quran we have a document from God that provides ethical guidance and moral lessons from the Prophet and his followers in the language many at the time understood. They allude to the practices and conduct suitable for the time and place in which the Prophet lived and was trying to influence people.

There were many actions of the Prophet recorded in the "authentic" Hadith, such as holding slaves, carrying out beheadings and so on, which are not easy to accept according to the present day norms, to say the least. But for the textual literalists, there is no question that whatever the Prophet did, as recorded in the approved texts, must be accepted and emulated without any question or hesitation. And in order to strengthen their text-based legal methodology, the textual literalists elevated the status of the so called "authentic" Hadith to the status of the divine scripture, almost equivalent to the status of the Qur'an, believed by almost all Muslims to be the literal word of Allah relayed to the Prophet.

For the rest of us, however, first, we need to realize that the "approved" texts were recorded by early methods and at least after a century or two after the passing of the Prophet in an age of violent sectarian conflicts. Therefore, it might be wise to take with a big grain of salt, the accuracy of these so called "approved" texts. Second, if the actions of the Prophet were so important as exact examples, then, why didn't he or his God make sure that authoritative, unambiguous, contemporary recordings of the actions were written down for posterity to follow? Either the Prophet or his God, or both, did not have foresight, or more than likely, these actions were not meant to be exactly copied and emulated, especially in different times, different places, and under vastly different circumstances.

While it is true that there are eternal principles in the Qur'an and the Hadith, such as peace, justice, and mercy, which are universal values, and therefore, incumbent on everyone to believe and practice at all times and at all places, it is also true that it is a betrayal of the true spirit of Islam to assume that God wanted Muslims to follow the Prophet blindly, slavishly, without thinking and reflecting. Is it possible, therefore, that the close-minded, literalist and text-bound tradition is a betrayal of the true spirit of Islam?

The pitfalls of the literalist methodology can be illustrated by looking at any textual document. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, for example, affirms freedom of speech. But we know that, to "shout fire in a crowded theater" (when there is no fire), for example, endangering public safety, does not fall under the protection of the First Amendment. Any text by its very nature is finite and limited, and therefore cannot be comprehensive. Therefore, to be a strict literalist is to live in constant conflict with common sense and with practical reason. According to the literalist classical scholars of Islam, "justice" is achieved only by being obedient to God and reason by itself is not to be trusted to decide what is just and unjust.

For these literalist, text-bound scholars, there are no objective standards of right or wrong by using reason alone. In the mind of the literalists, the killing of innocents, for example, is wrong not because we learn from experience or reason, but because that is what God says in the Qur'an and the Hadith. According to them, God could just as well have said, for example, in the scripture that the killing of innocents is right, and therefore that makes it right.
The god of these scholars is not therefore a merciful and rational God but a god of power whose motto is: "Might is right!" In order to preserve the absolute omnipotence of God, these scholars sacrifice rationality as an essential attribute of God.

As Prof. Robert Reilly writes in the article, "The Formidable Philosophical Obstacles to Islamic Constitutionalism":
"There is a realm within which man is legitimately semi-autonomous and sovereign. Through his reason, he is called upon [to] figure out how to rule it and himself ... God [in the Judeo-Christian tradition] speaks to man with equal force through his reason, as He does through revelation. Reason, therefore, is morally legitimate as a source of law. What is reasonable is morally good."
If we Muslims want to stand up and challenge the literalism of the text-bound scholars and the militants who are beheading, enslaving and persecuting people around the world alike, we need to develop an interpretative methodology that balances revelation with reason as in other rational, religious traditions.

The militants are idealistic and impatient, and part of an ideology that has essentially become frozen in time, while the other Muslims are more careful, patient and circumspect, and dwell in a tolerant society without resorting to violence.

That is why many of these literalists believe that peace, justice and mercy (all interpreted according to the classical Sharia) can be achieved only under the sovereignty or hegemony of Islamic rule. And that is also why the OIC (Organization of Islamic Conference, since renamed the Organization of Islamic Cooperation), in 1990 came up with its own version of a human rights declaration, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam -- based on Sharia law -- to supersede the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, approved by the UN in 1948.
So the vital question is: Can't we Muslims also learn from all of human history and all of nature -- the arts and the sciences -- which are also created and originated from God, as in "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God," as stated in the U.S. Declaration of Independence?
There are signs and hints in the natural world that provide guidance from the Creator on a continuing basis, even after all the textual revelations. Although God has stopped sending His messages (revelations) through human messengers, He is still providing messages, in the form of natural phenomena in the world He created, so that human beings can experiment and learn, and benefit -- using reason and reflection.

Slavery and beheadings may have been suitable at some time in human history. But just because it is in the scriptural texts, it does not mean that we need to follow them to the letter so literally, for eternity -- unless we happen to agree with the literalists, and reject using reason and thinking to learn from the natural sciences and the experiences of human history.
A religion that prescribes killing or criminalizing apostates; condones institutionalized slavery, stoning, beheading, flogging, and amputations; which restricts and criminalizes freedom of speech and freedom of religion; commands the stoning of adulterers; develops a theory of constant state of war with non-believers; discriminates and demeans women and people of other religions is not only "The Religion of the Bigots" but it is also the Religion of the Bullies.

Classical Islamic law, developed over the history of Islam, is definitely not peaceful or benign, and therefore not suitable for this age; neither are its violent and grotesque progeny such as Islamism and jihadism.

If we Muslims believe that "true" Islam, which is genuinely aligned with the will of the Creator, must be fundamentally peaceful, comprehensively merciful and objectively just, then it is our duty to cleanse the traditional, literalist, classical Islam and purify it to make an Islam that is worthy to be called a beautiful religion.
Ahmed Vanya , based in San Jose, California, is a fellow at the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD).


Battling Jihad

"I think that there were a lot out there thinking exactly as [previous volunteer] Dillon had been. The majority so far have definitely been Canadian."
"It's really tugging at a lot of guys' heartstrings."
"They have to have at least military training and deployment. They have to have functioned in a conflict environment before and proven to be able to deal with those stresses"
Ian Bradbury, co-ordinating ex-military to fight ISIS
Facebook  Dillon Hillier: Kurds “don't care that I'm not a Muslim.”
"Under no circumstances should Canadians condone, let alone champion, individual volunteers such as Hillier fighting alongside foreign forces. Instead, save your praise for those in uniform serving our national interests."
Scott Taylor, military analyst

"What stands out to me is, you see very clearly three or four possible methods to address radicalization."
"People are far more tepid towards that hypothetical method [allotting federal money to mosques to fight radicalization]."
"That's of note to me: People are split 50-50 on the idea of mosques being granted to spend on radicalization prevention."
Shachi Kurl, senior vice president, Angus Reid

"[Forging close ties with ethnic communities gives] valuable insights, language skills and cultural understanding. Cultural sensitivity and understanding are important in monitoring diaspora communities with radical elements."
Rick Parent, associate professor of criminology, Simon Fraser University

Two responses from within Canada to the threats imposed by radicalized Islamists flocking to join jihadist groups like al-Qaeda and Islamic State in Iraq and Al Sham. One has seen a counter-action to the home-grown jihadis who move heaven and earth to travel abroad to Syria, Iraq and North Africa to join the bloodletting of sectarian violence roiling Muslim countries. Ian Bradbury, former military, is now busy co-ordinating other ex-military who are eager to join the other side, to fight with the Kurdish peshmerga against ISIS.

At home, a new poll has given the results that more than four in five Canadians support training mental-health workers to identify signals of radicalization with the potential to lead homegrown terrorists to mount violent attacks within Canada, and alternately to travel to the points of conflict in the Middle East. Four out of five Canadians as well support deportation and blocking terror-related Internet sites to fight radicalization.

Indefinite imprisonment of those prepared to launch jihadist violence within Canada or those returning to Canada from fighting in Syria or Iraq, bringing their newfound skills with them, along with their adopted hatreds is supported by two-thirds of Canadians. Allocating government, tax-funded support to mosques isn't much favoured by Canadians in the expectation that clerics would become involved in pacifying notions among their flock of violent jihad.

The very idea of having to pay religious figures to do their work in deflecting the deleterious effects of Islamic jihadist psychopathy rather than expect this to be done as a matter of religious sanity and allegiance to Canada goes against the grain of the expected social contract. When the RCMP had set up a special unit to reach out to the Muslim community in a common effort to deflect Muslim youth from violence, a booklet of information was published.

Working alongside the Islamic Social Services and Council of Canadian Muslims the RCMP took part in putting together a handbook titled  United Against Terrorism. Which stated, among other, more controversial things: "Verses in the Qur'an are twisted, abused and misrepresented by Muslim extremists, as are the Prophetic traditions, to support, justify and rationalize their hateful messages of violence and terrorism.
"Islamophobes reinforce hatred against Muslims and demonize Islam using the same cut-and-paste approach to the Qur'an to argue that Islam condones terrorism."
Leading the RCMP to the conclusion that language in the booklet couldn't really be supported by them.

Which brings us back to the growing interest of ex-military personnel to use what they gained in the military to the advantage of the Kurds in Iraq battling the murderous Islamists of Islamic State whose backlash against "Islamophobes" was such that they went on an endless killing spree, utilizing all manner of alternative killing techniques to sustain their enthusiasm and enjoyment of the process, that mass slaughter and mutilation, mass rape, crucifixion and beheadings represent a partial list.

Because these acts are so abhorrent to civilized people and those same people are so outraged at the seeming inability or unwillingness of local national interests in mounting a military response to the Islamic Front, they are themselves prepared to travel across the world to help those ethnic groups prepared to defend themselves against the tribal, sectarian and Islamofascist atrocities of the jihadis whose cruel barbarity is entirely attributable to the scorn of the West toward Islam.

Mr. Bradbury's organization is prepared to guide and assist volunteers prepared to leave their homes and their country to embark on a mission of aid in the Middle East conflicts. A counterbalance to the far more numerous psychopathic jihadis streaming into the Middle East to take part in the atrocities so appealing to the juvenile-fixated minds of demented Muslim fanatics.

Half of those contacting Mr. Bradbury are screened to meet basic requirements. Those whom his organization has taken on to assist in their endeavours are to be provided with equipment and logistical support. Arrangements are made with the Peshmerga to receive foreigners in roles such as training and mentoring, not necessarily fighting. A Peshmerga Facebook page informs Western volunteers how they may join, cautioning they will not be paid.

Mr. Bradbury feels that the killing in October of two Canadian Forces members in Quebec and in Ottawa by Muslim converts who had subscribed to radical jihad now motivates volunteers to come forward to fight those with the same psychotic mindsets believing they perform the work of god in killing innocent civilians. The deaths of the two Canadian members of the military shocked the nation.

"That's made it real for a lot of people again. They had left and taken on new lives and it still sits within them, that defender lifestyle. And regardless of what else they were doing when that happened, it fully hit home for them and it definitely made it all real for them. So I think that had a great impact", explained Mr. Bradbury.

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A New Russia on the Horizon...?

"I don't think -- I'm sure -- he isn't mad He is bluffing. He would like to be viewed as mad, so the West comes to him with a compromise. He is nervous that the West has taken a principled position because he expected to be offered a compromise. He believes that Russia is an inevitable partner on many challenges in the world. Russia is a very important country, but the leader of the country cannot behave like this in the 21st century."
"It is important to demonstrate to Mr. Putin that his behaviour is irresponsible, reckless and not acceptable at all."
"If the West stays strong and gives Putin to understand that there are consequences, then he will not go further. But if some compromise is offered or achieved, that will encourage him to -- maybe not invade -- but to pressure Moldova or launch asymmetric war with the Baltic States."
"The majority of Russians are subject to intensive, intelligent propaganda coming from television -- 100% of which is controlled by Putin."
"We don't have free media; we don't have independent judiciary; we don't have separation of powers; and, we don't have the main pillar of democracy -- free and fair elections. All we have are imitations of these institutions, which Putin controls. He controls the whole life of the country."
"We are not a totalitarian system yet -- we have freedom of movement. But more and more features of the Soviet Union appear in our life."
"Mr. Putin believes he will run forever, but I think it will not be for a long period of time. Within two years there will be big changes. Society will start to realize what he has been saying about the Crimea and Ukraine is wrong. They will understand that change is necessary and inevitable I hope it can be done peacefully."
Former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov
Vladimir Putin is not mad — he is bluffing, says rival Mikhail Kasyanov.
AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service   Vladimir Putin is not mad — he is bluffing, says rival Mikhail Kasyanov.

Mr. Kasyanov gives Vladimir Putin, his nemesis, two more years as the benevolent tyrant of Russia before he is forced by world events and an awakening public, and an emerging political challenge with focus and increasing support even from the hinterlands, to step aside. Given Mr. Putin's unabashed self-styling as Russia's modern saviour and his determination to remain forever in power, the event, when it occurs, will not be one of gracious elegance.

Prime Minister in 2004, Mikhail Kasyanov and other Russian cabinet members were summarily dismissed by the president. He is now the leader of the opposition People's Freedom Party. Recently in Ottawa to deliver a speech to Canada 2020, he was interviewed and spoke of his thoughts on Vladimir Putin and the direction in which he has taken Russia over his long periods of ruling the country as both President and Prime Minister, an interminable, un-Democratic process of everlasting rule.

He applauds the trans-Atlantic response to Russia's annexation of Crimea, and urges pressure to continue, to isolate President Putin on the world stage. Isolation is not exactly what has taken place as world leaders, while aghast at Mr. Putin's belligerence in east Europe, his incursions in Georgia and Ukraine, his threat of nuclear possession, his arrogance in tweaking the alert reactions of nations across the global spectrum, have done little to inform him unequivocally that he has leaped boundaries of permissive international behaviour.

The West, claimed Mr Kasyanov, should insist on the implementation of the Minsk Protocol ceasefire agreement, in particular that provision calling for the permanent monitoring of the Ukraine-Russia border by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. "As soon as border controls are established, all those republics disappear", he stated. Russians, he mused, are consumed with the belief that their country is boxed in by its enemies, impairing its sovereignty; the influence of the state media machine.

He spoke of his party, the People's Freedom Party, banned from running in the Moscow city elections, stating he fully anticipates that the party would be similarly barred from running in the federal elections slated for 2016. When he was prime minister, Mr. Kasyanov launched economic reforms reducing inflation, balancing the budget and growing the Russian economy substantially. Since then, Mr. Putin, he said, has destroyed the institutions of the time, ending the policy of reducing dependence on oil and gas.

When he left office the budget was balanced, oil pricing $27 a barrel. Since then the Russian economy has struggled despite oil prices reaching $130 a barrel, a result of skyrocketing government spending. "Government expenditures increased by 20 - 30% a year on Putin's persona projects -- the [Winter] Olympic games, the football World Cup. It imitates private investment but it's not; it's funded from state finances."

Mr. Kasyanov predicted an economic crisis within two years when the impact of a low oil price combined with Western sanctions will affect production volumes, and state income to a large degree, representing the catalyst to deflate the public's admiration and expectation of Vladimir Putin's future plans for Russian advancement in all spheres of endeavour, not the least economic stability and employment.

One can only ponder the free-speaking relaxation while in Canada of the man who promises to be Mr. Putin's next victim, a man who appears to have bidden frugal contemplation of his own future adieu in the larger interest of informing a nation already critical of his country's leader of how he is viewed by his peers at odds with his government, at home. Recalling the fate of the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky who also considered himself a political rival and his languishing in prison to put him out of contention, one wonders about Mr. Kasyanov's sense of self-preservation.

On the other hand, Mr. Khodorkovsky is now out of prison, in self-exile, and planning a comeback. He is now re-establishing his foundation "Open Russia", in a return to his pre-arrest hopes to strengthen civil society and to bring democracy knocking at Moscow's portals.
"The question of Russian power won’t be decided by democratic elections—forget about this. This is why, when we speak of strategic tasks, I speak of a constitutional conference that will redistribute power from the president" to other branches of government.

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