Healing the Nations: Libya

Libya is a beautiful country with many resources and a wild history; we’ve passed through many tragedies and conflicts and we’ve survived them all, because we acted united with one voice and one hope.

Basically, by the end of Gaddafi’s rule, we had lived four decades believing that any troubles that don’t concern us directly aren’t too important – as long as we have “safety” everything is okay.

So of course, after the long period of fighting for freedom, we’re not going to accept another dictator. That would be one step back, like replacing an executioner with another. That is not respect for our martyrs, the youths who lost their lives for us.

But sadly since 2011, irresponsible and irrational young men carrying guns and using all kind of weapons, without training. Raids through civilian neighborhoods, we lost entire families, houses got destroyed, hospitals, airports and universities got raided, and they even put mines in houses.

What I want to say is we need a government that can support the citizens; that takes a stand controlling the streets militia, and that is willing and able to prevent any attacks without international involvement.

What Libyans need and yes I’m speaking on behalf of all Libyans, the people who have no interests in what’s going on, we need a strong civilian government, and trained police and army forces who are following this government, their loyalty must be for Libya only. The grudges and the lamentation over the past should stop, we should move on towards a brighter future. That’s what Libyans have hoped for and are still hoping for.

 

A Better Understanding of China’s Thinking

Why has China risked international condemnation with their treatment of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang? Why do they feel the need to exert such a high level of control over civil society? This blog will attempt to demystify China’s thinking behind these controversial decisions.

Whilst it would be all too easy to attribute current policy programmes to the authoritarian nature of the current Chinese state, China’s history of empire, domination and the formulation of Han nationalism against a backdrop of a diverse number of ethnic minorities should be given greater importance.

The ‘100 Years of Humiliation’, a period ending in the mid-20th century, is key to understanding how China has regarded their position on the international stage. This period saw decades of economic exploitation by Western imperialists and political domination from Japan and Russia. Considering the length at which China experienced such foreign interference, it is unsurprising that they pursue an agenda to strengthen both their nationalist identity, but also their identity as a strong, independent political actor (examples here can include their treatment of ethnic minorities and Hong Kong). Indeed, in 2013, current President Xi Jinping emphasised the ‘Chinese Dream’, referring in part to the need to ‘rejuvenate’ China as a nation.

China has portrayed the detention of Eastern Turkic Muslims, specifically the Uighurs in the autonomous region of Xinjiang, as a necessary step in the reduction of terrorism. China’s official justification to the existence of these ‘Vocational Training Centres’ is that they need to protect their populations against a terrorist threat and need to pre-emptively reduce the spread of extremism.The state has connected the terrorist threat to the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement, a separatist, militant Uighur group. However, whilst China is officially an atheist state and wary of religious separatism, this alone cannot explain the prosecution of an entire ethnicity.

Considering how far reaching China’s economic investments are, it is likely that they recognise their influence, subsequently discouraging challenges to China from other states. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) would help illustrate this, specifically in the case of Kazakhstan. Despite reports stating there to be thousands of Kazakhs imprisoned in ‘Vocational Training Camps’ in Xinjiang, the Kazakhstan government has so far remained quiet on this gross abuse of Human Rights. According to the Council of Foreign Relations, BRI countries’ debt to China has increased significantly since their participation in this infrastructure scheme. In Kazakhstan, which joined the initiative in 2013, the percentage of debt owed to China increased by 8.3% by 2016. This raises the possibility that Kazakhstan has felt unable to challenge China on its treatment of Kazakhs due to the economic significance of their relationship.

All in all, the driving factors behind China’s decision-making process are linked to strengthening the image of a strong, singular identity of the Han Chinese people, a fixation encouraged by a history of exploitation by foreign powers. In addition to this underlying theme, their economic omnipresence has led to a fear of opposition to such a policy. China perceives the Uighurs to be a threat to ethnic nationalism, rather than a genuine threat to their national security, a perception which has been moulded by a history of fragmentation, and confidently carried out against a backdrop of economic dominance.

 

What Does “Defund the Police” Really Mean?

While the international community watches, the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States continues to dominate the news cycle as people march the streets in protest. What began as a protest regarding the brutal killing of George Floyd, an African-American man who was killed on the street in Minneapolis after a policeman kneeled on his throat for nine minutes and cut off his breathing, has turned into a movement for the restructuring and perhaps even de-funding of the entire police structure. His death was not just an individual event, rather a symbol of the deep racial tensions that still run through the veins of the country.

This is not the first of these kinds of protests, the previous well-known ones being the Race Riots of the 1960s. Beginning in 1967, an uprising swept through more than 150 cities across the US, provoked by police brutality and social inequalities such as in housing and education. Lyndon B. Johnson was the president at the time and had recently pushed through the Civil Rights Act and The Great Society legislation that he believed would help alleviate the inequality that caused these racial tensions. Despite this, the protests continued as cities burned in what Time magazine referred to as “the bloodiest uprising in half a century”. To determine the causes, a special commission was appointed in which interviews were conducted across the country to better understand the concerns and anger of the people.

The report concluded that there were deep cultural divisions in the country and that the United States was on track for two different societies: black and white. The commission suggested a thirty billion dollar infusion of support for the educational and social services of black communities, to provide more opportunities and therefore lessen inequalities. The report also had suggestions for the police which included higher standards, more professionalization, extra training, standardized educational standards, and community relations programs that allow citizens a voice in local policing. However, the high price tag, defensive nature of the police departments, and Johnson’s personal anger that his previous work was not recognized, combined to block any implementation of the recommendations. The finding of the report, which for the first time, identified “white racism”as a factor in the repression that the black community was protesting, proved to be a step too far for many politicians, and the report’s findings were tabled. Indeed, the report would never have seen the light of day had it not been for the findings being leaked to the press, published, and becoming a bestseller. Despite that, no meaningful changes were implemented.

Less than sixty years later, the United States is facing similar issues. Once again, racial inequalities and increasing cases of police brutality have brought these long-simmering issues to public scrutiny. The police are highly militarized and unionized, and while crime rates continue to drop, police brutality rates continue to increase. For comparison, “since 2000 the police in Great Britain have killed a total of 42 people. In March 2016 alone, US police killed 100 people”. The End of Policing, is a powerful account of the current crisis, authored by Alex S Vitale, a professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and essayist whose work has crossed the pages of newspapers such as the New York Times and the Guardian. He explains the current policing situation and the actions that need to be taken in order for sustainable change to occur. He posits that police today exhibit a “warrior mentality” where they believe that they are in a constant battle with a disorderly public. This is further exacerbated by their training, in which they watch training videos of everyday encounters such as traffic stops turning violent. An ethos of keeping officers safe becomes harmful when they assume danger in the most mundane interactions with the public, this is demonstrably true when police are interacting with members of minority groups. This is associated with their inclination to use force that can quickly escalate into violent scenarios.

As seen in the mostly peaceful protests across the US, the police have responded to disturbance and blocking the streets with the use of rubber bullets and tear gas, a threatening show of force. In Buffalo, New York, a 75-year-old man was shoved to the ground by two officers, left unconscious and bleeding as the rest of the force police marched past him. In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, cameras caught police officers shooting a young woman with rubber bullets, fracturing her eye socket. In Kansas City, Missouri, police officers walked up onto a sidewalk to spray pepper spray at protestors. This violent response has only exacerbated the calls from the public for the end of police brutality. When the public itself gets violent, the police are well within their bounds to get involved in a calm and efficient manner as they are meant to be the guardians of public safety. Their training should not only prepare them for these scenarios, but they should be educated in proper de-escalation techniques rather than a war in the streets with civilians.

Alongside the violence, the subject of racism has once again become the center of the debate. Racism is undoubtedly present in the US and this includes police forces where black teens are up to twenty-one times more likely than white teens to be killed by police. Black communities are stuck in a never-ending loop where as inequality increases, despair and public disorder do as well. The policy, known as “broken windows”, which became popular in the ’90s, encourages police to crack down on small infractions in the hopes that it will prevent bigger crimes from being committed. While it was well-intended, it has resulted in the police, which are supposed to be the peacekeepers of the streets, becoming the enemies of many minority communities. Now, protesters are marching the streets chanting “defund the police”. 

So what does “Defund the Police” actually mean?

Despite the provocative title, the policy does not call for the eradication of police. It is a multi-step process that includes changing the role that police play in the community, and greater accountability for officers, as well as transferring some responsibilities that currently fall on the police to other, more qualified professionals, such as social workers or mental health professionals. This, of course, would result in the reallocation of funds in order to commit those monies to more specialized agencies.  

Greater relations with the public not only decrease violence but also brings more accountability to the police department. Rather than funds for local government coming from the number of tickets and fines, police should be focusing on supporting their communities. Former Police Chief Scott Thomson of Camden, New Jersey, initiated the successful overhaul of their police department, heralded by activists as a success. He said that by stopping the reward system for arrests made, police officers were able to connect with people more. Thomson also implemented a program in which he dropped his officers off on corners and instructed them that “I don’t want you to write tickets, I don’t want you to lock anybody up. I’m dropping you off on this corner that has crime rates greater than that of Juárez, Mexico, and for the next twelve hours I don’t want you to make an arrest unless it’s for an extremely vile offense.” “Don’t call us—we’re not coming back to get you until the end of your shift, so if you got to go to the bathroom, you need to make a friend out here. You want to get something to eat? You better find who the good cook is”. They also implemented a police outreach program where citizens are called every couple of months for a check-in of their safety and and the state of their neighborhoods. The police in Camden have taken it a step even farther and now host block parties, cooking for and mingling among their citizens, manufacturing relationships and trust while becoming part of the communities they are served to protect. The relationship established between civilians and the police help both sides feel safer in their environments and the police are seen as guardians of the peace for the people rather than “thugs with badges”

Enhanced accountability is important in every field, but especially with the police because we provide them with absolute authority and with weapons. Oversight is critically important and beneficial. When police misconduct occurs, it is essential that police cooperate with investigators so that the wrongdoings are exposed. While body and dash cams can be helpful in this regard, it is often the case that other police officers are the only witnesses. In Seattle and Oakland, they have created civilian police commissions to enforce police accountability and allow openness with their communities. Civilians on police commissions provide a community perspective on police matters, ensuring much-needed oversight as well as standardized consequences for misconduct. With their involvement, citizens feel that their voices are heard and that the investigations conducted are more legitimate, compared to internal investigations. When civilians and police work together, not only are the police more effective, but they have greater accountability and authority within their communities. 

This change of role and dispersion of responsibilities does, inevitably, result in a reallocation of funds in order to commit resources to other departments. It does not mean “stripping a department entirely of its budget, or abolishing it altogether”. We do need police to promote a peaceful society. Instead, it is “about scaling police budgets back and reallocating those resources to other agencies”, explains Lynda Garcia, a policing campaign director at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Police should not be the first responders in many situations, especially non-violent ones. Dallas Police chief David Brown said in 2016, that police were expected to do too much and “every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it… Here in Dallas, we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops… That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems”. Mental health departments have been underfunded for too long and police are often called in as responders to these situations for which they are not trained. According to a study from the Treatment Advocacy Center, a person with an untreated mental health issue is 16 times more likely to be killed by police than other members of the community. Examples include the death of Antonio Zambrano-Montes, reportedly behaving erratically and Jason Harris, said to have been exhibiting “bizarre behavior. These non-violent offenses should not be handled by the police. That money and resources should be committed to providing services by trained mental health workers.  Other social ills such as homelessness and drug addiction have also fallen on the shoulders of police officers. These are societal problems that need to be dealt with and not just handed off to armed police officers. 

The history of this movement displays a blatant truth: if permanent and lasting change is not enacted, these issues will continue to plague society. By understanding the role that police play in civilian lives and how that role can evolve and change to fit modern society, police can truly serve the public as guardians. Accountability for officers increases the legitimacy of the department and of individual officers as trust is raised in the community. In addition, delegating appropriate responsibilities to more qualified professionals allows the police to focus on their policing. These changes will be a meaningful attempt at creating a more peaceful and equal society for all races. To conclude with a remark from Martin Luther King Jr the day before he was shot dead, “If something isn’t done, and done in a hurry, to bring the coloured peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed.”

 

Black Lives Matter – Healing the Nations

We thank Reverend Larry Wright for providing us with his material from the BLM session on 30th July. It was very interesting listening to him as a speaker, so we hope this post is useful if you would like to recall the session or couldn’t attend the meeting at all.

I speak as a white privileged male, who has been a priest for nearly 30 years in a part of the global Anglican Church that has just set up a commission to investigate endemic racism within its structures and institutions and I’m a former Police Officer.

As a Christian priest I subscribe to a mandate of inclusive love while in practice I wrestle with my own prejudices daily. Within the churches and communities we serve I sense the fears and anxieties of many who feel overwhelmed and besieged by current trends in society which challenge their assumptions and values.  Some respond with bewilderment others with anger, others with an uncomfortable aversion or awkward attempts at engagement.   

As a priest in one of the most ethnically diverse and dynamic cities in Britain, the fruits and blessings of multi-culturalism are all around me. Birmingham has a good record of racial harmony but we must not be complacent. The immediacy of social media brings international incidents directly to our attention and the killing of George Floyd resonated globally exposing the unhealed, unresolved character of institutionalised and inculturated racism.

The expressions of grief and outpourings of protest witnessed in America, the UK and elsewhere have accelerated the need for a comprehensive re-assessment of our attitudes, our values and our use of history. From my perspective, there are two distinct though interconnected aspects to the BLM upsurge of protests:

  • Raising consciousness of the depth of racism still prevalent in society
  • And the pressing need to reconsider accepted views of history

As a person of faith, I search the sacred texts of my religion for guidance and inspiration. In them I find challenge and hope for they are both an historical witness to the struggles of faithful people while containing truth and wisdom for future generations.

A prophet revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims is known to me as Ezekiel.  In the prophetic book of writings bearing his name a key chapter is found in what we know as chapter18 in our Christian Bible. In this chapter the prophet draws a profound distinction between the wrongdoings of parents and children (one generation and another) and who bears the consequences of those wrongdoings. Previously, it was widely believed children were punished for the sins of their parents:  God’s anger would punish the many for the sins of the few. Ezekiel reforms this sense of collective punishment so the sins of a previous generation are not to be regarded as the responsibility of the next. The current generation must bear the consequences of its wrongdoings and sin, says the prophet.

In the current campaigns for retrospective justice and recompense for the sins of previous generations who exploited, abused and enslaved millions, many of my generation and background acknowledge the legitimacy of these campaigns while sensing we are being perceived as complicit. The discomfort this generates becomes an obstacle to addressing current issues of racism, exploitation, abuse and slavery.

Some of my generation and background ask ourselves: Can we be sure that the pulling down of statues, violent and non-violent protests, the reform of historical narratives, national acts of remorse and where possible compensation awarded, help to address and overcome racism and exploitation in this generation?  Or, put another way, are these campaigns necessary preliminaries before a new enlightenment era of racial justice can dawn? While they may be powerful acts of protest and demolition, they appear nihilistic and we are fearful they will harden attitudes among those whom we are seeking to transform attitudes.

Retrospective justice is important and necessary but the victims of racism and exploitation now must take the highest priority, let not the campaigns for the former detract from the urgency of the latter.

Reverend Larry Wright

 

Opening Address to our conference

This text was sent in by Reverend Larry Wright who opened our “Healing The Nations” conference on 30th July. The conference is still ongoing and if you wish to join us please use this link.

As a person of faith, ‘healing’ and ‘nations’ are words resonant with meaning, promise and longing, while also evoking concepts to be approached with caution, as their definitions are many and their usage often controversial.

But as a general statement of intent, who would not wish nations and their peoples to be healed?

The question presumes two things. We have an understanding of the malady or illness from which people are suffering and we understand what a nation is. For how can we heal what we cannot describe and whom do we heal if we do not know the patient? To put it in medical terms.

Let’s begin with nation, or nationhood. Any reading of history will soon lead us to understand nations are a relatively recent concept.  Ancient history refers to peoples, ethnic groupings, religious cults and empires. Only in recent centuries has the concept of nation states become a feature of political history and geography.

In the ancient texts cherished by my faith, it is empires that dominate the Near and Middle East of our founding stories. For many post-colonial countries their borders and boundaries were fixed by former colonial powers. We see in the changing geography of the last 100 years, nations emerge, separate or succumb to war and defeat. Nations incorporated – willingly or unwillingly- by new imperial conquests and later liberated to pursue their own national self-determination.

Are we seeking healing of nations or between nations? Surly the wise and the good seek to do both. We have nations divided among themselves and at enmity with each other in a globalised and regionalised world. And let us not exclude the possibility of healing between our species and the natural world we inhabit, for without the earth, our one constant source of life giving resources, peoples and nations will inevitably perish.

So what healing is needed?  Throughout this conference the sufferings and realities of different countries and regions will be examined and analysed. Their historical, ideological, political and economic complexities scrutinised.  Maybe in the course of this conference, new thinking may emerge and new possibilities proposed.  However our conversations unfold, may we be watchful we do not rely on addressing only the more obvious expressions of suffering and conflict in our world. Partial claims for political, economic or ideological remedies to humankind’s needs, address the material aspects of our human nature, but we are flesh and spirit, body and soul; however we choose to define this: A remedy which only concentrates upon the body is deficient, a cure which only addresses the soul incomplete. We must strive for integrated and holistic remedies which are both transformative and healing.

But we must begin with ourselves. The ancient Jewish proverb puts it plainly; “Physician heal thyself!”  In the recognition of our own need for healing and transformation we begin a journey of self-discovery taking us outward to the world in the full knowledge we are less than we could be while celebrating we are more than we were.

It is a journey from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge, from self-centred egotism to world embracing compassion, from indifference or resignation to action; for people of faith it is the complete reorientation of our lives towards God.

In a highly medicalised world, we are encouraged to put our faith in medical science to cure human sickness, but there is no pill or procedure for the most serious afflictions of our world:  poverty, malnutrition, lack of education, unemployment, environmental degradation, conflict, racism and economic inequality and exploitation. These are the recurring and endemic causes of so much suffering.

To play any meaningful role in the notion of ‘healing the nations’, we must nurture certain values as global concepts: conciliation, justice for all, meaningful and respectful engagement, conflict avoidance, global economic reform and cooperation. Underlying these aspirations must be the recognition of our need for spiritual, moral and religious renewal and reform. Then we will bring to the world’s problems the fullness of our physical and intellectual energies and the transformative power of the spiritual life.

Reverend Larry Wright

 

An open letter: the Hagia Sophia.

Ambassador Hambley has asked us to publish this open letter from his colleagues working in Germany and Scotland to the Turkish President. The views expressed are their own however the NCF’s religious affairs advisor comments: This was a blatantly political decision wrapped in a religious cloak. However, it is the culmination of a 16 year legal case to restore it as a Mosque and as such should be acknowledged as a valid legal decision by Turkish terms, even though many disagree with it. Turkish courts do award cases against government actions occasionally, so there is a degree of judicial independence. Turkey’s political isolation from the West continues and while protestations against the conversion are manifold, there is little chance of a reversal. However, the site is a UNESCO world heritage site and it’s possible UNESCO has more leverage:

“We are permitting ourselves to express our grave concern about the recent decision of the Turkish Government to re-convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. We are writing to you as individuals in our private capacity, committed to dialogue and peace on Planet Earth, and not on behalf of the institutions, networks and projects mentioned in this letter.

“More than most other monuments not just in Istanbul and Turkey, but anywhere in the
world, the Hagia Sophia is an interface of Orient and Occident, of Christianity and Islam.
Furthermore, it is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The arrangement instated by President Kemal Atatürk in 1935 – as a museum – was a very good and balanced solution, reflecting its past as a church from 537-1453, and as a mosque since then, but also the sadly at times violent episodes in its history and generally between the two major religions of our part of the world. Given its history, and that of the city around it, it has been a holy site and focal point for both Islam and Christianity over the almost 1,500 years of its existence.

“The recent decision to re-convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque will inevitably cause
offense among much of the Christian (in particular Orthodox) community, and we would
appeal to the Turkish Government to re-consider this step.

“In light of this history, it is impossible for either side to claim sole ownership of this
monument. Whatever arrangement is found, it should equally reflect the significance and holiness of the Hagia Sophia to the faithful of both religions: The museum was a very good arrangement, but we could equally imagine an inter-face venue of worship.

Sincerely,

Frithjof Kuepper and Hartmut Dreier.”

 

 

 

Hartmut Dreier, born in 1938, since 1977 resident in Marl/Ruhrgebiet, Protestant Christian theologian, pastor emeritus, one of the pioneers in Christian-Muslim dialogue, friendship and cooperation since 1984 on the local, regional and national level and in German-Turkish cooperation. Selected activities:

• Intercultural, interreligious projects Marl/Gireson and Marl/Kusadasi
• Solidarity after the Marmara earthquake in August 1999 in Adapazari
• Establishing close working relations with DITIB, Cologne, IGMG (Islamische
Gemeinschaft Milli Görüs), Zentralrat der Muslime in Deutschland
• Co-founder of CIAG Marl in 1984, for example enabling the construction of Fatih
Moschee Marl, the first new mosque building in Germany
• Co-founder of the annual Abraham’s festival in Marl, Kreis Recklinghausen, in 2001 (in this context Bundespräsident Johannes Rau visited the Fatih Mosque in
December 2001 – this was the first time that a German federal president visited a
Mosque in Germany; Diyanet president Prof. Dr. Ali Bardakoglu gave a keynote
speech in the Fatih Mosque and signed the “Goldene Buch” of the city of Marl)
• Sukran-Plakette of the Republic of Turkey, awarded by the General Consul of Turkey, Mr. Günes Altan, in Münster (March 5, 1997)
• For our current work as an intercultural and interreligious team and for further
awards see https://www.ciag-marl.de/

Frithjof Kuepper, born in 1972, Professor and Chair in Marine Biodiversity at the University of Aberdeen, resident in Newburgh, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, and Marl, Germany. Selected activities:

• First prizes at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists and the Young
Europeans’ Environmental Research Competition (both 1992).
• Marine biologist with extensive academic research and teaching activities in SE
Europe and the Middle East, besides other parts of the world. Personal and
professional network in the region includes a sizeable number of both Muslims and
Christians, with whom he fundamentally recognizes the common roots of our faith
and with whom he shares the desire to learn from a difficult history to build a more
peaceful and harmonious ecumenical coexistence based on shared values and
mutual understanding.
• Strong commitment to the peace process in Cyprus and to Greek-Turkish
rapprochement in general, with numerous contacts in both communities in Cyprus – led the first academic publication since the Cyprus War in 1974 which is jointly
authored by scientists from both communities in Cyprus as well as from Turkey and
Greece.

 

Things are not always what they seem – Polish elections analysed

Andrzej Duda, recently re-elected as the Polish president, led what many will regard as a dirty campaign. He tried to build political capital by stigmatising the LGBTQ community, further polarised Poland’s already-divided society, and promised legislation in line with the  axioms of the Church, all while enjoying the undivided support of the state-owned media. But this is not why he won.

To understand the political success of President Andrzej Duda, or the Law and Justice Party (PiS) in general, we have to forego the simplified media narrative of the battle between the enlightened pro-European liberals on the one side and the anti-establishment poor on the other. Even those Western media outlets left of the centre which saw the populist movements in the West as giving voice to those left-behind, do not try to interpret developments in the East of Europe in quite the same way. It’s a mistake to do so: while nowhere in the West the populist-authoritarians managed to actually gain power, in no other place in Europe the left-behind are as far behind as they are in its Eastern part.

To make sense of recent events in Poland it is necessary to analyse not only the past few years, but also the period when modern Poland was being born. The transition following the fall of communism had a tremendous influence on later decades. In 1989, for the new Polish government, turning to a free market was a necessary step of becoming a part of ‘the free West’; its plan was to radically free-marketize the economy. And so one of the most visible results of the transition was the rise in social inequalities.

While Polish GDP rose steadily throughout the 2000s up to 2015, welfare levels did not. The state resigned from an active role in almost all spheres of life; little to no support was offered to persons from low-income families, unemployed or otherwise vulnerable citizens. For example, even today around half a million pensioners – many of whom have worked their whole adult lives – receive a monthly pension of less than £200 sterling. Twenty-five years after the 1989 transition period, the same type of thinking about economics persisted – subsequent governments kept on pushing the agenda of individualism and complete economic autonomy in a free-market environment. Those who succeeded in 1989 were doing well; the others patiently waited for the promised period of general welfare which the years of austerity and economic growth were supposed to bring about.

However, the state institutions necessary for the establishment of prosperity and of civil society were neglected or privatised. Twenty-five years after the reforms of 1989, citizens, especially outside of large cities, felt that their electoral choices did not reflect on the political reality – regardless of the narrative of growth and the promises of the liberal politicians, the state institutions were slow and ineffective. The majority therefore felt unrepresented and had no sense of any political agency.

In 2015 Duda, an MEP of the conservative Law and Justice party, unexpectedly won the presidential election for the first time. Up to 2015 the Law and Justice Party (PiS) was a party supported mainly by two groups: those most disadvantaged by the 1989 reforms, mainly inhabitants of the East and South of Poland, and those with strong catholic values (these two communities often overlapped). However, in 2015 PiS attracted new voters – those who had previously supported the liberal parties. The reasons behind that shift are clear; PiS was the first mainstream party in Poland post-1989 which offered the voters social policies whose aim was to directly improve the living standards of large groups of the citizenry.

Their approach was certainly not a comprehensive one – they chose the easy way of direct monetary transfers instead of the reform of the old institutions and the establishment of new ones. Nevertheless, it was a step in the right direction, in a country struck by poverty, with widespread corruption, almost non-existent public housing, where oncological patients died before they could see the doctor, and where the rate of most life-satisfaction inducing factors was steadily sinking for 25 years. When PiS gained majority of seats in the parliament, the current democratic decline started – with the gradual overtaking of the state-media by the party, further politicization of the rule of law and disregard of the rules set by the Polish constitution. The constitutional laws (which also theoretically bound the Polish state to look after the well-being of the citizens) were too abstract when contrasted with unquestionable improvements in their lives that the Poles saw: between 2014 and 2019 the number of children living in extreme poverty fell by 50% – from 715 to 312 thousand, while the minimum wage was raised from 40% to 50% of the medium wage. Crucially, PiS rejected the neoliberal focus on the individual agency, and – both economically and culturally – accentuated the importance of the national community instead. There was no coming back.

After five years of Duda’s presidency, his opponent in the runoff voting was Rafał Trzaskowski, a prominent member of the Civic Platform (PO), the centre-right liberal party which – after nearly 10 years of being in power – lost the elections in 2015. Understandably, Trzaskowski’s candidature was interpreted by the majority as one positing a revival of the old order. While the difference between the number of votes each candidate received (around 500,000) was not huge, I doubt there was anything Trzaskowski could have possibly done to win the election. For the majority of Poles, Duda was the only viable option. Do not get me wrong – I am not saying that it was a fair game: the dismantling of the public character of the state-media as well as Duda’s use of hate-speech changed the character of the presidential campaign. But – if we look at the broader picture – the reasons behind Duda’s victory lay elsewhere. He symbolised the transition in the understanding of the duties of the Polish state towards its citizens and a shift of the identity of the citizenry from a collection of individuals into a national community.

Fortunately for the Polish democrats, the vision of Poland offered by Duda and PiS is flawed in both these areas. In the first sphere – because PiS’s attempts at welfare politics lack the institutional framework necessary for systemic prosperity. In the second – due to the limited nature of the sense of community offered by PiS. A national identity built on the idea of exclusion – not only of the minorities, but also of the other half of the society that does not accept its values – is, by definition, weaker than one formed with inclusivity in mind. Another factor slowly disempowering PiS are the demographics of its voters: in the recent elections Trzaskowski won in all age groups younger than 50; the scale of support for Duda grew together with the voters’ age. Gradually, to attract younger Poles, PiS will have to take on either a more liberal – or even more nationalist – approach.

While the support for PiS is likely to fall over the years, it of course could be too late to save the Polish democracy at that stage. But free Poland is by no means lost: if the opposition manages to take the issue of welfare seriously, and to define an attractive model of statehood and national identity, it could win the elections and breathe new life into the Polish democracy.

Unfortunately, I doubt that it will happen anytime soon.

The situation in Afghanistan – a personal perspective

This article expresses the views of Paramount Chief and senior member of the NCF, Ajmal Khan. The Next Century Foundation’s Summer Conference includes a session on Afghanistan. Should you wish to attend click here for full details and the chance to register. The Taliban say that “with the exception of the Presidency or high ranking positions in the judiciary, there will be no restrictions on a woman’s career prospects” in the new Afghanistan.  But when asked to differentiate between themselves and ISIS, the Taliban say that the main difference is that they are Afghan and ISIS are not. Can this really be the way to go? To surrender control of Afghanistan to one of the most feared and dangerous groups on the planet? After years of losses in blood and treasure is there no better outcome for much mauled over Afghanistan? To listen to the personal views of the Next Century Foundation’s Secretary General on the subject click here. The views of Paramount Chief Ajmal Zazai Khan are as follows in his words. Neither his words nor those of the NCF Secretary General represent the views of the trustees of the Next Century Foundation:

ISIS

The so-called ISIS of Afghanistan has no connection with the one in Iraq or Syria. The Afghan ISIS, which declare itself as the ISIS wing of Khorasan, has two parts. One part is based mainly in the eastern parts of Afghanistan, consists of the Pashtun tribes of Waziristan and Khyber agency, and is fully run by the Pakistani ISI. Only recently did the US carry out thorough operations against them, which wiped out much of the group. The other part of ISIS is based in the north and north-eastern parts of Afghanistan, and mainly consists of Chechens, Daghistanis and Chinese Muslims. This part of the Khorasan ISIS was created by the FSB and, according to some reliable sources, anywhere between 25,000 to 35,000 fighters are based inside Afghanistan. They are living among the villagers in the most remote parts of the country. This deadly group was created to take the insurgency to a second phase, which would be far deadlier than what we witness right now.

Al-Qaeda

After spending nine years in Iran, Hamza Bin Laden (the son of Al-Qaeda’s late leader, Osama Bin Ladin) returned to Afghanistan, and this shaped Al-Qaeda strategically. The US claimed that they had killed Hamza bin Ladin in a drone strike in Waziristan some four years ago, but it is confirmed that the US missed.
Hamza Bin Laden is now the leader of most elite terrorist organization that stretches across many countries. Hamza bin Laden is working closely with Sarajuddin Haqani in the southern and south-eastern parts of Afghanistan. All fighters of Al-Qaeda are North African Arabs, from Libya, Mali, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.

The insurgency against the US & NATO

The forces are divided into three groups:

  1. The Pakistani ISI is running the Taliban & Haqani Network.
  2.  The Russian FSB is running ISIS.
  3.  Irani Al Quds is running Hamza bin Ladin Al Qaida.

The US Intel are aware that a peace deal with the Taliban will not guarantee total peace or an end to the war in Afghanistan. The US military believe that they would have to maintain their presence in Afghanistan to fight Al-Qaeda, ISIS and Hezb-i- Wallayat (Taliban), but the regional powers believe these are just excuses made by the US in order to prolong its military presence in Afghanistan.
Regional powers believe the US’ prolonged military presence in Afghanistan has something to do with regional powers (Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan & Turkey) and not with ISIS or Al-Qaeda, as claimed by the US & NATO.

The concerns of Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan

Russia: Kremlin believes that the US is driven to curb the vast influence of Russia on Central Asia by bringing western-style democracies to the region, and empowering westernized leaders to free them of Moscow.

China: Beijing treats Afghanistan as it’s backyard and they are certain that the US’ prolonged presence in Afghanistan seeks to stop China’s huge economical “One Belt, One Road” project, which connects 118 countries and costs $3 trillion. China believes that from their positions in Afghanistan, the US and U.K. have tried to create an uprising inside China using the Chinese Muslims to create a civil war which could eventually weaken China from within.

Iran: The Iranian regime openly accuses the US and U.K. for interfering in their country by creating unrest within Iran. The Iranian regime fears that the US might send Iranian armed militants through the Afghan border in order to topple its regime in Tehran.

Pakistan: Although Pakistan was considered a friend and an ally by the US for a long time, it has been over 25 years since Pakistan tightened its ties with China and no longer trusts the US. Pakistan is a nuclear state and they feel threatened by deepened US-India relations and, of course, by Kashmir. The Taliban and other Islamic militant groups (Jaish Mohammad, Lashkar Tayba) are the core of ISI. Maybe at a later stage these groups will fight Pakistan’s holy war in Kashmir. The US’ prolonged military presence in Afghanistan might have some severe consequences for Pakistan as well, as Pakistan think that the US and NATO might begin supporting the separatists of Pashtunistan and Baluchistan. The separation won’t stop there, however, as Sindh also wants freedom and this could mean the end of Pakistan’s existence.

The above-mentioned countries, plus Turkey, are also part of the inner circle of the Shanghai summit. They make up one block and are all tied into a strategical alliance, doing anything in their power to turn Afghanistan into a second Vietnam for the US forces.

Qatar’s Peace Deal

The main objective of Qatar’s Peace Deal was to minimize insurgency by shutting down the Taliban, but this has not worked because the Taliban insist on the complete withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan. The Taliban leadership is well aware that the US is not going to fully withdraw its forces, as they are making excuses of Al-Qaeda and ISIS being active in Afghanistan. The Taliban have categorically assured the US that Al-Qaeda and ISIS are their problem and that they will deal with them, but the US will not listen and instead blames the Taliban for having ties with Al-Qaeda. The UN Security Council’s report that the Taliban has deep ties with Al-Qaeda and other militant groups made  the US’ claim even stronger.

Ever since this peace deal was signed in Qatar back in February, the insurgence has escalated by more than 300% throughout Afghanistan, and Afghans continue to be killed. It does not appear that the Taliban will adopt a ceasefire in the near future.

About a month ago, Sarjuddin Haqani (the military commander of  the Haqani Networka, deputy of Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Hibatullah, and the son of late Mullah Mohammad Omar) openly expressed their determination for carrying JIHAD against the US invaders in a propaganda video. They conveyed a message to their fighters to carry on fighting and discredited the Qatar peace deal.

Right after the Qatar peace deal was signed between the US and Taliban, a large number of Taliban formed another group called Hezb-i- Wallayat, and it is believed that many who oppose the Qatar peace deal will join this new Taliban resistance.

Conclusion of the Qatar deal

It seems that Trump’s administration will somehow bring the (approximate) 500 Taliban leaders to Kabul to make them part of the current Kabul regime, or perhaps form a new interim government where these Taliban leaders will be part of it. Then Trump will show to the American public that he has ended America’s longest war in Afghanistan and brought soldiers home. According to some reliable information from within the US government, the US will always maintain around 4,000 troops in Afghanistan, regardless of any treaty they have signed with Taliban. That is why regional powers are skeptical of the US and have planned for a prolonged war with the US on Afghan soil.

Afghan partners

Although the US is juggling the insurgency in Afghanistan and larger regional issues, the US and NATO are currently backing the most corrupt regime in Kabul. Ashraf Ghani has lost control of Afghanistan’s government. He is incompetent and weak, and he is driven by individuals within his regime who carry other agendas (those of the FSB, Al Quds, ISI & RAW). Sadly, the US and NATO are fully aware of his incompetence but continue supporting his disastrous regime, which Afghans dislike at large.

At least if the US and NATO could bring about cleaner Afghan government that works for the welfare of the Afghans, more Afghans may resist from joining the Taliban, Al-Qaeda or ISIS.

 

The crisis facing Black graduates in the UK

NCF Researcher Lauretta Garrard examines the lack of a level playing field for black graduates in the UK. The opening session of the forthcoming NCF Summer conference concentrates on the Black Lives Matter issue. If you wish to attend follow this link.

As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to gain momentum, and growing numbers of employers have announced plans to cut jobs in the UK, we must think about the employment prospects of Black university students. This September an estimated two million will enter into a transformed labour market, yet it is Black graduates who may face the most disadvantage. Black and ethnic minority communities have in many ways been disproportionately harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and this iniquity is not likely to improve for Black students in their inclusion and experiences within occupations.

Figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that Black students in the UK are less likely to be in full time employment than their white peers (53% of Black graduates are in full time occupations compared to 62% of white graduates). There are also clear disparities in the makeup of professions in the UK, with Black employees underrepresented in senior roles. Only 1.5% of those in senior roles in the private sector are Black. Pay gaps between ethnic groups in the UK also remain wide. According to data from the Office for National Statistics, UK-born Black employees earn 7.7% less than white British workers. Poignantly, this is similar to the gender pay gap which stands at 8.9% and it is clear that employment discrimination continues to exist within the UK labour market. 

While action must be taken to tackle occupational disadvantages which remain stratified by ethnic origin, institutions play an important role in creating these conditions. Widening access to programmes at prestigious universities is likely to improve the prospects of graduates where many still have lower percentages of Black students. For example, in 2019 only 3.2% of students at The University of Oxford, and 3.4% of students at the University of Cambridge were Black. Black students within these institutions therefore remain unrepresented, where Black 18-24-year olds make up 4% of the population in England and Wales, according to the 2011 census (with data unavailable for the whole of the UK). These are some of the UK’s most prestigious institutions, yet they are failing to represent Black students more than most other universities in the country. Both universities in particular have been questioned about their lack of representation in its student and staff makeup, and despite their widening participation programmes, it is clear that more must be done. Identifying what enables existing occupational advantage is also important. This could involve research into the formal and informal ways in which non-black and minority ethnic graduates gain privilege over Black students. 

As students at The University of Oxford campaign to take down a statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes, we must urgently address how racism and specifically anti-Blackness continues to go unaddressed within institutions.  It is important that we account for a history of racial exploitation, colonialism and slavery while paying attention to and taking responsibility for the work that still has to be done. The combination of the pandemic and ongoing racial discrimination are likely to threaten the job prospects of Black students to a significant degree, and measures to mitigate this must be adopted quickly. In the words of Helen Barnard, acting director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, who has recently commented on these occupational disadvantages “although we are all weathering the same storm, we are not all in the same boat”.

 

The Kazakhs of Xinjiang

The treatment of the Uyghurs in China has raised human rights concern globally, less discussed however is the equally horrific treatment of the second largest ethnic minority in north-western China – the Kazakhs.

The vast majority of the Kazakh population residing in China’s border are descendants of those who fled from the modern-day state of Kazakhstan during 1916-1941. The increasing voluntary and forced migration of ethnic Russians to the central Asian republics resulted in mass displacement of central Asian peoples from their homeland. Angered by the Russification/Sovietisation policies of the government in Moscow, a large rebellious movement took hold in these republics (the Baschami Movement). However, the movement had largely subsided by 1926 after the Soviet government’s iron-fist approach to rebellion in the Central Asian Republics. The result was thousands of fatalities and the mass destruction of the agrarian livelihoods of the local population. Combined with the government’s mismanagement of food and labour, the Kazakh people were also victims of two devastating famines in 1919-1922 and 1931-1933. Thus, an approximate 200,000 Kazakhs fled across the border. By 1941, the number of Kazakhs living in China was reached an estimated 325,000. The current number is estimated to be around 1.8 million Kazakh Chinese citizens.

Like the Uyghurs, the Kazakhs also present a challenge to China’S majoritarian view. Facing calls for separatist movements in the Xinjiang region from members of its ethnic minorities, China has increasingly clamped down on what it deems dissent from the local population. The Chinese government’s problem with the Kazakh minority focuses especially on the Muslim identity of the community. Thus, China has progressively increased the number of Kazakhs in re-education detention camps; China maintains they are vocational schools for criminal offenders. The aim of the Chinese government is to alter the identity of ethnic minorities (ideological purification). Hence, in re-education camps, detainees are forced to: embrace CCP propaganda, learn Mandarin, continuously recite Chinese rhymes and songs, and to give up their religion. Moreover, the detainees are fed only one meal a day, forced to sleep on metal beds, forced to provide biometric data (including voice samples and DNA) and undertake laborious activities on measly wages. As more escapees have come forward, the vast scale of the human rights abuses and torture endured by the detainees has become evident.

China asserts that it treats its ethnic minorities well, arguing that those in Xinjiang have a measure of autonomy. The Kazakhs who mainly reside in Illi Autonomous Kazakh Prefecture, part of the larger Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, vehemently oppose the actual degree of autonomy granted to the minorities. As per China’s law, the individual head of the autonomous prefecture or region should be given to the region’s ethnic minority. Yet with China’s authoritarian political system in which the CCP dictates the affairs of the state, power resides with the local Party Secretary. The local Party Secretary is a post elected by party officials and is given to those of a Han Chinese background and not to those from an ethnic minority. Indeed, this was a major contributing factor to the outbreak of protests in 2008 in Xinjiang.

China has a longstanding fear of ethnonationalism amongst its ethnic minorities and especially those in Xinjiang. The Kazakh people straddling the 660-mile long Kazakhstan-China border have traditionally traversed the border without too much concern for the Westphalian understanding of state boundaries. The fear of Kazakh ethnonationalism and terrorism rising in China’s north-west has worried the CCP into coercively carrying out the mass detention of Chinese Kazakh citizens. Travel between Kazakhstan and Xinjiang also raises suspicion amongst China’s authoritarian government. Kazakhstan features as one of twenty-six countries deemed “sensitive”, meaning any travel to and from the country raises suspicion leading to interrogation and arrests. This has included the arrests of Kazakhstan’s citizens who are simply visiting family members in China.

The role of Kazakhstan in the issue is double-edged. On the one side, there is growing resentment amongst its population against China’s treatment of Kazakhs; on the other is China’s economic importance to the state. Kazakhstan imports approximately 23% of its goods from China, and exports approximately 10% of its goods to China, resulting in China being the second largest exporter and importer for Kazakhstan. Furthermore, China’s aim to rebuild the silk road has economic importance for Kazakhstan, potentially allowing the country to benefit greatly from increased trade links with China and European states. The result has been to mainly reaffirm China’s view on the treatment of its ethnic minorities in its borders. Indeed, Kazakhstan went as far as to arrest Serikzhan Bilash, the leader of Atajurt – a large human rights NGO based in Kazakhstan assisting Kazakhs with family members in China’s detention camps. Bilash, charged with inciting hatred, was eventually released owing to international pressure but on the condition that he would end his activism. Recently, Kazakhstan also arrested two protestors outside the Chinese Embassy in Nursultan who were demanding the release of family members in China’s re-education camps. Other times, however, Kazakhstan has successfully lobbied for the release of Kazakhs in re-education camps, China allowed 2,000 Kazakhs to give up their Chinese citizenry and emigrate to Kazakhstan. Moreover, Kazakhstan permitted two Chinese Kazakhs to remain in Kazakhstan despite their illegal border crossing on the basis that they may face persecution at the hands of China’s authorities.

As the international community becomes more aware of the grave human rights abuses taking place in Xinjiang, it is important to amplify the voices of the ethnic minorities of the region. At the very least, the release of minorities forced to live in detention camps should be guaranteed. China’s style of governance ensures that even when individuals are released from camps, there will be heavy monitoring of their activities. An approach to back Kazakhstan’s government to demand the release of detainees is unlikely to get far. Kazakhstan’s government is strategically and economically dependent on China and thus is unlikely to take any bold approaches. For now, the best approach may be to continuously raise the issue of human rights abuses on the global stage and challenge China’s government on its use of detention camps.

 

 

Russian-Israelis: identity and trauma

Israel was formed by immigration, and Jews from Eastern Europe were an important part of the Jewish immigration to Palestine ever since the days of the First Aliyah of 1882. Many Russian-speaking Jews arrived in Palestine fleeing the pogroms in Tsarist Russia and would form the backbone of Ha-Yishuv (the settlement). After the Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union’s tightening border controls meant that few if any Soviets were allowed to leave the country, generating a sharp disconnect between the Soviet Jews and their Jewish brethren abroad. After almost half a century of suspended Jewish migration, many Soviet-Jews arrived in Israel in the 1970s and even more in the 1990s, in the periods of Soviet openness towards Jewish emigration. These were much larger waves of immigration, and they had a significant impact on Israel – the Jews were also deeply altered by half a century of socialism. Today, Russian-speaking Jews are an important part of Israel’s demographic, and key right-wing voters in Israel’s politics. 

A migrant’s culture could be defined as a compromise between his origin society’s values and the ones of his host society. Israel’s immigration story is closely linked to Israel’s Law of Return, that stipulated that any Jew has the right to come to Israel. The law reflects a vision of Israel as a safe haven for all the Jews in the world and is one of the cornerstones of modern Israel’s identity. Many have claimed the law promotes a proactive and effective integration policy towards new migrants, who are immediately given Israeli citizenship and allowed to vote.

Israel is a very diverse society, and the simplified distinction between the Jews and the Palestinians often does not account for the complexities of the cultural landscape on the ground. Even when looking at Israel’s Jews, the standard separation between the Ashkenazim (European Jews) and Sephardim or Mizrachim (Middle Eastern Jews) is often insufficient to understand the different origins of modern Israelis.

Ashkenazim in Israel are composed of European and American Jews, but also Jews from the Soviet bloc. The cultural and social divergences between Western and Soviet Jews reflect the Cold War divisions of Europe. In the Soviet Union, emigration was strictly prohibited, and only a few openings were available to Jews who wanted to emigrate. In this closed country, Soviet Jews developed a distinct mindset and integrated into Soviet society against the backdrop of rabid antisemitism, often preserving their sense of Jewish identity in a concealed and heavily secularised form.

Periods of brief Soviet openings toward Jewish emigration led to waves of Russian Jews immigrating to Israel in the 1970s (150,000) and especially in the years 1989 to 1991 (400,000). Another 300,000 to 400,000 arrived during the 1990s. The immigrants on average had a higher level of education than most of the native Israeli population, which was partly because education was one of the only tools of social mobility available to Soviet Jews. Russian-speaking Jews were also overwhelmingly urban and had smaller families on average. While in many ways they have integrated into Israeli society, some have perceived that their Jewishness, which they preserved despite widespread anti-Semitism in their societies of origin, was suddenly under question from the Israeli society itself. The religious establishment in Israel is strongly connected to the state – the Rabbinate’s authority extends to determining someone’s Jewishness on the basis of their mothers’ religious persuasions, according to the halakha law that stipulates that Jewishness is passed on by the mother.

Many Jewish immigrants from socialist and former-socialist countries defined their Jewishness differently, in ethnic and cultural terms, reflecting the way in which socialist states classified someone as a Jew. Several of the new immigrants were sons and daughters of Jewish fathers, and having experienced anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, they perceived themselves to be no less Jewish than those born to a Jewish mother. Yet Israel’s society limits the rights of patrilineal Jews, who are for example unable to have an official marriage unless they ‘correct’ themselves by subscribing to a full-blown conversion. This includes extensive and sometimes humiliating monitoring by the religious establishment to ensure regular religious activity from the new converts. Adding to this, Russian Jews sometimes brought to Israel spouses or family members who were not Jews, creating a situation where the authenticity of the Russian-speaking immigrants’ Jewishness was increasingly questioned by the Israeli society.

While the Russian Jewish immigration wave of the 90s has significantly contributed to Israel’s economic development, some problems were also apparent. The sheer size of the wave made it hard for Russian Israelis to fully meld into the native society, leading to unfavourable comparisons with the smaller wave of Soviet Jews from the 70s. Those were portrayed as ‘model immigrants’ who, unlike their rowdy counterparts from the 90s, were said to have integrated into Israeli society without much trouble.

There were issues of language, culture, beliefs and economic status. In terms of integration, the Russian-speaking immigration wave was also arguably the only one in Israel’s history to openly preserve the language and culture of their society of origin. Larissa Remennick, a sociology professor, wrote that in the case of Soviet Jews ‘their deities were Pushkin, Chekhov, Pasternak and Bulgakov’, and that the immigrants retained a visceral connection to Russian culture. Russian-language news outlets are still incredibly popular. In a clash of cultures, Russian grocery stores even sometimes sell pork, a deep gastronomic taboo in Judaism and consequently in Israeli society, and an important staple of Slavic and Soviet cuisine. Russian-speaking Jews are mostly secular, with only around 30% reporting religious beliefs. They tend to associate secularism with modernity and use their voting power in favour of a more secular Israel. The immigrants of the 90s often reported high levels of distrust towards politics, with some also noting their disappointment at the economic prospects in their new homeland. In many cases, and despite the harsh Soviet quotas on Jewish students in universities, Soviet Jews were overrepresented in the Soviet intelligentsia, and were expecting to find in Israel comfortable working conditions that matched their professional skills.

Waves of Soviet immigrants have often sparked the ire of the religious establishment which doubted the new arrivals’ Jewishness and worried about the dilution of religiousness in Israel. Undoubtedly, the Rabbinate also feared a loss of political control, which was expected to be precipitated by the arrival of secular migrants. The suspicions have never quite gone away: in 2020, Israel’s chief rabbi called the immigrants from the former Soviet Union ‘religion-hating gentiles’ drawing condemnations from across Israel’s political spectrum. His remarks did however resonate with a portion of Israelis that view the Russian-speaking immigrants with distrust.

Some observers have noted that the Russian-speaking community tends to be attracted to strong leader figures and has embraced Israel’s right-wing parties. There are many reasons for the Russian-speakers’ alliance with Israel’s right.

Some have argued that the Russian Jews’ often hawkish stance on Palestinian issues reflects their perception of Israel as an ethnocentric state. This echoes back to their own experiences in the Soviet Union, where Jews were systematically stigmatised, and markers of Jewish identity had to be concealed and suppressed. In the view of some Russian Jews, Israel was finally a place where Jews had the majority status. Therefore, judging from their Soviet experience, they expected their Jewish status to reflect all the privileges that such a position should entail. Some Russian Jews also associated the Arabs with the upsurge of Soviet anti-Semitism. While obviously not taking part in the Arab-Israel conflicts, Soviet Jews became indirect victims of those conflicts within the USSR, where Israel’s victories caused a steady rise of Soviet anti-Semitism, starting with the Six Day War and continuing throughout the 70s.

Russian Jews also have much more uncompromising stances on Israel’s security. This might be due to the fact that after their immigration to Israel, many have ended up in border towns or settlements, on the frontlines of a conflict they barely understood. The FSU (former Soviet Union) immigrants also figured disproportionately among Palestinian terror victims due to their proximity to the conflict areas. Many sociological studies, for example those by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism at the Hague attest to the radicalizing effects that manifestations of violence have on immigrants in their adoptive homelands. Their outrage was also amplified by the Russian-language media, which often focused on themes of unjust martyrdom of long-suffering Russian Jews at the hands of Arab terrorists, especially during the Intifadas [Palestinian uprisings against Israel’s control]. Yelenevskaya quotes an article piece:

Once, at the very beginning of Intifada, an old woman, a colonel of the Red Army and a war veteran, was in a car driving along a road in Samaria. The car was shot by terrorists. She had survived the war against the Nazis but was killed by those who continue on their road. Only here in Israel the veterans find themselves on the frontline again. And so do their grandchildren.

She notes that Soviet Jews often viewed Israel’s politicians and Israel’s society as much too lax and were sceptical about the possibilities of a compromise with the Arabs. They also decried an overall lack of order along with what they perceived to be the chronic insecurities of their communities in the face of terrorism, poverty, high housing prices and the two Intifadas. When sometimes a sense of patronising superiority over local Jews emerged, it could be explained by the pervasive socialist-era propaganda of the Soviet man’s superiority, and of the Soviet civilisation as an epitome of Utopian thinking. Aside from this type of thinking, they often carried with them emotional baggage from their home country, which some sociologists eventually qualified as a form of psychological trauma due to the collapse of an entire system of beliefs and meanings with the fall of the USSR. Many Soviet Jews were ambiguous in their relationship to the USSR, both resenting a country that stigmatised and persecuted them as Jews, while often expressing a profound nostalgia for an idealised country of their youth.

Others, such as Larissa Remmenick, have sought to highlight the Russian Jews’ insecurities about their identity, which were reflected by the Russian-speaking immigrants ‘constant need for adjustment and mimicry’. It could be suggested that many Russian Jews opted to imitate and ‘outdo’ the locals by doubling down on radical views such as Israeli nationalism and Jewish ethnocentrism. Many Russian speakers’ rejection of the establishment as too lax and moderate eventually led to them voting for the right-wing parties.

Soviet Jewish votes led to the rise of parties catering to Soviet Jewish interests, starting with Yisrael BaAliyah [Israel on the rise]. The party’s gradual drift to the right of the political spectrum reflected that of the majority of Russian Jews. Eventually came the rise of another party, Yisrael Beitenu [Israel, our home], which sought to capitalise on right-wing secular nationalist votes, predominantly from the Russian community. The party was formed by a group of statesmen led by Avigdor Lieberman, who left the government coalition to protest against Benjamin Netanyahu’s negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

Today, competition over Soviet Jewish votes is prevalent in Israeli politics and has gotten more spotlight during the repeated election runs of 2019, when Netanyahu’s Likud party tried to peel Russian-speaking votes from Avigor Lieberman’s secular nationalist Israel Beitenu. Streets in Russian-Jewish neighbourhoods often featured signs in Cyrillic proclaiming ‘Only Netanyahu – only Likud’. Some Russian Jews were finally promised pensions which were previously repeatedly denied to them. Election posters featured pictures of Netanyahu holding the hand of president Putin. Many Russian-speaking Jews in Israel originate from Ukraine – and Netanyahu also made a prompt state visit to the country, and its first Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky. It can be argued that Likud’s attempts to draw in Russian Jewish votes were not very successful: fundamental distrust towards the religious parties in coalition with Netanyahu’s government prevented many Russian Jews from voting for Likud.

Change is on the horizon. The younger Russian Jewish electorate is more integrated, speaks much better Hebrew, is more moderate, and is slowly shedding some ambiguous aspects of their complicated identity, identifying more strongly with Israel than with an idealised country of their parents’ memories. They retain a strong connection to the Russian language and culture but are often more comfortable with a hybrid or predominantly Israeli identity fusing both Jewish and Russian cultural symbols and practices. They often remain relatively antagonistic towards the Rabbinate’s authority but are less likely to vote for the Russian-speaker parties such as Yisrael Beitenu, instead opting for a wider spectrum of parties reflecting individual preferences and beliefs. Russian speakers will continue to play an influential role in Israel’s politics, and it remains interesting to see how their demographic evolution will affect the Russian Jews’ political affiliation. Perhaps the new Russian Jewish generation will not carry in them their parents’ Soviet traumas and insecurities, will finally be able to lay the questions of identity aside and be full members of Israeli society. But some change in Israeli society’s capacity to accommodate them will also be needed: perhaps a concession on behalf of the uncompromising religious establishment. As of today, there are reasons to remain pessimistic about such prospects.

 

On the detention of Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman

On the 12th of March, Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, a media mogul, businessman, and journalist from Pakistan was detained and arrested ostensibly on the basis of having broken property law back in 1986. 

Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau, an anti-corruption watchdog, alleges that Mr. Rehmen illegally leased government land 34 years ago and then managed to have the ownership rights transferred to him permanently in 2016 when ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was in power. 

These charges being levied against a less prominent member of Pakistan’s society would be cause for less concern, but in view of two notable trends, the apprehension of Mir Shakhil-ur-Rehman takes on a more sinister light.

The first is that since 2018, Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, the public face and owner of the country’s largest media group, has found himself in the bad books of Prime Minister Imran Khan. In that year, Mr. Khan defeated incumbent Nawaz Sharif in a general election, but accused Mr. Rehman’s Jang Media Group of having backed Sharif. In the years since, Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman’s Geo TV channel has also drawn Khan’s ire for refusing censorship, giving a platform to members of the opposition, and criticizing the government’s policies, especially the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

So while certainly the most audacious, the arrest of Mr. Shakil-ur-Rehman is not the first time PM Imran Khan has attempted to frighten or otherwise silence the voice of the Jang Group. The Government has pulled advertisements in order to cut off a valuable source of revenue and sent Geo TV reporters, producers, and editors threats of shutdown in response to efforts of investigative journalism. It has both shut off Jang Group Media channels completely, or forced cable operators to alter and demote their channel listings so as to make ‘tuning in’ a more difficult task. 

And while this first trend is troubling, it is in light of the second trend — the extension of such hostile treatment to other occupants of the media space — that it becomes more necessary to call into into question the political integrity of Prime Minister Imran. 

Crucially, the Government demonstrates antagonism and aggression towards forms of media that host figures or politicians from the political and ideological opposition. In 2019, three other Pakistan TV news channels, AbbTakk TV, 24 News, and Capital TV, were taken off  the air for days following live interviews with Maryam Sharif, the daughter of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. After a May 2018 interview (also) with Nawaz Sharif in the run up to elections, the distribution of the leading daily newspaper, Dawn, was stifled both legally, through an injunction from the Press Council of Pakistan, and on the ground, physically, as vans and hawkers distributing its copies were denied entry to a number of cities and towns by Government and military officials. The same technique of cutting advertising in order to stop up a financial life-flow was also extended to Dawn, especially in July of 2019, after the paper published remarks made by Prime Minister Imran Khan in which he admitted the usage of Pakistan’s soil by terrorists to launch attacks into Iran, a claim that Pakistan’s military had vehemently denied.

It bears mentioning that the concern expressed on this forum at the plight of Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman is by no means unique or singular. In fact it is at the root of the statements of more than seventy-four media and human rights organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and the World Editors Forum, who have all written to PM Imran Khan to ask for the journalist’s release. 

When members of the media are unfairly forced to bear the burden of partisanship and are made suffer for doing no more than their job, it is worth speaking out against. The voices of journalists oftentimes convey no more than the feelings, anxieties, and emotions of their readers, of a given country’s citizens. It may be easy for the Government of Imran Khan to try to silence those who most vocally give voice to his nation’s simmering discontent, but it is not right. For that reason we earnestly call on Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan to release Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, so that his life may not suffer for the sake of the nation’s politics.