Wednesday, June 26, 2019

EGYPT: Egypt's re-revolution going viral

Though Mohammed Morsi was a flawed President, he was democratically elected. Photo / AP

Muslims around the globe are joining protests on streets and on social media against military takeover.

Protests have spontaneously erupted in cities across the Muslim world, from Istanbul to Lahore to Jakarta. Apart from some clashes with police, mostly the protests have been peaceful and matched by parallel protests on Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media.

Meanwhile, photos of the dead and the living in Egypt's nascent democracy are going viral. There is a photo of Habiba Ahmed Abdel Aziz, a multimedia volunteer for the Muslim Brotherhood standing in the crowd holding a camera on small stand. Next to this is a photo of her lifeless face in a white shroud. But it isn't just ordinary Egyptians being murdered by a military that each year receives millions in military aid from the US. Soon news spreads across cyberspace that an Egyptian athlete who won bronze at the London Olympics is among the dead. The 17-year-old daughter of a Brotherhood leader is filmed being cut down by a sniper.

Indeed, Egypt's counter-revolution is being televised to those who care to watch. Egyptian protests are making international headlines while their parallel international equivalents are being ignored by our allegedly honest independent Western media outlets. Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation and perhaps Asia's most vibrant democracy, has close spiritual ties to Egypt, home to Al-Azhar University in Cairo, perhaps the most Sunni Muslim seminary in the world. Large numbers of Indonesian religious scholars are Al-Azhar graduates. Egyptian religious culture is regarded as reflective of the epitome of orthodoxy in many parts of the archipelago. Hence Indonesians have hit the streets following the 3 July coup.

The United States prefers not to use nasty terms like "coup" to describe the military removal of a democratically elected government followed by a massacre of its citizens. To do so would threaten its ongoing $1.5 billion military aid package to the Egyptian military which underpins the Camp David Peace Accord with Israel. Protecting the security needs of the only democracy in the Middle East is far more important than supporting nascent democracies in other Middle Eastern nations.

The United States and Israel have a firm ally in the democratic moderate secular nation of Saudi Arabia. The last thing Saudi's absolutist absolute monarchy would want is a host of Arab springs in its own backyard. At first, Saudi Arabia's role in Egypt's democracy was to act as puppet master for the Salafist faction.

Saudi Arabia has now directed its Salafist allies in Egypt to back the Egyptian generals. It is also using its influence in the Arab media to flex its muscle.

In Kuwait, well-known preacher Tareq el-Swaidan has been sacked as director of a Saudi religious channel due to his Brotherhood links. The Saudi prince Al-Waleed bin Talal wrote on Twitter that Mr Swaidan had been dismissed

... for admitting he belongs to the Brotherhood terrorist movement. 

The Saudi dictatorship has pledged $5 billion to the military junta.

The mastermind behind the military takeover and massacre is hardly a staunch secularist. General Abdul Fattah el-Sisi was appointed by former President Morsi in August 2002 to head the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Sisi was trained in Egypt, the UK and the United States. Unlike other SCAF members, Sisi is a deeply devout man. Despite the support it is receiving from the US, Sisi's military rulers are flooding the country with anti-American propaganda, claiming that the US Government and media are supporting the protesters. Successive military regimes have used this kind of paranoia to deflect attention.

Egypt is moving forward headlong into the past when elected presidents won polls with 99 per cent of the vote. The Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi wasn't perfect, but he was Egypt's first elected President. Egyptian media were free to lampoon him without risking imprisonment and torture.

We now have no idea where Morsi is being held. On the other hand, former military strongman Hosni Mubarak, the man overthrown in Egypt's revolution who faces trial, has been released. In the long term, Morsi's opponents have little option but to rally not only around the army but possibly their original nemesis.

Egypt's anti-Brotherhood liberals have proven to be democracy's worst enemy and the army's best ally. As an electoral force, they proved disorganised, unable to agree on a presidential candidate to oppose the Brotherhood. They seem only able to unite against a power, not for a cause. In Egypt, liberals have given up on liberal democracy.

First published in the NZ Herald on 27 August 2013.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

INDIA: Silence Over Suffering Is Deafening

We often read stories of India's economic miracle, its IT revolution and its Bollywood culture. We're keen to do business with India, and Indian migrants are regarded as highly skilled and hard-working. 

Australia is even considering selling uranium to India, presuming its status as the world's biggest democracy makes its nuclear programme less dangerous than that of Iran or Pakistan.

But what about human rights? We so often implement double standards when determining how human rights might affect our international relations.

The experiences of India's religious minorities have generally been ignored by Western Governments and commentators.

India's majority faith is Hinduism, an inherently pacifist and tolerant religion. Notwithstanding the caste system, Hindu societies have traditionally practised liturgical and doctrinal pluralism.

Yet indigenous Indian faiths also include Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. Indian independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi, a deeply religious man, borrowed freely from all Indian religious traditions.

Gandhi's vision was of a truly civilised and democratic India which zealously protected its minorities. He fought not only the British Raj but also communal extremists who incited bloodshed between religious communities. His assassination occurred at the hands of extremists of his own Hindu faith. In recent decades, these forces have re-emerged in mainstream Indian politics.

The spirit of Gandhi's assassins was present in the various social, educational and political organisations linked to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which ruled India federally from 1998 until 2004 and which continues to be the ruling party in various Indian state legislatures. In 2002, BJP activists in Gandhi's home state of Gujrat systematically murdered at least 2000 Muslim (and some Christian) civilians and made 150,000 homeless.

Police stood by and watched these atrocities take place. State Government workers carried lists of Muslim- and Christian-owned businesses and properties which were destroyed. The Gujrat Chief Minister Narendra Modhi praised the attackers, and remains Chief Minister.

Christians in Pakistan are often victims of discrimination, some even prosecuted under Pakistan's selective implementation of religious-based laws. In recent times, there has been much discussion of the precarious position faced by Christians in Muslim-majority states such as Malaysia, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

These are all crucial human rights issues about which people of all faiths, especially Muslim minorities, need to agitate.

Unfortunately, minority rights have become an issue of double standards. We rarely hear local Muslim religious bodies and lobbies talking about the plight of non-Muslim minorities in Muslim-majority states. Few Muslim religious leaders have taken the example of imams like South Africa's Farid Esack, who has agitated against the mistreatment of Pakistan's Christian communities.

Imagine a situation where members of an established indigenous Christian community in Malaysia are wrongly accused of murdering the leader of a Muslim chauvinist group. They are hunted down by Muslim thugs, their homes and villages firebombed.

The situation becomes so tenuous Christian leaders announce they might even form their own militia if the Government refuses to provide effective protection. This situation is happening, though not in Malaysia and not at the hands of Muslims. In India, activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a movement that forms part of the BJP opposition, have terrorised Indian Catholic communities and institutions.

The VHP regards Catholicism as a foreign faith, despite its presence in India for at least a millennium. Catholic welfare groups are accused of pressuring lower-caste Hindus to convert to Christianity. Most Catholics are either former Dalits (untouchables) or from indigenous tribal groups. 

On August 23, a senior VHP leader was murdered in the eastern state of Orissa. Maoist rebels claimed responsibility for the murder, accusing the VHP leader of having Nazi sympathies. But VHP leaders blamed Catholics. More than 40 churches and 11 other Christian institutions (including those linked to the order of the late Mother Teresa) were destroyed by VHP supporters. One female missionary was burned alive and dozens of other Christians murdered.

Yet the silence among otherwise vocal Christian activists about the suffering of India's Christian communities is deafening. Even politicians claiming to champion our Judeo-Christian heritage are silent.

There are 18 million Catholics in India, more than in Canada and England combined. Yet as Father Raymond de Souza lamented in a recent article for Canada's National Post, anti-Christian violence by VHP and BJP extremists cannot be checked if it is not even noticed.

As if to underscore his remarks, The Australian newspaper reported on September 16 that violence has spread to Karnataka, with some 14 churches destroyed.

All believers must all agitate for the rights of all religious minorities, especially those suffering human rights abuses in friendly nations. Selective indignation on human rights abuses compromises not only our faith but our very humanity.

First published in the NZ Herald on 21 September 2008.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

REVIEW: On romping racists and far-left extremists

Just before Christmas a young Afghan, presumably Muslim, drove a vehicle through a group of pedestrians in Flinders Street in Melbourne. Some people were seriously injured. But this wasn't the first such incident in Melbourne. Twelve months earlier another man did the same thing, killing innocent people including a ten-year-old girl from the Jewish community.

The recent incident was different but in many ways the same. The earlier incident didn't involve an Afghan Muslim driver, though it did involve the funeral of a three-month-old victim at a mosque. 

Still, victims and their families don't count when cultural battle lines are drawn. Despite the deaths and greater carnage of the earlier incident, the usual suspects in our allegedly conservative media weren't attacking police and clamouring for the accused to be declared a terrorist. For them, the accused was clearly of the right background and religion.

My South African friends tell me that during the Apartheid era in South Africa, police dogs were trained to attack criminals. How would the dog know who was the criminal? Simple. Look for the black person. So when the dog would see a black person, the dog would instinctively show aggression.

Many in Australian media and politics have become like South African police dogs. In policing our culture to ensure its purity, they show aggression to the usual suspects including Muslims, South Sudanese, Sudanese, Africans (well, the black-skinned ones) and Indigenous people. A dark-skinned person committing violent crime is classed as a Sudanese, and so a South Sudanese and/or an African Anyone who shares his/her appearance or ethnicity is then fair game. Anyone who tries to expose the stupidity of this cultural polemic is accused of 'political correctness' or of belonging to a nebulous group called 'the Left'.

Which brings me to the recent TV drama series incarnation of Romper Stomper. Like its movie-length predecessor, Romper Stomper Mark II also deals with violence and terrorism. But this time the white-skinned side of extremism in Australia isn't limited to a skinhead fringe. The antecedents of Right-White Nationalism have, over almost three decades, entered the mainstream of Australian discourse. Or perhaps they were hiding under the surface waiting for a set of events or perceived threats to grab hold of. Like all extremism, RWN claims the mantle of victimhood, of being the continuation of a righteous struggle.
"When society is caught between two forms of extremism battling each other, ordinary people often feel they must choose sides."
In Romper Stomper, RWN isn't just represented by Blake Farron (Lachy Hulme), the small businessman at the helm of the far-right group Patriot Blue. It is also represented by an opportunistic TV shock jock Jago Zoric (David Wenham) whose rhetoric on race and culture is virtually the same though less blatant than Farron's. One might say Zoric is the equivalent of the shock jocks Peter Dutton speaks to (if not of Dutton himself), with Farron more resembling Pauline Hanson or Milo Yiannopoulos. Zoric and Farron feed off each other.

But Romper Stomper doesn't pretend that political violence is the monopoly of the right. Indeed, the first violent incident on the show is initiated by leftist undergraduate students calling themselves Antifasc and led by a politics academic. Donning face masks and hoods, the exclusively Anglo-Australian Antifasc activists (or terrorists depending on whose side you're on) attack Patriot Blue at a Halal Food festival in St Kilda. It was a classic case of LWI (Left-White Internationalism) attacking RWN, with ordinary Muslims and foodie hipsters caught in the middle.

Except that Patriot Blue had the backing of powerful media elites who labelled Antifasc as violent thugs. Antifasc's broad goals — protecting a minority from violent bigotry — may be noble even if their methods are violent and not always in the interests of those Antifasc seeks to protect. At best, Antifasc punch up and across while Patriot Blue always punch down.

And then there's Laila (Nicole Chamoun), a Muslim undergraduate student. Now if you saw Laila in the street, you wouldn't know what her ethnicity or religion was. She doesn't wear a headscarf and is about as religious as any other Muslim girl who drinks beer at the pub (yes, I've met quite a few of them).

Unlike Patriot Blue, Laila didn't see herself as a victim. Her parents aren't what the RWN and their shock jock buddies would see as typical Muslim parents. They allow their daughter to go to university, and Laila's father encourages her to be an activist but within conventional democratic boundaries — media, lobbying and elections.

Laila follows her father's advice by going on Zoric's show. She is ambushed when Farron appears opposite her out of nowhere. Farron and Zoric turn on her, casting aspersions on a faith she barely follows and a group she feels is being victimised. Laila receives text after text from people she knows saying she has brought shame on herself and 'the community'.

Laila becomes disillusioned and disheartened. The conventional boundaries of lobbying and democracy have failed her. As for elections, I doubt Laila would be able to handle the experiences of Anne Aly and Ed Husic.

When society is caught between two forms of extremism battling each other, ordinary people often feel they must choose sides. Which side does Laila choose? Or does she choose a third side? And which side is involved in the suicide bombing? I guess you'll have to watch it to find out.?

First published in Eureka Street on 25 January 2018.