In Symbolic Vote, UK Parliament urges Recognition of Palestine

By Juan Cole

There are 650 members of the British parliament, so the vote on Monday by 271 of them to recognize Palestine is hardly an overwhelming victory for supporters of this position. On the other hand, only 12 voted against. Most MPs seem to have made themselves scarce.

The vote was a project of the Labour Party primarily, though some conservatives voted for the measure. the conservative Telegraph newspaper argued that the measure only passed because Labour leaders put enormous pressure on MPs of that party and because they compromised in the language at the last minute to say the recognition of Palestine should be within the framework of a negotiated peace settlement. Ed Milliband and his circle of Labour leaders denied that they had twisted their members’ arms to vote for the resolution.

The Conservative government leadership abstained and is very unlikely to follow through on this vote, which in the British system can only be advisory for the prime minister and his cabinet, since they actually make foreign policy.

It is a significant development, however, because Labour could eventually come back to power and might well pull a Sweden by actually recognizing Palestine. The European Union is moving gradually in this direction.

Although the EU is most often thought toothless in the Arab-Israeli conflict, its positions could have a big impact. Some 33 percent of Israeli trade is with Europe, and it depends heavily on technology transfers and de facto membership in many EU organizations. The effect of the recognition of Palestine by EU member states is to give Palestine standing to pursue legal complaints in European courts.

Israel is plainly in contravention of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which forbid a military occupying power to flood occupied territory with its own citizens, as well as of a number of EU statutes. Palestine could theoretically take West Bank squatter enterprises to court in EU states and win big judgments. Many Israel companies have European operations or even branches and are vulnerable to such judgments. Businesses and other institutions of civil society are already boycotting Israel over its West Bank squatting.

So the immediate practical impact of this vote is small. The symbolic impact is quite large. But the most important thing about it is that it points to the future, a future disadvantageous to Israel economically, technologically and politically, as long as it continues its massive land grab in the Palestinian West Bank.

Related video:

RT America: “UK parliament recognizes State of Palestine”

Top 5 Ways Lower oil Prices Could Change the World

By Juan Cole

Brent Crude has fallen to $90 a barrel as China’s and Asia’s slowing economic growth has reduced oil demand and production remains high. All this despite the subtraction of Libyan and Syrian oil from the market and the big reduction, via sanctions, in Iran’s exports. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are pumping more oil than they had been.

If oil goes lower and stays there for a while, what are the implications?

1. The impetus for Canadian tar sands production will be much reduced. It is expensive to produce and lower demand will being into question its rationale.

2 The Gulf oil states such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia could face difficulties because their budgets and investments were assuming long term higher prices. Many projects could be idled and unemployment could rise, with negative implications for security.

3. Russia’s wealth and power could decline, with implications for Ukraine policy.

4. Iran’s cushion against sanctions will become thinner. It has had to reduce exports by a million barrels a day because of the US financial blockade, but high prices made up for some of the shortfall. The full force of the sanctions could start to bite. Will that make Tehran more cooperative and willing to negotiate? Or will it produce anger and violence?

5. US oil fracking could slow because of poor demand and difficulty recouping on the very expensive and water-consuming porcess.

Cheaper oil is typically good for non-oil producers, making it less expensive to transport goods to market in vehicles. The downside is that the slight movement to electric vehicles could slow. (That would be irrational, though. Combining an electric car with solar oanels allows you to have virtually no gasoline bill, which is much better than $3 a gallon – if that is what it goes down to. Plus you are avoiding carbon emissions that damage the earth.)

Related video

Bloomberg: Why Oil prices have fallen to a two-year low

The Wider Appeal of ISIL and Sunni Grievances

By Juan Cole

al-Quds al-`Arabi [Arab Jerusalem] reports on the appeal of ISIL to Salafi hard line Sunni Muslims.

In a worrisome development, radicals throughout the region are rallying to the so-called “Islamic State,” which is actually just a bunch of armed thugs and brigands.

Some of the Pakistani Taliban in Waziristan have announced their loyalty to ISIL leader Ibrahim al-Samarra’i, who styles himself caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Two or three Lebanese Sunni troops have defected from Beirut and announced for ISIL or Jabhat al-Nusra (the Succor Front, i.e al-Qaeda in Syria).

The Ansar al-Shariah or so-called Helpers of Islamic Law in Libya, a terrorist organization, last week announced allegiance to ISIL.
Those groups inspired by the lightning spread of ISIL into Sunni Arab areas of Iraq since last June often see themselves as persecuted minorities. The Taliban in Pakistan are rural fundamentalists of Pushtun ethnic heritage, while the dominant group in Pakistan is the Punjabis, many of whom are Sufis or religious liberals and a minority of whom are Shiites. The Pakistani Taliban live in rugged, mountainous resource-poor regions and have been alternatively neglected and harassed by the Pakistan government.

In Lebanon, many Sunnis are resentful of the leading political and military role of the Shiite Hizbullah. Likewise in Iraq, Sunni Arabs chafed under the government of the Shiite Da`wa Party (Islamic Call or Islamic Mission), which imprisoned them arbitrarily, repeatedly bombed their villages, and generally treated them in a humiliating way. They also suffer from high unemployment under Shiite rule. The Shiite government in turn is viewed by them as a gift from a hated American military occupation.

In Libya, fundamentalists were persecuted under dictator Muammar Qaddafi a major massacre committed against them at Abu Salim prison. (Those who wonder whether he should have been overthrown should remember that he provoked his own overthrow.)

Still, al-Samarra’i cannot possibly hope to capitalize on this surge of popularity among the lunatic fringe (he is not popular with mainstream Sunni communities because of his barbarity). He has the world against him and likely will be driven back underground or killed, like his predecessor Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Radical groups are mostly locally oriented, seeking more power and wealth in their own countries, a struggle that will preoccupy them long after al-Samarra’i is dead and buried. ISIL is just a flavor of the month among the insurgents. But non-Sunni governments should take note that in this era of social mobilization, it is unwise to push large Sunni populations to the wall.

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Related video added by Juan Cole

CNN: “ISIS advances put U.S. allies ‘against a wall’”

Listening to Nobelist Malala Yousafzai instead of just Honoring Her

By Juan Cole

Malala Yousafzai has become the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in history, sharing it this year with India’s Kailash Satyarthi, a children’s rights activist.

Ms. Yousafzai, from Pakistan’s picturesque Swat Valley, was shot in the head by a member of the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP or Pakistani Taliban Movement) two years ago this month for standing up for girls’ education.

There is always a danger that in honoring a figure like Malala Yousafzai, the world will drown out her more challenging views. Martin Luther King, Jr. is now mainly lauded for his “I have a Dream” speech but his socialism, anti-imperialism, and opposition to the Vietnam War is little remembered. Likewise, Lila Abu-Lughod has warned against the use of Ms. Yousafzai by powerful white men as a symbol whereby they can pose as champions of Muslim women against Muslim men– an argument first made powerfully in a another context by Gayatri Spivak The real Malala Yousafzai is harder to deploy for those purposes than is Malala the symbol.

Islamophobes who use her story as an indictment of the religion of Islam have another think coming. She credits her religion with inspiring her values, the values that made here a nobelist: “What the terrorists are doing is against Islam because Islam is a religion of peace. It tells us about equality, it tells us about brotherhood, it tells us about love and friendship and peace, that we should – we should be nice and kind to each other.”

It should be remembered that Ms. Yousafzai told Barack Obama off about his drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) of northwest Pakistan. She said of her meeting with the US president, “I also expressed my concerns that drone attacks are fueling terrorism… Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. If we refocus efforts on education it will make a big impact.”

She appears to oppose military action against the Taliban: ‘If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.’

She approvingly quoted her father as criticizing novelist Salman Rushdie for his book Satannic Verses, but as standing for freedom of speech for such authors. Her remarks caused her book to be banned in many Pakistani private schools, angering the country’s fundamentalists. She also criticized the denial of rights to Pakistan’s Ahmadi minority.

Honoring someone with the bravery and resiliency and ethical intelligence of a Malala Yousafzai is easy. Taking her more challenging positions seriously and engaging with them is much more difficult.

Related video

Malala’s story – BBC News

Gaza, its Power Plant hit by Israel, Waits in the Dark … and Waits

By Sam Bahour (Ma’an News Agency)

When I asked my colleague in Gaza about her biggest dream, her answer made an impression on me: “I dream of what life would be like with 24-hour electricity.”

This was the answer of a single, mid-career, Western-educated, professional woman who lives in the more affluent part of Gaza City. Her response suggests the depth of despair among Palestinians throughout Gaza.

Day-to-day life in Gaza between Israeli attacks is unworthy news for Western mainstream media. As a result, few people are aware that electricity in Gaza is a luxury, with blackouts lasting 16-18 hours — every day.

This bitter reality has warped people’s lives for years now, as they must plan their daily activities around the 4-6 hours when they anticipate electricity, even if that means waking up to put laundry in the washing machine in the middle of the night.

Contrary to common belief, the severe under-supply of electricity in Gaza is not new, and not a result of the latest military aggression.

Gaza has not had uninterrupted electricity since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994. In an attempt to compensate for the Israeli disruption of Gaza’s power supply, the Palestinians established their first power generation plant in 2004.

Ever since, Israel has regularly limited the supply of electricity and industrial fuel needed to operate this only power plant in Gaza. Israel’s ability to deny families in Gaza the energy they need is nothing less than collective punishment of Palestinians — punishment whereby an entire community is made to pay for the acts of a few.

Separating Gaza’s electricity supply from the political conflict is a step long overdue. Access to electricity — a basic necessity that much of the world, including Israeli citizens can take for granted — should not be conditional upon outcomes of future negotiations.

Continued darkness in Gaza serves no one.

During Israel’s military aggression on Gaza this past summer, Israel again bombed the sole power plant in Gaza. (Israel bombed the same plant on June 28, 2006.)

In a July 29, 2014 article about the latest destruction, the Guardian quoted Amnesty International which stated, “the crippling of the power station amounted to collective punishment of Palestinians.”

Amnesty went on to note that, “the strike on the plant will worsen already severe problems with Gaza’s water supply, sewage treatment and power supplies to medical facilities.”

On September 14, 2014, less than 50 days after the Israeli strike on the plant and less than a month after the cessation of fighting, the Middle East Monitor reported that the CEO of the Gaza Electricity Company, Walid Sayel, announced that Gaza’s power plant was ready to work, pending fuel supply.

“The Turkish minister of energy,” the item continued, “had said that his country is ready to send a floating 100 megawatt power plant to Gaza after obtaining the necessary permits (from Israel).” As Palestinians in Gaza try to move on, none of the players involved in the latest debacle, foremost among them Israel, is being held accountable.

The barrier is not simply being without fuel for the power plant. The issue is much more complex and calculated.

If Turkey were serious about helping, their floating power station would already be in Gaza’s territorial waters even if they had to face down the Israeli navy and risk an international incident to bring electricity to Gaza. If the Palestinian Authority were serious, we would not have to witness the CEO of a Palestinian power plant begging for the funds needed to get the power plant running.

And most importantly, Israel has the capacity to provide Gaza with continuous electricity immediately. According to international law, as the occupying power, Israel has sole responsibility to remedy this issue immediately.

To the governments and leaders who just returned to Cairo for another round of ceasefire negotiations with no timeline or end in sight, I challenge them to first focus on this basic and humane step: Give the people of Gaza access to electricity.

It would be a basic step in easing the stresses of life in Gaza where loved ones can’t check in with one another when cell phones can’t get charged, email and Skype calls are not predictable, and having back-up generators for hospitals is literally a matter of life and death.

As what was intended to be a five-year peace process crawls into its third decade, an entire generation of Palestinian children in Gaza who were born in the early 1990s are now turning 16, 18, and 20 years old. Their generation has never known a time that didn’t require candles to be able to study after dark due to intermittent electricity.

Israel has the capacity to stop power interruptions today. Sympathetic nations have the influence to insist that Israel does this. If international leadership cannot agree that providing electricity to the people of Gaza — a very achievable goal — should be an immediate priority, how can we possibly imagine that the larger political issues can be resolved anytime soon?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect Ma’an News Agency’s editorial policy.

Sam Bahour is a business consultant living in Ramallah. He serves as a policy adviser to Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network and blogs at www.epalestine.com.

Mirrored from the Ma’an News Agency

———

Related video added by Juan Cole

PressTV: “Electricity crisis brings dark times for patients in Gaza”

Divestment and Popular Politics: Big Oil and Israeli Occupation

By Jen Marlowe

On September 21 (one day before world leaders converged on New York for the United Nations Climate Summit, and one day after up to 400,000 people took to the streets of NYC for the People’s Climate March), the president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund made an announcement: the Fund would be divesting its holdings from fossil fuel companies.

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund is not alone. It is one of 70 philanthropies that has divested from the fossil fuel industry in recent years; when you add religious groups, pension funds, institutions of higher education and local governments to that list, the number of organizations divesting from fossil fuel leaps to 180.

According to the New York Times, there are multiple motivations spurring these groups to divest. They hope their act will pressure companies that contribute to climate change. They want their economic assets to be in alignment with their environmental principles. They’re seeking to shift the international conversation about climate change.  In short, these groups (which now include the Rockefeller Brothers Fund) believe that, while divestment from the fossil fuel industry won’t end global warming singlehandedly, the tactic has a constructive role to play in addressing climate change and in shaping the discourse.

A very similar set of motivations underpin the Boycott Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) Movement when it comes to working towards freedom and equality for all Israelis and Palestinians.  BDS Movement organizers and their supporters do not suggest that the tactic of boycott, divestment and sanctions will, all on its own, end the occupation, give Palestinian refugees the right of return, and produce true equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel (the stated goals of the BDS movement).  But what the fossil fuel divestment movement has achieved for climate change, the BDS movement can, and already is, achieving when it comes to the occupation: influencing the international conversation, and pressuring Israel to enact policies that will lead towards a just and durable peace.

There are groups in the U.S. who are concerned that support for divestment as a tactic when it comes to climate change will legitimize divestment as a tactic when it comes to Israel.  I believe that they are right—but that the legitimization of the tactic in both issues should be embraced. Reversing climate change is necessary for the well-being of the planet, and ending the occupation is necessary for the well-being of both Israelis and Palestinians.  Divestment, which has historically been a powerful tool in the struggle for human rights, may help bring about both ends. If legitimizing the tactic in one struggle helps to strengthen the tactic in another, then this kind of intersectionality will benefit both struggles. 

Just as the movement to divest from fossil fuel has gained much traction in recent years, so, too has the visibility and victories of the BDS movement markedly increased. The Soros fund dropped its shares in Sodastream, whose main factory is located in a West Bank settlement. This past June, the Presbyterian Church voted to divest their shares in Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola, all companies whose products are directly used in the enforcement of the occupation. And, a divestment campaign launched by the online activist network Avaaz has garnered nearly 2 million signatures since July.

Divestment alone won’t end climate change or occupation. It must be viewed as one tool in a larger tool bag of tactics aimed at creating real and sustainable change. Part of the significance of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund announcement was embedding it within the largest climate march in history, and a significant international summit. This is the kind of broader landscape of activism that many organizers in the BDS Movement have been building.  Calls to boycott Sodastream and divest from Hewlett-Packard and Caterpillar have created important opportunities to raise international consciousness on how these companies profit from occupation, and, in turn, how occupation obstructs hopes for peace with dignity and security for Israelis and Palestinians alike. But, just as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund announcement came alongside a massive popular action, so too, it is BDS in combination with other forms of popular, nonviolent action that will have the greatest impact. We must use every available, nonviolent tool to build a future where occupation will be replaced with freedom for all, and power and privilege for one community over another will be superseded by true equality.

Jen Marlowe is an author/filmmaker/playwright and human rights advocate. Her book is The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker, written with her former colleague, Sami Al Jundi, won the London-based Middle East Monitor’s Palestine Book Award. Her most recent book is I Am Troy Davis and her most recent film is One Family in Gaza. Her previous films include Rebuilding Hope: Sudan’s Lost Boys Return Home and Darfur Diaries: Message from Home. She is currently finishing a documentary film about Bahrain. For more information about Jen’s work, visit www.donkeysaddle.org or follow her on Twitter @donkeysaddleorg or on her blog.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

Democracy Now!: “Heirs of Billionaire Oil Tycoon John D. Rockefeller Join Growing Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement”

ISIL takes one third of strategic Kobane in Syria, loses Tuz Khurmato in Iraq

By Juan Cole

al-Khalij [The Gulf] (Sharjah, UAE) reports that the Syrian Human Rights Observatory says ISIL fighters are now in one third of the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobane (`Ayn al-`Arab). The radical fundamentalists have advanced into the besieged city despite a new round of US and other bombings on its outskirts. In contrast to reports that ISIL more or less has taken control of the town of (in good days) 50,000, the US maintains that Kurdish fighters are still in control of the bulk of the city.

In Iraq, the Kurdish Peshmerga militia coordinated with the Iraqi army to retake the largely Turkmen district of Tuz Khurmato, including dozens of villages.

The Peshmerga and the Iraqi army now have their sights on Tikrit, a Sunni Arab city north of Baghdad. That would be the fourth major campaign against ISIL there; all have so far failed.

Rumors are flying in Iraq that ISIL may make a play for Kirkuk, a disputed oil city in the province of the same name, now in the hands of the Kurdish Peashmerga.
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related video:

PressTV: “Peshmerga forces flush out ISIL from area near Tikrit”

Does the Houthi Takeover of Yemen’s Sanaa Endanger World Trade?

By Juan Cole

The fall of the Yemeni government to radical Zaidi tribesmen from Saadah in the north has gone relatively unremarked in the US mass media.

Yemen is admittedly a relatively small country of 24 million, a little less populous than Texas. It is the second poorest in the Arab League after Somalia. It is nevertheless a country with enormous global strategic importance:

It commands the Bab al-Mandab, the opening to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal from the Arabian Sea (and beyond it the Indian Ocean). Some 8-10 percent of world trade goes through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. Some 2.5 percent of world petroleum flows are among that total. (Petroleum markets are tight, so the loss of 2.5 percent would put prices way up, and even having to ship it around Africa would increase costs substantially. Liquefied Natural Gas is also shipped in large quantities through the Bab al-Mandab straits, with Qatari exports providing half of Britain’s natural gas and 90 percent of Belgium’s.

Yemen is also important to the Arabian Sea, with its substantial ship traffic.

It neighbors Oman and Saudi Arabia, crucial hydrocarbon players. A mass exodus of panicked Yemenis could affect the security of these countries. So too could a radicalization of Yemenis.

So because of where it is, Yemen has for centuries been a strategic country. The Portuguese eyed it in the 1500s, but the Ottomans forestalled them. In the 19th century, the British took Aden and made it a Crown port, using it as a refueling station for ships going back and forth from India to Egypt (after the Suez Canal opened in 1869 Aden became even more important.)

North Yemen was dominated by the Zaidi branch of Shiite Islam, which unlike the Twelver Shiism of Iraq and Iran, has no ayatollahs or religious hierarchy, and generally gets along with Sunnis, not cursing their orthodox Caliphs or feeling antipathy to them. In the 1960s, a nationalist revolt broke out against the Zaidi leader or Imam who acted as its king and spiritual guide (at least for Zaidis). The nationalist officers overthrew him, with the support of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, a theorist of Arab nationalism. South Yemen went Communist in 1967 but the north was Arab nationalist and mildly socialist.

With the fall of the East Bloc in 1989, South Yemen and North Yemen unified in 1990. It has been an uneasy union, and substantial southern sentiment for secession still exists (efforts in that direction in 1994 were crushed by the Yemeni army).

Although many of the nationalist officers in the capital of Sanaa were of Zaidi Shiite extraction, including dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, they were leftist nationalists and distrusted the rural Zaidis. In the 1990s, Saudi Arabia began trying to spread Wahhabism and Salafism in the Zaidi Shiite north, paying for pricey mosques and community centers. Saleh’s secular nationalists allowed this move, since they thought quietist Salafi Sunnis would be more loyal to the central government than Zaidis, with their traditions of rule via the theocratic Imamate. You had a sort of secular-nationalist alliance with Saudi fundamentalism against rural Zaidism. In the 1990s when Saleh allowed parliamentary elections, the Sunni fundamentalist Islah Party emerged as the most important civil party, again demoting the rural Zaidis.

Husain al-Houthi reacted against this conservative Sunni proselytizing in Zaidi Saadah and other northern population centers. He wrote refutations of Wahhabism (the Saudi religious establishment) and Salafism (Sunnism tinged with Wahhabi emphases). He organized Zaidis. He also began adopting into his Zaidi beliefs and rituals a few ideas and practices more commonly associated with Iran than with Yemen. This adoption of stronger Shiite principles underlined the difference of Zaidis from Sunnis (otherwise the two had often been very close in Yemen and there were even Salafi Zaidis, kind of the way there are some evangelical Catholics in the US). But there is no strong evidence of Iranian involvement with the Houthis or that their successes can be laid at the feet of Iran. And, even Houthi Zaidis are not very much like the Iranian, Twelver Shiites, with their ayatollahs and folk cursing of the Sunni Caliphs.

Ultimately the Houthis went into rebellion against Sanaa, accusing the government of betraying them by allying with Wahhabi Saudi Arabia and of neglecting the development of their regions because of antipathy to Zaidi traditionalists. They denounced the United States as a grasping imperial power. They not only fought central government troops (many of them Zaidis), but also fought Salafis that had declared allegiance to al-Qaeda. Ultimately the Houthis and tribal partisans of the Sunni fundamentalist Islah Party were to fight violently. In mid-September, the Zaidis defeated Islah in Sanaa and environs.

After the 2011-2012 revolution, when Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to step down, his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, became president in a referendum. He, however, faced opposition from the officer corps, where Saleh’s relatives had high positions, and the bureaucracy. Saleh remained the head of the ruling party, to which Mansour Hadi belonged, which was, well, awkward, and gave Saleh the opportunity to intervene in politics. But Mansour Hadi gradually moved against loyalist officers. In June, he accused Saleh of plotting a coup and much weakened him and his military clients.

When the Houthis unexpectedly flooded into Sanaa and took it over in September, the military appears to have stood down and thrown Mansour Hadi to them. It is murky, but perhaps Saleh loyalists or officers hurt by Mansour Hadi’s policies were so resentful they decided to punish him by making themselves scarce at a crucial moment.

The Houthis just rejected Mansour Hadi’s pick for a new prime minister and seem to be taking over policing in the capital. They are also apparently dictating fiscal policy to the Ministry of Finance.

It is hard to imagine that the largely Sunni south will accept a government dominated by hard line Houthi Zaidis. These developments could cause another north-south split in Yemen. The central government troops had pushed back against al-Qaeda affiliates taking over Zinjibar and other town in the southern Abyan province, but now the central government seems in disarray. Will al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula take advantage of the chaos, a la ISIL, to make a play for territory again?

And, if Yemen falls into political chaos and balkanization, what will happen to security in the Bab al-Mandab and the Red Sea?

Will the turmoil hurt the world economy? Will it scuttle Egypt’s plans to expand the Suez Canal and cut transit times from 11 hours to 3 hours? (Egypt hopes to charge much more per container if there are new ports, facilities and faster transit; it now makes $5 bn a year from Suez tolls, but could much expand that figure; and it desperately needs new income streams). Could Egypt be drawn back into Yemen to protect its Suez investment, a la the 1960s?

When I was living in Asmara, now in Eritrea, in 1967-68 I remember people coming over fleeing chaos in Yemen. Are we back to 1967?

Stay tuned. But, apparently, not to American network and cable television news. Only Aljazeera America even seems to be covering the story in a systematic way in the US. The rest don’t appear to know about the Bab al-Mandab or the Suez Canal

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Related video:

From last week: Wochit: “Houthis Dictate State Spending In Absence Of Yemen Government”

The Last Days of Kobani Loom as ISIL Closes in on Syrian Kurds with Murder on its Mind

By Juan Cole

ISIL fighters have advanced into the Kurdish Syrian city of Kobane (`Ayn al-`Arab), with fighting in the streets as Kurds resist, according to the pan-Arab daily, al-Hayat [Life]. Kobane, a city ordinarily of about 50,000, is the third biggest town in the Kurdish part of Syria (the far northeast). ISIL has taken dozens of nearby Kurdish villages, provoking an exodus of perhaps 300,000 refugees, with about 180,000 going to Turkey. Turkey now has over a million Syrian refugees.

Iran is complaining about the West hanging the Kurds out to dry.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan warned a Kurdish audience that Kobane could soon fall.

Erdogan says he is seeking authorization for a ground operation at Kobane. Erdogan doesn’t typically seek authorization for his actions, however, so that this is his story is suspicious and many Kurds think he does not want to intervene lest he inadvertently help the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas and their allies. Turkey fought a three-decade dirty war against the PKK from the 1970s to the 1990s, and the organization revived a bit after Washington overthrew Saddam Hussein and so allowed 5,000 of them to take refuge in Iraq (which borders eastern Turkey). Most Turkish Kurds are not separatists, but a small fringe is and Ankara fears any development that might strengthen the fringe and lead to a breakup of Turkey.

On Tuesday, thousands of Kurds demonstrated in cities all over Turkey against Erdogan’s lack of action, with some clashing with police. Ten Kurds were killed and dozens injured. For its part, Turkey called for more coalition airstrikes on ISIL.

Turkey’s secular centrist opposition party, the CHP, demands that its troops stay out of Syria.

CENTCOM (the US military command for the Middle East) announced that US, Saudi and United Arab Emirates war planes had conducted 5 bombing raids on the outskirts of Kobane on Tuesday. Kurds are complaining that they don’t seem to be effective in stopping ISIL’s advance.

My guess is that the US is hampered in precision strikes on ISIL positions and tanks by the lack of personnel on the ground who could paint lasers on them. The US military typically will not allow other forces to undertake this task for fear of their manipulating the US Air Force into attacking their enemies. Hitting a tank from 30,000 feet is almost impossible without smart munitions, and flying low is dangerous because ISIL might be able to shoot a plane down. One officer who had served in WW II once told me that if you bomb a tank and miss, you just get a scratched tank. You can’t do carpet bombing, either, in the vicinity of a city you are trying to save. The UAE and Saudi Arabia likely don’t have the technology to deploy precision-guided bombs or trained laser spotters. I hasten to say that I am not advocating putting spotters on the ground, simply analyzing why air raids are ineffective against a guerrilla group with a small armored unit (likely 25 tanks around Kobane, which is 25 more than the Kurds have).

Bottom line, Erdogan may be right, that these are the last days of Kobane before a deadly darkness falls.

Related video:

RT: “Turkish teargas, water cannon unleashed as ISIS takes border town”

Ben Affleck on Bill Maher’s Muslim Problem

By Juan Cole

Bravo to Ben Affleck and Nicholas Kristoff for telling Bill Maher off about his chronic case of Muslim-hating bigotry. (He would say he doesn’t hate Muslims, only their religion, but then those who hate gays say much the same sort of thing).

Maher and Sam Harris like to demonize Islam and by association Muslims. Ben Affleck de-demonized them by appealing to the banalities of everyday life. Most Muslims, he said, just want to have a sandwich and get through their lives. This is true.

Addressing the arguments of Maher and Harris is like nailing jello to the wall. They shift between cultural practices that are now objectionable in the US (but some of which were common here until recently) and an assertion that Muslims are unusually violent. But this latter is not true. As for Islamic law, it clearly forbids terrorism.

See Terrorism and the Other Religions

and here .

Maher’s and Harris’s charges against Muslims in general are ridiculous. Neither one has ever lived in a Muslim-majority society or knows the languages or cultures. They just retail invidious calumnies second-hand. Almost anything polemicists like Sam Harris say of Muslims can be said of others; i.e. they are just describing the human condition, unfortunate as it often is. In the 1990s an ABC poll showed that 10% of Americans sympathized with far right wing white supremacist groups like the Michigan Militia. My recollection is that polling showed that a significant proportion of Chinese sympathized with the 9/11 attacks and to this day only a third think al-Qaeda committed them (i.e. it wasn’t viewed as a fundamentalist act but as an anti-imperialist one [this point of view is execrable; I'm just reporting it]). Note that in this last instance, the attitudes have nothing to do with religion but rather with nationalism/ imperialism, a binary pair that explains the world much better than religion/atheism. The same statistics, if glibly given by Maher or Harris for Muslims, would damn the latter and their tradition; but what about the Chinese? Is Communist-Capitalism or the Confucianist heritage to blame here?

via Real Clear Politics:

The dispute decided me to reprint my essay on Maher and Muslims from a couple of years ago, below:

Comedian Bill Maher puts himself in the company of “9/11 liberals” who believe that Islam as a religion is different and decidedly worse than all other religions. He said Friday that ‘at least half of all Muslims believe it is all right to kill someone who insults ‘the Prophet.’ His bad faith is immediately apparent in the reference to 9/11, not the work of mainstream Muslims but of a political cult whose members often spent their time in strip clubs.

Now, it may be objected that Maher has made a career of attacking all religions, and promoting irreverence toward them. So Islam is just one more target for him. But that tack wouldn’t entirely be true. He explicitly singles Islam out as more, much more homocidal than the other religions. He is personally unpleasant to his Muslim guests, such as Keith Ellison. His reaction to the youth of the Arab Spring gathering to try to overthrow their American-backed dictators was “the Arabs are revolting.” Try substituting “Jews” to see how objectionable that is.

Maher ironically has de facto joined an Islamophobic network that is funded by the Mellon Scaife Foundation and other philanthropies tied to the American Enterprise Institute, etc. which is mainly made up of evangelical Christians, bigoted American Jews who would vote for the Likud Party if they could, and cynical Republican businessmen and politicians casting about for something with which to frighten working class Americans into voting for them.

Maher is a consistent liberal and donated $1 million to the Obama campaign, so he is in odd company in targeting Muslims this way. So what explains this animus against Muslims in particular? The only thing he has in common with the Islamophobic Right is his somewhat bloodthirsty form of militant Zionism. He strongly supported the Israeli attack on helpless little Lebanon in 2006, in which the Israelis dropped a million cluster bombs on the farms of the south of that country. He talks about how the besieged Palestinians of Gaza deserve to be “nuked.” His interviews with Likudnik Israeli officials are typically fawning, unlike his combative style with other right wing guests.

In short, Maher is in part reacting as a nationalist to Muslims as a rival national group, and his palpable hatred for them is rooted not in religion but in national self-conception. It is a key tactic of militant Zionism to attempt to demonize and delegitimize Muslims; you don’t have to apologize for colonizing or imposing Apartheid on Palestinians, after all, if they aren’t really human beings. In addition, like many Americans, Maher sees the United States, Europe and Israel as ‘the West’ locked in a rivalry with an alien, Islamic civilization that is intrinsically fanatical and backward (his fellow-traveller on this issue, Pamela Geller, uses the word ‘savage.’) Maher is aware of the history of Christian bloodthirstiness, of course, but he often speaks of it as being in the past. He seems to see contemporary Muslims as having the same sorts of flaws (Inquisition, Crusades) as medieval Christianity.

Maher is not important, but his thesis is widely put forward, and it matters in real people’s lives. There is a nation-wide campaign by religious bigots (most of them sadly evangelical Christians) to prevent American Muslims from building mosques in their communities, and one of the reasons often given is ‘fear’ that the Muslims are homicidal and so the mosque is a conspiracy to commit murder waiting to happen. Maher’s singling out of Muslim as different willy-nilly encourages people to treat them as different, i.e., to discriminate against them.

It is significant that Maher tries to pin the label ‘murderer’ on the Muslims (or half of them?) Because one of the centerpieces of classical Western hatred of Jews was the blood libel, the allegation that they stole the babies of Christians and sacrificed them in secret rituals. It is hard to see what the difference is between that and arguing that some 3 million American Muslims are walking around like a grenade with the pin pulled out. Both blood libels configure a non-Christian group as homicidal, and locate the impulse for their alleged killing sprees in secret religious beliefs opaque to the normal Christian.

Refuting Maher would be tedious and, as others have noted, like nailing jello to the wall, since he doesn’t have a cogent set of testable theses about Muslims, he just despises them. For what it is worth, It is fairly easy to show that Maher’s specific assertions about Muslims, and more especially about American Muslims, are simply not true. Most reject militant groups, and nearly 80% want a two-state solution on Israel and Palestine, i.e. they accept Israel assuming Palestinian statelessness is ended.

Crowd politics is different in various parts of the world and it is certainly true that riots can be provoked in each culture by different things. It is a straw man to say Muslims “would” kill people for insulting Muhammad. How many such killings happen each year? where? And it stacks the deck against them to single out their motive from other possible impetuses to violence. Is the complaint that they are more violent than other people (not in evidence)? Or that their motives for violence are peculiar (depends on how you classify them)? In the United States, the police beating of Rodney King resulted in 3000 shops being burned down in Los Angeles. Race seems to be the thing that sets off riots in the US. Rioting over race relations is so common that major such incidents, as in Cincinnati, often do not even get national press.

The touchiness of Muslims about assaults on the Prophet Muhammad is in part rooted in centuries of Western colonialism and neo-colonialism during which their religion was routinely denounced as barbaric by the people ruling and lording it over them. That is, defending the Prophet and defending the post-colonial nation are for the most part indistinguishable, and being touchy over slights to national identity (and yes, Muslimness is a kind of national identity in today’s world) is hardly confined to Muslims.

In India, dozens of Christians have sometimes been killed by rioting Hindus angry over allegations of missionary work. Killing people because you think they tried to convert members of your religion to another religion? Isn’t it because such a conversion is an insult to your gods?

In Myanmar, angry Buddhists have attacked the hapless Muslim minority, sometimes alleging they were avenging an instance of the rape of a Buddhist girl (i.e. these are like lynchings in the Jim Crow South).

Or then there have been Sri Lanka Buddhist attacks on Tamil Christians. In fact, Sri Lanka Buddhists have erected a nasty police state and shown a propensity for violence against the Tamil minority, some elements of which have had revolutionary or separatist aspirations (not everybody in the group deserves to be punished for that).

And, militant Israeli Jews have set fire to Muslim mosques in Palestine and recently tried to “lynch” three Palestinians in Jerusalem. If Maher thinks only Muslims are thin-skinned, he should try publicly criticizing Israeli policy in America and see what happens to him.

Since Iraq didn’t have ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and wasn’t connected to 9/11, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that 300 million Americans brutally attacked and militarily occupied that country for 8 1/2 years, resulting in the deaths of perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, the wounding of millions, and the displacement of millions more, mainly because Iraq’s leader had talked dirty about America. Now that is touchy.

Americans tut-tutting over riots in the Arab world appear to have led sheltered lives. In most of the world, crowd actions are common over all kinds of issues, beyond the ones of race, class and college sports teams that routinely provoke them here. When I was living in India there were always items in the newspaper about a bus driver accidentally running over a pedestrian, and then an angry mob forming that killed the bus driver. Neighborhood nationalism. The same sort of crowds gather when a blaspheming author drives his discourse into the sanctity of their neighborhood. It is appalling, but I’m not sure what exactly you would do about that sort of thing. It certainly isn’t confined to Muslims…

Maher is using his position as a comedic gadfly to promote hatred of one-sixth of humankind, and that is wrong, any way you look at it.

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