Translate

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Nothing to Do With Islam

August 18, 2014  by  Bruce Thornton













Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book ,Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.


The war against jihadism has been chronically misunderstood because of our failure to acknowledge the religious motives of Muslim jihadists. This failure began in 1979 with the Iranian revolution. Trapped in our Western secularist paradigms, we interpreted the uprising against the Shah as an anti-colonial revolt against a “brutal” autocrat propped up by the West for its own exploitative economic and geostrategic purposes. The aim of the revolution, the argument went, was to create a government more sympathetic to national sovereignty and Western pluralistic government. However, it soon became clear with the political triumph of the Ayatollah Khomeini that the revolution was in the main a religious one, inspired in part by anger at the Shah’s secularization, modernization, and liberalization policies. As Khomeini said in 1962, the Shah’s regime was “fundamentally opposed to Islam itself and the existence of a religious class.”
Despite that lesson, the rise of al Qaeda in the 90s was also explained as anything and everything other than what it was and still is–– a movement with deep religious roots. Under administrations of both parties, the mantra of our leaders has been “nothing to do with Islam.” We created various euphemisms like “Islamism,” “Radical Islam,” “Islamic extremists,” or “Islamofascism,” to explain an ideology that is firmly rooted in traditional Islamic theology and historical practice. We were anxiously assured that Islam was a “religion of peace,” its adherents tolerant and ecumenical. Popular figures like Osama bin Laden were “heretics” who had “highjacked” this wonderful faith, distorting its doctrines to serve their evil lust for power. We looked upon them as “beards from the fringe,” malignant cranks like Jim Jones, Charles Manson, or David Koresh.
This fundamental error continues today, as Muslim violence and anti-Semitism are explained by every factor instead of the essential one––the theology, jurisprudence, and history of Islam.
When one asks for evidence for this detachment of Muslim violence from the tenets of Islam, the best most apologists can do is produce a Westernized nominal Muslim, a propagandist like Tariq Ramadan, or a left-wing academic who reflexively considers any enemy of the colonialist, imperialist, capitalist West to be a friend of the left. Jihad is not, they assure us, the theological imperative to “fight all men until they say there is no god but Allah,” as Mohammed himself commanded. Jihad is merely a form of self-improvement and community service. “Allahu Akbar” is not the traditional Muslim battle cry, but merely a way of saying “Thank God.” Revered Muslim scholars like the Ayatollah Khomeini––educated in Qom, the “Oxford and Harvard of Iranian Shi’ism,” as Barry Rubin put it, and honored as a “grand sign of Allah” for his theological knowledge––was simply wrong when he said, “Islam says: Kill all the unbelievers just as they would kill you,” and “Islam is a religion of blood for the infidels.”
Despite being consistent with such statements, dismissed as racist ignorance are the centuries of Western observation and bloody experience showing that, as Tocqueville wrote in 1838, “Jihad, Holy war, is an obligation for all believers. … The state of war is the natural state with regard to infidels … These doctrines of which the practical outcome is obvious are found on every page and in almost every word of the Koran … The violent tendencies of the Koran are so striking that I cannot understand how any man with good sense could miss them.” Likewise Samuel Huntington’s phrase “Islam’s bloody borders” is called a racist lie, used to justify neo-colonial incursions into Muslim lands. Meanwhile, of the 7 global conflicts costing more than a 1000 lives a year, 6 involve Islam.
As for “moderate” Muslims, those ordinary millions who we are constantly told abhor the jihadists as violators of the true Islam are, with some rare exceptions like M. Zudhi Jasser, curiously silent in the face of horrific jihadist violence against non-Muslims, the beheadings, torture, crucifixions, rape, kidnappings, and indiscriminate slaughter of women and children justified by supposedly slanderous distortions of their faith. After every jihadist atrocity, we never see global mass protests against this malicious degradation of Islam. But after 9/11, we did see thousands of Muslims worldwide cheering the attack in a “tremendous wave of joy,” as a London-based Saudi cleric wrote to President Bush in a Muslim newspaper.
But when newspaper cartoons deemed offensive to Mohammed, or false rumors of Korans flushed down toilets in Guantánamo, or reports of an obscure pastor planning to burn a Koran become known, then we see tens of thousands of Muslim protesting violently. Right now Muslim terrorists are committing unspeakable atrocities in northern Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, and elsewhere, but there is no global “Not in Our Name” mass movement, no “Million Muslim March” springing up among the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims to protest this alleged distortion of Islam, and to reaffirm its true dogmas of peace and tolerant coexistence.
Another example of this intellectual myopia is the way many commentators explain the anti-Semitism rampant in the Muslim world, where Hitler’s Mein Kampf and the early 20th century Russian forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are popular. Misled by this popularity and the use of Nazi-era metaphors describing Jews as a “bacillus,” “cancerous tumor,” or “vermin,” these pundits attribute Muslim anti-Semitism to the malign influence of Nazism on the Muslim Middle East in the 30s. However, such an explanation mistakes rhetoric for content. Nazi-style anti-Semitism flourishes among many Muslims because their faith has already created a “potential space” for it––the Koran-sanctioned use of violence to enforce Muslim hegemony, and the broader intolerance of other religions, especially Christianity and Judaism, resented as precursors and rivals to Islam. But the hostility of the Jews in Mohammed’s traditional biographies––for example, he died after allegedly being poisoned by a Jewish woman–– has made them an special object of contempt and hatred.
Consider the doctoral dissertation of Dr. Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi. No crank or fringe character, from 1996 to his death in 2010 Tantawi was the Grand Sheik of the most prestigious institution for Sunni Islamic theology, Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, a position reserved for the highest authority in Sunni Muslim thought. His 1966 dissertation, The Children of Israel in the Qur’an and the Tradition (Sunna), has asits subtitle, The Jews’ Abominations Described in the Qur’an Are Demonstrated Throughout the Ages. The following is a representative sample of this esteemed theologian’s thinking:
“In the Qur’an the Jews are people of various bad qualities, known for their loathsome characters and contemptible behavior. The Qur’an calls them infidels and liars and ingrates; selfish, arrogant and cowardly naggers and cheaters; rebels and lawbreakers, cruel and constitutionally given to deviating from the correct path . . . Jews are prone to crime and aggression. They cheat and steal people’s money with lies. The Jews must be oppressed and humiliated.”
The bulk of Tantawi’s book supports these slanders with meticulous exegeses of the numerous Koranic verses, hadiths, biographies of Mohammed, and theological interpretations of these texts over the centuries, large numbers of which have been collected in Andrew Bostom’s The Legacy of Islamic Anti-Semitism.
This long tradition is the foundation of Tantawi’s anti-Semitic slurs, which are typical of both popular and academic writing in the region, such as the Holocaust-denying PhD dissertation of “moderate” Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. Thus it beggars belief to think that these are idiosyncratic misinterpretations that violate the true meaning of Islam’s sacred texts, or that they are a recent creation of Nazi-era anti-Semitism––not when Tantawi was awarded such a highly prestigious position, one that requires expert knowledge of and fidelity to Islamic doctrine.
Obviously, later motifs of anti-Semitism, like the medieval blood libel or the fever-swamp paranoia of the Protocols, have over the years been taken up by Muslim anti-Semitism and used to reinforce and validate the traditional Jew-hatred of the Koran. Similarly, racists in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries incorporated Darwinism into their racist theory and rhetoric, a practice given warrant by Darwin’s The Descent of Man, with its speculations that the Negro is the transitional species between humans and animals. But no one argues that racism was a secondary effect of Darwinism. Rather, Darwinism and its technical terms conferred a patina of “scientific” prestige and validation on a preexisting irrational hatred, just as in the 30s writings from an advanced global power like Germany reinforced and legitimized traditional Islamic anti-Semitism.
Similarly, one can argue that the eliminationist rhetoric now lacing traditional Muslim anti-Semitism reflects Nazi influence. After all, historically Muslims did not aim, like the Nazi final solution, to kill off the whole Jewish race, but to keep Jews subordinated and subjected to a humiliating second-class status, as the Koran instructs. So too in the Jim Crow South, most whites were content to keep blacks in their second-class place, and violence reflected perceptions that blacks were getting “uppity” and threatening institutional segregation. Something similar has happened in the Middle East, where the failure of the Arabs to enforce Jewish submission to Muslims with violence has led to more radical calls to eliminate Jews completely from the region. But once again, the “potential space” for such genocidal aims was in place before the Holocaust, created by the justified violence used over the centuries against Jews who resisted or threatened Muslim hegemony.
The point is not that all Muslims are anti-Semites and terrorists, or even are sympathetic to the jihadists. Rather, the scope and volume of jihadist violence, the financial and moral support given to jihadists by many millions of Muslims, and the relative silence of those who have no intention of practicing jihad themselves, all suggest that modern jihadism and its theological justifications have deep roots in Muslim theology, and ample models in Mohammed’s life and Islam’s history. This in turn means that Muslims who oppose jihadism or Muslim anti-Semitism do not have the authoritative, traditional, canonical arguments and precedents for that position, unlike the jihadists, who routinely and copiously quote chapter and verse of Islamic sacred texts in support of their violence.
Finally, pretending that modern jihadism has “nothing to do with Islam,” and spinning pleasing distortions of Islam’s theology and history, will not help sincerely reform-minded Muslims, for they know that there is no historical or theological foundation for these flattering fairy tales, which consequently lack authority in the eyes of most of their fellow Muslims. They know their own history and religion too well, unlike the Western apologists who tell esteemed and learned Muslims like Khomeini and Tantawi that they don’t know their own faith. Indeed, a movement to create a genuine liberal-democratic Islam would be truly “radical” from the perspective of traditional Islam and its beliefs, as the continuing failure of liberal democracy to take hold in the Middle East demonstrates. But most of all, such fantasies endanger our attempts to destroy a committed enemy who is motivated by a storied history of conquest and domination, and inspired and justified by the most cherished beliefs of millions of their co-religionists.

Nothing to Do with Islam, Part 2

August 25, 2014 


In his comments on the jihad being waged by the Islamic State in northern Iraq (ISIL), President Obama recycled yet again the shopworn false knowledge about Islam that continues to compromise our response to Muslim violence: “So ISIL speaks for no religion. Their victims are overwhelmingly Muslim, and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just God would stand for what they did yesterday, and for what they do every single day.”
Over at the New York Post, a columnist rightly took the president to task by saying, “You can’t divorce the Islamic State from religion.” Unfortunately, the column is full of numerous misstatements that perpetuate the illusion that there is some peaceful, tolerant version of Islam that has been distorted and twisted by “extremists” or “fundamentalists.”
According to the writer, adherents of any faith can misread sacred texts literally in order to justify violence: “The problem isn’t just literalist interpretations of the Koran: The New Testament, the Jewish Torah and many other religious books contain explicit calls for disproportionate punishments and killing of nonbelievers.” Forget the false assumption that we are supposed to read all sacred texts allegorically rather than literally. I’d like to see the verses from the New Testament that explicitly instruct Christians to kill non-believers rather than try to convert them. On the contrary, Jesus preached, “Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5.38), and “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5.43).
Concerning other interactions with non-believers, Jesus instructed his disciples, “And if any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town” (Matthew 10.14).  Because there are no explicit commands to kill non-believers in the New Testament, over the ages Christians who have justified violence with scripture have had to engage in tortuous interpretations and misreadings that over time have not been able to gain traction among all the faithful. That’s why despite widespread persecution across the world today, there is no major Christian terrorist movement.
Compare, in contrast, the Koran’s explicit calls to violence against non-believers, such as Koran 4.76: “Those who believe fight in the cause of Allah, and those who reject faith fight in the cause of evil: So fight ye against the friends of Satan.” This is consistent with the famous command in 9:29: “Fight those who believe not in Allah.” If someone wants to argue that “fight” is intended metaphorically in these verses, and has been “twisted” by a “literal” reading to serve some fringe interpretation, consider 4.74: “Let those fight in the cause of Allah Who sell the life of this world for the hereafter. To him who fights in the cause of Allah––whether he is slain or gets victory––Soon shall we give him a reward.” Obviously in this verse and numerous others “fight” means physical battle in which people are “slain.” Contrary to Christian scripture, in traditional Islamic doctrine non-believers who are invited to convert and refuse the call are not left alone, but killed or, if they are Jews or Christians, sometimes allowed to live in humiliating submission under a treaty that Muslims can break at any time for any reason.
As for the Torah, the list of verses allegedly commanding death for non-believers that crop up on anti-Biblical and atheist websites has nothing to do with gentiles. A favorite is Deuteronomy 17, which commands death for those who, “transgressing his covenant,” have “gone and served other gods and worshipped them.” But this is clearly a reference not to gentiles, but to Hebrews who have betrayed the covenant between God and the Jewish people by violating the first Commandment. So too with numerous other verses produced to prove that the Hebrew God ordered the Hebrews to kill gentiles. On the contrary, all these verses describe capital punishment for crimes committed by Jews, such as apostasy, witchcraft, adultery, fornication, and the like. Nowhere is there a verse commanding, like Koran 9.29, wholesale warfare against all gentiles who refuse to become Jews.
As for the orders given to Hebrew kings in the Old Testament to destroy another town or tribe, these are specific to that particular time, place, and people, and reflect the brutal warfare universal at that time. They are history, not theology. We may find such draconian punishments or collective violence distasteful, but they certainly do not comprise the sort of theology of violence against all non-believers that is found throughout the Koran and Islamic doctrine.
Obama is half-right that killing innocents, more specifically women and children, is forbidden in Islam. But there are conflicting traditions of interpretation about this prohibition going back centuries. The most famous Muslim philosopher, the 12th century Ibn Rushd, known in the west as Averroës, discusses this controversy in his treatise Bidayat al-Mudjtahid. In contrast to the prohibition against killing women and children, Averroës writes, some interpreters quote Mohammed’s famous statement, “I have been commanded to fight the people until they say, ‘There is no God but Allah,’” which is consistent with Koran 9.5: “Then when the sacred months have slipped away, slay the polytheists wherever you find them.” As Averroës summarizes the controversy, “the source of their controversy is to be found in their divergent views concerning the motive why the enemy may be slain. Those who think that this is because they are unbelieving do not make exception for any polytheist,” including women and children. But even those who take the contrary view that only those able to fight may be killed make an exception for women who fight or who aid the enemy in some way, such as speaking against Islam or spying on Muslim warriors.
In short, many Muslims over the centuries have disagreed with Obama’s bald assertion that “no faith teaches people to massacre innocents.” Modern jihadists like ISIL, al Qaeda, Hamas, Fatah, and the numerous other groups thus have a foundation for their actions in a long tradition of Islamic theology. They see the outsized power and influence of the West, and the people who support it economically or politically, as a mortal threat to Islam. Thus destroying them is acceptable as a defense of the faith, for they are not “innocent” of aggression against Islam.
Many other practices of the jihadists likewise have justifications found in Islamic tradition and history, even if there are disagreements among Muslims about their validity. The jihadists’ penchant for beheading has its precedent in Koran 8.12: “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.” We have acted as though the filmed beheading of reporter James Foley is some unprecedented act of savagery by a Manson-like cult. But as Ian Tuttle reminds us, early in his career Mohammed beheaded the some 700 Jews of the Banu Qurayzah. In the 11thcentury Yusuf ibn Tashfin beheaded 24,000 Spaniards and, in a primitive version of YouTube, sent the heads to cities in North Africa and Spain. In the 19th century the Mahdist jihadists in Sudan beheaded their enemies, including the British war hero Charles “Chinese” Gordon. And Saudi Arabia today continues to publicly behead malefactors, 23 so far this August. There are few better ways to “cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve” or, as Obama said of Foley’s beheading, “shock the conscience of the entire world.”
Similarly, the indiscriminate bombing of people including women and children, whether through rockets or highjacked airliners, is argued as licit based on the fact that Mohammed used mangonels, a type of catapult, at the siege of al-Taif, even though such bombardment endangered women and children. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has written an essay justifying al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks of 9/11 based on this tradition. So too with the prohibition against suicide, used by some apologists to argue that so-called “suicide-bombers” are contrary to Islamic doctrine. But in the Koran and hadith it is clear that killing oneself as an act of martyrdom while fighting for the faith is acceptable. For example, according to one hadith, Muhammad said, “I would love to be martyred in Allah’s Cause and then get resurrected and then get martyred, and then get resurrected again and then get martyred and then get resurrected again and then get martyred.” That’s why for 14 centuries jihadists have said they love death the way infidels love life.
Groups like ISIL or al Qaeda do not embrace “extreme religious views,” or “twist the overall message of religious texts,” as the New York Post has it. They act on a venerable tradition within Islam, one based on writings some Muslims have construed differently because of inconsistencies among various texts. But that doesn’t change the fact that the jihadists have within the faith long-established precedents for their actions, a tradition with millions of Muslim adherents worldwide, including the leaders of Turkey and Qatar who finance the vicious terrorist group Hamas, and the Mullahcracy in Iran, the world’s foremost supporter of Islamic terrorism.

We in the West correctly find such views “extreme,” or “savage” and “barbaric,” but they are not “fringe” anomalies conjured out of textual misreadings by an extremist cult. They derive from the history and sacred texts of Islam, the clear meaning of which is illustrated on page after page of Muslim history. And they are being acted upon today across the Muslim world, as evidenced by the nearly 24,000 violent attacks perpetrated by Muslim terrorists since 9/11. Contrary to Obama, ISIL does speak for a religion. It’s called Islam.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

MIDDLE EAST: An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth

A former AP correspondent explains how and why reporters get Israel so wrong, and why it matters

By Matti Friedman|August 26, 2014 12:00 AM





The Israel Story
Is there anything left to say about Israel and Gaza? Newspapers this summer have been full of little else. Television viewers see heaps of rubble and plumes of smoke in their sleep. A representative article from a recent issue of The New Yorker described the summer’s events by dedicating one sentence each to the horrors in Nigeria and Ukraine, four sentences to the crazed génocidaires of ISIS, and the rest of the article—30 sentences—to Israel and Gaza.
When the hysteria abates, I believe the events in Gaza will not be remembered by the world as particularly important. People were killed, most of them Palestinians, including many unarmed innocents. I wish I could say the tragedy of their deaths, or the deaths of Israel’s soldiers, will change something, that they mark a turning point. But they don’t. This round was not the first in the Arab wars with Israel and will not be the last. The Israeli campaign was little different in its execution from any other waged by a Western army against a similar enemy in recent years, except for the more immediate nature of the threat to a country’s own population, and the greater exertions, however futile, to avoid civilian deaths.
The lasting importance of this summer’s war, I believe, doesn’t lie in the war itself. It lies instead in the way the war has been described and responded to abroad, and the way this has laid bare the resurgence of an old, twisted pattern of thought and its migration from the margins to the mainstream of Western discourse—namely, a hostile obsession with Jews. The key to understanding this resurgence is not to be found among jihadi webmasters, basement conspiracy theorists, or radical activists. It is instead to be found first among the educated and respectable people who populate the international news industry; decent people, many of them, and some of them my former colleagues.
While global mania about Israeli actions has come to be taken for granted, it is actually the result of decisions made by individual human beings in positions of responsibility—in this case, journalists and editors. The world is not responding to events in this country, but rather to the description of these events by news organizations. The key to understanding the strange nature of the response is thus to be found in the practice of journalism, and specifically in a severe malfunction that is occurring in that profession—my profession—here in Israel.
In this essay I will try to provide a few tools to make sense of the news from Israel. I acquired these tools as an insider: Between 2006 and the end of 2011 I was a reporter and editor in the Jerusalem bureau of the Associated Press, one of the world’s two biggest news providers. I have lived in Israel since 1995 and have been reporting on it since 1997.
This essay is not an exhaustive survey of the sins of the international media, a conservative polemic, or a defense of Israeli policies. (I am a believer in the importance of the “mainstream” media, a liberal, and a critic of many of my country’s policies.) It necessarily involves some generalizations. I will first outline the central tropes of the international media’s Israel story—a story on which there is surprisingly little variation among mainstream outlets, and one which is, as the word “story” suggests, a narrative construct that is largely fiction. I will then note the broader historical context of the way Israel has come to be discussed and explain why I believe it to be a matter of concern not only for people preoccupied with Jewish affairs. I will try to keep it brief.
How Important Is the Israel Story?
Staffing is the best measure of the importance of a story to a particular news organization. When I was a correspondent at the AP, the agency had more than 40 staffers covering Israel and the Palestinian territories. That was significantly more news staff than the AP had in China, Russia, or India, or in all of the 50 countries of sub-Saharan Africa combined. It was higher than the total number of news-gathering employees in all the countries where the uprisings of the “Arab Spring” eventually erupted.
To offer a sense of scale: Before the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, the permanent AP presence in that country consisted of a single regime-approved stringer. The AP’s editors believed, that is, that Syria’s importance was less than one-40th that of Israel. I don’t mean to pick on the AP—the agency is wholly average, which makes it useful as an example. The big players in the news business practice groupthink, and these staffing arrangements were reflected across the herd. Staffing levels in Israel have decreased somewhat since the Arab uprisings began, but remain high. And when Israel flares up, as it did this summer, reporters are often moved from deadlier conflicts. Israel still trumps nearly everything else.
The volume of press coverage that results, even when little is going on, gives this conflict a prominence compared to which its actual human toll is absurdly small. In all of 2013, for example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict claimed 42 lives—that is, roughly the monthly homicide rate in the city of Chicago. Jerusalem, internationally renowned as a city of conflict, had slightly fewer violent deaths per capita last year than Portland, Ore., one of America’s safer cities. In contrast, in three years the Syrian conflict has claimed an estimated 190,000 lives, or about 70,000 more than the number of people who have ever died in the Arab-Israeli conflict since it began a century ago.
News organizations have nonetheless decided that this conflict is more important than, for example, the more than 1,600 women murdered in Pakistan last year (271 after being raped and 193 of them burned alive), the ongoing erasure of Tibet by the Chinese Communist Party, the carnage in Congo (more than 5 million dead as of 2012) or the Central African Republic, and the drug wars in Mexico (death toll between 2006 and 2012:60,000), let alone conflicts no one has ever heard of in obscure corners of India or Thailand. They believe Israel to be the most important story on earth, or very close.
What Is Important About the Israel Story, and What Is Not
A reporter working in the international press corps here understands quickly that what is important in the Israel-Palestinian story is Israel. If you follow mainstream coverage, you will find nearly no real analysis of Palestinian society or ideologies, profiles of armed Palestinian groups, or investigation of Palestinian government. Palestinians are not taken seriously as agents of their own fate. The West has decided that Palestinians should want a state alongside Israel, so that opinion is attributed to them as fact, though anyone who has spent time with actual Palestinians understands that things are (understandably, in my opinion) more complicated. Who they are and what they want is not important: The story mandates that they exist as passive victims of the party that matters.
Corruption, for example, is a pressing concern for many Palestinians under the rule of the Palestinian Authority, but when I and another reporter once suggested an article on the subject, we were informed by the bureau chief that Palestinian corruption was “not the story.” (Israeli corruption was, and we covered it at length.)
Israeli actions are analyzed and criticized, and every flaw in Israeli society is aggressively reported. In one seven-week period, from Nov. 8 to Dec. 16, 2011, I decided to count the stories coming out of our bureau on the various moral failings of Israeli society—proposed legislation meant to suppress the media, the rising influence of Orthodox Jews, unauthorized settlement outposts, gender segregation, and so forth. I counted 27 separate articles, an average of a story every two days. In a very conservative estimate, this seven-week tally was higher than the total number of significantly critical stories about Palestinian government and society, including the totalitarian Islamists of Hamas, that our bureau had published in the preceding three years.
The Hamas charter, for example, calls not just for Israel’s destruction but for the murder of Jews and blames Jews for engineering the French and Russian revolutions and both world wars; the charter was never mentioned in print when I was at the AP, though Hamas won a Palestinian national election and had become one of the region’s most important players. To draw the link with this summer’s events: An observer might think Hamas’ decision in recent years to construct a military infrastructure beneath Gaza’s civilian infrastructure would be deemed newsworthy, if only because of what it meant about the way the next conflict would be fought and the cost to innocent people. But that is not the case. The Hamas emplacements were not important in themselves, and were therefore ignored. What was important was the Israeli decision to attack them.
There has been much discussion recently of Hamas attempts to intimidate reporters. Any veteran of the press corps here knows the intimidation is real, and I saw it in action myself as an editor on the AP news desk. During the 2008-2009 Gaza fighting I personally erased a key detail—that Hamas fighters were dressed as civilians and being counted as civilians in the death toll—because of a threat to our reporter in Gaza. (The policy was then, and remains, not to inform readers that the story is censored unless the censorship is Israeli. Earlier this month, the AP’s Jerusalem news editor reported and submitted a story on Hamas intimidation; the story was shunted into deep freeze by his superiors and has not been published.)
But if critics imagine that journalists are clamoring to cover Hamas and are stymied by thugs and threats, it is generally not so. There are many low-risk ways to report Hamas actions, if the will is there: under bylines from Israel, under no byline, by citing Israeli sources. Reporters are resourceful when they want to be.
The fact is that Hamas intimidation is largely beside the point because the actions of Palestinians are beside the point: Most reporters in Gaza believe their job is to document violence directed by Israel at Palestinian civilians. That is the essence of the Israel story. In addition, reporters are under deadline and often at risk, and many don’t speak the language and have only the most tenuous grip on what is going on. They are dependent on Palestinian colleagues and fixers who either fear Hamas, support Hamas, or both. Reporters don’t need Hamas enforcers to shoo them away from facts that muddy the simple story they have been sent to tell.
It is not coincidence that the few journalists who have documented Hamas fighters and rocket launches in civilian areas this summer were generally not, as you might expect, from the large news organizations with big and permanent Gaza operations. They were mostly scrappy, peripheral, and newly arrived players—a Finn, an Indian crew, a few others. These poor souls didn’t get the memo.
What Else Isn’t Important?
The fact that Israelis quite recently elected moderate governments that sought reconciliation with the Palestinians, and which were undermined by the Palestinians, is considered unimportant and rarely mentioned. These lacunae are often not oversights but a matter of policy. In early 2009, for example, two colleagues of mine obtained information that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had made a significant peace offer to the Palestinian Authority several months earlier, and that the Palestinians had deemed it insufficient. This had not been reported yet and it was—or should have been—one of the biggest stories of the year. The reporters obtained confirmation from both sides and one even saw a map, but the top editors at the bureau decided that they would not publish the story.
Some staffers were furious, but it didn’t help. Our narrative was that the Palestinians were moderate and the Israelis recalcitrant and increasingly extreme. Reporting the Olmert offer—like delving too deeply into the subject of Hamas—would make that narrative look like nonsense. And so we were instructed to ignore it, and did, for more than a year and a half.
This decision taught me a lesson that should be clear to consumers of the Israel story: Many of the people deciding what you will read and see from here view their role not as explanatory but as political. Coverage is a weapon to be placed at the disposal of the side they like.
How Is the Israel Story Framed?
The Israel story is framed in the same terms that have been in use since the early 1990s—the quest for a “two-state solution.” It is accepted that the conflict is “Israeli-Palestinian,” meaning that it is a conflict taking place on land that Israel controls—0.2 percent of the Arab world—in which Jews are a majority and Arabs a minority. The conflict is more accurately described as “Israel-Arab,” or “Jewish-Arab”—that is, a conflict between the 6 million Jews of Israel and 300 million Arabs in surrounding countries. (Perhaps “Israel-Muslim” would be more accurate, to take into account the enmity of non-Arab states like Iran and Turkey, and, more broadly, 1 billion Muslims worldwide.) This is the conflict that has been playing out in different forms for a century, before Israel existed, before Israel captured the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank, and before the term “Palestinian” was in use.
The “Israeli-Palestinian” framing allows the Jews, a tiny minority in the Middle East, to be depicted as the stronger party. It also includes the implicit assumption that if the Palestinian problem is somehow solved the conflict will be over, though no informed person today believes this to be true. This definition also allows the Israeli settlement project, which I believe is a serious moral and strategic error on Israel’s part, to be described not as what it is—one more destructive symptom of the conflict—but rather as its cause.
A knowledgeable observer of the Middle East cannot avoid the impression that the region is a volcano and that the lava is radical Islam, an ideology whose various incarnations are now shaping this part of the world. Israel is a tiny village on the slopes of the volcano. Hamas is the local representative of radical Islam and is openly dedicated to the eradication of the Jewish minority enclave in Israel, just as Hezbollah is the dominant representative of radical Islam in Lebanon, the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and so forth.
Hamas is not, as it freely admits, party to the effort to create a Palestinian state alongside Israel. It has different goals about which it is quite open and that are similar to those of the groups listed above. Since the mid 1990s, more than any other player, Hamas has destroyed the Israeli left, swayed moderate Israelis against territorial withdrawals, and buried the chances of a two-state compromise. That’s one accurate way to frame the story.
An observer might also legitimately frame the story through the lens of minorities in the Middle East, all of which are under intense pressure from Islam: When minorities are helpless, their fate is that of the Yazidis or Christians of northern Iraq, as we have just seen, and when they are armed and organized they can fight back and survive, as in the case of the Jews and (we must hope) the Kurds.
There are, in other words, many different ways to see what is happening here. Jerusalem is less than a day’s drive from Aleppo or Baghdad, and it should be clear to everyone that peace is pretty elusive in the Middle East even in places where Jews are absent. But reporters generally cannot see the Israel story in relation to anything else. Instead of describing Israel as one of the villages abutting the volcano, they describe Israel as the volcano.
The Israel story is framed to seem as if it has nothing to do with events nearby because the “Israel” of international journalism does not exist in the same geo-political universe as Iraq, Syria, or Egypt. The Israel story is not a story about current events. It is about something else.
The Old Blank Screen
For centuries, stateless Jews played the role of a lightning rod for ill will among the majority population. They were a symbol of things that were wrong. Did you want to make the point that greed was bad? Jews were greedy. Cowardice? Jews were cowardly. Were you a Communist? Jews were capitalists. Were you a capitalist? In that case, Jews were Communists. Moral failure was the essential trait of the Jew. It was their role in Christian tradition—the only reason European society knew or cared about them in the first place.
Like many Jews who grew up late in the 20th century in friendly Western cities, I dismissed such ideas as the feverish memories of my grandparents. One thing I have learned—and I’m not alone this summer—is that I was foolish to have done so. Today, people in the West tend to believe the ills of the age are racism, colonialism, and militarism. The world’s only Jewish country has done less harm than most countries on earth, and more good—and yet when people went looking for a country that would symbolize the sins of our new post-colonial, post-militaristic, post-ethnic dream-world, the country they chose was this one.
When the people responsible for explaining the world to the world, journalists, cover the Jews’ war as more worthy of attention than any other, when they portray the Jews of Israel as the party obviously in the wrong, when they omit all possible justifications for the Jews’ actions and obscure the true face of their enemies, what they are saying to their readers—whether they intend to or not—is that Jews are the worst people on earth. The Jews are a symbol of the evils that civilized people are taught from an early age to abhor. International press coverage has become a morality play starring a familiar villain.
Some readers might remember that Britain participated in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the fallout from which has now killed more than three times the number of people ever killed in the Israel-Arab conflict; yet in Britain, protesters furiously condemn Jewish militarism. White people in London and Paris whose parents not long ago had themselves fanned by dark people in the sitting rooms of Rangoon or Algiers condemn Jewish “colonialism.” Americans who live in places called “Manhattan” or “Seattle” condemn Jews for displacing the native people of Palestine. Russian reporters condemn Israel’s brutal military tactics. Belgian reporters condemn Israel’s treatment of Africans. When Israel opened a transportation service for Palestinian workers in the occupied West Bank a few years ago, American news consumers could read about Israel “segregating buses.” And there are a lot of people in Europe, and not just in Germany, who enjoy hearing the Jews accused of genocide.
You don’t need to be a history professor, or a psychiatrist, to understand what’s going on. Having rehabilitated themselves against considerable odds in a minute corner of the earth, the descendants of powerless people who were pushed out of Europe and the Islamic Middle East have become what their grandparents were—the pool into which the world spits. The Jews of Israel are the screen onto which it has become socially acceptable to project the things you hate about yourself and your own country. The tool through which this psychological projection is executed is the international press.
Who Cares If the World Gets the Israel Story Wrong?
Because a gap has opened here between the way things are and the way they are described, opinions are wrong and policies are wrong, and observers are regularly blindsided by events. Such things have happened before. In the years leading to the breakdown of Soviet Communism in 1991, as the Russia expert Leon Aron wrote in a 2011 essay for Foreign Policy, “virtually no Western expert, scholar, official, or politician foresaw the impending collapse of the Soviet Union.” The empire had been rotting for years and the signs were there, but the people who were supposed to be seeing and reporting them failed and when the superpower imploded everyone was surprised.
Whatever the outcome in this region in the next decade, it will have as much to do with Israel as World War II had to do with Spain
And there was the Spanish civil war: “Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which do not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie. … I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what had happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines.’ ” That was George Orwell, writing in 1942.
Orwell did not step off an airplane in Catalonia, stand next to a Republican cannon, and have himself filmed while confidently repeating what everyone else was saying or describing what any fool could see: weaponry, rubble, bodies. He looked beyond the ideological fantasies of his peers and knew that what was important was not necessarily visible. Spain, he understood, was not really about Spain at all—it was about a clash of totalitarian systems, German and Russian. He knew he was witnessing a threat to European civilization, and he wrote that, and he was right.
Understanding what happened in Gaza this summer means understanding Hezbollah in Lebanon, the rise of the Sunni jihadis in Syria and Iraq, and the long tentacles of Iran. It requires figuring out why countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia now see themselves as closer to Israel than to Hamas. Above all, it requires us to understand what is clear to nearly everyone in the Middle East: The ascendant force in our part of the world is not democracy or modernity. It is rather an empowered strain of Islam that assumes different and sometimes conflicting forms, and that is willing to employ extreme violence in a quest to unite the region under its control and confront the West. Those who grasp this fact will be able to look around and connect the dots.
Israel is not an idea, a symbol of good or evil, or a litmus test for liberal opinion at dinner parties. It is a small country in a scary part of the world that is getting scarier. It should be reported as critically as any other place, and understood in context and in proportion. Israel is not one of the most important stories in the world, or even in the Middle East; whatever the outcome in this region in the next decade, it will have as much to do with Israel as World War II had to do with Spain. Israel is a speck on the map—a sideshow that happens to carry an unusual emotional charge.
Many in the West clearly prefer the old comfort of parsing the moral failings of Jews, and the familiar feeling of superiority this brings them, to confronting an unhappy and confusing reality. They may convince themselves that all of this is the Jews’ problem, and indeed the Jews’ fault. But journalists engage in these fantasies at the cost of their credibility and that of their profession. And, as Orwell would tell us, the world entertains fantasies at its peril.
***

Matti Friedman writes: “In the years leading to the breakdown of Soviet Communism in 1991, as the Russia expert Leon Aron wrote in a 2011 essay for Foreign Policy, “virtually no Western expert, scholar, official, or politician foresaw the impending collapse of the Soviet Union.” The empire had been rotting for years and the signs were there, but the people who were supposed to be seeing and reporting them failed and when the superpower imploded everyone was surprised.”


There was one western scholar who did - historian   Hélène Carrère d'Encausse  who now is permanent secretary of the Académie française. In 1978 she wrote Decline of an Empire predicting the demise of the USSR.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

British PM: Our generational struggle against a poisonous ideology

Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, David Cameron warns of terrorist caliphate on the shores of the Mediterranean if Islamic State succeeds


The Prime Minister says the world cannot turn a blind eye to the creation of an extremist caliphate in the heart of Iraq

9:29PM BST 16 Aug 2014
     The West is embroiled in a generational struggle against a poisonous brand of Islamic extremism that will bring terror to the streets of Britain unless urgent action is taken to defeat it, David Cameron warns today.

Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, the Prime Minister says the world cannot turn a blind eye to the creation of an extremist caliphate in the heart of Iraq.

Warning that Islamic State fighters already control thousands of square miles of territory, Mr Cameron says that if these “warped and barbaric” extremists are not dealt with now, they will create a “terrorist state” on the shores of the Mediterranean.

He warns that Britain will have to use its “military prowess” to help defeat “this exceptionally dangerous” movement, or else terrorists with “murderous intent” will target people in Britain.

The Prime Minister says he fears the struggle will last “the rest of my political lifetime”.

“The creation of an extremist caliphate in the heart of Iraq and extending into Syria is not a problem miles away from home. Nor is it a problem that should be defined by a war 10 years ago. It is our concern here and now,” he says.

“Because if we do not act to stem the onslaught of this exceptionally dangerous terrorist movement, it will only grow stronger until it can target us on the streets of Britain. We already know that it has the murderous intent.”

In his article, Mr Cameron says Britain and the West need a firm security response to the crisis in Iraq and that fighters from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) cannot simply be removed by air strikes alone.

An Isil fighter stands guard at a checkpoint in Mosul, Iraq (Reuters)


He says this must involve military action to go after the terrorists themselves, but also stresses that the Government must take uncompromising action against extremists in Britain trying to recruit fighters for jihad abroad. The Prime Minister discloses that the Government has already taken down 28,000 pieces of terrorist related material from the web, including 46 Isil videos.

He says he has also discussed the issue with Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and pledges that anyone caught trying to recruit people in Britain – or anyone flying the black flag of Islamic State, as happened in east London earlier this month – will be arrested.

“The position is clear. If people are walking around with Isil flags or trying to recruit people to their terrorist cause they will be arrested and their materials will be seized,” he says.

“We are a tolerant people, but no tolerance should allow the room for this sort of poisonous extremism in our country.”

Last night, the Bishop of Leeds released a letter he had sent to Mr Cameron describing British policy on Islamic extremism as not “coherent or comprehensive”.

The Right Rev Nicholas Baines, who claimed to have the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury, said that he remained “very concerned about the government’s response to several issues” and poses questions to the Prime Minster about his policy towards Iraq and Syria. In the letter, published on his blog, the bishop writes of his “serious concern that we do not seem to have a coherent or comprehensive approach” towards groups such as the Islamic State, Boko Haram in Nigeria and other extremist groups.

A Lambeth Palace source told The Sunday Telegraph that while the Archbishop of Canterbury “supports the bishop posing these questions,” he also acknowledged the “major difficulties” faced by the Government in tackling extremism and called on people to pray for the government.

In his article, the Prime Minister lays bare his alarm at how the crisis in Iraq threatens European security, Mr Cameron says the first Isil-inspired terrorist acts on the continent of Europe have already taken place.

“We are in the middle of a generational struggle against a poisonous and extremist ideology which I believe we will be fighting for the rest of my political lifetime,” he says. “We face in Isil a new threat that is single-minded, determined and unflinching in pursuit of its objectives.

“Already it controls not just thousands of minds, but thousands of square miles of territory, sweeping aside much of the boundary between Iraq and Syria to carve out its so-called caliphate. It makes no secret of its expansionist aims.

“Even today it has the ancient city of Aleppo firmly within its sights. And it boasts of its designs on Jordan and Lebanon, and right up to the Turkish border. If it succeeded we would be facing a terrorist state on the shores of the Mediterranean and bordering a Nato member.”

Mr Cameron made his comments as the Ministry of Defence disclosed that Britain had deployed a spy plane as part of humanitarian efforts in Iraq. The MoD confirmed that the intelligence-gathering Rivet Joint aircraft had carried out several flights over areas in the north of country which have been targeted by advancing Islamist extremists.

It emerged last week that Britain was considering joining France and several eastern European countries and arming Kurdish forces in Iraq to help them fight Islamic State militants. In his article, Mr Cameron discloses that he is considering sending body armour and specialist counter-explosive equipment to the Kurds.

Britain will also appoint a British representative to the region who will be based in the country and be able to have daily face-to-face contact with the people there, the Prime Minister says.

He adds that Britain will also use next month’s Nato summit in Wales and press for more action in the United Nations to “help rally support across the international community” for the Kurdish people, who have been fighting the Islamic State extremists in northern Iraq. The move to supply arms directly will inevitably be seen as a further risk that Britain will be drawn more into the conflict.

But Mr Cameron rules out deploying troops to Iraq, making clear that the crisis is not “a problem that should be defined by a war 10 years ago”. However, while he says this is not the “War on Terror” or a religious war, it is a struggle for “decency” and ‘tolerance” and Britain’s future prosperity.

“I agree that we should avoid sending armies to fight or occupy, but we need to recognise that the brighter future we long for requires a long term plan for our security as well as one for our economy,” he says.

“True security will only be achieved if we use all our resources – aid, diplomacy, our military prowess – in helping to achieve a more stable world. In today’s world, so immediately interconnected as it is, we cannot turn a blind eye and assume that there will not be a cost for us if we do.”

Mr Cameron adds: “This is a clear danger to Europe and to our security. It is a daunting challenge.

“But it is not an invincible one, as long as we are now ready and able to summon up the political will to defend our own values and way of life with the same determination, courage and tenacity as we have faced danger before in our history. That is how much is at stake here: we have no choice but to rise to the challenge.”

Mr Cameron also discloses that Britain is looking at leading talks with Iran to control the destabilising threat of Islamic State fighters in the region. He says Britain has to “work with countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the UAE, Egypt and Turkey and perhaps even with Iran” against this “shared threat”. “I want Britain to play a leading role in this diplomatic effort,” he says.
Yazidi refugees fill bottles at the Newroz camp in the Hasaka province, Syria (AFP)



The crisis in Iraq was highlighted by reports on Saturday that up to 80 Yazidis were killed by Islamic State fighters in the biggest massacre of the Iraqi minority in the jihadists’ brutal campaign.

Kurdish and Yazidi sources reported that dozens of people in the village of Kocho, located about 15 miles from Sinjar city, had been summarily executed by jihadists after they refused to “convert to Islam”.

Hoshyar Zebari, a senior Iraqi official who said he had spoken to witnesses from the scene, said that the jihadists had “committed a massacre”.

In his article, Mr Cameron admits that he is sympathetic with people who are wary about Britain becoming more involved in the country.

He says: “After a deep and damaging recession, and our involvement in long and difficult conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is hardly surprising that so many people say to me when seeing the tragedies unfolding on their television screens, ‘Yes, let’s help with aid, but let’s not get any more involved.’

“I agree that we should avoid sending armies to fight or occupy. But we need to recognise that the brighter future we long for requires a long-term plan for our security as well as for our economy. True security will only be achieved if we use all our resources – aid, diplomacy, our military prowess – to help bring about a more stable world.

“Today, when every nation is so immediately interconnected, we cannot turn a blind eye and assume that there will not be a cost for us if we do.”

A fresh consignment of British aid was flown to Iraqis fleeing the advance of the extremists amid reports of another massacre of religious minorities late last week.

The US said its drones had destroyed two armoured vehicles reported by Kurdish leaders as being used by Islamic State forces to attack civilians near Sinjar.

Last week, the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved a resolution designed to choke off the terrorists’ funding and recruitment. It also imposed sanctions including a travel ban and an asset freeze on six prominent extremists and warned that action could be taken against anyone held responsible for aiding the cause.

Sir Mark Lyall Grant, Britain’s UN ambassador, said the resolution represented a “comprehensive rejection” of Islamic State.

But he said it was only a first step and urged the international community to be “resolved, active and creative in considering what further measures should be taken to tackle this terrorist scourge”.

Nadhim Zahawi, a Conservative MP who was visiting northern Iraq late last week, said that Islamic State fighters had been caught carrying a season ticket for Liverpool Football Club and a gym card from Ealing.

He said that local forces estimated that between “500 and 750 fighters have joined the Islamic caliphate from the United Kingdom”.

Rory Stewart MP, the Tory chairman of the defence select committee who was also in Iraq, said Islamic State was now a “significant threat”.

He added: “We have been complacent. This has been developing a long time. In some ways these people have been in Mosul for two and a half years and we worked up to it about two and a half months ago.

“We ignored them when they were developing in eastern Syria, we ignored them when they took Fallujah in January.

“This is a huge and growing problem and some of those people are very, very clear in every interview they give that they want to come back and do jihad elsewhere.”


And yet he has criticized Israel for fighting Hamas which has the same ideology! How inconsistent can you be?