Bahrain’s Elections

  • Note: The following article by Qasim Abdul-Aziz has been supplemented with additional comment from the NCF Secretary General, William Morris:

Bahrain voted last month in the kingdom’s parliamentary election. Bahrain’s justice minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ali Al-Khalifa, has since announced the first set of results for the country’s elections, with a 67 percent voter turnout in the parliamentary elections and 70 percent in the municipals.

Figures are putting this year’s elections at a higher voter turnout than the previous election in 2014 where voter participation reached only 53 percent. Bahrain also saw a record number of female candidates, with 39 standing election to the House of Representatives and 8 for municipal councils.

Despite this, the election has proven to be controversial. Many, both inside and outside of the country, have decried the election as a ‘sham’ and a ‘farce’ due to the lack of opposition groups. Bahrain’s two main opposition groups – the Shi’ite Al-Wefaq party and the secular Wa’ad party – were both prohibited from submitting their respective parliamentary candidates.

Contrast this with the position at the national elections four years back when, in discussions with the predominantly Sh’ite opposition associated with the “national dialogue” led by the Crown Prince, the opposition was offered a guarantee that it would garner at least 50% of the parliamentary seats. The opposition wanted 50% of the key ministries as well and, when this was denied them, refused to stand. They wanted to bank their gains and stand but the Sh’ite religious leadership of the nation refused to allow them to do so and the leadership of Al-Wefaq was brownbeaten into agreement and withdrew all their candidates.

This of course set the reformists amongst the Sunni leadership on the back foot. Now the neoconservatives had their moment and they took it and political intolerance became the order of the day.

Bahrain is a Shi’ite majority country with a Sunni ruling minority. There are no accurate figures as to the split but it is possibly of the order of 60/40 Shi’ite/Sunni. However, the ruling Al-Khalifa family has overseen a system that favours the Sunni minority in almost all areas of society. Bahrain’s political, social and economic system affords privilege to Sunni citizens – and Sunnis are inevitably prioritised for positions in the police force, the military, and the security service and in general, have higher prospects of employment and wealth.

Bahrain’s Shi’ites have long called for reform, citing grievances disenfranchisement and claiming systemic oppression.

There have none the less been some reforms, particularly of the criminal justice system. And problems such as torture, once sadly commonplace, are now far rarer following the appointment of an effective ombudsman. There is also less imprisonment of young offenders, following the introduction of a groundbreaking restorative justice system similar to that in the Netherlands and way in advance of anything in the UK or USA.

The decision to exclude opposition groups from these elections was however a sad error by the ruling Al-Khalifa family, thereby ostensibly limiting the political sphere and removing any threat to the monarchy. But the reality is that this decision helps reinforce the fractured state of Bahrain and lessens the stability of the nation. Whether the opposition would have stood if they could have stood is another entirely different question and one which we shall now never know the answer to. The leadership of the nation should have challenged the opposition rather than repressed it.

On the plus side, Bahrain should be commended for their relative inclusivity in regard to female participation in these elections, yet strides need to be made for the total inclusivity of all Bahrain’s citizens. In recent years, Bahrain’s government has largely contained dissent from the Shi’ite opposition who had previously staged an uprising and organised mass protests in 2011. The anti-government protests saw scores of people killed, with thousands tortured and arrested. The failure to offer the opposition the chance to stand at these latest elections will have fostered  further discontent. Though the people are less likely to engage in violent mass protest given the failure of that tactic before, low grade terrorism will no doubt continue. The killing of policemen is not a infrequent feature of life in Bahrain. Other actions such as the blocking of roads in the rush hour with burning tires are also commonplace.

The government of Bahrain desperately needs to constructively engage and rebuild their relationship with the Shi’ite populace. Whilst it is true that the country is divided along sectarian lines, it could be argued that this is not to a great extent due to theological differences. Instead the sectarian divide in Bahrain is displayed more through the political, social and economic disparity between Sunni and Shi’ites. Excluding large segments of Bahrain’s population from having a say in their own government is counterproductive and not in the best interests of Bahrain. Perhaps it is time for the old ones to step aside. Bahrain has both the longest serving prime minister and the longest serving opposition leader in the entire world. They are both charming and effective men. Too effective perhaps. They go head to head rather than cooperate for the good of the nation. If Bahrain is indeed concerned about Iranian influence in the region, and in particular amongst its own citizens, enacting social change and addressing the concerns of the people could go a long away to fostering stability.

A start could be made by encouraging an opposition newspaper. Bahrain once arguably had the freest press in the Gulf in so much as it had a respected opposition newspaper – which NOT ONE other Arab monarchy had. It was forced to close last year, an action that marked the low point in Bahrain’s recent history.

Netanyahu’s Surprise Visit to Oman

In a surprising move, for the first time in over two decades, an Israeli leader visited an Arab Gulf state. On Friday of last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a historic visit to Oman, where he was hosted by the ruler, Sultan Sayyid Qaboos bin Said Al Said. The two leaders, accompanied by numerous government and security officials, held meetings in which they discussed pressing regional issues.

Diplomatic relations between the Sultanate of Oman and the State of Israel were initially established in 1994 but were frozen six years later following the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. As of now, the two countries still have no formal diplomatic relations.

Israel currently has full diplomatic relations with only two Arab countries; Egypt and Jordan. However, it is understood and confirmed by Israeli diplomats, that the state maintains ties behind the scenes with many nations, including those from the Gulf but these have never been publicly or openly acknowledged.

A day after the visit, Oman’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, whilst speaking at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ 2018 summit in Bahrain, publicly called on the Arab nations to accept Israel as part of the region and for Israel to, therefore, be treated as other regional states and bear the same obligations.

The Palestinian issue has long divided Israel and the rest of the Arab world. But recently, the Palestinian cause has been side-lined by the Gulf states as Israel has warmed relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in a bid to come together in the face of a shared enemy, Iran. Israel has consistently decried Iran’s alleged support of groups such as Hamas in the Gaza Strip (Iran does not in fact support Hamas since Hamas betrayed Iran by opposing Bahar al Assad in Syria) and actual support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and has also vehemently challenged Iran’s nuclear program, viewing the idea of Iran possessing nuclear technology as an ‘existential threat’ to Israel and the greatest threat to the Middle East.

The gradual normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arab world is not something that is sought to benefit the Palestinians or to help resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Instead, it is an attempt to create a bloc with a shared interest that challenges the influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the region. Whilst Oman is a neutral party concerning Iran’s presence and role in the region; this marks the first and open step in recent years towards publicly recognising Israel’s growing relationship with the Gulf states, a relationship which no doubt will continue to grow.

Ahwaz: Iran’s Internal Struggle

Recent violence in Iran has brought the city of Ahwaz to the front pages. In late September 2018, four gunmen opened fire at a military parade in the city, killing 29 people. Responsibility for the attack has thus far been claimed by the Ahwaz National Resistance in the name of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA). Responsibility has also apparently been claimed by Daesh (a.k.a. ISIS), and Iran has decided not unreasonably to blame them both – though at the end of the day, only one of them did it.

Located in the southwest of Iran in the province of Khuzestan, Ahwaz is one of the most oil-rich regions in the country. However, despite the abundance of natural resources, the central government has deliberately underdeveloped the region. The infrastructure of Ahwaz is lacking far behind the rest of the country, all of which is not helped by the city’s status as having the world’s worst air pollution.

Unknown to most, there are an estimated 5-7 million Arabs in the Khuzestan region. In a majority ethnic Persian Iran, they constitute a small minority with most of them concentrated in the Khuzestan region. In 1925, the British had control over the region, formally known as Arabistan. This area was later annexed and renamed by Iran as Khuzestan. As such, some Arab Ahwazis consider themselves as under Persian “occupation” and have been vying for an independent country of their own.

Ahwazi Arabs argue that they face state entrenched discrimination at the hands of Iranian governments both past and present. A Home Office report points out that Ahwazi Arabs suffer from persecution, arbitrary detention, poverty and a lack of basic rights. They are provided with limited access to services such as housing, water, sanitation, employment, and education. The report also highlights that many Ahwazi Arabs have had their lands confiscated, without any compensation for loss of land.

In addition to this, the Arab people of Ahwaz have been subject to a policy of ‘Persianisation’ through which they have experienced ethnic and linguistic repression. As a result, Ahwazi Arabs are not formally permitted to learn their mother tongue nor express their culture. It is speculated by some and noted by Arab Ahwazis that the government has attempted to alter the demographic makeup of Ahwaz by renaming town names to sound more Persian and also by resettling Persian speaking families into the area. In theory, the Iranian constitution does afford respect and rights to all ethnic minorities and considers all Iranian citizens equal but there is little evidence of this in practice.

Ahwaz is no stranger to civil unrest and has continuously seen anti-government protests. Violence from Ahwazi Arab separatist groups has also taken place over the decades, and if the claims are true, the killing of civilians at the military parade in September being the most recent example. Despite being a low-level conflict, violent activity in Ahwaz has increased since 2005 with September’s attack being one of the deadliest in nearly a decade

The cause of Ahwazi Arabs has been championed by nationalist groups such as the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA). The group has been involved in political activity, but have on a number of previous occasions resorted to violent means such as bombings to achieve their goals.

Acts of violence do very little in highlighting the very legitimate issues that the Ahwazi Arabs and other minority groups face in Iran. Iran has largely attempted to contain discontent from their population by cracking down on protests but it is increasingly difficult for them to do so in a region that is fraught and fragmented by divisions. This is particularly true for Ahwaz.

Ahwaz is key to the national security of Iran and is also the economic lifeline for the country; housing almost 90% of the country’s oil. The presence of the armed wing of the ASMLA and the grievances of the Arab population should be a cause for concern for Tehran, taking into consideration Iran’s relationship with hostile states such as Saudi Arabia and the United States who could themselves exploit this unrest.


“The nation’s security is the red line. Terrorists used bullets in Ahvaz , we answered the them with missiles”. That was the statement made by IRGC general Hajizadeh hours after Iran pounded alleged Daesh targets in Syria with ballistic missiles. Iran’s leader had warned after the recent attack on the military parade in the city of Ahvaz that, “The terrorists will be punished soon”. Iran claimed it was proving it was serious in safeguarding its security by responding in kind when it came under attack.

A New Pakistan?

It has been a month since former cricketer turned politician, Imran Khan, was sworn into office to become Pakistan’s  22nd prime minister. Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) emerged as the single-largest party in parliament for the first time in their history.

During his victory speech, Imran Khan outlined his dream for a ‘Naya Pakistan’ – a new Pakistan that would be formed as a humanitarian state; a state that takes responsibility for the weaker classes, focusing on the downtrodden of society. Khan also promised to root out corruption in all its forms and tackle the economic and security challenges facing the country’s.

But now that the dust has settled on Khan’s victory and fervour has subsided, many are eagerly waiting to see how Khan will fulfill his lofty promises. But the question arises as to how realistic does Imran Khan’s dream of a Naya Pakistan seem?

Despite his popularity and his position as prime minister, the real power in the country lies with the country’s powerful military. Pakistan has been ruled by the military for more than half of its 71 years of existence, with the army holding considerable power and influence in the country’s politics. In order for Khan’s dream of a Naya Pakistan to become a reality, he needs to break away from the security establishment. This is no easy task.

The military is widely seen by many as having helped Khan win the election, which would make Imran Khan’s job as prime minister that much more difficult. Maintaining a warm relationship with influential generals is key to Khan’s tenure as prime minister.

The military has long been accused of removing those people from power who were not compliant with their ‘requests’, with none of the 17 prime ministers of Pakistan managing to serve a full term. It has been suggested that even the former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted from office on corruption charges, was at the same time selectively targeted by the military due to his attempt to reduce the army’s role in the political sphere. The military’s apparent support for Khan and his party could have been more about keeping Sharif and his party out of power and capitalising on Khan’ s popularity; rather than any particular support for Khan and his policies.

The implication of Khan’s victory, if the military did indeed help him assume office, is that a deal was struck. Khan would have to toe the line, if he were to continue in the role of prime minister. Of course, this would also mean that Khan would have to compromise on many of the populist stances he holds. For many in Pakistan, Imran Khan is seen as a breath of fresh air, with ideals that gave the people hope. However, it may be that the dream of Naya Pakistan will remain but a dream.

UN High Court Rules in Qatar-UAE Case

A year since the blockade against Qatar, the Gulf nation has for the first time taken the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to the United Nations’ International Court of Justice (ICJ) over what it described as human right violations.

The boycott, which has been in effect since June 2017, is led by Saudi Arabia with the support of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – all previous partners of Qatar in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – and Egypt.

In June, Qatar’s government put forward a case, seeking reparations by arguing that the UAE enacted a series of measures that discriminate against Qataris. The measures include expelling Qataris from the UAE, prohibiting them from entering or passing through the UAE, ordering UAE nationals to leave Qatar, and closing UAE airspace and seaports to Qatar.

Qatar’s government argues that these actions were in violation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) – including discrimination on the basis of nationality. A tactical move by Qatar as the UAE and Qatar are the only Gulf signatories to the convention.

In response, the UAE offered a defence to Qatar’s case, citing similar allegations that were leveled against Qatar when the diplomatic row broke out last year. The UAE’s ambassador to the Netherlands, Saeed Al-Nuwais, has dismissed Qatar’s discrimination case as baseless and rejected all allegations.

However, on Monday, the ICJ ruled in favour of Qatar. The vote, albeit a narrow one with eight judges in favour and seven against, ruled that the measures put in place by the UAE amounted to racial discrimination and must immediately reunite Qatari families affected by the blockade and allow Qatari students to continue their education in the UAE. The ICJ’s decision, whilst provisional is nonetheless binding and a further proceeding is expected to be scheduled at a future date.

Despite the difficulties, Qatar overcame the economic impacts of the blockade – maintaining healthy growth. The blockading countries were already under economic hardship as a result of low oil prices, and have themselves suffered from cutting economic trade with Qatar. Energy-rich Qatar tapped into its massive wealth reserves to absorb the initial impact on its economy and secured alternatives means of trade for food supplies and maritime routes and ports.

This is a small victory for Qatar, who still remains isolated and estranged from neighbouring countries. A political solution to the Gulf crisis seems further far afield, as neither Qatar nor the blockading nations have shown any signs of backing down.

Algeria’s migrants march across the Sahara

Reports of Algeria’s expulsion of migrants into the Sahara desert have received widespread condemnation from officials around the world. Human rights groups have accused Algerian authorities of arbitrarily arresting and expelling migrants from Sub-Saharan African countries. The expulsions came as pressure mounted from the European Union for North African governments to prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean and reaching the shores of Europe.

According to the UN International Organization for Migration (IOM), since May 2017 more than 13,000 people, including women and children, have been rounded up and driven to the desert and pointed towards Niger or Mali.

Survivors who were interviewed by the Human Rights Watch gave accounts of being rounded up on the streets or at their places of work, before being crammed into trucks and driven to the desert. Some also accused the police of beatings and stealing their belongings.

In a report published by the Associated Press, it was found that Algeria forced migrants, by the hundreds every week to traverse the scorching and unforgiving desert where temperatures reached up to 48°C. They were given no food and no water, walking dozens of kilometers before being picked up by UN rescue teams. Survivors told the Associated Press of how their companions vanished in the desert. Migrants used their phones to film their ordeals, documenting their journey as they were being transported en masse in trucks and being marched across the blistering desert.

Algeria has denied all allegations of rights abuses. Journalists were invited to tour their detention centres, or perhaps more accurately described as overcrowded jails, citing it was proof of their humane treatment of migrants. However, journalists were not permitted to travel beyond the detention centers where migrants are held prior to being forcibly expelled, and therefore were unable to see what was transpiring after being ‘deported.’

Since the report by the Associated Press, expulsions seemed to have all but stopped – with the number of expelled migrants dropping significantly. But a recent report suggests that Algeria’s government has again resumed expelling migrants into the Sahara desert, leaving another 391 people to stumble their way through the harsh terrain.

The European refugee crisis admittedly marked an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, which saw the largest influx of migrants into Europe since the Second World War. Yet, figures show that the largest refugee movements happen within Africa itself; with the region of Sub-Saharan Africa being home to 4.4 million refugees and a staggering further 19.5 million “people of concern”. One can hope that the coverage of Algeria’s expulsion of Sub-Saharan Africans highlights the plight of other migrants from not only North Africa but across the entire continent.

Turkish Elections: Now the dust has settled on the Victory for Erdoğan

Turkey’s long standing leader yet again won outright in the first and only round of the country’s recent presidential and parliamentary elections. President Recep Tayipp Erdoğan also achieved an overall majority for his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party). More than 56 million people were eligible to vote in this twin election. The voter turnout was one of the highest in Turkey’s history, with reports putting participation at 87%. The most important election in recent years, this was the first time a credible opposition had risen to challenge the AK Party since they came to power almost fifteen years ago. Surprise opposition came in the form of Muharrem İnce, the candidate of the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP). Mirroring the charismatic and fiery rhetoric of Erdoğan, İnce drew a million people to a rally in Istanbul where he urged voters to end the rule of Erdoğan and his AK Party. Despite İnce’s popularity, which was steadily gaining traction, he ultimately won 30.64% of the vote against the president’s 53% –  it was not enough to force a second-round of elections.

What is important about these elections?

The significance of this vote lies in the unprecedented changes to the Turkish constitution that will follow in the wake of the election. Changes that were narrowly approved in last year’s referendum. The vote ushers in a new Turkish governing system, one that abolishes the role of the prime minister and replaces it with a new and powerful executive presidency. New powers will include but are not limited to the president directly appointing top public officials, including judges, ministers, and vice-presidents; the power to intervene in the country’s legal system; and the power to impose a state of emergency.

The president is no stranger to criticism, with many and rightly so, highlighting the authoritarian nature of his rule. Politicians and news outlets from across Western Europe and elsewhere have lambasted Erdoğan for his crackdown on political dissidents, the judiciary, public officials, and various media outlets, following the failed military coup in 2016. It is, therefore, no surprise that he is under scrutiny again for the controversial, sweeping new powers that have now been formalised. His critics have pointed out the lack of checks and balances in the new governing system, a system that effectively concentrates power into the hands of one man.

Turkey is, therefore, a curious case of where East meets West. French political scientist, Alain Rouquié, aptly describes Turkey as a “hegemonic democracy” – a system that does not fit neatly into any particular category. He argues that whilst Turkey is clearly not a liberal democracy because the rule of law, the rights of minorities, and media freedoms are not respected; neither is it a dictatorship as elections are held and political alternation remains a possibility. Despite the legitimate criticism levied at Erdoğan and the new governing system, the voter turnout was higher than most Western European countries, including that of the UK and France.

Erdoğan has consistently won every election for the last fifteen years and has amassed a powerful base of supporters within the country. He has overseen and delivered years of economic growth and is responsible for the construction of roads, bridges, airports, hospitals, and schools. For better or worse, Erdoğan is a pivotal figure in Turkey’s modern history despite his controversial status. Erdoğan’s victory was also a cause of celebration in places as far flung as, Skopje, Sarajevo, Baku, and Crimea, and even in streets across the Arab world. There is something to be said about a statesman that is able to garner popular support outside of Turkey from people who are not even Turkish.

This is not to defend Erdoğan. No leader, statesman or politician is above criticism, and much criticism can be directed towards President Erdoğan, his policies, and his rule in Turkey. But one must look at the situation holistically and appreciate the nuances that exist in every imperfect system. The extent and impact of Erdoğan’s new executive powers will become apparent over the coming months and years. It will, therefore, be interesting to see how the president will now tackle the economic challenges currently facing the country, as well as the issue of national security concerning Kurdish rebels in southeast Turkey and neighbouring Syria.

Iraq’s Elections: Is an Inclusive Iraq Possible?

The political bloc led by populist Shi’ite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr has beat out candidates to win Iraq’s first parliamentary election since the Baghdad government’s victory over ISIS. Despite which, Moqtada Al-Sadr will not become prime minister as he did not run for a seat; but he will have a significant role in the formation of the new government.

However, Moqtada Al-Sadr may have a difficult time drawing support from Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. His followers have previously been accused of running death squads in Sunni majority areas and engaging in sectarian violence. Discontent amongst the Sunni population had been growing ever since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The successive governments of Nouri Al-Maliki and Haider Al-Abadi offered little in the way of protection and support for Sunnis in Iraq. When this is coupled with state marginalisation, lack of employment opportunities and an extremely low standard of living, discontent is understandable.

In order to appeal to the fragmented and fractured Iraqi society, Al-Sadr has sought to rebrand himself as a force for peace in a country that still bears fresh wounds from the war with ISIS.

One example of this is Al-Sadr reaching out to regional Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey. In doing so, Al-Sadr has effectively distanced himself from Iran.

Iran, the pre-eminent Shi’ite power in the Middle East, wields considerable influence in Iraq and had previously publicly stated that they would not allow a bloc run by Al-Sadr to govern. Tehran had made it perfectly clear that Moqtada Al-Sadr was not their man, viewing him as a threat. Yet, despite Al-Sadr beating Iran’s favoured candidates, it is unlikely that any coalition formed by Al-Sadr will be without political groups that are aligned with Iran.

For many years, all Iraq has known is senseless violence, death, and destruction. The people of Iraq deserve a chance at peace more than anyone. Al-Sadr’s call for all Iraqis, inclusive of Sunni and Shi’ite Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen and other minority groups, to come together and rebuild Iraq is commendable. We can only hope this does not fall on deaf ears.

Iran and Israel: A Dangerous Game

The NCF questions Israel’s ability to pursue an all out long range war with Iran, without the USA in the lead. Indeed, to launch such a war Premier Netanyahu would need to bring on board his inner cabinet plus of course the generals. He is probably in no position to do this. Memories of the disastrous 2006 war with Lebanon which for a time depopulated all of Northern Israel, remain fresh. The NCF Secretary General has stated his belief that one reason President Trump decided to reneg on the nuclear deal with Iran was as a sop to Israel given the fact that he had no intention of ever initiating a US attack on Iran. However, in the following analysis, Qasim Abdul-Aziz argues that the danger is none the less real.

The conflict between Iran and Israel is reaching new heights. The looming threat of a large-scale war in the region is all the more real.

On Wednesday 9 May, Israel’s military reported that Iranian forces had fired more than twenty rockets from Syria into the occupied Golan Heights. Whilst it was claimed that none of the rockets hit their intended targets, Israel’s ‘red-line’ had been crossed. In a conflict that has largely been played out through proxies, this was the first time Iran had openly and brazenly attacked Israel.

Israel retaliated by striking dozens of targets they associated with Iran including weapons storage sites and Syrian Air Defence systems. Damascus braced itself as the sound of explosions rang through the night.

Arguably Iran instigated the conflict by firing their rockets at Israel’s military stationed in the occupied Golan Heights. However, the timeline of that recent escalation between the two states dates back to early April when Israel was the first to bomb Iranian controlled bases in Syria on at least two occasions.

Iran is attempting to gain a foothold in the Levant, expanding its influence across the region by supporting various parties in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. In face of this expansionism, Israel has been particularly concerned about the Iranian presence in neighbouring Syria, fearing a long-term military plan to use Syria and other proxies such as the Lebanese group Hezbollah as a means to dominate the Middle East.

On April 30, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a televised presentation on Iran’s nuclear program, displaying allegedly secret documents obtained by Israeli intelligence. Whilst the current relevance of these documents is unclear, Prime Minister Netanyahu confidently claimed that they proved that Tehran was misleading the international community about its nuclear plans and is indeed pursuing nuclear weapons.

Little more than one week after Netanyahu’s speech, on Tuesday 8 May, the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal. This could arguably be bad for Israel, given that the deal at least placed some constraints on Iran. But certainly Netanyahu perceived it as the best outcome for Israel, and he has pushed long and hard for the United States to pull the deal, citing Iran as the single greatest threat in the region. Hours after the United States announced their rejection of the nuclear deal, Iran launched their missile assault against Israel. This was of course no mere coincidence.

Both Iran and Israel, alongside other regional and international players, already share responsibility for destabilising the region. Whilst Israel’s flagrant aggressions are well-documented against the Palestinians, Iran too, has a stained record. As the Syrian civil war was seeming to wind down after seven long and arduous years, these recent provocations could be the beginning of a new and more open conflict in the Middle East. Let us hope that wise heads prevail.

Pakistan: March of the Pashtuns

In recent months, a new movement has emerged on Pakistan’s political stage. The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), or the Pashtun Protection Movement, rose to prominence following the extrajudicial killing of a Pashtun shopkeeper, Naqeebullah Mehsud by Karachi police in January 2018.

The Pashtuns are the second-largest ethnic group in the country, mostly living in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region in the western part of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Since the war on terror began, the dangerous FATA landscape has been a hotbed for militancy and insurgency, with Pakistan’s Armed Forces conducting various military operations to rid these areas from terrorists.

Unfortunately, as a consequence, the Pashtun community has bore the brunt of Pakistan’s military operations. The Pashtun population suffered the most as a result of the war on terror in Pakistan, with thousands killed over the years in terror attacks, military operations and American drone strikes in the tribal region. This has rendered a large population of Pashtuns disaffected and displaced.

Tensions have long been simmering in the Pashtun community. Tired of being subject to discriminatory policies, marginalisation and decades of state oppression, on April 8, the PTM held their largest mass demonstration to date. Despite a media blackout on the movement’s activities, the PTM is gaining attention and popular support amongst young Pashtuns. More than 60,000 protesters rallied in the city of Peshawar, challenging the Punjabi-dominated state and the military, peacefully calling for the protected rights of Pashtuns as citizens of Pakistan.

Whilst their grievances are many, their main demands call for the release of missing persons and political prisoners, an end to extrajudicial killings and the humiliating treatment and harassment at security checkpoints under the pretext of search operations, and the removal landmines in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Moving forward, the government of Pakistan and by extension, the army should constructively engage with the leaders of the PTM and seek to address their concerns. Pakistan can only move forward as a nation if all ethnic groups are afforded fair and equal treatment. To achieve this, Pakistan must address the legitimate concerns raised by the Pashtun community. Pakistan is no stranger to a disgruntled ethnic minority and should be all too aware of what could transpire if these concerns are dismissed, having previously parted with East Pakistan, now known as Bangladesh. Pakistan should, therefore, be extremely careful in how they handle this situation lest history repeats itself, with the country witnessing another partition, but this time with a Pashtun majority calling for a separate nation of their own.

After Spain – reflections

barcelona-2130254_1920The latest atrocity visited upon innocent civilians on a summer’s day in Spain follows a now, sadly, familiar pattern of events. The callous running down of anyone in the way of a death dealing vehicle is followed by frantic attempts by the authorities to contain the perpetrators and end their murderous intent by all means possible, often by lethal force.  ISIS (Daesh) are anxious to claim such incidents as their own –  though a direct link may be unproven – they are without doubt  the bitter fruit of their pernicious and doomed ideology. After each such outrage certain questions linger and their solution seems as elusive as ever. Why do young men (and sometimes women) from similar backgrounds enrol themselves in the destructive and blood thirsty claims and actions of ISIS (Daesh)? What do they hope to gain from such atrocities which in further their cause or beliefs?  As the perpetrators are often killed or kill themselves during such terrorist acts what is their personal belief of their future beyond death?  It may give some comfort to imagine these acts of terrorism are also acts of desperation as the adherents of extremist forms of Jihadism see their illusion of an earthly Caliphate, formed in their own image, receding with every military defeat in Iraq and Syria.

If these are acts of desperation then the source of that desperation is not only political and ideological, it is also spiritual. To have one’s dreams, beliefs and aspirations for the dawning of a new age of certainty and authoritarianism based upon Islamic principles (however distorted), with ISIS at the vanguard,  widely discredited  and disowned among your co-religionists and see the vanguard systematically defeated is a bitter, and for some, unbearable experience of downfall.  Towards the end of World War Two a number of SS officers committed suicide rather than surrender and the Kamikaze pilots of the Japanese Imperial Army were similarly intent upon death rather than dishonour. If your ideology is one where honour rather than shame and guilt is a core element of your culture then what are your options when facing the defeat and humiliation of your dreams?

For those committing these atrocities lines have been crossed: from idealism to nihilism, from belief in a paradisaical earthly future to a death fixation and from utopia to dystopia. History recounts the crossing of these lines leads to a narrowing of options for the ‘believer’; death or glory. But it is a glorification of the self rather than the cause. Such terrorists are engaging in a monumental act of self-centred narcissistic nihilism which is neither martyrdom nor sacrifice as they are not directly persecuted and no one benefits from their death. By choosing to die after murdering the maximum number of innocent people they are reinforcing the dysfunctional and doomed nature of their cause.

Does this analysis give us any cause for comfort? No. Such extremes of individualism have their roots in the Western discourse which for 300 years sought to delineate the needs of the individual over the anonymity of the whole and the authority of the state; faith – at best – providing a moderating influence on both. But where is faith now? Whither the institutions which endeavour to mediate the divine will to the masses while conscious of their own shortcomings? Alongside the narcissistic nihilism of the current cohort of terrorists is a spiritual emptiness at the heart of many nations and peoples, an emptiness being filled by a range of quasi religio-politico causes bearing little or no resemblance to the God of Love and Mercy many millions still worship in one form or another.

 Fr Larry Wright, Religious Affairs Advisory Group, London,

Freedom of Expression in Putin’s Russia

Freedom of expression is an essential cornerstone of any democratic society. Constructive dialogue is only achieved when ideas of all types, however unfavourable, are discussed and valued. In a modern democracy, ideas are communicated in three main domains – through traditional media outlets, in public demonstrations and over the internet. In Russia, the opportunity for free expression is being thwarted in all three arenas of dialogue.

Under Putin government legislation has seen the content of mainstream media become dispiritingly predictable. Fines and penalties are levied on media not conforming to the Kremlin’s political narrative. As a result, independent outlets have either closed down due to lack of funds or been forced into self-censorship. The remaining mainstream media companies are either state controlled or funded by government loyalists, effectively silencing the voice of the opposition.

During the 2013 Moscow mayoral elections, for example, the RIA media company would often quote Alexei Navalny, the anti-government candidate, in its campaign news reports. Needless to say Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Alexei Gromov, directly contacted the agency’s editor-in-chief warning her that a state news agency must not work against the state’s own interests by promoting the opposition.

However, the internet has presented Putin’s opposition with a new platform to challenge the government. At the end of 2011, mass anti-government protests were organised through social media, highlighting the effectiveness of the internet as a tool for political mobilisation. In response to these demonstrations, the government introduced new legislation allowing them to censor and block internet content and in recent times has introduced significant restrictions on online speech.

Online space for the public debate of sensitive issues, such as Syria, Ukraine and LGBT rights, has begun to shrink and people have even been arrested for blogging their views. In the same way that media companies were forced into self-censorship, members of the public have become increasingly insecure about limits of acceptable speech. Combine this with the spate of arrests at the recent nationwide anti-corruption protests and it becomes clear that the opportunity for public dialogue is being stifled in all spheres.

Putin’s brand of authoritarianism treats freedom of expression not as a right but as an impediment. This ‘we-know-best’ policing of anti-government ideas reflects the insecurity of Putin’s government. 20th-century political history tells you that fear mongering and the suppression of dialogue are the foundations on which oppressive political regimes are built. The Russian people must be granted their right to receive and spread all types of information.