Saturday, January 13, 2018

CRIKEY: Three things you don’t understand about the Syrian war


For a start, the rebels are not one big happy family all fighting for a common notion of justice.



My goodness. There has been so much internet chatter among Aussie and Western Muslims about the fall of Aleppo to Syrian regime forces aided by Iranian proxies and Russia. But it’s OK. I doubt the chatter will lead to another 0.002% of Australia’s Muslims heading off to join Islamic State.

Instead, the chatter has largely been outpourings of grief at reports of massacres by the regime. Videos from al-Jazeera English and Channel 4 UK are being shared of civilians in Aleppo recording what they believe will be their final messages to the world. One lawyer of Pakistani Muslim heritage living in the US simply posted the words to U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday.

The group Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) — which former PM Tony Abbott wanted to ban and which insists only the revival of some sort of caliphate will solve all our problems — is complaining that a photo of a massive march in Istanbul against the Syrian regime was misappropriated by media organisations that failed to mention that HT organised the rally. For goodness sake, guys!

Yet as with any conflict that affects people living thousands of miles away from its epicentre, much of the discussion and debate has lacked nuance. Among the simplistic notions are:

1. Everyone supports the rebels

This might make sense if the rebels were all united. Luckily for the Assad regime, and sadly for its opponents, the rebels are about as united as the Coalition. Based in Istanbul is al-Majlis al-Watani al-Suri (the Syrian National Council) formed in 2011. A year later, it formed a Syrian National Coalition with a host of other opposition groups, but subsequently left in 2004. The council/coalition includes exiled members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, some Kurds (but not many, given what is seen as Turkey’s influence over the council/coalition), Christians and a few other blokes (lawyer Catherine al-Talli resigned in 2002).

On the military front, things haven’t been much better. There is the Free Syrian Army with numerous militias. Here are the Islamist groups we are taught to hate, often with good reason (e.g. ISIS) and those that are being sponsored (albeit indirectly) by the US.

The civilians themselves support and work with one another if for no other reason than to survive. Writing of her visit to the rebel-held part of Aleppo, one CNN journalist, Arwa Damon, speaks of her encounter with “Sama”:
In Aleppo, at a hospital run by the opposition, I met a young woman who goes by the pseudonym Sama. She was living with the hospital ‘staff’ — now made up mostly of young men and a handful of women, many of whom had no prior medical experience. Among her colleagues at the hospital are people of different backgrounds — moderate, conservative, Islamist, Salafi — and on a regular basis they debate what the future Syria should look like. In some way, the revolution has brought together individuals who otherwise would have never interacted, to trade ideas and ideologies. ‘We even shout at each other,’ Sama tells us with a wry smile. ‘I was with the revolution from the start, the revolution is one line, it’s not Islamist, it’s for all Syrians and Syrians are from all sects.

2. The battle is one between Shia and Sunni

Unfortunately, there isn’t enough space for me to explain the historical, theological and political factors that divide these two major sects, a division that goes back over 14 centuries. Suffice it to say that the predominant sect that resembles Syrian Shi’ism is the Alawi (also known as Nusayri) sect. Now if you like, you can spend the next few days reading this magnificent work by an Israeli scholar. Suffice it to say that both Syria and Lebanon have a fair few Alawis and that they have traditionally lived impoverished lives, marginalised by both Sunni and Shia.

The current government in Syria is headed by the Assad clan who happen to be Alawi. The majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslim, but there is a very strong Christian presence, including descendants of Armenians who fled the Ottoman purges, with many settling in Aleppo.

3. Syria is all about ISIS/Islam — nothing else

Then again, mainstream Australia sees this whole Syria thing as a war on Islamic State and nothing else, with the aim being to keep our streets safe, even if other people’s streets turn to rubble. Or they see it as a war within, or between, or even on, Islam. Hence the attitude in many (especially almost alt-right) circles is: yes, it’s very sad that civilians are suffering, but we don’t want any Muslim refugees (potentially carrying the IS bug) here, thanks very much.

And let no one say that “real” (i.e. white) Aussies fighting on the side of the Kurds are doing anything wrong. The Kurds are totally blameless, notwithstanding evidence that they too have been committing atrocities. Our white Christian boys wouldn’t be caught dead fighting with terrorists in Syria.

First published in Crikey on 19 December 2016

CRIKEY: How do you stop polygamy? With overreaching surveillance, of course


Pauline Hanson thinks there needs to be a national identity card in order to stop Muslims from claiming Centrelink benefits for multiple wives.



Once again those bloody Muzzlems are up to no good. Marrying more than one wife and then claiming multiple spousal benefits. I mean, can you believe it?

And so the headlines and talkback hosts blared over the weekend. The Channel Seven Sunrise program on Sunday carried the words “MUSLIM MARRIAGE DOLE RORT” on screen. Prue MacSween, one of the panellists, reminded us all that polygamy was illegal. She’s right, except that in Australia the way you get around it is to have only one of the marriages registered. It’s a bit like having a wife and a fuckbuddy or mistress or girlfriend or whatever.

She complained that
... these people are thumbing their nose at us and rorting the system.
These people? Us? Yep, these people have polygamous unions. They marry more than once. We don’t do that. We know that real Australians enjoy adulterous relationships rather than polygamous ones. 

(To be fair, when probed about the use of the word “us”, MacSween said she was referring to taxpayers. Though she then spoke of “them” coming here and not standing up in court.)

She also mentioned Centrelink’s claim that it would cost more money to police and enforce the law against this unknown number of polygamous rorters. I sympathise with her in this respect. Some years back, I worked as a welfare rights lawyer running appeals against Centrelink decisions between the Social Security Appeals Tribunal and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Representing the Commonwealth in the AAT was an excellent and highly professional advocate. The poor chap managed appeals in two states and was about to have a third state added to his load. This would mean he wouldn’t be able to attend all hearings and he’d be jammed. The result? More settlements, which were not in the interests of the Commonwealth and the taxpayer.

The Department of Human Services were also cutting down on the expense of investigators to conduct surveillance on suspected cheats. During my own research for client cases, I came across numerous AAT decisions where the evidence of investigators was used to show that the Centrelink client wasn’t being honest about their relationship status. Without such surveillance, the tribunal will have to decide between the client’s word and Centrelink file.



Oh, and by the way, it isn’t just Muslim polygamous arrangements who can breach Centrelink rules. The MacSweens and Bernardis and Hansons of this world might not be aware that our law recognises these thing called de facto relationships. Our Social Security Act recognises that you can live in a domestic arrangement with someone you aren’t married to, or even with someone you can’t legally marry, such as a same-sex partner.

Perhaps the most frightening response to this pseudo-issue was from Pauline Hanson, who called for the introduction of an Australian identity card. Seriously, Pauline, that is sooooo 1980s. Back in 1985 the Hawke government introduced the idea of an Australia card that was designed not so much to catch welfare cheats as tax cheats. Conservatives led by John Howard lined up to oppose the card, only to support a similar proposal 10 years later. After much mass debate, the proposal was dropped. 

Perhaps Hanson or her advisers should read this very helpful e-Brief published by the Commonwealth Parliament’s Law and Bills Digest Section. She should also understand that her constituents will not appreciate a Big Brother ID card forced on them just to stop a handful of polygamous Muslims.

First published in Crikey on 12 December 2016.

CRIKEY: Et tu, Angela? Merkel picks politics over people


If Merkel really wants to stamp out the wearing of face veils, she will find no greater ally than the mainstream German Muslim communities.

Three Muslim women

And so it goes. The Brexit effect becomes the Brexit/Trump effect, which then becomes the Brexit/Trump/Italy effect. It could almost have become the Brexit/Trump/Austrian Nazi/Italy effect. It may become the Brexit/Trump/Italy/One Nation effect. And it all leads to one simple conundrum: how do centre-right parties stop the seemingly inevitable rise of the “populist” far right?

The conventional wisdom is to take on a key aspect of the far right so as to take the wind out of their sails. That usually means pick the minority the far right loves to hate and throw them under the bus — preferably the minority that is weak and cannot fight back.

In the past 12 months or so, Germany has shown genuine leadership in relation to refugees escaping the horrors of war in Syria. Some 1.1 million refugees were resettled during 2015 alone. Asylum applications have been expedited so that people are not left in limbo.

This isn’t the first time Germany has had to take in large amounts of refugees. After the end of World War II, when Germany was decimated by the Allies, millions of expelled Hungarians, Slovaks, Czechs and other refugees of German ethnicity were expelled from homes and lands they had lived in for centuries.

It was extremely tough, but Germany managed. The new Germans eventually assimilated despite their differences with the German-born Germans, and despite the fact elderly people and children made up many of the refugees’ numbers.

The new Syrian refugees are largely of working age. Many are professionals who, even if not German-speaking, can at least speak English. They wear Western clothes, and many were well-travelled before the war. In this photo of students from the University of Aleppo sitting for their exams in 2013, I can’t find a single burqa.

Whatever the horrors of the Assad regime, it was a regime that allowed religious and ethnic minorities to flourish. Historically, Syria was the land of Byzantine churches, of saints who spent years sitting atop poles, of some of the oldest Christian music in the world. In his 1997 book, From The Holy Mountain, William Dalrymple writes about the strong Christian presence in Syria and the centuries of interaction between the various faith communities of the former Byzantine world.

The idea of lecturing and hectoring this largely modern, educated refugee diaspora about not wearing the burqa or some other face covering (as Chancellor Angela Merkel is now doing) makes little sense. It would be hard to find a Syrian woman who wears the burqa, just as you’d be hard-pressed to find a third-generation German-Turkish woman wearing one. Why even talk about it?

German Muslims who refuse to integrate will likely find pressure on them not just from the courts but also from their own communities. Seriously, how many German Muslims would agree with the claims of an 11-year-old girl before a German court that
... even wearing a burkini, or full-body swimsuit, breached Islamic dress codes ...
? Imagine a Syrian refugee family who saw women drowning in the Mediterranean having objections to their daughters learning to swim.

If Merkel really wants to stamp out the wearing of face veils, she will find no greater ally than the mainstream German Muslim communities — Turks, south Asians and Syrians. A far better strategy would be consulting with them to see how community education and other grassroots strategies can assist.

Of course, the far right and their friends in the German and European and, indeed, our Breitbart-wannabe Australian media will find any excuse to turn a small incident into a mountain of “creeping sharia”. This places pressure on mainstream conservative parties to respond. Some will respond by focusing on who they are and what they stand far. Others will point to a small minority and declare “We are not like them!” hoping this will take attention away from the hate brigade.

It is a strategy that is rarely temporary, It turns the normal centre right into enablers of the far right. And the last thing a leader of Germany would want to be is an enabler of the political descendants of Nazism.

First published in Crikey on 9 December 2016.